Charlie was pretty sure her boss was trying to kill her. She couldn’t find another explanation for the three increasingly hysterical post-it notes she’d found on her desk this morning, or the four unread emails that sat in her inbox, waiting to be opened.
The wrap-up was in two days, and Charlie apparently had to write something – anything – to replace Garth’s article on the annual community fair. Seeing how Garth had managed to break his leg in the haunted house – which, really, wasn’t that scary – he wouldn’t be able to make it to the deadline. Pamela was getting antsy at the glaring hole it had left in the Culture pages.
Charlie hadn’t bothered to ask her why she hadn’t hired one of her freelance journalists; she knew more than one young journalist that would have jumped on the opportunity. But Pamela was, well, Pamela, and her choices were often related to the position of Saturn, the state of one’s chakras, other stuff that Charlie couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Charlie respected Pamela’s ways, she really did, but after this day, she was reconsidering this stance.
Still, trying to figure out the reasons her boss acted one way or another would be like trying to understand Dean’s love life, pointless and migraine-inducing. So Charlie had sighed and spent her morning firing emails at her LARPing friends to try and get some interviews. Luckily for her, they’d all been receptive to the idea. It wasn’t that surprising, really. A little publicity for Moondoor went a long way. As a result, she had spent her afternoon with them, snapping some photos in between interviews, and gathering others from her hard drive dedicated to LARPing.
Now, it was almost midnight and she’d only just started writing the actual article. Her eyes were heavy, dry as sandpaper. She felt as if there was a yawn perpetually stuck in her throat. She groaned and took her jacket from the back of the chair. She would have to finish tomorrow. Which, incidentally, was a Sunday.
With a dismayed sigh, she took a sip of her coffee, letting out a disheartened grunt when she found out it had turned cold. She mentally cursed Pamela for throwing the article at her at the last minute. Her boss wasn’t a tyrant by any stretch of the imagination, but she tended to forget that her employees had lives outside the newspaper. Not that Charlie had much of a life at the moment, she thought, smiling wryly to herself. Ever since Gilda had left for Israel six months before to take care of her sick father, Charlie had been living some kind of social dry spell. Their breakup had been amicable enough, and their relationship hadn’t been that serious to begin with, but sometimes Charlie missed their easy intimacy.
“Charlie, what are you doing?” she muttered absently, slamming her mug on the desk. She wasn’t one to dwell on morose thoughts, and she certainly wouldn’t start now. She shut down her computer and groaned, rubbing her forehead. The beginning of a headache was pounding behind her left eye.
“I am so going back home,” she singsang quietly. She wouldn’t be productive if she didn’t get at least ten hours of sleep.
The damn article could wait until tomorrow.
She didn’t get her ten hours. Her phone rang at eight – eight – in the morning. She groped around for her cellphone. The sun was peeking shyly through the space between her curtains. Charlie hated it.
Eyes opened to slits, she felt a surge of irritation when she saw the caller ID.
“I’m going to kill you.”
“Rise and shine, Charlene,” Dean’s way-too-cheery voice answered. It was grating. Charlie closed her eyes again.
“Don’t call me Charlene. What’s so important that you couldn’t wait until noon? It’s Sunday, Dirty Harry.”
“The early bird gets the worm, Charlie,” Dean replied wisely. Charlie had to fight back the urge to hang up on him. Faced with her pointed silence, Dean cleared his throat.
“Actually…I have something to ask you.”
Charlie’s head hit the pillow with a muted thump. She glared at the ceiling, absently wondering why her eyebrows felt numb. It was a weird place to feel numb.
“Whatever it is, couldn’t it wait?” she grumbled, more out of habit than anything else. She’d never be able to sleep again anyway. She didn’t pay attention to Dean’s reply, waiting for him to stop beating around the bush. Despite herself, she was intrigued. Whatever Dean wanted, he was excited enough about it to forget her rule of ‘no waking up before noon on a day off’. Which she could forgive. Maybe. If he brought her sprinkled donuts the next time they saw each other.
“Ineedsomeonetocomewithmeatthepoliceofficerball.” Dean blurted out eventually. Charlie frowned.
“Dude, talk faster, why won’t you?”
She heard Dean’s explosive sigh and smirked at her ceiling. Payback was a bitch.
“I need you to come with me to the police officer’s ball,” Dean repeated, slower. Charlie forgot that she was supposed to be angry at him and sat up on the bed.
“The police ball? You? Dean, are you sick, or something?” Her concern was almost genuine. Dean had been invited to the ball in question every year for six years – knowing the boss and everything – but he’d always managed to wiggle out of the invitations with more or less subtlety. It was the first time she heard him even consider it.
Dean huffed. “Nah, I just…listen, can you keep a secret?”
Charlie rolled her eyes so hard she was pretty sure Dean could hear it. She had proven more than once that she could, indeed, keep a secret.
“Yeah,” Dean muttered. “Okay, Bobby and I had a conversation today and…he thinks I’m next for a promotion.”
There was a beat of silence as Charlie digested the news. She whistled softly, then barked out a laugh when she understood where Dean was going with that.
“Oh, I get it. He told you to kiss some ass and blend in, didn’t he?”
The silence that followed was answer enough. She guffawed, leaning back against her pillow. Dean huffed moodily, grumbling something unintelligible. He sounded so embarrassed that Charlie sobered immediately.
“It’s really important to you, isn’t it?”
At first, she thought that Dean wouldn’t answer, that he would leave her hanging. She knew the answer to that question, anyway. Dean had spent so much time taking care of his brother, pushing him until he finally managed to enter Stanford on a full ride that he’d forgotten to take care of his own life. Now that Sam was a successful lawyer, she knew the Dean was a bit jealous, even if he’d never said it in so many words. No, not jealous. Bitter, maybe, of having lost the possibility of doing what he wanted.
Which, apparently, hadn’t been so much lost, as it had been belated.
“Yeah, Charlie,” Dean sighed eventually. “It’s important.”
Charlie nibbled at her bottom lip, frowning at the ceiling. There was a huge, butterfly-shaped spot of humidity.
It was embarrassing.
Then, she shrugged.
“Okay. But you’re taking me shopping.”
Dean’s desperate groan was music to her ears.
Charlie was pretty sure that this was what hell felt like. Her feet were hurting, and her black dress was admittedly really nice, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that it would bare her ass for everyone to see at the first brusque movement. She eyed the crowd wearily, surveying the seemingly continuous flow of people coming into the room. The ball took place at the community center, and even she’d admit that the setup was nice. The ceiling lights were bathing the room in pale light, caressing the faces and softening their edges. Waiters and waitresses in black liveries were wriggling their way through the room, offering canapés and glasses of champagne. Even the guests seemed subdued, their laughs barely heard over the music –and it was harp, for Thor’s sake.
Charlie wanted to stab herself in the eyeball.
Next to her, Dean shifted and pinched her arm. Biting back a yelp, she glared at him. She found him with a pained expression in the eyes, a fake smile plastered on his face, and her anger all but evaporated. After all, they were both in the same boat. And there was always the open bar.
“What?” she asked Dean, concealing her unease with what she hoped was success. Dean wasn’t fooled, though, and for a second, his forced smile shifted to a genuine one.
“Thanks,” Dean simply said. Charlie rolled her eyes and tried to hide a smile of her own. Dean was one of her best friends, and who was she kidding? She’d have gone to a Republican meeting if he’d asked her to, she could suffer through a few hours of awkward small talks with stuck-up bigwigs of the city council.
“You owe me,” she muttered back, eyes sweeping back to the crowd. She vaguely recognized a few faces, some of Dean’s friends that she’d met at various events. They didn’t look very comfortable either, most of them gathering in small groups and talking in hushed tones, clutching at their drinks with all the energy of the drowning person. It made her feel viciously better. At least, she wasn’t the only one who felt like a fish out of water. Next to her, Dean straightened and glanced to his right. Sure enough, a couple was approaching. The woman was a beautiful brunette in her forties who looked about as happy to wear high heels as Charlie was. At her arm, a gruff-looking guy whom Charlie instantly recognized as Bobby, Dean’s (frankly terrifying) boss and long-time friend. Dean’s face lit up; he was probably relieved to see a familiar face in this sea of sharply dressed strangers.
“Boy, I’m glad you made it,” Bobby said with what probably was a grin under his beard. The woman next to him rolled her eyes and stuck out her hand for Charlie to shake. She complied, a bit lost.
“I’m Jody. Jody Mills.” There are people you know you’re going to like the instant you meet them. Jody was one of these. There was an air of natural authority to her, betrayed by the stern lines of her forehead, but her smile was warm and welcoming. Charlie introduced herself while Dean and Bobby stroke up a conversation on the years’ crime statistics. Jody ignored them good-naturedly. Looking at Charlie, she tugged at the hem of her dress.
“It’s the last time I wear this thing, I swear,” she said with disgust. Her discomfiture was so obvious that Charlie couldn’t help chuckling.
“You don’t say. I feel like I’m stilt walking with these shoes.”
Jody smiled. “How about we keep each other company while these two make friends?”
Charlie nodded, feeling a bit lighter. Maybe the night wouldn’t be a complete failure after all.
Charlie had lost Dean. She’d lost Dean to the crowd of people gathered in the ball and she’d lost Jody to a brunette woman who clearly wanted to get into her pants. Dress. Whatever.
“My life is a disaster,” she muttered, snagging a glass of champagne from the tray of an unsuspecting waiter, but froze halfway through the gesture when she felt someone’s gaze on her. The half-bald dude that had kept on looking at her like she was a piece of red meat all night was making his way across the room, eyes intent on her legs.
“No.” she said. “No way.”
Charlie did what every hero did at least once in their life (except for Hermione, maybe).
Narrowly avoiding a few collisions, she made a beeline for the ladies’ bathroom – the only place she knew (hoped) the creep wouldn’t follow her. Slamming the door behind her, she downed the contents of her glass in one long gulp before slamming it none too gently next to a sink.
She heaved a sigh so deep she felt like her soul was trying to get out of her body, and closed her eyes.
“I know how you feel,” a voice said, and Charlie – who’d never pretended to be as brave as Hermione, and who, more importantly, didn’t have a magic wand at her disposition – Charlie yelped like a scared dog and turned around so quickly she spent an embarrassingly long time trying not to pass out.
It was a chick. Which wasn’t that surprising, considering where Charlie was. What was surprising, though, was that a girl like that felt the need to hide in the bathroom. Charlie felt entitled to the bathroom. She didn’t have doe eyes and pink lips and wavy blonde hair and long legs and –
Yeah, Charlie was staring.
“Uh,” she said intelligently. The girl raised an eyebrow and smirked. She was leaning against the wall, arms crossed, and somehow managed to look intimidating in a black dress so tiny it was almost nonexistent.
