Author's Notes: This story takes place after the episode 'All Hell Breaks Loose II', Ellen asks the boys to do a job.

Right Place Wrong Time

"What do you think Ellen wants to talk about?"

Dean's eyes veer from the rural highway and over to Sam. His younger brother is still staring out the windshield, long legs sprawled beneath the dash. To the casual observer he'd probably look relaxed, but Dean knows better; Sam is moody at the best of times, and these last few weeks have been anything but that. Slightly surprised by the overture, he reaches to turn down Ozzy on the stereo. "I don't know," he replies honestly, "but whatever it is, it ain't good."

Sam glances at him and frowns. "Why would you think that?"

"C'mon, Sam. Have you ever had a woman say 'we need to talk' and had it mean anything good?"

"Well…" Sam considers. "Huh."

"Yeah. And don't think we've heard the last of not keeping her in the loop this last month. Man. And I thought Dad was scary," Dean mutters.

Sam shrugs. "Could be worse. At least she can cook. Have you ever actually had Bobby's cooking?"

"Dude; don't remind me. That meatloaf surprise he made last year is still repeating." Sam chuckles, and Dean manages a faint smile in return. The humor is a welcome change from the brooding Sam's favored since Wyoming. "Look; just let me do the talking, okay?"

"It's not an ambush, Dean."

Dean grunts noncommittally, his eyes once more fixed on the road.

"Dean?"

"It's fine, Sammy." Oh, yeah; we're fucked.

************************************************************

"Got a job for you boys," Ellen says. The four of them sit around Bobby's kitchen table, the sweating beer bottles a testament to the South Dakota heat. Bobby's gone quiet; a sure sign that Dean probably isn't going to like what the woman has to say. The grizzled hunter only goes quiet when someone's tossing an explosive.

"You got a lead on a demon?" Dean asks, setting down his beer.

"More like a personal favor."

Dean shifts in his chair, glances at Bobby again. But the man's weathered face is unreadable. "Hey, Ellen. You know we'd love to help, but - "

"What's the favor?" Sam asks, ignoring a censoring look from Dean.

"It's Jo."

Dean frowns. "What about her?"

"Last we heard, she was still in Duluth," Sam explains.

Ellen's mouth twists. "Still is, far as I can tell. That's the problem." She shares a glance with Bobby before turning back to the brothers. "It's not safe for her to be there alone; not with an entire army on the loose. I want her here, where there's protection."

"So why not just ask her?"

"Believe me, I have," she assures him wryly. "But you know Jo; stubborn as a mule. No, I need someone to go and bring her back."

Dean snorts, and Sam kicks him under the table. "No offense, Ellen, but what makes you think she'll come with us?"

"Not you." She nods at Dean. "You."

"Excuse me?" There's a choking sound from Bobby's direction, and Dean's pretty sure the bastard is smothering a laugh. But Ellen can't be saying what Dean thinks she's saying, wouldn't ask him to -

"Don't pretend you don't know. That girl's been sweet on you from the moment you boys walked in here. Don't imagine you can't convince her, if'n you set your mind to it."

Dean stiffens, color creeping into his cheeks. He hears Sam clear his throat, but there's no way Dean's looking in that direction. "What is it you want me to do?" he asks.

"Whatever it takes," Ellen says. "Tell her you need her help – tell her anything you have to. A broken promise or two ain't gonna hurt near as bad as some demon gettin' hold of her." She pins Dean with a steady gaze. "She's family."

"Look, Ellen," Sam finally speaks up. "I know you're worried, but I don't think this is the - "

"We'll do it." Dean pushes his beer back, his eyes still trained on Ellen's face.

"- way – we will?" Sam blinks.

"Just give us time to gas up."

Sam stares at his brother a moment, incredulous, then shoves back from the table. "Thanks for the beer, Bobby" he says tightly. "Ellen." A minute later there's the unmistakable sound of the screen door slamming behind him.

Dean scratches the back of his neck, smiles awkwardly. "He's a little edgy these days."

"Did you think he wouldn't be?" Bobby asks, brows lifting.

Dean shrugs. "Didn't exactly care at the time." Because when your pain-in-the-ass baby brother needs bringing back from the dead, his being pissy about it is really the least of your concerns.

"Bobby and I are working the problem, too. We're going to figure this out, sweetie," Ellen says, her hand coming to rest on Dean's shoulder with a reassuring warmth.

"Thanks. Doesn't matter, though. As long as - "

There's a sudden creak as Bobby leans forward in his chair, eyes flashing beneath his grease-stained cap. "You wanna say that again?"

"Uhhhhh." Dean frowns, confused. After a moment, the older hunter sighs.

"When this is all over, you and me are gonna have ourselves a talk."

Dean rolls his eyes. "Now there's incentive."

"Incentive? Son, I oughta - "

"Boys," Ellen reproves, shakes her head. "I swear; you can take the men out of the bar…"

"And sometimes, not even that," Dean adds, smirking as he reaches and takes another pull from his beer. Bobby doesn't quite relax, but there's an answering curve to his lips that tells the younger man that he's willing to drop the matter; at least for now.

"This gonna cause trouble between you boys?" Ellen asks, softer now. She means Sam, of course, and Dean wishes to hell he knew.

"Don't worry about Sam; I'll take care of him."

****************************************************************

Dean finds Sam out by the Impala, hands shoved into his pockets as he shuffles under the meager shade of the Singer Auto Salvage sign. The hazel eyes light on him with accusation, and Dean takes a breath, waits for the imminent outburst. He doesn't have to wait long.

"'We'll do it?' I don't believe you, Dean." Sam's jaw shifts in frustration. "We've got less than a year now to get you out of this contract, and you've got us signed up as an escort service?"

Dean puts a hand to the driver's door. "So we take a couple of days off. Ellen's right; Jo's got no business being up there alone."

That pulls Sam up short, his brows disappearing beneath the tousled mop of hair. "So this is about Jo?"

"This is about family. Look, if you don't want to go, stay here and help Bobby look for a hunt; I'll pick you up on the roundabout."

Sam shakes his head. Dean's as likely to let Sam out of his sight as jump over the moon, and they both know it. Sam's anxious to get on with the research - do their jobs, damn it – but the echo of John Winchester's single-mindedness stops the words before they can form on his lips. This is Dean, after all, and how often does his brother ask him for anything?

"Come on, Sammy," Dean tries again, seeing the younger man waver. "Isn't this exactly the kind of do-gooder shit you're always begging to do? We'll be there and back before you know it. What could go wrong?"

"That last time you asked me that, I ended up wrapped in a giant cocoon."

"Yeah." Dean grins. "Good times."

****************************************************************

Jo looks good. A little tired, maybe, but good. Dean watches the slight sway of her hips as she weaves her way through the bar's tables and customers, blonde hair bright in the smoke-filled air. Oh, yeah, we're fucked. He shouldn't have taken this job, should have let Bobby come up here and drag her ass home. Only Ellen asked them – asked him, for crying out loud – and it's impossible to say no to the woman; not after what the Winchesters have cost that family. A daughter for a husband… It doesn't exactly even the score, but it's a step toward settling an old debt. And John Winchester would have wanted it this way.

Dean's musings are interrupted as one of the customers wraps his arm around Jo's waist, steering the young server against the wall and leaning over her. Dean can just make out the low sound of Jo's laughter, the sweep of her lashes over dark eyes. The man is speaking softly into her ear, and Dean's hands unconsciously tighten at his sides, his fingers curling tensely toward his palms. Steady, there. His father's voice murmurs in his memory, as a seven year-old Dean braces the shotgun against his shoulder. She's gonna kick, so you be ready for her…

"Hey." Sam's back from the bar, a bottle of some strange brew in his outstretched hand.

Dean frowns. "What the hell is that?"

"Wild Raspberry Ale."

"You really are a girl, you know that?" Dean reaches for the bottle, but at the last moment Sam tightens his grip, smirking at Dean's empty-handed puzzlement. Dean gives him a disgusted look as he wrests the bottle from Sam's freakishly large hand. "Bitch," he mutters, turning his gaze back to Jo.

Sam just chuckles. "Huh. Looks like Jo's busy," he adds, having followed Dean's eyes to their present quarry. He doesn't look very long, though. Sam has no desire to be reminded of his only other visit to this place, and he's pretty sure Jo doesn't want to be reminded of it, either. He winces at the thought. "Maybe I should just - "

"Come on," Dean growls, turning to shoulder through the crowd.

Sam sighs. Might as well get it over with. He trails after his brother, arriving at their destination just in time to see Dean edge his way between Jo and her intended.

"Hey, Jo. Who's your little friend?" Dean throws his arm around Jo's shoulder and smiles widely, ignoring her startled glance.

The guys looks somewhat put off, but takes a step back, his eyes moving to Dean, and then to a hovering Sam. "Who are you?"

"We're Jo's brothers. Dean, and this is Sam," Dean supplies, waving his beer in Sam's direction.

The guy frowns. "Jo's never mentioned any brothers."

"We're not that close," Jo assures him, trying to pull discreetly from Dean's grip, but the hunter's arm merely tightens.

"Oh, Jo. What a kidder. Cute, too," he adds, leaning toward the man conspiratorially. "You should've seen her when she used to wear those little pigtails? Looked just like Cindy Brady, didn't she, Sam?"

Sam manages a small smile, and the guy shifts uncomfortably, looking between the two hunters and back to Jo. "Okay. Well... I should let you guys catch up."

"No!" Jo stops herself, forces a smile. "I mean, you don't really have to - "

"Hey, try the ale; it's fruity," Dean says, lifting his bottle.

The man nods, apparently sharing Dean's lack of enthusiasm for pansy beverages. "See ya, Jo."

Jo watches, waiting for the guy to turn and disappear into the nearby throng, then jerks from beneath Dean's arm. "Thanks a lot." The glare she's giving him suggests anything but gratitude.

"No kidding. Some guys will say anything to get into your pants."

Sam can only stare at Dean, incredulous, but Jo has already folded her arms. "Didn't expect to see you two anytime soon."

Even though Dean had all but promised to call. He ignores the twinge of guilt. They had practically saved the world last month; didn't that count for something? "Thought we'd stop by, see how you were doing."

"Well, that's mighty decent of you," she says, unfolding her arms and grabbing a pair of bottles from a nearby table. "Now you've seen, and I've got customers."

"Jo, wait." Sam's soft voice cuts through the din, halting Jo's return to the bar. She doesn't turn around, but Dean sees some of the tension leave her shoulders.

"What do you want?" Sam's been nothing but kind to her – well, when he hasn't been possessed – and she's got no quarrel with him. Dean, however…

"Came to take you home," Dean tells her.

Jo snorts, her body angling back toward the hunters. "Not much of a home left, in case you haven't noticed. It's gone; all of it."

Sam sets his beer on the nearby table. "We got a base set up at Bobby's; it isn't much, but - "

"I'm not interested."

"Look, Jo. About last time, I'm – man. I'm really sorry," Sam tells her."

She stares at him, his earnest gaze, shakes her head. "Forget it. Wasn't you, right?"

"Right," Dean puts in. "Which means Meg knows where you are. Other demons, too. Bobby's is warded; you'll be safe there."

"Thanks, but I'll take my chances."

"Wow." Dean sets his own beer down with just a little more force than necessary. "You are really selfish, you know that?" Christ, what he wouldn't give for his own mother to be here right now; either of his parents, for that matter. To have someone to lean on, tell him all of this was going to be okay. Ellen might not be the easiest to live with, but she's a good woman; wants what's best for Jo. Only Jo doesn't quite see it that way. Hell, no. Because Jo being reasonable would make this way too easy.

Jo stiffens, unreceptive to the idea of a lecture just now. "Beg your pardon?"

"Your mom is worried sick about you."

"This is my life; I'm not a kid anymore." Jo's fingers are white where they grip the bottlenecks, and Sam wonders if Dean isn't about to be punched in the nose again. The odds look good, and he's quick to step in.

"It wouldn't be forever, Jo," Sam assures her. "But this army; it's like nothing we've ever seen before - "

"What about hunting?" Dean demands suddenly.

Jo's eyes narrow. "What about it?"

"Thought you wanted to be a hunter. Well, I got news for you, sweetheart; hunters stick together. And right now, we need all the help we can get." There. Now that's got her thinking. At least she shuts up for a moment, thinks about it.

"So now you need my help?" Blonde brows arch in disbelief.

Dean shrugs. "Bobby's great with the books, but the man's never even opened a laptop. We could use you."

"I bet you could." Then, "What's in it for me?"

Dean huffs, half-turning in his exasperation. "Oh, man..." He can deal with horrific creatures; barely blinks in the face of zombies or rawheads or the skin-sloughed remains of shape-shifters. They all cause their fair share of trouble, but this girl? Is a brat.

"Give you a chance to show your mom what you can do," Sam tells her. "And Bobby knows more about demonology than any hunter you'll ever meet."

Jo considers, smirks at Dean's obvious annoyance. "I'll think about it." With that, she snatches up another glass from a neighboring table before finally heading back toward the bar. Dean stares after her, his brows drawn into a scowl.

"She thinks about it too long, she'll be riding in the trunk," Dean mutters.

Well, one of you, anyway
, Sam thinks, and nudges his brother. "Come on, let's get another beer; this stuff tastes like crap."

*************************************************************

Sam drums his fingers on the bar, waiting for Dean to finish his call. His brother is standing over near the restrooms, deep in discussion with someone. Bobby, probably. Sam sighs quietly. They don't have time for this; they should be out banging on doors, sniffing out leads on how to break this deal. Sam's been calling every old contact of John's he can find - shamans and voodoo priests and even a elderly strega who asked for one of Dean's teeth, of all things - but nothing he's discovered has been enough to unwind the dread spooling in the pit of Sam's stomach. There has to be something else, some way…

"Sammy." Dean snaps his fingers in front at Sam's nose, smirking as Sam actually jumps. The younger man scowls.

"It's Sam," Sam reminds him, more out of habit than any real objection. The nickname is actually a comfort to him now, warms him as it did when they were young, and there wasn't any nightmare or school bully his big brother couldn't make disappear.

Dean scoffs. "That's what I said. So, hey, that was Bobby, and we gotta go."

"Why?" Sam asks, straightening. "What happened?"

"Some guy in Winnfield, Wisconsin. Said we had to see it to believe it…" Dean looks around the bar. "Where's Jo?"

"Saw her go into the back a few minutes ago."

"Good." Dean says, already taking a mental tally of their ammo. "We'll drop her off first."

Sam eyes his brother uneasily. "Dean; you do realize she hasn't exactly agreed to come yet?"

"Yeah, well, it's not up to her anymore," Dean says, turning and heading off toward the swinging doors marked 'Employees Only'. He doesn't look to see if Sam is following; doesn't need to. Sam will come, if only to make sure that he and Jo don't come to blows.

Jo's sitting on a crate out back, one leg drawn up as she reties her shoe. She glances up, eyes sparking in annoyance as she realizes who's interrupted her break. "Does every sign need to include 'this means you'?"

Dean catches her arm just above the elbow, hauls her smoothly to her feet before releasing her. He ignores the snide comment, decides to be direct. "We need to get your stuff and go now."

"What's going on?" Jo asks, absently brushing off her jeans and trying not to think of the warm imprint his fingers left on her skin. She's surprised when Sam's voice sounds from behind the older hunter.

