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Aaron Echolls and the Ghostly Trollop (Or the One Where Dean and Veronica See Dead People)

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The doors to Mars & Winchester Investigations slammed open with a bang, bouncing off the wall and causing their frosted glass panes to rattle ominously in their frames. Veronica was startled out of a very nice daydream involving Orlando Bloom and a hot tub and had the fleeting thought of this had better be good before she saw who had just walked in. She sighed disgustedly, shooting one of her patented Veronica Mars Killer Glares (tm) at the figure as he ambled over to the door to the back office, nose buried in a pile of dusty folders. Not that he noticed. Dean Winchester had a one track mind when it came to his cases, and he and her dad had been banging their heads against the proverbial brick wall over their most recent one for the better part of a week.

The gist was this: One of Neptune's most famous (not to mention infamous) celebrities had gone missing 10 days ago. At first, nobody had thought anything of it. Aaron Echolls was known to be a huge playboy, so he'd probably just holed up somewhere with one of his many skanks. Everyone expected him to turn up in a couple of days looking like death warmed over with a few hickies that everybody would pretend they hadn't seen, and his family would smile and nod like everything was just peachy keen. Another day in the life of Neptune's best and brightest, right? But then Mr. Echolls' car turned up a few days later in a nothing little backwater town called Jericho, sans its owner and wiped down so clean it was practically sterile. The police, of course, were clueless. Big surprise there.

Her dad and his partner had leapt at the case when Lynn Echolls came by to ask for their help in locating her husband, though Veronica was sure it wasn't the case that grabbed them so much as the rather fat paycheck. Even she had to admit it would be nice not to worry about whether they'd make rent for the next few months. So after the usual background stuff had turned up nothing surprising, Keith headed down to Jericho to check things out, which left her and the boy wonder here to mind the fort.

Which led straight into Problem #1: Dean Winchester was a giant, annoying, smart-mouthed pain in Veronica Mars' ass.

She watched as he paused halfway in the act of closing the door to the back office behind him, looking more closely at something in the file he was reading and also completely and utterly oblivious to her very presence. She scowled and flipped him off, taking no small measure of delight in the act, but the unexpected sound of his voice made her freeze in horror, middle finger still extended.

"That's not very ladylike, you know."

And damn him, the jerk had never even looked up from his folder! Sometimes he had an almost uncanny ability to sense things he shouldn't, which made sneaking up and scaring him half to death next to impossible, a lesson Veronica knew all too well. She sometimes theorized that he'd been experimented upon during his days at MIT. It would explain so much: his freakishly good senses, his (much as she hated to admit it) unnaturally good looks, and the way that he attracted weird cases like Mrs. Donaldson in apartment 16B attracted stray cats.

Dropping her hand and proceeding to make herself look busy by shuffling papers across her desk, she replied tartly, "That's rich, coming from you. Like you know the first thing about women. I bet you've never been with a real lady in your entire life."

"Well, of course not, Sunshine," Dean drawled, looking up from his folders to give her one of his most charming grins. (Which, damn him, was actually pretty charming.) "I spend all my time here with you. Though if you happen to see one of these mythical 'ladies' around, be sure to point her out, would ya?"

Veronica made a face before pointedly turning away to look at her computer screen. "Bite me."

Dean chuckled, walking over to lean one hip against the side of her desk, his stack of folders tucked under one arm. "Tempting, but I think I'll pass. Your dad would kill me, and to deprive the world of this handsome face would be much too tragic."

Veronica rolled her eyes. "You're afraid of my dad?"

"Who isn't?"

Veronica pretended to think about it for all of two seconds before grinning proudly. "That's a very good point. He is fiercely protective. And he owns his own firearms."

Dean nodded in agreement. "Yep, and as if that wasn't enough, that dog of yours is psychotic."

"Backup really does give off that 'hungry for human blood' kind of vibe, doesn't he?" Veronica grinned. "I knew that copy of 'Teach Your Dog to Attack and Dismember in 7 Easy Steps' would come in handy. Only 19.95, too. A total steal, if you ask me."

