Sam and Jo, they talk now. Sam will catch her in the middle a witness interview, and she’ll feel the phone vibrate in her pocket (or buzz from her briefcase, if it’s that kind of interview) and she’ll know he’s checking up on her. It took a couple of shouting matches over the phone before she established that he wasn’t doing it because she was omega; he was doing it because she was a friend and a fellow hunter, and if she wasn’t all right he wanted to know.
At the time, this seemed weird. Probably it shouldn’t. Probably civilians – normals, people who miss out on the primal politics of freaks - would have said it was sweet. Jo knows what sweet leads to. It leads to alphas screwing her like she exists to be screwed, like there is no damn thing related to screwing that she won’t beg them for if they suggest it.
But Sam isn’t that. Dean talks like he is, a little, and she’s punched him in his stupid alpha mouth for it a couple of times, but he has never grabbed her ass or gotten any deeper into her space than she asked him to be, and she's finally concluded that talk is all it is.
So, Sam calls her up every so often just to ask how things are, no booty call, no innuendo. Sometimes now he’ll ask for backup, if the case needs a woman running point, or sometimes an omega specifically, or even just an extra person. Jo very carefully never expresses what it means to her to count as a generic extra person. More rarely she’ll call him; not that she needs backup any less often, really, but except situations absolutely certain to kill a solo hunter, she prefers to go alone.
It’s nice having that person to call, though.
All of which is to say, it’s not a total surprise when Sam rings her and asks how fast she can get to a patch of nothing in the middle of Minnesota. His voice sounds a little strained. She’s just off a vampire case outside Chicago, tired but not bone-weary. She can make it by nightfall, she tells him.
She gets into Zumbrota as twilight hits. She slaps three mosquitoes on the walk from her truck to the door of the diner Sam directed her to. She slides into the booth, next to Sam, which tells her right off something is wrong; they usually double up to give her own side out of a some antiquated sense of courtesy she’s long since forgiven them for. Dean’s looking a little haggard – he barely even smirks at her – but Sam looks like he’s about to fall over.
“Hey,” she tells him.
“Hey.” He tries to smile and mostly fails. Definitely not good.
“So what’s the job?” she asks.
“We’ve got an alpha problem,” Dean says.
“You do,” she says, disbelieving. “You? You are an alpha problem.”
Sam snorts, and Dean scowls in his direction. “We think it’s a witch,” Sam says, sliding papers over to her. He sounds a little hoarse. “It’s targeting alphas. Territorial thing, we figure.”
Jo fights not so show her unease. Witches are her least favorites hunts. They’re the flip side of the hunter coin. Hunters are freaks who use their sensitivies for good, more or less; witches are freaks who don’t. “Just alphas? No other guys?”
“Doesn’t look like it,” Dean says.
Jo glances between them. “And what exactly is the witch doing?”
“It’s like the flu?” Sam says uncertainly. He gestures towards his face, which is pale and sheened with sweat. A spot of unhealthy color marks each cheek. “It’s like the worst flu you ever had, but on fast forward, and then you die.”
Jo makes a sympathetic face.
“Two other hunters already died. The first wasn’t even on a case; he was supposed to just be passing through. So then the second hunter comes in to investigate - Steve Wandell, you met him, right?"
Jo nods. When she was little, he'd leave his daughter at the Roadhouse now and again. Ellen didn't seem to mind; she said he was good people.
"And it killed him, too. We found hex bags in his car—”
“And in my car,” adds Dean. “God, I hate witches.”
“—and clearly there’s some mojo we haven’t found yet, or we were dosed with something, because, well.” Sam flaps a hand at himself again.
“And you think he’ll leave me alone,” Jo says. She’s not sure how she feels about that hypothesis. The data set is too small to draw conclusions from. There’s a good chance that this witch, whoever he is, is the only freak in town, and Zumbrota is not exactly on the way to anywhere.
“After the first guy bit it,” Dean says, “Annie came and checked things out.”
“She find anything?”
“Not a freaking thing. She made it out alive, though.”
That was some comfort, then. “Okay,” Jo says, folding her hands on the table. “So, we’re all going back to your motel, right? Because you guys both clearly need to take a load off, and I want to look through your research.”
“We were holding out for chicken soup,” Dean says. He gives her a sickly smirk. Yeah, destroying the hex bags definitely hasn’t gotten them free of the effects of whatever it was; he looks less well now than when she got in the door.
