This week it’s Dean who slips away from the motel room – from Sam and the incessant click-click of laptop keys and the hunt for a get out of hell free card that Dean’s pretty sure is pure wishful thinking – and goes looking for a drink. Dean can’t fall asleep to the sound of so much audible desperation.
He’s not looking for a hustle or pretty faces or ambience or anything but booze, really, so he goes straight for the joint across the street. It’s a shabby-looking place, outside and inside, too, not so much with this year’s dirt but with an ageless patina of grime that coats everything, half smoke and half sweat and the unlikely fractions of a few other ingredients besides. There’s only the late crowd left, but according to the sign he saw on the door, he’s still got half an hour to ease his troubles. He slides onto a bar stool. “Beer in a bottle,” he says.
There’s a pause. “Dean?”
The voice is coming from behind the bar. It’s feminine and rough and crackles a little, and he knows exactly who it belongs to. “Ellen?”
She looks the same, he thinks, as she steps out from behind the rows of liquor. Still dressed in jeans and flannel, hair still falling tidy and straight. She smiles, a pleased-to-see-him expression that’s like the flannel, warm and soft. Like the flannel, it’s looking a little worn.
“Bud do you?” she says.
“Yeah,” he says, though he thinks that now, tonight, a familiar face that isn’t Sam’s might be worth more than the bar’s whole stock.
She brings him his bottle. “I’m closing,” she says, “if you want to hang around.” Then she heads off to another customer down the bar. Dean works it slowly until it’s gone, and then he asks for another.
He watches the scattered crowd thin out. They’re all suburbanites, he thinks, a few vets here and there but no one else that holds himself like a hunter. Just civilians.
Eventually Ellen shoos out the last of the late-nighters, but she doesn’t shoo him. He nurses his beer while she cashes out the till and wipes down. When she’s done, she moves him to a table with a gesture and brings a bottle of her own.
“How you doing, sweetie?” she asks, and in the question he knows that she knows about the deal, and that that’s as direct as she’ll ever come to asking about it. Bartender thing or Ellen thing, he’s not sure and doesn’t care; he’s grateful either way.
“I’m all right,” he says, because he wants to be honest – she’s a friend, one of precious few he has who’re alive and know he’s alive – and he knows she’ll see it for the lie it is. “What about you? This your place?”
She snorts, her glance sweeping the room and finding it wanting. “I just sell the stuff.”
He allows himself a grin. “No hunters, then?”
“None but what straggle in of their own volition,” she says, and dips her bottle in his direction. Then her smirk falls away and she says, “Anyway, I don’t think I’ve got the heart for running a place anymore.”
They sit for a few moments, quiet, Dean thinking about the charred, acrid heap of the Roadhouse, with Ash and God knows who else buried in it.
Then, because it’s the next thing he can think of, he says, “Jo around?”
“Still hunting. Calls me now, though. Every week, Monday night, or she knows I’ll send Bobby to go looking for her remains.” Ellen’s smile turns grim before she wipes it away. “And Sam?”
“He’s fine.” In the sense that he’s falling apart at the seams, that Dean’s beginning to suspect he was all wrong about Sam being strong enough to live without his brother. But he’s in one piece still, and that’s the only question Winchesters answer, really. “We’re still hunting.”
She snorts. “The both of you’ll be hunting until you fall down dead.” He sees it in her eyes the moment her words catch up with her.
Maybe it’s that, a moment’s faltering by a woman who’s always been as certain as steel, that makes him say what he says next. Or maybe it’s just that he’s dying and she’s a friend and he likes her, goddamnit; likes that, given her way, she’d face down a hell full of demons or a saloon full of drunks before she’d let either get a hand on her daughter.
Or it could be the booze.
Regardless, what he says is, “So how about we slip into someplace more comfortable?”
She blinks. There’s a pause long enough for him to consider how coming on to Ellen Harvelle ranks as one of the stupider things he’s ever done, right up there with trusting Bela and telling Cassie Robinson the truth.
Then she says, “Come on, then.”
While he’s still staring at her, mouth hanging open, she gets up and heads for the door. Eventually he gets himself together and follows her out and up the outside stairs to a door that must open into an apartment above the bar. Ellen lets them in and flicks on the single yellow overhead light.
Dean’s stayed in uglier, grungier motel rooms, but not many of them. It’s tidy, though, which is as much as he’d expect from Ellen, and across the room the bed sheets look clean.
