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Dust

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This story is No. 3 in the series "Colt". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: Next in the Colt!Series. Dean isn’t good with radio silence and Buffy is hunting ghosts.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Supernatural > Buffy-Centered > Pairing: Dean Winchester(Past Moderator)FaithUnbreakableFR18115,1795111,69824 Dec 1224 Dec 12Yes
Warnings: No more or less than for the rest of the series, that is, issues galore, sibling incest, emotionally crippled people, sex and… you know, I don’t think there’s any actual violence in this one. Murder though, definitely. And talk about spousal abuse.
Disclaimer: I do not own any publicly recognizable characters or settings. I’m only playing with them. The title… technically, it was supposed to be ‘Dust in the Wind’, which belongs to Kansas, but I couldn’t go through with it. I just couldn’t. So now it’s dust and I guess a single word isn’t a quote, so it’s mine.
A/N: Thanks go to dharkcharlotte for beta reading and everyone who was patient with me. I could tell you a ton of things about writing this story, but I’ll just leave you with a Merry Christmas, Season’s Greetings and Happy Holidays.

+

Dust

+

It’s late August and Dean wants to die.

No kidding. They’re having the record summer to break all record summers and he feels like he’s sweating a gallon an hour and he can’t exactly take off a few layers because he’s got a gun in his waistband and a knife in each boot and yeah.

Better not.

But Jesus, it’s hot.

Hence the wanting to die. Hell has got to be cooler than this.

He’s sitting with Dad in some roadside diner, trying to convince himself that the tired fan in the corner is actually doing something against the heat. All the windows are open and the waitresses move at about half their usual speed, trailing exhaustion like a shadow behind them. On the counter, a sad heap of what was once pie is slowly rotating in its glass case. Napkins stick to the table.

Dean eyes his leftover fries and gags slightly at the thought of eating them. He shoves them aside and pulls out his phone, flipping it open to check for messages by rote.

It’s a useless gesture right now because Dad’s sitting across from him and they just split from Caleb yesterday. Who else would call or text? Who else even has this number?

Stupid question. The answer follows immediately: Bobby, who isn’t talking to them anymore for some reason Dean can’t ever get out of John, Jim, who isn’t happy with Dad either and them. Sam. Buffy.

Two numbers he should just fucking delete already and never quite does.

He must stare at the little contraption a bit too long because suddenly Dad shifts on his side of the table and sighs, long and put-upon. It’s a why are you making me do this? sigh, and it means I have to talk to you now, you know I hate talking, can’t you just get drunk like a real man and deal with it?

Tough luck for you, John, Dean thinks and swallows it immediately. He is a good son.

“Just call the girl, son,” Dad finally rumbles and then, before Dean can even pretend to play dumb, he stands, turning his bulk toward the bathroom. He taps the table once in passing, adds without looking, “This is almost like when Sam left.”

Dad never calls Sam Sammy anymore. Once, it was all he would call the kid. Dean’s the good son. By definition, that makes Sam the bad one. He swallows that, too, and the thought after that, the one that says, this is exactly like when Sam left, haven’t you been paying attention, I used to fuck them both.

Dean swallows a lot of shit these days. He nods even though Dad can’t see, nudges one of his fries into the lake of congealing ketchup on his plate and watches it drown.

When Dad comes back from the john, he tells Dean they’re splitting up. Later, in a dinky motel room, he types out my father is a dick.

He never presses send, wouldn’t even know who to send it to. Maybe he should make a mass text out of it. That’d be a kick.

+

It’s not at all like when Sammy left. He’d like to make that clear. Because Sammy left because it’s my way or the highway for him and he chose his way. Fuck the rest of the world. Dean may as well be roadkill for all that Sam seems to care. If we’re sticking with the highway metaphor, anyway.

Sam left because Sam wanted to do what Sam wanted to do.

Buffy’s gone because Dean is sick and twisted and so fucked up inside he’s continuously surprised you can’t tell just from looking at him. Thing is, Buffy could. She saw right through him and she never seemed to mind. Until the Sam-bomb got dropped. That’s okay, though. No-one’d take that well, Dean doesn’t think.
(And look at him, using the past tense for both Buffy and Sam without messing up at all. Sucker!)

Sam was the one that fucked things up, but Buffy’s all on Dean. Hello, guilt! Hello, self-recrimination! Hello to you too, self-loathing, old friend! It’s a regular party in here.

When did his life get so damn complicated anyway?

+

Three days later he wakes next to a random barfly (blonde, too tall, green eyes, shut up, Freud.) and slips out of bed, getting dressed quietly and leaving as fast as he can. Outside, in the parking lot of her apartment complex, he checks his phone for news from Dad.

What he finds instead is a text from Buffy. He pretends his heart isn’t beating faster, just a bit, while the text loads. Then it sinks. Killing spree in San Jose. Thought you might want to know.

San Jose. Which is practically on top of Stanford. On top of Sam. They haven’t talked in months, not since she drove away from him after the wendigo and here she is, here her text is, a warning for him, for Sam. She thought of him when she saw the headline. She thought of him and Sam and she actually picked up the phone to warn him.

Dean has no fucking clue what to make of that.

+

For the record: Dean absolutely loathes werewolves. There are no words for the level of loathing he has for the fuckers because they’re vicious, wild beasts that kill humans and eat their hearts and they’re also, most of the time, perfectly nice, innocent people and that screws with his head every damn time he has to put one of them down.

He doesn’t get bitten, but he does bang his head something fierce on a protruding pipe. It’s bad enough that he crawls into bed and stays there for two days, nauseous and annoyed in turns.

When he can almost look straight again, he fishes his phone out of the tussled bedding and types out Thank you.

+

You’re welcome.

+

So communication is reinstated. Sort of. It’s a tentative, slow thing, mostly business and never phone calls. Only texts. Dean feels like a fourteen-year-old girl, texting her first crush. It’s ridiculous.

It’s a lifeline.

But he has no idea where they stand, or what this even is, if he’s forgiven or what the hell is going on. So he pretends it’s all hunky dory, waiting. For what? No clue. For Buffy to lay down the law, maybe. Never mention your brother again in my presence; then you can come back. Swear you’ll never talk about how abnormal you are again. Promise that you love me more than him. Promise me faithfulness.

He can give none of those things but somehow, she never asks for them. It’d be easier if she did. He could make it a clean break then. But he’s a Winchester, and Winchesters never know when to leave well enough alone. They never know when to let go. Now? Later? Before or after there’s blood on the ground?

He’s a Winchester. And Winchesters always hold on.

So in early December, when he can’t stand wondering anymore and his thumbs have calluses from typing so damn much, he asks Where are you?

Ball’s in her court now.

It takes her two minutes to answer. Headed for Texas.

Work?

Yes.

Need a hand?

She sends him a time and date and the address of a diner outside Dallas instead of an answer.

+

The first thing Dean notices when he pulls into the diner’s parking lot is a gaggle of kids loitering around a truck. He uses ‘kid’ loosely, since they look like they’re not much younger than his twenty-four. But then Dean can’t remember ever having referred to himself as a kid, so there. Kids. They’re in jeans and heavy boots, expensive shirts. College kids, probably, and they’re obviously trying to hype each other up to do something.

Something turns out to be Buffy, sitting on the hood of her car, slurping a milkshake. It looks a bit like a soft porn movie, the way she’s sprawled along the dark metal of the beat-up Ford, tight jeans, t-shirt, hiking boots. Her hair is in a high tail and sways whenever she moves.

Shit.

The only thing that could possibly make his boner harder is if, instead of her own ruin of a car, she was sitting on the Impala like that. Two of the sexiest girls he knows, going at it like that…

Okay. Time to switch channels, or he won’t be getting out of the car. Ever. Also, his days of fucking that girl are over. So very over.

The kids are cat-calling and wolf-whistling, shouting invitations mixed with innuendo. The kind that always makes Dean wince and remember that he had a mother once. If anyone talked to her the way those yahoos are talking to Buffy…The only women he ever treats like cheap fun are the ones that want him to. Otherwise he keeps his dick in his pants and his tongue in his mouth, thank you very much.

He swings into an empty parking space with more gusto than strictly necessary, throwing up dust that has the kids coughing and cursing him. By the time he’s killed the engine, he can already see Buffy moving toward him with an expression on her face that would be relief, if she were anyone else. He gets out and opens his arms wide for her, eyes flicking once to the bunch of guys two cars away. They’re all watching eagerly, waiting for him to get blown off.

But Buffy takes the opening he offers her and more or less jumps in his arms, hugging him like the past half year plus of silence never happened. “Thank you,” she mutters into one ear, shaking her milkshake next to his other one, making the ice rattle. “I was a minute away from breaking bones.”

“Boners, more like,” he offers and then adds, without consulting his brain first, “At least this solves the awkward reunion dilemma.”

He winces as soon as it’s out of his mouth but to his surprise Buffy just laughs, honestly if sadly. He doesn’t ask why as she steps back, reclaims the straw of her shake and asks, “Eat or move?”

Behind her, the kids are scattering, dividing up into three different trucks and leaving. Show’s over, bitch is taken, pie is eaten. All that. He might be mixing his metaphors here.