“You okay? I gave you quite a fright,” she said. Her voice was nice, Charlie noticed. Her everything was nice, actually. Then, the words made their way through her foggy, hormone-filled brain, and she frowned.
“I wasn’t afraid,” she said defensively. “Merely surprised.”
The girl’s smile widened and she nodded. “Of course. My bad.”
When Charlie didn’t answer, silence fell upon the room. The girl kept staring at her, eyes warm and cheerful. Charlie cleared her throat, leaning against the sink in a vague attempt to put up a relaxed front. The girl was pretty, sure. It wasn’t the first time she was faced with a pretty girl, though usually she didn’t meet them when trying to find a good hiding place at a shitty party.
“I’m hiding from a creep,” she offered eventually. Silence was good, but even she’d long passed her awkwardness limits for the day. “You?”
The girl’s smile slipped and she made a face dangerously close to a pout. She was less impressive that way. Charlie felt herself relax.
“I’m hiding from my mom,” the girl admitted a bit moodily. Charlie didn’t expect this answer and couldn’t hide her smile in time. Fortunately, the girl smiled back, shaking her head ruefully.
“You’d expect that at twenty-four, I’d know how to handle her when she gets overprotective,” she added. This time, Charlie laughed, shifting to get a better balance. Pain shot through her right foot and she winced, barely holding back another mortifying yelp.
“You know what, I’m done with these things,” she grunted before toeing out of her shoes. They clattered to the floor when she dropped them. It felt like fucking rebirth. She could almost hear her feet thanking her. Which was something of a creepy thought.
“Oh my god,” she moaned. “Never underestimate a woman who can walk all night with these things. I’m clearly not badass enough.”
The girl laughed. Charlie noticed that she had dimples and that her hair moved in time with her movements. It was pretty normal, come to think of it. In that case, though, it felt like some kind of religious revelation.
“You know what?” the girl said, “I think I’m not either.”
With that, she mimicked Charlie’s previous gesture, wiggling until her feet were freed from their leather coffin. The face she made was almost ecstatic. Charlie looked away, uncomfortable with the notion.
“I’m Charlie,” she said once the girl’s face went back to a PG rating.
“Well, I’m Jo,” the girl said. Whose name was Jo. Jo was a cool name, Charlie thought. Then, she tried to remember how many glasses of champagne she’d had.
She lost count around the fourth, and elected to not give a shit as long as she didn’t do something extra embarrassing, like propose to a stranger in the middle of a bathroom.
“This party is boring,” she stated, looking at her toes. Her purple nail polish was flaked, she noticed. She was classy as ever.
“You don’t say,” Jo said. “My mom organized it.”
Well, there went Charlie’s foot. Into her mouth.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted out. “I’m just –”
“Bored to death? Ready to jump out a window in order to escape?” Jo answered cheerfully. “Yeah, don’t worry. I am, too. They don’t even have good music.”
Charlie perked up at that. That was a subject she could dig.
“Yeah?” she asked. “What kind of music do you like?”
Jo sat up slowly, somehow managing not to show her panties when her bottom hit the floor. Charlie wasn’t sure if she was up for that. Instead, she sat deeper on the sink and crossed her legs to avoid any unwanted misbehavior of undergarments.
“Well, for one, I feel like some Blue Öyster Cult would loosen ‘em up.”
Charlie snorted. “Come on, Blue Öyster Cult? How cliché can you get? What next? Deep Purple?”
Jo’s indignant yelp told her one thing: her night was clearly looking up.
“Really, Charlie?” Dean grumped with a frown so deep Charlie was kinda afraid he’d get stuck this way. “Really? The bathroom? And how was I supposed to know you weren’t dead in a ditch?”
Charlie giggled weakly and leaned back against her seat. Dean turned up the volume of the music. It was Blue Öyster Cult. She wanted to giggle some more.
“I hardly think someone would try to maim me since, y’know, I was at the police ball. Where you dragged me before running away to make friends.”
Dean had the good grace of looking mildly ashamed. It didn’t last long, though, and before long he turned back to her.
“What were you doing, anyway?”
“Eyes on the road,” Charlie said reflexively instead of answering. She was still a little buzzed, but she hadn’t been drunk in the first place, and the sensation was quickly fading, leaving room to a quiet sort of warmth.
A small smile on her lips, she closed her eyes and leaned her head against the window.
It had been a good night indeed.
A week went by, and Charlie promptly shoved all thoughts of Jo in the back of her mind. She just didn’t have the time to think about it, in the haze of last-minute revisions of articles, new assignments and heated wrap-up reunions. So, what if she’d had to fight against the urge to look up Jo Harvelle’s name on Google? It was merely a reflex borne of years of virtual investigations.
She’d probably never see her again, anyway. And it was okay. Charlie was totally okay with that. She wasn’t mooning at all.
“What’s up with you?” Dorothy asked, flopping down on their couch with a quirked eyebrow. She had a forgotten pen tucked behind her ear. Charlie rolled her eyes and swiftly removed it, putting it down on the coffee table.
Dorothy handed her a bottle of beer and shrugged off her leather jacket, revealing a black button-up shirt and – was that a bowtie?
“Well, lookin’ sharp,” Charlie said with a grin. “Are you hiding stuff, Queen of Oz?”
“Quit it,” Dorothy mumbled, but a faint tinge of pink colored her cheeks. Bingo. Charlie perked up, setting her bottle down. She wasn’t in the mood for beer, anyway.
“You are, aren’t you?” she pressed, smiling. “C’mon, who’s it? Do I know them?”
Dorothy scowled and snatched Charlie’s beer from the table.
“She’s in my photography class,” she mumbled, taking a long gulp. “Screw it, I need a cigarette.”
With that, she stomped away towards the balcony, leaving her jacket on the couch. Frowning, Charlie picked it up and followed her best friend, heart suddenly heavy with concern. It wasn’t like Dorothy to brood, and it wasn’t like her to hide things from Charlie. If she had, there must have been a good reason for it.
The last rays of the sun had disappeared about half an hour before, and Charlie blinked away the darkness, letting her eyes adjust. The faint glow of the streetlights and the ever-present city lights were spreading in front of them. The air was sharp, stung Charlie’s face.
Dorothy was leaning against the balcony, a lit cigarette between her fingers. Smoke was curling in white tendrils in the air around her, and the abrasive smell rasped Charlie’s nostrils. She wrinkled her nose, but didn’t comment as she handed Dorothy her jacket.
They stayed here in silence for a while, neither of them daring to break the peaceful silence. It was the kind of silence that only existed in big cities, the kind that was always noisy enough to ground you. No matter the hour, there were always cars passing in the distance, there was always life.
Charlie liked it. She liked to feel the web of humanity around her; feel like she belonged. She’d spent so much time thinking she’d never be anything other than an outsider that it was a feeling she welcomed.
Dorothy took a long drag of her cigarette, puffing out smoke in a wide cloud. Her dark eyes were focused on a spot above the building on the opposite side of the street, and her eyebrows were knitted together in something that looked very much like anguish. Unable to keep quiet any longer, Charlie nudged her with her elbow.
“Dude, what’s happening?”
Dorothy squared her shoulders and lifted her chin.
“I messed up,” she admitted quietly. It only made the worry swell in Charlie’s chest. In the four years she had known her, she had never heard Dorothy sound so…defeated. Out of the two of them, Dorothy had always been the reasonable one, who put things into perspective and stayed calm in any situation. She waited patiently, knowing that her friend would go on when she felt like it. After a minute, Dorothy let out an explosive sigh and stubbed her cigarette against the railing.
“There’s this girl. Name’s Sarah,” she said, playing with her lighter. “I met her at the start of the year, when she signed up for the class.”
Charlie nodded. Dorothy was a photographer. Charlie had met her through her job, when she was still a freelance and Dorothy struggled with her art diploma. They’d both done quite well for themselves, she reflected. Dorothy had started giving night classes in photography at the local university to put butter on her bread, but she was getting fairly popular for her grainy black and white and her mastery of light. Hipster photography, Dean sometimes teased, but Charlie knew her friend was talented.
“We hit it off, you know. She’s like…perfect. But, well. You know. She’s straight. And, well. Today I saw her with a guy, and --” She groaned and pinched the bridge of her nose. “God, I’m such an idiot. I had to go and fall for her.”
Charlie pressed her lips together. Her heart ached at the quiet desperation in Dorothy’s voice. She put an arm around her waist.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “It really sucks.”
Dorothy snorted and leaned her head against Charlie’s shoulder.
“You could say that.”
They stayed her for a while, listening to the sound of the city, shivering in the cold spring wind. Silent. There really wasn’t anything left to say.
“I don’t know what to do,” Charlie said with a sigh. Dean and Castiel nodded sympathetically, throwing glances at Dorothy’s back. She was chatting with Ash over the counter. The only visible signs of her distress were the dark circles under her eyes. Charlie cursed herself for not noticing them earlier. She’d been so caught up in her own little life that she hadn’t even noticed that her best friend was going through heartbreak.
“It’s not your fault, Charlie,” Castiel said gravely, as if reading her thoughts. She closed her eyes briefly and smiled.
“I know. It’s just…”
“It’s just nothing,” Dean cut her off. “You couldn’t have known. Hell, she’s doing a fine job of hiding it. If she hadn’t told us, I wouldn’t have noticed either.”
Charlie nodded and took a sip of her Coke. She eyed the crowded room warily.
“This Sarah girl, have you met her?” she asked Cas. Cas had signed in for the photography class this year, because he “wanted to broaden his horizons”. Whatever it meant, Charlie had long stopped trying to understand the guy, she simply settled for basking in his awesomeness.
Castiel nodded seriously. “Sarah Blake. She’s a brilliant woman. I believe she’s the daughter of a famous art dealer. Daniel Blake, if I’m not mistaken. He’s made a name for himself with his gallery.”
Charlie whistled. “Nice. What’s a girl like her doing in a public university?”
Castiel shrugged, downing the rest of his glass in one, long gulp.
“As far as I know, she only took the one class.”
Charlie frowned. “Now, that’s just sketchy.”
Castiel shrugged. “Maybe she just wanted to try something new.”
“Yeah,” Dean piped in, eyeing his empty glass sadly. “Nothing wrong with that.”
Charlie rolled her eyes and tugged the glass from Dean’s grasp. “Whatever. I’m gonna get us new drinks.”
Dean flashed her a radiant smile and Castiel smiled faintly, glancing fondly at his best friend and pushing his own glass in Charlie’s direction. Charlie shook her head, raising from her seat. She didn’t know what had possessed her, asking the two of them advice in sentimental matters. Their feelings for each other had long passed the realm of the platonic. Yet they were still hanging onto their friendship like a lifeline, and Charlie didn’t see that changing anytime soon. Whatever, Charlie thought. She’d let them figure that out by themselves. She’d be here for Dean when the inevitable realization would trigger a drunken phone call at 3 A.M, and she figured that Castiel’s friend Anna would do the same. In the meantime, she had more urging issues.