"Job in Wisconsin; might be one of the demons we're looking for," Sam explains, shoving his fists in his pockets and bracing himself for the way the girl's face animates. Jo's going to be disappointed here, and she doesn't accept disappointment gracefully.

"What have we got on it?"

Dean's brows draw together. "'We' don't have anything; this is Sam's and my gig. We'll drop you at Bobby's and circle back."

"Like hell," Jo replies, her hands moving to her hips. "This is my territory."

"What? Since when?" He was hunting all over the country when she was still playing freakin' hopscotch or something, and she wants to talk territory?

"Since you two have been off - "

"Saving the world from demonic invasion?" Dean supplies caustically. Is a little gratitude too much to ask?

Jo shrugs. "Whatever. Besides, you're the one who said hunters stick together. So we'll make a deal."

This time Sam actually flinches. The last thing Dean wants to hear about is another deal. "I don't think - "

"What kind of deal?" When he and Sam finish this gig, Dean's done with women. Well, blondes, anyway. Just the natural ones – can't be that many.

"You guys take me on this hunt, and after, you can pack me off to my mother."

Dean's mouth tightens. "No."

"Bobby's is in the opposite direction – you'll lose too much time backtracking. And I thought you needed help."

"Like you 'helped' in Chicago?" Dean charges. "That freak nearly had your scalp as a lucky charm."

Jo meets the accusation with a defiant stare. "Finished the job, didn't I?"

"Damn it, Jo - " It's little more than a hiss from the older hunter. Sam's looking resigned, though, and Jo smells victory in the air. She quickly moves in for the kill.

"Look, I can go with you, or I can go alone, but either way I'm going."

A string of muttered curses filters through Dean's clenched jaws as he turns away, and Sam flips open his cell phone.

Jo frowns. "What are you doing?"

"Calling Bobby's," Sam replies, hitting the speed dial and waiting.

"I don't need my mother's permission to go on a hunt."

"Yeah, but we need her permission to take you," Sam tells the blonde, raising an eyebrow.

Jo flicks a hand in exasperated acquiescence, and Sam smiles wryly as he waits for Bobby or Ellen to pick up. As expected, Ellen isn't crazy about the idea - not by a longshot - but she seems to accept that short of kidnapping, this might be the only way to get Jo home. She spends the next few minutes citing instructions for staying out of harm's way, closing with, "You boys watch out for her, and each other. And you call me this time." Sam sighs as he hangs up the phone.

"Get your things," he tells Jo. The blonde quirks him a smug little grin before snatching up her apron and striding inside. Sam shakes his head, faintly amused, then turns back to the seething presence of his brother.

"Son of a bitch."

"Don't worry about it – she won't be any trouble."

Dean cuts him a look, skeptical. "Really?"

"Sure." Sam bites back his smile. "What could go wrong?"

***************************************************************

"Oh." Dean and Sam exchange looks as they hover in the doorway of their motel room. Now this, they hadn't considered.

Jo stands on tip toe to peer over the mens' shoulders, scoffs as she realizes they're dumbstruck by a pair of double beds, no less. "No big deal. We'll just share," she says, turning sideways and squeezing between them. She dumps her duffel on the nearest bed, drops down and bounces on the mattress. "Not bad."

"I'm not sleeping with her," Dean mutters. He's seen Ellen wield a shotgun well enough to know he doesn't want to be on the wrong end of it.

"Well, I'm not sleeping with her!" Sam protests. He was just brought back from the dead.

Jo rolls her eyes. "Sleep together for all I care. More room for me."

Dean shoves past his brother, giving him a smirk before turning into the face of – an attacking owl? "Holy shit," Dean breathes, jerking back from the monstrosity suspended from the wall. "What the - ?" He looks around the room, eyes widening as he finally takes in the twin moose heads mounted above each of the beds, the rattlesnake coiled into the base of the lamp. "Call the taxidermist; he wants his stuff back."

"We've stayed in worse," Sam says, apparently unfazed as he sets his duffel on the room's small desk and pulls out his laptop.

"Yeah?" Dean makes a face. "When was that?"

"The Bette Midler room?" Sam reminds him, powering on the machine.

Dean considers, has to agree. Because yeah, that one still gives him nightmares. He reaches over and snatches up Jo's bag, tossing it onto the other bed. "You're over there."

"What?" Jo frowns. "Why?"

"Because it's closer to the bathroom, and I don't want to be woken up every time you have to check your hair," Dean tells her, throwing his own duffel down next to Jo and brushing past Sam to take a look at the laptop.

"You - " Jo shoves to her feet, only to have Sam's hand catch her shoulder.

"That bed's farther from the door; anything gets in, it'll have to go through us first."

"Oh." The explanation takes the wind out of her sails. Why didn't he just say so? She's about to ask when Dean raps the laptop's keyboard smartly.

"There," he says, turning the laptop so that Sam and Jo can see the screen. "That's our guy."

"'Hayden Michaels'," Jo reads, then squints at the picture of a handsome young man with curly dark hair. "'Winnfield track star dies of unknown causes'."

"Should make our job easier if he's that well-known," Sam muses, eyes roaming over the article. "Says he was crushed?"

Dean rubs at the back of his head, brow furrowed. "Yeah, that's a new one." He glances at his watch. "Gonna be dark soon; why don't you and me make a visit to the morgue?"

Jo folds her arms, eyes the older hunter with suspicion. "What about me?"

Dean smiles. "Oh, you're research, sweetheart."

"Research?" she repeats with disbelief, and glares at him. "That's bullshit."

"That's hunting," Dean reminds her. "Every operation needs research and development, and so does ours. You do the research, Sam and I handle the developments."

"But - "

"See what you can dig up from police reports and the county's vital statistics; see if there's anything unusual about the town or our guy."

Jo's jaw shifts in agitation. "And what am I supposed to do after that?"

Dean shrugs. "Call your mom."

"I'm not talking to my mother."

"Yeah? Well maybe you should try it," Dean suggests unsympathetically.

"It shouldn't take very long," Sam tells her, trying to head off the explosion. Dean isn't usually this much of a jerk, but then maybe the prospect of going to hell is making him cranky.

"Salt the door and windows," Dean continues, retrieving a flashlight from his bag. He zips the duffel back up and makes for the Impala. He gets to the doorway before he pauses, the terse words carrying over his shoulder. "And stay put. We don't know what's out there yet."

***************************************************************

"Well," Dean says, holding his flashlight steady on the contents of the plastic tub, "he couldn't have been that fast."

Sam frowns and peers at the slush of fragmented bone and bloody cartilage labeled Hayden Michaels. "Where's the rest of him?"

Dean shrugs. "This is it."

"The bones are pulverized – eugghh," Sam makes a face as Dean jiggles the tub for effect. "What could do something like this?"

"Alal? Hybrid sanguisuga, maybe?" Dean pulls the cover back over the remains, slides the tray back into the refrigerated cabinet. "But we better figure it out before it does it again. Where did this guy run track again?"

"Winnfield J.C.," Sam replies, watching Dean punch some buttons on the cabinet's keypad. "You don't think this was random?"

"I wouldn't bet on anything just yet." Dean turns back to Sam, releases a deep breath. "Dude. That was just gross."

Sam huffs in agreement. Then, "You hungry?"

"Starved."

****************************************************************

"At least she remembered the salt lines," Sam offers, looking over the pizza box he's carrying and into the empty motel room.

Jo's gone. The salt lines are undisturbed, no sulfur or signs of a struggle; just no Jo. Dean's lips form a hard line. Day one, and he's already lost her. That's the trouble with women and cats; they never stay where you put them.

"Where do you think she went?" Sam asks.

Dean shakes his head. The Elkwood Motel is outside of town, an establishment mostly frequented by truckers and sportsfishermen. There isn't anything nearby. Just a dilapidated bait shack, an old Exxon station, a –

"Roadhouse." The answer comes to them both at the same time, wringing sheepish smiles from both brothers.

Dean slaps his brother on the arm. "Let's go get a drink."

*****************************************************************

Pinky's is a crusty crowd, even by Winchester standards; a haven for the kind of seedier behavior unwelcome within city limits. No cops in this vicinity, no laws except those enforced by the owner's shotgun. That suits Dean just fine, though when surrounded by volatile drunks, it pays to be cautious. His eyes automatically scout the terrain, take note of where windows and exits lie in case they need to beat a hasty retreat. There's a drug deal going down in the east corner, a biker packing over at the bar. And over to the north…

"Terrific."

"What?" Sam shifts on his feet, looks for the source of his brother's sarcasm. While he's never been exactly comfortable in places like this, having his spine severed from behind has left him a little edgier than usual.

Dean hitches his chin toward the back of the room, where several patrons are playing poker. Sam can just make out the light glinting off Jo's blonde head. "What part of "stay put" doesn't she get?" Dean looks around again, swears under his breath. A girl like Jo attracts a lot of attention in places like this, and none of it good. "I knew she was gonna be trouble."

Sam watches the game, deliberates. "Maybe there won't be a problem," he says, although he doesn't sound too convincing; even to himself.

Just then there's an exclamation of surprise from the back– feigned, no doubt – and a series of groans, and then Jo is pulling her winnings toward her, tossing a gamine smile at the scowling group gathered around the table. A moment later, one of the rougher players erupts from his seat, his nicotine-stained fingers reaching menacingly for Jo's arm.

Dean sighs and shrugs off his flannel overshirt, slaps it tiredly against Sam's chest. "You were saying?"

*****************************************************************

The ride back to the motel is silent, Sam occasionally glancing behind them for any sign of the cops. The last thing they need right now is to get caught and held by the Feds. Then we might never find a way to get Dean out of this deal. The thought has Sam in knots until the car makes the turn-off toward their accommodations. He slumps in relief, although a surreptitious glance at his brother tells him the danger is hardly over. Dean's wearing that expression that says ass-kicking – or ass-beating – is coming up in short order. Or would be, if Sam were the focus of his present fury.

"So what did you find?" Jo finally asks. She's been quiet enough since being shoved into the car, and she'll be damned if she'll be made to feel like some silly teenager who's broken curfew. She scoots to the edge of the Impala's back seat and leans forward between the two brothers. "Did you see the body?"

Dean's scraped knuckles pale where his fingers clench the steering wheel, and Sam slinks down a little lower in the passenger seat, hopes Jo has enough sense to avoid the impending explosion. When the pin is pulled, Mr. Grenade is not our friend. Fortunately, his brother can be counted on to hold it together; at least until he gets his baby parked in one piece.

"You were supposed to stay at the motel, not start a bar fight," Dean grates, trying to forget the nearly visceral surge of anger he felt at seeing the man's thick fingers close around Jo's arm. It wouldn't have stopped there, either; not that Jo seems particularly shaken up by the night's events.

"You're the one who started the fight. Besides, I finished the research - thought we might need some extra cash." Jo adds, more than slightly affronted. "Isn't that part of the job?"

"The job is keeping a low profile – you don't draw fire. It pisses off the people around you." Dean pulls the car to a halt in front of their motel room and cuts the engine. He waits for Sam and Jo to climb out of the car, then tosses the keys to Sam. "Take her around back. Jo and I need to talk."

****************************************************************

"You're overreacting," Jo says, as Dean shuts the door behind them and turns to face her. She tries to hold her temper, but she's had more than her fill of lectures from the great Dean Winchester. No matter how good-looking he is. She won't even let her mother tell her what to do; she's not about to start taking orders from him. "It wasn't a big deal; I can handle myself."

"Uh, huh," Dean says sarcastically, his palm itching to seriously disabuse her of that notion. But he'll get back to that in a minute. "Right. I bet you're real intimidating with your mom looking down the barrel of shotgun."

Jo scowls, blows a few strands of hair from her face. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"This ain't Nebraska, Jo, and that wasn't Harvelle's. You had no back-up."

"I do just fine on my own, thanks," she replies acidly, crossing her arms over her chest.

Dean snorts, a humorless smile touching his lips. "It's always gotta be the hard way with you, doesn't it?" he muses. Before Jo recognizes it's a rhetorical question, his fingers wrap inexorably around her wrist.

"Let go," she demands, attempting to leverage herself against the carpet as Dean heads for her bed, towing her along behind him. Things are moving fast – too fast for this to be anything good. Jo twists, balks, but merely stumbles forward in the hunter's grasp. The man seems oblivious to her protests, and the lack of response only fuels her anxiety. "I mean it, Dean!"

"Sure thing," Dean assures her, taking a seat on the mattress edge and yanking her over his knee, just before his hard hand smacks the seat of her jeans, eliciting an angry shriek. "As soon as you make me, sweetheart," he tells her, banding an arm around her waist and delivering several smarting swats to her upturned backside. "You can make me, can't you?"

"I'll make you useless to women if I get a chance," she yells, pounding on his leg and beyond frustrated when he doesn't even grunt under the assault. The slaps he's landing sting even through the coarse denim, and shit, she needs him to stop. "Damn it, Dean – this isn't funny!" Her voice slides up a pitch.

"Damn right, it isn't," Dean growls, ignoring her struggles and continuing to warm her behind. "But hey, if you don't like it, you can just stop me. Right?"

Jo grits her teeth, not wanting to give Dean the satisfaction of a reply, but then a tear slips from her eye, and another, streaking her face in hot trails. The tears are even more of a humiliation to her than being spanked like some little kid, and she flushes with shame. So maybe she wouldn't have had such an easy time with that drunk tonight, and maybe she should take more precautions, but it doesn't give him any -

"Right?" Dean asks, softer now, but his hand is still smacking her purposefully. Jo squirms miserably. She remembers the last time he put her off in Duluth, threatened to tie her back to the post if she followed him. Whatever his reason for wanting her safe, he's serious about it. He's not going to give in.

"No," Jo snaps, then chokes on a sudden sob, hating that he's going to make her say it. "No, I can't make you stop." A half-dozen more swats blaze across the swell of her bottom, and then Dean hauls them both to their feet. Suddenly furious, Jo draws her fist back and swings, but this time he's ready for it. He deflects the blow, catching her wrists in one hand and pulling her in close. Too close; he's too tall, too – well, there, and Jo stiffens, heart racing as she braces herself for a possible round two. It doesn't come.

"Okay," he says quietly. Dean gives it a minute, brushes the tears from her cheek with his free hand as Jo's breathing slows into something a little closer to normal. She still won't look at him, though, and his eyes darken as he takes in the slight tremble of her lower lip. "Nothing wrong with being a woman," he says gruffly. "But sometimes it's an advantage and sometimes it ain't, and you gotta know the difference."

Jo doesn't trust herself to speak. She's tired and aching and confused, and the urge to drop her head against his chest is a little too compelling not to be alarming. Not gonna happen. She jerks her wrists from his loosening grip, pulls away from the unspoken offer of comfort.

Dean watches as Jo stalks into the room's attached bath and slams the door behind her. The loud sound shakes the small room, and Dean flinches, drops back down onto the bed and hunches over. He rests his elbows on his knees, rubbing his hands over his face. That didn't feel nearly as good as he thought it might. Damn it.

Just then there's the click of a key turning in the lock, and Sam lets himself in. The younger hunter looks around the room; probably for a body. "Where's Jo?" he asks, obviously puzzled by the absence of the spirited blonde.

"Bathroom," Dean replies, and feels Sam's annoyingly perceptive gaze lock on him.

"Dean?" Sam stares at his brother, taking in the familiar posture, the tension in the older man's shoulders. Suddenly it all clicks. Oh, no… "Dude, tell me you didn't."

