Episode 9 – Part 2

'Toy Story

x-x-x

Jo had drawn the short straw, quite literally.

They had actually drawn straws to determine which of the threesome would be unlucky enough to be partnered with Garth, and fate had pointed its finger squarely at Jo. She was certain it had been laughing manically at the time. Leaving Dean and Sam at the motel to bounce around potential theories whilst searching for other similar crimes in a local radius, Jo and Garth set out to interview Rachel Maddeson.

Garth continued down the street swinging his arms and whistling to himself, seeming oblivious to Jo's utter disdain for being within two inches of his person. Every so often he would pause to admire the Halloween decorations that littered front yards, and Jo would grow more impatient and storm on ahead. After the fifth episode of this, Garth caught up to her and cleared his throat with obvious purpose.

"You not much into Halloween?" he inquired, arching an eyebrow and swallowing as Jo shot him a fierce look.

"Nope," she replied, deciding to keep her responses brief where she could. She knew she was taking her irritation with Sam and Dean out on Garth and, although it was unfair, she was finding it too difficult to keep check of her temper.

"I love it," said Garth, a strange smile overtaking his lips as his eyes began to sparkle with a kind of childish glee.

"You kidding?" Jo demanded with a snort, "a holiday dedicated to monsters, demons, and everything we know goes bump in the night… the skeeziest, scaliest nasties that we bust our asses all year round to protect ungrateful yokels from… and you love it?"

Garth pondered Jo's words momentarily before frowning and shaking his head, his expression questioning.

"Come on, you don't really think like that?" he probed, his lank hair falling in front of his eyes as he peered down at Jo, who shrugged and looked away.

"I guess not," she grumbled, adding almost sheepishly, "I'm just pissed off, is all."

Garth nodded, slipping his hands inside his pockets as they reached the front door of the house and he said awkwardly, "You and the Deanmeister get into a fight, huh?"

Jo rolled her eyes at the use of Dean's new colourful moniker, and snorted in amusement, "No... Dean and I are fine."

She emphasized her boyfriend's name and hoped he would take the non-too subtle hint.

"Well," Garth began, placing his hand on Jo's shoulder and ignoring the resultant shudder the action provoked, "let's get this show on the road, little lady."

He reached out and jabbed hurriedly at the doorbell, rolling back on the balls of his feet as he peered through the frosted glass to where a looming figure appeared.

"Touch me again Garth, and I swear I'll..." Jo trailed off, affixing a solemn yet kindly smile on her face as the front door of the Maddeson home was thrown open and exhibited her ID badge with a well-practiced flick of the wrist.

Her tone changed as the face of the man she presumed to be Joel Maddeson's son peered down at her questioningly.

"Hi, Mr. Maddeson? I'm Special Agent Jackson, this is Agent McCartney."

The man regarded the duo with an almost dubious expression but stepped aside nonetheless to allow them into the foyer of his home. Garth stepped inside before Jo, his eyes sweeping the homely décor in an appreciative manner. Jo followed behind, pausing to wipe her feet on the 'welcome' mat before she replaced her badge in her pocket and turned to address Mr. Maddeson again.

"We know this is a very difficult time for your family, especially your daughter," she began, watching Garth from the corner of her eye as he picked up an ornament off a nearby shelf and promptly almost dropped it onto the ground, where it would be certain to shatter. Mr. Maddeson's attention also appeared to be on Garth.

"Careful with that… please, Agent," he choked out, extending one hand to receive the small china figure of a little girl walking a puppy on a leash, "it's my… it was my mother's."

His smile chagrined, Garth simply nodded and set the ornament back on its perch, patting its head with the tip of his index finger as an afterthought.

"You're here to talk to Rachel, right?" Mr. Maddeson inquired, his brow furrowed as he stared at Jo.

"We just have a few questions," Jo paused, "if that's okay with you?"

The man nodded, obviously struggling with his emotions as he gestured for her to walk through to the living room where Jo spied a little blonde haired girl snuggled hesitantly against the side of a teenaged girl.

"I want you to catch the sick son of a bitch who did this to Mom," he growled in a low tone, and then swallowed hard as he pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger to hold back a fresh onslaught of tears.

"Just... go easy on her. She lost her mother last year and… and it's been pretty tough on her. She's just a little kid, you know?!"

"I'm sorry for your loss," Jo said kindly, suddenly feeling a kindred spirit to the child who sat feet away. Even as an adult, Jo sometimes felt lost without her mother, as if the world were a strange and more frightening place in Ellen's absence.

"It'll just take a few minutes," Jo soothed. She was glad that Garth had for once decided on the route of common sense and had kept suitably quiet; for the time being, at least.

Jo stepped into the lounge with what she hoped was a gentle smile spread across her face. Rachel's wide brown eyes watched her approach carefully and, as Jo crouched down on the floor in front of the child, she leaned further back against the couch.

"Hi sweetheart," she said quietly, barely aware that Mr. Maddeson was offering Garth coffee, which he accepted with vehement gratitude. Rachel's father bustled out of the room, and the girl sitting next to Rachel flashed Jo a half smile before she climbed to her feet and followed in his wake, seeming almost relieved to be able to remove herself from the situation.

