It’s nine months into his deal (no, neither Winchester said anything, but between Bobby’s significant glances and veiled references and Sam Winchester’s significant and barely veiled panic, she’d have to be a pretty dull hunter not to get it) and Dean Winchester still looks good. Time’s wingèd chariot, if he even hears it over the roar of the Impala, bothers him not at all.
Also, he’s become much less hesitant about approaching her, as if he’s decided to ignore their fathers’ history and count on her stupid, stupid crush to get her to ignore it too. She thinks it’s not the crush, but just growing up, that keeps her civil. John Winchester’s boys are what they are, and she’d be a fool to trust them, but they sure do kill a lot of demons. And they pitched in rebuilding the Roadhouse.
Some of the hunters said they’d help and then drank a bunch of beer and jawed with each other. But Dean’s boasting about his occasional construction work was obviously not entirely made up, and Sam was big and smart enough to be useful too. Even though the construction had horror behind it, she’d still felt a thrill when they all got together and pulled on the ropes that raised the frame of the roof, everybody mostly obeying her mom’s shouted directions.
What they helped slap together isn’t pretty, but it feels right, and what’s left of the hunting community comes back with even greater regularity than before, as if the roadhouse is some sort of good luck charm now. Hunters can be damned deluded. Maybe they have to be.
Dean and Sam are just back from a hunt just over the border in Canada -- Dean sat at the bar and bragged about how they pulled it off while Sam perched on a stool nearby with his mouth all pinched like he was sucking on a sour apple. He hadn’t wanted the risk--the human risk--of a border crossing, but it was one of the demons from Wyoming, and let’s just say it doesn’t take corrective lenses to see that Sam feels responsible for every drop of blood those demons spill. But talking about it just makes him hunch up, pulling into himself like a bobbin winding thread.
Sam heads back to the little room Mom keeps so hunters she trusts have a place to crash. Dean watches him go, his brows raised as if he’s surprised that Sam is turning in so early. “Try not to take up all the room,” he suggests, and Sam gets it together enough to swivel and give him the finger, though she thinks Sam’s forcing it. He walks like every step away from Dean pulls off another scab.
After a few minutes, Dean gives one last glance at the door through which Sam disappeared, then brings his beer over to where she’s idly restocking the glassware. The bar counter is between them, but she’d swear she can feel his gaze like sunlight on her back, demanding her attention.
She half turns, looking at him sidelong. “Something you wanted to say to me?”
He smiles that shiteating, I’m-too-sexy grin, and then it mutates into something far less certain. She has the unwelcome insight that Dean doesn’t think he’s going to get his way on things that matter to him, and further that whatever he’s about to say, it matters to him.
“It’s Sam,” he says.
Of course it is. “What about him?”
“He’s gonna -- need looking after. When I’m gone.” Which is an admission that she knows about his impending expiration date, and even as she thinks it’s deliberate flattery she feels herself responding to the confirmation that Dean doesn’t think she’s a moron.
But this is dangerous in so many ways. “Yeah?” she asks, challenging.
“And I’m asking -- you’d be good at it. I’ve watched you -- that job in Newark, you were rock solid. If he won’t go back to school, you could keep him safe.”
This, now, might be manipulation, but it is also true. Dean’s options are limited by the lingering distrust many hunters have for Sam -- hell, Jo’s a little worried about him her own self -- but Dean would skin himself before exposing Sam to an avoidable risk. So he’s finally seen past the girl parts to the hunter. Jo reminds herself that she already knew what she was; she didn’t need Dean Winchester’s endorsement.
But it’s nice to have.
Dean is staring at her, eyes wide. His pupils are dilated in the dimness of the bar; he blinks, a slow sweep of those beautiful lashes. His face is tight with anxiety.
“Please,” he says. “I can’t -- don’t leave him alone.”
She thinks, idly, that she could say yes and have him. For three months at least, Dean would do anything to bind her more tightly. Come to her bed every night. Worship her, and mean it, if only for the dowry she could bring Sam. Love her, a little. Make her part of the family.
