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Chapter 1: Bound for Burning


 

I twisted my arms inside the tight confines of the silver bands while trying to fold my hands small enough to pull free, but the charmed silver cuffs weren't any looser than the last several dozen times I'd tried that and all I got were more bruises on my already abused wrists. I gave a hard, frustrated jerk at the bindings, yanking against the much too sturdy chain that bound the cuffs to the stake behind my back. Pain lanced up my arms from the futile gesture, but I was too damn angry to care.

"Come on!" I shouted irritably at the crowd of people massed about me, menacingly close but just out of reach. The cold air reeked of cinnamon and spoiled wine, mixing with the more natural scent of the crisp, wintery pine forest around us. The wash of anger and fear rolling off the assembly was almost palpable. They wanted my blood, but they were too afraid of me to get close, even with me spelled as helpless as a damn baby and shackled to a frigging post that was jammed very securely into the earth.

"A stake? Really?!" I raged at them with biting sarcasm that helped me battle the fear snaking through my gut. My head throbbed and my nerves felt raw. Despite the winter coat I was wearing and the slanting rays of the late afternoon sunshine I felt chilled through by more than just the winter temperature. I wasn't wearing gloves and I'd lost my hat. My hands and ears were freezing.  My mussed hair tumbled free about my shoulders, warming my ears and neck just a little when the wind shifted it right, but more often than not blowing annoyingly into my mouth. Unable to brush it away, I spat it out, scowling at the tightening circle of some 50 or 60 men and women of varying ages. They were all tall, they were all beautiful, and they were all so dead when I got out of this.

"I know you freaking elves are all about tradition, but really? Don't you think this is just a little over the top?" I spat, eyes scanning my surroundings urgently for any sign of a friendly face, but it was only wishful thinking. These bastards had jumped me when I was alone and even I didn't know where I was now. Jenks and Ivy probably weren't even aware that I was missing yet and by the time they were it was going to be too late.

The symbols carved into the carpet of pine needles that blanketed the forest floor about me and the disturbingly purposeful looking arrangement of kindling under and around my feet combined the lame-ass torches a bunch of my captors were holding – even though it was still daylight – was giving the pretty clear impression that these people hadn't gone to all this trouble just to have a little chat.

"Burning witches went out of vogue a long time ago, or didn't anyone tell you?" I raged on, nervousness making me unable to remain silent in the face of all those hate-filled eyes staring at me and the unpleasant but obvious implications of my current situation. Crap on toast, they couldn't really be serious about this, could they? What did they think they were going to accomplish?!

"You're not a witch, you're a demon!" one of the nearby men spat at me, tone laced with utter disgust.

I rolled my eyes in exasperation. "Yeah, well, then that makes this even more stupid!" I shot back. "Who ever heard of burning a demon at the stake, huh? And what the hell did I ever do to you, anyway? Except maybe help save your freaking race!"

Frigging elves with their frigging drama and prejudice and stupid traditionalist crap. They wanted to burn me at the stake, and when I got out of these stupid silver manacles I was going to kick some seriously pretentious and misguided elf butt.  

Speaking of... "Where's Trent?" I demanded, although I was sure he wasn't here. Call me naïve, but even though these were undeniably elves and he was supposed to be their leader and all that, I could not believe he had sanctioned this. The days of us trying to kill each other were long over but I somehow felt sure that even if Trent should decide that I needed to die for some dumb-ass reason or the other, he'd be man enough to try to do it himself, not hide behind a mob without even showing his face. "He knows that I've done nothing but help your people. He's going to be pissed when he finds out what giant idiots you're being! I helped him make that cure for you. Just ask him! Try doing a little fact checking before you whip out your stupid age-old grudges and stakes and – and crap! " I shouted, bruised wrists twisting harder in the binds behind me.

"Kalamack isn't going to save you this time, demon." The same man who had spoken before spoke up again, stepping forward into the wary bubble of space that the others were keeping around me. He was tall and handsome enough to be on magazine covers, but his face was ugly with the hate twisting his features. His short, salon-styled hair was straw-blonde, like Ellasbeth's and the west coast elves, rather than the finer platinum-gold of Trent's. I'd bet good money he was associated with the Wivyn's faction.  

"But don't worry; he's not going to miss this," the man sneered, entirely too much satisfaction on his smug, pretty-boy features.

There was a split second when something like betrayal went through me, as sharp and cutting as any knife. I could never believe this was Trent's doing, but I could believe that others had forced his hand and his silence – that politics trumped all and I had lost out in the cost analysis.

There was a jostling commotion as the crowd parted for some new arrivals at this little shin-dig. The newcomers pushed through right to the front, a group of several more men with a woman following behind. The men were half-carrying, half dragging a limp figure between them. The figure was male and he was pitched unceremoniously onto the ground near my feet. The young man hit the carpet of pine-needles hard on his shoulder and rolled to land on his stomach.  He wasn't wearing a coat, just dress slacks, a button-down white shirt and loafers.  His white-gold hair fell about his face, reflecting the golden-orange light of the fading afternoon sun and the even ruddier glare of the nearby torches. My heart seized in recognition, and it felt like everything turned upside down.

"Trent?" I whispered, stunned. He wasn't dressed for the outdoors. His clothing was disheveled, his face bruised. An alarming amount of blood caked one side of his head and stained the neck and shoulder of his white dress shirt crimson. For a few sickening heartbeats I wasn't sure whether he was alive or dead. Then he groaned softly and struggled to get his elbows under him and I started breathing again.

Trent tried to struggle to his knees, but only managed to roll unsteadily onto his side. I could now see that his hands too were bound, shackled in front of him with a pair of charmed silver cuffs that matched my own. He raised both hands to his obviously hurting head and blinked up at me as if unable to get his eyes to completely focus. In or out of focus, he must have been able to make out enough to understand the situation I was in, judging from the fleeting play of emotions that crossed his face when his gaze caught and held on me.

"Hello, Rachel," he said with admirable calm. "I see you're on the guest list for this little party, too. I would apologize for my companions' bad manners, but I refuse to claim any kind of responsibility for the lunacy at work here." His gaze darted darkly over his shoulder towards the others at that last, the words obviously directed more at them than at me.

That dragged my attention back outward as well and I realized two things at once. First, the woman with the group that had brought Trent was Ellasbeth. Second ... she was holding Lucy on her hip. Third, I had a sudden and overwhelming desire to smash her face in. Okay, so it was more like three things. Sue me.

"Lunacy?" The pretty boy with the ugly face scoffed. "Lunacy is making a cure that allows demons to be born into this world again! That allows them to walk in the sun and undoes everything that generations of our ancestors fought and died for!" Pretty Boy seemed to have some modicum of control over the situation, or at least a certain amount of respect from the crowd. He looked an awful lot like Ellasbeth now that I saw them together. I didn't think she had any brothers, but a cousin, maybe? I didn't know and didn't really care. His words froze my blood. Crap on toast. Trent's family secret was apparently out, and the elves weren't at all pleased.

Trent's jaw tightened, his lips pressing together as he finally managed to leverage himself up to a sitting position on the ground, but he said nothing. The accusations were true, even if that result was never what Trent's father had intended when he began his biological tinkering. The tinkering that had saved my life, and Lee's life, and now the lives of around a dozen innocent infants who were on the verge of celebrating their first birthdays thanks to the Kalamack's Rosewood syndrom cure.

"Lunacy is helping this demon save the Ever After and all the other demons in it when simply doing nothing would have meant they all destroyed themselves!" the man continued to rant and the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach grew. Where was this guy getting his information? How in the Turn did he know so much?!

My gaze slid back to Ellasbeth, looking pretty, composed and smug in her white designer leather coat and perfectly coifed hair, and I answered my own question. Ellasbeth. She had been at Trent's house when all the crap hit the fan with Ku'Sox. She had been in and out of his life for the past year since, supposedly looking to reconcile and share custody of their daughter Lucy. If anyone had been in a position to learn and then betray Trent's carefully guarded secrets, my money was on her. That bitch.

Trent had helped me save the demons. The situation was a little more complex than Pretty Boy made it out to be, but in the end he wasn't exactly wrong. Trent's tolerant attitude towards demons had shifted pretty far off center from that his race over the past few years.  If I were honest, I knew I had played at least some role in that. 

Trent had flipped when he found out what I was, what his family's cure had really done.  I couldn't entirely blame him for that, I hadn't been all that thrilled myself at first either.  Of course ... Trent had flipped hard enough that he'd tried to kill me, but over time, he'd apparently been able to look beyond his fear and the notions trained into him since childhood.

Over the past year or two much had changed and the elf had saved my butt, more than once. Of course, I'd arguably saved his even more times, but still. Trent was becoming a strong, capable man who judged people on their own merits and not through the lens of societal bigotry. He'd stood with me to save the demons because it was the right thing to do. He'd given me the choice about whether to save the Rosewood babies knowing what I would choose, because it was the right thing to do. For this, his own kin would condemn him. Would turn on him and call him traitor. Prejudice and politics both sucked, big time. This wasn't fair.

"Hey! Saving the Ever After wasn't just about the demons," I protested hotly. "You do realize that if it had been destroyed, it would have taken all the world's magic with it, right? Did you think of that?!"

At my feet, Trent sighed very softly, giving me the uneasy feeling I'd said something wrong.

"The witch magic, maybe. The demon magic. Not all the magic," Pretty Boy said with a dark look and I felt my stomach lurch as I took in his meaning.

Of course, I should have seen it before. The elves practiced ley line magic, just like witches and demons, but it wasn't the only power to which they had access. Losing all the ley lines would have crippled half the inderland community and thrown the world's balance of power wildly askew ... and would have left the elven minority, with their wild magic, some of the strongest inderlanders on earth. True, it was possible that earth magic may have continued to work without the lines, but earth magic by itself was no true match for the power of wild magic. I had seen both in action and I was sure of that. Most elves didn't practice wild magic anymore, having fallen into using the easier and more predictable ley line magic instead. But they could learn, and if the lines had disappeared, I was sure they would have learned in a hurry.

I felt a shiver run down my spine. This dirt bag was as bad as HAPPA. He would have happily sacrificed half the world's population to further his own agenda. I couldn't even comprehend that and red haze filled my vision. "You have no idea what kind of effect that could have had! We're not just talking about the witches here – what about the pixies, the fairies, the gargoyles and nymphs and – and everyone else who depends on magic of some form? There's no way to know what suddenly ripping away the lines would have done to them!"

The man snorted like that was a ridiculous and inconsequential matter and my blood boiled.

"She's right, Reginald," Trent agreed with me, his voice much too composed for the current situation. "The risk was too great. I know you want to think that losing the lines would have also rid us of the vampire threat, but there is no firm evidence anywhere that the power of either the vampires or the weres is tied to ley line based magic any more than ours is. Do you really think that knocking out all the witches and possibly making the vampires the largest supernatural presence on earth is a sound risk? We might have the stronger magic, but our numbers are ridiculously few compared to theirs and most of our people do not even practice the old arts anymore!" Trent argued with pragmatic passion. His tone managed to remain reasonable and collected, yet the intensity of his words grew as he spoke.

It struck me then that Trent had already had all these arguments in his own head long before we got to this point. The thought that letting the Ever After fall might just be the best thing overall for the elves had obviously occurred to him, but thankfully he'd apparently had enough sense not to go down that road. The urgency Ceri had once tried to impart to me about the importance of Trent being the one to chart the next chapter of elven history made a little more sense - at least if the alternative was people like Reggie-crap-for-brains.

"There's no evidence that it isn't tied to it either, Kalamack." The aforementioned crap for brains retorted. "We don't even know if they existed in the ancient days, before the war, before the Ever After. What if they too are byproducts of that era? We might have had the chance to be rid of all of them!"

"You're a fool, Reginald," Trent spat disdainfully, taking the words right out of my mouth - although I probably would have used a different word. "Your father would never have been so reckless. Not even yours would." Trent spared Ellasbeth a withering glance. He'd managed to get his feet under him and leveraged himself upright with at least a fraction of his usual grace. "You're blind if you can't see that the risk was too great."

Reginald faced him squarely. "It wasn't your decision to make. You should have at least allowed others to be heard!"

Trent's lip curled. "It was my decision to make and there is absolutely no reason I should have to listen to you and your ... " the elf scanned the crowd coldly " ... rabble about anything. You want to challenge my leadership, Reginald? Why don't you do it like a man rather than hiding behind these accusations and a throng of misguided lackeys?"

Reginald looked fit to pop a blood vessel and I could tell that Trent had scored a hit. I had a feeling my sneaky little cookie maker was trying to do what he did best and either talk his way out of this, or keep delaying until we could come up with some kind of plan of action. I was trying hard on the latter, but not much luck so far. The damn elves hadn't just chained me up with charmed silver, which would have been bad enough. The whole way they'd taken me down in the first place had been catching me unawares and hitting me with a watered-down version of that damn elf spell that Trent had used to down Ku'Sox last year - the one that stripped all your magic. Whoever had twisted it was good, but they didn't have Trent's skill or power, and they certainly didn't have the power that I had been able to feed into it or Al had been able to wrap around it when the three of us had worked together against Ku'Sox.

It had still done the job and hurt like a son of a bastard besides, but I was already starting to feel the first faint tingles of it beginning to wear off. It would be easier to gauge my recovery without the damned silver cutting me off from the lines and making the issue moot. My gaze shifted back to Trent where he was staring down Reggie the pompous ass. Dollars to donuts if they'd used that spell on me; they'd used it on Trent as well. Especially since I really wasn't sure how effective the charmed silver cuffs would be against wild magic use. If I assumed we'd been taken at around the same time, then maybe the curse was starting to wear off of him too. Maybe if we could stall them long enough, Trent would be able to cause enough of a distraction to help me get out of these damn cuffs and then we'd be in business.  It wasn't a great plan, but it was about all I had at the moment.

In the tradition of all bullies and cowards, Reginald dealt with sound arguments he couldn't refute logically by using his fists instead and took the moral low ground of slugging someone who was bound and defenseless. Oh I was just loving this guy. Kind of like my boot was going to love burying itself in his ass. "Hey!" I shouted as Reggie sucker-punched Trent in the gut, sending the other elf back to his knees on the forest floor.

Not content with that bit of violence, Reggie kicked out at Trent, but that was his mistake because Trent was faster. He caught Reggie's foot between both bound hands and yanked, jerking the other man's legs out from under him and sending him tumbling to the ground. In an instant, Trent was on him like dust on a pixy, slugging Reggie hard in his surprised mug with both bound hands and jamming a knee sharply into his gut before the shocked and woefully underprepared man had a chance to move.

I yanked and tore at my bonds, dying to break free, to help, to join the fight. I felt so damn useless and helpless I wanted to scream. Unfortunately for Trent, we were severely outnumbered. I had no doubt he could have taken Reggie, even bound and at a disadvantage, but six or seven other elves were on him in a flash.  They dragged him off and cuffed him around hard when he struggled. Either Trent hadn't yet recovered enough to access his magic, or he judged the odds not yet good enough for a serious escape attempt and didn't want to show his hand too soon. I couldn't be sure.

"Stop it! Leave him alone!" I raged impotently at them, jerking my wrists until I felt blood begin to trickle down my hands. Damn it all to the Turn, I had to get out of these freaking cuffs!

One of them hit Trent with a pain spell and he went down, his back arching against the dirt, his neck all corded muscle as he convulsed, gritting his teeth against the agony.

Lucy was wailing. I hadn't noticed when she started amid the commotion, but now as things settled down her angry and tearful howling became pronouncedly attention grabbing. "No! No! Bad! You stop! No hitting! Bad! Put me down! Daddy! Daddy!" The little girl was small, petite even for her age, but she had enough attitude for two people twice her size and she did not like being ignored. I saw her twisting and struggling fiercely in Ellasbeth's grip forcing the woman have to struggle to hold onto her despite her small size.

My heart clenched. Lucy was almost two years old and precocious for her age as all elf children seemed to be. She understood enough of what was going on around her to know that her father was being hurt and to want to stop it, even if she didn't yet have the capability of understanding the reasons why. She shouldn't be here. Why in God's name would anyone bring a baby to a lynching? I knew in my gut that that was exactly what this was intended to be, in one form or another.

"Shhh! No! Lucy, no!  Stop it! Be still! Lucy!" Ellasbeth first cajoled, then scolded, snapping at the little girl and shaking her none too gently when her tantrum did not abate.

"Don't!" it was Trent's voice from the ground, his gaze fixed on his daughter and the woman who was unfortunately her mother. His chest was heaving from the after effects of the curse, but his voice was low and lethal. Then his gaze shifted to Lucy and his expression completely changed. "Lucy, it's all right. Daddy's all right, see?" he coaxed soothingly, struggling to push up onto his elbow again and trying to catch her eyes. "Shh, Lucy, it's okay." He murmured soft elven words that I didn't understand, but Lucy seemed to and they finally calmed her. She was a daddy's girl, and no mistake.

It wasn't okay. None of this was remotely okay. This whole situation was so unbelievably fucked up it was eons and light years past okay.

"For God's sake, Ellasbeth, get her out of here," Trent whispered quietly, his angry green eyes both demanding and pleading as he struggled back up to his knees.

Anger made my head pound while fear chilled my heart like ice. Lucy shouldn't be here. Trent shouldn't be here either. The fact that they were both here anyway made me afraid for more than just their sake. Where were Quen and Ray? Quen would have protected Trent and Lucy, or at least he would have tried to. If he'd been there. If he'd known. Trent had been intentionally pulling away from his bodyguard's sphere of control for some time now. I hoped that his enemies had simply used that against him, perhaps using Ellasbeth to find out his whereabouts or even to lead him into the trap. It would have been easy for her to take Lucy. She was the girl's mother, after all.

I didn't want to think about the alternatives. I didn't want to think that anything could have happened to Quen, or that they might have separated him from his Sa'han by forcing on the older elf the unthinkable situation of having to choose between protecting Trent or protecting Ray. I knew which side Quen would come down on, and I knew that having had to make that choice would all but kill him. For everyone's sake, I hoped that Quen was just as oblivious of what had happened as Ivy and Jenks were. Although ... I certainly wouldn't mind if any of them had figured it out about now. Hell, I'd be more than happy to see Al right at the moment, although being as it was still daylight that wasn't going to happen. Nope, Trent and I were apparently on our own here.  Peachy.

"It's right for her to be here. She is our future," Reginald said coldly. "The future you claim to give to us with one hand while damning us to repeat the past with the other. You cured the demons, Kalamack. None of your pretty lies can save you from that fact. You are a traitor to our people!"

"It was his dad who came up with the damn cure you moss wipe!" I interjected hotly, having had about all of this idiot that I could take. "Get your facts straight!"

Reggie's cold, hard eyes fixed on me, gorgeous and unforgiving. "Yes, and he gave us two day walking demons as a result, one of them unfortunately being you. But Trenton here, Trenton has given us more than a dozen. He didn't have to continue his father's work. He should have shut it down and destroyed every last scrap of its very memory the instant he realized what you were. But he didn't."

"Trent didn't give those babies the cure! Ku'sox did!" I argued hotly, but I already knew it was a losing battle and that at least some of this mess was probably my fault. "He stole it and gave it to them!" And Trent had helped him make it permanent to save Lucy, then fixed the fatal flaw he'd intentionally worked into the cure so that they would in fact survive, at least partially because of me ... but I didn't think mentioning any of that would be a particularly good idea. The problem was, they already seemed to know most of it anyway.

"Which he couldn't have done if Kalamack had destroyed it like he should have," Reggie returned, sounding calmer and more confident now, which was not a good sign. "At the very least, he should have destroyed the abominations after the demon was gone, but no he continued to treat them. He hid them and their families and won't even tell us where they are!"

My gaze shot back to Trent, my chest tightening within me. Trent's world was being pulled down around him but he was still protecting the babies. The babies he'd flat out told me it would be much easier to kill than keep alive. I was proud of him, and that just made this whole mess a dozen times more ugly.

"They are innocent!" I growled, my voice hoarse with emotion I hadn't realized was there until it made my words rough and my eyes sting with fury.  I would die before I saw any more dead, broken little infants again. Never again. "If you could really just kill a bunch of innocent babies in cold blood, then you're the monster here, all of you!"

"Enough. This is pointless. The decision has already been made and this arguing serves no purpose. It will be dark soon, we should waste no more time," an older man standing on Reggie's right said with a hint of impatience.

Reggie nodded once, obviously not appreciating the interference, but seemingly not in a position to disagree either. He jerked his head towards Trent and several men stepped forward. Appropriately, if depressingly cautious, they hit Trent with another pain charm before they were within reach, then dragged the convulsing man to his feet and slammed him up against the stake so that his back was to mine.

The stake was about three-quarters as thick around as a wooden telephone pole. The edges of Trent's shoulders pressed up against mine as the clank of metal told me he was being re-chained to it in much the same manner as myself. I could feel Trent shaking and struggling to hold his feet through the ending throws of the charm. Damn it, this wasn't good! This was SO not good!

"Daddy?" Lucy's uncertain, childish voice was heartbreaking in the almost oppressive stillness. "Mommy, what are Daddy and Aunt Rachel doing?"

"For the love of the Goddess, Ellasbeth, get her out of here!" Trent's low, harsh voice was raw from something other than the pain he'd been dealing with. I could practically feel his anger and heartbreak ... and fear. Crap on toast. Beneath his controlled facade, Trent was afraid we might not get out of this and that scared me more than I wanted to admit. 

TBC...

Chapter Text

My heart was pounding fast, throbbing at my temples. I grit my teeth stubbornly, refusing to let the fear get too tight a grip. No way was it ending like this! No way was I going to roast like some demented marshmallow on a camp fire.

"Trenton Aloysius Kalamack," Reginald intoned gravely, sounding rather like he was trying to imitate one of those magistrates in an old movie. "You have been found guilty of treason to your race. Of consorting with demons ... "

"That's not actually against the law," I interjected, derailing Reggie's unbearably pompous recitation. "Elf royalty is allowed to consort with demons, or don't you know your history? As long as he's not married, it's practically encouraged." Well, that's what Al had said once, anyway. "And he's not, since thank God he never actually tied the knot with you," I shot a venomous glare towards Ellasbeth.

Reggie seemed a mite flustered or put out and struggled to find his place again. I smirked. This guy was slime, and he wasn't even good at it. Trent would never have let me shake him that easily.

"Trenton Aloysius Kalamack," Reggie finally started over again, glaring at me because of the looks a few of the others were now giving him. "You have been found guilty of treason to your race. Of consorting with demons and plotting with them against your own kind. Of knowingly and willingly creating day walking demons and allowing them to roam free." He pushed on, obviously ignoring my input and the questionable legality of these cooked up charges.

Behind me, Trent sighed loudly. If his hands were free, he probably would have been pinching the bridge of his nose in exasperation. "Is this really necessary? Does anyone here really not understand what a farce this is? You can wrap yourself in legal pretense and moral outrage all you want, but this is about power, nothing more, nothing less. What I don't understand is why you are letting yourselves be used this way. Do you think this will do you any good? Any of you? Reginald, even if I'm gone, you don't really think anyone's going to let you lead anything, do you?" Trent laughed in dark amusement.

"Your bloodline is too weak, you're not even on the radar of having that kind of pull. Anyone who has convinced you otherwise is just playing you. They are using you as a dupe to get rid of me so they can step into the void. There will be retribution for this," he promised with absolute conviction. "There are those who will avenge both my death and Ms. Morgan's and they will be most ... savage in the doing. Those people will be coming for you. You are the convenient and expendable scapegoats in this scenario. You have to see that. You can't be this dumb."

There was a soft undertone of murmuring from some of the onlookers that made me think that perhaps at least a few of them hadn't considered the matter in that light before, but I didn't think it was going to be enough to make a difference. The truth was that underneath they were all afraid. They were doing what they thought they had to do to survive. You couldn't reason with that. I had been here before, just with different faces and different races. Being morally in the right hadn't stopped the Coven of Moral and Ethical standards from condemning me, and I didn't think it was going to stop this kangaroo court either.

"Honestly, I think they can," I muttered. I felt more than heard Trent's soft snort through the touch of our shoulders.

"Unfortunately, I agree," he returned under his breath.

I smiled, even though there wasn't really a turn-blasted thing to be smiling about at the moment. I felt something warm against my numb, abused fingers and realized that Trent had pushed his arms back and to the side enough that our fingers could brush. I gave his fingers a firm little squeeze, despite the fact that the motion kind of hurt. We'd both survived worse than this before. There had to be something we could do. Think, Rachel, THINK!

"Ellasbeth, I know you think you have to do this. That it's for your family, for Lucy, but this is not the way to usher in a new age," Trent's voice was low and coaxing again as he singled out his one-time fiancé with a hell of a lot more grace than I could have managed if one of my old flames had turned Judas like this. Nick came readily to mind and I quickly pushed him back out again because I was so done with that pond scum.

"Is this really the path to the future that you want?" Trent's earnest voice sent a little shiver through me. "One built on treachery, bloodshed and murder? Is that really the legacy you want to pass on to our daughter? I thought we wanted something better ... I know you did. We talked about the kind of world we want her to grow up in, and I know you weren't lying. Don't sacrifice that. Don't let them make you become this. There's no going back, Ellasbeth. Trust me. There are some things, you can never take back once they're done."

There was the hint of painful experience in Trent's words and I felt my jaw muscles ratchet a few notches tighter. I was not inclined to give Ellasbeth as much benefit of the doubt as Trent apparently was, although I suppose at the moment honey was a lot more likely to sway her than vinegar. I could feel nothing but disgust as I watched the rich, beautiful woman standing there with her daughter in her arms, watching the father of her child about to be burned alive. How did anyone get to the place where that could seem okay?

At least she had the decency to drop her gaze when Trent spoke to her. Her free hand fluttering agitatedly about, fussing with the hem of Lucy's coat as the little girl wiggled and tugged plaintively at her mother's collar to get her attention.

"Mommy, Daddy forgot his coat and he needs Band-Aids. I have another princess Band-Aid, see?" The toddler prattled with innocent concern. The little girl had pulled something small and bright pink out of her coat pocket. "Daddy can have it." She strained in her mother's arms, reaching for us, clacking her knees and heels against Ellasbeth as if the woman were a stubborn horse she was trying to nudge into motion.

I had to look away. I just couldn't understand it. Ellasbeth had everything. Power, money, a precious daughter and a good man who would have married her if she'd been willing to be even a little more supportive of the difficult road he was attempting to walk. What more could she want? What could possibly make this ugliness seem like the better option?

Lucy was proof that she must have felt something for Trent once. He was the father of her child for God's sake! But then, that was probably part of the problem. Ellasbeth wanted Lucy, but by elven law she belonged to Trent. Trent had tried to reconcile with her to a point, but apparently that wasn't enough for her. She wanted Lucy without Trent in the picture. I'd seen messy divorces and bitter custody fights before, but could she really hate him this much?

Looking at Ellasbeth's tense body and her pinched, pale and possibly guilty face made me wonder though. I wasn't so sure this was really about her wanting to hurt Trent. Maybe she was simply as weak as she was selfish. Maybe Trent was right. Maybe someone had convinced her it would be better this way and she let herself be used. I didn't believe that she had much political ambition of her own, but she was colossally self-centered and critically short sighted. If she thought this was the best thing for her family politically and it meant she got Lucy back unequivocally ... I could see her going along, whether or not she actually wanted to see Trent dead.

Damn elves and their damn power games and politics and damn ... damn-ness!

"I'm sorry, Trenton," Ellasbeth's voice was quiet and not entirely steady, but it was also closed and distant in a way that said she wasn't sorry enough. "I would have preferred it not come to something like this. Mother is going to be very upset. But what you have done ... I can't ... this ... it's nothing personal. It's just the way it has to be."

I gave a short, hard bark of incredulous laughter. "Nothing personal? What a load of crap! I think that roasting someone alive is pretty damn personal! Do you even listen to yourself?"

"For these crimes, you and your demon have been bound according to the law. Your souls are sentenced to exile and you will burn together in the fires of the Goddess," Reggie finished sourly, sounding less pretentious now and more like he just wanted to get this over with.

I thought it was kind of racist of them that they full-named Trent while I was only "his demon". That was just insulting.

"Hey! I am not his demon!" I protested angrily, not that anyone cared. I was getting the sinking feeling that for once I wasn't actually the main focus of this particular scheme. This was about Trent. They'd obviously dug up some lame old law that allowed them to ritually execute even elven royalty if they'd been convicted of treason and could be burned with whatever demon they'd been consorting with. I was set dressing. I was the excuse they were using to justify murdering someone too powerful for them to touch with impunity.

That just sucked. I sure as hell wasn't going to die because of Trent's political problems. No. Fucking. Way.

The elves holding the torches made their way to the front of the circle around us. I saw that all of the torch bearers were wearing those little caps and ribbons like I'd seen Trent wear before when practicing some forms of elven magic. That seemed weird, but maybe it was like their ritual gear or something.

"And I have a damn name, you know!" I shouted, continuing to rant as ice water filled my veins.

"Really, Rachel? That's what's bothering you right now?" Trent murmured with world-weary wryness behind me. I felt a slight shift of his shoulder against mine and guessed he had leaned his head back against the post, perhaps looking up at the slowly fading winter sky beyond the waving tops of the pine trees. Taking a last look?

"Hell yes, really!" I shot back. "If some jackass is frigging going to kill me, they can frigging call me by my frigging name! I am damn well not dying as elven stage dressing!"

"Stage dresssning!" Lucy's indignant little voice mimicked mine in tone, messing up just a little on the unfamiliar last word and obviously not getting the meaning. My heart tore just a little more. Why was she still here? Ellasbeth couldn't really be this heartless, could she? She couldn't really want her child to witness what was about to happen?!

"Ellasbeth, if you have any shred of decency in you, take Lucy and leave," Trent's low, urgent voice told me his thoughts mirrored my own. "Please, don't make her watch this!" he was almost begging now, his thoughts and concern fixed firmly on his daughter as the torch bearers arranged themselves into a tight circle around the two of us and began chanting in something that wasn't Latin.

My flesh crawled and panic clawed at the back of my throat. They were going to burn us. Oh. God. They were going to burn us. There was something terrifyingly primal about this age-old fear that I'd never expected to face in our supposedly enlightened times. It was hard to breathe. I twisted my wrists behind me desperately, no longer caring how badly the metal cut my bleeding skin or how much it hurt. Damn it to the turn ... I would cut my damn hand off if that was the only way out of this. Unfortunately, I had no means of doing so.

The chanting around us buzzed in my brain and I felt the tingle of wild magic slowly beginning to build. What the hell were they doing? Burning us wasn't enough? They had to do some freaky-ass elf magic thing too?

"She'll never forgive you," Trent was still speaking to Ellasbeth. His voice had dropped a register, it was darker now, harsher. "Do you think Lucy will ever be able to love you, once she's old enough to understand these memories? After having seen for herself what you've done?"

Already fidgety, Ellasbeth blanched visibly. Her back was stiff and her stance proud, but she turned on her heel without a word and strode away through the throng. The others parted for her, even as a murmur of ripples rose up about them.

"Ellasbeth!" Reginald called after her in disapproval, but the elf woman kept walking and did not look back.

"Call us when it's done," she said tightly, holding Lucy to her with a white knuckled grip as the little girl started to squirm and voice her protest at being taken away.

"Mommy, no! I don't want to go! Can Daddy and Aunt Rachel come too? Stop, Mommy! They come too! I want them to come!" the child's high-pitched complaints carried easily on the chill air. Lucy had always been a fairly perceptive child. She could tell something wasn't right. She could feel, even if not understand the wrongness of what was happening.

Smoke from the torches blew in my eyes and my vision blurred. Or maybe it wasn't really the smoke that made tears sting my eyes and burn the back of my throat. Oh God. This whole thing was awful and ugly and so wrong. I couldn't even imagine what Trent must be feeling. Once the pale cream of Ellasbeth's thousand dollar jacket disappeared completely into the trees and Lucy's fretful complaints were no longer audible, I actually felt him relax a little against my back, some of the tension bleeding out of him now that his daughter was safely out of range of this barbarity.

I shared the feeling to a certain extent, but I was kind of still worried about our little part in said barbarity, so I didn't really feel like relaxing just yet. The wind was picking up and my hair was blowing in my mouth again. I spat it out and shook my head. A moment later I felt a tug on my hair and Trent's head bumped mine as if he were shaking it. Apparently, it was in his face now. Not my fault.

The chanting about us was rising in pitch and the rest of the gathering began taking part, the swell of a collective building about us and I realized the wind wasn't natural, it was being stirred up by slowly turning churl of the wild magic that was being called upon and spun up all about us. Goosebumps raised along my arms and my neck prickled hard. God, I hated wild magic sometimes.

"Trent? What are they doing?!" I had to lift my voice a little to be heard above the chanting and the growing rustle of the pine boughs above us. I eyed the torches with trepidation. How in the name of little green apples were they going to get any kind of fire to catch with all this wind they were kicking up?

"It's old magic," Trent said bitterly. "Very old. Probably hasn't been used in centuries. They mean to burn us with the fire of the Goddess, it's not ordinary fire, Rachel. The torches are just part of the ritual. They don't have nearly enough fuel here to burn two bodies completely by normal means."

"Oh," I said. "Lovely. Glad to know that. Aren't we special, then?"

"I've never seen it myself, but some records contend that it's not technically fire in the literal sense at all," Trent continued, ignoring my sarcasm. I wasn't sure why he wanted me to know, but it seemed he did. I hoped it wasn't just out of morbid fascination.

"Well, might not be that bad then," I said without much real optimism, tugging bodily against my restraints and feeling more than a little annoyed that Trent wasn't struggling at all. He better not be giving up on me, damn it. We are getting out of this. We are.

"They describe it more like a very powerful curse that consumes flesh and soul together, binding the soul and sending it into exile beyond the limits of the two worlds." The last part sounded like a quotation, probably direct from whatever text Trent had read about this.

"Or then again, maybe it is that bad," I said dryly, feeling the building thrum of the wild magic like the palpable tang of summer lightening on a stormy wind. This was so not good! "And what the hell is with all this exile business? That just a fancy way of saying we'll be dead, or are they trying to send us to purgatory or something?"

"No, quite the opposite. That's exactly where they don't want us. I have no idea where exactly the souls are supposed to go, but exile is not meant as a euphemism. The whole point of this curse is to make sure that the deceased do not return. Apparently, that used to be a real problem at one time."

"Oh, yeah, I can see how that would be really inconvenient," I growled unhappily. The problem was, I actually could. I'd known Peirce. I'd seen the dead brought back in the flesh. I remembered that Al, Trent and I had all tried resurrection curses to bring Ceri back after she died. It failed because she was at peace, as even Peirce was now. Yet the fact remained that those who suffered wrongful and violent deaths had a higher chance of sticking around. Being burned at the stake did seem the type of thing apt to leave an un-restful spirit kicking about who could be brought back, especially if you were talking about demons or elves who were trading with demons. I could see why the ancient peoples might have wanted a little insurance.

I realized with a sinking feeling that a resurrection curse was indeed the first thing that Al would try upon learning of my death. Well, right after ripping apart those he deemed responsible. Quen would probably do the same for Trent, in roughly that same order. Wouldn't do any good if our souls were trapped off in exile somewhere.

The very thought made me shudder. Stupid frigging elven magic, messing with souls all the time! I remembered when Trent had put my soul in a bottle to save me after my aura had been shredded in the lines. Would it be like that, I wondered? Would you just be in that gray, hazy state forever with no one to call you back out of it? Forever not quite awake but not really at rest? Anger and fear balled sickly inside of me. That was crap! You couldn't do that to people! No one had a right to condemn someone like that, not just to death, but to something possibly even worse. Fear was almost blanking my mind and I struggled to stay on top of the panic. To stay focused. To stay angry. To stay alive. Oh God, to stay alive!

"So you got a plan, here, or what?" I snapped at Trent as the chanting rose to a fever pitch and my head ached with it. I didn't have one and that sucked big time. I was still lunging against my bonds and Trent was still doing frigging nothing. "Tell me this is all part of one of your crazy ass, half-baked schemes." Freeing an insane, soul eating demon and bringing down the St. Louis arch came to mind ...

"Do I look like I was expecting to be roasted on a spit today?" Trent shot back tersely. "I would almost certainly have worn different shoes."

I barked a short, sharp laugh despite myself. "Oh yeah, you're gonna go down in infamy forever, allowing yourself to be fried and exiled for eternity in shoes like those."

"I did not foresee this turn of events," Trent admitted softer and more earnestly after a moment. "I'm sorry, Rachel. I'm sorry you got dragged into this. This is not your fault."

"Damn right it's not!" I grit out through my teeth, tugging against my left manacle until my arm was nothing but pain. Damn it, damn it, damn it! "But it's not yours either," I allowed a little more quietly.

More honestly it was both our faults, but then again it was really the fault of the weenies with the torches and "hey, let's burn the witches!" attitudes that should have died out in the middle ages but obviously hadn't.

Gasping for breath in the wake of my useless struggles, my arms burning with pain, I let my head fall back against the post. My right shoulder and arm brushed up against Trent and I almost jerked from the sharp prickle of wild magic that zinged through me. For a moment I thought it was the spell around us, but then I realized that it was very definitely coming from Trent.

A thread of hope quickly wound its way around my heart. I'd been right! The spell had finally worn off of Trent. He must have been slowly gathering the wild magic into him for a while now, using the growing cover of the spell around us to call forth and build more and more energy without it being detected by the others. Even I'd missed it until I touched him. From the harsh, electric tingle I felt even through my coat sleeve, he'd already built up quite a head of steam and he was still building it, probably pouring in everything he had. Would it be enough?

Leaning back against the post as if exhausted from my struggles, I pushed my bloodied hands back until I found Trent's again. I gave him a firm, supportive squeeze - silently indicating that I understood what he was doing and was ready for action.

I could feel the tension in the body behind mine, along with the pulsing, glowing buzz of power. "I can't break the silver," Trent murmured, twisting sideways a bit and turning his head so his mouth was almost by my ear. His breath was warm as it stirred my wildly tangled hair, his almost inaudible voice rich with both determination and apology. "I don't know if I can protect us, but I'm going to try. If I can't ... I'm so sorry, Rachel. Truly."

Trent's determination was a hard, shiny jewel in the slippery wash of silt swirling around us. Only because I knew him pretty well by now, could I also sense his fear. Not a fear of dying, but a fear of failure, of not being enough. The fear that defined far too much of his life.

I swallowed hard. If we couldn't use the magic to break free and disrupt the spell or get the hell out of there before it could finish forming, then the only other option was to try to counter their curse when it was unleashed. Trent was strong and determined. He was full of purpose and the desire to protect as well as survive. He would do his best, but the sad truth was it wouldn't be enough. It wasn't his fault, there was no lacking in him, but we were up against a damn collective of 50 plus elves bent on sending us to hell, figuratively speaking. Trent couldn't pit his magic against all of them at once and hope to come out on top, no one could. Even demons were afraid of elven magic, and I'd seen enough last year to know why.

But Trent wasn't alone, and I wasn't your average demon. I could re-invoke elven silver. I'd been able to handle and tap into the wild magic that Trent conjured when we were fighting Ku'Sox. Wild magic had acknowledged me.

I pushed my hands deeper into Trent's, twining our fingers together. I didn't know if we could do this without the rings, without a conduit to allow us to share power. But with physical contact, you could draw energy through anyone, especially if they were willing. I felt empty and naked without the ability to pull a line into me, without being able to fill my chi with the familiar warmth. Yet the prickling, dancing fingers of the wild magic seemed to be tingling and spilling their way into me through my grip on Trent's hands, filling me with a different kind of energy. Something foreign and lyrical and almost mischievously dangerous. Power that taunted and sang and danced like a wild drum beat. I couldn't grab it. Couldn't control and contain it like I did with a ley line. It was not raw energy waiting to be used and converted, it was like a living essence waiting for you to find the right question for which it was the answer.

I struggled to do something, anything with the slippery, taunting tendrils of power, but they just slid like smoke through my fingers when I tried to grasp hold, mocking me. It was so damn frustrating. After a moment, I forced myself to still and listen closer to the inner music being created by Trent's spelling. Elven spells were songs, I'd heard Trent at it before. I didn't know the lyrics, but I was willing to learn. Trent's song seeped into me, similar and yet distinctly different from the musical cadence of the collective spell being woven around us by our captors. I could see the common elements, however. They were rhythms of entreaty and supplication. It seemed you didn't command, you asked.

I didn't know how it was that I could perceive Trent's spelling like this. He was silent and gave no outward sign away to those around us, and yet somehow I could feel what he was doing. Maybe it was because we were touching, but I think it was more than that. He and I had been connected in a lot of unusual ways during our long and at times rather colorful past. He'd been my familiar once, even if I'd never treated him that way. Then there had been the slave rings, and I'd flat out taken control of his mind and his will to save him from Ku'Sox, wresting away control of the other demon's familiar bond with Trent in the process. We'd fought the demon together as a fully connected and integrated pair, our minds open to and tangled up in one another. Maybe some of that played in now. Maybe it was a little easier for me to connect with him because I was already acquainted with the pathways into his mind. Because I'd fully owned them once, even if it felt completely dirty to realize that.

Well, I could feel bad about it later, if I actually had a later. Right now, it was pretty damn useful and I didn't think Trent was going to complain if I could make this work the way I hoped it would. Although, it did make me think I had probably better keep an eye on Al if we survived and if there was any chance the way we had connected last year through his rings could give him this kind of continued insight into me. He hadn't owned me though, so maybe it was different. Hopefully. Because I was kind of pretty darn deep into Trent's mental space right now and it wasn't all that hard. I felt his jerk of surprise and shock when he felt me there and a momentary flutter of something that might almost have been panic. It wasn't nearly like the kind of full connection we'd shared through the rings, it was a lot more nebulous and vague. I got sensations and colors from him rather than actual pictures or words.

"I can help," I whispered, turning my head towards his so I could just see him out of the corner of my eye. "Show me."

Trent's mental landscape calmed instantly as he understood my intentions and I felt the warming glow of his optimism increasing. He obviously must think our chances had just gone up significantly. I rather hoped so too. We could do this together, couldn't we? Maybe? We had to!

The sun was still up, but the air around us had darkened to an unnatural, stormy night. The cold air had grown warm and I was starting to perspire beneath my coat and sweater. The pine branches tossed as if caught in a gale and the fervent chanting of the elves seemed to have reached its climax. They were all repeating the same thing in unison now, over and over. We didn't have much time left, I could feel it.

Slowly and deliberately, as if oblivious of the storm whipping about us, Trent spelled for me, showing me what he was doing. That I could pick up on pretty clearly for some reason. Maybe the magic wanted me to, although there was no fathoming why.

Hesitantly at first, then with the bravado of the desperate, I pitched myself into the song with him. I entreated the goddess' attention, more than ready to believe there actually was some such entity or entities out there on some plane of existence I didn't understand if that could get us through this.

Hear my call. Lend strength to my skill. Lend skill to my strength. I am yours. I fell into the rhythmic sway of the spelling, acknowledging more debt to the wild, capricious power that already knew me and had responded to me before.

I am yours.

Trent's mental voice wrapped around my own in a kind of two-part harmony and I felt a deep thrill of heat thrum through me as I unconsciously recalled hearing those same words from him last year, directed at me with the same heart-stopping earnest intensity with which he currently addressed his goddess. Oh my, God, Rachel. About to be burned alive, remember? Is now ever not the time!

Flustered, I pushed myself harder into the spell, even more embarrassed when I felt the small mental hiccup from Trent that told me he had noticed ... something. Crap on toast.

I could swear I heard laughter like the little chiming of bells ringing through my mind and I scowled at it mentally, which only seemed to increase the amused tinkling.

"We are both yours and you know it, so don't be a jerk and give us a little help here, huh? They're trying to use you to burn us! That is NOT cool!" I growled in my head. Trent's little recoil of mingled amusement and shock mixed with the growing tinkle of the bells which was swiftly becoming a burgeoning cacophony, so loud I wondered if the others could hear it, or if it was only in my own head. Maybe I was losing it.

Trent's fingers tightened around mine. The energy sparking between us was wild and alive, humming with a glorious, frightening harmony. I felt it fill my body like and yet totally unlike line energy. Oh God, it felt good. The way the magic seemed to be jumping between Trent's and my clasped hands felt even better.

One lazy, purple lidded eye of a thousand opened and fixed on us. A soft chime echoed through my mind as power filled me to the brim, leaving me breathless and giddy. We had been acknowledged.

There was a sudden drop in pressure and an audible popping sound as the spell that our would-be executioners had been weaving came to completion with a last shouted word followed by a sudden, profound silence.

This was it. It was still only us two, against a collective of dozens, but we were here and we were either going to get out of this or go down fighting like hell. That was the choice we made.

TBC...

Chapter Text

Brilliant, almost blinding light flared up from beneath us, racing outward and upward from the symbols cut into the ground and the pattern of kindling around our feet.

"Now!" I shouted, even though it was hardly necessary. Trent and I were already acting in unison, letting the wild magic with which we'd both completely filled ourselves rush outwards to form a kind of raw barrier of protection around us. It wasn't exactly a circle, it was more like two great waves colliding, crashing against one another and churning as they battled for dominance. Raw power hit raw power as the spells collided and sent a giant shockwave through the forest. The trees around us sprang into flame. Real, or spectral, I couldn't tell, but it looked pretty real as sap bubbled and popped, pine cones exploding and flying to the ground like heated grenades.

My head felt like it was going to explode. Was this working? I couldn't tell, I felt like I was on fire. I couldn't breathe, I could barely think. Oh God, I was burning ... was I burning? Somehow I didn't know. Trent's hands were clenched around mine, his grip tight enough to hurt, his body shuddering like mine probably was.

Chaos reigned. The elves scattered, shrieking, alarmed and uncertain. At least a third of them had been taken out by the shockwave and lay unmoving on the ground, unconscious or dead, I couldn't tell. Others were on fire, rolling and slapping themselves and screaming. I closed my eyes, feeling sick. I hadn't wanted this. I wanted to survive, but even though these people had been trying to kill me, I honestly didn't want to kill them back. I just wanted to survive, damn it! I would stop what was happening to them if I could, if I had any kind of control over it the situation, or if I even had the power or strength to draw breath in my lungs. I didn't. I wasn't so sure I wasn't dying too. As a crushing power pushed in against my chest and my starving lungs continued to be unable to draw air, I began to think I probably was.

The world swam and my knees gave out. I lost my connection and my grip on Trent, my knees slamming into the hard wood beneath me. It was hot. It was burning. I was being consumed and I was going to die here. Alone. And my soul was going to be trapped forever in some elven purgatory of no return. Oh God. Oh God. It hadn't been enough. We'd tried our hardest, but it hadn't been enough. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'd thought we could do this, but now Trent and I were both damned. It hurt so bad. I almost wished it would just be over already. Being nothing had to be better than this, at least it probably wouldn't hurt so much.

A single sensation that wasn't pain cut through the screaming agony that was folding me to its breast. A cool touch on my hand. Fingers grabbing on to me like one drowning man catching hold of another in the eye of a maelstrom. Trent. I felt him at my back again. Whether he'd also fallen or intentionally knelt down to join me I didn't know, but he was there and at least I wasn't alone. That was something, right? If you were going to be damned forever, maybe it was better to not be alone?

I cracked my eyes open, but could see nothing beyond a blinding, swirling curtain of light and heat. The whole world was on fire and Trent and I were the only two souls left. Maybe literally.

Trent's fingers twined with mine. He was shaking. The pole between us was gone. Burned up, evaporated, I had no idea, but I was leaning back to back with Trent in the middle of a roiling, whirling storm of light and sound and pain. My fingers knotted around his and I held onto him tightly, the only real thing in this unreal sea.

"I'm sorry," I groaned, not sure what I was apologizing for, but knowing there was something and if we were about to die it was probably better to get it off my chest.

"Me too," Trent's melodic voice was rough with pain and yet still strangely soothing in its steadiness. "Don't give in," he whispered. "You never give in. We gave them hell, didn't we?" He was struggling to breathe, I could hear it, but his tones were gentle, like he was talking to Lucy. I wasn't a baby and I didn't need that, damn it! It seemed all I could do to hold onto his voice in the storm, but the anger gave me a little kick of adrenaline that helped.

"You can say that again," I agreed, trying not to slur.

"Then ... we did good," Trent was starting to fade. "We did good, didn't we, Rachel?" I could feel him beginning to slip from me, not physically, but mentally and the unexpected pain of the loss pulled from me a few more molecules of gritted determination and sheer stubbornness.

"Yeah, we did good." I reached out to him, trying to wrap my soul around his and keep him with me. It was like we were trapped in the lines, only ... it wasn't, not really. Yet I found it hard to believe we were still in the forest anymore either. I couldn't tell if I had a body or if I was just thought now. I felt like both. Exile. Exile ... the dreadful word rang through me like a funeral knell. Was that what was happening? Were Trent and I being stripped down to naked souls, destined to be cast adrift in this great burning nothing forever? To hell with that!

"Don't you go anywhere you damn cookie maker," I demanded raggedly, clinging on for all I was worth. Trent's thread of consciousness was growing disturbingly thinner and I clutched tighter, desperate not to lose him. I knew I would never get him back if I did. "We stick together, got it?! No way you're getting me into this and then skipping out. If we're gonna be stuck in some lame-ass elf purgatory for all eternity, I'm not doing it alone. You are stuck with me, buddy."

I felt Trent chuckle softly. "Oh God, and here I thought this wasn't supposed to be hell," he groaned, but I felt his grip tighten a little. He was trying to hold onto me, but it was so hard and the rushing around us was getting stronger and stronger. Trent's grip clung on doggedly and I could feel him struggling to keep himself whole, to keep his thoughts from getting ripped apart and scattered. "Yes," he said slowly and I could picture his teeth grit and his eyes alight with determination. "Together. We will stay together."

I wanted to cry if I still had eyes somewhere. Trent had the determination, but not the strength. The waves were battering us, trying to wrench us apart and pull us to pieces and I could feel him starting to lose the battle. No! I screamed at the void. No! I don't accept this. I don't accept it. It isn't meant to be this way!

I wrapped my soul tighter around Trent even though it felt like we were both tattering at the edges. I wouldn't let go. It could shred us both, but I wouldn't fucking let go. With a soft sob of effort, I pulled Trent's soul completely within my own. I could do that, after all. I could hold two souls if I needed to. I'd done it before and I'd do it again. I didn't want to be alone and I wouldn't abandon Trent to that fate either. I felt a small, distinct thrill of satisfaction when the tearing pull between us eased abruptly, the figurative current no longer able to tug us apart. It couldn't separate us when we were nested like this.

Trent's awareness brightened almost immediately and I could tell that for him the pain and the slow shredding sensation had stopped. He was completely sheltered within my protection and the burning current couldn't reach him. I could feel his shock and a startled, quiet thread of awe. "Rachel...?"

Unfortunately, just because Trent was safe and cozy that didn't mean that I was getting knocked around any less. If anything it was worse than before, as if shielding two souls meant I was exposing a bigger surface area to pummel or something. My soul felt like it was stretched thin, made more vulnerable by bearing the weight of protecting the both of us.

It was okay though, I could do this. I could. Because I wouldn't accept the alternative. Shit, but hopefully it would stop hurting so much sometime this century. Please, please, please make it stop hurting so much.

"Rachel!" Trent was apparently able to sense my feelings in the same way I was sensing his and seemed to have realized what was happening. He struggled in my grip like Lucy wanting to be put down. "Rachel, no!"

"Stop it!" I mentally slapped him. "Be still, won't you? This hurts a damn nough without you throwing a tantrum."

Trent stilled with great reluctance and I could feel his mental glower. "Rachel, stop. You'll destroy yourself if you try to protect us both. Alone, maybe you have a chance. Let me go, I'll be fine." We both knew otherwise, but I could tell he didn't care. He didn't want to hurt me and he'd start fighting again if I refused for long. Which, ironically, would hurt a lot, but yeah, that was Trent for you. Stupid, noble, pain in the ass.

"We said together," I grit out. "You agreed. So sit down, shut up, and help me figure out how to get out of here!"

"Out?" Trent echoed blankly. "There is no out Rachel. We failed. We're dead."

"Yeah?" I shot back, pain making me more than a little tetchy. "You so sure of that? Well you know what? I'm not. I think this hurts too damn much for death and there sure is a lot more talking going on than seems appropriate, don't you think?" I said crossly.

"Oh? Then pray tell where do you think we are?" Trent retorted sarcastically.

"I don't ... I don't think we're anywhere really," I replied honestly. "It feels like being inside a line, only we're not dying quite as fast."

Trent seemed thoughtful at that. He'd been inside the lines before too and I got the impression that he understood what I meant. "Like we're ... in between places?"

I nodded, or something that passed for such. "I don't think we failed, not completely. I think there was just too much power crashing around back there and we've gotten thrown ... somewhere. Not necessarily where they intended to send us, but not really where we want to be either."

"Ah. I see. And that helps us because ...?"

I frowned at Trent's tone. "Because we're not dead, cookie fart! Were you not paying attention?! Listen when people are talking to you!"

Trent gave the impression of an exasperated sigh. "So how do we get out?"

I frowned. "I don't know." My inner gaze narrowed at the look he was somehow managing to give me. "YET. That's what I was saying we needed to figure out, remember?! Geez, Trent!"

I had this feeling. This strange feeling like when the magic had filled me earlier - the feeling that we were waiting for something. Or something was waiting for us. Like we needed to find the right question before we could find the answer.

"Well," Trent said slowly, and I was gratified to sense that he was taking me seriously now and applying his whole attention to the issue. "The problem is that right now we don't know where we are and are more or less incorporeal, right? It makes it rather hard to go anywhere?"

I would have smacked him again, except that I could tell Trent was being serious. "Yeah. The no body thing is cramping our style." I felt a small zing shoot through me. "Bodies!" I exclaimed, feeling like something was just on the tip of my tongue. "We need to get back to our bodies." It didn't feel quite right though. So close, but just a little off.

Trent picked up on my feeling and I could sense it the moment he too got the sudden impression that we were not completely unobserved right now. Something was waiting. Listening. That purple lidded eye had yet to blink shut, but we weren't asking the right questions. I hated wild magic! What was with the 20 questions crap?!

I felt Trent, a calming and steadying presence against me. "Don't. Don't fight it. Don't try to make sense of it. It doesn't work. We can only ask, Rachel."

I rebelled inwardly against that, and yet something told me Trent was right. He knew the whims and caprice of wild magic much more intimately than I did.

"Bodies ..." Trent said slowly, following up on my previous train of thought.

"That's what I said," I agreed shortly.

Trent nodded, frowning. I could almost feel him turning the pieces around in his mind. "But where are our bodies? Here? Back in the woods? Burned up? Floating around the devil knows where?"

"I don't know." I frowned too. "Does it matter? Do we need to know?" If the right question wasn't how do we get back to our bodies, and yet we needed bodies to get out of here, then ... ?

Trent suddenly brightened. "No. I don't think it does. It's a phrasing issue. I think," he added a trifle uncertainly. "If our bodies aren't in the woods anymore, then we can't go back to them, but as long as they are capable of existing somewhere we should be able to get out of here. What we must seek is simply to be rejoined with them, away from this place."

I felt the chime ping through me that told me we'd found the magic words. Really? This was about semantics? Really?!

"It's more about putting yourself at its mercy than the actual words," Trent soothed me quietly. "I know, drove me crazy at first too. But going back implies that we have to return to where we left, and apparently that's not possible for some reason. If we just ask to be rejoined with our bodies, then we're surrendering control and it can happen in whatever way it needs to happen."

"Whatever," I agreed with a roll of my eyes. It was annoyingly like wrangling a demon contract, but in reverse. Instead of getting insanely specific, you had to bumble around until your definitions were flexible enough to allow the magic to act. It was a balancing act of giving what was desired while trying to get what you wanted in return. No wonder Trent was good at it.

"Can we both please be rejoined with our bodies now?" I called out to the empty space around us. The rushing torrent had subsided a little, which was a bit of a relief at least.

Trent chuckled. "You can't do it like that. You're not actually talking to someone ... well, maybe you are in a way, I don't know. But it's still magic, you still have to do the spells right."

Grudgingly, I let him lead me again, showing me the right way to put our desire into a spell that the wild magic could acknowledge.

I knew it worked from the familiar chiming laughter in my head. I wondered if Trent could hear it too or not. He acted like he wasn't 100% sure he was really talking to someone, but I was pretty sure we were. Well, something at least. There almost certainly was some kind of sentience out there behind the magic on some plane.

A sudden lurch tugged at my stomach. I had felt the chime, but now I also felt a discordant thrum, like a gong or a warning. Something was different this time. More than one graceful, unblinking eye was turned in our direction. There was conflict. Within one being? Between multiple beings? I had no idea.

They cannot be rejoined. They have been sundered. The spell was heard and acknowledged.

But so too the counter spell, so too the counter spell. They are here are they not? Still seeking? They have not been fully sundered.

Exile has been petitioned. Exile has been granted. It has been done.

Exile, yes! Of course exile! But with their bodies. They have not been fully sundered - both may be exiled together.

Yes, with their bodies. Yes. No reason not. No reason not!

The laughter again, pure and sweet and full of mischief as some kind of devious and delightful consensus was achieved. If they were separate voices, they certainly shared similar dispositions and if it was something musing things over with itself, then it was getting a jolly good kick out of it. I was more than a little creeped-out. Was Trent hearing any of this? Or was I just going batty?

I felt a sudden, dizzy rushing sensation. Not the tearing whirl from before, but more like the sensation of hurtling forward or free-falling through space. I flailed, trying to hold onto Trent as everything became slippery and strange. A heavy lassitude settled over me, a peaceful weariness that made me slack and slow. I couldn't keep my grip on Trent and he slid from me. I panicked for a moment and started to thrash, but then I realized I wasn't losing his presence. He was still there, it was only that our souls had separated again. Somehow, I knew that was all right now. The falling sensation increased and suddenly there were sounds and shapes and colors exploding around me where there had been only grayness and thought before.

The ground rushed up to meet me with jarring abruptness. The last thing I heard before I landed on it with a dull and not terribly comfortable thud, was one last peal of the chiming laughter.

Only souls can be exiled forever. Where there is body and soul, a way across the divides may be found. Perhaps. Perhaps. A way. Perhaps.

Then I was on the ground, landing half on top of Trent in an undignified tangle of limbs as a white, soundless curtain of snow fell about us.

 

TBC...

Chapter Text

"Where am I?" I groaned, blinking without being able to see much. Everything was very dark and I could only just see a steadily drifting curtain of white snowflakes fluttering by my eyes. I felt as raw as if I'd been burned but cold was quickly seeping into my bones to add a whole new kind of ache.

"On top of me," Trent's voice from beneath me made me start. "To which I would normally offer no objection, but maybe you can move your knee, Rachel?" he added.

I scramble to get my arms under me, face warming as I realized where my knee was currently jammed. Crap on toast. I crawled quickly off of Trent, my motions probably not as graceful or coordinated as they might have been, since I felt like someone had just scrubbed my mind across a cheese grater.

Trent grunted and winced when both my knee and elbow accidentally jabbed him in the process of me extracting myself. Rolling onto his side, he pushed himself upright with a slowness that told me he wasn't feeling a whole lot better than I was. It was only after we'd both gained our feet that I realized neither of us was bound any longer. The silver handcuffs were gone, although my bloody, torn wrists remained, hidden but painful beneath the sleeves of my coat.

My head was throbbing. I rubbed my temples only to realize I was accidentally smearing the blood on my hands onto my face. Great. Feeling uneasy and off-balance, I instinctively reached for a line. My expectant grasp seemed to find nothing to fix on and sheer agony flared through my head at the attempt. "Ow!" I breathed, doubling forward and nearly dropping back to my knees.

I felt Trent's steadying hand on my arm and against my back. "Rachel? Are you all right?"

"I can't tap a line!" I gasped, wanting to try again but afraid of the pain. Everything was a little too raw and I felt like I was going to throw up.

"Neither can I," Trent admitted and I felt the gentle pressure of him rubbing my back as I bent forward, panting.

"Yeah? Well why didn't it hurt you?" I grit out, thinking that wasn't fair.

The rubbing against my back stilled for a moment, then resumed. I felt Trent shift against me a little, supporting more of my weight. "Maybe because you took more of a beating in there than I did," he said quietly. He wasn't exactly saying thank you, but I could feel it implied. "Give it a little time. It's possible we're still under the effects of those curses, or it's an after-effect of ... whatever that was that just happened."

I nodded, finding myself not wanting to pull away from the strangely comforting warmth and steadiness of his body. "Well, here's hoping we don't run into anything nasty out here then," I murmured, finally gritting my teeth and shrugging Trent off. We weren't exactly helpless, but without our magic we were at a distinct disadvantage.

Trent gave me a wary half-grin. "Don't jinx us."

I rolled my eyes at him and drew in a couple deep breaths of frigid air to clear my head. I flexed cold, bloodstained fingers to make sure everything was still working and then pushed them deep into my pockets while I looked around. It was dark and the moon was high. We were surrounded by silent trees and falling snow. A thin layer of the fine powder was attempting to adhere to the pine needles and fallen leaves, although it was only just beginning to gain traction. Aside from the snow and the lateness of the night, I would have thought we had ended up right back where we'd been not long before. Well ... I was assuming it was not long before. Time had had no meaning in that in-between place. We could have spent seconds or days in there, I supposed. When my soul was in the bottle, I'd been completely unaware of the passage of time.

"We appear to be alone." Trent's voice made me look back in his direction. He was rubbing his wrists and also looking around. His arms weren't torn up like mine, but the blood crusting his temple and the collar of his shirt was black beneath the moonlit white of his hair in the shadowy starlight.

My breath fogged on the air and I could see that he was right. The trees looked eerily similar to the clearing in which we'd almost been burned to death, but this snowy glade was distinctly lacking the bodies and scorched earth that we must surely have left behind. The moon was nearly full and wispy tendrils of cloud blanketed out swaths of the sky. I couldn't see enough of the stars to spot any familiar constellations. "You think we're maybe in a different part of the forest or that we're like ... in Iceland or something?" I wondered aloud, hoping it was a joke.

"I don't know." Trent's voice was quiet and held a certain amount of understandable strain. He exhaled slowly and then started striding purposefully into the trees. "I'm simply hoping it's a matter of where and not when."

A shiver that had nothing to do with the cold went through me as I fell in step with him while turning that thought over in my mind. I wasn't sure what exactly qualified as exile but somehow it seemed too much to hope that it only meant "a different part of the woods" unless some other variable had been dramatically altered. Wild magic had a horrible sense of humor and irony. What if we'd been held in that limbo for years ... decades ... centuries even? Then pushed back out in the middle of a future where we no longer belonged?

I immediately thought of Peirce and grit my teeth. I didn't want to think about that possibility. I didn't want to think about having to deal with the idea of finding out that everyone I'd ever known and cared about was long dead.

The voice had said that a way could be found. I hung onto that. Wherever we were, whatever had happened, there would be a way to reverse it. I had to believe that.

I looked over at Trent. His brows were furrowed and his features tense. He wasn't wearing a coat, but he was not usually overly affected by cold temperatures. Still ... "You okay?" I asked.

"Fine," he said evenly. I knew neither of us would really be anything like fine until we figured out where we were and what had happened, but we were alive, not terribly injured and things could have been a lot worse.

"I don't suppose you have your cell phone, do you?" he asked after another moment. "They took mine."

I could have slapped myself for not thinking of it sooner. I guess my head really wasn't all the way back in the game yet and the pounding headache was affecting me more than I thought. I pulled up short and quickly searched through my coat pockets, first where the phone should have been, then everywhere else, just in case. Finally, I had to admit defeat.

"No, they must have taken mine too. Or it didn't survive our little out of body experience back there."

Trent didn't look surprised and simply nodded. "Then we best keep walking."

I pulled my sleeves down over my hands and folded my arms across my chest, favoring Trent with a frown as we made our way through the trackless, powdery snow. I was all for moving and one direction was as good as another at this point, but Trent kept pausing to look around and glance up at the sky like he was following some invisible path. I hoped we weren't walking in circles; that would suck. "Where exactly are you going, anyway?"

Trent looked thoughtful. "If we are in fact still in the Mt. Airy forest anywhere near where we were before, then if we keep going west we should find our way back to the road."

Minutes dragged by as we struggled through the uneven terrain and the biting cold. The woods seemed very still. Maybe it was the new snowfall. I was not usually very skittish by nature, but there was something vaguely creepy about it all that made the back of my neck prickle. I had that feeling like I was being watched or like we were not alone. I could see little in the darkness through the trees and falling snow, but it was so quiet, surely I would hear some little sign of movement if there was anyone or anything else nearby ... wouldn't I?

I found myself missing Jenks and his scouting abilities fiercely, even as I was very glad he wasn't here since this cold would literally have been the death of him. It could be the death of me too if we didn't eventually get out of it. Trent may be okay with cold but I was freezing my ass off out here.

I wasn't sure whether I was relieved or worried when some fifteen or twenty frozen and miserable minutes later we broke clear from the cover of the forest and saw a moonlit strip of asphalt winding away like a dirty black scrape across the whitening landscape.

The snow was falling in earnest and about an inch or so had now accumulated on the ground. The road didn't look to have been plowed yet, but it had obviously been salted sometime in the recent past and the snow didn't stick, melting into the tire-rutted gray slush. No cars could be seen and everything was almost eerily silent, muffled in that way that only a fresh snowfall could create.

We climbed up the frosty embankment towards the roadway in silence. I think Trent and I were both torn between hoping we were near Cincy and dreading it because we didn't know what that might mean. Maybe it really would have been better if we'd just been dropped in Iceland or Antarctica or something ... at least all we'd have to have done then is find a way to stay alive until we could get out and get home. I stopped on the slushy gravel shoulder, but Trent took a few extra steps until he was standing on the pavement. I was wearing boots, but Trent was in loafers - poor footwear for this little jaunt indeed.

"If this is West Fork road, then Cincinnati should be that way," he inclined his head to the left, "and I-74 should be around a quarter mile further ahead." Trent started crossing the road, heading back towards the black, uninviting maw of the woods on the other side. I hurried after him, catching his arm and stopping him in the middle of the deserted street.

"Whoa, whoa, and what if it isn't?"

Trent gave me a flat look. "If we don't find the highway we can always double back."

"Or we could follow this road that way," I gestured in the direction Trent had indicated before. "And whether it does or doesn't lead to Cincy, it's bound to get somewhere eventually."

Trent frowned, seeming to consider this. "This road does not look much traveled. We've got a better chance of flagging someone down on the highway."

"If there's a highway and if we don't get lost trying to find it. I say we stick to the road we've already found. Besides, if this is West Fork, then it'll join 74 in less than a mile anyway. We'll go faster walking on the road than continuing to scramble through the woods."

Not waiting for Trent to concede the logic of my point, I started walking down the road. I drifted back towards the side but stayed on the pavement because it was easier than navigating the loose gravel on the shoulder. I couldn't explain why without sounding like a silly scaredy-cat, but I really, really didn't want to go back into the woods again. The road was lonely and quiet, but at least the larger swath of clear space gave a more open field of vision than we had in the forest. That meant we would have at least a few seconds to see and react if something came at us.

I heard Trent sigh and then the wet crunch of his footsteps as he caught up with me, picking his way carefully amid the slippery slush.

We continued on for what felt like an indeterminable amount of time, the cold and silence getting more and more oppressive with every passing minute. I couldn't feel my face or my toes anymore. I didn't want to borrow trouble, but it was hard to prevent my mind from darting from one nasty possibility to another. How awful would it be if there was no one else out there? If we weren't in the real world at all and this was merely some construct of our minds - a purgatory for just the two of us in which this road never ended and there was only silence, cold and this strange creeping dread? It would be like living in a permanent nightmare.

I could have cried for relief when the familiar sound of a car engine broke through the surreal silence and twin headlights cut around the corner, heading towards us on the opposite side of the road. They weren't going our way, but I didn't care. Waving my arms, I tried to flag them down. The car slowed for a moment and then sped up even faster. It ploughed by in the darkness with a splatter of slush a rush of air before vanishing into the night. The fact that it had slowed told me the driver had seen us, but hadn't wanted to stop.

"Jerk!" I shouted; annoyed but still feeling relieved anyway. At least there was life out there, and although I hadn't gotten much of a look at it between the darkness and glare of the headlights, the car had seemed reassuringly familiar in shape and sound. It wasn't ... oh, I don't know, some futuristic hover car for example. I glanced over at Trent and saw what might have been a similar expression of relief on his face.

That thread of optimism didn't stretch far enough to cover my frustration when the next car we saw shortly after also passed us by without an apparent flicker of remorse. They hadn't slowed, so I couldn't be sure they'd actually even seen us, but still!

"What is wrong with people?!" I grouched, in a thoroughly bad temper now. "How can you just drive by when you see people on the side of the road freezing their butts off?!"

"It's late, this is a lonely road. Not a lot of people are going to feel safe picking up two unknown hitchhikers," Trent pointed out. He had his hands pushed into his pants pockets, his breath frosting on the air. "If we're lucky, they will at least call the police."

I glowered at him. "Stop it!" I snapped. "Don't be so damn reasonable. How in the name of Tink's panties can you possibly sound so annoying reasonable when you're standing there in loafers and shirtsleeves in the snow after having been almost burned at the stake by your own people, cursed into some unknown form of exile, and have no idea of what exactly is going on – all while freezing your ass off because nobody had the decency to stop and see if we need help?!" I took a deep breath after the tangled rush of words and the cold hurt.

Adding insult to injury, Trent looked at me with worry instead of irritation. "Rachel?" he said quietly, taking a step closer. He cupped my frozen cheek in his hand. His hand was cold, but it felt warmer than my face and I shuddered. I needed to keep walking. We shouldn't stop. If we stopped, I wasn't going to be able to keep going.

I swallowed, turning my head away from Trent, but his worried look had deepened. He pulled my right hand from my pocket and gripped it, chafing it between his own, trying to work some warmth into the frozen flesh. "Rachel, you're too cold," he said quietly.

"Wow, thank you Captain Obvious," I muttered, pulling my hand away and shoving it back in my pocket. "I'm okay. We should keep going."

Trent didn't budge. "You're not okay, Rachel. You're using Jenks' swear words and making less sense than usual." His face creased in frustration as if he was trying to do something and simply couldn't. "Damn it," he muttered, finally having the decency to look pissed about something. He ran a hand through his hair. "I still can't tap a line or I could warm you."

Gritting my teeth at the possibly impending pain, I tried again as well. I didn't know Trent's warming spell, but it would have at least been comforting. I reached out for the nearest line, willing it into my chi ... and found nothing. The attempt didn't hurt anymore, but it was like being surrounded by water - I simply couldn't make a connection. Worse... I couldn't even hear or feel the lines. It was as if they were too far away or simply didn't exist at all. The yawning, empty fear that sprang to life in my stomach was almost worse than the pain would have been.

What was going on? Surely the spell should have worn off by now. Had both Trent and I been somehow magically neutered? Could we have been intentionally cut off from the lines and from magic like I had been when I was hiding from the demons using the charmed bracelet that Trent had made for me? Was that the kind of exile we were dealing with? The thought made my breathing speed up painfully.

The deep purr of another engine approaching from behind us cut through my haze of worry and made us both look over our shoulders. For a moment I thought the car from before had turned around and come back, but the distant shape of the headlights was different, lower to the ground and farther apart.

"Well this one's going to stop," I said determinedly, stepping right into the middle of the slushy lane and waving my arms.

"Rachel!" Trent complained in alarm, hovering by my side and ready to yank me out of the way.

I ignored him. I wasn't stupid, the car was plenty far away to see us and stop. Well... okay maybe not plenty far, but ... far enough ... right?

"Hey!" I waved my arms. "Hey! Stop!"

The distance between us and the car turned out to be a lot less than I had judged. The vehicle covered it quickly, braking hard as it approached. Tires ground and skidded in protest on the slippery asphalt but it didn't fishtail, speaking to either the good construction of the car or the skill of the driver. The headlights were blinding after the long dark of the woods and I could make out little about the vehicle besides its long, sleek shape. It was a big car, but not SUV type big, more like classic Americana big. It rolled to a halt a mere few feet away, snowflakes dancing in the headlight beams.

Shading my eyes with my hand and blinking, I moved out of the direct glare of the headlights and towards the driver's side of the vehicle. I heard the crunch of Trent's shoes behind me as he followed. From this angle I could now see that the car was a big, black, pre-Turn vintage model of some sort. I took that as another hopeful sign that we weren't in the year 2500 or something.

The driver's window was already down and between the moonlight and the dim interior dash lights I could just make out a young man with short dark hair who looked to be somewhere around Trent's and my age. He was wearing a leather jacket and one elbow of it rested on top of the car door as he leaned out to talk to me.

"Lady, you should be careful jumping in front of cars like that. This isn't a real good place to be hitching," he drawled with a jaunty grin that managed to be friendly and yet wary at the same time. His features were a nice mix of both smooth and angled lines that worked well together.

Beyond the driver, I could see the shape of a second, larger man in the passenger seat. I felt a little ping of caution and hoped we weren't making a mistake. Getting mugged by a couple of traveling axe murderers would be a very inauspicious way to end this particular little adventure. Still, I felt relatively sure that even without our magic, Trent and I could hold our own against a couple of humans if we needed to ... if they were human, of course. I couldn't get a good scent of them from here, not with the distance and the exhaust from the idling car.

"Ya' think?" I shot back sarcastically before I could stop myself, hands going to my hips. I know I should probably try to be a little more charming since we were hoping to bum a ride, but I was cold, tired and not in a terribly good mood.

The driver's gaze caught on my bloody hands and the smudges on my face before darting over my shoulder to Trent, probably noticing his bloodied head and shirt. The man's expression didn't change, but the impression of concern vying with even greater wariness intensified and his body seemed to subtly tighten. His right shoulder dipped a little, like he was maybe moving his hand on the gear shift, or adjusting something on the seat beside him that I couldn't see from this angle. I hoped he wasn't going to just take off.

"Hey, you two okay?" he asked instead, his gaze darted about with a searching expression, checking the tree line on either side of the road quickly before refocusing on Trent and me.

"We were in an accident. Our car went off the road some ways back," Trent lied smoothly from behind me. "We're all right, but would greatly appreciate a ride into town."

"It's kind of freezing out here," I added, aiming for a slightly more winning attitude than before. Giving the driver what I hoped was an innocent and relatively charming smile; I pushed my hands back into my coat pockets again. I didn't have to fake my shivering. It was freezing.

Trent and I hadn't discussed making up a story, but I had to agree with his apparent assessment that the rather bizarre truth would not be the best option at this juncture. The less these people knew, the better it would probably be for them as well as for us.

The man behind the wheel hesitated for just a beat, glancing across at the shadowy shape of his companion. They seemed to achieve some unspoken agreement, because the driver turned back to us and gave a one shouldered shrug. The elbow on the window shifted as he moved that hand back to the steering wheel and his other arm once again moved inside the car like he was shifting something on his lap, or maybe the car had a clutch.

"Sure," he said, gracing us with another one of those rather attractive bad boy smiles and nodding his head towards the rear passenger door. "Hop in."

"Thanks!" I said with a smile of genuine relief, quickly stepping forward and sliding my fingers under the cold metal of the old-fashioned door handle. I pulled the door open and the interior lights came on. The man in the passenger seat was leaning over into the back, in the process of pulling what looked like a knapsack and a tan coat off the rear seat behind him.

"I'll just get these out of your way," he said, giving me a smile as I ducked into the car. I could now see that he was roughly the same age as his companion, taller, but maybe a little younger. Or maybe it only seemed that way because his expression appeared a little more open and his smile a little less guarded.

"You don't have to, it's fine," I assured as I slid across the back seat to make room for Trent. "I can ride with my knees by my chin if it means not walking anymore." The inside of the car was blessedly warm and cozy after the frigid outside temperatures and I felt the delightful warmth of the heater start to seep into me like bliss. Right at the moment I didn't care if they were traveling bandits or hatchet men, as long as I could get warm for a few minutes.

The front seats were built bench style, like the back, something you only really saw in older cars. Despite its age however, I noted that the inside of the vehicle seemed very well maintained and the engine was a warm, throaty rumble. This was a classic, not a beater.

"Don't worry about it," the man in the passenger seat replied easily as he settled the items he'd retrieved on the front seat, quickly flopping the coat down between he and the driver, on top of whatever else was already there. Twisting a little and crunching up what sounded like empty snack bags, he shifted the knapsack down into the wheel well by his feet. The corner of a laptop peeked out from beneath the open flap of the pack as he settled it beneath his long legs.

"We just travel with a lot of junk. Road trip, you know," he added with an apologetic shrug, his gaze shifting between me and Trent as the elf slid into the car behind me. The man's brown hair was on the long side and when he tilted his head it hung around his face in a distinctly attractive manner that was only accentuated by his gentle smile. Damn, I was in a car full of cute guys and I looked like shit.

Trent pulled the door shut and the inside of the car plunged back into dimness once more. The driver shifted gears and eased the vehicle back into motion. The radio was on, but it had been turned down so low it was only a background murmur. The driver reached over now and turned it back up, filling the car with the strains of a song I didn't recognize.

"The spinning roulette wheel,
the laugh of the gods,
the odds are so good now,
but the goods are all very odd..."

The car had a lived-in quality that made me think someone spent a lot of time in it; the interior possessing the soft, distinct smell of a well-used vehicle. Accentuated by the heater warming everything up, the faint bouquet was a mix of stale chips, fast food, laundry, metal, grease and dash polish along with other, less definable scents. Mix that with the faint smell of cinnamon and wine coming from Trent beside me and it was hard to get a real good whiff of either of our new companions, but I was still favoring the idea that they were human. They certainly weren't vampires and they didn't really look or act like elves. The driver could have been a were. He had the right kind of build for it - compact, lean, solid and muscular ... but I didn't think he was. With the heater on like this, if either of the men was a werewolf or a witch the car would quickly have become saturated with the scent of their race; kind of like it was becoming saturated with Trent's scent and probably my own, although you could never really smell yourself. All in all, they were probably human.

"So where were you folks headed?" The driver asked, glancing at Trent and me in the rearview. He looked very comfortable behind the wheel, one hand on the steering wheel, the other down either resting on his lap or the seat beside him.

"Cincinnati," I replied automatically, then wondered if I should have since we still didn't know where we actually were.

The driver merely bobbed his head. "Well, how about that? Us too. So what happened to your car?"

I felt a whirl of mixed feelings churn in my gut at the casual confirmation that we were in fact close enough to Cincy for them to be heading there as well. What did it mean? I looked over at Trent and he gave me a very small shrug, his face unreadable in the dim light.

"There was a deer in the road," Trent answered the man's question, his slightly distracted tone telling me his mind was working away at our situation and he was a little more worried than he was letting on.

"Deer, mm," the man replied. "You sure it was a deer?"

My brows furrowed at the somewhat odd question. I my face and hands were starting to prickle with pins and needles and the uncomfortable warmth that followed having been too cold for too long. At least the rapid return of feeling probably meant they weren't frostbitten.

Trent frowned. "Well it looked like a deer, what else would it be?"

The driver smiled a funny kind of smile. "Right, what else? It's just, we've been driving this way for a while and I'm pretty sure I'd remember seeing dead Bambi on the side of the road."

The man's tone was conversational, but he sure asked a lot of questions. I was beginning to wonder if he thought we'd run someone over or something. The odd intensity of his inquiry kind of annoyed me, although perhaps only because we were having to lie through our teeth. Or at least, Trent was.

Trent shrugged. "I'm happy to report that the deer is fine, although there's a tree that wasn't so lucky," he said sarcastically. "We swerved to avoid the deer and went off the road and down the embankment. It was pretty steep; I doubt you'd see it from the road. It's going to be a bitch to get it towed out," he mumbled under his breath, sounding every inch the put-out businessman who had just lost his favorite Porsche. Trent was almost scary good at this. I practically believed him.

"So you two haven't seen anything ... unusual, out there?" The passenger prompted, his question pitched more earnest and innocent than his companion's tone, but no less oddly intense. In the background, the radio thrummed on, providing a contradictory element of normalcy to this increasingly abnormal conversation.

"Just think what you can do,
you can turn it around,
you do what you have to,
and you will be standing your ground..."

"Unusual, like ...?" I prompted, brows furrowing. A faint prickling sensation started along the back of my neck, and it had nothing to do with my warming body. Truthfully, we'd seen some pretty darn unusual things out there, but none that these men could have any knowledge of ... right? So what were they fishing after? I felt uneasy, but wasn't sure why. Did this have anything to do with that feeling I'd had of being watched?

"Well, you see ..." the passenger looked down, giving a very charming embarrassed expression that when coupled with his floppy hair made him look almost boyish despite his size. "There have been some stories lately about ... odd people seen on the road out here, and a number of motorists have disappeared along this stretch. We just wondered if you'd seen anything."

"Or hit anything, maybe. Anything two-legged." the driver put in.

The passenger gave the driver a look that seemed to be telling him to shut up.

"All I saw was a deer, a tree and a lot of stars," Trent said coolly. I could tell he was also annoyed and growing suspicious. "No Bigfoot or rabid werewolves to speak of."

"I ..." I hesitated, having started to speak before I thought it through. I should have kept my mouth shut because I was going to sound stupid, but then again, maybe it wouldn't hurt to give these men a little something and see where they went with it. Both of them had already stiffened expectantly. They were definitely fishing for something, and seemed to think that maybe we were too afraid or too guilty to tell them.

"I did feel like we were being watched," I said finally, refusing to meet Trent's inquiring gaze. I held my head like I was looking out the window instead, but I was really watching the two in the front seat for their reactions. "But it was probably just that feeling you have when you're alone at night in a dark, unfamiliar place, right?"

"Sure, of course. I'm sure you've had a pretty rough night," the man in the passenger seat agreed reasonably and just a little too quickly. He didn't believe it was nothing, but he was happy to let me believe it was. Interesting.