"I'm Jo," the hunter continued, gesturing over her shoulder to her companion, who waved cheerily in a manner that extracted the tiniest grin from the child, "and this is my friend, Garth. We just want to ask you a couple of questions, ok?"

Rachel nodded, although her eyes betrayed her obvious reluctance. Deciding to try a different tactic, Jo reached forwards and stroked the porcelain cheek of the doll seated at the girl's side.

"Your doll's real pretty. Does she have a name?"

The little girl regarded the doll uncertainly, then shook her head in silence.

Little fingers combed through the toy's soft blonde curls, "She doesn't want me to tell you."

Jo mouthed a silent 'oh' and perched on the edge of the coffee table so as not to intimidate her miniature witness.

"Rachel, my friend and I... we want to catch the person who hurt your grandma, so they can't hurt anybody else. Do you think you can help us?" Jo fished, following Rachel's gaze to her lap, where her clasped hands rested on her knees. The child watched the glinting diamond band catch the light of the desk lamp beside them, and Jo dipped her head to capture her attention.

"What do you think? Can you answer some questions for us?"

"Okay," Rachel bobbed her head, clutching the doll tightly to her chest. She scooted back in her seat, and Jo noted with a brief flash of amusement how her feet dangled over the seat of the couch.

"Do you remember what you did with your grandma yesterday?" Jo asked, her tone soft and coaxing. Rachel pondered the question for a moment, then her head bobbed up and down animatedly and she consented to smile.

"We baked some cookies for the bake sale," Rachel stated with confidence, her fingers twirling around her doll's hair.

"That sounds exciting," Jo enthused, wrinkling her nose as she added, "my favourite kind are oatmeal and raisin."

"Really? Mine too!" the child squealed, leaning forward and beaming at Jo, who returned the grin.

"So, after you baked cookies, what did you and your grandma do then?" Jo inquired, shooting a glance over her shoulder at Garth to indicate he should remove his small personal tape recorder from his pocket. Nodding in comprehension, Garth fumbled in his inside pocket for the device, before removing it and flicking it on.

The little girl pursed her lips, her eyes rolling to the back of her head as she appeared deep in thought, "Um... then we went to the store, and then we ate dinner, and... and I got to stay up and watch a movie because Grandpa was working."

"Was it a good movie?" Jo inquired with a smile, trying to coach any details, no matter how insignificant. Garth's gaze scanned the room keenly, but he let out a sigh as he failed to uncover anything remotely suspicious, or out of place.

"It was okay, I've seen it before," she shrugged, "but Grandma likes the Muppets. Daddy says my Mommy used to watch that show when she was a little girl. My Mommy and Daddy lived on the same street, you know. They went to the same school, and had the same teacher and everything!"

A broad, awe struck smile graced the little girl's lips, although it was to last only seconds before the child paused and her expression sobered. She lisped quietly, "I miss Mommy."

Jo smiled and reached out tentatively to pat the little girl's hand, "I know, sweetie. I miss my Mom a lot too."

"Is your Mommy in heaven?" the little girl asked, watching Jo closely as the hunter nodded. "Is Grandma in heaven?"

The pain etched on the little girl's face tore at Jo's heart, and she nodded as she replied, "Yeah, I think she is."

"Agents?" Mr. Maddeson appeared in the doorway, startling all three of the room's inhabitants. Jo leaned away from Rachel, her expression almost guilty, as though she had been caught imparting some untoward wisdom to the child.

"Do you have everything you need? It's been a long day for Rach," Mr. Maddeson said, shooting a long and openly sorrowful look at his daughter, who returned to playing with the hem of her doll's lacy skirts.

"Of course it has," Jo agreed, jumping to her feet and gesturing with a slight inclination of her head for Garth to follow her. At the threshold of the lounge, Jo spun on her heel and affixed Rachel with a warm smile.

"It was real nice to meet you, Rachel," she called out, her smile widening as the little girl beamed and squirmed in her seat. She raised one hand to shoulder height and waggled her fingers at the retreating hunters, before her attention became immersed in her toys once again and she began to talk in hushed childish tones to her porcelain companion.

"This is my cell number, Mr. Maddeson," Jo stated, pausing as she foraged in her pocket for the correct business card to present to the man. He accepted the card without so much as glancing at it, and laid it in a crystal dish that sat on a table next to the front door. Jo frowned, knowing too well that the number would be forgotten and then likely discarded with the trash.

"Please, if Rachel mentions anything you think may be useful to our investigation… no matter how strange it may seem, then call me," Jo said, her tone firm and her eyes holding Mr. Maddeson's. With a grunt of acknowledgement that hardly instilled her with confidence, Mr. Maddeson held the door open for the departing hunters, and then closed it with a quiet but resolute click as soon as they had set foot on the porch.

"Well that was a whole lot of nothin' with a side of diddly squat," Garth griped, jingling the keys of his car in his pocket as he and Jo set out across the front lawn. They had parked a block away after Jo had decided on their behalf that Garth's beat up heap of junk could never pass for the vehicle of a federal agent, and although he had been faintly wounded, Garth's healthy respect for Jo's temper had meant that he had agreed with her without protest.

Jo opened the door of the car and slipped behind the wheel, not awaiting an invitation to be the one to drive. She had suffered Garth's questionable driving skills on the way over to the interview and had vowed never again as she almost literally peeled herself off the passenger door when they had parked. Wordlessly, Garth handed his keys over and ducked into the passenger seat.