Dean stands abruptly, shoulders past Sam and his surprise. He's not going to defend himself to anyone. Not tonight. "Don't wait up; I'm getting some air."

****************************************************************

Sam sits at the desk, sifting through the folder Jo's created on the laptop. He frowns, reviewing the information the girl collected earlier in the day. Jo's thorough, that's for sure, but all the usual sources have turned up nothing. No unusual phenomena, strange sightings, unsolved deaths. The biggest evil Winnfield's faced up until now seems to be the rowdy college students. Whatever this is, it's new…

His thoughts are interrupted by the soft snick of the bathroom door being opened, and Sam pretends not to notice as Jo emerges from her sanctuary, makes for her bed. The next few minutes are filled with the rustle and shifting of covers as Jo climbs beneath, likely shimmying off her jeans to sleep. Eventually the situating quiets, and Sam glances over to the other bed. Jo's lying on her side, back toward the room, but the rigid set of her body suggests she's wide awake and stewing.

Sam takes his time shutting down the machine, then takes a seat on his and Dean's bed, leaning over to unlace his boots. "He's not always like this, you know," he says conversationally.

Jo doesn't bother pretending she's asleep. "Like what?" she asks, unable to keep the sulky note from her voice. "Bossy and overprotective?"

Sam's lips twitch as he tugs at the double knot. "Okay, so maybe he is. But you kind of scared the hell out of him," Sam tells her, half-impressed. It takes a lot to rattle his brother – a colossal fuck-up, Dean had claimed once, after Sam himself had committed a crime of epic stupidity. That conversation hadn't ended well; probably much like the conversation Dean and Jo had tonight. Sam frowns. "You do know how bad things were about to get, right?"

Jo sighs, shifts, trying to ignore the complaints of her still burning behind. "I just didn't need someone else telling me I don't belong here," she says, her throat tightening painfully. If Sam notices the hoarseness of her voice, he doesn't comment.

"You should talk to your mom, Jo," he says gently, shucking off one boot and starting on the next.

Yeah, because that'll help
. "She still treats me like I'm eight years old; she can't see that I'm all grown up."

Sam glances up from loosening his laces. "So come back and prove it to her. Things happen in this business, and you never know…" He clears his throat, pulls off that boot, too. "You don't want to leave things unsaid." It's hard to imagine after all those years in close quarters with his father, with Dean, that there had been so much left to say.

"Oh, we've said plenty," Jo mutters darkly. Then, "You really think she'll be happy to see me?"

"Yeah," says Sam, the word thick with his own regret. "Yeah, I know she will." There are so many things now, things he can't take back, things he missed and can't get back. He's not letting it happen again; not this time. And not with Dean. Sam reaches over and shuts off the light. Jo will figure it out for herself, one way or another. It's just a matter of when.

*****************************************************************

Sam's been in the shower forever, and Jo wishes she'd thought before telling the younger Winchester to go first. She's been studiously ignoring Dean for the better part of half an hour now, the muted blare of the crappy television making up for the lack of usual banter. There aren't any harsh words this morning, or any indication that the man's still angry about last night's events. And why should he be? Jo thinks, a blush creeping into her cheeks. She peeks over to where a still damp-haired Dean's neatly folding up his clothes and repacking them in his duffel. He's not the one who had to sleep on his stomach.

Still hot in the face, Jo turns her gaze back to her knife, continues flipping it back and forth as she sits gingerly on the edge of her bed. The blade glints in the stark morning light, and she studies its motion with grateful intensity. The flashing metal is almost mesmerizing; she doesn't know how much time passes before she notices the furtive glances in her direction. Awkward. She lets the surveillance continue, wanting to avoid whatever argument is looming. But after a while, the effort just seems futile. She looks up to find the hunter's eyes on her.

"What?"

Dean shakes his head, hesitates. "Nothin'." He stuffs a shirt into his bag, frowning before chancing a look over his shoulder at her. Then, "There are other ways to honor your dad besides hunting, Jo."

"Really." She sets the knife aside; this isn't the conversation she was expecting. "Like what?"

"I dunno..." He zips the bag and turns toward her, shoving his fists in his pockets. "Go back to school; get married, have kids – you know. A life that doesn't make you hard, that's not full of things you wish you hadn't seen."

Jo's forehead crinkles. "Is that what you're planning to do?"

Dean hesitates, looks slightly pained, and Jo feels a little off-balance herself as Sam comes out of the bathroom, still toweling his hair.

"Oh, my God," he says, leaning over to turn up the volume on the television. "It's happened again."

"What?" Dean asks, walking over to watch with him. "Damn it," he hisses, and Jo shushes him as the news flashes to on the scene.

"The remains of local J.C. student Paul Vetini were found early this morning in an empty field behind the Hought Street Weinersnitzel. No witnesses have come forward, and police are requesting anyone who might have heard something to - "

"I don't believe it," Dean says, his eyes glued to the screen.

"It's the news, Dean," Sam assures him.

"Not that; the Weinersnitzel – ow!" he scowls as Jo punches him in the arm. "What? They don't have them out here!"

" - will not comment on rumors linking this slaying with the potential murder of another J.C. student, Hayden Michaels, just three days ago."

"Great," Sam says, switching off the television and gripping the edges of his towel a little tighter. "We've got to find a way to stop this thing before it kills again."

"Be a hell of a lot easier when we know what we're looking for." Dean glances at Jo. "Something fast, powerful, that crushes its victims into blood and bone. Think you can cover that?"

"Yeah, but where are you guys going?"

Dean grabs his watch from the nightstand and fastens it on. "Paul Vetini's place, hope we'll find something there. We'll be back this afternoon." He snatches up his keys from the desk, looks back at the blonde. "Stay out of trouble. Sam?"

"Yeah?"

"Pants."

*******************************************************************

It's a good couple of hours before the police show signs of leaving Paul Vetini's dorm room. The hunters park in the dorm's parking lot and lay low, watching quietly as the uniformed men filter slowly from the building.

"You got in late."

Dean glances over at his brother, but Sam's eyes don't waver from the dormitory. There's mute accusation in his brother's voice, the kind that suggests maybe Dean's not to be trusted on his own; that left to his own devices, Dean might do something stupid. Like make a deal with a demon… "Needed a breather."

"I guessed; you don't usually hit women."

"I didn't hit her," Dean retorts, turning to glare at his brother. As if Sam hasn't been spanked enough times to know the difference. "She didn't get anything you or I wouldn't have gotten for pulling some crazy stunt."

"Maybe that's the problem," Sam mutters to himself, watching a black and white pull from the lot and ignoring the dark look Dean fires his way. 'The problem', mimics that little voice in Dean's head, is that now isn't the time or place to kick Sam's annoying little brother ass. He resorts to reason.

"She doesn't belong here."

"Why?" Sam asks, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning back in his seat. "Because she's a woman?"

"Because she's Jo." Duhhhhh. The truth is, Sam and he are in agreement on this, and Sam damn well knows it. "Come on, Sam; can you really tell me you want her to be a hunter?"

Sam's lips purse as he stares across the parking lot. "No," he admits grudgingly. "But it's not up to us. Her Dad was a hunter, she grew up around hunters – she wants to save people."

Dean cranes his neck, tries to see around a fat frat-boy who's decided to block his view. "She's a kid; she doesn't know what she wants."

Sam huffs in disbelief. "Dean, man – you're starting to sound like Dad."

And feel like him, too.
Christ, does he miss his father at time likes these. "I could do worse."

"Yeah, and you could do better, too," Sam tells him. "You keep riding her like that and she's going to hate you."

"Better that way." As soon as the words are out, Dean wants them back. Shit. How does he let Sam drag him into these talks?

"Why would that be better?" Sam's frowning, leveling one of those freaky stares on Dean that make him feel like he's under a microscope. And fucking sure enough… "Is that what this is about?"

"Sam - " Dean considers banging his head against the steering wheel.

"No. It is, isn't it?" Sam's got that same tone of moral outrage going that Dean started hearing when the kid hit eleven or so, the one that heralds an inevitable hissy fit. "That's why we're here, why you're pushing so hard. You've already decided you're going to die - you're not even going to try, are you?"

Dean has the grace to flinch at the accusation. Not trying is near the top of a long list of Winchester sins, and a transgression Dean's always been uncomfortable with. "Sammy; please."

Sam shakes his head in fervent denial of whatever plea his brother's about to make. "All clear; let's go," he says shortly, swinging his door open and climbing from the vehicle.

"Great," Dean mutters, opening his own door and reminding himself that he's going to have to watch his step here. With Sam, the easy way is always mined.

***********************************************

Paul Vetini turns out to be a huge science fiction fan. Or freak, Dean amends, spotting the Star Trek action figures on the guy's nightstand. Dolls? Anything that doesn't inflate, and you got a problem.

Sam is poking at some grungy looking laundry with a toy light saber. "All looks pretty typical. Mostly," he adds, grimacing as he half-lifts a pair of heart-covered boxes with the tip of the flimsy weapon. He flicks the underwear back into the corner, turns and startles at finding himself face to face with – Darth Vader.

"No. I am your father," Dean rumbles behind the formed plastic.

Sam's jaw shifts in frustration. "Do you think we could try and focus?" he asks, before stepping around his brother and heading for the closet.

Dean makes his best imitation of Sam's bitchface, tosses the mask aside. He pulls a book from the bookcase, takes another look around the room. "Jesus. Do guys like this actually get laid?" he asks, flipping open a rulebook for a Star Wars roleplaying game.

Sam eyes the life-sized poster of Carrie Fisher in a metal bikini that covers the closet door. Maybe not. "I don't know; so far I'm not seeing a connection here," he says, opening the door and browsing thoughtfully through a wardrobe of ugly polo shirts and seven pairs of khakis. "Think these guys even knew each other?"

"I'd say the odds are pretty good," Dean says, crouching to retrieve a photograph that's fluttered from the pages of the book.

"Yeah?" Sam frowns, shuts the closet door. "Why's that?"

"Check it out." Dean straightens and holds up the picture. It's a photo of Vince Vetini and Hayden Michaels, all smiles, standing on either side of a rather plain girl with crooked bangs. Dean smirks. "Yahtzee, bitch."

******************************************************************

"It's a what?" Dean asks, hand rubbing over his chin as he paces the small motel room. It's hard enough to concentrate with his stomach growling; can't they ever hunt something they can pronounce?

"A cataboligne." Jo sits at the desk, half turned in the chair to face the hunters. Reporting is a welcome diversion. She's been sitting in this pay-by-the-hour hole all day with decapitated moose eyes boring into her back; crushed flesh and bone just became a whole lot less creepy.

Dean frowns, stops rubbing. "A cat bowling?"

"Cat-a-bo-ligne," Jo enunciates, wondering if the man is being deliberately dense. How would you know? "It's a type of demon."

"Of course it is," Sam grumps, from where he's sitting on his and Dean's bed. He wants to kick something. Demons are always fucking up the Winchester's lives; killing their mother, murdering Jess. Giving Sam freaky visions. One hustled their father, another damned his brother, and now this one's diverting them while Dean's time runs out. Just terrific.

Jo raises her brows at Dean in silent inquiry, but he waves her on, not in the mood for more of Sam's sulking just now. "What else? I hope you didn't spend all day coming up with 'demon'."

"No, I - " Her eyes narrow. "The cataboligne kidnaps and crushes its human victims. It needs to manipulate, sometimes even passes the power on to its servants," she says.

"So how do we kill it?" Sam asks, falling back into his training despite his frustration.

"That's the thing," Jo says, leaning her forearm across the back of the chair. "There's several different kinds in that order; and without more information - "

"Nice work, Velma," Dean says, absently slapping her on the back before snagging his jacket from an antlered coat rack Jo found in the back of the closet. There's a time for intelligence, and a time for recon. "Let's go eat."

"Velma?" Jo repeats, staring after him indignantly as the hunter heads out to the car.

Sam climbs to his feet, offers the blonde a sympathetic look. "Would you rather be Daphne?"

Jo grimaces. "Velma's fine."

******************************************************************

Jo's never eaten at Weinerschnitzel before, but after a hasty dinner of what she suspects is more weiner than schnitzel, she's convinced that's a blessing. She says as much, too, as she and Sam stand by the bar at The Red and Gray pub

"I don't care what you say; that wasn't beef."

"Actually," Sam says, "Weinerschnitzel isn't even a hot dog; it's a Viennese version of a breaded veal cutlet…" He trails off, blushing as Jo arches a brow. "Ah, yeah. Maybe not so important just now."

"Probably not," Jo agrees, but a smile plays over her mouth before she takes another pull of her beer. The amusement pales as her gaze drifts to where Dean's sitting in the back, flanked by giggling, shiny-haired college girls. She can tell by the fascination on their perfectly made-up faces that the hunter has turned on the charm. He takes one's hand in his, his fingers tracing over her palm. The alcohol is suddenly bitter on her tongue as she remembers another bar, and a voice that sounds like Sam's but isn't. "'Cause see, Dean, he likes you, sure, but not in the way you'd want. I mean, maybe as kind of a - a little sister, you know? But romance; that's just out of the question."

Sam follows her eyes. Oh. He doesn't remember much about the time he was possessed, but he does remember the hurt that flitted across Jo's face at Meg's cutting words. Words the demon wrenched from Sam's own confused thoughts and twisted into something wounding. "You'd almost think he was interested, huh?"

"What makes you think he's not?"

Sam shrugs, thankful he can be both truthful and spare Jo's feelings. "It's how he works the room. Besides, he's my brother; I know him."

Jo keeps her expression carefully disinterested. "I guess." "He kind of thinks you're a schoolgirl, you know?" She looks down to where her short-nailed fingers curl around the bottleneck, the few scars where she slipped learning to use her knife. Pretty.

"Excuse me." Jo's head jerks up at the diabolically cheerful voice. The ponytailed redhead that's stopped in front of her flashes a mouth of Crest-white teeth. "Do you have any Midol?"

Jo glances at Sam, but the man's suddenly enthralled by his beer. No help from that quarter. "Uh, well, let's see here," she says, setting down her own drink and fumbling in her pocket. She pulls out her knife first, slapping it onto the bar. It's glinting shape is followed by a lighter, a saw-off piece of pipe, and her last spare butterfly bandage. Jo sighs, looks back up into the wide eyes of the redhead and smiles brightly. "Sorry; fresh out."

****************************************************

"You must be so brave – I don't know anyone who's killed a bear with his bare hands."

"Nah. Just doing my job," Dean tells the dark-haired coed sidled up to his side. Her generous breasts press enticingly against his arm. "I just thank God none of those orphans were hurt." Oh, yeah. He's going to get the information he needs tonight, and maybe a little bit more. Like taking candy from a baby.

"Show us your scar again," a friend on the other side of the table urges.

Dean lifts his shirt, casts a fleeting look over to where Sam and Jo are still talking at the bar. Sam is leaning over the blonde, speaking into her ear in a way that suggests the words are only for her. Jo smiles in response, and Dean feels an unexpected kick in his stomach.

"Are you okay?"

Dean realizes he's frowning, puts his game face back on before turning back to the girls. "Yeah. Sorry. It's just sometimes, I still get these phantom pains, like the bear's ripping into me all over again."

The brunette's face falls in sympathy. "Oh, you poor thing." That starts off a whole new round of Q&A, the girls asking questions about rangering in the Minnesota wilds, Dean every once in a while slipping in a discreet question of his own. A few more beers in them, and he won't have to be discreet at all.