Dump a lifetime of obligation on her and leave her alone.
The worst part is that he’d be one hundred percent sincere. Exactly what she wanted, except horrible.
“Jo,” he says, reaching a hand out to touch her shoulder, too insistent to be gentle. “I’m begging you --”
“Yeah,” she says roughly, grabbing for a towel so that she has something to do with her hands. “Yeah, I’ll do it.” She doesn’t look up, doesn’t want to see what’s on offer. “You go on back. I bet he’s waiting up.” She throws the towel down and moves towards the other end of the bar.
“Jo,” he says again from behind her, but really, there’s nothing more to say.
He was waiting for her in a church, as if that would help him.
She swept the doors open with a touch of her mind. The wind of their passing set the hundreds of candleflames lighting the interior to flickering. Anyone going to Hell could afford a little drama, she thought, and smiled. He sat in a pew just in front of the altar, his sprawling legs feigning a relaxation his tight shoulders betrayed as a lie. His head rose as she approached; she nodded acknowledgement.
“I’m glad you didn’t run,” she said. “Running is so pathetic.”
He smiled, just a twist of his lips. “Don’t much care about your opinion, sweetheart. But a deal’s a deal.”
She snorted. So much bravado -- men who made deals always thought they were starring in some blockbuster movie, and this one was no different, except for the fact that he’d known so much better than the others what he was doing. The church was even lit for a confrontation, the crucifix above the altar blazing chalk-white against the dimness. “Do you think God will finally notice you and all your good works if we do this here?” she asked as she moved towards him, her dress slithering against her legs. The air was warm and sweet with candlewax. “Do you think there’ll be some divine intervention?”
He shook his head. His eyes fixed on hers, unblinking. He wasn’t at peace, but perhaps he’d made peace, the only way he knew how -- with a gun. He’d certainly killed enough beasties in the past year, and sent more of her kind screaming back to Hell.
She settled down onto him, straddling his legs and thrusting her crotch against his. She could feel him react, his disgust fueling her arousal -- and his own. “You are such a good boy,” she purred in his ear, running one hand over the back of his neck, over the close-cropped hair. Touching him was like petting a wildcat, warm and prickly. He was almost panting, his breath louder than the beating of her stolen heart.
“Where’s your brother?”
“I made him go. He shouldn’t have to see this.” His voice was even. He’d been rehearsing this speech since before he’d taken the deal, she thought.
Somewhere in the depths of the church, a board groaned, sounding like a man in the middle of a hard fucking.
“Oh, no,” she said, and didn’t even bother to make her tone mocking. “I think he should.” She raised her hand and snapped her fingers, and with a soft pop of displaced air, the one she’d resurrected was with them. She could hear the boy’s surprised gasp. She snapped again and heard him cursing against the bonds she’d conjured.
“Please,” Dean said. “Don’t make him watch.”
His eyes were wide and scared now, the candlelight gleaming in them like echoes of hellfire. She couldn’t wait to see the real fires burning. She’d send him to ash and then resurrect him, rewinding each burning instant. She’d ask him whether it hurt more in reverse.
“Come on, Dean,” she said. “You should want him to see. You wouldn’t want him thinking his life was bought cheap.”
“Sam,” he said, his voice weak against the roar of flames in her ears. “Sam, close your eyes.”
“Dean,” the young one garbled, his outraged voice barely intelligible past the gag. So that was Sam, the one behind Dean’s deal, the one who’d figured in greater plans than hers. She’d never much cared for that class of demon, and Sam Winchester was never going to dig at a crossroads, so she had little interest in him except as he could be made to suffer. And suffering he was: she could hear the high note of fear in his tone, sent back to childhood by the horror of it all.
“He still smells like the grave,” she whispered in Dean’s ear. “How could you stand it, a year living with that?” It was a lie; or, more precisely, she had no fucking idea how little brother smelled. It was just fun to say.
“Please,” Dean said again, ignoring his brother to fix her with his supplicating expression. His eyes were filmed with tears, his mouth wet and open -- good for him, because it would be dry enough where they were going. He was so pretty, as if he didn’t know that it made him even more fun to hurt.