"Not necessarily," she shrugged, clipping in her seatbelt and quickly gunning the engine.

Garth appeared confused, and he leant back as the car began to slowly crawl away from the curb.

"Okay, you lost me, blondie."

Ignoring his blatant disregard for her actual name, Jo shot him a brief glance and arched an eyebrow, "We know nothing happened during the day before Joel Maddeson got home."

Garth pursed his lips, scratching his chin for effect, "So you're saying he brought someone back with him?"

"Someone or something, maybe?" Jo suggested, realising that angry spirits were not always grounded to one particular site or building. It wasn't outside the realms of possibility that a particular angry ghost had followed the watchman home and enacted vengeance on his sleeping wife. There were a hundred possibilities, and Jo assumed the evening would be spent going over each plausible instance. Hopefully the evening would also involve beer and pizza, preferably the former if Garth was going to be lingering.

"I see what you're saying, sister," Garth enthused, suddenly wrinkling his nose at the sounds of 80's soft rock that began to drift from the car stereo. Reaching a spindly hand out toward the controls, Garth yelped as Jo slapped his fingers away and glowered.

Ignoring his indignant mumbling, Jo swung the car around the block, and began to follow the signs for the highway.

"Driver picks the music, shotgun shuts his cakehole."

x-x-x

It had taken Dean less than thirty minutes to draw the conclusion that the Maddeson killing had been the only one of its kind in over a twenty-five mile radius for well over a decade. The only article that he had turned up from the vast recesses of the internet that was even remotely close was an obituary that sighted the cause of death as the victim choking on a marble. However, since the victim had been only three years old at the time, Dean had decided it was more than likely a plausible accident and moved on.

Flipping the lid of the laptop closed, Dean set his heels on the desk in front of him and crossed his legs at the ankles, before turning his attention to Sam. The younger Winchester was busily pouring over a book, his eyes skimming the pages rapidly and his fingers twitching of their own accord as though they longed to caress the aged paper.

"Any joy?" Dean inquired, his voice piercing the silence and causing Sam to jump several inches off his chair. His expression looked decidedly guilty, and Dean frowned as Sam shook his head and dropped his eyes back to the page.

"What'cha readin' there, Sammy?" Dean asked, voice as smooth as silk as he clambered to his feet and ambled over towards the bed on which Sam sat cross-legged. The only move Sam made was to shake his head vigorously, but the look he shot Dean reminded him too much of the guilty expression he had often worn as a child after being busted by John for doing something he ought to have known better than to attempt.

"Just… something Bobby loaned me," Sam deflected, shifting around in his position suddenly and slamming the cover of the book closed.

"Didn't have Bobby pegged as the porn mag type," answered Dean, nodding his head in an almost approving manner.

"It's not porn," Sam yelped indignantly, scowling as he demanded, "why would you even think that?"

Dean chuckled and lowered himself down onto the edge of the mattress in front of Sam. Barely a foot separated the brothers now, and Sam fought the urge to self-consciously hug his reading material to his chest, knowing that it would only inflame Dean's suspicions further.

"Come on, Sam," Dean scoffed, resting one hand on the spine of the blue leather bound book, "you're jumpier than a nerd at a Star Trek convention with actual girls at it. Either you got a porno hidden in there, or you're up to another kind of no good."

Sam sniffed indignantly, "Some people actually like to read Dean, you know... as a recreational activity? I know that's hard for you to believe."

Dean grinned and shot his brother a slightly condescending sniff, "Yeah, well... I prefer 'activities' that involve less words, and a whole lot more skin."

Sam folded his arms across his chest, hoping Dean would not notice that the action conveniently bound the book tighter in his grasp.

The expression on Dean's face instantly told his sibling that he had in fact noticed the slightly desperate grip the book was now held in, and Dean wrinkled his nose distastefully.

"Hey, you're not reading that Stephenie Meyer chick again, are you?" he asked suspiciously.

"What? No!" Sam all but yelped, rolling his eyes and sighing in surrender as he saw that Dean's incessant questioning was not about to end any time soon.

"If you must know," Sam began, turning the book around so Dean could read the title, "it's about curses, okay?"

Dean squinted to make out the photograph on the front, which appeared to be a swirling mist trapped inside a large, ancient looking glass vial. Despite the usually ancient origins of Bobby's many research books, this one had a decidedly more retro feel that Dean found instantly amusing.

"Somebody stolen your mojo, Austin?" Dean snickered, his expression suddenly sobering as he realised the intent of Sam's reading material.

"Look, dude... I thought we agreed it was probably all just coincidence?" Dean began, hoping his tone was not betraying the desperation he felt.

"No, Dean… YOU agreed it was probably just coincidence," Sam retorted, "I wanted to look into it further so I…"

Sam trailed off, seeing the spark of fury ignited in Dean's eyes too late.

"You what, Sam?" Dean snarled, his tone growing cold and his shoulders squaring. He turned directly to face his brother and gripped his own kneecaps, his knuckles whitening as he felt his temper tipping rapidly over the edge. Sam met his glare with equal weight, not at all intimidated by the older brother he knew too well.