Dean smiled before plopping his stack of folders down on Veronica's desk. A cloud of dust rose from them, making Veronica's eyes water. "As much as I'm enjoying our witty banter, I need you to take a look at these case files."

Veronica coughed, staring down at the files with distaste. "God, where'd you unearth these things from, anyway? The middle ages?"

"Ha ha, very funny. They're from the sheriff's office down in Jericho. Missing persons reports. The first one is dated..." He paused and glanced down at the top folder. "...1982."

"And from the looks of it, it hasn't been so much as touched since," Veronica muttered before something else he'd said registered. "Wait, Jericho? As in the town from the Aaron Echolls case?"


She looked down at the stack of folders before her and began shuffling through them, noting the bright red stamp of CONFIDENTIAL on the front of each one. "How'd you manage to get your hands on confidential police files, anyway?"

Dean smirked. "I have my sources."

Veronica wrinkled her nose. "Yeah, if by sources, you mean Betty Louise Thomas, the Neptune Police Reports Technician, A.K.A. Slutty McSlutFace."

Dean gave her a morally outraged look that she didn't buy for one second. "I'll have you know that Miss Thomas is all class. She's a Virgo; she loves her cat, and she enjoys long walks on the beach and those fruity drinks with the little umbrellas in the glass."

Veronica scowled. "Whatever." She waved a hand over the files he'd tossed onto her desk, bringing his attention back to the matter at hand. "So I take it you think these might be linked to our favorite sleazy celebrity's disappearance?"

"Well, that's what I want you to look for," Dean said, a small frown of frustration crossing his features. "It looks like a pattern to me, but I'll be damned if I can make out exactly what it is. Each incident is the same. A guy goes missing on his way through town, and his car is found on this one particular 5 mile stretch of road, nobody inside and the entire thing completely clean. The attacker doesn't leave any prints, any clues, nothing. And the victims are all different. Different ages, different races, you name it. Other than the fact that they're all males and they were all in their cars, there's no link that I can see. So whoever this mystery person is, how are they choosing their victims? And why? And more importantly, was Aaron Echolls one of them?"

"Much as I love the man, which is to say not at all, the fact that you're now referring to him in the past tense does not give me feelings of a warm and fuzzy nature."

Dean sighed. "You and me both, Ace."

Veronica looked younger when she was asleep, Dean decided, or at least more innocent. It was like the huge chip she normally carried around on her shoulder was gone, and she was just a normal 17-year-old girl again.

Dean stood in the doorway to the back office for a long moment, unable to bring himself to wake her up. She was sprawled on top of the folders he'd given her to go over, eyes closed and the fingers of one hand curled loosely around the pen she'd been using to take notes. She mumbled something incoherent in her sleep and shifted a little, causing several strands of her short, blonde hair to fall across her forehead. His fingers itched to smooth them away, but he refrained. No touching allowed, he reminded himself. After all, she was almost a decade younger than him, and they had a word for guys who went after girls like that. A very not-nice word, which started with "cradle" and ended with "robber." Besides, Keith would shit a brick.

God, Keith...

Right, Dean told himself. Time to stop mooning over the girl and get back to business.

"Veronica," he said, taking a step closer to her desk. She shifted again in her sleep and made this little noise in the back of her throat that shouldn't have been as cute as it was.

Damn it.

Dean kicked her chair. Hard.

Veronica woke up with a start, sitting up straight and shrieking loudly enough to wake the dead.

"Jesus!" Dean cried, stumbling back a step in surprise. "Calm down; it's just me!"

Veronica blinked sleep-clouded eyes at him for a moment, and he tried not to notice the way her hair stuck up on one side, which simply had no business being so adorable.

"You have a hair... thing," he told her, gesturing lamely.

She lifted one hand to check for damage, and her eyes widened almost comically. She quickly began to comb it back down into some semblance of order before shooting him a glare. "If you were trying to scare ten years off of my life, you'll be pleased to know you did a fabulous job."

"We have to go," he said, ignoring her caustic remarks as he moved to grab his car keys off of the hook by the door. "Right now."

