Sam blinked and shook his head in shock, his mouth gaping open as he appeared suddenly lost for words.
"Does Dean know?" Sam checked, wincing as he already guessed the answer to his question; since Eric was still breathing, his sibling had obviously not been privy to this information.
"No," Jo replied hurriedly, eyes widening as she imagined the outcome of that conversation, "and he's not going to know, either... not until Eric's left town."
"You're trying to protect him?" Sam seemed surprised that Jo would consider Eric's safety after all that had transpired, but her impatient eye roll corrected his line of thinking.
"Dean?" she raised both eyebrows pointedly, emphasizing the older Winchester's name, "Yeah."
"Probably a good idea," Sam agreed with a smirk, both hunters suddenly pausing as a low, throaty growl reverberated through the night air. They barely had time to exchange a glance before the nymph burst through the branches to their left and leapt across Sam's path, slashing at his chest with talons that were inches long. Sam cried out and dodged the attack just in time, although the front of his shirt was shredded to near ribbons.
Hissing and spitting at the hunters, the nymph took off at break neck speed back into the trees. Slinging her rifle over her shoulder, Jo grabbed Sam's arm and gave chase, her sneakered feet pounding against the forest floor relentlessly. She was determined they would dispatch both creatures before the night was through, hopeful that by morning, Eric's name would be nothing but an unpleasant after taste in their mouths. Her dedication to the hunt shone through, and Jo was almost dragging a gasping Sam behind her by the time they reached a large, oval shaped clearing that was dominated in the centre by an enormous rock formation.
The nymph had disappeared from view but, as Jo squinted in the darkness, she thought she spotted a suspicious looking opening amongst the rocks. Nudging Sam gently in the ribs with her elbow, she gestured with a slight inclination of her head.
The sound of feet pounding against the ground caused both hunters to raise their weapons, and Jo's breath caught in her chest as she found the end of her rifle trained on Dean's face.
"Woah!" Dean shouted, holding up his free hand in surrender and clutching his gun in the other.
"You guys okay?" he checked, concerned by the sight of blood on Sam's shirt sleeve.
"It's just a scratch," Sam assured him, glaring at Eric, who sidled up behind Dean moments later.
"You wanna watch where you're pointing that thing, babydoll?" Eric crooned, retrieving a hunting knife from inside his boot as he gazed up into the mouth of the cave.
"I could shoot him and make it look like a hunting accident?" Sam offered, smiling good naturedly at Jo in an attempt to relieve her obvious anger.
"Dude ain't worth doing the time over, Sammy," Dean stated, curling his lip in disgust as he placed his hand against the small of Jo's back.
"Where did those things go?" Eric demanded, either not hearing or else choosing to ignore the exchange between the other hunters. He lifted his flashlight high above his head and approached the rock formation slowly. His footsteps were carefully measured, and he appeared to be holding his breath as he approached the side of the rock where the opening was located. However, he didn't notice the break and the black void beyond it, and it was as Jo opened her mouth to call out a warning that a hand complete with talons shot out of the gap to seize Eric by the collar.
The hunter let out a yell and fired off two rounds in close succession. The bullets whizzed up into the air, their final resting place unknown, and Jo wondered with a faintly smug grin if Eric had squeezed the trigger in fright. She certainly hoped so.
A second later, he was tossed writhing and yelling into the trees nearby, before the two nymphs emerged one after the other.
"So, what's the plan?" Jo asked, glancing back at both Sam and Dean as they wore similarly petulant expressions.
"Looks like our buddy Eric's got a handle on this, so... I say we head back to the motel, order a couple of pizzas..." Dean joked, suddenly sighing as he realised they would not be able to leave their annoying counterpart at the mercy of these creatures.
"Fine," he huffed, as Jo shot him a wry smile and shook her head in disapproval.
"Any idea how we kill these things, Sam?" Dean cast a sideways glance at his brother, but had already started striding toward the two nymphs, both of whom watched their prey approaching with a hungry glint in their beady, black eyes.
The nearest of the two let out a sound almost like a purr as Dean approached, her greying lips twisting into a smile that partially concealed her jagged teeth.
"We uhm… impale them," Sam said, sounding somewhat uncertain. Jo and Dean simultaneously shot him a look, which he deflected with a shrug.
"You don't sound certain there," Dean observed, his own tone nervous as he continued to set towards the nymphs, his shotgun readied.
"I er… well…" Sam stammered, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and averting his gaze. He mumbled the final part of his sentence under his breath and, despite Dean straining to hear it, the words were lost beneath the growls and snarls of the monsters.
