Ladona's arm throbbed and burned as if a thousand red hot needles were being jabbed inside it. She took a deep breath and the movement caused the pain in her arm to flare bright as the sun. Her throat burned, too, from Celeste’s touch. She moaned softly and opened her eyes. She was alone, her eyes confirming what she'd already known. Ladona breathed a sigh of relief. One side of her body was swathed in bandages and she knew from the way she couldn't really open one eye fully, that she had one hell of a shiner.
Dean had kept up a steady stream of conversation while she'd been out and she'd heard every word. He'd reminded her of funny instances during some of their hunts, times when she'd kicked more ass than he had, some of the amazing places they'd seen, the love they'd made. Ladona had latched on to Dean's voice and let it lead her out of the fog and back to earth. It was too tempting to let the drugs keep flowing, to keep her mind from dealing with what had happened since they'd come to
She was glad to be alone now, though. It gave her the time and space to remember what Anna had told her about the deal with Nemesis, to think about whether or not she loved Dean - or if he loved her - enough to make that kind of deal. She knew she loved Dean without question. She hadn't felt so loved and accepted since before she'd discovered her powers and was living a normal life with her dad and her brother. But would she die with him? Ladona brushed aside the obvious that hunting together made that more a probability than a possibility. That was different from knowingly linking your destiny to that of another.
Anna. Dear Goddess, please let her be alive. Let her and John be alive and together nearby, Ladona prayed. She tried to concentrate and focus on Anna's red hair, her green eyes, her bright smile, anything to try and feel whether or not Anna had made it out of the cave alive. Nothing. It must be the drugs, Ladona sighed to herself. She gave up for the moment.
Ladona frowned, the fiery nerves in her arm fading as her thoughts turned full force to Anna and John's deal. Was it truly different, though? She and Dean had been partners for months before their working relationship had turned to love. They'd watched each other's backs like partners do. Now that they were lovers, the connection was deeper and still they hunted together. Neither one knew when a job would go bad and one or the other would be hurt or even killed. She realized that they'd tied their fates together; albeit in a different way from John and Anna.
Turning onto her side to face the window, Ladona tried to imagine her life without Dean, both alone and with another partner. Could she have a full life without him? Maybe, but would she want to? Lots of people lost ones they loved and went on to shape a new life out of the old even if the future was tinged with a bit of sadness. She thought about Dean's smile and his laugh, about how he listened to her and trusted her instincts, about how his eyes darkened and smoldered when they made love. A tiny cry escaped her lips and she knew ...
Would Dean have a full life without her? That was where Ladona got stuck. Dean had never made secret how he lived his life before they'd fallen in love. She'd often wondered if, when they were first partnered, he'd had a one nighter here and there. He had been entitled, she knew, since there'd been no claim on him from her or anyone else. But what about now? He said he loved her. He had not left her side. But was that the definition of “forever” for him?
Ladona checked the clock. Just about noon, which meant Dean was down in the hospital cafeteria grabbing a bite to eat. His predictability made Ladona smile and ache for him ... She had to know where he stood on the subject of their future. She had to know if their love was as deep and durable as what she saw between John and Anna. Maybe it wasn't fair to compare the two relationships. John and Anna were older and had been through a hell of a lot more than she and Dean.
Still, having this time to think about her life, their life together, made Ladona realize that she loved Dean with her whole heart, her body and her soul. She knew she would kill for him or be killed if it meant saving him. She knew she would rather die with him than lose him. And now she needed to know if he felt the same because as much as it would kill her, if there was any hesitation on Dean's part, they were done being lovers, being partners, being anything.
The hair on the back of her neck tingled, telling her Dean had returned.
"Hey," he said softly, surprised to see her lying on her side with her back to the door of her room. "You're awake!" Dean rounded the bed and dragged a chair close, stroking her cheek.
Ladona met his eyes and was struck that his glimmered with tears. She reached out her left hand as best she could and touched the stubble that lined his cheek. "Why are you crying?" she asked in a hoarse whisper.
"I missed you." Dean leaned forward and pressed his lips to Ladona's forehead.
"How long have I been here?"
