she travels the fastest who travels alone

Jo knew within five minutes of meeting Bela that it wasn't going to work.

Oh, it had seemed a good idea at the time. Bela Talbot was supposed to be experienced, intelligent, and not actively crazy, which put her above a lot of the other hunters Jo had met or heard about. She'd figured that between the two of them, woman to woman, they could come to some sort of arrangement where Jo got some coaching and Bela got some assistance.

Jo's name (and her mom's name) had got Jo a meeting. The offer of up-to-date gossip on the hunters that Jo knew about (except the Winchesters, of course) had turned it into a meal together. At a restaurant much classier than where Jo normally got her meals.

The thing was. Jo was used to making some sort of connection with other people. Good connection, bad connection, whatever. She was used to getting a sense of them, and having them get a sense of her back. But this time, she had a feeling that Bela was reading her like a book, and there wasn't anything coming in return.

"It won't work, you know," Bela said, echoing her thoughts.

Jo twitched, and nearly spilled her expensive water. "What?"

Bela smiled. "I'm not the sort of person who takes pupils. It's as simple as that. Partners, yes, sometimes -"

"I'm sure something could be worked out," Jo said, obscurely irritated, even though she'd just been deciding a few seconds ago that it'd be impossible.

"It's based on the skills they bring to the job," Bela said. "Or other negotiables. You - look, let's be frank. You're just starting out. That's why you set this meeting up. Right?"

Jo tried to look casual about it. "Along those lines. But I'm more than just a beginner."

"Of course," Bela said warmly. Jo could feel the charm being laid on with a trowel. "I'm not trying to insult you in any way. I'm just trying to explain why I don't think that I have anything on my books at the moment which would suit you. Come back in a few years and we'll talk."

Jo swallowed resentment (would Dean and Sam have got this sort of slam in the face?), and she swallowed bitterness at herself (yet another waste of time), and she took another sip of that stupid water, because damn if she was going to let this woman think she was an amateur. "I'm grateful for your straightforwardness," she said.

"I thought you'd prefer it," Bela replied. "I'd rather have this out of the way now than hanging over the rest of the meal."

Jo nodded. "But there's nothing to stop us talking over that sort of business for the rest of the meal, is there?"

"Of course not," Bela said. "I always appreciate getting the latest news from someone who's well-informed."

Part of Jo wanted to throw that back at her there and then, as just another bit of charm and flattery without an ounce of meaning behind it, but then she thought again. With what her mom did, and with the number of hunters who passed through, she was up to date on that sort of news. Maybe Bela actually meant it.

At the end of the meal, over tiny cups of black coffee (Jo usually preferred it with cream, but Bela had ordered black, just like she'd ordered the rest of the meal) Bela leaned forward. "Can I give you a little bit of advice? Free gratis," she added, smiling disarmingly.

"I'd be glad to hear it," Jo said. The coffee was bitter as hell.

Bela nodded. "All right. Don't depend on anyone. This isn't some sort of pep talk about you being a 'strong woman'. I wouldn't waste your time on that. This is simply my experience. All you have in this world, everything you can do or make, buy or sell, in the end it all comes down to you. Your parents give birth to someone who's a stranger to them. You die a stranger to the rest of the world. Care for other people as much as you like, even trust them, but don't depend on them. We're alone, and in the end we die alone." Her lips curved a smile. "Not for a very long time, of course."

"That's very cynical," Jo said.

"Of course it is," Bela said. Her eyes were flat glass windows with the curtains drawn and the shutters locked. She spoke, Jo realised, like some of the hunters at her mom's diner when they were talking about the things that had made them hunters. What they'd lost. What had been done to them.

Jo finished her coffee. "Well, I'm grateful anyway. I guess I hope that I won't need to put that to the test for a while yet."

"Ah, yes." Bela finished her coffee. "Your mother, Bobby, the Winchesters -"

"I never once mentioned them!" Jo said.

"No, and very obviously so," Bela said. "Whatever. I find that this sort of thing gets tested at the worst sort of times. Would you like some brandy?"

Jo only wanted to be away from that calm voice, those shadowed eyes. "I've got to drive," she said. "But it's been a wonderful evening. I'll look forward to seeing you again."

"Of course," Bela said. "And I you. Good luck on the road."

Outside it was raining. Jo sat inside her car, hands on the steering wheel, not quite able to make herself turn the key and start the engine blobs of water ran down the car windows, joining and separating into heavy streams.

Jo wanted to be able to work alone, but hearing that side of it put so bluntly, and so obviously believed, chilled her more than the rain and the unheated car.

We're alone, and in the end we die alone.

The wind picked up, ripping at the raindrops and tearing at the trees around the parking lot. Tonight it was blowing as though nothing could stop it, howling along the highways and across the countryside, and the night pooled around the streetlamps and houses, an inch away from flooding in.

"Mom, I'm scared," Jo whispered into the darkness.