When he turns, he finds that Ellen has shoved off her shoes and is looking at him with a smile quirked at the corner of her lips. He’s not sure what he sees in her eyes – regret or maybe just weariness, from a hard day’s work or from life, he’s not sure which.
He can relate. He feels like he’s been tired for a long, long time.
She’s peering at him, eyes narrowed. “You sure about this?” she says.
He swallows. “Are you?”
She doesn’t answer. While he stands there, flat-footed, she walks right up, takes his face in her hands, and kisses him.
For a moment he’s still just standing, frozen on the fact that this is Ellen and he never expected her to say yes and just because he’s done this about a thousand times before doesn’t mean he has the first clue what to do now. Then his brain catches up with the rest of his body and he kisses her back, savoring the mingled flavors of his beer and hers and the bitterness of her cigarette smoke.
Her kisses are like she is, purposeful and sharp and then suddenly, unexpectedly gentle. He isn’t sure how it happened, but from the moment she closed that door this has been her show. When she pulls him toward the bed, he follows.
He’s sitting on it, snatching another kiss and fumbling with the last button of her shirt, when something comes to him. It’s a weird enough thought that it breaks through the delicious haze and he pulls back, staring at her.
He’s never slept with someone he knew before – at least, not someone he’s known as long and regularly as he’s known Ellen.
But she’s got an eyebrow lifted, her expression as plain as speech: You’re stopping now?
Not the time, Winchester.
He leans in again. So he’s never done exactly this before. So he’s going to make sure neither of them are sorry he has.
He holds himself still and takes that necessary half a second to orient himself: bed, not motel, sex, Ellen. With a sort of muffled snort that he’d have made fun of Sam for, he rolls over, and in the half-dark he sees the outline of Ellen sitting up, back to wall, cigarette in her fingers. It was probably the sound of her lighter that woke him.
“Hey,” she says.
She doesn’t have any right to sit there looking so composed. She’s supposed to be all maternal fondness when he’s in good graces and flat, simple threat when he’s not. She’s not supposed to sleep with him.
“Not bad,” she says, and takes a drag from her cigarette. She’s just visible by the artificial light glowing multi-colored through her window. “It’s been a long time.”
Dean lets the glow of ‘not bad’ warm him for a while, but eventually he hears the rest of what she said and says, “Yeah. Me, too.” She snorts disbelievingly, and he fumbles for the words to explain. It’s not something he thought about, or planned. He didn’t sit down and decide, No more sex for Dean, because, dude, over his dead body. “Haven’t felt like it,” he says finally.
Like after Dad, he realizes. Is that what he’s been doing? Grieving for his fucked-up life, almost over?
Not like he ever meant to do anything else with it besides this. Save people, hunt things, have awesome sex, eat awesome food, be with Sam. Give Dean a reprieve, and he’d just do more of the same.
He doesn’t know if that makes him well-adjusted or just pathetic as hell.
Half Ellen’s fingers are burrowed into his hair, massaging his scalp. If she minds that he just zoned out on her, it doesn’t show.
From somewhere on the floor, his phone beeps. Damn. It’ll be a text from Sam, and he’ll be bitching about always letting the other know if one of them’s taking off for a while, which Dean would totally give him hell for if it weren’t Dean’s idea in the first place.
Dean drags himself upright and then feels around on the floor for his jeans. By the time he’s pulled the phone from a pocket and read the message -
OK? - he feels halfway awake, and Ellen’s awake, and asking if he can spend the night would be awkward. Anyway, someone has to tell Sam to go to bed, or it just won’t happen.
“Sam,” he tells Ellen.
“Mmm,” she says, and turns on a lamp near the bed.
When he’s finished dressing, more or less, he turns back to Ellen. And finds himself at a loss. He still can’t read whatever it is in her eyes, but it’s still sad. She beckons him with the hand that doesn’t have the cigarette. “Come here, sweetie.”
When he’s close enough, she catches his cheek and guides him in for one more kiss, slow and warm.
“Thanks,” he says after he pulls away. He’s thanking her for more than the obvious, though he’d be hard put to explain what, exactly.
She, on the other hand, grins a filthier grin than he’d have ever have guessed she was capable of, and she says, “No, thank you.” And he’s got absolutely no doubt what she’s thanking him for, which is never bad to hear after a couple of months of accidental celibacy. But then she grabs his hand and squeezes it, and she says, “You don’t need to be a stranger, Dean.”
Oh. Something in him, very young and small, wants to cry. Oh.