"I talked to Bobby," Sam replied. His tone was unapologetic, and had they not been two grown men on the cusp of their thirties, Dean would not have put it past Sam to poke out his tongue as an afterthought.

"You what?!" Dean exploded, leaping off the bed and crossing the motel room in two strides, before absently slamming his palm against the wall. The pictures situated there rattled, threatening a descent, but clung to their posts nevertheless.

"Why so tense?" Sam probed, his eyes narrowing as he regarded his brother, "I thought it was all just coincidence?"

Dean's eyes formed furious slits and he strode towards Sam with renewed purpose, his index finger jabbing the air millimetres from the tip of his unperturbed brother's nose.

"It is," hissed Dean, dragging the fingers of his free hand through his spikey hair and turning away momentarily in order to check his temper. He knew he was on the dangerous verge of letting fly at his brother, and so Dean struggled to suck in a few steadying breaths, but found that the action did little to calm him.

"You went behind my back, and discussed this curse crap with Bobby," Dean accused, glaring at Sam with a somewhat more diluted measure of rage.

Sam shook his head and gestured toward his irate sibling, "Dean, wouldn't you rather know? You know... before someth..."

"Don't even finish that sentence!" Dean cut him off, holding his finger up in warning, and his eyes blazed with a fury Sam had rarely seen him exhibit outside of a hunt.

Sam swallowed hard and averted his gaze diplomatically to the floor, still determined to finish his sentence, and highlight the importance of his message.

"We need to know. How can we protect her if we don't know what we're up against?" Sam reasoned, "Mom and Jess... If we'd have known there was a curse, we could have saved them. You can be in denial all you want, man, but if something out there wants to hurt Jo..."

"You think I'd ever let anything happen to her?" Dean snarled, his building panic now shattering the final remnants of his temper.

Sam tossed the book onto the bed and nodded toward the now abandoned item as it lay strewn amongst the covers.

"Read it," Sam directed, suddenly striding across the room and picking up his jacket from the back of a nearby chair. He paused as his hand reached for the door knob, and he stared in apparent disbelief at his brother's glowering form.

"You know, I don't understand you, Dean. If I..." he sighed heavily, preparing to voice a name that still brought a sharp pain to his heart, "I'd have done anything I could to save Jess. I know you're afraid of this... of what it means. But, at least you'll know. And no matter what, whatever it takes, we'll figure this out."

Dean finally allowed himself to meet Sam's eyes, and he nodded gratefully, ashamed of his earlier outburst, although the panicked hammering in his chest was making it hard to process thoughts coherently.

"Just promise me you'll…" Sam began, attempting to appeal to Dean's better nature now he seemed to have regained some control. Dean cut him off with a glare.

"I'll read it," he vowed, although the words were more a growl than an affable promise. Nodding, Sam ducked out of the room and closed the door behind himself without a further explanation of where he was headed.

Puffing out his cheeks, Dean released a breath and slumped against the wall. He allowed himself to sink to the floor, curling his knees into his chest and, for a long time, he remained that way, simply staring at the open book laying amidst the tangle of covers; the possible portent of Jo's future.

x-x-x

"No, I can't… Daddy said go to bed…"

"But I'll get in trouble…"

"Ok… uh huh…"

Rich Maddeson paused outside the doorway of his daughter's bedroom, and a smile briefly flashed across his lips as he listened to the hushed whispers of his child pretending to be in deep conversation with her toys. Given all that Rachel had been through lately, he decided to allow the pantomime to continue for a while longer before busting out the 'dad tone' and threats. Therefore, Rich padded down the darkened hallway and descended the stairs quietly, resolving to at least attempt to enjoy the rest of his evening.

The downstairs hallway was in total darkness, and Rich paused as from somewhere nearby outside, a dog barked furiously. A pair of car headlights swung across the lounge window, casting beams of light onto the wooden floorboards, and Rich was too entranced by watching them to even hear the creaking of footsteps behind him.

When a pair of slim arms seized his waist, Rich let out a strangled gasp and whirled around. He rolled his eyes in relief as he peered down at the grinning face of Tess Kendrick, his daughter's seventeen year old babysitter.

"Did I scare you, Mr. Maddeson?" she asked coyly, gnawing on her bottom lip with her top front teeth. Rich affixed a firm expression upon his face and shook his head.

"Not funny, Tess," he chided, consenting to allow a slow grin to spread across his lips as he reached towards the girl and hooked her belt loops with his index fingers, "come here, you."

Tess stumbled forwards willingly, her quiet but high pitched giggle lost as Rich crushed his lips against hers, revelling in the sweet taste of cherry lip gloss.

"So..." Tess began, her eyes full of promise as she traced her fingers down the buttons of Rich's shirt and flicked her tongue against the corner of her full lips, "is Rach asleep?"

"No, but..." he began, obviously picking over his words carefully so as not to offend the young woman, "I'm not really in the mood to... you know. I mean, my Mom just died, and, I don't know, I guess I just..."

"Okay," Tess shrugged, standing on tiptoe to press a kiss to his lips. Her ponytail bounced with the motion, and Rich cringed inwardly as he realised just how young his new love actually was.

"No problem," she stated, beginning to usher him in the direction of the living room, "why don't you pick a movie to watch, and I'll pop some popcorn, 'kay?"