"You got a minute?" Sam's lowered voice comes from over Dean's shoulder.

Dean smiles apologetically, rises from his chair. "Excuse me, ladies. I need to have a word with Ranger Smith, here." He lets Sam lead him a few feet away, throws a little wave back at his admirers. "Dude, they're from the pep squad," he tells his brother, as the girls smile in return. "And man, are they perky. Every inch of them," he adds with wonder, his eyes roaming over the topography.

"Dean!"

"Huh?"

Sam takes a breath, tries to curb his irritation. "Can you find out what we need to know already, so we can get out of here?"

Dean turns back to his brother, finally noticing the younger man's mood. "What's going on?"

"Nothing," Sam says. "I just don't think Jo should have to sit here and watch you hit on girls all night."

"I'm surprised she can see anything, way you're hovering," Dean tells him.

"What?" Sam blinks in disbelief; this is getting absurd. "Look, let's just finish up and - "

"Christ, Sam." Dean bitches. "Can a guy have a little fun before eternal damnation, or is that too much to ask?" He knows the words are a mistake even as they leave his mouth. Sam looks stricken, and Dean feels a little sick himself. His stomach drops thirty floors and his palms break a sweat.

"Jo and I'll run over to the library," Sam says numbly. "I'd do anything for you. But things will never be the way they were before." Maybe he's cursed them all. He can't even look at Dean anymore, stares at some undesignated point above Dean's left shoulder. "We'll meet you back at the motel."

Dean wants to say something, anything, but then Sam is walking away, and only one thing comes to mind. "Fuck."

************************************************************

Jo wakes to the clumsy clanking of a key in the lock. She glances over at the glowing numbers on the nightstand clock. 12:37 am. There's the scuffle outside of weight hitting wood, and then Dean ambles through the door, swinging it shut behind him.

"Don't mind me," Jo says, scooting to a sitting position and pulling the falling strap on her tank top back up her shoulder. "I was just sleeping."

"Thanks," the hunter mutters, wiping a hand over his face. Shit; he wishes he hadn't had those last few drinks, but he'd been desperate to put the memory of Sam's wounded expression from his mind. Hadn't worked, though. Not even the girls, perky as they were, could distract him. They were hot and all, into short skirts and Wonderbras and he could have gone home with any one of them and been shown a good time. A real good time. But the odds that one of them would punch him in the nose and level a shotgun on him were pretty slim, and Dean's not sure why he finds that so disappointing.

Jo frowns and reaches over to switch on the lamp, ignores the man's groan as she blinks at him in the bright light. "You look like shit." Well, as much as Dean Winchester can look like shit. The man is loose-limbed and pale, a hint of perspiration breaking across his handsome features. And the smell… "You're drunk."

Dean nods, points a finger at her. Both of her, if the slight waver is any indication. "Observant. Good." He takes a seat on his and Sam's still made bed. "Where's Sammy?"

Jo tries not to show her surprise at the use of the affectionate nickname. "Still at the library." She bites her lip, hesitates. "You guys have a fight?"

"Mmmm." Dean tries for a smile as he reaches down to fumble with his boot laces, but his mouth won't seem to move that way. "Something like that… I fucked up."

"So tell him you're sorry."

Dean shakes his head. "S'not that easy."

"It could be."

Dean stops tugging at the tight knots, looks up into Jo's candid gaze. Girl really believes that. He doesn't know why he's surprised. After all, hadn't Jo forgiven Sam for nearly cutting her throat back at the Sandpiper? Hadn't she forgiven them both for John Winchester getting her father killed? Well, more or less. "Help me get my boots off?"

Jo eyes him suspiciously, but the hunter's face is all innocence.

"What? C'mon, Jo – give a guy a hand." Dean leans back on the bed and waves a foot imploringly.

Jo huffs in disbelief. She's heard that line plenty of times. Still, if she knows Dean Winchester at all, the man will whine and moan until she either takes pity on him or smothers him with his own pillow. With an aggravated sigh, Jo crawls out of bed, glad she's put on a pair of old flannel shorts instead of just her panties. She kneels at the foot of the hunters' bed, starting to work on Dean's left boot first.

Dean watches from where he's propped up on his elbows, taking in the wave of soft honey hair that's fallen to shadow Jo's frowning face, her tongue touched to her upper lip as she tugs at the laces. "Sam say when he'll be back?" His voice sounds oddly hoarse, even to his own ears, but Jo seems too engrossed with her task to notice.

"Probably another hour or so," she replies, finally managing to yank the left boot from his foot. You've got to be kidding me. She tosses it to the side and sits back on her heels for a moment, panting slightly from the effort. "Could you maybe tie these tighter?"

"And trip on a shoelace with some rawhead on my tail?" comes the lazy drawl.

Jo gives Dean a look that says it's not the worst idea she's heard, then goes to work on the right boot. "Son of a - " She glances up at the hunter, shakes her head. "Great. Lift your leg out straight," she orders, climbing to her feet in hopes of a better angle.

Dean makes a rather half-hearted attempt to oblige, the leg dropping heavily back to the floor. Jo sighs again, turns and bends over, straddling the man's knee as she pulls the boot up and between her legs, yanking at it in agitation.

"Stupid boot," she growls, oblivious to Dean's eyes trained on her conveniently presented backside. Not bad. No, not bad at all. He certainly hadn't missed how curvy that part of the blonde's anatomy was when she'd been over his knee; he'd just been too preoccupied at the time to do much about it. Now, however… A sudden gleam in the green eyes, Dean plants his left foot on Jo's behind and pushes. Jo lurches forward, and there's a muffled curse and the whoosh of leather as the boot slides off and flies forward.

Jo stumbles, barely catching herself, then whirls on Dean indignantly. She's unsurprised to find the man sitting up now, lips curled in a wolfish grin. "Oooooh… Next time, you can get your own damn – hey!" Dean's hand snakes out and closes on her wrist, yanking her off balance. Jo lands sprawled over six feet plus of hard Winchester, knocking the breath from her in more ways than she wants to admit.

"Hey," he murmurs in return, his heavy-lidded gaze roaming her face.

Jo's heart feels like a bird beating against its cage, and she tries not to think about how intimately her body is lined up with the man's beneath her. Every inch of it. Her mother's voice, full of warning, fills her mind. "Don't you be falling for a hunter, Joanna Beth. They're good men, and they'll love you, but they'll always love the danger just a little bit more." Jo licks her lips nervously. "What are you doing, Dean?"

"Gettin' comfortable." He reaches a hand up to her face, his calloused thumb brushing over her lower lip. "So sweet," he whispers roughly. But not for him; never for him. "You're not everybody else. Why would I want to give you anything? Just keep your gutter soul; it's too tarnished, anyway."

"Dean." The word is slightly unsteady. Jo can feel the heat from the hunter's body warming her skin, bleeding right through the thin cotton of her pajamas. Her fingers pat his chest uncertainly. "You should sleep."

Dean lets his hand drop away, as if Jo's words alone have summoned his exhaustion. "You fight and you fight for this family, but the truth is they don't need you. Not like you need them." For once, Dean hopes that yellow-eyed bastard was right. With a heavy sigh, he rolls them to their sides, pulls Jo's head into his shoulder and throws his leg over hers, closes his eyes.

Jo squirms slightly in Dean's grip, but the man is dead weight. "I meant alone," she complains, mostly for her own benefit as her companion has slumped into unconsciousness. Great. In all her fantasies of them in bed together, none of them involve him passing out in a drunken stupor. She hesitates, then reaches out, lightly tracing the softened lines of the man's face. The hunter's only response is a quiet snore. So much for romance. "You're a lousy date, Winchester," she mutters, drawing back her hand.

When the hunter shifts, she can slide out.

Jo closes her eyes and waits.

******************************************************************

Jo dreams of the desert, and sleeping on a warm rock. Which isn't nearly as comfortable as the pillow she remembers. She blinks herself awake, her eyes trying to adjust to the muted light filtering through the motel drapes. It slowly dawns on her that her head isn't resting on a rock or a pillow. Jo's gaze darts to where her fingers are spread over Dean Winchester's chest, and she makes a quick accounting of all body parts; the hunter's arm is stretched beneath her neck, her bare legs tangled with his. And is that his hand on her ass? Shit.

"Oooookay," Jo murmurs. How are you going to get yourself out of this one, Harvelle? She holds her breath, lowering herself and carefully sliding beneath the sleeping man's arm. There's an abrupt pause in Dean's breathing as she slips free, and Jo freezes, but after a moment the man rolls over and starts snoring again. Jo eases to the side of the bed and to her feet, her relief expressing itself in a long exhale. Dodged that bullet… Or not, she thinks, turning to find Sam sitting on her bed, dark head bent over the laptop. Heat floods her face. It could hardly be the first time Sam found his brother in bed with a woman., but it's sure as hell the first time – and the last, Jo tells herself – Sam's found him in bed with her.

Jo pads over to her duffel, all too aware of the glance Sam shoots her from behind the laptop. But she's not in the mood for admonitions this morning - no matter how well-deserved - and she turns on him, arms crossing over her chest.

"Not a word," she warns.

"Wouldn't dream of it." Sam keeps scrolling down the website he's on. He was surprised last night to find the two of them sharing a bed, but there are some things he just doesn't need to know. Doesn't want to know. Besides, as much of a player as his brother is, Dean's not the kind to take advantage of someone he sees as vulnerable; especially if that someone is female.

Jo brushes some hair back from her face, slightly mollified. "It's not what you think."

Sam's mouth curves. "Never is."

"Nothing happened," she insists.

"I believe you."

"He was drunk; couldn't get his boots off. And then he passed out," Jo adds, flushing. "It's not like I could move him – he's heavier than he looks," she finishes defensively.

"Jo." Sam straightens, considers. He's not sure how to tell her. "I've seen Dean get his boots off with a concussion, a broken wrist, and busted ribs."

"Are you - " Jo stares at Sam in disbelief, but the man only gives her an apologetic shrug. She reaches down and snatches one of Sam's boots from the floor, chucks it at the back of Dean's head. Her aim is satisfyingly accurate.

"Oww – hey!" Dean scrambles to a sitting position, one hand grappling for a weapon even as the other cups the injured area. "What the hell?" he demands in a sleep-roughened voice, as Jo picks up her entire duffel and marches off into the bathroom. The door slams resoundingly behind her. Dean winces at the loud noise, swings his legs to the floor. "What was that about?" he asks his little brother, who seems absolutely fascinated by whatever's on his laptop. Probably porn.

"No idea. Have fun last night?" Nice that at least Dean isn't worried about his current expiration date.

Dean frowns, rubs at his temple. "It's a little fuzzy."

"I'll bet."

"I do remember this girl, Darla? You should see what this girl can do with a lipstick and a shot of tequila - "

Sam shuts the laptop. "Really not interested."

Dean stares at him. Sam's usually not this grumpy in the morning. Willing to blow it off, he stands and stretches, throws a smirk at the younger hunter. "Someone didn't have his latte this morning."

"Man, I am sick and tired of you acting like this is all a big joke," Sam snaps, eyes flashing angrily. "Do you even care if you get out of this deal?"

The question has Dean duly chastened. He suddenly recalls his careless words from the night before. "Course I do," he mumbles, reaching for his watch on the nightstand. As long as you don't drop dead again.

Sam continues to glare at him, tries to assess the other man's sincerity. "You better, because I can't do this without you, Dean." He relies on Dean too much, the older man's steady conviction grounding Sam when the moral ambiguities of the job start to wear on him.

Dean looks up as he finishes strapping on the timepiece. "Sure you can."

"Fine – I can. But I don't want to." There's an awkward silence, both brothers remembering Palo Alto, when it had been Dean speaking those words.

Then, "There's no one better to do it by themselves, Sam."

Sam frowns, brow furrowed. "What are you talking about?"

"You've always been fine on your own," Dean says, managing a small smile as he slings his duffel up on the bed to sort through. "Hell, maybe better than fine – even when you were a kid. You took off for Stanford; Dad and I were sure you'd be home in a week – month, tops," he tells Sam, who looks uncharacteristically stunned by the disclosure. "But you could always get by without us, Sammy. It was us that couldn't get by without you."

"That's not true." And it wasn't. Not then, not now; Sam just hadn't known it wasn't true. "You're my brother. There's nothing I wouldn't do for you." There's nothing Sam wouldn't do for his father; but he won't have that chance.

Dean forces a scoff, pulls some clean clothes from his bag. "You're gonna be just fine. And if Jo doesn't come to her senses – well," he glances over his shoulder at Sam. "Girl's not much on protocol, but her instincts are good. You could - "

"No." The refusal is harsh and immediate, and Sam's fingers tighten in the bedspread. "We're not talking about this."

Dean turns, clothing in hand; sees the set of Sam's jaw and sighs. So we're back to pissy. Then again, maybe Dean deserves it. "What'd you find out?"

Sam blinks, scowls. "What did you find out?"

Dean rolls his eyes. Yeah, that's mature. "Fine. Girl's name's Amanda; used to stop by the frat parties once in a while."

"Huh." Sam considers. "Doesn't look the type."

"Exactly. That's what's so weird; no noticeable hotness, bad dresser, shy... But according to the bunch last night, the girl can literally charm the pants off anyone."

"Fraternity guys don't exactly have to be charmed to take their pants off, Dean."

"Anyone," Dean repeats. "Students, faculty, public safety, whoever. Didn't keep many friends, though; spent most of her time with a couple of local guys - "

"Michaels and Vetini," Sam supplies.

"Right. So I say we look up this Amanda, ask her a few questions."

"That might be a little hard."

"Yeah?" Dean tucks his change of clothes up under his arm, anticipating the water shutting off in the adjoining bathroom. Jo's usually as efficient in there as they are. "Why's that"

"She's dead." Sam sighs, opens his laptop again and begins typing into the search engine. "When Jo couldn't find anything unusual in the death reports, we started looking into the cut and dry stuff, too. Here it is; Amanda Graves, nineteen." Sam angles the screen toward his brother. "Died of a drug overdose after an anonymous drop-off at St. Vincent's three weeks ago."

Dean leans in, eyes moving over the article Sam's called up. "Not uncommon in a college town."

"Still, seems a little too convenient to be a coincidence," Sam says, glancing up at the older hunter.

Dean shrugs. "Only one way to find out."

************************************************************

"I fell asleep." Dean's tone suggests this is a cosmic impossibility. The three of them are standing on the front step of the rundown apartment complex Amanda Graves used to call home, bright morning light glinting from the tops of their heads.

"Yes," Jo replies with a nearly perverse satisfaction, composing herself as Sam rings the doorbell. "You snore, too."

Dean scowls. "I don't – I fell asleep?"

"Did I stutter?" Jo asks irritably, her feet trying to find purchase on the crowded stair. Muscled arms and giant boots thwart her every move. What did Uncle John feed these two?

"I do lots of things in bed, sweetheart, but trust me, falling asleep is not one of them."

"Can you make him shut up?" Jo appeals to Sam, taller and less annoying.

"You get used to it." Sam's used to it, alright. Dean's problem isn't talking. On the contrary; sometimes Sam can't shut him up. Which would be helpful, except for most of the time when Dean talks, he doesn't actually say anything. And when he does open up, Sam gets things like, "Dad said I might have to kill you." Huh. The story about the girl and her lipstick trick is looking better and better.