For a month, Dean kills things and researches things – the ratio of the two being, as ever, way too low for his liking – and tells himself the thing with Ellen was a one night stand and that was all it was. Nice, unexpected, over.
It’s getting to him, though, this dying thing. His hunting has turned reckless, verging on stupid. He’s scaring Sam shitless, and he knows it; he’s scaring himself, to be honest. But he can’t tell Sam any of it, because the kid’s already burning himself into the ground on his self-appointed Save Dean mission. Sometimes Dean wonders if his brother’s even going to last long enough to see him off.
So when they finish a hunt three hundred miles from the Kansas-Oklahoma line, he talks him and Sam back towards Tahlequah. It takes less convincing than Dean thought it would. He doesn’t even have to play the ‘dying last wish’ card, although he’s pretty sure that as far as Sam’s concerned, it’s implicit in every request Dean makes.
“Is it a girl?” Sam asks. “This is about that girl you met last time.”
Dean hasn’t ever told Sam about seeing Ellen, much less doing anything else with Ellen. “Yeah,” he says. “A girl.”
It’s late when they get in. Dean showers the road grime off and smirks a goodbye to Sam, who shakes his head and goes back to his smelly old Latin text. Across the street, Dean stands at the door beneath the neon and almost turns around.
When he finally nerves up and goes in, he finds out it’s Ellen’s night off. Again, on the stairs to her apartment, he hesitates. What’s he doing? Turning up looking for comfort sex and a goodnight kiss? Real manly, Winchester.
It’s that, echoing in his head in his father’s voice, that pushes him on.
She answers at his first knock. She’s dressed the same as always, still flannel and denim, although this time her hair’s tied back into a loose ponytail. Stray bits trail flyaway around her face and catch the light behind her, softening her outline. “Dean,” she says, a smile to go with it, and Dean feels the tension of not just nerves but something else, something clenched and too deep down to name, loosen. “Come on in,” she says, stepping aside to let him through. “Beer?”
Her place is the same as before. It’s got all the personal touch that he figures a place of his would have, if he had one this long. Which is to say, not much.
Ellen hands him a can, cold from the fridge, and gestures him towards her table and one of its two chairs.
“Heard from Jo,” she says, popping the tab of her own beer. “Took down a wendigo couple of weeks ago.”
“Nasty sons of bitches,” Dean offers. “Took both of us to gank the one we ran into.” Not that the Winchester engine was quite running on all cylinders at that point, but the fact remains.
Ellen nods and accepts the compliment for what it is, though from her grimace Dean guesses it doesn’t ease her mind any to recognize the risks Jo’s taking. “Got herself scraped up some doing it.”
“She all right?” he says, though if she isn’t he figures he’d be seeing more than just a grimace.
“Rufus patched her up. Hunter,” Ellen adds, seeing Dean’s blank look. “Used to work with my husband now and again.”
“He ever partner up with my dad?”
She snorts, and then she laughs outright. “Just the once.” On seeing Dean’s look, she adds, “Like a match and a fuse, the two of them.”
It’s clearly a story worth hearing, but Dean’s lost interest. It’s a fresh shock, every new thing about his dad that he never knew, but tonight he’s just not up for another round of What Your Father Didn’t Tell You.
After his silence goes on a while, Ellen asks, “And Sam? How’s he doing?” Any luck? is what Dean hears.
“Same,” he says, shrugging. “Still doing the same old thing. Nothing new under the sun, right?” No luck.
They drink in silence awhile. It’s a melancholy silence, but companionable. Maybe this was all he wanted, Dean thinks. Just someone not Sam; somewhere not a motel room; beer he didn’t buy from a convenience store or a flirty waitress named Lacey - much though he loves flirty waitresses named Lacey.
“So how are you doing?” Ellen asks.
Dean stares down at his almost-empty bottle. His knuckles are white, he notices. “Same,” he mutters again, because bravado or even the weakest imitation of it feels like more than he can manage. “I’m just...” He can feel his eyes starting to prickle. Son of a bitch. He blinks and tries again. “I think I’m going a little crazy, you know?”
“I know,” she says.
“And Sam, he’s gonna kill himself obsessing about this, which’ll, you know, make the whole thing sort of pointless.” Dean snorts in what he means to be a laugh, but it gets stuck halfway as he considers the specter of Sam dead again before Dean’s year is even up.
He’ll shoot himself. Dean loses Sam again, and he’ll suck on a pistol just to get it over with.
Ellen’s looking at him, and he realizes he’s gotten lost inside his own head again. Keep it together, Dean. You’re embarrassing yourself. He knocks back the last of his beer and pushes to his feet. “Anyway,” he says.