“Oh, sweetheart,” she said, and kissed him long and slow. He didn’t fight her tongue in his mouth, probably thinking that she’d take any resistance as an attempt to get out of the deal. When she pressed into him, breasts and thighs and everything in between, his hands came up involuntarily, splaying across her back. He bucked up into her, just once, and her entire body shuddered with delight. His skin was hot and sweating; she bit at his lip and tasted salt.
“Stop,” Sam croaked from somewhere far off. She smiled against Dean’s mouth, bringing a hand up to run her thumb across his spit-slick lower lip. Rustling noises, the sound of something cascading to the floor, and then a hand on her shoulder, gripping hard.
She swiveled her head around deliberately, looking up at Sam’s angry face. Should have known he’d have brought a knife with him; should have spelled him to watch naked.
“What, you want the closeup?” she asked, sneering.
“I want you to release him, of your own free will,” he said, and he looked so serious that she knew --
Pain, pain from something flung in her face, like the acid blood of hellhounds; her hands flew up of their own accord --
Somewhere else now, red and roaring with pain; motherfucker had sent her back to hell somehow, but not a corner she knew --
Flying apart like she’d been shot in the head, but in slow motion, skin and bone and blood peeling off in every direction -- her bones disintegrating within her, turning into missiles that shredded her guts, skewered by her own insides --
She spent years shredding into bloody pieces --
And blinked back to the church and knew it had been less than a second. That fucking Winchester gave her just enough time to realize that subjective and objective time had been cleaved apart, then sent her back into her pocket of hell.
When she returned the second time, she had almost forgotten their names.
“Release him from the deal, of your own free will.”
Even though her physical form was intact, it was a struggle to breathe, since her mind didn’t believe it had undamaged lungs to work with. “This … is free will?”
Sam smiled, not nicely. “Demon rules, not ours. You say the words without mind control, it’s free will.”
Dean was staring at Sam, apprehension plain on his face. She’d bet he honestly hadn’t known about Sam’s plan. He still wasn’t willing to help Sam, in case that gave her license to declare the deal broken and buzz out of there. Until she took Dean’s soul, she couldn’t touch Sam, and Sam’s confidence suggested that he knew it.
She had to ignore Sam for now. He wasn’t the pivot here, no matter what the two of them thought. “Don’t let him do this, Dean. It’s a step into darkness, and he won’t get back from that.”
He blinked, still looking a little stunned, but he was coherent enough to speak. “You really think I’ll back you over Sam?”
She grinned, and only part of it was feigned. “Good point, Dean-O. But here’s the catch: are you sure that’s your Sammy? That guy who’s having more fun inflicting pain than getting you out of your deal really merits?”
Dean didn’t flinch.
“I mean, there’s some serious rage there. The real Sam, the one who didn’t come back from the dead -- do you actually think he’d master the dark arts for you? That’s what this is, you know. He’s dipped his hands in hellfire and it’s burning into his bones. You think he’d embrace his powers, give up on a normal life, for you?”
She turned to Sam now. “You know that when the djinn gave him his wish, it wasn’t really that your mother lived,” she said sweetly, confidentially. “Not that he lied to you. But let’s face it, Dean and introspection -- they’re not exactly familiar with each other. You know what his true wish was, don’t you, Sammy?”
And of course he did. But she could see on his face that it didn’t matter. It was plain selfishness. “Do you yield?”
“Fine,” she said sullenly. She sighed and swung herself off Dean, who bared his teeth at her. There were traces of her lipstick on his mouth.
She crossed her arms over her chest and looked at them, Dean still sitting as if he hadn’t yet realized that he was free to go, Sam looming like a priest over a recalcitrant congregation.
He looked at her and began to chant.
“Hey!” she said. “I was just doing my job, making a deal. No need to overreact.”
Sam paused, letting a rosary swing in his hand. She didn’t think Dean had noticed that the figure on the twisted metal cross was not what you would call a standard Jesus figure. “That’s a matter of opinion. What do you think the appropriate reaction is to you trying to send my brother’s soul to hell?”