Jo sighs, tucks a stray lock of hair behind her ear. She wonders just how much time it took Sam to 'get used to it'. Years, probably. Dean edges closer on the narrow concrete, and the hunters' combined height on either side of her suddenly has Jo feeling claustrophobic. She elbows Dean in the side. "Move over," she snaps.

Dean huffs. "You move over."

"Would you just - "

Just then the door creaks open, and an elderly lady pokes her wizened face out, her watery eyes focused on the obvious causes of the commotion. "What's going on out here?"

Sam shrugs, instantly the picture of sincere contrition. He might not have seen eye to eye with John Winchester on what was appropriate to teach an eight year-old, but has to admit the lessons come in handy. "Newlyweds," he explains, ignoring the shocked glare Jo shoots his way. Dean merely drops his arm around the blonde's waist and smiles in a way that's charmed nuns and hookers alike.

The old woman peers at them suspiciously, then opens the door a little wider. She steps closer, and closer, until she's just inches from Sam's chest; squints up at him like a national monument. "Who the hell are you?"

To his credit, Sam doesn't blink. Or back away. "Mrs. Rasnokov? We're friends of Amanda's. We just wanted to - "

"Well, come on in, then," she grouses, turning on a slippered heel and shuffling inside. "Can't stand around with the door open. Body could freeze to death out here."

Sam does blink then, glances at the sun above. But then he snaps out of it, throwing Jo a quick smile before heading after their hostess. Before she can flip him the finger he deserves, a nudge from Dean as he brushes past has Jo stumbling on her feet. And she knows damn well that was on purpose. As if on cue, Dean throws her a smirk over his shoulder.

"I hate both of you," Jo mutters, following the pair inside the dingy apartment.

The old woman leads them through a darkened hallway into the kitchen. The barren walls are moldering and water-stained, the appliances dull with the film of grease. Sam pulls in his wide shoulders to avoid brushing against the wallpaper. The three of them linger in the doorway as the woman rummages through her cupboards, begins to pull out cups and saucers. "Sit down and stop hovering," she rasps. "Newlyweds, you say?"

"What's a guy to do?" Dean asks, smiling again as he gives Jo a squeeze. "She just wouldn't leave me alone."

"I - you - " Jo sputters, shoving at his arm. Her dark eyes narrow. "You just wait until - "

"Mind your manners, missy," scolds the elderly woman. "The boy's promised to settle down."

"But – he's lying!" Sam has already taken a chair at the Formica table, and Jo swears he's smothering a laugh. Jerk.

"I know, dear. They all do." The woman leaves the cups and saucers and teeters over to the stove. Jo stares after her for a moment, then clamps her jaw shut and takes a seat. Dean drops into the chair beside her, scoots up close.

"What's the matter, little girl?" he whispers at her ear. "Afraid she's gonna pop you into the oven?"

"With you for a husband?" Jo asks tartly. "I'm afraid she won't."

Dean wags a finger at her. "Ah-ah. Sarcasm isn't pretty."

"Neither's your insincerity," she replies, refusing to look at him and choosing instead to focus on the woman's ratty grey sweater. At least, it looks grey…

Dean's frowning. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"You know exactly what it means."

"Oh; that's great." Dean leans forward, looking around Jo to Sam. "Why do women always say that?"

Sam flashes them both a quelling look as their hostess fills a kettle at the sink and hobbles back over to the stove.

"Tea's on," Mrs. Rasnokov says loudly, striking a match and lighting a burner.

"So about Amanda - " Jo begins.

"What's that?" Mrs. Rasnokov demands from the kitchen. "Don't mumble."

Dean immediately claps his hand over Jo's mouth, before the pique sparking in her eyes makes its way out her lips. He shakes his head at her indignant gaze, pleased when she actually subsides. He's less pleased a second later when her small, white teeth sink into his palm. Dean hisses and drops his hand from her mouth, incredulous, but Jo just smiles sweetly.

"We were sorry to hear about Amanda," Sam says, turning a stern eye on his companions. No wonder Dad always left us in the car.

"Hmmph. So was I," the woman retorts from over her shoulder. "Owed me two months rent. That one was bound for trouble, hanging around those three; she drank on Sundays and put out her cigarettes in my petunias."

Sam nods, because he can't think of a single thing to say in response to that. Fortunately, Jo's right there with her line.

"I'm sorry to bring this up, but the last time I visited Amanda, I lost an earring, and I was wondering if I could take a look?"

"She loves those earrings," Dean adds, and Jo wonders if he's always been this much of a kiss-ass.

Mrs. Rasnokov grunts. "Don't think I'm going to wait on you, Miss America - key's hanging by the desk in the entry."

"Thanks," Jo chirps with false brightness, rising from her chair. "I'll be right back, boys."

"I'll come with," Dean says, suddenly standing right beside her.

"And miss tea? Don't be silly," she adds in a low growl.

"Better than missing you, sweetheart," he replies, and gives her a not so discreet shove toward the hallway.

Sam smiles sheepishly as the old woman turns her stare on him. "Newlyweds." He shrugs again. "Can't stand to be apart."

***************************************************

"If you keep this up, I really am going to make you buy me dinner," Jo gripes, feeling the hunter hover at her back as she fumbles with the key to Amanda Graves' apartment. Dean is disturbingly close, his breath stirring her hair, and damn it, why can't she get the key in the stupid lock? She's surprised when the man's warm hand covers hers, his fingers deftly wresting the key from her own.

"Just making sure the job gets done right," Dean replies, tugging the blond aside and unlocking the door himself. He pushes it open and holds it there with the flat of his hand. "After you," he says mockingly.

"Right." Jo gives him a knowing look as she walks past him into the apartment. "This from the guy who set an entire house on fire to get rid of one spirit."

Dean frowns at her back. "You need to stop talking to Sam." Why can't his brother get over it already? It wasn't like it was his house. Dean steps into the apartment's entry, shutting the door behind him.

"Looks pretty cleared out in here," Jo says, walking through the small kitchenette and flipping open the cabinet doors.

"Must have shipped her stuff home or something," Dean says, opening the coat closet and sticking his head inside. "Better have a look around, anyway. Maybe they forgot something."

Jo leaves Dean to make a sweep of the living area and heads for bedroom. There's a dresser still here, and a stripped full-size bed. Maybe too big to move? An ugly plaid sofa had also been left in the living room. Huh. Jo opens the drawers to the dresser, finds them empty. She feels beneath them; nothing. What kind of junkie doesn't have a hidden stash?

Brow furrowed, Jo checks the closet and the adjoining bathroom, both with the same results. Not much left, she thinks, wandering back into the bedroom. She stands there for a moment, looks around the room. Her eyes fall on the bed again, its bare mattress stained with god knew what. Ewww. But Jo does a thorough check of the mattress and box spring, grimacing as she runs her fingertips over every surface, seeking tears or hidden repairs. Not finding any, she kneels to peer underneath the bed, squinting as she notices some marks on the underside of one of the slats. She lowers herself and slides underneath for a better look.

"Dean!" she shouts. "There's something under here." She squints to make out the grooves carved into the face of the wooden slat. Huh. Her fingers reach out to touch the mark. It almost looks like –

"Don't touch it," Dean barks, and Jo jumps, nearly hitting her head on the underside of the bed. "Jesus, Jo," he growls, wriggling under the bed beside her. "You never touch unless you know what you're dealing with. Got that?" Out of his sight for a damned minute, and she's already touching things. Amateurs.

"Heil," Jo mutters, ignoring the hunter's sharp glare. I mean, really. But then Dean is staring at what Jo realizes is a symbol, and she watches and waits, all too aware of his bare arm brushing against hers as he shifts for a better look. "It's some kind of sigil, right?"

"Yep." Dean pulls a small notepad and pencil from his pocket.

And???
Jo thinks, exasperated by the succinct reply. "Well, do you recognize it?"

"Just hold the slat steady." Dean puts the paper over the carving, colors over it with the pencil, the shape of the sigil slowly emerging. Pressed up against Jo in the darkness, he's acutely reminded of why having her here is such a bad idea. He grits his teeth and tries to focus on the task at hand, and not the clean scent of soap still clinging to her skin, or the tease of soft hair tickling his cheek. Resisting the urge to lower his pencil and brush it away, he finishes the task at hand and rolls out from under the bed. "Got it," he says, a little breathlessly. He pushes to his feet, tucks the paper and pencil back in his pocket. "And cut your hair or something; it's all over the place."

Jo pauses where she's slid out onto the carpet, rises up on her elbows with a glower. "Anything else?" she asks crisply.

"I'll let you know." The man actually has the nerve to wink at her. "Come on, Miss America," he says, leaning over to offer her a hand. "Before the old lady thinks we're taking a second honeymoon and calls the cops on us."

***************************************************************

"Found it," Jo announces, sitting on the lumpy motel bed and skimming through one of the books on sigils Sam's borrowed from the library. "The sigil's for summoning a type of Cataboligne; a Concerosa."

"Got it right here." Sam brings up a resource page on his laptop. "Huh. Interesting," he says, eyes moving over the text. "The name originated from the Latin word for twin; it's got two hearts. One in its chest, and another one at the base of its throat. It's – uh…" He trails off, flushing a little.

"It's a what?" Dean asks, looking up from where he's pacing between the bed and the desk. "Sam?"

"Well, ah, this particular kind of demon attracts the affection of its servants, passes on the powers to them. Actually bonds with them."

"A love demon?" Dean smirks.

"I didn't say that," Sam says, still pink as he turns in the desk chair to face his brother and Jo. He's glad he chose to paraphrase the section on the demon's sexual practices, or the conversation would never move forward. A dry glance from Jo has him clearing his throat awkwardly. Damn demons.

"Huh." Dean hooks his thumbs in his belt loops, walks a little more. "Well, that explains Amanda being able to charm anyone she set her mind to. So let's talk this through: Amanda summons the demon, who shares its freaky powers of attraction with her…"

"Amanda dies, the demon picks off her friends," Sam continues, glancing at the picture they have tacked to the motel wall; the one of Amanda posing with Hayden Michaels and Paul Vetini. "Why?"

"What if Michaels and Vetini were somehow responsible for what happened to Amanda?" Jo asks, leaving the book open and sitting up a little straighter as she thinks about it. "I mean, what if they gave her the drugs? We searched that entire apartment and didn't find one secret cache."

Dean considers the possibility. "No one we talked to ever mentioned her using any kind of drugs. And you did say this demon bonds with its servants; maybe it got pissed."

"It's hypothetical at best," Sam says, brows drawing together as his fingers tap lightly on the edge of the desk. "Even if it does happen to be true, where does that leave us? We have no idea where this thing is, and Michaels and Vetini are dead; we've exhausted all our leads."

"That one was bound for trouble, hanging around those three."
"Maybe not," Dean says, striding over to where the photograph is pinned to the wall. He removes it, taking a closer look at it before holding it up for Sam and Jo. He grins knowingly. "Who are we forgetting here?"

Jo quirks a brow. "Could you be a little more specific?"

Sam stares at the picture for a moment, puzzled, and then an answering smile slowly breaks over his face. "The person taking the picture."

*********************************************************************

"Man, only in Missouri," Dean mutters, shining his flashlight along the darkened path and up toward the small outbuilding ahead. Tall stalks of corn rise on either side of them, crowding the narrow trail and denying the car access. "What guy puts a darkroom in the middle of a cornfield, anyway?" It didn't take much to find Jeff Burke; just a couple of calls to Dean's pep squad friends, leaving the hunter eager to enjoy other pursuits. Pursuits that don't involve trudging through some cornfield like extras from that crazy Signs flick.

Sam gives his brother a knowing look from where he and Jo are bringing up the rear. Dean's been bitching for a good half mile now, ever since they left the Impala. And while the guy has an unnatural attachment to the thing – they both do, if Sam's being honest about it – the bitching has little to do with leaving their ride parked on a dirt road or the current lack of admirers. Nope. Dean only complains when he's worrying, and if his present grumbling is any indication, he's worrying a lot. About having Jo along, Sam bets. If only he watched his own ass this much. Sam's shaking his head when a high-pitched sound echoes through the lightly swaying corn. Frowning, he stops. "You hear that?"

Jo moves beside him as Dean turns, his eyes moving over the darkened fields. "Hear what?" The scream comes right on cue, resonating from the nearby darkroom.

"Of course," Dean mutters, rolling his eyes. Then, "Shit." He pulls his Colt from his waistband and starts running, aware the instant Sam steps into pace just behind him, shadows him effortlessly. Dean can often pinpoint Sam's position without a glance; something that's become damn convenient on these hunts. As they near the building a motion-detecting floodlight activates, and Dean just makes out the creature at its perimeter, humanoid but bigger, its claw-like hands dangling a shrieking man. Well, that explains the screaming. The hunter squints, waits for the jumble of thrashing limbs to clear and fires. Flesh mists the air around the Concerosa's shoulder, an otherworldly howl rising as the demon drops its prey and retreats from the light.

The man scrambles away on his hands and knees while Sam steps up beside his brother, firing his own weapon into the darkness. The blast is followed by silence. "Damn it." Sam peers in the direction the creature disappeared. "Think we can track it?"

Dean snorts, tucking away his gun. "By flashlight?" He turns and walks over to where the distraught photography student is stumbling to his feet, takes the man by the bicep and hauls him upward. Demon slime drips from the guy's Abercrombie and Fitch sweatshirt, and Dean smirks. At least it's not him this time. Well, not most of him, anyway. He holds his hand up to his eyes and examines the gelatinous flecks of flesh clinging to his skin. The smirk twists into a grimace. "That's disgusting."

Sam has to agree. He reaches behind himself, replacing his own gun as he approaches the pair. "Jeff Burke?"

"Yeah," the guy wheezes, palms braced on his thighs. He's visibly quaking, and Sam restrains himself from reaching out a steadying hand. As it turns out, Concerosa blood smells a lot like cat piss. "What the fuck was that thing?"

Dean discreetly shakes the last of the gore from his hand and turns, staring again at where the creature vanished into the night. "It's a demon, and it's gonna be back." Son of a bitches might be evil, but at least they're predictable. At least when it comes to being a pain in my ass.

Burke blanches at the hunter's words. "What?"

Way to break the news gently
, Sam thinks. Then again, most of Dean's sugar-coating tends to be limited to short skirts and the occasional fifth grader. "Look, Jeff," Sam says. "We need to know what happened to Amanda."

The guy shoots him a startled glance. "Amanda? That's – what does she have to with it?"

"She summoned the thing; it's tied to her," Dean tells him. "It's already killed two of your little friends, and unless we can figure out why, you're gonna be next."

Burke straightens, his arms winding protectively behind his head. Sweat beads over his waxen skin, and Sam thinks the guy might puke on his shoes. "Fuck," the man breathes, the word trembling on his lips like a prayer.

"If you want to live, you need to tell us about the night Amanda died," Jo breaks in, and Dean scowls suddenly, looking around the illuminated area.

"Where the hell were you?"

Jo glances at him, annoyance flickering on her face. "Checking for clues?"

"What? The big, fugly demon wasn't enough?" Dean wants to know, hands moving to his hips. It's all he can do to keep his words to a growl. "Stay in sight."

Sam overlooks the bickering, wonders if Burke's going into shock. There's a good minute filled with just the ragged sound of the man's terrified breathing. Then, "It wasn't my idea; I never wanted to take that stuff," Burke blurts, his eyes darting between them. "But Paul had her convinced it was going to be the ride of her life..."