Making her way to the bar, she glanced at Dorothy. She was laughing at something Ash had said. She looked well. Of course, she did. A broken heart wasn’t something Dorothy would ever admit to. Charlie sighed and shook her head, leaning against the counter while Ash was chattering away. She’d somehow managed to gather a small group of emotionally stunted, prickly friends, and she loved them the way they were, but sometimes it was very tiring indeed.
“What can I do for y- Charlie?”
The voice was blissfully familiar, and Charlie’s head snapped up to meet Jo’s warm brown eyes. She looked startled, and the soft lights fell upon her hair like a veil. And yeah, Charlie was staring. Again.
“I –um…Hi, Jo,” she stuttered, ever so eloquent. Jo was wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt. It was probably the hottest thing Charlie had ever seen. “What are you doing here?”
Jo shrugged, replacing a strand of blonde hair behind her ear.
“My mom owns the bar, along with another one. I help here when I’m not on shift. It was one of the conditions of my becoming a cop.” She pressed her lips together. Clearly, it was a touchy subject. Charlie wondered about Jo’s relationship with her mother. She remembered her mentioning that she was hiding from her mom, back in that bathroom.
“It’s a nice place,” she said. She wasn’t about to ask unwelcome questions, and the way Jo’s shoulders relaxed minutely told her it was the right choice. Jo smiled, lowering her eyelashes. The way they grazed against her cheeks made Charlie stare even harder. There was some Leonardo Da Vinci shit going on there.
“So, can I get you anything?”
It sounded like a pick-up line. It wasn’t, Charlie reasoned. Jo was on the other side of the counter. It was a perfectly normal question. No big deal.
Jo was staring at her, and Charlie realized that she hadn’t answered. What was wrong with her?
“Uh, three beers, please,” she blurted out, before remembering that Castiel only drank alcohol on special occasions. “Scratch that, two beers and a Coke.”
To her credit, Jo managed to keep the smile at bay for a second. Then, she snorted softly and turned her back to Charlie under the pretense of using the beer tap.
Charlie shrugged warily, glancing at Dorothy, who was staring into her drink like she was considering the idea of drowning in it.
“You could say that.”
Jo hummed noncommittally, pushing two glasses of beer towards Charlie.
“Boyfriend givin’ you trouble?” she asked. It was so unexpected that Charlie’s fingers stopped absently picking at her sleeve. She cleared her throat to buy some time, peering at Jo through narrowed eyes. Jo didn’t look up, busy trying to find a new bottle of Coke. A little too busy.
“No, nothing like that. Guys are not my type. Girls. More my area.”
Well, there went the most awkward coming-out speech she’d ever had. Jo’s eyes shot up and she closed the fridge, rising to her feet. Her face was almost expressionless, and Charlie worried for a moment that she’d read the whole situation wrong.
It was so transparent that Charlie had to bite back a very undignified snort of laughter.
“Nah, I’m single.” When Jo’s eyes went wide and she banged her head on the shelf, Charlie took pity on her. “It’s my friend that’s having some girl-related troubles.” She shrugged. “It’s gonna be okay. I think. The whole story is just too complicated.”
Jo looked interested. Reallyinterested. It didn’t look like she was pretending to listen for Charlie’s sake, or even trying to appear interested to get into her pants (which would be fine by her). She was leaning over the counter, chin resting on her hand, the other idly rubbing her skull.
“Listen,” Charlie said, “how about you join us for a moment?”
Jo tilted her head and frowned.
“No pressure!” Charlie rushed to add, “It just –It would be cool if you –”
“Charlie,” Jo interrupted, smiling. “Give me ten minutes and I’m all yours.”
Just a figure of speech, Bradbury, get your shit together. She nodded kind of jerkily. “Right. Right, well, I’ll…wait over there, then.”
Jo smiled again, warm and private, and Charlie rushed back to the table, almost knocking her chair in her haste to sit down before she did something uncalled for.
Midnight found Jo and Charlie standing in front of the bar. Wrapped around them, the night and its cold, cold wind seemed to dig under Charlie’s skin like thousands of needles. She shivered, and saw Jo tugging a pack of cigarettes from her pocket.
“You want one?” she asked.
“No,” Charlie answered. “I don’t smoke.”
Jo lit her cigarette and blew a cloud of white fog.
“I don’t either,” she breathed. Then, catching the dubious look Charlie sent her way, she smiled. “I quit years ago. I only ever have one when I’m out with friends. Or when I need a pretext.”
Charlie stilled, heart beating slightly faster.
“A pretext,” she repeated quietly.
Jo looked nervous now, though she tried to hide it. She bit her lip and shuffled awkwardly.
“Yeah, I – I wanted to talk to you. Alone.”
Charlie was pretty sure the flips her stomach was doing were anatomically impossible.
“Yeah,” she managed, watching as a car went by, the headlights blinding her momentarily. She blinked away, stars dancing on the edge of her field of vision.
“I was wondering if you –well –I kinda like you. And I’m not really –I mean, my dating skills are a little rusty, but maybe we could…”
“Yes,” Charlie blurted out. It almost seemed too good to be true. Her hands were clenched together, and she felt a smile tug at her lips, bright with joy.
Jo looked stunned. Actually stunned. Her mouth fell open and she breathed a quiet uh. She blinked once, twice.
“That’s –that’s cool.” She smiled, then, and the sight had Charlie catching her breath. They locked eyes, and she had to fight the urge to kiss Jo right here and there. She bit her lip and looked away, clearing her throat awkwardly. It ended whatever moment they were having, and Jo threw her cigarette on the ground. It sizzled on the wet concrete.
“Here,” she said, fishing in her pocket for a piece of paper. Charlie took it and saw a phone number’s scribbled on it. Jo had come prepared, and the thought made Charlie grin.
“We’d better go back. They’re gonna wonder where we are,” Jo said. Her voice was still a little shaky, but she also looked happier than Charlie had ever seen her –granted, it was only the second time they met, but it was still a boost for her ego.
Charlie nodded, following her reluctantly in the bar. The ambient noise seemed deafening compared to the silence they’d just left, and Charlie ignored Dean’s raised eyebrow when she flopped down on her chair in favor of taking a sip of her glass. Jo had slipped back behind the counter and shot her a quick smile and a wink. Dean’s gaze zeroed in on Charlie, accusing.
“Really?” he asked disbelievingly. “You’re hitting on my friends, now? How come you get more action than me? Hell, how come even Cas gets more action than me?”
“That’s not true,” Castiel said calmly.
Charlie snickered and reached across the table to pat him on the arm.
“Let’s face it, you’re getting old, buddy,” she said, relishing the way Dean sputtered in indignation. Even Cas let out a short laugh. Dorothy picked this moment to come back at the table, looking lighter than she had in weeks.
“Hey,” she said quietly while Castiel tried to talk Dean out of his pouting. Charlie smiled.
“Hey yourself. You good?”
Dorothy took a deep breath and nodded.
“Dorothy, I have a problem.”
Dorothy hummed and looked up from where she’d collapsed on the couch after coming back home from work. Charlie grinned at her, clad in a particularly distasteful Harry Potter t-shirt and a pair of ratty sweatpants.
“What should I wear?” she asked sheepishly. She wasn’t nervous. She wasn’t. It just…had been a while since she’d been on an actual date. Dorothy rolled her eyes so hard Charlie feared they’d stay stuck that way.
“Your black pantsuit, but no jewels. And go easy on the make-up. She’s a cop, right? She ain’t gonna go all fancy-schmanzy on you.” She frowned pensively. “Scratch the no-jewels rule, go for one of your nerdy necklaces, so you look less like a corporate douchebag and more like your dorky self. But you’ll be a sexy dork.”
“Thank you,” Charlie chirped, blowing her a kiss before scurrying back into her bedroom.
She’d emptied the entire content of her wardrobe on her bed, which wasn’t a small feat. She eyed the mess warily.
Okay, maybe she was a little nervous.
The doorbell rang at exactly six o’clock. Fortunately, Dorothy had gone out with Ash, Dean and Castiel, so there was no one around to hear Charlie’s squeal.
“Coming!” she yelled, even as her brain was sending her a loop of oh shit it’s happening, I’m not ready. And she wasn’t ready. She’d just stepped out of the shower, counting on Jo to conveniently be ten minutes late. Of course, it hadn’t happened, and now Charlie was dripping from head to toe, trying to simultaneously towel her hair dry and squeeze herself into her tight pantsuit –and yeah, she really had to stop eating those cupcakes Gabriel brought to work every day.
She opened the door three minutes later, red faced and out of breath, mascara smeared on her cheek. Jo blinked at her, gaze roaming from her disheveled hair to her unbuttoned pants, and Charlie tried not to die of mortification right here and there.
“I’m sorry, I’m so, so, so sorry,” she said, trying to button the offending piece of clothing. “I messed up, I know I’m late but –” She trailed off, stumbling back wildly. “Come in, please. Sorry for the mess. You know how it is.”
Jo still hadn’t said a word. When nervous, Charlie was an unstoppable force of blabbering and flushing, and no power in the universe could stop her. She took a deep breath and closed the door behind Jo, but was saved from yet another inane speech when Jo finally stepped in.
“I like your place,” she said softly. Charlie followed her gaze, cringing inwardly at the mess she found. She’d never felt ashamed of living like an overgrown teenager before, and Dorothy had never once complained about it in their many years of being roommates. But Jo seemed so put together that she suddenly wished she could have the same ikea-based way of living as the average twenty-seven years old. Jo looked genuine, though, as she always did, and Charlie felt herself relax minutely.
“I’ll just –finish, then. I’ll be back in five,” she blurted out before running into her bedroom. She made it in three –rubbing her cheek forcefully to erase the stray mascara, brushing her hair quickly and finally finding a matching pair of socks. When she came back in the living room, Jo was quietly looking through her bookshelf. She smiled when Charlie barged in, looking as nervous as Charlie felt.
“You have great tastes,” she stated, nodding towards the books. “I don’t like reading that much, but there are a few I know in there.” She shrugged, obviously embarrassed. “Mostly stuff that Dean made me read, if I’m being honest.”
Charlie grinned and sat down on the couch to put on her shoes.
“You know, it’s funny that we’d never met before. We seem to have a lot of friends in common.” And a lot of other things, she didn’t say. Jo’s expression turned more somber. She stepped back from the bookshelf and fiddled with her sleeve.
“I was practically raised with Sam and Dean. Their dad used to be a friend of my parent’s. He used to dump them at home when they were kids. He worked with my dad. Then we kinda had a…fallout. I didn’t see them again until I started working at the station.”