She blinked at him and threw caution to the wind. “Nothing. Like I said, it’s my job. Rules of the game.”
“Did the rules include changing the deal to give Dean just one year?”
“Well, yes,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Like you would have been happier if it was the regular ten, anyway.”
He didn’t deny it, but he did start chanting again, which was just typical.
There’d be pain and screaming for her for a long time over this, until some demon bothered to let her out of their little prison cell. Maybe it would take so long that Sam and Dean Winchester would be dead by the time she got back to making deals. But maybe not. And either way, it looked like at least one of them would be joining her team, and then there would be such games to play …
She held on to that hope as the howling winds rose and tore her back down.
“I’m telling you, Sam,” Dean said as he decapitated another elf, “we need a vacation.”
Sam, too busy to explain just how stupid that idea was, grunted a negative. He reversed his ax, scything through a throat and wincing as the blood spattered hot on his face. The elves were so small that his reach was about twice theirs, but he was having to bend a lot and he’d have a hell of a backache by the end of this. Dean, meanwhile, was all show business, ducking and stabbing and rolling like he was filming stunts. Watching Dean might be Sam’s favorite part of this whole business -- though the mental tally of vanquished evil things, ticking up like the display on a gas pump, was a close second.
Eventually the last pathetic keening noises died away. The clearing stank of elf blood, a smell somewhere between human blood and orange juice. They hadn’t done elves since -- well, before Stanford, and the last time he’d been too broody to enjoy the contrast between Disneyfied stereotypes and real, vicious elven magic. Nothing promoted cynicism quite like seeing a gauzy little winged girl open her mouth and show her bloody needle teeth.
Sam kicked a body off a fallen tree trunk and sat down in the vacated space.
“Dude,” Dean said.
Sam stared at him. “What?”
“That’s -- elves are nasty little shits, no two ways about it, but --” He looked away. “Forget it.” He sheathed his knives -- real cleaning would come later, in their motel room -- and tilted his head back, his hands pressed against his lower back. Those elves really were not tall enough to fuck with the Winchesters.
“No, I don’t think so.”
Dean looked over his shoulder at Sam, curious and wary.
Sam was hyped up, his blood still fizzing in his veins. They were supposed to be congratulating each other, trading claims about whose body count was higher, and debating whether to get wings or pizza. If Dean wanted to be a downer, then they’d by God talk about it, not just let the mood turn solemn and silent. “You keep pulling this. You get halfway through a sentence, and it sounds like I’m doing something wrong, but you won’t tell me. So get it out there.”
Slowly, Dean turned to him. Sam couldn’t see any reflection of the triumph he felt on Dean’s face, and he could feel his own shoulders bunching up in response.
“Just -- last year, I’d’ve done something like that -- kick the damn body over so you can rest your feet -- you’d be all over me, respect for the dead, whatever. Now --” Dean stopped again and ran a still-bloody hand through his hair. And for a guy as pretty as Dean, a lifelong hunter, to forget both blood and appearance suggested a high level of distraction.
“By ‘last year’ you mean, before I got you out of your deal.”
Dean didn’t bother to answer.
Sam sighed. “I don’t know what you want from me, Dean.”
As if he’d been waiting months for just that line, Dean said immediately, “I want you to stop.”
“‘Stop’? Stop what?” Sam scoffed.
And he should have seen it coming, but it was still a surprise. “Stop hunting. Go have your life. Might take a few years to put it back together, maybe need a new ID, but you can do it. While you can.”
Sam knew what Dean meant. There was a short time in a hunter’s life when he could quit it. A few did, drifted away, got civilian jobs -- which actually included joining the Marines in one case he knew about -- didn’t answer the phone when other hunters called. After that period passed, though, the only way out was through the undiscovered country.
“That’s what you want,” he said, and laughed once, disbelieving. “You’re the one who wanted me back in.”
Dean nodded. “I did. But now, there’s nothing darkside after you, and you -- this isn’t your life.”