"Speak up, Sam!" Dean called out, side stepping deftly as the nymph on the right rushed him, her arms outstretched and her mouth wide open.
"I couldn't find anything in the books and since we were pressed for time I…" Sam paused, wincing as Dean punched the nymph square in the jaw with little effect, "I got the info off NetHac."
"What the hell is NetHac?" Dean demanded, shooting an irritated glance at Sam as he jabbed the butt of his shotgun into the abdomen of the second attacking nymph, who Jo had already shot twice to no avail.
"It's a game information site… kind of like Wikipedia…" Sam offered, his smile decidedly sheepish as both Jo and Dean paused to shoot him murderous looks.
"Okay, we're gonna talk about your internet habits later," Dean stated, stabbing a finger pointedly in Sam's direction, "soon as we stake Flora and Fauna."
Hauling her rifle strap up onto her shoulder, Jo bent down and retrieved a large stick from the forest floor. Slamming it repeatedly over her thigh until it eventually splintered in two, Jo tossed one half to Dean, who was still grappling with the more resilient of the wood nymphs. Spying Eric skulking out of the side of the clearing, Jo yelled across to him, ducking as Sam hurried past her toward the second creature.
"Hey, you goin' somewhere?" she demanded. Her mouth set into a grim line as Eric offered a mock salute before disappearing into the trees in what Jo could only describe as an anticlimactic end to his appearance.
"Sam?" she called out, throwing the second makeshift stake to him. Sam caught the sharp ended length of branch with a grateful nod of his head, and the three hunters moved with well-practiced ease, as if somehow anticipating each other's movements.
Rolling her eyes at Eric's behaviour, which she could only presume was more as a result of his contempt for them all as opposed to cowardice, Jo wasted no more time in sprinting toward the Winchesters.
Slinging her rifle round onto her back, Jo used the distraction of the nymph that Dean battled to her advantage. She hooked her arms quickly and carefully under the creature's arms, using her full weight to swing the shrieking and writhing faerie around so that Dean could get a clear shot at it's heart. Sensing that the end was potentially nigh, the nymph redoubled her efforts at escape, straining so much against her captor that there was an audible and sickening pop as Jo's shoulder protested.
Gritting her teeth against the pain, Jo shoved the nymph at Dean with all her might, satisfied as the tip of the tree branch he held slid into her chest cavity like a knife into butter. The nymph let out a scream of unbridled fury, and utter agony, which it's sister attempted to respond to, only to find that Sam had shoved the remaining branch through her abdomen and up into her ribcage. The second of the nymphs was the first to fall, tumbling to the ground before melting away into a pile of ash that stood out against the various greens of the forest floor. A beat later, her sister joined her, spitting and hissing even as she disintegrated.
"Well… that was bracing," Sam declared, panting slightly from the exertion of finally stabbing the elusive and particularly virile creature. Dean failed to reply as he crossed the space towards Jo, who was holding her left shoulder with a grimace fixed firmly on her face.
Jo peered down at her shoulder analytically, already realising it was dislocated, and her breath caught in her chest as Dean placed a hand gently on her arm.
"Just do it," she directed, closing her eyes and gritting her teeth as Dean looked pleadingly at Sam and then back at his girlfriend, unwilling to be the one to cause her further pain.
"Jo, I..." he began hesitantly until Jo appeared to be losing patience.
"Dean!" she snapped, sucking in a deep breath and releasing it in a puff of air beneath a stifled cry. Frowning, and glancing at his brother first for moral support, Dean grasped Jo's arm with both hands, and quickly manipulated her shoulder back into place, his heart lurching as she cried out in response and there was another tell-tale pop.
The relief was almost instant, however, and Jo took a series of slow, steadying breaths as a wave of nausea rolled up from the pit of her stomach. Dean supported her against his chest, rubbing her back gently as she took a few minutes to compose herself.
"You okay?" he bent his head to catch her gaze and swept his thumb over her cheek. She smiled weakly in response and then managed a wry chuckle.
"Yeah," she nodded, rolling her shoulder backwards and forwards and wincing at the dull ache that radiated from the joint, "thanks."
She closed her eyes as Dean pressed a tender kiss against her forehead and held her closer, until the conspicuous absence of their new colleague suddenly caught his attention.
"Where'd our buddy Eric go?" Dean demanded with an obvious sneer, his upper lip peeling back from the gum as he spat the name. Sam glanced at Jo, having been too involved in the fray to have noticed the other hunter disappear.
"He turned tail and ran right when things got a little ugly," replied Jo with a roll of her eyes and a faintly venomous tone. Dean snorted and Sam simply shook his head in a combination of shock and surprise- he had never once known another hunter to abandon people in the midst of a fight, and the idea that there may be those out there who would alarmed him greatly.