"How many have disappeared?" I asked, my interest and curiosity both piqued. "And what did you mean by odd people?"

There was silence for a moment, the song on the radio beginning its last chorus.

"Tomorrow the world will seem a little clearer,
The planets align and all will be revealed ..."

"Eight so far ..." he finally replied, a small note of suspicion curling about his words. "You haven't seen it on the news? It's been a pretty big story the past couple days."

"If it wasn't on the shopping channel, she wouldn't have noticed. I only read the financial section," Trent drawled in a bored tone and I elbowed him sharply in the ribs. Yes, he was very convincing, but I did not appreciate being made out to be the ditzy bimbo in this scenario.

"Hey!" I said indignantly.

Trent gave me a squint-eyed glower of protest and rubbed his ribs. "What? You'd rather tell them we've been too ... ah ... preoccupied the past few days to pay attention to the news?"

The men in the front seat exchanged amused looks and I felt my face flame, the sensation almost painfully hot when piled atop my already tingling skin. Oh. My. God. I was going to kill Trent when we got out of this car. Swear to God, I was going to kill him.

"Shut. Up. Now." I whispered to him through clenched teeth.

Trent had the gall to smile at me, although I thought I saw at least a flicker of well-warranted wariness in his eyes.

Oh yeah, laugh it up cookie fart. Your ass is so mine.

"So, you want to fill us in on what we've been missing?" I asked the pair in the front seat sourly, glaring at both of them as if I could laser the half-smiles right off their faces. The tall one in the passenger seat tried to stop smiling. The shorter one in the driver's seat didn't bother.

"The Police have found four abandoned cars on the side of the road or in ditches over the past couple days," the driver told us. "There's blood in the cars, but no bodies and no trace yet of what happened to any of the occupants. A few drivers have also reported near collisions with strange looking, bloody people allegedly wandering around in the road or jumping in front of cars ... kinda like you did." The man flashed that hundred watt smile at me in the mirror.

"Hey, are you saying I'm strange looking?" I shot back, although I couldn't shake how very weird this all was. Their questions made more sense now, at least. Was any of this at all related to our situation, or was this something completely different? Or were these guys just yanking our chain for kicks? My eyes narrowed suspiciously. "And is any of that really true, or are you making it up to scare the bejebers out of us? 'Cause it's not working."

"I don't know, it's kind of working," Trent put in dryly from beside me, making me grin despite myself and making the driver laugh.

"Not trying to creep you out, honest," the man in the passenger seat promised. "But you see how when you told us you'd had an accident, so much like the other reports and the people who disappeared ... we just wondered."

I could see that, I supposed, although I wondered if they'd been thinking we might be some almost-victims, or possible perpetrators. Maybe they themselves hadn't been sure, although that made me wonder why they'd picked us up. Maybe they figured they could handle us if we were carjackers or something. This whole situation gave me an uneasy feeling.

"Yeah, I guess that makes sense," I allowed, not yet completely ready to believe they weren't pulling some frat-boy gag on us. "Would explain why nobody would stop for us anyway," I added sourly. "So where are you two going and why'd you pick us up, seeing as how we might be serial killing highway boogymen?" I felt we'd answered about enough questions, it was definitely their turn.

The two men in the front seat exchanged glances. They did that a lot, I was starting to notice.

"Told you, we're heading for Cincinnati," the driver said easily. "Got a lead on a job. And I figure if you want to jump me ... I might just enjoy that." He gave me a suggestive wink over his shoulder. "Some things are worth dying for, you know?"

I rolled my eyes, although I had to admit that something about his eyes and smile made the incredibly lame pass a little less lame than it rightfully should have been.

Beside me, Trent looked annoyed. "So what kind of work do you do?" he inquired flatly.

"We're mechanics," the passenger answered.

"That explains the car," I thought. If they were traveling in search of a job, it might also explain the odd, inexplicable feeling I had like they had their whole life packed up in here with them.

"I'm Rachel," I said, only now realizing that we'd somehow skipped the introduction phase what with the all the unexpected questions. "He's Trent," I added, nodding at the elf in question when he did not appear inclined to offer that information himself.

"Dean," the driver returned the introduction in kind. He tilted his head sideways towards the man in the passenger seat. "And this is my brother, Sam."

Chapter Text

I was relieved when the darkness of the woods outside the window gave way to street lights and heavier traffic once the smaller road joined the interstate and even more relieved to see the grey-pink streaks of dawn starting to lighten the horizon. Yet as we delved deeper into Cincinnati, I felt my unease begin to return for a different reason.

Something wasn't right. No ... a lot of things weren't right. I didn't notice it at first, but once we were deeper into the city, on roads I had traveled my whole life, I could no longer ignore it. I started double-checking street signs to be sure, but either I was seriously turned around, or something was seriously wrong with Cincy.

There was a bakery on a corner that should have had a gas station. A cafe instead of the spell shop I had often frequented. A factory that had been torn down five years ago was somehow standing again, parking lot already half full of the early shift workers' cars. Someone also seemed to have changed out all the billboards and road-way advertising. They were touting products and politicians I had never seen before. My heart began to beat faster, a clammy chill working through me. I felt like that guy in "It's a Wonderful Life", returning to a town he thought he knew, only to find everything just a little wrong.

I looked over at Trent, wondering if he had noticed the same thing, but not wanting to ask such a strange question outright while in mixed company. "I don't remember that cafe being there," I said instead, trying for conversational.

"The city has certainly ... changed, since we were last here," Trent agreed, and I could see in the flat look on his face and the tense set to his jaw that I wasn't losing my mind. He saw the differences too.

"You said your hotel was down this way, right?" Dean asked us as he took a right turn with traffic. We'd told the brothers that they could leave us at the first gas station with a payphone and that was fine, but they had insisted on taking us to our destination, so Trent had rattled off a familiar hotel, apparently unwilling to give them either of our home addresses. I had the faint impression that Sam and Dean weren't necessarily going out of their way just to be neighborly and I wondered if they wanted to see if our story checked out, or wanted to keep an eye on us a little longer. Maybe they still weren't convinced we weren't part of some carjacking ring or something. Whatever the case, I wasn't complaining about a warm car ride into the city.

"Yes," Trent confirmed, although I could see the worried knot in his brow and guessed he was wondering if the hotel was actually going to be there or not.

"Hey, you want to clean up a little before we get there?" Sam asked, retrieving some unused fast-food napkins from the floor by his feet.

I looked down at my hands, now crusted with my own dried blood and grimaced. We'd scare people half to death with the way we looked and since we didn't actually want to have to report an accident that hadn't happened, cleaning up sounded like a pretty darn good idea. "That would be great, thanks."

Sam pulled a silver flask out of his pocket and uncapped it, pouring some of the contents on to the wadded napkins before passing it back to me. I wasn't thrilled at the prospect of smelling like alcohol and blood at the same time, but when I took the wet mass from him I found that it was only water.

Who kept water in a hip flask? Shrugging inwardly, I gratefully wiped my hands with the wet towels, trying to get as much of the blood off as I could without the paper shredding and coming apart too badly. I had mixed results, but it was better than nothing.

I saw both Sam and Dean watching us in the rearview as I scrubbed my hands and Sam wet another wad of napkins and handed them to Trent. Trent accepted, dabbing at his forehead and trying to comb his hair straight with his fingers.

I made a face at the tacky feeling of my fingers sticking together. Unfortunately, all I'd managed to do was make the dried blood on my hands sticky again and mingle it with rolled up little cruds of paper napkin. It felt disgusting. "Hey, um, can I borrow the water for a minute?" I asked.

Sam shrugged and handed me the flask. I noticed it had a gothic cross pattern engraved on either side. I was surprised to realize that the flask didn't just look silver, it actually was silver, or at least I was pretty sure it was. It tingled slightly in my fingers like silver did. Thinking something like that must cost a lot, I held it tightly so I wouldn't drop it as I rolled down the window and held my hands out of the car, rinsing them in turns under a trickle of water from the flask. It wasn't perfect, but it was definitely better.

Shaking my hands dry and rolling the windows back up, I tried to ignore the pain in my torn wrists. I wet my fingers with a little more water to wipe away the smudges of blood I knew were on my face and then leaned over to look in the rearview mirror to confirm I'd gotten them all. I found Sam and Dean still watching. Yeah, that wasn't at all creepy.

"Got any more napkins?" I asked with forced cheerfulness. Sam obligingly handed me back the remainder of the stash and I dabbed my face dry before turning to Trent. He'd done a pretty good job of cleaning his forehead and temple, but had missed a trail of dried blood that ran down his jaw just under his ear.

Trent looked distastefully at the wet, bloodstained, shredding napkins like they were ... well, wet, shredding napkins stained with blood. "Why is it that every time I'm in the back seat of a car on a road trip with you, I end up bleeding and needing to clean up with paper napkins?" he muttered.

I grinned despite myself, struck by the memory of our mostly disastrous little cross-country road trip a few years back. That was right before Lucy had entered Trent's life. He had changed so much since then ... maybe I had too, a little. Life was such a funny thing.

"I don't know, you must just be a trouble magnet, Trent," I said brightly, earning me a wry look. Wetting another napkin, I handed Trent the flask to hold and used the moistened towel to wipe away the red stains on his jaw and neck. I noticed that the way he'd arranged his hair, it covered the tops of his pointed ears, making him look like the human he'd been passing himself off as for most of his life. Trent had been out as an elf for over a year now, but either old habits died hard, or he was simply taking extra precautions due to the uncertainty of our current situation. I'd always thought Ivy was an obsessive planner, but Trent seemed to have covering his bases down to an art form. Most of the time it was annoying. Occasionally it was useful.

A bruise was starting to form on Trent's cheekbone and I tried to tilt his head to get a better look at it, but he pulled away from me with mild annoyance. Handing the flask back to Sam, Trent neatly bundled up the used, wet napkins inside of a couple of dry ones and set them aside on the seat.

In the front seat, I saw the two brothers exchange glances as Sam pocketed his flask. Sam raised his eyebrows slightly and shrugged. Dean cocked his head and gave a one-shouldered shrug as if agreeing with whatever unspoken thing was passing between them. The body language of both men seemed markedly more relaxed now, and I had the oddest feeling that Trent and I had passed some kind of test, although I couldn't imagine what.

"The hotel is just down there. Anywhere here is fine," Trent said, glancing out the window and looking a little relieved to see the familiar edifice of the ten story building looming ahead, glass windows glinting in the early morning sun light. "Once we get checked in and changed, we can call someone about the car," he added, ostensibly to me, but I knew it was for the benefit of our good Samaritans.

I just nodded, not really seeing that it mattered much what they thought at this point, but content to let Trent play cloak and dagger if that rocked his boat. I just wanted to get out of this car and to a phone. I wanted to call Ivy and Jenks ... and I was more than a little terrified of what would happen when I did.

Dean pulled the car up to the curb in front of the hotel, engine idling as Trent and I quickly slid out of the backseat. I carefully grabbed up all the soiled napkins to take with us as we got out. Not so much out of a compulsion for neatness as because I was simply always wary of leaving anything lying about that could be used as a focusing object.

The cold air was bracing after the long, muzzy warmth of the car and it helped me shake off a little of the weariness that was tugging at the edges of my endurance.

"Thanks so much for your help and the ride," I told the two brothers through the rolled down window after we'd shut the door. I was tired and hurting, but nervous energy was bouncing in my stomach, warring with the tightening knots of dread in my stomach that I was struggling not to show.

"No problem," Sam said with a smile. "Glad we could help."

"You two stay safe. Stay away from any more creepy deserted night time roads and ninja Bambi's!" Dean called over as he shifted gears and pulled away, the long sleek shape of the car disappearing into the flow of morning traffic.

I pushed my hands in my pockets and headed quickly across the concrete towards the hotel. We weren't checking in, of course, but they would probably have pay phones somewhere inside. When I reached the glass doors, I froze as I was confronted with the reflection of the Cincinnati skyline behind me, painted in the clear golden strokes of morning light.

I whirled around, nearly running smack into Trent who had been following behind me. He stepped back quickly, frowning at the look on my face and turning to see what I was staring at. The familiar edifice of Carew Tower was clearly visible from here.

I swallowed hard. "Trent ... the restaurant's gone," I said stupidly, feeling numb with shock. I don't know why this one thing stood out from all the rest, but maybe some part of me had still been telling myself that I was just turned around and imagining all the other little inconsistencies I'd been seeing. But this... there was no mistaking this. Carew Tower looked just like it had every other time I'd seen it ... except that the revolving restaurant at the top was clearly missing. Not missing like it had been destroyed ... missing like it had never been built in the first place.

I heard Trent draw his breath in sharply beside me.

The juxtaposition of familiar and unfamiliar was beyond unnerving. It was like looking at reality from the Ever After, only more disturbing. Caught by that thought, I quickly brought up my second sight.

I saw nothing.

Panic flooded me, hot and biting. For a minute, I thought maybe I just couldn't do it in the same way I still couldn't find a line, but no, that wasn't it. It wasn't that I truly saw nothing, I simply didn't see what I expected to see. I felt my hair start floating and I could see the auras of the people passing by us. What I didn't see was the wash of red to which I was accustomed. What I didn't see was the broken, decaying landscape of the Ever After superimposed over the image of reality.

The shock hit me hard and I stumbled sideways, catching myself against the door with one hand. "It's not there," I whispered, dropping my second sight and trying to make sense of all this.

"Rachel?" Trent's hand was on my shoulder, his voice concerned. I met his eyes, shaking my head in disbelief. "The Ever After. It's not there."

The sinking feeling in my gut becoming painful, I whirled on my heel and pushed my way quickly through the lobby doors. Ignoring the bell man who tried to greet me, I almost ran towards the restrooms and the bank of shiny, deserted payphones that could be seen lining the hall towards them.

Fumbling through my coat pockets for change, I scrounged up enough to feed the black and chrome machine and call Ivy at the church. The phone said the number was out of service. Ivy's cell rang through to a floral shop. Jenks' was answered by an Asian woman who hung up on me when I insisted she tell me where she got the phone. I tried to dial my Mom, but the annoying recorded voice demanded that I insert more change, which I didn't have. Hands shaking, I slammed the phone down hard on the cradle ... then did it again for good measure. I was thinking of going for a third time when Trent's hand closed over mine and guided the object of my wrath back to its resting place with more gentleness than the piece of crap technology deserved.

"Rachel, calm down, people are looking," he said quietly.

"Calm down?!" I bristled angrily, although hey, I wasn't stupid, I was keeping my voice down ... mostly. "Trent, have you not noticed that we woke up in the freaking Twilight Zone this morning? This city is wrong. The ley lines are gone, the Ever After is gone and I really, really need to call my Mom."

"You can't, Rachel." Trent choose to focus on the last part of my tirade. Grabbing my arm, he pulled me further into the hallway, out of sight of the lobby.

"Yeah, because the rates these phones charge is just highway robbery!" I seethed, the anger only barely covering my fear as I yanked my arm away from him. I'd been worried about being displaced in time ... but this? I wasn't even sure what this was yet, but it felt worse.

"That's not what I mean. You know your mother is not going to answer. No one else has, have they?"

I stared at the elf, my eyes narrowing. "You got something you want to share with the class, Trent? You know something about what is going on here? Because if so, you'd better spill it quick, I am not in the mood for any of your cryptic games. "

Trent sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I don't know anything more than you do, but from what we've seen so far, I think it's fair to assume that we are not in ... " he paused, seeming to search for a suitable word or phrase. "Not in our Cincinnati," he finally finished, his brows furrowing.

I frowned at him. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

Trent looked frustrated. "How in the Turn should I know?" he said quietly, but with a decided bite of irritation in his tone. "All I'm saying is that the dates on the papers in the vending machines outside are correct, but so many other things aren't. There's too much different, too much wrong for us to be able to assume that we are in fact in the same city that we were in yesterday."

I nodded sourly, agreeing that far. "It's like when they put a city you know in a movie and get the major land marks right, but mess up on the details," I concurred.

"This is like our world, but ..." Trent ran his hand through his hair. It was one of his tells and I realized that beneath his reasonable facade, he was every bit as disturbed as I was. "Well, I suppose your Twilight Zone analogy fits as well as any."

I knew that, I just didn't want to face it. Didn't want to believe it, and I bit back a wave of anger at him for forcing me to look at something I didn't want to see. I knew that wasn't fair or logical, but I was tired, hurting, and emotionally run out. I took several deep breaths and tried to think more coherently.

Reaching for one of the huge, brick sized phone books, I hoisted it out of its slot beneath the phone. Flopping it open, I started flipping through the "K" section, scanning for any of the multiple listings that should have existed for Kalamack Industry's offices and related businesses.

Trent looked over my shoulder, apparently guessing what I was doing. I could feel his tenseness behind me.

There were no Kalamacks in the directory. The only thing we found that was even close was a Kalmack Dry Cleaning shop down town and a Kalamatas Greek restaurant in the suburbs. I couldn't find Vampiric Charms' listing either. Just as strange, I didn't see a single ad or listing for any of the hosts of Inderland specific services I was used to seeing in the phone book. The maps in the center of the book didn't even list the Hollows.

I snapped the heavy tome shut in disgust. Phone numbers and maps didn't mean that much. Places were harder to do away with. My heart clenching, I turned and strode back towards the doors.

"Where are you going?" Trent's hand on my arm stopped me before I got more than a few paces and I frowned at him.

"Home," I said firmly.

Something crossed Trent's face, but he wisely didn't argue with me. Instead he drew his breath in slowly and then let it out. "All right," he said. "But perhaps we should wash up a little better first. No offence to paper napkins, but I believe we could do better." He nodded meaningfully towards the restroom signs and I looked down at the blood still under my finger nails and staining Trent's shirt.

"Okay," I agreed reluctantly, struggling with the a burning need to get moving and find answers. "We wash up, and then we go."

I washed my hands and face in the restroom, wincing as I washed out the scabbing wounds on my wrists before shrugging back into my coat. The washing part was quick, the going part not so much. Trent and I swiftly realized that we had no transportation and no money. I didn't have my purse, Trent didn't have his wallet and even when we talked one of the girls behind the front desk into letting us borrow her phone with a tale of car accidents, lost luggage and other whoa, Trent had no more luck calling anyone he knew than I had.

When I saw the same woman break a $100 for one of the other guests while we were using the phone, I began to wonder if it would have done us any good even if we had had our personal effects. The bills she handed the man were either in a foreign currency, or they were as subtly wrong as the rest of the city because they didn't look quite like the dollars I was used to.

Fortunately, wealthy people and their penchant for ridiculously expensive watches turned out to be a universal constant and after a while we were able to find a pawn shop within walking distance that took Trent's Rolex in exchange for enough money for us to get by for a couple days, if we were careful. I hoped we weren't going to need to get by on it for that long, but the truth of our situation was eating away at the wall of denial I was trying to hold onto like slow acting acid.

Trent divvied up the wrong-looking dollars, dividing the amount in half. He tucked one half into his pocket and handed the other to me. "In case we get separated," he said simply when I hesitated to accept it.

He had a point, and I took the money. The shape and color was right, but the pictures and text were wrong. It looked like play money to me and I felt weird as I put it in my coat pocket.

We got Trent a jacket and a hat at the run down little thrift shop that sat adjacent to the pawn shop. The garments were clean and fairly new. Trent looked at them like they might crawl away on their own, but made no complaint. We both knew we had better make our money stretch as far as possible until we knew more about what was going on. The jacket hid the blood on his shirt and the pin-striped fedora hid his ears. No one had yet noticed or commented, but it was better safe than sorry. Thus outfitted, we looked deceptively normal and fit in just fine in this city that we didn't really fit into at all.

We argued briefly about taking a cab versus the bus. Trent seemed to think that busses were some strange and foreign third world invention made for homeless people and eco-conscious hippies. I pointed out that they were also a lot cheaper than taking a cab, but didn't fight the point very hard. The truth was that I didn't want to wait around for a bus either.

It was only a short cab ride from the hotel to my church. I got out of the cab and quickly made my way down the sidewalk towards it while Trent settled up with the driver. It was there. It looked just the same as it always had, and my heart leapt despite my better judgment. For one moment, I thought there was a chance that I'd get up the steps, open the door and find that everything was okay ... then I saw the worn, lettered sign out front advertising the Sunday worship hours and a Pre-K daycare program.

My steps slowed as I approached. The building was the same, but the door was different. From this angle I could glimpse the back yard and see that where the garden should be was a fenced in area holding a children's playground and an assortment of brightly colored plastic toys.

I stopped at the base of the stairs, next to a trash can and recycling bin set out for collection. I could bring myself to go no further. This was the right building, but it wasn't my church. It wasn't my home.

"I'm sorry, Rachel," Trent's voice beside me made me jerk and turn to him. "Do you want to go in?"

The look on Trent's face said this was more or less exactly what he'd expected to find. If I were honest, so had I, but it still hit me hard. I shook my head, shoving my hands in my pockets. "It's probably locked up between services," I mumbled. That wasn't the reason, of course. I just couldn't bring myself think about going in through that familiar doorway and finding my living room still full of pews, my life completely displaced and erased.

I glanced sideways at Trent, trying not to feel too depressed and attempting to figure out what to do now. "You want to try your place?" I asked.

Trent shook his head. "There's no point. It's clear that wherever we are, we don't exist here. Neither, it seems, do most of the people we know."

"Yeah," I agreed. "How is that even possible, anyway? I mean, are we really saying we think we're in like ... some other version of earth? Like another dimension or something?" That sounded ridiculous, even saying it. It sounded like every bad, cheesy sci-fi movie Ivy and I had ever made fun of. I shook my head.

"What if none of this is real?" I asked, thinking that sounded a lot more likely. "What if this is like my kitchen and us making cookies when you were trying to get my soul back in my body?"

Trent looked away, and I wasn't sure if it was because of the particular events I was referring to, or because he didn't have an answer. Maybe both.

"Does it matter?" he said softly, and I could hear the weariness and defeat beneath his tone now. "Does it matter what reality is, if we're trapped either way?"

I had to admit, it didn't seem to at the moment. "Exile," I thought morosely. "Have I told you lately how much I hate wild magic?"

Trent smiled thinly.

I let my breath out slowly and pushed my tangled and probably god-awful mess of hair back out of my face. Standing around feeling sorry for ourselves wasn't going to get us anywhere. We knew the problem, now we needed to start working on the solution. "Well, real or not, there's got to be a way out. It dumped us here with our bodies for a reason, and if there's a way, then we're just going to have to find it."

Trent nodded and I could clearly see his determination, but I could also see a wary note of hesitation in his face.

"What?" I demanded. I knew Trent wanted to get back as badly as I did, maybe even more so. He hadn't said anything, but I knew he was worried about Lucy, Ray and Quen and what kind of trouble Ellasbeth's actions had stirred up.

Trent shook his head. "It's nothing, just ... be careful putting too much trust in anything you heard," he warned. "If the goddess exists, she's called a trickster for a reason. The story books are full of people broken for her amusement."

"Comforting," I said sarcastically. He knew he was right, but it was still the best and only lead we had. "Just about as comforting as the fact that even if we can find a spell to get us home, I still can't tap a line since they don't seem to exist here. What about you?"

Trent shook his head. "I keep trying. Nothing. No luck with wild magic either," he admitted with a frown. "Which is strange, because it should work independent of the lines. The thing is, I can feel it, I just can't get it to acknowledge me."

I squinted questioningly at him and he shrugged. "I tried several times in the woods and in the bathroom earlier. I'm doing the spells right, but they won't invoke. The magic tastes different, like the difference in the west coast lines versus the ones we're used to. I don't know how else to explain it."

"Great," I sighed. "I wonder if earth magic even works here or if this is some kind of giant magical dead zone."

Trent shrugged. "It's possible. Have you noticed the completely lack of any inderland activity? I've seen nothing but humans since we got here."

I nodded, and something in the recycle bin beside me on the curb caught my attention. Bending, I picked up a glossy restaurant direct mail flyer from atop a pile of similar mail advertising and crumpled newspapers. The flyer was emblazoned with the restaurants' name and location followed by a row of coupons that touted gourmet pizza delivery as well as a bar and fine dining experience. It was the name at the top of the flyer that caught my attention. Holy crap. Was it a coincidence? Seemed like a pretty big one.

"Well, maybe we should go here and see if that continues to hold true or not," I said, turning the bit of paper towards Trent so he could see that I was holding an advertising flyer for Pizza Piscary's.

Our morning's adventures had taken longer than I realized and by the time we reached Piscary's the sun was already high and edging towards noon.

Like my church, Piscary's was a disturbing mix of familiar and foreign. There was no MPL license on display, but otherwise the downstairs portion of the restaurant looked fairly identical to the way it had looked when I first went there some years back, before the changes Kisten had tried to make.

Except of course, for the fact that the patrons were all human and there were a lot more families present, making the downstairs portion of the restaurant seem more like casual family dining than a bar. Although that might only be because of how early in the day it was. The restaurant had just opened and was only beginning to fill with an early lunch time crowd, but seeing even this many humans sitting around eating pizza - tomato sauce and everything - was nothing short of weird.

"We'd need to find a history book to be sure, but I'll give you good odds that there has been no T4 virus in this world," Trent leaned over and whispered in my ear as we chose a seat at one of the unoccupied tables in the corner. He glanced around at the patrons and then tapped his finger on the large image of a tomato and other artful fresh vegetables that adorned one corner of the table menu. It was artistically done, but it was like putting a skull and crossbones on your menu, or at least it should have been.

Spread by tomatoes, the genetically engineered T4 "Angel" virus had wiped out something like half the world's human population during the late 60's and led to the world's T4 resistant, non-human inderland population to collectively come out of the closet, an event that came to be referred to as the Turn. As a lingering result, most humans still wouldn't eat tomatoes in any form, even though they were perfectly safe again. Well ... most humans in our world.

"No Angel virus means no Turn," I agreed. "Trent, this world isn't devoid of inderlanders; they're just all still in hiding."

Trent's brows furrowed at my logical leap. "Maybe. We can't be sure of that yet."

"Yes we can." I smiled at him and nodded towards the pretty, dark-haired waitress who was approaching our table, her movements just a little too fluid, her hips swaying in a familiarly seductive sashay.

Trent followed my gaze. "Oh," he agreed simply as he too recognized the woman for what she was. It was subtle unless you knew what to look for, but to the practiced eye she was almost certainly a vampire.

"Welcome to Pizza Piscary's, can I get you two started with anything to drink?" the woman inquired pleasantly, smiling at both of us.

For a moment, I second guessed my own conclusions. Her teeth were normal; her blunt canines lacking the delicate little points sported by my friend Ivy and all the other living vampires I knew. She also intimated none of the familiar, almost expected double-entendre when asking for our drink order - although if they were in hiding, then that wasn't too surprising. As soon as I got a scent of her, however, my doubts receded. The familiar tang of vampire was clear, albeit somewhat different. She smelled less like incense and more like blood and dust.

As she left with our drink order, Trent surreptitiously scanned the restaurant before leaning forward on the table as if we were having an intimate conversation. He kept his voice pitched low. "They smell different, but they're all vampires," he murmured, nodding towards the rest of the wait staff, including another male server and a woman behind the bar. "Don't you find that a little curious?"

I considered the question. At first blush it did seem kind of odd that with so many other differences, this Piscary's should still be run by vampires just like our Piscary's was, but the more I thought about it, the less odd it was. "Not really," I finally answered. "It's no different than there being a Carew tower, or my church still being in the same place. Some things are the same, some are different. It's like that movie where what the guy changed in the past kept changing the future. If this is some kind of alternate world and not an illusion, and if here there was no virus and no Turn, there's probably a lot of things that developed differently than in our world, along with some that remained the same. However, we can't be sure that the Turn itself isn't the origin of the differences, I mean, it could go back a lot farther than that and it could be the lack of the virus is as much a symptom as a cause for the shifts."

Trent cocked a smile at me. "Why does it sound like you've thought about this kind of thing before?"

I gave him a level look. "You've never been to movie night at my place," I told him wryly. "You should try arguing plot plausibility and time travel conundrums with a pack of opinionated pixies and a bored, over-analytical vampire sometime."

Trent's smile widened playfully. "If that's an invitation, I think I'd like that."

Caught flat-footed but the sudden 90 degree turn the conversation had taken, I felt a flustered heat creep up the back of my neck for absolutely no good reason. I squinted at Trent, guessing he'd done that intentionally. "Okay, but don't say I didn't warn you. Jenks' kids may be gone, but Jenks and Ivy both talk to the screen."

"Then it's a date," Trent was still grinning at me and it made me want to smack him. Or ... maybe something else.

"Yeah, sure, if we ever actually get back," I said sourly. "Right now a day care and a choir have kind of taken over what should be my living room, you know."

I was a little relieved when the waitress showed up with our drinks and that put an end to the conversation. She flirted with Trent as she took our order but he knew better than to encourage a vampire when he had no interest in being a donor and his manner remained carefully polite and distant. I could swear she was lingering at our table longer than she needed to, but then, Trent and I did both have blood on our clothes under our coats, which wasn't a great thing to be sporting in a vampire bar. She could no doubt smell it on us clearly.

As I watched her walk away, I tried to decide how advisable it would be to see if the vampires here could connect us with whatever passed for an inderland underground in this world. On one hand, it would be good to find out more about how magic worked here, we were going to need that if we were ever to get home. On the other hand, if the inderlanders were in hiding, they might not appreciate us poking our noses in. Vampires especially had had a reputation for disappearing people who found out about them before the Turn.

While I was still weighing the pros and cons, I noticed Trent stiffen in surprise across from me. I quickly followed his gaze towards the door. When I saw the two new patrons who had just come in, my eyebrows went up. They both looked taller, now that I was seeing them standing and not seated in a car, but the men who had just walked in were unmistakably the two brothers who had given us a lift into town. Talk about coincidences.

For a fleeting moment, the paranoid thought that maybe they'd followed us flittered through my mind, but the genuine flash of surprise on their faces when they scanned the room and saw us staring at them more or less put that thought to rest.

"Well, I guess it really is a small world after all," Dean said as he and Sam angled their way through the filling tables and took one of the empty ones beside ours. He flashed a grin at me. "Not following us, are you?" It was a joke ... but maybe not entirely.

I smiled back and shrugged. "I was going to ask you the same thing. You do realize it's creepy to stalk a girl you only just met."

We all laughed politely, but I got the feeling more explanation was needed. Geez, and I thought I was paranoid. "We saw a flyer for this place at the hotel," I said, gesturing to folded set of coupons I'd taken from the recycle bin which was now sitting on the table by my elbow. "Thought we'd check it out. What about you two? Find out anything about the job?"

Sam and Dean did that exchanging looks thing, again, and Dean shrugged. "Looks pretty promising. More than one job in town, as it turns out. Probably going to be a lot of cleanup work though," he said cryptically.

"What about you two? Get your car towed okay?" Sam asked. Our waitress was on her way over with the pizza Trent and I had ordered and in my periphery vision, I saw her take note of the two new people in her section. I could swear she didn't look happy to see them. Maybe she'd been hoping for a light shift?

"No, they seem to be having some difficulty with it, but they've assured us it will be taken care of," I heard Trent saying as the waitress quickly plastered on a smile and set our pizza down on the table between us.

She gave no sign of whatever I'd seen earlier once she was at the table. She took the brothers' order in the same pleasant and intentionally flirtatious way she'd taken ours, but she got a much better response out of them. Well, out of Dean, anyway. He flirted back with well-practiced ease and I was sure his laid-back charm got him a lot of phone numbers.

I shifted uneasily in my seat as I transferred a piece of pizza from the tray onto my plate. Crap on toast. Dean probably had no notion what a bad idea this was. I was a little surprised the woman's eyes weren't dilating more. I couldn't sense emotions like a vampire though, so either she was really good at controlling her reactions, or Dean wasn't as into her as he seemed.

If the inderlanders were still in the closet, then humanity as a whole was probably as unaware of them as they'd been in the pre-Turn days of our world. That meant a life of hiding what they were, but for a predatory species like vampires, it also meant no laws governing their actions. No police force that would recognize or correctly investigate inderland related crimes. No one to hold them accountable for anything they did. There was a reason many of the older vampires missed life as it had been before the Turn.

I hadn't known the brothers long, but I felt protective of them anyway. Sam and Dean were human and therefore likely to have no idea what the pretty waitress with the nice ass actually was. That worried me, but what was I going to do? Tell them to be careful because she was a vampire and probably more interested in their blood than their bodies? Oh yeah. That would go over great.

Morosely taking a bite of pizza, I pushed aside my unease. Nothing was about to happen out here in the open, especially not if the vamps were hiding. If it looked like one of the brothers was actually going to leave with the woman, or make a date with her, I'd figure out some way to deal with the situation then.

The pizza was delicious and that distracted me from my fretting. I was immediately reminded how long it had been since I'd eaten anything and between the two of us, Trent and I had polished off most of the pie by the time the brothers' order arrived.

The waitress topped off our drinks and Trent asked for the check.

Sam and Dean kept looking around the restaurant, their gaze often following the wait staff. If they were a little shadier, I'd have said they were casing the place. They hadn't actually touched their drinks and didn't show any signs of being about to dig into their newly arrived food either, which seemed a little odd. I got this vibe from them sometimes that I wasn't sure how to explain.

I glanced over to Trent to see if he'd noticed, but Trent was just looking tired. Elves and pixies both generally slept the four hours around noon and midnight. I didn't know when Trent had last slept, but we'd been through a lot and it was getting on towards noon now, which meant his body clock was probably trying to shut him down. He was rubbing the bridge of his nose wearily, but quickly stopped and acted like he wasn't tired at all when he saw me watching.

Cleaning my fingers on my napkin and rising, I excused myself to use the restroom while we waited for our bill. It took me a minute to find it because it wasn't where I had expected it to be. I finally located the washrooms in the back of the restaurant, past the kitchen. Some things are the same and some are different, I reminded myself, yawning as I pushed my way inside.

My sleep schedule was different from Trent's, but considering that I would normally be just getting up around now and had instead been up all night, I wasn't feeling terribly perky either. Now that my stomach was full, my lack of sleep was starting to catch up with me. My eyes felt scratchy and my head was getting muzzy. In the restroom, I splashed cold water on my face and tried to fight back my fatigue. Trent and I were going to need to find some place to crash for a while. I was really having trouble keeping my eyes open...

The room started spinning. I had to grip the edge of the sink hard to keep from losing my place and falling either upward or downward, I wasn't sure which. With an alarmed jolt, I realized something was very wrong. I'd been dead tired before, and it didn't make me feel like this. I wasn't just sleepy. I'd been drugged.

The burst of adrenaline triggered by my panic at the realization cleared my head a little. I had all but slumped over the sink and now pushed myself up right. As my head rose, I met the dark eyes of our waitress in the mirror. She was standing behind me, smiling a very unpleasant smile. "Everything all right in here, ma'am?" she drawled in a decidedly smooth and mocking tone.

I whirled around, my hips still propped back against the sink counter for balance as I faced her, my face wrinkling into a scowl. "You drugged me!" I seethed. It had to be her, or someone in the kitchen. No one else had touched our food or drinks. I remembered how tired Trent had been looking when I left him and the panic in my gut twisted harder. Crap on toast, he'd probably been drugged too!

I felt totally stupid for letting this happen. Here I'd been worried about everyone else in the restaurant but myself, since I was actually aware of the threat, and yet here I was, the one facing down the vamp in the bathroom – without a whit of magic I could call on. Some days my luck just sucked. To be fair though, I'd never expected the vampire to drug me. Come on to me, maybe, try to draw me in with pheromones, sure ... but slip a mickey into my drink? I had a feeling I was about to learn the hard way that I couldn't expect these vamps to act like the ones with which I was familiar.

"Sure I did, sweetheart," the woman purred, still smiling at me. "You and that delectable blondie smell so good. Most of us could hardly think after you two came in." She lunged for me, but I anticipated it and was already in motion, scrambling sideways towards the door. She adjusted quickly and I felt her strong hands close about my shoulders. Shifting my hold, I brought my knee up hard into her mid-section, feeling it land with a satisfying thump that I knew had to hurt.

The woman snarled in pain and threw me into the wall with vampire swiftness. Lights exploded in my vision as my back crunched into the tile. Struggling to draw breath, I slid down the wall, the drugs making me weak and robbing my knees of the ability to support or catch me. The room was still whirling and either I was seeing double or the waitress from hell had spontaneously grown a twin.

I drew in a breath to scream, but her hand was over my mouth before I could. She clamped down painfully hard, straddling me on her knees as I slumped on the floor. I tried to bite her hand, struggling with my motor control and gripping at her arm with failing strength.

The woman snarled at me with an open mouth, her face showing clearly what she was now. Through the drugged haze clouding my thoughts, I was shocked to see a complete second set of thin, shredder-like fangs descend from her gums, over her normal teeth. What in the hell?! I had certainly never seen a vampire with teeth like this before. Apparently, the differences in this world extended far beyond buildings and historical events.

The woman's open mouth curved into a malicious smile when she saw the way my eyes widened and she mistook my surprise at her unusual dentistry for fear. "Tell me, sweetheart, are you a hunter too?"

I had no idea what she was talking about, and no way to tell her that while she was gagging me. I shook my head, but she just smiled wider. "Like you'd tell me if you were. Well, it doesn't matter. You'll tell me everything and anything I want to know, soon."

Fear and anger made my breath pant harshly against her muffling hand. This was so unfair it was ridiculous! I had faced down things a lot scarier than this woman and come out on top, but I was at a serious disadvantage here. My physical strength was being ebbed away by whatever drug she'd given me, and without any energy to power my magic, my spelling knowledge was completely useless to me. I was helpless and I hated it.

"I was going to use one of our slower acting drugs and have a couple of the boys follow you two when you left. That's what we usually do. Not good business to take people directly from the shop, you know, better to find nice dark alleyways. We've had such a good thing going here," she sighed before her expression became ugly with hate. "Then the fucking Winchesters had to show up and now we'll all have to clear out for good ... and in the middle of the lunch rush, too. We won't go empty handed though; you can be my consolation prize."

With another snarl, she jerked my head to the side, one hand still clamped over my mouth as her other yanked aside the neckline of my shirt. Some part of me registered the ugly fact that drugging, stalking and killing their patrons was a way of life for these vampires, but I barely had time to process what she was saying before I felt the hot, painful burn of her fangs sinking into my shoulder.

I screamed soundlessly into her hand, my body bucking and struggling against hers. But my struggles had no strength and every movement just made the world spin harder as it began to darken along the edges and go yellow. I had been bitten before, but this felt different. There was no pleasure around the pain of the bite. There was no seduction, no toxins pleasurably burning their working their way into my skin. This was animalistic and raw. This woman was just feeding, pure and simple. She was a shark, not a succubus.

She retracted her teeth and pulled back, her eyes cold and dead, ruby red mouth pulling up in a grin that dripped with my blood. Yes, shark fit pretty well ... I thought blearily, struggling not to pass out. We were alone in the bathroom, but I bet she had someone outside watching the door. The risk of someone walking in on us would have been pretty high otherwise.

"Mmm, I was right, you taste as good as you smell," she murmured in a throaty voice. "There's something different about your blood, but don't fret, sweetheart," she murmured. "I just wanted a taste. I'm not going to kill you." Her bloody grin widened. "I would have preferred your boyfriend, but Raymond will like you, you're his type. You're the one I could get alone, so it's your lucky day. We'll be sisters, you and I."

The woman cut open her palm with her own teeth and switched the hand she was gagging me with, pressing her injured one over my lips. I spluttered and twisted my head, tasting the bitter, metallic tang of copper as she forced her blood into my mouth. What the hell? Gross!

"Now, just be good, it'll be over soon," she crooned to me like an evil mother with a child, holding me down as I thrashed against the bathroom floor. "Then we'll take you home and you can tell us everything you know about Sam and Dean Winchester. And don't worry, even if you don't know that much, we'll find plenty of other uses for you."

I struggled harder, struck by the irony of the fact that if Sam and Dean were these Winchesters she was talking about, then she actually already knew far more about them than I did. I hadn't even known their last name. The fact that she did meant that there was probably more about the brothers than met the eye, and Trent and I had landed feet first into a giant, steaming mess of crap without realizing what we were doing. Fantastic.

The vampire laughed softly at my struggles. "But you don't understand a thing I'm saying anymore, do you? I know sweetheart, all you're going to able to think about for a while is blood. Don't worry, you do as I say and we'll take care of you, promise."

Confusion swamped me. She was talking like she could turn me, but she was clearly some kind of living vamp, not a true undead and in any case it took longer than a few minutes to infuse someone with enough of the vampire virus to make them a shadow or a ghoul. Unless of course, that was another difference between our two worlds.

Double crap on toast with a side of more crap!

From somewhere outside in the restaurant, I heard a muffled crashing sound and the vampire holding me stiffened. "Sounds like it's time to go."

Panic was icing through me again, but aside from the way my head was swimming from whatever drugs she'd given me, I didn't feel any different. In my world I could be bound by a vampire's pheromones, but I could not be turned. It wasn't possible for witches, demons or elves to become vampires. The woman gave my head a quick, brutal slam against the wall with the obvious intent of rendering me fully unconscious and I had just enough time to think how much I really, really hoped that was still true in this world too, before blackness rushed up to swallow me and I fell gracelessly into its waiting embrace.

Chapter Text

I shivered as consciousness seeped slowly back into my mind. It was cold. Must have kicked the blankets off ... I groped for them automatically, but instead of finding the edge of my bed, my arm scraped against something rough and hard. Pain flared to sudden life in my head and my limbs as if triggered by the movement, or because my brain was finally waking up enough to process it.

I winced, repressing a groan at the throbbing in my head and shoulder as I forced my eyes open quickly. The exact order of events right before I'd been knocked out were a little vague in my memory, but I remembered enough to be both surprised that I was still alive and pretty worried about why.

Something rough prickled my skin as I shifted I realized I was lying on the ground atop a thin carpet of straw. Pushing myself unsteadily up to my knees and looking around, I saw that I was inside a stall in what looked like some kind of barn or stable. The light was dim, but my eyes were already adjusted from unconsciousness. My mouth felt sticky and disgusting. I spit clumsily and saw red on the straw. Wiping my mouth hastily, I realized my lips were smeared with blood that I didn't think was mine. The vampire woman must have given me more of hers while I was unconscious. At least, I hoped that's what it was. I scrubbed my mouth with my sleeve, spitting in disgust and trying not to gag. The reek of blood was strong and it was turning my stomach.

Finally dragging myself to my feet, I held onto the wall until I was sure I had my balance. As I did, I took stock of my physical condition. My head hurt, but I didn't think I had a concussion - I knew what those felt like. My shoulder ached, but not as badly as it should have. I drew in a deep breath as I remembered the woman's teeth sinking into me and I turned my head, trying to get a look at the awkwardly placed injury. I was surprised to see that it had been bandaged, the white edges of the dressing just showing under the blood-stained edges of my shirt. I gave my shoulder an experimental roll and winced. It hurt, but I could push through it. Either she hadn't bitten me very savagely, or for some reason it was healing abnormally fast.

I didn't want to think about why the latter might be true, but I forced myself to do just that. I looked at the blood on my shirt and remembered the taste of blood in my mouth, waiting for some kind of reaction. All I felt was nauseous.

I took that as a good sign. If I'd been changed in some way, I'd feel hungry or aroused at the thought of blood, right? Not like I wanted to puke my guts out. Maybe I just hadn't been hurt as badly as I thought, or maybe the blood the woman gave me had accelerated my healing, even if it had been unable to change my already modified DNA.

I quickly felt my way around the small enclosure, looking for a way out. To my surprise, that was easier than I expected. There were two ways to access the stall. One was a doorway set into an exterior wall that was clearly bolted shut from the outside and wouldn't budge when I tried it. The other was the high gate of the stall itself, which probably let out into the rest of the barn. The gate was padlocked closed - but it was fastened from the inside, and they key was still in the lock.

I frowned as I carefully turned the key and slid the padlock free. This was weird. Whoever put me in here hadn't been trying to keep me in but rather keep others out. Why?

When I stepped cautiously out of the stall and into the barn, the first thing I realized was that the nausea I was battling wasn't just because of the blow to my head. The heavy smell of blood in the air wasn't actually coming from me. It was coming from the two bodies dangling from the rafters. They hung from their arms, just above the ground. A man and a woman, I thought, judging by what was left of their clothes. I couldn't be sure. The damage was too extreme. They looked like they'd been mauled by wild animals.

I lost the battle with my stomach at that point and ended up hunched over my knees, vomiting up the remains of the pizza I'd eaten earlier. In my periphery, I caught a rustle of movement.

Shaking, I forced myself to stop heaving and spun towards the sound. I caught the arm reaching for me and twisted my body, flipping the other person over my back and slamming them hard into the ground as I jumped to my feet. I came upright in a guarded stance, only to find myself looking into the face of a young woman who couldn't have been much over twenty, if that. She looked up at me with wide, frightened eyes and I quickly relaxed my stance. Jumpy much, Rachel?

"D-don't hurt me..." the woman's face was terrified and her eyes darted wildly around the room. Her clothes were rumpled and stained, her face smeared with blood like mine probably was.

"I won't. It's okay," I reassured. "Sorry, you just startled me." I saw movement at the other end of the barn and realized there were at least two others people in here as well - a man and another woman. They both looked a bit older than the girl, but it was hard to tell at this distance - they were hunched warily, hiding in the shadows.

My gaze was drawn unwillingly back to the two bodies dangling in the center of the structure. I should probably go check on them, but I could tell from here that they were dead, and I really didn't want to get any closer. Was that the purpose of this place and those of us trapped in it? Were we quite literally cattle being kept here until it was dinner time?

"I'm Rachel," I said, trying to put on a calm, confident tone for the frightened woman as I quickly made my way to the two large barn doors that stood off to my right. I didn't really expect them to open, so I wasn't all that disappointed when I found them firmly locked - this time from the outside.

"Kelly," the girl said, picking herself up from the ground. She winced when I rattled the doors in frustration. "They're locked," she added.

I could obviously see that for myself, but I refrained from pointing that out as I quickly started scouting for other possible points of exit. The girl followed me as I moved about, although she stayed several wary yards away.

"Where are you from, Kelly?" I asked as I checked inside each of the stalls in turn and then started eyeballing the half-loft that ran along the back wall of the barn. There was no ladder, and no windows or doors up there to make it worth trying to figure out how to shimmy up.

"Cincinnati," she replied quietly. "I share an apartment with some friends off-campus at the university. I ... I volunteered to make the late night food run last night ..." a small sob caught in her throat. "Or maybe a couple nights ago ... I don't know ... I ... they ..." she curled in on herself, turning away, her body convulsing as she hugged herself.

I frowned in sympathy and took a step towards her, but she stumbled backwards away from me, obviously still afraid. I stopped, and just fixed her with my gaze instead. "It's going to be okay, Kelly. We're going to find a way out of here and get you home. We'll all go home."

The man in the corner snorted softly, a strangely amused and bitter sound. "No we won't."

I resisted a surge of irritation at the way they all seemed to have given up, reminding myself that they'd probably been here longer than I had and had obviously seen some pretty awful things.

"We will," I countered. "You'll see." Giving up on the doors as a lost cause, I started kicking the walls in different places to test their strength. This barn was old, perhaps even ancient. The aging timber might not be what it used to be.

"Where are we?" I asked the room at large, although Kelly seemed the only one interested in talking to me. "How many of them are there? Was anyone else brought in when I was?"

"I don't know where we are, exactly," the girl replied. "There's woods outside, so we must be somewhere outside the city. I've seen six or seven maybe, but I think there are more, and no, you were brought in alone."

I tried not to worry about that. I tried to tell myself it was a good thing that I was here alone. That it meant Trent hadn't been taken too. I didn't want to consider the possibility that it meant he was already dead.

I focused in on an area of the wall near the stall in which I'd awoken. There had been some patch work done here at one time, part of the wall replaced either due to damage or because of modifications to the structure. I looked around for any kind of tools to use. Finding nothing, I finally attacked the wall with my boot instead. Bracing, I delivered a series of quick, precise kicks with which I'd broken more than a few boards during classes and work outs.

The others visibly tensed up. Kelly covered her ears with her hands, hunching over as if in pain or fear. "Stop! Stop it, they'll hear you! They'll think we're being bad!" she pleaded.

I could feel the wood starting to splinter under the assault and kept it up. "Not if we can get out of here first," I told her, considering the risk worth it. I'd take going down fighting over standing around and becoming lunch any day.

The barn door creaked open with a sudden groan of rusted hinges and I swung towards the sound, fists clenched defensively. Yup, I'd gotten someone's attention.

Two vampires stood in the doorway. I recognized one as the waitress from the restaurant. The other was a man I didn't know who looked roughly around the same age, although I guessed that was deceptive because he carried himself like he was older, perhaps significantly older. I caught a glimpse of at least two more vamps beyond them, outside the barn. I could also see a narrow swath of snow-frosted ground and trees through the partially open doors that confirmed the notion that we were somewhere in the woods, perhaps even the same ones I'd trudged through last night. Great, back out where I started, more or less. The sudden exposure to the pale winter sunlight after the dimness of the barn made me squint and the influx of cold air made me shiver.

Kelly hid her eyes with a small cry and scrambled backwards, darting to hide in one of the open stalls.

"Now, now, what's all the noise out here? Not hungry again already are we? I told you, no food if you don't behave," the man said with the smooth, condescending tone one might use on a child.

From inside the stall, I heard Kelly whimper pitifully.

"Hey!" I said, mostly just to get the vamp's attention away from the others and focused on me.

"Well, look who's finally up and causing trouble," the male vamp said with the same, mocking expression as his gaze settled on me. "Don't blame me if they didn't leave you anything. You need to be on your toes around here, darling."

My brows furrowed at his words. A sudden, ugly dread crept up from the pit of my stomach and I pushed it back down, not wanting to be distracted by considering it too deeply just now. "So, I guess you all are the reason those people have been going missing off the highway, huh?" I prodded instead, trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together and feeling sure they were connected in some way. "Snatching your restaurant patrons wasn't enough anymore? You needed a little late night take-out on your way home?"

The man and the woman both made faces of distaste, as if I'd touched on a sour subject. The man came a step closer and I forced myself not to retreat automatically.

"No, that's much too gauche. We'd never be that sloppy or draw that much attention to ourselves," he said, his lip curling with disgust. "Those filthy tomb robbers have been swarming out of the woodwork like cockroaches all of a sudden and encroaching on our territory. It's one of the reasons we decided it would be prudent to expand our little family."

"It wasn't enough they decided to crawl out of their crypts and start craving live flesh, they had to go about it like such stupid amateurs! We've been here for generations and no one ever got on to us until they started causing trouble," the woman put in bitterly. "They're what drew you all here, aren't they?" she demanded.

It seemed that vampires were territorial in any universe, but aside from the fact that some other group was responsible for the highway disappearances, I didn't really understand what they were talking about and my face scrunched in confusion.

"Me? No. Believe it or not, pizza is what drew me to you," I said sarcastically. That wasn't entirely true, but I wasn't about to go into my actual reasons for having gone to check out Pizza Piscary's. I was tempted to ask if there actually was a Piscary here, or somewhere in the restaurant's history ... but I wasn't sure I actually wanted to know.

"I know you think I have something to do with those two other guys in the restaurant," I fixed my eyes on the woman. "But I actually met them for the first time last night, and running into them again at lunch was a coincidence. So! If that's all cleared up, maybe I should just be going ...?" I said with fake brightness, but without any actual hope of them agreeing. Still, never hurt to try.

The man took my arm when I tried to walk past him, halting me. "Ah, no, I'm afraid there is no going back for you now," he said. "We are your new home, your new family. Don't worry, we take good care of our own, as long as you're good and learn the rules ..." I saw something flicker across his face and his practiced words trailed off, his patently condescending and patient expression suddenly shifting. He frowned, his gaze becoming more intense as he leaned a little closer to me.

"You smell wrong," he said, he said, his grip tightening on my arm. I could smell nothing in here but the blood and offal of the two dead bodies, but I supposed his senses were keener.

I tried to pull my arm free and took a quick step back. He didn't release me and my ability to retreat was limited. My hands curled into fists and I wished I had a weapon. "Well pardon me," I mocked. "If I'd known I was going to be vamp-napped today, I'd have worn stronger perfume."

"Suzette, you told me you turned her." His gaze stayed on me, but his words were for his vampire companion. "Tsk, how very sloppy of you. It's not like it's rocket science, my dear."

He tried to pull me closer and I swung a quick right at his face. He dodged, of course, but I expected that and he dodged right into a nose-crunching blow from my left elbow. I jumped away, attempting to wrench my arm from his grasp, but I could never match a vampire for speed, not even a wounded one. His fingers slid but then snagged again in my shirtsleeve. His grip crushed down painfully on my forearm, arresting my movement and making me spin around. I kicked at him. He cursed, but didn't let go. Instead he grinned at me, as if enjoying the struggle.

"I begin to see why you're still alive despite Suzette's incompetence. You're going to be a lot of fun."

"Don't count on it!" I gritted back, twisting and getting another solid elbow jab into his ribs even as he drew me in too close for my swings to do much real damage.

I felt a second set of hands close on me as the waitress - Suzette - grabbed my arms from behind, twisting them and attempting to hold me still for her companion.

"I did it right, there's something wrong with her," Suzette defended herself with irritation. "Her blood is strange, Ray."

"Really? Well maybe I should try it for myself then," the man drawled, sliding his hand underneath the neckline of my sweater and easing it slowly and meaningfully as far down as it would go, baring part of my un-bandaged shoulder. I guessed this must be the Raymond she had mentioned back in the restaurant - the one who was going to like me. Well, he was going to get a chance to like my foot up his ass if he kept this up.

Suzette's fingers twisted in my tangled hair, pulling my head to the side for her companion. I watched with horrified fascination as Raymond grinned and that spiny second set of teeth descended. My heart was in my throat, but my little tugs against Suzette's arms were intentionally ineffectual. I waited until the man was going in for my neck before switching direction and throwing my real weight against her. I slammed my head back into her nose, at the same time bringing my knee up into the man's groin.

Suzette growled and the Raymond roared in anger. The three of us went down on the ground in a tumble. I landed on top of Suzette and she wrapped her arm around my throat. The two of us rolled through the lumpy straw on the floor as we struggled. From my periphery vision I saw other vampires rushing in through the doorway, drawn by the sounds of the fight. The odds were most definitely against me.

Someone screamed. The angry voices sounded alarmed in a way that I didn't think I warranted. Everyone was growling and shouting and I didn't have the luxury of being able to try to make sense of the chaos, my whole attention focused on the woman who was very definitely trying to kill me now.

Suzette got her knees around my hips and pinned me down, stopping our mad tumble. I punched her square in the face and she howled, her fangs extended and snapping as she descended on me.

Right before she reached me, there was a faint whoosh of air, a warm spatter of moisture, and her head unexpectedly disappeared.

I blinked, not understanding what had happened until I saw her headless body toppling sideways off of me and found myself staring up at the unexpected sight of Dean Winchester standing over me, holding a bloody machete.

For a moment I was frozen by shock over the sudden turn of events and the man's unexpected presence. Dean's face was set, his eyes holding a focused, piercing intensity. In this moment he looked very little like the young man who had made amusingly lame passes at me in the car and spent the better part of ten minutes in the restaurant arguing with his brother over why pineapple was sacrilege to the sacredness of pizza everywhere.

Then he knelt over me and the expression of tense concern in his eyes made him seem again the man we'd met on the road last night. "Shit," he swore softly, the fingers of his free hand urgently wiping my mouth clean from the moist castoff spatter of the vampire's blood, which had cut a crimson swath across the front of my shirt, and - I only realized now - had gotten on my face as well. Ew!

"Don't lick your lips, don't swallow," he said with urgent authority. He quickly yanked a rag and a flask from the pocket of his coat and dashed water onto the rag before using it to wipe my face like he was cleaning up a messy toddler. I spluttered in protest and grabbed for the cloth, but he'd already finished and tossed it aside into the straw.

He suddenly grunted and jerked forward as someone tackled him from behind, almost forcing him down onto me. Nails raked sharply across Dean's jaw as the vampire woman who had pounced on him tried to get her hands around his throat. The force of her impact knocked the machete from his grip.

Dean immediately reared backwards, throwing them both off of me. They tumbled together and Dean rolled back to his feet with a swift sureness that told me he either had training or a lot of experience under his belt. Probably both. I saw him glance towards his fallen weapon, but there wasn't time to go for it, the woman was already on him again. Instead he blocked her strike and plowed a shoulder into her middle, flinging her backwards, into someone else who was coming up at a run.

The other person stumbled, but didn't go down. He grabbed and grappled with the woman. I realized that it was Dean's brother, Sam, at about the same moment I saw that he too was carrying a machete.

Who the heck were these people?! Feeling uncomfortably like I'd just landed in some B-rated slasher flick, I got my arms under me, hands sliding and slipping in the loose straw as I sat up a little too quickly.

Dean bent to retrieve his weapon from beside me and when he straightened he offered me his free hand.

"You okay?" he asked as he quickly tugged me to my feet. His gaze flicked across my face, looking for any remaining blood, or perhaps any sign that I was about to sprout fangs. By now I had figured out that in this world, ingesting the blood of a vampire was all it took to turn a human and that the change must be fairly swift compared to the much more involved process with which I was familiar. That thought was more than a little disturbing.

Speaking of disturbing ... I looked down at the blood on my shirt and swallowed, trying not to think about how strong and practiced you had to be to take someone's head off in one swing like that. Dean had made it look easy, but I was pretty sure it wasn't.

"Fine," I responded quickly, trying to keep my voice from shaking with the adrenaline pounding through me. "I'm fine, and not a vampire," I added. Dean seemed to already have ascertained that, but given the way he handled that machete, I figured a little extra clarity couldn't hurt. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Dean shrugged, shooting me a half-grin. "Told you we had a job that was going to involve a lot of cleanup work, didn't I?"

Someone rushed us with a cry and I side-stepped quickly, automatically jutting out my leg and giving the man a hard elbow jab to the shoulder blades, using his momentum to send him stumbling forward.

"Really? In what part of mechanic school did they cover fighting vampires?" I demanded flatly, fists up defensively and really, really wishing I could tap a line.

Dean didn't give the vampire a chance to recover and come back around for us. He turned in one smooth movement and took off the vampire's head like he was hitting a baseball.

I didn't even have time to think about trying to stop him. I looked away, not wanting to see the body fall. My stomach clenched and I struggled to breathe normally. I was not a squeamish person, but I was going to be seeing headless corpses in my dreams for weeks, I was sure. "Do you have to do that?" I grit out.

"The best part," Dean replied, the familiar cockiness from earlier definitely showing again. "And yes, I do. Taking their heads off is the only way to actually kill them."

Good to know, I supposed, but that wasn't exactly what I'd meant. Obviously, all the vamps here were killers and they were trying to kill us, so this certainly qualified as self-defense, but that didn't mean I was at all comfortable with the level of bloodletting happening around me. The runner in me wanted to arrest them, not kill them. Without a legal system and prisons built to handle their kind, however, I realized that may not actually be feasible. It was like being in the old wild west or something.

"Rachel!" I turned toward the sound of my own name and saw Trent coming towards us through the open barn doors. He carefully stepped over a body lying in his path and dodged Sam who was fighting with yet another vampire nearby. He looked okay. I saw his green eyes lock onto the blood on my shirt with concern. "Rachel, are you all right?"

"I told you to wait outside!" Dean said, his annoyed gaze leveling on Trent.

Trent, never good at following anyone's orders, ignored him. "Rachel?" His attention was still fixed on me.

"I'm fine!" I said brusquely, wishing everyone would stop asking me that. It was bad enough feeling like I was in a slasher flick without feeling like I was also the idiot damsel in distress. My boobs-to-brain ratio was way off, thank-you-very-much. "What happened?" I added, nodding towards the two brothers, my gaze on Trent. Dean pushed past us, heading for his brother's position. Sam was still tussling with one of the few remaining vampires, but it looked like most of the rest of them were down and the fight as a whole was all but over.

"We were drugged," Trent said.

"Yeah, I got that part. I meant after that," I replied. I was trying not to glanced around at the bodies on the floor, but it was hard not to. There were three of them. Suzette was the only one I recognized. I didn't see Raymond among them. If Kelly's estimation before had been right, there were others missing as well. Maybe they'd made a run for it?

"One of them grabbed me in the restroom," I said. "I woke up in this lovely little place. How'd you get here? And what is up with the Van Helsing brothers over there?"

Trent glanced over to where Sam and Dean had just put down the last vampire, bringing the body count up to four. He frowned. "That, I don't know. There hasn't been much time for questions and they seem rather ... reticent. I don't remember a lot from the restaurant after you left for the restroom," he admitted. "Our friends over there," Trent nodded towards the brothers, "noticed there was something was wrong with me at right about the same time I realized we'd been drugged. They bolted for the back of the restaurant but I believe by that time you and most of the vampires were already gone. The next thing I remember, I was in the back of their car again and we were parked in the woods by an old mill. They somehow seemed to know that the vampires were out here in this general area, but weren't sure exactly where. I assisted in the search, and here we are. You know," he added slowly. "When we get home, maybe we should get you something with one of those GPS transponders in it, considering this is the second time I've needed to come searching for you." He gave me a smugly sarcastic little smile.

"Maybe you should save your money for some body armor for when we get home and I kick your butt into next week," I muttered in retort, rubbing my bandaged shoulder with a wince. I looked, felt, and probably smelled like crap. I shivered, feeling increasingly cold on top of the rest of the aches I was dealing with. A lot had happened in a very short time and I wasn't sure that my chill was purely because of the weather.

Trent frowned and shrugged out of his thrift store jacket. I hesitated to take it from him and he gave me a look. "Rachel, you look a sight. Put it on before you scare someone to death."

Making a face at him, I snatched the jacket and shrugged into it. I knew he didn't really need it and I had to admit the warmth felt good.

A cry of fear drew my attention back into the barn. I saw Kelly cowering just inside one of the stalls, backing away from Dean as he approached her, machete in hand. Sam was walking towards the back of the barn where the bodies hung and where the other two prisoners had been, although I didn't see them there now.

"No! Wait!" I cried, pushing past Trent and rushing over. My feet slipping on the loose straw, I thrust myself into the stall between Kelly and Dean. "They took her! She's a prisoner same as I was," I said in a rush, standing protectively in front of the younger woman.

Dean's expression was grim and sad as he faced me. "No, not quite the same," he said quietly.

I wanted to pretend I didn't know what he meant. But I did. I had already figured it out. I shook my head anyway. "It's not her fault, they're the victims here. This was done to them."

"It doesn't matter," Dean's voice was a mixture of weary determination and jaded sorrow that didn't let me hate him as much as I wanted to at that moment. He didn't look as if he liked this any more than I did; he looked as if he simply saw no other alternative. "They're not who they used to be anymore. The bastards killed them the moment they turned them. She's already fed on human blood, we can't save her. "

"You don't know that!" I cried, feeling both indignant and sick as things that hadn't made sense before fell into place and all the pieces I'd not wanted to consider clicked together. This wasn't a barn were the vampires were holding those they intended to feed on. This was where they were holding their new recruits until they had been properly trained. That's why the padlocks on the inside the stalls - so we could protect ourselves from one another as we adjusted to our new needs and abilities. That was probably the only thing that had kept me from turning into a snack while I was unconscious.

Glancing behind me at Kelly's hunched, wary form I wondered if perhaps my instincts had been right after all and there had been the intent of threat in her initial approach. Had my fellow captives only left me alone as long as they had because they deemed me not yet worth the effort after the forceful way I had reacted? Seeing Kelly's young, frightened face my jaw hardened. It didn't matter, these people were victims. They should be helped, if possible. They could learn to control their blood lust, couldn't they?

"Yes, I do," Dean said firmly. "Trust me, I do. I'm not saying it's their fault, but it's the facts. You saw their handiwork," he nodded towards the two bodies strung up from the rafters. "Who do you think mauled those folks? That was training chow the older vamps left in here for them. They're monsters, Rachel, they have a hunger in them nothing can quench, and sooner or later they will kill to get what they need."

"I think sooner has already happened," Sam put in from the end of the barn. "It looks like these two were probably still alive when they were hung up in here." His voice was measured but tinged with distaste and pity.

"Giving them fresh meat," Dean said with tense scorn. "How classy."

"They can learn," I insisted. "They don't have to be killers." I believed that, but a part of me wondered, even as I said it. Back home, my best friend was a vampire. A man I'd loved, who had loved me ... who had died for me had been a vampire. I would never have doubted the truth of my words in my own world, but here in this place, everything was so different I couldn't be 100% positive about anything.

"Rachel," Trent's voice came to me from behind Dean. I had the nasty suspicion he wanted to remind me of exactly that same thing, so I ignored him. Trent could go be practical somewhere else and Dean could take his fatalistic attitude there too. I wasn't letting this happen and that was that.

I grabbed Kelly's arm, keeping her behind me and trying to push forward out of the stall. Dean gave me a frustrated look and didn't move out of my way, blocking the entrance.

"Look, I know this is hard to understand, but you gotta trust us on this," Dean said, his body lined with tension and his voice becoming irritated. "You don't know how many times I've seen this go down."

"I don't have to do jack squat," I declared defiantly. Just then there was a loud shriek from the back of the barn, not of fear but of rage. Dean's head swiveled in that direction and whatever he saw painted alarm on his face.

"Sammy!" He called out, dashing towards the rear of the barn.

I took the opportunity to edge quickly out of the stall, still keeping Kelly behind me. Looking in the direction that Dean had disappeared, I saw that Sam had apparently been set upon by both the man and the woman who had been my fellow prisoners earlier. They must still have been hiding in the back of the barn and had perhaps caught him by surprise because Sam was down on the ground with the man on top of him. The woman was shrieking and trying jab or scratch his eyes out. Even as I watched, he rolled and gave a powerful upward heave, dislodging the man and evading the woman as he scrambled to his knees. Dean reached his brother's side and I turned away, unsure I wanted to see whatever was going to happen next.

Kelly slipped out of my grip and I turned quickly towards her. "It's okay," I said quickly. "Kelly, we'll work this out."

Kelly just looked at me as she backed away, her face a mask of fear, pain, and regret. "We didn't mean to kill them," she whispered. "They were crying and ... and I never thought I could do something like that. But I was so thirsty and when I started, I couldn't stop. I knew I shouldn't but I just ... I couldn't care. I knew this girl once, she got hooked on some bad shit and she got like that. She just didn't care about anything but her next hit," the girl was babbling, her mind obviously severely traumatized by everything that had happened. Her gaze darted towards the rear of the barn as she kept retreating backwards through the open doors. "He was right you know," she said, obviously harkening back to what the man had told me earlier when I was trying to rally them for escape. "We can't go home, not really. I can't go back to anyone important to me, not when I could kill them and not care."

My heart clenched as I followed her, taking slow, careful steps and holding my hand out as if she was a spooked filly that might bolt. "Kelly, I understand you're scared. But you can learn to control this. It doesn't have to own you."

Kelly was outside now, squinting in the sun, which obviously hurt her sensitive eyes. I followed, drawing even with the ends of the open barn doors. The air was colder here, tinted with the piney scent of the woods and the crisp clean bite of winter.

Kelly shook her head, anger and bitterness showing in her eyes. "That's easy for you to say, you're the lucky one. You don't know. You have no idea what this is like. What I feel. No matter what you say, there's only one place I can belong now."

The young woman was still retreating, and I followed, stepping completely out of the barn and into the pale, late afternoon sunlight. "Kelly…" I began, then a flash of movement caught my eye. Before I could react someone had grabbed my wrist and spun me sharply to the side. My back crashed into the front of someone else's body, and a strong arm caught under my chin, gripping me in a choke hold.

"That's right, Kelly dear," a familiar voice said by my ear. "We're the only family you have now, I'm glad to see you understand that." It was Raymond. There were another eight or nine vampires out here with him, and I guessed that they hadn't run away after all - more like gone to get reinforcements. It looked like there were a lot more of them than we had initially thought. Fantastic.

I wasn't sure if Kelly had intentionally lured me out here to them, or if it had just worked out that way, but her face was guilty and she wouldn't meet my eyes as I struggled for air in Raymond's grip. She'd probably sensed, heard or smelled them out here. I felt as much frustrated as betrayed, because I realized she wasn't going to let me help her - if I even could.

"Rachel," it was Trent's voice, he had followed me out and was now standing tensely in the barn doorway, assessing the situation.

"Hey, Trent," I wheezed, feeling annoyed and a little stupid. "This is getting really old."

"Maybe, you should try listening to people once in a while," he opined, the bantering words a cover to buy time as his gaze darted across the assembly, no doubt trying to form some kind of plan.

"Well there's the pot calling the kettle black," I wheezed, hoping he wasn't about to do something stupid and get us all killed. I trusted Trent a lot more than I used to, but his plans still weren't always very good plans.

Raymond started dragging me backwards and the heels my boots scuffed against the hard packed, snow crusted ground. "Why don't you all just stay where you are," Raymond said, his gaze fixed on Trent. "And once we're away, we'll let her go."

It was a lie. He knew it. I knew it. Trent knew it. If they got me away from here, I was dead vamp food.

"Or," Trent countered in a reasonable tone of voice, "I could just stay right here, and let the two nice men with the machetes take care of you." His gaze shifted to a point just over Raymond's shoulder, and the vampire spun, dragging me with him.

There was no one there, but the fake-out had worked nicely. Raymond was off balance when I jabbed my heel into his instep. He fell forward as Trent slammed into his back, the elf moving with quickness that could almost rival the vampire's. I twisted away, out of his grip, as the man fell.

Someone else lunged for me and I dodged. About this time, the two Winchesters showed up for real, joining the fray. Trent went after Raymond, but the vampire checked him sharply with a blow to the gut. Trent stumbled, grappling with the man as they went down. I saw Trent's head hit the ground hard, his movements momentarily dangerously slowed by the impact. Snagging the only thing I found at hand - a fist-sized rock - I brought it down on the back of the man's skull as hard as I could. He reeled, giving Trent a chance to roll out from under him.

Trent caught the vampire's head and gave it a quick, precise jerk to the side, snapping the man's neck. Raymond slumped and Trent rose quickly to his feet.

"Trent!" I called in warning, remembering what Dean had told me and realizing that Trent didn't yet know quite how much these vampires differed from ours. True to my fears, the downed vampire was already rising up on his hands and knees behind Trent as if nothing had happened.

Lacking any better options, I flung the rock in my hand straight at his head. It hit Raymond in the temple, doing no appreciable damage but certainly ticking him off plenty.

"You, this is all your fault!" he snarled at me, enraged. "I'll kill you, bitch." He leaped. I had just enough time to see him do it, not enough time to get out of the way.

A body slammed into me and my back found the ground, hard. My head bounced against the frozen earth, making my vision explode in stars. A heavy weight pinned me, not allowing my gasping lungs to find air. Raymond's awful, guttural growling mixed with the sound of fabric and flesh tearing. The metallic scent of blood blossomed thickly on the cold air.

My body tensed, but the expected pain did not follow. Pale gold filled my vision. The scent of blood fused with a strong, spicy scent that made me think of crushed pine needles and hot mulled wine with cinnamon.

My head cleared and in a sudden rush, the world resolved itself back into a sensible form. I realized that it wasn't my flesh being torn, or my blood that I was smelling. Trent was on top of me, having somehow managed to throw himself between me and the enraged vampire. Unfortunately, that meant that Raymond was on top of him, and it was Trent who had caught the brunt of his attack instead of me.

Raymond had obviously been intending to tear my throat out in one swipe, but he'd caught Trent's shoulder instead and was now savaging the elf viciously.

Trapped face down, over me, Trent didn't have the angle or mobility to strike out at his attacker or push him away. His body was tense against mine as he jerked his elbows under him, his arms bracketing my head almost protectively. I felt him trying to heave upward, against the vampire on his back, but Raymond's body held his hips pinned flat and without being able to get his knees under him, Trent couldn't get enough leverage to buck the vampire off.

Trent and I had fallen at slightly askew angles but his head was close to mine and I could hear his sharp, choked grunts of pain as the vampire tore into him. I felt them reverberate in his chest where it was pressed against mine. Fear and anger clutched at me, hot and bright. I feared Trent must already be pretty badly hurt, because disadvantage or no, he should have been able to at least roll sideways and get himself out of Raymond's grip that way and yet he wasn't.

Trent slammed his head back, trying to get Raymond's face, but only catching his jaw. The vampire barely seemed to register the hit. He twisted a fist in Trent's tangled hair, attempting to jerk the elf's head aside enough to make his throat vulnerable - a move Trent was obviously fighting against with all his strength, keeping his chin tucked and his shoulders hunched. The vampire's other hand swung viciously, pounding the elf repeatedly in the ribs.

Trent's lips were moving and I caught the lilt of Latin or Elvish on them, the normally musical sound roughened by pain and broken up by the struggle and the small cries he wasn't managing to suppress. I wasn't sure if he was cursing, or trying to work a spell. I would have assumed the latter, except he'd already told me he couldn't. Maybe it was a desperate reflex, kind of like I was currently groping madly for a line I knew didn't exist.

I wriggled wildly, trying to free my arms so I could strike out at the vampire and make him stop, but both men were bigger than me and their combined body weight was crushing me into the ground. Each time one of them slammed into the other, they both slammed into me. The violent thumping of their struggle pounded the air from my lungs and I could barely breathe.

Raymond's burning eyes met mine over Trent's bloodied shoulder and I realized with a sudden, terrible jolt of clarity that I had this whole situation backwards. Raymond wasn't trying to pin Trent in place, he was trying to claw him out of the way.

I was the one he wanted.

I was the one he'd decided to blame for bringing about the destruction of his little camarilla, or family, or however he saw them. I would have pointed out that the Winchester brothers seemed to have been interested in the vampires even before Suzette kidnapped me, so I was probably not all that influential to the situation at hand, but I didn't think it would matter. He needed someone to blame and I was handy.

Raymond was trying to force Trent off of me or just kill him, whichever he could accomplish first. Trent was in his way, the elf's body curled protectively over mine. The instant he shifted position enough for the vampire to get at my throat or anything else vital, Raymond would kill me. With a slap of shock, I realized that Trent knew that. It was why he was fighting so hard to buck the vampire, but wasn't simply rolling off of me, not even to escape the man's tearing teeth and punishing fists. He hadn't gotten free already because escaping wasn't his priority.

My lungs were burning, screaming for air and my stomach clenched hard, an icy fist squeezing shut about my throat. A cold blade of horror slid between my ribs and twisted unexpectedly - not fear that Raymond would get me, but terror at what Trent appeared willing to do to prevent that from happening. Trent wasn't trying to escape. He was, in fact, fighting the vampire in an effort to stay right where he was - his body between me and Raymond's savaging fangs.

An angry vampire ... blond hair falling over a pale face ... blood ... blood ... my fault ... the situation tripped some very bad switches in my mind, bringing up a past I didn't like to remember and couldn't bear to repeat. Turn take it, I wasn't supposed to have to worry about something like this with Trent! I couldn't do this again. I couldn't.

The panic burning through me demanded more oxygen than my compressed lungs could provide. Light and dark spots flashed and floated in my vision as I struggled, desperately trying to get out from under Trent and draw Raymond away from him. Damn it, Trent, what the hell are you thinking?!

Chapter Text

My fist twisted in Raymond's shirt, my elbow practically jammed into Trent's armpit as I heaved upward against the vampire trapping us both to the earth. My desperate attempts to keep him off Trent met with little success and I felt the warmth of blood on my cheek again. Trent's blood.

I tried to wriggle-roll sideways, but whether intentionally or unintentionally, Trent shifted his weight to keep me pinned. "Damn it, Trent, get off!" I wheezed urgently.

Then I felt Trent's tense body jerk as the vampire's weight pitched abruptly to the side. Framed by the pale blue sky above us, I saw Raymond's face replaced by that of Sam Winchester as the young man grabbed the vampire by the coat, bodily dragging him off of Trent and half-throwing, half tackling him to the side as they both pitched out of view.

Trent struggled quickly to his knees, leaning over me on his injured arm, his good one gripping tightly at the mess the vampire had made of his left shoulder. Blood dripped between his fingers and his breathing was rapid and uneven as he attempted to collect himself.

I slid carefully out from under him, easing him sideways into a sitting position as I did. There was so much blood it was hard to see the actual extent of his injuries. "Trent?" I whispered, cupping the side of his down-turned face in my palm and trying to get a look at him. I was disgusted by the light tremble in my fingers and how shaky my voice sounded but couldn't worry about it too much at the moment.

"I'm all right," Trent murmured through grit teeth, half-waving me off and stubbornly keeping his head down. His eyes were hidden behind his bangs, but I could see the rock-like tension in his jaw. I knew he wouldn't meet my eyes because he was not yet in complete control of the pain he must be feeling. He didn't like for people to see him vulnerable or weak. Stupid elf. I didn't believe for a minute that he was anything like all right, but understood that he meant he wasn't dying, at least for the time being.

I needed to check the wound better, but not until I knew we weren't about to be attacked again. My lungs burning from breathing the cold air much too swiftly, I climbed to my feet, staying close to Trent. My hand rested lightly on his good shoulder, both in a gesture of protection and to keep him from trying to get up too fast. I couldn't risk him passing out; I didn't think I could carry him very far. I felt the uneven rise and fall of his breathing under my fingers and the faint tremble of pain he was attempting to suppress. Nearby, I saw Raymond fall under Sam's blade. This time, I didn't look away.

Three of the vampires, including Raymond, appeared to be down now. The others seemed to have finally decided that taking a hike was the healthiest option for them and were scattering into the woods. Or at least, that appeared to be their intention - until something stopped them. One by one I saw them jerk to a halt at the edges of the clearing around the barn. I thought they were going to come back and attack, but then I realized their focus was on the woods, not on us.

No, not the woods ... what was coming out of the woods.

People were appearing in the trees, moving towards the clearing with an eerie quietness. There were a lot of them - twenty or thirty at least, perhaps more, the woods made it hard to judge.

They were dressed in an oddly un-uniform matter, everything from business suits and formal wear to sweats and nightgowns. The one thing they had in common was an apparent disregard for the cold and the fact that the clothing seemed disheveled. Many were stained with what was either mud or dried blood.

I frowned. What now?! Somehow, I just didn't think this was a good turn of events.

Sam and Dean appeared to feel the same because they fell into tense ready stances between Trent and myself and the woods, eyeing the newcomers.

"Uh, Dean? I think we found our missing motorists," Sam said, nodding towards several of the people who had just emerged from the trees, their clothes torn and bloodied although the flesh beneath seemed unmarked. I supposed he must have recognized them from their photos in the news coverage.

"Or at least what happened to them," Dean agreed, backing up slowly.

"Ghouls?" Sam said, the statement only partially a question.

"Looks like. The new and improved kind that want fresh meat," Dean made a face.

"This must be what Bobby meant about how the Mother of All's been stirring them up," Sam agreed, unconsciously rubbing his arm as if in remembered pain. "I think I liked them better when they were sticking to being scavengers."

I only partially tracked what they were saying. Obviously, our definitions of what a ghoul was were very different, but their words sparked the memory of Raymond and Suzette's comments in the barn about the "others" who had been suddenly encroaching on their territory and caused all the media attention. Yup, definitely not a good turn of events, then.

"Get out of here, grave robbers!" one of the vampires snarled. "How many of you do we need to kill before you get the idea that this place is ours?!"

One of the ghouls, a young blond man in a track suit, gave a chillingly empty smile. "Not anymore it's not. You should have left us alone and we would have left you alone. Now, I think with you gone, there will be more for us. My people have been long out of the sun, and we are hungry. So hungry. Our blood does not appeal to you, but we're not so choosy."

One second the scene was still, the next it was in chaos as vampires and ghouls erupted into spontaneous combat. They seemed fairly matched for speed and strength. The vampires were possibly stronger, but they were severely out numbered. It wasn't going to be an easy fight, but I had little doubt as to the eventual outcome. I only had a moment to take in the unfolding violence before someone was gripping my arm and dragging me sideways.

I stumbled to keep my footing, finding Sam holding my arm and practically dragging me along. "Come on, we need to get out of here before they finish up with each other."

I agreed with that sentiment completely, but struggled with his tight grip anyway, not about to leave Trent behind. Before I had a chance to dig my heels in for real, I saw that Dean had Trent on his feet, an arm under his good shoulder as he half-helped, half-dragged him along with us. Trent looked decidedly pissed at the man-handling, but wasn't protesting the necessity of making ourselves scarce as fast as possible.

Trent was moving under his own power and Sam had let go of my arm by the time we cleared the back of the barn. The woods on this side of the clearing appeared to be clear for the moment and we plunged into them at a fairly good clip. Dean snatched up a discarded duffel from the ground as we hurried past it. Judging by the footprints in the light snow back here, this must be the way that Trent and the Winchesters had come in, so I guessed the bag was probably theirs.

Swinging it over one shoulder, Dean slid something out of it as he dodged through the trees. It was a sawed off shotgun. He tossed the gun to his brother, followed by what looked like a bag of shells, then pulled a second shotgun out of the sack. He pocketed a couple of other items, including what was probably another ammo pouch and tossed away the now mostly empty duffel.

These guys took preparedness to a whole new level. "Who are you people and what is going on?" I demanded somewhat breathlessly.

"It's complicated, but we're here to help, okay?" Sam said distractedly as we barreled ahead.

My feet slipping on the loose drifting of snow atop the thick carpet of leaves as we descended a sloping hill, I caught hold of the nearest tree for balance. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw that our flight had not gone unnoticed. There were three, maybe four figures hurtling down the hill behind us.

"Not all that complicated," Dean countered, pausing, twisting and sighting up the hill with his shotgun. "We hunt things and save people." He gave me that grin again.

Sam stopped too, swinging his back to a tree and cocking his weapon. "We came here to investigate the highway disappearances," he added, as if feeling that a little more explanation was needed. "Got onto the longer running but better hidden spate of disappearances centering around that restaurant when we started digging and went to check it out."

