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Dick Casablancas and the Jelly Bean Trail (Or the One Where Dean and Veronica Go Camping)

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The dead weren't supposed to talk to you. Not if you weren't Haley Joel Osment, at any rate. Ghosts might be real—a lesson that Veronica still sometimes had nightmares about, by the way—but that didn't mean that she expected to have actual conversations with them.

Which was why Veronica found it so disturbing when Lilly Kane began haunting her.

Sometimes she came to Veronica in her dreams, dancing and laughing and being so Lilly that it almost hurt to watch her. And each time Veronica would wake up afterwards in a cold sweat, unsure for a minute what was real and what was illusion.

Sometimes she came in the form of a memory, beckoning at the edges of Veronica's mind when she was supposed to be studying or working on a case. Lilly would hold out her hands, that million-dollar smile on her lips, and Veronica would forget where she was and what her life had become. And for just a few moments, it would be like it used to be. Veronica, Duncan, Logan, Lilly. Four best friends taking on the world. Perfect. Of course, then she'd blink and find herself in math class, where Dick Casablancas had just lobbed a spitball at her head, reminding her that her life was anything but perfect.

Veronica could deal with all of that, though. That was a cakewalk, honestly. No, it was the times like right now that really drove her crazy.

"So you're honestly telling me that you've never even thought about it?"

She was sitting at her desk in the office, and Lilly was perched on the corner, leaning her head back so far that her silky, blonde hair trailed over the case files that Veronica was supposed to be alphabetizing.

Dean stood by the window, completely oblivious to the ghostly figure currently driving Veronica batty. He was talking softly into his cell phone, trying to get some useful information out of the latest jealous wife convinced her husband was stepping out on her. Not the most exciting of cases, but it paid the bills.

"Nope," Veronica said, her voice barely more than a whisper. "Never."

Lilly giggled and hopped off the desk, sashaying around to stand next to Veronica's chair. She had a grin on her face reminiscent of the cat that caught the canary. "Please, Veronica, you are such a bad liar. You've totally thought about it." She looked over her shoulder at Dean, a predatory smile curving across her lips. "I mean seriously, just look at him. Mmmmmm, he looks good enough to eat."

Veronica sighed. "He's almost ten years older than me, Lilly. My dad would kill me."

Lilly rolled her eyes. "Only you would think that your dad even needs to know." She looked over at Dean again, grinning wolfishly as he leaned over to pick up a piece of paper that he'd dropped on the floor. "Besides, 26 isn't old. At least not when you've got an ass like that."

Veronica choked back her laughter. "Lilly!" she gasped, equal parts amused and horrified.

"Did you say somethin', Ace?"

Veronica turned wide eyes on Dean, her heart leaping into her throat.

"Um… no," she mumbled, suddenly finding the folders on her desk very interesting.

The bell on the office's front door jangled, and Veronica leapt to her feet, grateful for the interruption.

"Saved by the bell." Lilly smirked. Her image faded in and out of focus jerkily before vanishing altogether.

Veronica stared at the spot that her best friend's ghost had just recently occupied for a long moment before she was able to shake off her lingering feelings of unease and acknowledge the young man standing in the doorway.

"Hey, beautiful." Troy Vandergraff leaned forward to give Veronica a quick peck on the lips. "You busy tonight?"

Veronica smiled, glad to have something other than Dean Winchester and old ghosts to focus on. "Well, I was planning on a nice, long night of thumb twiddling, followed by a rousing session of foot tapping. And then, to really shake things up, I was going to watch some paint dry."

Troy chuckled. "Veronica Mars, your life is wall-to-wall excitement."

"Don't I know it," she replied, opening the door and grabbing her bag. "It's five past; I'm off," she called over her shoulder to Dean, before following Troy outside to his car.

"So what's the plan?" she asked, after she got situated in the passenger seat.

"Well, the plan is to have one last night of fun and debauchery before I leave tomorrow," Troy said, waggling his eyebrows at her suggestively.

Troy, Duncan, Logan and Dick were going on a camping trip out at Blackwater Ridge in Colorado. The plan was for them to leave early Saturday morning and be back on Wednesday. Sure, they'd be missing a couple of days of school, but their parents had signed off on the adventure, and what the rich and powerful parents of Neptune wanted, they got. No doctor's note required.

Veronica grinned. "I suppose I could be up for a little debauchery. Just make sure we're back by midnight…"

"…or your dad will murder me, I know," Troy finished, giving her a sly grin. "No worries. I've got it covered."

As they pulled away from the curb, Veronica thought she saw a flash of blonde hair in one of the office windows, but she purposefully ignored it.


Dean sighed, pocketing his cell phone, taking a seat at Veronica's desk and trying to restrain the urge to go outside and punch that kid Troy's face in. Something about him just rubbed Dean the wrong way. He was rich, cocky, full of himself… Oh, who he was he kidding? Dean ran an agitated hand through his hair. The kid made him see red because he was pawing all over Veronica.

Here he was, 26 years old, and he was jealous of a teenaged trust fund brat. If it wasn't so pathetic, it might actually be funny.

The phone rang, startling Dean out of his thoughts. He picked up the handset on the second ring. "Mars and Winchester Investigations, this is Dean Winchester speaking."

"Hey, is Veronica there?"

"Oh, hey Wallace," Dean said, as he used one foot to spin himself around in circles in the office chair. Eventually, the phone cord wrapped all the way around the chair several times, stopping his momentum, and he was forced to change directions. "You just missed her. She left. With that Troy guy." He tried to keep the distaste out of his voice when he said the kid's name, but he didn't think he succeeded all that well.

"Wow, somebody doesn't like him very much."

Or at all, apparently. Way to be subtle, Dean-o. "I didn't actually say that," he pointed out. It was a token protest that they both knew he didn't really mean.

"You didn't have to, man. It was painfully obvious."

Dean huffed into the phone. "Shut up, Wallace, before I come over there and kick the shit outta you."

Wallace laughed. "Yeah, you and what army, Winchester?"

"Like I'd need an entire army to kick your skinny little ass."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Wallace grumbled. "Look, just tell her I called, okay? She's supposed to help me with my history paper this weekend."

"Will do, man."

Dean hung up the phone and checked the clock. Ten after six. Keith was out on assignment, and there were no more scheduled appointments for the day, so Dean decided to pack it in. He scribbled "Call Wally" on a post-it and stuck it on top of Veronica's laptop. Then he grabbed his jacket and keys and made sure to lock up on his way out.

As he made his way to the back lot where the Impala was waiting for him, he thought he saw a pretty blonde girl smiling at him from across the street, but when he looked more closely, there was nobody there.