"Yeah, okay," he agreed, happy to do anything that meant his mind may be distracted from the gruesome details of his mother's untimely death.

Tess smiled as she watched him leave, her hand planted square on her hip.

She turned toward the kitchen cabinets, quickly opening one and extracting a box of microwave popcorn. The sachet was soon freed from the cellophane wrapper and, with well-practiced ease, Tess programmed the microwave and stabbed at the 'power' button.

She folded her arms across her chest and leant back against the counter, listening in mild satisfaction as the kernels began to first hiss and then pop with increasing energy. But the microwave suddenly stopped, and the lights extinguished as a tell-tale sound indicated a sudden power-cut.

"Rich?" Tess called out, feeling an inexplicable shudder down her spine as she peered through the darkness toward the direction of the living creak of the floorboards behind her made her start.

She called out, almost nervously, "Rachel? Is that you, sweetie?"

Rich Maddeson cursed under his breath as he shook the flashlight in his hand and twisted the base with increasing irritation.

"Sorry," he stated, sighing in relief as he finally managed to shine a beam of light across the hall, "damn batteries have died. I'm gonna go out back and check the fuses, I think..."

Rich fell back in horror against the kitchen wall as the eerily dimming beam sliced across the pale, lifeless face of the young babysitter.

Tess Kendrick hung from the ceiling beam, a child's jump rope knotted around her neck. Her body dangled like a puppet, swaying with the weight of her small frame, her eyes bulging and bloodshot, and her face ashen and panic stricken.

The flashlight fell from Rich's hand, plunging the kitchen into total darkness once again.

His legs heavy and rooted to the spot, the man swallowed down the bile in the back of his throat, before he finally took off running toward the stairs- towards his child.

x-x-x

Jo groaned against Dean's lips as the tips of his fingers brushed against her bare hip beneath the thin sheet that covered their bodies. They lay side by side in the double bed, both happily spent and the picture of perfectly blissful exhaustion, with their tousled hair and kiss plumped lips.

Jo had been surprised yet willing when Dean had literally pounced on her within minutes of her returning from the interview with Rachel Maddeson. She had barely had time to shrug off her jacket before Dean's fingers were working at the buttons on her blouse, and his crotch was pressed flush against her abdomen, revealing the true extent of his lust.

It was thirty minutes before they finally exchanged a whispered and exhausted hello, their foreheads touching and their breaths escaping in ragged gasps. Dean had collapsed at Jo's side without another word before drawing her into his arms and coaxing her head into the crook of his shoulder. Jo went willingly, splaying her palm over Dean's chest and occasionally pressing kisses against his somewhat clammy skin.

At first, Jo took the silence as mutually content reflection, but when she finally gazed up into Dean's features, the worry she saw etched there brought a lump to her throat. Her heart fluttered a little faster in her chest in warning, and Jo gently rested her hand against Dean's cheekbone, drawing his face towards her own. Dean attempted to slide his usual charming grin in place just a fraction of a second too slow, and Jo shook her head in warning.

"What gives, princess?" she demanded, slapping Dean's chest, "I saw that look."

"Look?" Dean repeated, his attempt at innocence almost laughable.

Jo snorted and nodded, "You know… the one that Bobby says can curdle milk?"

"Oh, that one," observed Dean, his voice quiet and his eyes downcast. Jo snuggled closer into his embrace, enjoying the warmth of his skin against her own despite the obvious fact that something was eating away at Dean.

"Come on," Jo pleaded, closing her eyes and supressing a yawn as she danced her fingertips across Dean's bicep, "talk to me."

The silence fell once again like a heavy curtain, and Jo found herself filled with a sense of dread for no real reason. Swallowing down her trepidation, she allowed her body to go limp in Dean's arms, and simply waited for him to open up as she was almost certain he would do. To her surprise, moments later, all Jo received in response was a heavy sigh.

"You ever think about the future?" Dean eventually asked, twining his index finger around a tendril of Jo's hair and tugging on it gently. He watched the curl spring back into place and a genuine smile curved his lips upwards.

Jo blinked, obviously not having anticipated that particular query.

"Uh... sometimes, I guess," she said, her eyes narrowing as she paused in tracing a fingertip over Dean's tattoo. She craned her neck to catch his gaze, "Oh God, you been watching the Hallmark channel again, Dean-o?"

Dean smiled and shook his head, ignoring her teasing.

"No, I just..." Dean faltered, slowly rolling over to face her. He scanned her face intently, his hand curling around her hip to draw her close. "I just, I look at you sometimes, and it's like my chest hurts, you know?!"

He received a finely arched eyebrow in response, and Jo stared back at him askance.

"I really don't know what to do with that, Winchester," she stated in obvious confusion. But a smile tugged at her lips as she untangled the sentiment behind his rambling.

"Are you feeling okay?" she checked, raising a hand to his forehead which he playfully swiped away and then pressed a kiss to the centre of her palm.

"Not that I didn't enjoy that welcome," her eyes swept the motel room and the path of hastily discarded clothes that led toward the bed, "but, what gives?"

"Nothing, I was just thinking, that's all," he tried to sound nonplussed, but Jo easily detected the unease in his tone.

"Always dangerous," Jo conceded, giggling as he nibbled at her shoulder. Her arms enclosed around his neck as he rolled above her, and she hummed contentedly as their mouths melded together in a heated, yet tellingly affectionate, kiss.