Charlie had a feeling that there was more to the story than a simple fallout, but she also knew it wasn’t her place to ask Jo personal questions. She nodded and signaled she was ready to go. The dazzling smile she got in response warmed her all the way down to her toes, and the conversation had had the merit of grounding her. What she felt when Jo led the way to her car wasn’t toxic nervousness anymore. It was something quieter, a slight trepidation, a squirming in her stomach. It wasn’t overall uncomfortable, just…unusual for her. She hadn’t felt that way since her college years, when she was still a dorky nineteen years old. Granted, she’d been a dorky nineteen years old who’d lived most of her life alone under a fake identity, and had gotten into college on a full ride for her witchcraft-like talent with everything computer, but still. It wasn’t the point, and Charlie tried not to think too hard of the angry mess she used to be. She wasn’t this person anymore. She had a life, a job, and there was an amazing girl next to her, singing alone to a Lynyrd Skynyrd song.
Feeling Charlie’s gaze on her, Jo glanced sideways and smiled before turning her eyes back to the road, fingers drumming on the steering wheel. The night was falling, and Charlie watched through the window as fallen leaves twirled with the October wind. She didn’t feel the need to fill the silence with pointless discussion; the silence they shared was comfortable.
They drove like this for five minutes before Jo pulled over in front of a dinner. It was one of these old-school, Americana kind of places. Charlie had come here several times with Dean and Castiel, and she relaxed against the seat as she took in the unassuming frontage. Mistaking her sigh for disappointment, Jo tensed.
“I’m sorry. It’s not much but –”
“No!” Charlie cut in hurriedly. “No, it’s great. I love this place,” She smiled softly. “Actually, I was kinda afraid you’d take me to some fancy French restaurant. I’m more of a burger kind of girl.” She laughed awkwardly and unbuckled her seatbelt. “You know. Keepin’ it classy.”
A look crossed Jo’s face, one Charlie recognized easily. It was a I-really-want-to-kiss-you-right-now kind of look, and a shiver went through Charlie’s spine. She smiled weakly, heart thrumming like a deranged hummingbird. There was something new about this feeling, something almost frightening in its intensity, and she hastily stumbled out of the car in her hurry to break the spell before she did something stupid, like kiss Jo. Or pass out. Jo pinned her with one last intense gaze before scurrying out of the car and leading her inside.
They were warmly greeted by Benny, the owner, and his niece Elizabeth, who winked at them as they crossed the small place to get a table in a corner, hidden from the rest of the restaurant. Conversation flowed easily between them as they waited for their burgers, sipping their drinks amicably. Sure, they’d talked the day they had met, but their conversation had mostly revolved around music and films. Now, though, Charlie learned that Jo was an only child, that she hated peanut butter and was suspicious of everything computer-related, and blushed prettily when she learned that Charlie’s passion was just that. When Elizabeth brought their plates, a companionable silence fell upon their table, both women busy relishing Benny’s cooking.
At some point, as they were waiting for their desserts, Jo’s foot shifted under the table and touched Charlie’s.
Charlie froze, trying not to choke on her own saliva. Was Jo really playing footsie like a horny teenager? She looked up and caught Jo’s smirk. Well, apparently she was.
Charlie shot Jo a warning look, and Jo rubbed her foot against her ankle.
Oh, the game was on.
The night surrounding them had taken a dark purple hue, the kind that spoke of storms to come. The plane trees bordering the street were motionless, their branches stretching towards the sky. It was warm, too, a windless atmosphere that weighed heavily on Charlie. The loaded air matched perfectly Charlie’s mind, and she found herself relishing it. Jo’s eyes somehow seemed brighter in the obscurity, staring expectantly at Charlie. Do you want me? They seemed to ask. It was all Charlie could do not to kiss the question away.
“Well,” she said, wishing she could sound more confident. Everything about Jo threw her off balance, made her palms clammy, sent her heartbeat racing. She wasn’t used to being kept on her toes. It felt like standing at a crossroads without any clue which direction to go.
It felt like an adventure.
“Well,” Jo echoed quietly, the ghost of a smile fleeting over her lips. “I had a really good time.”
She was a sight to behold, Charlie thought, one she wouldn’t forget anytime soon. There was fierceness to her, in the way she looked terrified but unwilling to back up, in her hands clasped together, in her bitten lips that were made for kissing.
“I –me, too.”
She smiled as the first rumble of thunder echoed in the distance, rolling through the night like a drum.
Charlie had always loved thunderstorms. They made her feel more alive, somehow. Closer to the world. The sky was purplish, saturated with electricity, and she breathed in the earthy, wet scent of the night. Petrichor, she thought idly. It was the name for this smell, the first raindrops crashing against the concrete.
“Can I kiss you?” Jo asked, stumbling over the words like they were burning her tongue. Charlie’s smile faded from her lips as easily as it had appeared, and she turned fully towards Jo, gaze intent on her face. A thunderbolt lit up their world for half a second, searing light imprinting on their retinas, and Charlie smiled. One. Two. Three. Four. The following roll of thunder was deafening.
Instead of answering, Charlie did the only thing she could think of. She reached out, gently tugging Jo’s arm, and pressed their lips together. Jo’s mouth was warm and dry, slightly open in surprise. It was only a split-second of hesitation before she was kissing back gently. Fat raindrops were falling from the sky, and Jo’s cheeks were wet when Charlie cupped her face with both hands, deepening the kiss. Her heart was beating a tattoo on her ribs. She felt lightheaded with it.
It was a loud blow of thunder that made her jump apart. Jo chuckled nervously as she peered up at Charlie. She breathed out through her mouth with a small, dismayed sound and tugged Charlie in for another kiss. This one ran deeper, their bodies flush against each other, until Charlie could feel warmth spreading in her belly, until her legs were unsteady.
Then, Jo broke the kiss, smirked at Charlie and whispered “I’ll call you.”
She was in the car and gone before Charlie even blinked.
Under the cover of darkness, hair dripping with rain, Charlie smiled.
Charlie woke up to her alarm blaring, and had half a mind to throw it against a wall and leave it at that. She groaned and pulled a pillow over her head, wondering why she felt so tired.
Then, the reason hit her in the face like a Stupefy and Charlie sat up on her bed, rubbing her face sleepily as a slow smile appeared on her lips.
“Woah,” she breathed, jumping out of her bed with all the grace of a baby elephant. She stumbled through the door, only narrowly avoiding tripping on the shoes she had discarded in the way when she’d finally snapped out of her haze and come back home the night before.
She shrugged and barged into the living room, where she found Dorothy sipping her customary cup of tea and reading the news. She raised an eyebrow at Charlie, unused to seeing her in a good mood on a Monday morning –or any morning of the week, for that matter.
“I take it your date went well, then?” she asked, trying to hide her amused smile behind her newspaper. Charlie held up her hand and disappeared into the kitchen. She wasn’t about to start telling her story without her dose of caffeine. When she came back into the den, cradling a steaming mug in her hands, Dorothy was waiting patiently.
“Well?” she asked as Charlie flopped down on the couch with a goofy smile. Not even the drops of scalding coffee that spilled on her pajama pants could make it disappear.
“Dorothy,” she sighed. “It was…it was freaking awesome. She’s just…she’s awesome.”
Dorothy whistled, setting down her newspaper. She smiled.
“Well, Red. Sounds like you’ve got it bad for Hot Cop.”
Charlie smiled and took a sip of coffee. She knew Dorothy was right.
She was utterly okay with that.
Charlie had never in her life known such a long day of work. She was staring blankly at her computer screen. The word document that was supposed to become her article on a new cabaret in town was still desperately blank, despite the ton of notes she’d written on her notebook and her recorded interview with the owner, a scary redhead nicknamed Abaddon for reasons Charlie didn’t want to dwell on. Technically, she wasn’t forced to be here, but the wide range of distractions her apartment had to offer did nothing to arrange her tendency to procrastinate.
Jo still hadn’t called.
Granted, it was only three in the afternoon, and Jo was probably working right now.
Still, Charlie couldn’t help replaying every scene of the previous night in her mind, trying to find the hitch, the thing that could explain Jo’s silence.
When she failed for the third time, she let her head thump on the desk, wincing at the stab of pain it owed her. Sometimes, she wondered what the hell was wrong with her.
“What d’you think, H.? Am I freaking out for nothing?”
“Are you talking to me?”
Charlie’s head snapped up and she jerked back into her seat at the unexpected –but oh, so familiar –voice. Jo was leaning against the wall of Charlie’s cubicle, two coffees in hand and a puzzled expression on her face.
“Nn –ahh. Hi, Jo,” Charlie said, ever eloquent. “I was just, um.” Talking to an action figure, she thought, eyeing Hermione sternly. It was she who had put her in this mess in the first place. “Talking to myself.”
Because that was way better. Charlie resisted the urge to faceplant on the desk again.
Jo chuckled and took a step forward. “It’s okay. I do it all the time.”
Charlie numbly took the cup Jo was handing her and took a cautious sip, relaxing when she tasted a sweet macchiato, and not a black espresso like she was expecting. She had no idea how Jo had figured out how she liked her afternoon coffee.
“What are you doing here?” she blurted out, and winced inwardly when Jo’s face fell, her nonchalant stance disappearing in a blink. Smooth. “Not that I’m not glad,” she amended quickly. Glancing at her hands, she smiled. “Because I am. I really am.”
Jo smiled again, but it was tinged with embarrassment. Apologetic. Charlie wanted to punch herself in the face.
“I just –Dean told me you might be there. And I didn’t really feel like talking to you on the phone. You know. After yesterday.” A flush was crawling up Jo’s neck, and Charlie felt warm and gushy all over again. She wasn’t the only one who’d felt it, then. This intensity, this chemistry between them. She suddenly felt restless, unable to stay here with her ass in a chair. She needed air; she needed to be closer to Jo, to kiss the taste of coffee off her lips. She needed, and it was when she realized she hadn’t needed something in a very long time. Not the way she craved Jo’s presence. Jo was staring back at her with frightening intensity, and it was the only clue she needed.
“You want to get out of here?”
The words were out of her mouth before she could think about them. Jo didn’t look shocked, or even surprised at her brusqueness. In fact, she didn’t even blink. She just nodded, gaze intent on Charlie’s face.
They just clicked, somehow.
Charlie’s back hit the wall the moment she turned the key into the lock, and she gave a surprised moan, muffled against Jo’s lips. Thank fuck Dorothy was working. She kissed back fiercely, tangling her fingers into Jo’s blonde hair and tugging until Jo’s mouth opened under hers. Kissing Jo was wonderful, all soft hands against her cheeks and the warmth of her lean body against Charlie’s.
Jo smiled against her mouth before taking a step back, peering at Charlie with dark eyes. Charlie almost pouted.
“I want you,” Jo said and Charlie had to close her eyes for a second.
“Is this real life?” she mumbled to herself. Fortunately, Jo didn’t comment on it. She was waiting expectantly, cheeks flushed and lips reddened.