“Get it to go,” she says. “I bet your waitress will appreciate it.”
When they get to the motel, Dean holes up in the bathroom. There are barfing noises every so often. She finally asks Sam, who’s lying on one of the beds. He opens his eyes and says, “I got out of that stage a couple of hours ago.”
Jo winces sympathetically and goes back to her reading.
After a few more minutes, though, she puts the last clipping down. Her chances of deducing anything useful are slim; there’s just not enough information.
“You’re further along than Dean,” she says. “Did you guys split up today? Did you eat something different?”
Sam blinks at her. Word processing does not seem to be functioning at full capacity anymore. Eventually, though, he says, “Dean canvassed the neighborhoods, and I sniffed around Main Street. I could feel it coming on when we met for lunch.”
That gives her something, anyway. She’s going to have to opt for the same strategy they used, which is not so much strategy as it is the brute force solution: she’s going to go sniffing around town until she finds the guy. Assuming it’s a guy.
She considers her clothes, and then she shrugs. If this is someone like her, then they’ll know her regardless of what she’s wearing. A change of clothes would be more like a Halloween costume than a legitimate disguise. Instead, Jo repacks her duffel bag to carry only the bare essentials: scent balm to soothe aggression, hypo spray to knock out a person’s nose entirely, nose plugs to protect herself from same. She has hunters’ bane, too, including a packet of dried leaves laced with witchroot that, as a tea, would put an alpha out of commission or kill him entirely, depending on dosage.
There’s magic in these items, though none of it is Jo’s. It’s a tricky business, magic, and though all natural-born hunters have the capacity for it, few practice. Best left to the women, the wisdom goes. Jo gets her supplies from an omega in Colorado.
Jo packs her father’s knife, too, because she never goes on a hunt without. Besides, even against magic, sometimes violence is the best answer.
“Good luck,” Sam says as she leaves. There’s new pain in his voice. Jo worries, but she doesn’t ask.
Thank God Zumbrota doesn’t look very large. Jo doubts she has much time.
Jo walks down all the commercial streets, duffel hanging nonchalantly over her shoulder. She doesn’t have much hope; the shops and offices are all closed now except for one grocery store. She catches no stray scents in the open air. Time for the residential areas, then.
This is luck, inasmuch as Jo ever gets any: on the second street she tries, she smells a familiar sharp pungence: a sign of the close proximity of another freak like her.
Another freak just like her. This is an omega she’s smelling. It’s an older one, her scent muted; she must be past her heats. The scent is coming from over a fence, and mingled with it are the calm sweetness of mint, the mild anti-septic scent of yarrow, and a lot of other distinct, organic odors. Jo takes another sniff, knowing what she’s looking for now, and catches a faint yet unmistakable hint of the bitterness of hunters’ bane.
There’s no question. Jo’s found her witch.
She’s downwind, so she takes the chance to pause and weigh her options. Jump the fence and get right to the confrontation? If she catches the woman unaware, she has a chance. There’s the ring-the-doorbell option, too, but then the woman would likely be on her guard. On another case Jo might have inclined towards the come-back-later option, but the time factor rules that one out here.
She’s about ready to pull out the hypo spray and get a running start when the gate in the fence swings open. Behind it is the omega she’s been scenting.
“Come on in.” The woman says it casually, with none of the smirking menace Jo is used to from magic users. She curls her fingers, and Jo feels it: a grip around her throat, not tight enough to choke – yet – but clearly signaling the threat of it. The woman tugs, like a leash on a collar, and Jo follows.
Once she’s inside the gate, the woman closes it. Then she slides Jo’s duffel bag off her shoulder. Jo swings around to protest, and the grip on her throat grows marginally tighter. “I wouldn’t,” the woman says. Jo doesn’t.
The back yard is all garden, practically jungle in its lushness and overwhelming in the variety of its scents. The tang of hunters’ bane is much stronger inside than it was out; Jo has no idea how the woman manages that. Jo and the woman are standing on a path that leads to the center of it all, where a patio table and two chairs sit on a tiny patch of lawn. The woman beckons Jo towards, and Jo goes. The weight of her father’s knife is heavy inside her boot.
“Sit,” the woman says. Jo sits. She wonders if there’s some other binding spell on her, in addition to the collar around her neck; compliance is not usually her game plan in situations like these.