Dean pumped a round up the hill at the approaching ghouls, winging the man with the first shot and catching him in the face with the next. The man dropped and the others scatter warily. Sam's shot caught another in a the gut, but the man darted behind a tree and the second shot caught only wood.

With unspoken coordination, both brothers pushed into motion again and we were running once more as they reloaded. I glanced over to check on Trent. He was still holding his shoulder, but appeared to be hanging in there. His face was set and pale, but he was obviously doing his level best not to slow us down.

"Figured we had vamps, but the whole vampires vs. ghouls smack down was a twist," Dean commented as we ran.

"They must have been planning to attack all along, then when we showed up they hung back and let us do some of the work for them first," Sam voiced his opinion.

"Maybe so. Never seen this many ghouls in one place before," Dean agreed.

"They're new, I think. The vampires said they were encroaching on their territory and that's why they were trying to increase their numbers," I panted out, shooting increasingly worried glances in Trent's direction. His white shirt was turning completely red. "What are they, exactly?" I'd already learned the hard way that the supernatural element in this world was pretty different from ours, I wanted to cut down on future surprises.

The two brothers paused to pop off a few more shots. Sam downed another one of our pursuers. The boys were very good shots and I began to suspect the only reason more weren't hitting home was because they seemed to be aiming exclusively for headshots and those were tricky to make between the trees at a distance. That distance was closing quickly, though. Our pursuers were catching up fast.

"Ghouls are normally carrion eaters, hunting in graveyards and so forth, but once they venture out and get a taste for fresh meat, that can change," Sam explained. "There's ... someone stirring things up right now and causing that to happen to a lot of them."

"Vamps just want your blood, ghouls want to eat pretty much everything," Dean warned as he and Sam stopped again, swinging to hide between trees spaced a few yards apart. Dean nodded emphatically for Trent and I to keep moving. Seeing their plan, I obeyed. I wasn't sure Trent picked up on it, but he seemed to mostly be following me and as long as I was moving, he kept moving.

We were a few dozen yards away when the remaining two ghouls burst through the trees behind us and found themselves caught in the crossfire directly between the two brothers. The ghouls went down in two quick pops of shotgun fire. Headshots again, confirming my suspicion that the ghouls were a little like movie zombies when it came to what it took to put them down and keep them down.

Dean and Sam rejoined us quickly as we hurried on again. We'd lost our immediate pursuers now, but the shotguns were sure to have drawn attention from others and once they were done with the vampires in the clearing, the rest of the horde would likely turn to hunting us down. We needed to get out of here, quick.

"How far are we from your car?" I asked, remembering what Trent had said about the way they'd come out here.

Dean made a face. "Too far," he muttered, casting a concerned look behind me. I looked back to see that Trent must have slid on the loose, snow-slick ground, because he was clutching a tree tightly for balance. He'd had to let go of his shoulder and the snow by his feet was pink. His wounds were bleeding much too freely. I'd still not had a chance to check him over and the fear that something vital had been damaged and he was bleeding out even as we ran made my stomach tight.

"Dean." Sam looked at Trent, then at his brother, his face meaningful. He'd only said his brother's name, but his meaning was clear. He obviously didn't think Trent was going to make it all the way back to wherever they'd left their car in his current state.

Trent realized we were all looking at him and quickly pushed away from the tree. His hand clamped over his injured shoulder again and his face shuttered in irritation. "I'm all right," he said defensively.

"Like hell you are," I retorted, moving closer and trying to get a look at his wounds.

Trent stepped back and shrugged away from me. "We can't stop here, this is not a defensible location. I just need something to put on this, I'm leaving a blood trail that a blind man could follow."

"You need to let me take a look and make sure he didn't slice some important artery that means you're going to drop dead in a few minutes!" I snapped back. There was way too much blood for the injuries to be as minor as Trent obviously wanted us to believe.

Dean's hand on my shoulder stopped me from trying to wrestle some sense into Trent. "He's right, here isn't good, it's too exposed. The vamps have a cabin just over that hill, we saw it coming in. We'll head there."

The cabin was small and looked more like an abandoned hunter's shack than a vampire nest. I guessed that was intentional on the vamps' part, and since they seemed to be city based, they probably hadn't come out here all that often. I'd hazard a guess that this whole place was just where they had kept their new "recruits" until they were ready to be part of society again. I thought of Kelly and my heart ached. I hadn't seen her die, but I was sure she and the other vampires were all toast. I didn't like this world and I felt an intense swell of homesickness as we paused near the rear of the small cabin.

"Wait here, we'll check it out to make sure it's safe," Sam said as he and Dean started to move away.

"And you don't go wandering off this time," Dean added pointedly to Trent, giving me the impression he was referencing earlier events to which I had not been privy.

"Wait, you said you recognized the missing people among the ghouls, they turn people like vampires?" I asked quickly, needing to know what we were up against in case the Winchesters didn't come back. I didn't like thinking like that, but it had been a very long day so far and Murphy's law seemed in full effect.

Dean gave his head a small shake. "No, they ..." he hesitated for the barest moment, as if not sure he should tell us, before apparently deciding either that we could handle it or simply that we needed to know. "They can wear the skin of the last person they ate." Leaving us with that little gem of knowledge, the two brothers hurried quickly away towards the front of the cabin.

"Well, that's lovely," Trent muttered, echoing my thoughts exactly.

Despite my concerns and Mr. Murphy's pessimism, Sam and Dean were back in almost no time at all. The cabin was clear and they ushered us quickly inside.

The inside was much cozier than the outside made it look, even if it was small. There was a main living room sort of area, a small kitchen and a couple of bedrooms at the back. Definitely not a full time living place, but comfortable enough for its purpose. There was a dying fire in the hearth and other signs that the structure had in fact been recently inhabited and hastily abandoned - probably when the distress call went up at the barn over the hill.

"Isn't this the first place those ghouls will look for us?" I asked uncertainly as I quickly guided Trent into the main room and dragged a chair over in front of the fire place. I had to admit the warmth of the cabin was lovely. Amid all the adrenaline, I'd not been fully aware of how cold I'd been.

"Maybe, but we've got a better chance of holding them off here than in the woods if we need to," Dean told me as he crossed over to the front windows, shifting the heavy curtains just enough to peer out without making himself visible to the outside. "If more haven't followed us already, then like as not they're distracted with the vamps. Feeding time trumps most things. There's way too many of them to be surviving comfortably on the couple of unlucky motorists they've snagged. They're probably all duking it out over the latest spoils. When they wrap up, and the losers realize they're still hungry, that's when we need to start worrying."

Gaze never leaving the window, Dean ratcheted the shotgun barrel swiftly back and forth, cocking the weapon in what looked to be an extremely practiced motion. Sparing a quick glance back into the room, his gaze briefly leveled on us as I helped Trent sink into the chair and crouched beside him, trying to get a look at the bleeding gashes that crisscrossed his shoulder.

Trent's breathing was quick and labored with the pain he was fighting. He tilted his head to the side so I had better access to his wounds. Apparently he was going to deign to let me check him out now.

"He gonna be all right?" the older Winchester inquired, his eyes darting vigilantly between us and the window, his lean frame tense and alert. I saw his gaze catch and linger on Trent's pointy right ear, now clearly exposed by the angle of his head. I hadn't noticed before, but I now realized that Trent must have lost his hat during the fight.

I couldn't spare time to worry about what Dean thought of Trent's ears. My attention was focused on the elf and the fact that the entire left side of his shirt was completely crimson from collar to hem. The stain didn't stop there, spreading down to the left hip and thigh of his pants. Even as he sat here, blood was dripping slowly but surely from his elbow to the floor, forming a small, dark puddle that glittered dully in the flicker of the nearby firelight. I grabbed the torn fabric of his ruined shirt by his collarbone and ripped it the rest of the way from neck to sleeve, pulling the sodden and shredded fabric fully away from his flesh.

Trent sucked his breath in but remained silent as the fabric pulled free from his wounds. I saw that bits of the shirt had been embedded into the ragged punctures and some shreds were left behind.

A raw latticework of nasty, jagged cuts had gouged open the skin across the back and top of his shoulder. Raymond had gotten at the back of his neck too. I could see the red, angry ellipses formed by his bites marring Trent's skin beneath the seeping blood. The sides of his neck were relatively unscathed however, proving that Trent had done a remarkably good job of keeping his attacker away from the more vital areas. Most of the damage was superficial since it had been done by fangs and teeth, but the puncture wounds went pretty deep in few places where the vampire had bitten down the hardest and there were a few places where bits of flesh had actually been torn away.

Fortunately, predator though he may have been, Raymond's jaws weren't the right shape to cause as much damage as something like a wolf or a bear could have in that same amount of time. The bleeding, torn flesh was raw, the injuries wicked looking and bleeding profusely, but the attack appeared to have missed damaging anything vital, including, thank God, any major arteries.

"Yes," I replied, feeling relieved at being able to say it and mean it. "Doesn't look like anything important was damaged." The injuries needed cleaning, proper dressing and probably stitches, but most of that was going to have to wait.

Trent gave a soft snort of laughter at my choice of words. His face was lined with pain but composed, the fingers of his good arm digging tensely into the bicep of his wounded one. "Because of course, I have another shoulder," he agreed somewhat sardonically.

Sam came striding quickly back into the room, shotgun in one hand and a dish towel from the kitchen in the other.

I shot Trent a look. "That's right, cupcake, lucky you," I retorted, my hands trembling with adrenaline and relief as I caught the towel that Sam tossed me and pressed it against the seeping wounds, trying to stem the flow of blood. Trent had risked his life for me back there, and I wasn't sure how to deal with that. Obviously, I was grateful, but it scared me too. I knew Trent had my back and I had his ... but there was a difference between having someone's back and jumping in front of a bullet - or ravening vampire - for them. Trent had bigger things to be worrying about. He had obligations and people back home who depended on him. Those who put themselves between me and danger got killed. Like Kisten had.

"Don't you ever do something that stupid again," I hissed in Trent's ear as I squeezed the towel tightly against his shoulder - maybe a little too tightly judging by the grimace that tightened his mouth and his small grunt of pain. "I can take care of myself, Trent, and I will not let you make Lucy and Ray grow up without you. You get yourself killed and I will kick your ass."

Trent looked at me dryly, his bloodied face tense but unrepentant. "You're welcome."

"The back's clear, but I doubt it will stay that way for long. There's decent cover between the porch and the woods. It's probably at least four miles from here to the car, ten between here and civilization and it will be dark in an hour," Sam reported in answer to a questioning look from his brother.

There seemed to be a whole unspoken conversation going on around the few words, the kind that happened between people who knew each other well and were used to working together. I recognized it from years of doing runs with Ivy and Jenks. The brothers were weighing their options - stay here and make a stand knowing that our location would be easily discovered and that this place would soon be crawling with ghouls, or make a run for it into cover of the woods and hope we could make it back to civilization before nightfall. I may not know much about this world's inderland, but night always favored the predators.

I saw Dean check the pockets of his jacket with one hand. "I've got eight rounds left. You?"

"Six," Sam replied.

Dean grimaced and pushed away from the window. "Okay, we run for it. Assuming they don't know how we came in, they'll be expecting us to head for the highway. I'll lead 'em that way, you three double back and circle around to the mill. Get the car, meet me at the old bridge and keep the engine runnin', I'll probably be coming in hot." Digging in his pocket, he withdrew a handful of rounds and held them out to Sam. "Here."

Sam hesitated, looking at Dean, the expression on his face saying how much he didn't like this idea. They held one another's gazes for a long moment but to my surprise, Sam didn't argue his brother's suicidal plan. Instead he pushed Dean's hand back with a light touch. "Keep it; you're the one playing decoy."

Dean shook his head, having none of it. He grabbed Sam's hand and forced the shells into his palm. "And I'll be able to move ten times faster than you," he jerked his head meaningfully towards Trent and I, obviously thinking we were going to be cramping their style. "You got more backs to watch."

"Dean ..." Sam's long fingers curled around the ammunition, his gaze still on his big brother. He wasn't really arguing, but his eyes were.

"End of discussion, Sammy. Come on, we gotta move." Dean clapped his brother on the shoulder and quickly pushed past him, heading for the back of the house.

Sam started to follow, pausing by me when he saw me helping Trent to his feet. "You got him okay? We have to go, it's not safe here. Those things will find us soon and we haven't got enough ammo for a standoff," he said quickly, I suppose in case we were maybe too stupid or in too much in shock to have grasped the meaning of the conversation he and Dean had just had. He pocketed the shells and switched the rifle to his left hand, clearly ready to offer Trent a shoulder to lean on if it was needed and I couldn't provide it.

Trent shrugged both of us off with a tense expression, wrangling the blood soaked dishtowel from me and keeping it wadded against his shoulder with his good hand, his injured arm clenched tight around his middle. He was pale, but I recognized the bull-headed set of his features. "I'm fine," he said tersely. "I can walk by myself."

Sam simply gave a nod, switching gun hands again and heading towards the doorway to the kitchen, through which Dean had already disappeared. "Okay, good. Follow me."

A few long, distance eating strides and Sam too had disappeared into the rear of the house, leaving Trent and I to hurry after him. I wished there was some way to tie Trent's shoulder up better. The wounds may not be life threatening, but they were still bleeding, even if he wasn't dripping and leaving a trail now. The blood loss could turn into a serious problem if it went unchecked for too long, especially if we were going to be running through the woods with monsters on our heels.

"Keep pressure on it," I told him tensely, resisting the urge to reach out a hand towards him as we moved quickly through the kitchen towards an old screen door that was just sliding shut behind the taller Winchester. "You can't afford to lose much more blood." There was one remaining towel hanging from the door handle on the kitchen's antique oven and I snagged it on my way by, pushing it at Trent.

Trent took it, discarding the saturated one he'd been holding onto the floor and replacing it with the new one, his knuckles white as he squeezed his injured flesh under the towel. "I know. I've got it, all right? I'll be fine, don't worry about it," he added with annoyance. He fumbled for the door latch with his free, bad hand, leaving red smears on it as he got it open and shouldered outside ahead of me.

I followed, stepping out onto a large, old wooden porch sagging with age. The two Winchesters were standing at one edge of the porch, scanning the woods that were only a few stones' throw away across a small weed-choked clearing. The vantage point gave them a clear view of their surroundings while keeping them relatively hidden by the frame of the house. I could see that they knew how to choose tactical positions, as if I needed any further proof that these two had a lot of practice at what they did ... whatever exactly that was. Hunters, Suzette had called them and Dean had echoed that idea a little earlier. The description seemed to fit well enough.

The brothers' heads were bowed together in quick, quiet conversation which ended the moment Trent and I stepped out onto the porch.

Dean cast his gaze quickly across the silent woods before us, scanning the slanting shadows created by the watery, late afternoon sun for any sign of movement or threat. "So what's with the ears?" he asked Trent with apparent casualness as Sam slid silently down the stairs and along the wall of the house, leading with his shotgun and checking swiftly along the right side of the structure to make sure no one was waiting to spring an ambush when we made a break for it.

"You a Vulcan or something?" Dean's inquiring smile was tense. His gaze darted between tracking Sam's movements and Trent who had stopped a few feet away from him. The dark haired man's body language was on edge, but I wasn't sure if it was because of us or because of the whole situation. My chest tightened, feeling like we were somehow pushing out onto thin ice here.

"Or did you just get your ears stuck in a rice picker?" the dark haired man added wryly.

I tried to cough to cover my unexpected nervous laugh at having gotten what was to me a very obscure joke. Although it had only run for one season before being dropped due to the chaos of the Turn and a general lack of interest in space dramas at that time, Star Trek had later managed to acquire a small, dedicated cult following of people that had inspired the restoration and re-airing of the show on some late night stations. I thought it was cheesy as hell, but Jenks' kids had loved to watch it, shouting advice and commentary at the screen in their high pitched little voices. Apparently, the show existed here in this world too and at some point we must both have seen the same time-travel episode that included Captain Kirk's incredibly lame attempt at explaining his non-human companion's features - including his pointed ears. Actually ... given Trent's and my circumstances of having been thrown somewhere we didn't belong and seeking a way home, the reference was almost a little too apropos for it to be funny.

Trent looked at Dean with a hint of amusement. He nodded his chin towards the blood stained towel clutched to his shoulder. "I think you would have noticed if I was bleeding green," he returned and my eyebrows twitched. Trent got the reference too. Huh.

I saw Sam signal to Dean that the right side of the house was clear. Dean acknowledged with a dip of his chin and Sam slid silently around to check the left side.

Trent shrugged his good shoulder, then blanched in pain when even that motion apparently hurt. "It's a genetic quirk. Runs in my family," he replied, which was actually the truth, even if not all of it. I wondered if Trent was being careful in case the Winchesters had any kind of truth detector charms, or if he simply felt that it was the easiest explanation. Trent was pretty good at lying with the truth. "I'm sure I know every ear joke you can think of," he added dryly, making a sour expression that drew Dean's grin a little wider.

"His family wanted him to have plastic surgery," I added. "But I think that Trent secretly enjoys the fact that a lot of ladies have a real weakness for men with pointy ears and blond hair. He blinks those baby greens and expects them to get all stupid." I grinned innocently at him, taking his cue of not entirely lying. His family had docked his ears when he was an infant and I knew the fact that they were back to their original state was actually my fault, but his surprised little flush and the chagrin in the scowl he gave me was way too entertaining. Payback, baby. "You should hear him do his kiss to wake the sleeping beauty routine. Very smooth," I mocked.

"Rachel!" Trent growled, giving me a sour look, a little color showing on his otherwise much too pale face. The obvious honesty of his irked reaction had the effect I'd been hoping for and the unsettling intensity in Dean's gaze eased up just a little.

Dean shot the other man a speculative look. "Chicks dig that, huh?" he asked, making an only somewhat skeptical face. Apparently, he considered himself a fair authority on what women liked and wasn't beyond comprehending the story-book appeal of Trent's subtly unusual ears paired with his pretty-boy features. "Get a lot of play, do you?" he added dryly.

"You have no idea," Trent replied with a smug, boys-club grin, the two of them sharing a moment of common male understanding that was apparently a universal constant across species and realities. Ah, men, so wonderfully predictable sometimes. A thing could go from lame or weird to acceptably brilliant in about five seconds if it was related to getting laid.

"Damn," Dean said wryly, one corner of his mouth twitching in an approving smile. The wariness hadn't completely left his eyes and I wasn't so sure he'd really bought our story, but he at least seemed willing to put it on the back burner for now as Sam returned to the base of the porch stairs and signaled that our pathway out was clear.

Dean jogged easily down the stairs and across the small clearing to the woods. "Well come on then, Legolas. We do not want to be here when the orcs show up," he called glibly over his shoulder. Once in the shelter of the trees he held position, covering Sam, Trent and I as we scrambled quickly after him.

Then we were in the woods and moving fast. The undergrowth was too heavy and the ground too uneven to allow full tilt sprinting, but the two Winchesters navigated the rough terrain like it was second nature, pushing through brambles and jumping obstacles with considerable speed. Sure-footed as cats, they scrambled down one side of a steep incline and back up the other, heads up and alert, rifles clutched ready across their chests.

They set a demanding pace, but I was in good shape and no stranger to running - especially when my life depended on it. The terrain was problematic and my hands and knees quickly became scuffed from catching myself against trees or falling and scrambling back up again when the footing proved too uneven. My hands stung and the air was painfully cold in my heaving lungs, but adrenaline sang through me like brimstone and I had little trouble keeping up.

I probably wouldn't have stumbled quite so often if I wasn't constantly glancing beside me or over my shoulder. I was worried about Trent. I didn't think he could keep this pace in his condition, yet every time I looked around he was always right behind me or a few feet away from my shoulder. He was pale and obviously hurting, but there was that familiar determination in his eyes as he doggedly pressed forward. He seemed completely at home in the woods. Even injured, he moved with a sure, fluid grace that seemed to be keeping him on his feet better than me half the time.

That's when I remembered that Trent was an avid hunter. Sure, he was usually on horseback, but given the familiar way he dodged trees and picked his way along ridges, there must have been plenty of times when the quarry got into undergrowth too thick or into terrain too dangerous for mounted pursuit. Running through the woods quickly and quietly seemed like nothing new for him, although I'm certain he wasn't enjoying being on the prey's side of the equation.

We rushed and stumbled down a steep drop towards a small stream. The water was rapid and shallow, swollen with melted snow but still only ranging between ankle and calf deep. The brothers charged into the stream without slowing, wading out to the middle before finally pausing. Trent followed without hesitation, but I paused at the edge, glancing around for a shallower crossing. My boots were too low for the water and walking any great distance on wet, frozen feet in this weather was a good way to get frostbite.

Trent paused when he realized I wasn't following, turning back with a questioning look. He actually reached his bad hand out to me as if he thought I needed steadying or something. I frowned at him, but Sam was making a "hurry up" gesture at us and I sighed. Unhappy, but not seeing another way across, I ignored Trent's hand and I resignedly trudged into the current, feeling the freezing water fill my boots and drench my socks the instant it crept up over the top. Damn, it was cold!

As soon as we drew level with the brothers, Dean reached over and snatched the blood sodden dish towel that Trent was still clutching to his shoulder. Before either of us could protest the odd action, Dean had jerked the tail of his flannel shirt from under his jacket and torn it off. He pressed the wad of blue-gray plaid into Trent's bloodied hand, obviously intending it as a replacement for the confiscated towel.

"Don't touch anything and don't set one foot outside the stream until Sam says you can, got it?" he commanded us both in quick, clipped tones. His breathing was rapid from exertion, but he did not appear even close to being winded.

Not waiting for a response, Dean charged out of the stream and up the opposite bank ahead, the bloody towel still clenched in one hand and his weapon in the other. I saw him intentionally drag the towel along the steep incline at one point, then brush it against a tree near the top and I realized he was laying a scent trail for our pursuers, making it seem as if we'd all crossed the stream and kept on going in the direction that must lead back towards town. These creatures were flesh eaters, so odds were the scent of blood would attract them. I saw Dean jam the stained rag in the back pocket of his jeans as he disappeared and realized he was intentionally waving a red flag for the bull to follow.

"Follow me, stay in the water," Sam reiterated the warning, gesturing to us as he quickly turned and started splashing downstream through the icy flow. I knew then that the brothers must have been aware of this stream's presence and had intended all along to use it to sell the deception that would allow Dean to act as decoy while we circled around. It was a good plan. I knew zip about these ghouls, but most inderlanders had a much better sense of smell than your average human.

Glancing at Trent who was already slogging along after Sam and carefully staying in the deepest parts of the stream, I realized that he'd understood the plan from the moment the brothers entered the water. The ploy was probably obvious to anyone who had ever hunted with dogs and given my own experiences, I should have recognized it sooner. I just hoped these creatures weren't as smart as Trent's dogs. Geez, I hated being hunted! Why was I always getting hunted? It sucked. Of course, Trent was getting hunted this time too, which made it a little better somehow.

"Is he going to be okay?" I asked as I caught up with the two men, shivering with the cold that was now making my legs numb below the knee and seeming to shoot up into the rest of my body like icy needles. I glanced over my shoulder towards the already dwindling rise where Dean had disappeared.

Sam's broad shoulders ahead of me were tense as he jogged through the water with long, careful strides. "Dean? He'll be fine," his voice was confident, but his body language wasn't and I got the feeling that his conviction stemmed from his need to believe it more than anything else. "Look, I uh ... I know this is all a lot for you to be taking in, but we actually deal with this kind of thing a lot. Dean knows what he's doing. We've got a car and more ammo about three miles downstream. We just have to make it there; then we can circle around, pick him up and get you two somewhere safe and warm, okay?"

He spared a reassuring glance over his shoulder. "Everything's going to be all right," he promised. I wasn't sure whether he believed that, or if he just thought we needed to hear it. I was sure that he was being reassuring and encouraging at least partially because of a desire to keep us motivated and moving. I got the feeling he was expecting us to be fairly traumatized and wanted to stave off any impending meltdowns or panic attacks when the shock of the situation started sinking in. It told me this wasn't his first time dragging random hapless strangers out of danger.

"You doing okay?" the big man asked over his shoulder, risking another glance back with what I recognized as genuine concern on his features. He directed the question to both of his, but his gaze darted to Trent and then away. My gaze went to the elf as well. Trent looked awful. His shirt was soaked with blood, his face much too pale and yet glittering with perspiration from either exertion or shock. Like all of his, his pants legs were now soaked from splashing through the river, his loafers ridiculously unequal to the tasks being asked of them. But he pressed on, like we all did, because we had no alternative.

"I'm great," I responded wryly. "Could do this forever. What's not to love about a nice little winter jog while being pursued by flesh eating nasties that want to feast on your intestines and wear your skin?"

Trent gave a wheeze that might have been a chuckle beside me. "Indeed. This is most bracing. I think I can skip my cardio workout this week."

Sam smiled and I could tell he was a little relieved by the fact that we were able to be smart-ass about the situation, obviously taking that as a sign that we were hanging in there for the present. "Good. Good. We have to stay in the water for at least a mile to keep them from picking up our scent." It was a statement of fact, but the note of apology in Sam's tone said he sympathized with how unpleasant a prospect that was. "Then we can take a little breather before we cut across to the mill, all right?"

"Where we muster the Calvary and cut them off at the pass," I said glibly, grinning grimly around the cold burning in my lungs and legs. "Right behind you, Kemosabe."

By the time Sam finally led us out of the water and stopped to catch a breather under the cover of an old grove of tangled oaks, I was happier for the break than I wanted to admit. My lungs felt blistered from the cold air. My leg muscles burned and I couldn't feel my feet at all anymore. I was trembling with cold, despite my coat.

Trent collapsed to sit on a fallen log, head hanging between his knees as if he were struggling to stay conscious. It was the first real sign of distress he'd given since we started running and I frowned worriedly, stumbling over on painfully prickling legs and laying a hand on his good shoulder.

Trent's body was icy cold and trembled beneath my fingers. I felt a jolt of surprise at that and I realized I had grown accustomed to him always feeling warm. Apparently the injury and blood loss was sapping his usual ability to tolerate the cold.

Cursing myself for not noticing sooner, I started struggling at the zipper of my borrowed coat with numb, painful fingers. I was freezing, but Trent was hurt, and it was my fault to begin with.

Sam beat me to it. I hadn't seen him shrug out of his thick winter jacket, but I saw him now as he moved around behind Trent and wrapped it around his shoulders, careful of the elf's injuries.

Trent stiffened, and I could tell he wanted to reject the gesture, but he didn't. Instead he eased his good arm into one sleeve and burrowed into the body-warmed garment in a way that told me just how badly he was actually feeling. "Thank you," he said quietly in that steady, gracefully proud way of his.

Sam gave a small, easy nod of acknowledgement that clearly said he considered it no big deal. I saw that the tall man was wearing flannel like his brother, two layers thick with a turtleneck and probably a tee shirt beneath. They definitely appeared to subscribe to the idea of layering, which was a good thing given the circumstances. It still had to be freezing cold without a coat, but I was glad he seemed to still have a little protection.

Sam had left his shotgun propped against a tree and he now retrieved it, transferring the extra rounds that had been in his coat pockets into his jeans and shirt pockets instead. I noticed he had a hand gun tucked into the back waistband of his pants and the outline of what was probably a knife sheath showed beneath his armpit, under the top layer of flannel.

Sam turned around and caught me checking out his weaponry. He gave me a slightly embarrassed and weary smile. "Yeah ... hazards of the job. Not actually a serial killer, I swear," he joked, trying to put me at ease.

Just at the moment, his state of preparedness was doing the opposite of making me uneasy. If you were going to be up a creek without a paddle, it didn't hurt to have firepower.

"Taurus 92, huh?" I said, nodding towards the gun in his waistband. Turning my head a little I caught sight of the adjustable rear guard and corrected myself. "No, make that a 99."

"Yeah," Sam agreed, raising his eyebrows slightly. "You know guns?"

I shrugged. "A little." I liked splat guns best, but I was familiar with a number of different makes and apparently those were mostly the same in this world or ours.

Trent smiled a little weakly. "She considers them the perfect birthday gift, actually," he teased me softly.

I shot him an amused glance and would have smacked him except I was afraid it might knock him over.

Sam gave an approving nod and slid the weapon from his jeans. Turning it handle forward, he held it out to me. "Here. You see one of those things, aim for the head."

I nodded, accepting the weapon and automatically checking the magazine. Warm from Sam's body, the gun felt good in my hands for more than one reason. Without my magic I was so damn defenseless and useless. At least now I could do something other than throw rocks at the ghouls if they showed up again.

"Okay, we need to go. It should only be a mile or two further that way," Sam said, nodding towards the woods on our right. I got the feeling he was downplaying the distance, but I nodded, pushing the Taurus into the pocket of my coat and turning to Trent, who was making no motion to rise.

He still only had one arm inside Sam's coat. I held onto the other side and helped him get his injured arm through the other sleeve. Trent groaned softly through his teeth, giving a strangled gasp of pain when his shoulder had to move and quickly curling his arm back to him as soon as the coat was fully on. His breath was quick and ragged. I didn't want to be worried, but I was.

"Trent, we have to go," I urged, taking his good elbow and trying to get him up.

Trent nodded, gathering himself. He started to rise, then rocked back again, head hanging, breath panting between his teeth. "Shit," I heard him murmur very softly and I knew he must really be doing badly, because Trent very rarely swore.

Sam had seen the trouble and come back over to us. He crouched by Trent. "Hey, I know this sucks, I'm sorry, but we gotta move."

"I know that!" Trent said through his teeth, pulling from Sam's grip on his arm. His irritation was obviously directed inward and he lowered his voice. "I know, I just ... I just need a moment and I'll be all right."

Sam gave him about a minute, looking around warily, his body language obviously screaming his desire to be moving. He glanced repeatedly at the much too rapidly darkening sky above and I knew he was worried about the impending night fall. After a minute he touched Trent's arm again, sliding his own through it and tugging so that Trent had no option but to rise.

"Come on, I'll help," Sam said earnestly. "The faster we get out of here, the sooner we can get you fixed up. Come on, man, you can do this."

Trent stumbled and swayed and I caught his other side, helping Sam support him. The pure look of frustration on Trent's pinched face was almost painful. It was obviously killing him to be so weak. Sam half walked, half dragged him along for a few dozen yards, getting Trent's frozen, exhausted limbs working again and giving him some momentum to work with. I stumbled along on the other side, trying to help while at the same time trying not to fall and take Trent down with me.

I knew Trent was starting to recover enough to reassert himself when a few minutes later he tugged away from both Sam and I, leaning one handed against a tree, but holding his feet on his own. "I'm good now, all right? I'm good, I can walk." He proved it by stumbling doggedly forward in the direction we'd been going. Sam eyed him cautiously, but allowed that he seemed to be capable of it and quickly took point again, leaving me to play rear guard and keep an eye on Trent's back to make sure he didn't collapse or fall too far behind.

"I'm sorry," Trent mumbled softly as we worked our way through the woods, moving swiftly, but not nearly as swiftly as we had been when we first started. The elf's voice was bitter with self-recrimination as he glanced over at me. "I'm slowing you down."

I looked down at the ground, remembering the unhesitating way Trent had thrown himself on top of me back there. I didn't know what to say to him. I'd be a lot slower if I were dead, Trent.

"You're doing fine, okay? You're both doing great," Sam encouraged from several yards ahead of us, even though I knew Trent was talking to me. "It's gonna be okay."

"I kind of wish he would stop saying that," I murmured to Trent, keeping my voice pitched low enough that Sam wouldn't be able to hear me. I knew he meant well, and I appreciated what he was trying to do for us, I really did, but ...

"Why, because every time he does, it feels like it's becoming less and less likely to be the truth?" Trent whispered back with a small, weary grin, voicing my thoughts exactly.

The sky was darkening and the temperature falling sharply. It was going to be night soon. Wherever we were headed, we weren't going to make it before that happened.

Chapter Text

The sun was down. The stars were out above the black tips of the tree branches, and I had that creeping dread prickling down my neck again. I was now sure that it must have been the ghouls I sensed in the woods last night ... was it only last night? It seemed a lot longer ago than that.

My body was frozen, I could no longer feel my feet, my legs burned and the partially healed injury to my shoulder throbbed, but I didn't think it was the darkness, cold or pain that was raising the hairs on my neck. I was pretty sure there were ghouls nearby. I think Sam felt the same way because he was pushing us faster and faster through the darkened woods.

In the distance I could see the hulking outline of some larger black shape blotting out the stars and I hoped that it was the mill we were heading for. The way Sam's body language perked up when he saw it made me think it was.

Almost there ...

Something dark flew from the trees and slammed into Sam from the side, tackling him to the ground. I could see the outline of the ghoul's body in the darkness as Sam elbowed it in the face, struggling to get it off him. His shotgun was partially trapped under his body by the way they had fallen.

With stiff, frozen fingers I quickly yanked the Taurus from my coat pocket, flicked off the safety and shot the ghoul on top of Sam in the head. I was exhausted, frozen, injured and acting on little sleep and too much adrenaline. The action was instinctive, only the moment after I pulled the trigger did I realize I had just killed someone I didn't even know.

The Winchesters considered them creatures and they certainly sounded pretty damn nasty but I knew almost nothing about them first hand, and killing was never my go-to plan. I didn't exactly freeze, I knew I couldn't afford that, but the tension in my gut did make it a little hard to breathe. Crap, crap, crap!

Sam rolled the limp ghoul off of him and used the butt of his shotgun to quickly smash the ghoul's head in with a few quick strokes - making me think that maybe I hadn't actually killed it after all. Headshots may stop them, but apparently total cranial destruction was required to prevent reanimation - or maybe we'd all just seen too many zombie movies.

In my periphery vision, the trees around us seemed to be moving, only I knew it wasn't the trees. It was like staring with unfocused eyes at the grass on a summer day and suddenly becoming aware that it was actually alive with the activity of an ant hive. Crap on toast, they'd found us all right. Possibly, they'd found the car already and had been waiting here for us. I didn't think there were nearly as many as we'd encountered before, but it was impossible to tell in the darkness.

"Rachel," Trent's breath frosted on the night air. He was ghost-pale in the moonlight. He'd obviously seen the movement too. "Run!"

It was a superfluous command because all three of us were already doing that. The problem was that we didn't get far. The dark shapes in the trees converged on us. Sam's shotgun roared, lighting up the night in violent flashes of light and sound that deepened the chaos. The ghouls weren't silent any longer. They growled and shouted and screamed with rage, hunger, pain ... I couldn't tell.

I guess they could smell the blood on Trent all right, because they seemed drawn to him like catnip. Trent was dodging them remarkably well given his condition, but one of them grabbed the elf, fingers digging into his wounded shoulder through the coat he wore and Trent fell, dropping to his knees with a cry of pain.

I shot the ghoul in the head before it could force him the rest of the way down. Adrenaline pumping and mindful of what had happened earlier, I squeezed the trigger several more times in quick succession, hoping that would keep it down. I still felt sick inside, but it was self-defense and without my magic I didn't have the luxury of options. This sucked, big time.

I flipped and rolled the next ghoul that charged and threw him into a tree. Reaching down, I grabbed Trent's hand and half yanked, half helped him back to his feet. "Stay close!" I instructed quickly. Trent was usually terrible at following orders, but one thing I did have to give him - it didn't seem to faze him or hurt his pride to let me protect him when the situation called for it. I'd dealt with plenty of alpha males who were all about protecting the little lady but would get seriously bent out of shape at the thought that I could possibly do the same for them. Trent did many things that annoyed the crap out of me, but this wasn't one of them. He didn't seem to take my competence as a challenge to his masculinity and honestly, I kind of liked that. It could be because I'd played body guard for him in the past (even if usually unwillingly). I got the odd feeling though, that it was more because he respected me and my skills and saw me as an equal, like Quen.

Keeping Trent close and trying to remain cognizant of how many shots I had left, I attempted to force a way through the tangle, pummeling anything that came close. My night vision was better than a normal human's and despite the chaos and the disruptive flashes of light, I quickly realized that there weren't as many of the ghouls as it initially seemed. There had only been six, and three were already down. Apparently our ruse had worked and most of the pack must have followed Dean.

Sam blasted the head off another one, but it was followed by the chilling sound of his shotgun clicking on empty chambers. He swung the weapon around, using the butt like a club and I realized he was out of ammo. I probably only had a handful of shots left myself. We had to get to the car and get out of here!

Someone grabbed my hair and I spun, drop-kicking them in the knee and shooting them in the gut. Not fatal, but it sent them reeling backwards and I was able to scramble away. I'd lost Trent in the skirmish and I looked around for him urgently. I turned just in time to see Sam get thrown forcefully into a tree. I knew instantly from the way his head bounced against the hard surface that we were in trouble. Sure enough, he slumped to the ground beneath the tree, knocked unconscious by the vicious blow.

I leaped, bodily tackling the ghoul that had knocked him out before it could pounce on him. We went down in a tangle and the smell of death and decay washed over me at the close contact. The ghouls smelled like rotting flesh and human decomposition. I wasn't sure if that was because of what they fed on or if it was the scent of their race, but it was strong enough to make me gag. I jammed my knee into the man's in the groin. I wasn't sure how the whole 'wearing the skin' thing went, but it seemed like the ghouls mimicked their previous victims' physiology closely enough that the move hurt enough to allow me to roll away.

Trent was crouching over Sam, trying to rouse him. I knew neither of us would be able to carry the tall man right now. This was so not good. Still on hands and knees, I scrambled to put myself protectively in front of the two injured men.

Before I had a chance to rise, the two remaining ghouls attacked at the same time. Pivoting on my knee, gun braced in both hands, I pumped two shots into the head of the nearest one and he fell. I didn't have time to adjust my aim before the second one slammed into me and threw me back onto the ground, hard.

I had been knocked around far too much today and pain flared through me. At the same moment, I saw a familiar but unexpected ball of gold slam into the ghoul above me, sending him reeling backwards with a shriek. I jerked my gun back up and shot him three times in the head before the gun clicked empty.

For a few heartbeats a sudden, heavy silence fell and all I could hear was my own ragged breathing. Then I quickly scrambled upright, wincing at the pain of feeling like every freaking muscle in my body was bruised. I turned to Trent and for a moment I saw the haze of magic dripping from his hand, tinted with his golden aura, before he let it dissipate upon seeing that the ghouls were all down. I tasted the familiar, fleeting tang of wild magic on the air before it was gone.

"What the hell, Trent?" I demanded in shocked surprise. "I thought you said you couldn't do wild magic here!" I immediately tried for a line, but met with the same failure as all my previous attempts. Turn take it, that wasn't fair.

Trent wrapped one arm around his middle, the other gripping his shoulder. "No," he corrected, his breathing unsteady. "I said I couldn't get it to acknowledge me. After you went missing, I tried a little harder and found a way to ... get its attention. It's how we were able to find you," he admitted. "You left your coat at the restaurant and it was in the car beside me when I woke up. You still had those bloody napkins from earlier in your pocket. I took yours for a focusing object. When we were in the woods searching, I slipped away long enough to work a locator charm. They don't know," he nodded towards Sam and I guessed this was probably the root of Dean's "don't wander off again" comment earlier. "I told them I'd seen smoke coming from the right direction."

"Then you were trying to work a spell back there," I blurted in realization, understanding now what Trent had been trying to do when Raymond was laying into him and he couldn't physically fight him off.

Trent grimaced as he tilted Sam's head from side to side and checked his eyelids and vitals. "The magic is different here. It's harder for me to use it and my control is a little ... spotty," had admitted.

"This is good news," I said as I dropped back to my knees beside them, slapping Sam's cheek, trying to get him to wake up. All the ghouls may be down for now, but we needed to get out of here before that changed or more showed up. I thought maybe I could drag Sam if I needed to, as long as I wasn't having to run and fight while I did so. "Once we're out of here, you can show me how to tap in too."

"I ... don't think that's a good idea," Trent said quietly.

I had just gotten Sam's shoulders off the ground but I stopped, looking up sharply at Trent again. With magic back in our corner, our chances of both survival and getting home, improved exponentially. I was as happy as I could be, given the circumstances and I didn't understand why Trent wasn't sharing my enthusiasm.

"Oh yeah, why not?" I demanded, more than a little irritated at the thought that Trent had a way to access magic and was acting like he wasn't going to share.

Trent's gaze skirted away from mine, his face blank like it always got when he was hiding something from me. "I told you, it's ... different. I'm an elf, you're not. I don't think it will work the same as it does in our world." It was a crap explanation and I knew that wasn't the problem, or at least not all of it. Trent was definitely hiding something, but I didn't have time to call him on it just now. Sam was starting to stir beneath my hands and right now getting out of Dodge was the priority. I could grill Trent later.

I shook Sam again, patting his cheek and calling his name. For a moment his brown eyes were unfocused as they blinked up at me, then he came aware with a jerk, sitting up and groping for his fallen weapon, bouncing back with the wary rapidity of a veteran fighter. His gaze darted around us as he scrambled unsteadily back to his feet.

"Whoa, hey, it's okay," I said quickly. "They're all down, but we should probably get going." I handed him back his gun. "Thanks for the loan. It's out of bullets."

I could tell his mind was still lagging a few steps behind, but he seemed to grasp what I was saying just fine. He looked at the downed ghouls and shot Trent and me a look. Raising his eyebrows in either surprise, approval, or some combination thereof, he shoved the empty Taurus back into his waistband. "Got more in the car," he said with a small smile.

A few minutes later we were once more packed into the large black vehicle and roaring away down a dirt road. In the back seat with Trent, I reloaded the hand gun and two shotguns. The second shotgun had come out of the car's trunk along with the ammunition. There was a positive arsenal back there ... although it was the jumble of items carved with charm sigils and what looked a lot like spelling ingredients mixed in with the guns and blades that had piqued my curiosity the most. I was fairly ready to bet the Winchesters weren't witches, but they seemed to know somethingabout magic.

Trent sat across from me, his body slumped but tense, head resting against the seat and window at an angle as we jolted along. He looked sick and was holding his shoulder, but he hadn't yet bled through the borrowed coat he was wearing and I hoped that was a good sign.

Sam drove, pushing the car faster than was probably safe on the lousy road, or for a man who had recently had a head injury. It had been a while since we'd separated from Dean. I could tell he was worried. We rounded a corner too fast, skidding on the snow-slick surface of the road and I winced, grabbing the back of the front seat for purchase as we slid, the front fender harshly clipping the side of a tree before we bounced and jounced back onto the road again.

Sam cursed eloquently, but didn't slow down.

When the vehicle finally did slow, I saw from the guardrails that had replaced the road's gravel shoulder that we were coming up on a small bridge of some kind. It wasn't much of a bridge, mostly just a long concrete expanse that spanned a gully holding the small stream we'd been following earlier. This must be the place the brothers had agreed to meet, because once we reached the other side of the short bridge, Sam stopped and let the car idle. His gaze scanned the still, dark woods around us and the thin roadway ahead and behind us. His fingers drummed on the steering wheel in an unconscious, anxious rhythm.

"Come on, Dean ..." I heard him mutter under his breath and there was no mistaking the worry in his tone.

Glancing at Trent's slumped form, I wondered how long we'd wait here if Dean didn't show. Looking at Sam's tense, set shoulders, I answered my own question. He didn't look like he was going to be taking off without his big brother any time in this century.

I realized I wasn't sure how I knew Sam was the younger of the brothers. I couldn't remember if they'd said anything to that effect, or if I had just picked it up from watching them interact. Dean had that big brother vibe going on, like Robby used to be with me when we were younger, before ... before he could no longer accept or deal with what I was and the circus that had become my life. I quickly willed those unpleasant thoughts away, now was not the time.

Reaching into the back seat, Sam grabbed one of the shotguns I'd loaded and got out of the car. Going around to the trunk, he opened and closed it again, returning with a flare gun. He fired a shot into the air, then tossed the flare gun back into the car through the open window. He paced beside the idling car, shotgun in hand, watching the woods.

Rolling down my window, I picked up the other shotgun and made sure the safety was off. That flare would hopefully guide Dean to us, but it was sure to draw whatever else was out there as well. I started to offer the hand gun to Trent, only to find him unconscious. Worried, I quickly checked his pulse, which was thready, but definitely present. I pressed my hand against his shoulder, and it came away wet. He had apparently finally bled all the way through the thick coat. Shit.

Setting aside the weapons and hurriedly unzipping his borrowed coat, I winced at the way the lining on his left side and gone from tan to a dark red-brown. The bleeding finally seemed to have slowed now that we weren't running around, but I feared the damage was already done. The wound itself wasn't that terrible, but Trent had lost way, way too much blood over the course of the evening. I blessed Trent's elven resilience then, because I think a human might have already gone into hypovolemic shock.

I started when Sam passed me several thick gauze pads and a roll of medical tape through the window. Apparently they had medical supplies in their arsenal too.

"Is he okay?" Sam asked worriedly, his attention divided between me and our surroundings.

I shook my head as I quickly stripped the gauze pads out of their sterile packaging and used the medical tape to bind them in place across the worst of Trent's wounds, creating a pressure dressing. It felt like too little, too late, but every little bit could be critical to him now. "I don't know," I said honestly, struggling not to let my voice shake. "He's lost a lot of blood."

Sam's brows furrowed and he looked torn. "Damn it," I heard him mutter as he agitatedly paced the length of the car once more. "Damn it ..." the second whisper was supposed to be soft enough that I couldn't hear it, and it carried a lot more worry and frustration.

Then a flock of birds exploded from the trees in the distance, almost invisible against the dark sky save for the flutter of their wings and the annoyed sound of their squawking. There was a rustle of movement in the trees. Sam swung quickly back towards the woods and I snatched up the shotgun again, poking the muzzle of the gun out the open window.

For a long minute or two nothing happened. Then a lot of things happened at once. A dark shape came barreling out of the woods at a stumbling, limping run. Sam's weapon snapped up, but he hesitated carefully and a moment later that cautiousness was rewarded when the light of the moon revealed that it was Dean who had just crashed out of the trees and was heading towards us.

The older Winchester looked like hell and he'd lost his weapon somewhere, probably after he had run out of ammunition. He was limping pretty severely, although it didn't appear to be slowing him down all that much.

Sam didn't immediately lower his weapon, sighting in on his brother's head as he approached. "Dean?" his voice was soft with hope and harsh with dread. With a sick jolt, I remembered - if Dean had been killed, this could just be a ghoul wearing his skin. Obviously, Sam was painfully aware of that.

Dean slowed, hands going placating out to the side in understanding when he saw his brother drawing down on him. He looked about to say something, when his gaze flicked past Sam to the car and indignation wiped all other emotion from his face.

"What the hell did you do the car?!" he shouted, forgetting about the gun and hobbling quickly past Sam towards the front of the car to get a better look at the damage we'd probably taken when we grazed that tree. "Dude! There had damn well better be ghoul guts on here, tell me you did not run my baby into a fucking tree!"

Sam's shoulders loosened and he lowered his weapon - apparently satisfied that this was unmistakably his brother. "Shut up and get in the damn car, Dean! You're late!"

Another dark shape broke from the woods and Sam's gun snapped up again. This time he shot without hesitation. Ejecting the shell he quickly fired a second and third time, backing up towards the car quickly as a near tidal-wave of figures came flooding out of the tree line.

"Sorry, had a little trouble with my admirers," Dean retorted sarcastically as he dove in through the open driver's door of the car. "It's the freaking night of the living dead out there."

Leaning out the window to avoid the nasty situation of firing a weapon inside an enclosed vehicle, I fired into the wave. I wasn't able to really aim at anything, but I pumped out several shots to help slow them down, firing until the gun was empty again.

Sam followed Dean in through the open driver's door, shoving his brother over as he got in. Dean didn't fight him, scooting over rapidly so they could both fit and grabbing Sam's gun from him so Sam could work the gears and throw the car back into drive.

Dean reached across Sam, grabbing the driver's door and yanking it shut even as Sam floored the pedal and we roared forward. Dean grunted as the momentum threw him first against the steering wheel and then against Sam before a sharp turn more or less tossed him over onto the passenger's seat.

The same turn threw me across the car as well and I was glad I had already emptied the shotgun, because otherwise it probably would have gone off when I slide across the seat and my back collided with Trent's unconscious form. I struggled up right, dropping the empty gun into the wheel well and rolling up the window as if that would somehow keep the monsters out. I wasn't exactly running at my best right now.

Looking out the rear window, I saw the dark outlines of dozens of ghouls standing on the road in the moonlight, the scene growing rapidly smaller and smaller as we sped away. However quick these beings may be, they apparently were not quick enough to catch a speeding car and I felt a little bit of me relax.

Turning around in the seat, I leaned my head back and tried to catch my breath. A few more sharp turns and the grind of dirt and gravel under our tires turned into the more welcoming hum of asphalt as Sam swung us out onto a larger, better paved road.

The car reeked of blood and not all of it was Trent's, I realized. Dean had slumped down in the passenger's seat and in the quiet that descended in the wake of our escape, I could hear that the ragged cadence of his breathing sounded pained.

Sam seemed to have realized something was off as well. "Dean? You okay?" he asked.

Dean nodded and dragged himself a little more upright. "Got knocked around pretty good, but nothing that won't mend." He struggled out of his jacket and shifted around on the seat with some difficulty, bending forward at an odd angle. I couldn't see what he was doing, but guessed he was either checking his injuries, or trying to treat them. He hissed and swore softly and I saw him curl forward a little harder.

"Dean?" Keeping half his attention on the road he was still navigating at a fairly terrifying speed, Sam reached across the seat, fingers fumbling until they apparently found the wound on his brother's thigh that was causing the problem.

Dean gasped and swore again, slapping his brother's hand away from him. "Geez Sammy, quit feeling me up, we have company."

I could see that Sam's hand had come away red. It was his turn to swear and the car swerved over the center line of the road before he quickly righted it again.

"Watch it!" Dean snapped. "You trying to hit another tree?! Maybe I should drive."

Sam ignored him. "Dean, where are you hurt? How bad? Tell me!" He demanded sharply. I knew why he was worried, a badly bleeding thigh wound could mean damage to the femoral artery, and if that was the case Dean probably wouldn't survive long enough for us to get him to a hospital.

Apparently, Dean understood his fear as well because his voice was softer when he responded and held a more calming and reassuring quality. "It hurts, I'm bleeding, I'm gonna need stitches, but it's not fatal, okay? Relax."

Sam didn't relax, but he did seem at least a little reassured. Until he glanced down and saw the gas gauge. Then he swore again. From where I sat I could see we were riding on empty. Phenomenal. We were in the middle of nowhere, running from zombie-ghouls with a car full of people who needed to get to a hospital and we were almost out of gas. I was beginning to wonder if someone had actually put a bad luck curse on us when a different, even more troubling thought hit me.

The hospital ... oh crap. This world wasn't equipped to deal with the sometimes unique needs of inderlanders, were they? They'd treat Trent like a human, which might be fine ... or it might not. I wasn't sure. Trent had lost so much blood, they'd want to give him a transfusion probably, but was that safe? I knew very little about elven physiology beyond the basics. The elves hadn't officially existed when I was in school and therefore weren't covered in biology class like other races were. Would a large influx of human blood help or harm Trent in his current condition? Would his body even be able to accept it, or might it be as fatal as giving someone the wrong blood type? Would they even be able to type his blood to begin with?

Elves had passed as humans for centuries and the two races could intermarry and produce children so they must not be all that different, but there was a difference between creating babies and dumping large quantities of another species' blood into your veins when you were already weakened. Trent was as close to a pure elf as still existed in our world, with very little human in his heritage, would that make any difference?

Doubtless, the Kalamacks had always had their own private doctors and so even when everyone thought the elves extinct, it wouldn't have been an issue ... hell, Trent's dad had been a genetic scientist with a vast understand of biology and so was Trent, they probably could have doctored themselves if they'd needed to. I wished Trent were awake. He'd know the answers to all these questions.

It could be that he'd be perfectly fine and I was worrying needlessly, but while I was borrowing trouble - if the hospital did run any kind of tests on his blood, they'd certainly realize there was something very wrong and different about him, wouldn't they? Would they think he had some kind of disease? Or, combined with his ears and the fact that he was still alive when he probably shouldn't be, would they realize he wasn't human? What would happen then?

My head spinning with exhaustion and thick with lack of sleep, making the mountain of uncertainties seemed crushingly unwieldy. I could deal with them discovering what Trent was if it meant keeping him alive, but I couldn't deal with him dying because of a medical accident that I didn't know enough to prevent. I wasn't sure what to do.

I was pulled from my thoughts when we turned abruptly into a little gas station, proving our luck wasn't all bad. I hadn't realized we'd gained the main roads again and I blinked hard, trying to fight my fatigue and the painful stiffness of my hurting body. Out the window, I could see that we were indeed back in civilization again because the gas station was adjacent to a small strip mall. The lighted windows and glowing signs of the shops reminded me that it wasn't actually as late as it felt. It all looked so bizarrely normal, which at the moment lent the mundane scenery an almost surreal edge.

Sam jumped out quickly to get gas and my gaze caught on the nearest store. "Ryan's Whole Foods," the lighted green letters proclaimed and a little ping of an idea rattled around in my throbbing head.

If wild magic worked here, then there was a good chance that earth magic worked too. If I could mix up a healing charm for Trent, that would help a lot. The stronger he was, the less likely it would be that any possible complications would be fatal.

I slid out of the car before I'd even finished the thought. Sam looked up at me questioningly and I jerked my head vaguely towards the gas station and mumbled something about needing to use the lady's room. I wasn't about to try to explain right now.

I headed for the gas station, then ducked into the whole foods store instead. I ran into a second stumbling block as I realized I was going to have to work from memory, since of course, I didn't exactly have access to any of my spell books. That wasn't as easy as it sounded - imagine trying to cook a soufflé from memory and you get the idea. Fortunately, there were a couple of basic field-medicine style healing charms that I'd been required to memorize as part of my internship training with the IS some years back. I was pretty sure I still remembered those, and the extra benefit was that they were considered field medicine because they didn't require cooking and could be made in non-optimal spelling conditions from readily available ingredients. Meaning that the ingredients were all herbal and you didn't need anything harder to obtain like holy dust or graveyard dirt.

Considering I'd probably be cooking this up in a hospital bathroom somewhere, the easy prep was a necessary trade off for the fact that the resulting spell would be pretty weak compared to what I could have done with either a more complex earth spell, or my ley line magic.

Snatching up the ingredients as I remembered them, I quickly filled one of the small shopping baskets with marjoram, kelp, goldenseal, spring water and a few other items. I was afraid I was going to have issues finding comfrey, valerian and tutsan oil, but fortunately the health food store had a whole wall of herbal supplements in both bulk and capsule form. It was just about as good as a spell shop really; I even found a small mortar and pestle, a copper mixing bowl and a glass stir stick. I grabbed some Gatorade too. It wasn't part of the spell, but it would help on a physical level. It wouldn't do much for Trent if he remained unconscious, but it would at least be good for Dean. Not to mention I was pretty thirsty myself by now.

It took my weary mind an embarrassingly long moment to remember that tutsan oil was also called St. John's Wort, which was how this shop had it labeled, but overall it took me only a matter of minutes to gather up my purchases. Thankfully I still had the money Trent had given me earlier in the pocket of my jeans, and even more thankfully the dark coat I was wearing hid my blood splattered body beneath. My jeans and boots were still wet and caked with dirt, my face and hands stained and I didn't even what to know what kind of mess my hair was, but the teenager at the checkout only gave me a curious glance as he rung me up, apparently not considering it any of his business.

Exiting the store I headed quickly back to the car and saw Sam returning from the gas station, probably having just paid for the gas. Having no way to hide the paper shopping bag I was carrying tucked under my arm, I simply shrugged when Sam cast me an inquiring look. "I got some stuff for Trent," I said truthfully. "Dean too," I added, waggling the grape Gatorade nine-pack I was carrying in my other hand.

Sam, who also had a paper bag under his arm, simply acknowledged this with a nod and a small, distracted smile as we both got back in the car. I wrangled one of the Gatorade bottles out of its plastic meshing and handed it up to Dean before freeing another for myself.

"Thanks," Dean said as he knocked it back. "Didn't happen to grab anything stronger did you?"

"Got it covered," Sam responded as he quickly pulled the car back out onto the highway.

I thirstily finished half the bottle of sports drink before having to stop because my stomach was protesting the rapid consumption.

In the front seat, I heard Dean on the phone with someone he called Bobby. Apparently this Bobby was looped in on the whole inderland thing, because Dean was filling him in on the situation with the ghouls. "How far away are you? We're talking over thirty of them still left, probably. We need more hands to clean this one up, Bobby. Anyone else in the area?" I heard him saying.

Turning to check on Trent, I was surprised to find his eyes open and watching me. They were cloudy, like he wasn't quite all the way there, but he was awake and the leap in my heart told me that was a good thing.

"Hey, try to drink some of this, okay?" I said, gently pushing the bottle to his lips and tipping it carefully. I wanted to get some liquid into him. Trent obeyed silently, his lips parting with an eagerness that said he was parched even if he could only manage very small sips at a time. I saw his throat working slowly, as if with difficulty. He moved his arm in what might have been an attempt to reach up and take the bottle. His face blanched with pain at the motion and he let his hand fall back to his lap, content to let me hold it for him.

"Bobby was halfway home, but he's turning around," I heard Dean inform Sam upon hanging up the phone. "He's gonna see if he can rustle up a couple of other hunters en-route and bring them along."

"We going to go frontal assault on this?" Sam's voice indicated he wasn't sure that was a good idea.

"Sucks, but may have to," Dean responded, settling back in his seat again with a small groan. "There's too many of them and they're too hungry, they're gonna do something big, soon. We gotta get more bodies down here and deal with them before that happens. Maybe we can come up with some kind of trap."

I was only partially listening to them. Between my fatigued hands and the moving car, it wasn't easy to hold the bottle steady. I spilled some of the drink down Trent's chin during the process, but little by little I helped him get down the remaining half of the bottle. His eyes seemed clearer and more alert by the time he finished and I could see he was struggling to clear his head and pull himself together.

"Sorry," I mumbled in apology, feeling awkward and clumsy as I tried to pat his chin and neck dry with the sleeve of my coat.

Trent turned his face away from me, grimacing softly. He was too drained to blush, but I could tell he was just lucid enough to be embarrassed for needing to be cared for like this. Trent was funny like that. He was okay with me saving his butt, but he had a strong dislike of being seen as weak. Best as I could figure it, he didn't have to be stronger than anyone else, he just had to be as strong as he thought he should be. On one hand I could respect and even understand that, on the other, I wished he'd get through his head that I wasn't one of those people for whom he needed to keep up appearances. This was what friends were for.

Whoa, and when exactly did I start thinking of Trent as a friend? I bit my lower lip and didn't realize I was unconsciously stroking Trent's damp, tangled hair until he turned his head back to me and those intensely green eyes met mine, instigating a funny little drop in the pit of my stomach. For a lot longer than I'd been willing to admit, I supposed. Then I wondered why I had fought admitting it to myself at all. Sure, we'd been enemies for a long time and I'd not really trusted him until the whole thing with the Ever After, but we'd been through a hell of a lot together and today Trent had just about died for me. Why was it so hard to admit that I cared about him, like I cared about Jenks and Ivy ... ?

Maybe because it isn't quite the same feeling, is it? A little voice whispered unhelpfully in the back of my mind. I squashed it and resolutely drew my hand away from Trent's hair. No, it wasn't. I couldn't deny I felt something other than friendship towards this man, but it was such a complicated situation and we were such different people, it would never work, right? Or maybe I was just afraid. Afraid to let my body do the thinking when it was my heart that would pay the price. Afraid because at my core, I knew Trent and I could never just be casual lovers ... I couldn't, anyway. I would want more, but the truth was I no longer believed that was possible. Romance just didn't work out for me and I had lost too much, too many times.

I couldn't risk my heart that way again. Trent was a beautiful, confusing, soul-consuming mistake I wasn't ready to make. But he was a good man, he most certainly was my friend and I desperately wanted him to be all right. I busied my hands detaching another Gatorade bottle, forcing down the urge to let my fingers find his hair again. I wasn't even sure who I wanted to comfort by the gesture - him, or me?

Instead I unrolled the top of the paper bag on the seat between us and tilted it so Trent could see the contents. I knew he'd recognize them for what they were. "Got some stuff to help," I told him and Trent's faint, relieved smile, indicated he understood.

Uncapping the new bottle, I raised it to his lips and helped him drink a little more. "How are you feeling?"

Trent gave a rueful grunt. "I've felt better," he mumbled.

"Amen to that," Dean muttered from the front seat. He turned a little in his seat to get a better look back at us. I could tell he was assessing Trent's condition. "Guess this wasn't exactly the vacation you two were expecting, huh?"

Trent grinned weakly and I gave a snort. "Well, the brochure did leave out the vampires and zombie-ghouls," I said wearily.

"Yeah ... about that," Dean said slowly. "Probably best if you keep most of that to yourselves." He gestured to Trent's shoulder. "Just a suggestion, but if I were you I'd tell the folks at the ER that it was a dog or a wolf or a bear or something."

I felt Trent stiffen next to me. He started struggling to sit up and I frowned at him, trying to understand what was the matter.

"And it would be appreciated if you didn't mention us," Sam added as we turned into a parking lot. "I know this is asking a lot after what you've been through, but it's honestly for your own good."

"I get it," I returned dryly, somehow not at all surprised that the brothers wished to fly under the radar. "No one would believe a story like this. Don't worry, I don't feel like being treated like a raving lunatic." I would have been more worried about not spreading the word about the danger in the woods, but from the conversations I'd overheard they were already working on that angle. I squinted in confusion when Sam pulled into a parking spot in front of a seedy little run down motel. He slipped the car into park, but kept the engine idling.

Dean struggled more than he probably should have to get the door open and slid out. In the glare of the flickering parking lot lights, I could see that the right leg of his pants was dark with blood and his shirt was torn, another large stain spreading across his abdomen despite the multiple layers of cotton and flannel he was wearing. He grabbed his leather jacket off the seat and closed the car door. He leaned one hand on the edge of the open window for support for a moment, obviously unsteady on his feet and now limping even worse than before.

Sam watched him with concern. "You gonna be okay? I'll drop them at the hospital and be right back," he promised, not sounding very happy at having to leave Dean in this state.

"Whoa, wait, isn't he going to the ER too?" I protested.

"I don't need to go to the hospital," Trent protested at more or less the same time. I looked at him, my frown deepening.

"Me? I'm fine. These are just scratches," Dean said cheerfully, pretending that he wasn't still holding onto the car because he might not be able to balance when he let go.

"I don't need to go to the hospital," Trent said again, more forcefully. He'd pulled himself upright, perhaps trying to look less injured and I realized he'd started getting tense the minute Dean had mentioned the ER.

"Rachel," Trent caught my eyes urgently. "I'll be all right. You can fix me up." His gaze darted meaningfully to the bag on the seat and then back to me. "I just need a few bandages and some rest."

Trent's eyes were telling me to trust him, that it would be bad if we went to the ER. I swallowed, feeling torn. I really did not like the idea of relying on rudimentary healing charms and my questionable recollection of long ago first aide classes, but my own earlier fears were still fresh in my mind, and if Trent thought there was danger then maybe I should listen.

Sam had turned in his seat, looking at us curiously, and Dean, still leaning on the car window, cocked his head at us. "You've lost a lot of blood, man. You should let them check you out," he said with concern, and I kind of thought that was weird considering he was about to hobble into a hotel room with injuries that clearly needed stitches.

Trent shook his head stubbornly. "It's not necessary," he protested hoarsely. "And more likely to do harm than good." He swallowed and I could tell he was struggling with his foggy head enough to come up with a convincing lie, something that would make his refusal understandable. Trent was obviously spent and I jumped in to save him the effort.

"He's right," I agreed softly and with more than a little reluctance. I reached over and squeezed his hand. "Look ... you two obviously have your own reasons for not wanting to garner a lot of attention, let's just say we do too. We haven't done anything wrong," I assured when both men's gazes sharpened a little. "But there are ... people who would like to hurt us if they can find us." That was true, they just weren't in this world. "We're not really here for a vacation and you were right the other night, our accident in the woods wasn't really all that accidental, although it certainly wasn't the ghouls either." I ran a weary, stained hand down my face, risking enough of the truth to be believable and keeping the details vague.

"It has to do with his ex," I nodded at Trent, "and her family, who are kind of like the mob, only more high-brow. There's a custody battle and a ton of crappy politics involved, it's complicated and messy, and I know none of that concerns you two, but today's kind of been hell and if there's any way we can crash in your hotel room long enough for me to make sure he's not dying and for us to get a little rest, we'd be really, really grateful." The words tumbled out in a weary jumble. I was so tired and worried. I really wanted Trent in the care of someone qualified, but it looked like he was going to be stuck with me. The responsibility was a lot more than I wanted to handle in my current state.

I think it was probably my obvious weariness and desperation that swayed them more than my half-coherent story. If there was one thing I was coming to learn about Sam and Dean Winchester it was that they didn't tend to turn their backs on people who needed help.

The brother's exchanged looks and Dean shrugged. Sighing, Sam turned off the car and opened his door. "Okay. You can stay here tonight if you really want to. We have some medical stuff. If it's really not too bad, maybe we can patch him up, at least enough for tonight."

"But if he looks like he's gonna croak, then you call 911, we split and you don't tell anyone this wasn't your hotel room, we clear?" Dean said as I eased stiffly out of the car and came around to his side to try to wrangle Trent out.

"Crystal," I agreed with a nod. "Thanks." I meant it.

I managed to get Trent out of the car and wrapped his arm good around my shoulders, supporting him as we stumbled after our hosts. Dean was really having trouble with his leg and after hop-stepping painfully a few feet he gave in and grabbed onto his brother's shoulder as a make-shift crutch for the rest of the short way to the motel room door. It looked a little awkward given the height disparity between them and I heard Dean muttering something about Sasquatch under his breath that Sam was pretending not to hear.

Inside the hotel room, Sam eased Dean down on to the bed but I walked Trent straight through into the small bathroom. Flipping the toilet cover down, I guided him to sit on the lid and pressed the Gatorade bottle I was still carrying back into his hands. "Keep working on that," I instructed. "I'll be right back."

Dean was alone in the bedroom now, peeling out of his layers of shirts with a tense, pained look of concentration. I slid out of the room, making sure the deadbolt was turned to keep it from locking behind me. I found Sam outside by the car again, rooting around inside the open trunk. He had his backpack and a couple duffel bags by his feet. One of the bags was open and he was tossing supplies into it. I saw more gauze pads and tape and guessed he was raiding their medical supplies.

The car wasn't locked up yet, so I opened the door and leaned inside, grabbing my bag and the remainder of the Gatorade out of the back seat. I spotted my coat in the wheel well and tucked it under an arm. Sam's paper bag was sitting on the front seat so I picked it up, too. It was heavy and clinked like there were glass bottles inside.

"You want this inside?" I asked him, indicating the bag I was holding. Sam peeked out around the edge of the trunk and nodded. "Yeah, you can just give that to Dean."

Back inside the hotel room, I found that Dean had already finished shedding his bloodied clothes onto the floor. He sat on the edge of the bed in only a pair of black boxers, head bent as he examined the bleeding puncture wound on the outside of his thigh. It looked like at least some the ghouls he fought must have had some sort of weapons because the wound to his leg and the angled gashes that slashed across his abdomen looked like they had been done with a blade of some kind.

Of course, his injuries weren't the only thing I noticed upon finding myself unexpectedly confronted with a nearly naked man. My mind was working slowly to begin with and Dean was very nicely built, to put it mildly. He was all muscle, but not in a bulky way. His was a lean, athletic frame that obviously came from constant activity rather than any kind of regimented exercise. I guessed that chasing vampires and ghouls around would probably keep one in fairly good shape. Although good was perhaps relative, since I glimpsed more than a few old scars marring the lightly freckled skin.

Dean looked up when I entered. From the momentary openness in his face, I knew he'd expected to see his brother. When he saw me instead the openness flickered away, although his expression did not change and his gaze was not unfriendly. He wiped the pain from his face enough to smirk broadly at the way I was unintentionally staring at him.

"Granted we're already in a no-name motel room, but aren't you at least going to buy me a drink first?" he joked.

I felt my cheeks warm despite myself and I scowled at him, mostly just because I was embarrassed at having been accidentally caught ogling. A girl should not be held responsible when she was running on as much spun-out adrenaline and lack of rest as I was. "Sam told me to give you this," I said, thrusting the gas station bag at him and dumping my coat in the corner.

Dean took the paper sack and shifted it to the bed, sliding out a bottle of Jack Daniels. He grinned wryly, one hand still clamped over the wound on his thigh, the other giving the bottle a little wave. "Apparently, you had the drink thing covered too. Guess I'm all yours, sweetheart," he teased.

I just grinned and whacked him lightly on the shoulder as I walked away. "In your dreams, buddy."

Dean's casual flirting was more joke than actual invitation, which was just as well for him since he would otherwise be in for significant disappointment. He was all kinds of trouble I didn't need. He and Sam seemed to have thirty-one flavors of crazy going on in their lives and I literally knew almost nothing about them. A small part of me had to admit though, that in another time, in different circumstances and very literally in a different world, I could possibly have been attracted to this handsome and slightly crazy man who seemed to get a kick out of poking danger in the eye and got himself cut up protecting strangers. Of course, I think by now it was a pretty well established fact that I had generally dangerous and terrible taste in men. Just ask Jenks, he could go on about the subject at length. Or at least until I started throwing things at him.

Thinking of Jenks made me smile a little, and then made me feel incredibly homesick. I pushed those thoughts and feelings away as I re-entered the bathroom and cast a worried gaze across Trent's slumped form. He was still sitting where I'd left him, sipping slowly at the sports drink with a dogged, determined set to his features. It was funny, actually, now that I thought about it ... Jenks kind of knew how I felt about Trent and yet for some reason he raised none of the objections I'd expected him to raise and didn't rag me about it like he had almost every other man I'd ever looked at. Curious.

Setting my bag down on the floor, I set to work getting Trent out of his ruined clothes. I helped him shrug out of Sam's bloodied coat first and hung it on the door knob. It could probably be washed out if Sam wanted to keep it. The rest of Trent's clothes were probably going to be a completely lost cause.

I tried not to feel like it was a remotely intimate act as knelt in front of Trent, limited space and necessity putting me right between his knees as I unbuttoned the front of what remained of his ruined dress shirt. I carefully slid it off his good shoulder and down his arms, stripping him out of it.

Wetting a washcloth in the sink, I carefully washed the blood from Trent's arm and chest before removing the temporary dressing from his shoulder. His skin was caked with partially dried blood and I wanted to make sure there weren't any other injuries hiding beneath before I tackled the worst one.

I made sure to keep the wash cloth warm, running it gently across his body, tracing the contours of his frame as I searched for injuries I thankfully didn't find. Trent's usually tanned skin was pale beneath the blood and grime, but his toned, well developed physique was just as gorgeous as the only other time I'd glimpsed him shirtless. Ironically, he had been changing out of a blood stained shirt that time too. I wondered what that said about our lives.

Then, I wondered what it said about me that I was noticing something like that at a moment like this. Apparently being hurt, exhausted and more than a little punch drunk was just doing awesome things for my libido. Either that, or there was simply something seriously wrong with me. Maybe both. Maybe if I could just stop being so damn hyper-aware of every bleeding, semi-naked man I came across tonight I'd be able to focus enough to do some good here. Trent was in seriously bad shape and that was what I should be concentrating on right now. Thank God he didn't have any leg injuries and I didn't have to undress him fully.

I started when Trent's cold fingers brushed my face. My gaze jerked to him and I found him looking at me with something intense in his eyes that I didn't want to recognize or acknowledge. I swallowed hard as his thumb brushed my grimy cheek gently. His fingers trembled slightly, but his gaze was remarkably steady. I realized my cheeks were suddenly flaming, noticeably warm beneath his chilled hand. I turned my head away quickly, sucking my breath in and ducking back to the sink to wash out the soiled cloth.

I was glad for the distraction when Sam's tall frame appeared in the doorway to the bathroom. I was even more glad when I saw what he was holding. Sam had an IV bag of clear liquid, along with a coil of tubing and needles sealed up in sterile pouches.

"It's only saline, we haven't hit a blood bank lately," he apologized, lips giving a rueful little quirk. "But it should help."

"That's great, really, thanks!" I said, thinking that something neutral like saline might just be the best option for the elf. I shot him a quick, questioning glance as Sam hung the bag on the shower rod and unwound the tubing. "That's okay, right Trent?"

Trent nodded wordlessly. Sam knelt beside him, taking Trent's good arm in his hands. Using his belt to make a tourniquet, he found a vein, inserted the cannula and taped it down with an efficient rapidity that made me wonder how many times he'd done something like this before.

Straightening back up, Sam laid a second saline bag on the sink counter, next to a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a small stack of bandages and another roll of clear medical tape. He emptied two pills from an un-labeled bottle into his hand and passed them to Trent. "Pain meds, industrial grade," he explained when Trent looked down at the small white pills in his palm. Trent gave a facial shrug and swallowed the pills, washing them down with the last of his Gatorade.

Sam looked back out into the bedroom, obviously wanting to get back to his brother, but he nodded towards Trent's still partially bandaged shoulder. "Need any help?" he offered.

I shook my head. "Thanks, I got this." I nodded back out towards the bedroom. "Go check on your brother and tell him that alcohol is not in fact a good replacement for blood."

"It's a great replacement for blood," Dean's voice came to me from the other room. "And a whole host of other things."

I rolled my eyes and nudged the Gatorade pack with my foot. "Get some more of this in him if you can."

Sam grinned at me like he'd found an ally and snagged one of the plastic drink bottles before heading back into the other room.

Once he was gone, I took a moment to get a couple of the ingredients I'd bought out of the paper bag on the floor. I needed to let a few of these seep together for a little while before mixing in the rest. I stirred them up into the appropriate paste inside the little bowl and then set it aside in the bath tub where it would be out of our way until it was ready for the rest of the ingredients.

Rising, I started carefully peeling the medical tape away from Trent's skin. I was being as careful as I could, but it obviously hurt. Trent gasped softly, hissing through his teeth. His hands fisted in his lap.

"Sorry, sorry," I murmured apologetically, cringing as I struggled to ease the gauze pads away. Dried blood made them cling to the wounds and Trent's head dipped, his eyes pressing shut. He groaned low in his throat, jaw clenched tightly.

Once the bandages were off, I gave Trent a moment to recover himself before I began to clean the wound, which I knew was going to hurt twice as bad. I rubbed his back as his breathing slowly evened out again. In the other room I could hear the low murmur of the Winchester brother's voices.

"I'm sorry I can't make you a pain amulet," I murmured softly. "The store didn't carry Lilac wine or any of the necessary barks." Not to mention there was no way for me to boil anything in a hotel room. I hoped the pills Trent had taken would help.

Trent gave a small nod. "It's all right, I'm fine, Rachel. I appreciate your assistance."

"Yeah, yeah, I know, you put the T in tough," I said with a weary smile.

Trent gave a small, amused snort.

I glanced at the tube running into his arm and gave him a thoughtful frown. "So... the hospital thing," I whispered. "It would have been bad if they'd tried to give you blood?" I was still curious about that.

Trent made a "maybe yes, maybe no" gesture with his head that told me pretty much nothing. "Maybe. It wouldn't have helped, no. However, I'm more concerned about other ... complications that could arise. We know little about this world, Rachel," he murmured very quietly. "I am not comfortable with anyone here possessing samples of my genetic material and the information it holds, or yours for that matter. Neither do I wish to end up secreted away to some government facility or laboratory. At the very least, it could draw attention we cannot afford."

Okay, Trent was definitely more paranoid than I was. I gave him a hard look, not entirely sure those reasons were worth the risk to his health, but he seemed to be doing better than I'd feared earlier, so maybe he'd been right. "Paranoid, much?" I mumbled as I uncapped the alcohol bottle and tried to figure out some non-terrible way to do this.

Trent gave me a weary, pained smile. "You have no idea. The problem is, I'm usually right. It happened all the time before the Turn, you know."

No, I hadn't known that. I frowned and set the alcohol bottle back down. Maybe I'd start with water first. At least the wound, ugly though it may be, wasn't bleeding much anymore.

"Besides," Trent murmured, tightening in preparation when he saw me bringing the wash cloth over towards his shoulder. "You do realize that we have no IDs, no insurance and no money? They'd ask a lot of questions for which we have no answers."

I squeezed the wash cloth out over his injury, letting the water wash the wound. Trent hissed through his teeth again. "Do you realize that you could get some horrible infection and die because you didn't get this properly cared for? I'm not a doctor, Trent."

"I won't," Trent said with a certainty that left me wondering if he had that much faith in his own immune system, or if it was more of a hope. "Have a little faith in yourself Rachel. I do." He smiled at me and I was momentarily lost for words, because he wasn't joking. Crap. It was nice when people believed in you, but it could be downright scary when they believed in you too much.

"Trent..." I moaned softly, wetting the wash cloth again and soaking his shoulder a second time. But I didn't really know what to say. He seemed to have no trouble putting himself in my hands and the responsibility scared the crap out of me.

I dabbed and rubbed as gently as I could at the raw, crusted flesh, attempting to remove the dirt and bits of shirt still embedded in the wounds. Trent gripped his bad arm tightly with his good hand, hanging on just below his elbow and digging his fingers in hard enough to hurt. I knew he was using that pain to try and distract him from the worse one. He bowed his head again, hisses of pain turning into muffled moans. I wanted to stop, but it was better not to drag this out.

I murmured apologies as I washed and rubbed away the debris as carefully and quickly as I could.

Trent began rocking back and forth, jerky, urgent little movements. His muffled sounds were still controlled, but getting more desperate.

"Stop moving," I had to tell him when the rocking made it too hard for me to keep working on him.

Trent stilled immediately, his body tense, fingers digging into his arm hard enough to bruise. "Sorry," he breathed, voice shaking.

I shook my head, hating having to hurt him like this. The freshly cleaned wound looked only marginally less ugly than it had before. Removing the unevenly scabbed blood and debris simply revealed the damage more clearly. There was going to be no way to stitch or tape this up, not for an amateur like me, maybe not even for a professional surgeon. All I was going to be able to do was put a bandage over the whole mess and let it sort itself out. Trent was missing bits of his flesh in places and I winced, realizing that even with the healing charm I was going to make him, this wound was going to leave scars. Silently, I resolved that I would find a way to fix it for him when we got home. He'd gotten these scars for me and I would make it right ... as soon as I found a curse that would let me heal him without undoing his circumcision again. Crap, that had been embarrassing.

Drawing in a deep breath, I reached for the alcohol bottle again. "Trent," I said quietly. "This is probably really going to hurt."

Trent glanced up, then ducked his head again. He nodded his understanding, body visibly bracing for what was to come. "Understood. Proceed."

I poured the clear liquid over injured skin, wincing as I watched it bubble and hiss on contact. Trent almost screamed, just managing to suck the sound down stoically and burying his face in the crook of his good elbow, despite the way it jostled the cannula in his arm.

My hands shaking, I made sure I'd bathed the entire wound before quickly setting the bottle down like it was acid. Trent's self control was very good given how badly this all had to hurt, but his body was trembling and his chest heaved as he sucked in deep, ragged breaths. I rubbed his back again gently.

"Okay, it's done," I promised. "Let's just let it sit for a few minutes before I finish up, huh?"

Trent nodded tensely, keeping his head down. He was either dizzy or didn't want to look at me.

Sam was in the doorway again and I looked up, only then noticing that my vision was blurry with tears I hadn't realized were pushing their way up to the surface. My own body was shaking and no matter how much that disgusted me, I couldn't seem to make it stop.

"Everything okay?" Sam asked gently. His hands were red with what was probably Dean's blood.

I nodded, quickly wiping my eyes and trying to swallow my weakness. "Yeah, got everything cleaned up. Gonna let it sit and air a few minutes before putting the bandages on," I told him.

"Trent, just relax a few minutes okay?" I said, stroking the hair on the back of his head tenderly despite myself. I checked that his IV line was doing okay before fleeing the bathroom. I just needed to get a little air, and it would give Trent time to compose himself, something I knew he wanted.

Sam seemed to understand that and let us be, returning to the bed where he was patching up his brother.

I saw that Dean's leg had already been tightly bandaged and he was now lying on the bed, drinking from the whisky bottle while Sam apparently stitched up the worst of the cuts across his abdomen.

It was a fairly professional job, although something about the stitches looked wrong to me. No, not the stitches - what they were made with.

I came a little closer as Sam bent back over the bed, picking up again where he'd left off. That's when I noticed the open pack of dental floss on the bed next to the pile of disinfectant and dressings.

"Oh my God!" I said incredulously, staring at the needle now passing through Dean's flesh with more than a little feeling of queasy. "You are not using that dental floss to stitch him up, are you?"

The two brothers looked at me like I was the insane one.

"Well, yeah," Dean drawled tensely, fingers tense around the bottle of Jack he was gripping. "I sure ain't brushing my teeth while I'm bleeding all over the bed."

"We're out of sutures and the gas station quick mart only had that cheap travel sewing-kit thread. That stuff is useless, it breaks too easy when you get moving and then we'd just have to do this again," Sam explained a little more logically, apparently understanding, if also dismissing, the root of my concern. "It's not the mint flavored kind," he added, as if that made it somehow all better.

"Oh, well, as long as it's not mint flavored." I shook my head, wondering how these guys were still alive. I had to look away as Sam expertly slid the needle through his brother's flesh again with quick, practiced motions. You couldn't call it gentle exactly, but it was as close to it as pushing a pointy object through someone's skin could ever get.

Dean groaned quietly in his throat, the fingers of one hand digging hard into the mattress while he brought the bottle of Jack to his lips with the other, knocking back several large mouthfuls. The man's pain tolerance was impressive and something about this scene told me it had happened many times before.