“Bedroom?” Charlie asked in a tone that was far too breathless for her liking. Jo smiled, eyes half closed in bliss. Charlie couldn’t wait to see her spread out on the bed, couldn’t wait to see her pleasure-crazed eyes as Charlie brought her over the edge.
“Bedroom,” Jo agreed.
Charlie grinned and took her hand.
Everything was quiet. The only sound was the distant noise of a child of the neighborhood crying and the incessant ticking of the clock in a nearby room. Charlie realized with a smile that she hadn’t even locked her bedroom door in her haste.
Jo was naked, a sated smile playing on her lips, her eyes closed. Charlie felt like she could watch her for hours –and wasn’t that a creepy thought. A trickle of sunshine played in her hair, and it briefly shone golden.
“Stop staring, you creep,” Jo mumbled sleepily, and Charlie let out a snort of laughter.
“What are you, psychic?”
Jo stretched languidly, the way a cat would. Charlie felt a shiver run along her spine.
“’M a cop. I’m perceptive, is all. Plus, you ain’t exactly subtle.”
Charlie shook her head, shifting so her hip nudged Jo’s.
“Hey,” she said quietly, staring at the ceiling and trying not to sound nervous. Jo hummed without opening her eyes.
“Are we –” Charlie licked her lips. “Are we, like, together? I mean, are we dating?”
She felt Jo move next to her, and felt her gaze on her, but didn’t move. Blood was beating to her ears, and her right hand was gripping the sheets so hard it started to hurt.
“Yeah,” Jo said, “I mean. I’d like that,” and Charlie’s whole body relaxed until she felt like a big puddle of relief. She smiled and closed her eyes.
“I’d like that, too.”
She felt Jo’s breath ghost against her cheek, and accepted the kiss with a happy sigh. She felt happier than she had in years as she let herself fall asleep with Jo’s head on her shoulder.
It was the sound of the front door slamming and Dorothy hollering her name that forcefully dragged Charlie out of her peaceful slumber. She only had a few seconds to take in her current naked state, the clothes trailing from her bedroom door to the bed, and more importantly, her naked girlfriend blearily blinking at her. Shit.
“Don’t come in!” she yelled.
Dorothy barged in the room. Her smile slipped into an expression of shock and Jo and Charlie yelped in unison, scrambling with the sheets to cover themselves. Dorothy had frozen. For a second, no one moved. Then, Dorothy rolled her eyes.
“Doors, Charlie. Keys. Locks.” Her gaze slid to Jo and she smiled. “Nice meetin’ you.” Then, she was out, leaving Charlie and Jo to stare at the doorway in mute horror.
Charlie felt Jo’s shoulders shake against her. She’d buried her head in the pillow and was hiccupping softly. For an awful second, Charlie thought she was crying. Then, Jo raised head and a high-pitched giggle escaped from her mouth. Jo was giggling.
“Oh my god,” she hiccupped, sagging against Charlie. “Oh, Charlie.” Then, she started laughing in earnest, a loud, infectious sound. Charlie didn’t try and resist it. She slumped against her pillow and laughed along with her, until her belly hurt and her breath came out in wheezes.
“That was very awkward,” she observed when their laughter subsided. She felt more than she saw Jo’s nod.
“Uh, uh,” Jo said, dropping a kiss on her temple.
“So,” Charlie said, sitting down at the kitchen table. Dorothy was busy at the stove, and Charlie’s stomach gave an appreciative grumble at the amazing smell. Jo had left one hour earlier, and she felt strangely upset about it, but Dorothy’s cooking was enough to lift her spirits. “What did you want to tell me?”
Dorothy stopped stirring whatever was in the pan and turned, beaming like a supernova.
“Woah,” Charlie said. “Did you win the lottery?”
Dorothy shook her head slowly. “It’s Sarah.”
It took a second for Charlie’s brain to connect the dots. When it did, though, she felt her eyes widen.
“Wait a second. Did you –Did she? –” She flailed meaningfully, but closed her mouth when a shadow fleeted upon Dorothy’s face, quickly overcome by an expression of warm happiness. She shook her head.
“No, it’s not that, but I –”
Dark smoke started to pour out of the pan and she yelped, swirling around to turn off the stove. Charlie shifted on her seat, frustrated.
“I hope you like charred mushrooms,” Dorothy said sheepishly, wrinkling her nose at the foul smell. Charlie rolled her eyes.
“I don’t give a hoot about the mushrooms, Oz. Just, come here and tell me what happened.” She patted the chair next to hers. Dorothy cast one last mournful look at the pan and complied with a satisfied sigh.
“Okay,” she started. “Did you know that Sarah’s father is one of the most successful art dealer in the country?”
Charlie frowned. She hadn’t been expecting that.
“Uh-uh,” she said uncertainly, watching as Dorothy turned her wide brown eyes to her.
“Well, Sarah’d been talking of opening a gallery one day. I didn’t really think –” she exhaled slowly. “Charlie, she bought a building in town to set it up. The opening is set in three months. And…she wants me to be her opening artist.”
Charlie opened her mouth, then closed it as Dorothy’s words made their way through her mind.
“Holy Zelda,” she breathed.
Dorothy nodded. “I know.” She sounded overwhelmed. Charlie knew the feeling.
“Holy. Zelda.” She repeated. “Dude. This is amazing. Who cares about freaking mushrooms.” She jumped to her feet and held out a hand for Dorothy to take. “We’re going out, we’re getting drunk. Tonight we’ll celebrate, the Ozbury way.”
And so they did.
Charlie had only been in love once in her life. She was nineteen at the time –and god how the time passed. She was now twenty-seven and she wished she could remember every single detail of the happiest six months of her life.
Six months. That was the time it lasted, and Charlie knew it wouldn’t have lasted longer if things had gone differently.
Some things just aren’t meant to last.
Her name was Meg. Charlie was English major, and Meg political studies major. They’d met at a demonstration –Charlie didn’t even remember what they were protesting about, probably some grand cause. Meg was the kind of person that had causes with a capital C, and that stuck with them until they ate her alive, until they ruled her very life. Charlie admired her ambition, admired her revolt and her sharp tongue. Meg was incredibly intelligent, witty almost to the point of cruelty, and Charlie fell in love with her the moment she saw her.
They’d stumbled into bed the night after their encounter, and on and off for six months. Meg was older than Charlie by four years and graduated her Master’s degree the same year. She gave a kiss to Charlie, patted her on the cheek and drawled a goodbye before leaving without looking back.
At the time, she’d been fool enough to believe that, even if Meg had never given a hint of feeling something more than tender fondness for Charlie, it was simply part of her persona. She thought Meg loved her, not like a friend, but like someone one wants to hold close for the rest of their life. Now, looking back, she knew it wasn’t the case.
Now, Charlie sometimes wondered where Meg was at, these days. What made her heart beat faster, what cause she was serving.
Charlie hadn’t felt the same thing for anyone else. Sure, she had cherished Gilda, she had loved her family of choice, this broken clutter of individuals with sad gazes and loud laughs that masked her scars.
She didn’t fall in love with Jo the way she’d fallen in love with Meg, which was quite fortunate. She’d fallen for Meg the way one falls off a cliff, brutally and with her whole being. It left her sore and bruised.
She fell in love with Jo gradually, through smiles and whispers, through these small moments that always seem unimportant. She fell in love with Jo’s fierceness and her laughter. She fell in love with the way she bit her nails when she was nervous. She fell in love with their long conversations, with the way sunlight played in her hair like through stained glass. Jo was utterly useless with a computer, and the mere idea of doing anything more than a Google search frustrated her. She was prone to mood swings, argued with her mother every time they were in the same room, but loved her fiercely nonetheless. She rocked ye olde plaid shirt like it was high fashion. She smoked when she was upset, swore a lot, could outwit out before you realized it.
And Charlie? Charlie was utterly gone on her.
Everything should have been perfect, if it hadn’t been for a detail.
“Did you tell her?” Dean asked one night, seven weeks after hers and Jo’s first date, as they’d all gathered in Charlie’s and Dorothy’s apartment to watch a rerun of Lord of the Ring. Jo was in the kitchen, preparing snacks, and Castiel, Dean and Dorothy were all in various states of concentration. Castiel was mumbling pieces of the dialogues under his breath, and Charlie rolled her eyes.
“Tell her what?” she whispered, even though she knew full well what Dean was talking about.
Dean shifted closer and frowned.
“You didn’t, did you?” Charlie averted her gaze and pressed her lips together.
“Damn it, Charlie,” Dean said. Dorothy shushed him sternly.
“I just –didn’t find the right moment, alright?” Charlie hissed. Her heart was beating too loudly, panicked. She’d known it was coming, she’d been expecting it from either Dean or Dorothy, Castiel being too polite to ever mention it.
“The right – Charlie, there’s no right moment, alright? You can’t just wait until you’re old and gray before telling her about your past!”
“And why not?”
She hated the way her voice shook. Dean laid a comforting hand on her shoulder and she leaned into him, trying to quell the panic that had caught her chest in a vice.
“Charlie, you know I’m not trying to make you feel bad, right? I just –both of you are my friends, and I don’t want you getting hurt.” Charlie glanced at him, eyes burning. He looked uncomfortable, but unrelenting, and Charlie didn’t know if she wanted to slap him or hug him. She settled for glaring, though she was teary-eyed and it didn’t seem to have much effect.
“I know,” she said eventually, voice strained. “I’ll tell her. I promise.”
Dean didn’t answer. He just slipped his arm around Charlie’s shoulders and squeezed. When Jo came back with a huge bowl of popcorns, beaming at them as she squeezes her lean body between Cas and Dorothy, Charlie thought of the secret she’d kept for so long, and felt like a electric current was going through her body, leaving her shaking and afraid.
Dean was right. She had to tell Jo.
It was easier said than done. Charlie hadn’t been lying when she had told Dean that she hadn’t found the right moment. But Dean had nailed it. There was no good moment to say hey, by the way, your girlfriend is a criminal who’s using a fake name. To her cop girlfriend.
Charlie closed her eyes and groaned. She was so screwed.
“You okay, Charlie?” Garth asked, head popping up over the wall of her cubicle. She sighed.
“Yeah, yeah. Just tired,” she replied curtly.
Garth offered her a sympathetic smile and went out of his way to bring her a cup of coffee. Charlie smiled and leaned back on her seat, contemplating her computer screen with wavering concentration.
She’d find a way to break it to Jo. It wasn’t that urgent, anyway.
The occasion didn’t as much present itself as it bitchslapped Charlie across the face.
Charlie and Jo had been dating for three months, and Jo spent an increasing amount of nights at Charlie’s.
They were huddled on Charlie’s couch, Charlie typing away at her computer and Jo watching a flick on TV, when Jo poked her in the side with her big toe and said: “Hey!”
Charlie hummed, but didn’t look up, dead set on finishing her article within the hour so she could actually get some sleep this night. The wrap up was on Thursday and she was far from being done.
“Mom’s having people over on Saturday.”