"What? Where?"

"Jericho," he replied.

He could tell the exact moment when it clicked in her mind. Her face totally shut down, all emotion closed off, and she stood up and began to quickly and efficiently gather up the case files and her laptop. A professional until the end, she didn't say another word until they were inside the car.

"Just tell me he's still alive."

Dean turned the key in the ignition, the Impala's motor rumbling to life with a soothing purr.

"He's alive."

They didn't say another word the entire trip. There was nothing else that needed to be said.

Veronica never believed people who said that seeing the people you loved in the hospital made them appear smaller. After all, it wasn't like the doctors were packing shrink rays or something. But when she saw her father lying in that hospital bed, eyes closed and surrounded by a bunch of beeping monitors, she was forced to reevaluate her opinion on the whole shrink ray theory.

"He seems smaller," she said aloud, eyes never leaving her father's pale face. She shifted in the chair she'd pulled up next to the bed, the hard plastic seat providing little in the way of comfort.

"He'll be okay," Dean said from where he stood at the foot of the bed. "The doctors said he was lucky. They expect a full recovery."

"Lucky," Veronica scoffed. "Some psychopath ran him over with his own car. That's hardly what I'd call a run of good luck."

"Maybe he was asking too many questions, getting too close," Dean murmured, running a hand through his closely cropped hair and sighing in frustration. "He shouldn't have been here alone. I should've come with him."

Veronica rolled her eyes, the absurdity of his comments bringing her mind back from Depression Land to where it was supposed to be. "Yes, because of course, you're psychic now, and you can predict the future."

Dean opened his mouth to reply, but she cut him off by clapping her hands together briskly and turning in her seat to face him. "Look, this isn't helping. I know my dad, and he won't want pity, he'll want answers."

She stood up. "Go get that monster you call a car and bring it out front. We need to get to work."

After he'd left to do as she asked, Veronica turned back to her dad. He was still asleep; the medication he was on kept him pretty much dead to the world, but she thought maybe he could hear her anyway. She leaned down and brushed her lips across his forehead before adjusting his blankets and pillows around him. "Don't you worry, dad," she told him softly. "Dean and I are on this thing like fleas on a dog. These people won't know what hit 'em."

"This is the bridge where Aaron Echolls' car was found," Dean said, pulling the Impala up to the side of the road just before the bridge in question and killing the motor. It was an hour after sundown; golden hued street lamps dotted the bridge, lighting most of it, but leaving the occasional patch of darkness. There wasn't another car in sight.

He slid out of the Impala and gave Veronica an exasperated look when she did the same. "I suppose it won't do me any good if I tell you stay in the car with the doors locked, will it?"

She met his gaze evenly. "Nope. Besides, all the victims were guys. So maybe I should be telling you to play the damsel in distress this time." She batted her eyelashes prettily at him before closing the car door and starting off toward the bridge.

"Shit, hang on a second!" he hissed, quickly pulling his gun out of his shoulder holster and checking the clip. One good thing about being a former army sniper turned private detective was being licensed to carry, and Dean took full advantage of that. Keith, being a former sheriff, did the same. It was one thing the two men always agreed upon. Safety came first. Especially when they had to deal with Veronica rushing headlong into trouble, as she was oh so very apt to do.

He jogged a few steps to catch up to her and shot her a glare. "Walking alone to what's probably a murder scene in the middle of the night? Real smart, Ace."

Veronica arched a delicate brow in amusement. "Are you saying you couldn't have taken out anything that came near me from a hundred yards away? What happened to being 'Army Strong?'"

Dean sighed. "I'd just feel better if we stayed close, okay? We don't have all the facts, and it bugs me. I hate not knowing what I'm getting into."

Veronica shrugged. "If you want to find the truth, sometimes you have to take risks."

They'd reached the center of the bridge by this point, and Dean turned in a slow circle, gun ready at his side. It was so quiet that it was almost eerie. Aside from the sound of the river down below winding its way toward the ocean and Veronica's breathing next to him, he couldn't hear a thing. It was almost unnatural. He took a deep breath and released it, telling himself to chill the fuck out, and was surprised to see his breath puff out in a cloud of white on the suddenly cold night air.