"Jesus, now I'm starting to hallucinate," he sighed, climbing into the car and starting the motor. What he needed was a drink. Or maybe twenty. And then he could collapse into a blissful, alcohol-induced coma for the rest of the weekend.

"TGIF," Dean muttered, as he pulled out of the parking lot and headed for the nearest bar.


Dean woke up to the sound of somebody pounding on his front door. He opened bleary eyes and winced when the sunlight that came through his bedroom window felt like knives stabbing into his brain. He started to sit up, but his stomach protested the sudden movement violently.

This was why he generally never tried to drink the whole weekend away. It always ended up with him worshipping the porcelain gods come Sunday morning.

"Oh god," he muttered, rolling over onto his stomach. "I think I'm gonna be sick."

"Just don't puke on me, baby," came a husky, feminine voice from his other side.

Dean blinked sluggishly, and turned his head to see a mass of tangled blonde hair on the pillow next to him. His eyes traveled down a shapely body and paused for a second on the small tattoo of a sun on her right hip.

"Um," he said, rather eloquently if he did say so himself.

"Somebody's knocking at your door, sport," she murmured, before burying her face in the pillow with a sigh.

Dean blinked several times, turned over, and swung his feet down to the floor, thankful when he didn't actually ralph. He grabbed a pair of jeans that didn't smell too bad and tugged them on as he made his way to the door.

"Jesus, hold your horses, I'm coming," he muttered, as he shuffled into the small combination kitchen/living area that made up the remainder of his tiny apartment. The pounding on the door continued right up until Dean undid the chain and deadbolt and yanked the door open, an angry comment about disrupting the peace on his lips, and came face-to-face with a desperate looking Veronica. They stood there frozen for a long moment, her with red-rimmed eyes and one fist poised as if to knock, him rumpled and sleepy and suddenly aware of the fact that he'd forgotten to grab a shirt, before she swallowed and dropped her hand.

"We need to talk," she said, before she walked through the door, forcing him to turn sideways to let her pass. He told himself he wasn't hyper-aware of the scent of her perfume as she brushed past him, but he could spot a lie from a mile away, even when he was lying to himself.

"Um, right, come on in," Dean mumbled, shutting the door behind them and turning to follow her back inside.

She paused in the center of the living room, bag clutched against her side and one hand toying distractedly with the hairs at the nape of her neck.

"What's going on?" he asked tentatively, moving over to stand in front of her. "What happened?"

She didn't say anything, simply reached into her bag and pulled out her cell phone. After pressing a quick combination of keys, she handed it to him silently.

It was a voice mail dated late Saturday night.

"Hey, babe, it's me. We just got here. I thought I'd call and rescue you from homework hell with little dirty talk, but I guess you're deep in it."

Dean's jaw clenched, and he lifted his eyes to meet Veronica's gaze. She was making him listen to Troy Vandergraff calling her for phone sex? God, could his life suck any harder?

But then, even as Troy was mid-sentence, there was a strange shriek, like some kind of animal, and the sound of fabric ripping.

"What the…?"

He was stunned into silence by the sound of a man screaming, followed by a click and then nothing.

"Jesus," he muttered, turning the phone off setting it down on his coffee table. He looked up at Veronica, meeting her wide-eyed gaze with one of his own. "What the hell was that?"

She shook her head, wisps of blonde hair flying out of the messy ponytail she wore. "I don't know," she whispered, "but this isn't the first time something like this has happened in Blackwater Ridge."

She reached trembling hands into her messenger bag and pulled out a small sheaf of papers, quickly handing them to Dean. As he flipped through them, she continued talking, summing up her findings.

"After I heard that message, I called the Park Services in Lost Creek, but they just stonewalled me with some bullshit about Dick filing a backcountry permit. So I did some digging. Every 23 years, there's a spate of attacks. Hikers and campers go missing, and their bodies are never found. Officials attribute them to grizzly bears, but it doesn't add up. It's obviously the same thing each time. The timing is too precise, and the attacks are too similar for it not to be. But I traced the attacks back to 1936, and unless you know of a grizzly bear that can live for 70 years…" She trailed off with a helpless shrug, before lifting panicked eyes to meet his. "I just… I didn't know who I could go to," she whispered. "Nobody else would believe me."

Dean tossed the papers down onto his coffee table, and before he let himself think about it for too long, he pulled Veronica against his chest and wrapped his arms tightly around her. Her bag slipped out of her hands and fell to the floor between their feet, unnoticed.

"You did the right thing," he murmured, running his hands up and down her back in soothing motions.

Veronica's hands rose to grip his shoulders, her nails sharp points against his skin as she held on to him like her life depended on it. "I don't know what I'd do if something happened to him, Dean."

Dean didn't for a moment fool himself into believing that she was talking about Troy. No, this was worse. Much worse.

"I'll find him," he promised, lightly brushing his lips against her hair. He didn't know how he'd manage it, but somehow, for her, he'd do it. Call him whipped, but he'd do anything for Veronica. Damn it, though, why'd it have to be camping? Dean hated camping. When this was over, Duncan Kane was going to owe him one.

"Sorry to interrupt," a feminine voice spoke up suddenly, causing Dean and Veronica to spring apart like a pair of guilty teenagers. Standing in the doorway to the bedroom was the blonde from before. Though she'd thankfully taken the time to get dressed since he'd left her in bed, Dean couldn't help but notice that she'd chosen to wear his shirt (the hemline of which just barely reached mid-thigh on her) and little else.

Veronica's eyes widened as she took in the shapely, blonde and Dean's state of half-dress, and he could practically see the wheels in her head turning as she came to the obvious conclusion.

"Um, right," she said, quickly reaching down to grab her cell phone and bag. "I'd better be going. Just… call me when you know something."

She started to pick up the sheaf of papers on Blackwater Ridge, but Dean's hand shot out, grabbing her wrist and halting her movements, which startled her into dropping all the papers back onto the coffee table. Dean could feel her pulse fluttering beneath his fingertips and the slight tremor that ran through her body at his touch.

"Leave them," he told her softly. He sought out her eyes, but she was studiously avoiding his gaze. "I want to go over them myself."

Veronica nodded mutely and tugged at her hand, belatedly reminding him that she'd already dropped the papers, and there was no good reason for him to still be touching her. He released her and stepped back, rocking back on his heels and stuffing his hands into his jean pockets.

After she slipped out the door, he sighed and collapsed back onto his rather threadbare couch. He heard the blonde from the previous night moving around in his apartment, but he didn't pay her much attention until she kicked him in the shin.

"Ow," he muttered, glaring up at her.