“Stay.” It sounds like a plea.
He blinks at her. It looks like a plea, painted gray and thin on Ellen’s face. It’s been there all along he thinks, the whole night at least, and he didn’t look at her long enough before to see it. “Ellen?”
She shrugs, but she looks him in the eye, and she doesn’t back down.
“You don’t need this,” he says. It’s been bugging him for a month; it’s half the reason he wasn’t going to come back. Sex is for fun, not for dumping all your issues on your unsuspecting lay. “You don’t need to deal with my crap.”
An eyebrow lifts. “Like I ain’t got my own?” Ellen stands up and rounds the table. When he’s within reach she slides her hand behind his neck and stretches up to catch his lips in a kiss like the ones before: warm and slow, easy and thorough.
When she pulls back, she says, “That what you were hoping for?”
From somewhere within he musters that shame he was feeling before. Breath shaking a little, he says, “You don’t have to do this.”
Her eyes narrow. “Are you suggesting that I’m only in it for you?”
He blinks. “Um.”
“Don’t flatter yourself.” Her smile and the light pressure of her thumb tracing the whorls of his ear take out the sting. “I like you fine, but I wouldn’t be doing this if there weren’t something in it for me.”
He stares at her until she gives him that look, that particular Ellen-patented Ain’t You Just as Stupid as You Look expression that used to make him feel about eight years old and now he thinks might be turning him on, despite everything. “You gotta ask?” she says finally, with just a hint of that filthy smirk.
And yeah, okay, he’s pretty damned good at this, but there’s something else in her expression, too, something sad and shadowed. Or maybe it’s just that he can’t really see in this light.
“Take me to bed, Winchester,” Ellen says.
If she’s not telling, then it’s not his business. Whatever they’re doing, apparently it’s mutual, and that’s good enough for him. And now she’s working his jacket off his shoulders and he’s fiddling with the buttons on her flannel, and he’s got other things to do besides think.
Dean wakes to the sound of “Smoke on the Water” blaring tinnily. It’s full day. Sunlight pours in past Ellen’s curtains, practically sheer with age.
There’s a rustle and the creak of shifting weight from Ellen’s side of the bed, and then his phone is being pressed into his hand. He blinks at it. He can’t make out the caller ID, but he figures he knows who it is anyway.
Sam bitches about breakfast and early starts and You’re the one who said crack of dawn, Dean. It’s almost a relief, after all the careful handling Sam’s been giving him lately.
“Dude, it’s not that late,” Dean says.
“Dude,” Sam says, “It’s ten-thirty.”
Oh. “Yeah, yeah, okay. I’ll be right there.”
He jams himself into underwear and socks and jeans and shirt. He sits on the edge of the bed and ties up his bootlaces, and when he’s done he takes a deep breath and ventures, “So, is this like a regular thing, then?”
Behind him, Ellen says, “Do you want it to be?”
He twists around to look at her. Her expression is neutral, almost disinterested, but he catches a shadow of that same thing he saw last night. In the morning light, it looks like loneliness.
There are, Dean’s certain, any number of reasons why this is a very bad idea. He can’t think of any of them. “I wouldn’t say no.”
“All right, then,” she says. “Suits me.”
And that’s that. Whatever ‘that’ is.
The next time they roll into town, Dean drops Sam off at a new motel, and then he stands in the parking lot for a few minutes and he waffles. This is not some kid courting the girl he wants to take to the prom; this is him and Ellen and maybe some sex or, heck, maybe not, either of which he’d be okay with – possibly a revelation in itself. This is not high romance, which is just as well, since he’d have no clue how to go about that anyway.
After a few moments’ indecision, though, he gets back in the Impala and drives the half-hour trek to Wagoner, home to what are, according to the Dean Winchester Guide to Regional Cuisine, the best pulled pork sandwiches in the whole damn state. If the way to Ellen’s heart turns out not to be through her stomach, well, that’ll be a crying shame and also leave more for him.
It’s one in the afternoon when he gets back to the motel, late enough for Ellen to be awake but early enough, he figures, to catch her before her shift starts. He goes around the side of the bar and up the steps. As he knocks, his bag of ribs under one arm, he feels as awkward and nervy as that freaking high schooler asking his freaking crush to the movies.
It’s a change from feeling like he’s dying, at any rate. He supposes that’s something.