As they naturally drifted apart, the tips of their noses still touching, Dean sucked down his own sense of fear, and opened his mouth to speak. However, the words that in fact tumbled in a rush from his lips were so far removed from what he had wanted to say that he winced at his own idiotic inability to be truthful.

"I guess the situation with the Memoladro just still has me a little shaken up," Dean said, hoping his confession sounded sincere to Jo's ears, since to his own it sounded like the pitiful attempt at concealing the truth that it was. If Sam's suspicions were correct, then they had a great deal more to dwell on than simply a botched case. But try as he may, Dean just could not bring himself to reveal as much to Jo. She had been through enough in recent years what with the happenings of Carthage, the subsequent loss of her mother, the struggle to get the roadhouse up and running, and the general chaos that hunting brought to their lives.

Mercifully, Jo appeared to buy the lie, and her teasing expression melted into one of touched sympathy.

"Dean, I worry about you just as much as you worry about me," she stated firmly, cupping Dean's jaw with the palm of her hand and stroking his stubble with the pad of her thumb. "It's a natural part of loving someone, especially in our line of work. But I promise… you won't ever lose me. I have too much to live for now without letting some monster take it all away."

Dean nodded, unconvinced but attempting to appear the opposite, and Jo grinned impishly as she added, "Face it, baby… you're stuck with me for the long haul."

"I am totally okay with that," Dean replied, his hand searching out hers from around his neck, and he clasped their fingers together as he pressed her hand into the pillow beside her head. He reiterated his point with a gentle kiss.

"You know, you're kind of a sap," Jo accused, a teasing grin on her face the second his lips left hers.

"Me? Never," Dean said, shaking his head, "Sammy's a sap, I'm just in touch with my feelings."

Jo's laughter sent pleasant vibrations reverberating between their bodies, and a hum of electricity coursed along his skin. He couldn't help but drag a slow path of kisses down the side of her neck, all the while breathing in the scent of her skin, his fingertips mapping every curve, freckle and scar beneath his touch.

He continued a steady trail down her body, and her eyes flickered closed at the feel of his warm breath and the stubble of his jaw.

"Shouldn't we... be... doing research, or... or something?" Jo began, gasping as he kissed along her stomach and nuzzled his face into her skin, and she writhed beneath him, her fingers grasping at his hair.

Dean ignored her half-hearted suggestion, and swept his hand up her leg, bending her knee as he pressed a kiss into the crease of her thigh that promptly brought Jo to a decision.

"Never mind," she murmured, her mouth dropping open into a wide 'o' the second his tongue teased her flesh.

His concerns shelved, Dean happily lost himself in her arms once again and, for the rest of the evening at least, thoughts of demons, fire, and curses were the farthest things from his mind.

x-x-x

Sam's head shot up and he let out a noise that was half way between a startled grunt and a snort as he jolted himself awake. His heart was pounding relentlessly in his chest, but Sam found that the details of his dream had slipped from his mind upon waking as quickly as water through a colander.

"Hey… are you ok?"

The voice was filled with concern, and oddly feminine, and Sam's head whipped around to face the direction of the sound. Jess stood on the threshold of the bathroom, sporting a pair of black pyjama shorts and a white spaghetti strap top. Her plump lips twisted into a frown, and she crossed the room quickly, dropping down on her knees in front of Sam before she slid her palm up his inner thigh in a comforting gesture.

"Fine…" Sam mumbled, squinting in confusion as he regarded Jess, who was gnawing at her bottom lip as though she were unconvinced. "You're not real."

Jess leaned back, her smile patient and concerned as she murmured, "That dream really shook you up, huh?"

Sam stared up at her in shock and confusion, the colour draining from his face as she gazed at him expectantly.

"Sam?" she tried again, chuckling as Sam seemed to falter for words, and his mouth opened and closed, though no sound emerged.

"You're not real," he repeated, screwing his eyes closed in an effort to will the apparition to disappear. When his eyes opened again seconds later, Sam shrank back in his seat as he found the same pair of blue eyes trained upon him.

"What are you?" he demanded, shrinking back from her and scrambling to lift himself out of the seat.

"Sam? You're kind of freaking me out," Jess stated, her hands held up defensively in front of her as she approached him again and he shrank back against the wall.

"I'm dreaming, this has to be a dream," he rubbed his hands over his face, willing himself to wake-up and end the torment. Seeing Jess or an imitation of Jess standing before him awoke every last memory of their ill-fated relationship, and only served to refresh the heartbreak her death had plunged him into.

"Oh Sam…" she breathed, "does it even matter anymore?"

Sam blinked in confusion, finding his hands falling to his sides of their own accord despite his remaining trepidation.

"You died," Sam finally murmured, his breath catching in his throat. "I'm sorry I couldn't…"

Jess moved forward seemingly in the blink of an eye, although there was nothing ghostly about her presence in the slightest. In fact, to the contrary, Sam could smell her shampoo and almost taste her lips on his own. He closed his eyes momentarily, feeling Jess' breath caress his cheek as she leaned towards him.

"None of this is your fault, Sam," she whispered, "I could never blame you."