She simply shrugged, as if to say suck it up, you big baby, stripped off his shirt and tossed it into his lap, which left her standing before him in only a tiny scrap of black lace masquerading as underwear. Her breasts bobbed gently as she reached down to pick up her own shirt from where she'd laid it on the table.

"You know," she commented as she pulled the shirt over her head and then began struggling into her jeans, which were so tight that they were almost like a second skin. She had to do an interesting little shimmy to get them over her hips, and she threw him a wink as she began to do up the buttons. "They have a word for your particular situation."

"Oh, yeah," he replied with a sigh. "And what's that?"

She toed on her shoes and smirked down at him, before slithering into his lap and lacing her arms around his neck. She leaned in and kissed him before he could say another word, slipping her nimble tongue between his lips and fluttering it against his own teasingly before disengaging. She gave his cheek a fond pat before sliding off of him and standing up.

"Jailbait, sweetie," she told him as she picked up her bag and walked through his front door. "You should look it up."

Dean closed his eyes with a sigh and let his head fall backwards against the couch. God, his life was seriously fucked up.


It wasn't until the Impala sped past a sign that announced, "Now leaving California. Entering Nevada," that Dean finally dared to pull out his cell phone and turn it back on. He knew Veronica had probably already called him at least half a dozen times, if not more, but if he'd talked to her before he was far enough away to make turning back next to impossible, she would've badgered him into bringing her along. And there was no way in hell he was dragging a seventeen-year-old girl through the backcountry in Colorado to hunt a cannibalistic monster.

Dean glanced over at the small stack of papers in the passenger seat. Veronica's research, coupled with a single page of handwritten notes from his conversation with Bobby Singer. Even though it had been nearly a month since their encounter on that bridge in Jericho, the older man hadn't acted at all surprised when Dean had called asking for help identifying a strange creature that was attacking people in Colorado. It was almost like he'd been expecting Dean to call, which, hell, maybe he had been. Dean wasn't sure what exactly that said about him, but he figured the hastily outfitted camping pack in the back seat, complete with an ancient book on Anasazi protection rituals and a pair of flare guns (the better to roast a Wendigo with), was proof enough that he was in too deep now to bother worrying about it.

Dean took his eyes off the road to risk a quick glance at the digital display on his phone. As he'd predicted, it proclaimed that he had 8 missed calls.

Well, he supposed it was time to face the music. Veronica wasn't going to be very happy with him for leaving her behind, but she would just have to accept it. He picked up the phone and hit speed dial 4.

A few seconds later he heard the phone on the other end of the line start to ring. He almost swerved the Impala off the road when that was immediately followed by the sound of a very familiar ring tone buzzing from the back seat.

"Shit!" came a muffled voice, followed by the noise of somebody hastily scrambling about behind him. Dean saw a flash of blonde hair in the rearview mirror, and then the call suddenly disconnected, leaving the car in total silence.

It took a few moments for the shock to wear off, and then Dean was slamming on the brakes, gravel flying and rubber burning as he jerked the car off onto the shoulder. There was more cursing from the backseat, followed by a loud thump, before the car came to a halt.

Dean was out of the car and yanking open the door to the backseat before the dust had time to settle, and what he saw wasn't surprising at this point, though it was damn well infuriating. A head of tousled blonde hair poked out from underneath a tangle of sleeping bags and blankets, and Veronica gave him a sheepish look.

"Um… you rang?"


The car was an ocean of uncomfortable silence until they were only a few hours outside of Lost Creek.

It was Veronica who cracked first.

"You have to talk to me sometime, you know."

Veronica tried in vain to catch Dean's eye, but he ignoried her under the guise of driving extra carefully.

"C'mon, Dean," she wheedled. "You're the one who was going to leave me behind to wring my hands and darn socks while you ran off to play the part of the dashing hero. If anything, it's me who should be mad at you."

A muscle in Dean's jaw twitched, but he kept his eyes resolutely focused on the road.

Veronica sighed in exasperation. "You can't honestly have thought it'd be smart to go wandering around monster-infested woods without someone along to watch your back. You need me."

That got his attention.

"No way," he said. "You are not coming with me to Blackwater Ridge. We're checking into a hotel in Lost Creek, and you're staying in the room."

Veronica rolled her eyes. "Oh, right, because leaving me behind worked out so well for you last time."

"This is not up for negotiation, Ace. If you so much as think about trying to follow me, I will tie you to the damn bed."

Veronica arched an eyebrow. "Sounds kinky. Will there be leather and handcuffs involved?"

"I'm serious," Dean reiterated. "You're not coming with me."

"No," Veronica countered, "I'm serious. I can't just stay behind and do nothing."

"Look, Veronica, it's not safe for—"

"No," she cut him off. "Don't placate me, okay? I'm not a kid. I know it's dangerous, but I need to find him. I need to make sure he's okay."

Dean gave her an unreadable look. "And if he's not okay?"

"Then I need to see it for myself."

Dean clenched his jaw, and Veronica could practically see the different arguments running through his head. She lifted her chin and met Dean's gaze unflinchingly, stopping him before he even got started. "This isn't something you can protect me from, Dean."

Dean sighed. "No, but it should be." And for a second he looked almost impossibly young and fragile. It made Veronica want to wrap him up in her arms and tell him everything was going to be okay. But then the moment passed; his jaw locked, and he stared ahead at the road, shutting her out again. It was like a wall had slammed down between them, and suddenly they were miles apart.

Dean silently reached out a hand and flipped on the radio, messing with the dial until he picked up some old rock station which was playing a song that set Veronica's teeth on edge. But she tuned it out and turned to look out the window instead, watching the scenery fly past and wondering why things with Dean Winchester could never be easy.

She fell asleep to the soothing rumble of the Impala's motor and the sound of wailing guitars. When she slept, she dreamt of Lilly, but her best friend wouldn't talk to her. She just sat there by the Kane's swimming pool, blood dripping sluggishly down her forehead, and looked at Veronica with accusing eyes. When Veronica tried to touch Lilly's face, her fingers passed through skin as insubstantial as smoke.

Veronica blinked in confusion, and the next thing she knew, she was in an old-fashioned looking bedroom. She turned in a circle, taking in the ruffled, lace curtains and mahogany furniture. It was the kind of room she and her dad never could have afforded, not in a million years.

She felt something wet fall into her hair, like rain, and wondered how it could be raining inside of a house. Another drop landed on her forehead, and when she touched her finger to it, her fingertip came back red. She looked up. She immediately wished she hadn't.

Lilly was there, pinned to the ceiling, wearing a prim, white nightgown unlike anything she'd ever owned when she was alive. As Veronica watched, horrified, a circle of red appeared on her abdomen, slowly expanding and soaking through the pristine, white fabric.