"Maybe he figured we could handle it," Sam suggested, his tone mildly hopeful.
"Or maybe the guy's just a giant douche," Dean finished, pausing to retrieve his fallen knife from the ground, before clapping his brother on the back with one hand. "Is what it is, Sammy."
"Dean, you don't..." Sam began to argue, smiling and rolling his eyes as Dean gently led Jo by the hand and began walking toward the wilderness trail.
"If it quacks like a duck..." Dean answered with a shrug, obviously long convinced of Eric's unsavoury nature.
Slinging his shotgun up onto his shoulder, Sam walked beside the couple. Despite the obvious discomfort Jo was in, her mood had lightened considerably. Sam knew it was probably little to do with the conclusion of the hunt, and more to do with her ex's rapid departure. He wondered just how much of the saga Dean had been privy to; the fact that Eric had escaped unharmed led him to believe the answer was 'very little'.
"So, you wanna order a pizza? Grab a couple of beers?" Dean suggested, inhaling the warm, balmy night air with a wide smile in place as the Impala came into view.
"Sure," Jo agreed, now feeling her previously pensive mood give way to something that felt very much like contentment.
"Sam?" Dean queried, shooting his brother a smile. Pausing for a moment to debate the offer, Sam shook his head.
"Nah, you two enjoy your evening," he said, watching as his brother opened the front passenger side door for Jo, who slid into the car after planting a soft kiss on her boyfriend's cheek.
"Plenty of room," Dean assured, closing the door after Jo and arching an eyebrow at Sam, who jammed his hands further into his pocket and shook his head.
"It's fine… got a hot date with World Of Warcraft anyway," Sam explained, mustering an enthusiastic smile that Dean met with a quirk of his brow.
Shaking his head and chuckling softly, Dean accused, "Geek."
Jo leaned back against the headboard, sighing and resting both hands on her now full stomach. She giggled as she heard the distinct sound of Dean slipping a quarter into the 'magic fingers' slot at the side of the bed, before throwing himself down on the mattress beside Jo just in time to enjoy the gentle, rhythmic vibrations.
"That feels so good," Jo enthused, closing her eyes as she scooted further down the pillow and allowed the soothing motion to ebb through her back and shoulders.
"Preaching to the choir, sweetheart," Dean readily agreed. The sigh he emitted caused Jo to crane her neck, and she eyed him uncertainly.
Dean felt her gaze rest upon him, and he licked his lips nervously as though contemplating his words carefully.
"What?" Jo queried, scooting across the small divide between them as she rested her head on the pillow beside his.
"Can I ask you something?" Dean began hesitantly, turning to face her so the tips of their noses almost brushed.
Jo smiled weakly, dipping her gaze to his chest, and the faded rock band insignia on his t-shirt. The fact that she could sense the impending topic of conversation did nothing to dampen her trepidation but, understanding Dean's need for closure, Jo nodded her head.
"You can ask me anything," she replied, her throat constricting a little as she was overcome with a sudden and intense feeling of vulnerability. Although she was comfortable in Dean's presence, and was secure in the knowledge that he would always keep her counsel, Jo could not help the jolt of fear that shot through her at the prospect of discussing one of what she considered to be her less fine hours.
"You know that," she added quietly, consenting to smile as Dean brushed a kiss against the tip of her nose.
"I just want you to be comfortable," Dean stated, biting his bottom lip as he watched Jo bob her head in a manner that suggested she was anything but comfortable with the current line of questioning. "We don't…"
"It's ok, really," Jo said, her tone firm and one eyebrow arched to demonstrate her point.
Rolling onto his side, Dean placed his hand on her hip, curving his fingers around her slim waist. "He seemed pretty caught up on you," he stated, smiling wryly as he added, "not that I blame the guy..."
Jo reached out a hand toward his cheek and brushed her thumb over his skin. Dean remained silent, hoping for some form of closure on the subject and yet understanding if she wished for elements of her past to remain unknown. Certainly there were parts of his own dating history that he was less than keen to share, but Jo had known him long enough to already be privy to the uglier aspects of his past.
But things were different now; Dean was a different man, and for the first time in his life, he was completely in love, as terrifying as that prospect had first been.
"Eric's... " Jo began, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth as she pondered on how to describe her former boyfriend.
"A total dick?" Dean offered with a grin, finding himself silenced as Jo slid her palm down his cheek and pressed a finger to his lips.
"You wanna hear this or not?" she arched a blonde eyebrow, smiling as she received a solemn nod in response. She continued undeterred, "Eric is a charmer. Usually it takes more than that to impress me but… well, I met him after Duluth and I guess I wasn't quite as wise and grown up as I wanted to think."