Dean sat back down and took her good hand in his. "A couple of days."
"How's Anna? Is she ... " the words caught in Ladona's throat. "Is John ..."
"No, she isn't ... they aren't ... Anna's next door. She lost a lot of blood, but she'll be okay." Dean swallowed hard. "You know about their deal?"
Ladona nodded. "Yes. She told me just before we were taken." Her gaze drifted out the window and tears leaked out of the corner of her eyes.
"What is it?" Worry and grief had etched into Dean's features, making him look older than his years. His eyes searched her face.
"Could you ... would we ... what if we were given the choice to make that deal?" Ladona took a deep, ragged breath. "When I was still under, I could hear you and it was your voice … I followed it out. It was the same thing in the cave. After I was left alone, I thought of you and called to you and I know that's how I had the strength to resist and fight back.” She paused before going on. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Life without you is just ... I couldn't bear it, Dean. I don't want to have to even try. Maybe that makes me weak, but I don't care. I can’t be without you. This crazy life we have ... I wouldn't trade it or change it, but I need to know." She met his eyes then. "Would you make that deal with me?"
It was a question Dean had asked himself over and over again while Ladona had been unconscious. She'd lost so much blood from the initial attack and again in the cave that the doctors had seriously questioned her ability to survive. He and John had sat in the hall together, their expressions slack with grief, as one man considered how much longer he would live and the other man wondered how he could live. When both women had started to show signs of recovery - Ladona had turned the corner early yesterday morning while Anna had only shown signs of improvement a couple of hours ago - their respective Winchesters breathed sighs of relief and met again in the hall to share their good news.
Dean knew that Ladona was really in no shape to discuss something this important, but he also knew that if he suggested they wait, she would see it as he didn't really love her and that was so far from the truth, he couldn't begin to explain. He held her gaze for a moment before answering.
"I can't say that I've never loved anyone like this, Ladona, because the truth is, I've never loved before. Period. I don't have any experience to draw on to help me. I lost my dad once. I nearly lost Sam. A couple times." Dean wiped his eyes and took a breath to steady himself before looking at Ladona again. "I never thought I could feel as lost as I did back then. That was nothing compared to how it felt to find you ... to have the doctors tell me you might not make it. I can't imagine life without you. I don't want to have to find out if I can go on without you. So yes, I would make that deal. Today, tomorrow. Next week. Next month. In 10 years." Dean shrugged. "I would make that deal."
They fell silent then and just looked at one another. Dean reached out and stroked a curl back from Ladona's forehead, careful to avoid the bruising and swelling around her eye.
Even as her heart filled, Ladona couldn’t shake the dread she’d carried once she realized witches and wizards were responsible for the deaths of so many over the years. Magical people. People like her.
“Hey …” Dean said gently. “Where’d you go? You look far away.”
“The people in the caves … are they …”
“They’re dead.” Dean’s tone was cold and final and Ladona felt an odd mix of relief and melancholy.
She nodded. “I figured.” You have to tell him, she told herself. Dean not sharing his thoughts and feelings had been a sticking point at the beginning of their relationship. And though Ladona realized he had to know what happened in the caves or it would eat away at her and maybe tear them apart, she still couldn’t tell him about her time in AlmostHell. Besides, she reasoned, the two situations were completely different.
“I need to tell you what happened after we were taken,” she finally said.
Dean searched her face, but she lifted her chin and he recognized her determination. “Okay, but only if you feel up to it.”
"They wanted me ... to give the god some of my power ... they wanted me to join them. The god, or whatever he was, tasted me … my blood … and said I was powerful and he wanted me to become part of their coven.” The words came in halting phrases as Ladona closed her eyes and saw the god standing before her, licking her blood from his finger. “They were going to … rape me,” Dean was thunderstruck and a fresh rage took hold of him, but he said nothing, waiting until Ladona finished getting it out. “A group of them came to the cave after Anna … and they were using a spell to make me … to make me want them, but I wouldn’t let them. I killed two of them and then Celeste … she broke my arm again and I think I passed out. The next thing I remember is being in a field and you were there, but then Celeste came back and that’s when I threw the rock.”