Lilly opened her mouth, but when she spoke, it wasn't her voice that Veronica heard. It was the voice of a man that she didn't recognize. The voice whispered her name, and it sent chills racing down Veronica's spine.

Lilly's form seemed to shift and expand right before her very eyes, and soon Veronica was looking up at a young man with shaggy, dark hair and haunted eyes. He was somehow familiar, even though she knew she'd never seen him before.

He spoke again, but his words were muffled, and she couldn't understand them. Something told her that if she could just figure out what he was saying, everything would become clear, but try as she might, she couldn't make out the words.

She felt a presence behind her, something dark and malevolent, but she couldn't tear her gaze away from the man on the ceiling.

A hand closed around her arm, fingers curling tightly around her bicep. She felt sharp nails digging into her skin. And then she heard a crackling noise, like rustling paper.

Her entire body felt white hot, like she was burning up from the inside, and she opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out.

The hand on her arm shook her roughly, and suddenly she could hear a familiar voice.

"Veronica."

She closed her eyes, latching onto the comforting voice as a way to block out the searing heat that licked at her body like a hellish lover's caress.

"Wake up, Veronica."

Dean.

It was Dean.

She woke up with dried tears on her cheeks, but Dean didn't say anything about it, though his eyes lingered on her for a long time, his expression unreadable. He watched her for so long that she wondered if she'd said something in her sleep and began to fidget uncomfortably.

"We're here," he finally said, opening the door and sliding out of the car. She looked out her window and saw trees everywhere. The Impala rested at the end of a dirt trail that was barely wide enough for a car to pass through it. They'd obviously reached the end of the road, because the trees closed in on the path in front of them, making further travel impossible, unless it was by foot.

There was a small clearing off to the side that was clearly intended for campers' to park their cars in, judging by all the trampled grass. She recognized Logan's yellow Xterra among the vehicles there.

Veronica climbed out of the car and had to fight off a shiver when the chill from the early morning air began to set into her bones. She wrapped her jacket more tightly around her and watched as Dean pulled a pack of supplies out of the backseat of the Impala and rummaged through it.

He got out an ancient looking book and flipped through it until he reached a page that had been marked with a paperclip. Then he grabbed a stick off the ground and began moving around the car, tracing intricate shapes into the dirt.

"What are those?" she asked once he'd finished.

"Anasazi protection symbols. According to Bobby, Wendigos can't cross over them," he said. "Sunrise is in about two hours. This thing's too good of a hunter in the dark, so we'll have to wait it out."

Veronica nodded and perched tentatively on the hood of the Impala, arms wrapped tightly around herself to ward off the cold. She felt bone tired, even though she'd slept during the trip, and her mind kept going back to the young man from her dreams. It was strange. She didn't usually dream about people she didn't know. Even when her dreams were at their weirdest, they usually had familiar faces cast in all the varying roles. But she knew she'd never seen this guy before. Even so, there was something familiar about him, but she just couldn't seem to put her finger on what it was.

"Hey, Veronica."

A pair of fingers snapped in front of her face, less than an inch away from her nose, and she jumped, surprised to find Dean standing directly in front of her. "Yeah?" she asked, putting as much irritation into her tone as she could manage at four in the morning.

"Where'd you go?" Dean asked, leaning his back against the passenger-side window to her left and nudging her shoulder playfully with his own. "You looked like you were a million miles away just then."

Veronica shrugged. "Nothing, just thinking about a dream I had."

Dean grinned. "A dream, huh? Was I in it?"

The corner of Veronica's mouth quirked up into a smile. "Wasn't that kind of a dream, stud."

He nodded, still smiling a little as he turned his head to stare out into the forest that surrounded them, and they fell into silence again, though this time it was a comfortable one.

When she shivered again, Dean slipped off his leather jacket and settled it gently over her shoulders. Veronica murmured her thanks, slid her arms through the sleeves and wrapped the coat around herself. It smelled like Dean – leather and musk and a hint of something spicy – and it was still warm from his body. She had to resist the urge to just curl up in it and purr like an overgrown kitten. Because that wouldn't be embarrassing, oh no, not at all. And besides, she wasn't even interested in Dean like that. He was annoying and overbearing; he came up with the most ridiculous nicknames for her whether she liked them or not (and okay, so maybe she was secretly a little fond of them, but it wasn't like he knew that), and worst of all, he thought he knew everything. God, she hated that.

"Veronica."

"Hmmm?" she murmured, still lost in thought.

"Veronica."

She rolled her eyes, turning her full attention on Dean. "I heard you the first time, you know."

But Dean wasn't looking at her. He was staring intently out into the darkened forest. And that was when she realized that it wasn't him speaking.

"Veronicaaaa…"

The strange voice held onto the last syllable of her name for several seconds, stretching it out into a plaintive cry. Veronica shivered, but this time it wasn't from the chill in the air.

"Who is that?" she whispered. She slid off the hood of the Impala and took a step toward the sound before she'd even realized she planned on moving. But then Dean's arm shot out in front of her, holding her back.

"Don't," he said, his voice like steel. "Wendigos can mimic human speech. It's trying to lure you away from the protective circle."

Silence fell around them, broken only by the sound of their own breathing. "Do you think it's given up?" Veronica asked after a long moment.

Dean's mouth had settled into a grim line, and his eyes never stopped searching the dark forest, straining for a glimpse of the creature. He didn't answer her. He didn't have to. Her question had been mostly wishful thinking anyway.

Sighing, she turned up the collar of Dean's jacket and wrapped it more tightly around her. It was only two hours until daybreak, but right then, it seemed like they'd be stuck waiting here forever.

"I hate just waiting like this," she muttered defiantly.

"Well, Princess, we could always play a game to pass the time. How about I Spy?" Without waiting for her to reply, he made a show of looking out at the forest that surrounded them for something good. "I spy… something leafy."

Veronica made a face. "Bite me, Winchester."

Dean chuckled. "Don't tempt me."

Veronica sat down on the ground in front of the Impala's front tire, leaning back against the car and bringing her knees up so she could wrap the ends of Dean's jacket around them to ward off the cold morning air. It was going to be a long couple of hours.


Veronica was curled up on the ground next to the car; she'd fallen asleep almost as soon as she'd sat down, leaving Dean with only his tense thoughts for company as he waited for daybreak. The Wendigo, for its part, apparently gave up on taunting them when it realized they had no intention of leaving the campsite before dawn. Where it was now was anyone's guess, though it would surely return to cause trouble once they were on the move, a thought that did nothing to lower Dean's current stress levels.