"What stuff?" Dean asks impatiently, wondering just what kids learn in college these days. I can't believe their parents actually pay for this shit.

Burke looks at him. "Yaba." He's met with a blank stare. "You know. Meth?"

"You gave her Meth?" Christ. Whatever happened to Zeppelin and a six pack to get yourself laid?

"No!" Burke denies, despair thinning his voice. "I told you, it was Paul! We all took it. We didn't know, we couldn't have - " He breaks off, takes a quivering breath. "The paper said she had a pre-existing heart condition," he insists. "One minute she's sweating and talking weird shit, and the next she's stopped breathing.

"So you left her in the hospital parking lot," Jo charges, disenchanted by the entire tale. Demonic powers of attraction and everything, and a girl still can't find a nice guy.

"We couldn't – Hayden had a scholarship, and Paul – fucking Paul." Burke chokes on a bitter sob. "I loved her, man. I. Loved her."

Dean's mouth twists grimly as he shoves his flashlight back into his pocket. "That's touching; really." Idiots. Too much free time and not enough brain cells. Thank God Sam was never that stupid at Stanford; at least Dean doesn't think so. And he sure as hell intends to ask.

"Jeff… Jeff!" Sam raises his voice, its urgency gaining the young man's attention. "We need to find this thing, before it hurts anyone else. Is there somewhere nearby this thing could hole up? Someplace Amanda might have talked about visiting?"

Burke is shaking his head. "No – no, I don't know."

"Well, that narrows it down," Dean drawls, gesturing Jo and Sam aside. "Maybe we can go back over the research; there must be something there we can use."

Jo considers. "It'll be somewhere isolated; maybe we can look at a map and - "

"Wait," Burke says. He looks up at them with bleak eyes. "There's an old plant, out by the railroad tracks. You'll see the silo. Amanda used to talk about going out there, the view from the top."

"I saw a silo when we came into town," Sam says, glancing at Dean.

"Good. We'll drop Jo off on the way."

"What? No way." She didn't come all this way to be shut out of the game. She quickly turns to Sam for support. "Sam - "

"You'd be out of harm's way," Sam's compelled to counsel, just in case Jo's changed her mind about any of this in the last few minutes. She glowers at him. Okay, so maybe she hasn't. He sighs, shoving his hands into his pockets and shrugging at Dean. "We'll be right there with her."

"Like we were in Chicago?" Frustrated, Dean makes the mistake of looking at Jo again, who pins him with a hopeful stare. He remembers looking at his father much the same way just before John allowed him to hold his first gun. Great. As if watching out for Sam won't be enough. "Fine. You stick with me, and don't make a move unless Sam or I give the go ahead. You got that?"

"Got it." Jo smiles brightly at the victory, throws Sam a grateful glance. A moment later her nose wrinkles. "What smells like cat pee?"

Ignoring the muffled snicker from Sam, Dean takes out his flashlight again and switches it on to make the walk to the car. Sure, she's got it. So why does he think he's going to regret this?

**********************************************************

The old plant is right where Sam remembers, facing east along the railroad tracks, its lone silo gleaming silver in the moonlight. They park behind an outlying storage shed, the brothers hardly exchanging a word as they move in unison, climbing from the car and retrieving their weapons from the trunk with practiced efficiency. Jo watches from the side as guns are passed back and forth, Dean strapping his Bowie knife to his hip as well. She's careful to stand back, bide her time. She's an outsider here, a postscript to what began years before she was a glimmer in her mother's eyes. "You try to follow me and I'll tie you right back to that post and leave you here. This is my fight; I'm not getting your blood on my hands. That's just how it's gonna be."

"Tasers?" Dean asks, eyes scanning the contents of the compartment methodically.

"No," Sam replies sternly from beside him, not prepared to see Dean crispified again anytime soon. Once was enough, thanks.

Dean shrugs. "Whatever. Should be able to take him with what we've got. Jo."

Jo blinks at the unexpected summons, moves warily to the hunter's side. "Yeah."

"Here." Dean passes her one of the guns. "Take the Beretta. And try not to point it at me," he adds dryly, remembering how enthusiastic she was pointing that shotgun at him back in Nebraska.

Her fingers close nimbly around the cool steel, and she looks down at the weapon in her hand. It feels good there – right, somehow – and she's surprised when her eyes start to sting. This is what she's meant to do, and she hopes that wherever Bill Harvelle is, he's looking down at her and is proud of what she's become. She takes a breath and looks back up, surprised to find Dean's steady gaze fixed on her.

"You ready for this?" He's turned slightly toward her, his left hand resting on the lid of the trunk. There's none of the usual mocking in his tone, and Jo shifts under the sudden scrutiny. She forces a smirk to her lips as she slides the gun into her waistband.

"I was born ready."

Dean scoffs. "Right." But a spark of grudging approval lights his eyes before he slams the trunk shut. He looks over at Sam, who's pocketing an extra clip. "Okay, second heart's the target, so aim for the throat. That's our kill zone. And stand back," Dean adds, making a face. "You two get any of that crap on you and you'll be walking back to the motel."

Sam bites back the smartass retort that springs to his lips. Dean's sounding more like their father every day, and Sam's not too anxious to find out if he'll act like him, too. Instead, he watches Dean hike off toward the plant, sharing a longsuffering look with Jo before they both jog to catch up. They fall into step just behind the older hunter, surprised when minutes later an instrumental burst of REO rings in the evening air.

Dean's head jerks around, brows knit together. "What's that?"

Sam's long fingers dip into Jo's front pocket and lift out her cell phone. He deftly switches the ringer off and hands back the phone, the mild censure in his look causing the blonde to blush.

Dean shakes his head. "Rookie." He starts off again, eventually leading the group to a pair of corrugated doors on the side of the building. On closer inspection, they find a broken padlock. "Looks like the right place," Dean says, fingers reaching to remove the crushed piece of metal.

Behind him, Sam leans down and closer to Jo. "You always want to catch them by surprise; don't let them see you coming," he cautions, still uncomfortable with the idea of Jo doing something like this by herself.

There's the loud slam of boot against aluminum, and Sam looks up to see Dean's kicked the doors open. "Hey, bitch!" booms the familiar taunt, as the older hunter steps through the still swinging doors. "Daddy's home!"

"Then there are other approaches," Sam qualifies, eyeing Dean's disappearing form with faint exasperation. He urges Jo forward with a hand to the small of her back. "Stay close," he reminds her, the snort he receives in return all too familiar. Flicking on his flashlight, Sam follows them both into the darkness.

Dust hovers in the stale air, and Jo coughs, waves a hand as they slowly weave their way through the tall machinery. "Place must be really old."

Sam pauses, eyes roaming over the grimy equipment and piled sacks. "Maybe not," he says, frowning. He leans over, moving his light over the dusty labels and frowning at the fading text.

Dean keeps moving forward, glimpsing a flash of movement in the gloom ahead. He keeps his eyes trained on the prize, slipping silently around corners and ghosting across aisles, signaling Sam and Jo to stay with him. When they near the building's end, the creature ducks into a silo entry, and Dean feels a surge of adrenaline hit him. "Got you now," he sings under his breath, lifting his gun and preparing to follow his quarry.

"Don't shoot," Sam breathes at his shoulder, and Dean throws him a sharp glance.

"Why not?"

"Because this was a grain silo and we're a quarter inch thick in grain dust. One spark and the whole place could blow."

"You're kidding me."

"Do I look like I'm kidding?"

"I don't know," Dean mutters, "Never seen you kid."

"Just put the gun down," Sam tells him, as Jo moves up beside them, lowering her own weapon. Does Dean think he just makes this stuff up?

"Fine." Dean reaches beneath his shirt and tucks the gun away, then pulls out his Bowie knife. "You and Jo go back to the car and rearm; I'll see if I can't put a dent in this fucker."

"What? No." Sam's shutting this plan down fast. "You said it yourself, Dean; we stick together."

"And what are you gonna use for weapons, huh? You gonna tear this thing's heart out with your bare hands?"

Sam stalks over and wrenches a slat off a discarded pallet. He holds it up, arching a brow in mute challenge.

Dean blinks. Not bad. "That'll work."

****************************************************************

As it turns out, being armed is less of an advantage when you're drooling on the floor. Typical, Dean thinks. Sam had almost immediately slumped to his knees and over, causing Jo to skitter out of the way. If he's not being strangled, he's being hijacked. Sam's eyes have rolled back to the whites, the creature's voice purring from his throat, and if that isn't freakin' weird, Dean doesn't know what is.

"What a waste of flesh," Sam's mouth says, as Dean and Jo circle the scaled demon. Dean can't help noticing that for a sex-loving hellspawn, the creature appears curiously unendowed. Way to hide your light under a bushel. Still, there's power and sinew beneath the leather-like skin, and the deadened eyes flick between the two standing hunters like a hungry shark's before settling on Jo.

"This one would make a fine slave. The things that I could do for you, to you. Have you ever screamed in pleasure from only a spoken word?" Sam drawls, and Dean could have happily gone his entire life without hearing his little brother saying that.

"Thanks, but I think I'll pass," Jo replies, carefully stepping over some debris as she moves.

Sam chuckles. "But you've passed on lots of things, haven't you? Too bad about that little crush." The demon eyes Dean slyly. "Of course, you know he'll never see you as anything more than an irritation, something to endure."

Dean glances sharply in Jo's direction, feels a twinge of guilt at the pain that flashes over her face. Stay focused; it's baiting you.

"Why, until mommy dearest called him, his plan was to never set eyes on you again."

Jo wavers. She keeps the slat leveled on the demon, but her eyes skip to Dean. "What's he talking about?" "I know that demons lie, but do they ever tell the truth, too?" "Yeah. Sometimes, I guess."

Dean hisses in frustration. Sure, listen to him. "It's fucking with you, Jo."

"Is it true?"

"Jo - " Fuck. No. Yes.

The hunter hesitates, and Jo's not stupid. Her stomach plummets, and she feels a little sick at the revelation. "Forget it." She takes a fierce jab at the creature, gasping when the demon seizes the slat and swings her against the side of the silo. Wood splinters and there's a shifting of light, and when Jo can focus again, Dean's lunging for the Concerosa. The knife is only halfway to the scaled throat before the hunter's flung against the wall with reverberating force. He lets himself roll, recovering his feet quickly before beginning to stalk their prey again, deliberately holding its attention.

"What are you doing?" Jo demands, scrambling on hands and knees for the abandoned slat lying near Sam's twitching fingers.

"Wearing it down," Dean replies, just managing to keep his grip on his knife as his back slams painfully against the wall again. And fuck, is he going to kill this thing.

"That's your plan?" Jo's fingers close around the liberated board.

"No," Dean fires back, when he can suck the air back into his lungs. "My plan was to shoot the son of a bitch, but seeing as that would blow us to Kingdom Come, I thought maybe I should try something else."

"How's that going?" Jo asks, springing to take another swing at the demon's head. It twists toward her, the snarl climbing Sam's throat raising goosebumps on her skin.

"Same as usual," Dean pants, slicing his knife across the Concerosa's leg where there should be an artery. He hears Sam shriek from the floor. Rotten blood and stink eek from the open wound, and Dean lifts the back of his hand to his nose and mouth, tries to block out the odor. The creature staggers, slips in its own blood, and Jo cracks the slat brutally against its chest, bringing it to the floor.

The hunter dives to his knees, thrusts his blade deep into the Concerosa's throat. Sam gurgles behind them, then chokes on a cough. Foul fumes ghost from the demon's wound, and the flesh beneath the pale skin sinks and withers. Dean lets his head drop to his chest, takes as deep a breath as he dares. "It worked," he muses, more than a little impressed.

Jo frowns. "You didn't expect it to work?"

Dean frowns back, indignant as he yanks his knife from the demon's corpse and sheathes it again. "Of course I did."

Right
. At the moment, Jo's not inclined to believe anything the man has to say. "So sweet." Sweet, my ass. "Is it dead?" she asks, glancing over to where Sam's groaning and starting to sit up.

"Yeah," Dean replies, standing and walking over to crouch beside his brother.

"Good." Jo drops the slat, her hopes clattering with it to the dusty floor. "Don't worry about driving me home; I'll catch a ride from here."

"What? Jo!" Dean barks, but the blonde is already stalking from the silo. Still pissed, no doubt. "Damn it," Dean grumbles, hauling a groggy Sam to his feet. Tries to save her ass, and this is the thanks he gets. "When I catch up with that girl… You okay, little brother?"

"You mean besides the really bad monologue?" Sam nods, allowing Dean to steer him toward the silo door. His gaze flits briefly to the demon. "Dean." Sam stumbles to a halt, causing his brother to hold up unless he wants to try dragging the taller man.

"Yeah, Sammy."

Sam's still squinting down at the fallen Concerosa, trying not to gag at the smell. "You already shot this thing in the shoulder, right?"

"Right."

"Then where's the bullet wound?"

Dean's brows draw together. "The sigil's for summoning a type of Cataboligne; a Concerosa." "The name originated from the Latin word for twin..." Fuck. "There's two of them."

******************************************************************

Jo winds her way through the plant again, growing increasingly agitated as she meets dead end after dead end. Should have paid more attention on the way in, she thinks grimly, peering into the gloom and trying to tune out the saccharine words her mind keeps replaying. "Why, until mommy dearest called him, his plan was to never set eyes on you again." She sets her jaw and retraces her steps, hoping to find an aisle she recognizes before she runs into the hunters again. Who needs Dean Winchester, anyway? He's arrogant, and kind of a dork, and he'll never see her as anything but some silly kid with a crush. Besides, the brothers never wanted her here, anyway. Jo's throat tightens. If you don't fit in with your own, you don't fit in anywhere; you might as well just -

"Shit." Jo finds herself staring at another wall of stacked boxes. Her shoulders drop with a sigh, and there's the sound of movement behind her. Great. She slowly turns around "Look, I already told you - "

The backhanded blow knocks her flying, and the last thing Jo sees as she tumbles into the crates is the angry shadow of the Concerosa stepping toward her.

******************************************************************

"Over there," Dean says, jerking his head to the east even as he treads quickly in the direction of the crash. She shouldn't have been here. There's a nearby groan, and then silence, and Dean steps up the pace, knowing Sam will have their back. If something's happened to Jo… He leads with his knife, moves swiftly up on a corner and glances down the aisle.

"Here," Dean calls back, seeing the fallen demon sprawled over the concrete floor, blood pooling from the wound at its throat. The gauging eyes move to where Jo lies nearby, her dirty wrist, the limp curl of her fingers. His heart beats a little faster. "Jo." He hurries over, tucking his blade away before crouching at the girl's side. "C'mon, sweetheart," he mutters, gaze darting over the slick blood from the slash above her eyebrow, the shadowed skin beneath the sweep of her lashes. There's a strong pulse beneath his urgent fingertips, though, and he breathes a little easier.

"Dean." Sam hovers beside him, lending his flashlight to his brother's efforts.

"She's fine," Dean insists. "Jo," he repeats a little louder, giving Jo's shoulder a rougher shake. "C'mon!"

Jo jerks from cozy darkness to painful light, her body lurching and a voice – that annoying voice – barking orders above her. She pulls her eyes open, yanks her aching limbs away from Dean Winchester with as much huff as she can muster. "Get. Off me."

Dean blinks, breaks into a smile. He beams up at Sam's frowning face. "What'd I tell you? She's gonna be fine."