Seeing the expression on his face while she told him about her time in the mountain caves only confirmed that he was better off not knowing every detail of what she’d been through down below. She had no doubt that if it were possible, Dean would kill the coven twice for what they’d tried to do to her. And that would be nothing compared to what Dean would do to the demons responsible for her attack underground.
“You’re safe now. The coven is gone, salted and burned and they can’t get you or Anna or anyone else ever again,” Dean told her, pushing aside the horror he felt that Ladona had almost been … he couldn’t even bring himself to think the word, but the images flashing in his mind more than made up for it. Bile burned his throat and he forced himself to swallow it down.
Tears leaked from Ladona’s eyes and she swiped at them angrily with her good hand. “I’m glad they’re dead and I’m glad I helped kill them,” she said fiercely. Her voice turned raw. “But they were … they were witches and wizards … they were like me, Dean. They were magical like me.”
Now Dean understood. Ladona could handle the danger she’d faced as part of the hunt, but what tore her up inside was knowing witches and wizards were hunting humans and why they’d become so twisted. He grabbed her left hand hard and pinned her with his gaze. “You are nothing like them.” He spoke in a whisper but his tone was firm and didn’t invite argument. “They allowed themselves to be seduced by this god creature. You would never do that because if we strip away the magic, you’re still you. Hard-headed, stubborn, strong, smart, funny, beautiful and sexy as hell.” They both smiled. “You don’t have an evil bone in your body, Ladona, and you never will. Those freaks may have had magic, but that was all they had. They had nothing on you.”
She couldn’t believe she’d been so naïve. Ladona knew Dean wasn’t surprised by much, but the evil they encountered still had the ability at times to shock her. She knew several witches – most of them were paired with hunters and worked cases just like she did – but this was her first run-in with witches on the other side of the divide. Time would take care of it, she knew, just like she knew Dean would always be there to lead her back from whatever cliff she stood on the edge of.
Ladona changed the subject. "Have you been to see Anna?"
Dean sighed and looked down, picked at the blanket a bit. "I sat with her for a while, but she hasn't woken up yet."
"This was the second time she saved my life, you know."
"What do you mean?" Dean's voice was a rough whisper and he wondered if something had happened and he hadn't been told about it.
"She found me and led me to you in the first place. I was so lost back then, but she saved me, Dean. And then in the caves, she volunteered to feed the god first, to give me time to try and save us. Anna is a hero, just like John. You have to accept her as your dad's wife, the woman he loves. She loves your father like I love you so why can you accept my love for you, and you can accept Skye's love for Sam, but not Anna? She deserves better than that."
She's right, Dean knew. She'd been right all along and he hadn't seen it until John had let it slip about their deal with Nemesis. "I know," Dean admitted. "I don't know why I couldn't see, but when dad told me about the deal, it just ... hit me." He ran his hand over his face. "I owe her an apology and my thanks for saving you."
Ladona smiled at him and touched his cheek again. "Will you hold me?"
Dean looked at the various tubes that were connected to the IV and to the machines monitoring her condition. He popped the brakes on her bed and pulled it further into the room so he could move everything to the other side of the bed, then re-secured the bed. He helped her turn back onto her good side so he could lay behind her, spooning her, which was her favorite way for them to fall asleep.
"Should I grow my hair longer?" Ladona murmured. "Would you like it better like that?"
Dean paused, completely taken off guard by the question. "It's perfect now."
"What about dresses. Would you like it if I wore a dress now and then?" Ladona turned her head to look at Dean and smiled at the confusion on his face. She was getting tired again, but the vision from the cave had come unbidden to her mind and she felt an odd curiosity about how Dean would feel about long hair and dresses.
He tried to picture Ladona in a dress, but the only image that came to him was her in the blue dress she’d worn for John and Anna’s wedding that matched her eyes. And, he admitted to himself, it had been more fun taking it off her than looking at her wearing it. "You can wear whatever you want, babe. I'm not picky.”
"You might want to take flowers when you go see Anna," Ladona said in a sleepy voice.
"It's the universal symbol to a woman when a man knows he's been an idiot."Dean chuckled and kissed Ladona's temple. "I'll do that."