"Dean," Veronica breathed, her hand shooting out to grasp at his jacket sleeve. He turned and looked where she pointed. There was a woman standing near the edge of the bridge. She had long, flowing dark hair and was dressed in a tattered white dress.

"What the fuck?" Dean whispered. She had not been there 5 seconds ago. He was sure of it. It was almost as if she'd appeared out of thin air.

As they watched, she slowly stepped up onto the railing, and then cast a long look over her shoulder, pinning Dean with the intensity of her gaze. He wanted to run to her; he wanted to call out for her to stop; he wanted to do something, but it was like he was frozen in place. He couldn't even breathe.

The woman in white stepped off the railing and fell into the blackness below.

The second she vanished from sight, it was like the invisible strings that had held Dean pinned in place snapped, and he ran for the railing, dimly aware of Veronica keeping pace beside him. They reached it at the same moment and leaned over the edge, straining to make out anything in the dark waters below, but there was nothing, not even a ripple on the surface. It was like the woman had simply vanished.

"I don't like this," he muttered, fingers clenching around his gun's handle until his knuckles turned white. 'I mean, I really don't like this."

Veronica nodded, fighting off a shiver of unease. "You can officially consider me creeped out."

The click of the gun being cocked was the only warning Dean had. He spun in place, raising his own gun and dropping to one knee in a single, fluid motion, his other hand yanking Veronica down beside him. He cursed himself for being so distracted with the strange woman that he'd allowed somebody to sneak up on them.

A man stood on the other side of the bridge holding a sawed-off shotgun in thick hands, his graying hair shoved up under a ball cap and his eyes narrowed at Dean, studying him, making him feel like he was some kind of science experiment gone seriously awry.

"Who the hell are you?" Dean bit out, pulling Veronica more firmly behind him. He could feel her breath on the back of his neck, and her fingernails dug painfully into his shoulder.

"I think I should be askin' you that, boy," the man replied gruffly. He seemed to see something in Dean that placated him, though, because, while he didn't lower his weapon, his entire demeanor seemed to shift, calming and becoming more friendly. "So you're huntin' her, too, eh?"

"Hunting?" Dean replied, frowning. "In case you've failed to notice, this is a road, not a hunting reserve. And I'm not a hunter; I'm a homicide detective." The lie came easier than he thought it would, and Dean felt Veronica shift slightly behind him in surprise. He hoped like hell it didn't show on her face, though. Something told him he didn't want this guy calling his bluff. "My partner and I are here investigating a possible murder."

Dean cocked his head to one side and eyed the gun clutched in the man's hands. He slowly rose to his feet, feeling Veronica do the same behind him, his gun still aimed for the stranger's heart. "Now I need you to put down the gun and place your hands behind your head."

The man laughed. Actually laughed. Which did nothing to improve Dean's already sour mood. "Boy if you're a cop, then I'm the tooth fairy." He looked Dean up and down quickly, before nodding to himself. "If I had to guess, I'd say army. You've got the look of a soldier."

Dean glared. "It doesn't matter what I am; you'd better believe I will shoot you dead before you can blink if you don't drop that gun and back away right the fuck now."

The man shrugged and lowered his gun, cradling it in his arms like a child, but pointedly not dropping it. "Relax. I've got nothing against you. But we both know I'm not the one you're really worried about." He nodded his head in the direction of the railing where the mysterious woman had stepped off. "You just saw something you can't even begin to explain, and believe me, that little lady was only the start of it. You're in deep shit, deeper'n you know, and if you ask me, you'd be better off leavin' right now and not lookin' back."

"We're working a case, buddy," Veronica announced, stepping out from behind Dean and nimbly avoiding his hand when he tried to pull her back. Jesus, but sometimes he thought the girl had a bit of a death wish. She could be fearless to the point of stupidity.

"Until we find out what happened here," she continued. "We're not going anywhere."