Then the door opens, and there’s Ellen, still looking a bit bed-mussed, which is way freaking hotter on Ellen Harvelle than he’d ever have expected it to be.
“Dean,” she says, neutral.
“I brought food,” he says, feeling obvious and stupid and young. He offers her the sack of sandwiches.
She eyes it, and Dean holds his breath. “Well, then,” she says finally, “it’s a good thing I like food.” She smirks at him, and suddenly it’s just him and Ellen again, and they’re good.
Ellen likes pulled pork just fine, it turns out. They’ve got a couple hours before her shift, so after the food and the catching-up, there’s sex.
It’s less urgent now. He’s been looking forward to it this time, anticipating; this time he’s not starving, and he can slow down and appreciate. Each kiss isn’t his last, but a promise of more.
It’s like talking, he thinks, but without the hodgepodge English language in the way. Dean’s always liked talking almost as much as he’s liked sex, and for some of the same reasons – although not all of them, clearly – but sex with Ellen is like arguing over a new topic with an old friend: fascinating, but comfortable. Familiar, but still surprising.
After it all, drowsing at Ellen’s side, he says, “Sam’d probably like to see you again.”
She eyes him, taking the measure of some attribute of his that might or might not bear up to scrutiny, and then she nods and says, “Bring him on up.”
“Downstairs?” he asks. It’s not that he usually minds rubbing his adventures in Sam’s face, but he doesn’t want to rub this, whatever ‘this’ is. He’s feeling sort of shy about it, actually, which is not a little embarrassing, which in turn ups the shyness factor. It’s a vicious cycle.
Maybe Ellen feels the same, or maybe she’s just humoring him. “Downstairs.” She glances at the wall clock. “Hell. Half an hour? My shift starts pretty soon after that.”
Once he’s showered and put together, more or less, everything zipped or buttoned as required for decency, he drives a few streets over and pokes his head in the motel room door. There’s Sam, snoozing over his laptop – closed, fortunately, which is protecting it against the drool.
“Sam,” Dean says, and his brother startles awake. “Someone to see you.”
Sam doesn’t say a word to Dean when he sees Ellen in the booth, already working her beer. He doesn’t make any faces. Anyone but Dean would have missed the pause in Sam’s step, the hitch of his breath. Then Sam’s grinning and sliding in across from Ellen, and they have a nice, not at all awkward half hour of catching up on hunting news. Strictly business.
Dean’s tense the moment they get in the car, waiting for the Sammian commentary. They’re a good ten miles out of town – thank God they cover as much mileage as they do, or they’d never say anything at all – when Sam finally says, “So.” The vowel stretches out, long and menacing. “The girl in town. Ellen?”
Dean grips his baby’s steering wheel just that little bit tighter. “Yeah.” He glances over, looking for skepticism or maybe amusement hidden behind the mask of I’ll humor you because you’re dying.
If it’s there, he doesn’t see it. Some mild curiosity, maybe.
“Huh,” Sam says.
Dean waits, and waits some more, and then Sam says something about a poltergeist in Vermont.
And that’s all Dean ever hears from Sam about that.
Maybe it’s a relationship now; hell if Dean knows. Whatever it is, he’s pretty sure he’s never had anything like it before, and he’s none too sure how it goes. A year ago, he wouldn’t have kept coming back; a year ago he’d never have asked Ellen that first time. Now he’s dying, though, so even if he screws this up as mightily as he screwed up the thing with Cassie and the other thing or two along the way that were doomed before they started, well, it’ll all be over soon.
And if he doesn’t screw it up, then maybe the memory of it’s something he can take with him when he goes.
Sam’s navigating nowadays in the ongoing legal search, but every two or three weeks, without prompting, he swings them around towards Oklahoma. Dean varies what he brings: Florida oranges stashed cold in the icebox, a six-pack of specialty beer courtesy of a grateful haunt-free microbrewer, chocolate. The way Ellen cusses and croons over the chocolate with that lemon flavor stuff or the hot chili bits, Dean suspects she’s never had anything like it before.
“Dude,” Sam says one day. “Take her flowers.”
“Sure, and some champagne to go with them,” Dean says. “We’re talking me and Ellen, here, Sam.”
The idea niggles at him, though. The next time around he stops into a hometown grocery that boasts a florist. Again: not high romance. No roses for him and definitely no carnations, which he strongly suspects didn’t start out as flowers at all, but as some kind of bewitched origami.
Standing in front of Ellen’s door, he realizes he has no idea how to explain the bouquet. Staring at the paint peeling from the doorframe doesn’t help. Finally he knocks, and when Ellen swings the door open he says, “Flowers? For your place.”