Sam paused to wipe the blood away enough that he could see what he was doing and to let Dean catch his breath and slug some more alcohol. I looked up and realized that he was looking at me. "Rachel, what we do ... we can't go to hospitals, not unless it's really bad. This isn't pretty but it works," he said simply. I could tell he didn't expect me to understand, yet I could also see in his eyes that he didn't want me to think that he was torturing his brother because he didn't care or couldn't be bothered to take him to the emergency room.

"Sam, I'm bleeding out here. Make with the goo-goo eyes later. Talk less and sew more or I'll do it my damn self," Dean protested tetchily and somehow, I didn't think it was an idle threat.

I swallowed as Sam bent his head and his attention back to his brother, again wiping away the blood from Dean's trembling abdomen. "Okay, okay, stop moving around so much." He pressed one hand flat against Dean's muscled chest to help hold him still and went back to sewing. "Maybe next time you should try ducking more."

"At least let me help," I said with a frown. "I can -"

"Rachel," Trent's hand landed on my shoulder and I started, turning quickly around.

"Trent! What are you doing? Why the hell did you unhook your IV? Go, sit! Now!" I snapped, pointing back at the bathroom that he must have dragged himself out of. I was surrounded by men bleeding all over the place and not a one of them had the sense to take proper care of themselves.

"Rachel," Trent's voice was insistent, the intensity in his eyes finally catching me and giving me pause. "I think something's wrong. Can you help me a minute?" he said quietly and I followed quickly, feeling uneasy about whatever could have put that look on Trent's face. I followed him into the bathroom, frowning when he nudged the door closed behind us. His formerly pale skin was now flushed unhealthily and he looked unsteady, although that might have just been because he'd gotten up and moved around before he was ready. I helped him ease back down to sit on the closed toilet, frowning when he reached over and turned on the sink faucet.

"Trent? What's wrong?" I quickly plugged the disconnected IV line back into the cannula that was still in his arm and made him lean back against the toilet tank. Trent was acting really weird and that was usually pretty bad news. I pressed the back of my hand against his warm forehead and my gut tightened with possibilities. "You're running a fever, when did that start? It's just a fever, right? I mean, it's not ... the vampire virus here didn't work on me, it shouldn't work on you, right? They don't even seem to pass it by biting ... crap! Trent, did he bleed on your wounds?" I was babbling and Trent gripped my upper arm, forcing me back a step and making me look at him.

"No. Well ... I don't know, but I am fairly sure I am not being turned," he looked honestly nonplussed by how I had even come up with that concern. "There's nothing wrong with me, I just needed your cooperation. You were going to offer to make them a healing charm, weren't you?" Trent's voice was low.

I blinked at Trent, not understanding what this had to do with anything and immediately beginning to feel irked as worry cooled into irritation. "Yeah, I'm making one for you, it wouldn't be terribly hard to make extra. They got their butts kicked at least partially because they were helping us, it's the least I can do. Geez, Trent, what is your problem? You had me scared to death!"

Trent didn't let go of my arm and I frowned as his grip tightened. His glare told me to keep my voice down. "You can't do that," he hissed softly, and I realized that the purpose of the running water was in fact to mask our voices. "We've both been careful - I thought you understood. Do you not understand what they are? Think Rachel! Think about the weapons and equipment in their car. Think about how they act and about this job of theirs. They are already suspicious about my ears; we do not want them knowing you can do magic. They hunt people like us, Rachel."

I felt a sudden, cold chill go right through me. I should have connected the dots sooner, but in all fairness, there hadn't been a whole hell of a lot of time for thinking about anything other than survival since we'd met the two brothers. We were on the same side, and that's what mattered ... but were we? Was Trent right? I thought again of what I'd seen in the trunk of their car. Most of their gear was obviously for killing things that weren't human. Some I recognized, some I didn't. Suzette had called them hunters. Dean said they "hunted things" ... things like blood-crazy vampires and ghouls ... and possibly anything else they considered not human? Just how wide did that net go? Did it cover all inderlanders, or just the ones that ate people?

I had once been kidnapped and caged by humans who hated all inderlanders. They had hurt me and others and used my blood to do terrible things. Trent knew that; he'd helped me take them down. A small shiver of dread traced up my spine as I remembered Eloy, one of my former captors. He'd had that same rugged, military readiness about him that the Winchesters carried. He'd been a man on mission too. He'd been a cruel, heartless, murdering bastard.

I swallowed hard, suddenly wanting to sit down myself. I sank down onto the edge of the tub, which was about the only space to do so in the tiny bathroom.

"What are you saying? You think they're like ... this world's HAPA?" I breathed, feeling a strange ache flare in my chest along with the uglier threads of fear and anger that accompanied the notion. I realized I didn't want that to be true. The Winchester brothers were certainly odd, but they seemed like genuinely good men, the kind who stuck their necks out for complete strangers and put other people's needs ahead of their own safety and comfort. That was something that Eloy and the other Humans Against Paranormals Association nut-jobs would never have done, would they? Damn it ... I liked them. I didn't want to have been wrong in my impressions. I didn't want them to turn out to be monsters.

Trent gave an uncertain expression. "I don't know. I'm not saying that. They don't strike me as the fanatical type, although granted, we haven't known them very long. I suppose they could just as easily be this world's answer to the IS or FIB," he said, referring to the two government bureaus that policed supernatural and human crimes back in our world.

I frowned, nodding slowly at the valid point. "From what we've seen thus far, the Inderlanders here are not doing much of anything to police themselves," I admitted, thinking back to my days working as a runner for Inderland Security. Lots of shady stuff went down and if you had enough power you could always get away with murder, but at least in our world even Master vampires had to pretend to act civilized in order to be accepted in society. "Maybe it's because they're all still in the closet, maybe this is what it was like before the Turn."

I wondered if that was really true though - the wholesale blood bath going down behind the scenes at this world's Piscary's and a forest overrun with flesh eating, corpse wearing ghouls feeding on hapless motorists suggested that there were some pretty big underlying issues with the inderland community in this version of earth.

Trent nodded. "Maybe so. Or maybe the whole situation is as different as our vampires and ghouls are from their vampires and ghouls. This world is too different from what we understand for us to form competently accurate conclusions just yet." I heard a hint of the scientist and business man in Trent with those words, the one who needed to weigh all the factors and calculate the percentages in order to quantify a situation.

"One thing we do know," he continued, "is that the Winchesters may be the only humans in a 100 miles who are tapped into the inderland community of this world, even if they are on the opposite side of it. We should try to learn as much as possible from them, but until we know more, I think it would be a mistake for us to reveal too much. It's better if they think we are just a couple of normal, stupid people with normal problems who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"Well, the stupid part I'll grant," I said dryly. "For you anyway, not for me."

"Rachel ..." Trent said with some exasperation.

"Yes, yes, okay. I think you're probably right," I conceded with a frown. "We should keep a low profile. I won't offer them any spells and I'll make sure they don't see me doing the one for you."

Trent smirked, the effect only a little lost because of his flushed face and slightly glassy eyes. "Say that again."

My face scrunched in confusion. "... I'll make sure they won't ...?" I started to repeat, but Trent shook his head, cutting me off.

"No, the part where you said I was right."

I whacked Trent's good arm soundly with the back of my hand.

"Ow!" Trent protested, glowering at me. "Could you maybe not hit me any more until I've had a little time to heal this wound I got saving your life?"

"You mean this wound you got being stupid and reckless," I huffed back, brushing my tangled hair back out of my eyes as I rose to my feet and moved to the sink to turn off the water. I could smell that the herbs I'd set to seeping in the bowl in the bath tub were done and ready to be drained. I'd need the sink to continue the prep.

There was a knock at the door and I jerked slightly. Sam's voice came from the other side. "Everything okay in there?"

So as not to seem suspicious, I opened the door and smiled out at him. "Yup! Trent's just being a huge baby," I said brightly, then angled around Sam's big frame in an attempt to see into the rest of the room. "How's Dean? You all done with the dental floss surgery?"

Sam grimaced and shook his head. I could see that his hands were stained red and he was holding one of the hotel towels. I wondered how we were going to explain the ruined towels and sheets to the management, then decided that the Winchesters seemed to consider this all in a day's work, so maybe I'd just let them worry about that. "I've got his stomach sewn up. I still need to get a look at his back. But he's being a bitch about it," Sam raised his voice a little at the last which was obviously directed in a passive-aggressive fashion at his brother.

"My damn back's fine Sammy," Dean's voice from the bed slurred slightly. I couldn't tell if it was from alcohol, pain or weariness. I saw the empty Jack Daniels bottle on the floor and suspected it was probably all three. "Jus' wanna sleep now. I'll be fine."

"Not if you get an infection because you didn't let me dress your back, you won't," Sam returned over his shoulder with mock-patience. He looked back at me. "See what I have to deal with?"

"Bitch," Dean shot at him from the bed, his voice sounding like it was muffled in a pillow.

"Jerk," Sam returned automatically without looking back at him. He gave me an apologetic shrug. "Okay, well if you're good I'm going to finish up then."

I nodded, then stopped him as he started to turn away. "Sam?"

"Yes?"

"Um ... there's this wholistic herbal poultice thing my Mom used to make that really helps prevent infection. It's pretty simple; I got the stuff for it at that health food store when I grabbed the Gatorade. I'm going to make some for Trent. If you want, I can make enough for Dean."

I could feel Trent glaring daggers at me, but I ignored him. Lots of people had old home remedies, right? I just wouldn't tell them that mine was infused with a little earth magic.

Sam raised his eyebrows and shrugged. I could see he didn't expect much from it, but that he didn't think it would hurt either. "Sure, if you want to. Thanks."

"'s that why it smells like a salad in here?" Dean asked, voice still sounding like he was talking into a pillow. He was definitely at least a little drunk. "And cinnamon, why the hell does everything keep smelling like cinnamon? The car, now the room ... you got a new cologne Sammy?" he jibed. "Makes you smell like pie."

"Dean, everything makes you think of pie," Sam rolled his eyes as he went back to his brother.

I watched them for a long moment, my brows furrowing slightly. Cinnamon? Dean could smell Trent? Human olfactory senses weren't usually tuned high enough to allow them to pick up inderland scents, although Trent was kind of bleeding all over, so maybe that was all it was.

Giving them one last look, I eased the door shut again so they wouldn't see my spell prep. These were lousy conditions to work in, but the spell wasn't very complex so hopefully I could pull it off all right. If earth magic worked here like it did at home. If not, I was going to end up with herbal soup that was about as useful as Sam seemed to think it would be. Well, I wouldn't know until I tried.

"Rachel, I do not understand you," Trent said quietly from where he was sitting, shooting me a dark look from under his mussed blond bangs. "I thought you were going to be smart."

"I am being smart," I retorted, pulling the bowl out of the tub and transferring it to the sink, running through my mental checklist to be sure I wasn't forgetting anything. It was a little nerve wracking doing this without a recipe, but I thought I remembered everything all right. "As far as they're concerned, this is my old folk recipe," I whispered, my voice canted low enough that only Trent could possibly hear me. "As long as they don't see me prep it, they won't know otherwise."

That was both the beauty of earth magic and its primary limitation. You had to prep everything first, then you used it. You couldn't wield it on the fly like ley line spells. Fortunately, this particular charm didn't require any kind of invocation when it was applied. I could just mix the whole thing up, invoke it and then apply it to the injuries like any medicine. It wasn't the most effective healing magic, but it was better than nothing.

"Unless they know anything about earth magic and can recognize it for what it is," Trent grumped in an unhappy whisper. "You take too many chances."

I shrugged. "Probably. But that's why you like me." I smirked at him, wondering where all this crazy confidence was coming from. Probably exhaustion and the pile-up of near-death experiences I'd had over the past 24 hours.

Trent blinked at me as if caught off guard by that retort and I enjoyed his slightly stupefied look.

I turned back to the sink and frowned, realizing I'd forgotten one important thing already because I was so used to having it always on-hand. I needed salt water to wash things with during the preparations and after the spell was mixed.

I poked my head out of the bathroom door. "Hey, Sam? You guys have any salt?"

Dean, face down on the bed, snorted. Sam looked up from where he was bending over him and gave me an amused smile that I didn't understand. "Yeah, there's some in the duffel by the door."

Quickly crossing the room, I unzipped the duffel and raised my eyebrows. Oh yeah. They had salt. They had canister after canister of salt. It was rock salt too, which would be perfect when I dissolved it. I pulled one of the canisters out and noticed that the bag also contained several liters of lighter fluid. It seemed an odd mix at first, until you looked past their more mundane uses. Salt and fire – both were purifying agents. I wasn't sure I wanted to know why they kept them both on hand in such large quantities.

Straightening up, I headed back for the bathroom, giving the salt canister a cheerful little wave in the Winchester's direction. "Thanks!"

Shutting Trent and I up in the small bathroom again, I got to work mixing up a spell with two hunters on the other side of the thin motel room door. Trent was probably right. I did take too many chances.

Chapter Text

Freshly showered and in clean clothes, I felt half-way decent for the first time in the past 48 hours or so, even if I still hurt like I'd gone a hundred rounds with a troll.

Trent looked as if he echoed both sentiments as he sank down with ginger weariness on the edge of one of the hotel room's double beds. He'd also bathed. I hadn't wanted to offer to help him with that, and he hadn't asked. I'd been worried he'd get his new bandages wet, but he seemed to have managed to avoid messing up my work.

Proving that some things could still go right for us, I'd found that earth magic worked just fine here. I'd been able to invoke the spell with a drop of my blood, like usual, and had managed to apply the resulting poultice to both Trent and Dean's injuries without anyone the wiser. Luck was probably on our side there. Dean had already been asleep or unconscious by that time and Sam had only been keeping half an eye on me while he cleaned up the room and packed up the used medical supplies. He'd have noticed right away if I were hurting his brother, but of course, that had definitely not been my goal.

The spell wasn't all that strong, it would take time to work. Hopefully by morning there would be some improvement, I told myself, trying not to worry at the way Trent's pale skin contrasted with the dark shirt he was wearing, or the way the sheen of perspiration on his brow told me he was still battling cold sweats.

Our clothes had been definite casualties of the day. My shirt had been so stiff with vampire blood it had stuck to my skin. I had wadded it up and put it with the heap of bloody towels Sam had piled up on a garbage bag in the corner of the room. My jeans were only a little better and it was good to get out of them, although I couldn't afford to dispose of either them or my wet, muddy boots until I could wash or replace them. Shirts I could borrow from the Winchesters, pants and shoes not so much.

Contemplating the soiled jeans in my hands, I sighed and set them aside in a "keep" pile with my boots. Nothing of Trent's was salvageable except the coat he'd leant me earlier. There wasn't really much left of his shirt and his pants were stiff with blood. I set his shoes aside with my boots just in case, although it would be better if he was able to borrow some. I rolled up his ruined pants and was about to toss them into the disposal pile when Trent stopped me.

He took the pants long enough to get something from the pocket, then handed them back to me. I saw that Trent had retrieved his money, and to my amusement, what looked like his car keys. Exactly what good those did him here I had no idea, but I was too tired to care and simply rolled the pants up and chucked them into the corner with the other disposables.

Trent was currently wearing a black t-shirt and sweat pants borrowed from our hosts. Guy sweatpants had pockets (something I always thought was unfair) so Trent tucked his cash and keys into the pocket before sinking back onto the edge of the bed again and running a weary hand across his face. The loaner clothes fit him fairly well, which meant they belonged to Dean. Of the two brothers, he was closer to Trent's size.

Nothing they had was going to fit me very well, so I was currently swimming in a jersey-like shirt that belonged to Sam. It came down to my knees and acted like a semi-suitable nightgown, all things considered.

Sam came out of the bathroom in a tee and pajama pants, his hair still wet from the shower.

I crossed my arms over my middle, trying not to feel uncomfortably exposed. Running around dressed in only a man's oversized shirt in a hotel room with three men when I was unfortunately attracted to one of them and the other two were practically strangers was decidedly not awesome. Thankfully, Dean was already asleep on the other bed, Sam didn't seem to notice or at least was good at pretending he didn't and Trent appeared much too wiped to think about much of anything but how to get down onto the pillow without passing out before he reached it.

I knew how he felt. I could have slept in the snow at this point, I was so tired. I was about to ask Sam if they had a spare blanket so I could find a piece of carpet to curl up on, but he spoke before I could. "You two go ahead and take that one," Sam said, nodding towards the bed Trent was already sitting on, obviously having misread the question in my eyes.

He took the extra pillow from beside Dean and dropped it on the floor next to the bed. "It's fine, I'm good," he promised, once again misreading the uncertain look in my eyes. He stole the navy colored quilt from the bed as well, although I noted that he made sure Dean was adequately covered by the remaining sheets and blanket before he dropped down onto the bed he'd made on the floor beside his unconscious brother.

I froze, hesitating in uncomfortable indecision. I appreciated that they were giving up one of their beds for us, I did, it was just that I'd pretty much been planning on sleeping on the floor too. Trent was hurt worse than I was and I was okay with giving him the bed - but Trent and I in a bed, together? That was so not a good idea. Unfortunately, I couldn't say that. Sam thought we were a couple and to disillusion him at this point without it appearing weird would require more mental energy than I currently possessed.

Trent had managed to ease his way down flat onto the mattress and was awkwardly trying to pull the covers over his legs with his good hand. He looked up at me and frowned when he saw my hesitation.

"For goodness sake, Rachel, just get in the bed," he said with weary exasperation. His eyes asked me what exactly I thought was going to happen since he was clearly half a step from passing out and we were in a tiny hotel room with two other people barely six feet away.

That was a good question. Logically, there was plenty of room for both of us and the bed did sound a heck of a lot better than the floor. I wasn't sure why that didn't make me feel like this was any less of a bad idea as I reluctantly went around to the other side of the bed and crawled quickly under the covers.

Trent had given up on his side of the bed clothes even though he hadn't managed to get completely under them. With a huff of irritation, I leaned over and finished yanking them up over him. "Fine, but you stay on your side, Kalamack," I whispered in his ear before scooting as far away as far as I could get and rebelliously jamming my head down on the pillow.

Trent laughed quietly. "If you stay on yours," he whispered back.

I just huffed and wiggled down further under the covers. The bed was probably sub-par given the relative crappiness of the hotel, but right now it felt pretty wonderful to me. The sheets were cool and I could feel them easily through the oversized shirt I was wearing. I reached down, tugging at the hem of the shirt which had ridden up a little when I laid down. I stared up at the ceiling, terribly aware that I was practically naked and Trent was like, two inches away. Right, there was nothing at all uncomfortable about this scenario, was there?!

I thought the discomfort would make it hard to rest, but I must have been more exhausted than I knew. I didn't even realize I had fallen asleep until I opened my eyes to find that the lights were off and my limbs had a peaceful leadenness that suggested I'd been asleep for a while.

I blinked slowly, unsure what had woken me. I wasn't all the way awake and my eyelids felt heavy, the lines between dream and reality comfortably hazy. I rolled onto my side. Beside me in the darkness, I could hear the slow, reassuringly steady cadence of Trent's breathing.

A rustle of movement on the other bed drew my sleepy gaze. Dean was tossing and turning restlessly. Caught in the grip of a nightmare, he groaned, whimpering in his sleep as if in terrible pain. He whispered the word "no" over and over. Given what I'd seen him endure with hardly a flinch earlier, I didn't want to know what darkness inhabited his dreams that could pull those sounds from him. I knew I should do something, try to wake him maybe ... but I really wasn't fully awake and my sleepy body betrayed me, lulling me back under even as all this processed though my semi-conscious mind.

After that, I dreamed too. I didn't dream of ghouls or frozen woods or blood, my subconscious was rarely that predictable, but they were nightmares all the same. I was wandering around through my church, but it was wrong, it wasn't really my church. I called for Ivy and Jenks but there was no answer. I went down the street pounding on doors, but everyone was gone. I knew with omniscient dream certainty that I was alone; that all of Cincinnati had become nothing but a ghost town. I ran down the empty streets, trying to find Trent's house. I had to get there, because somehow I knew he was in trouble. He was dying, but I didn't know where he was, I couldn't find him. The streets went on forever and the faster I tried to run, the harder it was and the slower I moved.

I woke with a jerk. My heart was pounding, but it wasn't because of my dream. I'd heard something. Had that been a cry? Was it in my dream, or was it real? The room was still dark. I blinked and the first thing I noticed was that Dean was sitting bolt upright in bed, a long, wicked looking knife clutched warily in his hand. He was looking around in a way that suggested we'd been woken by the same sound. So, it was probably not in my dream then.

The second thing I noticed was that my position had changed and my pillow felt firmer and warmer than it had before ... and it was moving slowly up and down. Crap. My head was resting on Trent's chest. How the hell did that happen? ... and why did it have to feel so darn comfortable?

I was glad that Trent was apparently so deep under that whatever had roused Dean and I hadn't stirred him. My heart was still thudding and that was making my sleepy, fuzzy head spin in a nauseating fashion. The lingering fear from my dream wasn't helping. I didn't feel at all well. That was probably why I didn't move right away.

I heard another soft, muffled cry and saw Dean's shoulders slump, the tension bleeding swiftly from his body. He tucked the knife back under his pillow and my sleepy brain registered the thought that maybe it was a good thing I hadn't tried to wake him before.

Leaning on his elbow and rolling onto his side, Dean reached over the side of the bed. I couldn't see what he was doing from my position, but he seemed to be giving someone a shake and when I heard him murmur his brother's name I realized that it must have been Sam who was having nightmares now. If today was any indication of what their lives were usually like, it was little wonder that neither of them seemed to sleep very well. Maybe it was more of a wonder they could sleep at all.

"Sam?" Dean's voice was sleepier than his alert motions before had indicated. "Come on, wake up," he murmured.

I heard a sharp rustle and an intake of breath as Sam presumably jerked out of the dream. Dean quickly pulled back out of the way, indicating that Sam probably woke a lot like his brother did. After a moment he rolled to the edge of the bed again, dropping his arm back over the side. "'S'okay," he mumbled. "Jus' a dream, Sammy." There was something practiced, almost automatic about the soothing words. Like maybe he'd been saying them for a long time.

Then his body stiffened. "It was just a dream, right?" he asked, sounding suddenly more awake. "You weren't remembering anything, were you? You know you can't go pushing at that - "

"I know," Sam's sleepy voice from the floor sounded strained and annoyed. "I know, Dean, okay? I wasn't scratching the damn wall. I'm fine, it was just a dream." I didn't understand what they were talking about, but the tetchiness in Sam's voice indicated it was a sore subject ... and that he was probably not being entirely honest.

"You sure?" Dean pressed, apparently sensing the same thing I was. "Cause ... "

"I'm sure," Sam cut him off. "Go back to sleep, Dean. You're gonna wake everybody up."

"Think you already did," Dean murmured back with a snort and I stiffened, closing my eyes and laying extra still. I don't know why I wanted to pretend I was asleep, it just seemed a lot less awkward than unintentionally intruding on their privacy.

I kept my eyes closed, but the soft rustle of bedding told me they were getting settled back down. Everything fell quiet again and I felt myself starting to drift once more. Sleepily, I carefully lifted my head and started to edge off of Trent and back to my own pillow. I was on Trent's uninjured side and his arm slid up around my shoulders when I started shifting, the light grip keeping me from moving away. I froze, my heart pounding again for a very different reason.

Crap, had Trent also only been pretending sleep? My face burned and I became hyper aware of the feel of his body under my head, the soft cotton of the well worn tee a thin barrier between his skin and mine. Trent didn't move again, however. His body was relaxed under me and his slow breathing never changed.

Okay, maybe he wasn't really awake. Maybe it was an unconscious reaction. Maybe if I just stayed still, he wouldn't wake up and I could slip away in a few minutes and he'd never know any of this happened ... Yeah, and maybe I was sleepy and making rationalizations for why I didn't want to move away from his warmth just yet. I would in a minute. Yes, in a minute ...

The next time I opened my eyes the room was a lot brighter and watery dawn was peeking in around the heavy motel curtains.

Sam was awake, now sitting on the other bed with his back against the headboard, long legs stretched in front of him. His laptop rested on his thighs and he gazed down at the screen, tapping keys every so often. Beside him, I saw that Dean was still sleeping. Laying on his stomach with most of the covers kicked off, he had unconsciously gravitated over until he was more or less resting against his brother's side. The ease of their body language was that of people who had probably spent their entire lives in close proximity and there was something very comfortable and natural about the scene.

I, on the other hand, was still laying on Trent, now almost fully curled up against his body, and that was not at all a normal feeling for me. Trent's arm was around my shoulders. His hand stroked my hair gently and my body warmed pleasurably, even as my gut tightened. Crap. On. Toast. Trent was awake.

"Good morning," Trent whispered against my hair. I couldn't see his face from this angle, but I could hear the smile in his voice. Bastard. His warm fingers ghosted lightly from my hair to my shoulder and the touch sent hot tingles rushing through my sleep-slowed body.

"Before you initiate violence, may I just point out that I am, in fact, on my side," Trent murmured mildly, his face still buried in my hair. His voice rumbled pleasantly in his chest under my ear and the heat inside me intensified. God, the man was evil.

He had a point, though ... which just made me want to hit him even more. My instinct was to jerk quickly away from him, but at this point that was only going to be more embarrassing and leave him laughing at me. So instead I yawned and stretched languidly against his side, letting my curves press against him and enjoying the way his breath hitched and his body stiffened beneath me when I did so. I could be a little evil too if I wanted to be, and Trent certainly brought out the devil in me.

"Yeah, well, it's your fault you make such a comfy body pillow," I murmured back. I deliberately nuzzled my face against his chest, my thigh slipping lazily over his. Tilting my head up to see his face, I enjoyed the very attractive flush of surprise and desire that had shadowed his eyes and painted a delicate rosy hue across his cheeks and the cute little points of his ears.

Trent raised his eyebrows, but the smile that curved across his face and the way his gaze fixed on me was heart stopping. He was so close. Too close. Much, much too close. I wanted to kiss him so badly it physically hurt.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, Rachel! I chastised myself angrily. What was I thinking, playing with fire like this? I was going to get so burned one of these days. Heart pounding, I quickly rolled away and sat up, rubbing my eyes and trying to pretend I was just getting up, not fleeing.

For the briefest of moments, something that might have been frustration or longing fluttered behind Trent's clear green eyes. But his smile didn't falter and whatever I'd seen was quickly banished, buried behind a gently mocking expression of amusement.

My chest hurt. My body was on fire and it had nothing to do with all the aches and pains that were once again making themselves known as soon as I started moving. The pain inside was worse - the ache of wanting that which I knew I could not, should not have. Trent made it too damn easy, damn him. I had been right, this had been a horrible idea.

"Morning," Sam said to both of us, closing the laptop and getting off the bed. "You two feeling okay?"

We both nodded and Trent eased slowly up to sit, leaning against the headboard. His motions were stiff and he was clearly still favoring his injured shoulder, but I could already tell he was moving better than last night.

"Good. There's coffee and donuts if you want," Sam nodded towards a cardboard four-cup holder that I now noticed was sitting next to the TV. The Styrofoam cups and the paper bag beside them had the logo of the local grab-and-go on the side. Sam must have already been out and back again this morning.

Not feeling comfortable wandering around the room with bare legs and no undergarments in the light of day with everyone awake, I slid out of the bed and grabbed my jeans and under things from where I'd set them aside last night, between the bed and the wall. I noticed that the pile of bloody towels and ruined garments were gone and guessed Sam must have disposed of them somewhere when he went out for the coffee.

On the other bed Dean stirred, pushing himself upright and yawning. "Any chocolate glaze?" he asked, rubbing his injured leg and gazing down at the bandage with a thoughtful frown.

Sam shot him a mildly worried glance which made me think that maybe under normal circumstances Dean would have been up long before now. "Yup," was all he said, however. He wrapped up his computer cord and pushed it into his back pack.

"Awesome," Dean said with a grin, pushing off the bed and limping over to the TV to raid the goodies. "First come first serve," he informed Trent and I, waggling a chocolate covered donut in our direction as I shuffled quickly towards the bathroom to change.

Feeling like death warmed over, I snagged one of the coffees on my way by. It was technically still the middle of the night for my sleep schedule and it felt like it. The coffee was black and a little too bitter but I didn't care at this point. I chugged it as fast as the hot liquid would allow while I got dressed. Everything hurt and I winced when I looked in the mirror and saw the dark bruises mottling my arms and torso. At least the bite wound on my shoulder had almost completely healed thanks to whatever the vampires had done and the leftover bit of healing charm I'd used on it last night.

My jeans were dry but sadly mud-caked and I pulled them on with a regretful cringe. I came out of the bathroom still wearing Sam's jersey only to have Dean send me back in with a dark blue tee and a plaid button-down shirt that were probably his. He seemed to be of the opinion that Sam's shirt looked like it was trying to drown me and might have nefarious motives if left to its own devices. I couldn't really argue.

The loaner clothing was clean, although it smelled distinctly masculine. It was still way too large for me, but I rolled the sleeves of the flannel shirt up until I could get my hands out and tied the tails of the shirt in a knot around my waist. I looked rather like I was wearing my big brother's clothes, but beggars couldn't be choosers. I combed my hair with my fingers as best I could and washed my face.

When I finally exited the bathroom, I found that Trent and Dean had also gotten dressed in my absence. Trent was still wearing the black tee from last night, but it was now accompanied by jeans, work boots and a solid green over-shirt. Considering all four of us were now wearing jeans and flannel, I was definitely getting the idea that the Winchesters had pretty much one fashion statement of choice, and this was it. It was kind of amusing, it made me feel like we were some stage production's version of a group of lumberjacks and should be bursting into a coordinated musical number at any moment.

That thought was so bizarre it made me look down at the empty coffee cup in my hand and wonder if maybe I'd chugged the strong beverage a little too fast.

Dean wasn't limping nearly as much now as he had been before. He had one donut in his hand and another in his mouth as he passed me, going into the bathroom after I'd exited. He showed no sign of the hangover he should have had after his liberal self-medication last night. Either his metabolism or his alcohol tolerance was pretty high, maybe both.

The television was on and Sam and Trent appeared to be watching the morning news. The hotel room was small and the only place to sit was on the beds. I settled gingerly on edge of one and tried to decide if a grease and sugar energy boost was worth trying to get it past my still not terribly settled stomach.

"Sam!" Dean called from the bathroom. "Why the hell do I have leaves and twigs under my bandages?"

"Herbal medicine," Sam called back without looking away from the TV. "Rachel's family recipe, remember?" He was smiling a little mischievously, like maybe his brother's reaction was at least part of the reason he'd actually let me do it in the first place.

Dean grumbled something I couldn't make out and Sam just grinned a little wider.

Trent and I exchanged slightly worried glances and but didn't say anything. Trent was also seated on the bed, sipping gingerly at one of the coffees. I was pleased to see he had one of the remaining bottles of Gatorade beside him as well. He seemed perfectly aware of his own need for fluids and that too much caffeine might not be the best thing for him. He had a donut on a napkin resting on his knee, but he hadn't touched it yet. I think he knew he should eat, but was still working up to it.

He was looking decidedly better this morning, although he held himself with a stiffness that suggested he was still dealing with a moderate amount of pain. Or maybe it was the unfamiliar clothes. It was different, seeing Trent dressed like this. He looked like a construction worker or a roadie and that was just such an odd look for the ultra white collar businessman that it made me smile. I'd seen him in casual clothes before, but not quite like this and certainly never in flannel ... or had I? The scene pinged something in my mind, an odd fragment of memory washing to the surface.

Trent, shorter and thinner with youth, in an over-sized flannel shirt, his fine blonde hair wet and sticking to the sides of his head as he glared daggers at me. I was ... I was sticking my tongue out at him, also wet, also in an over-sized shirt ... we were ... in trouble?

The snatch of memory danced in fragments just out of reach and then was gone, telling me that it was almost certainly from our days at camp. That was the way those memories often felt, obscured and repressed as they were by the drugs we'd been fed to make us forget.

Trent's eyebrows lifted questioningly and I realized I was blatantly staring at him. His gaze flickered up and down my ill-fitting attire and he grinned. I repressed the urge to mimic my childhood self and stick my tongue out at him. Instead I reached over and stole a bite of his donut.

"Did you push me out of a boat or something when we were at camp?" I asked him, still trying to place the memory fragment in some kind of context.

Trent's expression registered surprise at the unexpected non sequitur. "I don't believe so," he said dryly. "Not that I recall, anyway." We both knew that didn't mean much. "Why?"

I shrugged, taking another bite of the stolen donut. Now that I'd tasted it, I realized I was hungry after all. "Nothing important. When I saw you in that shirt I just ... I remembered us both in oversized shirts like this, I think they belonged to one of the councilors. We were wet and I think we were in trouble," I added with a grin.

"Ah, then it was undoubtedly your fault," Trent said sagely, a little twinkle in his eyes.

"Nuh-uh," I protested airily, finishing the donut. "Wait ... I think ... I remember a really bad smell, too. Do you remember anything about a skunk?"

Trent blanched and his eyebrows went up again. "Oh. Now that does sound a little familiar. Pretty sure it was still your fault."

"Crap," I heard Sam mutter and looked over to find him standing tense and still, staring at the television. There was a talking head on the screen, but I only caught the last part of what the woman was saying. "... have not ruled out a possible mechanical issue. School officials say there is no cause for alarm, but they are taking the matter seriously and we're expecting further details soon. Tim, back to you."

"Hey," Dean's voice from the bathroom drew my attention back in the other direction. He appeared in the doorway with his t-shirt lifted to show his abdomen. He'd un-bandaged the wounds to his stomach and washed away the remnants of dried blood and potion. With the grime removed, it was clear that the wounds were all but healed. He'd already removed the make-shift stitching and his face looked troubled. "Somebody want to explain why I'm suddenly healing like a Wolverine knock off?"

"Dean, we have a problem," Sam cut him off, either not having really heard his brother's question or not thinking it the biggest issue they had to deal with at the moment. The urgency in Sam's voice stopped Dean cold and he dropped his shirt. His gaze narrowed in on his brother as Sam hastily shoved loose items into the nearest duffel bag.

"A bus load of third graders on a school trip have disappeared. They were supposed to have arrived almost half an hour ago, the driver doesn't have a cell and they can't raise him on the radio. Everybody thinks the bus is probably just running late or maybe had mechanical issues. The only reason it made the news is because one of the kids is diabetic and forgot their medication at home." Zipping the bag shut, Sam slung it over his shoulder.

Dean's face was grim. "Don't tell me, it's route took it right through ghoul central." He quickly pulled on his boots and snatched up his jacket.

Sam nodded. "Right before dawn, around the same time as most of the other disappearances."

"Fuck," Dean swore darkly. "We gotta roll!"

My stomach dropped to my toes as I comprehended why they were both so alarmed. The idea of those beings from last night getting their hands on a bunch of kids was too terrible to contemplate. I supposed it was possible that there really was an innocent explanation ... but I doubted it. After what Dean had said last night about the ghouls' growing hunger it made a horrible kind of sense that they had probably upped their game and made a play for a larger group of prey, especially after having been stirred up by chasing us all over the place.

With a speed that could only speak of much practice at making hasty exits, the two brothers had their bags in hand and were hurrying out the motel room door in literally less than a minute, Trent and I pretty much forgotten.

Jumping off the bed, I jammed my feet into my mud crusted boots, grabbed my coat and ran after them. Trent caught up with me by the door. He grabbed my arm, stopping me. "Rachel, what are you doing?"

I turned and just shook my head at him. I could read the objections in his eyes and I supposed that on one level they may have had some merit. Sure, if this was just a matter of our safety it was probably best at this point to let the Winchesters forget all about us, and it wasn't like I wanted to rush back out into that nightmare in the woods that we'd barely escaped with our lives mere hours before. This wasn't just about our safety though.

"They'll kill those kids, Trent. They'll eat them. I know this isn't our world, but that doesn't make these people less real. I can't walk away from this. I'll be back." Or so I hoped. Yanking my arm free, I hurried out the door as I heard the throaty hum of a car engine turning over.

Behind me, I heard Trent swear, but I was already across the sidewalk and into the parking lot. The Winchesters' long black car was just starting to back up as I yanked open the back door and hopped in.

Dean was in the driver's seat and he swore at me in surprise, slamming on the break. I started to pull the door shut when it was caught and pulled out of my hand. Trent was there, his coat in one hand and a highly displeased scowl on his face. He glared at me, but lowered himself quickly into the car, shoving me over. I scooted quickly to make room.

"Whoa, whoa! This is not a passenger cruise!" Dean turned in his seat to glare at both of us as Trent heaved the door shut with more force than was strictly necessary. "You don't want to go where we're going, trust me. Get out!"

"I know where you're going!" I snapped, aware that time was precious. "I also know there's God knows how many ghouls and only two of you. You said you needed more bodies. Well, you've got some. We're going to help whether you like it or not, so just drive already!"

If we'd had more time, maybe they would have put up more resistance, but Dean seemed as aware as I was that the hope of finding any of the kids alive grew thinner with every passing moment. He shook his head. "Okay, your funeral," he said, throwing the car into reverse and pealing out of the parking lot.

"Dean ..." Sam protested, obviously not pleased.

"There's no time," Dean countered. "And the odds suck. They wanna help, fine."

Beside me, Trent was trying to put on his coat and encountering a little difficulty with the left sleeve. I reached over to help, but he pulled away from me with a not very friendly look and did it himself. Obviously, he was still mad at me. I shot him a hard glare and pointedly turned away. Hey, nobody said he had to come.

"This is gonna be ugly," Dean warned us as we raced down the highway at speeds far above the posted limits. "You both kept it together real good yesterday. I think you can do this, but you need to stay close, don't waste ammo and if Sam or I give you an order, you follow it immediately. We clear?"

"Clear," I agreed, steeling myself and trying not to dread what lay ahead. Just because it was the right thing to do didn't mean I looked forward to it. "Shouldn't we call the police? They'll have a heck of a lot more people and fire power."

"Yeah? And tell them what?" Dean replied sarcastically. "That a bunch of zombies living in the woods kidnapped the missing school bus? Yeah, they'll jump right on that lead."

He was right of course, but I still felt there should be some way of getting their attention. "No, of course not, but couldn't we make up some other story that seems more believable just to get them out there?" Once they were on the scene and saw it for themselves, then they'd have to believe, right?

"If we have to, we will," Sam told me. "But we need to find the bus first. Right now we don't know where to send them, or ... if the kids are still alive," he added the last reluctantly.

Dean's grip on the steering wheel was tight and his shoulders tense. "They are," he insisted, as if he could make it true by the force of belief alone. "If the bus had been abandoned by the highway someone would have seen it already. They have to have forced them off onto an access road somewhere. They haven't been missing that long and school busses are built like tanks, man. If the driver kept his head at all, it's possible they haven't breached it yet."

"I hope so," Sam agreed. "But if not, and we send the police into the ghouls' den, we're just giving them more victims for nothing. The ghouls look like people, they'll treat them like people. They won't believe the truth until they see it in action and at least some of them would die before they figured it out, maybe a lot of them," he finished explaining.

I had to agree that that made sense, even if it sucked big time. I scooted a little closer to Trent, leaning over so I could whisper in his ear. "Trent, I really need you to tell me how you got tapped back in. Like, now," I hissed. While it would be an admittedly bad idea to use magic in front of the Winchesters, given what we suspected about them, I still considered it a preferable alternative to death by zombie if it came down to that.

Trent turned an icy glare on me and I knew the stubborn set of his jaw all too well. "No. I already told you it wouldn't work," he whispered back.

Resisting the strong urge to punch him, I grabbed his forearm very tightly instead. "Trent, now is not the time to be a jerk just because you're mad at me. This could be a matter of life and death, here!" I was so ticked off with him that it was hard to keep my voice down low enough for the drone of the engine and hum of the tires to obscure our argument, but I managed.

Trent's lips pressed into a tight line. "Oh, now you think of that," he hissed back. "Did that not occur to you before?"

"Hey! I don't remember asking you to come," I told him, getting right up in his face. Whether they could hear us or not, the Winchesters could probably tell that we were arguing by now, but that couldn't be helped and I was just about so mad I didn't care.

Trent looked at me incredulously. "What, you expected me to just stay behind while you go off and get yourself killed?"

"Since when is it your problem what chances I choose to take?" I shot back. Trent was perfectly capable of making his own decisions. He had no obligation to follow me into danger; he certainly never had in the past, unless it was for reasons of his own. "Wait, you need me, that's what this is really about, right? You don't think you can get home without me!" I accused.

The look on Trent's face was unreadable. I could tell I'd deeply pissed him off, but whether that was because I was right, or for some other less easily understood reason, I couldn't be sure.

"Goddess," he snorted darkly. "You just never ..." he shook his head with something like scornful disgust. "You never think that I ..." Trent's jaw clenched and he turned his head away from me. When he looked back again his eyes had gone flat and cold.

"Fine. Quite frankly, no, I don't," he said in crisp, cool tones. "And I am going to get home, Rachel." I could see the familiar, flinty hard glitter of determination in his icy green eyes. "You and I both are, despite your best efforts to get us killed."

The car slowed and I realized we were pulling off onto the shoulder. We were already deep into the woods again, although it was around rush hour so there was a relatively regular stream of cars going past us now. It was the night time and pre-dawn hours when this road was a desolate hunting ground, I supposed.

Sam jumped out of the car and seemed to be looking at something on the ground before he quickly hopped back in. "Skid marks, big ones. Bus sized. There's fragments of a broken headlight too, like there was an accident. The ghouls must have grabbed another car for a snack, then seen the bus coming and improvised - used the car to hit the bus, force it off the road. Looks like you were right," he said to Dean. "I think they forced them off the highway here and herded them onto that access road there." He pointed to a thin dirt trail that wound sharply down and to the right, disappearing almost immediately into the woods. It was probably a fire road or something of that nature. It had been cordoned off with a chain and lock, but the flimsy barrier had been knocked aside and was now laying on the ground. Fresh tire tracks marred the obviously little used dirt road, heading away out of sight.

"All righty then," Dean turned in his seat to look back at us. "If anybody wants to bail, now's the time. Last stop before crazyville," he warned. I think he was giving us an out in case this was what we had been arguing about.

I looked pointedly at Trent, inclining my head towards the door to make it clear that he was welcome to leave. He shot me a look of pure venom and folded his arms, stubbornly slumping back in his seat like a petulant teenager.

"Nope, we're in," I translated for the Winchesters and they quickly gunned the car forward, onto the narrow dirt lane.

Chapter Text

The road tilted sharply downward and the classic auto wasn't exactly a 4x4, but it handled what was being asked if it with a kind of gritty aplomb as we half drove, half slithered down the incline and around a series of sloping twists and turns.

As we progressed, I saw that fresh gouges had exposed patches of lighter colored wood in the dark, weathered trunks of the trees on the outer edges of the curves. It was clear that something big had come slaloming down this road at a good clip and it hadn't handled the turns nearly as well as we were.

Once on this incline, I realized the bus wouldn't have had a chance of halting its descent, not with its greater mass and unwieldy size. Short of plowing into the trees, it's best hope would have been to try and make it to somewhere more level. I tried not to imagine what that would have been like, in the dark with a dozen screaming 8 year olds. God ...

I kept expecting to come upon the wreck of the bus at any moment, but as we wound deeper and deeper into the woods we continued to find only mangled trees and tire tracks. The road was narrow, there was certainly no place a bus could have turned around, especially if it were being pursued, so the answers must still lay ahead of us.

"Damn, that driver did the right thing," Dean muttered approvingly as he navigated the rough trail as fast as was possible while avoiding ripping out the undercarriage. "Kept moving, didn't stop to confront the other driver or slow enough for them to mob the bus. Probably hoping he could find a turn off somewhere to double back for the highway. Sam?"

Sam had a map spread on his knees and was fiddling with a mobile phone. "No GPS signal and this road is either too old or too small, it's not on the park maps." Sam grimaced. "No cell signal either," he added.

"Great," Dean muttered, echoing my thoughts on that. It meant that even if we wanted to, calling the police was out. We'd have to go all the way back to the main road to get a signal, probably, and that would take too much time.

I felt like my teeth were going to rattle out of my head from the bumpy ride and I held onto the door's arm rest as we rocketed along. I felt a subtle, familiar prickle rolling over my skin and glanced beside me. Trent had his eyes closed and his lips moved soundlessly, a look of concentration on his face. He was gathering wild magic to him, I guessed sourly. He'd said it was harder for him to control, so he was probably trying to pull it into his chi and be ready in case it was needed.

I ached to be able to do the same and it made me mad at him all over again. Furious, I turned my gaze back out the window and tried to tell myself I should be glad that at least one of us had a useful fallback. It didn't make me feel any better.

We found the ghoul's stolen car first. It hadn't taken one of the curves and was wrapped around a large tree. The doors were open and it was empty. The bus' tire tracks continued ahead and we pressed on. We found the bus another mile or two further in. The front right fender of the bus was dented inward, and it sat at an angle across the road. It looked like it must have struck something and gone into a skid. A small army of ghouls surrounded it, prying at the doors and windows. I think the only reason they hadn't gotten in yet was because they were fighting each other as much as the structure of the bus, constantly grabbing one another and pulling each other back in an effort to get to the prey inside first. I got the feeling there were too many ghouls gathered here and there hadn't been enough food to go around. They were turning on each other, and that was to our advantage.

"Sorry, baby," Dean muttered, speaking I think, to his car as he floored the accelerator and plowed into the thick of the tangle of ghouls. Using the solid metal frame of the car to push them aside and force them to scatter, Dean swung the vehicle around so that it skidded to a halt directly in front of the stalled bus, the body of the car blocking the front doors, which was the bus' most vulnerable point.

Dean and Sam were out of the car almost before it stopped moving. Trent and I followed suit. The Winchesters tossed us the rifles they were holding, and quickly grabbed two more from the trunk.

"I think you two know the drill by now," Dean said, sighting in on one of the approaching ghouls and pulling the trigger, hitting it clean in the head. "Stay down, stay here by the car. There's ammo in the trunk. Keep your backs to the bus, try not to let them get behind you. Keep them away from the doors. Check on the kids if you can."

Dean glanced at us once to make sure his orders were understood before he and Sam quickly pushed forward, putting themselves between us and the ghouls, pushing out into the thick of the melee.

I pumped the bolt action on my shotgun and turned to look at Trent. His expression was calm and focused and he held the weapon like he knew how to handle it. He took a stance beside the car, and glanced over at me. We could both hear the children inside the bus behind us crying and calling for help. Trent looked a question at me and I nodded.

With him covering me, I hopped up on to the hood of the car, and peered in through the window. Behind me, Trent's shotgun roared. I scanned the interior of the bus quickly. Most of the children had left their seats and were huddled in the center aisle. Some were peeking up through the windows. They looked terrified, but uninjured. I saw that someone, probably the driver, had had the good sense to jam the front doors closed from the inside with what looked like a nightstick or an antitheft bar of some kind. Something had been jammed into the emergency exit latch on the rear exit as well. In the front of the bus, I could see a figure larger than that of the children slumped on the floor.

Having seen me, and drawn by the sounds of the ensuing firefight outside, more of the children were popping their heads up, crawling cautiously onto the row of seats facing me. I tried to look reassuring.

"Is everybody okay in there?" I asked.

Too many young voices tried to answer at the same time, making it impossible to clearly understand any of them. I got the overall impression that the children were unharmed, but the driver had hit his head pretty hard in the bus' final crash. He'd apparently stayed conscious long enough to jam the doors and tell the kids to stay down, but then he had "fallen asleep", and they couldn't wake him. I hoped he would be okay. I hoped all of us would be okay.

"You do what he said, all right?" I told the kids, raising my voice to be heard through the closed windows and above the roar of the fighting. "You all need to stay in the middle of the bus, down on the floor; don't look out the windows. Everything's going to be okay." They were just scared enough that I thought they would probably obey, for the most part. Knowing I needed to get back to the fight, I slid quickly off the trunk and back to the ground.

Trent was reloading. He looked at me and I nodded, indicating that all was as well as could be expected. "The kids are okay!" I called out, loud enough to let the Winchesters know, too. The problem, was going to be keeping them that way. There seemed to be a hell of a lot more ghouls then there had even been last night. Whatever force had stirred them up and drawn them together in this unusual manner appear to still be at work.

There were too few of us, and too many of them. It was obvious in under a minute that we would never be able to hold them off for long. Despite our efforts to keep them away, the ghouls were massing around the bus again. They beat at the sturdy safety glass, prying at the rear windows and door. Several of them jumped up onto the roof. My gut clenched in horror when I heard a popping sound, and saw that they'd found and opened the emergency escape panel on the top of the bus. I fired up with them, knocking one off the roof. Trent got the other one, but more were already climbing up to take their place. My shotgun was empty. I needed to reload, but there wasn't time.

Beside me, I heard Trent swear in frustration. "This is to damn ineffective." He dropped the useless gun he was holding and instead threw a golden ball of energy into the midst of the three ghouls on the roof, blasting all of them off at the same time.

Something slammed into me from behind as one of the ghouls tackled me. The force of the impact made me drop my empty gun. The being that looked like a man, but was not a man, had a knife. He slashed at me, and I sidestepped. My martial arts training came to my aid as I automatically blocked his forearm with mine, whipping my body around so that I caught his arm between mine and twisted, forcing him to drop the knife.

Another attacker punched me harshly in the side, making me reel. I kicked him in the knee, buying a little distance, but it wasn't going to be enough. There were too many and they were pressing in too close. I was running out of room to maneuver.

"Rachel!" Trent called out, and I looked up to find him at my side, his hand held out towards me. I didn't understand what he wanted, but then he took my hand and I felt magic rush into me like a wave. I grabbed the energy, almost instinctively pulling into my empty, aching core. Trent was feeding it to me through his touch, allowing me to pull the energy through him as if he were my familiar.

I instantly saw what he'd meant about the magic feeling different here. It didn't have same type of slippery unpredictability I was used to from the wild magic in our world. It filled my chi like I was pulling on a ley line, yet it didn't feel like a line. The power signature was somehow completely different. It burned a little, like plugging into a foreign current without an adapter, but it still felt glorious after the emptiness of having been able to touch nothing.

A ghoul charged us and I threw a flaming curse directly into his chest. "Exuro, exussum!"

I heard Trent spelling beside me, the music of his magic humming on the crisp air. I felt the dip and swell of his energy draw as we both blasted spells and curses the attackers circling us and the bus.

I slid my hand away and felt the connection break abruptly. I gasped from the loss and Trent quickly grabbed my fingers again. Apparently, I had to be physically touching him for it to work.

"Eram pere!" Trent called, whirling and taking down a ghoul that had climbed up onto the roof of the car and was trying to jump us from behind.

"Fucking hell?!" I heard one of the Winchesters exclaim in shock from somewhere amid the tangle of ghouls mobbing them. I could just barely glimpse the two brothers standing back to back, swinging their rifles like clubs, presumably because they were being pressed too hard to be able to reload. I was pretty sure the words were a reaction to what Trent and I were doing rather than the battle they were fighting, but tough, we were what we were and they were going to have to deal.

Thinking I was beginning to understand how this worked, I drew deeply, pulling as much energy as I dared through Trent without hurting him. I spindling it, then let go of his hand again. As I'd hoped, even though I lost my connection to the power source, the magic I'd spindled was still there and I could use it until it ran out. That gave us a little more autonomy and freedom of action.

In daily life there were many ways in which Trent and I had a tendency to pull in different directions, but such was not the case in a situation like this. For some reason, it seemed that we spelled and fought together very well. It was fast, natural and intuitive. Our energies resonated and flowed. We seemed to embrace the same tactics, knowing what the other was thinking and backing one another's plays automatically, even without a mental connection. By now we had simply come to know each other's rhythms.

Staying more or less back to back, we moved in tandem, quickly settling into a rhythm that was almost a dance - spell, turn, spell, turn, grip hands so I could re-fill my chi, spin, switch places, repeat.

The ghouls started falling back from the bus. I don't think they'd encountered anyone like us before and the unexpected threat threw them into disarray. I just hoped they didn't realize too quickly that we weren't actually killing any of them. While some of these spells could be fatal for humans, they were only hurting, scaring and slowing the ghouls.

It was throwing them off enough that it was giving the Winchesters an edge. However disturbed the hunters may be by our magical display, they seemed to have adapted their own strategy pretty quickly to take advantage of the new circumstances. They'd been able to reload and I noticed that they were now intentionally targeting and picking off the distracted, disoriented ghouls as we spelled them.

I knew curses that would probably kill them outright - most things will die if you superheat and explode them from the inside out - but that was a road I didn't want to take. Thus far I had never killed with magic and I desperately wanted to keep it that way if at all possible.

"Trent, they're afraid of us!" I told him quickly as we grabbed arms and spun around again, backs bumping as we changed our positions. Our continual motion was an effort to keep the area around the bus clear and to keep the ghouls from being able to form up on us too tightly. Even with magic, the odds were seriously against us, especially once the scare factor wore off. If we could do something big, conjure up a little shock and awe, maybe we could make them flee all together, or at least force them to fall back and regroup.

I looked over and found Trent's face grimly set, but his were eyes alight with the power dancing between us. I saw that he understood what I was saying without needing an explanation. "Well then, maybe we should give them a little show?" he suggested.

I grinned at him and squeezed his hand, power crackling through me as I lifting my other hand, a growing haze of magic dripping down between my fingers. "Light 'em up!" I agreed.

We did. Holding hands, we worked in unison, drawing the power to us. The force of our conjoined spell whirled to life around us, shifting and spinning like a sudden, unnatural wind. When the power hit critical, we pushed it explosively outward. It shook the ground and rolled away like a shockwave of light and sound. This was not a targeted attack, it wasn't even terribly dangerous, but damn it looked scary as hell if you didn't know anything about magic. Smaller blasts of crackling energy flew about like lightning bolts, catching several of the ghouls and making them stumble and scream as they ran away.

The display had the desired effect. The definitely freaked out ghouls scattered, fleeing into the woods. I didn't think they were gone for good, unfortunately. Whatever else they were, they didn't appear stupid. Once the initial shock wore off, they'd probably realize that they still out numbered us a dozen to one. We had minutes, maybe, if that.

Breathing hard and realizing only now that my head and my chi were stinging from the exertion of handling the unfamiliar energy, I looked up to find the Winchesters jogging quickly back towards us. Given the looks on their faces, the ghouls weren't the only ones we'd freaked out. Great.

"What the hell are you?" Dean demanded, brows furrowed. Both men's bodies were tight with tension and battle wariness.

"People who want to save those kids and would like to get all our asses out of here alive; isn't that what matters right now?!" I snapped shortly.

To their credit, the Winchesters seemed able to accept that, at least for the time being. They exchanged a look and Sam quickly took off for the bus. Out of my periphery vision I saw him climb up and over their car, then onto the bus roof, before he disappeared inside through the opened emergency hatch.

Trent was leaning his hips back against the hood of the large black car, arms folded across his middle and his head bowed slightly. Now that the power of magic and the adrenaline of the battle weren't actively flowing through him, I realized he really didn't look well. He must be as tired as I was - maybe more so, judging by his unusual silence and the fact that he was leaving dealing with the Winchester completely to me. He coughed, covering his mouth with his fist.

"You're witches, aren't you?" Dean's quiet, flat voice quickly drew my attention back to him. The look on his face said that was definitely not a good thing in his book.

My eyes narrowed at his tone, but I wasn't sure how to answer that. Sort of? I was, Trent wasn't. Well ... technically I wasn't either anymore, but I didn't think it would be a good idea to mention that I was a demon. Even most of the people in our world had a problem with that little fact. It was all too complicated an explanation for the time we had and frankly I didn't care for the way he was looking at me after we'd just helped save their butts, so I said nothing.

Dean scowled at me a moment longer, then ran a frustrated hand through his short hair and shook his head. "Crap. We haven't got time for this. Those ghouls will be back any minute. I don't know what your game is or what you're really after here, but if you honestly do want to help, just be sure you keep the freaky hoodoo pointed in their direction." There was an unspoken, quiet threat in his eyes about what would happen if we didn't and if our intention was to betray them. He had the look of a man who had been burned too many times to trust easily.

"We will," I promised, biting back on some of the things I'd like to say for the sake of trying not to further alienate our already hesitant allies. This situation was enough of a mess without complicating it further. "We only want to help, Dean."

Behind us, I heard the throaty rumble of the bus engine trying to turn over. Sam must be trying to get it fired up. The engine growled and sputtered, but wouldn't catch.

"Guess we'll see," Dean said. He gave me a last look before turning away and jogging quickly over to the front of the bus.

"It won't start," Sam called out to his brother from the interior of the bus, his voice muffled. "It must have been damaged in the last crash."

I bit my lower lip. That wasn't good. Driving the kids out in the bus was about the only plausible option at this point. Taking them out of the bus would only make them more vulnerable. We couldn't run a bunch of third graders out of here on foot and we couldn't fit all of them in the brothers' car.

I saw Dean force open the hood of the school bus with some difficulty, the dented front corner warping the frame and making it difficult for him to pull the assembly forward and down as it was built to do. Jumping up so he was standing balanced on one of the bus' large front tires, Dean leaned over the engine cavity and signaled Sam through the windshield to try it again.

Again the engine sputtered and failed to catch. Dean leaned over farther, shoulders working as he quickly dug around inside the engine. "Again!" he called and again the engine revved. It held for a few moments longer this time, but then sputtered out again.

Dean swore, hopping down off the tire and quickly retrieving some tools from inside his vehicle before climbing back up again and bending over the damaged bus motor. Apparently, the line about them being mechanics hadn't been a total lie. Dean seemed to know his way around an engine very well. I heard him call out a couple of the bus' issues to his brother as he worked urgently under the hood. The only one that I recognized was something about a slipped belt.

Trent had started coughing again, like he had something stuck in his throat. I started to turn to him, but a rustle in the trees drew my attention. The ghouls were there, watching us. There was no mistaking the predatory gleam in their eyes. I emptied my chi, sending a fire ball bouncing into the trees as a warning shot. They scattered warily to the sides, but didn't retreat. They were already getting over their fear. The lure of food and the threat that their prey might escape was too strong. They might be just watching for now, but I knew it was only a matter of time before they made another move.

"We have company," I called over my shoulder, warily watching the tree line and backing up at the same time. I didn't want to risk diverting my gaze lest they choose that moment to spring, but I needed to grab another refill from Trent. The fact that he hadn't already come forward to join me should have tipped me off that we had a problem, but my attention was severely divided at the moment.

"You gonna be able to get that thing started?" I added, still not turning and this time keeping my voice quiet so as not to give anything away to the enemy surrounding us.

"Yeah, but not fast enough," Dean replied grimly, in equally quiet tones. He hopped down again, snatching up his rifle when he saw the watchers in the trees. "We need time. We need a distraction."

I heard the bus squeaking behind me and turned to see that Sam was hauling himself back out through the roof to join us. I felt the futility of the situation in my gut. I didn't think the four of us could hold off another full frontal assault and we certainly wouldn't be able to do so while attempting to keep the ghouls both out of the bus and off of Dean long enough for him to fix the bus.

My brows furrowed thoughtfully. We couldn't fight and win ... but fighting wasn't the only option. Maybe Trent and I could pull off a protection circle big enough to do the trick. I looked about quickly, judging the area around us. Encompassing the bus and car and avoiding the other terrain-based obstacles around us meant that it would have to be one huge circle. I thought I could maybe just do it, but it would be a real stretch. Still, it was the best chance we had. Actually, it was probably the only chance we had. No pressure or anything.

"I have an idea," I told them quickly, walking swiftly down the length of the car, looking for Trent. He wasn't standing by the hood anymore and I didn't see him, although I couldn't imagine he'd gone far. "I think we can make a circle, buy you some time. Trent! We need to ... " I rounded the car and froze when I found the elf.

Trent was on his knees. He was hunched over, gripping the earth with one hand, the other pressed to his mouth as heaving coughs wracked his body. With shocked horror, I realized his mouth and his hand were both dripping red. He was coughing up blood. Alarm sliced through me like a cold blade. What the hell had happened?!

"Trent! What's wrong? Where are you hurt?" I demanded worriedly as I dropped to my knees beside him. My hand went to his back as I urgently searched him for injuries. Trent shook his head, unable to speak as another set of choking spasms shook him. I glanced anxiously back towards the trees and saw that the ghouls were stirring restlessly, as if scenting our weakness.

My gaze shot quickly up to Sam and Dean, who had come when they heard the alarm in my voice and were now dividing their grim-faced attention between whatever was happening to Trent and the rallying ghouls.

"Make me a circle!" I told them urgently. "Make a circle around all of us, including the bus. The line needs to be unbroken," I added distractedly when realized they probably wouldn't know what I meant. The area was too large, I wouldn't be able to hold an undrawn circle that big. There was no time or tools to draw the formal patterns, but even a circle scratched in the dirt would suffice.

"That won't help with ghouls," Sam told me as he and Dean rapidly jacked some of the remaining shells into their shot guns, their alert gazes on the trees. The ghouls were still just watching us, but we could all feel the tipping point coming. It wasn't a matter of if, but of when. They'd decide on their attack strategy soon and then we were done unless we had our counter measures in place.

"I know what I'm doing!" I hissed, not understanding what Sam meant and not having time to care. "You need time, I can buy some, but I need help! I need a circle and I need Trent - I can't take care of both, pick one!" I said in urgent, frustrated desperation.

They frowned at me in confusion before moving off quickly. I could only hope they were doing what I asked as I refocused on Trent. My grip tightened in his shirt as he pushed himself up so he was no longer leaning on the ground. He seemed to have finally gotten the coughing under control, but I was still worried. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, spreading a crimson stain on his pale skin.

"I'm not injured, Rachel," he told me, his voice still a bit hoarse from the coughing. "It's nothing."

"This is not nothing," I growled savagely, gripping his arm and giving him a little shake. "Trenton Aloysius Kalamack don't you dare lie to me right now, we can't afford it! I need to know what's wrong!"

Trent's hand fisted against his thigh, his expression both resigned and weary. "I told you, the magic here wouldn't acknowledge me. It can't claim me because I already belong to the Goddess in our world, Rachel, we both do. The only way I could get its attention was through sacrifice."

My whole body stiffened, a cold dread beginning to form in my stomach. Some stories held that the elves used to practice animal sacrifice as part of their quasi-religious magical rites. Whether that was true or not, I somehow didn't think that Trent was talking about goats or doves, here.

"Trent," I breathed, my jaw clenching. "What exactly did you offer up for this sacrifice?"

Trent snorted, wiping his mouth again and pushing a little unsteadily to his feet. "The only thing I had," he said simply.

Oh God, Trent meant himself.

"It's not as bad as it sounds," he muttered, because I guess my face showed what I was thinking. "It just means that every time I use magic, I have to pay a price. It takes a certain toll on me, physically."

"How is that not as bad as it sounds?!" I demanded, also rising to my feet. The dread in my gut had solidified into horror. "You say I'm reckless? Trent, how could you do something so stupid?!"

"It was a calculated risk, Rachel. I needed to find you, and I thought we would likely need it to get home. I never intended to use it this much. I wasn't exactly planning on having to fight a zombie army," he said tensely.

No. He hadn't been, had he? Guilt mixed with my anger and dread. "Trent, I didn't know," I whispered, shaking my head. "You should have told me!"

Trent looked at me steadily. "You wouldn't have used it, if you knew," he said quietly.

"Damn right I wouldn't have!" I agreed. "We stop using it right now!"

"They're coming!" I heard Sam's shout and it felt like a knife twisting in my gut.

Trent smiled thinly at me. "Right. Only we can't and you know that." Taking a deep breath, he held his hand out to me, palm up. "You're right, Rachel, our only chance is to get in a circle. If we don't then we're all dead. It's not that bad, truly. I can do this."

I drew back a step, shaking my head, heart in my throat. How could Trent expect me to use him as a conduit now that I knew the cost?

Trent just looked at me, hand still extended. "Rachel, you need to do this or we'll all pay the price.I'll do it myself if I have to, but I won't be able to hold a circle this big for as long as I know you can."

I hated him for being right. I hated that he was going to make me hurt him. I hated myself for not having found some other way. Feeling miserable, I reached out and took his hand, gritting my teeth as I felt the surge of magic coursing through him and spilling into me.

A shotgun blast yanked my focus back outward. I found Sam and Dean flanking us, firing and falling back slowly, picking off first few ghouls as they rushed out from the trees.

"If you've got some brilliant idea, now would be the time," Dean said darkly, glancing at Trent and I as he quickly reloaded. "Ghouls aren't like ghosts or demons, that salt line isn't going to do shit to keep them out."

Looking about, I saw that Sam and Dean had made a circle all right, they'd laid a circle of salt all the way around us, the bus and the car. Oooookay, that was different. Given Dean's words, I guessed that the salt lines themselves would in fact be a deterrent for some of the inderlanders in this world, which was interesting, but not my main concern right now. The question was whether it was going to work as a basis for raising a protection circle. Salt dissolved earth magic, but could be used in some ley line spells.

The front wave of the ghouls were almost on us and the only way to find out was going to be to try it and see. I gripped Trent's hand tightly and focused on the shape of the circle about us. "Rhombus!" I cried, and was relieved when I saw the familiar, molecule thin shimmer of my aura rush upward from the salt circle, meeting over our heads to form a bubble of protection about us.

Not a moment too soon. Almost as soon as it sprang into existence, the first ghoul impacted with the barrier, running into it full tilt only to be thrown backwards with a surprised yelp. In other circumstances, it might have been comical the way they piled up against one another, banging and poking experimentally at the semi-invisible wall. They obviously had no idea what to make of it.

The circle was huge and I could feel the strain of holding it throb between my temples, but it was solid for the time being. The rock salt was actually making a very good base. It added a pure resonance to the energy flow that made it almost as good as a properly drawn circle would have been. Part of it was because of the different structure of this magic's energy. I wasn't sure it would have worked so well in our world, but it was nice to have something go right once in a while.

"Whoa, holy force field, Batman," Dean muttered in obvious shock and maybe just a little bit of boyish wonder as he and Sam stared at the shimmering surface of the bubble. It was tinted the gold of my aura and clouded over by the black smut that slid and swirled like oil across its surface. I winced inwardly, then realized that if the Winchesters had never seen a protection circle before, they probably had no idea what all the black meant - or rather, what people in my world always assumed it meant.

The ghouls were trying to punch through it now, pushing their fingers in until they burned before drawing them back, hissing and growling. They seemed disturbingly undeterred by the pain and continued to attack the barrier with dogged confusion. I had to pour a little more strength into it to keep it solid.

Beside me, Trent's grip remained tight in mine, even as he folded to his knees on the ground. I swallowed, trying not to think about what I was doing to him. He said he'd be okay, that he could handle whatever strain this was putting on him. I could only hope he was right.

I sank down to sit next to him and pulled our entwined hands into my lap. I couldn't let go, he was my conduit. The moment I let go, I would lose my connection and the circle would fall. I was reminded suddenly of the first time I'd met and worked with Peirce - back when I was 18, he was a ghost, and it had been me who was acting as his physical conduit to the lines. I thought I understood his frustration with the situation so much better now. My stomach ached as the feeling of isolation and not belonging from my dreams last night returned with a vengeance. I was like a ghost in this world.

"They're not going to be able to get through as long as the circle's in place," I told Sam and Dean, forcing all the decidedly unhelpful emotions churning inside me away and focusing in on the situation at hand. My gaze lifted to find both brothers staring at us. "I don't know how long we can hold it, but hopefully long enough for you to fix the bus so we can all get the heck out of here."

The Winchesters were apparently rather good at dealing with whatever curveballs a situation threw them and making things up on the fly. I could tell there were a lot of questions they were dying to ask, but they just hurried back to the bus and wasted no time digging right into what needed to be done. They must both know something about cars because they worked on it together - sleeves rolled up, arms thrust into the engine.

The children inside the bus had fallen silent. They were probably simply worn out by now, but I hoped that if they could see the bubble around us and understand what it was doing, maybe that gave them a little comfort. Children usually accepted such things more easily than adults might have.

I was glad that Trent didn't start coughing up blood again or anything, but he didn't look like he was doing all that well either. I was reminded uncomfortably of the other part of my uneasy dreams last night and my fingers tightened a little.

"Trent," I said quietly. "Help me understand how this works. This toll it takes on you ... I mean, is it like, it hurts but if you stop and don't use it for a while you'll feel better again? Or are we talking something more permanent like it's draining your life force or ... I don't know ... taking parts of you?"

Trent grimaced dryly. "There's a lovely idea. Honestly? I don't know," he admitted with a frown. "It's not like I wrote up a contract. You saw how it works. The magic here was not so different from ours in that respect, you basically give it what it wants and abide by however that turns out."

I made an unhappy face at the nasty uncertainty of it all. Yes, I did understand; it was after all part of how we'd ended up in this whole situation in the first place. Stupid, unpredictable wild magic. I liked this world's version even less than our own.

Trent looked more than a little sick, although I think he was trying to hide it from me. His lips were still stained with blood from before and I was trying not to stare. He rubbed his face and head several times, shifting uneasily on the ground. "You have this, yes? I believe I'm going to lie down," he finally informed me, keeping hold of my hand as he shifted awkwardly around so he could lay on his side beside me. I pulled on his arm, impulsively tugging his head over into my lap at the last moment.

Trent tensed up but then relaxed and lay his head down on my thigh, our clasped hands resting nearby. I wasn't sure why I'd done that, but I felt the need to keep him close and it would give me a better chance to monitor his condition. I was trying my hardest to keep the circle up with as little power as necessary so I would need to take less from him, but that was much easier said than done. Especially when the darn ghouls wouldn't stop poking at it and throwing things.

"Do you think I could make the same deal with it that you did?" I asked after a moment.

Trent turned his head up towards me sharply, his green eyes suddenly hard. "No. You will not do that, Rachel. You yourself said it was a stupid idea and one of us is bad enough."

I frowned, bristling at being told what to do. I thought I caught a glimpse of worry behind Trent's harshness though and tried to keep myself from reacting too sharply. "But it's my fault you had to use it so heavily," I argued quietly instead.

"Mm," Trent didn't disagree, but he didn't look mad at me anymore either. "So fix me when we get home, then," he said simply. "If anything's missing, you can put it back. You're ... good at that."

I frowned, perfectly aware of what he was referring to and so not about to go there. Of course I'd do whatever I needed to do to heal him when we got home. That was a given whether this had been my fault or not, but it didn't solve our problems in the short term. "If we need it again, after this, then I should make the deal," I persisted. Not because I wanted to do something that risky, but because I didn't want to be dependent on Trent for magic, especially not when it was doing God knew what to him. If we spread the damage out, maybe we could both survive it long enough to get home where I could, as Trent had said "fix" us.

Trent sighed turned away from me again, giving his head another shake. "That is not a good idea," he murmured. "Wild magic is unpredictable, Rachel. Just because this is the cost it chooses to extract from me doesn't mean it would be the same for you. It could turn out a lot worse, and there's no telling what binding ourselves too much to this world might do to our chances of getting back. Anyway, I'm not going to tell you the proper spell for sacrifice and trust me, you can't do it by just standing around shouting at it." I heard a faint glimmer of a smile in his voice at the last.

I scowled down at him and smacked his shoulder lightly with my free hand to indicate my displeasure, although I kept the motion too light to hurt.

I felt Trent chuckle against my leg. "God, why are you always hitting me?"

"Because you always deserve it," I retorted.

I was silent for a little while then, listening to the Winchesters work on the bus and focusing on maintaining the circle. My free hand rested lightly on Trent's shoulder as I listened to the thankfully mostly steady sound of his breathing.

"Rachel?" Trent's voice was quiet. "Do you think you will be able to keep drawing through me if I pass out?"

My body stiffened. "I don't know ... probably?" I hedged. "Why, you feeling like you're going to?"

"No," he lied. "But I can draw through Tulpa even when he rests; I would think this shouldn't be much different. I don't need to be touching him to do it, but I imagine that limitation is because of this world." He murmured thoughtfully, almost sounding as if he were speaking to himself more than me.

I stiffened at the mention of Trent's horse and the mental parallel the elf seemed to be drawing. "Trent, you're not my familiar."

Trent smiled dryly. "Say that again sometime when you're not doing the equivalent of pulling of a line through me. Maybe I'll believe you." His tone was sarcastic, but not upset.

I shook my head, not at all comfortable with what Trent was implying. "No," I protested. "I severed that connection years ago." And then Trent became Ku'Sox' familiar, and I wrenched control of that bond away from him and made Trent mine again by force. I had thought that destroying the slave rings would have taken care of everything. I'd never considered that I might need to release Trent again, but now I suddenly wondered. What if there was more to the ease of our ability to connect than I had thought?

"No, you just set me free so I didn't have to obey or let you in, unless I wished to." Trent's voice was very quiet. The calm way he said it meant he'd probably known that for a long time.

I was more than a little stunned. I wondered why he'd never said anything, but then I supposed I understood. Even if he had the choice of turning it on or off, it still meant he was vulnerable to me in some ways I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be vulnerable to anyone. What I didn't understand was why he was telling me now.

The circle was taking a massive amount of effort. The headache throbbing behind my eyes had now officially reached migraine proportions and I squeezed my eyes shut, trying not to feel nauseous. "I'm sorry," I told him honestly. "I really thought it was gone. When we get home I'll find a way to turn it off, I promise."

"No, I don't want you to do that." Trent's quiet answer surprised me and I looked down at him. His head was still resting on my leg, his face turned away from me. His gaze focused on some point in the distance. "Obviously, at times it can be useful, and as I said - I can control it. You're not compromising my will, Rachel."

I just stared at him. No ... but I could. Trent was very strong, but I was stronger and the ties that bound us had not been formed on equal footing. If he was still vulnerable to me, then if I truly wanted to I probably could force submission from him through the shared connection. The thought made me sick. I didn't care what Trent said, I was going to find a way to shut this down.

"I know you don't trust me, Rachel," Trent said quietly, gaze still fixed on the distance. "But I trust you. If you'd wanted a slave, you could have had me, many times. You're one of the only people I know to whom I could admit something like this, and rather than trying to figure out how best to take advantage of it, you're busy trying to think of ways to break the connection whether I want you to or not, aren't you?"

My cheeks warmed a little at how accurately he'd guessed my thoughts. Trent finally glanced up and when he caught sight of the look on my face, a small, smug smile lit his drawn features. He knew he was right. "That's why I trust you," he said simply, holding my gaze for a long moment before turning away again. His breathing wasn't so even anymore and I saw him close his eyes as if trying to gather strength.

I felt ... I didn't know what I felt. Trent was right about some things, but he was wrong about others. He thought I didn't trust him, but I knew that when it came down to the things that really mattered, I did. I don't know why I couldn't tell him that, but the words would not come. Instead I let my free hand stroke slowly through his hair as I'd been doing way too often lately.

"I will get you home," I promised him in my mind, as if it could make up for the things I didn't know how to say. "I will do whatever I need to do."

We fell into silence and I tried to deal with the raw pain boring through my temples. The bubble wavered in my grasp and I quickly fumbled for it, pouring more energy into it with a wince that wasn't only for Trent's sake. This was really, really not fun. The stupid, not-quite-right current was starting to make my brain burn from the prolonged exposure. I missed my familiar ley lines so badly right now.

"How's it coming over there? No pressure or anything, but we really need to speed this up!" I called over to the Winchesters.

"Workin' on it!" Dean's voice was muffled from his inverted position over the engine. There was a clanging sound and I heard him swear under his breath. "Just leave it be," I heard him say sourly. "No, I got it, Sam! Get your head out of the way. Go ... check on Mork and Mindy or something."

A few moments later a shadow fell over me. Opening my eyes reluctantly, I found myself squinting up at Sam. The younger Winchester crouched down in front of us. There was grease on his hands and smeared on his cheek. He regarded us with a worried frown that told me we must look about as rough as I felt.

"We're working on the bus, the engine's more screwed up than we thought," he told us carefully. "Took a hell of a beating on the way in here. I think we've just about got it though. You two holding up okay?" He gave a little nod that vaguely indicated the circle about us.

"Honestly? No," I told him. "The bubble's too big; I don't know how much longer I can hold it." I looked down at Trent who was laying much too still in my lap. He hadn't responded to Sam's presence and that worried me. "He's paying for the magic we're using and I don't know how much more he can take, either," I added quietly. "I'm not kidding, you need to hurry."

Sam nodded his understanding. "Okay, hang in there." He rose and jogged back to his brother. I didn't hear what he said to Dean but the hurried clanging increased in tempo. I knew they were working as fast as they could. I just had to keep holding on.

I was trying not to think about what came after. I wanted to be optimistic and believe the best about people, but I also didn't want to be dangerously naive. Thus far the hunters hadn't reacted too badly to our little secret, but then, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right? We were currently helping them stay alive. When they didn't need us anymore, that was when we'd see how the dice were really going to fall. I needed to stay on my toes, especially if I was going to be responsible for protecting Trent as well as myself. The way things were going, that was looking likely.

"Trent?" I said quietly, giving his shoulder a shake. I got no response and his hand was slack in my grip. Apparently, he had indeed passed out. Well, I knew the answer to his earlier question then, not that it made me feel much better. I chewed the inside of my lip, trying not to worry. I wished he'd told me the problem sooner instead of keeping everything to himself like he always did. Maybe we could have found some other way that didn't come at such a cost ... but then again, maybe we couldn't have. I wanted to be angry at Trent over what he'd done, but then I had to ask myself what I would have done in his place? I sighed and pressed my hurting eyes shut again. It didn't matter. We'd get through this.

"Trent, I am getting really tired of worrying about you. It feels like all I do lately. It's getting old and frankly, it sucks," I muttered to his still form. "You seriously need to stop getting yourself messed up, okay? Stupid cookie maker." I squeezed his hand tightly.

My head was on fire. The struggle to hold the circle was becoming deadly serious. I was holding on by my fingertips but I was wearing out, fast. Focused on my silent struggle, I lost track of time and just about everything else beside the one, important thought of keeping the barrier up. By the time I heard the lovely, long anticipated sound of the bus engine turning over and roaring to life, I wasn't terribly far from passing out myself.

Time had taken on a blurry, slippery quality. Someone was talking to me. Sam? No ... Dean? I blinked but I couldn't focus on his face or the sound of his words. I tried to shake myself out of it. Some part of me knew that the time had come and we had to move.

I stumbled to my feet as if in a dream, automatically trying to drag Trent with me. In so doing, however, I lost my hold on his hand and with it the energy that had apparently been sustaining me as much as the circle. The sudden loss was abrupt and painful. Violent vertigo gripped me. The world went black from the outside in, my knees buckled and I had no idea which way was up, only that I was falling.

Panic and guilt flashed like starbursts behind my eyelids. I'd failed. I'd failed to get us out of here. I'd failed to be strong enough and I'd left Trent and myself at the mercy of two men whom I only hoped we could trust. If the Winchesters really were like HAPA, then my failure meant the two of us were both dead. We'd shown them what we were and now they didn't need us anymore. They could easily just leave us and run. At least the kids were safe.

My last vague memory was that of strong arms catching me and the sensation of being swung up onto someone's shoulder right before everything went fully dark.

Chapter Text

I awoke slowly. My head was muzzy and my limbs heavy, but I felt rested and relatively refreshed. That combined with the speed with which alertness was returning suggested that I'd probably been asleep for some time. The air tasted stale and metallic and I was aware of the scent of rust and oil. I felt like a weight was pressing down on my chest, but when I waved my hand to push it away, there was nothing there.

I opened my eyes to find myself staring up at a strange, round ceiling. Light filtered in through an overhead grate. The heavy, metal grillwork was fashioned in the shape of a pentagram within a pentagram, surrounded by a circle, with a sigil in each of the star's points.

I wasn't familiar with that exact formation, but I could suss out its parts and purpose without much difficulty. It was meant to bind or contain something ... or maybe ward it off? No, I was pretty sure the runes indicated binding.

That wasn't a terribly comforting thing to wake up to and I quickly pushed up onto my elbows and flexed my legs. I encountered no difficulty moving, so whatever the spell was for, it wasn't binding me, at least.

I found I was lying on an old fashioned metal framed cot in the center of a small, circular room with a concrete floor and metal walls - probably iron? There was another giant pentagram design painted on the floor and charms and sigils of varying types were painted and carved across almost every inch of the walls. Some of the spellwork looked meant to keep things in, others parts were clearly intended to keep them out. Some of the runes I recognized, some I didn't. There were a few on the far wall that seemed to visibly writhe and made my eyes sting when I looked at them, so I didn't look at them.

I blinked and shook my head. The air felt charged and coppery. The room was so heavily warded that it was almost difficult to breathe in here. That was the phantom weight I'd felt, I realized. Rolling stiffly onto my side, I sat up with a groan, feet dangling over the side of the bed. I was stiff and sore and felt uncomfortably gritty, but I was otherwise uninjured.

I found Trent lying on another cot, beside mine. His eyes were closed, but the steady rise and fall of his chest said he was only sleeping. There was something that looked like an oxygen mask over the lower part of his face. It connected to a small, portable unit parked on the floor by the bed.

I reached for the mask, pulling it off and sniffing it cautiously, testing what was coming out. Satisfied that it was, in fact, just oxygen and not some kind of drug or poison, I fitted it back over Trent's mouth and nose again. The tenseness in my shoulders relaxed just a little. The presence of the oxygen mask was marginally reassuring in that it meant whoever had put us here wasn't necessarily indifferent to our health.

A heavy, metal door set into the wall appeared to be the only way in or out of the strange room. Crossing over to it, I tried the handle. I wasn't very surprised to find it locked, but it did up my anxiety and adrenaline levels. I did not like being caged.

"Hey!" I pounded on the door with the side of my fist. "Hello?!" Don't panic, I told myself. Sure, you're locked in a heavily charmed room God knows where with no idea whether there's actually anybody out there to hear you or not ... about then, I decided to stop giving myself advice because it decidedly wasn't helping.