Charlie made a quiet noise of assent and went on typing.
“You’re invited,” Jo said uncertainly.
“Okay,” Charlie said. Jo shifted and slumped more comfortably on the couch, tucking her feet under Charlie’s thighs to keep them warm. Charlie was pretty sure Jo was at least half-alien, because humans couldn’t run that cold.
Then, Jo’s words started to make their way through Charlie’s brain.
Jo just smirked.
As it turned out, Ellen Harvelle was less terrifying than Dean had made her up to be. Sure, she was gruff and stern-looking, but she greeted Charlie with a warm smile and a pat on the back that almost sent her stumbling into the wall. She was relieved to find that she knew almost all the guests. Of course, Dean and Castiel were here, as well as Sam, who was spending the weekend at his brother’s, but she was surprised to see Bobby and Jody as well.
The dinner went well, and Charlie basked in the feeling of having a family, people she could trust.
People she could love.
It was warm and welcoming, and Ellen went out of her way to make Charlie feel at home.
She ended up a little drunk, having tried to follow Castiel, Dean and Jo in their drinking contest. Fortunately, she’d had the good sense of stopping before the situation could get out of hand. It was more than could be said for Jo, who ended up passed out on the couch, making Castiel the undisputed winner of the contest.
Eventually, Sam snatched Dean’s keys from his pocket, ignoring his slurred threat, and guided him and a sleepy Castiel to the Impala with one of his patented my-brother-is-a-child-why-do-I-put-up-with-him bitchface and a long-suffering nod in their direction. Jody left, too, hugging Ellen and, surprisingly, Charlie. Bobby followed her closely, and to Charlie’s amusement, the gruff man stuttered his way through his goodbyes to Ellen, whose smile softened the stern edges of her face.
Then, with Jo snoring away her excesses, it was only Ellen and Charlie. She was still sufficiently buzzed so as not to feel uncomfortable as she helped Jo’s mother clear the table. Ellen wasn’t much of a talker, that much she’d gathered, but her silence wasn’t cold, nor was it disapproving. Charlie could tell it was just the way she was, a woman of few words, and even if she was a babbler, she could appreciate it all the same.
Charlie smiled when Ellen told her in no uncertain terms that she had prepared them the guest room and that they were expected to sleep here or so help me god, I won’t let you drive with all you’ve drank. Charlie nodded her agreement and gently shook Jo awake. With Ellen’s help, they managed to reach the bedroom with no major incident. Charlie looked on wistfully as Ellen tucked Jo under the covers, movements somehow both briskly and gentle, and ruffled her hair fondly.
“Well, I hope you know that she’s a real pain in the ass when she’s hungover,” she said. Charlie winced with the reminder; Jo wasn’t a whiny person as a general rule, but hangover tested this trait quite forcefully, and having to hear her complain her way into the day wasn’t something she was looking forward to.
“I know,” she whispered, even though Jo had proven to be a heavy sleeper.
She watched as Ellen made her silent way to the door. She paused, though, before she closed the door, and looked at Charlie for a long minute without saying anything.
“You’re good to her,” she said eventually, quiet and brusque at the same time. “She’s had a rough time in the past few years. We both have.” She turned, and even though her face was concealed in the shadows, Charlie thought she could distinguish the hint of a sad smile. She kept quiet; waiting with bated breath for what she knew would follow.
“It’s good to see her happy again,” Ellen said with a tone of finality. She closed the door behind her, leaving Charlie to stand in the dark for a long time.
For some reason, she felt like crying.
They drove back in silence, Jo bleary eyed and yawning and Charlie lost in her thoughts, staring through the windows, watching the dull landscape pass before her eyes without really noticing it. Her stomach felt like it was being compressed by an invisible hand, and she knew it had nothing to do with her mild hangover. Ellen’s words were still floating in her mind. It’s good to see her happy again, she’d said, and Charlie knew. She knew she had to come true, to lay down every fact, everything she had hidden so far. She couldn’t risk waiting any longer. Not when it could mean breaking Jo’s heart. She couldn’t bear the thought of Jo thinking everything about Charlie was a lie.
Even if it was true, in some ways.
She was relieved when they pulled over in front of Charlie’s building, and Jo followed Charlie quietly up the stairs. At least, she wouldn’t have to insist for Jo to come home with her.
As soon as the door was locked, Jo made a beeline for the couch and faceplanted on it with such a pitiful groan that Charlie snorted despite herself, feeling some of the tension leave her body.
“Coffee?” she asked lightly, knowing full well what the answer would be.
It didn’t fail.
“God, yes,” Jo moaned, words muffled by the cushions.
As Charlie busied herself with the coffee machine, she found herself hoping Jo would have fallen asleep by the time she came back.
Of course, it didn’t happen. In any other situation, Charlie would have laughed at the way Jo’s whole body perked up at the smell. She flopped over on her back and made grabby hands at the cup, looking at Charlie pleadingly.
“You’ll burn yourself,” Charlie chided. “Sit down.”
Jo complied, grumbling as she went.
“Never drinking again,” she mumbled, closing her eyes as she inhaled the bitter scent, the day’s first hint of a smile playing on her lips. Charlie hid her smirk into her own cup. It wasn’t the first time she’d heard that, and it would probably be forgotten at the next party they were invited to.
They. It had become so easy to say this little word, to think it, to include Jo in her universe. Her stomach clenched again; what she was about to say could break this as easily as if it had never been here in the first place.
“What’s up with you?” Jo asked, forehead creasing in concern, and even with the bags under her eyes and her wrinkled clothes, she was still gorgeous. Charlie felt her chest clench with the ache of seeing her, with the weight of what she was about to say.
“I need to talk to you,” she said, and Jo froze, cup halfway to her mouth. There was no mistaking the flash of fear that crossed her face, nor the way her hand started shaking minutely, spoon clinking softly against the porcelain. Charlie felt guilt wash over her, cursing inwardly at her poor phrasing.
“It’s not like that,” she said, even though it kind of was. Jo nodded and seemed to steel herself.
“It’s important,” Charlie said softly. “There are things you don’t know about me. Things you need to know before you decide whether you want to be with me.”
Jo breathed out shakily, setting her cup on the table and crossing her arms.
Charlie looked at her, taking in her drawn features.
She’s had a rough time in the past years.
Acid bile bathing the back of her throat, heart pounding, Charlie started talking.
Charlie’s childhood had been nothing short of perfect. Her parents loved her, doted on her, and as an only child, she was rarely refused anything she wanted. They didn’t spoil her, per se, but they knew how to make her happy. That’s why, when she started to show an interest in computer science, they made sure she could explore it. Charlie turned out to be talented; so talented that by the age of ten, she could hack into pretty much any low-security website. Not that her parents knew about it. Still, her father used to call her genius and ruffle her hair playfully, while her mother worried about the consequences such a skill could have.
All in all, it was pretty much idyllic, so of course, it all went to hell when Charlie was twelve. One night, as she was having a sleepover at a friend’s, she got scared and called her parents to come and get her.
She remembered every detail of this night: the stupid horror flick that had triggered her panic, the doorbell ringing in the night, the hushed voices of her friend’s parents as they spoke to the police officers, her friend’s dad coming to get her in the bedroom. She remembered standing stark still as her friend’s mom hugged her, eyes puffy. As the two policemen explained the situation as gently as they could.
There was no gentle way of telling a twelve year old girl that her parents’ car had been hit by a drunk driver on their way to get her.
Her dad had died on the spot. Her mom was brain dead.
Charlie had stopped talking for a year.
At fifteen, Charlie hacked into a game-company server, stole a FPS game, reprogrammed it and released it for free. Her actions weren’t without consequences, and one week later, the police was at the doorstep of her foster family.
Charlie ran away.
She was young, but resourceful, and one year after, she had a brand new identity, lived with her older girlfriend Tamara, and hacked into big companies’ servers to steal money when she needed it. This way, she was able to get her GED and go to college.
This way, she was able to pay for her mother’s hospital bills.
Tamara and her had broken up when Tamara met Isaac –they still were in contacts, exchanged the odd email and sometimes a phone call, but her obsession with letting her mother live didn’t fade. She felt guilty, felt like she was responsible for what had happened –who was she kidding, she was responsible for what had happened.
It was only when she’d met Dean two years before that she’d let him talk into letting her go.
Charlie hated this silence. It rang at his ears like a gong, like an alarm.
She stared at the floor, too numb to even cry. Every retelling of her story made things easier, but she didn’t think the day would come when she wouldn’t feel the searing pain. The grief, like a black hole swallowing her from the inside.
Her coffee had gone cold, forgotten on the edge of the table. One shake, and the cup would fall, crash on the floor, break into pieces.
Charlie could relate.
A warm hand touched her cheek, and Charlie’s head snapped up. Her eyes met Jo’s, filled with tears. When Jo kissed her softly on the lips, Charlie let out a sound, halfway between a sob and a sigh.
“You’re not angry,” she stated weakly, guts churning with disbelief. “Why aren’t you angry?”
Jo’s eyebrows were drawn together, and she tilted her head, looking confused.
“Why would I be?” A barely-here smile, a sigh. “You know, I get it.” She licked her lips. “I guess I haven’t told you everything, either.”
Charlie nodded. She knew that. She knew that Jo’s past was burdened by tragedy; there was a father, somewhere, that went unspoken of.
“You don’t have to.”
“No,” Jo said, shaking her head. “No, I want to. You know, there’s a reason my mom and I argue so much.”
Charlie waited, following Jo’s movements as she sat cross-legged next to her, side warm and comforting against hers.
“My dad was in the force, too. He used to –well. He had this friend. Name was John. John Winchester.” She smiled wryly at Charlie’s expression of shock. “They were real close. Got partnered when John was still a rookie, and never left each other’s side from then on. Mom took care of Dean and Sam when they were kids.” She laughed softly. “I was knee-high, but I was a real menace. I remember, we used to raise hell in the Roadhouse, but everybody loved us.” Her face turned somber. “John was –he wasn’t the best of dads for Sam and Dean. He tried, but –Mary’s death, it’d broken something in him, something he never found again. It wasn’t too bad, at first. ‘Till he started drinking. A lot. On the job. And dad, well. Dad wouldn’t report him. John was his friend, y’know. So he covered up for him. I’m not saying that’s right, but he did. Mom and dad got into huge arguments about it, but it didn’t change anything.” Her voice was shaking, and Charlie silently reached out to take her hand. “One day, they got called on a case. Arson. The guy was on a psychotic break and he burned his house down with his wife inside. He was still there and John –John went nuts, forgot to cover for dad. The guy had the time to splash him with gasoline and –” Jo’s voice trailed off and she squeezed her eyes shut. Horrified, Charlie tugged her in. Jo went willingly, tucking her head in the crook of Charlie’s neck and breathing in deeply. She was shivering, and looked nothing like the fierce woman Charlie had learned to know. She looked like a child, like a girl who’d lost her dad. She looked like Charlie.