She takes the bouquet, lots of daisy-type things and bright colors, and shakes her head. “Ain’t they pretty,” she says. He can tell that somewhere inside she’s laughing at him. Once she’s stuck the whole mess in a pitcher, though, she takes his head in both hands and kisses him like she means it, and he thinks maybe it’s been a very long time since a man last brought her flowers.
Sometimes when he stops for a visit, Sam comes, too, and shares whatever’s on the menu for the evening, whether it’s Dean’s latest take-out offering or some solid home-cooked dish of Ellen’s or, in a pinch, something liberated from off the grill downstairs. When the food and the friendly updates are done, Sam takes himself off to the less colorful – ‘less pukingly kitschy,’ he says – motel that he’s found across town.
Then it’s Dean and Ellen, still talking in words and other ways. She’s awesome with her hands, anywhere he wants them: on his dick or his shoulders or deep in the muscles of his back. She’s howlingly ticklish from her bra line to her waist, which fact he takes advantage of at risk to his life. He can’t quite get her off with a foot rub, but it’s a near thing, and the sounds she makes are pretty much the same anyway. She likes his tongue even better, and she has very specific ideas of what he should do with it.
Dean’s gaining an appreciation for having sex with someone you’ve had sex with plenty of times before. He used to tell Sam what a drag any relationship longer than a week would be, how even between the sheets things would get old, but Dean never quite believed his own bullshit; mostly it was good for getting him a Sammy frown and a detour around one of Sam’s pet topics, the Dire Dysfunction of Dean’s Sexual Relationships. The thing is, Dean didn’t realize until now what bullshit it was.
It’s like when his dad when would buy them a new tape, Dean’s decided: new discoveries with every play of the album until finally he knew the chords and the tones, all the stutters and slips like he knew breathing. Usually by then Sam was bored and whining that Dean must have the whole thing memorized, but that was just the point. Every listen after that, the stereo wasn’t playing the music; the music was playing him. And that was even better.
And that? That’s how it is with Ellen.
Fucking shame it’s taken him so long to figure this all out. Turns out all it took was dying.
They don’t talk about the deal. Ellen asks every so often how Sam’s doing, even if she’s just seen him a half hour before, and Dean always answers the same: no change.
They don’t talk about Jo, either, except for status reports. Nasty poltergeist. Couple of vampires she took down with another hunter. A string of child murders that turned out to be your garden-variety human pervert.
It’s clear enough Ellen wants to be out there with her. Dean’s lived all his life with the puppet-string pull of family; he recognizes the signs. He doesn’t ask what she’s doing alone in this two-bit town selling some other guy’s booze. He thinks maybe Ellen doesn’t know.
One afternoon, he knocks once on Ellen’s door and pushes it open, and almost runs smack into Jo. He isn’t exactly pressed and shined for a date, but he isn’t exactly not, either, and besides he’s got fried chicken under his arm and a discreet paper of flowers in one hand and he just walked into her mother’s apartment without waiting for an invite. Inconspicuous, he’s not.
Nor quick on his feet, either, apparently; all he does is stand there with his jaw hanging open until Jo lifts a brow. “You do delivery now?” she asks, pointing her chin at the bag of chicken.
“Only for very special clientele,” he says.
Jo folds her arms, takes a few suspicious glances - at him, at the chicken, at the door, at the flowers in his hand – and says, “You and my mom, huh?”
“Uh. Yeah.” There doesn’t seem to be much to add to that.
She nods to herself for a moment, and then she reaches up on tip-toe with her head arched back, and kisses him full on the lips.
“Joanna Beth, you tell me what in hell you’re doing.” It’s Ellen, walking out of the bathroom with her hands in a towel.
Jo pulls away and shrugs, grinning like mischief incarnate, though with maybe a bitter taint around the eyes. “Just wanted to know what I was missing.”
And that’s that. He and Ellen and Jo and Sam eat fried chicken and Sam eats everyone’s cole slaw and it feels kind of like family, if family included a kid sister and also the woman he’s apparently dating. Or something.
Jo doesn’t say anything else to him or try to steal any more kisses; there’s no wailing of woman scorned and no threats of his fate should he somehow so thoroughly fuck this up that he hurts the feelings of Ellen Harvelle.
He accepts the threats as implied, though.
That night he lies on a cot in Sam’s motel room and listens to his brother breathe, and he’s so damned grateful for this miserable doomed year of Sam and hunting and Ellen and Sam that he just about chokes on it.