"Okay." Sam shakes his head. 'Fine.' Sure. Right up until the moment Dean's relief wears off. Which, if Sam's own experience is anything to go by, ought to be any time now. Push to test, release to detonate. It probably helps that Jo doesn't say too much until the three of them are outside again, making their way toward the Impala.

"Wait. My knife."

"That what you used to stick that thing?" Dean hasn't had time to consider the logistics. Jo's favored blade is too short to be effective with any kind of range; for all intensive purposes she was unarmed. "How did you - "

Jo winces as she stumbles over uneven ground, still a little unbalanced from being thrown. "Pretended I was unconscious, and when it raised me up to – well, you know - " Crush me into a mess of pulverized flesh and bone. " - I killed it." She licks her dry lips, lets the words settle in her mind. "I killed it," she repeats, the endorphins starting to pour through her system.

Dean and Sam exchange glances over the girl's head. The night's been an uncomfortably close call, but they both remember the rush and thrill, the finality of their first kills; know what it means for Jo. No turning back now, Dean thinks. But suddenly that's literally what Jo's attempting to do.

"It's my knife," Jo repeats, finally finding the presence of mind to pull back in the brothers' grasp, and Dean realizes William Harvelle's weapon must still be in the plant somewhere. Damn pig-sticker; she's lucky we're not mopping her from the floor. "I can't just leave it here." There's an edge of panic to the words.

"Leave it, Jo," Sam tells her gently, still urging the girl forward. "The cops could still show, and we need to get a look at that cut." Besides, if the comprehension settling on Dean's face is any indication, things are about to get ugly.

******************************************************************

Sam should have given Dean more credit, because his brother doesn't actually lose it until they're on the road back to the motel.

"I thought it was dead."

"I don't care what you thought," the hunter snaps back at Jo, who's been relegated to the backseat and threatened with bodily harm if she lets herself bleed on the upholstery. "You were told to stick with me; you broke the rules."

"The rules." Jo presses the balled-up handkerchief a little harder against her forehead. "Did I miss a memo?" she asks Sam, who's smart enough not to reply.

Dean shoots a glare at the rearview mirror. "I'm talking about the rules of hunting, sweetheart. Rule number one: follow orders. Rule number two: follow your fucking orders."

Jo scoffs. "What's rule number three?"

Dean's brows shoot to his hairline and Sam closes his eyes, unable to watch. "For you? There is no number three; you're already dead!" There's a loud thump Sam recognizes as Dean's fist on the steering wheel, and Jo must realize that his brother's reached his threshold, because neither one of them say another word all the way back to the room.

As it turns out, the scratch on Jo's forehead is mostly superficial and only takes three stitches. Dean has Sam put them in; Sam's not sure if it's because Dean doesn't trust his hands or just that he doesn't trust his hands near Jo. The younger hunter has barely knotted the last suture and returned the needle to their first aid kit when the arguing starts up again.

"Real pretty scar you're gonna have there."

"Like I care what you think."

"What I think?" Dean turns from his pacing and scowls at Jo. "I think you had no business taking off on your own; it was a stupid thing to do," he charges, the harsh tone matching the set of his expression.

"I was fine!"

"You got lucky!"

"What?" Jo stiffens, insulted. "You're just pissed because I got to make the kill."

And that's just it. Dean drops down to where Jo's sitting on the bed, hauling the blonde over his lap with a grim determination and a deaf ear to the yells that follow.

Sam keeps back, uncertain about intervening. Whatever his brother feels for Jo, it's definitely more complicated than Dean's previously let on. Sam's only seen this side of Dean directed at himself, and he can't help feeling relieved that this time it's Jo's ass in the line of fire. Then again, spanking the daylights out of her might not be the best way for Dean to express his affection. No matter how much she might deserve it. Sam sighs. "Dean."

Dean looks up from the struggling girl, green eyes lit with anger. "You got a better idea?"

Sam thinks of the stitches he just put through Jo's smooth, white skin; the sheer panic on Dean's face when they found her lying on the cold cement. Thinks of Jessica, her golden hair spiraling from the ceiling even as her body burst into flames. "I'll be outside."

Jo's so mad she could spit. Shit. Why the hell did she ever think hunting with the Winchesters was a good idea? Jo rolls against Dean's thighs, but the man's arm deftly pins her in place. She reaches back, trying to shove at the offending limb, and somehow only manages to get her hands caught and held at the small of her back. An elbow between her shoulder blades keeps her from rearing up. "Dean! You're not doing this to me again!"

"Doing what?" Dean asks, bringing his palm down on her denim-covered backside with a satisfying crack. The second and third swats feel even better – well, to him, at any rate – and Dean thinks this might damn well be therapeutic.

Jo's face flames, and she grits her teeth against the fury of Dean's hand. She is so not saying it. "Treating me like some dumb kid!"

"You are a dumb kid," Dean growls. He's swatting fast now, ignoring force in favor of frequency. It turns out to be an inspired choice, as Jo yelps and squirms beneath the growing sting. "You got a problem with me? Fine. But you take that shit into a hunt, and it'll get someone killed. You wanna be responsible for that?"

"Is that a trick question?" Jo manages to gasp, trying to catch her breath against the heat each slap drives into her skin. Her jeans are little protection against the hunter's retribution, and the vulnerability of the position has her biting her lip in frustrated anger. But as the smacks continue to rain down, something in her begins to crumble. She had been pissed off by the demon's revelation. Hurt, even, if she's being truthful; especially when Dean didn't deny the cutting words. The Concerosa had wanted them divided, and Jo had bought into its machinations. She blinks back tears, tries not to think of the things that might have gone wrong.

"You gonna answer it?" Dean's hand is starting to burn, and he can only guess how Jo's backside is feeling.

Jo swallows hard as the carpet blurs. "No."

"No?" Dean's brows lift in disbelief at the perceived defiance.

"No, I don't want to be responsible for that," she replies tightly, grateful her voice doesn't break.

"Good. Keep your head in the game, and maybe you won't end up with stitches in it." Christ. It isn't like he wants to do this. Well, okay, maybe he does, just a little, because Jo kind of has that effect on people. But chances are good he won't be at the other end of a shotgun every time she finds trouble; this is all the protection he can offer. Dean finishes up with a shower of smarting swats to Jo's behind, the hiss of her indrawn breath telling him when he's made his point. He stills his hand, then cautiously releases his grip on her wrists, eyes wary as she slowly slides to her feet. There's only a brief glimpse of her face before she turns from him, but it's enough to see the tears streaking her cheeks.

Aw, fuck
. He expected her to come up swinging. Counted on it, actually, because that's what they do. "Jo…"

"Don't worry," she says hoarsely, face still averted. "I'll tell my mother it wasn't your fault."

Dean flinches. "That's not what - " He shakes his head, rallies. "It could have ripped your head off."

"Yeah, and we both know how much hell you'd catch for that."

"I never said that," he snaps.

"You didn't have to." Damp eyes flash back to him.

"Son of a - " Dean's hand rubs over the back of his neck. "Demons lie, Jo!"

"And you don't?" Jo challenges. Her heart sinks when the hunter falters, looks away, and what more does she really need to know? She's a long way from home, and even her own voice sounds like a stranger's. "Right."

*********************************************************************

When Sam finishes with the shower, Jo's already dressed, bag zipped neatly at the foot of her bed. She jumps back from the window at the creak of the bathroom door, the shabby drapes swinging back into place as she stalks away. Sam knows what she's looking for; he's been filled with the same unease since he woke to find the keys to the Impala on the nightstand and Dean nowhere in sight. And since when does he leave his car behind? Sam wouldn't put it past Dean to ditch him – "for your own good" – and leave him here to hunt with Jo. And if that happens… Sam's fingers tighten in the clothes he's holding. You've got an hour, Dean; then all bets are off.

Sam forces himself to relax as he drops his laundry onto the bed, reaches down and swings his duffel bag up onto the mattress. Glances at Jo. "Morning." Might as well start with the basics.

Jo's taken a seat on the end of her bed, her back going rigid at Sam's casual greeting. "I'm not talking to you." She still can't believe Sam up and left last night, hadn't lifted one finger in her defense. After all, he knows what Dean is like, how damn unreasonable the man is, and -

"Okay," Sam agrees, just keeps stuffing his clothes into his bag. He knows from his brief time living with Jess that "I'm not talking to you" readily translates to "I'm about to be talking to you a lot." Any time now, Sam resigns. And sure enough…

"How could you?" Jo turns on him, eyes flashing with righteous anger. "How could you just walk away, and let him…" Her voice trails off, color flooding her cheeks.

Sam's mouth quirks apologetically. "He was right." As much as he hates to admit it, the Winchester brand of discipline does have its uses, and this is one lesson Jo can't afford to forget.

Jo's jaw drops. It takes a moment for her to recover, then, "And you're supposed to be the evolved one?"

"Hey," Sam protests, uncertain if he's objecting to the slight on Dean's behalf or his. "It's the way we were raised." He can't remember a time a mistake like Jo's wouldn't have been answered by a trip over his father's knee. Even Dean's, on rare occasion. And while Sam can't say he appreciated it much at the time, the prospect of such a juvenile punishment certainly made him more attentive on the job, maybe even saved his life a few times.

"What? To be chauvinists?" Jo demands, unimpressed.

"To be hunters," Sam amends, zipping up his bag and walking over to sit beside her. He leans his forearms on his knees, laces his fingers loosely together. Waits until he's pretty sure Jo's not going to do him bodily harm before speaking quietly. "You make mistakes out here, you die." How many times had Dad tried to tell him that? "Did you really think Dean wouldn't care, that he'd just let it go without making sure the same thing wouldn't happen again?"

Jo shrugs under the younger Winchester's discerning stare. "Well, he was hoping to never see me again." She means it to sound flippant, but there's a raw edge to the words she can't quite swallow.

Sam frowns. "Things aren't always what they seem, Jo." Hardly ever, actually. He wishes Dean would just tell Jo about the deal, tell her everything – whatever that is – but Dean's not known for his communication skills on the days he's not going to hell.

"Whatever; he didn't have to do that," Jo mumbles, realizing she's pouting but at this point hardly able to stop herself. If she's going to be treated like a child, she might as well enjoy the perks of acting like one.

"You going to forget it anytime soon?" Sam asks, and tries not to grin at the incredulous look it earns him.

"You've got to be kidding."

Sam nods in easy agreement. "There you go."

Jo stares at him, her lips parted to form an argument, but nothing quite comes to mind. Outnumbered and outgunned. She sighs and looks away, eyes moving over the dead animals mounted to the room's every wall. And, okay, something about taxidermy is just wrong.

"So." Sam's voice hangs carefully on the word. "We still friends?" A little wrinkle appears in Jo's forehead as her gaze drops to the floor. The sideways glance she shoots him is wary, or shy, or maybe a little of both.

"Are we? Friends, I mean?"

"Well." Sam pretends to consider. "You've seen me possessed twice now. Figure that makes us a little more than polite acquaintances."

"Huh." And maybe it's not much, Jo tells herself, but it's enough; a slight opening of the door into their shared world - somewhere she might actually fit in, given half a chance. Jo smiles down at the dirty toes of her boots, suddenly doesn't regret the hours of overtime mopping up beer and rebuffing crude overtures they cost her. Who knows? She might just break them in yet.

********************************************************

Dean returns exactly forty-eight minutes and thirty-seven seconds later, if Sam is counting. And he is. The Impala's already loaded, and Jo disappears without a word, slips out to wait by the car. If Dean notices the tension amongst the three of them, he's ignoring it, instead choosing to throw his duffel up on the bed and shove it full of dirty clothes.

"Where have you been?"

Dean scoffs at the tone. Sometimes he swears Sam thinks they're married. And he wouldn't mind, really, except sometimes Dean starts to think so, too. "Out."

"Yeah, well, I kinda figured that one out on my own," Sam tells him, hands moving to his hips. If Dean thinks he's going to relegate Sam to a "need to know" basis, he's got another think coming.

"Good going, Nancy Drew. Hey, get my bag from the john?"

Sam's jaw shifts, but he turns on his heel anyway and fetches the leather case from the bathroom counter. He tosses it to Dean a little harder than necessary, causing his brother to raise an eyebrow.

"What's got your panties in a twist?"

"We're supposed to be on the road already," Sam tells him. "I went along with this because it was what you wanted to do, but it's time to take Jo home and get to work on this deal. There's a shaman in Arizona I think we should talk to…" Sam scowls as Dean eyeballs a Concerosa-slimed shirt. Is he even listening? "Is this going to be a thing now?" Sam demands. "Me waking up and you being gone?"

Dean stuffs the shirt in his bag, glances over. "That's rich, coming from you."

"You got something you want to say to me, Dean?" Sam asks, anger tingeing his voice.

"No. Yeah," Dean says, zipping up the duffel and straightening. He slings the bag to his shoulder, turning to face his belligerent little brother. Christ. Dean really doesn't have the time or the energy for one of Sam's hissy fits right now. When's he gonna stop fighting this? The memory of Sam's life ebbing away beneath his helpless hands is still all too vivid, and Dean summons patience. "Look, whatever's gonna happen is gonna happen, Sam. You're just gonna have to get used to the idea."

Sam's hands curl into fists. "What do you want from me?" he asks tightly. Because I'll do anything. "Do you want me to apologize? Say I'm sorry for leaving you here with Dad?"

Dean's mouth twists sadly. "I don't need your apology."

"What do you need?" The naked sincerity on Dean's face is scaring the hell out of Sam; it's as if his brother has already given up.

"I need to know you're gonna be alright."

Sam walks away when his eyes start to burn, refuses to utter the words that will free Dean to his fate. Because Dean doesn't know what Sam knows. That without Dean, he'll never be alright again.

*********************************************************

"So," Dean says, popping a Def Leppard cassette into the Impala's tape deck as his left hand deftly steers them onto the small, one-lane highway leading away from Winnfield. "Any donuts left back there?" An empty box bounces off the front seat between him and Sam, and Dean grimaces as he brushes the crumbs from his thigh. "Hey, just asking," he mutters.

"Well, if we hadn't gotten such a late start, maybe there'd be time for breakfast," Sam puts in, just before sound booms from behind them, the car windows vibrating with the force. Sam and Jo scramble to twist in their seats, gaping back at the black smoke rising just west of town.

"What was that?" Jo breathes.

Dean shrugs, glancing in the rearview mirror. "Looks like a plant blew up or something." He can't help sounding just a little pleased with himself.

Sam turns to his brother, incredulous. "Dean! You can't just - you're - "

"Unbelievable? Amazing?" Dean prompts modestly.

"Try insane. Man, there are certain things you - "

"Hey, we couldn't exactly deal with the corpses inside, and they were too heavy to drag outside – this was easier." Dean shakes his head as Sam subsides, slouching back in his seat with an annoying lack of enthusiasm. "Well. This is gonna be a fun drive," Dean grouses, glancing from his pissy little brother to the blonde pouting in the backseat before returning his attention to the road. He fumbles in his coat pocket for his cell and switches it on, frowning when he sees the multiple messages. A disturbing thought occurs to him. "Either of you remember to call Ellen?"

Silence, from both his passengers.

Dean's lips purse tightly as he punches in his code, causing Ellen's angry voice to blare from the device. "Great." Hell keeps looking better and better.