“I love you,” Jo mumbled sleepily, burrowing under the covers and tucking her cold feet under Charlie’s thighs.
In the dark, Charlie smiled.
But Jo was already asleep.
Things went on for two months, without a hitch. It was perfect.
Once a week, Charlie and Jo took Jo’s battered Jeep and drove to have dinner at Ellen’s. They argued over stupid things, just for the pleasure of making up (those generally ended in bed, Jo’s head thrown back as Charlie worked her through orgasm.)
Charlie kissed her I love yous into Jo’s skin, carved them with whisper and caresses, but rarely said them aloud. These words were too precious to be wasted, had a definite ring to them. Gave meaning to every smile they shared, every laugh.
Jo seemed to understand the words she didn’t say.
Dorothy and Jo were as thick as thieves, something Charlie should have expected, given how similar their temperaments were. Sometimes, Charlie came home to her girlfriend and her roommate laughing their asses of, Jo’s feet propped up on the coffee table until she caught Charlie’s stern glare and smiled sheepishly. More often than not, Dorothy and Jo shared inside jokes and the likes. Strangely, Charlie didn’t feel left out. It was good to see Dorothy smile again, and considering the amount of time Jo spent at their apartment, seeing them become friends was reassuring.
While Jo did have an apartment not too far from the police station, Charlie had only been there a handful of times. She could see why, too. Jo’s place wasn’t awful per se, but it was less comfortable than Charlie’s, less lived-in. There were still boxes full of books and decorative stuff that Jo had never gotten around to unpacking, and she had the most obnoxiously loud neighbors in the universe.
In retrospect, it only made sense, but for some reason, the realization that they were, for all intents and purpose, living together, threw Charlie off the loop. It hit her on a morning, when Jo kissed her on the cheek, mumbled ‘See you tonight’ and left for work. Charlie realized that half the clothes in her wardrobe belonged to Jo. There was a third toothbrush in the cupboard above the bathroom sink, and Jo’s favorite brand of cereals in the kitchen.
She was still staring at the front door, dumbstruck, when Dorothy came out of her bedroom, hair messy.
“Wassup?” she asked through a yawn, frowning up at her.
Charlie shook her head slowly.
“Dorothy, does Jo live here?”
Her roommate stared at her for a full minute, then shook her head and stalked into the kitchen, muttering under her breath.
Charlie felt a slow smile brighten her face.
Charlie was in the middle of an interview with an acrobat named Tessa when her cellphone rang for the first time. Fortunately, Tessa was an easygoing person, and she smiled when Charlie apologized and put her phone on mute, frowning when she was the caller’s name. Dean should have been at work.
She shrugged and went back to the interview.
When she left two hours later, she pulled her cellphone out of her pocket, and stopped dead in her tracks in the middle of the sidewalk.
She had nine unread texts and twenty-four missed calls from Dean, Ellen, and even Dorothy.
Heart pounding, hands shaky with sudden panic, Charlie had to take a deep breath before pressing on the call button.
It’s probably nothing, she thought desperately. It can’t be.
Dean picked up on the third ring, and his tone had Charlie’s hopes crumbling like a house of cards.
“Charlie,” Dean said, voice raw. “Something’s happened. It’s –It’s Jo. You gotta come to the hospital.”
Charlie slammed her thumb on the end call button and stared straight ahead, throat squeezed so tight she could barely breathe.
It’s probably nothing.
Dean was waiting for her near the entry doors when Charlie finally got to the hospital. She stumbled out of her car, feeling like she’d been punched in the guts repeatedly, like she was on the verge of a breakdown. Seeing Dean’s face, pale like death and eyes puffy, almost had her passing out on the spot.
“Charlie,” he said, like it was the only thing he could think of. “Charlie.” He repeated it again and again as he hugged her. Charlie stood still, unable to muster up the strength to hug him back.
“What happened,” she whispered. “Jo –is she?” she couldn’t finish the sentence. She just couldn’t. Dean pulled away and shook his head. His freckles stood out starkly on his pale skin, Charlie noticed idly. It was the first time she’d seen Dean so shaken since the day his father had died.
“No, but – She’s in the OR.”
Charlie sagged against Dean’s shoulder, and the only thing that kept her upright was Dean’s arm. She gripped his shirt so tightly her fingers started to hurt. It was a good hurt, keeping her grounded when she felt like her whole world was falling apart.
Dean blinked slowly and inhaled, crossing his arms against his stomach. He looked small; vulnerable. It felt wrong, somehow.
“We were on our patrol,” Dean said, gaze empty. “We got a call from central for a domestic dispute*. Neighbors had gotten annoyed at the shouting and called us. It was only a few blocks away from where we were, so we said we’d check it out.” He swallowed thickly, and when he spoke again, his voice was rough. “When we got there, we heard a man shouting. They didn’t answer when we called, and we were about to call central, but then –” He rubbed his forehead, closing his eyes briefly. “Then we heard the gunshot.”
Charlie gasped and slapped a hand against her mouth, horrified. Dean didn’t seem to notice her shock, though, and went on.
“The door was unlocked, so we got it, and…” He paled even more, and Charlie felt herself shake. “There was a woman and a kid. Couldn’t be any older than twelve. And the guy, he…he was having ‘em at gunpoint, and when he saw us, he got even madder, started yelling nonsense. He just wouldn’t put his gun down. I aimed, but –he was faster? He shot the woman. But Jo – she just…everything happened so fast, and next thing I knew, Jo was down, and she was bleeding, and the guy still had his gun. He was ready to shoot again. I didn’t have a choice. So I shot him.” His voice broke, and despite her mind-numbing fear, Charlie took a deep breath and pressed her hand into Dean’s, comforting.
“The guy died on the spot, I think. I –didn’t have a choice, Charlie.” He shook his head manically, chin trembling. “I called central for an ambulance. Jo was –there was so much blood, and I couldn’t stop it, it just kept coming.”
He looked down, features gaunt with exhaustion and guilt. Everything was too bright, Charlie thought idly. The afternoon sun was warm and there, and it didn’t feel right. Her life couldn’t crumble into pieces under a bright blue sky. Her love couldn’t disappear on a fine day of spring.
Oddly, she wished for a thunderstorm. Something to wash everything away.
“Is she –is she gonna make it?”
She wasn’t sure if she wanted the answer to this question.
I’ve never even said I love you. It was a strange thing to think of in this situation, but for some reason, it made her panic turn into an ache so deep she felt like her heart was being torn from her chest, like she was about to puke her guts out at any moment.
“We don’t know anything. By the time I’d dealt with Bobby and got here, she was already in the OR. That was two hours ago, and we didn’t anything back from the OR since then.”
That couldn’t be a good sign.
“Take me to the others,” she said at least, voice weak.
Charlie was all too familiar with hospitals, with this nauseating smell of antiseptic, bodily fluids and death. The glare of the neon lights that hurt her eyes. The constant thrumming of a thousand bodies moving, crossing path and colliding. There was pain to be felt here, sorrow, and as Dean guided her through a haze of sterile-white corridors, she almost expected to see her mom’s empty shell of a body lying on the bed, to hear the beeping of the machines keeping it alive, even barely.
She shivered, clutching at Dean’s hand like it was the only thing holding her together at the moment. It was probably true; she felt one breath away from falling apart completely.
The first person Charlie saw was Ellen. She was pacing in the corridor, hands folded behind her back. Her eyes weren’t reddened like Dean’s were. In fact, she looked even more severe than usual, and she looked so much like Jo for a second that Charlie had to stop to collect herself.
When Ellen saw her, though, her face softened, and she walked up to her, tugging her into her arms. Charlie went willingly, dropping her head against Ellen’s shoulder. She vaguely heard Dean ask if there had been any news and Castiel’s voice answer in negative.
When Ellen pulled away, her eyes were brimming with tears, and Charlie understood that the calm she was displaying earlier had been nothing but a façade.
“She’s gonna be okay, kiddo. If anyone’s gonna survive a bullet in the neck, it’s Jo. She’s stubborn like a goddam mule.”
The way her voice shook betrayed her lack of confidence, but Charlie nodded anyway, trying a smile. It must have come out as a grimace, but Ellen simply smiled back, patting her on the cheek.
Dorothy was here, too, as well as Castiel, and Tracy, one of Jo’s workmates. They all looked shaken. Dorothy was staring straight ahead in the way she usually did when she was on the verge of having a breakdown. Her hands were clenched tightly around a plastic cup.
Tracy was thumbing away on her cellphone, unblinking, frowning at the device as if she was one second away from throwing it against a wall.
Castiel was sitting straight as a chalkboard, face pale and drawn with worry. Dean had sat next to him, and Charlie noticed Castiel’s hand on his knee, thumb rubbing gentle circles against the rough cloth off his jeans.
Jo was somewhere in this hospital, Charlie realized belatedly. She was standing in the middle of the hallway. Jo was struggling to stay awake, to stay alive. There were hands touching her, trying to fix her.
Charlie muffled a sob against her palm and took a deep breath to quell her sudden nausea. She felt so impuissant, standing here.
She sat down next to Dorothy, and her best friend immediately shifted closer, knee against knee. It meant I’m here. It meant We’re in this together.
Charlie squared her shoulders and exhaled slowly.
Now, they could only wait.
It took one more hour before they heard anything back from the OR.
Charlie observed. She catalogued, drew up lists in her head, like she’d always done when she was afraid. She watched as Tracy bit viciously at her thumbnail, gaze focused on an invisible point. She noticed that Dean avoided Ellen’s gaze, looking away when she tried to catch his gaze, and remembered Jo’s confession on John Winchester’s part in her father’s death. Her stomach was clenching and by the time a harried-looking woman called for them, a mask hanging loosely around her neck, her skin was crawling.
The woman, who introduced herself as Samantha Reyes, explained that Jo’s state had stabilized, that the bullet had been removed successfully, and that it had narrowly avoided touching an artery.
“She’s in intensive care,” the surgeon said softly. “She’d lost a lot of blood. We did the best we could, but the next hours after the operation will be crucial. For now, I can’t make any promises.” She smiled faintly, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. “She’s strong. She has her chances.”
Then, they were left looking at each other as the surgeon shuffled away tiredly. Charlie felt like she’d been punched and, given the expression on the others’ faces, ranging from dumbstruck to downright terrorized, she wasn’t the only one.
“She’s alive,” Tracy said, voice clipped. Charlie nodded wordlessly. It was all that mattered, for now.
By the time Sam called for Dean to come and get him at the airport, it was way over midnight.
A few nurses had tried to drive them out, but had backed up as soon as they’d caught Ellen’s glare. Charlie couldn’t blame them; it had been known to make grown men pee in their pants, and this time was no exception.
