[size=9]Roble Hall, Stanford University
"Ayden ... c'mon, girl, you've been bent over those books for hours! Get your a$$ out here and have some fun for once!"
That was all the warning Ayden Milligan got before the door to her dorm room burst open to reveal the grinning exuberant faces of Gina Sanchez and Cole Marks, her best friend and boyfriend respectively.
It would have surprised anyone who'd known the young med-student just a few years before to know that she had allowed herself to make connections like that, knowing what she did about the darker world outside her window. But then, anyone who'd known her a few years ago was beyond her reach, either dead or deliberately maintaining silence, and Ayden had finally given up on being completely alone. She needed someone she could talk to, even if it were only about the inconsequential everyday stuff that didn't really matter.
She hadn't bothered to make any kind of connection in Madison while she was finishing up her pre-med course in the wake of the tragedies that had significantly marred her sophomore year there. No one would have been able to look at her properly, anyway - she was the geek who'd skipped a grade years ago, the freak who slept with a knife under her pillow and carried salt and iron, the silly little girl who'd lost her religion and jumped at shadows. Her junior year had been something of a nightmare, too, but by the time senior year had come around, she'd given up caring. She just needed good grades and a good recommendation, and those she had achieved with seemingly little effort at all, securing herself a place at her brother's old university, Stanford, to study Medicine.
And in Stanford, no one knew about the mysterious way her mother had died, or the weeks she'd been absent without leave from college with no adequate reason. Her room-mate, Gina, had been mercilessly cheerful and friendly, determined to bring the uncertain Ayden out of her shell and eventually Ayden had given in, even to the point of allowing herself to be set up with Cole. They were the sole reason she didn't just sit in her room studying, and she was grateful to them for it.
They didn't stay in the doorway for long, scrambling through to lay hands on her with laughing assurity. As Ayden squealed in protest, Cole lifted her up and out of her chair, Gina ducking in under the flailing arms to save the document she'd been working on before closing down the laptop.
"Guys, come on, I've only been here, like, an hour," Ayden heard herself protest mildly, glancing at the clock to discover that her hour was more like four. "Oh."
"Oh, she says," Gina laughed, rolling her eyes. "Girl loses the whole afternoon to her thesis and "oh" is all she's got to say about it."
Cole set Ayden down, wrapping her up in his long arms from behind to pin her in place, touching a fond kiss to her cheek. "You're not staying in here a minute longer," he informed his girlfriend firmly. "We are going outside to rebalance your vitamin D deficiency before you lose the will to live."
In other words, they were going to make her come and socialise on the patio at Lakeside, something Ayden didn't really have much objection. Rolling her eyes and smiling, she elbowed Cole lightly in the ribs to make him let her go, laughing at his theatrics as she scooped up her cellphone and card, tucking them into the pockets of her skirt. "Swear to God, you two are on a mission to break my concentration whenever I get into it."
"Hell yes, girl, you make us look bad," was Gina's exuberant agreement as the three of them stepped out into the hallway, laughter preceding them down the stairs and out into the glorious sunshine that cast warm shadows behind them. There were other groups of students milling around, unwilling to go inside and forsake the warm weather. None of them looked up as the trio passed through the cantina, finally settling themselves to sit on the grass among others in their classes to pass the time with talk and laughter.
No one would have believed, Ayden thought to herself with a faint smirk, that just five weeks ago she'd helped a pair of hunters capture and kill a Skinwalker right where she was sitting now. She'd volunteered herself as bait the moment she'd identified the two men for what they were, dropping her brothers' names to make a point that she knew what she was doing. She wasn't the best fighter in the world, no ... but in the wake of her brothers' deaths, Ayden Milligan had developed a couple of talents that made her very hard to kill, even for the supernatural. She didn't go out of her way to hunt, but when a hunt came her way, she helped, and always extorted a promise from the hunters involved that Bobby and Ellen Singer would not find out about it.
She salted her door and windows at night; she always wore something made of silver. The iron knife Sam had given her lived in a sheath always to hand; the shotgun Dean had presented her with when she'd accidentally shot Gabriel for scaring her was what she slept with under her pillow. She had two exorcisms and the Key of Solomon memorised, a portion of it tattooed onto the small of her back to match the tattooed protection Dean and Sam had worn on their chests. She might not go looking for hunts, but with an archangel on her shoulder, however out of sight he thought he was, she seemed to attract trouble of the supernatural kind. But no one here knew about that. They just thought she was a quiet bit of fun when she surfaced from her studies, and she was happy to let them go on thinking that.
As the afternoon began to turn to gold-bathed evening, Ayden was roused from a half doze against Cole's side by the persistent buzz of her cell phone in her pocket. Surprised, she sat up, pulling the phone from her pocket to look at the number ... and her blood froze. She knew that number, only too well. They'd promised they wouldn't get in contact with her unless they had no other choice. If they were calling her now ... She flicked her phone open, lifting it to her ear, ignoring the playful grab Cole made for the device.
"Ellen? What is it?"
She remembered the older woman's voice like it was yesterday, the tears they'd cried together, the pain and loss and laughter they'd shared in those horrific weeks after The Event. Bobby was in those memories, and Gabriel, too, but slowly they had all stepped backward, out of her life, leaving her to go on alone as though nothing had happened. But none of that resentment and pain mattered now; Ellen was talking to her, and that meant something was up.
"Who is it?" Cole asked her curiously, surprised by the suddenly serious tone of his girlfriend's expression. She frowned at him, shaking her head, barely taking her attention from Ellen's voice on the other end of the line for a moment.
And it was just as well she didn't. The news that was being passed on was shocking and exhilarating, utterly amazing to her ears. The color drained from her face as the words first made themselves known, slowly sinking in and bringing the color back to her cheeks as unexpected joy spread through the young woman. It didn't occur to her to disbelieve anything she was told; she knew Bobby would have made absolutely certain, that there was no way Ellen would be telling her this unless they were all positive of what it was that had returned to their midst.
"Don't let him go anywhere," Ayden heard herself say, awkwardly pushing herself up onto her feet, much to the startlement of her companions. "I'm coming, I'll drive. I'll be there in two days, three tops."
"Wait, what?" Gina stared up at her friend, shielding her eyes against the evening sunlight. "Ayden, where the hell are you going?"
Snapping her phone shut, Ayden only just remembered to pause and explain herself to her friend and boyfriend. "Uh ... I didn't tell you about him, but my brother's back from a really long trip, and I don't know how long he's sticking around, so I gotta go," she informed them swiftly. "I'll leave the number. Don't worry about me!"
This last was called back over her shoulder as she headed toward Roble Hall, breaking into an excited run. She didn't have classes for another day, and she could call her tutors from the road tomorrow and make excuses for her absence, however long it was going to last. What mattered right now was getting a bag packed and getting her baby on the road to Sioux Falls, regardless of the protests from her friends as they followed her into the dorm. What was so special about a brother they'd never heard of that could make her drop everything with barely a word, they wanted to know, but she only had one answer for them, an answer they couldn't begin to understand even if she wasted hours in explanation.
He was Dean. He was family.
She wasn't alone anymore.