Stepping back, I forced myself to breathe deeply and assess the situation. We were alive, that was good. There was a lot of magic going on in here, but none of it was actively harming us, even if it wasn't comfortable. I frowned thoughtfully. The thing about drawn charms was that if they weren't actively targeting you, they could be modified - if you knew what you were doing. Some of these looked tamper-resistant by nature, but there were a few I thought I could adapt enough to take control of, if I had the right medium. I wished I had some magnetic chalk, but even if I'd had any in my pockets it probably wouldn't have survived the past few days' events. If I got desperate, I could always use blood.

I wasn't quite that desperate, yet. I wanted to know more about our situation, including why and where we were being held, before I started reacting blindly. Still, it didn't hurt to gather ideas and fall back plans.

Whether or not my calls had garnered any outside attention, they did seem to have woken Trent because when I turned around again I found that he was sitting up. He'd removed the mask and held it in his hand, frowning as he looked around the room, probably making a lot of the same observations as I had.

"Where are we?" He asked me, like I had any idea.

I shrugged. "Don't know, but it's a charming little place, isn't it?" I remarked dryly as I took another turn around the room.

Trent was contemplating the oxygen mask in his hand. "The Winchesters?"

I shrugged again. "Probably, unless they handed us off to somebody else." I didn't like that thought at all. If we were being disappeared into the bowels of some shadowy, HAPA-like organization, then there were far too many unpleasant reasons why they might be keeping us alive.

Trent coughed into his hand and I turned quickly towards him, remembering what had happened before. I didn't see any blood this time though and the cough subsided momentarily. Trent raised the oxygen mask back to his face and took a few breaths before letting it fall back to his lap. His movements were deliberately casual, but he wouldn't look at me.

"How you are you feeling?" I asked. "And don't just tell me you're fine," I added quickly.

Trent's lips quirked up in a half-smile. "Very well, in that case, how about I say I'm all right?"

I folded my arms and gave him a distinctly un-amused glare. I was in no mood to put up with any more of Trent's evasive bullshit. I needed to know what kind of shape he was in; details like that could be pretty important if we had to make a break for it.

Trent sighed. "I believe my lungs may have taken some damage," he admitted matter-of-factly, mostly, I think, to appease me. "This room is almost certainly making it worse, but I do not seem in any immediate danger." He raised his eyebrows at me as if to ask if I was happy now.

The clang of a bolt being pushed aside made me turn quickly back towards the door. Out of my periphery vision I saw Trent slide silently off the bed.

The door swung open with a rasping of metal and I was slightly relieved to see Sam and Dean standing outside. We had a bit of a history with them at this point and I hoped that would count for something. It was better than being in the hands of complete strangers, anyway.

I put my hands on my hips. "Love the guest room," I told them dryly. "But you should think about getting some new drapes."

Faint amusement flickered across the brothers' faces. "You two have been out for quite a while. Wanted to make sure you rested safely," Dean said with a guarded smile.

"Yeah? Safe for whom?" I wondered. "How long is a while? Where are we?" I asked instead, wanting to pretend we were having a nice, casual little conversation and that were weren't prisoners.

"Little over a day or so. We're at a friend's house, near Sioux Falls," Sam told us.

I goggled at him. "As in South Dakota?" I blurted, both surprised and unsettled that we'd been transported across at least four States while we were unconscious. It had to be a good 12 hour drive at least, but apparently we'd been out at least twice that long. My palms felt clammy and I unconsciously wiped them on my grimy jeans. This could be really bad, depending on why they'd brought us all the way out here and who their friends might be.

"Nah, Sioux Falls, Florida," Dean drawled sarcastically. "Thought we'd work on our tans."

"Right," I said with an equally sarcastic grin that attempted to hide my apprehension. "Hope you reserved us a cabana."

Behind me, Trent started coughing and had to use the oxygen mask again. I glanced in his direction and when my gaze returned to the doorway I found that Sam had stepped inside the room, towards the beds. I tensed, quickly moving over to put myself between Trent and the hunter. It put me uncomfortably close to the tall man, but I refused the urge to back away.

Sam stopped when I got in his way. In the doorway, Dean tensed, but Sam held his hand out to the side in a gesture for peace. "Rachel, relax, it's okay." He was using his reassuring voice again, but I couldn't tell whether he meant it, or if it was just the soothing way you'd talk to a tiger that you wanted to keep from pouncing.

"Yeah, sure," I said tensely. "Because this situation just screams okay, right? I mean, who wouldn't love being carted across a few states and locked up in a creepy basement?" I was going for snarky, but I think a little more of my fear was coming through than I would have liked. "So how about you just stay the hell back until you tell me what you want?"

"I just wanted to check him," Sam said reasonably, although I got the feeling he was intentionally avoiding my larger question. "He was having trouble breathing earlier, that's why we brought in the oxygen." His gaze was still on me, but he nodded his chin towards Trent.

I glanced back and saw that Trent continued to hold the mask to his face, struggling for breath between coughing fits. He hadn't been that bad a few minutes ago and I was deeply worried ... until I realized what he was doing. I knew Trent and if he were really as bad off as he seemed he would be trying to hide that vulnerability from the hunters. The fact that he wasn't made me think he was exaggerating his weakness to put them off guard.

I didn't move out of the way. "Yeah, that's cause we kind of toasted ourselves saving your butts," I said firmly. "And it's the room. It's amazing he can breathe at all in here." I gestured about us with my head, intentionally over-selling the situation to see how much they were or weren't going to care. "I don't suppose we could take this little chat somewhere else?"

Sam and Dean exchanged glances and seemed to come to a silent agreement. I honestly hadn't expected them to let us out, so I was fairly surprised when Sam stepped back out of the room and Dean nodded his head towards Trent and me, gesturing us to follow. "Well, you waiting for an invitation, or what?"

Wary, but marginally relieved, I cautiously exited the cell, stepping over lip of the door. It kind of made me think of a submarine or boat portal more than a normal doorway. Trent followed me out. We found ourselves standing in a slightly more normal looking basement, although there were a few wards out here as well and there was a faint, lingering odor of blood that wasn't entirely reassuring.

I started when I realized we weren't alone. There was another man down here. He was older than the brothers and sported a short beard. His features were worn by time, but the eyes that regarded us from beneath a fraying ball cap were bright and alert. He had a shotgun held loose, but ready in front of him. He'd been hanging back, I realized, in case there was trouble. In case we tried anything.

Trent and I both stopped when confronted with the armed stranger.

"Rachel, Trent, Bobby," Dean nodded back and forth between us in an abbreviated sort of introduction. I saw Dean give a small "it's okay" gesture to the older man.

Bobby's body language loosened a little and he rested his weapon back against his shoulder in a less threatening posture. "Pleasure, I'm sure," he drawled with a twang of a backwoods accent I couldn't quite place. His voice was gruff and guarded, but not overtly threatening. "Boys been tellin' me some interesting stories about you two."

"Trent Kalamack, it's good to meet you," Trent provided a slightly more formal introduction, as if we were at a perfectly normal social event. He smiled and held his hand, clearly in schmooze mode. His breathing was still labored, but improving. I wasn't sure how much was affect on his part and how much was real, but I think getting out of the room actually had helped him. I knew I was breathing a little easier.

Bobby hesitated for a moment, then accepted Trent's offered handshake.

"Rachel Morgan," I said, following suit and offering my hand with a smile. I wasn't usually much for formalities, but it wouldn't hurt to reinforce the idea that we were normal people just like them ... except for the ways in which we weren't, of course.

Like the Winchesters, Bobby's default setting seemed to be wary alertness, but he returned the greeting with less hesitation this time and gave my hand a firm little shake. "Bobby Singer. This is my house," he nodded about us. "We were just going to have lunch. You might as well come up and join us."

He turned and started up the basement stairs. Trent and I followed with the Winchesters bringing up the rear. By now, I was starting to feel fairly confused about our status here. Despite all the wariness I was getting from everyone, they weren't really treating us like prisoners. That wasn't to say I wanted to see what would happen if Trent and I tried to just leave, but at least for the moment their intentions didn't seem overly sinister.

I exchanged glances with Trent as we reached the top of the stairs and saw similar thoughts reflected on his face. I supposed we'd just wait and see how things unfolded.

"What happened in the woods, with the kids?" I asked as we took seats around a battered kitchen table covered with sandwich fixings. "Did they make it out okay?"

Sam nodded. "Yes, we got the bus working shortly before you two passed out. We drove them out of there. Bobby and a couple other hunters got there not long after and we were able to clean things up." By which, I supposed, he meant they'd eradicated the ghouls. I was sure it hadn't been as easy as he made it sound, given how many there had been.

"Bet that was fun," I observed. The smell of food was reminding me that it had been almost two days since I'd eaten much of anything and I found myself feeling a little dizzy.

"Tons," Sam said sarcastically, pulling over a plate that held a half-made sandwich and adding some lettuce to it. I guessed our waking must indeed have interrupted them in the middle of making lunch.

I grabbed a paper plate and a couple pieces of bread and began layering on everything in reach. I was starving.

"Oh, but not nearly as fun as trying to explain what happened to the bus," Dean put in around a mouthful of his own, already completed sandwich. He ate standing up; hips leaned back against the ancient stove against the wall. They were all being guarded with us, but I could tell that underneath that they seemed to have a deep level of familiar comfort with this house, suggesting that they were not infrequent visitors.

I looked inquiringly at him, but it was the older man, Bobby, who answered. Bobby wasn't eating, but had gone to the counter and poured himself a drink.

"They've already started tentatively connecting the incident to the other highway disappearances. The way they're reportin' it now, they think there was some weird cult operating in the woods and that the bus attack was the latest in a string of bizarre, drug-fueled, car-jack kidnappings gone bad. The driver's a hero for keeping the kids safe, although he banged his head up pretty good and remembers almost nothing about what happened. They're still huntin' for the people responsible, or any trace of the "good Samaritans" who found the bus and called the cops. Way we left things in the woods, they'll probably eventually conclude that their "cult" members went and committed mass suicide when threatened with exposure, torching their hideout and themselves as their final act."

Dean's made a rueful expression. "Of course, the kids tell a different story. Fortunately, not too many people are going to believe a bunch of third graders when they say their bus was attacked by zombies and they were saved by a bunch of Harry Potter wannabes."

I didn't know who Harry Potter was, but I got the general idea. You might not be able to control what the children said, but their credibility was also fairly low. Poor kids, they were probably in for years of therapy. At least they were alive. I was genuinely relieved to hear that things had turned out so well. I was glad that this story at least had gotten to have a happy ending.

"Why were they all gathering in those woods, anyway?" Trent wanted to know. "I get the impression that was not normal behavior for their kind?"

Sam shook his head. "No, it's not. There's ... a lot of stuff going on right now." He gestured vaguely as if to encompass the world as a whole. "There's kind of this mother of all monsters on the loose and she's been going around stirring up trouble and creating new creatures. We think Cincinnati just had a larger ghoul population to rally than some places."

"New Orleans would have it worst right now, if Hurricane Katrina hadn't flooded all the cemeteries and forced a ton of migratin' a couple years ago," Bobby put in. He seemed to me like someone who probably had his finger on the pulse of the hunter world at large. It was also interesting to hear that our worlds shared the same storm patterns, although from what he said I guessed that this world hadn't had the local vampire camarilla working 24-7 with superhuman speed and strength to keep the levies from breaking, or a witch community that could form a collective to bubble the Superdome. Like the Hollows, our New Orleans was predominately populated by Inderlanders.

"You all seem to have this whole routine down pretty well," I observed. "You been doing this long? Traveling around and clearing out trouble spots?"

All three men looked at each other. Bobby seemed to chose not to answer, but the Winchester boys shrugged. "All our lives," Dean said simply.

"Our Dad started hunting after our Mom was killed. He raised us in the life," Sam provided a nutshell summary, and I had a feeling that was all we were likely to get from them on the topic.

"Usually you don't see that many creatures in one place though," Dean added in a not terribly subtle effort to redirect the conversation elsewhere.

"Made clean up a bitch," Bobby agreed, assisting Dean in keeping the conversation focused on the present, I thought. "We managed, but it was still best to clear out of there as fast as possible."

"We couldn't wake either of you," Sam picked up the round-robin narrative after swallowing a bite of his sandwich. "We had no idea where you're from or where to leave you, so we brought you back here to Bobby's with us. We weren't sure it would be safe to just drop you at the hospital or something. The other night it sounded like you might be in some kind of trouble. Although ... I think there was a lot you probably left out?"

"Yeah, like being witches," Dean said dryly, the cool dislike obvious again in his tone.

I gave him a flat look. You got a problem, mister? "Yeah, kind of like you two were traveling mechanics, right?" I shot back. I was having difficulty getting a bead on these people. On one hand, maybe they really hadn't wanted to leave us in uncertain circumstances after I'd intimated that we were being hunted. On the other, maybe they'd been more worried about the danger we might pose to others. Or maybe it was some mix of the two. They were a hard lot to figure out.

Sam smiled wryly. He was obviously used to playing "good cop". "Well, you know our story now. How about yours?"

I looked at him for a long moment, taking several more bites of my quickly vanishing sandwich. In actuality, we still knew very little about their story, but it was clear they needed us to do some explaining now and that a great deal of how things went from here might hang on what we said.

I glanced at Trent who was picking at his food and watching us. He gave me a very small nod.

"Well, technically," I said slowly. "I'm the only one who's a witch. He's an elf." I nodded over at Trent. They had to still be wondering about his ears, it was better to give them the truth on that front.

I saw Dean's eyebrows go up and he looked at Trent curiously. "You're a fairy?"

Trent almost choked on the water he was drinking and quickly set down the glass. He shot the other man a bemused expression. "An elf not a fairy. Do I look like I'm six inches tall?"

"Last elves I saw were about six inches tall," Dean retorted. "Running around making watches and getting drunk on milk, when they weren't stealing people's firstborn kids. Ya'll really need to work up a better classification system."

"Basically," I interrupted them, pressing ahead with my explanation before we could get too far off course. "All that really means is that I can mix a few earth spells like the healing charm I made at the hotel. We can only pull off magic of the type we were using in the woods by drawing the energy through Trent, and that comes at a cost." Obviously, that wasn't the way things were supposed to work had we been at home, but I'd decided to give them the truth of how things stood right now ratherthan get too deep into anything more complicated. Downplaying our abilities, and therefore any perceived threat, seemed like a good idea at the moment.

"It damages him to be used that way; it's why we passed out. The only reason we did it was because it was a life or death situation. Look, I can tell you don't like witches and I can't speak for any others you may have met, but Trent and I aren't trying to do anything bad to anybody."

"So long as they stay out of your way," Dean prodded, and I got the feeling he was intentionally being abrasive. So he was "bad cop", then.

"Hey, if somebody tries to hurt me or other people, you better believe I will fight back. Because I have a few additional resources to do that with doesn't make me a monster," I said firmly. "Magic is a tool, it's only as good or as bad as what you choose to do with it. You use it too," I nodded downward. "You don't seem to have a problem with plastering charms and spells all over your basement walls down there."

Dean was frowning at me, but I thought Bobby smiled just a little. "Basically, you're sayin' magic don't kill people, people kill people," the older man said with a wry lift of one shaggy brow.

"Monsters kill people," Dean muttered, but it was more stubborn than acrimonious. He reached into the potato chip bag on the table, then paused. His gaze flicking to Trent, he reached down and deliberately knocked over the salt shaker sitting next to the elf's elbow, spilling some of the little white granules onto the tabletop before retreating with his chips.

Sam shot his brother a look, like he'd done something a little rude and possibly childish.

I frowned, not getting what that was all about and trying not to lose my train of thought. "Yeah, well, we don't kill people. We weren't even killing the ghouls, well, not with magic anyway, we just wanted to scare them and buy time - and it worked," I added, folding my arms stubbornly across my chest.

Dean and Sam were both eyeing Trent as he politely righted the salt shaker and swept the spilt contents into his palm, depositing the small dusting of salt tidily onto one corner of his plate.

"Not feeling any need to count that, are you?" Dean asked, making Trent and I both stare at him. "The spilled salt?" He nodded to indicate his meaning.

"Why on earth would I do that?" Trent asked, looking at the other man like the hunter might possibly be brain damaged and we were only now realizing it.

Sam said "Huh," in kind of a speculative tone, but neither of them answered the question. I got a feeling we were forging into one of those areas where our worlds differed. Did that mean that some types of inderlanders in this world - probably the ones they classed as fairies - actually felt compelled to do something like count spilled salt crystals? Talk about weird!

"So how'd you get here, anyway?" Bobby asked, his gaze and his words directed towards Trent. "Someone summon you and not send you back?"

Trent's brows furrowed and he shot me a glance, indicating we were thinking the same thing. That question at least made sense to us ... but only if we had been talking about a demon.

"I'm not part of the collective," Trent said slowly, choosing his words with care. "I can't be summoned."

The answer did not seem at all enlightening to the three hunters, who looked at one another without comprehension. "Collective?" Dean asked.

I didn't want to have to explain about the demon collective, especially since for all we knew there wasn't one in this world anyway.

"There wasn't any summoning involved, it's more like we were ... exiled here," I said instead. "You remember what I told you about his ex?" I sighed. "That wasn't a lie. Trent's from an important family with a lot of political power in the elf world. So was the woman he was engaged to before things, um, didn't quite work out."

Trent shot me an amused look at the way I was telling the story. "You mean, before you interrupted our wedding and dragged me off." He didn't mention that I'd actually been arresting him on charges of kidnapping and murder.

I scowled at him. "You didn't seem terribly broken up about it," I muttered, my cheeks feeling just a little hot. Good grief, they did not need to know all this.

"No, I wasn't," Trent admitted, partially to me and partially to our audience. "It was a political affair from start to finish. The only good thing to come out of my brief association with Ellasbeth was my daughter, Lucy."

Trent reached into his pocket and pulled something out. I recognized it as the car keys he'd saved from his previous set of pants the other night. He turned the object over in his hand and I realized that it wasn't the keys Trent had been hanging onto, it was the keychain. It was one of those keepsake affairs that held a photograph.

Trent turned the small silver and plastic picture frame towards the hunters and when Sam reached for it, Trent allowed him to take it for a better look. I knew at a glance who was in the picture.

"Those are my children, Lucy and her younger sister Ray," Trent said quietly as Sam passed the photo over to Dean and Bobby. The girls' adorable little pointed ears were probably quite visible in the picture, but that didn't appear to change the faint softening of the hunters' expressions and body language when they looked at the photograph. I could tell they did not look at the two beautiful baby girls and see them as merely inhuman infant monsters. They could look at them and see them as innocents. I think that as much as anything told me that whatever else they were and whatever prejudices they may have, these people were not like Eloy or HAPA.

I shot a sidelong glance at Trent, realizing he was showing them the photo and bringing his daughters into this for a reason. He wanted the hunters to see us as people. I think it was working, too.

"Ellasbeth didn't want to share custody," Trent said quietly. "She was talked into working with those who oppose me because I support tolerance between races and would see us build bridges instead of burn them. Rachel and I were betrayed. They took my daughter and tried to kill us." There was a glitter of darkness in Trent's eyes at those words. "We escaped, but barely. That is how we ended up in the woods where we met you. I guess you could say we were ... thrown there, by the failed assassination attempt."

"The failed, magical assassination attempt?" Sam asked as if trying to fit the pieces together.

Trent inclined his head. "Yes. Although they had no issue using physical means as well." He reached over to me. I frowned at him when he took my arm, but I didn't pull away. Trent pushed the cuff of the too-big shirt I was wearing up my forearm, exposing the bruises and healing scabs that still circled my wrist from where I'd fought against the cuffs binding us a few days prior. I'd almost forgotten them in my litany of other aches and pains.

"They tried to kill Rachel in a most horrible manner, simply because she was important to me and not an elf," he said quietly and I looked at him with furrowed brows. Was he just acting? The shadow of guilt and anger in his green eyes was very convincing, as was the very gentle touch of his thumb on the abused skin of my wrist. He had to be acting though, because it didn't make sense for him to feel guilty on my account. It was what I was that had started the whole problem in the first place, even if he was wisely omitting that detail.

"Nice. They sound like lovely people," Dean said tightly, but this time his derision wasn't aimed at us. He held the keychain out to return it. I was closest to him so I took it, using the excuse to pull my arm away from Trent's curiously warm touch. I turned the frame to get a look at the photo. The picture was recent and obviously taken in a professional studio. The two girls were wearing matching velvet dresses in different colors. Lucy was in blue, Ray in yellow; both wore white tights and shiny little black button-up boots with pearl buttons. The sisters sat together on a white fur rug, holding hands and beaming at the camera. The keychain was not one of those cheap plastic ones you got at gift stores. It was heavy, glossy and framed in what was probably real silver. I turned it over and found there was an inscription engraved on the back. "For Daddy, love Lucy" it read. I smiled, my thumb brushing over the words. This must have been a Solstice gift, although no doubt Quen had helped the child pick it out. He probably had a matching one that said "For Abba".

I handed the keychain back to Trent and he took it, a look of love and devotion flittering across his face as he gazed down at it before tucking it back into his pocket. That part, I knew, wasn't an act for anyone's benefit. Trent's love of his children was very real, very honest, and very apparent to anyone who bothered to notice.

"All I want to do is get back to them," he said quietly, fixing the Winchester brothers with an earnest look. "Those who tried to kill us have my children and I must get them back. Ellasbeth is a fool, she will let Lucy be used by people who care nothing for her as a child and care only about the power that possessing her can give them, and I fear for Ray because she is politically important to no one. She is not Ellasbeth's child and Ellasbeth doesn't even like her." Trent's voice was hard with worry and I shot a startled look in his direction.

I'd assumed Lucy was safe enough with her mother at least in the short term and I knew Quen would move heaven and earth to protect Ray, but Trent was right. Given what had happened to us, we couldn't know whether or not Quen was in any position to protect either of the girls and I didn't like to think about what that could mean for Ray. Ellasbeth wasn't exactly the mothering or nurturing type. No wonder Trent was so desperate to get home.

"Okay, so I'm guessing you can't just buy a bus ticket or snap your fingers and go back home or you would have already." Dean had finished his food and was leaning on the stove, watching us. I was surprised to notice that something had changed in his eyes. He was still wary, but he looked pissed off now too - pissed off on our behalf. The idea of a family split up and in danger seemed to be strongly triggering his protective instincts.

We shook our heads and Dean clapped his hands. "Right. Of course not, it's never that easy. Bobby, there any lore you've come across about how to get people back into Avalon if they've been shut out?"

Bobby scratched his chin. "Short of somebody from that side snagging them? We could try the banishing rite from the book you and Sam brought back from Indiana, but as I understand it that just reverses a summoning. Since they weren't summoned there's no guarantees, and I can't imagine it would work on her anyhow if she's not a fairy," he nodded at me.

This was all moving a little fast now and I held up my hands in confusion, trying to catch up. "Whoa, wait ... what? What's Avalon?"

Dean and Sam looked at me like I was retarded. "The other dimension where all the fairies live ... it's where you're trying to get to, isn't it?" Sam asked in mild confusion and maybe just a hint of suspicion.

Other dimension? Was it possible they were aware of the whole alternate realities thing but called it by a different name? I frowned, trying to figure out if we were talking about different things or just running into an issue of terms again. "Um ... " I said slowly, looking at Trent for help but he just shrugged, apparently as uncertain as I was. "We don't call it that, but ... maybe?"

Bobby dusted his hands on his jeans. "Places like that tend to gather names like dead fruit gathers flies. We can go through some of my books, see if you folks recognize anything. Maybe come up with a few ideas on how to get you back to wherever it is you belong." He shot a questioning look towards the brothers as he made the offer, as if asking whether they were sure this was a good idea. Dean gave him a very small nod.

I was more than a little surprised and relieved to realize that these men actually seemed as if they wanted to help us, even if it was pretty clear that none of them really trustedus. Maybe the idea of getting us out of their world and back to where ever it was we belonged solved their quandary on what to do with us, but the fact that simply killing us wasn't an easier solution to that problem was encouraging.

"Give me a few minutes to find the right books, I might have to pick up a few. I'm a little light on fairy lore," Bobby muttered, mostly to himself I thought, as he exited the kitchen.

We'd all more or less finished eating by now. Sam started cleaning up the table and I rose to help. It was much too awkward to just keep sitting there with nothing to do. For me, anyway. Trent seemed fine with it.

Wanting to keep myself busy, I started washing up the dishes in the sink. Most of them were glasses. Most of them smelled like whisky and bourbon. Either the hunters had had a party, or Bobby was drinking more meals than he ate. My money was on the later and I frowned a little. I wasn't getting the impression that any of these men had very happy lives and I wondered about the kind of people who chose to continue doing what they did for as long as they obviously had.

Silently, I pulled up my second sight and glanced over towards the two Winchester brothers while I dried the glasses with a dish towel. A person's aura didn't necessarily tell you a whole lot about them, but it could be indicative, and anyway, I was curious. I figured the open window over the sink would offer explanation enough if anyone noticed the way my second sight made the ends of my hair float.

Dean's aura was white, shot through with deep crimson streaks of pain and guilt and silver sparkles of purpose. Sam's aura was gold, like mine and Trent's. I was surprised to see that also like mine, it was tainted with oily smudges of black imbalance, indicating that at some point he must have used strong magic that broke the rules of nature. Demon curses and black magic were the only things I knew of that caused smut like that on someone's aura and I found it an unexpected discovery, given the hunters' attitudes towards the supernatural. However, I was certainly in the best position of just about anyone to know that twisting demon magic didn't make you evil or mean that your actions had been wrong.

The black on Sam's aura may not worry me too much, but something else did. His aura seemed unnaturally, almost alarmingly thin for some reason. I'd never seen anything quite like that. My brows pinched in concern but it wasn't as if I could ask them about it, so I reluctantly turned away. My gaze drifted to Trent and I immediately frowned again. There was something off about his aura too. It wasn't thin like Sam's, but it was dimmer than usual, as if the cost that had been extracted from him had literally drained some of the life out of him. I didn't like that at all. Damaged auras could heal, but we really needed to avoid any further magic use.

Trent caught me looking and I quickly dropped my second sight. He frowned at me, but didn't say anything. A few moments later, Bobby came out of the other room, his motions swift and his rifle under his arm again.

"Perimeter's been tripped," he told the Winchesters in response to their inquiring looks. "There's some folks skulking about out there, watching the place and I don't think they're lookin' to steal car parts."

"You two stay put," Dean said over his shoulder to Trent and I as the brothers followed Bobby out the door, presumably to go check things out.

I followed them to the front door and looked outside, taking in our surroundings curiously. The house we were in was sitting in the middle of what looked like a junkyard. We were surrounded by stacks of auto parts and vehicles in various states of repair or disrepair. I was tempted to disregard the injunction and follow them to see what was happening, but if I went, Trent would probably go too and it really was a better idea to keep him away from any further risk of strain right now.

I felt Trent at my shoulder, gazing past me out the door and also taking in our surroundings. "Well, that could have gone worse," I said to him as I left the door and moved back through the kitchen. Trent had paused in the entry, studying a peg board that held multiple sets of keys, probably to the autos outside that still actually ran.

I frowned at him, guessing at his thoughts. "Don't even think about it. We take off and they'll assume the worst," I told him firmly, hands going to my hips. "Right now they want to help us. You said yourself, they're the experts on this world and how its magic works. They might be our best chance of getting home."

Trent gave a graceful little shrug and moved back to join me. "Perhaps. Although if I didn't know otherwise, I'd think they were confidence men," he said with a wry expression, nodding to a bank of battered phones that hung along one wall. Homemade masking tape labels applied helpful identifiers to the individual lines. Labels like "F.B.I", "Police", "C.D.C" and "Fed Marshal" complete with a different, probably fake, man's name scrawled beneath each left me with little doubt as to why Trent said that. This was clearly home base for someone who pretended to be multiple other people and needed to keep the identities straight.

"I think they kind of are," I agreed, putting aside the dish towel I'd still been holding and taking the opportunity to look around a little. "Probably makes the whole hunting thing easier." I still wasn't sure I was completely okay with the idea of what these men did - or at least, my impression of it - but they seemed willing to give us the benefit of the doubt for the time being and I would do the same.

I moved from the kitchen into the adjoining room. It was clearly a library and was filled to the brim with books and what looked at first glance like eccentric bric-a-brac. A large desk took up one end of the space and an ancient TV was nestled in the corner, buried under the same avalanche of texts and tomes as pretty much every other horizontal surface.

The air held the distinct, musty smell of old books, laced with a riot of other fainter scents including camphor, rosewood and sage. I moved further into the room and turned in a slow circle as I looked around. I quickly realized that what first appeared to be knickknacks and curiosities jammed here and there amid the books were in fact various ancient artifacts and spelling ingredients. I recognized things like Rams horn and dried holly swatches and there were other elements I couldn't identify.

The room smelled like a spelling kitchen and looked like Al's library might if you turned it sideways and shook all the books around a bit - and if his collection had included things like Field and Stream magazines from bygone decades and about a zillion texts on world history and mythology.

"Huh," I breathed thoughtfully, letting my fingers trail across some of the more ancient books stacked on the edges of the large desk, their place of importance indicating they had probably been the most recently used. One of the books lay open, revealing an old, hand-written tome with what looked like a knight stabbing some hairy creature with a spear. The faded latin text beside it was clearly instructions on how to make a ward against the beast in the picture.

"Trent?" I called softly over my shoulder as I turned a few pages in the open book. I started slightly when something moved to my left, then realized it was only Trent who had apparently already followed me into the room without my noticing. I gave him an annoyed look for startling me, then tapped the book under my fingers. "These are spells," I said quietly.

I wasn't sure what to make of this room. It was an incredibly eclectic sort of collection. It struck me like a witches' library, but given how Sam and Dean clearly felt about witches and how genuinely friendly they were with Mr. Singer, I didn't think there was any way he was one. A wizard, maybe, a human practicing magic, if that was a distinction they made or that mattered in this world. There was also that black on Sam's aura to consider. These people seemed full of fascinating and confusing contradictions.

"This is very ... interesting, all things considered," Trent's said, reaching over and flipping through the book himself when I moved away from it. Apparently, his thoughts more or less mirrored my own.

I felt a funny, dark, familiar tingle and my attention was immediately drawn to a small, untitled book that lay partially hidden beneath several others. I reached out to touch it and felt the faintest crackle dark magic when my fingers brushed it's spine. I instinctively pulled my fingers back, then, pulse starting to speed up I quickly grasped the book and pulled it out.

The book looked ancient and worn. If it had ever had any kind of markings on its cover or spine, they were long gone. The cover and the hand-sewn pages inside felt like leather, but I knew they weren't. This was a demon book, I could feel the black, discordant tang of it resonating in my hands. It didn't feel exactly the same as I was used to, but the taint of evil was clear. Like more than a few of Al's books, it was written on human skin. That was absolutely revolting, but I wasn't nearly as squeamish about it now as I had been the first time I'd held such a book.

I frowned as I scanned the pages. It was written in that really, really old Latin used by a lot of ancient tomes like this. I could manage it, but it wasn't easy. I'd been working on learning for a while now. It was one of the many things I did in my weekly lessons with Al, who had gotten tired of translating and re-writing things for me pretty quickly. He could have read this like a grade-school primer, but it was going to be quite a while before I got that fluent. Fortunately, I was much better at it than I had been in the beginning and much better at it then I let Al believe. Al had a habit of teaching me enough so I could accomplish what he wanted me to learn while holding back anything he thought it was better for him that I not know just yet. I'd gotten used to that and let him think I didn't know what he was doing. It was just Al's way of making sure I continued to need him. I sighed, more than a little surprised at the thread of melancholy edging my thoughts. I actually missed Al. Go figure.

I still had to work very carefully when translating a curse to make sure I didn't screw it up, but all I was doing now was scanning to get the idea of the book's contents, so I just jumped between the phrases I knew or could parse out easiest. My interest quickly grew and I felt my pulse beginning to pick up even more. This book was about opening a gateway. A gateways between realms. At least, I thought so. Trying to keep a handle on the wild hope and excitement lighting within me I tried to force myself to slow down and translate a little more carefully, to make sure I was getting the meanings right.

The book seemed focused on one particular realm. I didn't get a lot of it, but it sounded like some place that was inhabited solely by a certain set of inderlanders. Vampires, weres, shifters and other species I either wasn't familiar with or wasn't translating correctly. What the hell was a leviathan? Sounded like something out of the Bible. The verb conjugations and tenses were kicking my butt and I frowned. I must be reading it wrong, because one minute it was talking about the inhabitants of that place like they were all dead, and the next it wasn't.

"Mother of All ... didn't Sam say something like that in the woods, and again a few minutes ago?" Trent's voice by my ear made me jerk. I realized he was standing directly behind me, reading over my shoulder. I'd been so engrossed in the book I hadn't noticed.

"Stop doing that!" I growled, pissed that it was the second time in less than five minutes that he'd caught me unawares. Then I froze, realizing Trent had spoken a phrase that had been on the page I was just reading.

"Wait, you can read this?" The page was talking about an obviously revered mother figure. I hadn't been sure if it was talking about an actual historical being from the time when it was written, or a mythological deity that was part of this other realm's culture. Now that Trent mentioned the correlation in terms, I began to suspect that maybe the being in question was both real, and still alive. If so, then she was the one the Winchesters were holding responsible for stirring up all that trouble they'd mentioned. That was probably why the hunters had this book to begin with.

I looked over my shoulder at Trent and he shrugged, giving an embarrassed little grimace. "Not really, just a little here and there. I'm much better with ancient Elven. Can you?"

I nodded slowly. "Mostly. I need to work it more carefully, but ... Trent, this is talking about opening a doorway into another dimension ... or place, or whatever," I gestured dismissively at my uncertainty of the exact details. "It's mostly talking about just this one place, but maybe it's something I can adapt."

Trent leaned closer, immediately interested. His body pressed up against my back as he looked over my shoulder at the book, his breath warm as it brushed my cheek and collarbone. "Really? What does it say you need? Is this magic you can do?"

"Um..." I swallowed, trying to focus around the sensation of Trent's strong frame molded against my body and his hands resting on my shoulders. "Not sure yet, there's a lot of information here and a lot of historical stuff. It reads like some kind of instruction manual though, so they've got to have the actual spell in here somewhere and yeah, I think I can ..." The excitement was bubbling in my blood again. I knew I should be careful about getting my hopes up so easily, but I couldn't help it.

"Really? You two have any spare virgins lying around you feel like sacrificing?" Dean's slow, sardonic drawl made both Trent and I spin around quickly.

Dean was standing in the kitchen doorway, one shoulder leaning against the frame. Sam stood a few feet behind him. The older Winchester's arms were folded and he might have looked casual lounging against the doorframe like that, but the wary, ready tenseness in his body said otherwise.

"Virgins?" I repeated in confusion, feeling strangely flustered and defensive under the cool accusation painted in Dean's stormy and annoyingly attractive green eyes. The heightened suspicion levels being displayed said that something had clearly changed in the last few minutes, and not for the better.

"Yeah, virgins," Dean replied in that easy tone of his, with that easy, charming smile that should have seemed friendly, except right now it wasn't. "Pretty sure it's in the recipe there somewhere," he nodded at the book still in my hands. "You know, add one live virgin, mix until dead ... something like that. Not sure about my translation - you're the one that can apparently read demon, but word has it that's how you open up that doorway you were just talking about. So, you gonna run down to the quick-mart and grab one? Cause I doubt you qualify." As if to make sure his meaning wouldn't be missed, he tilted his head in a boyishly suggestive manner that somehow reminded me of Jenks.

Heat flooded my face and I snapped the book shut in my hand, my jaw clenching. "Oh. My. God. What is wrong with you? You couldn't be more of an ass if you tried!"

Dean's grin cocky grin widened. "Sure I could!" he assured me. "Isn't that right, Sam?"

Behind him, his brother shot him a look and rolled his eyes. "Yes, Dean," he said in an overly patient tone. "You can be the world's biggest ass when you try."

Dean's wary attention had never left Trent and me and he now lifted his eyebrows as if vindicated. "See?"

I wanted to laugh. The man had just accused me of wanting to sacrifice human beings, half-way implied I was a slut - and I wanted to laugh. What was wrong with me? Of course, I also wanted to kick his butt, which was a slightly more normal, if probably ill-advised, response.

"I stand corrected," I returned sarcastically, one hand resting on my hip as I carefully laid the book back down on the desk. The hunters obviously knew a little about black magic and what kind of book this was. My being able to read it or work magic out of it wasn't winning me any points. Terrific. I was so sick of people just assuming I was a black witch - an irritating misassumption clearly not unique to either of our worlds.

"Rachel, why would you want to open purgatory?" Sam asked in that reasonable I want to understand you tone of his that hid danger just as certainly as Dean's snarky wit.

"Purgatory?" I stared at him in surprise and threw up my free hand. "What?! I don't! Give me a break, I only just glanced at the darn thing, I don't know what it says yet. And I sure as hell am not going to be sacrificing anybody, virgin or not! Geez, that's just disgusting!" I shook my head. "Hello? We're trying to get home, remember? I thought maybe it was something I could adapt." Although if it required human sacrifice ... probably not. I felt my hope deflate and it made me extra cranky.

"You were the ones who suggested we look through your books, remember?" I accused. Okay, so maybe they hadn't meant for us to snoop through their library un-chaperoned,but that was their fault for leaving us alone then. They hadn't said we couldn't after all.

I thought they relaxed just a little at that. I wasn't sure if they believed me, but I think they wanted to. For my part, I was not liking the constantly shifting sand we seemed to be on with them. "So, you find your prowlers or what?" I asked sourly.

"Yeah, actually," Sam said slowly. "That's why we were looking for you. We caught one of them and ... I think you'd better come." He nodded towards the hall and moved off in that direction.

Dean stayed put until Trent and I slowly followed Sam out of the room. He took up the rear, sandwiching us between them as we made our way back towards the basement stairs we'd ascended not long before. I had a curiously bad feeling about this. I looked over at Trent, but he had his unreadable face on.

Halfway down the basement stairs I heard a scream and I froze, heart jumping up into my throat. I smelled blood and ozone. Dean's presence crowding in behind me forced me to keep moving. When we reached the basement, I saw that Bobby was already down here. So was someone else. A middle-aged woman with short blonde hair sat tied to a chair that was placed in the center of the pentagram design on the floor.

One side of her face was wet and steaming, her flesh sizzling as if she'd been splashed with acid. The woman growled, hissing in anger and discomfort and her eyes ... her eyes were black. Not black like Newt and Al's eyes; this blackness encompassed even the whites of her eyes, leaving nothing but disturbing dark voids between her eyelids. She smelled like blood, smoke and sulfur. I felt the crackle of magic in the room. It churned and seethed as if the power were being restrained against its will as surely as the woman was. My gaze shot to the pentagram ward under the chair and I finally understood what that particular device was suppose to do.

The sensation of the woman's power prickled against my skin and despite the fact that her scent was completely wrong, I felt a sudden surety that we were getting our first look at this world's version of a demon. If I'd had any doubts, they were put to rest a moment later when Sam confirmed it.

"This isn't what it looks like ... that's a demon, it's only possessing that woman's body; against her will," the younger Winchester seemed compelled to explain when he saw the way Trent and I had both stiffened up at the sight of the captive woman.

"There were a couple others with her, but they scrammed," Dean put in, looking troubled by this.

"This one says they're here because of you two," Bobby said, fixing Trent and I with a questioning look from under the brim of his cap. "You got some ideas on why you got demons followin' ya?"

"Us?" I was honestly shocked by this. "No, none. Why would they care about us?" It was the truth. At home I'd have plenty of ideas on the subject, but not here.

The demon in the chair laughed. She'd apparently gotten over her previous hissy fit and was now lounging in the seat with a diffident sneer that looked out of place on her mid-western-housewife features. "Oh sweetie, don't sell yourself short." Her gaze ran appraisingly across both Trent and I before fixing in on me with a disturbing level of interest.

"Most of the witches we've met got their abilities by dealing with demons. Demons that have a tendency to want to claim them after a while. You sure there isn't something you want to tell us?" Dean asked, fixing me with a level look. "Like maybe Trent's crazy ex isn't the only thing you're running from?"

The upped suspicion levels suddenly made sense. I started to shake my head, but Dean held up a hand to halt me. "Rachel, we won't let them take you," he promised. "But we need to know what to expect."

"Thanks, but I'm telling you the truth. I don't know her and I don't owe her anything. I learned my magic from books." Mostly. If they weren't aware of witches as an actual separate species, then that wasn't something I wanted to get into.

"Okay." Dean gave me a small nod and a one-shouldered shrug. He turned his attention back to the demon and the older hunter. "Guess we need some answers from her then."

"What are you after? Who sent you?" Bobby was holding a flask, he splashed a little clear liquid on the demon and her skin steamed and sizzled again. She grit her teeth and hissed, but her intent, eerie eyes remained fixed on me. She rolled her neck in an unnaturally languid motion and glared at the hunters.

"Relax, will you?" she purred with biting disdain, her attention only briefly shifting to Bobby. When she answered, it was to me. "We were just taking a little look-see. Word was that the Winchesters had a couple of new playmates who made quite an interesting splash in Cincinnati. We just wanted to take a peek and see what they were up to, but now that I see you ... mmm, yes, very interesting, you are. What a fascinating... witch?" She rolled the last words suggestively, her eyes traveling up and down my body as if she could see something other than my worn jeans and ill-fitting shirt. Very likely, she could. My blood ran suddenly cold.

"Who sent you?" Bobby repeated, but the woman ignored him, continuing to stare at me.

The demon shook her head, a cruel little smile playing across her lips as if she could read my apprehension. "You know, you should come with us, sister," she purred. "Our kind doesn't last long with the Winchesters."

Everyone in the room stiffened at her words and the chill in my gut turned to a twist of fury and frustration as I sensed the inevitable train-wreck this was about to become.

The demon grinned, showing her teeth when she took in the hunters' reactions. "Oh, darlings ... didn't you know?" she said in a mockingly apologetic and conciliatory tone. Her gaze flittered to the Winchesters before returning to me. "Your new friend here is a demon."

Crap on toast.

Chapter Text

There was a sudden, oppressive silence in the room following the woman's calculated pronouncement and I had a fierce moment of wanting to plant my fist in her smirking face. Trent had gone very still and tense at my side and the three hunters were staring at me.

Protests bubbled to my mind but didn't make it to my lips, dying in my throat and tasting like bile. What was I supposed to say? No I'm not? I was. That didn't mean I had anything in common with the demon in the chair, but I had a feeling the hunters wouldn't be able to make that distinction. They may have been willing to reluctantly work around the witch and "fairy" thing as long as we weren't hurting anyone, but I could see in their eyes that there was a definite line drawn at the word demon and I did not want to get trapped on the wrong side of that.

"She's not!" Trent lied for me with a conviction I certainly wouldn't have been able to muster. His voice was crisp and harsh with anger as he glared at the demon in the chair. He stepped forward a pace, putting himself as much between me and the hunters as our positions allowed.

Sam and Dean shifted, Dean's hand sliding warily into his jacket as if reaching for something. I didn't want to know what. I put my hand on Trent's shoulder, trying to pull him back, but he wouldn't comply and I didn't want to make any more sudden moves when everyone was already on edge.

"Maybe," Trent said in a cooler, more reasonable tone. "You should find out why the demon is lying and what she hopes to gain by it." He held his position in front of me, but lifted his hands out to the side in a gesture of placation. "Aside fromthe obvious benefit of pitting us against one another and creating turmoil she could use to try and escape, that is," he added.

From the flicker of uneasy indecision in the hunters' eyes, I could tell that however little they trusted us, they certainly trusted the demon in the chair less. Even knowing the truth, I had to admit that Trent's argument was persuasive. The elf was lawyer-good at creating reasonable doubt.

We'd never find out what the hunters would have decided to do next, because a moment later we were all forced to duck as the door to the basement stairs blew inward. Suddenly, there were three more people in the room. All of them smelled like smoke and sulfur and prickled with magic. Great, more demons.

"Come back for round two, huh?" Dean said with a tight grin, his hand flicking under his shirt and coming back out with a wicked looking, rune-scribed knife.

I had just enough time to think that these must be the other demons that the hunters had mentioned getting away earlier before everything exploded into chaos.

Dean lunged, knife swinging. Sam grabbed a bottle of something and splashed it in the faces of the nearest demons, causing them to yell and grab their eyes. One of the demons put out a hand and Bobby flew back into the far wall. The same demon scratched a groove through the line of the pentagram circle under the seated demon's chair with the heel of a spiked boot. Apparently, that broke the ward because the seated demon jumped quickly to her feet, shattering the chair and ropes with one yank of her arms.

I stumbled. Trent was retreating and pushing me backwards with him, practically crowding me into a corner in an attempt to get us out of the way. I could feel the tang of power on him and gripped his shoulder tightly, pulling away and shaking my head urgently at him. I didn't want him using magic again unless there was absolutely no recourse.

A soft thud drew my attention. One of the demons was down, but another had gotten hold of Dean's knife arm and was using him as a punching bag in an attempt to make him let go. I caught a brief glimpse of Sam leaping on the demon beating his brother before the blonde woman got between us and blocked my view. Her gaze locked on me with the same intensity of interest as earlier.

She cast Trent a nasty smile. "I wasn't lying, darling, just ... stretching the truth a little," she told him as we both watched her warily. "Your soul is black ... but you have only one face," she looked at me curiously. "You're not quite like us, are you? No. That pretty little meat-suit is actually yours ... which means," her grin became malicious and excited. "I can take it."

I could only guess her initial statement was referring to the black on my aura, but I had little time to ponder the other things she'd said because the woman abruptly threw her head back and what looked like a black torrent of smoke rushed out of her mouth like a scream. Her body crumpled as it exited.

"Rachel!" I heard Trent's alarmed cry at the same moment the sinister column of smoke flowed easily around him and smacked into me. I flew backwards, my back impacting the wall with a dull thud I barely felt. My senses were awash with the dark, choking sensation of the presence literally flowing into me. The scent of sulfur was so thick I nearly gagged and my whole body went cold, as if I'd been plunged into an icy lake.

Darkness filled me, blotting my visions and my thoughts, invading my mind and wrapping around me like a shroud. I felt something dark and evil covering me like a twisted, horror movie version of my aura. It was the demon, I realized. Her aura was trying to supplant and replace mine. Hers wasn't covered in black, it was black. I'd never seen a fully black aura before. It was ugly and chilling.

The demon was a shadowy presence in my mind, sliding through my thoughts, rifling through my memories. My body felt foreign and it was as hard to move as if I were trapped in a nightmare. I recognized the sensations. The damn thing was trying to possess me! Newt had done this to me once. That time, I'd burned her out by bubbling my mind and flooding my chi. Unfortunately, I couldn't do that without access to a ley line.

Battling terror, I pushed back violently against the intruder, attempting to keep her from claiming complete motor control of my body. She was learning far more about me than I was comfortable with, but I was also learning a lot about her. The demon called herself Aindrea. She considered herself female, although unlike the demons in my world there seemed to be no distinction in the level of power or abilities attributed to the different genders. Also unlike my demons, these beings had no corporeal body of their own. They were corrupted soul, aura and will alone. It made them frighteningly strong and difficult to fight ... but it also gave me an unexpected sliver of advantage.

Agony seared through me as Aindrea triggered all the pain centers in my brain, making me feel like I was on fire. I would have screamed if my vocal chords had been under my control. I heard someone calling my name. I think it was Trent, but his voice was muffled and distant, as if I were underwater. Hands were shaking my shoulders. I felt myself move through no will of my own. I felt flesh impact flesh. I felt energy surge, burning through me as the demon used my body to flex her power.

The voice fell quiet.

Terror and rage blazed through my mind, strengthening my resolve even as the demon mashed down harder on my nerves, making me convulse mentally. Aindrea was trying to get me to quit struggling by making it hurt too much. She helpfully showed me gruesome mental impressions of what she'd done to her last host, just for fun. I felt sick with rage. She'd burned the inside of the woman's brain until there was nothing left and her host was little better than a living corpse. "I'll do that to you too if you don't behave," the demon warned.

I wasn't about to be beaten down so easily. I had an idea, but I needed to try it now, before my unwanted guest read the intention in my thoughts and found a way to counter me.

Unlike Newt and my demons, Aindrea had no physical form to which her soul was bound. That meant that to possess me, she was not just reaching out with her mind - she had poured the whole of her being into my body. When I feigned surrender and abruptly stopped fighting her, her dark, oily presence rushed in to wrap around my soul.

Gotcha, sucker.

I didn't fight now, instead I pulled. I pulled her soul into me like a vacuum. Too late, the demon realized something was wrong and tried to pull back, but her own momentum had already damned her. With all of her committed to the possession and no physical anchor that she could use to jerk herself back out, she was mine. With an agonizing surge of effort I sucked her in completely, wrapping my soul around hers in much the same way I'd held Trent's when we were in the in-between place. Only there was nothing gentle about the way I crushed Aindrea's soul within my own. I grabbed her and squeezed, hard, turning the tables until it was I who was possessing her.

The black filth of her thoughts filled my mind with horrors that quaked me to my core, but I didn't let go. I was surprised to feel a crackling flood of energy singing through me, shooting straight to my chi. With a jolt, I realized that by possessing Aindrea I had taken control of her connection to whatever powered this world's demon magic. The connection felt dark and ugly, but the power itself was crisp and strong and hummed like I was tugging on a line. Squeezing Aindrea harder, I pulled the power from her and through her, spindling as much as I could hold.

The demon shrieked in my head, both angry and terrified. She thrashed and fought and it hurt like hell. "Yeah, you better be scared!" I seethed at her in my mind. I squeezed relentlessly, tightening down around her like a vice and threatening to completely crush her soul if she didn't stop. I felt the hollow thumping of our struggle like the reverberation of a bass line thudding in my chest. It seemed somehow like a lightening cloud, flashing and popping with dark light just beneath my skin.

The realization of what I was doing finally bubbled to the fore of my hurting, struggling thoughts and I suddenly felt a little sick. I wasn't just crushing her, I was absorbing her. Oh God, I was practically eating the other demon, eating her soul ... and it felt good. Since when had I become Ku'sox? The horror of that thought made me pull back. I'd made my point, Aindrea knew that possessing me was a mistake not to be repeated. That was enough.

"You get the hell out and stay out or I will crush your sorry ass into oblivion!" I snarled before finally releasing my hold. My mind felt shredded and I needed this thing out of me, now.

Justifiably terrified, Aindrea wasted no time in fleeing when presented with the opportunity. I felt her struggling to pull out and I let her go. Searing pain bubbled in my chest, clawing up my throat and I screamed soundlessly. Like I'd seen her do with her previous host, the demon fled me in a rush, her essence visibly escaping out through my mouth like a torrent of smoke that left my body convulsing in the wake of its passing. It was very possibly one of the most disturbing things that had ever happened to me, and that was saying a lot.

Awareness of my surroundings returned in a muted, disorientating rush. I was flat on the floor with no memory of how I'd gotten there. Voices were shouting, but the words all jumbled together in my brain.

I rolled onto my side, gasping for breath and blinking to clear my vision. The first thing I saw was Trent. He was on the floor too, a few yards away. He wasn't moving. His temple was bleeding and he lay crumpled at the base of the wall where he'd been thrown. Where I had thrown him, I realized, except of course it hadn't been me.

The hunters and demons were still fighting, although I could only see snatches of the struggle from where I lay. Sam's boots flashed through my vision, along with a set of sneakers that must belong to the demon he was grappling with. They both skidded, went down and rolled out of my sight with a volley of shouts and curses. Bobby's ball cap hit the floor near Trent and flopped over once before settling. I saw Dean get slammed backwards into the wall across from me. No one was touching him, but a second later he was flying forward as if yanked by a string. I didn't see the second impact, but I heard it. Then he was hitting the wall behind him yet again and I realized the demon was batting him back and forth from one wall to the other like a racquet ball.

These demons may have some weaknesses that the ones in my world didn't, but they also possessed different strengths and powers. This incredibly strong and apparently effortless throw you around with my mind telekinesis thing they had going on was very bad news.

A voice, or maybe more than one voice kept trying to start a Latin chant and kept getting interrupted by the fighting. It sounded like Bobby or maybe Sam, or possibly both at different times.

I rolled onto my hands and knees, but before I could rise the sharp toe of a dress shoe caught me in the ribs, knocking the breath from my lungs. I looked up to see that Aindrea had apparently re-taken the body she'd been using before. She was glaring down at me with an expression that was equal parts seething hatred and dark fascination.

"I knew you were interesting," she hissed. "I don't know what the hell you are, darling, but my, what a lot of fascinating, nasty things you have in your head. I've just got to try this one. Delore adficere!"

Before I could respond, a burning, blinding wave of pain slammed into me as the familiar curse raced across my skin, burning me from the outside in with a sickly green fire.

I cried out and struggled to quickly counter the curse. "Valeo," I gasped through grit teeth, using some of the energy I'd stolen from my assailant in order to run the counter-curse. Fortunately for me, it wasn't too hard. The curse wasn't as strong as I would have normally expected. It had been tinted green, which I knew was not the aura of the demon. Aindrea's aura was pure black and apparently not suited to filling the need of the spell. She must be using her host's aura, and that didn't seem to be working quite as well. It still hurt like hell though, and it would still have killed me just fine if left unchecked.

I countered quickly, but not quickly enough to stop her before she'd invoked another curse. I recognized it, and my blood went cold. I realized with a jolt that these were not spells she had already known. Like a kid with a new toy, she was trying out things she'd learned from me. She couldn't possibly have had time to absorb or process even a tenth of my memories during her little sojourn in my head, but she must have lingered over the ones she found most interesting. Unfortunately, those appeared to include the demon curses I knew, including the ones I'd seen in Al's mind when we were mentally connected during our fight with Ku'Sox the previous year.

Al's mental spell book was a dark library of horrors, it was no surprise that this creature went right for it. I'd only seen a small portion of his curses with enough clarity to make any replication attempts possible, but the ones I had were terrifying. Panic flashed through me as I scrambled to my knees. Shit! She didn't know what she was doing! I'd seen Al invoke this curse before and it would level this entire building with all of us in it.

The expected explosion did not occur, however; in fact, nothing occurred. I instantly realized my own - and the demon's - mistake. Of course, she couldn't invoke that curse. She couldn't invoke any of Al's worst curses. She may have seen a bunch of raw spells in my memories, but she was lacking the finer points of understanding behind them. Some spells you could work on the go, like the first one she'd tried, but most of Al's more complex curses he could only do on the spot because he'd already prepared them and stored them in the collective - which was safely back in our world. All she'd seen was the invocations to pull them out for quick use, which was useless without having the actual saved curse within reach.

The frustrated confusion on the woman's face was satisfying, but I didn't stop to enjoy it. Grabbing hold of the window of opportunity presented by her mistake, I tackled the woman, shoving my own curse into her. Unlike her, I had no problem knowing how to make it work. "Shouldn't play with things you don't understand!" I told her.

"... Ecce dabit voci Suae vocem virtutis, tribuite virtutem Deo..." Someone was reciting Latin again, fast and furious. I heard a dull thump and the voice huffed with the impact, but didn't stop. I was too busy to mentally translate, but if it was a spell, it seemed a terribly long one to invoke.

The woman arched on the floor, her body jerking as the force of my curse shocked through her. It was intended to render her unconscious, but she was clearly fighting it. Either she knew a counter-spell I didn't, or her body not being her own had certain advantages. Desperate to keep her down, I resorted to more primitive methods and punched her in the jaw. Her head bounced against the floor, but it didn't seem to give her much pause.

She whipped her arm up in a return blow. I countered with a forearm block and was thrown backwards by the force of her blow. My arm screamed in pain and for a moment I wondered if it was broken. The demon was strong.

"Well I understand this one just fine!" she hissed at me, growling another familiar invocation as a haze of magic blossomed on her fingers.

I scrambled backwards, but she didn't throw the curse because just then her head did this weird, freaky-fast side to side thing and her body gave a hard spasm. She groaned in pain and I realized that it sounded as if the other demons had all reacted in the same way. About then, my brain finally started spitting out a spotty translation of the ongoing Latin incantation and I realized it was indeed a spell of sorts and that it was so long because it was an exorcism rite. That must be what was causing the demon's distress.

My gaze jerked up to find Sam pinned against the wall where I'd seen Dean earlier. He was grimacing in pain, his arms spread to the side as if held by invisible hands, but he was doggedly keeping the Latin going, reciting the lengthy spell from memory.

"No!" Aindrea shrieked, infuriated. Before I could react, she'd twisted and heaved the ball of magic in her hand at Sam instead of me.

I saw Sam's body convulse against the wall, his neck muscles cording in agony as the curse crawled across him like hissing sparkles before burrowing into his skin. His voice stuttered with pain, but he didn't stop speaking.

"Deus Israhel ipse truderit virtutem et ..." he gasped desperately, clearly struggling for each word.

Aindrea screamed and lunged for him with super-human speed. I scrambled after her, but Dean got to her first. Putting himself between the demon and his brother, the elder Winchester slammed into her in a rush that was half tackle, half stumble. He plunged the knife in his hand into her chest and Aindrea jerked, her borrowed body seizing up. Faint, fiery lines raced outward from the injury. Starbursts of light and dark played under the woman's skin before her eyes rolled back and she went slack, slumping to the ground.

I realized that the demon was dead ... and so was the host; although judging by what Aindrea had shown me, the woman had already been long gone. I felt a deep shudder run through me. I really didn't like this world much. At all.

Dean had been quick and efficient in his attack, but it must have been the strength of desperation, because the collapse of Aindrea's host body nearly took him with her. He managed to stay upright, wheeling around towards one of the other two remaining demons. Dean's face was bloody and his movements slowed in a manner that suggested he probably had a concussion. Given the human ping-pong-ball routine I'd seen being played with him a minute ago, it was amazing he was on his feet at all.

"... fortitudinem plebi Suae," Sam's eyes were clenched shut, his body shaking. He dropped to the ground, slithering down the wall like a puppet with the strings cut as the demon holding him was forced to let go so he could meet Dean's attack. The demon was clearly in pain now, fighting the nearly completed exorcism. Unfortunately, he was still strong enough to throw Dean back across the room again, sending him crashing into the far wall. Dean hit hard and crumpled to the floor. I could tell it had been one hit too many, leaving him dazed and barely conscious. He struggled sluggishly to move, to crawl, but his body wasn't cooperating. I wasn't even sure if he was truly aware or if it was simply sheer, stubborn instinct that had him fighting to get back to his brother despite a complete inability to coordinate any of his motor functions.

I saw that Bobby wasn't far away. He was sprawled across one edge of the pentagram on the floor. I didn't see any wounds, but he wasn't moving so he must also have been knocked unconscious at some point in the past few ... minutes? It felt like this fight had been going on forever, but in reality it couldn't have been more than a few minutes at the most, if that long.

There were still two perfectly functional demons in the room and Sam and I were the only ones left standing ... no, scratch that, Sam was on slumped on the floor struggling to finish his spell and I was the only one left standing. Fan-freaking-tastic.

"B-benedictus Deus. Gloria ... Patri." Sam half gasped, half sobbed the last words of the spell. Of course, I only realized they were the last words when the two remaining demons completely freaked out.

They jerked spasmodically and their heads whipped back and forth in that incredibly disturbing manner again. Then they fell to their knees, screaming out the streams of black smoke that were no longer a surprising sight. The two hapless hosts collapsed to the floor, upping the number of unconscious people in the room. The bodiless demons fled, rushing up to slither along the ceiling and out of the house like the smoke they resembled.

I dropped to my knees beside Sam, not yet sure I had time to feel relieved. I needed to nullify what he'd been hit with, but I also needed quick answers. "Do we need to move? Are they coming back?" I asked urgently, trying to figure out how I was going to get this mess of unconscious and injured people somewhere safe - and where exactly safe was. Those demons had attacked us in broad daylight - a fact that was only sinking in just now. Were all the demons here day-walkers? Holy crap.

Sam shook his head, his teeth grit in agony. "Sent them back ... to hell," he gasped. "N-not the greatest solution but we should be okay for a little while." He groaned, his body starting to seize violently.

I knew what was wrong and I quickly took one of Sam's hands in my own, pressing my other to his forehead. "Extinguet," I murmured, reaching out with some of the power still stored inside me and attempting to run the counter-spell for the curse that Aindrea had used on him. "Extinguet!" I said again, a little more forcefully, dismayed when it did not immediately start working.

The curse had settled in too deep. It wasn't on the surface anymore where I could easily reach it; it was working its way inward to his mind. "Sam," I murmured, gripping his hand tightly and trying to get him to look at me. "Sam, listen to me. That demon cursed you. We need to stop the curse before it kills you. I know how to stop it, but it's gone too deep to reach from the outside. I need you to let me help you."

Sam looked at me with wary, pain-glazed eyes that looked a lot younger in that moment than they should have. "You want me to let you into my head?" he gasped out, his uncertainty and discomfort with that idea obvious.

"No," I said quickly. After what I'd just been through with Aindrea, I could understand why that would sound like a pretty disturbing idea. "I won't be in your mind, although we will be connected. It's more like we'll be ... sharing mental space. I'm going to channel some power into you and then kind of guide you on how to use it to run the counter-spell that will shut down the curse. It's gone too deep for anyone else to reach it. You have to do it for yourself, and we have to do this now, Sam."

Sam looked at me for a long moment more, then closed his eyes and nodded once. "Okay. Show me."

There were several jagged shards of a broken ceramic something on the floor beside us that must have been shattered in the struggle. I snatched one up and used it to cut a quick diagonal gash across my left palm. I winced, grimacing as I quickly milked the wound to get blood. Dipping a finger in the resulting bit of crimson that welled up, I used it to draw a symbol on Sam's forehead, then pressed my bleeding palm over it, whispering Latin under my breath. While it may be easy for me to connect with Trent, that wasn't true with most other people. A power-pull was one thing, touching minds was another. The spell I'd just worked should temporarily operate like a very crude person-to-person version of the way my scrying mirror allowed me to share mental space with others and communicate with them on that plane. If I'd done it right. I'd read about this in one of Al's books but I'd never tried it before.

I wasn't going to let Sam see my doubts, but inside, I was worried. He was human. I didn't know if I was going to be able to connect to him, much less if he would have the ability to work the necessary counter-curse. Humans could work certain types of magic if they learned how, but some types wouldn't work unless you had witch, demon or elf in your blood.

One of my worries was relieved when I felt the shape of an unfamiliar mind brush against mine. The connection was there, although not terribly strong or comfortable. Sam was in a lot of pain and that bled through into his mental state. Moreover, there was a discordant, almost warning hum that ran along my nerves, as if his very body had been warded against mental tampering. I wasn't trying to trespass on his will, however, so whatever protections were in place weren't shutting down the connection. Sam's mind was pretty guarded, however, and I wasn't getting much from him but the sense of his presence.

"Okay," I told him in our joined space as I carefully started feeding him a trickle of the remaining energy I had stored inside me. "Here's what you need to do." I showed him the spell, and the mental intent with which it needed to be applied.

I was hesitant to feed him too much energy for fear of hurting him, but to my surprise he latched onto it and pulled it from me with a strength I wasn't expecting. He knew how to channel power, I realized. At some time in the past, he must have done it before.

It turned out that I needn't have worried about his ability to do this. Sam did as I had showed him quickly and correctly. I was relieved when the curse's momentum finally slowed and then dissipated entirely. I felt something in him stir in response to the flow of demon magic running through him, something that went blood-deep. Something that was hungry.

Sam pulled back from the sensation abruptly, clearly afraid of whatever it represented to him. Rattled, he tried to shove the energy flow back to me and in those few moments his mind was less secure than it had been previously. Sudden flashes of images and memories raced through my mind before I could block them out. For a moment the sheer force of the rush flooding me was paralyzing. Quickly shaking myself free, I mentally pulled away in a belated attempt to respect his privacy. Lifting my hand from his forehead, I broke our connection and suddenly it was just me in my mind again.

I patted Sam's perspiration damp cheek gently as his cloudy eyes slowly blinked open again. His face was flushed and fever-warm. "Hey, good job, you stopped it. You should be okay now," I said reassuringly, not wanting him to dwell on any of the darkness I'd just glimpsed.

Not all of what I'd seen made sense and I'd tried not to look as soon as I realized what was happening. What I had seen did answer a few questions, though. It appeared that Sam had used demon magic in the past, to kill demons. Doubtless, that was where the smut on his aura had come from. He'd been able to crush their souls, much like I had almost done a few minutes ago, but the price he'd paid for the power was steep and the scars it had left were not slight. Five seconds of Sam's memories, and I didn't have to wonder why the Winchesters hated demons. I couldn't blame them, either.

"Really?" Sam rasped softly. "Then why don't I feel okay?" He was trying to sound light, but there was pain in his voice and a dark hint of fear in his agonized eyes.

I frowned, my worry instantly returning as I realized that Sam was still hurting way more than he should be. Blast it to the Turn, what now? We'd stopped the curse, he should be okay!

His flush had deepened and he was starting to look sunburned. Sudden dread took root in my stomach as I remembered what I'd seen in the kitchen earlier. No ... oh no, no, no...! I quickly brought up my second sight and fear hit me like a sucker punch.

The curse Aindrea used was meant to kill. The good news was that she hadn't cast it as strongly as someone more familiar with it could have. The bad news was how that particular curse worked. It killed by destroying a person's aura. You could survive losing a certain amount. We'd countered the curse fast enough that Sam should have been all right. He should have still had enough of his aura left to protect him until the rest could regenerate with time ... but Sam's aura had been too thin to start with. The curse had destroyed too much. He no longer had enough to cover him. It wasn't completely gone, like mine had been when I burned it off in the lines, but I could see ragged, gaping tears in the tattered gold surface. The gaps swirled and shifted chaotically about, his aura desperately trying to spread itself out enough to make the edges meet, but it was too damaged. The gaps just got bigger and bigger as they bled away at the edges.

Sam was dying. He didn't have enough aura left to survive, just enough to make his death long and excruciating. My stomach churned. I couldn't accept this, I couldn't.

He must have seen the panic in my eyes because his hand tightened on mine. "Rachel?" his voice was very composed given the circumstances.

My eyes welled unhelpfully and I blinked quickly, trying not to let him see. I could tell he did though. His trembling body relaxed slightly as if accepting the truth I refused to speak. Oddly enough, he didn't look afraid now. His gaze darted across the room, looking for his brother, I think. "Is there anything we can try?"

"Yes," I said firmly, although I had no real idea what. Even if Trent had been conscious, I couldn't ask him to risk his life singing Sam's soul into a bottle like he'd done with mine, nor did I think the hunter would have been able to trust him enough to allow it. I scooted closer to Sam, expanding my own aura to encompass us both. It wouldn't save him, but I knew from experience that it helped with the pain.

Desperately low on ideas, I pressed my hand to his forehead again, sliding back into the shared mental space because I didn't know what else to do. I heard a rustling scuffle of movement from elsewhere in the room, but my focus remained on Sam.

"Your aura is too thin, it's damaged and can't protect you," I told him in the space we shared, letting him see himself through my eyes so he'd understand what I meant. I felt his surprise and his wordless question. Obviously, he'd never heard of an aura before. "Auras are tied to your soul. They protect you and keep body and soul together, so to speak. Yours shouldn't be this thin, Sam. Do you know what happened to it?" If I understood that, maybe there was something I could do to fix it.

Something like resigned understanding flickered in Sam's mind and I pounced on it. He was instinctually evasive but I traced after him, deeper into his thoughts ... until I ran up against a solid wall where there should not have been one.

I frowned mentally, carefully tracing along the outline of the blockage. I'd never seen anything like it before. There was literally a wall inside Sam behind which a part of his mind and soul was trapped. That was why his aura was so thin, I realized - he wasn't whole.

I gave a light, experimental push against the barrier to test its strength ... and felt like my head exploded. My mental landscape was suddenly awash in flames. The raw sensations of pain accompanying the fire stole my breath, but I wasn't so sure they were my sensations.

Sam panicked. I felt his fear like a kick in the chest as he threw himself against me, trying to force me back out of his mind with surprising strength. "Don't!" I heard him gasping urgently, both aloud and through our mental connection. "Don't touch the wall!"

Our connection was broken with a suddenness that left me reeling when I was physically yanked away from him. I was hauled backwards a few paces on my butt, my feet scrabbling uselessly on the floor as I struggled with the disorientation of the abrupt shift. A strong hand gripped my shoulder and I crashed back against a body kneeling behind me. My head was jerked back and something cool and sharp pressed against my throat.

"What the hell are you doing?" Dean's voice rasped in my ear, his tone vicious with fear. Apparently, he'd recovered enough to be mobile again and was completely misreading this situation. Terrific.

Sam started convulsing again. I was too far away for my aura to shelter him and the full brunt of the pain must be back with a vengeance.

"What did you do to Sam?!" Dean's voice was equal parts rage and barely contained panic as he watched his brother seize. The blade against my throat pressed harder, breaking skin. I felt the bite of magic along with the bite of metal. It was not an ordinary knife and the hum of the curse built into the blade vibrated in my senses. I swallowed carefully, my mouth feeling very dry. Dean had probably just had significant head trauma and was now obviously in fear for his brother's life; I was more than a little worried about how rational that combination was going to make him.

"Nothing!" I protested, my breathing coming quick and loud in my own ears. "He's hurt, I'm trying to save him! Dean, you have to let me help, he's dying!"

I heard a soft, distinctive click and my gaze shot upward as much as my trapped head allowed. Apparently, Trent had woken up too. He was standing beside us, the muzzle of Sam's gun pressed against Dean's temple. The weapon must have been lost on the floor sometime earlier in the struggle and he'd retrieved it. "Kill her, and I kill you," the elf promised, his voice cool and dark.

Dean didn'tkill me, but he didn't let me go either. He barely reacted to Trent or his threat. The hunter's lack of concern spoke either to his confidence that he could disarm Trent before the elf could kill him ... or the fact that when faced with his brother's life on the line, Dean just didn't care.

"No, Trent, don't, it's okay, this is just a misunderstanding. Put the gun down," I urged, desperate to keep the situation from escalating. There was nowhere good this could go. I wanted Trent to stand down before things got any worse, but he made no move to comply.

"Come on, guys, seriously, let's just all take a breath here. Sam needs help. That demon woman cursed him. I helped him stop the curse, but it's damaged his aura," I babbled.

"His what?" Dean said in a tone that suggested he placed auras in the same realm as the Easter bunny. Frustration burned through me. We didn't have time for this.

"Dean ... I don't get it either, but it's true, I saw it," Sam panted with difficulty, trying and failing to sit up and get hold of himself.

"Right," I confirmed quickly. "He's burning because there's holes in his aura. It's too thin, there isn't enough left for him to survive. There's something inside him that's keeping him from being whole. If we can unseal the rest of his soul, maybe it will bring back enough of his aura to save him."

"We can't!" Dean ground out, his voice pained and painted with frustration. The knife was still at my throat, but it wasn't digging in so hard anymore.

"Rachel ..." Sam's voice was hoarse. "I know you want to help, but that wall's there for a reason. If we break it, I'll either go insane or die ... maybe both."

"Oh," I said, feeling both surprised and stupid, although there was no way I could have known that. "Okay then, no touching the wall." I realized then that this was what the brothers had been talking about that night in the hotel room. The problem was, I didn't know what else we could do.

Sam's pain was increasing rapidly and he rolled onto his back, gasping in ragged breaths and trying not to cry out. I knew just how badly it hurt and I ached in sympathy.

There was another sharp clicking sound and my gaze shot up to the right. Oh, great. Bobby was back on his feet and to make this situation just a little more delightful, he was covering Trent with his shotgun. Trent glared at him, but didn't back down. We had a total Mexican standoff going on now and it was so ludicrous it could have been funny, were it not for the very real danger involved.

"Enough! Everybody just chill the hell out, okay?" I snapped in utter frustration. "Us all killing each other isn't going to solve anything, or save Sam. Let me try to help him before it's too late, damn it!"

Sam's skin was starting to visibly blister. His head arched back against the floor and he screamed.

I felt Dean's body shudder behind me, helpless agony practically rolling off him in waves. "Dean, he's dying," I appealed urgently. "Let me help!"

Coming to a decision, Dean dropped his arm and the knife from my throat, releasing me. Looking over my shoulder I saw raw desperation on his face. "Okay, fix him!" he half ordered, half pleaded. His eyes said he wasn't sure he was doing the right thing and that he could only hope he wasn't going to regret this.

I crawled quickly back to Sam, touching his burning brow gently and enfolding him in my aura again. He relaxed a little, the screams turning into ragged gasps as his skin stopped actively burning. In the periphery of my vision, I saw Dean and Bobby relax a fraction as well. The fact that my presence was visibly helping the younger hunter brought a modicum more calm to the highly wrought tensions swirling about in the room.

Too bad I still had no idea what on earth I was going to do now.

"It's going to be okay." I took Sam's hand reassuringly, pretending a confidence I didn't have. Sam gave me a weak smile. I think he knew full well I was bullshitting him, but he seemed to also understand that my intentions were earnest. A reversal, perhaps, of our positions in the woods on that first day we met.

Motion drew my gaze back to the others. Now that I had been released, Trent was finally standing down. He had lowered his weapon and was carefully setting the gun on the floor. Bobby was still covering him and Trent kept his hands cautiously out to the side. Moving slowly and as non-threateningly as possible, the elf backed up towards Sam and I. Keeping his hands visible and his body language passive, he knelt beside me.

Bobby continued to keep us covered, but I saw the gun barrel shift down a little. He wasn't going to stand down, but he wasn't going to overreact either. I'd told them I needed Trent to work magic, apparently, they remembered.

I looked to Trent. He gave me a slight, rueful half-smile and I saw in his eyes that he was fully aware I'd talked these armed and edgy men into letting me help without knowing whether or not I actually could. Strangely enough, he didn't seem worried.

"Rachel," he said quietly, nodding towards Sam. "His aura is like ours."

I nodded slowly. "I know." A sudden inspiration came to me and I straightened a little. "Wait ... you mean ...?"

Trent nodded. "Yes. I think you can temporarily give him part of yours, just enough to help protect him until his own regenerates. I couldn't do it for you when you were burned in the lines because your aura was completely gone, and I didn't know quite as much about it as I do now. His isn't gone, it's just patchy. I think it can be done."

I felt hope returning. It was a good idea and I thought it could work. There was only one glitch. "I don't know how," I admitted. I didn't like coping to not knowing something, but we all had our areas of expertise and I was aware that this one was Trent's. Elf magic seemed to deal a lot more with the manipulation of auras and souls than demon magic.

"I know," Trent gave me another small smile. "But I do. I looked into it in depth after that incident with you. Unfortunately, I can't share mine at this time. The deal I made is ... consuming too much," he admitted reluctantly. "But I can show you how to do it, and I can bind it in place."

I nodded. "Okay, let's do it."

Trent reached for my hand, but I stopped him. "One thing Trent - does this have to use wild magic or could we use line energy?"

Trent frowned at me. "I ... don't believe it would matter?" he said uncertainly.

"Okay, then no magic from you unless we have to. I've ... got a partial charge to work with. Let's see if it's enough."

Trent nodded, obviously confused as to where I'd gotten the energy, but he didn't argue or ask.

With that understanding in place, I took Trent's hand and allowed our minds to connect so he could show me the spell and share the charge in my chi. Trent started and looked at me when he felt the taste of the energy I offered. I bit my lip guiltily. I didn't really want him to know how I'd gotten it, but hiding only made me feel more dirty about it. Reluctantly, I gave a wordless explanation through the connection we were sharing, allowing him to know what I'd done to the demon.

Trent was not disturbed or disgusted. Instead, I felt a little wave of approval and admiration from him. "Only you could have something try to possess you and come away with its power instead, Rachel."

I glanced up at him in surprise, my guilt and fear accidentally flashing visibly through me. Trent just smiled at me like I was being ridiculous. "You're nothing like Ku'Sox, trust me. Now, watch closely, this is a little tricky ..."

A little tricky turned out to be like saying that Mozart was a little hard to play, but I managed it in the end. The biggest problem was that Trent knew the spell in theory not in practice and it took a certain amount of trial and error for us to get it working right. It turned out we did need to tap into a little wild magic for it to work properly and I ended up needing to modify the transfer portion wherein I shed part of my aura and pushed it onto Sam. It wouldn't take the first two times, but then I tried doing it in layers, spectrum by spectrum, the way I'd learned to do when re-invoking Elven silver.

Trent hadn't watched me do that before and I could feel his intent interest and excited spark of understanding when he realized how it solved the rejection problem by integrating one layer at a time. I couldn't help smiling inwardly. I knew that Trent enjoyed trying to reconstruct and resurrect ancient elven magic whose secrets had been lost to time, but he was always so outwardly composed, it was kind of sweet to see his inner enthusiasm.

The layering worked and this time the aura I'd shared did not snap back to me. Quickly, I chanted the spell to complete the transfer. I would have expected to feel more stupid, sitting there singing over Sam, but the power of the spell carried me along and it didn't feel all that odd.

Then all that was left was for Trent to bind it in place. Now that I understood the spell, I realized it was definitely a two-person affair. Because my aura and Sam's were now resonating at the same frequency, you needed a third party to place the final seal that would keep the merged auras from unraveling when we were no longer in physical proximity.

"Na deen, ta shay, doto la, doto la ..." Trent sang softly beside me, his hand hovering over Sam as he placed the seal. Trent's singing could have a rather distracting effect on me at times. I tried to ignore the tingle in my blood as I watched Sam carefully. I was relieved to see that the borrowed aura seemed to be working okay. The holes were gone and although it was still thin, he had enough to keep him alive.

Smiling in relief, I ran exhausted fingers through Sam's long, damp hair. His breathing had evened out and he no longer appeared to be in pain, although he was likely still weak and would need time for both his body and aura to recover. "There," I murmured. "Now you should be okay."

He chuckled weakly and rolled onto his side, pushing up to sit. He seemed a little unsteady, but definitely doing better. "Thanks." His voice was quiet but sincere.

Dean came over and knelt beside his brother, tipping his head back to get a look at his face and generally checking him over for damage. "You okay? Really? Everything?"

Sam nodded. "Yeah man, honest. I'm good."

Dean hugged his brother, fists bunching in the back of Sam's shirt as fear bled out into relief. Sam did not seem to take this amiss and hugged him back.

I scooted back a bit to give them room and turned to Trent. "What about you?" I asked. We'd had to tap a little wild magic through him to get it all working. Even if it had only been a very small amount, I didn't like it.

Trent gave me a wry expression. "I'm fine. You did most of the work."

Bobby cleared his throat. "I'm glad Sam's better and all, but we still got ourselves a couple problems here."

The brothers stiffened a little. Dean got to his feet and helped Sam up, even though the older Winchester looked like he could have used a hand himself. He was unconsciously hugging his ribs and the right side of his face was starting to swell.

I rose as well, not comfortable with the feeling that Trent and I were part of those "problems".

"Bobby, they saved Sam," Dean said quietly, the support unexpected but appreciated. "If either of them were demons, they would have been exorcised with the rest."

"I know," Bobby agreed. "I'm just sayin' there's still a lot of questions here. Heaven knows that demon bitch was probably lying her head off, but the truth is she ain't like no witch we've ever seen before," he nodded to me. "That demon possessed her and something weird happened, then it bugged right out again. I've never seen it happen like that before. I'm not trying to be an ungrateful bastard ... but we've been down this road before. Dean, we need to be sure what we're dealing with."

Dean took a somewhat weary step toward me and I unconsciously backed up a pace. "It's okay," he tried to reassure. "Few easy tests we can run. If you're not a demon then there's nothing to worry about," he promised, his expression serious but honest.

That did nothing to calm my apprehension.

"Guys ... maybe they should just ... go," Sam said quietly. My gaze jerked to him and I saw guilt on his face. I realized that I'd fed demon energy into him, and he'd recognized the sensation. He wasn't so sure there wasn't something demonic about me, but I'd also saved his life and he seemed conflicted on how to deal with that. I knew from what I'd glimpsed in his memories that they'd been betrayed before by demons who had saved them and pretended to be on their side - hideously betrayed.

Dean shot his brother a look and frowned, something about Sam's attitude striking him wrong and making him a little more wary. He took a more purposeful step towards me.

Trent rose quickly to his feet. "You should be aware," he said calmly, "that until Sam's aura heals, his life is tied to Rachel's, and mine. If she dies, he will lose the aura she shared with him. If I die, the binding I put on it will come undone and the same thing will happen. In either case, he will die too."

The Winchesters stiffened and I felt a sudden, unhappy lurch in my stomach at the revelation. I hadn't known that ... but Trent obviously had. I realized with a sinking feeling that it was probably at least part of why he had suggested this cure to begin with - to gain leverage that ensured the hunters couldn't dispose of us. It made sense in a calculating kind of way, but it also made me mad. I felt like he had used me. I didn't like the idea of blackmailing people I had honestly just wanted to help. I wheeled on Trent. "What?! You didn't tell me that!"

Trent had his game face on and simply gave me a cool, level look in response to my displeasure.

The hunters didn't take any more kindly to the news than I did. No one liked to feel like they were being held over a barrel and it clearly did not engender any good will towards us. I could have freaking kicked Trent.

Water splashed in my face and I spluttered at the unexpectedness of it. "Hey!" I protested. I wiped the water out of my eyes and saw that Dean was holding a flask like the one Bobby had been using earlier. I immediately tensed, waiting for the acid to start stinging ... but it didn't. It was just ... water.

Bobby was covering Trent again and the hunters were all watching me closely. I spread my arms, fixing them with a sarcastic look. "Witches don't actually melt in water, guys. The Wizard of Oz lied to you."

The hunters seemed a little amused, despite themselves I think. "If only it was that easy, right?" Dean said with an equally sarcastic smile.

"Holy water didn't do anything to them in the car, either," Sam pointed out. "And they had no problem handling silver. You know, we did check when we first picked them up," he added.

I blinked in surprise, suddenly understanding the odd way they'd watched us in the car on the way into Cincy when we'd first met them. That flask Sam had given me had been made out of silver, and we'd apparently washed up with paper napkins and holy water. Well, holy water may act like acid for those other demons, but it didn't do a darn thing to me.