The sunrise, when it came, was a welcome sight, even though it meant things were about to get more dangerous. If he hadn't thought she'd just try and follow him anyway, he would've left Veronica asleep inside the protective circle. But he knew her too well, and he didn't want to risk her wandering around the forest alone and becoming an early morning Wendigo-snack.

"Wake up, Sunshine," he said, kneeling beside her and giving her shoulder a light shake. She jerked awake so violently she nearly hit the back of her head against the Impala's front bumper, and she instinctively lashed out with one of her hands, punching him in the arm.

"Whoa, easy there, Tiger," he said. "It's just me."

Veronica blinked several times, one hand reaching up to scrub at her eyes. "Sorry, bad dream," she mumbled.

"Seems to be becoming a habit," Dean noted, remembering the way she'd moaned and thrashed about in her sleep when they were in the Impala before. "Wanna talk about it?"

"I think we have more important things to worry about than a couple of scary dreams," Veronica replied, pushing herself to her feet. Dean's jacket nearly swallowed her up; the sleeves slid down over her hands until only the tips of her fingers were visible, but she wore her most determined expression on her face, the expression Dean had learned to ignore at his own peril. "So, Kemo Sabe, what's our next move?"

"I figured we'd find the guys' campsite and go from there," Dean said. He pulled a digital compass out of his pack and studied it for a moment. "I've got the coordinates for Blackwater Ridge: 35-111. You said they were camping near there, so that's where we'll start the search."


It took them a few hours to reach the campsite. Veronica navigated using Dean's compass, while Dean followed with one of the flare guns at the ready. He couldn't ignore the uneasy feeling that crept up along his spine, like they were being watched, but nevertheless, they reached the campsite without any trouble. Dean didn't really find any comfort in that, though. The damn thing was probably just waiting for the perfect moment to spring its trap.

The campsite itself was in pretty bad shape. They found the tents shredded to ribbons, packs opened and strewn all along the path, and, most damning of all, bloodstains on the ground.

Veronica's face paled when she saw the blood, and Dean hastened to reassure her. "It doesn't necessarily mean anything," he told her, though the words rang false even in his own ears.

"So where do we go from here?" she asked, pointedly turning away from the blood to face him.

"Well, Wendigos usually keep their victims alive until they're ready to…" Dean trailed off, gesturing vaguely with his hand. From the look on Veronica's face, he knew he didn't need to elaborate any further on that part of it. "They like to stockpile them, keep them in their lair."

"So we need to find this thing's lair, then," Veronica said. "How do we do that?"

"It'll be somewhere dark and cool, maybe underground. And deserted, obviously."

"Aren't there some abandoned gold and silver mines around here somewhere?" Veronica asked. "I remember reading about them when I was researching the area."

Dean nodded. "It's as good a place to start as any." He squatted down, took off his pack and started to rummage through it, looking for the maps he'd stashed in one of the pockets. Before he had a chance to pull them out, Veronica gasped loudly. Dropping his pack, Dean leapt to his feet, flare gun in hand, eyes immediately tracking to Veronica where she was crouched on the other side of the clearing. "What is it?" he asked. "What happened?"

"Come look at this," she said, pointing to something on the ground.

Dean walked over and knelt down next to her. And that was when he saw it. A flash of bright color on the ground. He pushed aside some leaves to reveal a small handful of jellybeans, in an assortment of colors. And then, a few feet further away, he caught sight of another patch of unnaturally bright color.

"These are one of Dick's favorite kinds of candy," Veronica told him.

"But you don't think... it's a trail?"

"What else could it be?" she asked.

"He didn't know we were coming," Dean pointed out. "He wouldn't know to leave one." He stood up. "I still want to check out those mines. I think that's the likeliest… holy shit!"

His pack, which he'd left sitting in the middle of the clearing next to one of the shredded tents, was gone. No trace of it remained.

"What?" Veronica asked, standing up as well.

"My pack's gone."

"What do you mean, gone? How can it be gone, Dean? You just set it down, like, a second ago."

"I don't believe this," Dean muttered. "That damn thing stole my pack."

Veronica looked at him with wide, frightened eyes. "But... but that means …"

"It's here. Watching us. Hell, the bastard's toying with us."

Dean tightened his grip on their last remaining flare gun. The others had been in his pack, along with all the extra flares. Which meant they had exactly one shot. One shot to kill a super-strong, super-fast, cannibalistic monster. He was a good shot, a great shot even, but truth be told, Dean wasn't really liking his chances here.

"That's it," he announced, grabbing Veronica by the arm and leading her back the way they'd come. "I'm taking you back to the car."

"What?"

"I'm getting you out of here. It's not safe anymore."

Veronica jerked her arm free of his grip and spun around to face him. "Newsflash, Winchester. It was never safe here!"

"All the more reason for me to take you back right now," he replied.

"Yeah, and what do you think the Wendigo will do when it figures out where we're headed?" she demanded. "It knows you put those protective circles around the car. If we go there, it can't get us. If this thing's smart enough to steal your pack while your back's turned, then you better believe it's smart enough to take us out before we get to the damn car."

"Well, then what the hell am I supposed to do?" Dean yelled. "It's got us exactly where it wants us, Veronica! We have no supplies; there's only one flare left, and I can't even draw us some protection sigils or call for help, because both the spell book and my phone were in the pack! How am I supposed to protect you, Veronica? What am I supposed to do?"

"We do what we came here to do," Veronica told him, placing extra emphasis on the "we" part. "We kill that son of a bitch, and we save the day. You only have one shot; so what? You'll just have to make it count."

Before Dean could reply, they heard a scream from off in the distance.

"Oh my god," Veronica whispered, one hand rising to cover her mouth. "That sounded like Duncan."

"Veronica! Dean! Help me!" the voice called.

"That's not Duncan," Dean said, taking Veronica's hand and pulling her behind him. "It's the Wendigo. It's trying to get us to panic and go tearing off through the forest looking for Duncan. It wants us off balance so it can pick us off easily."

"Then what do we do?"

Dean sighed. What he really wanted to do was get Veronica the fuck out of here, Duncan or no Duncan, but she was right. The Wendigo obviously had its own plans for them, and he doubted returning to the car and escaping played any part in them. So, he decided, it was time to stop acting like a victim, and start acting like a hunter. This thing wanted to play with them? Fine. But this time, Dean was going to make it play his game.

"Well, thanks to Dick's sweet tooth, we have a handy, Technicolor trail to follow," he said, gesturing at the jelly beans at their feet. "I say we use it."