“Eat,” he says and she snorts like she expected nothing else. It’s almost like she knows him.

+

“So,” he asks across his burger and her second helping of banana milkshake. What made you decide to speak to me again?

“What’s this gig?”

“Haunted house,” she shoots back, stealing one of his potato wedges and swiping it through the foamy top of her drink. Disgusting.

“Poltergeist?” It usually is. The old biddy sitting with her back to them stops eating and tries to furtively look at them over her shoulder. He flashes a bright grin, mouthful of burger and all. She shudders, crosses herself and turns back to her food.

Buffy watches, amused, and he just shrugs at her. What can you do?

“Nope,” she chirps.

He waits for more but it doesn’t come. “Cat got your tongue?”

“I’m a dog person.”

“Dog got your tongue?”

She sticks it out, points at it to prove her point. He rolls his eyes because this is as bad as Sammy used to be when he wanted Dean to say something out loud. He’d fumble and screw around and pretend not to understand until Dean dusted off his vagina and strung the words together.

Except this time it’s not him who’s being reluctant.

“What is it?”

She widens her eyes comically, looks at her bare wrist and exclaims, “Oh, would you look at that. We’ve got an appointment in half an hour.”

And then she’s on her feet, heading for the door so fast he barely has time to drop a few bills on that table and wrap his burger in a napkin to go. Talk about avoidant.

+

Turns out they actually do have an appointment with whoever owns that haunted house. If house is the right word, Dean thinks as he pulls into a mile long driveway behind Buffy’s Ford. The place is one of those big, old antebellum mansions, three floors, wrap-around porch, smaller buildings scattered across the property.

The thing is massive and Dean gives himself a crick in the neck trying to take it all in at once. There’s a Jeep already parked in front of the place and a woman in her early thirties with violently red hair is chasing a little boy around the car, making him squeal with delight. It takes him a moment, but he places the little boy as the one from the newest picture he saw in Buffy’s basement, what seems like an age ago now. The kid’s older now, but not by much, only a year or two. Seven maybe, not older.

Dean’s not good at guessing children’s ages, but the gap-toothed smile and the willingness to still play with mom are indicators, too. Buffy slams out of her car without hesitation and spreads her arms just in time for the boy to come flying into them like a missile, absolutely disregarding the possibility that she might not be able to catch and hold him.

She does both without even wobbling. (Another reminder of the freakishness inside of her. He pushes it aside.) The redhead follows at a more sedate pace, shooting Dean a long, searching look that turns to something like approval after a moment. Then she reaches Buffy and the little boy, hugs them both and says, “Aunt B. Good to see you.”

Aunt?!?

“Liv,” Buffy smiles back, hugging tightly. “Does this weed on my hip ever stop growing?”

The ‘weed’ makes an insulted noise. “’M not a weed,” he complains. “I’m Jeffy!”

Ouch. Poor kid. Jeffrey? Really?

Buffy tickles Jeffy until he shrieks and then sets him down before waving Dean closer. “Liv, Jeffy, meet Dean. Dean, Liv and her son, Jeff.”

Dean shakes Liv’s hand and then holds his own out for Jeff, too, because having an in with kids is never a bad thing. Jeff looks awed and then pumps Dean’s hand up and down with his whole arm. The ladies laugh when Dean takes his limb back and Liv hip checks Buffy with a shrewd look, the female equivalent of punching a guy in the shoulder and telling him what a hot piece of ass he’s landed.

Buffy checks right back with a playful glare and then they settle down as Liv digs keys out of her jeans and hands them over. “Front door, barn, garage and the small one is for the garden gate at the back of the property. The generator’s running, so you’ve got water, light on the first floor only, and the fridge. The papers and research are all piled on the table in the library. I…,” she hesitates, shoots a look at Dean, then another one at Buffy. “You’ll be careful, right? Both of you?”

Buffy nods, calm, quiet. She manages to exude a professional air while looking like a sorority girl on a hiking trip. “We know what we’re doing, Liv. We’ll be perfectly fine. And we’ll…,” look at Jeff, look back at Liv, “solve your problem.”

Liv shifts, puts an arm around her son’s shoulder protectively. “Buddy, can you wait by the car for me? Grown-up talk for a moment.”

Jeff squints up at her critically, then nods and goes. Liv turns back to them after watching him go and frowns. “I know you can look after yourself, Aunt B, but that thing almost killed two of our workers. My husband’s in the hospital with a broken elbow and cracked ribs. That ghost is vicious and I don’t want anyone else getting hurt.”

“There won’t be,” Buffy assures.

+

“So,” Liv says, leaning against the porch railing next to Dean while they watch Jeff and Buffy chase each other across the front yard. They would have gone inside, but Liv refuses to set foot in the house with Jeff. “How long have you two been together?”

Dean hides a wince, shrugs. “We’re not. Just helping out a friend.”

Liv snorts, shakes her head. Her hair catches the sunlight brilliantly. She’s beautiful, if a bit old for Dean. “I’ve known that woman literally all my life and you ain’t the first man she’s brought to meet me.” She shifts until she’s looking Dean straight in the eye. In low heels, she’s not much shorter than him, tall for a woman. Very tall. “But yesterday was the first time she called ahead to tell me I didn’t have to play dumb, because you know about her.”

With a shrug she takes a step back, drops the intensity. “So I guess what I’m sayin’ is, we’re a big family. And if you hurt that woman, we’re all gonna come shit all over your parade. Got it?”

“Buffy doesn’t need protecting,” he snaps almost reflexively. Defending her. Huh.

Liv snorts again, raising one eyebrow the same way Buffy does. Weird. “Yeah. She really does.”

+

Three hours later Liv and Jeff are long gone, leaving behind Buffy and Dean and a lot of silence. Soon after shovel speech was over, Buffy went to have a look at the house and Dean hit up Liv for whatever info she was willing to cough up because, well, he doesn’t think he’ll get much out of Buffy. After the diner, she didn’t so much as look at him.

So much for avoiding the awkward reunion, he thinks as he digs through the half-stocked kitchen in the hope of finding a beer. There’s only soda, tough, so he settles on a coke with a sigh and grabs two cans, popping one of them straight away and taking a long swig.

Liv’s husband, Dan, used to flip houses for fun until he met Liv, a historian with a thing for interior design. Match made in heaven, apparently. They married, had Jeff, and specialized in flipping houses like the one he’s currently standing in, big, old, worth a lot of money. Dan takes care of the actual restoration while Liv tries to keep everything authentic and hunts for furniture, history of the places, stuff like that. They planned to turn this one into a hotel until the resident ghost got pissy.

The whole thing sounds like something to get bored to death over, but if it’s their thing, whatever. They bought this place knowing full well all the local lore about it. Apparently, Ethan Jones, the original owner, beat his wife Caroline to death within these very walls and then hid her body somewhere on the grounds. She’s been haunting the place ever since. Dean can sympathize. He’d be pissed too, if he got killed and dumped like that.

But since the renovations started, three people got hurt and Liv has, very obviously, had enough. Hence the big, bad hunters taking over the place. Their mission is to find the body that generations of morbid historians haven’t managed to dig up and then salt and burn the bitch so she can find her hubby in the afterlife and rip him a well-deserved new one.

Walk in the park. Dean’s pretty sure that the job was only an excuse to get him out here. He pretends that doesn’t make him feel warm and fuzzy. Pretends it doesn’t, at the same time, make him squirm uncomfortably. He’s such a pussy.

Sighing, he grabs a third can and on his way out of the kitchen, dumps the first one, empty and crushed into a sad heap. He finds Buffy on the front porch steps, staring into the late afternoon sun with absolutely ridiculous sunglasses perched on her nose.

He rolls one of the cold cans along her neck just because he can and earns himself a shudder and a small smile of thanks as he drops down next to her, a good foot of space between them. What’s the personal space protocol for people you slept with until they found out that you used to screw your own brother? For that matter, what’s the protocol for people who call you to ask for help when they don’t need it and then barely talk to you?

“Aunt B?” he asks after a few minutes of silence, just so someone’s talking.

“I was there when Jeff was born,” she provides, helpfully. It’s kind of neat, how she can lie to him while telling the truth.

“The rugrat wasn’t the one calling you Auntie.”

She shrugs and worries at the tab of her coke until it comes loose, starts flicking it between her fingers, a flash of silvery gold in the sunlight. He’s never seen her like this. Like she’s afraid of him. Not even when they were going at it like animals next to a smoldering corpse in an open grave did she ever seem the slightest bit scared of him.

But then, he thinks, this isn’t the kind of scared monsters make a person. This is the kind of scared Dean got when Sam looked at him with his stupid bitch face on and a letter from Stanford in his hand.

“Do you remember what I told you about Willow and Xander?”

He nods. Her best friends growing up. She told him their names, let them slip into conversation once or twice. They must have been dead for more than a century, but she still sounds like she misses them. He can’t imagine losing everything he knows. Can’t imagine living long enough to be utterly alone.