I only had about a second to feel relieved before Dean had taken my wrist, pushed my sleeve up my arm and was pressing something cool against my skin. "We've seen holy water fail before," he reminded his brother.

I started and would have instinctively jerked my arm away if the hunter's firm grip hadn't prevented it. It was only a surprised reaction however, the iron cross he was pressing against my skin didn't hurt. There were apparently significant differences in our worlds' demon species, and I was starting to think this might not be so bad when a sharp slice of pain made me jerk and yelp.

"Hey!" I said again, glaring daggers at Dean. "You cut me!" He'd sliced a quick, shallow cut across the inside of my forearm with a silver knife. "I do hope that bleeding doesn't mean I fail what the hell ever kind of test this is," I added grumpily. I wasn't happy with this whole situation, but thus far I seemed to be passing their tests all right and resisting would have only made things worse.

"Nope," Dean said, giving me a cloth to press over the shallow wound. "Burning would, but I guess you're not a shifter either. Good to know."

"Well yippee," I muttered, massaging the stinging cut. "Could have told you that."

After that they had me step into and out of one of those pentagram binding charms and a circle of salt. It felt kind of stupid, but I played along. "Okay, are you happy now, or do I need to rub my head and pat my stomach too?" I said finally when it seemed like they'd run out of things for me to do.

"No, we're done." Dean turned, gesturing for Trent to come. "Your turn."

I was worried Trent was going to cause more trouble, but he simply unbuttoned his cuff, rolling up his sleeve as he came over. Calmly, he held his bared forearm out to the hunter, meeting and holding Dean's gaze. "I am most certainly not a demon, but you are welcome to see for yourselves."

They ran Trent through the same tests and he also passed. I was kind of hoping that would have put the hunters more at ease than it seemed to be doing. They were definitely less edgy again, but for some reason, they still seemed troubled.

"They didn't react to anything," Dean said with a frown. He rubbed his ribs again and from the slight hunch of his shoulders I suspected he was in a lot of pain and simply doing a good job of hiding it.

"Most witches don't," Sam pointed out, but he was frowning too.

"Yeah ... but he don't react to silver or iron or need to count things and that ain't rightfor what we know about fairies," Bobby put in, nodding towards Trent.

Trent massaged the bridge of his nose, clearly annoyed. "Elf, not fairy," he corrected them again, although no one was listening to him.

"Yeah, but we really know squat about fairies. I mean, the crash course by Mrs. Tiny Teacups wasn't exactly comprehensive," Dean pointed out.

"That's true, there could be all different kinds we don't know about yet," Sam agreed, and it appeared the others seemed to concede the logic in that.

"Can you not talk about us like we're not here?" I asked, annoyed and not happy that they were now suspicious because we hadn't shown any results.

"Right, can't forget about you. Come on." Holding my arm, Dean pulled me to the door of the cell we'd been in before.

"Wait a minute, we passed your stupid tests!" I protested, refusing to let him push me inside.

Dean looked weary. His gaze was hard, but his eyes weren't mean. "Yeah, but we've got a basement full of bodies to take care of," he gestured around the room, indicating the two dead previous demon hosts that would doubtless need burying somewhere and the two unconscious ones who may or may not have survived their possession. "And we need to figure out how they got into the house. Demons can't get into the panic room. This is the safest place to keep you until we can sort all this out. Besides, we wouldn't want you to wander off anywhere. It's dangerous out there and apparently, we can't afford for anything to happen to either of you two for a while," he added sourly, dividing his scowl between me and Trent as Bobby and Sam guided Trent over to join me.

Trent did not look happy, but I was overall very not happy with him right now, so I didn't really care. Stupid elf. Why was I always surprised when he pulled crap like this? Hadn't I learned anything? Or had I just really thought he could change that much? I was an idiot.

"Maybe you two can take the time to put a little thought into why exactly the demons are so interested in you, and what you're still not telling us that you probably should," Dean added sarcastically. He took a step towards me, crowding my personal space to get me to move back into the room.

I didn't like being backed into a cage, I didn't like anything about this. Did I trust these people enough to go back into that room without a fight? I wasn't sure. I felt relatively sure they'd try to do what they thought was the right thing. The problem was, I also felt sure that if that should eventually end up including disposing of us, they could and would do so.

My heart thudded in my chest as I held my ground and Dean's gaze. He was a dangerous man, I thought, but not a bad one. The truth was, in many ways he reminded me of Jenks - with his jokes and smiles and the boyish charm that hid the ferocity underneath. They were both older on the inside than they looked on the outside and had eyes that said they had known too much loss and would fight with everything they had to defend that which was left. They would kill you in a heartbeat if that was what they felt they needed to do to protect that which was theirs to protect, but neither of them were cruel by nature. They were warriors; survivors.

At least, that was the impression I got from what I had seen since we met them and from what I had seen in Sam's memories. Maybe that was why, even though I was pretty sure this man could kill me without hesitation, I couldn't actually bring myself to hate him for that; no more than I could hate Jenks for having killed to defend his home.

I continued to scowl at Dean, but reluctantly stepped over the lip of the door and back into the panic room, as he'd called it. I still wasn't happy about this situation, but I wasn't quite scared enough about it to put up a fight when that was only likely to make things worse.

Trent was pushed in after me and the door slammed shut behind us. The bolt slid home, locking us in again and I clenched my fists at my side. This whole thing was such a mess and I was beyond frustrated.

There was long, uncomfortable silence for a few moments. I could hear the faint murmur of voices on the other side of the door, but the thick walls of the room apparently made a pretty decent sound barrier because I couldn't hear what was actually being said. After a few moments even the murmuring stopped and I supposed either they were being quiet or they'd left to dispose of the bodies. It was a little disturbing to think that they probably had a lot of practice on that front.

Trent was walking around the small room, studying the glyphs on the walls. "Rachel, do you recognize this one?" he asked me with a thoughtful frown, gesturing towards one of the symbols.

I turned to glare at him, not seeing what that mattered and incredibly irritated that he seemed completely oblivious to how ticked off with him I was right now. "No, and I can't believe you!" I rounded on him. "Every time. Every time I start to think we can actually work pretty good together, you pull some crap stunt like this!"

Trent looked at me, annoyed. "Like what? Why are you angry now?"

"Like what?!" I said incredulously."Like alienatingthem by making it seem like we only saved Sam to protect ourselves. How did you think they were going to react to being blackmailed like that? Great way to make them trust us, thanks a ton!"

Trent's lips pinched in a hard line and he folded his arms tightly across his chest. "We don't need them to trust us, Rachel, we needed them to not kill us."

"Yeah?" I seethed. "Well maybe we could have tried for both and we wouldn't be locked up again!"

Trent glowered at me. "Do we really have to do this right now? We should focus on getting out of here."

"Why? Because it's only going to take a day or two for Sam's aura to heal and then, thanks to the fact that they don't trust us, they may decide that killing us sounds like a pretty good idea after all? Gee, I guess maybe not stamping all over their trust may just have been important after all, huh?" I was so not ready to let this go.

"No," Trent said through his teeth. "Our time table is shorter than that. We'll need magic to break out of a room this secure. A lot of it." Trent pressed one hand to his chest, rubbing as if it ached. "I really can't breathe well in here, Rachel. Something in this room saps my strength. We need to act now, before it gets so bad I can't."

Adding a dose of worry to my overall frustration with this incredibly crappy situation was like tossing gasoline on a fire. "No!" I snapped. "No freaking way, are you kidding me? You want to kill yourself?! I feel so much as a twitch of magic and I will knock you senseless, Trent, I swear."

"Rachel!" he growled in frustration.

"I said no! Besides, if we run, they'll hunt us for sure."

"So we won't let them catch us," Trent said tightly, as if that was obvious. "This situation is too volatile. You really want to just sit here and trust them with our lives? After everything we've seen?"

I didn't know, and I didn't like that I didn't know. I felt deep down that the Winchesters were good people, but I couldn't be sure that meant we were at all safe with them. "I don't know, maybe," I admitted tensely.

"Maybe?" Trent snorted. "I'm not ready to hang everything on maybe, Rachel. We need to get out of here. We need to get home. We know now that magic works in this world and that it is possible to open gateways to other dimensions. We need to be working on that, not sitting around here doing nothing but possibly waiting to be killed. We are wasting time!"

There was an edge of desperation in Trent's driving need to get back that I understood, but rushing around blindly wasn't going to help us. "Yeah, only we don't know how to do that, do we? And we've pretty much alienated the only leads we might have had." I threw up my hands in exasperation.

"Not entirely." Trent reached behind his back and pulled out a small, flat object he'd apparently had tucked down the back of his pants, under the loose shirts he wore.

I stared at what he showed me, both shocked and a little alarmed. How in the name of little green apples had he gotten that? Trent was holding the demon book we'd been looking at in the library. He must have pinched it after I set it down. How he'd managed to do that under everyone's noses without anyone noticing was beyond me, but apparently Trent would have made a pretty good thief in another life.

"You stole that?!" I asked incredulously. "Oh my God, Trent, are you trying to get us killed?" I wondered how long until the hunters would notice it missing and how quickly they'd think to search us. Given their reactions to the interest we'd showed in it earlier I didn't think there was any way they wouldn't jump to the worst possible conclusions upon discovering we'd taken it.

Trent gave me an exasperated look. "You said yourself we might be able to adapt what's in here to suit our purposes. This is what we should be working on, preferably somewhere far away from here."

"That was before I found out that the spell required human sacrifice!" I shot back. "I don't care how much we want to get home, or how little you may care for other people's lives, that is a road we are not taking." My eyes narrowed. I tried to snatch the book, but Trent retreated quickly, keeping the cots in the center of the room between us. Shoving the book back where he'd gotten it from, he kept his back towards the wall and gave me a stubborn look.

"Of course not," he retorted tartly. "What do you think I am? But we only have the Winchesters' word for that, don't we? How much do you think they know about magic? As much as we do? I think not. You've pulled restless souls out of purgatory before without any black magic involved and we're not trying to get into purgatory anyway. It has to be easier to open a doorway to another realm of the living than it is that of the dead. Even if the spell really does call for sacrifice, that doesn't mean we couldn't find another way to adapt it."

There was some logic to that, but I wasn't ready to admit it just yet, not when I was this mad and not when Trent had gone about things in such a sneaky and amateur manner. Stealing the book was just further proof that Trent had been running his own plan all along and I'd fallen right into it. Again.

"What do I think you are? How about an idiot? I don't get it, Trent. How can you be so smart and yet so stupid? I am sick of this! Maybe I'm the idiot. Really, I am. Why do I always fall for your crap? I trust you, and you use me! Every, fucking, time!" It hurt. It hurt because I was an idiot. I wanted him to be something he wasn't and I set myself up for this pain over and over again.

Trent flinched, pulling back tighter into himself and I knew I'd hurt him. I was just too angry to care. "That is not true," he grit out through his teeth, his voice low and hard.

"No?" I raised my eyebrows. "You want me to make you a list?" I huffed bitterly. "You set me up. Don't tell me you didn't plan this. Don't try to tell me you didn't know exactly what kind of leverage it would give us if I saved Sam using that spell. Look me in the eyes and tell me you didn't." I folded my arms and glared at him.

Trent's stormy green eyes flashed with anger, but he dropped his gaze and wouldn't meet my gaze. "Of course I knew," he muttered.

"Yeah, that's what I thought," I said bitingly. "You never change."

Trent's head came back up, his eyes flashing with ire ... and pain. "And you never understand!" he shot back. "You don't even try. I don't get it, Rachel. You try to understand everyone - even people like Al and the Winchesters. You give everyone the benefit of the doubt; everyone but me. What is so wrong with me, Rachel?" He ran an agitated hand through his hair, turning away from me and pacing tensely back and forth in the small space.

"I wasn't trying to use you," he said, his voice low and tense. "I was trying to help! That was the only way I could think of to save Sam. Did I also recognize the fact that it could be valuable for us to have a reason for them to keep us alive if things went badly? Of course I did. It's the way I think, Rachel, I can't help that. I see actions and consequences, percentages and possibilities - I have to." He shook his head. "Like taking the book, it was simply a card to play if we needed it. I wouldn't have said anything, but I thought ... " He stopped pacing and bowed his head, biting his lip. Finally, he lifted his head again, gaze meeting mine. There was a hint of embarrassment among the other emotions roiling behind his green eyes. "I miscalculated, all right? How was I to know they wouldn't ... that it wouldn't show anything."

I stared at him, understanding seeping into me like a cold shower, cooling my rage. Trent hid his emotions too well. He always seemed so confident and in control that I hadn't seen the truth behind his actions. Trent had been afraid. He'd been afraid the hunters were about to test me and find out I was a demon. He'd been afraid they'd kill first and ask questions later unless there was some reason they couldn't. Hadn't I been afraid of that too? Maybe blackmailing them wasn't the best thing he could have done, but maybe it had been a more honest mistake than I'd been giving him credit for. I was still irritated with him for screwing things up, but when I stopped to look at it from this angle I could see where he'd been coming from. After all, if things had gone differently ...

I frowned, my gaze sliding away to stare at the far wall as guilt settled uneasily in the pit of my stomach. Trent may have messed up ... but he'd done so out of a desire to protect me. Crap. Maybe he was right. Admitting that rankled, but I couldn't ignore the facts. I hadn't tried to understand where he was coming from or why he'd done what he did. I'd just assumed I knew. Trent and I had a lot of history, not all of it good. When you saw someone a certain way for years it was a hard mindset to break. Plus, Trent wasn't exactly the easiest man on the planet to read.

"Okay, point taken," I said quietly, gaze still on the other wall. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't make assumptions without hearing you out first." My troubled gaze finally sought him out and found Trent resolutely not looking at me as he studied one of the wards on the wall, tracing it absently with his forefinger. I sighed.

"I want to understand you, Trent, but you don't exactly let people get close. You hold everything so tight to the vest and only show as much as you need to to get the results you want. I respect the duties you carry and I understand the demands they place on you, Trent, I do ... but sometimes it's hard to know which of the many faces you wear is really yours."

Trent's expression was both resigned and melancholy when he lifted his gaze back to mine. "I let you get close," he whispered. "But you're right, I'm a pie cut into too many pieces." He shrugged and gave me a tight, mirthless little smile that sent an unexpected sliver of pain through me. "Maybe it's just as well. It's better to keep your distance, Rachel. I doubt you'd like what you saw if you got too close. I'm not someone you should trust."

I didn't know why hearing him say that hurt so much, but it did. "I never said I didn't trust you," I said quietly. "I do. Trent, I do."

The pain and resolve in his eyes as he looked at me was staggering. "You shouldn't," he said sadly. "I will only continue to disappoint you." The elf grimaced. His fingers went to his mouth and when they came away bloody I guessed he must have bitten his cheek or his tongue.

The words were an apology as much as a warning and my brows furrowed in confusion. I didn't understand why he would say that or what exactly he was trying to tell me. "Trent?"

Using two fingers, Trent painted his blood onto the wall. Three quick flicks of his wrist and he'd changed the pattern of the ward he'd been studying a minute ago - taking control of it and altering its purpose at the same time.

I realized what he was doing about thirty seconds too late to stop him.

"Trent, no!" I lunged for him, but I was too far away and he was moving too fast.

"Dissilio!" Trent said firmly, slapping his palm on the center of the re-purposed charm and channeling a massive burst of energy into it. The lines of the charm lit up, flaming outward like they were scribed in fire. Tendrils of light shot outward, racing up the wall. They ran into one of the other wards and flowed around it, circling at the edges like an invading horde. "Vindicto," Trent whispered and the fire spread inward, lighting up the second ward like the first as he claimed it. Stronger and thicker now, the streams of light rushed the rest of the way to the ceiling. They flowed up to surround the pentagram shaped grate. "Vindicto, dissilio!" At Trent's command, the pentagram ward too, became his. The fire streamed into it, lighting the metal up like a red hot furnace. Reaching its apex, the spell fulfilled its purpose and blew upward and outward with a rumbling crack. The grate blew out of the ceiling, loosing a shower of concrete dust and causing afternoon sunlight to stream into the small room from above.

The whole thing had taken a matter of seconds. Part of me had to admire the ingenuity of the plan. By daisy-chaining the wards, Trent had managed to not only get around the room's defenses but also used them to amplify the spell. The rest of me was busy vacillating between outrage and panic.

"Are you crazy?!" I shouted at him. "What the hell are you ... ?"

"Getting out," Trent said grimly. His face was set with determination but edged with guilty apology as he wiped plaster dust from his eyes. "I told you we couldn't wait. I'm sorry. Come on, we have to hurry. They are sure to have heard that."

"Ya think?!" I growled, but he was right. We didn't have a choice now. All we could do was run.

Chapter Text

Trent hopped up on the cot beneath the gaping hole in the ceiling and laced his fingers into a stirrup, holding them out. I understood the plan and quickly joined him on the bed. Swinging one foot into his hand, I braced myself and pushed upward as he half boosted, half threw me up to the ceiling. It wasn't that high and I was able to catch hold of the ragged lip of the hole. I quickly dragged myself up and out onto the roof. I stripped out of the over-large flannel shirt I was wearing. Bracing my knees, I leaned back into the hole as far as I could, holding onto one sleeve and dropping the rest of the shirt down towards Trent. Trent used the cot's springs as a launching board, jumping up and catching hold of the proffered shirt. I slithered forward under his weight, then caught myself on the lip and hauled backwards. Trent was already climbing hand-over hand, and I slid backwards when he caught hold of the edge of the hole and his weight disappeared. I slid back into the over-shirt as Trent hauled himself out onto the roof and then we were running across the tilted surface, slithering over the edge and dropping to the ground.

Trent didn't look like that latest bought of magic had done him any favors, but he seemed to be pushing through whatever he was feeling all right for the moment. I wasn't sure how long that would last though. Thus far, there had always seemed to be a bit of a delay between when Trent used magic and when the effects hit him.

I heard shouts from inside. My heart was pounding in my ears. Trent and I quickly fled into the maze of the junk yard, staying low and dashing between the hulking bodies of the partially dismantled cars. Trying to run out of here on foot would be useless. We needed to jack one of the working cars and we needed to do it quick.

"I don't suppose you know how to hotwire a car," I asked Trent as we wove our way quickly towards a couple of the vehicles that looked to be in running order. I was only half joking.

"Don't need to," he said smugly, pulling a set of beat up keys from his pocket and dangling them on his finger.

I goggled at him. "Where'd you get those?!"

"The pegboard, in the kitchen," Trent said simply. I realized he must have swiped them earlier, after lunch. Another contingency plan, I supposed. Geez, the man's back up plans had back up plans. It would just be nice if he bothered to share them every once in a while! Although ... to be fair, maybe he'd tried and I hadn't been listening. Not that that let him off the hook for the bone-head stunt he'd just pulled, but I was doing my best to not make assumptions and to try to see his side of things before I gave into the impulse to kick him into next week. Of course, there was nothing to say I couldn't do both.

The car's make and model were written on a masking tape strip on the cardboard key fob and we made our way quickly towards the one indicated. I snatched the keys from him and yanked open the driver's door, glaring at Trent and daring him to argue. Wisely, he did not.

Proving that every once in a while, things could actually go our way, the old junker of a car started easily. The engine sounded rough and throaty, but it worked just fine as I floored the accelerator and we pealed out of the lot.

The road we found ourselves on was small and deserted. Hopefully it got bigger or had some turn-offs further ahead. If it didn't, we wouldn't be hard to find or follow. I kept the gas pedal to the floor, trying to make the most of our head start.

I glanced in the rearview mirror, then over at Trent. The elf had started coughing again. Blood was trickling from his nose and he wiped it away with the back of his hand. He may be trying to pretend he was okay, but I knew better. I felt torn between being mad at him for doing this to himself and being worried sick. I finally settled on both.

"Damn it to hell, Trent!" I shouted at him, slapping the steering wheel with the heel of my palm in pure frustration. "We didn't have to do it this way! We could have tried to work things out with them!"

"Maybe," Trent allowed, gripping the dash with one hand as we bumped and rocketed along, the other pressed to his chest. "Or maybe not. The only thing we can be certain of is that the odds only get worse the longer we wait. Right now they're injured, distracted and can't afford to kill us." Trent let his head drop, eyes pressed shut as if in pain. "This is the best shot we're going to get."

I grit my teeth and shook my head, focusing on the road. I couldn't answer without starting another argument, and now was not the time.

Trent tipped his head back against the seat. I could see him in my periphery vision. He kept surreptitiously wiping his face and I knew his nose was still bleeding. Damn it.

"I know you think this was rash. Maybe it was," Trent said very quietly after a few long, tense moments of silence. "Rachel ... you don't understand. I'm not just being an impatient ass because I enjoy it. I need to get home as fast as we can find a way. You have no idea what's probably happening there as we speak."

I bit back an unpleasant retort because there was a raw thread of fear in Trent's words, an honest desperation that he had probably been feeling this whole time and was simply no longer able to hide. The problem with Trent was that by the time he got around to wanting to actually share something with me, he'd ticked me off so badly my first instinct was just to bite his head off ... which probably didn't encourage him to be more forthcoming in the future. With an effort, I attempted to thwart that cycle.

"I'd understand if you'd tell me," I said instead, honestly striving for a patience I didn't feel. "What are you so afraid of?"

"War," he said quietly. "Killing me turns the elves' balance of power on its ear. I wouldn't be so concerned if I thought the Withons were truly the masterminds behind the whole affair. If this was their scheme they would have thought things through and everything would be in position for a clean sweep which means the transition would not be too terrible or costly. They would know that the savviest thing to do would be to absorb and convert those formerly loyal to me, not eliminate them. But Ellasbeth was a pawn in this game, not the schemer. I believe she thinks she was benefiting her family, but I do not think they were actually behind it. Reginald is too minor a player for him to be doing something this large for them or for himself. That means someone else is making a bid for power, someone who was just using Reginald, Ellasbeth and the rest," he explained. "But it doesn't make sense. No one else has a serious chance of taking over unless there is some other, catastrophic change such as a sweeping round of assassinations and almost certainly outright war. We are poised for a comeback, but there are still too few of us, Rachel. A war among our own kind would be devastating, not to mention opening us up to the predation of other enemies. Not everyone is pleased that the elf genome has been fixed and that we are about to start growing exponentially in strength and number. There are more than a few vampires in particular who would jump at the chance to help us wipe ourselves out," he added with a note of steel in his voice. "An internal war between the elves would make everyone vulnerable."

What Trent said made an unpleasant kind of sense. I did sort of wonder how he could care so much for his race as a whole after what they had done to us, but I supposed a few bad apples didn't necessarily spoil the lot. I hadn't exactly gotten a very fair shake from the witches or demons most of the time, but I certainly didn't want to see them all dead. In any case, I kept my thoughts to myself. We'd finally found a cross-street and I turned down it. I had no idea where we were or where we were going, but I felt better for being able to make us at least a little bit more difficult to follow. Everything was still pretty rural and deserted. No signs of civilization yet.

"If Ellasbeth has wittingly or not allied herself with some faction outside her family, she and Lucy could be in danger," Trent continued, staring fixedly out the window. "And without her mother's influence she will ... she will not ... " Trent's lips pressed into a tight line. "She will not allow Quen to simply shift loyalties now that I'm gone. She'll act like she will, but only to betray him. She knows he'll never forgive her and she will not trust him to live. Quen on his own would be fine, but the last I know, the girls were both with her and she knows, Rachel. She knows Ray is his daughter, not mine." He clearly hadn't wanted to say any of those words.

The bottom of my stomach dropped out and my hands clenched on the wheel. I still thought we were going about this all wrong, but Trent's driving urgency no longer seemed so unwarranted. He was afraid for those he loved, especially Quen and Ray. Afraid that Ray would be nothing but leverage to get rid of Quen and once that was done, she would also be disposable.

"Ellasbeth wouldn't ... I mean, Ray's just a baby," I stuttered in shock. Ellasbeth was a lot of things, but nobody could be that heartless, right? I'd feared neglect and indifference for Ray, but Trent obviously feared something a lot darker.

"Not personally, of course. She hasn't the stomach," Trent said with a forgivable amount of bitterness in his voice. "But the world thinks Ray is mine. That could make her a possible threat to Lucy in Ellasbeth's eyes. I just don't know," he said honestly. "When I stole Lucy, Ellasbeth had given their guards orders to take me out even if it meant the child perished with me. You tell me what I should think."

I hadn't know that. Anger swelled inside me and I struggled to breath around the rage in my chest. I honestly had no idea how Trent had been able to even play act a relationship with the woman, given all this. "I think that Quen's smart and strong. He's not going down easy, and no way is he letting anything happen to Ray or Lucy," I said firmly. I had plenty of doubts and fears, but those weren't what Trent needed to hear right now. "And if he thinks to let Ivy and Jenks know what's going on, he won't be alone. I know they'll help if they can, Trent. We're going to find a way back and set things right. But we can't borrow trouble. We need to focus on our situation here and now so we can get back to them."

"I know," Trent whispered, still staring out the window. "I know that. I'm trying, Rachel. I never intended to burden you with all this, but if I don't make it back, I need you to -"

"No," I cut him off sharply. "You are making it back if I have to drag your stupid elf ass the whole way, are we clear? And while we're at it, you're not burdening me for God's sake. I'm a big girl, Trent, I can handle the truth a whole lot better than running around blindly not knowing what you're doing or when to expect the next 90 degree turn. You don't have to manage me and I sure as hell wish you'd stop trying."

Trent frowned. "Rachel ..."

"And yes, okay? You don't need to ask. I'd do anything for Lucy and Ray, all right? Anything." I meant it. My god children had become intensely precious to me over the past year or so.

Trent's body relaxed just slightly and I guessed he believed me. A moment later it tensed back up again, however, his attention suddenly fixed out the windshield. "Rachel!"

I didn't need his shout of warning, I'd seen it too. There was a man standing in the middle of the road directly ahead of us. I swear he hadn't been there a moment ago. We were too close and going too fast to stop in time. I reflexively jerked the wheel to the side, pumping the breaks and sending us careening off the road. I knew something was wrong about this, I knew that man had stood much too still and appeared much too fast, but I couldn't stop the instinct to avoid hitting him. Thankfully the road wasn't on much of an incline here and we simply ploughed into the rough, fallow farm field on our right.

The car lurched and bumped wildly over the earth before finally jolting to a halt some thirty yards from the road. Apparently the strain had been too much for the ancient and barely functional vehicle because the engine sputtered and cut out as we stopped. I turned the car off and then turned it back on again, hoping to get it restarted. The engine did cough back to life, but at the same moment the window beside me exploded into a thousand glittering fragments.

I yelped, jerking in surprise as the shower of safety glass flew into my face and a strong hand grabbed me by the hair. Before I could register what was happening, my seatbelt had been ripped away and I was being forcefully dragged out of the car through the window by a painfully rough grip on my hair and arm. The person responsible was inhumanly strong and fast.

My body slid free of the car and hit the ground with a thud. My scalp screamed as my hair was nearly torn out by the tight grip and rough handling. "Ow, ow, ow!" I half yelped, half growled. I twisted sharply, kicking blindly at person holding me. Somewhat to my surprise the blow actually landed and the hand in my hair released, perhaps more in surprise than actual pain.

I threw myself away from him. Stumbling and rolling on the rough, overturned earth, I found myself looking up at an entirely unfamiliar face as I rapidly crab-crawled backwards, the ploughed, frozen earth cutting into my palms. The sleeves of the oversized shirt I was wearing slid all the way back to my elbows, tangling and slowing my progress. Somewhere behind me, I heard the car door opening and shutting, Trent scrambling to get out.

"Don't fight and we won't have to hurt you," the stranger looking down at me threatened. "We just want to talk."

I saw at least three other unfamiliar men surrounding us. I may not recognize any of them, but something about the person speaking to me was familiar. His eyes weren't black right now, but it only took a moment for it to click. "You're one of the demons from the basement," I accused, trying to decide if they'd all jump me if I got up off the ground and if I could take them if they did. Probably not.

"You got back out of hell awful fast, and you brought more friends, how nice," I added sarcastically, buying time to try and order my thoughts and options.

"Trust me, that's not nearly as hard as it used to be and we have our ways. We're not the only ones ... dissatisfied with the current management," the man said with a sneering smile, as if I had any idea what he was talking about. He flicked his hand casually to the side. I heard a thunk and a soft, strangled sound. My gaze jerked back towards the car to find Trent pinned against it, struggling against the invisible force of the demon's will and looking incredibly pissed.

"Let him go!" I growled angrily.

The demon looked amused. "Hmmm... no. You need to hear us out. We can be good for each other, sister."

"Will you cut that out? I am not your sister!" I informed him hotly.

"Oh come now, the Winchesters are out of the way, it's just us here, let's cut the games, shall we?" the demon smiled tightly at me. He crouched down, regarding me curiously. "Although ... I'll grant that you may truly not understand what you are yet. The hunters certainly didn't or you'd be dead. Poor thing, raised like a human, were you? But you're rather special, my dear. We can teach you things, teach you how to become more powerful than you can imagine," he promised, switching honey for vinegar now.

I gave him a flat look, wondering what exactly his game was. "I don't think so. Already got a mentor, and he doesn't exactly like to share. So thanks, but no thanks."

I started to get up, but he stopped me, hand clamping onto my bared forearm. I felt the prickle of magic against my skin. "I don't think you understand," he said smoothly. "I'm asking nicely because this will be so much simpler if you cooperate willingly. Do the smart thing, and you could benefit immeasurably. If you don't ..." His smile was lascivious and cruel, reminding me of the horror's I'd seen in Aindrea's mind. "It won't change the outcome. You'll break eventually and we'll get what we want either way, but you don't want to take that road, my dear, trust me, you don't."

My heart was racing, but I scowled at him. "Well aren't you terribly sure of yourself. You all seem plenty powerful on your own, so, for the sake of argument ... what exactly is it that you're so all fired up to get little old me to do for you?"

I couched the question in such a way that he'd hopefully think I was considering his offer and be inclined to keep talking. I really did want to know why in the blazes they were after me, but I was even more interested in keeping him right where he was for as long as possible. He was still gripping my arm and had yet to realize that I was slowly, carefully siphoning power from him. From Aindrea, I'd learned that I could leach their energy through contact and now I was finding that apparently, even just contact with their host was enough. Probably because the human host bodies were not physically capable of absorbing the energy flowing through them and therefore it all ran along the surface.

"A good question, but perhaps, one for another time," the demon told me. "Suffice it to say that there's a locked door none of us can open, and I think maybe you can. If you are what I think you are. We still haven't entirely established that, darling," he added as if not wanting me to get the idea that I held any kind of real power in this situation. He leaned close, his lips brushing my ear in a decidedly menacing fashion. "You better pray you are ... I don't like to be disappointed, and I can think of many other, lovely uses for you."

"Oh yeah?" I reached up with my free hand, letting it tangle in his hair as I pressed my cheek and neck against his. The action surprised the demon, but also predictably appealed to his ego and amusement. He nuzzled closer into me instead of pulling away, just as I'd hoped. He pressed his mouth to my neck and I fought the instinctive revulsion crawling through me, focusing instead on the multiple points of contact through which I was now drawing his power. In a moment I was sure he'd notice, so the time for action had come.

"Well, I can think of a few for you too, buddy," I murmured viciously. Digging in with my fingers, I dropped all pretense of subtly and drew hard upon his connection, power rushing into me.

The demon was much physically stronger than I was and he immediately jerked backwards with a cry of surprise and rage, breaking the connection violently, but that didn't matter. I'd gotten what I needed.

I rolled sharply sideways, towards the car. In his moment of shock, the demon's grip on Trent faltered. The elf lurched forward unsteadily when his struggles suddenly met with no resistance. He tried to catch himself, but I grabbed his ankle brought him down to his knees even as I scrambled up onto mine, pressing against him so we were in as small an area as possible.

"Rhombus!" I cried, yanking an undrawn circle up around us both.

I was a little surprised that the demons didn't seem to understand what I'd done any more than the ghouls or Winchesters had, but they figured out pretty quickly that they couldn't get to us through the bubble and boy were they pissed. As entertaining as that may be, we were more than a little screwed and I knew it.

"Okay, what now?" Trent murmured to me, frowning grimly as the demons exerted their powers trying to knock out the bubble. They seemed to think that cracking or disturbing the ground around us might break the circle, but of course it wouldn't, not with this spell.

"Working on it," I mumbled tersely, attempting to do just that. The problem was, while a circle could keep us safe in the short term and buy us some time, it also trapped us right where we were. I couldn't hold it indefinitely, especially when I was only working off that one jolt of juice I'd gotten from the demon and I was definitely not pulling anything from Trent. This close to him, I was becoming increasingly aware of just how labored his breathing was. "You got any ideas?"

Trent smiled wanly at me. "None that have a very high possibility of success, or that you're going to like," he said honestly.

I frowned, pretty sure that the "ones I wouldn't like" involved him having to use magic to create a diversion while we made a break for it. Even he seemed to realize that it would be a wasted effort, though. We were in no condition or position to either fight or outrun these demons.

"Yeaaah, let's keep those on the shelf then," I said dryly. "And don't you dare go pulling any more little surprises on me."

Trent smiled apologetically this time, his body shuddering slightly with the effort of breathing. "Sorry, I don't think I can," he admitted quietly.

On his knees facing me, Trent was unconsciously hugging his middle as if it hurt and there was blood trickling from both his nose and mouth again. Either the effects of what he'd done earlier were finally sinking in fully, or the demon had done additional damage when he'd pinned Trent. Maybe both.

I didn't like the way he was favoring his ribs. When he grimaced involuntarily and curled a little further forward, my concern won out. I reached down, pulling Trent's shirt up a bit to be sure he didn't have any actual injuries he was hiding. I froze, sucking in a harsh, horrified breath. Trent's flesh was unbroken, but the normally tanned skin of his abdomen was darkening to purple with the horrible, tell-tale signs of severe internal bleeding. Oh my God. This was beyond bad.

Trent pushed his shirt back down, gently pushing my hands away. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand again and wouldn't meet my eyes. "I'm all right," he whispered.

I shook my head, swallowing hard. "No, you're not."

His shoulders slumped slightly, silently admitting the truth. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I really thought I could do this."

I gripped his hands and squeezed them tightly. "You can," I assured firmly. "We are not out of this fight yet, not by a long shot." Desperately, I tried to come up with something that would make my words more than empty promises.

Outside, the demons seem to be coming to the conclusion that they may just need to wait us out or come up with some kind of other plan, although they were still raging at us and threatening, in graphic detail, all the very nasty things they were going to do to us when they got us out if we didn't drop the bubble right away. Right, because that's an incentive to let you get your hands on us, sure.

Trent squeezed my hands back, meeting and holding my gaze. "Rachel," he whispered seriously. "Try not to take this the wrong way, all right?" There was something soft and strong and frightening in his eyes. "You wanted me to speak truth to you, well here's the truth I see right now: only one of us has a real chance of getting out of this, and it isn't me. I'm not okay with that, believe me, I'm not. But my own choices got me here and it's simply the way things are. If it turns out I'm not going to walk away from this, then I damn well want it to mean something. You are smart, and strong and very hard to kill, Rachel Morgan. I know you can make it, and I know you'll do the right thing by my family."

My throat closed off and I felt like I was choking. "Trent, no. No way." My chi was emptying slowly. The circle was small, but undrawn and the demons were throwing a lot against it. I could hold it for a while yet, but I knew an end would come, and probably sooner than I liked.

"I know. You're not ready yet," Trent murmured. "I'm not either. I'm not giving up, Rachel. That's what I meant about not taking this the wrong way. If there's an opportunity to fight I will fight like hell. There's time yet, we can wait. Maybe there will be some new development we can use. I very much hope so. But ... I'm just saying that if that doesn't happen, then before the bubble falls, I want you to take as much as you can." He squeezed my hands tighter, his eyes both determined and haunted. "I'll provide as much of a diversion as I'm able, and you run like hell." He clearly didn't want to die, but his logical brain was telling him there were no other feasible conclusions to this situation unless something changed.

I was damn well determined that something was just going to have to change before I went down that path but I realized that Trent was trying to do what I'd asked of him earlier. He was making his fall back plan and was trying to include me in his thought and decision process, even if he thought it was literally the last thing he might do.

"Okay, I understand," I whispered back. "But I need you to understand that leaving you behind is not on my to do list today, okay? We will find another way, you'll see."

Trent smiled at me. He reached up and caressed my cheek, brushing my tangled hair back behind my ear. "You always hope, Rachel. I love that about you," he admitted. "Even more so because somehow you make me believe you, even when it's completely irrational." Trent leaned forward and kissed me very softly on the lips.

I was too surprised to move for a moment, then I didn't want to move. Against reason, I let myself kiss him back. Trent's lips were warm and soft. He tasted like blood and cinnamon wine and desperate determination. The demons were jeering at us and making nasty remarks, but I ignored them. Who gave a crap what they thought? The kiss was gentle and light, almost chaste ... but not quite. I knew Trent was saying goodbye, but I wasn't. I most definitely wasn't.

"That's because I'm usually right," I murmured back when we broke apart. "And I am this time too. I'd say the situation is just about to change." I smiled at Trent and squeezed his hands again, with more confidence this time.

He looked at me quizzically. "How do you ..." then he stopped because he'd heard the same thing I had. The faint, but deep purr of a familiar engine. The elf grinned wryly and shook his head. "I suppose sometimes I don't mind you being right."

We weren't that far off the road. The casual passerby might assume there'd been an accident and we were all just huddled around, looking at the car or something, but someone looking for us would have no trouble spotting us. Sure enough, a familiar long black car skidded to a halt not far away a moment later, quickly disgorging its occupants.

To say that the demons were not pleased was an understatement. One of them stayed to watch Trent and I while the other three turned to face the incoming hunters.

God bless the Winchesters for being a whole lot faster and smarter than we'd credited them. They were nowhere near as far behind us as we'd thought and our little direction change didn't seem to have thrown them at all. Since I only saw the two brothers and not their older companion, I guessed that they had simply split up at the crossroads in order to cover more ground. While that would have been a very bad thing if we'd still been on the run, at the moment it was exactly the opposite.

The hunters may very well want to kill us as much as the demons did by now, but at the moment they couldn't and they would almost certainly go after the other demons first. Things could still go very wrong, but at least the stalemate was broken. There was hope in chaos.

I looked around quickly, scouting for a plan of action. There was a nice, fist sized rock a few feet away, just outside the bubble. It would do nicely.

Wary of the demon still watching us and waiting to pounce, I couldn't risk dropping the bubble yet. Across the field, I saw the hunters and demons tangle in a furious, snarling knot of combat. It hardly seemed fair. The demons were so much stronger. Even so, Dean and Sam were remarkably good at holding their own. The odds weren't with them though. As Trent had said earlier, they were both still injured from the earlier fight and it showed. I probably had no business worrying about them, but I did. Despite all the mistrust and suspicion earlier, I realized it would pierce me down to my core if those men died because of us.

"We should make our move soon," Trent whispered in my ear. I nodded, turning to him. He must have seen something in my face because his expression turned incredulous, then simply weary. "... and you're not going to just run, are you?" he murmured in resignation.

I bit my lower lip. Dragging Trent into the battles I chose to fight was well on its way to getting him killed. I couldn't do that to him again, but neither could I walk away from my own conscience.

"I can't, Trent," I whispered softly, feeling truly torn. "They're beat to hell, and only here because of us. I can't just do nothing ... I -"

Trent stopped me with two fingers on my lips. He shook his head. "I know," he murmured. "I know you can't. I understand now." He gave me a soft smile that was strangely as warm as it was resigned. "That's just not who you are."

I swallowed, stunned by the unexpected acceptance and lack of resistance. "Oh. Well ... good. But just because I'm gonna be an idiot doesn't mean you get to be. So you are going to get out of here, okay?"

His eyes narrowed and I shook my head urgently. "I'm serious, Trent," I nodded down at where his shirt hid the frightening evidence of how poorly he was faring. "You're all about the practical, right? Well logic this - you're going to die if you exert yourself again." I wasn't so sure he wasn't already past the point of safe return, but I was trying hard not to think about that. "You need medical attention, bad. So here's what we're going to do," my whisper was low, keeping it from the ears of our distracted guard who was dividing his attention between us and the ongoing fight. "I'm going to drop the circle and tackle that guy. I want you to grab that rock," I nodded towards the stone in question. "And keep hitting him in the head with it until I've sucked enough juice out of him to put him down more permanently. Then you are going to get in the car and get the hell out of here. Get to a hospital Trent, I don't care if they find out what you are, it's better than you being dead. I'll come find you, I promise."

Trent looked quite unhappy with this plan, but we were running out of time. Taking a page from his playbook, I simply put it into motion before he had time to object. Dropping the circle, I lunged the distracted demon and we both tumbled to the ground. To his credit, Trent got with the program fast. Despite his injuries, he had the rock in hand and was pounding the man's skull viciously barely instants after we hit the ground.

As I'd hoped, the assault kept the demon from regrouping fast enough to physically or mentally throw me off as I knelt on his arms and grabbed the sides of his neck, drawing power from him as fast and as hard as I could. Despite all that, he bucked and struggled powerfully, finally managing to throw me backwards, off of him. He reared up to his knees. Reacting quickly, I hit him square in the chest with a curse, kindled from his own magic. I used the same curse that Aindrea had thrown at Sam earlier, finally understanding why she'd intended it for me, a fellow demon, in the first place. Because it destroyed aura, the curse was particularly nasty against beings who were pretty much nothing but aura. I didn't think it would kill the demon, but it did seem to disrupt his ability to control his host, at least temporarily. The man thrashed and floundered on the ground in sluggish disorientation. I hit him with it again, and he fell still. I had just a moment to kneel down and pull one last draught of energy from him before a shout alerted me that the other demons had realized what we'd done.

"Go, go now!" I shouted at Trent, hoping he would obey as I jumped up and ran towards the others, wanting both to get closer to the hunters and to keep the fighting as far away from Trent as possible. Half a dozen yards away, one of the demons clipped Dean viciously in the stomach, taking him down. My suspicion that the hunter had sustained broken ribs earlier was more or less confirmed by the way he rolled onto his side, struggling urgently to get around the pain but physically unable to push through it fast enough to keep from being vulnerable. Sam was too far away to do anything, locked in struggle with the other two demons.

"Edo essum!" I shouted, conjuring the same curse that had had good results a few moments ago and flinging it at the demon about to crush Dean's skull in with his boot. The demon stumbled back with a cry. Moving faster than I thought he should have been able to under the circumstances, Dean dragged himself up and was on the convulsing demon before he could recover, nailing him with that demon-killing knife of his. His shoulders heaving either with effort or a need for air, the hunter's gaze flicked up to me as he pushed himself up. I saw a hint of surprise or confusion in his eyes at my actions, then his gaze focused just behind me and his body tensed. "Rachel, behind you!"

The warning in his eyes had already been enough to have me spinning around even before he got the words out. Crap on toast. The demon I'd spelled before was up again and right behind me. Why the hell did they have to be so hard to take out of commission?! This sucked. He didn't look good though. His motions were jerky and violent, like a malfunctioning automaton. I ducked away from his awkward lunge and jammed my elbow hard into his back as he stumbled past. He spun and before I knew what hit me I was flying through the air. It was clearly no natural blow since I must have sailed a good forty yards at the least. Feeling like I was somehow falling horizontally, I crashed backwards through a small windbreak of trees that cut across the field before finally slamming into the earth with a breath stealing crunch.

For a moment all I could do was breathe. My body ached fiercely and as I rolled groggily to my hands and knees I was truly surprised that nothing was broken. The thin tree branches had cut through my shirt and jeans and blood seeped sluggishly from half a dozen lacerations on my arms and legs. Now on the other side of the tree break from the others, I couldn't see the Winchesters or the other demons from here, but I wasn't about to assume that that meant I was at all safe. Feeling like absolute crap, I staggered upright only to find my assumption correct. My attacker was already on me again. The demon caught my arm in a vice-like grip, squeezing so hard that he was sure to break my bones in a minute. He was snarling ugly, hateful things that my brain was moving to slow to even process.

Yelling in pain, I thrust another curse at him and he fell away, fire racing over his body. Apparently it was finally too much because the demon fled the burning flesh in a rush of smoke and disappeared. I quickly ran the counter curse to stop the damage, but I knew it was too late. The body left behind was already dead. Because of me? Because of the demon? I didn't know. I felt deeply sick about the innocent host who had been caught in the middle of all this, but there was simply nothing I could think of that I could have done to save him. It was terrible of me, but I hoped for his sake that whoever this man had been, he'd not been aware of anything that had happened once he was possessed and that he had now gone peacefully to his rest. I felt a new swell of fury for these monsters who indiscriminately used and destroyed lives with so little care.

Behind me, from the other side of the trees I heard a short, blood curdling scream that cut off abruptly. Then another. Still reeling from my recent tumble I blinked to try to clear my head as I whipped around, intending to head back and find out what was happening.

I turned straight into the body of a man who I was certain hadn't been there a moment ago. I nearly collided with him. My boots slipped and fumbled on the uneven ground as I tried to back away without losing my balance. I immediately threw a quick fist – elbow combo jab at the newcomer in an effort to buy a little space and time, but he deflected me easily. I didn't recognize him. He wasn't one of the demons who had stopped us and my heart sank at the thought of more reinforcements showing up. He made a move and I side-stepped only to feel his hand close around the collar of my shirt, jerking me towards him. Damn, he was fast! I could feel a distinct hum of power in the man's movements and proximity that belied his normal looking outward appearance. Something was off, though, he didn't smell of sulfur. He smelled like frankincense and crisp autumn air and felt different from the other demons. He felt more dangerous.

I brought my hand up, dripping with the last of the magic I had spindled. Shoving it square into his chest, I wrenched myself sideways at the same time. I nearly lost my footing when he did not let go as I'd expected. Granted, it hadn't been the most powerful attack, but it should have at least knocked him backwards. Instead, it seemed to have no effect at all as the dark haired stranger absorbed both my blast of magic and my struggles without a flinch. I felt myself go cold.

The man inclined his head to the side, glancing down between my hand, still on his chest, and my face as if he found something about me or my attack curious. His hand on my collar shifted to my shoulder. His grip was very strong. I was too close to him to have enough room to get a good swing going, but that didn't stop me from trying. I thrashed in the tight space, punching and hitting at him in an effort to push him away. My fingers clawed ineffectually at the thick, tan fabric of the trench coat under my hand and I made a grab for the loose tie he was wearing as his free hand came up towards me.

I braced myself for the expected blow, but he didn't strike me. Instead, he pressed his palm almost gently against my forehead ... and the world exploded. I gasped in agony as energy flooded my mind. It was like the first time Al had shoved a line into me, only worse. I fell to my knees, screaming in pain as I madly, desperately tried to contain and control the energy flowing into me. I sucked it into my empty chi, spindling it as fast as I could to keep it from burning out my synapses and shredding my mind. This man was probably the cause of the cries from a moment ago, but I didn't have much time to think about that or worry for the others because it was all I could do to not pass out.

Al couldn't hurt me this badly anymore, because once trained, female demons could handle more energy than male demons could - in my world anyway. That ability was currently enabling me to survive, but I wasn't sure for how long. I did not know who or what the man in the trench coat was, but he wasn't a demon and he could apparently hold a whole hell of a lot more energy than I could.

I wanted to fight, to break away, but I was paralyzed by the energy streaming into me. I wasn't going to walk away from this. Oh God, I wasn't going to walk away from this. Through streaming eyes, I saw the man who would be my killer regarding me with piercingly blue eyes and an intent expression that was quickly becoming colored by a hint of either surprise or confusion. It looked like he hadn't expected me to be able to spindle his energy like this. He gripped my forehead a little tighter and I screamed again as the flow increased.

Chapter Text

"Cass! No!" I heard Sam's urgent voice in the distance, just audible over the roaring in my ears. I wasn't sure who he was talking to, but some part of me was glad to at least know that he hadn't been one of those screams I'd heard before. I felt like I was sinking into a sea of light. It was beautiful and terrifying and I had almost hit my limit, the excess energy beginning to burn through me when I couldn't spindle fast enough any longer.

Then I saw Trent over my assailant's shoulder. The blessed, stupid elf hadn't run. His much too pale face was set with cold anger and a ball of green magic was burning in his hand. "Let her go!" he shouted as he slammed the spell into my attacker. The magic detached from Trent and transferred to his target at the elf's touch. Trapped in place, gazing at the man holding me, I saw familiar green tendrils spread out and spark across his skin. I recognized Trent's elven magic-eating curse.

I'd seen demons dropped by less, but the man in the trench coat was still standing. He'd felt this one, though. His gaze jerked to Trent, his serious expression registering a flicker of both surprise and pain. His brows furrowed as if in concentration and his eyes became even more piercingly blue - glowing almost. The spreading green tendrils of the spell paused, then began shrinking and dissipating, either stopped by a silent counter-spell or perhaps simply not up to the task of penetrating the man's formidable defenses. But at least he'd registered the hit and as his attention shifted to Trent and countering his attack, I felt the paralysis leave my body enough to enable me to throw myself sideways, away from the touch that was killing me.

I hit the ground and ended up sprawled on my side. Gasping for breath, I tried to get my arms under me, but I felt as strong and coordinated as a wet noodle. From where I lay, I saw a long, thin, stake-like blade flick into existence in trench coat man's hand. It was an unusual looking weapon, but he held it like he knew how to use it. "Trent ...!" I wheezed, wanting to tell him to run. Having tasted the man's power, I didn't think this was a battle we could win and the elf was already in a bad way. He shouldn't have been using magic at all, crap, crap, crap!

I heard the crunching rustle of someone running through the thin stand of trees behind me. I think both Winchesters were shouting from varying degrees of nearness, but my ears were ringing and I couldn't separate the sounds or hear very clearly over the rapid pounding of my own heart as it throbbed in my temples. The power I'd spindled from the man in the trench coat was burning in my brain, hurting like clutching a piping hot mug without a drink sleeve. I couldn't hold onto it. As much as I wanted to try to use it to fight, I was instead forced to release the power in a painful rush, flushing it out before it could do me damage.

Trent seemed aware of the seriousness of the situation, but I could tell he had no intention of fleeing. The damn cookie maker looked half an inch from passing out, but he already had another ball of green in hand, gaze warily tracking his opponent's blade. His arm was cocked and ready to deliver, when Dean arrived.

"Damn it, stop!" the hunter shouted and I gasped as he threw himself bodily between Trent and the stranger. He placed a staying hand on trench coat man's chest and grabbed Trent's wrist, heedlessly pushing the two very dangerous men apart like they were children squabbling on a playground.

Whether they liked it or not, I knew the Winchesters still needed us alive, but I could have sworn Dean was trying to protect the newcomer as much as he was trying to protect Trent.

To my surprise, the man in the trench coat stood down almost immediately at Dean's command, the blade in his hand quickly lowering when the hunter got in front of it. Trent wasn't able to react quite so quickly. I knew from having been in Trent's mental spell book that once this kind of magic was kindled it had to find a target or it would turn painfully upon the one who had conjured it. Despite that, I saw the elf instinctively try to abort and yank the spell back when Dean got in the way. It scared me, because I didn't think Trent could survive taking his own curse in his current condition. In the end, it didn't matter because his attempt came too late. The spell had already crested and when Dean grabbed Trent's wrist he unwittingly provided it with the contact it needed to transfer. The curse detached, latching onto Dean like an angry horde of sparkling green snakes slithering up his arm.

Dean started and swore, releasing both men and shaking his arm urgently as the sinister looking sparkles spread rapidly outward. "Son of a bitch!" He ripped his jacket off as if it was on fire. When that did nothing to get the magic off of him he swatted at the dancing lights on his arms and chest like they were bugs. He was clearly unsettled and alarmed but the fact that he wasn't on the floor gasping in agony was a good sign, or so I hoped.

"Dean," trench coat man's voice wasn't emphatic enough for me to classify it as alarmed, but he did look worried ... and he knew Dean's name. I was suddenly getting the feeling that this altercation had been a giant screw up.

"Dean!" Sam's voice on the other hand, was distinctly alarmed as he came rushing onto the scene a moment later, making a beeline straight for his brother. He grabbed Dean's shoulders to still his brother's frantic movements and splashed him with water from his silver flask as if either trying to put out a fire or possibly counter the spell. It wasn't a bad idea, although it would have been a better one if he were using salt water and if it had been an earth spell.

"What did you do?!" he demanded of Trent, still gripping his brother worriedly. The sparkling was already beginning to dissipate. The spell had run its course, thankfully not appearing to have left Dean very much worse for the wear.

Trent was a different story. He was down on one knee, struggling for breath he couldn't seem to find. He looked up at Sam and Dean and shook his head. "He's fine," he managed to get out. "The spell disrupts one's ability to use magic. Your brother is not a magic user, therefore it did him no harm." Despite the obvious effort it was taking to speak, the elf's words still carried an air of cool, almost arrogant authority, as if he'd known that all along. I knew he hadn't. I'd seen him try to take the spell himself instead of hitting the wrong target. Apparently, Trent was just good at sounding like he knew everything.

I finally got my arms under me and leveraged myself up off the ground as quickly as I could manage.

"Yeah? Well, try to watch where you're aiming, buddy," Dean growled as he shook Sam off and picked up his jacket, still shaking tingles out of his arms. His tone was annoyed, but not actually threatening and that was a bit of a surprise. I had a feeling that he would have had a much more severe reaction to having been hit with any kind of magic under other circumstances. It was obvious to everyone that Trent was doing very poorly and the hunter appeared inclined to take that into account.

"I wasn't aiming for you. You got in the way," Trent retorted icily, bowing his head as he rested his arms on his bent knee and coughed silently.

I picked my way over carefully and crouched beside him, placing a gentle, worried hand on his back. His coughs were wet and Trent's body was trembling despite his facade of control. I bit the inside of my lip, feeling sick all the way to my toes. He shouldn't have used magic again, much less such a powerful spell. Guilt throbbed in my heart like a dull, crippling ache. You shouldn't have done it, Trent. Not for me. Not when you knew what it might cost. I didn't understand how Trent could be so practical one moment and so reckless the next.

Dean's expression continued to hover somewhere between irritated and concerned. He clearly wasn't sure what was and wasn't normal for Trent and I, and whether he should be worried about the elf's condition or not. "You were going after Cass," he half explained, half accused instead, jerking his head towards the man in the trench coat who was still standing silently a few feet away.

Trent's head came back up, his expression hardening. "He was trying to kill Rachel."

Dean huffed incredulously.

"Um ... he kind of was, Dean," Sam put in as if to keep the argument from escalating. "I saw them through the trees, after Cass zapped the other two. I think there was a misunderstanding." Sam's gaze switched to me. "Are you okay?"

"Peachy," I said with a grimace. My voice came out hoarser than I expected as I found it curiously difficult to make it work properly. "I love having someone try to flambé my head from the inside out." I rubbed soothing little circles against Trent's back while glaring at them.

Dean's gaze flicked to me before it turned questioningly on the man apparently called Cass.

Cass was looking at me curiously again. He seemed largely un-phased by everything transpiring around him. He appeared neither apologetic nor defensive when his attention shifted back to Dean. "She has the appearance of an abomination," he said in a matter-of-fact tone. "Albeit, a strange one. I did not realize you wished her spared."

The insulted jolt of anger that speared through me went a long way towards burning off some of weakness I was feeling.

"Excuse me?!" I snapped, my free hand clenching into a fist at my side. My tone dripped acid as I glared at this man who I had never met before and yet somehow decided he had a right to start calling me names after trying to kill someone he didn't even know. "And just who are you, to go about making decisions like that, jackass?"

The man in the trench coat looked at me steadily, not reacting to my tone or anger. His dark hair was short and a light dusting of stubble brushed his chin. His blue eyes were curiously intense. "I am Castiel, an angel of the Lord," he said simply, as if that explained everything.

Whatever I'd been expecting, that wasn't it. I glanced towards Sam and Dean but the Winchesters seemed unperturbed by both my anger and Cass or Castiel's unusual pronouncement. I gave a startled snort of incredulous laughter. "W-what? Is that supposed to be a joke?" I demanded, getting a strange, uneasy feeling that bordered on both awe and fear, because looking into the strange man's eyes, it didn't feel like a joke.

"No," Castiel said evenly. "I have been told my jokes are not funny to humans." He said it sincerely and without a trace of irony.

I leveled a flat glare at the two Winchesters. "Is he for real?"

Sam shrugged a nod and Dean grinned. "Oh yeah, Cass is the real thing. Bona fide dick with wings," the insult was said with a certain fondness that took all bite out of it. Dean's mood seemed a bit improved from earlier and I wondered if that was because they'd won the fight, or because the angel was here. Considering the low regard with which the brothers seemed to hold everything supernatural, it was a little surprising to find them so comfortable around this obviously not human being.

Castiel gave Dean a look that was either long suffering or faintly amused. At least it proved that he did do some expression other than blank and terrifyingly intense.

An angel?! I was still trying to wrap my head around that and I realized I was staring at him like an idiot, although it did not appear to be making him uncomfortable. Maybe he was used to it, or maybe he just didn't care.

"I didn't know that angels existed. Not ... well, like that, anyway," Trent murmured beside me, voicing my thoughts.

"Yeah, you live and learn, right?" Dean was rubbing his ribs again. His face was battered and bleeding. Sam had a blossoming black eye and didn't look much better. They both looked about as rotten as I felt, so when Dean's expression shifted back to flat irritation as his gaze fixed on us I could kind of understand where he was coming from. "Although sometimes the learn part doesn't come fast enough to enable the live part. Are you two freaking nuts running off like that?! What part of demons might be after you did you not understand? Oh, and Bobby is not happy about what you did to the panic room. What were you thinking?"

I frowned up at him, surprised that he honestly didn't seem to understand why we'd run. "We were thinking that you were going to kill us as soon as you didn't need us anymore," I said, opting for honesty. "Look, the truth is I like you, I want to think you're the good guys, but we've been watching you two drop bodies ever since we met you. You carted us across four states and locked us in a cell, Dean. One that was practically suffocating Trent. What did you expect us to do?" My tone was flat with incredulity. "We were afraid okay? You kind of scare the crap out of us!"

It was almost amusing how much that notion seemed to set Dean back on his heels. I had a sudden feeling that they hadn't quite seen the situation in the same manner that we did and that their idea of normal behavior must be hopelessly skewed.

Sam rubbed the back of his neck and shook his head with a regretful little grin. "Yeah... I guess from your perspective we're the boogey men, huh?" he was joking, but his tone wasn't light.

I shook my head. "No. I get what you're doing, I do. You protect people, and I respect that. We were just afraid that you may not understand that not everyone who isn't human is out to hurt or kill people. We're not your enemies, we're not," I said earnestly.

The hunters were hard to read, but whether or not they believed the principle of the thing, I think they did believe that I believed it and meant what I said. I hoped so, anyway.

Dean nodded slowly. "Okay. Okay, look, this is all kind of a mess, but we'll figure it out." Rubbing his face wearily, he turned back to the angel. "Speaking of messes ... Cass, man, we've just about given up calling you because you never answer, now you pop up to help gank a few demons? What's up? Where you been?" the older hunter inquired, as if it were perfectly normal to grill an angel on his whereabouts.

Beside me, Trent shifted to both knees, settling wearily on his heels and hugging himself again. I wrapped my arm around his shoulders, silently praying that he would be okay, that we could get through this. I looked up and found Castiel's intense blue gaze on me. There was something vaguely unnerving about it, like he knew what I'd just been thinking. The strange feeling only lasted for a moment, however, because his gaze almost immediately turned back to Dean.

The angel's expression shifted just enough that I would consider it weary, his shoulders slumping slightly. "You know where I've been Dean. The war in heaven continues to go poorly. I'm here because certain sources informed me that the Winchesters were in possession of a one-faced demon, and that a group of renegades had escaped hell without leave, seeking this demon for reasons I could not ignore. Obviously, they must have been referring to her," he nodded at me.

I realized everyone was looking at me again and resisted the urge to sigh. Oh joy.

"One-faced demon?" Sam asked in curious confusion. "What does that mean?"

"And why the hell are they so hot for her?" Dean added.

Aindrea too had commented on me having only one face, and by now I was beginning to get a pretty good idea of what they meant. Castiel confirmed my suspicion.

"Demons possessing humans have two faces. Their true face and that of their host. Humans can only see the host, but most of the rest of us can see their true faces. This woman has only one face, meaning her body is the one she was born with and belongs only to her. They want her because they believe she is a cambion, a rare half-demon born from a possessed mother, imbued with both demon powers and a human soul."

That sounded like a lot of weird to me, but Dean and Sam reacted with a level of surprise and alarm that told me they didn't like the idea at all.

"No way, you're kidding me!" Dean said, frowning. "You're telling me she's like that Jesse kid? He turned you into a freaking action figure, man. I don't think she's anything near that powerful."

"He was only that strong because Lucifer was on earth at the time," Sam pointed out. "Cambion aren't that strong otherwise, right?" he glanced at Castiel for confirmation.

"As far as I'm aware, that is correct," Castiel concurred.

"So then why do the other demons care? And what's with this "renegade" business?" Dean pressed. "What the hell are "renegade" demons? Sounds like the name of a biker gang."

I was following about one tenth of this conversation and the rest of it was going right over my head. I was tired and hurting so much it was hard to keep my head clear or focused, but that wasn't really the issue. I felt like I was missing out on too much history to make sense of everything they were saying, but I was following the main drift all right. I wasn't sure I liked it. I wasn't this cambion thing they were talking about, but I wondered if they'd believe me if I told them that. I absently rubbed Trent's shoulder as I held him, hoping this wasn't leading us all back into bad territory.

"They are renegades in the sense that they are at cross purpose with the majority of the current demon agenda," Castiel supplied. "They are after her because they believe it is possible that if brought within enough proximity, a cambion may be able to open Lucifer's cage." His statement was even and factual. The Winchesters' reactions were anything but.

"Whoa, what, and re-start the whole apocalypse over again?" Sam asked tensely, appearing both incredibly disturbed and angry about the idea.

"Yeah, how about a big no to that idea?" Dean said with terse sarcasm. "Been there, done that, bled all over the fucking tee shirt. So no thank you on the re-run. Seriously?!"

I was trying to decide if they meant a literal or figurative apocalypse. Considering they were talking about Lucifer like he was a person I had the wildly disturbing notion they were being literal. My body was throbbing, my cuts starting to burn. Exhaustion felt like a lead weight that was increasing in gravity as it pulled at me. This world was frightfully screwed up and bizarre. I ached to be home.

"You are not alone in that opinion," Castiel agreed. "Many of the other demons want her dead to prevent the possibility, which is likely why it was brought to my attention in the first place. No doubt they hoped I would take care of it for them. I'm already fighting a civil war in heaven trying to prevent a new apocalypse. If she really were a cambion, or even if they just think she is and word gets around, the angels will soon be after her as well, either to kill her or use her. My side would be the kill her side," he added parenthetically, as if for clarification.

Wow, was I ever not liking the sound of all this. "Well that sucks," I voiced my opinion, but no one seemed to care much what I thought.

"Wait, you said if she was a cambion, is she or isn't she?" Dean pressed.

Castiel gave me an appraising look, head tilting slightly to the side again as he appeared to do when he was thinking. "No, she's not, although I can see why they thought so. I had a similar misconception at first glance because of the darkness around her. Her soul is shrouded in black, but it is not black at its core. She can use demon power although her handling of it is quite curious. However, it is impossible for her to be a cambion because she could be touched by my grace and survive. She could in fact absorband contain it and no demon of any type can do that. Grace is anathema to them." His gaze on me was curious again. "How did you do that, by the way?"

I was still trying to absorb the fact that for some reason he was actually saying I wasn't a demon and it took me a moment to realize the last question was directed at me. "Um, I spindled it," I said as soon as my sluggish brain caught up. "It's like a pattern I create in my head that lets me store energy. I can usually handle a lot, but your magic is ... extra hot." I shrugged, too worn out to come up with a better way to put it. "I couldn't hold onto it for long," I admitted. I wasn't sure why I was being so honest with him, but maybe I was almost as curious about the whole thing as he was and there just didn't seem to be any point in lying. I had a feeling he'd know.

"Of course not," Castiel with a small, matter-of-fact nod. "Angels aside, all the creatures of creation will burn if subjected to enough grace, but that's very interesting." He returned his gaze to the Winchesters. "I don't know what she is, precisely," he concluded. "But she smells of Avalon, like her companion," he nodded at Trent. "I believe they are both some type of fae."

That surprised me more than a little. Trent, sure ... but I'd never had anyone consider me fae before. We didn't really use those terms, but my perception of what pre-Turn people would have considered fae were the races like elves, pixies, fairies, leprechauns and maybe even banshees, but certainly not witches or demons. I looked at Trent in surprise, but the elf's head was down. His weight had settled against me during the conversation and he was now leaning against my side, kept upright only by my body. I could still feel his labored breathing, but realized he'd been quiet for a long time now. My concern returned full force. "Trent?" I asked softly.

To my relief, Trent lifted his head sluggishly. He blinked unfocused eyes at me with a faint smile. "Yes, I heard, he considers us kin," he murmured hoarsely. "I think he's right, actually. From their perspective, at least. Funny, isn't it? The way distinctions that seem so divisive to some people can melt away to nothing from a different point of view." I agreed with the last sentiment, even if I didn't quite understand the rest of what he meant. Trent was clearly drifting and not entirely lucid.

"So, that means she couldn't really open the cage then?" Sam asked hopefully.

"Unfortunately, no," Castiel shook his head. "They are most likely still right about that possibility, even if they're wrong about the reasons why. The magic of Avalon is wild, unpredictable and very powerful and it is only accessible to the children of Avalon. The ones who are strong enough to be interesting are also powerful enough to protect themselves when they are outside their realm. It is why both demons and angels generally leave them alone - we do not interfere with them and they do not interfere with us." His gaze settled on Trent and I. "But these two are different. They cannot draw on threads of Avalon freely, which makes them vulnerable, yet they have the innate capability to do so which makes them dangerous. Their very existence creates a threat we cannot ignore. They should be removed from this world as swiftly as possible."

Dean and Sam exchanged troubled glances behind Castiel's back and I felt my stomach give a hard little lurch.

"H-hey! Wait a minute!" I protested, feeling angry, afraid and sad all at the same time. I didn't want to have to fight these people. I liked them, damn it! Not to mention that in our current conditions I put our chances at pretty much nil.

I felt Trent stiffen against me. He was barely able to breathe, but his cold hand slid silently into mine. My heart raced in anguish. This was a lose-lose situation and I knew it. There was nowhere for us to run, and Trent was too weak. He was already hemorrhaging internally, missing God knew what vital bits of himself that had been taken as sacrifice for our actions. If we had to fight again it wouldn't matter whether we won or lost. Either way, he would die. If he wasn't already dying.

I pulled my hand from his and wrapped my arm around his hunched shoulders instead, holding him protectively to me. I wasn't going to fight. I couldn't use Trent as a conduit again without killing him, and that wasn't going to happen, even if it meant we were both damned.

"I'm not opening any damn cage for them. Hell, I wouldn't open a pizza box for them. Come on, are you kidding me? I'd die before I start any freaking apocalypse!" I said harshly, battling tears. "Have we done anything other than try to help people since we met you?! It's not our fault they're after us! We just want to go home." I was too wrung out to deal with this crazy yo-yo ride of trust and betrayal anymore. The injuries I'd sustained were taking their toll. I felt sick both mentally and physically. My head was swimming and my eyes burning. Just because I could do terrible things didn't mean I would do them, but it seemed like no one ever believed that. It didn't matter how many times I risked my life trying to do the right thing, no one ever believed I could be anything but bad and dangerous. It was like the stupid elves back in the woods all over again. I was so sick of this shit I could cry.

Dean moved forward and I tensed instinctively. To my surprise, however, he moved to stand protectively in front of Trent and I. "Whoa, Cass, hang on. Not so quick with the smiting talk. If anything happens to them, Sam could die ... and Rachel's right, the big ol' hole in Bobby's panic room notwithstanding, they've pitched in on the right side of things when they didn't have to, more than once. There's gotta be some other options here."

"We can't kill people who haven't hurt anyone just because they might be used as weapons," Sam agreed. "If they're both fae, can't we just do like we were thinking before and send them back to Avalon? They'd be safe there, wouldn't they?"

Castiel cocked his head to the side with a puzzled, somewhat exasperated expression on his face. "You misunderstand me. I was not suggesting we kill them, although that would certainly be one solution. I meant they literally should not remain in this world. They're not from our Avalon, Sam," he said as if that should have been obvious. "They're not from our reality. They belong in a different reality, on a different earth, one that has followed a separate tangent from ours."

Sam and Dean's expressions became confused while I felt myself loosen with relief.

"Oh. Right," was all I could think to say. I'd have felt more stupid for jumping to conclusions if the Winchester's hadn't had the exact same misapprehension. I was starting to get the feeling that the angel came across the way he did simply because he wasn't terribly good at communicating in a human manner.

"Wait, wait, wait - a different reality?" Dean interjected incredulously, his questioning gaze on Castiel. "You mean they're from that place where we're TV actors? I thought that world didn't have any magic."

It was my turn to look totally confused as I tried to puzzle out that nonsensical statement. I was beginning to have to resign myself to the idea that there was a lot about this world and these people that I'd probably never know or fully understand.

"No, not that one," the angel corrected. "There are multiple realities out there, Dean - many beautiful and unique versions of earth created identical but allowed to follow their own separate paths."

"So ... you're saying God went Octomom with the creation mojo and we've been road tripping with a couple of Slider wannabes?" Dean summarized.

Castiel looked at Dean steadily. "I don't know what that means, but if you mean they are from one of the versions of earth which has evolved considerably different from our own, then yes," he said simply. "It's why they can't properly harness the magic of our Avalon and why they do not fit the rules of our world."

"You mean like how they can be fairies, but don't react to silver or anything like you'd expect?" Sam asked. I thought they were all taking the revelation rather in stride, but then, they saw a lot of weird on a daily basis. After only a few days with the Winchesters I was almost ready to think my life was tame by comparison, and that was saying something.

"Yes," Castiel confirmed. His gaze leveled on me. "They have evolved with different sets of weaknesses and strengths, and different terminology, I assume. That is why she thinks of herself as a demon, although I call her fae. It's an issue of semantics, really. Despite certain similarities, what they call demon is not the same as what we call demon, nor do they have the same origins. This is likely true of most of their non-human species."

I was more than a little startled that he seemed to have been able to pull that information right out of my head, not to mention that he'd figured out so much about what we were and where we were from in the, what, five minutes since we'd met him? Angel, I reminded myself with a little shiver.

"Our vampires sure are different," I agreed slowly, trying not to feel too unnerved.

"I wonder why that is? I mean, if all the earths started the same, how could they end up so different?" Sam said thoughtfully, obviously quite interested by this concept.

"I would speculate that there was some catastrophic event early in their history that involved their Avalon, such as it being destroyed or broken somehow," Castiel supplied, apparently not grasping the concept of a rhetorical question. "That would have caused significant changes to their earth in many ways. Rather than remaining apart from humanity, their fae races would have inter-mingled with humans and the other earth-bound supernaturals, irrevocably altering the evolution of all species on their planet." His almost unnervingly intense blue gaze turned back towards Trent and me. "Would you say that is accurate?"

I blinked at him. Despite all the recent talk, I still had no idea what Avalon was to them. It made think of a kind of Eden or something ... a broken Eden ... understanding lit suddenly through me. Apparently, it hit Trent about the same time. "The Ever After," I heard him murmur with a hint of surprise.

"Yeah, I guess you could say that," I replied slowly, the pieces starting to fit together in my mind in a surprisingly unexpected shape. "There was this big elf and demon war thousands of years ago. It broke a lot of things, including the Ever After, which could have been kind of like your Avalon, I guess. It certainly had a big impact on the way magic works in our world, anyway," I added, thinking about the ley lines.

"Plus, the elves and demons both cursed each other, wreaking havoc on their respective races genomes for countless generations," Trent added, his voice low, but audible. "Apparently, none of that happened here."

Castiel nodded as if all that was pretty much what he had suspected.

Dean just shook his head, looking restless and bored by all the theorizing. "Okay, so whydidn't you tell us this in the first place?" he wanted to know.

"Um... we didn't think you'd believe us?" I admitted. "We kind of tried back at the house. We told you we were thrown here by that failed assassination attempt and then you were talking about other dimensions and Avalon and we weren't sure if we were just using different words for the same thing or what ... that's sort of been happening a lot since we got here."

"Yeah, reality hopping is a bitch," Dean made a face that suggested personal experience, something that I found both odd, and curiously hopeful. If they had in fact been to other realities and returned... Hope surged raw and almost painful in my chest.

"But the good news is this is actually something we know how to do," Sam said, as if mirroring my thoughts. "I think I still remember the spell Balthazar used on us. We'll have to see if Bobby has any lambs' blood and lesser-saint bones on hand; then we can send them home the same way, right, Cass?"

"Partially correct," Castiel informed them. "The spell has to be worked by an angel in order to succeed."

"Well, good thing we got an angel, then." Dean clapped Castiel on the shoulder. "Come on, let's do it."

"Dean, it's not that easy." Castiel was looking tired again.

Dean frowned at him. "Why not? Balthazar blew us to Oz like it was nothing."

"Yes, because he didn't care where he was sending you. There's a targeting component involved. It's relatively easy to open a random portal to the nearest reality. It's much more difficult to open a portal to a specific reality, particularly without any knowledge of where to begin looking for it. There are literally millions of realities Dean, and it is not as if they have an indexing system."

"No multi-verse Google, huh?" Sam said wryly. Castiel just looked at him blankly, obviously not having a clue what he was talking about.

"Then how come I seem to recall that Raphael found the reality that Balthazar sent us to pretty damn quick?" Dean wanted to know.

"Once a portal has been opened, it creates a temporary scar in the ... " Castiel paused, gesturing vaguely and seeming at a loss for a word to adequately translate whatever concept he had in mind.

"Fabric of space time?" I offered helpfully. Trent's head had come to rest against my shoulder and I felt him snort softly against my neck, apparently amused that I was feeding sci-fi terminology to an angel.

"It encompasses much more than space and time, but that analogy is moderately accurate," Castiel inclined his head slightly. "Those scars can be used to trace recent connections between realities. That is how Raphael found you, and how Balthazar or I would have traced you down to retrieve you if he had not."

I was fascinated despite myself. I wondered if it was kind of like creating temporary ley lines.

"We have only been here a few days, can you not trace the scar we must have left on our inbound journey?" Trent asked, lifting his head and regarding the angel with as much focused intensity as he was capable of at the moment. His usually musical voice was so hoarse, it made me bite my lower lip. The discoveries and answers we were finally finding were all well and good, but I was getting anxious to hurry things along. If we couldn't go home right away, then I really, really needed to get Trent to a hospital.

"That is precisely what I intend to attempt," Castiel confirmed, nodding at the elf. "But since you were not transported here by an angel, the appearance of the scar will be unfamiliar to me, which will make the process more complex."

Speaking so much apparently hadn't been a good idea for Trent because he started coughing again, curling forward in my grasp. I bent forward with him, rubbing his back again although there was precious little I could do to ease the pain he must be going through.

"Yeah, but you can do it, right?" Dean cut to the chase, his words directed at the angel but his gaze on Trent as he crouched down in front of us. I saw the hunter try to hide a grimace as the motion strained his broken ribs. His injuries were not slight and Sam's probably weren't either. Up close like this, I could see that Dean's eyes were unevenly dilated and his scalp still bleeding from the multiple head blows he'd taken today. I realized that like Trent, he was good at putting a mask over his pain.

"Yes, of course I can," the angel responded, perhaps just a touch tetchily. "I am simply saying that I need a little time to find the trail. Time isn't exactly something I have in abundance at the moment. I am leading a rebellion as you may recall," he added with what I swear was a hint of dryness. "However, moving these two beyond the reach of both heaven and hell is important and I will make it a priority."

Dean was only partially paying attention to the angel as he reached down and tipped Trent's chin up. "Hey ... hey ... you okay?" The hunter asked quietly, frowning in alarm when he got a look at the blood trickling from Trent's nose and being coughed into his hand. Clearly, he hadn't realized the true seriousness of the elf's condition until that moment. I had, or should have, and I felt both guilty and stupid for not treating Trent's condition with the immediate urgency I should have. I should have pressed them to get him medical attention as soon as it was clear they weren't meaning to kill us. I was processing everything a little too slowly and it was possible that my own head wasn't as clear as I had thought it was in the wake of the beatings I'd just taken.

Trent was incapable of answering around his coughing and Dean swore quietly, his gaze going to me for explanation. I held Trent's shoulders as gently as I could, my agonized gaze meeting Dean's over his hunched form and possibly telling him more than my words did. "We used too much magic," I whispered, feeling raw. "It's bad, really bad. He needs help, right away. We've got to get him to a hospital."

I started trying to struggle Trent up, but Dean's hand on my arm stopped me. He gave his head a little shake, his eyes holding a deeply pained, stoic sympathy that I didn't want to see as his gaze shifted to where the elf was practically coughing up his insides, blood bubbling helplessly down his chin.

"He won't last that long," Dean said with quiet urgency, his tone holding the dreadful, weary certainty of someone who had seen symptoms like this before.

The words froze my blood, but I wasn't about to accept the prediction, I couldn't. Before I could protest, Dean shifted away from me, looking back towards Castiel with an unspoken request on his face.

I didn't see the angel move. He was several yards away one moment and standing right in front of us the next. I jerked reflexively, craning my neck to look up at him. The angel wordlessly reached down, touching two fingers to the side of Trent's temple. Trent stiffened and I tensed up protectively, recalling my own previous experience with being touched by this man. This contact only lasted a few moments, however. His hand slid away again and Trent's head jerked up towards him as if in shock. He'd stopped coughing.

"You should take care in the deals you make. You might be able to survive with half your lung capacity and part of your liver, but I do not believe your species was meant to function without kidneys," the angel observed matter-of-factly, holding Trent's gaze for a moment.

Reaching over, Castiel touched the same two fingers gently to Dean's forehead. Dean started and gave him a little smile, like he hadn't been expecting that. The angel's expression didn't really change, but I thought his eyes kind of smiled back, just a little.

I was so busy trying to figure out what was happening that I didn't realize the angel had reached for me next until I felt the light, brief pressure of his fingers against my cheekbone. A shuddering wave of warmth tingled into me from the contact, a soothing magic that spilled through me like a hot bath on a cold day. I sucked my breath in sharply at the unexpectedness of it.

"Wha-?" I started to ask, but Castiel was already a few paces away, having just touched Sam's forehead as well. He lingered a moment, tilting his head to look at Sam as if noticing something different about him. He looked back over his shoulder towards me and appeared to find the answer to his own question. I couldn't be sure, but I had a feeling he could tell that Sam was wearing part of my aura. If so, he didn't remark upon it.

"You should all return to the salvage yard," he said instead. "I will be back as soon as I am able. Do not let anyone take them," he added, the last injunction directed towards the Winchester brothers and obviously regarding Trent and I. Then the angel was gone. I didn't see him leave, he was simply there one moment and gone the next.

The Winchesters seemed used to the abrupt nature of the angel's departure. Dean rose to his feet, stretching in a way that suggested it was nice to be able to do so without pain. "Come on, we should get moving. No telling whatever other nasties have the word on you being here already," he said, his gaze and words directed towards Trent and I.

I looked at Trent with instinctive concern, but the elf was already wiping blood from his face with his sleeve and rising to his feet, shaking me off as if embarrassed that everyone had seen him so weak. I rose as well, a little surprised that the motion didn't hurt like it should have. My cuts weren't burning anymore and the ache of my bruises had disappeared. Sam's black eye had vanished and I realized that beneath the blood on Dean's face, his injuries too were gone.

I had a pretty good idea of what had just happened and relief coursed through me, almost dizzying in its intensity. Despite knowing that Dean was right and we probably were still in a lot of danger, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my chest. Still, I caught Trent's eyes, needing to be sure. "You okay?"

"I appear to be perfectly fine," Trent said simply before turning away, apparently well enough to mildly resent my concern. I felt a flash of irritation, but then I considered that maybe his terseness was more of a reaction to his trying to deal with what had just happened. Thanks to Al, I'd experienced healing magic before. The closest Trent had gotten previously was when I fixed his fingers and that was a little different. The angel's magic hadn't felt like Al's, but I thought it had felt pretty good. Trent didn't like being vulnerable, however. Having been yanked back from the edge after being so close to death probably had him a little off-balance.

Misreading the source of whatever he saw on my face, Dean gave my shoulder a reassuring pat, nudging me into motion at the same time. "He'll be okay now. Cass fixed him, he can do that."

I gave him a little smile as we all walked back towards where they'd left their car. "Yeah, I gathered that," I said wryly. "You certainly have interesting friends."

Chapter Text

By the time we made it back to Bobby's house, Trent seemed to have gotten over himself and we were both feeling a lot more energized by the realization that we would, in fact, be going home soon. Of course, we had to stay alive and free until then, which proved to be a little easier said than done.

As soon as we made it inside, Sam and Dean went into full siege-preparation mode. Salt was poured across every threshold and windowsill; wards were swiftly spray painted onto all the windows and several of the walls. Weapons of various types and descriptions were placed in strategic locations around the house along with corresponding ammunition. Like settlers in an old west movie circling the wagons and breaking out the rifles, they fortified the house with a practiced rapidity that once again left me wondering just how often they'd had call to do this kind of thing before.

Dean finished spray-painting several bright red, squiggly figures onto the living room windows and tossed the paint can to Sam. "Put some angel sigils on the windows in the back. I'm gonna go mix up a bunch more holy water," he said.

Sam caught the spray can with a nod and set aside an empty salt canister before making his way to the back of the house.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Trent slipping into the library while everyone was distracted. I'm not sure how I knew, but I felt sure he was going to return the book he'd taken earlier to Bobby's desk before any of the hunters could notice it missing. None of them had said anything about it yet, so I assumed they hadn't noticed that bit of larceny and I would just as soon it stayed that way.