He walks into Ellen’s apartment one afternoon to find her seated at her table, fitting a rifle together with sharp, precise movements. He hasn’t seen her around a weapon since he first started coming here, and he wouldn’t have known she still had any except he’s certain only death will part Ellen Harvelle from her shotgun.
She glances up, and he takes an involuntary step back from the fury radiating from her. “Bring something to shoot with or stay out of the way.” She grabs a box of .22 caliber shells and strides for the door, and he follows her.
“I’ll call Sam.”
“Don’t need him,” she says, pulling the door shut behind them and speeding down the stairs.
“You sure?” he asks, frowning after her.
“Not his problem,” she says without even breaking stride.
He catches up to her in the parking lot. “We can take the Impala.” He’s spent some time under the hood of her pick-up, but it still goes nowhere fast.
He’s got his hand on the Impala’s door, ready to swing her open, duck inside, and roar off guns a-blazin’ against whatever it is, when Ellen says, “Dean.”
He looks at her over the top of the car, and she looks back, eyes still burning with purpose but dimmed a little now in the washed-out afternoon light. “It’s Jo,” she says, but as Dean shifts to move again, Ellen adds, “She’s all right.”
“Just about got herself killed. Werewolf. And I just...” For the first time today, she loses a little of the furious certainty. “There’s a range a little out of town. Old quarry.” At the pause, she licks her lips, and then she squares her shoulders in decision. “I can drive myself. You got better things to do.”
But he’s come to his own decision by now. “Not really,” he says. Unless she doesn’t want him, because he knows well enough how it is to need some solitude. He watches her shoulders drop a little, though, and the tightness around her mouth ease, and he thinks he was right the first time. “Not a damned thing,” he adds.
Ellen nods once in his direction and pulls open the car door, and he follows.
The quarry’s a hollow in the ground a few miles out of civilization proper. Across the sandstone valley are a couple of sawhorses standing over a litter of aluminum cans.
“Set you up?” Dean offers. Ellen nods tightly, and Dean walks to the sawhorses. On each one he balances three mutilated cans. Once he gets back to Ellen, he says, “Hold up a moment.” It takes him a bit of digging in back of the Impala – he and Sam spend so much time shooting at things that matter that they haven’t gotten any target practice in a while – but eventually he finds the regulation strength earplugs and offers Ellen a pair.
Wryly she takes them, and then she turns her back to them, she aims, and she fires.
He quits setting up for her eventually when it becomes clear that striding that distance to the targets and back is another way for her to bleed off the tight fury. Every so often he’ll spell her – it can’t hurt to practice some distance shooting, especially given how his first few rounds go – but mostly he sits back and lets her shoot whatever monsters those innocent beer cans represent. When her box of shells is gone, he gets her another from the trunk.
There’s barely a glint of sun visible over the quarry’s edge when she comes to the Impala and stands next to him, looking lost. He wonders if she didn’t have a shift today. He leans over into the ice chest; convenient that he forgot to hand it over to Sam. Bummer for Sam, though. “Drink?” he asks.
She takes the beer and, after a moment’s hesitation, sits next to him on the Impala’s hood. After a swig, she grimaces and pulls her earplugs out. Another swig, and he realizes she’s shaking.
This is new.
If it were Sam, Dean would go away until Sam’d pulled himself together, or else he’d just keep sitting there feeling useless. Even odds. If it were Dean, Sam would want to talk about it and Dean would blow him off and the whole thing would get postponed indefinitely.
None of those options is looking really attractive.
The shaking doesn’t stop, and eventually Dean lets his hand slide up Ellen’s arm. He’s been relearning what touch can do for a person; if he gets punched for his efforts, he gets punched.
He doesn’t, though. After a few moments of no response at all, he slides over until their hips are touching and wraps his arm around her shoulders. She leans into the embrace and breathes raggedly, and he thinks he can do this a long time if he needs to.
“Jo got the werewolf,” Ellen whispers harshly. “Had a mate. It got her down. It came this close to her heart.”
Dean squeezes her arm. Eventually, he says, “And?”
“Olivia. Hunter. She was on the same job.” Ellen heaves a breath. “Got there just in time.”
“And Jo’s okay now.”
Ellen snorts. “Near enough, according to Olivia. Took off this morning, didn’t even say where.” She reaches for his hand and grips it tight. “I should have been there.”