He’ll die first. He will always, always die first. Before Sam, before Dad. Before anyone he loves. He’ll get in the way of whatever’s coming for them and he’ll die happily, if it buys them time. If it means he doesn’t have to watch them fall.

“Yeah.”

“Wills was my mom’s best friend’s daughter. When Sheila died, we took her in. And Xander was the son of one of our maids. We were best friends, growing up. Inseparable. Even after they got married, you could never really pry us apart.”

She smiles wistfully and Dean tries to imagine a world where servants are normal, where people use horses for transport and live in houses like the one behind them.

“After they…,” she hesitates, gives him a sideways look and then pushes on. “After they brought me back, when it became obvious that I wasn’t going to age they… they swore to me that I would never be alone. They said… well, they said they’d tell their kids, and they’d tell their kids and so on. They swore to me that as long as there were Harris’ in the world, I would never be alone.”

She’s not crying, but the force she’s using to play with the tab is a tell and Dean wants to sling an arm around her and hold her close. Instead he stretches one leg, nudges her ankle. She nudges back.

“So Liv and Jeff…”

“Are the latest in a long line. It’s… the family’s scattered all over the world these days and some of them turn their backs on the supernatural. They all grow up with the stories, with their weird Auntie, but they can choose. Some of them walk away.” She looks up at him and smiles, bright as the sun. “Most don’t. Most of them still tell their kids that, as long as they have an open door and a place at their table, there will always be someone they can call on in a time of need.”

She shakes her head and Dean is glad she’s not looking at him because he’s a bit awed. That kind of shit doesn’t actually happen, does it? It’s too much like a damn fairy tale, secret stories, passed down from generation to generation. It makes Buffy out to be some sort of benevolent spirit, a protector of the family. A fairy godmother. He knows that reality is usually a lot less fairytale and a lot more horror story.

“I helped raise Liv, after her mother died. Poor Jeff had no idea how to deal with a twelve-year-old girl. She… I’m closer to her than most. I try to stay away, now that she’s grown and her father’s gone, let her have her normal life, especially since Dan only knows me as a friend, but…she’s….”

“Family,” he finishes for her. He gets that. He does. God, he does and wishes he didn’t. You want to walk away because it hurts, because it’s better, because you have to, but you never quite manage. He’s spent the past two years of his life with his phone in hand, waiting for Sam to call so he can go running.

The possibility of letting go, of putting down that damn phone, has never even occurred to him.

“Yeah.”

+

“This,” Dean points out, bending over the scarred desk in the library that Liv has piled high with her research into the estate, “might be a problem.”

He’s staring down at hand-drawn maps of the house, barely more than sketches really. He doesn’t even want to call them blueprints because that implies order and this… this doesn’t look very encouraging.

“Ya think?” Buffy quips from opposite him, elbows on the table, turning a pen over and over between her fingers.

The maps are, to put it simply, a fucking mess. Or rather, the house is. Ethan Jones, it seems, was a paranoid, nutjob of a wife-killer. There are secret rooms, secret passageways and tricks all over the house. A few of the stairs are marked red, with a small scribbled trick step scrawled in the margins. There are doors marked out in blue that only open if you pull the candelabra twice and then turn widdershins or something. On top of that there are fake hallways, elongated with the help of mirrors, and hidden doors all over the place.

Basically, it’s every illusionist’s and booze smuggler’s wet dream and every hunter’s nightmare. “That explains why no-one’s found Caroline’s bones in a hundred and fifty years, at least,” Buffy summarizes, looking only mildly concerned. Why not? She’s literally got forever to find the woman’s bones and burn her ass. And it’s not like the ghost can actually do her permanent harm. Dean isn’t nearly as indifferent.

“Are you kidding? This is going to be a nightmare. Even without considering the grounds. Jesus.”

She blinks big eyes up at him and flashes cleavage like you wouldn’t believe. He’s not sure it’s intentional and looks away because he’s not… they’re not fucking anymore. So he won’t look. He can be totally mature about this thing. Whatever the hell it is. “Come on, it’ll be fun. Finding secret passages, figuring out how to open the doors? Like Indiana Jones, without the whip.”

He gives her a flat look. “You do realize that I do that shit for a living, right? It’s not exactly what I’d call fun, what with the homicidal monsters on the other end of the line.”

“You’re too negative.”

“And you’re too fucking cheerful. We’re here to find and burn the bones of a raging bitch of a ghost who likes to push people down stairs because, back in the day, her fucker of a husband beat her to death and then hid away her body, like the upstanding madman he was. I don’t really see the fun in that.”

Buffy takes a step back, hands spread at shoulder height. “Whoa. Alright. You don’t have to help, if you don’t want to. I can do this alone, Dean.”

The annoying part is that she doesn’t even sound angry. He opens his mouth to tell her to shut up. Of course he won’t leave her here alone, what the hell? But before he can say anything, something hard slams into the small of his back like an axe, sending him forward into the table in a painful crash. He twists on instinct, puts himself out of the direct line of fire of whatever-the-fuck and reaches for his gun.

Buffy’s faster than him, vaulting over the table and rolling as she hits the ground, avoiding another projectile. Dean watches it smack into the edge of the table and recognizes a book. The ghost is throwing books at them. He cocks his gun, already loaded for dead bitch, and gets ready to fire, looking for something to hit. He finds nothing.

There’s no ghost, no white vapor, not even a clear point of origin. The next book comes flying off a shelf to the left and he avoids it narrowly by moving sideways, bumping into the blonde next to him. Buffy catches the next book – coming from the right – with one hand before it smashes her face in and shoves it under one of her knees so it won’t go flying again.

“She’s not manifesting,” she notes, sounding more fascinated than annoyed. Dean doesn’t really get why. Shit like this, it means Caroline has got some serious juice. It means she’s got at least one last flicker of intelligence left, despite being only a shade of her living self. She attacks with what’s available. She plans. She thinks.

Dean’s only faced ghosts this coherent twice before and he never got away unscathed.

“Fuck,” he curses, and fires a round of salt at where he can see the next book quivering on the shelf, about to go flying. There’s a sound, something half scream, half words, and the book stills, tilting sideways and falling harmlessly into its neighbor. Buffy uses the lull in action to make a beeline for the door, where they both dropped their bags earlier. She pulls out one of the big canisters of salt they both carry routinely and starts salting along the walls in neat, thick lines, ducking away from missile fire twice. Dean follows her in a vague circle around the room, moving with her and keeping an eye on their surroundings. He shoots one more time and then the increasing amounts of salts make Caroline back off. One last book quivers and then stops as soon as Buffy takes the last corner and goes in for the homestretch.

The salt line closes with a slight pulling sensation, like the air’s being sucked out of the room and then wooshes back in. A complete circle. Power. They both watch for a moment more, unsure whether they’ve locked the ghost out, or in with them, and then relax when nothing shakes.

“O-kay,” Buffy announces, after a moment of silence. “I’m thinking we crash in here.”

Dean puts up his gun and nods, suddenly glad that most of the rest of the house is empty, leaving the ghost with nothing to throw. Because really, this gig is getting crappier by the minute.

+

They get everything they need for indoor camping from the cars and then salt those, too, just to be sure. Buffy swears up and down that she had a fugly take possession of her car and try to run her over once and Dean loves his baby too much to let that happen to her. Better safe than roadkill and all that.

They brave the kitchen long enough for Buffy to throw together something edible while Dean sits next to her and keeps watch. It feels domestic, sitting there, watching her cook. They’re talking again, about random things, and Buffy’s fiddling with the small gas cooker Liv – or maybe one of Dan’s work crew – left behind. She moves around the place like she did in her own kitchen, back when Dean first met her. He remembers, abruptly, waking up and hearing her hum while she cooked, looking down and finding her in the sun flooded room, looking light, at ease.

He conjures the memory in as much detail as he can remember and compares it to now, this place, this kitchen. She seems smaller, he thinks, and then rolls his eyes at himself because somewhere along the way he’s turned into a maudlin, philosophical idiot, but there it is. Smaller. Like she’s keeping part of herself in.

(Keeping part of herself away from him.)

She upends a can of carrots and peas into the pot, grimacing as she does. Dean doesn’t see what her problem is. Veggies are veggies. He’s about to tease her about being a food snob when she turns away from the pot – and by default him – to stare into the fridge like it’s been keeping secrets from her.

She chews on her lips for a moment before letting it pop out from between her teeth and asking, without looking at him, “Did you see him?”

“What?”

She pulls out another coke for herself, closes the fridge, busies herself with the tab. “When you went to California to take care of the werewolf. Did you see… Sam?”

(She wanted to say your brother and then thought better of it.)

He shrugs, looks away, corrects his grip on the sawed-off across his lap. “Yeah. I mean… no.” Smooth, Winchester, real smooth.

“I looked in on him, after the hunt. He didn’t… he didn’t know I was there, I don’t think. I just… made sure he was fine, you know?”

The tab arches, catching the light as it spins, and then lands in the bucket that serves as a trashcan. She doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t want to tell. It’s testament to how pathetic, how empty his life is, that the only person he can talk to about the shit Sam made of everything is a girl he’s only slept with a handful of times, has only known for a couple of weeks, all in all.

She doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t want to tell. But there’s no-one else.

“He was with a girl. Jess, he called her. Real looker. They seemed… pretty damn cozy with each other. Like they’ve known each other for a while.”

He can’t tell if she’s looking at him with pity or disgust because it’s his turn to play can’t-see-you. The ceiling’s utterly fascinating. Really.

This whole gig is a solid ten on the pathetic-scale. How he ever thought this might be a good idea, taking Buffy up on her request for help, he has no idea.

“Is that why you’re here?” she asks eventually, flicking a spoon around the pot once, twice, then letting it clatter onto the counter and stepping back, leaning against the far end of the half-installed island.

His confusion must show of his face because she adds, “Are you here because Sam’s got a girlfriend?”

“What’s Sammy gotta do with anything?”

Her expression is scathing when he risks a glance. “I don’t know, Dean. You find out your brother’s got a girlfriend and suddenly you’re talking to me again. Tell me what that has to do with each other.”

“What?” he barks, like an idiot, so much sharper than it should be. No fast-talking for him tonight. “You weren’t talking to me!”

Because he’s a filthy, disgusting, hell-bound fuck-up with enough issues to build a city on and because she knows, because she saw – sees – all there is to him and he can’t lie to her because she’s Crazy Church Girl, who risked her quiet life to save his ass, who got killed for him, who lay bleeding and hacking in his lap, who called him an idiot for jumping between her and a rampaging wendigo. She’s the girl that kissed him goodbye like it hurt in the middle of the woods and then drove away from him and still found it in her heart to warn him that Sam might be in danger.

She’s as lonely as he is.

“I thought you wanted nothing to do with me anymore, after what… after the wendigo.”

She looks surprised for a long moment before the shutters go up. “You’re the one who called me a rebound, Dean.”

He did, didn’t he? But he was trying to piss her off so she’d talk to him, nothing more. Hasn’t she figured that out?

“I’m an idiot,” he tells her, and then, because he’s Dean Fucking Winchester and that means emotionally stunted runs in his blood, he asks, “Is dinner ready yet?”

+

(He never sees what Buffy sees, which is this:

A stupid punk sitting on the kitchen counter with a shotgun in his lap, wearing his scars loud and proud, a wounded lion, a roaring tiger.

A boy who somehow manages to make her less lonely, who laughs with her and doesn’t judge her and lets all her weirdness go, the idiosyncrasies, the little things that she can’t quite shake, the things that mark her as different. As old.

A man who used to… to sleep with his brother and even though he knows it’s wrong, isn’t ashamed of it.

A man she could love, so easily, even though she knows she’d always only be second best.

The thing is, she doesn’t think she’d even care.)

+

Liv left them a messy stack of all kinds of documents and her own notes. They get into a discussion on when a ‘stack’ becomes a ‘pile’, with Buffy defending her niece’s talents for organization and Dean harping on about chaotic women.

It’s sort of ridiculous.

Far too many things involving Buffy are.

In the end, she takes the notes while Dean makes off with the rest. Most of what he grabs are newspaper clippings, yellowed with age, making crackling sounds whenever he so much as looks at them wrong.

Despite his bitching, there actually is some kind of order to the clippings. The earliest dates back to 1849, announcing the wedding of Ms. Caroline Smith, daughter of Archie and Marianne Smith, to Mr. Ethan Jones, after a two month engagement.

“Shotgun wedding,” Buffy announces after a look over Dean’s shoulder before putting a mug of ratty instant coffee down in front of him and making her way back to her own corner.

He nods in agreement. He’s not exactly a history buff, but he’s dug through enough ghosts’ lives to read between the lines. Two months of engagement in 1849? Bridegroom a guy without family, who showed up out of nowhere. He had money, sure, to build a house like this, but the ground it’s standing on was given to the newlyweds by the Smiths.

A lot of hints. Ethan showed up out of nowhere, knocked up Caroline, married her and accepted her family’s money while he was at it. Dean finds no birth announcement for that baby, though, so he asks Buffy.

She hums, digs through Liv’s notes and comes up with a Polaroid taken in the graveyard at the edge of the property. Maria Jones, born and died on the same day, in March 1850.

After that, there are no announcements. No children, no family news at all. Liv’s notes yield that Caroline must have been sick for a long time and didn’t leave the house at all anymore.

Dean can fill in the gaps. Shotgun wedding to a gold digging asshole, stillborn baby. Good old Ethan had no more use for her and left her to rot in her own home until, one day, he lost it and beat her to death.

2 October 1858 there’s a small article announcing that Caroline has gone missing during an evening stroll through the fields. Witnesses are asked to help.

Five days later, Ethan Jones is arrested by the Sheriff on charges of murder.

Three weeks after that, he’s being let go because no-one can prove a thing. Admirable application of justice for this place, in that day and age, really. Too bad the fucker deserved to be hanged for his crime.

Liv’s notes yield blood on the bedroom floor, servants to afraid to speak out and a week long search for any trace of a new grave. Nothing. And thus begins the myth of Caroline Jones’s hidden body and ghost.

Ethan lived for another couple of years before a nasty fever did him in and that’s all she wrote.

“Nasty fuck,” Dean mutters as he dumps the last of the clippings back on the pile and flips it, so the earliest articles are back on top. Across the table, Buffy does much the same before yawning widely.

“She deserves better,” she agrees, before shaking off the oppressive feeling that’s settled over them during their light reading and adding, “Sleepy time.”

+

They sleep at opposite ends of the library, surrounded by sob story come ghost tale and the sticky odor of salt.

+

“Basement and up, or attic and down?”

Buffy quirks an eyebrow at him, amused, but then seems to consider the question and decides, “Attic down. Servants’ quarters were always in the attic. At least some of those passages were probably meant for them, so we’ll get in easiest up there.”

He’s about to ask how the hell she knows stuff like that, when he realizes that, yeah. She was there. That’ll never stop being weird. “Dumb question,” he mutters quietly and catches her laughing at him anyway. She knows exactly what he’s thinking, so he scowls at her and leads the way up the stairs, careful to avoid the ones marked red.

One of those starts a mechanism that loosens a stair three steps up and another one makes something a lot like a boxing glove pop out of the wall. He thought that kind of thing only existed in bad movies.

“This guy was really screwed up.”

“Mhm.”

+

They find seven more secret passages that are not yet marked in the map and two hidden rooms. They’re both small, barely big enough to hide in, really. Dean figures it’s so no-one will notice that the dimensions of the adjourning rooms are off, but really, why bother?

In the second of those hidden… crawl spaces, there’s a trunk wedged in at the far end. It’s covered so thickly in dust and the webs of a bazillion generations of spiders that they almost miss it at first glance, until Dean bangs his foot against it.

They share meaningful glances and Buffy steps back to give Dean light and room. He kicks at the rusted lock with his boot until it gives and then toes the trunk open, hoping that there’ll be bones inside. Salt them, burn them, job done.

Of course it’s not that easy. Their torches reveal not bones, but a whole slew of other things. Buffy frowns briefly before crouching down and using the tip of one of her knives to dig around the ancient stuff. “Blankets,” she counts off, nudging at a heap of moth-eaten cloth, barely recognizable as manmade. “A lamp, a canister of gas, a crucifix…” she fishes out a tin box, pops the lid and recoils at the smell that rises from it. “Dried meat.”

Dean bends over her, using his torch to shove at the blankets and finds, “Well, look at that.” At the very bottom of the trunk are two revolvers, rusty and dirty but clearly recognizable.

“This is a panic room,” Buffy supplies. “A hundred-and-fifty-year-old panic room.”

“Brave man,” Dean snorts, letting the heap of blankets fall back down to cover the revolvers. Briefly he considers taking them, but he doesn’t really want anything that belonged to a wife-murdering bastard. He figures Liv’ll use them for the showroom she’s planning to build downstairs. Whatever.

Buffy shakes her head, reaching into the trunk again and pulling out a book that looks worse off than anything Dean has ever seen, even at Bobby’s place. If he blows on it sharply, it’ll probably fall to dust. Buffy handles it carefully, like it’s something precious, holding it into the beam of her torch. “I don’t think the room was for Ethan,” she supplies. “This is a women’s prayer book. Why would a man hide something like this up here?”

“Weird.”

“And getting weirder,” she agrees, putting the book back down carefully, slowly. He’s not sure if it’s reverence for its dead owner or the faith it symbolizes, but her care makes Dean shift uncomfortably. With her free hand she reaches up and brushes webbing off the inside of the lid revealing…

“What’s a pentagram doing here?” Dean asks, surprised.

Buffy shrugs as she inspects it before standing and wiping her hands on her jeans. “Told ya, back then, everyone knew a bit about what goes bump in the night. The monsters were just part of life out here, in the wild. Nothing special. Still, I didn’t expect to find something like this here.”

She gives the contents of the trunk a long, slow look, and then closes the lid, a lot more carefully than Dean opened it.