Veronica nodded and started to pull her hand out of Dean's grasp, but he tightened his grip and shook his head. "I don't think so. Consider yourself on the Buddy System from now on, Ace. We stick together at all times. Now let's move."


They'd found several more piles of jelly beans before finally coming across the empty bag caught in some bushes, thus ending their candy-coated trail of breadcrumbs. But there were other signs, and Dean was quick to catch them. Cracked twigs, crushed grass… and, much more distressingly, the occasional bit of blood staining the leaves of the bushes along the path, as if a wounded person had brushed against them in passing. Veronica didn't want to think about which one of the boys could be bleeding, because those thoughts just led to questions of who it was, how badly they'd been hurt, how much blood they'd lost, and that was a road that Veronica didn't want to travel down, not until they'd found them and could see the truth for themselves.

Along the way, there were several times when Veronica was positive that somebody… or something was watching them, but whenever she turned around to look, there was nothing there. It gave her the creeps, though, and she found herself clinging a little tighter to Dean's hand.

"Jesus, where's your backbone, V?" Lilly asked, suddenly appearing beside Veronica on the path, her bloody prep school outfit looking even more out of place than normal in the middle of the forest. "Channel your inner Buffy or something, already."

Dean seemed to be oblivious to Lilly's presence; his stride never broke once as they made their way through the forest.

"Shut up," Veronica hissed under her breath. "I so don't have time for this right now."

"What did you say?" Dean asked, glancing at her over his shoulder. Veronica didn't have a chance to come up with a suitable lie, though, because her best friend's ghost talked right over him.

"Fine, whatever," Lilly said, flipping her hair over one shoulder and arching an eyebrow haughtily. "My mistake; I guess you don't want me to show you a shortcut to where Duncan is. I'll just get out of your hair now."

"Wait!" Veronica cried out, all pretense of hiding the fact she was talking to a ghost forgotten in her concern for Duncan. She let go of Dean's hand and took a step toward Lilly. "Please, show us."

"What the hell are you doing?" Dean hissed, looking at her like she'd lost her mind. And if she hadn't already seen enough weird stuff to make even the Scullys of the world believe in the supernatural, she might've agreed with him, but as it was, asking her dead best friend to help them find her ex-boyfriend before he was eaten by a cannibalistic forest monster was actually fairly plausible. Well, she amended, it was at least no worse than shooting a sex-crazed ghost full of rock salt before it ripped out her friend's heart. On the weirdness scale, they both came out near the top.

Lilly, for her part, seemed oblivious to Veronica's internal struggles to justify all of this. She simply said, "Follow me," and turned down a side path. Veronica hastened to follow her, forced to run just to keep up.

"Shit," she heard Dean curse from behind her before he, too, began running down the path. "What's going on?" he demanded in a harsh whisper as soon as he caught up to her. "We're leaving the trail."

"Just trust me," Veronica replied. "I know what I'm doing."

At least I hope I do, she thought grimly.


The mines fit pretty much every Hollywood cliché possible. Gloomy, deserted and extra creepy, with a maze of tunnels that it would be ridiculously easy for somebody to get lost in. Veronica followed Lilly as closely as possible, afraid of what might happen if she lost site of the ghostly figure for even a second. This was not a place that she wished to become stranded in.

She could hear Dean's footsteps directly behind her, and it gave her a sense of comfort. Maybe it was stupid, but she felt safer when he was there. No, scratch that, it was definitely stupid. They were following a ghost through the lair of a man-eating forest monster, Veronica reminded herself. There was no such thing as safe here.

Dean had stopped asking her how she knew where she was going after she'd led them straight to the entrance to the mines, which was a good thing, since she didn't want to have a discussion about her new sixth sense or whatever it was. That was a conversation best saved for never, as far as Veronica was concerned.

Lilly turned a corner and stopped at a mine shaft that led down into the lower levels. Then she seemed to blink in and out of existence erratically before her image dissolved into static and vanished.

"Looks like we're headed down," Veronica said, moving to the edge of the shaft and sitting down, her feet dangling over the side.

"Wait," Dean said, reaching out a hand to grasp her shoulder. "I'll go first."

Veronica rolled her eyes. "Haven't you heard? It's the new millennium," she said with a smirk that was about 70% false bravado (not that Dean needed to know that). "Girl power is in." Then she took a deep breath, shrugged her shoulder out from under his grip and pushed herself off the edge.

She hit the ground hard, but managed to roll with the impact, which meant she wound up on her ass, but at least she didn't sprain an ankle or anything. Scrambling to her feet, she moved out of the way so that Dean could follow her. He jumped down gracefully, landing in a neat crouch, gun at the ready like some kind of action movie star.

"Show off," she muttered, shooting him a quick glare just on general principle.

Behind them was a dead end, so there was only one way to go—forward. Dean lead the way, Veronica a few steps behind him. Soon the passageway opened out into a large cavern of sorts.

The first thing Veronica noticed was the smell.

The next thing she noticed was the bodies hanging from the ceiling, in various stages of consumption.

And in the corner, a large pile of bones and scraps of fabric had been fashioned into a bed of sorts.

They'd obviously found the Wendigo's lair.

"I think I might be sick," she gasped, making an effort to only breathe through her mouth. The smell was almost bearable that way.

Turning away from the bones, she moved toward the hanging figures. All were bound by their hands and suspended from the cavern's ceiling, reminiscent of slabs of meat hanging in a butcher's shop. She made her way past the ones that had obviously been there for a while; there was nothing to be done for them. Then a familiar shade of red caught her eye. It was one of Duncan's favorite hoodies.

"Oh god, Duncan!" she gasped, running over to his side. He was unconscious, but he was still breathing, thank god. And beside him, she saw other familiar faces: Troy, Logan and Dick.

"Dean, we have to cut them down," she said.

He nodded, pulling a knife out of his boot and setting to work. Soon, they had all four boys untied. None of them were too badly hurt, other than a few scratches and bruises, though Dick had a nasty cut on his head, which explained the blood at the campsite.

"How are we going to get them out of here?" Veronica whispered. "We can't carry them all at once. And that thing'll be back soon."

Dean's head jerked up. "Not soon," he said, shifting so that he was crouched protectively in front of her and the others. "Now."

Veronica looked up and saw a hulking shape silhouetted in the cavern's entrance. She had to fight not to scream.

Dean raised his gun and took aim, but there was nothing there to aim at. Veronica blinked and looked again; it was as if it had vanished into thin air.

"Damn it," Dean breathed. "This thing's fast. Stay behind me."