That night, Dean’s face first in Ellen’s pillow when her voice comes out of the dark. “I don’t know that Jo’d have gone off hunting so soon, if you hadn’t given her the taste for it.”
Dean rolls over to look at her, her face all shadows and neon green from the sign glowing outside her window. “It was her case,” he says carefully. “And she did a good job.”
“I know she did,” Ellen says. After a while, “Anyway, it was only a matter of time, I guess. In her blood, like it was with her dad.” She snorts. “I’m sleeping with the man whose father got my husband killed.”
He doesn’t know how to apologize for that. I’m sorry is worse than inadequate, and he doesn’t say it.
It must have shown on his face, though; she shakes her head and reaches out to squeeze his wrist. “I’m not looking for apologies,” she says. “I told you before, all that’s been forgiven years ago, and anyway it’s got nothing to do with you.”
As if he hasn’t always been picking up after Dad’s failures.
The thought tastes of disloyalty and rancid butter, but Dean doesn’t try to unthink it or push it back down into the dark. This must be some of that clarity they talk about that comes of being close to death.
“I’m just saying,” Ellen continues, “it’s strange paths life takes you on sometimes.”
That’s certainly nothing Dean can disagree with. Nor is he going to blurt You’re about the best strange path I’ve ever been on, though he wants to.
“What about me, then?” he says instead. “You must blame me for something.”
She gazes at across the dark, her eyes just neon glints of green. “For walking into my town a couple of months ago, looking pitiful.” She reaches across the narrow space between them and slides her thumb down his jaw. “You Winchesters just keep breaking my heart, one way or another.”
He doesn’t know what to say to that, so instead he kisses her, and she lets him.
It’s almost the end, now.
Dean’s kept his mouth shut about Ellen and let Sam come to his own conclusions. Dean’s sort of figured that Sam figured the arrangement was mostly just sex. So when they’re down to counting days instead of weeks and Dean asks, “Hey, we got time to swing by Tahlequah?” he expects an argument. An appeal to his upstairs brain, maybe.
Sam takes a sharp breath, preparatory, Dean’s sure, to yet another tirade about how Dean’s about to die and doesn’t he care and why is he still sabotaging every goddamn effort Sam makes?
“I don’t want to leave her hanging, you know?” Dean adds. “Just in case.” He doesn’t finish the thought, but it hangs there anyway in the air between them: In case you can’t save me.
After a pause, Sam says easily, “Yeah, man. Sure.”
When they get into town, Dean hands the wheel over to Sam, who takes himself off to the motel. Dean doesn’t let himself get stuck on all the second thoughts or on the memory of all the times he’s done this before. He strides in and up to the bar, and Ellen’s already seen him coming.
She gives him a measuring look and calls back to the gawky, barely-legal kid who helps at the counter when grill orders are slow. “Jaime, when Joe gets back in from break, tell him he’s closing. I’m done. ”
She comes around the end of the counter. When she reaches Dean, she slides her fingers between his, and he lets her lead them out the door. Outside, she turns to him and takes a moment to look him over. “This it?” she asks.
He nods. “Sam’s still got some ideas, but...”
“Ten days,” she says. He’s never given her the date, but he probably should have figured she’d have dug it up somehow. There’s something warming in that, knowing she’s been counting the days like he has. “You got anything special in mind?”
“Nah,” he says. “Just, you know, stopping in.”
“All right, then.” Her grip tightens and she takes him up the stairs, and when they’re inside Dean takes Ellen Harvelle to bed for what he’s pretty sure will be the very last time. The kisses are a little more desperate than usual and sometimes taste of salt, but it’s still good, the rhythm they find together feeling a little like home, as if Dean has any memory of what that’s like.
There are no words afterwards. Ellen tucks herself in next to him and lets him cry: about her and Sam and hell and death. And he can’t explain any of it, but he figures she knows.
It’s morning. Sam’s waiting in the car at the bottom of the stairs. Dean’s at the top of them, holding onto Ellen’s hand and trying to figure out how to say goodbye.
She’s leaving, she told him this morning. She’s going to partner with Jo. She’s going to camp on Rufus’s front porch until Jo comes around again and she’s not letting Jo leave without her.
She’ll be okay, he thinks.
At this rate he’ll be standing here until the hellhounds are baying at his feet. “Listen,” he says. “Thanks. For everything.”
“Hasn’t been all bad,” she says, smirking, though her eyes are looking damp.
“Take care of yourself, Ellen.”
She grips his hands and squeezes. “You do the same.”
And he turns, and he starts walking down the stairs.