**********************************

"So if we drop Jo off and head out, we can be in Polacca this time tomorrow," Sam says, staring intently at the map in front of him. He's allowed just enough time for gassing up and the odd hour of sleep. As happy as he is they're able to return Jo to Ellen, they burned enough time in Wisconsin, and there's still that small matter of Dean's soul that needs saving to be dealt with.

Dean tilts his head toward his brother as they move along the highway. "Head out? Like tonight?" He glances at Jo in the rearview mirror, but the blonde is still glowering out the window at the passing farmland. The last few hours in the car have been anything but pleasant, and if she kicks the back of his seat just one more time… "Bobby's expecting us to stay the night; it'd be rude to just - "

"Leave?" Jo supplies from the back, a little too sweetly. "Maybe you could promise to call him. You're mighty good at that."

"Besides," Dean drawls through his teeth, because damn it, he's not one of those guys, not a liar. Not like she's making him out to be. "You know Ellen won't let us off the hook that easy. Let's just stay, get Jo settled in; make a fresh start in the morning."

"Oh, don't go to any trouble on my account," Jo tells him, and this time there's no missing the sarcasm. "You're in a hurry; why even stop? Just slow it down a little and I'll just roll myself out of the – oomph!" Jo releases a muffled exclamation as Dean abruptly swings the car onto the shoulder and pulls to a stop, causing her forehead to smack against the back of the front seat.

"You should wear your seatbelt, Jo," Sam says tiredly, glancing at his watch. Five hours, twenty-seven minutes. He didn't have to be a psychic freak to see this one coming.

Jo ignores the PSA, fingers automatically lifting to her stitches. Still intact. No thanks to him. "He did that on purpose!" she accuses, eyes darting to where Dean's already climbed from the car. Shit. Seconds after the driver's door slams shut, the door nearest Jo is jerked open.

"Get out."

Jo's heart feels like it's jumped to her throat, and she wishes she'd stopped kicking the man's seat an hour ago. "No. I'm fine, really, I'll just – hey!" She panics a little as Dean's hand on her arm pulls her from the car and several steps away. "You can – well, you just keep your hands off me," she sputters, twisting free of his grasp and trying not to be intimidated by the way the hunter's glaring at her. She scowls back, caught off guard a moment later when Dean's lips twitch. "What?"

"Nothing."

Jo suddenly realizes her hands have moved protectively over her backside, and she drops them to her sides, heat flooding her face so quickly it's dizzying. "You're a jerk."

"Yeah, I know."

"Don't you dare humor me."

Dean rubs a hand over his short-cropped head in frustration. "I'm not humoring you, okay? I just - "

"Don't want trouble with my mother," Jo finishes curtly.

"Oh, man, don't start up with that again - "

"Why not?" Jo wants to know. "She's the reason you didn't want me hunting with you in Chicago, and she's the reason you came to get me in Duluth. It's just too bad it took me so long to catch on. If I'd known you had a thing for my mom, I'd never have bothered!"

"It ain't about your mom," Dean barks, startling a pair of yellow-breasted birds from the roadside field. Jo's eyes widen at the outburst, then narrow with suspicion. Fuck.

"Then what's it about? Oh, no," she says, catching his arm before he can back away. "Not this time."

"Jo," Dean warns gruffly, his gaze moving over her face in spite of the warning shots firing all over his upstairs brain. He didn't want to do this, doesn't want to see that look come over her face -

"Just tell me," she insists, her mouth setting mutinously. She wants to hear it from his own lips, not from Sam's, not a demon's. Needs to hear it for herself, and maybe then she can put this thing to rest and move on.

"Something happened in Cold Oak."

Jo blinks, frowns. "That's where the demon took Sam, right?

"Things went bad… I didn't - " Dean clears his throat. "Sam died." The two words still make his blood run cold.

"You mean figuratively?" But Dean's expression doesn't waver. "What did you do?" she whispers, but she already knows. She's heard tales of crossroads, the deals that can be made there. And there's only one form of currency considered worthy of a demon's time.

"What I had to. I'd do it again," he tells her, because Jo has to know he has no regrets about this, that family comes first. Always has, always will.

"How long do you have?" Jo asks softly.

Dean shrugs. "A little over ten months now."

She nods. Then, "We can fix this. We'll find a way out of it; we've just got to - "

"No."

"But - "

"It can't be fixed, sweetheart. Trust me on this," Dean adds, cutting short her protest with a crooked half-smile. "And someone's gonna need to help Bobby hunt down those demons and send them back to hell. Especially when – well…"

Jo nods again, swallows. This isn't what she expected to hear, and all her imagined responses and thoughts drift and scatter like dust along the highway. "Go back to school; get married, have kids – you know." "Is that what you're planning to do?" "Is this why you weren't planning on seeing me again?" she asks numbly.

Dean glances over to where the sun sinks lower in the Dakota sky. "Get back in the car, Jo," he says gruffly. "Your mom's waiting."

***********************************************************

"Damned if that don't beat all. Ain't heard tell of a pair of Concerose since you two were pups," Bobby admits, leaning back in his chair and scratching at the back of his neck. The hunters are crowded around Bobby's small kitchen table as Ellen moves around them, clearing the empty dishes away with the ease of long habit. The woman might be put out about their failure to check in, but she'd still found time to cluck over scrapes and bruises, insisted on feeding the them even at this late hour.

Nothing like a last supper
, Dean thinks. Not that he's complaining. It's not often he and Sam have the luxury of a home-cooked meal, the kind of food that doesn't come with microwave instructions or delivered in disposable containers; pot roast, real potatoes and gravy, buttered carrots… No wonder Bobby's keeping her.

"They're not grown yet," Ellen reminds the man, turning from settling some leftovers in Bobby's refrigerator. She steps closer, strokes a hand over Jo's shiny head. Nods at the girl's still half-full plate. "A stiff breeze is like to blow you over," she tells her.

Jo smiles weakly, shakes her head. "Really, Mom, I'm not - "

"Eat," Ellen insists, with the same incontestable authority that once sent even the roughest customers scuttling out of Harvelle's.

Jo rolls her eyes, but picks up her fork again, causing Dean to snicker around his beer.

Ellen lets her fingertips feather over Jo's forehead, checking the neat stitches Sam had put in at the motel before leveling her gaze on the Winchesters. "You think that's funny? Wait 'til you hear what I have to say to you."

Sam swallows a mouthful of pie. "No, ma'am," he replies, shooting a warning look in Dean's direction, but as usual, his brother doesn't take the hint.

"Aw, c'mon, Ellen," Dean says, setting his beer down by the remains of his own dessert. "We already explained about the phones, and we got Jo back safe and sound; isn't that the most important thing? And believe me, she ain't exactly easy to watch – ow!" He grabs for his shin, now neatly imprinted with the toe of Jo's boot.

Bobby snorts. "That apple don't fall far from the tree."

"No excuse for not checking messages," Ellen maintains, ignoring the salvage man's remark. At least for now. Her dark eyes consider the Winchesters. "Still, you got a point."

"And you can't blame – wait. I do?" Huh. Dean releases the grip on his shin, glancing questioningly at Sam, but the younger hunter shrugs, equally at a loss.

"You do," Ellen confirms. "Jo and I didn't exactly part on the best of terms, and you boys gave me the chance to remedy that, and for that I'm grateful."

"They didn't have to watch me that much," Jo grumbles at her plate, wringing grins from the other occupants of the room. Even Ellen's face relaxes into a smile, losing the lines and tension of these last harrowing months. She pats Jo's shoulder soothingly before turning back to the brothers.

"It won't happen again." The woman's words are both an absolution and a threat.

"No, ma'am," Sam repeats, recognizing a reprieve when he hears it. If an occasional call is all it takes to keep on Ellen's good side, he's in.

Dean scoffs. "'Course not." Maybe now the hunters can focus on something more critical. Like demons, and crossroad deals, and - He glances toward the kitchen counter. "Does this mean there's more pie?"

*************************************************

It's close to midnight when Bobby emerges from the cozy glow of the house, the soft strains of conversation trailing behind him. Dean hears the man's footsteps cross the porch, the crunch of gravel as he approaches the Impala.

"Wondered where you'd gotten off to."

Dean squints in the dim light, eyes roaming the contents of the trunk. "Just checking inventory; Sam wants to leave first thing, talk to this holy guy he's found."

"And you don't."

The flat statement is telling. Bobby's face is shadowed beneath his cap, but Dean doesn't need to see to the man's face to know he's annoyed. "C'mon, Bobby. We both know there's no getting around this deal."

"Sam know that?"

Dean stiffens. He's doing everything he can to prepare Sam for this. "You don't think I've given enough? You don't think I've paid enough? I'm done with it. All of it." "Keep telling him; just doesn't listen."

"That would be frustrating," Bobby agrees, sounding anything but agreeable as he pulls his hat off and dusts it against his leg.

"Look, any weaseling, any welching, and Sam dies, and I'm not gonna let that happen." "It's my job, right? Watch out for my pain in the ass little brother?" Dean's fingers whiten where they grip the car. "Not again."

The older man sighs, tries reason. "Sam's a lot of things, but stupid ain't one of 'em. What if he finds something?"

"I'll make sure he doesn't."

The grim pronouncement has Bobby all but slapping the cap back onto his head. "You're sounding more like your dad every day." It's not a compliment, and they both know it.

"That's the idea." Dean shuts the trunk. John Winchester might have been the first man to climb out of Hell, but with any luck, he won't be the last.

*************************************************

"Where's Dean?" Jo skids to a halt in the kitchen doorway, still tousled with sleep and flushed from the dash downstairs. She stares at her mother and Bobby expectantly, ignoring the aroma of fresh coffee and the plate of toast on the table. The Winchesters like to leave early, and Jo has unfinished business here.

Ellen pauses, her coffee poised at mid-sip, glances across the table at a bemused Bobby. "I think he's out front, waiting for - "

"Thanks!" Jo doesn't wait for her mother to finish, just sprints for the front door. Behind her, Uncle Bobby mutters something about kids and people over thirty being damn near invisible, but Jo will make it up to him later. She slams out the screen door, pleased to find Dean leaning against the porch railing. He turns from watching the sunrise, probably expecting Sam, and managing to look only slightly surprised when Jo slaps the piece of worn leather into his open palm.

"Check it out."

Dean slides the small knife from its sheath, pleased he'd thought to wipe the Concerosa's blood off the thing. "What's this?" he asks, letting himself sound bored as his thumb slides over the handle of the bowie, tracing the W.A.H. etched into its surface. Jo really does need a better weapon. Bobby'll see to it.

Jo beams, slightly breathless with her enthusiasm. "Was going to ask you the same thing. Found it in my bag."

"That was lucky," Dean says, sheathing the weapon again and passing it back to her. Jo doesn't know how lucky. He spent the better part of last night combing the plant for the damn thing.

"Right," Jo drawls, taking back the knife and folding her arms. "And you don't know anything about it." Because missing knives just turn up in the laundry all the time.
"Should I?" It's his best poker face; meant to close the subject, but Jo's never been afraid to call his hand. Instead she closes the distance between them, comes to lean on the rail beside him.

"Well, if you did, I'd say thanks," she says gravely. "It means a lot."

His mouth curves in the faint suggestion of a smile. "How're you and your mom getting on?"

"Okay; I think - I don't know," she admits, with a quick look back at the house. "We realized we have some talking to do. Lots of talking, actually."

"Sounds like a good thing to me." How many times has he wanted to talk with Dad again, just one more time? Jo's going to be fine; might even make a damn good hunter someday. When she starts following orders, Dean thinks wryly. He wonders if Bobby knows what he's in for. "Stay out of trouble, you hear?"

"Yeah, well; I'm not exactly the type," she replies, shrugging off the advice.

Dean's brows draw together. "Am I gonna have to come back here?"

Her lips curl into a smirk, and Dean releases a short huff of laughter. Walked right into that one, Winchester. His calloused hand wraps warmly around the back of her neck, his thumb stroking the sensitive patch of skin behind her ear just as the screen door swings open for the second time this morning.

"Dean! You ready to - " Sam stops in his tracks, eyes widening as they light on the pair. "Uh, I - I'm sorry," he offers, frowning and hefting his duffel a little higher on his shoulder. "Do you need a minute to - "

Say goodbye?
"Nah," Jo tells him, blushing a little and stepping back as Dean's hand falls away. "We're good. Right?" she asks, glancing at Dean for confirmation. Tries to sound casual and not like some silly schoolgirl whose boyfriend is leaving for college. He'll be back. But she's spent enough years waiting for hunters that never return. Her father, "uncles," Rick, and why doesn't she just listen to her mother?

"Absolutely." Dean nods at her, relieved this isn't the disaster it could have been if he'd hit on her that first day in Harvelle's. "Jo, you've got a mother that worries about you. Who wants something more for you." Whatever happens, he's got no regrets here. "Remember what I said," he murmurs, brushing past her and heading for the car.

Jo and Sam say their goodbyes, and Bobby and Ellen join them on the porch, but Jo doesn't follow the brief exchange that follows. Her eyes remain drawn to the other Winchester – the my-way-or-the-highway Winchester, the won't-admit-to-doing-nice-things Winchester – as he adjusts the side mirror of the Impala with a steady hand. In the bright morning light, the hunter looks young, invincible. And suddenly Jo's convinced it's the last she'll ever see of him.

*********************************************************

"You know she's still hung up on you." Sam doesn't see any point in giving Dean the silent treatment all the way to Polacca; especially since it seems to be what Dean prefers.

Dean keeps his eyes on the road, turns the Impala onto the westbound highway. "There'll be someone else."

"And that's okay with you?" Sometimes Sam thinks he'll never understand his brother, why Dean finds it so easy to give up everything most people take for granted.

"Why wouldn't it be? She's safer with family."

Sam can't argue with that, can't imagine how worried Ellen must have been to know Jo was alone with an army of demons on the loose. The thought has him frowning. "Hey, Dean?"

"Yeah."

"So if Dad thought it was so dangerous for me to be at Stanford, how come you never came and got me?"

Dean's brow furrows. "Did you want us to?"

"Just answer the question," Sam tells him. Why are these conversations always like pulling teeth?

Dean shrugs, looks rueful. "You always knew what you wanted; we protected you as much as we could, but in the end, it wasn't a fight we could win." He slants Sam a meaningful glance.

"Dean - "

Dean shakes his head. "No way around it, Sammy. When this is all over, you're gonna have to let me go my own way." He watches Sam flinch at hearing his own words on Dean's lips and hates himself for sinking so low. But he won't be doing Sam any favors by giving him false hope.

Sam turns toward the window, tries to ignore the tight, suffocating feeling in his chest. I was going to school, not hell. Although knowing Dean, it's not much of a distinction. Sam was just as out of reach in those years, had spent so much time resenting what his childhood had taken away that he'd forgotten what it had given. Without the fire, without hunting, Dean wouldn't be Dean, and the older brother Sam knows wouldn't exist. Even in Chicago, Sam had still refused to see it, hadn't fully realized what was at stake. Sam's come a long way since that night, though; found his way back. "You can't go, man, not now. We were just starting to be brothers again."

"Wake me when we hit Nebraska," Sam says, sinking in his seat and closing his eyes. There's the familiar click of Dean switching on the radio, and then America floods the speakers. " - you see it in my eyes? I been one poor correspondent, and I been too, too hard to find, but it doesn't mean you ain't been on my mind. Will you - "

They have ten months.

They'll figure it out as they go.

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