The woman sits on the other side of her. She’s ordinary. Jo guesses late fifties, figure softened and slumping in places, curly hair graying at the temples, face gently lined with laughter and frown lines both. She doesn’t look like a witch who’s killed a man and on her way to kill two more. She looks like she ought to be baking apple pies.
“So they send you,” the woman says.
Jo doesn’t respond. It’s one of the best interrogation tactics, she’s found.
It seems the woman knows this, too; she looks across at Jo, eyes calm and clear, saying nothing. After a while she reaches inside her large, loose jacket and pulls out a glass vial. She shakes it, and the green, viscous fluid within sloshes gently. “I imagine you can guess what this is,” she says. She pulls the stopper out, and immediately the bitter sharpness hits Jo. The sensory overload is like an electric shock straight to the brain. Within three breaths, Jo thinks her nose has gone numb.
“Well?” the woman asks.
She seems to expect an answer this time, and Jo doesn’t see the point in not giving it. “Hunter’s bane.”
“Mm. So they say.” There’s a glass on the table with a half-inch of orange juice in the bottom. The woman lets a few drops fall from the vial, and then she closes it again. She pushes it over to Jo. “Have some,” she says.
There’s enough oil of hunters’ bane in that bottle to kill Sam and Dean both, and a couple more besides.
“Go on,” the woman says.
“It won’t kill me,” Jo says, with all the certainty she can muster.
“But you’re a hunter,” the woman says in pretended surprise.
Jo bites out the words. “Yes, I am.”
Jo doesn’t know what game is being played here. She doesn’t see what else to do but play along. “But it only affects alphas.”
The woman settles back in her whitewashed wrought-iron chair, looking satisfied. Apparently that was the thrilling conclusion?
Witches hate hunters, and most hunters are alphas. It makes sense, a mystical poison that kills alphas having that name.
Also, yeah, maybe it stings a bit.
“You’re all spitfire,” the woman says. “You’re holding it in, but it’s fairly clear you want to tell me to go screw myself. You’re here for those alphas that were sniffing around earlier today.”
“You’re killing them,” Jo says. “You’ve killed two other men in the past three weeks.”
“Alphas,” the woman says.
“People,” Jo counters.
The woman snorts. “Barely. And the normals think ordinary men are bad. Alphas are nothing but fight and breed and destroy, and I will not have them in my town.”
“You could post signs,” Jo says. She can only imagine what the normal citizenry would think of that.
“Have you ever been hurt by an alpha?” the woman asks. “I don’t mean he took a grab at your ass or left bruises while he was busy screwing the heat out of you. I don’t even mean the ones who called you a slut just for smelling like you wanted it, or the ones who got so close to you in heat that you wanted it even when you didn’t.”
“Then what?” Jo asks, fighting to keep her voice steady. It’s not like every single one of those things hasn’t happened to her.
“I mean, have you ever had an alpha who owned you, body and soul and as much brain as he credited you with? Have you ever been told that screwing alone will bring your heat on and then been passed around among four of his closest friends to test the theory?”
“No,” Jo says. The fight to keep her voice from shaking is lost.
“I haven’t either,” the woman says. Jo blinks. It’s not the climax she was expecting. The woman continues, “My sister did, though.”
“What happened?” The words are involuntary, impossible to hold back.
Jo processes this. The woman watches her, and she waits. “Sam and Dean aren’t like that,” Jo says. “The two alphas you’re killing. They wouldn’t—”
The woman shrugs. “They’re all like that,” she says. “I saw the tall one sniffing around outside my shop, and I knew.” Jo hears it in her voice: casual, unshakeable certainty. There will be no mind-changing here, no persuasion to a less ruthless course. There rarely is; use of the kind of magic killing the Winchesters right now doesn’t leave its user unscathed
“And me?” Jo asks.
The woman peers at her. For the first time, a shadow of uncertainty flits across her expression and is gone. “You’re omega. You understand why I have to do this.” There’s something pleading in her tone. Jo wonders if she’s ever told any of this to someone before.
“They’re not animals,” Jo says. “They’re as human as I am, as any normal is.”
The woman laughs bitterly. “Oh, little hunter girl. You of all people know that nothing is as human as a normal.” She looks down, reaching inside her jacket again. “The rest of us are all a few bubbles off plumb. Now, for you I have something better, a nice forgetting potion...” Her voice trails off as she digs around in her inner pockets.