"I wasn't planning on going for a stroll, if that's what you mean," Veronica hissed, wrapping her hands around Duncan's and noting absently that they were ice cold. She wondered if this was what it felt like before you died, this feeling of numbness. She should be panicked; she should be screaming her head off, but instead all she could do was sit there and wait. For what, she didn't know. A gory end seemed most likely at this point. The fact that she wasn't nearly as freaked out as she should've been by that prospect probably meant she was in shock or something. Terrific. If they did make it out of this alive, she'd have to sign herself up for some serious therapy. Or maybe just a tub of chunky monkey and some embarrassingly girly movies.

"Where'd it go?" she whispered.

"I don't know," Dean replied, his flare gun methodically tracking from one shadow to the next.

There was a shuffling sound, and the next thing Veronica knew, Dean was flying through the air. He hit a few of the suspended bodies, knocking a couple of them down on top of him when he crashed to the ground. The flare gun was knocked from his hands on impact and skidded several feet across the cavern floor.

Then a pair of twisted hands grabbed Veronica by the shoulders and lifted her bodily off the ground. A blast of disgusting smelling breath made her nearly gag. "Ever think about breath mints?" she chirped, as she dug one hand into the pocket of Dean's jacket, which she still wore, and pulled out her tazer. Then she turned it on and jabbed it into the Wendigo's stomach as hard as she could.

The creature howled and dropped her as it thrashed about in pain. Veronica fell to the ground in a heap, wincing as she banged her shoulder against the rock floor, and the tazer flew out of her hands.

Someone screamed in fear, but she didn't recognize the voice, and she was too busy trying to scramble away from the Wendigo to pay it much thought. Where the hell had her tazer landed? She had to find it, she had to…

A clawed hand grabbed her by the collar of Dean's leather jacket and hauled her partially off the ground, dragging her backwards as her hands and feet scrabbled ineffectually at the cave floor. Shit, shit, shit!

She felt its hot breath on the back of her neck. A drop of saliva landed on her cheek, and Veronica shuddered. All she could hear was the creature's rasping breath and the pounding of her own heart in her ears.

Suddenly a voice broke the silence.

"Yo, freak show!"

Dean. It was Dean!

"Why don't you try chewing on this, asshole?"

The Wendigo let go of her as it started shrieking in agony, and Veronica found herself sprawled on top of Duncan's unconscious body. She raised bleary eyes up to see what had happened, and was just in time to see the Wendigo burst into flames and then melt into a puddle of what had to be the most disgusting substance she'd ever seen in her entire life.

As she looked over the pool of ick to where Dean was standing, flare gun still raised, she was surprised to see a boy she didn't know sprawled at Dean's feet, watching her with eyes as wide as saucers. That must've been who'd screamed earlier, she noted absently.

She felt something wet start to soak into her pants leg and looked down, making a face when she saw that she'd been Wendigo-slimed. "Do you think this'll come out with bleach?" she asked woozily, "because this is my favorite pair of jeans."

Then the blackness overcame her, and she gratefully allowed herself to pass out.


The police had a million questions, but thankfully, they seemed willing enough to believe it had been a grizzly bear attack. The kid they'd rescued had been all too willing to lie for them considering the circumstances, and Duncan and the others didn't really remember much of what'd happened.

Dean tried not to let himself dwell on the dead bodies of the boy's siblings, who they'd been too late to save. You couldn't always save everybody, he reminded himself. Sometimes you just had to take what you could get and call it a win.

The kid – Ben – hadn't left Dean's side once since they'd left the Wendigo's lair. And other than agreeing with Dean and Veronica about the grizzly bear story, he hadn't said a single word all morning. He just sat next to Dean and watched with wide, shell-shocked eyes as his brother and sister were placed inside of body bags and wheeled into a waiting ambulance on a pair of gurneys. The one time the cops had tried to lead him away, he'd panicked, flailing and kicking at the police officers until they'd finally relented and let him come back to sit with Dean.

He had no clue what was going to happen to the kid. His entire family was gone – apparently his brother and sister had been his only living relatives – and he was too young to live on his own. He figured that probably meant foster care, since the boy was too old to be a likely candidate for adoption.

Dean thought fleetingly of his own childhood, and how much it had sucked to be bounced around from foster home to foster home, but quickly pushed those thoughts out of his mind. It's not like there was anything he could do about it. After all, what was he gonna do? Take Ben in himself? Yeah, right. Like he knew the first thing about taking care of a kid.

All the same, when Ben slid his hand into Dean's and clung to him with an almost desperate ferocity, he found himself remembering a different kid with shaggy, brown hair and dark, solemn eyes, glimpsed only from a couple of tattered old photographs he'd gotten in the mail over the years. And then he remembered holding a tiny hand in his, surrounded by the smell of fresh baked cookies, his mom's perfume and a million other things he'd lost a lifetime ago.

He looked out over the sea of people that had gathered – cops, medics, townspeople who'd heard about the incident and come to gawk – and searched for a familiar flash of blonde hair. Veronica sat on the back bumper of a police car, Duncan next to her, their hands clasped tightly. The boy looked about as freaked out as Ben, though he was doing his best to hide it. There was a haunted look to his eyes that Dean recognized, though, having seen it on the faces of many of his fellow soldiers back in the army, having seen it on his own face in the mirror on the morning after he'd made his first kill. It was the face of somebody whose entire world had been fundamentally altered by the horrors they'd witnessed. Fleetingly, Dean wondered if Duncan remembered more than he'd let on to the cops, but he pushed that thought aside. Even if the guy did remember, he wasn't stupid enough to say anything to the cops, and that was what mattered.

"Hey, Winchester."

Troy had left Logan and Dick sitting by the ambulance, and had come over to stand next to Dean. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, obviously struggling with whatever he wanted to say, but nothing came out. "I, um…" He looked over his shoulder at Dick and Logan before turning back to face Dean. Apparently he had drawn the short straw, and was assigned the task of sucking up.

Dean smirked. Obviously expressing his gratitude was not Troy Vandergraff's strong suit. He thought about bailing the kid out, but decided to be petty. He'd already done his good deed for the day. Besides, leaving Vandergraff twisting in the wind was just too much fun.

"Look, thanks for saving us," Troy finally blurted out. "We, uh… we owe you."

Dean shrugged, looking back over to where Veronica sat with Duncan. She'd taken a blanket offered by one of the paramedics and carefully wrapped it around Duncan's shoulders to keep him warm. "Don't sweat it; I didn't do it for you," Dean replied.

Troy followed his gaze, his eyes narrowing as he watched the touching scene unfold, and he took a step forward as if he planned to interrupt them. Dean's arm shot out, his hand grabbing Vandergraff's arm in a grip of steel and stopping him in his tracks. Dean nodded toward Veronica and Duncan. "Word to the wise? She didn't do it for you, either," he said softly. "And if I were you, I wouldn't try to fool myself into thinking otherwise."