"Oh, I'll tell you what happened," the man replied with a casual shrug of his shoulders. "It's no skin off my nose. But I'm warnin' ya, you won't believe me."

Veronica smirked, crossing her arms in front of her chest and meeting the man's gaze steadily. "Try us."

"A ghost?"

Veronica stared at Robert "Bobby" Singer as he pulled a pair of shovels out of the back of his pickup truck and tossed them at Dean. The younger man had to move quickly to avoid being bashed in the side of the head. Veronica tried unsuccessfully to stifle a giggle, which made him shoot her a quick glare as he adjusted the shovels awkwardly in his arms.

"Like I said the first ten times you asked, yeah. A ghost." Bobby then reached into the truck to get the salt and the lighter fluid, which he handed off to Veronica. "The answer isn't gonna change just because you keep askin'."

The Impala was parked next to Bobby's truck a little ways down the lane from the dilapidated house at the end of Breckenridge road. It looked like something out of a horror movie, right down to the rotting wood and the tattered bits of lace drapery that still clung to the front windows. At least Hollywood's getting something right, Veronica thought to herself as Bobby pulled his shotgun out of the truck and led the way down the path that wound around the house and into what was left of the back yard. Even though she in no way believed that there was such a thing as ghosts, she had to admit that if there was, this would be the perfect place for one to live.

Veronica fingered the tazer in her bag with her free hand and slanted a questioning look over at Dean, relieved when he inclined his head slightly in response. Right, so they'd play along with this lunatic in the hopes that he'd lead them to... something. Not one of his "ghosts" obviously, but something. Aaron Echolls, if they were extremely lucky. And the moment he went all Norman Bates on them, they'd take him down, though hopefully it wouldn't come to that. Once they'd found out his gun was loaded with non-lethal salt rounds, Veronica had felt slightly more charitable towards the man. He seemed like a mostly benevolent psychopath, except for the whole grave desecration thing. Though if they found a stack of bodies hidden away out here, she reserved the right to change her opinion. Woman's prerogative and all that.

They stopped in front of a grave marked by a simple wooden cross. "This looks like it," Bobby announced. He leaned the shotgun against the marker and took one of the shovels from Dean. "Let's get this over with. I'd like to get finished before she realizes what we're up to and pays us a surprise visit."

Dean made a face, obviously looking forward to helping the crazy man dig up a grave about as much as Veronica was, but he stepped forward and used his boot to push the shovel into the ground with a soft thunk.

Veronica waited until they'd dug their way far enough down that they couldn't see her anymore and then began to look around in earnest. If there was something to find out here, she intended to find it. She pulled her flashlight out of her bag, flipped it on and swung it in a wide arc, catching the windows of the old house in its beam. She wondered if that was where the missing men had wound up. She wondered what had happened to them. She wondered if Aaron Echolls was even still alive. Something deep inside of her doubted it, which made her sad. She hadn't liked the man much, but it was still a shame. Nobody deserved... well, whatever had happened to him.

As her flashlight passed across one of the upstairs windows, Veronica saw something that made her heart leap up into her throat. A pair of children stood in the window, and they were staring right at her. As she watched, they clasped hands and then vanished into thin air.

Veronica gasped, her flashlight falling to the ground from suddenly nerveless fingers.

She felt an icy cold hand latch onto her arm.

A voice whispered menacingly in her ear.

"I can never go home..."

That was when Veronica began to scream.

Bobby's shovel made a loud thunk as it finally hit wood, and he grunted in triumph. "Pay dirt," he announced, grinning at Dean. "We're almost done."

Dean nodded, bending down to help brush away the last of the dirt that covered the coffin's lid. He still couldn't believe he was about to help a man break into a decades old coffin. The whole thing was sort of surreal. But as insane as this clearly was, Bobby knew too much about the case to be a complete nutter. The details he gave them were too specific, things he shouldn't rightfully know, even though they were interwoven with his insane ramblings about hitchhiking ghosts and unfaithful men.

Once they had cleared the coffin, Bobby gestured for him to stand back and lifted his shovel high above his head before bringing it crashing down onto the coffin lid, splintering wood and leaving a small hole.