"You can ward against angels?" I asked Dean, partially to keep his attention away from Trent and partially out of true curiosity. I'd been assuming the runes they were using were protection wards of some kind, but perhaps I was mistaken and it was some other kind of spell. Despite their dim view of magic, it seemed to me that the hunters used some form of it fairly frequently. I felt kind of useless standing around watching their rapid preparations without being able to contribute. I wasn't familiar with their methods, and mine wouldn't do any good without my kind of magic, which I knew we must not use again until we were home.

Dean shrugged a nod. "Yeah, fortunately."

That was good to know. I took a moment to study and attempt to memorize the symbols on the window, just in case any of Castiel's buddies tried to follow us home, since angels were apparently some of the few beings capable of the whole reality-hopping thing.

By the time I turned around, Dean was already halfway down the hall. I followed him for lack of anything better to do. As we descended the basement stairs, I suddenly wished I hadn't, but to my surprise the basement showed little reminder of the fight that had happened here not that long ago. The blood had already been mopped up and the bodies were gone. It could not be denied that these people were good at clean-up.

"Won't that keep your friend Castiel out, too?" I asked, suddenly struck by that thought. Dean rummaged through a couple boxes before finding what he was looking for. He glanced over at me as he pulled out a rosary and set it on the edge of an industrial sized sink.

"Yes, but Cass will let us know when he gets here and we can wipe enough away to let him in. It's why we put them on the windows. Paint scrapes off glass easier than most things, and if we're in a real hurry, we can always just break it," the hunter explained as he hefted a box of empty water jugs up onto a chair to put them in easy reach. I watched him consecrate one of the jugs with interest. Except for the fact that it didn't have to be done by a priest or holy man, it wasn't all that different from the way it was done in our world.

"I can do that, if it would help," I offered as I watched Dean quickly set the jug aside and fill another.

I wasn't sure if my not being exactly human would be an issue, but apparently it wasn't, since Dean regarded me for a moment before finally shrugging and gesturing me over. He watched me do it a couple of times to be sure I had the procedure right, then left me to it and jogged back up the stairs, just as I heard Sam calling down that Bobby was back.

Trent joined me a minute or two later.

"You return the book?" I asked him in a low, stern voice as soon as he'd cleared the bottom of the stairs. If he hadn't, I was going to do it myself. These people were going way out on a limb for us and we were not going to do anything to cause them further trouble.

He pulled a face at my tone, but nodded. "We no longer need it," he said, a trifle defensively. Then he seemed to notice the water jugs I was filling and cocked his head curiously to the side. "What are you doing?"

"Making holy water," I informed him, my expression daring him to make a joke about the appropriateness of a demon consecrating anything. "You don't have to be a priest to do it here," I added preemptively.

"Ah," was all Trent said, then, after a moment. "In that case, would you like assistance?"

"Um ... sure." I don't know why the offer surprised me. Maybe I just wasn't used to seeing Trent roll his sleeves up and get his hands dirty. The elf had his foibles to be sure, but he was not the same fussy business man he'd been in years past. He hadn't been for a while, but in some ways I was only now beginning to really see that.

The older hunter, Bobby, came down the stairs at about the time we'd finished filling the last of the jugs. Sam and Dean must have filled him in on the situation, including who and what we were, because he gave me and Trent a long, appraising look as he set down the tool chest he was carrying.

Sam came down the stairs behind him, carrying several lengths of wood and what looked like the hood or trunk lid off one of the old cars from the junk yard.

"Don't suppose either of you two are any good with a hammer or a blow torch?" Bobby asked us dryly. "Seems we're probably going to come under attack, and some idjits put a big ass hole in what was formerly the safest room in my house."

Trent and I exchanged somewhat sheepish glances. Bobby seemed on board with helping the brothers protect us until the angel came back, but he was clearly none too pleased with the mess we'd made. I couldn't blame him.

Neither Trent nor I were particularly handy with tools, but we helped Bobby and Sam patch up the hole we'd made in the roof as best we could. It would need a more permanent fix later, but the hunters seemed to feel that this would do for the time being. Against my will, my gaze kept sliding to Trent as we worked. In jeans and flannel, perched on a ladder, nailing 2x4's into a cross-joist ... it was a picture I'd never imagined of him.

As I pounded nails through the metal rim of the trunk lid for Bobby to use as solder points, I saw Trent smile at something Sam said, his grin wry as the tall Winchester reached up and looped a rope around a broken spar of rebar that no one else present could have reached. Dean was keeping an eye out for any incoming trouble, but came down at one point to check on us. He leaned against the bottom of the ladder, looking up and giving Sam and Trent intentionally obnoxious advice. Sam "accidentally" almost dropped a beam on him and Trent had to look away to hide his grin.

I couldn't help thinking the normally reserved elf looked so uncommonly comfortable working with these men who were in so many ways his complete opposite. I was reminded of that road trip we took to California, the first time I'd really seen an adult Trent in casual clothes and out of his board room persona. I'd thought then that he seemed more comfortable in that less formal skin, and I thought it even more now. If I were honest, I had to admit that Trent was stunning in pristine Armani suits and thousand dollar shoes ... but there was something more real and unguarded about him here in thrift store jeans and army surplus boots, so far removed from the people he had to lead that he could just be himself for a few minutes. It wasn't really the clothes at all, I realized, it was more about his demeanor. We had nothing left to hide from the hunters and they were far removed from the politics of our world. Trent didn't seem to feel the need to put on a front for them now and was simply pitching in and being himself. Maybe that's what kept drawing my gaze back to him like some annoying magnet. I found myself suddenly wondering what Trent would be like if he'd been able to choose his own paths growing up. If he'd been allowed to find out what he liked and who he was outside the demands of his heritage ... what kind of man might he have become?

It wasn't a fair question, I supposed. Duty was a part of Trent's life, a large, integral part that was so wrapped up in the core of who he was that it could never be separated out. Didn't we all have forces that shaped our lives? My long childhood illness, losing my father ... realizing I was a demon ... what might I have been without those things? Did it matter? We were all affected by our pasts, but they did not determine who we were. Trent and I were both living proof of that, if in slightly different ways.

Bobby coughed next to me and I started, nearly dropping the hammer I was holding. I realized I'd been gazing over at the three men by the ladder for a little too long, the nails and hammer still in my hand as my mind wandered. The boys were oblivious, but Bobby's weathered gaze was both amused and somewhat knowing when it caught mine. I felt my cheeks warm for reasons I couldn't even articulate. What the hell? Where were all these flustered feelings coming from suddenly?

Ducking my head back to my task, I quickly got back to work. Focus, Morgan. Possibility of immanent attack, remember? Quit letting your mind wander, geez!

"Shouldn't you ward the patch like the rest of the room?" Trent asked as we finished up, stowing the tools in a corner of the basement. "It will be a weak point."

Sam gave us a small smile. "Only if we really wanted to keep them out. Right now it's better to use the perceived weakness to our advantage."

"Rat trap has to have an opening to catch rats," Bobby concurred.

It took me a moment to catch their meaning, although Trent appeared to get it instantly. "Of course. Breaking into that room would be like an insect flying into a pitcher plant. Once in, they can't get out."

"Well, they probably could get out, but not quick," Dean said as he jogged down the stairs. He grabbed a few of the holy water jugs and started back up the stairs again. "The idea is, we'd be able to take care of them before they did."

After all we'd seen I could understand their caution. If I had been inclined to think that the hunters were perhaps taking this preparedness thing a little too seriously, the next 48 hours would surely have proved me wrong.

It was as well that they had prepared for an attack and prepared swiftly, because it wasn't long before the demons came. There were more of them this time. I couldn't be sure how many because they quickly learned to stay out of sight lest they get shot. It wouldn't kill them, but apparently it still hurt enough to be worth avoiding.

They hid amidst the cars in the junk yard, circling the house like wolves. They cut the power and the phone lines almost immediately. The hunters seemed to have expected that and simply broke out the lanterns, flashlights and candles. They still had their cell phones, but were apparently not inclined to call anyone anyway. I understood why they didn't want to call the police. Pulling in people who didn't understand what the demons were would only get them killed.

I was less clear on why they didn't call any other hunters for back up like they had in Cincinnati, but I was beginning to get the idea that these men were used to working alone and that that had been an unusual circumstance. In Cincinnati, they had clearly known they needed more hands. Here, they appeared to feel they could handle the situation on their own. I hoped they were right.

Of course, it wasn't as if they were totally alone in this. Trent and I may not be able to use ley line or wild magic, but we weren't about to sit back and just depend on the hunters to defend us either. Well, I sure wasn't, anyway. I didn't need to draw on Trent to perform earth magic. That had been useless to us before, but under these circumstances I now had both the time and tools for it to do some good. Bobby turned out to have a veritable treasure trove of spelling ingredients tucked away around his house and after a little initial wariness from the hunters, I got them to let me cook up some spells in the kitchen. Fortunately, he had a gas stove that required no electricity.

I didn't know that many spells by memory, but I knew a few and Bobby had plenty of books from which I could get other recipes. It wasn't full dark yet, but it was still too dim inside to see well, so the kitchen glowed with lantern and candle light, lending a slightly eerie ambiance to the spell prep. Bobby stayed close, watching me with a mix of wariness and interest. I knew we'd probably never totally get past the whole "witch" thing, but I could tell that he wasn't only watching me to make sure I didn't try anything funny, he was also watching to see how much he could pick up. I had no problem with that, and intentionally walked him through what I was doing while I did it. My willingness to be transparent about the process seemed to put him a lot more at ease. I had nothing to hide, I was mixing only white charms. I wouldn't have minded if the hunters wanted to learn and use them, although most would not work for them since the spells needed to be invoked with witch or demon blood ... or "fae" blood, I supposed, since that's what they considered us here.

I explained that to Bobby as I finished up a batch of sleepy time potion with great care. I shouldn't be making the sleep potion without a protective circle, but given the circumstances it couldn't be helped, so I was simply trying to be extra cautious.

"Although..." I said thoughtfully as I carefully poured the liquid into a bottle. They didn't have any empty paintball shells or guns to shoot them, so I was putting the potion into flasks instead. "Sam might be able to kindle them with his blood, I'm not sure." I thought it was at least a possibility after what I'd sensed from him earlier.

Bobby grimaced and frowned, his weathered gaze fixing on me intently. "I wouldn't go telling the boys that if I were you," he said quietly. "I know you think that's a good thing, but it won't be for them. Trust me."

I held his gaze for a long moment. I could see that he was sincere in both his warning and his concern. I didn't know what kind relationship there was between him and the Winchesters, but in that moment I could tell that he cared about those two quite a bit. I nodded slowly. "Okay," I agreed simply, willing to trust his judgment on that. It was possible I was wrong anyway and the last thing I wanted to do was cause them more problems.

"Okay what?" Dean's voice from the doorway made me tense slightly in surprise. I turned my head and saw his eyebrows crinkle as he took in the candlelit kitchen littered with my spelling supplies. "Wow, creepy much?" he jibed lightly. "All you're missing is a couple of skulls and some robed dude chanting."

I shot the younger hunter a dry look and chose to completely ignore him. Capping the bottle of sleep charm I was holding, I handed it to Bobby. "Be very, very careful with this," I warned. "Usually, I put these in paintballs and that size dose is enough to put humans and most inderlanders in my world down for a while harmlessly. From what I've seen, I don't think a dose that size would do much to your demons, but a good splash of it should at least slow them down. However, you can't let any of it touch you or anyone else who isn't a demon. Too big a dose could kill normal people and it will definitely knock them out."

"Sweet," Dean said as he made his way over, ignoring the fact that I was ignoring him. "I get one of those?"

I gestured to the other bottles I had already filled standing ready on the table. "Yes, but only if you promise not to accidentally put yourself to sleep," I added dryly. The charm was very dangerous with this kind of delivery method and I would never have put these into the hands of anyone I didn't trust to be responsible with them.

"Promise," Dean said with a charming smile as he snagged one of the flasks, tucking it into his pocket along with the rest of the arsenal he was already carrying.

"Take one of these too," I gave both he and Bobby a second bottle, this one filled with a strong salt water mixture. "Anybody accidentally gets the sleepy time potion on their skin, you douse the area with salt water right away to break it. You won't be able to do it for yourselves, the charm works almost instantly, so everybody keep an eye on each other. You see someone go down, don't wait."

The hunters nodded at about the same time Trent appeared in the doorway. His face was grim. "We have company," he warned. "I think they're on the roof. Sam just went upstairs to check."

The demons found the weak spot over the panic room, as intended, and the trap worked fairly well. There were two of them in there. When the door was opened in the basement one somehow managed to get out, but Bobby splashed it with some of the sleepy time potion and it went down hard. Nice to know it worked like I thought it would. I wouldn't have put any money on how long the charm would last, but it was long enough. Dean killed the demon before it could recover, then tossed the knife to Sam who took care of the other one still trapped within the pentagram in the panic room.

It was over in less than a minute. I barely had time to register what had happened before I was watching some man I didn't know stare sightlessly up at the ceiling, blood pooling slowly beneath him at my feet. The abruptness of it was strangely disconcerting.

Feeling less than I felt I should be feeling, I went back upstairs, leaving the hunters to do whatever it was they did with the bodies. I had the vague notion that I would keep watch up here for the next attack, but in reality I was trying not to think too much about anything. It was all very well to prepare for a war ... then you saw it unfolding and somehow it was uglier than you expected. It was stupid to react this way now, I supposed, given everything that had happened over the last few days. I had seen so much death lately that I seemed to be hitting some kind of saturation point. The fact that I just felt numb now scared me more than the actual bloodshed did. I didn't want to become used to this. I would never have thought I could become used to it. Life was not something I could afford to take for granted, ever. I could not go where that would make me. Hadn't I condemned Trent for years as a monster because he could? I didn't think he was anymore ... but did that simply mean I was slowly becoming one myself?

Try as I might, I simply couldn't think of what I could be doing differently that would change this situation somehow, that would keep the body count from rising like this. There hadn't been any time for me to object to the swift and brutal disposal of the enemy just now and I knew it wouldn't have done any good if I had. The hunters were doing what they felt they had to do and I had no alternative to offer. There was a war going on in this world that I was only getting a glimpse of and the hunters were soldiers in a way that I would never ... could never be. I wasn't upset with them, not really. They were trying to protect us, for goodness sake, this wasn't even their fight. No, I was just ... kind of sickened, by everything. Knowing it was necessary and that the creatures in question were undoubtedly evil helped a little, but it didn't dull the pain of knowing that innocent lives had still been shattered along the way.

Because of me. That was the worst part. These demons were possessing people and destroying them and forcing us to destroy them because they were after me. If I weren't here, if I wasn't what I was, none of this would be happening. That wasn't an easy thing to live with.

There were no more immediate follow up attacks, so I guessed the demons were being more wary now, pulling back to check for any other traps. Needing a little alone time, I made use of the lull to make my way around the house, placing the warning charms I'd created in front of all the doors and windows. If anyone was able to enter or break through from the outside at any of those points, we'd be instantly alerted. I thought that would help since it was a big house and there were only five of us. We couldn't be everywhere at once and the demons outside would figure that out soon enough. I didn't want them attacking us on one front only to try sneaking in from another while we were distracted.

I finished in the living room and then just kind of stood there numbly, staring out the window covered in those strange, red glyphs. Light seeped in from the hallway but there were no lights on in here and I could see the darkness of the salvage yard beyond the glass, the hulking shapes of dead automobiles looking like prehistoric monsters in the settling gloom of night. The jumbled shadows shifted and fluttered in ways that suggested movement out there amidst the wrecks and my gut twisted, the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck rising. The demons weren't coming for us just yet, but they were out there, plotting, waiting. They'd attack again, there was no doubt and we'd either have to kill them or they'd kill us. Because of me. Because somehow, no matter what reality I was in, I attracted trouble and death like a magnet, and the people around me always seemed to pay the price.

I shuddered dully, trying to shake off the dark and unhelpful feelings. I didn't have time for this crap. I wasn't usually so depressive and moody about things, especially not in the middle of a battle when my adrenaline was flowing and there was danger at hand ... but everything that had happened recently just seemed to finally be all catching up at once.

"Is everything all right?" Trent's quiet voice on my right made me flinch and whirl quickly towards him, proving that despite my mental funk, my keyed up reflexes were working just fine. He held his hands out in a non-threatening gesture, apparently realizing he had startled me.

I ran my hand through my tangled hair and was reminded of how much I really needed a shower. "I'm fine," I said with an irritable sigh, trying to brush off both Trent and my own thoughts.

To my relief, Trent didn't press. I don't think he believed me, but he seemed to know that badgering me about it wouldn't help - something that Jenks and Ivy never seemed to understand. "Okay," he said quietly. "I'll be glad when we're home," he added. "This world is ... exhausting."

"You can say that again," I muttered. I was surprised when Trent reached over and took my hand. For a moment I almost jerked away, anger and worry bubbling up at the thought that he might be doing something stupid again. Then I realized there was no magic in the touch, he was simply holding my hand for some reason.

"I wish you didn't have to be here." His soft words caught me by surprise and my brows drew together as I looked at him questioningly.

I snorted. "Gee, thanks. Didn't realize I was cramping your style," I said sarcastically, trying not to feel hurt because that would have just been stupid. I attempted to pull my hand away, but Trent held on with unexpected persistence and didn't let me.

"No," Trent protested. "I mean ... because of this corner we find ourselves in. I know you ... " he hesitated, free hand carding through his hair as if trying to pull together what he was attempting to say. "I don't see any other, less costly paths through this," he murmured.

"That bothers you?" I asked before I could stop myself. I wondered dully why I asked questions to which I already knew the answer.

Trent studied my hand in his, avoiding my eyes. "Not really, not as much as it probably should," he admitted honestly and with a hint of regret. His body was tense as if knowing I wouldn't necessarily like that answer, but he could have lied to me and didn't, I appreciated that. I didn't need pretty lies; I didn't need him trying to be what I wanted him to be on top of everyone else's expectations. What I did need was to feel that he could and would be honest with me.

"However, I know it bothers you." Trent's clear green gaze rose to meet mine now, the small swirl of concern in them solely for my sake. "I would spare you that, if I could."

He meant that, I could tell. Looking into his eyes just then, I understood that Trent saw himself as damaged goods in this department. He had no innocence left to lose and perhaps that was why he seemed so desperate to protect mine, like in the Ever After when he stopped me from killing Nick. I realized then that if Trent could find a way to take all the dirty, ugly parts of our current situation on himself and leave me out of it, he would. Not because he didn't think I could handle it, but because he didn't want me to have to. He didn't want me to become like him.

I frowned. That was what Trent did for too many people, in my opinion. He got his hands dirty so they could stay clean. I appreciated his desire to protect, I did, but no one fought my battles for me. I would not let Trent sacrifice bits of his soul any more than I'd wanted to let him sacrifice physical parts of his body earlier. There was a difference between being truly backed into a corner and out of options and killing because it was convenient. I don't know if Trent used to understand that or not, but I think he did now. So did I. If I couldn't figure out any alternatives, then I would take responsibility for that; I wasn't about to hide behind anyone else.

I have him a firm little smile. "Thanks, but you better not try. I fight my own battles, Trent, and I damn well take my own smut be it literal or figurative. We're in this together."

I could tell that Trent didn't agree with me 100%, but the smile he gave me was genuine, if somewhat unreadable. My words had affected him, I just wasn't sure how. There was a glitter of ... something ... in his eyes and he squeezed my fingers fondly. "It's a good thing we are. I realize we are not out of the woods just yet, but ... quite honestly, I do not believe I would have survived this, or found a way back without you, Rachel," he admitted quietly.

I studied his smooth features in the shadowy dimness of the room. Hearing something good right now, feeling like I'd done something other than hurt the people around me was strangely important suddenly. Some need for honesty compelled me to try to push it away just the same.

"You wouldn't have been in this mess in the first place, if it wasn't for me," I pointed out with a small, disgusted frown.

Trent shook his head. "You're here because of me as much as I'm here because of you. Maybe more. There's no sense assigning blamein any of this, Rachel. Things simply happen and must be dealt with. One must adapt and survive, no matter how unpleasant the circumstances or what unpleasant things must be done."

"You're good at that." I honestly hadn't meant it as a jab, but I realized Trent took it that way when his gaze slid away for a moment before returning to mine.

"Yes, I suppose so," he said, his voice still quiet but now a little more withdrawn. He let go of my hand.

I winced, realizing that in light of our previous conversation, Trent thought I was rubbing his nose in the fact that he was skilled at doing unpleasant things when push came to shove ... which was true, but not what I'd meant. The elf was actually trying to be nice to me, I really hadn't meant to verbally slap him for it.

"Trent ... " I sighed again in exasperation, frustrated that I could cause hurt even when that wasn't my intention. "I didn't ... I just meant you're good at adapting and thinking on your feet. For what it's worth, I don't think I would have survived this without you, either."

Trent's face relaxed a little and he smiled. "No, you certainly wouldn't have," he teased, ruining the moment, but also thankfully keeping it from getting awkward.

I gave him a small, indignant shove. "Hey, you don't have to sound so certain and smug about that," I protested dryly. "I wasn't the one who was bleeding out a few hours ago." I stuck my tongue out at him like a child and Trent chuckled. For some inexplicable reason, I felt a little better.

The demons tried to breach the house several more times that night and repeatedly throughout the following two days, but the attacks were repelled each time. Three more of them died in the attempts. Our little party didn't exactly escape the encounters unharmed, but there were no significant injuries. As time dragged on, however, weariness began to set in. The demons apparently didn't need to sleep and as a result no one inside the house was getting much either. The hunters seemed able to keep running on two hour naps which they took in rotation and which were often disturbed by the latest attack. Trent and I weren't quite so used to sleeping in a combat zone. I tried, but found rest impossible under the circumstances. Trent gave up even trying fairly early on, as if realizing it was a fruitless venture. The constant feeling of being under the threat of imminent danger at any moment just did not allow my brain to slow down enough to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time, even as exhaustion began to settle deeper and deeper as day and night bled into one another and the hours either crawled with waiting or raced with the jangling adrenaline of fighting. I wondered how soldiers could deal with this. I wondered how the hunters dealt with it. I guess the answer to both was practice, but that meant it was a skill I wasn't terribly eager to cultivate.

Sitting on the couch in the living room, half stupid with exhaustion, I watched Dean pace back and forth like a caged tiger. He'd already checked and cleaned every weapon within reach and although his agitation was contained, it was visible. He clearly didn't like this passive method of fighting, of digging in and having to simply wait for the attackers to come. I pegged him as more of a front-lines kind of guy. Battle he could handle, it was the waiting that drove him up the wall. He wanted to go out and take the fight to the enemy. It was an idea he'd suggested repeatedly, but which Sam and Bobby had continually shot down ... like Sam was doing again, right now.

"Dean, I wish we could just go out there and kick their asses, you know I do, but for one thing, there's so many of them the odds suck, for another we can't risk breaking all the secure perimeters we've established by leaving the house," the younger Winchester was saying with a remarkable amount of patience, the edge of weary frustration in his tone only just audible. I had a feeling the irritation wasn't so much at Dean, as at the fact that he didn't like the inaction all that much better than his brother; he was simply more practical about it. "We have no idea how many actually are out there. They could have a hundred traps laid. Besides, we can't risk leaving Rachel and Trent with less of us to guard them."

Forty-eight hours ago, I probably would have taken offense at that. By now, two days and counting into the ordeal, I was so exhausted and worn out that I didn't care. There was strength in numbers and that was the truth, especially with all of us running on as little sleep as we'd been getting.

"I know, I know," Dean said tersely, also appearing to be more annoyed at the situation than at his brother. "But come on Sammy, you never win a fight by hiding in the fort. Ask the dudes at the Alamo. I don't like sitting on our hands here just waiting for them to come up with something bad enough to make all these defenses of ours useless. You know they will eventually." Dean paused by the couch, leaning over to twitch the curtains a fraction apart with two fingers, assessing the salvage yard through the long shadows of the fading evening beyond the window.

"I agree, but this isn't about winning the fight, not yet. Right now, this is about waiting. We just have to hang tight and keep Rachel and Trent safe until Cass shows up. Once we send them home, then we can go kick demon butt, okay?"

I almost giggled, my exhaustion-loopy mind thinking that Sam sounded an awful lot like someone telling a kid they could go out and play only after they'd finished all their vegetables.

"Yeah ... " Dean sighed. He obviously got it, but just as obviously didn't want to let it go, even if only because arguing was better than sitting around doing nothing. "But don't tell me that doesn't worry you just a little too," he muttered.

Sam grimaced. "Waiting for Cass?" He hesitated. "Yeah," he admitted after a moment.

"I mean, he's gonna come," Dean said quickly, almost as if he felt the need to defend the angel. "But we don't exactly know when or what constitutes a long or a short time for an angel, you know? I'm just saying ... we should have contingency plans."

Sam nodded. "Agreed. But we need to wait more than a couple days before we start considering them, all right? We can hold out here for a pretty long time. Bobby has this place stocked like a fallout shelter."

"Yeah," Dean agreed, reaching for the beer he'd left on one of the cluttered end tables. "But we're gonna run out of alcohol pretty soon, then we may have to start considering desperate measures," he joked.

Sam rolled his eyes. "Maybe if you and Bobby laid off a little, we could make it last until the cavalry arrives," he mocked with amusement. The brothers were teasing each other, although there were perhaps a small sliver of not-joking beneath the surface on both counts.

I personally didn't quite understand how both Dean and Bobby seemed to be able to mix coffee and alcohol in fairly frequent bouts and still stay sober and alert like they did, but I had a feeling that at least for Dean, the alcohol was part of his trick to being able to sleep when it was his turn. Thinking back to the night we'd spent with them in the hotel room, maybe it was how he ever slept at all. That made me a little sad. I found myself wishing in a sleep-drunk way there was something I could do to fix these brave, beautiful, screwed up men ... but then, I couldn't even fix my own life, so the best thing I could probably do for them was to get the hell out of theirs as fast as I could. Trent and I had certainly brought them nothing but trouble since we showed up, although I hoped we'd at been able to help a little what with that whole mess with the zombie-ghoul things in Cincy.

My meandering little brain realized belatedly that I'd thought of the brothers as beautiful and I almost giggled again. Not terribly appropriate, probably, but hey, it was true, wasn't it? I was a healthy, warm-blooded female, I was allowed to notice these things. It wasn't my fault they could still look so damn handsome three days into a siege while running on minimal sleep. It was unfair though. Hideously unfair. I was sure I looked like hell.

I blinked and realized that both brothers had stopped talking and were giving me a funny look that meant they'd probably caught me staring at them and that my expression may have been a little more transparent then I'd have liked. Great.

"Something on your mind, Rachel? Or you just enjoyin' the view?" Dean teased, apparently not too tired to jump mercilessly on any chance to give someone a hard time.

"The only view I'd enjoy right now is a nice, comfy bed," I groused, frowning at him and trying hard not to flush. I only realized how that could have sounded after seeing the amusement in Dean's lively green eyes. I made a face. "You know what I mean!" I said irritably. Stupid sleep deprived brain.

"Rachel is tired, I'm sure we all are," Trent defended crisply from the other end of the couch. His tone seemed inordinately annoyed, causing me to glance in his direction and observe the death glower he was directing towards the Winchesters ... well, mostly just Dean. I had the funny feeling his irritation came more from the way I'd probably been looking at them then the way Dean was looking at me. Trent was jealous. The thought pinged amusingly through my brain before I dismissed it as another product of sleep deprivation. Trent was probably just extra pissy because he was as exhausted as I was. Unlike the Winchesters, he at least he had the decency to look it. He still managed to look disgustingly good - damn men with their ability to make scruffy attractive - but at least his hair was tousled at funny angles and there was a hint of dark circles under his weary eyes. Hey, it was something, I'd take it.

For some reason, I found it suddenly fascinating that even when Trent got scruffy, he didn't seem to accrue a stubble. I tried to remember if I'd seen him shaving any time over the past few days, or if the elf simply didn't actually have facial hair. I couldn't remember.

I must have drifted off for a while then without realizing it because the next thing I knew it was full dark and the lamps were on in the room. Someone had placed a blanket over me which now slid to the floor as I sat up abruptly. My heart thudded in my chest as I looked around, trying to figure out what had woken me. Beside me I saw Trent also startling awake, his normally clear eyes clouded with sleep as he blinked and scrubbed at them in an attempt to pull himself to alertness.

The old clock on the wall said it was almost 2 AM in the morning. I'd been asleep for longer than I thought. To say I felt refreshed would not have been true, in reality I felt in some ways more exhausted and crappier than before, but the sudden surge of adrenaline coursing through me for reasons yet unknown at least lent me an edge of clarity that I hadn't had before.

I clapped my hands over my ears when a high pitched sound warbled through the house like a million crystal glasses all humming in unison at a very high register. Maybe it was what had woken me, maybe it wasn't, but a moment later Dean was rushing into the room with Sam hot on his heels.

I just had time to scramble out of the way as the elder Winchester jumped up to stand on the couch. Yanking the curtains apart, he scrubbed vigorously at one of the red symbols painted on the glass. The high pitched sound came again, short, sharp and somehow urgent. I saw Dean flinch at the ear-splitting tones and try to work faster.

"I heard you, I heard you ...!" he muttered. "Aw, fuck it," he said, giving up on clearing the pane of glass. Turning his arm, he used his elbow to smash it out instead, the glass shattering with crash that brought Bobby running into the room and Trent and I staggering quickly away from the couch.

The instant the glass broke, a figure came crashing into the room. He hit the floor and rolled once. I thought for a moment that he'd crashed in through the window, but no, aside from the pane that Dean had just broken the window was whole. The new comer had appeared inside the room, but given the rate and angle at which he was moving he might as well have tumbled in through the window. When I saw the tan trench coat, I realized it was the angel from a few days ago.

"Cass!" Dean was off the couch and by his side in moments, crouching beside the fallen angel and placing a hand on his shoulder in concern. "Human voice, man," he chastised, clearly worried and babbling to cover it. "You know I can't understand a fucking thing you say when you talk angel."

Castiel was already sitting up on his own, but as he got to his feet I could see he was moving stiffly and favoring his right side. That's when I saw the blood. Castiel was holding his right side, about where his liver would be if his human looking body were actually human. Blood stained his fingers and the white dress shirt he wore beneath the trench coat.

Worry clenched my stomach. Angels could bleed? I saw that he was still wearing the same vaguely rumpled business suit, tie and trench coat that we'd seen him in a few days ago. Either he didn't have any other clothes and didn't care, or that was simply the projection of appearance that he preferred. I didn't really know how the whole angel thing worked, but I was willing to bet this wasn't his true, or at least his only form. I wondered how that translated to his injuries. Was this just the way we saw them? Or was he more tied to his physical manifestation than I understood?

Sam and Dean saw the blood at about the same time I did. "Whoa, Cass, what happened? Are you okay?" Sam asked quickly.

"I will be fine. It is nothing I cannot survive," Castiel assured, his tone a little breathless. I noticed that blood flecked the corners of his mouth as well, although his startling blue eyes were as clear and intense as ever as they fixed on me. "I have found the world to which you belong. I can return you now, but we must make haste. I was pursued and I do not believe I have lost them for long."

Castiel stumbled to the table in the corner. He pulled what looked like a vial of sea water and a finger bone out of an inner coat pocket and looked across at Bobby. "Salt, lambs blood, bowl," he said succinctly. Bobby, aware of what was needed, was already halfway out of the room.

The angel's warning and sense of urgency had everyone in the room humming with tension. I saw Dean shift warily from foot to foot, shooting sideways glances between me and his brother. I didn't understand what was on his mind until he spoke a moment later and it made sense. "So ... Sam's healed, right? He's going to be okay when you leave and he doesn't have your, uh ... aura ... thingy ... anymore?"

I should have thought of that myself. I really should have checked on the progress of his healing aura sooner than this. I guiltily blamed the weariness and strain of the last few days for making me not even think of it. "I think so, yes, let me check," I said quickly. It had been several days, Sam should be all right now, but I had to remember to take into account how thin his aura was. Not about to take chances, I turned to the younger Winchester and brought up my second sight so I could be sure.

I saw the gold sheath shimmering around him and smiled in relief. At least some things could go right. "Yes, he's fine," I confirmed. "His own aura's recovered and he's not even using mine anymore. The seal must have released on its own when it was no longer needed."

Bobby returned with the items Castiel had requested and with my second sight still up, I saw that his aura was green, hinting at an underlying nurturing nature that I bet would surprise some people given his gruff exterior. It was no surprise to me, however, not after the way I'd watched him interacting with the Winchesters over the past few days.

Without thinking, I turned, gaze shifting from Bobby to Castiel as the hunter moved towards him. I had about half a second to feel curious what kind of aura a self-proclaimed angel had before my vision exploded with a brilliant, blinding blue-white light that stabbed physical pain into my eyeballs as if my very retinas would burn.

"Do not look!" The sharp command rung in my head, sounding like the angel's voice even though I hadn't actually heard it with my ears. It was an order I was more than ready to follow, only it didn't seem to help. I pressed my eyes shut desperately, but the burning didn't stop. I cried out in pain, my knees suddenly feeling weak as I floundered for my sense of direction and balance.

Immediately, a large, warm, strangely soft hand clapped over my streaming eyes, shutting out the painful light and plunging me back into a blessed, healing darkness. I felt a body against my back and leaned against it to stay upright as I panted for air. The scent of frankincense and blood enveloped me, telling me that it was Castiel who had somehow gotten across the room in a blink and was now holding me to him from behind with his hand firmly over my smarting eyes.

For the briefest of very weird moments, it reminded me of when I was little and my Dad would put his big palm over my face because he considered some part of the rather grown up action movie we were watching too violent for my 6-year-old mind. Unlike then, I made no move to try to push the hand away. There was a warm, intense power in the touch that tingled against my skin and I could feel the angel doing something that countered the pain I'd been in a moment before.

"Do not look at me with true sight," Castiel's low, faintly gravelly voice by my ear warned me. The light stubble of his 5'oclock shadow scratched my cheek when he spoke. He was holding me very close against his body, but there was strangely nothing remotely sexual in the contact or in his touch. "Mortal vision cannot withstand my true form; it will burn your eyes out," he informed me. It would have sounded pretentious if my eyes weren't still stinging and if his words hadn't been so straight forward and matter-of-fact.

I quickly dropped my second sight, swallowing compulsively. I felt really awake now. "Right. Looking bad. Eye burning. Got it," I babbled shakily. His nearness made me feel both safe and frightened at the same time and I was completely unable to reconcile the contradiction. It was the first time I'd had any prolonged physical contact with the deceptively mild looking man since he'd accidentally tried to kill me and I could feel the power in him humming against my back.

Castiel released me a moment later and stepped back. I blinked my eyes open to find Trent and the Winchesters all watching me with concern around the dancing spots still fading from my vision. I had a headache and felt like I'd looked into the sun at mid-day, but seemed to be otherwise okay.

"Rachel, are you all right?" Trent was asking. His body was tense with worry and his face dark with not understanding what had just happened. Given the glances he was shooting Castiel, I got the feeling that he and the angel were never going to be chummy at this rate.

"Fine, fine," I tried to wave him off, blinking hard against the spots in my vision. "Just never look at an angel with your second sight up, okay? They're really ... uh ... bright."

This only seemed to worry Sam and Dean more for some reason. Dean reached out unexpectedly and tilted my chin up, gaze quickly searching my face and then darting questioningly to the angel in a way that told me they'd maybe seen something like this go horribly wrong before. "Cass?"

"She is fortunate; she is more resilient than a human and only glimpsed the edges of my visage. I was able to reverse the damage; she has taken no permanent harm," Castiel assured distractedly in response, already back at the table dumping things together in the bowl Bobby had fetched.

Dean let go of my chin, looking relived. I was kind of glad to hear that too.

"Damn, how many bones you got in those pockets?" I heard Bobby say in mild amusement or confusion. Although I didn't see what had prompted the question, he must be speaking to Castiel. I flinched and squinted instinctively when I looked back towards them again, but with my normal vision Castiel merely looked like he had before - a slightly rumpled and injured brown haired man in a trench coat.

"Six hundred and eighty two," Castiel answered factually as he quickly hauled a dusty wall mirror out from behind a stack of other junk in the corner of the room. He yanked down the clock and put the mirror in its place.

"Mostly finger and toe flanges, they travel easiest. I have extra amounts of the other necessary and harder to acquire ingredients for this spell as well," the angel explained as he dipped three fingers into what I hoped was lambs blood and used it to quickly painted a symbol on the glass surface of the mirror. "As I feared, Raphael has learned of the faes' existence and sees them as a possible tool. Some of his minions are on their way."

From outside, there was a sudden shriek and then a general buzzing clamor of commotion. Light flashed from behind the drawn curtains and the hairs on my arms all raised at once.

"That would be them," Castiel said, much too calmly I thought. "Dean, get ready to secure the angel warding again as soon as I'm gone," he warned. "You should have a few minutes of safety while they battle the demons camped outside. Both sides will fight each other to the death to keep one another from getting their hands on the prize. With any luck, they'll whittle one another down significantly."

Dean got a funny, kind of proud lop-sided grin on his face. "That's why you were shrieking in angel-speak when you blew in here. You wanted all the hell spawn out there to realize that angels were coming so they'd spring a counter attack when Raphie's thugs showed up." He clapped the angel on the shoulder approvingly. "You sneaky little bastard."

Castiel smiled. Just a little.

"Wait, if they're angels too, can't they just follow us to our own reality?" I asked quickly when Castiel grabbed my shoulder, me towards the bloody mirror. I had seen Castiel's power, I did not want to risk leading his evil cousins or whatever right to where I lived. I had enough powerful enemies gunning for me already in my reality.

"That's what the extra supplies are for," Castiel explained quickly, with just a hint of impatience as if we should have already understood that. "After I drop you off, I am going to make six hundred and eighty two other trips to other neighboring realities. By my estimate, given the realities I have chosen and their relative locations, the resulting ripple pattern will create a tear large enough to prevent further passage for some time. By the time the rift mends itself, it will be impossible for anyone to ascertain where you two went. Although once you are back on your own world, I do not believe they will try too hard to follow. In your own world you will have the support of your kin and your own magic and it would be more akin to them going after someone in Avalon, which we know better than to attempt. While you are here you are fair game, but once you are home you should be fairly safe."

"Okay, good ... I think," I said a trifle uncertainly as Castiel quickly guided Trent to stand beside me in front of the mirror. I wanted to go home more than anything, but this was all happening very quickly now and even though we'd been waiting for this for days, suddenly it felt like the goodbyes were coming too abruptly.

"Damn, those demons aren't gonna last much longer." Dean was looking warily out the window at the fight going on outside. He glanced back towards us. "How long is it going to take for you to make that many trips?" he asked Cass and it suddenly dawned on me what a terrible situation we were leaving them in.

"Roughly a minute and a half," Castiel replied. "If the angels break through, I need you to hold them off that long. If they do not leave when they see that they have lost their objective, then as soon as I am done I will lead them away."

"No, wait ... wait!" I protested, holding out a pleading hand to stop the angel as he lifted the bowl in which he'd stirred the spell. "We can't - we can't just leave you like this!" My urgent, guilty, panicked gaze caught Dean's from across the room.

To my surprise, he smiled at me, the gesture warm with genuine reassurance. "Hey, don't worry about us, we got this," he promised. He tilted his head, giving me that cocky, boyish grin that would always be my enduring memory of him. "This is what we do," he said simply, meaning it.

"We'll be fine, Rachel," Sam promised, mirroring his brother's smile, although on him it looked more earnest and less wry. "As soon as you're gone, they'll be no reason for them to keep attacking anyway. Go home. Good luck to you both."

Bobby simply gave us a nod of farewell and I realized I would never see these people again. I hadn't expected that to ache quite like it did.

I wanted to say goodbye, I wanted to say thank you, I wanted ... but there wasn't time. Castiel threw his hand out towards us with a murmured word I either didn't hear or didn't understand and the world went suddenly weightless. I felt like I was flying backwards towards the mirror. I didn't have time to say goodbye or thank you, but I think the hunters knew and I think maybe they preferred to leave both unsaid. Maybe it was best this way.

Trent and I crashed into the wall and mirror behind us, but neither wall nor mirror proved to be solid, giving way unexpectedly for our abrupt passage. "You go get his kids back," I heard the echo of Dean's voice follow us as darkness folded about us like an envelope. "And kick the butts of the people who sent you here!"

"We will," I promised silently. "You can bet we will."

Chapter Text

Given the long, tortuous nature of our last trip through realities, I suppose I expected the journey home to be similar. It wasn't. This trip was jarringly instantaneous. One moment we were flying backwards into a mirror in Bobby Singer's house in Sioux Falls South Dakota in the Winchester's reality and the next we were tumbling backwards out of the large floor length mirror in Ivy's room in my church in Cincinnati Ohio in our own reality.

The mirror shattered outward with us, as if we really had passed through it in some way. Trent and I hit the ground hard, landing in an undignified sprawl beside one another, minds struggling to adjust to the abrupt shift in our circumstances. Amidst the sound of the breaking glass, I thought I might have heard the chime of familiar laughter, as if it amused and pleased someone that Trent and I had indeed found our way back home again. Sure, laugh it up. I scowled inwardly, feeling none too pleased with Trent's Turn-blasted Goddess right now. The thought didn't hold a lot of my attention, though. One part of my mind was automatically trying to understand and dissect the spell that had just been enacted on us, wondering if there was some significance to using something like a mirror or a window as the transfer point between realities, while another part was yammering at me that Ivy was going to be pissed that we'd just busted her mirror and scattered it all over her bedroom. Granted, she didn't use this room that much anymore now that she was pretty much living with Nina, but still.

Trent sat up almost at once, looking around in an alert, wary manner that instantly told me that he didn't know where we were. Why would he? He'd been to the church on numerous occasions, but I don't think he'd ever been inside Ivy's room. I was suddenly intensely grateful that Castiel had actually dropped us some place safe and familiar rather than just dumping us anywhere in our reality that was handy. Maybe it had been easiest to connect us to some place where we had a strong emotional attachment or something, but I was grateful all the same. I'd had about all I could take of wandering about like lost hitch hikers.

I sat up a little slower, shaking broken glass shards off my shirt and trying not to accidentally place my hands on any of the slivers as I pushed up and got my feet under me. "This is Ivy's room," I told Trent because it was the only thing I could think to say. "We're ... we're home." I did not expect the simple words to hit me like they did. I hadn't expected the tightness in my throat, the burn in my eyes or the sudden welling of relief that surged up in me like a delayed reaction as the reality of it finally sunk in. We were home.

The door of the bedroom burst open as I reached for it and I suddenly found myself confronted with the deadly calm visage of a beautiful woman with dark hair and a lethal expression who had obviously come to investigate the sudden crash in the bedroom that was still technically hers.

I backed up instinctively, judiciously cautious of the seductive ferocity in Ivy's stance even as my heart swelled in joy at seeing her. "Ivy!" I half cried, half squeaked, sounding pretty stupid what with the way my voice kind of cracked over the word. Ivy froze as still as a statue in the doorway, shock written in every graceful line of her body. For half a moment I felt illogically embarrassed by the way we'd shown up and hyper conscious of the fact that Trent was here with me in Ivy's bedroom. The truly ridiculous urge to explain that it was all very innocent and accidental babbled through my brain for no good reason.

Then my friend finally seemed to register what she was seeing and her whole expression changed in a way that drove all other thoughts from my mind. "Rachel?" she whispered, her voice barely audible. Then she repeated it, louder, as if my name were a talisman that could fix me in place and never let me go again. "Rachel!"

The look on Ivy's face almost broke my heart. It was a raw picture of hope, shock and disbelief carved in lines that seemed to go soul deep. I saw her struggling with herself, gulping several breaths of air to keep her own powerful emotions from tripping her up and eroding her control. Then she was across the room, vamp fast, and folding me into a tight embrace.

"Rachel..." she whispered into my hair and the tremble in her voice made the lump in my throat almost painful. God, I had missed her.

"Tink loves a duck! Rache, you're alive!" Jenk's voice shrilled above us as Ivy nearly crushed my ribs.

"We thought you were dead." Ivy's voice rumbled in her throat, her head buried against my shoulder. "Quen said they burned your soul. Bis felt you disappear."

"We just about rented out your room and everything. Where in the fairy farting universe have you been Rache?! Way to scare us all to death!" Jenks was darting everywhere, dusting heavily and babbling in a way that told me exactly how hard my supposed death had hit my friends.

"And you even brought the cookie maker back with you!" Jenks crowed, flitting over to buzz around Trent's head in the same enthusiastic, dizzying, whirl of clattering wings. "Hey, Trent! You look like hell, but I guess that's pretty good for a dead guy!" The pixy sounded genuinely happy and relieved in a way that suggested he was a lot fonder of Trent than I perhaps realized.

"It's good to see you again, Jenks," Trent greeted with a smile. Jenks finally darted down and landed on the elf's shoulder.

"Piss on my daisies, you both stink!" Jenks complained cheerfully. "You smell like ... I don't even know what you smell like, but it's really weird and you look like a couple of lumber jack wannabes! Where have you been?!"

"It's a ... rather a long story," Trent replied wryly. "They did try to burn our souls, but it didn't quite turn out that way. Instead we ended up in exile on an ... alternate version of earth." I could tell from the brief hesitation in his voice that he didn't know how to deal with how bizarre that sounded when trying to explain it to someone who hadn't been there.

"No freaking way!" Jenks exclaimed, wide-eyed as he lifted several inches off Trent's shoulder in surprise before settling back down again. "Really? Did you have to battle your own evil twins?!" He sounded like he was only half joking.

"No, as far as I know, there were no alternate versions of us on that earth. It was a very different place. We did, however, encounter some very radically different vampires and demons, battled an army of ghouls and met an angel - wearing a trench coat." Trent grinned at Jenks' wide-eyed look.

"No way, you're pulling my leg!" Jenks eyed the elf suspiciously, lifting off his shoulder and buzzing over to me. "Rache, is Trent pulling my leg?"

"Nope," I smiled up at him over Ivy's shoulder. "It was total ghoul apocalypse for a while and the angel's the one who zapped us back here."

"Tink's dildo! I wish I had been with you, Rache! But I'll settle for you being back. And not dead. It sucks when you're dead, Rachel. Everything is so boring." Again, I got the feeling Jenks was only partially joking.

"I missed you too, Jenks. We tried to get back as quickly as we could, but hoping realities seems to take some pretty heavy mojo. How long have we been gone, here?"

"A little over two weeks," Ivy still hadn't let go and her voice was muffled against me. I gave her shoulders a squeeze, trying to keep my own emotions in check so as not to set her off worse than she already was. I was so happy to see her and to be home that I probably wasn't worrying as much as I should have at having her so close with so much emotion swirling about.

Trent and I exchanged unpleasantly shocked glances at her answer. We hadn't been in the other world that long, so there must have been some time loss during our initial transition after all. Trent's face said he obviously wasn't happy about that, but there wasn't much I could do about it.

"Is that coffee I smell?" I asked as Ivy finally, reluctantly let go of me. I may be home, but I still hadn't slept properly in days and a little caffeine would not go amiss. By mutual consent, the four of us moved our little reunion into the kitchen. Ivy still seemed a bit in shock, so I dug out coffee mugs for all of us. Evening sun was slanting in through the windows and I felt another little jolt of disconnection as I tried to get my brain to stop thinking of it as being the middle of the night. It felt sort of like traveling to a different time zone ... only multiplied by a thousand.

"You staying here again?" I asked Ivy as I filled our mugs with some of her delicious fresh brew. I'd had enough coffee over the past few days to float a boat, but the battery acid the hunters made was nothing like this. "Everything okay with Nina?"

Ivy made a sort-of gesture with her head and shoulders in response to my first question. "Not really staying," she qualified, sounding almost guilty about it. "I can't leave Nina alone too long and she doesn't want to move into the church, but I didn't want to leave Jenks alone here either."

Jenks huffed indignantly at this. "Tink's diaphragm, Ivy! You know how old I am for a pixy? I'm ancient for crying out loud! I keep telling you I don't need a damn babysitter and I'm not exactly alone."

Ivy and I exchanged looks. We both knew that the pixy was more than capable of taking care of himself, but even when I had been there the church had felt somewhat empty since the last of his children had moved out to their own gardens. Many of his kids were nearby, like Jih and her family, and of course Belle was still here, but I knew what Ivy meant. With me gone, this church was far too big and too empty for a lone pixy and a wingless fairy by themselves. I glanced around, wondering where Belle was. Out patrolling the grounds, maybe? No, it was probably too cold for that still.

"Where's Belle?" I asked Jenks, once again looking around for her. We'd made enough commotion just now that I couldn't believe we hadn't drawn everyone in the house.

Jenks' gaze skittered away ever so slightly. "She's, ah... with her sisters. One of 'em's hurt and it's been a little touch and go, but I think she's going to be okay."

I thought it was kind of sweet that Jenks seemed a little worried about Belle's kin, given that a year or two ago he would have happily killed them himself. I wondered at the uneasy evasiveness in his answer though. Was it just because he was embarrassed to admit that he cared what happened to a bunch of fairies? Or was it something else?

I nodded with a small frown of concern. "I'll check on them and see if there's anything I can do to help when I take Trent back to his place," I said as I inhaled the steam from my hot mug. I assumed Jenks meant that Belle was staying over at Trent's greenhouse where her other wingless kin lived, although I wasn't sure how she'd gotten there in this weather. Ivy, maybe?

Ivy and Jenks were both silent and I noticed that only Trent and I seemed interested in touching our drinks.

"Crap on toast," I muttered once a few sips of the heavenly beverage got my lagging brain moving again and the reality of what it meant to have been assumed dead for several weeks finally sunk in. "I need to call my Mom. Nobody's issued a death certificate or anything yet, have they? It is SUCH a pain being legally dead..." I stopped, another awful thought striking me as I realized Belle wasn't the only person absent from this reunion.

"Bis!" I said, alarm spiking through me. "Where's Bis? Is he okay?" It was daylight, so his absence shouldn't have worried me, but Ivy said he'd felt me disappear. Bis was bound to me. When I died, he would die. And they had thought we were dead ... no, no, no! "Bis!" I shouted in alarm, abandoning my coffee mug and almost running towards the stairs to the attic.

Jenks buzzed up in front of me, forcing me to stop before I made it out of the kitchen. "Cool it, Rache! Bis is okay. Well ... I think he will be, anyway," he amended, a troubled look on his face.

"The day you ... didn't die, Bis woke up shortly before sunset. He was freaking out. He said something must have happened to you because he felt you disappear. We called and couldn't reach you. Ivy went looking, found where you'd been taken and took off after the trail with Bis tagging along." I could see in the sour expression on Jenks' face that Ivy had refused to take the pixy with them. It had been too cold and Ivy's motorcycle offered no protection. Jenks wouldn't have survived, but being forced to stay behind had obviously been murder for him.

"Ivy and Bis followed your trail to the woods where there were a lot of burned trees and dead elves. Soon as she saw the elf bodies, she called Trent. Only she couldn't get him of course, so she called Quen, who was already in full blown alert mode because he'd just found out that Trent wasn't where he was supposed to be and nobody was tellin' him nothin'. Ivy smelled both your blood and Trent's in the woods and when Quen showed up ... I guess he recognized the ritual that they were tryin' to pull off."

"You think I can be scary, you should have seen Quen when he saw that post with the bloody chains and those markings cut into the ground and realized what they'd done," Ivy put in.

I could just imagine, and obviously Trent could too because the elf shifted, instinctively reaching for the phone he didn't have before stopping himself. "I will need to call Quen soon. I'm sure he's going to be most put-out with me for all this," he added. He said it lightly, but there was something curiously intense and wary as he watched the vampire and the pixy, looking for their reactions. Trent was worried, I realized. He wanted to know the status of the people close to him but seemed almost reluctant to ask outright lest the news be bad, especially about Quen.

Ivy and Jenks exchanged looks and I felt something inside me tighten. What weren't they telling us?

"Bis was ... very upset, when Quen said you were dead and they had burned your soul. He insisted it couldn't be true and that he had to find you. Then he disappeared; popped into a line, I guess." Ivy continued her story quietly. Her face had gone blank in a way that worried me. "Quen knew Ellasbeth had to be involved because she'd lied to him about where Trent was and made sure Quen wasn't around when he was getting snatched. I wasn't familiar enough with her scent to be sure whether she had been there in the woods or not, but Quen found this little pink princess Band-Aid on the ground and he went bat shit crazy. He took off without a word.

"He's fast, but I'm faster. I got in his car to keep him from leaving without me, so he took off with me instead. I found out on the way that we were heading for Trent's place. That's where Ellasbeth was now, Quen said, with the girls. He was so angry it was hard to keep myself under control, much less get him to talk, but I got the impression that he figured Ellasbeth had not only been in on the murders, but had also forced one or both of the girls to watch you both being burned." Ivy's voice was cool and empty and her gaze distant as if she needed to remove herself completely from the emotions of the story she told in order to avoid re-living them. I knew from experience that this was actually the case. If Ivy was being this intentionally blank, it meant that the memories she was relating were so bad they could risk setting off her vampire nature just by allowing herself to remember what they had felt like.

"Bis searched both sides of the lines. He even went to Al for help, but they couldn't find you. He took it real hard over the next day or so, Rache," Jenks interjected. "He refused to believe you were dead, even after the rest of us finally accepted it. He wasn't doing real good or making a lot of sense. Not being able to feel or connect with you was apparently doin' bad things to his head. When he finally allowed you might be gone, he decided that meant he was a bad gargoyle. That there was something wrong with him that you could die and he was still here. I guess it's not supposed to work like that. I tried to talk to him, Rache, I did. I told him how I shouldn't be here either after Matalina and how sometimes things can change. But the kid was bad off." Jenks' wings slumped. "He went out on the church roof at sunrise one day and just stayed there. He looks like he's gone solid stone, but his dad says he's still alive. He's in some kind of deep gargoyle coma. They didn't expect him to ever come out of it ... but I'm sure he will now that you're back!" Jenks finished quickly when he saw the horrified look on my face.

Worry clenched my stomach. I needed to go check on him right away. I needed to make sure Bis knew I was back and see if there was something I had to do to rekindle our bond and wake him up. But there was a funny unease curling in my stomach that held me in place a little longer. I hadn't missed the fact that Jenks had intentionally skipped the story at least a day ahead, without letting Ivy finish telling what had happened when she and Quen went to confront Ellasbeth.

"What happened when you went back to my apartments?" Trent's gaze had zeroed in on Ivy and I could tell that he hadn't missed that either.

Ivy sighed, her body and posture tight. "Things went ... sideways," she said quietly and the tightening in my gut became painful. "The whole way there, Quen was on and off the phone. There was some kind of huge political firestorm taking place among the elves and it was turning ugly fast. Whoever orchestrated your assassination was playing out of their league and it burned them, bad. Still, you were gone and that meant an immediate scramble to fill the power void." Ivy shook her head. "The Withon clan was apparently the obvious choice and they were acting like it, but that wasn't sitting well with everyone and there were factions who opposed them. Quen seemed to think it was only a matter of time before the Withons came out on top and that the dissenters would settle down. Normally, perhaps, that is what would have happened, but the situation wasn't normal because the flames of discord were being intentionally fanned from the outside. Only ... we didn't know that until later." Ivy's expression became hard.

"The elves as a whole were plenty pissed at Trent for what he'd been up to with the demons, but the faction who decided he needed to die for it turned out to have been influenced and manipulated by the undercover workings of a couple Master Vampires who were unhappy with both the elves coming out of the closet and the fact that they're not dying out anymore," she explained.

Trent's face tightened. His eyes were dark, but lit with a grim understanding as if he finally had the answer to a question that had been plaguing him, even if it wasn't one he particularly liked. "Of course, that explains the pieces that didn't fit. Reginald or whatever fool he was working for must have thought that whatever deals they'd made with their new friends would give them enough power to be able to successfully challenge the Withons if I was out of the way."

Ivy nodded. "There was a lot of double-dealing going on because some of the elves were apparently in thrall to the vampires and their companions didn't know that they'd been bitten and bound. I guess not all are strong enough to resist as much as Quen did."

Trent shook his head grimly. "There's too much human in too many of our bloodlines, and there is also force of will to consider," he said distractedly. "I knew the vampires would eagerly take advantage of the elves' internal strife. I should have known they could also have been the cause of that strife. I shouldhave seen this coming." There was true, reproachful bitterness in his voice and I shot him a little frown.

"Give yourself a break, you're not omniscient, Trent," I muttered.

Gaze still on Ivy, Trent ignored me. "Did Cormell know? He and I had an understanding about trying to maintain peace between our races. I find it hard to believe he wished to take us to war."

Ivy shook hear head. "Cormell wasn't part of this, he was supposed to be another victim. I found out later that he had been the target of a murderous coup at around the same time that you and Rachel were. The elves and the vampires were supposed to be getting new leadership all in one fell swoop, only it didn't work out that way. Cormell was injured, but survived. The traitors did not. Ironically, Felix showing up unexpectedly and creating chaos is what botched the assassination attempt enough to save him, although it wasn't intentional on Felix's part." The undead vampire was all but crazy these days and no one understood why Cormell hadn't yet put him down, although I was glad for Ivy and Nina's sake since it was still unsure whether Nina would survive Felix's death.

I felt a chill of shock that so much could have happened while we were gone. It seemed surreal and almost unfair somehow. Trent had been worried about something like this all along, but it hadn't been real to me until now. It was unrealistic to have expected the world here to just stand still while we were gone, but feeling like I'd missed so much was still disconcerting and uncomfortable.

"It was Belle's kin who put it all together," Jenks put in with a slight note of very unexpected pride. "Damn elves would still be killing each other if those fairies hadn't been in Trent's garden and seen that it was vampires who ..." Jenks stopped suddenly, dipping a few feet as his wings slowed. "Who stirred things up even worse," he finished lamely, looking sick in a way that made very worried. "By the way, Rache, they're ... uh ... they're kind of all rooming in your desk right now with Belle and me. The fairies, I mean. Hope you don't mind. It's a totally temporary situation," he added quickly, frowning lest anyone think he was at all going soft on the idea of having a bunch of fairies hanging about.

"That's fine, Jenks," I shook my head distractedly, guessing that this had something to do with why Jenks had been evasive about Belle earlier. Of course I didn't mind, although I wondered why Jenks was allowing it and why the wingless fairies would have moved out of Trent's protected greenhouse and into a house owned by a pixy, in the middle of the winter no less, unless they had no choice.

Trent's eyes were hard and his features set. "Classic divide and conquer. We were too strong as a united front; they wanted us to destroy ourselves first, allowing them to eventually hunt us to near extinction like they did the Banshees." He ran a hand through his hair, displaying his agitation.

"I believe that was their plan, yes," Ivy agreed calmly and I suddenly realized that this could be a very awkward situation, considering that it was in fact a vampire and an elf who were discussing the matter. However, I knew Ivy didn't give a damn for vampire politics and whether the elves became more powerful or not, and Trent had already proved himself smart enough to not paint everyone of a certain bloodline with the same brush.

"It worked for a while, too. The amount of elven blood spilled in the first few days after the incident was high by any standard," Ivy continued darkly. "The pieces didn't come together until we had a warm day and Jenks got me to take him and Belle over to Trent's to look for her family. When we found them and heard what they had to say, I took the information to Cormell. I knew it was part of the same plot that had been enacted against him and that he'd move against the perpetrators. He made the call to inform the Withons, although I would have found a way to reveal the truth even if he had chosen to hide it."

Ivy lifted her chin in a surprising display of defiance, as if she needed us to believe that she would have found a way to make sure the culprits were exposed even if it meant the suicidal step of going against her own Master Vampire. She had come so far in terms of her independence and courage and I was so proud of her, even as I worried for her safety as a result.

She was still speaking to Trent, but her gaze had shifted to me. I knew it was my opinion she cared about. I appreciated that she hadn't let a lot of people get killed needlessly ... but there was something off about this. Ivy was by no means cold-hearted, but the fate of a bunch of elves who were stupid enough to be killing one another off wasn't something I would have expected to be of much concern to her, especially after the elven involvement in Trent's and my supposed death.

I guessed that it wasn't concern for the elves that had motivated her, but rather her intense hatred for the ones who had set the wheels in motion and her desire for vengeance against the right targets. I could tell she had held the Master Vampires behind the plot as equally culpable in my supposed death as the elves, and her eyes said she would never have let them cover that up, even if she'd had to buck Rynn Cormell all by herself - and probably die for it. I could tell that there was something else, too ... something else had happened that had increased and cemented her hatred for everyone involved in this ugly plot. I was beginning to fear the revelation of what that something else might be.

Trent raised his eyebrows. "I'm sure that revelation went over fantastically," he said with dark sarcasm.

Ivy met his gaze coolly. "About as well as you'd expect, yes. Cormell proved good faith with the Withons by handing over all those involved whom he hadn't already killed. That allegedly prevented an all-out war, but you wouldn't know it by the rising body count on both sides. It's officially frowned upon, but the elves and vampires have been at one another ever since. The I.S. is tied in knots trying to deal with it. Their general plan of action seems to be to let the elves and vampires hash it out amongst themselves and just focus on damage control and keeping the rest of the world from finding out about what's going on," she added with a note of disgust. Given that a predominant portion of the I.S. hierarchy were in fact vampires, I wasn't surprised.

Trent's face was dark, his expression guarded and ... worried? "Ivy, as much as I expected and feared something of this nature, I find it hard to believe that my death alone could have triggered hostilities on this scale. You said things went sideways when you and Quen went to confront Ellasbeth. What else happened? What haven't you told us?"

Ivy seemed reluctant but determined, as if facing a nasty yet inevitable task. "A lot of things went wrong that night. When we got to your apartments, your guards and staff were gone. I don't how it went down, but Ellasbeth had taken over and the place was crawling with the Withons' men. Jonathan was one of them. I'm not sure who returned him to his human form, but he was definitely working for the other side. He taunted Quen about being able to snatch you from right under his nose and about ... what they had done to you, and Rachel. Quen was livid and just about lost it. They went at each other hard and ugly. A number of the other guards attempted to weigh in and I ... dealt with them." She paused and closed her eyes, breathing deep to maintain her control over the memories. I had a feeling Quen wasn't the only one who had lost it in the face of having our supposed demise confirmed and gloated over. I'd always worried how Ivy would react to something like that after all we'd been through together. I was glad to see she had apparently held up relatively well, all things considered. She'd been able to go on after losing me, and despite a completely selfish twinge of illogical melancholy, I was fiercely pleased and relieved by that fact.

Jenks was silent, spilling a sickly red and black dust that was making me about as anxious as Ivy's obvious reluctance to continue.

"Ivy? Where's Quen? If I call him, will he answer his phone?" Trent's voice was quiet and even. It was a calmness that I now recognized was his way of burying his emotions in preparation for an expected blow.

Ivy shook her head. "No. He won't answer. Bis isn't the only one who's been out. Quen's been in a coma since the night you two disappeared." Her expression going deadly calm, Ivy forced her way through the rest of the story. "Quen killed Jonathan. Quen was pretty hurt, but still on his feet. More guards came running from the house." She gave a dark, fanged smile. "Between the two of us, they wouldn't have had a chance, but then Ellasbeth video calls Quen from inside." Ivy's jaw clenched. "She didn't fight fair. She and her bodyguards are in the nursery with Lucy and Ray. She tells Quen that you're gone; he can't change that and he needs to rethink his allegiances. She says he'd better stand down and take care of the vampire if he doesn't want Lucy growing up as an only child."

My breath literally caught in my throat and I clenched my fists so hard my nails dug into my palms. My gaze shot to Trent. The pure hatred flaring in his eyes had displaced his cool mask. He was still collected, but obviously seething. It was no less than he had feared, but being right clearly still hit him hard.

"That bitch," Trent said very quietly, taking the words right out of my mouth. Looking at Trent's eyes, I knew that if Ellasbeth had been foolish enough to actually allow Ray to be harmed, there was nothing that could save her. "And then?" Trent prompted; his expression going icy once more as he steadied himself for what was to come.

Given what we'd heard to this point, I thought I knew what was coming. I thought Ivy and Jenks had been hesitating to tell us about how Quen had betrayed Ivy and allowed himself to be taken out to protect his daughter. Maybe even that he was dying and would never come out of his coma. I think that's what Trent was expecting too.

We were right, but also wrong. Devastatingly wrong. The truth was so much worse.

"Quen stood down, of course, and took me with him." There was no accusation in Ivy's tone. She understood the choice forced upon him and obviously did not consider it a true betrayal, even though it seemed a miracle that he hadn't gotten her killed.

"Then ... then the whole fucking place went to hell," she said with a dark, dangerous blankness. "One minute, the guards are taking Quen into custody and I'm spelled flat on the ground, about to be killed twice. The next minute, there's a huge explosion from inside your house, Trent. It took out half the complex in one blast. The building was ablaze in moments. I actually thought it was some kind of trick at first, but the guards were thrown into complete panic. They weren't even paying attention to us anymore and it was easy to get free. Quen ran into the burning house. I followed, but there was another explosion and we were separated. The whole place was going up. By the time I found him again he'd been blown through a wall and was trapped under the rubble. I managed to get him out, but the doctors say he sustained severe head trauma and he's not woken up since. I tried to go back in ... I did," Ivy's eyes were black with pain as they looked at Trent and then over at me, as if she really needed me to understand and believe that. I realized with a lurch that Ivy felt she had failed somehow.

"But it was all coming down; there was no house, there was nothing to go back in to anymore. It happened so fast. No one knew about the vampires yet. The explosion was initially blamed on one of the rival elf factions who didn't want the Withons to take over and had therefore removed their strongest claim to power. The Withons' response was swift and brutal. That's what started them all killing each other. It was only later we learned from the fairies that they'd seen vampires on the grounds that night, sneaking in and back out again under the cover of the disturbance created when Ellasbeth's security ousted Trent's. The fairies had fought the intruders, leaving one of them visibly scarred in a manner I was able to use to track him down. It took a while, but it was from him that I was eventually able to ... extract the full story and find out that they were responsible for the bombing and for everything else." Ivy's teeth flashed again in a snarl. "He got what he deserved. Everyone involved did. Not a one died quickly," she promised grimly.

Cold, stark horror and disbelief was worming its way under my skin and starting to tighten like a vice around my heart. The point of the attack had been to set the Withons off by taking away part of their claim to leadership of the elves and by doing it in such an atrocious manner it would leave the elven world tearing itself apart with rage. That meant Ellasbeth hadn't been the target of the assassination. Killing her would certainly enrage the Withons, but she wasn't the one who held the symbolic promise of the future. She wasn't the first child to have been born true in millennia, the one who mixed the Withons' political power with the Kalamack's pure bloodline. No, the person they had needed to take out in order to cause chaos and retribution on this massive a scale ... was Lucy.

"What happened to Lucy and Ray," Trent's urgent, demanding voice was unexpectedly ragged. He stepped across the space between them and actually grabbed Ivy's shoulders, giving her a very unwise shake. "Ivy! Where are my children?!"

Ivy's eyes were completely black, Trent's fear and anger on top of her own emotions tripping her right over the edge into a full on vamp-out.

I grabbed Trent's shoulders and pushed him back, getting between them and wrestling him quickly away from Ivy before things got ugly. Trent fought me, terror stripping him of his usual composure and any semblance of good sense. "What happened to my girls?!" he shouted. "Damn it to the Turn, Rachel! Make her tell me!"

My eyes burned with tears, because some part of me already knew. Just as some part of Trent must know as well. That's why he was fighting so hard. He wanted a different answer. He wanted to force it to be different. Oh God, no ... please, no, not this ... anything but this.

Chapter Text

"I'm sorry," Ivy rasped from behind me, the words lisping slightly over her fangs. She had her arms folded across her chest as if holding herself in, almost curling over as she struggled for control. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that her eyes were still pitch black and hungry, but they were also filled with pain and fixed on Trent. "I'm so sorry. I couldn't get to them."

I felt Trent's struggles against me go still, his breath catching in his chest and something like a groan sticking in his throat. "No."

"It wasn't Ivy's fault," Jenks said miserably, black dust dripping from him like a shroud. "Even if she could have gotten into the house, it wouldn't have done any good. The investigators say the first few blasts went off right by the nursery. It was over quick. They ... they didn't suffer. I know that doesn't mean crap, Trent, but ... it's all I got." Jenks didn't say he was sorry, but pain was written all over his face and hung heavy in his voice. He knew what it was to lose children and he seemed to know there no words could ever sooth that pain or mean anything in the face of it.

I couldn't see anything anymore, hot tears were spilling down my face and my throat had closed off, making me sob for breath. I thought of blonde, demanding, adorable little Lucy, so vivacious and outgoing. I thought of sweet, kind little Ray with her dark curls and gorgeous, serious eyes. What kind of world allowed two precious lives like that to be cut short so early and so senselessly? I was heartbroken and angry and I couldn't begin to imagine how Trent must be feeling. I loved Lucy and Ray, but they weren't my daughters. This whole time, Trent had been fighting so hard to get back to them ... and they had already been gone. It was too cruel. Too hideously, horribly cruel.

Trent hadn't moved. My fingers were still buried in his shirt, gripping his arm and pressed against his chest even though he was no longer struggling. I felt the silent shudders running through him; the heaves his body was trying to suppress. I blinked my vision clear enough to see that tears were spilling down Trent's cheeks as well. His face was riven with grief and blank with the shock of the loss he had yet to fully absorb. I realized that in all the time I'd known him, I'd never seen Trent cry. Not like this.

Trent's lungs heaved under my hand as he gasped for air. I saw him struggling to make sense of all this, but he couldn't seem to wrap his head around it. "No," he said again, raggedly. "No!" His tone was angry now, defiant. "You're wrong! There's been a mistake. It was a ruse. The Withons are powerful enough to pull it off. Ellasbeth took the girls somewhere and is hiding them ..."

My heart ached. I wished I could believe that, I wanted to ... but I didn't. I didn't think Trent did either. It didn't make sense. This had clearly been a cruel, calculating move to set the elves off into a self-destructive rage by making them think that their little princess had been murdered by some of their own. However anyone felt about Trent or the Withons, I couldn't believe any of them had actually wanted Lucy dead - she was to be their future and had been young enough still to be molded by whoever had possession of her. The children's deaths had been part of a cold, calculating plan. They had been nothing but tools used to spark a war like nothing else could have. Apparently, it hadn't worked out too good for the perpetrators, but the fact that the truth behind the vicious plot had eventually been revealed made no difference to the lives destroyed along the way.

"I wish I could tell you different, but those vamps weren't lyin' when they finally spilled their guts, and Ellasbeth's remains were recovered. Or ... parts of them, anyhow," Jenks said quietly. "The DNA matched and the Withons have spilled waaaay too much blood in the past few weeks for them to be pullin' some kind of sham. This war hasn't done them any favors; it's actually just about wrecked them."

"Trent ..." I breathed hoarsely, my fingers curling in his shirt. "Trent, I am so sorry." They were stupid, useless words but it was true, and what else could I say? Apparently the perpetrators were already all dead; there wasn't even any meaningful vengeance to be had, only heartbreak. Somehow, that actually felt like it made things worse.

Trent pulled away from me, his face contorted with pain and rage and empty with a loss so deep I could almost visibly see it shattering him before my eyes.

"No. DNA can be faked, it's been done before. This ... I refuse. I cannot believe this. I cannot. This cannot happen, I can't ... I cannot lose them. I will not ..." he seemed to run out of words or maybe his throat was too choked to speak.

"Trent ..." I reached for him but he pulled away again, motions quick and angry.

"I said no! Don't," he hissed warningly, glaring at me like I was the enemy, like I was somehow to blame for all this. "Stay away from me." His raw, seething eyes were dark with a look I'd not seen directed my way since the first time he realized I was a demon.

I swallowed, feeling like someone was slicing into my chest, cutting parts of me I hadn't realized I'd let become vulnerable. I wasn't even sure where exactly the pain was coming from. Shouldn't I feel more angry? Did the idea of Trent holding me responsible really hurt that much? Or was it the numb, horrible thought that maybe in some round-about way I was responsible? The vampires and the elves were the orchestrators of this tragedy, but I couldn't pretend that my influence in Trent's life had played no part at all in the train wreck that had brought us to this place.

Was that what Trent was thinking? I wondered. Maybe ... but maybe not. Maybe he was simply hurting too much to bear and the pain was expressing itself through rage. Maybe I was reading my own feelings of guilt into his reactions.

There wasn't enough hatred in his eyes, I thought numbly. If and when Trent got around to truly deciding that losing his children was my fault, I knew I would never see anything but hatred in that gaze again. I couldn't think about that.

I heard a clatter behind me and my attention was jerked back to Ivy. She had jammed herself back against the far wall, knocking over one of the kitchen chairs in the process. Trent's meltdown was clearly triggering her badly. She watched him with the dark, wary eyes of a predator, but was holding herself in check with sheer force of will.

Trent balled his fists at his side, his chest was heaving. He shook his head, struggling as if there were something physically inside him trying to burst out.

Fear iced through my pain. I was in a room full of people about to lose control. If Trent lashed out at me, Ivy would lose it and this would turn into a complete cluster fuck.

"Trent," I breathed again in warning, feeling heartbroken and terrified at the same time. I needed to do something to keep this situation from getting worse ... but my throat was too tight, my mind too raw and I seemed stupidly incapable of saying anything other than his name.

"Just leave me alone!" Trent snapped, retreating as his body started to shake with the emotions he was repressing, his angry green eyes still streaming with tears he could not blink away. Turning on his heel, he abruptly half stormed, half fled out of the kitchen.

Getting distance between he and Ivy was probably a good idea, although I don't think that was his concern right now. I followed Trent down the hall because I was afraid of where he might go and what he might do, but he only went as far as the bathroom.

Jenks followed too, hovering worriedly by the elf's shoulder. Trent batted him away viciously, disappearing into the bathroom and slamming the door shut behind him. A few moments later I heard several loud crashes from inside the small room, followed by the smashing sound breaking glass as Trent took his rage out upon his surroundings. I couldn't bring myself to care. Trent could wreck the whole house for all it mattered now. What did things matter when Ray and Lucy were gone?

The smashing sounds finally abated only to be replaced by the much worse and much more gut-wrenching sound of Trent crying so hard he choked and his stomach heaved. I could hear his retching sobs clearly and painfully through the door as the violence of his grief literally made him ill.

I couldn't listen. I couldn't bear it. Trent's grief was too raw, too consuming and too personal. I knew he didn't want us to witness it, that's why he'd run. Trent was intensely private and controlled to the point that I sometimes thought he was afraid of letting people see his feelings. I could give him nothing else at this point; I would at least give him his privacy and the space to mourn.

Moving numbly away from the bathroom I stumbled back to the kitchen with Jenks dusting along behind me.

"He shouldn't be alone, Rache," Jenks said quietly, his voice riddled with helpless pain.

I shook my head. "He needs to be, for a little," I mumbled, trying to calm my own hitching breaths. I was certainly no good for Trent or anyone at the moment. I was too much of a mess myself. Ray. Lucy. Why?! They were just babies ... it was so unfair it was unthinkable. I felt like my chest was on fire and yet at the same time filled with lead. How had things gone so wrong? I'd been so happy to be home just minutes ago and now it felt like everything had fallen apart.

In a way, I supposed, it had. Not for me, maybe, at least not permanently. But for Trent? I did not think he would recover from this. He would survive it, because Trent was a survivor, but he would never recover. Having had his children sacrificed on the altar of political machination was going to change him and I was under no illusions it would change him for the better.

Al had once told me that hate is all that keeps us alive when love is gone, and Trent and Al had a lot more in common than they thought. I had the numb, hopeless feeling that I was watching the beginning of the end and I didn't want to see what came next. I didn't want to see what Trent would become. I didn't want to watch his soul die slowly, bereft of the anchor of love and goodness that made him fight to keep both heart and conscience when the life he had to lead could so easily strip and corrupt both. I didn't want to watch him wall himself off and let his cold and ruthless side take over until everything good inside him withered and he became the man he'd never wanted to be.

I'd fought so hard to get him home alive and well. Now I wondered if it would have been better if he had never returned. There was nothing here for him now ... no, worse than nothing, there was destruction here for him.

I realized that I wasn't only mourning the girls; I was already mourning Trent, too. Maybe it was completely selfish of me, especially at a moment like this, but I suddenly understood that I didn't want to lose whatever it was that we'd built between us. I didn't want to lose him ... and I was going to. Maybe I already had.

Ivy was still where we'd left her. She still had her back pressed against the wall, but her eyes were slowly returning to normal now that Trent's overwhelming emotions were out of the room. I was just sad and heartbroken and apparently those weren't pushing any of her triggers right now.

"I'm sorry, Rachel," she whispered and I frowned as I looked over.

"Ivy, you have nothing to apologize for. Jenks is right; there was nothing you could have done. I ... I'm just glad you're okay," I admitted, surprising Ivy by crossing into her space and being the one to give her a hug this time. Not smart maybe, but the reality of how close I'd come to losing her the same night Lucy and Ray were lost was sinking in. I couldn't have borne coming back to this mess and finding her gone too.

Ivy cupped my face and gave me a soft kiss on the forehead. "I'm so glad you're alive, Rachel. I'm so glad you came back to us again. And I'm so sorry. I want to stay with you, I want to be here for you ... but I can't. I need to go."

I stepped back and nodded. I wanted her to stay too, but I knew she couldn't and I was glad she was able to admit it and deal with the situation rationally, even if it did mean she had to leave. I could tell it was taking all her willpower to hold on. She was clearly in a fragile state after the events of the past weeks. Reliving them on top of the shock of getting me back from the grave was doing her no favors. She'd already been pushed too far in too short a time and even with several walls between them, Trent was a tornado of raw emotion that could cause another blow up at any time.

"Tell Nina hi for me," I said, suspecting that that was where Ivy would go. It kind of said a lot about the volatile emotional state of affairs we found ourselves in here that being with her barely stable vampire lover would be less of a test of Ivy's control.

Ivy nodded, collecting herself. "She'll be glad you're not dead too." Her high heels clacked as she walked across the kitchen, her body swaying in an unconscious, sexy saunter that told me her instincts were still riding much too close to the surface. She paused in the doorway. "Don't forget to call your Mom and ... " she glanced in the direction of the bathroom. "Don't leave him alone too long. If it gets too quiet in there, go in and make sure he's still breathing."

I was more than a little shocked to realize that Ivy was dead serious. "What do you think he's going to do, slit his wrists?" I said with numb incredulity. I couldn't imagine that, it just didn't seem like Trent.

Ivy seemed to understand my disbelief and cocked her head to the side. "Maybe, maybe not. I don't pretend to know him as well as you do, but loving too intensely is a dangerous thing. Trust me, Rachel. There is nothing as devastatingly cruel as love. I know how hard it was when you lost Kisten, he was an important part of your world. But you're strong, Rachel and he was part of your world, not the whole thing."

I swallowed. The reminder of Kisten hurt, especially on top of my current grief. Yet the fact that the ache had become something sweet and dull perhaps proved my friend's point. I would never forget him, it would never completely stop hurting, but I had moved past it. The memories and the weight of the loss had become simply another part of who I was rather than a corrosive force that could destroy me.

"I can't pretend to understand the bond between a parent and child," Ivy continued quietly. "But I think for Trent those girls were his whole world, or at least the only part of it he really cared about. That's gone now, and I don't know if he can come back from that. I do know that he'll never be able to do it alone."

I couldn't breathe as Ivy held my gaze, her eyes deep with pain and experience. Life had shattered her a few times too, albeit for different reasons. She was in a better place now than she'd ever been before, but she knew intimately the pain of being unmade by circumstances beyond your control. I had helped her pick up the pieces and put her life back together and I realized with a hopeless little jolt that she expected me to do the same for Trent. I appreciated her misplaced faith, but I didn't think I could do that. Putting Ivy back together was one thing, this was totally different.

"I don't think I can help him, Ivy," I whispered, only then realizing how much I did want to. But what could I possibly do? How could anything ever make this all right again? "He's not going to want it, and I don't know how."

"Then he's lost, Rachel," Ivy said very quietly. It was not in any way a condemnation, just a sad, simple statement of fact. "Because there is no one else."

I knew that. Trent was alone. He'd always been alone, but with Quen down and the girls gone, the isolation was complete. Even if Quen recovered, was he going to be in any better shape? Ray and Lucy had been his daughters too and he'd already lost Ceri. Could he and Trent find any solace in shared grief, or would the weight of their loss merely double destructively around one another?

When the world found out Trent was still alive, he'd be flooded with all the usual well-wishers and hangers on, but he'd still be alone in all the ways that mattered. Given the timing of events, I supposed the official version of the story had him dying in the explosion with Ellasbeth and the girls. Once they knew that wasn't the case, the media would have a field day with both his miraculous survival and tragic bereavement. There would be an outpouring of sympathy and a glut of public grieving over his very personal losses that would only make everything worse. Everybody would want a piece of Trent. That was nothing new, but all they cared about was the name and the power. There was no one now but us here who cared about him as a man and not as a Kalamack. I felt a hard, protective rage build inside me at that thought.

I looked up and saw that Ivy's eyes were edging towards black again because of my emotions, but she smiled at me - fierce and sad and proud. There was a soft longing and what could have been a certain amount of jealousy in her eyes, but it was tempered by her obvious pride and affection. "I'm not saying it's your responsibility to try to save him, Rachel. It's not and I honestly don't know if anyone can," she said quietly. "Getting involved could hurt you, badly. I'm certainly not tryingto talk you into anything. If Trent goes down, he's going to go down ugly and he'll take a lot of others with him. If I'm truthful, I would rather you stay as far away from him as you can get. I'd rather you not become mixed up in this at all ... but I know you will. Even if it's stupid and useless and you know you probably shouldn't, you will. When things start falling apart you're going to fight for him, no matter what you think now and no matter how much you might get hurt, because it's who you are. It's better if we all face that fact honestly from the start. I just want you to know that you're not alone. I will alwaysbe here for you, Rachel, whatever happens."