Vandergraff gave Dean a considering look before he pointedly jerked his arm out of Dean's grasp. "Maybe so," he finally said. "But at least I got a taste of that action. But you? Here you are just beggin' for it, and she's keeping you out in the cold like the hired help. It must suck to be you, man."

The kid's smile was so smug that Dean had to fight to keep from punching it off his face. He stood up, getting right up into Vandergraff's personal space. He took an immense amount of satisfaction out of the way the guy took an involuntary step back.

"You know, I drove through three states just to come save you and your friends' worthless asses, when I would've much rather stayed home and left you all to rot," he remarked in a deceptively calm voice underlayed with pure steel. "Now I get it, I do. Your fragile, male ego's been bruised by your little stint as the damsel in distress, and you're jealous because your girlfriend's more concerned about her ex than she is about you, and you're looking for a way to make yourself feel like the big man on campus again, but you know what? That still doesn't give you the right to talk about Veronica like that."

Troy's eyes blazed angrily. "You know, Winchester, at first I thought you just wanted to get into her pants, which I could understand, because she's a feisty little thing, but now I really get it." He smirked knowingly. "You're in love with her, but all she sees when she looks at you is her father's errand boy. That's fucking pathetic, man."

Dean grabbed Troy by the collar of his shirt and pulled him forward until their faces were mere inches apart. "Listen up, pal, because I'm only gonna say this once. I don't make a habit out of ripping the entrails out of somebody I just saved, but in your case, I'm tempted to make an exception. Very tempted."

"Yeah, right," Troy hissed. "I know a bluff when I see one."

Dean smiled, a sharp, menacing smile that didn't contain an ounce of real mirth and caused the color to drain from Troy's face. "I made my first kill when I was 19. I've had nearly a decade to get better at it. At this point, you could say I was something of an expert. So don't test me."

Dean released him, and Troy stumbled back a couple of steps.

"Now get the hell out of my sight, you son of a bitch," Dean spat, before pointedly turning his back on the guy. He couldn't keep a small smirk off his face when he heard Vandergraff beat a hasty retreat. But then Dean noticed Veronica watching them intently from where she sat across the way with Duncan. Dean winced inwardly when she got up and walked over to him, her face already demanding answers.

"What was that all about?" she asked.

Dean shrugged. "Your friends just wanted to express their gratitude," he said in what might've been the most fakely cheerful voice he'd ever heard in his entire life. "I said thanks but no thanks."

Veronica was clearly not fooled by his little act. Nor was she all that happy with him. "Look, I know Logan and Dick can be real jerks sometimes, but that's no reason to take it out on Troy."

Dean wanted to tell her that she was wrong. He wanted to tell her that Troy Vandergraff was bad news. He wanted to tell her that Duncan Kane didn't deserve her. He wanted to take her away from all these '09er assholes who cared more about how much money was in somebody's pocket than what kind of person they were. He wanted to grab her and kiss her and tell her that he'd been in love with her from the first moment he saw her, and how he'd only loved her more each time she'd called him an idiot or a moron or flipped him the bird when she thought he wasn't looking, and how each time she smiled at him or laughed at his jokes or came to him first when she needed help, it made him feel like he belonged in a way he hadn't since he was four years old and his whole life had been burned away.

But he didn't do any of that.

Dean just smiled and nodded and lied through his teeth, promising to be nicer to the smug bastard. And when she looked doubtful, he slung an arm around her shoulders, gave her his best Who, me? smile and took her over to sit next to Ben.

Just then his cell phone began to ring. Dean fished it out of his pocket and flipped it open. "Winchester speaking."

"Winchester? Dean Winchester?" asked the voice on the other end of the line.

"Yeah, that's me," Dean replied. "How can I help you?"

"Well, I have a problem, and I was told you were the man to speak to."

Dean sighed. A case. God, he was too tired to deal with another man who wanted to know if his wife was stepping out on him or some other garbage. His own life was going to shit, and he was supposed to help some rich cry baby fix his marital problems? Jesus.

"Look, this is my personal line," he said, in the most professional sounding voice he could muster up at the moment. "How about you call our office on Monday? Mars and Winchester Investigations. It's in the book. Then we can set up an appointment for you to come in and tell us about your problem."

"No, I can't wait that long," the man exclaimed, panic filling his voice. "This thing's tearing apart my house! Everyone thinks I'm crazy, and I had to send my family away… Look, Bobby Singer told me you could help me. He said you'd know what to do. He said you were in Lost Creek. That's only an hour away. Please, you have to help me!"

Dean swallowed nervously. This wasn't a case; it was a case. He was dead tired; he wanted nothing more than to check into a motel and sleep for three days straight. (Not to mention ask Bobby what the hell he was thinking of; this whole monster fighting thing was supposed to be a one time deal. Well, okay, two if you counted the ghost…) But then he looked at Ben, who was sitting next to Veronica with a smile on his face as she told him some crazy story. It was the first smile Dean had seen from the boy all morning.

"Give me your address," he said, going over to the Impala and fishing a notepad and pen out of the glove compartment. "And then tell me exactly what happened."

Once he'd hung up the phone, he turned and saw Veronica leaning against the Impala's front bumper, arms crossed in front of her chest and chin raised defiantly. "So what's the case about this time?" she asked, everything about her posture just daring him to blow her off and see how many ways she could make him regret it. "Vampires, werewolves… Big Foot?"

Dean smirked. "Everybody knows Big Foot's a myth, Ace."

Veronica waved a hand impatiently. "Whatever, the police are almost done questioning everybody. Then we can ditch this popsicle stand." She smiled at him, eyes twinkling mischievously. "You can tell me all about our new case when we're on the road."

Dean sighed. Because, really, it was pointless arguing with her. "Fine," he said at last. "But when we get there, you're staying in the car."

Veronica grinned, and Dean felt himself losing ground already.

"Have we learned nothing?" she asked, a touch of fond exasperation in her voice. "You can't make me stay behind, so don't even try it. We're partners in this thing, Winchester. So you're just gonna have to deal with it."

As he went over to talk with the police and make arrangements for Ben and the others so they could get out of there, Dean silently conceded that she was probably right.

Damnit.

Keith was gonna kill him. If Veronica wasn't the death of him first.

His life was seriously fucked up. But all the same, he couldn't keep from smiling a little bit. Partners. It was something, at least. Something none of the Troy Vandergraffs or Duncan Kanes of the world could even come close to touching.

For now, it was enough.