Sam stood, because this conversation was whacked enough without having Dean loom over him like they were kids again. Dean’s expression was nearly unreadable underneath the drying blood, but he looked too much like Dean before a bar fight for Sam’s comfort. “And you, what would you do?”
A shrug. “Too late for me.” And to have Dean just say it like that, as if he didn’t really want to be this way, was intolerable. It woke his rage all over again, reminding him of what he used to think: that Dean had been sacrificed to this life without any need for pentacles or sigils; just given over to the cause like Isaac by Abraham, except that there had been no last-minute saves for Dean. If that was true, it meant that defeating the crossroads demon hadn’t been a victory, just a failure to lose.
No, he refused to see it that way. Hunting wasn’t a life sentence; it was a vocation. Dean might get tired sometimes, but he was meant for the hunt, and this was really about Dean reassuring himself that Sam was, too.
He knew Dean had some fantasy where Dean was the roving uncle who indulged Sam’s kids and taught them to shoot then blew out of town again, all the good parts of being a parent without the stability Dean was smart enough to know he couldn’t provide. It was a reflected dream, troublesome both for its vicariousness and for its contradiction with Dean’s other priorities.
What Dean probably needed was therapy; what Dean had was Sam. And it was close, so close, to being enough for them both.
“This life is not a curse,” he said. “It’s what I want.”
Dean looked away. Sam considered prodding, then thought he’d try to wait Dean out. For all Dean claimed he hated to talk, awkward silences opened him up faster than a bottle of beer on a hot night.
“You shouldn’t want this,” Dean said after their standoff had gone on for a few minutes. “You don’t smile unless you’ve got a gun in your hand, Sammy, and that’s not right. It’s not -- it’s bad for you. I want you to have it different. At least -- just think about it, okay? Please, Sam.”
Dean never used to ask Sam anything; he’d just tell -- usually passing on some order from Dad, or some order Dean thought Dad would give if he were around. And then it was up to Sam to behave or not.
And he wanted to explain -- no, he wanted to yell it out, because he wasn’t stupid and he couldn’t pretend that Dean hadn’t seen what he’d seen. He wanted to say: I don’t get to be a lawyer and you don’t get to be a fireman. You think the hunting is the disease, but it’s the treatment. You got the heart for killing what needs to be killed, but, man, I’ve picked up the taste. If it’s not ghosts and elves, it’ll be something else. Power has to be used against power, or it’ll be used against the weak. I’m doing the best I can.
But saying it, forcing Dean to see it that way, would be crueler than anything he’d done.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said instead. Love for Dean seized his heart, a physical pain, sweet and familiar. Dean couldn’t stop hunting, and Dean couldn’t stop Sam, which meant that it was up to Sam to make it all work.
Sam put his hand in his pocket, brushing his fingertips over the fetish doll. It was made of bandages stiff with Dean’s blood (Dean versus cursed curio cabinet; Dean’d won that fight on points) and stuffed with herbs and cartridges he’d recovered from Dean’s gun. Dean’s hair was embedded in its navel and Dean’s name was written in Sam’s blood across its hip. It was enchanted so thoroughly that it probably wouldn’t have burned up in an incinerator; since he’d started working on it, he’d seen a dire-wolf’s claws skate off Dean’s shoulder like Dean was wearing plate armor instead of leather.
“Sam,” Dean said, more insistently. “I want --”
Carefully, he tapped a finger on the fetish’s chest. It thrummed under his touch, in time with Dean’s heartbeat.
“Don’t worry about me,” Sam said. “I’m right where I need to be.”
The surrounding trees were beginning to be individually visible now, a sign of the approaching dawn. In the pearl-gray half-light, Dean’s face was scrunched up, the way it always got when he was trying to learn some new ritual.
“Dude,” Dean said at last, his voice running over the waking birdsong like a car crunching roadkill, “why are we still here? I’ve got dew and elf blood all over me.”
“I call first shower,” Sam said, and then they were off and running towards the car, shoving each other for position, sweaty, laughing, and glorious as ever.