Jo sees her chance. She drops low enough to slide her pants leg up and pull her father’s knife from its sheath. The woman spots her; the grip around Jo’s throat is now crushing. Oxygen can wait a few seconds, but much more pressure and she won’t have a windpipe left. She launches herself over the table at the woman, who’s already mumbling something that would no doubt do a whole lot more damage than anything Jo’s sustained. Jo lands on her and sends them both tumbling to the ground.
A knife goes as smoothly into a freak as into anyone else. The blade slices through the woman’s layers and parts her skin as smoothly as you please. It sticks in the ribs, but Jo wrenches the grip until she hears the brittle snap of bone. Beneath her, the struggling woman goes limp. Slowly Jo pulls the blade out and wipes it on her shirt. The pressure on her throat is gone, although she’s sure there’ll be bruises. “Damn it,” she says scratchily as she pushes to her feet. With her toe, she prods the woman’s outflung hand. “Damn it,” she repeats softly. She turns deliberately away to make her phone call.
It’s Dean. “Yeah.”
“You guys feeling any better?”
There’s a cautious pause. “Maybe.”
“Let’s hope so, because she’s not brewing up any antidote for you.”
Jo cuts the connection. She glances at the woman again, and then she goes into the house. There’s no altar that she can find, although she does learn the woman’s name: Lydia Marks. Jo tries the garden last, though really she probably should have gone there first, given where the woman’s occult interests clearly lay. Jo finds the altar in the shed. It’s simple, even elegant, maybe. Magic has never been Jo’s field, but she can tell the power of this alter is in the lines of it, not in the paraphernalia, of which there isn’t much. Judging from the altar, Lydia’s magic was based in herbs and growing things; she could almost have been a hedge witch of old, brewer of tinctures and medicines and frivolous potions, if it weren’t for the odor of hunters’ bane that drenches everything.
Turning this altar over would do very little good. Jo goes back to the gate of the garden for her duffel. She salts the altar, splashes it with kerosene, lays a fuse, and lights it. As she heads for the gate, she pauses for a last glance at Lydia.
“Damn it,” she says again, bitterly this time. If there was anyone in the world who wouldn’t underestimate Jo, shouldn’t Lydia have been it? Apparently not.
It’s just as well, Jo supposes.
When she gets to the motel, Dean answers her knock and lets her in. He looks no worse than when she left, which, given how fast he’d been sinking before, probably means there’s been some improvement in the meantime.
“All good?” he asks, closing the door behind her.
“Close enough,” Jo says. “We should scram once you guys have slept a couple of hours.” She rolls her shoulders. The ache of them reminds her that this was her second case closed in a twenty-four hour period, and she’s exhausted. Also she reeks of hunters’ bane, and even the aroma of it really isn’t great for tender healing alpha constitutions. “You mind if I use your shower?” she asks.
“Knock yourself out.”
Jo takes a good long while in the shower, shampooing twice to get most of the stink out. Only a ghost of it remains, and as she doubts either boy is going to be burying his nose in her hair anytime soon, they should be fine.
When she comes out, Dean is out cold. Jo takes it for the compliment it is that he can go to sleep while she’s still around.
On the other bed, Sam stirs. Jo goes and sits on it, and he opens his eyes. “Hi,” he says muzzily.
Jo shrugs. “I’m making it. You?”
“Better.” As if to demonstrate, he pushes himself upright and leans back against the bedframe. He blinks a couple of times and gives her a lopsided grin. “Thanks for saving our asses.”
“What I’m here for.”
Sam nods. If he reads her mood as anything more than sheer exhaustion – which, to be fair, does account for at least half of it – he doesn’t comment.
She considers him, this hunter – this alpha - that she trusts, just like she trusts his moron alpha brother who’s now snoring quietly in the other bed. She takes a whiff of Sam, and underneath the sickness and the drying sweat, she smells the fundamental alphaness of him.
“You’re thinking pretty hard,” he comments.
She scoots over and reaches a hand up to palm his cheek. He’s not really awake, she thinks, or his eyes would be wider by now. She leans in and kisses him. His lips part, probably as much in surprise as anything, and he tastes of minty toothpaste with an underlying flavor of puke. She savors the soft warmth of him a little longer anyway before she pulls back. He looks plenty bewildered, but not alarmed.
They’ve been dancing around each other for a long time now, she thinks.
“What was that for?” he asks.
She shrugs. “Because I can.”
She finds his hand in the muddle of sheets and twines her fingers between his. “I’m glad you made it,” she says.