"Why are you here?" Sam pressed, reaching out despite himself and brushing away an errant tendril of Jess' hair from her eyes. She beamed at the gesture, taking a further step forward and reaching up to tenderly return it.

"I have to warn you," Jess replied, her tone growing sober and her expression shifting to match, "Jo is going to die."

Sam's eyes grew wide, and he began to shake his head as his hand dropped away from her cheek and he regarded her in horror.

"No. No... Nothing will happen to Jo."

Jess shrugged, "Your Dad couldn't save your Mom, Sam. You couldn't save me... Jo's no different. She'll burn, just like we did."

The sing-song quality of her voice sent a shiver up his spine, and the goading smile on her face quickly reminded him that this was not Jess, not even her apparition. This was something else, something altogether more sinister and malevolent.

"No, Dean and I will..." he began, watching Jess' pretty features contort into a reflection of mockery.

"No," she soothed, reaching up as if to press her finger to his lips, but he stepped from her reach before she could make contact with his skin.

"Dean will be a broken man, just like your father was. It's destined, Sam. No man can avoid his destiny."

Sam watched in terror as she slowly stepped back, raising her arms toward the ceiling as a sudden ball of fire engulfed her body. She laughed manically as her flesh and muscle was consumed by the flames, rising up to the ceiling, where Jessica Moore's death was replayed before her fiancé once again.

Coughing against the fumes and the heat now pressing against his throat, Sam could do little more than murmur in agony. He closed his eyes against the unrelenting fire, and willed himself to wake up from what he knew could only be a nightmare.

"Just a dream. It's just a dream," he chanted. A bright flash of light filled the darkness around him, and Sam felt himself falling.

He awoke with a start, hardly recognising his own voice as he shouted in desperation and straightened up in his seat.

His chest heaved with frantic breaths, and he blinked to dispel the images plaguing his mind in favour of the reality of the actual motel room.

Sam swallowed hard as he realised with the slowing of his heartbeat that he was not alone. Garth stood by the television stand, the remote poised in his hand, and a comically quizzical expression spread across his face as he regarded the younger Winchester.

"Man… that must have been some bad dream," Garth observed in his typical slow and easy tone.

"Yeah…" Sam answered, unable still to do little more than gasp out a response. "Just… bad memories…"

"I'm no expert with stuff like this… you want me to go get Dean for you?" offered Garth, already moving to the door with intent. Sam stood up abruptly, placing his body between Garth and the bedroom doorway, all the while shaking his head vigorously.

"No way…" he snapped, wincing in apology as he added in a somewhat more subdued tone, "thanks, dude, but I got this one on my own."

"Ok," Garth said, pausing for a moment to cast a probing gaze over Sam, before shrugging in the next instant and returning his attention to the ill positioned aerial on the portable television.

Sam stood rooted to the spot, still able to smell the sickening stench of charring flesh, and with Jess' mocking promise ringing in his ears. There was definitely something more to his nightmares than merely the ramblings conjured by a weary mind, and Sam knew that his decision to withhold the dreams from Dean was perhaps unwise. However, despite these realisations, Sam simply could not bring himself to talk to his brother. He preferred to think that he was reluctant to unnecessarily alarm the already more skittish of the Winchesters, but in reality, Sam knew that this was not the case.

"Hey, Garth…" Sam began, smiling briefly as the other man's head whipped around in response, "do you think… I mean… do you believe in destiny?"

Garth folded his arms across his chest, tapping the remote control against his elbow as he stared thoughtfully across the room, lips pursed.

"Well now, that's a mighty interesting question there, Sam..." he began.

Sam smiled weakly, "I was kind of hoping for the short answer."

Garth shrugged, dropping down onto the bed and lying with his arm propping up his head, as he began to hastily speed through the TV stations, leaving little but a crackling blur flashing across the screen.

Sam winced and stood from his chair, running his hand nervously through his hair, "So?"

Garth deliberated for only a few seconds more. "Nope. I like to think we've all got a little free will down here. Makes me nervous to think someone else is pulling the strings. I mean, if that's true, what's the point of it all?"

"So you don't..." Sam began, pausing as Garth interrupted.

"Although, if I hadn't forgotten Monique's birthday, I never would have felt guilty enough to buy that stupid, dumb old hot tub... and she'd never have been grateful enough to buy that little pink bikini, which got trapped in the water vents... which is how she wound up meeting stupid, dumb Gary," Garth sighed, "I don't know man, maybe that was fate. Maybe I'm destined to be alone. A maverick... The mysterious guy who passes through town. A lone wolf, out there in the..."

"Um... okay. Thanks. Helpful," Sam nodded awkwardly and headed into the bathroom.

Closing the door behind him, he leant his hands either side of the counter and stared at the man reflected back at him. Dark circles marred the skin around his eyes, and the nightmares that had been smothering him for the last couple of months were now visibly taking their toll.

Running the cold water faucet, he liberally doused his face and pressed his skin gratefully into the soft fabric of a nearby towel.

He had to talk to Dean, no matter how much he might dread that conversation. His brother needed to hear it. He deserved the truth.

x-x-x

Dean had slept uncharacteristically well, and truthfully could have enjoyed many more hours of peaceful slumber with Jo wrapped in his arms. However, barely two hours after he had fallen asleep, he was being prodded awake by Jo, who was talking calmly into her cell phone with an unreadable expression upon her face.