+

By lunchtime, they’ve made their way down from the attic to the second floor. They’ve taken the master bedroom apart and are starting in one of the smaller rooms when Buffy stops at the window, looking outside. Dean joins her after a moment, coming to a silent halt next to her. It feels like the thing to do. She’s been strangely quiet since the panic room, worried almost.

“You cool?” he asks awkwardly, looking out at the grounds. They’re on the south side of the house. Before them, a rose garden sprawls, massive and old. Dean hasn’t got the first clue about flowers, but even he can see that the rosebushes below them are old. They’re overgrown and a lot of the plants are dead from lack of water, but it must have been magnificent once.

“Liv’s notes say that the garden was Caroline’s,” she says instead of answering. “It was her baby. She must have put massive amounts of money and time into it to get it to grow like this, out here. Ten years of her life, invested in those roses.”

Since he has no idea why the hell she’s giving him a history lesson like this, he shrugs and waits.

“Ethan had a testament. He left very specific instructions on how he was to be buried. He had the central arrangement ripped out and insisted on being buried right there.”

He can see the spot she means. The bushes are arranged in a starburst pattern going out and he can imagine that the most beautiful roses must have once been the center piece. Now there’s only a barren, dusty circle of dirt with a flat tombstone. Ripped the heart right out.

“He beat her to death, hid her body and then ruined the thing she loved most.”

Heart. Right out of the middle.

“So why build that room? Why put in blankets and weapons and a prayer book for her?”

She turns to look at him, question plain on her face. Then, too fast to follow, her eyes widen in surprise and he sees, almost in slow motion, as she flings herself forward, straight at him. A split second later she slams into him, the force of it sending them both to the ground just as something shoots above their heads and out the window like a bomb. A moment later, the sound of impact shakes the house.

Buffy rolls to her feet, draws her trusty cold iron knife and covers Dean long enough for him to get a grip on his gun and find his feet. “What the fuck?” he barks, wildly looking around for the source of the attack. “It’s broad fucking daylight! This shouldn’t be possible!”

He trusts Buffy to cover his ass for a moment and looks out the broken window to check what, exactly, the ghost threw at them this time. It’s a bucket full of stone chips and dirt from the fireplace in the corner. It looks like it exploded when it hit the ground, bits of stone and mortal thrown everywhere, but Dean saw that bucket and he knows it was almost full. If that thing had hit them full throttle, it would have taken them both out the window with it.

“Holy shit,” he mutters, turning back to the room at large, more than a little alarmed.

Buffy’s still crouched to the side and in front of him, knife in hand, but she looks like she’s relaxing. “I think this one took a lot of juice,” he offers when, after a full five minutes of waiting, nothing else happens. “That thing musta been heavy.”

That thing,” he snaps, a bit testily, “Would have killed me and squished you into Buffy-sauce if it had hit us!”

“Ya think?” she snaps right back and then straightens, shaking her head.

+

“Let’s get out of here,” he suggests fifteen minutes later before more or less dragging her out of the damn house and to the Impala to go and find lunch elsewhere. Preferably somewhere where no-one’s trying to kill them.

He drives while Buffy calls Liv to give her an update that sounds a lot more optimistic than it should be, assuring her that they’re making progress. If two attacks by a ghost that won’t manifest enough for Dean to shoot at and no viable leads can be called ‘progress’.

“You’re still too fucking cheerful,” he tells her as he pulls into the first restaurant he finds.

“No reason not to be.”

“We almost died by bucket.”

“Almost. Didn’t.”

+

“So we’ve got nothing, dirt, nothing, cobwebs, and, oh, yeah, nothing. And only the basement left to search,” Dean announces later, sipping on one of the beers he picked up on the way back.

Buffy scowls at him over the rim of her own bottle. “What’s with the negative thinking, mister? It’s getting annoying.”

He sticks his tongue out at her childishly and then shrugs, leaning back against the kitchen counter. They should probably be back in the library, since it’s full dark and the bitch is probably on the prowl, looking for things to use as missiles to kill them with, but he kind of doesn’t want to move.

Buffy, who’s sitting on the counter across from him, doesn’t seem concerned either as she sips her beer and grimaces. “I hate that stuff, you know? There was an incident. Cave Buffy.”

“Cave Buffy?”

She nods wildly. “Uh-huh. There was this guy, back in the sixties, and the put a spell on his,… you know, beer, and I drank it and there was an… incident. Cave Buffy. We don’t talk about it.” She mimes zipping her mouth shut and grins.

Dean grins back. “Buffy gone wild,” he drawls. “I can imagine it.”

Giving him an insulted look, she kicks out one leg ineffectively in his direction.

“Babe,” he elaborates, “we banged next to Mary Suicide’s burning corpse. Don’t go all nun on me now.”

Buffy flushes scarlet and kicks again. He has to lean forward to actually catch her foot but he manages and slides one hand up her calf until it rest in the crook of her knee. She goes a bit cross-eyed at that and he smirks.

“I don’t normally do that… kind of thing. Sleeping with people, I mean.” She waves one hand. “People I don’t know. And ‘specially not hunters.” Swig from the bottle, more hand waving. “You’re the exception to the… to the rule.”

She giggles. Dean snorts. “Me either,” he tells her. He’s not sure why, since he doesn’t really want to, but he does anyway. “I mean, barflies, yeah, they’re fair game. But not people I work with. Too complicated. Too messy.”

“You slept with me. And I slept with you. Who slept with who first, d’you think?”

He brushes the question away with one hand, points his bottle at her. “I could fall in love with you, did you know that? You’re this sexy, amazing, smart, kick-ass woman and you get me and when I look at you, I’m sorry that I’m so fucked up, because you deserve better, you really do.”

“No,” she shakes her head. “I don’t. I’m… I’m old, Dean. And a freak. And I don’t die and I don’t age and you’re… you got your whole life ahead of you, right? ‘Sides, you love… Sam. You love Sam. And I… I get that. I do. I thought about it a lot, after, you know, and I loved Dawn, too. I loved her so much it hurt and when they took her away from me I wanted to burn the world. ‘N if you love Sam the way I loved Dawn, I get it. Kinda, I mean. Sort of. But I can’t… I’m not…I get so lonely and I wish…”

“Me, too,” Dean agrees. Something flickers and he realizes it’s the lights. Weird. Buffy’s looking at the lamp, too, and giggles as it flickers again. There’s something important about that.

Something…

Nevermind. “I lied.”

“When?”

“When I said you were a rebound. Cause you’re not. You could never… you’re not. I was just trying to piss you off so you’d talk to me.”

“But you didn’t talk to me for months.” She’s surprised. So’s he. Why’s he still talking?

“You didn’t talk to me,” he retorts, frowning. His hand tightens on her calf and she looks away.

“I wanted to.”

And then she’s on one foot, hopping toward him while he still has her other leg in his hand. She puts down her beer – still almost full, strange, he thought they’ve had more – and wraps herself around him like she never means to let go. Kisses him, too, tongue and teeth and hunger and he gropes her, grabs her ass and pulls her into him, drops his bottle without a care so he can slam her into the nearest wall and breathe in every last molecule of her.

She groans into it, bites at his lip and runs her hands through his hair, nails scraping along his scalp as he fumbles with her jeans, gets them open after three tries. She twists and wriggles against him until he can pull them down her thighs, puts her feet on the ground just long enough to kick them down and off, pulling her panties right along with them. No shame.

Dean uses the time to take off his shirt, throws it to the ground and grabs her again around the waist, hoisting her up on one of his thighs. She makes a sound like a whine and grinds herself against his jeans as she fumbles with her own shirt and then she’s naked, naked against him, and hot and hungry and going for his belt, pulling at it with an angry desperation.

He tries to bite back a groan, fails, drops his head against her shoulder to get his bearings. She finally finds her way into his pants, grips tight and then… well, then it’s mostly white lights and blackness and his brain off-lines completely.

+

Boneless.

That’s the first thing he becomes aware of. He feels utterly boneless.

Fucked out, would also be a good word for it. He hasn’t felt like that since the last time…

“Fuck,” he snaps, sitting up fast enough to make his head spin, hand automatically going for a gun that’s not there, taking in his surroundings.

He’s in the library. He has no memory of getting here, but he’s in the library. The last thing he remembers is…

“Fuuuuck.”

“You said that already,” a voice pipes up from the left and he jerks around, finds Buffy sitting in the corner a few feet away, wrapped in a sleeping bag and obviously naked underneath. She looks all of twelve, wedged against the wall, hair in tangles, circles under her eyes.

“Did we?”

She nods, not quite meeting is gaze.

“Were we… really drunk?” He can’t remember drinking, though. Half a beer, not more, and there’s the vaguest memory of wondering why Buffy was acting so drunk, when she’d not had more than two or three sips.

And they… they spilled their guts to each other, didn’t they? Dean’s never been a chatty drunk. He’s daddy’s boy in that, growing sullen and silent when his blood alcohol goes up. And he’s never been this… desperately, do-or-die horny either. Especially not drunk.

So then… “What the hell happened?”

Buffy shakes her head, shoots a question right back. “Did you mean it?”

“What?” That seems to be the only think he’s asking these days. He doesn’t understand anything anymore. Dumb old Dean-o. What else is new.

