Jo is twelve years old when the storm of the century hits the Roadhouse.
They put up the "Closed" sign early, and spend the rest of the night cleaning: Jo sitting on the counter, drying the glasses after Ellen washes them. It's quiet and domestic, the kind of normal they've both been craving since Bill died and John left town for the last time. Moments like this are rare for them in a hunter hot-spot.
It's almost midnight when they see a vivid blue flash through the windows and hear a tumultuous cascade of thunder through the windows. Jo looks up with a soft whimper of fear, and Ellen squeezes her knee.
"It's okay, sweetie." She says gently. "Just thunder."
There are worse things to be afraid of. The words hang unspoken between them.
Fifteen minutes later, there's a knock at the door. Ellen is downstairs arranging the beer crates and Jo is wiping down tables. She runs to the door, pulls the knife out of her thigh holster and opens the door.
There's a boy standing on their doorstep, wide, half-crazy eyes on her. Actually he might be older, Jo thinks, maybe he's twenty. It's really hard to tell with his face coated in mud and soot, bruises standing out on swollen skin underneath. His hair is singed and ripe and sticking up in clumps.
"Who are you?" Jo asks cautiously.
"Ever been struck by lightning, pigtails?" The guy asks, and then he topples forward and Jo catches him, screaming for her mom.
And that's how Ash becomes a part of their lives.
Over the years, Ellen grows to trust Ash. For her it's always caution first; safety first. But not for Jo. From the first time Ash wakes up with Jo wiping the blood and dirt off his face, it's soulmates. He becomes a strange quilted mixture of father, brother, best friend and puppy. When she goes away to school, it's pen-pal and homework assistant. When she's home for the weekends, it's drinking buddy. But never a lover, not even close. Jo asks him once if he's ever thought about it and he looks at her like she's grown a second head.
"You kidding me? I'm just here to whup ass on anyone who tries to get in your pants without a solid reason."
And he does. When a rowdy bunch of people—not hunters—comes in one night and corners her in a back room, Ash karate-chops his way in and pulls her out. After that he's both brother, father, and hero. And he seems to like it.
When she's a teenager, it's her head on his shoulder while he teaches her the constellations her father painted on her ceiling years ago. When she comes homes wrecked from the last semester she'll ever try—because being called a freak with a knife collection every day is more than she can take on top of a job and a full-time workload—it's him at the door when she walks in.
"You look like hell, pigtails."
"Thanks, Ash." She sniffles.
"Aw, c'mere." He puts a hand to the back of her head and pulls her in and lets her cry into his chest and that stupid mullet of his.
But it's always been that way. From the time she's twelve, the sun rises and sets on Ash. MIT Ash, who tells her in bursts and struggles over the years how he was in that big-wig school when he was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, and then he got kicked out for fighting. Was testing an experiment a few miles from the Roadhouse that stormy night, got struck by lightning. And fell into their lives.
The best mistake Jo thinks he ever made.
When Jo starts to get interested in hunting, it's Ash who tips her off on cases. Ash who teaches her how to build a file. Ash who lies to Ellen and keeps Jo's secrets, lets her on his otherwise forbidden computer to follow up on leads she wishes she could do herself. And it's Ash she goes to for the credit-card trail that needs laying out to Vegas, when she's really going to Philadelphia.
"This," Ash drawls as he taps on his keyboard. "Is a very bad idea."
"I'll be with Sam and Dean. It'll be fine." Jo reassures him.
"Yeah well, they're not your big brother."
"You're sweet." Jo says. "I'll call you."
When she doesn't, he folds to Ellen. And when she gets home Jo tells him straight up: "It's okay. I know why you did it."
And she thinks about hunting on her own.
Jo means to leave without telling him. But when she's throwing her clothes into her bag, she knows he's in the doorway behind her.
She turns around, perching one a hand on her hip, meeting his steady eyes. She presses her lips together and widens her eyes. "What?"
"You leavin' me?" He asks.
She rolls her eyes, walks over and grabs her jacket off the back of the door. "I can't stay with her anymore, Ash."
He reaches out and takes her wrist. "Without anyone watching your back?"
"I'll be fine." She pulls loose.
"Heard that before."
"I'll keep in touch."
"Yup. Heard that before, too." He goes and flops down on her bed. "Big ugly world out there, Jo. Sure you can handle it?"
She meets his eyes. And after all these years, can't lie to Ash. "I don't know. But I have to try, Ash. I'm sick of being my mom's prisoner."
"Well then, do me a favor?" Ash asks.
"You gotta have some self-respect out there. Don't let the…douchebags of the world walk all over you, m'kay? You got a big heart and mad skills, right? Live up to it. Don't get into a lotta trouble."
Jo laughs slightly. "You know I won't if I can help it, Ash.
"Just makin' sure." He leans back with his arms crossed behind his head. "Since I'm not gonna be there to whup ass for you anymore."
Jo sits on the bed beside him. "I'll miss you."
"Miss you too, pigtails."
She laughs. "How long has it been since you called me that?"
"Long enough." He won't meet her eyes. Ash is harder to crack than a walnut, but Jo know what his soft spot is. It's her. Has been for years.
"Take care of yourself, Ash." Jo says, and leans forward to kiss him on the cheek. "I'll see you around."
She hops off the bed, grabs her bag and walks out the door, turning off the light. And she stops one last time to see Ash looking up at the faded lines of the constellations drawn into the ceiling.
It's Jo who calls her mom a few months later, and Ellen picks up.
"Mom?" Jo says. "I saw the Roadhouse on the news! What the hell happened?"
"It's fine, sweetie." Ellen's sitting on Bobby Singer's couch, Bobby rubbing her back, Dean sitting on her other side looking grave, Sam leaning against the wall with wet, unhappy eyes. "I'm all right. It was the demon." She looks up at Sam. "We think."
"Okay, well, let me come out and help."
"No! Joanna Beth, you stay right where you are. I don't want you lost in the middle of this, enough people have died for it."
Dean looks down.
"But you got everyone out okay, right?" Jo asks. And the answer is a painful, heavy silence. "Mom. Where's Ash?"
Ellen breaks with a sob. "I am so sorry, Joanna Beth."
"Oh, my God." Jo says. "Oh, no, mom, no!"
For Jo, it's worse than losing a father she can barely remember. It's having bits and pieces of herself hacked off and scattered into the wind.
It takes years and years for it to heal. Years before she can even talk about him without a furious flush of pain.
It's easier the day a mysterious package arrives at her apartment. A plain cardboard box with the burned remains of Ash's watch inside. The one Jo gave him for his birthday years ago because it looked like his kind of cool.
Jo holds it in the palm of her hand and reads the names carved on the back, hers and his. And wonders if she's got an angel watching over her.
It's years before Jo sees her friends again. And by that time it's a bearable, shadowy memory of the agony, a bruise that's faded from black-and-blue to yellow-and-pink. She knows she could die tomorrow, but she's not afraid.
She bumps into Dean as she backs out of the fridge, and he makes the move she's been waiting for since the first time he walked into the Roadhouse and she punched him in the face because he stole her gun. All those unrequited feelings flushing up to the surface again.
She leans up to kiss him.
You got a big heart and mad skills, right? Live up to it. Don't get into a lotta trouble. Since I'm not gonna be there to whup ass for you anymore.
Jo leans back with a laugh. Ash would kill her.
"No. Sweetheart, if this is our last night on Earth," She tells Dean, smiling, "Then I'm going to spend it with a little thing I call self-respect."
He looks at her like he just got electrocuted—he's just that shocked. And it takes all of Jo's restraint not to say:
Every been struck by lightning, pigtails?