Dean winced and rubbed the sleep from his eyes with balled fists, stifling the yawn that threatened to escape him loudly. Jo said a curt goodbye, and was already moving off the bed before she had even stabbed the disconnect call button.

"What's with the wake-up call?" Dean inquired, squinting as Jo flipped the wall switch and the room was thrown into unwelcome and harsh light.

"That was Rich Maddeson, the guy whose house we were at this afternoon," Jo stated, already beginning to tug her black lace panties over her knees. Dean paused momentarily to appreciate the view, feeling a warm sensation spreading from the base of his stomach as he watched Jo's breasts sway gently whilst she crouched forward.

"Focus, Dean-o," she commanded, obviously aware of his inappropriate attentions, although not altogether irritated by them. Dean cleared his throat and discretely repositioned the bed sheet in order to hide the now growing bulge around his crotch before Jo noticed .

"Sorry… yeah… the guy whose Mom was iced with a shoe," Dean answered, gesturing helpfully to the back of the desk chair as Jo scoured the room fruitlessly for her bra. "What did he want?"

"He's just found the babysitter dead," Jo replied, "he was pretty shocked still and not making an awful lot of sense but, best I can figure, she was hanged with a jump rope."

"A… a jump rope?" repeated Dean, shaking his head at the absurdity.

"Uh huh," said Jo, her eyes gleaming with her suspicion as she added, "I think we need to have another little chat with Rachel Maddeson."

"You think the kid…" Dean began, his eyes wide with alarm at the prospect of a child being responsible for such violent mayhem. Jo shook her head, her own eyes widening at the misunderstood insinuation.

"Not at all," she said with confidence, a small smile gracing her lips as she recalled the bashful but sweet natured little girl, "but I think it's possible that something has latched onto her and I bet she has a pretty good idea of just what that something is."

Dean glanced at the clock on the nightstand and grimaced at the flashing neon figures that alerted him to the fact it was now almost 1am.

Though his curiosity was peaked, the exhaustion that had set upon him both as a result of his silent nocturnal brooding, and that evening's rather athletic activities had left him in need of a good night's sleep. Still, hunting had never been an occupation that allowed normal working hours, and despite the yawn that momentarily overcame him, his hunter instincts were beginning to push a fresh surge of adrenalin through his veins.

"Dean?" Jo paused, one hand planted on her hip as she stood at the foot of the bed now dressed in her black pants and a shirt she had partially buttoned up, "you gonna get dressed, or are you planning on going like that?"

She gestured down to the sheet around his body and quirked an eyebrow.

Grinning at her suggestion, Dean shrugged and threw back the covers, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed to stand, "Nah, I'm too bootylicious for that, sweetheart."

He winked before releasing another exaggerated yawn and stretched his arms above his shoulders.

Jo laughed and rolled her eyes, blindly closing the few remaining buttons on her dress shirt, as she discretely cast her gaze over in his direction and watched as he padded toward the bathroom.

"See something you like, Harvelle?" he called out of the bathroom, causing Jo to smile as a guilty blush rose up her cheeks.

"Dean, we need to leave like ten minutes ago!" she ordered, beginning to hunt around the nightstand for the hair pins that had been hurriedly discarded some hours earlier.

Twisting her blonde curls up into a bun, Jo pushed the bobby pins through her hair, and marched into the bathroom to examine her handy work, and check on Dean's progress.

Jo scanned her appearance quickly in the mirror, surprised to find Dean half dressed, and in the process of brushing his teeth.

The overhead lighting was dim and unhelpful, yet Jo couldn't help but see a small, red mark beneath the edge of her collar that hardly seemed in keeping with their rouse as FBI agents.

"Ughh, Dean!" she grumbled, yanking down the edge of the cotton to further examine the mark.

Wiping his mouth on a towel, he grinned somewhat proudly and extended his finger to trace over the blemish.

Jo sighed in annoyance, though the shudder that ran through her body as he traced her skin was perhaps a more clear indication of her mood than the half-hearted grimace that tugged at her lips.

Dean stepped closer, brushing a kiss over the offending mark and nuzzling her cheek as he reached up and began pulling the hair pins loose.

"Leave your hair down," he husked, his forehead pressed against her temple, as his fingers worked through to the ends of her hair, releasing it from its constraints.

Jo turned toward him and closed her eyes at the sensation of the feather light kisses he had begun to pepper across her cheek and jaw.

Momentarily forgetting their pressing engagement with yet another dead body, Jo impatiently sought out his lips, and instigated a hungry kiss that left them both slightly breathless when they finally parted.

"Okay," she panted, her lips still tingling from the sensation of their kisses, "I'm going to get Sam... and... I guess, Garth."

She frowned distastefully. Yet she had to admit, the idea of spending the next few hours in the company of their new counterpart was most definitely a much needed mood killer.

Dean's expression mirrored hers, and he simply nodded, reaching for a fresh white shirt from the gym bag on the counter, which he hurriedly shrugged on.

Less than ten minutes later and the four hunters were assembled, armed, and headed toward the Maddeson house. Some in considerably better spirits than others.


N. – We hope you all had a wonderful December and/ or holiday season. We are accepting belated Chrismukkah gifts in the form of reviews. *sneaky grins*