Turning away quietly, Ivy slid out of the kitchen.

I stared after her, not exactly shocked, but definitely struck by the earnestness of her intensely beautiful soul and the loyalty of her affection. My heart felt like an aching sponge that kept getting wrung out and filled up again.

"Thank you, Ivy," I whispered to the empty room, knowing she heard me even in the foyer by the way her steps paused for a moment before I heard the front door open and then click shut behind her. Her willingness to support me, right or wrong, succeed or fail, even when she didn't agree with me, was more important than I could put into words.

I looked over to see Jenks bobbing silently up and down a few feet away, watching me. "Don't expect me to get all mushy, but you know what Ivy said goes for me too, right?" he said, flitting down to land on my shoulder and placing one small hand against the side of my neck.

I nodded, careful not to accidentally shake him off. Fresh tears threatened and I wiped my eyes on my sleeve. It was so important to me to have the unconditional love and support of these incredible friends. So many times, I would have been lost without them. This was part of why I could seem as strong as Ivy thought I was. This was what Trent didn't have, I realized. What he needed. Only ... he did have it, he just didn't know he did. I cared about Trent, more than a little, and I was beginning to realize that Jenks did too. I didn't think Ivy particularly liked him, but knew that her speech before was in part her way of saying that she would support him if it was important to me. It was a start. All we could do was try to be there for him, and hope it made a difference. I still wasn't so sure it would, but Ivy was right. Maybe I couldn't change anything, but that wasn't going to stop me from trying.

"Rache," Jenks said quietly. "It's gotten awfully quiet in the bathroom. Think we should do like Ivy said and check it out?" I could hear the uncertain worry in his voice.

Wearily, I dragged myself back down the hall on unwilling feet. I wanted to help Trent, but I didn't want to face him. I didn't want to face his grief and my own helplessness. That was the coward in me talking and I treated my reluctance with the contempt it deserved as I rapped my knuckles once against the bathroom door.

"Trent? You still alive in there?" I wasn't trying to be funny; I just didn't want to ask him if he was okay because it felt too cruel. I knew he damn well wasn't anything like okay and I wouldn't force him to even think of trying to pretend otherwise.

There was no answer and I tried the handle. Finding it unlocked, I pushed the door open carefully. "Trent?"

The bathroom was a wreck. Soap dispensers, lotion bottles and toothbrushes had been swept onto the floor. The towel rack had been torn out of the drywall. Drawers had been ripped out and flung against the walls, their contents scattered everywhere. The mirror had been smashed to bits. Sharp shards of reflective glass scattered across the tile floor like the broken and cutting shards of a dream forever shattered. Trent sat on the floor with his back against the wall, surrounded by the debris of his grief-fueled frenzy.

He wasn't crying anymore, but his eyes were red and his face wet. He stared blankly across the room as if he were completely empty, not even looking up when Jenks and I entered. His arms rested on his bent knees, blood dripping from his badly cut-up hands and creating little crimson trails on the floor that made my heart lurch.

I knelt quickly by his side, careful of the broken glass. For a moment I was afraid that maybe Ivy had been right, but then I saw that it was only Trent's palms and knuckles that were torn up. The worst damage had probably come from him repeatedly striking the splintered mirror. There was blood on the jagged shards of glass that still remained in the frame on the wall and I could see painful little slivers of glass embedded in his ragged lacerations.

Grabbing a plastic bowl that usually held an assortment of bath salts - now broken and scattered all over the floor - I rose to my feet and filled it with warm water from the sink. I grabbed a tweezers from one of the few drawers still in its socket and a washcloth from the mess on the floor before returning to my knees beside Trent.

I took his arm and found him completely slack and unresisting in my grip as I carefully guided his torn hand into the warm bowl of water. I shook it gently as the water quickly turned pink. Then I used the washcloth to ease away the looser fragments of glass and followed up with the tweezers, extracting the shards that were embedded too deeply to just wash away.

It had to hurt, but Trent gave no sign that he felt anything. He didn't even look at me or what I was doing. I wasn't sure he was registering any of this. It was kind of scary. I wasn't sure if I was prepared for a full-fledged breakdown or having a catatonic elf in my bathroom.

When I finished with Trent's left hand, I wordlessly wrapped it up in a clean hand towel and moved around to fix up his right hand. It seemed I'd been patching Trent up a lot lately. If only I could do the same for his heart ... but I knew from experience that those were wounds no one could mend.

Jenks hovered nearby, slipping an unhappy, pale green dust as he watched us.

"Trent? You wanna say somethin' maybe? You're kind of freaking us out here," the pixy prodded in a concerned but subdued tone as he hovered in front of Trent's face, trying in vain to get the elf's eyes to focus on something.

After a long moment, a small sigh escaped Trent's lips and his gaze reluctantly focused on the four-inch man hovering worriedly in front of him.

"What do you want me to say, Jenks?" he said quietly. His voice was empty. Dead. "That I got my girls killed? That I utterly failed to protect them when I should have seen the danger coming? That the poison of my life has destroyed the only two things in this world that meant anything?" There wasn't even anger in his bitter words, just an empty, hollow self-loathing.

Trent didn't blame me, I realized, he blamed himself.

"I knew ..." he whispered. "I knew since childhood that I was expected to give everything. That the duty and curse of my lineage meant there was only one thing I was allowed to care about. That there was nothing else I could not be willing to lose or sacrifice because that was what made one weak. That was what made targets of the very thing you wished to protect and assured its destruction. Goddess, I don't even know how many times my father told me that." Trent's gaze had gone distant again, his tone even emptier than before. "He said it so many times after my mother died, and again every time he had to remove something from my life because he thought I had become too attached or cared too much about it ... I hated him, sometimes, you know. But I get it now." Trent snorted harshly, the sound catching in his throat like a raw little sob as his blank face finally twisted into an ugly expression of pain and anger. "I won't say he was right, but he wasn't wrong."

Trent tipped his head back against the wall behind him, letting his skull connect viciously with the plaster. "I was such an idiot. I thought I knew better. I thought I could somehow be a better man. I thought I could protect them if I just tried hard enough. I thought I could love something - something pure and innocent and beautiful without destroying it ..."

I wrapped his right hand in another clean towel, pressing gently to stop the bleeding. I felt like someone was digging around in my chest with a dull spoon. I supposed Trent's father had thought he was doing the right thing for his son. I was sure the elder Kalamack's life hadn't been easy either and losing his wife had probably done bad things to him, but part of me still wanted to go back in time and bitch-slap him for screwing Trent up so badly. "This isn't your fault, Trent," I interrupted him. It filled me with frustrated pain to hear him taking all this on himself. His loss was devastating enough without turning the destructive pain inward.

"You think not?" his voice was biting when his gaze shifted to me and he pulled his hand away. "You think Lucy and Ray would be dead if they were anyone else's children? I don't. I made them targets, Rachel." Anger and hatred made his burning, red-rimmed eyes almost unrecognizable as his impotent rage again found an outlet in channeling itself at me. "I brought this on them. My choices. My actions. I knew there could be consequences, but they should have fallen on me! Why couldn't it have been me?! I was the one who was supposed to pay, not them! So don't you tell me, Rachel Morgan, that this is not my fault!" His low, seething voice shook with rage.

I started to speak, but Trent was still going full tilt.

"If Lucy wasn't part of my cursed bloodline, if I hadn't allowed so much political weight to hang on her shoulders before she was even out of diapers, would anyone have gone after a two year old?! And Ray ... Goddess ..." he choked on his own recrimination. "She wasn't even my blood and I still ruined her. If I had just let her be Quen's daughter and not tainted her life with my presence, do you really think she would still have been burned to death?"

"I think you think to frigging much of yourself!" I shot back angrily, my heart and throat both feeling raw. Too much, and yet not nearly enough. "I think the whole elf prince thing and all that crap your father dumped on you has warped your brain. I get that you have to deal with a lot of responsibility and make a lot of hard calls, but you're not fucking superman, Trent. You can't control everything no matter how hard you try! To think that you can is just egotistical and moronic. You're not responsible for every outcome you couldn't foresee or prevent! You're not some heartless, world-leading automaton either. Of course you loved your children! They knew that and loved you right back. Trust me, Trent. I know what that means to a child. Maybe your father was a world class jerk, I don't know, but I do know that Lucy and Ray had the best damn dad they could ask for. Do you really think if you'd somehow managed to not love them, that it would have changed anything? You didn't make Lucy politically important; you made her healthy and whole. Sure, her bloodline means she was saddled with the same responsibilities you have to deal with, but the only way to prevent that would be for her to have never been born. Is that really what you wish were true?" Trent was trying to speak but I kept talking right over him, not about to relent.

"It's crap to think that Ray wouldn't have gotten pulled in anyway. Ellasbeth was using her against Quen, remember? It doesn't matter whether you gave a damn about her or not, she still would have been in the house with them. The only thing that loving those girls any less or being less involved in their lives would have changed is maybe how much you're hurting right now. So yes, Trent. Maybe your dad had a point. You don't get hurt as bad if you never put yourself out there and risk the heartbreak of loving, but that's the coward's way out, and you know it!" My own words echoed inside me and I felt the knife of hypocrisy twist in my chest. Wasn't that exactly why I'd been pushing Trent away all this time? Because I knew the almost impossibly difficult road that falling for him would set me upon? Because I feared the inevitable pain of either loss or betrayal?

"Even if you try," I whispered, my voice catching a bit. "It doesn't work. Love is this stupid, stubborn, unreasonable thing. It's a wild horse that can't be tamed ... and maybe it shouldn't be. I get that you're angry, and you have every right to be. It is horrible, wrong, and pointless that Lucy and Ray have been taken away!" I seethed, my throat closing up around the words and making speaking difficult. "And if those bastards weren't already dead, I would find out the worst killing curse Al knows and use it on every last son of a bastard responsible, even if I took a lifetime's worth of smut for it. Go ahead and be angry - but be angry at them, Trent. Be angry at the people who killed your girls, not the man who I know loved them more than his own life."

Trent glared at me, but the anger in his face was splintering into pain again. He seemed to have no response and instead sunk his head into his clean but torn hands. "I can't do this," he whispered, more to himself than to me. He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes, rocking softly.

Jenks bobbed in front of him in soft misery, giving me a helpless look before finally landing on the elf's shoulder. "Yeah, Trent. You can," he said quietly. "Just ... not yet. I'm not saying it gets better. It doesn't. I won't lie and say this will ever hurt any less than it does right now or that anything can replace the loss. I've got 54 kids, Trent, but I still remember every detail about every single one of my newlings that didn't make it. I still remember what they smelled like and the feeling of them in my arms. Matalina too. You never get over them. You never fill the holes they leave in your heart. You just learn to live with the pain until you build up scar tissue around it like a battle wound. You get better at dealing with it slowly, and one day you wake up and realize that somewhere along the way you started being able to breathe again without every motion hurting. It may not get better but it does get more survivable, Trent, trust me."

I was crying again and I wiped my aching, itchy eyes on my palms, trying not to snuffle audibly. Jenks rarely talked about his losses, but it was clear how much he had felt them and would always feel them. He was so strong.

Trent didn't say anything, his bowed head now pressed into his crossed arms that were once again resting on his knees. He nodded just a little, acknowledging at least that he understood what Jenks' admission had cost the pixy and the raw earnestness with which it was given. "You're stronger than I am, Jenks," he said quietly, the hollowness creeping back into him like a spreading cancer. It was clear that Trent didn't think he'd ever breathe again. I'd like to think he was wrong, but I honestly wasn't sure. Trent was by no means weak, but not everyone was capable of Jenks' level of resilience.

Unfolding himself from the floor, Trent pushed to his feet and shuffled numbly out of the bathroom. Jenks and I followed. I frowned when I saw him heading through the living room like he was going for the front door.

"Whoa, hey, where do you think you're going?" I stopped him with a hand on his arm. Trent looked down at my hand, then up at me, his expression blank. His place had burned to the ground, he didn't have a home to return to and I could see in his eyes the moment that realization registered, even as he shrugged as if it didn't matter.

"I have a loft in the city. I need to start making calls." His tone was remote and empty. "I believe Ivy speaks true as far as she knows, but I need to confirm all this for myself and make sure that everyone who was involved has indeed been ... suitably dealt with." Despite the words, there was no anger in Trent's eyes now. They were frighteningly blank instead and somehow that was worse. His gaze was green ice - cold, hard and as distant as if he'd left some crucial part of his soul behind in that other reality we'd so recently left.

"I need to find out the current state of affairs and check on Quen's condition. If he's in the hospital he should be moved to a private institution where he can be better guarded once people learn I've returned. The Rosewood babies and their families need to be moved as well, the sooner the better. If Reginald knew about them, others must also. They may not be anyone's priority right now, but they need to be well hidden before the dust settles."

I stared incredulously at Trent. I understood the need to throw yourself into work to run from grief, and this was what Trent did, but there was no way he was ready to get back in the saddle just yet.

"Oh no you don't." I shook my head stubbornly. "Trent, there's a frigging war going on right now, and the instant you are back on the radar you will be dragged right into the middle of it. Us showing up again is going to cause some pretty big shockwaves and don't forget that a lot of people are still probably pretty pissed at you about the whole demon thing."

Trent looked at me flatly. "What do you want me to do, hide?" I could see in his numb eyes that he felt there was nothing else for him now but this. There was duty. There was keeping busy. There was whatever vengeance may still left to be had. That was all, and it would never be enough.

"Yes," I said firmly. "Just for a little while," I added quickly when his eyes narrowed. "Trent, you're not ready. We've been fighting for our lives for like a week, you haven't slept in days and you've just had a huge hammer dropped on you. You're a wreck. Do you really want all those political hyenas seeing you trailing blood like this? Are you honestly saying you're ready to have a flood of reporters banging on your door wanting to know why you aren't dead and badgering you to talk about how you feel?"

Trent just stared at me, but I could see in the weary flicker of dread behind his eyes that he knew I was right.

"You once gave me back the ability to choose my own future, Trent. Let me do that for you. I'll keep a low profile, Ivy and Jenks will help. We don't have to let the world know we're back until you're ready, and if you don't ever want to go back into that circus then I will help you in whatever way you need."

Trent smiled at me then, a soft, sad, faded expression. "I appreciate that, Rachel. But it's not necessary. I already know what I choose. It's the only thing I've ever been able to choose. Without the girls ... nothing else even matters."

The fact that Trent wasn't ready to just tell the whole elven world to go screw themselves after what he'd lost either said a lot about his character, or about the fact that he'd had this responsibility thing beat into his head for far too many years. I got the feeling though, that the simple truth was that this was all he knew. This role was the only thing he knew how to be and he no longer cared enough about anything to look for change. I wasn't sure that was a good thing.

I nodded, keeping my opinions to myself with effort, remembering how important it was to me that Jenks and Ivy supported me whether or not they agreed with me. "Okay. I can understand that," I said quietly. "But it still doesn't have to be right now. The world has bumbled along this long without you; it can wait a few more hours at least."

I took his arm and turned him around, steering him gently but firmly towards my bedroom. "Right now you should get some rest. Clean up. Tackle the beast later with a fresh head." The past few days had been chaotic and intensely draining. Being hit with all this on top of it looked like it had pretty much wiped Trent out.

I led him into my bedroom and guided him to sit down on the bed. Glancing around, I realized that even though they had thought me dead, Ivy and Jenks had apparently made no move to start packing up my stuff, or change anything in my room. With a little more urging I got Trent to lie down. The relative ease with which he was complying told me exactly how bad off he actually was.

"You're scaring me, Rachel," Trent said quietly, voice still disturbingly numb as I pulled out a blanket. "You're being too damn nice. I must be really pathetic."

"Well, you kind of are," I admitted with the faintest shadow of a smile. God, my chest hurt. "But everybody gets at least one pathetic day a year and it's the duty of all good friends to help you through them." I draped the blanket over him. I could tell he was beyond exhausted. Following on the heels of everything we'd been through lately, this had been one blow too many and he was shattered both physically and emotionally. I'd have never been able to get him in here and lying down if he wasn't.

Trent stirred as if he would try to get up. "I should ..."

I put a gentle hand on his shoulder, keeping him down. "You should lie still and get a little rest. I have some things to take care of and there's no way in hell you're leaving here without your temporary head of security going with you to check things out."

Trent frowned, staring at me for a moment as if uncomprehending.

"I mean me, genius," I said with a sigh, unable to believe I was doing this. I was an idiot and a sucker and Trent was right, he did look far too pathetic and it was making me stupid. Why else would I be voluntarily stepping into exactly the position I'd spent the last few years refusing? "And I did say temporary," I added quickly when he blinked at me in surprise and maybe the smallest thread of something else. "Just until we get Quen patched up and back on his feet. It sounds like pure chaos out there, there's no knowing who you can and can't trust. You're going to have a giant honking target painted on your back and I'm certainly not going to be the one who has to explain to Quen why I let you run around un-guarded while he was out," I said with a firm confidence I didn't feel.

"But I need to make sure Bis is going to be okay and call my Mom and Al, and frankly, Trent, I'm beat. Once I've taken care of my stuff and we've gotten some rest, then we can go storm the castle and I'll be right beside you, okay?"

I saw Trent absorb my words with something akin to soft confusion on his face. He didn't understand why I was doing this. He didn't know how to process the idea of not having to shoulder the weight of the immediate future all by himself. His expression made him look so young, so tired and so utterly bereft it hurt.

I swallowed and gave his shoulder a light squeeze. "I know it probably doesn't mean crap, but you're not alone, okay?" I whispered before making my way towards the door.

"Rachel?" Trent's soft, lost voice made me stop and turn around to look back at him from the doorway. "It does mean something. To me," he whispered very quietly.

Feeling my eyes well for the billionth time, I tried to smile for him and ended up simply nodding in acknowledgement. Flicking off the lights, I partially closed the door behind me. What was I doing? Trent was drowning. I had no idea how to pull him out and if I got too close, he'd probably take me with him. I knew that ... but I also knew that I couldn't walk away. Not now. Not when he was like this.

"Jenks," I whispered. "Stick around and keep an eye on him, all right? Make sure he's really going to sleep and not faking us out. Let me know if he gets up and don't let him leave without me." I didn't think Trent had the energy to try to dodge me right now, but he was a sly one sometimes and he was clearly in no position to be thinking straight. I wasn't taking any chances.

Jenks seemed to be of the same mind because he nodded and bobbed his agreement. "Don't worry, Rache. We won't let him do anything dumb."

Wishing that could actually be true, I headed for the attic. I really needed to check on Bis.

Chapter Text

As Jenks had said, I found Bis on the roof. Fortunately, he was right beside the attic window so if I leaned out the window and twisted around, I could see him. His eyes were closed and he was unmoving. He looked like a statue, albeit one that was quite out of place perched there all alone on the non-gothic architecture of our little church.

I reached over and placed my hand on his back. His skin was hard and cold. He even felt like stone and I felt my already overwhelmed heart throb with pain anew at the possibility of not getting him back. Jenks seemed to think he would wake now that I had returned. I hoped that was true. I was trying to be strong and carry on because everyone needed me to, especially Trent, but I needed at least one good thing to happen right now. I needed to not lose any one else tonight.

"Bis?" I whispered, stroking his hard, pebbly back and folded wings tenderly. "Bis, please wake up. It's me ... I'm back Bis. You were right; I wasn't dead, so you can't be gone either, okay? Come on, Bis ..." I pleaded when I got no response.

Turning backwards, I pulled myself up to sit on the open window sill so the upper part of my body was outside and I could more easily reach the young gargoyle. Reaching out, I tapped a line and pulled it into my chi. For a moment, I just reveled in the fact that I could. I had missed this feeling so much more than I could explain. With the line thrumming in me, I reached out again and touched Bis, my hands cupping either side of his still, stony face.

It was still daylight. I knew I should wait and try this at night. Bis wasn't even supposed to be able to be up during the day at his age. Of course, Bis was, all the time lately, but I told myself that if I couldn't wake him, I mustn't fear the worst until I'd tried again after nightfall. The admonishment fell flat. I really needed him to wake up now. I couldn't live with this fear until nightfall, I was already too emotionally wrecked. I felt tears warming my eyes again as I looked at him. "Please, Bis. Please be okay."

For a long moment, I thought nothing was happening, but then, slowly, his dark eyes blinked open. A confused and groggy look crossed his endearingly ugly face. He shifted his wings uncertainly, wincing as flecks of stone and dirt slid from his skin when it started acting like skin again. "M-Ms. Morgan?" his raspy voice was hesitant and seemed more gravely than usual. Then his eyes brightened as his head seemed to clear.

"Ms. Morgan!" he said, much more joyously. He lurched towards me, his movements less graceful than normal because of his long hibernation. He hit me square in the chest and I had to quickly grab hold of the window frame to keep from falling. Holding the sill with one hand and clutching Bis to me with the other, I wriggled my way back inside the attic and to a slightly safer position while the adolescent gargoyle hugged me enthusiastically, his tail wrapping around my waist. "Ms. Morgan, you're alive! ... Or I'm dead," he amended quickly. "Am I dead? I don't feel dead."

The first genuine smile in what felt like forever tugged the corners of my mouth upward. I was so relieved. "No, Bis, you're not dead and you were right, neither was I!"

Bis suddenly seemed to realize how he'd been crawling all over me and quickly pulled back, his rough skin flushing in the way it did when he was embarrassed. But he was still smiling. "I knew you couldn't be dead!" he said happily. "But I couldn't find you, where were you?"

"I was kind of in another dimension ... reality ... something like that. I'll tell you all about it later, okay?" I stroked his tufted ears fondly and he leaned into my touch like a cat.

"I'm so glad you're back," he said happily, his innocent joy warming me and yet making the hollowness in my chest somehow even more pronounced. Always sensitive to my feelings, Bis tilted his head to the side, looking at me. "Is everything okay?"

I smiled at him and gave his head another pat before rising to my feet. "Not everything, no. You've been out and I've been gone for around two weeks, Bis. A lot has happened, some of it not so good. But I'm really glad to see you again, and that you're okay." I couldn't bring myself to tell him about Lucy and Ray, not yet. One of us should be happy for a while longer, and at this point I honestly couldn't bear to deal with it anymore. I needed an escape from the pain, even if only temporarily.

Thankfully, Bis accepted this. Perhaps because he sensed how much I needed him to. "Two weeks?" he said in surprise as he crawled up the wall, following me back down out of the attic. "I slept a really long time, huh?"

"Yup," I agreed. "Etude came to check on you, I hear. You're probably going to want to fly over to the Basilica after it gets dark and let them all know you're okay. You can tell them I'm okay too, but ask them not to talk about it to anybody else just yet. Not until tomorrow, anyway." I knew Trent wasn't going to delay any longer than that, so beyond that point it wouldn't matter.

Bis nodded his happy agreement and hopped off the wall, settling on my shoulder with his tail wrapped around my neck as he liked to do while I picked up the kitchen phone and dialed my mother. Bis obviously just wanted to be close to me for a while, and that was fine with me. The truth was I liked it too. The whole bonding thing went both ways it seemed. I hadn't realized how much I'd missed being in the same reality as Bis until I was back with him, his touch on my shoulder filling me with the glorious humming of every lay line in reach. Damn, I had missed this.

My mother answered the phone on the third ring. "Ivy?" she said, obviously having seen our number on the caller ID.

"Hey, Mom," I said with forced brightness, not entirely looking forward to this conversation. "Guess who isn't dead?"

All things considered, the call with my mother went better than I'd expected. Takata had apparently been with her the whole time since she got the news and I think that had helped. There had been tears and happiness, and a few choice words about the trouble I was always in, but she claimed - true or not, that she'd never entirely believed it, not after the last time. In fact, she declared she was never going to ever believe I was dead again unless she personally saw my body, and probably not even then. So, she told me, I was just going to live forever, and she was glad she could stop worrying about that.

Robby was apparently giving her enough to worry about. Some kind of marital issues between he and his wife that I honestly couldn't care less about, but listened to her go on about in detail for almost a half hour anyway. I suppose that was the price I paid for scaring her so all the time. It was a pretty small price, really. She asked me if I wanted to talk to Takata at the end, but I wasn't ready for that yet. My heart was still much too knotted up on the painful subject of fathers just at the moment so I begged off, asking her to say hi to him for me and to tell him I'd call and talk more later.

Hanging up with a sigh, I finally nudged Bis off my shoulder and went over to retrieve my scrying mirror from under the counter. I didn't think my next call was going to go so well. Al was going to be royally pissed that he'd yet again thought I was dead when I wasn't. It wasn't my fault this time, but I was a little worried about what kind of mood I'd find him in. He'd been weirdly wrecked after Ceri died. Our relationship was different, but I got the feeling he didn't want to lose me either, and not entirely just because I was profitable. Honestly, I'd pretty much bankrupted him as often as I'd been beneficial for him in the past few years. Weird as it was, I was pretty sure Al kind of liked having me around and after seeing how he'd been after Ceri, I now understood better why he'd tried to take Trent apart the last time he thought I was dead and the elf was to blame.

Trent. Oh god. I couldn't even think of him without pain. I wondered what I was letting myself in for, planning on involving myself so heavily in his life when just being near him hurt. Pushing the mostly selfish thoughts aside, I settled my scrying mirror on the counter and pressed my hands over the glyphs.

"Rachel, calling Algaliarept ... hello Algaliarept, come in Al ..." I thought as I sought to make the connection. It was daytime and therefore it was possible that Al was sleeping. I hoped I wasn't going to walk into another one of his dreams because that was always a little awkward.

Al wasn't sleeping, but his mental voice did seem strangely tired when it was suddenly sharing the same space as mine.

"What in the ... Rachel? Mother puss bucket! Is this a joke, or are you really not dead - again?"

Oh yeah. Al was pissed.

"No joke, it's me," I replied quickly, remember what had happened the last time when he'd almost broken my scying mirror thinking I was some other demon mocking him by pretending to be me. "And nope, not dead - but Al, it was totally not my fault this time," I added when I felt the rising swell of his irritation, even mingled as it was with obvious relief. I didn't bother speaking aloud since this was more or less a private call and the only one in the room was Bis. I knew he wouldn't mind.

"I thought the bloody elves exiled your soul. You have got to stop playing with those nasty little creatures, love, they really are no good for your health," Al said, still sounding grumpy, but the faint hint of warmth I could feel creeping around the edges of our connection told me that he was glad to hear from me and glad I was still alive.

"They did try," I admitted. "But Trent and I fought them back with wild magic and it just kind of went wrong instead. We were exiled, but it was a body-and-soul deal. We got sent to this - this other world that was like ours in some ways and completely different in others ..." I stopped when I felt Al's attention unexpectedly pull away from me in distraction, as if something else had momentarily claimed his attention.

"Al?" I inquired, wondering how exactly news like that didn't hold someone's interest.

"Yes, yes," Al returned, still sounding distracted, strangely weary and more than a little peeved. "Sorry about that, love. You and Trenton were exiled to one of the mirror worlds, were you? Fascinating!" His attention wavered again sharply and I got the feeling he was moving around.

"I should have thought of that," he said, grunting as if he were picking up something slippery or difficult to deal with. "But then, there's supposed to be no way to travel between the mirror worlds, so why would I? Oh yes! Because it's you, Rachel Mariana Morgan, and you do enjoy breaking every rule in the books, don't you?"

I blinked in shock. "M-mirror worlds? You know about that? You knew there were other versions of earth? Why didn't you ever tell me?!"

His mental sarcasm was thick. "You never asked. It hardly seemed important. I know of them, but they're just stories really. As I said, there's no way to travel between them... well, no practical way. The fairy tale version goes that only gods and angels can span the chasm, and you don't exactly see many of those wondering around, do you? Put that down! Put it down right now!"

I started at his sharp and non-sensible command, but Al merely groaned at me. "Sorry love, wasn't talking to you. Anyway, if I'd known you were going to go and get yourself exiled to one of them one day, then perhaps I might have thought it relevant," he said tersely.

"Get that out of your mouth!" Al snapped and I jumped at the tone of command in his voice, automatically - if illogically - checking my mouth with my tongue as my brows furrowed. Damn, was he having some kind of breakdown? This was really weird.

"Al ... I don't have anything in my mouth," I said dryly. "You wanna tell me what's going on?"

"Wasn't talking to you, love," he said again with a very long suffering sigh. "But I must say I am rather glad to find you still on this side of the living breathing world, Rachel. Naturally, I missed you, couldn't live without you and all that," he said with snide sarcasm. "And of course I do want to hear all about however you got yourself out of your latest scrape. But now that you're back you can help me with these intractable ... No! No, don't!" His mental attention had obviously swerved away from me again, his words a bellow of annoyance. "How many times must I tell you not to ... no ... no ... come now, don't do that ..." the outburst started angrily but the tone quickly shifted to one of alarmed wheedling instead.

"Oh come on ..." Al groaned and I could feel frustration and weariness radiating from him. "Mother puss bucket! Stop crying. Come on, love, you're all right. Shh ... you're all right ..." It was totally weird hearing Al trying to be anything like consoling. He sucked at it, but it was really amusing.

"Ow!" he yelped and I got the odd impression that someone had just kicked his shin. "Why you little ...! Don't you look at me like that. Very well, you make your bloody sister stop crying, then. Can't you tell I'm trying to have a conversation?!"

Something strange, unformed and sharp around the edges like a raw blade made of hope, fear and disbelief stabbed though me. It wasn't possible, was it?

"Al!" I snapped, my mental voice loud and demanding in order to pull his attention back towards me. "Al, who is there with you? Who are you talking to?" It wasn't possible, it couldn't be; it made no sense...

"The two little minions from hell," he griped in exasperation. "And I should know about that, right? I swear Rachel, I had no idea what kind of trouble they would be or that two such small and innocent looking creatures could cause so much chaos! It's absolutely insidious is what it is. They're like one of those nasty little flowers that lures you in looking all pretty and sweet and then traps you until you drown. I ask you, Rachel, how on earth do you deal with something that isn't smart enough to be afraid of you?"

Hope was building in my chest as Al ranted, almost painful in its intensity. "Al!" I exploded, interrupting his tirade. "Are you telling me you have Ray and Lucy with you?" I almost screamed at him for the nerves jangling through me. I would just die if he said no, if I was somehow misreading this situation out of my own exhaustion and desperate need. None of it made any kind of sense, but hope was an insidious, dangerous thing that would not be denied.

I could feel Al's crisp irritation at my interruption and demanding tone. "No ... I've got two other little elven brats down here slobbering on everything they touch, drawing on every surface in reach and eating me out of house and home while complaining about the taste of every single thing," he said sarcastically.

"Al!"

"Yes, all right? Yes, they're here with me," he admitted in exasperation when he felt my intense mental pressure for a straight answer. "And I don't know if you've noticed, love, but I am not a babysitter. I do wish you would come and lend a hand before I decide that murder is a perfectly acceptable child rearing technique."

I felt the strong pull of Al's mind starting to draw me to him and realized he was about to pop me over. Naturally, it being daylight, he couldn't come to my side of the lines.

"W-wait!" I said urgently, pulling back against his grip and not letting him jump me. "Wait, Al, let me get Trent!" Trent needed to know, immediately.

"Oh, Trenton survived your little trip through the looking glass as well, did he? Marvelous! I guess I won't be needing you to mind the bratlings after all, then," Al drawled at me as he stopped trying to jump me through. "Although that's almost a pity. I do wish you had to put up with them a while so you can see what I've been dealing with."

"We thought they were dead, Al. We came back and Ivy and Jenks told Trent his daughters were dead." There was the husky rasp of raw emotion in my thoughts.

"Oh," Al said, sounding as if this was something he hadn't thought about. "Oh, yes, I suppose they would think that, given the circumstances. Well, go collect your elf and I'll pop you both over here for the touching reunion, then maybe I can get my bloody life back. Sound good, love?"

I gave a grunt of response and broke the connection, almost bolting to my feet and causing Bis to look at me in alarm. "Trent!" I shouted. My shoes slid on the kitchen floor, I was running so fast. "Trent!" I said again as I pounded down the hallway, drawing Jenks to me like a magnet.

"Whoa, Rache, what happened? What's wrong?!" Jenks demanded. His sword was out and he was already swinging into full battle mode, obviously thinking there was some kind of imminent threat.

I shook my head, too full of wonder, joy, confusion and nervous energy to express myself very clearly. "No, nothing wrong, something right! Oh my God ... Trent!"

Trent appeared in the doorway to my bedroom, looking haggard and drawn and weirdly adorable with his hair a mess and one side of his face wrinkled with the pattern of the sheets he'd been laying on. He blinked puffy, red-rimmed eyes at me; obviously trying to force his mind clear enough to assess whatever new calamity had befallen us.

"Rachel, what is it?" He demanded with a frown. His swollen eyes must be aching because he rubbed at them with his palm, blinking owlishly.

I grabbed his arm and started bodily dragging him down the hall towards the kitchen. "Trent, they're alive. You were right, I don't know how or why but they're alive!"

Trent resisted, digging in his heels in confusion. "Rachel, what the devil are you talking about?" he demanded, clearly both pissed and groggy which was not a great combination.

"Lucy and Ray!" I exclaimed, aching at the grief that suddenly crashed down across his features at hearing their names, but at the same time feeling joyful because I knew I could actually do something now to take that pain away. My head was spinning, I felt as high as if I were on brimstone. "They're alive, Trent! They weren't killed in that explosion!"

"What?!" Jenks exploded in a cloud of dust. "No fairy farting way! Rache, are you sure?" he asked nervously, eyeing Trent with a wariness that said he knew what it would do to the elf to be given hope and then have it snatched away.

"Yes, I'm sure! They're with Al! I just talked to him. They're both okay. Come on, Trent!" I babbled, grabbing his arm again and dragging him the rest of the way down the hall. About a quarter of the way there the news finally seemed to sink into his reeling mind.

"They're alive?" he whispered in disbelieving shock. Then suddenly he was lurching forward, pushing past me in his mad need to get to the kitchen. He saw my scrying mirror out on the counter and made a beeline towards it. I jogged over to join him, shouldering him away when it looked like he might clap his hand down atop it. I didn't want Trent calling people on my mirror as a matter of principle and given the elf's state of mind, it was probably better to not subject him to the demon collective at the moment.

Trent stared at the mirror and then his head jerked up as he had finally caught up with everything I'd said and its implications. "Wait ... they're with Al?" he said in a mix of alarm and incredulity. "In the Ever After?!"

Yeah ... I was trying to wrap my head around that too. From the sound of things, they may very well have been there for the past few weeks. Given Trent's history with demons snatching his children, I could understand why that was worrisome to him. Heck, the idea of Al having anybody's kids for that long was making me positively twitchy.

I could see that that marvelously insidious thing called hope was working on Trent too though, because he almost immediately shook his head in response to his own question. "Never mind. That doesn't matter right now. I just need to see them. Call him, Rachel. Have him bring us over, I'll pay anything," he said raggedly.

Which was precisely why I didn't want Trent doing the talking. "I don't think we'll need to worry about that," I told him. "Al's already offered to jump us over, gratis. I don't know what's going on, but it really sounds like he's anxious to get the girls off his hands, so don't be all desperate in front of him and start giving him ideas," I warned.

Honestly, I wasn't too worried. Al was doubtless up to something and he'd want to be repaid for his troubles, but I didn't believe he would try to keep the girls. He knew I'd fight for them and besides, he'd seemed honestly relieved at the idea of ridding himself of them. Which made me wonder why on earth he'd taken them in the first place, not to mention how ... but there would be time enough to find all that out, I supposed.

"Al? I have Trent with me, you can bring us over now," I told him both in my mind and aloud once I'd made the connection. I could tell from the quick connect that he'd been waiting for me.

"Marvelous!" He said and at the same time I felt the jerk of him pulling me into the line, then reaching through me and grabbing Trent too.

Trent was so distracted that he didn't think to protect his thoughts as we plunged into the line and Al was expecting us to do it ourselves. I quickly snapped a bubble of protection around both our minds, keeping us whole as the lines took us.

Chapter Text

We popped out a few moments later in Al's kitchen, which looked like it had fallen victim to a mini-whirlwind. It wasn't as if anything was actually overturned, but everything was just a little out of place. There were papers covered in childish drawings scattered across almost every available surface and his elegant writing tools and brushes lay strewn in various states of disassembly across the floor. There were several new murals of very questionable artistry painted on one wall and one of his creepy, luxurious tapestries was spattered with what looked like some form of mashed up food.

Bright colored baubles and vaguely creepy wooden toys from bygone eras littered the floor. I noticed with intense amusement that Al's biggest spelling bowl was currently on the floor filled with sand and apparently acting like some kind of mini-sand box, judging by the shovel sticking out of it.

In the midst of the truly weird domestic chaos were Lucy and Ray, looking for all the world like little angels.

Ray was sitting near the fireplace, her cheeks still wet but no longer crying. Instead she was smiling with delight and reaching her little hands out towards the magical flock of beautiful blue butterflies that were circling about her. She grabbed one and I winced, but it just turned into a wisp of blue smoke and flowed upward to reform as a butterfly once more. It alighted on her knee and she clapped her hands, laughing in delight.

I wasn't sure why, but something about seeing Ceri's daughter surrounded by Al's blue butterflies made my chest feel funny.

We'd only been there a few instants, but Al caught where I was looking and I could swear the demon looked momentarily flustered or embarrassed, although he covered it quickly by giving an exasperated sigh. "Well, here you are at last then!" He greeted us. "I hope you both realize how much you owe me. You can see what I've been reduced to ... my god you both look like absolute hell."

Lucy was squatting by Al's feet. She was pushing a weird looking wooden horse with wheels around and over his shoes, following the lines of the buckles on his boots like it was a game. Straightening up, she tugged demandingly on the hem of his crushed green velvet coat. "Up!" she said imperiously, lifting her arms to him before she caught sight of Trent and me.

"Daddy!" her squeal of delight and the brilliant smile that lit her tiny face was a joy to behold. She ran to him, and Trent dropped to his knee to meet her, sweeping her up in a full-bodied embrace that made the little girl laugh happily and raised a huge, happy lump in my throat.

Ray looked away from her butterflies at her sister's jubilant call and quickly bolted to her feet. "Abba!" She crowed, her beautiful little features radiating the same pleased joy as her sister as she too ran into Trent's waiting embrace. Trent folded her to him and held on tight, dropping kisses and, I realized, tears, onto both girls' heads.

"Ray, Lucy," he murmured their names in greeting, the words sounding like a beautiful, reverent prayer of joy on his lips. He rose with them both in his arms; Lucy on his left side and Ray on his right as they settled with easy familiarity onto his hips. Trent was murmuring something to them in Elvish that I didn't understand, but the girls were beaming their contentedness and were obviously overjoyed at being reunited with one of their fathers.

"Oh, of course. NOW they're all smiles and bouncing curls again when you show up," Al griped, finally drawing my attention back to him.

The demon was dusting off the sleeves of his coat primly as if there might be lingering baby cooties stuck to him somewhere. Yet behind his smoky glasses I was surprised to see the very faintest flicker of ... something that I couldn't define as he watched the little family's reunion.

"Honestly, Rachel, look at my home!" he groaned theatrically, gesturing about. "You my itchy witch are going to spend your next lesson helping me clean it all up," he added, brightening.

Honestly, at this point I would have willingly scrubbed Al's floors with a toothbrush in gratitude for his part in bringing Lucy and Ray back to us unharmed. Naturally, I wasn't going to let him know that. He'd hold me to it and enjoy it way too much.

"Oh quit whining," I told him with a wry grin. "I kind of like it. I think the suburban soccer-dad look sort of works for you."

Al looked appropriately appalled. "Oh my god, Rachel. Don't ever say anything so foul again! I haven't been able to get a thing done in almost two weeks! They won't even sleep on a bloody decent schedule. Business is in shambles! Not to mention how much extra protection I had to make for my rooms and how bloody hard it's been getting everyone on this side of the lines to keep their grubby paws off what's mine."

I saw Trent stiffen at the casual way in which Al claimed the girls, his gaze shooting over to us as Lucy continued telling him an animated story about something she and Ray and Uncle Al had done that involved "flutter horses", which I took to mean those little rocking horses with wings that I'd seen Al and other demons create before.

"Oh, don't worry," Al drawled in bored tones at the sight of Trent's alarm. He gave the elf a charming smile. "I didn't take either of the little hellspawn as a familiar. No point at all, really, they're much too small; useless for holding line energy at this stage. It would fry their little minds if you tried. Not that that didn't seem like an attractive option, a time or two," he added glancing at his food-speckled tapestry with a frown.

Al had a lot of cleaning and dusting spells. I knew he preferred not to do them himself, but I was still surprised he hadn't set more of this mess to rights already. Then again, if he'd had the girls for two weeks, maybe he'd simply worn out of cleaning up all the time and this was just the latest batch of mayhem he hadn't gotten to yet.

"Actually, that was part of the problem," he sniffed; nudging one of the ugly wooden toys with his shoe and watching it disappear into smoke. "There was some rubbish trouble with several of the other demons claiming I couldn't keep two little elf spawn under my roof if they weren't actually bound to me. Absolute tripe, of course. I can snatch and keep who I want, for as long as I want and it's no business of theirs, never has been. They just wanted to get hold of a little fresh meat," he said casually. "Untainted elf blood, you know? Lots of uses for it. Besides, you never see little ones so young down here. They're quite the novelty. Although I dare say, I remember now why no one respectable bothers snatching children," he added sourly. "The little brats are just impossible. Are they smart enough to quail and be obedient when a demon is upset at them? Nooo, they just want more cookies and don't like the icky burnt taste when they get them," he mocked.

Trent and I were both staring at Al. I was having a really hard time believing everything that Al had apparently gone through to keep the girls both safe and cared for over the past couple weeks. Lucy and Ray looked amazingly healthy and happy for having spent two weeks in the Ever After with a demon babysitter.

It was no surprise that the girls hadn't been in abject fear of him straight off the bat like most people would have been. Al wasn't a stranger, they'd seen him with me before and they were too young to comprehend what a demon was. They did not yet have any learned responses of prejudice or terror. However, true as that may be, it was also true that children could learn fear just as well as any adult if they were hurt or frightened often enough.

Amazingly, Lucy and Ray both appeared to be comfortable with their surroundings and with Al in a way that suggested he must never have given them serious reason to fear him. Looking at the state of his rooms, I found that almost unbelievable. I liked Al, yes, but I also knew him. He was clever, proud and cruel and his temper was harsh. I would never have chosen to leave children with him; much less expected them to come out of it so happy.

"Why?" I asked Al quietly; unable to wrap my head around this and wondering what exactly I was missing here.

He frowned at me like I was retarded. "Because of the burnt amber, love. You know everything down here tastes like that. But try explaining that to a petulant two year old, do. I would find it very entertaining," he dared me.

I shook my head. "No! Not that. I meant, why did you bring them here in the first place?"

"Oh, that," Al said dismissively. "Just more of my usual bad luck. A few weeks ago, Bis comes popping in here in a positive tizzy, looking for you. Felt you disappear he says. Can't find you anywhere, he says. Ivy and Quen think the elves killed you, he says," Al's tone darkened at this. "Well, naturally I help the little rodent look, but you weren't anywhere on this side of the lines so come nightfall I get him to summon me topside to check things out." The jocularity fell away from Al's face and his features became dark, almost ugly. "I saw that perverted little atrocity in the woods where they burned you," he said, his lips curling in a snarl. "Or, where I thought they burned you," he added a little more lightly, looking as if he were intentionally pulling back on his remembered ire. "I knew what they had done. I've seen that ceremony before. I've watched their wild magic melt flesh and soul away, even from a demon."

I shuddered slightly at the thought, remembering again how old Al really was, and all the atrocities he must have seen in his lifetime.

"Naturally, I knew who was to blame. It had obviously been an attack against Trenton as much as you, which meant his simpering little whore had to be mixed up in the thick of it. So I popped over to his place to have a little chat with the dear woman. Things seemed already a bit chaotic when I arrived, but I must say the look on her face when she saw me was utterly priceless. Dropped the phone and screamed her head off, she did." He grinned with relish at the recollection.

I felt a sudden stab of fear that Al might have killed Ellasbeth in front of the girls. I didn't mourn her loss, but I didn't want them to have seen that either.

"I was going to spend some quality time with her, but I barely had the chance. Such a pity," he sighed regretfully. "Because the next thing I know the whole bloody building is blowing up. I must say, that was something of a surprise. Naturally, my reflexes are excellent and I bubbled myself in time. I didn't realize it was an explosion at first, I thought someone was stupid enough to be attacking me, but the situation became clear quickly enough. The thing was, I was standing next to the two little brats when I bubbled myself and they were more or less caught up in my circle."

I was pretty sure that Al hadn't been accidentally standing next to the children. Knowing Al, he'd been there intentionally. He may even have been holding one of the girls, no doubt implying threat to them to get a rise out of Ellasbeth. Ironically, that was apparently what had saved Lucy and Ray's lives.

"So there I was, building burning like beautiful bloody hell all around me, in a bubble with two yowling ankle biters, a bunch of dead elves and no one left about who was worth flaying." Al sighed as if it had been an incredibly disappointing turn of events.

"So I popped out and took the two rugrats with me. Thought I may as well get something for my troubles," he said brightly. "Elf princesses and all that, right? I figured someone would pay to get them back."

I was finally starting to understand the situation and get a picture of what had happened, although I wondered a little at Al's version of it. The truth was he could only have had instants to react after the first blast. The nursery was on the second floor so whatever kind of bubble he'd made had to have been different from the traditional kind and as the building caved, it would have been broken if he didn't jump out quick enough. There was a little part of me that couldn't help wondering if Al had really had time to be coming up with ransom plans in the heat of that moment, or if he'd simply looked down into the little girls' frightened faces and perhaps seen something of Ceri in Ray's big, beautiful eyes. Maybe I was being much too naive, but knowing now how he'd felt about her I just didn't believe that Al would have let Ceri's infant daughter burn to death when he could so easily prevent it. Naturally, Al would figure a profitable up-side to it afterwards, but was that really what had saved the girls, or was it at least in part the result of a split-moment of weakness? I supposed I would never know, because Al would certainly never tell me. The demon flaunted his wickedness proudly and hid any hint of humanity like a zealously guarded secret. I was on to him.

"But there goes my bad luck again," Al continued his story with a long-suffering sigh. "Wouldn't you know it? The elves were all too busy killing each other off. Then they get bored of that and start a war with the vampires instead. I'm all for a good bought of bloodshed, trust me, but it was damn inconvenient timing, really. The Withons were of course the natural choice for whom to barter with, but the war has driven anyone important in the family deep underground and those damn elves can hide. So I figured I would wait it out, eventually things would settle down and I'd have a nice chat with them. Anyway, it was all profit for me - the more of them died, the more valuable having two little living ones would be. Believe it or not, I'm actually known for my patience in most circles. It can take years to groom a new prospect, after all," he added with a sly smile. "Children, however, are a completely different animal," he added, the smile turning into a scowl. "Two weeks with them was like two years."

It made sense now, and I could even see why Al had kept the girls in good shape. If he'd always intended to sell them back to the Withons, he'd want them in good condition to increase their value. Still ... I looked around the toy-strewn room. He hadn't necessarily had to convert his house into their playroom, had he? And he had to know the Withons wouldn't really be willing to give him that much for Ray, who was not important to them or of their bloodline.

I smiled at Al. "I dunno," I drawled with amusement. "The girls seem mighty happy. Good old Uncle Al mustn't have been too terrible a babysitter." I had heard Lucy call him that to Trent at least twice already and it amused me to no end. I wasn't sure how Trent felt about it, but considering he was holding his two very alive children after having thought he lost them forever, I didn't think he was going to complain.

Al scowled at me. "You're just lucky the brats were worth more to me un-traumatized and perky," he grumbled.

"Uncle Jali," Ray's little voice made me look over and I saw the little girl in Trent's arms making a reaching motion towards the demon. "Butterflies. Show Abba the butterflies."

The butterflies she'd been playing with before were gone, I realized, and Ray wanted them back so she could show them to Trent.

Al sighed. "You see what I mean? They're so terribly demanding - and she's the sweet one, trust me."

"Butterflies, Jali, pleeaase?" Ray begged innocently. Lucy was giving Al a dirty look from her father's other side, like he'd better make her sister happy or else. She was clearly the one who had kicked him in the shins earlier for making Ray cry and my lips twitched in amusement as I began to imagine how the past two weeks must have gone. Lucy had no idea how lucky she was that she had had the most barter value of the pair. Al really was capable of more patience than I gave him credit for, apparently.

"Oh very well," Al huffed, waving his hand and conjuring a small horde of the tiny winged creatures into existence. "She would pick up on that name," he muttered. The butterflies swirled around Ray, Trent and Lucy and I saw Trent smile despite himself at his daughters' delight.

Then I looked back at Al as I caught what he'd said and realized that Ray was calling him by the name that the other demons used for him, not the one I'd given him like her sister did. Lucy and Ray were used to calling their two fathers by different names - Trent was Daddy to Lucy and Abba to Ray, while the same was true in reverse for Quen. It had probably been natural for the girls to settle into the same sort of pattern with Al. It was perhaps bittersweet to think that that meant Ray was using the same nickname for him that Ceri probably had. I wondered where she'd heard it. As far as I could tell, Al didn't care to go by that name anymore and even most of the other demons had taken to his new nickname by now. The only demon I still heard calling him that on a regular basis was...

My eyes widened. "Al, tell me you did not let Newt in here with them," I hissed in alarm.

He squinted at me flatly. "Oh. Yes. Because I can keep her from doing whatever she bloody wants. Right." He scowled. "Of course she's been in to see them. She sided with me about my being able to keep them until I could turn a profit, the crazy bat, and she somehow felt that gave her visiting privileges. Anyway, I can't seem to make a charm she can't crack if she wants to. Don't worry, they seemed to make her feel disgustingly maternal," he said with a shudder. "The worst thing she did was try to feed them some of her truly hideous cookies. They'd start crying and she'd lose interest and go away." He rolled his eyes. "Honestly, that's the one thing they really were any good for," he added a bit more brightly. "Nothing like a baby throwing a fit to get rid of unwanted company."

"Rachel," Trent's voice drew my attention away from my conversation with Al and back to he and the girls. He didn't say anything else, but I could tell by looking at him that he was anxious to leave and get the girls back to our side of the lines.

I turned back to Al. Now was when we'd have trouble, if there was going to be trouble. I hoped there wouldn't be. "Well, thanks for saving the girls. If you'll pop us back topside, we'll take them off your hands so you can get your house back," I said cheerfully.

Al smiled at me like he knew exactly what I was doing and what I was thinking. He probably did. "Of course, love, naturally..." he said smoothly, but there was a twinkle in his dark eyes that I knew too well. He had his bargaining smile on. He had an unprecedented amount of leverage on Trent right now, and he knew it.

"But as you both know, I'm not exactly in the charity business, love," Al reminded me sweetly. Whenever he started repeatedly calling me "love" in that tone of voice, it meant he was up to something. His gaze focused intently on Trent as he spoke and I tensed a little. I knew Trent would give Al anything he asked for. I was more than a little worried that Al knew it too.

Trent looked over at Al, his children still clutched fiercely to him. He wasn't going anywhere without them, and that was clear. "I understand," he said calmly. "Tell me what you want."

Al grinned and clapped his hands. "Oh that is what I like to hear. No pointless bargaining or pretense. But aren't you just a little too trusting, Trenton?" he purred with an ingratiating smile. "What if I asked for your soul?"

I stiffened, but Trent didn't.

"No mystery there. You know very well I've sold it before and will do so again if I have to," Trent replied evenly. His tone was serious but conversational, as if he and Al were two business men hashing out a negotiation. I suppose in a way, they were. "But I don't think you really want my soul, Al. Not right now, anyway. I'm more interesting and more useful to you on my side of the lines," he pointed out. "Besides, I was Rachel's familiar first and you know she wouldn't like it. Keeping me would be more trouble than it's worth."

Al shrugged, seemingly pleased by Trent's canny insight and the straightforwardness of their conversation. "Indeed. Besides," he grinned at Trent and tapped his forehead. "I know what nasty old spells you have up there and I'm through keeping familiars that could kill me. It's far too exhausting."

"So, I repeat," Trent said. "What do you want?"

Al smiled devilishly. "A favor. Just one. Anything I choose to ask, you will grant without question, condition or hesitation."

Trent simply nodded, applying only one condition, despite what Al had said. "As long your request does not in any way bring harm to Lucy or Ray, then I agree." He had to know how dangerous that level of cart blanche was, but clearly wasn't going to quibble over his daughter's lives. Besides, I realized with a start, I could see in his eyes that he felt he truly did owe the demon, and Trent paid his debts.

Al did not seem put off by Trent's terms. "Let's word it as not bringing direct physical harm to Lucy or Ray, and I'll concur," he amended, a rolled up contract popping into existence in his hand. "Emotional harm clauses are much too messy to define, love, we'd be here all day."

Trent seemed to accept this. He gave a small nod. "Very well."

Al unrolled the document and placed it on the table. Rescuing one of his quill tipped pens from the chaos on the floor, he offered it to Trent with a smile. "Not that I don't trust you, but, let's just have that in writing, shall we?"

I frowned, more than a little concerned that Al was making Trent sign before telling him what the favor was. "And you'll also jump us home," I added my own condition. Bis could probably come get us if we needed him to, but I'd rather just make Al do it, and I knew better than to leave anything assumed with him.

Al gave me a narrow-eyed, but amused look. "Always the demanding one, aren't you? I begin to think you consider me your personal taxi service, but very well, love, very well."

Trent shifted Lucy on his hip so he had his right hand free. Moving forward and bending his head, I could see him reading the document on the table. Trent didn't sign things without reading them. I was surprised he didn't want his lawyers to look at it first, but then, Al probably would have wanted to keep the girls until he did, and I knew Trent wouldn't go for that. Instead, Trent's gaze shifted to me as he took the quill from Al. "Rachel will act as guarantor that this contract contains exactly the terms we've discussed, nothing more, nothing less," he said, looking to me for confirmation of that before he jotted his signature on the bottom line.

I inclined my head in agreement, a little amused when I realized that Trent remembered what I'd told Al I'd do if he padded contracts with me. Unlike Trent, I didn't like to read paperwork.

Al simply nodded dismissively, most likely having expected that that would be the case. Taking the signed contract back, he rolled it back up with a delighted grin. I knew he had no reason to complain. Even with these precautions, Trent had essentially just agreed to do almost anything he wanted. Given who Trent was and the power he was capable of commanding, Al was getting a very good deal. It would have been a lie to say I wasn't worried. I'm sure Trent was too, but he hid it well.

The elf shifted his arm back under Lucy to hold her more easily. "All right," he said to Al. "You have your binding promise. So what is it that you want?"

Al grinned slyly and touched the side of his nose. "No, not now. Patience, Trenton. I'm banking this favor for the future. I'll let you know when I'm ready to collect. For now you can just take the brats and go home, but you owe me, Trenton Aloysius Kalamack, do not forget it."

Trent actually smiled at him wryly. "I don't think I'm likely to do that. Now, if you would be so good as to send us back to Rachel's?"

Al gave us a mock bow and a moment later I felt the line take us. This time, I noted, Trent remembered to not only bubble his thoughts, but to protect his children as well.

Chapter Text

Trent and his daughters' miraculous return from the supposed grave threw the media into a predictable tizzy, not to mention causing some pretty spectacular ripples in the elven world. The "official" story ended up being that Trent and his body guard (me) had been seriously injured protecting his children from the attack on his family which had tragically claimed Ellasbeth's life. Quen had stashed us all somewhere safe and secret for the sake of our protection with caretakers sworn to absolute secrecy. He'd then succumbed to his own injuries, leaving no one aware that we were all still alive. Eventually, Trent and I woke up and ta-da! I felt it stretched credulity on a few points, but the general public seemed to accept it.

The elves got the truth. I can't say that a lot of them were very happy with Trent, but with the much more current and tangible threat of the vampires superseding their older and less currently tangible enmity towards demons Trent seemed to think that he was going to be able to re-consolidate his power base again in a relatively short amount of time, although I could tell he knew his hold was going to be more tenuous than previously.

Interestingly enough, the Withons were on his side, and that would help matters. I wasn't sure of the details, but it seemed that the war had left Ellasbeth's mother, Mrs. Withon as the current head of the family. She had apparently always liked Trent and was overjoyed that her grandchildren were still alive. She would do what was best for her people and her faction, but I got the feeling there would be a lot more cooperation between the Withons and the Kalamacks now that she was in charge.

Trent had been pleased to discover that his mother's spelling hut and most of the gardens had been undamaged by the destruction of the main house. He had moved himself, the girls and their staff into an old estate outside the city while his house was rebuilt. Quen had been moved there as well, tended by a fully vetted nursing staff. Trent and I had worked a healing spell together for him, and he was doing much better. He'd woken up for the first time yesterday and already he was trying to take over Trent's life again from his hospital bed. I had a feeling that meant he was going to be okay.

Belle's kin had all survived as well. They were still living in my desk right now, but Trent was having his greenhouse repaired and had cordially, officially gifted it to them as their own in thanks for the way they'd attempted to defend his home and been instrumental in uncovering the truth behind the sabotage.

The weather had taken an unseasonably warm turn the past few days and Trent and I were currently sitting across from one another at a small stone table in the garden of his rented estate. I knew he had a million and one things to be doing, but when I'd come over to check up on them he'd insisted on taking a break and coming out here for tea while the children played about us. I got the feeling he had been taking a lot of breaks to watch his children play over the past week or so since our return. Maybe that's why, despite the intense pressure I knew he was under, he didn't look quite as completely stressed out as I might have expected.

Trent did look tired as he sipped his Earl Grey, though. The elven world was still in a state of controlled chaos and the war with the vampires was not something that was going to just go away any time soon. There was also no way to know when Al might show up to call in the favor Trent owed him, or what he'd demand. But life was full of uncertainties and those were worries for another day. For the time being Trent and I were home, in our own world, with his daughters laughing and running around us in a breathless game of tag and I was more than happy to count all of that firmly in the win column.

I think Trent must have as well, because although he definitely appeared tired, he also appeared happy, or at least content. Trent had seemed as if he wanted to talk to me about something, but thus far we'd only gone over basic things like how Quen was doing and how Ivy was faring with the broad reaching effects of the increasing chaos in the vampire world. We weren't really talking about anything now, but the silence was comfortable as he sipped his tea and I sipped my coffee (apparently, he remembered that tea wasn't really my thing).

The air was still crisp, but the scent of spring was strong in the gentle breeze rustling through the evergreens and the sun was warm enough that even Jenks could have been outside today with no problems.

Several yards away, I saw Lucy trip over a paving stone as she chased after her sister. They were playing some kind of game that wasn't quite tag, but clearly involved Lucy chasing her sister around while they both laughed. I saw Trent stiffen in paternal instinct when Lucy went down, clearly ready to hurry to her side if tears were forthcoming, but the girl landed on the grass rather than the paved walk and did not seem hurt or distressed by the sprawl.

Lucy simply scrambled back to her feet, appearing to be put out by the lead that her sister had gotten on her, rather than troubled by any minor bumps and scrapes. "Mother puss bucket!" I heard her exclaim in perfectly clear tones of frustration before she gleefully ran off after her sister again. "Just you wait, I'm gonna flaaaay you!" she sing-songed teasingly. Ray shrieked and giggled in mock fear as she scrambled merrily away.

Eyes wide, I cringed and looked over at Trent. "Crap, I'm sorry, Trent," I muttered, not knowing why I felt responsible for the girls picking up Al's language but feeling embarrassed all the same.

Trent watched his daughters scamper off with raised eyebrows and a slightly disturbed look on his face. "Well," he said slowly. "I suppose, if the worst thing they came back from the Ever After with are a few ... questionable metaphors, that's not so bad."

I grinned at him. "Yeah, you say that now, but wait until they start spouting it in church or something. Kids always say the worst things at the worst times."

Trent laughed. "I look forward to experiencing that, then. It should be most amusing."

I laughed too. "Damn, you really are a great dad," I whined.

"You were right you know," Trent said after a moment, a soft smile on his lips as he watched the girls play. "Loving may be dangerous, but it's ultimately a price worth paying. Thinking I lost the girls and then getting a second chance ... it taught me something, Rachel." Trent's gaze turned on me. His clear green eyes were breathtakingly open and earnest, displaying his unmasked emotions to me in a manner that was very rare for him.

"I've always been a long term planner, I have to be, but when so much of your focus is on the future you can take the present too much for granted. While you're trying to figure out how something can fit into the big picture, you could lose it and only afterwards realize that you'll regret that loss forever. I suppose we all know in our heads that each moment is precious, but this whole situation took it from an abstract to a concrete for me, Rachel. It taught me that I have friends I never thought I would have, and more than that, it taught me there are a few, special people in my life whom I love more than anything. People for whom it is worth taking any risk, no matter how seemingly ill advised, because the alternative is worse than any risk ever could be. People whose influence helps me be who I want to be, and without whom I would be lost. I can be what I need to be, Rachel. I can do what I need to do, for my people, for the world ... but not without those I love. They are not my weakness; they are my strength."

There was a beautiful, burning intensity in his gaze and I found myself lost in it, willingly trapped in the simple complexity of the soul he was sharing with me. For once there was no magic involved, except perhaps the oldest, most inexplicable kind.

"I've been alone for so long, it took me a while to understand," he admitted with a hint of ruefulness. "But now I've been blessed with three such people in my life," he added quietly. Trent reached across and placed his hand lightly, almost hesitantly over mine.

I froze. His simple touch seemed to radiate throughout my body. My lungs forgot how to work. We were talking about his daughters, right? It wasn't like Trent to miscount. My mind didn't search for explanations though; Trent's earnest, adoring gaze was already supplying them. Still, I struggled to swallow, struggled to find my voice and find my way out of the hopeless tangle of emotions suddenly choking my heart and mind. "Three?" I croaked, stupidly. He probably meant Quen, right ... right?!

Trent knew I knew what he was saying, but he also seemed to know that we'd gone past the point of unspoken understandings. Wherever this was going, it needed to be stated. His fingers curled around the back of my hand. "Yes," he murmured. "Lucy, Ray ... and you, Rachel."

I could just drown in his eyes. There was so much unexpected love and openness there. The idea it was for me was as beautiful as it was terrifying. This was never supposed to happen. He was never supposed to let me in this deeply, nor I him ... but I realized it was too late. I looked in my heart and found Trent already there, logic and common sense be damned.

"You are a strong, brilliant, caring, crazy woman, and I love you, Rachel Morgan," Trent whispered and I knew those were not words he said easily or lightly.

My eyes welled and my throat was too tight to speak. Everything in me was drawn to him. Everything in me wanted him, wanted what he offered. I knew then with sudden clarity that I loved him too – and it terrified the crap out of me. What had I done? This complex, noble, irritating, vulnerable, lonely man ... what had I done to him? Trent couldn't love me. He mustn't. I would destroy him. Or he would destroy me. Hadn't I already seen that much too clearly?

I was on my feet and walking away before I even knew what I was doing, the need to flee driving me like a physical force as my eyes began to burn and my vision blur. I was several paces away before conscious thought returned above the whirling clamor in my head and the maelstrom of pain exploding in my chest and I realized what a cruel reaction this was when Trent had just exposed his heart to me. A perfect example of why I was completely wrong for him. Why he should never trust his heart to me. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.

"Rachel," Trent caught my arm from behind, halting me and not letting me run. I could have easily shaken him off, but the warmth of his hand on my arm and the rasp of pain in his voice fixed me in place more certainly than any bonds.

I didn't turn around. I couldn't face him. I was a coward. The tears burning my eyes escaped down my cheeks. I hurt so badly. Looking at him and seeing the openness gone, seeing the pain I had caused, the destruction that was already beginning, it would break my already hurting heart.

"I'm sorry," I whispered hoarsely, my gaze fixed on the ground. "God, I'm so sorry." My chest hitched the tears flowed harder as I tried not to break down completely. I wanted to blame the stupidity of my reactions on the suddenness of his confession... but I couldn't, not really, because I realized that deep down I had known for a while now. I had refused to acknowledge it, like a child thinking I could make something go away by pretending it wasn't there. Now I couldn't hide anymore, couldn't pretend. I had to face it, and I didn't know how.

Trent stayed behind me. He stepped up against my back, his hands light on my shoulders. When I didn't resist the contact, he wrapped his arms around me from behind, holding my back gently to his chest.

"Shh," he murmured soothingly. "Don't. Please. I'm sorry, Rachel. I didn't ... I didn't mean to scare you. I don't expect you to return my feelings; I don't expect anything from you that you don't want to give. Please believe me. I wouldn't change you or try to chain you down for the world. There is no need to apologize for what your heart does or doesn't want." He pressed a soft, chaste kiss on my hair.

Trent was warm against my back, his arms comforting about me as he sought to sooth my distress. He thought I was rejecting him and he was trying to comfort me. Damn it, why did he have to be so ... so ... so?!

"If the only place I can hold in your heart is that of a friend, I can accept that. I promise. I'll not pressure you for anything else. I just wanted you to know what you mean to me. That you are important to me and I treasure everything you are. You make me a better person just by existing. Your friendship means the world to me. Please don't run away." Trent's voice was still gentle and reassuring, but there was a soft, unmistakable desperation in his plea.

"When I thought I had lost the girls ... I was drowning, Rachel. You're the only reason I didn't. You touch me in ways I can't explain. I'm a selfish man, Rachel, I need you in my life, but however you wish to be there is fine. I'm sorry, the last thing I wanted to do was drive you away. I ... I spoke out of turn, I said it all wrong ..." he was struggling to keep his voice soothing, but the rawness of his pain was coming in around the edges and making him hoarse.

I couldn't take it. His tenderness and desperation were killing me. I felt like the most horrible person on the planet. I turned in his arms and looked up into his face. Through my tear-blurred vision I saw all the pain I'd feared to see, but unexpectedly, the openness was still there too. His green eyes held the deep shadow of heart ache, but they still looked at me like I was some amazing, precious thing. I realized Trent was in earnest. He was fully ready to spend the rest of his life pretending he wasn't in love with me and that it was totally fine for us to just be friends if that was the only way he could keep from losing me completely. Trent had enough determination and was enough of a masochist to be able to pull it off, too. He was used to wanting things he couldn't have. He didn't even see how hideously unfair he was to himself.

I shook my head, trying to speak without sobbing. "No, you didn't," I choked out. "What you said was beautiful, Trent. Your heart is beautiful. It's a treasure, and you can't give that to me, you can't," I said miserably. "You don't need me in your life, Trent. You really don't. Not like this. Not in a way that makes you vulnerable, because I will hurt you." I was losing the battle with my tears and my shoulders shook with silent sobs. It hurt so much, but I was trying to do the mature thing for once. Trying to do what was best for him, because Turn take it, I did love him.

"I won't mean to, but I will. People who get involved with me always get hurt. Most of them die, unless they realize the mistake they're making and get out first. Do you have any idea how terrified I was when we thought the girls were gone? How afraid I was that it was somehow my fault? I can't do it. I can't do that to you, and I'm tired of getting my heart broken. Sooner or later it's always just me left to pick up the pieces and ... I don't know if I can, after you. I ... I think I may love you too damn much, Trent, and I can't. Not this time. I can't." It wasn't the most coherent or rational thing I'd ever said, but there was pretty much nothing either coherent or rational about the way I was feeling right now. I felt like I said too much and not enough at the same time and it all sounded totally stupid by the time it came out of my mouth. Trent's embrace was so comforting, felt so right, I just wanted to grab on to him and not let go. I realized that it was already too late. Despite what I was saying, despite whatever it was I should do ... I wasn't going to walk away from him. Not if he asked me to stay.

A soft, hopeful, elated awe flared unexpectedly to life in Trent's eyes. Painfully lovely to witness, it spread a traitorous warmth through my aching chest even if I couldn't understand what had put it there. He pulled me closer, the pain bleeding out of his face to be replaced by happiness. He leaned forward and kissed my brow gently. "You love me." It wasn't a question, but there was a world of wonder in his eyes, like he'd just been given something he never thought he'd have.

I half laughed, half choked. Out of everything I'd just said, leave it to Trent to only pick up on that part... and to sound so damn confident saying it. "Good God, Trent! Were you listening to me?" I blurted, snuffling and wiping my eyes on my sleeve and feeling inexplicably annoyed to realize I must look like hell now.

"Of course I was," Trent smiled at me. "You love me; you just think you wouldn't be good for me, or that I might change my mind, both of which are complete rubbish," he summarized dismissively. The calm self-assurance that I had come to associate with Trent was back in his voice and his expression now. It irritated me ... but it was a fond, familiar kind of annoyance because it was a part of him and our weird relationship.

"It is not!" I protested, wanting him to take me seriously. "Trent, you know me, my life is barely controlled chaos on a good day. Besides, I'm a demon and you're an elf. We're the freaking Montagues and Capulets for God's sake. You and I know that's total crap, but let's be real – it's gonna be a problem for almost everybody else. Sure, we could hide it for a while, but really, what kind of future are we setting ourselves up for? I mean, your people did kind of try to burn us just for fraternizing if you recall and it'd be one hell of a balancing act to keep the demons from thinking I'm selling them out by being with you." I could manage it though, I thought. Most of the important ones already knew Trent. He had helped them and fought on their side for the Ever After. That didn't mean they liked or trusted him at all, but bridges were built one brick at a time.

"Oh, you'll keep them in line, you always do." Trent was smiling at me, that confident, adoring smile that made me either want to kiss him or punch him, I hadn't quite decided yet. "As for the elves ... you're right, they already tried to burn us, what else can they do? Let me worry about them. Things are in shambles right now anyway, there will never be a better time to buck the system and make new rules. The world needs to change, Rachel. I see that now more clearly than I ever have. It needs to become a place where it is not a problem for you and me to be together. It needs to become a place where the Rosewood babies can grow up safely and have a future that does not involve them having to hide their whole lives or become monsters. It needs to be a place where we are no longer fighting wars that happened centuries before we were born. There are plenty of challenges and dangers in the present to worry about without dragging around the burdens of the past."

I liked the fire in his eyes. It was passionate but patient. Trent did not chase fleeting fancies; he dedicated himself to the long haul. He wanted to remake the world and probably already had the plans in place, or soon would. I realized that what he was saying, the things he wanted, they were the same things I wanted. This was something we shared.

"You think that's possible?" I asked quietly. I liked to believe it was, but in my experience people were reluctant to let go of the past.

Trent nodded. "I do." His lips curved in a small smile. "I have to, Rachel. Because I will not live in a world that would keep us forever apart."

I smiled despite myself. "Do you listen to yourself talk?" I teased him, still trying to dry my leaking eyes. "I'd think you were feeding me a line if it didn't sound so darn natural when you say crap like that."

Trent grinned, one hand caressing the outline of my shoulder blade while the other slid up to brush lightly through my hair. "Well I find it amusing that you're the one who wants to stop and look at the big picture and all the long-term implications while I'm the one who wants to just take the chance and go with my heart and instincts. Don't we usually flip that the other way around? You're the one who taught me to believe in the 11% chance, Rachel."

I gave a soft laugh, reaching up and letting my fingers trace the hair above his ear lightly, aching with the need to just touch him. "Well good, because that's probably about as much of a chance as we have of this actually working out," I said, but I wasn't sure I really believed that. Or maybe I simply felt we could make those odds ... we had before.

"Maybe so," Trent agreed with a wry grin. "But that's a chance I'll take. I've come to learn you always beat the percentage, Rachel. I know your life is not simple," he continued, ticking back through my earlier objections with the precision of someone used to dissecting and disarming opposition. "And I know that you like it that way," he added, his smile fond and his eyes glittering with that hint of deviltry that made the tingling in my gut spread a little lower. "You wouldn't have any idea what to do with a safe, boring existence."

I looked up at him, realizing both that he was right, and that I found it deeply reassuring that he understood that about me and accepted it ... no, more than that, he actually seemed to like it. Wow, he was kind of screwed up ... but that sort of worked for me.

"You weren't meant for white picket fences, neither was I. My own life isn't exactly ... uneventful." Trent raised his eyebrows. "I know it won't always be easy, and you're right, we will have to keep a low profile for a time, but I think our paths and our goals could merge better than we might expect. At least, life will never be dull, right?"

I smiled and Trent leaned a little closer. I hesitated a moment, then tipped my chin up and closed the distance until our lips touched. The kiss was slow and gentle, hesitant almost, as if we were both testing the waters. The warmth of it spread through my whole body, going straight to my core.

When we parted, Trent's eyes glittered and his breathing had accelerated a little. I loved seeing him react like that. Seeing the flush of desire on him and knowing I had put it there, that that beautiful look of want was for me. There was something amazing about it.

He caressed my face, his palm cupping my cheek. "You don't have to worry about hurting me, Rachel. I am not so fragile as all that. Besides, you don't bring harm to people, you open their eyes. You bring them to life. You show them whole new ways to see the world. I won't say that we'll never hurt each other," he whispered, our faces still close, our bodies touching. "This is us we're talking about, and I won't make you promises I can't keep. But I will promise that I can deal with whatever comes. I promise that having you in my life will never hurt me as much as your absence would. I can promise that I will never rethink or regret this moment. I can give you nothing but my word, but I will never intentionally wound you, and I will never walk out on you, Rachel. I am yours."

The words, so soft, so simple, rocked me to my foundations, because I knew by now what they meant to Trent. He was giving me the deepest promise he had. It was beautiful and frightening, and maybe both of those feelings appealed to me equally.

I curled my arms around his neck, drawing him down to me. I kissed him, harder this time, deeper. Trent met me halfway, his hands tightening on my shoulders as mine tangled in his hair, my body desperate for his touch. The pain inside me was all slipping away, replaced with a warm happiness and need that bubbled giddily in my blood and burned like fire in my veins. I trusted Trent. I trusted him with my soul, and my heart. Caution was completely overrated. I needed him in my life too and if this was a mistake, then it was damn well going to be the best one I ever made.

We were both a lot shakier when we came up for air again this time and Trent's smile was teasing. "And if you need any more convincing, I could also point out something that someone very wise once told me..."

I punched him in the shoulder. Not hard, but enough to make him wince and chuckle ruefully. "Ow! What was that for?" he protested.

"You should stop when you're ahead," I told him with a glare that was significantly ruined by how wide I was grinning. "That was because you were about to quote my own words back at me about not being afraid to love and all that and you do not get to win arguments with me by quoting me. We should get that straight right up front."

Trent laughed; it was a deep, amused, delightful sound. "Not even when you're right?"

"Nope!" I said cheerfully. "Not even then."

"Okay, noted," he acquiesced. "Any other rules I should be aware of?"

I leaned in close again, feeling his heartbeat against mine. "Mm, I'll make a list."

"You probably will." I felt his soft laughter rumble against me.

One hand on my back, his other slid to my rear, pulling me a little closer in against him. When our mouths found each other again, hot and hungry and passionate, it not only felt good, it felt right. It felt right to be in his arms like this and to accept that having him in my heart was okay. I'd been fighting this attraction so long, it was nothing short of blissful to just let go and fall into its embrace. I didn't regret the struggle though, somehow it let me feel as if we had come to this place in the right manner. I was relatively proud of myself that I hadn't stumbled into bed with Trent first and then tried to figure everything else out afterwards. Although ... I was totally okay with that part happening now. As in, literally, now.As in maybe we could take this inside and try out that nice new bedroom of Trent's?

I groaned against his mouth as our bodies pressed together, all the love, lust and desire I'd been feeling for him and denying for so long bubbling up to the surface in a trembling rush of need. My hands curled in his shirt, fingers digging into his back. He was mine and that was an amazing feeling. I was also his, and I realized suddenly that I wanted, needed him to know that. I think he already did, but it was important to me to say the words when it wasn't part of an embarrassing emotional meltdown.

"Trent," I murmured against his lips, somehow scrounging up the will power to pull back enough to see his face. "You get that this means I love you too, right?"

Trent grinned at me, his golden hair mussed, eyes aglow, his lips flushed from our kisses. "Mm, yes, I do believe that is the impression I'm getting. Although I can think of a couple of ways we can remove any remaining ambiguity ..." he teased, pulling my hips a little harder into his, his face alive with love and devilishly playful seduction.

I laughed and curled my arms around his neck, grinning up at him. "Seriously though," I murmured, wishing just this once that I could be eloquent and meaningful, but it didn't look to be in the cards.

Trent's expression softened and he touched my face gently. "I know," he murmured, and I could tell he meant that he knew what I wished I could say, and that he considered it said. His eyes glittered with awe and a joy so deep that as our lips met I found my own eyes were stinging again, but from happiness this time.

"Oooh! Ray! Daddy and Aunt Rachel are kissing!" A small squeal of childish delight from nearby made me start and pull back quickly. Crap on toast, I had completely forgotten about the girls being out here!

Trent's arms tightened about me to keep me from pulling all the way away and I looked down to see Lucy beaming up at us and Ray hurrying over quickly.

It was funny, I supposed. Out of all the objections to this relationship that had come to me, the fact Trent had children had never been one of them, even though a relationship with him meant having to figure out how to navigate his sweetly odd family situation with Quen and the girls and how exactly I did or didn't fit in that equation. Quen had made it pretty clear in the past he was not going to approve of a relationship between Trent and I, but that was just too bad, he'd have to get over it. I already loved the girls and somehow it would all work out ... assuming they didn't decide to hate me or something. Oh God.

"They were kissing!" Lucy explained importantly to her sister, like she might not be believed since we weren't doing it now. My cheeks flamed.

"That's because Abba likes Aunt Rachel an' Aunt Rachel likes Abba," Ray said in that sweetly serious way of hers. She said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world and I felt Trent laugh silently against me. I grinned too. Apparently the two year old had it figured out long before we did.

"That's right," Trent agreed, leaning in to give me another light peck on the lips that made both girls squeal like only little girls could. "I like Aunt Rachel very much."

Ray nodded solemnly in approval.

"I want a kiss too," Lucy demanded, holding her arms up to Trent, not wanting to be left out.

Trent glanced wryly at me and bent to scoop his daughter up. He gave her an adoring, amused and exaggeratedly long kiss on the forehead until she wiggled and giggled in protest and wanted to be put down. He started to set her down, but she stopped him.

"Wait! Aunt Rachel kiss too!" she looked at me expectantly and Trent hesitated before holding her out to me and raising his eyebrows questioningly. I knew he wasn't just asking me if I minded kissing Lucy, he was asking if I was okay with the situation as a whole and with the fact that in many ways his daughters would need to come first in his life.

Of course I was. That was as it should be. My own father had been very dear to me and even though I lost him too early, his love had shaped so much of who I became. I loved Trent more because he wanted to be that kind of man for his children. I took Lucy from him and kissed her on the forehead, then lifted her up and spun her around in the air, making her give a little whoop of glee before I set her back down on the ground, giggling.

I crouched in front of Ray. "Do you want a kiss too?" I asked. Ray beamed and nodded shyly. I swooped her up and kissed her, then handed her to Trent for the same. Trent peppered Ray's brow in a little shower of kisses before setting her back down.

"Gee, Rache, do I get one too?" Jenk's amused voice made me look up to see the pixy flying over towards us, trailing a cheerful silver dust. "You know, if you're givin' em out?" He made exaggerated kissing sounds and flew around my head. "Trent and Rachel, sittin' in a tree..." he warbled merrily, telling me he hadn't entirely just arrived.

"Trent, Jenks wants a kiss," I drawled dryly, shooting my friend a glare.

"Ew! No thanks!" Jenks back pedaled upward quickly. "No offense, Trent."

Trent grinned in amusement. "None taken."

"You come over with Ivy? How long have you been here?" I asked as Jenks flew in circles over Lucy and Ray, making them run and jump about as they tried to catch him. It was a good thing Jenks was fast and knew what he was doing because elf kids were quick.

"Yup, she's inside visitin' with Quen. Not sure when they got so all-fire chummy, but they're in there now hatching some kind of plot to get the local vamps to chill out. And let's just say ... I've been here long enough for the good stuff," he said cheekily. "Tink's little pink ... uh ... sundress," he amended his language at the last moment, mindful of the little ears below him. "All I can say is, it's about time. You two are gonna be the death of me, I swear. Right kids?" he buzzed the girls, to their delight.

"Come on, girls, let's go find Aunt Ivy and Abba Daddy Quen, huh? I think Abba Daddy Trent and Aunt Rachel want a little alooone time," he said to the girls, giving Trent and I a meaningfully puckish look as he flittered slowly away, enticing the girls to chase after him towards the house.

Flying backwards in a lazy "S" pattern, Jenks winked at Trent and gave him an exaggerated thumbs up that was probably the pixy equivalent of a high five and looked just about as juvenile.

"Jenks!" I shouted after him, red faced again and glowering, wondering if the world was going to end because Jenks was suddenly actively approving of my love life. Jenks just made more kissing sounds and a couple of highly suggestive motions before cutting a large loop-dee-loop and turning the corner. Once we'd seen Jenks and the girls safely disappear into the house, I turned my glare upon Trent.

He raised his hands in a placating gesture. "Hey, what did I do?"

"Other than being a man?" I said sourly.

"That's a problem now?" Trent asked innocently, sliding up against me and nuzzling his face against the side of my neck "It didn't seem to be a minute ago."

His lips and teeth played skillfully against my skin and my body was remembering where we'd been before we were interrupted. "Mmm, a minute ago you were doing something that made up for it..." I told him with a smile, tilting my head as he worked his way down the front of my shoulder before lifting his head to brush a much too short but oh-so-tempting kiss against my lips.

"You know," Trent murmured. "I have been finding that this place is large and full of oddities common to old estates. For instance, there's a perfectly good, fully furnished little summer house on the edge of the lake just down that path that nobody uses. Perhaps I should ... give you a tour. Before anybody else shows up."

"I think maybe you should," I agreed with a grin. Looping my hand through his, I twined our fingers together as we started off down the path. Some paths could have a lot of unexpected twists and turns along the way, but together I thought that we would find our way all right.

THE END