“Did you mean what you said last night, in the kitchen?”

He fumbles for his jeans, finds them, stands to get dressed without saying anything. It’s answer enough.

Buffy makes a sound, somewhere between a sigh and a sob and tells him, “I’ve been awake most of the night, thinking about it. It… whatever the hell it was, stopped as soon as we made it across the salt. I think it was Caroline. She’s been doing weird things ever since we got here. Throwing stuff, but not manifesting. She’s only shown up when we mentioned her, when we called her. And now this. She’s the one that made us act like that.”

“Why the hell would she do that?” he asks, jeans forgotten in his hands.

She shakes her head. “No clue. Ghosts are psychic energy, in the end. Sometimes the powerful ones do the weirdest things. But this… she didn’t force anything on us, did she? She just… lowered our inhibitions.”

The ridiculous thing is that the first thought that crosses his mind is we told the truth. That means what Buffy said wasn’t a lie and that means she doesn’t hate him and that means…

He has no idea what that means. Again.

Life was easier when it was just him, in the Impala, talking to an imaginary Sam in the passenger seat. Lonelier, sadder, but easier. He didn’t have to care then.

And, let’s be honest here, he does care now. He cares far too much.

He shakes it off. Twenty years of practice at ignoring anything that hurts are pretty damn useful sometimes. He shakes it off, puts on his clothes and says, “So she lowered our inhibitions. What’d she do that for?”

“Like I said, no clue.” She opens her mouth to say something else, then shuts it abruptly. “None of this makes sense. Weird ghost, weird behavior, weird house. And now this. It’s almost like…”

“Yeeees?” he asks, long and drawn out after a moment of silence.

She waves him off. “Just a hunch. I’d like to check the basement first.”

“Sure,” he agrees, with an extra portion of nonchalance, looking for his shirt until he remembers, vaguely, that the kitchen is probably a better place to check.

Buffy rolls too her feet, graceful as always and starts towards her bag to find fresh clothes. There are none of hers strewn around the room. She straightens with a bunch of stuff in hand and turns around, almost running into him. He moves left to get past her, she moves right. He moves right, she moves left.

He stops. She frowns as she puts a hand on his chest and turns them both to one side until their positions are reversed. She drops her hand, frowns up at him. “Is this going to be awkward now?”

Is it? It probably should be, what with the whole coercion-by-ghost-bitch and impulsive, uninhibited kitchen sex, but really?

He flashes her a smile, bright and real.

Returning it and stretching on tiptoe, she pecks him on the lips, quick and tired. It’s a mirror of that scene by the river, more than half a year ago. Only this time it doesn’t feel like goodbye.

+

Five hours later Dean is positive that he has inhaled at least five pounds of dust and is wearing twice again that much in cobwebs. His mouth tastes like something died in there and mummified, his eyes keep tearing up and he’s itchy all over. He’s also stuck in a tiny crawl space in a secret passageway in the basement and his torch is guttering and dying on him. Again.

He really needs to buy one of those that don’t run on batteries, the ones that you can just sort of… wind up. The noise of the transformer would totally give away his position on a hunt, but on the upside, he’d see his death coming.

He groans loudly and smacks the thing against the wooden wall, dislodging another shitload of crap and getting no results. The smacking never works. At this point, it’s not even satisfying anymore. Ahead of him, Buffy stops and twists herself in the small space until she can point her own light at him. “Again?”

He growls at her because he’s so fucking done with this thing. The last time he spent this much time mucking around in the dirt, he was eight and building sandcastles with Sammy inside a truly filthy motel sandbox. Not even the fact that Buffy’s pretty much been shoving her ass in his face for the past twenty minutes while crawling ahead of him can make up for this.

“Yes,” he hisses, “fucking again!”

She tries to raise her hands in the universal backing-off-now gesture and then aborts when she realizes there’s no room. “Sorry.” Then… “It’s bothering you. What happened.”

Is it? Hell yeah, it is. Some dead bitch crawled into his head and screwed with it enough to make him spill his deepest darkest secrets to someone who is… not a perfect stranger. A perfect stranger wouldn’t be so dangerous. Made him spill his guts to someone with the potential to hurt him.

He feels… violated, even though he hates that fucking word. Like someone took his choice from him, like he’s a puppet on a string. Dance, Dean-o, dance! And he doesn’t understand why the fuck the bitch did it in the first place, doesn’t get why Buffy’s so calm about it.

And so secretive.

She always does that. Takes things in stride, like nothing can faze her, and keeps everything she knows close to her chest and it’s… it’s freaky, okay, because it reminds him of all that she’s seen and done and makes him feel young and dumb, reminds him that she’s a freak and he should be ganking her. Trying to, at least. Not…fucking her. Let’s call it that, for sanity’s sake. Fucking’s all they’re doing.

And last night, it wasn’t even voluntary.

So yeah, he told Buffy, in not so many words, that this isn’t going to be awkward. And it’s not. Sort of. Because they’ve had sex before and he can deal with that. He can deal with having slept with her while not in full possession of his mental facilities. Or something.

It’s everything else that’s fucking with him. The freaky bitch of a ghost, the vagina she made him grow, the whole shit with Buffy that happened way before this goddamn house.

It’s all shit. His life is shit, his family is shit, his job is shit, he’s got dust in his mouth and spider shit in his eyes and Buffy is there but isn’t there and everything is so fucking hard.

He’s twenty-four years old, goddamn it. He shouldn’t be here.

“Do you really want to have this conversation with your ass in my face? Here? Now?”

Buffy turns her torch on him, pulls it sideways when he cringes, away from them both so he can’t make out anything of her face. “You know that I’m… I’m here, right? I mean, I’m not very good at this, and probably very rusty and you might not want to, and stuff, but I am, technically-“

“What?!” he barks, cutting her off. The babble might be cute usually, but he’s on his last nerve here.

Buffy makes a low, angry noise, but her voice is calm when she says, very concisely. “Talk. I’ll be here to listen.”

Then she shoves herself right-side-up again and resumes their trek. Dean drops his torch, kicks it angrily into the empty space behind him and follows.

+

The crawl space ends in a low, square room, big enough for Buffy to stand and Dean to crouch like a golem, less than four feet of space between them. Buffy is doing most of the moving around, checking the walls and the cracks between every individual board. For what, he’s not sure, so he just sits his ass down so he doesn’t get a crick in his neck. Well, more of one anyway.

He tucks his legs into his chest like Sam does when he’s feeling sulky, mostly so Buffy won’t trip over his feet in the small room. She gives him a look, then goes back to fingering along invisible cracks, checking for what? Secret latches and mechanisms? Doorways hidden behind bookshelves? Minus the bookshelves of course.

He makes a noise that’s probably not at all complimentary of her technique, but they’re running out of space to search, so he’ll keep his mouth shut. Not inhaling as much dust is just a bonus.

He settles a bit more, watches Buffy move. Up one crack, down the next, left to right along the walls and double check in the corners. He watches her slow circuit, shifting a bit to follow her when necessary. Once or twice, he blows a bit of cobweb out of his face that keeps brushing his bare skin in a truly hair-raising way. The damn thing comes back every single time, moved by some invisible draft.

“I thought about not taking down the werewolf,” he says suddenly, and then jerks, surprised by the sound of his own voice because he didn’t give his mouth permission to speak. At all.

Buffy stops moving briefly, then visibly forces herself to keep going. She’s getting pretty good at dealing with his spontaneous outbursts of pussydom. He wishes, fiercely, for just a moment, that it were someone else down here. Someone else knowing him better than he wants them to. He thinks that might be easier. He thinks if Buffy weren’t Buffy, he might not keep blabbing all this shit at her.

“When you told me there was something going on in California. I thought, for about half a second, what if you don’t go? What if you leave the fugly to kill more people until Sam can’t ignore it anymore? I wanted to leave the werewolf alone just so Sam would be forced to fall off the damn wagon and hunt the thing himself.”

She hums, taps her nails against the wall and says, “I considered not telling you what I’d found. San Jose, I mean.”

Letting fate play out. Letting Sam live next to a rampaging monster with no clue it was even there. Let Dean take up another hunt across the country, never knowing the danger Sam was potentially in.

Funny fact. Both had the impulse, that mean, jealous impulse. Neither acted on it. That probably makes them decent people or some such shit. Buffy sighs like she’s reading his mind and shrugs, her back still turned toward him. “I promised myself I’d never do this again.”

“Crawl around ante bellum crap holes?”

“Fall this way,” she corrects, deceptively light, like they’re talking about the weather. Sunny with a chance of heartbreak. “Hard and vicious and ugly.”

Fall.

Fall.

She doesn’t say the four letter word implied, just says fall, all casual like and Dean freezes, right down to his toes, paralyzed like the rabbit in front of the big, bad killer snake. Anaconda. Giant thing. At least. Potentially bigger. He saw this documentary on TV once, when he was too hyped up on painkillers to sleep and those beasts are massive and…

She turns around, smiles at him, all soft and blurry, like that morning when he climbed into her basement and found all those pictures, pictures and paintings two hundred years back, proving that she’s a fugly, too, proving that she’s possibly the loneliest girl on the planet.