"Dude," Dean interjected, reaching out and grabbing Bobby's arm before he could try again. "Let me."

He knelt and reached around the side of the coffin, fingers slip-sliding until he found the latch. It didn't want to open at first; many years buried underground had not been kind, but he was able to force it open after a couple of tries. He gestured for Bobby to move behind him, and then he curled his fingers under the coffin lid and started to lift.

Several things happened at once.

He felt the air temperature drop, a sudden chill permeating his bones and making his breath fog in front of his face.

He heard Veronica scream.

He felt feminine hands grab his arms, nails curving sharply into his biceps and making him wince in pain.

He heard Bobby swear loudly.

He felt himself bodily lifted from the open grave, and then he was airborne. A nearby tree stopped his sudden momentum, and he fell to the ground in a heap.

He blinked open bleary, pain-filled eyes, and the first thing he saw was Veronica. She was sprawled on the ground near the gravesite. He called her name, slowly pushing himself up to his hands and knees, and almost cried in relief when she groaned and began to lift her hand. Thank god, she was okay.

Then he saw a pair of pale feet appear in front of him, the edges of a tattered white dress brushing against her calves. He looked up and saw black hair, black eyes and the face of a beautiful young woman. But as he watched, it transformed, her skin blackening and peeling, her eyes sinking into her skull, her lips rotting down until he could see her teeth and jaw bone.

Clawed hands reached out and he found himself lying on his back, unable to move. Then she was there, a ghostly weight on top of him, and as he watched her face smoothed out, becoming beautiful again. The sickly-sweet smell of death surrounded him as she leaned over him, whispering in his ear.

"Take me home..."

She pressed cold lips against his throat, and he felt like all of the breath was being sucked from his body. He gasped loudly, sucking in air like a drowning man, and still his lungs felt like they were on fire. She placed her hand over his chest, and he wondered if this was what it was like to feel his heart stop beating. His eyes fluttered closed; his fingers twitched helplessly.

Then he heard a gunshot, and it felt like a weight had been lifted from him.

He heard someone calling his name and forced open eyelids that felt much too heavy. He had to blink a few times before the face hovering above him came into focus, and then he recognized Veronica's frightened features.

"Hey, Sunshine," he croaked, his voice sounding like he'd decided to take up eating glass shards as a fun, new hobby. "What happened?"

She shook her head back and forth, looking more scared than he'd ever seen her. "That... woman tried to kill you. Or possibly molest you." She forced a smile that he knew was mostly for his benefit. "Leave it to you to nearly score with a dead chick."

He forced aching muscles to work and slowly pushed himself up into a sitting position. He noted the shotgun lying beside them. "You shot her with the salt rounds?"

Veronica nodded.

"What happened? Is she dead... more dead... or something?"

"I don't know; she just vanished."

He opened his mouth to reply, but suddenly he felt a chill go down his spine. He looked over Veronica's shoulder and saw the air ripple strangely. Acting on instinct, he grabbed Veronica's arm and pushed her to the ground, covering her with his own body.

Then he heard the sound of flames igniting and risked a glance up. Bobby stood next to the gravesite; flames rose behind him, reaching fiery tendrils towards the night sky. There was a sound like something ripping, followed by a horrific scream, and then Dean could've sworn he felt a presence. Something unearthly. But after a moment, it vanished, and all he could feel was Veronica's body beneath him, each panicked breath she took, each too-fast beat of her heart, and her trembling hands curled against his chest.

Bobby whooped in pleasure, but Dean wasn't paying the older man any attention.

"Hey," he whispered, looking down at Veronica's scared face. But as he watched, she seemed to relax, and he could tell that she, too, felt the absence of the, well, there was really no other word for it, was there? It was a ghost. As insane as that was, they'd just seen an honest-to-god ghost.

"Hey yourself," she replied, smiling tentatively up at him.

He smiled back at her, one hand reaching up to brush some stray hair off of her forehead.

Her smile widened, but in a way that he knew spelled trouble.