Charlie had managed to convince Dorothy to try and catch a few hours of sleep. She’d accepted reluctantly after making her promise that she’d call if anything happened. Tracy had followed her, and as they walked away, Charlie heard Dorothy tell her that she could sleep on their couch.
Then, it was only Ellen and Charlie in the suddenly silent corridor, sitting on uncomfortable chairs. Ellen’s eyes looked hollow, empty under the neon lights.
“You should get some sleep, Ellen,” Charlie said softly, taking in the exhausted expression. It was more out of reflex than anything else; she knew that Ellen would never accept.
Ellen shook her head stiffly.
“No way. I’m not leaving my baby girl in here all by herself.”
Charlie could pinpoint the exact moment Ellen snapped. It was the crack in her voice, this tiny hitch of breath. When her face crumpled, wrecking sobs shaking her whole body, Charlie did the only thing she could think of. She slipped her arm around Ellen’s shoulders and held her, wondering why she couldn’t bring herself to cry.
Charlie fell into a restless slumber around five in the morning, lulled to sleep by Sam’s and Dean’s quiet conversation.
She woke up two hours later, feeling gross and numb all over. Ellen was sleeping, head pillowed on Bobby’s shoulder. Charlie hadn’t heard him arrive, and she greeted him with a nod. Sam and Dean were nowhere to be seen when she stood up, looking around. She stumbled through the hallways, searching for a bathroom. When a sympathetic nurse took pity on her and showed her the way, she peed, splashed water on her face and rinsed her mouth the best she could. When she left, feeling slightly more alive, she saw the sign for the hospital’s cafeteria and her stomach gave a menacing grumble. She hadn’t eaten anything in almost twenty-four hours, she realized.
The cafeteria was almost empty at this early hour, save for Sam and Dean sitting in a corner of the room and a few disgruntled-looking people in scrubs sipping away at their hot drinks. Once she’d bought something to settle her stomach, as well as a cup of coffee, she joined the brothers at their table.
“Hiya, bitches,” she said weakly. Sam smiled at her, small and tired.
“Good to see you, Charlie. How you feeling?”
Charlie shrugged. “You know. Getting there.”
They lapsed into silence, and Charlie bit into her bagel. It tasted bland; she didn’t know whether to ascribe it to her wary state or to its industrial origin.
Charlie paused, swallowing a huge chunk of pastry with a wince and looked up at Dean. He was fiddling with his sleeve, a frown marring his features. She raised an eyebrow.
“Dean –” Sam started warningly, but Dean held up his hand and took a deep breath.
“It’s my fault,” he said. “I’m her partner. I shouldn’t have let this happen.”
Sam sighed. It looked like it wasn’t the first time he heard those words. It sounded like Dean, really, to beat himself up over things he had no control on whatsoever.
“Listen up, dirty Harry,” she said. It came out a little snappier than she intended, but hey, she was running on two hours of sleep and an almost empty stomach, and her girlfriend was between life and death. She figured it got her a free pass. “From what you’ve told me, what happened back there wasn’t your fault. Jo saved someone’s life, Dean. It was her choice to be a goddang hero. Heck, you probably saved her life, you know.”
Dean drew in a sharp breath and Charlie remembered that he’d killed a man the day before. She couldn’t imagine how it must have felt, and her voice had softened when she spoke again.
“You did what you had to, Deanie. It sucks ass, clearly, but it’s true.”
Dean nodded, hands clenched into fists.
“Yeah,” he said hoarsely. “Yeah. I know.”
Jo woke up around ten, and when a nurse allowed them to visit one person at a time a little after noon, Charlie felt her legs give out. Giddy with relief, she watched as Ellen went into Jo’s room, pale and shaky. The door was half open, but Charlie couldn’t distinguish anything inside, other than the white outline of a bed. Dean looked as shell-shocked as she did, and Sam was grinning widely.
While Ellen was inside, Charlie called Dorothy to tell her the news. She promised she would let Tracy know, as she had had to go back to work.
When Ellen came out of Jo’s room, she was misty-eyed, but smiling, and Charlie felt herself relax. She’d half expected Ellen to get into the old argument once again, to try and convince Jo to abandon her job. She saw Sam push at Dean’s back, and he stumbled toward Ellen, mumbling something about wanting to talk to her. Charlie took it as her cue to slip inside the hospital room.
Jo looked frail, lost in the too-white sheets, perfusions needled to her arm. Charlie inhaled sharply when she looked up. Jo’s skin was pale, dark shadows standing starkly under her eyes. Her neck was bandaged, but she was smiling, and Charlie felt the last of her fears dissolve.
“Hi, bumblebee,” she said quietly, sitting on the chair next to the bed. Jo’s face scrunched up in distaste.
“Don’t call me that,” she pleaded good-naturedly, her smile growing wider. Her voice was scratchy with disuse. Charlie shrugged.
Silence fell upon the room as Jo looked Charlie up and down.
“You look like shit,” she said at least, lips still quirked up in a faint grin. Charlie snorted and shook her head fondly.
“I’m not the one that got shot, smartass.”
Jo looked down at that, folding her hands on her lap with some difficulty.
“You scared the living shit out of me,” Charlie admitted. Jo frowned, but didn’t look up. Charlie breathed in and out quietly, listening to the beeping of the machines. Jo’s heartbeat, steady. Alive. “But I’m so proud of you,” she said softly.
Jo’s head snapped up, eyes wide and surprised. Charlie smiled and took her hand. It was warm and a little clammy, and the best thing in the world.
“Wha –why?” Jo asked, looking for all the world like she’d just been slapped. Charlie rolled her eyes.
“Because you saved this lady’s life, Bumble. You also saved a kid’s mom, and I’m the last person who’ll bitch about it. You’re brave and I –I love you so much.” She sniffled and wiped her cheeks. Of course, now would be the moment her eyes chose to produce tears. “Just –next time you wanna play hero, try not getting yourself killed in the process. Or I’ll fucking revive you just to kill you again. Is that clear?”
Jo was staring at her open-mouthed, a flush crawling up her pale cheeks. Then, she closed her mouth and beamed like a freaking ray of sunshine.
“Crystal,” she said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
And really, it was all that Charlie needed.
The gallery was crowded, buzzing with dozens of conversations. Waiters and waitresses in black liveries were presenting the guests with glasses of champagne and canapés. Charlie was still as unable to walk in high heels as ever. She winced as she barely avoided twisting her ankle, looking around in the hope of seeing a familiar face. A flash of red and gold caught her gaze and she smiled, making her way across the room. Jo was laughing at something Castiel had said, and he was staring at her bemusedly, but pleased, as she guffawed. She was wearing the same dress as she had the day they had met, Charlie realized, heart somersaulting as she watched her. She was beautiful, if still a little pale. She’d been out of the hospital for three weeks, but hadn’t been allowed to go back to work yet. Jo was still miffed about that, but Charlie knew that her brush with death had left scars that ran deeper than the one on her neck. Jo still had trouble sleeping, and as much as she tried to hide it, she still woke up in the middle of night, the memory of a shout on her lips.
Now, though, as she turned to smile at Charlie, smiling brightly, she looked like she did before this awful day.
“Look,” she said excitedly, tugging Charlie by the arm in lieu of greeting. “We’re famous!”
Charlie huffed a laugh and followed Jo’s gaze. She’d already seen the photography, of course, when Dorothy had asked her if she could use it, but seeing it here, exposed to the watchful eyes of the guests, was different. She felt Jo shift away, but didn’t follow her. Instead, she scrutinized. The grainy black and white Dorothy favored suited the scene, she thought. It gave it a peaceful aura, something indefinable. The photography in itself was fairly simple. Charlie and Jo were asleep, unaware of Dorothy’s presence. Charlie was lying on her stomach, Jo facing her on her side. Their hair was the most appealing thing about the scene, splayed on the pale sheets like velvet, but what caught Charlie’s attention was something she had failed to notice the first time. Jo’s hand was curled on Charlie’s bare shoulder unconsciously linking them. Charlie smiled faintly and took a step back to admire the subtle composition and the way the photographer had played with the light, catching it by surprise as it curved around their skins. Dorothy really was talented.
“Do you like it?”
Charlie startled and turned around swiftly. Her jaw all but dropped when she saw the woman who had talked to her. Drop-dead gorgeous was the only way Charlie could describe her. Her dark, shiny hair was attached in a complex-looking braid, underlining her smooth, young face alight with kindness. Her eyes were bright and deep, and Charlie knew instantly that she was faced with an incredibly intelligent person. A little impressed, she chuckled nervously and nodded.
“Well, it’s hard not to, considering I’m one of the models.”
The woman’s eyes widened in delight.
“Well, this is a surprise. I’m Sarah. Sarah Blake,” she said, offering her hand for Charlie to shake. Charlie did, mumbling her own name as realization sneaked up on her.
“You’re Dorothy’s friend! She’s told me all about you!” And then some.
She could have sworn there was a flush rising on Sarah’s cheeks.
“Did she?” she said, visibly struggling to sound nonchalant. Charlie raised an eyebrow. Well. That was interesting. Sarah, probably feeling her amusement, averted her gaze, flush deepening on her porcelain skin.
“She’s an incredible woman,” she said quietly. “She deserved to have this opportunity.”
Charlie nodded absently, eyes searching for her best friend in the crowd. She found her in the middle of a small circle of admirers, looking fairly uncomfortable, but content.
“You should tell her,” she said eventually, dragging her eyes back to her interlocutress. Sarah, if she looked surprised, had the good grace of not trying to pretend she didn’t know what Charlie was talking about.
“It would ruin everything,” she said with a sigh, shooting a slightly forced smile at an old man who greeted her.
Charlie couldn’t help it: she laughed. Loud and clear, the sound of it making a few heads turn their way. She tried to quieten, shaking her head at Sarah’s confused expression.
“Look, I’m going to give you some advice. Take it or leave it, it’s no skin off my back.” She waited until Sarah nodded, then smiled. “Talk to her. She isn’t going to bite you. Anyway,” she gave Sarah one last smile. “It sure isn’t going to ruin anything.” Sarah looked far less impressive with her mouth hanging open like that. “Anyway. I’m gonna find my girlfriend. There’s only so much secondhand pining someone can take in one go, so…peace out.”
Charlie, out, she thought smugly, winking at Sarah before heading to the bathroom. She closed the door behind her, taking in the shiny floors and walls with awe. Damn. She’d eat off the floor, it was so clean.
Then, she heard a soft laugh and looked up. Jo was leaning against the wall. She had taken off her shoes, and was smirking at Charlie.
“You took your sweet time.”
Charlie rolled her eyes and crossed the distance between them until she was only one breath away from Jo, reveling in the warmth of her body, the closeness.
“Well, believe it or not, Bumblebee, but I was busy playing matchmaker.”
“God help us all,” Jo murmured, and Charlie had to lean in and kiss her words away.
Outside, way above the city, a loud clap of thunder echoed, unnoticed.