“It hurts.”

That goddamn cobweb blows into his face again and he bats it aside, hard, slapping a hand at it because it keeps coming back and…

“Hold on,” he mutters, rolling to his feet smoothly and holding up the hand the last bit of the destroyed cobweb is dangling from. It sinks briefly and then turns sideways in a draft.

Draft, damnit!

Apparently Buffy screwed his brains out last night.

He angles the string of webbing until he’s traced the source of the slight breeze and then wipes his hand clean on his jeans and kicks at the dry wooden boards making up the wall. One, two, three. It’s therapeutic and satisfying, too, when the wall suddenly gives way, splintering to reveal a dark space beyond.

“I’m really starting to hate this fucking place,” he tells Buffy as he steps back to let her shine her torch into the darkness, which, predictably, turns into another narrow tunnel. They gave up on the maps hours ago, since they kind of look like a kid threw a temper tantrum all over them, scribbling like mad. The whole building is a fucking rat maze, except instead of cheese, there’s dead ends with panic rooms and somewhere, the prize, a box full of bones.

Yippy.

“We’re at the south wall,” Buffy chips in, frowning. “This leads outside.” She consults the little GPS she brought downstairs with her. He laughed at her initially, but without it, they’d have long since lost any sense of direction in this mess. He’s not admitting that, though. She studies the screen for a moment, then nods. “Definitely outside.”

They exchange looks and then shrug simultaneously. Since he’s a gentleman, and the chick has the only light, he gallantly waves her ahead. “You just want me to clear out the cobwebs for you,” she grumbles even as she climbs through the hole he made.

“Maybe if you were wearing stilts, babe,” he shoots back.

She glowers over her shoulder for a moment, before her eyes go… not soft, exactly, not misty, but dark with something.

Falling.

She lets it go.

+

The tunnel is short, tilting slightly to the right, toward the center of the garden instead of away from it. Strange, but Dean has stopped being surprised by this place. He’s been in funhouses with less hallways, rooms, corners and tricks.

It ends in a heavy door with iron bands spanned across it at even intervals, all of them with runes carved all over them.

Buffy traces a few of them with her fingers, whispering their names. Dean can make out only enough to understand the gist of the bands: Protection. Border. Purity. It’s the more lasting version of salt across the doorway.

Screw Buffy’s everyone was a hunter spiel. This is a lot more solid than a vague awareness of what goes bump. He shoots a Smug Look at the back of her skull and she huffs like she can feel it as she tucks her torch into the front pocket of her jeans and wedges her shoulder against the door to force it open.

Dean joins her but it still takes a minute to force the thing open. It’s a miracle, really, that the whole tunnel, held up by nothing but wood, still stands after all these years. He keeps waiting for it to cave in around them. A crappy finish for a very crappy week.

Then suddenly, the door gives and they both more or less fall, ass over teakettle, into the room beyond. Dean catches himself at the last moment, grabs for Buffy and catches her wrist, yanks them both backwards. They keep their footing by a hair’s breadth and then both freeze, just a bit, as the contents of the room sink in.

“Holy shit,” Buffy’s breathes, which is so unlike her that it makes Dean snort a laugh.

There are bookshelves to either side of the door, a low table on the right, a trunk on the left and directly across from the door, an altar. The shelves are filled with books, musty, moldy, rotting, but still clearly identifiable as demonology and witchcraft texts. The table and the walls are covered in weapons, revolvers, bullets with crosses and blessings carved into them, knives as dully grey as Buffy’s favorite cold iron one. The trunk is open, filled with a cluster of more blades, tins of all kinds of ingredients. Salt and herbs, he guesses, although the contents will have mostly rotted away by now.

And that altar. It looks like it started life as a dressing table. There’s a moth-eaten, ratty table cloth covering it, moldy candles on each end, pictures put up against the raised edge at the back. Pictures of a smiling woman, dark-haired and doe-eyed in a stiff, dark dress. Period dress. Dean imagines Buffy in that dress and bites back a very manly giggle.

The face is familiar, though. It’s Caroline.

The piece de resistance, smack in the middle of the makeshift altar, is an urn.

“I guess that means Ethan was a hunter after all,” he says, absently, gaze inevitably drawn to the weapons strewn all over the room.

“Mhm. Probably.” She shakes her head. “This makes less sense every time I look.”

“Understatement,” he comments, trailing a hand over a dissembled rifle, wondering at the back of his mind if it might still be salvageable after so long underground. It’s a gorgeous thing.

She elbows past him toward the altar, shrine, whatever, and stops there, hands hovering over the urn for a moment before she opens it and looks inside.

“Ash.”

He jerks out of his musings to peek over her shoulder and yes, that’s definitely ash. Human ash. There are teeth and bits of bone still visible. It’s sort of gross. Burning human bodies is a messy business, must have been even more so before incinerators were invented.

“Who d’you think it was? The butler or the gardener?”

Buffy snorts at his wisecrack and shakes her head. “I think it’s Caroline.”

“If he burned her, then who the hell is it that keeps throwing all kinds of shit at us? We been hunting the wrong ghost the whole time?”

“Doesn’t mean she doesn’t exist. Just means she’s not attached to her body. Lock of hair, nail clippings… She could be sticking to anything.”

Great. How the fuck are they supposed to find an even smaller needle in this mess of a haystack? He groans, loudly and theatrically. “Seriously?”

To his surprise, Buffy shakes her head, chewing on her lower lip. “I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s anything corporeal keeping her here.”

Nothing corpor- “Don’t tell me you’re buying into this unfinished business shtick?”

She looks at him thoughtfully before shrugging. “Why not? Messy death like that, who says it doesn’t leave enough of an imprint to keep a soul anchored?”

Dean curls his lip in distaste. Trust a chick to come up with such a bleeding-heart theory. “So what? She wants revenge on her fuck-up hubby?” he asks, then calls, louder, “Newsflash, bitch, the fucker that ganked you is long dead!”

His words ring in the small room and a puff of earth rains down from above his head. Then a furious shriek echoes down the tunnel and he barely has time for a short, “Whoops,” before Caroline, finally – finally! - visible, comes shooting toward them like a white, dead missile.

Her arms are extended in front of her, fingers curled like claws, her mouth opened in that ungodly shriek and the expression on her face says she means business. They both take an involuntary step back and reach for their weapons, despite the runes and the iron. Caroline slams into the invisible barrier in the doorway like a bomb, unfurling into a cloud of white until the only substantial thing about her is her face, a horrible, twisted grimace.

Rage, pure, unadulterated rage underlined by truly ungodly howling.

Buffy makes a face and puts her hands over her ears, once it becomes clear that the ghost won’t make it through the door and she feels safe enough to let go of her knife.

Dean just rolls his eyes. “Dramatic bitch,” he decides, and shoots her straight in her ugly ghost-mug.

“Bull’s eye!” he crows as he aims for a second shot and blows the misty remains straight outta the doorway and into the afterlife.

When Buffy doesn’t react, he shoots a look her way, only to find her eying the urn and the doorway in turns.

“What?” he asks, worriedly following her movements as she starts looking around the ceiling while reaching for her stupid GPS.

“Remember how none of this makes sense?”

When he nods, she shrugs, fiddling with her little toy. “It does,” she tells him, oh so helpfully.

She finally finds whatever she’s looking for on her GPS and then spins back to face the door, inspecting the tunnel beyond for any signs of the ghost. There’s nothing there, but she still takes a breath and calls, “I’ve got it!”

Dean gets the impression she’s not talking to him. Especially not when she starts down the tunnel at breakneck speed, yelling for him to get moving over her shoulder.

+

Dean’s pretty sure she breaks all kinds of records on her way back up onto the first floor. She runs, skids, crawls and shimmies at amazing speeds and it’s all he can do to stay on her six while still keeping half an eye out for the crazy bitch haunting their asses.

Down the tunnel, through the little room, into the crawl space, down a secret passage, into the kitchen and then straight out the backdoor and around the house.

What the hell is she doing?

He doesn’t catch up with her until she stops smack in the middle of the dead rose garden, standing on top of old man Jones’s grave, GPS in hand again, staring down at it.

“Ha!” she suddenly yells, like a really freaky comic-book character and pumps one fist in the air. “I get it now!”

“Wanna share?” he asks, hands on his thighs as he tries to catch his breath. Woman can run.

She spins to throw a broad grin at him and waves her toy in his face. Again. She keeps gloating about that stupid thing. “Same coordinates!”

“Same coordinates as what?”

“The urn!” she yells, practically in his face and then spins on her own axis, calling out for the hell bitch of all things. “Caroline! Caroline! I get it now! I know why you’re here!”

Well, that makes one of them, then.

“Buffy!” Dean barks, starting to get seriously pissed with being yanked around and ignored and yanked some more.

She waves her free hand at him in a yeah, sure motion and keeps hollering for the ghost like she’s a wayward dog hiding in the garden.

Suddenly, it gets cold. Automatically, Dean’s hands go to his gun and the pocket of his jeans with a little pouch of salt inside. Buffy may have set up shop in whacky town, but he’d rather not get his neck broken by a dead bitch, thank you very much.