"Not that I'm not enjoying this or anything," she said saucily, "But you're cutting off the circulation in my legs. I think somebody needs to cut back on the Ho-Hos and Twinkies."

Dean rolled his eyes and sat up. Witty banter after a near death experience wasn't exactly his forte. "Shut up," he grumbled, mentally conceding the point to her. This time.

"You two okay?" Bobby called, and Dean nodded an affirmative as he stood up, extending a hand to help Veronica up as well.

Bobby smirked at the somewhat shell-shocked expressions on their faces. "So I take it you believe me about the ghosts now?"

Dean sat on a lumpy bed in one of the most garishly decorated hotel rooms he'd ever seen in his entire life. He held a piece of paper in his hands, turning it over and over between his fingers. It had Bobby's phone number scribbled across it. The older man had given it to him right before they'd parted ways, with instructions to call him if he ever needed anything.

There was a brisk knock on the door, and then it opened. Veronica walked in with several bags in her arms, putting all but the smallest of them on the table by the window. Then she looked over at Dean and quirked one eyebrow. "Time to see about that," she said, gesturing toward the five bloody marks on the front of his shirt that made a semi-circle over his heart.

They hadn't gone to the hospital because, really, what could they have even said? We got attacked by a ghost out on Breckinridge road, but hey, no worries, because we did a little bit of grave desecrating and now it's gone? Somehow, he doubted the authorities would like that very much.

He winced as he pulled his t-shirt over his head. His back still hurt; he'd bet money there was bruising from when he'd been flung into that tree. He tossed the shirt into the nearby wastebasket, giving it up as a lost cause.

Veronica sat down tentatively on the edge of the bed, a warm washcloth in her hand, and began to dab lightly at the bloody marks on his chest, gently removing the dried blood and dirt. It stung a little, but Dean found himself more worried about how soft her hands were when she touched his shoulder, and how she smelled wonderful, even after a night spent fighting ghosts and burning graves.

Jesus, Keith was going to kill him. Dean could see the headlines now. Ex-Army Lieutenant Killed for Lusting after Partner's Daughter.

He gently reached up and wrapped his fingers around her wrist, stilling her movements. She raised wide eyes up to his, and he swallowed nervously. "It's fine," he said, dropping her hand and sliding off the bed. "It's already stopped bleeding."

She opened her mouth to protest, but he waved her off, turning to the bags on the table and digging around for the shirt she'd promised to buy him.

"Oh my god," she breathed from behind him. "Dean, your back."

The next thing he knew, she was standing behind him, one hand hovering worriedly over his back, but not actually touching him. It felt like a brand on his skin regardless.

"Just bruises," he muttered, finally finding the shirt in the bag. It was light blue, which wasn't a color he normally wore, but it would do in a pinch. "I've had worse."

"No," she murmured, and her hand finally settled on a spot just below his left shoulder blade. A spot he knew far too well. "I meant this. It looks like... are these burns?"

A flash of memory assaulted him. Searing heat. Pain, white hot. The world in his arms. And a voice that he'd never forget for as long as he lived. Get your brother outside as fast as you can. Now, Dean. Go!

"It's just a scar, Ace," he whispered, shrugging off her touch and turning to face her. "It happened a long time ago."

He tugged the t-shirt over his head and gestured toward the bathroom, effectively ending the discussion. "You can take first shower."

He waited until she was in the bathroom, the water running, and sat down on the bed. He picked up the piece of paper Bobby had given him and stared at it for a long time. Part of him wanted to tear it up and never think on it again, but he couldn't bring himself to do that. So he folded it neatly, and slipped it into his wallet, behind the faded picture of a family (John, Mary, Dean and Little Sammy written across the back in feminine script) that had held a position of honor at the front of his wallet for as long as he could remember carrying one.

Then he picked up his cell phone and dialed a number he knew by heart, though he'd never before called it. Even though it was after ten, a woman picked up on the second ring; her hello sounded soft and sleepy, like someone's home.

"Hello, my name is Dean Winchester. I know it's late, but I was wondering if I could speak to my brother, Sam..."