Much like before, Caroline doesn’t actually manifest so much as she’s simply there, a presence, much like the grave-cold she brings with her. Buffy, who’s still beaming like a fucking idiot, doesn’t seem deterred.

“The urn and the grave! They’re in the same spot! The urn is your final resting place and Ethan’s is right here, right above the urn. Right with you!”

What?

“Ethan was a hunter and that’s why he burned you, why he stored your ashes in the saferoom! That’s why he killed you! He didn’t murder you, Caroline, he saved you! What was it? A demon? Ghost sickness? Something else? Something bad got to you and he had to kill you to save you. He didn’t bury your body somewhere on the grounds like everyone thought. He burned you so you couldn’t rise again and he put you in the safest place he knew. And the garden. He didn’t destroy it out of hate. He needed to destroy it so he could be buried as close to you as he could possibly get without giving away the saferoom!”

Dean blinks, tries to make sense of all that, and gets hung up on how all women, even immortal, tough as nails ones, seems to be bleeding romantics at heart, which is so typical. But however crazy the blonde sounds, it seems to have struck a chord because Caroline is manifesting right in front of them, barely out of arm’s reach. Dean’s trigger finger is itching and really, he’s not quite sure why he doesn’t just pull the trigger.

Maybe it’s because Buffy sounds so absolutely sure. Or maybe it’s the strange expression on the ghost’s translucent face. She almost looks… serene.

“That’s why you hurt the people that come here looking for your body, talking trash about Ethan. That’s why you made me and Dean… do what we did. Love, that was the message. Caring, positive emotions. That’s why you’re here. You’ve got unfinished business. Your body is ash, but you’re still here because you need people to know the truth. You need people to know that Ethan wasn’t a monster, but a good man, who loved you more than anything. It’s the slander of his name that’s keeping you.”

Paint him pink and call him candy, the ghost bitch smiles and nods and folds her hands in front of her chest in a silent thank you. She looks radiant, which is ridiculous because ghosts are angry and vicious and ugly. But this one suddenly looks like a damn angel and Dean can feel a monstrous headache coming on.

Buffy just smiles like everything is puppies and kittens and lollipops and raises a hand to hover by Caroline’s shoulder like she wants to touch her. Hug her maybe.

Welcome to the Twilight Zone.

“It’s okay now. We know the truth. You can go now, Caroline. You can go and be with Ethan.”

Dean holds his breath, waiting for it to be over, please and thank you. Instead Caroline shakes her head, points one arm backwards and out toward… what exactly?

Buffy seems to get it though because she shakes her head, too, sad puppy look on her face. “I’m sorry, but we can’t tell everyone. It’s been a long time since you died and even back then, people were forgetting about the monsters already. They won’t believe or understand.”

Aaaand the world spins back onto its proper axis because the ghost’s face goes hell-bitchy again, rage twisting her features. Dean is almost relieved.

Buffy takes half a step back and then corrects the show of weakness by taking a full one forward. “Listen,” she says sharply and why she’s talking to the ghost like she’s an actual person capable of understanding all this, Dean has no idea.

But Caroline stills for a moment, even though her dress still flaps around her in an invisible storm that doesn’t bode well for them. If the bitch loses it now, Dean is going to spend another night sitting vigil over Buffy’s corpse.

His hand tightens around his gun and his jaw clenches.

“Listen,” Buffy repeats. “I can’t tell the world. But Dean knows and the woman who owns the house now will know, and I will know. I live forever Caroline. And I’ll remember, I promise I’ll remember. And if the world ever remembers the monsters, I’ll set the record straight. Until then, I’ll remember. I’ll remember that Ethan Jones was a good man who loved his wife. I’ll remember. Forever, Caroline.”

She starts out strong and fast, trying to keep the ghost’s attention, but halfway through her voice cracks a little, falters and stumbles and by the end, she’s whispering.

Forever.

That’s a damn long time to remember something.

A damn long time to be alive.

Involuntarily, Dean closes the distance between them, putting his chest to her back. He makes sure to keep his line of fire clear, but he’s there with Buffy, giving her what he can because she sounds so sad, the way she did in her basement, so long ago.

Broken.

She leans back into him and smiles at the ghost, sad and serene and tired and Dean wraps his arm around her middle without meaning to. Doesn’t even notice he does it until Caroline looks down at his hand on Buffy’s stomach.

She’s smiling again, a perfect mirror of Buffy’s expression.

Then she nods, just once, and with one last glance toward the headstone right beside them, she disappears.

“A ghost that sticks around for love instead of bloody murder,” Dean muses after a minute, still staring at the spot where Caroline stood. “Never thought I’d see the day.”

Buffy laughs quietly. “Hasn’t anyone told you? Love makes the world go round, Dean.”

He snorts and thumbs the safety back on.

It’s over.

+

They don’t talk during the clean up.

That is to say, they do talk, but only about the most mundane of things, like who has to work the salt out of the cracks between the floorboards and what to do with Ethan’s hunter’s cave. Buffy is all for leaving it so he’ll stay close to Caroline. Dean wants to cave it in, erase all traces.

They end up collapsing the tunnel as a sort of compromise, leaving Ethan and Caroline to their joint afterlife and keeping the lair hidden. It leaves a hell of a hole in the garden, but it’s not like they have to lie to their client. They can tell Liv to fill in the hole and leave it alone and she actually will.

So they talk. But they don’t talk.

Until Buffy suddenly stops in the middle of sweeping up salt in the library, leans on her broom and tells a spot behind Dean’s left shoulder, “Never thought I’d say that, but I’m actually glad a ghost wore us to the prom a little bit.”

He snorts at the phrasing, but studiously keeps working on rolling his sleeping bag tightly enough to fit it inside its bag again. No matter how hard he tries, he never gets it tight enough on the first try, or the second. He knows what she means. The ghost riding them was… well, not fun, but… informative. Dean said a lot of shit he never would have said in his right mind and Buffy did, too.

Put things right out there in the open. Cleared up a whole bunch of misunderstandings. Right out of some deranged, deadly romcom crap. Whatever.

Buffy waits for him to say something for a beat, then gives up with a little sigh. It’s like she knows him. “What I’m trying to say is…,” she shrugs. “Thank you. For helping me out here. And I’m sorry for-,” she twirls one finger in a circle in a gesture that could either mean ‘global warming’ or ‘everything’. He decides to go with the second.

“Yeah,” he agrees and when he realizes that might not cut it, he actually looks up at her and adds, “Me too.”

Buffy nods and that’s it. Conversation had.

It’s too easy, he thinks, but the feeling of dread that usually accompanies thoughts like this is nowhere to be found. He’s getting used to Crazy Church Girl and all the improbable ways they fit together.

It feels weird.

Mostly because it doesn’t feel weird at all.

He shoots her a grin, bright and boyish, just because he can, and she throws her head back and laughs and yeah, it’s all still pretty screwed up, what with her being an immortal fugly and him pining after his baby brother, with both of them needing to be ghost ridden in order to spit out what’s going on inside their heads, but. But.

Yeah, he thinks. Yeah.

+

Buffy puts together a bunch of notes for Liv that night, telling her about Caroline and Ethan and their Big, Fat Romance. Instructions on where to keep the crews from, what tunnels to wall up.

“Why not tell her in person?” Dean asks, watching from across the table in the library, sipping a beer and watching the sun sink outside. He’s leaning back on two chair legs, feet on the table.

Buffy shrugs, shakes her head. “Like I said, Dan only knows me as a friend and it’s better…” Another shrug.

Forever.

Abruptly, he lets his chair snap forward and puts down the beer. “I have a seriously crappy life expectancy,” he blurts because blurting stuff is sort of becoming the way they communicate.

Buffy stops writing to blink owlishly at him.

“And you really, really don’t. So I can’t offer…” he doesn’t say it. Forever. His Mommy died in fire when he was four. He’s always known forever is worth shit, just another way of saying ‘until it breaks’. “But I’m… you got my number. You know where to find me and that offer, about talking. That… goes both ways. Because.” God-fucking-damn. He scrubs a hand over his face and thinks of a saferoom with a prayer book and a dead girl lying across his lap, of staring at his phone for hours and falling asleep next to Buffy with her hair tickling his nose and her warmth keeping him grounded from nightmares.

“Because I might know a little bit about… falling.”

He digs two fingers into the bridge of his nose and then risks a glance at Buffy, who’s sitting, still as a statue, staring.

She’s silent for a very long time.

Then she smiles, sweet and small and heartbreakingly genuine and gives a single nod before going back to writing instructions.

Dean exhales. Okay.

He… falling.

Fuck it all.

+

It’s not August anymore and Dean sits behind the wheel of his baby, Buffy’s taillights fading up an exit as they split, her going east, him going north.

Before she took the turn, she flashed her brake lights at him, one, two, three times, her own way of saying goodbye.

He laughed and flashed his headlights right back at her. When his phone rings an hour later, he answers without looking at the screen, knowing exactly who it’ll be.

+

+

The End

You have reached the end of "Dust". This story is complete.

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