"You don't say?" Dean exclaimed in mock shock, laughing as Jo swatted at him with an only half serious growl.
"Shut it, Winchester," she ordered, flicking her ponytail into his face and grinning.
As Dean held up his hands in surrender, Jo settled into the crook of his arm and continued, "I met him at the Roadhouse and we started hunting together for a little while. He thought things were getting serious but… I dunno… there was always something… 'off' to me, even when things were mostly good."
"And..." Jo added snootily, "he kind of reminded me of you, actually!"
"Me?" Dean blanched, grimacing as he considered the prospect of there being even a slight resemblance between himself and Eric Niellsen.
"Oh come on," Jo guffawed, amused by the indignant expression on his face, "the cocksure smile? That arrogant swagger?"
Dean shrugged, shooting her one of the aforementioned smiles, "I think I'm adorable."
Jo laughed and snuggled further into his arms, and she began smoothing her palm over the fabric of his shirt as she let her head fall against his chest.
"So... what happened? Why'd you guys break up?" Dean asked. Jo felt him tense beneath her, and she ghosted her lips across his jaw as his hold on her tightened in preparation for her confession.
"We lived together for a little while," she said somewhat hesitantly, watching Dean carefully for a reaction. When she received none, she continued, "I guess that's when things really started to get weird."
"Weird how?" Dean demanded, over eager and thus not bothering to wait for an explanation to the statement Jo had already made. She cocked her head in his direction, a smile twitching at the corners of her lips. Dean cleared his throat and averted his gaze by way of silent apology, and as a signal that he would allow her to proceed uninterrupted.
"He started to be mean, I guess," she stated slowly, picking her way through her words with great care. "He made it clear what he thought a woman's place was and, well, I've never fit with that kind of ideal."
Dean let out a snort and shook his head. He said with evident conviction, "That's not a bad thing."
"Well... he's not you," Jo said quietly, enjoying the sense of comfort and security his embrace offered. Dean rubbed her back reassuringly and pressed a kiss to her forehead.
"Then one day, we had this huge fight and I asked him to leave," she relayed, taking a calming, measured breath as she added, "he got really mad, and... he was gonna hit me, so..."
Dean blinked, carefully manoeuvring her from his chest so he could sit up, "He what?"
The anger was evident in his tone, and a surge of homicidal intent overcame him, twisting his usually soft features into a snarl.
"Dean," Jo laughed softly, pressing her palm to the centre of his chest as she tried to halt his movement, "I broke his nose..."
She shrugged unapologetically as she added with a mischievous smirk, "You remember how we met, right?"
Dean nodded, wincing as he recalled the heavy handed blow she had dealt him that had left him seeing more than his share of stars. He settled back against the headboard, realising only now that the quarter had run out and the gentle vibrations had ceased. However, instead of foraging for another amongst the shrapnel in his pocket, Dean remained where he was, holding Jo close to his chest.
"You know I would never…" he began, his frown still in place.
"Dean, you don't even have to say it," interjected Jo, shaking her head to demonstrate her point, "I know. You and Eric are polar opposites. That's why I'm still here."
"What happened then?" Dean pressed gently, smoothing one hand across the back of Jo's head. She frowned, although Dean suspected the action was more at the memory than the question.
"I went back home not too long after," she answered, her lips pursing as she continued, "Eric kept calling, demanding to talk to me. Mom always denied I was there but I guess Eric saw through her. She was mad as hell when she heard… then he turned up at the roadhouse one day, drunk off his ass, and hollering for me to get out to him."
"I'll bet Ellen loved that," Dean snorted, imagining the fury the small whirlwind of a woman could whip herself into where the safety of her only child was concerned.
Jo quirked a smile as she replied, "He may have met the barrel of her shotgun at close range. She ran him off, told him she'd mount his head behind the bar if he ever showed his face on her land again…. I think she may have been serious."
Dean let out a loud belly laugh, his amusement peaked by the images that Jo's confession prompted.
She sobered somewhat as she added, "Right after that, we started out hunting together. Mom said she finally realised there were worse things in the world than the monsters, and she thought it was time she taught me to take care of myself, since she wouldn't always be there to protect me."
There was a moment of silence, during which Dean continued to shift in discomfort on the bed, before a final probing glance from Jo prompted him to air the thoughts plaguing his mind.
"Did… did you love him?" he asked quietly, averting his gaze to the comforter, fearful that he would potentially give away his thoughts on the matter. Jo remained unspeaking and unmoving, simply circling her index finger around the back of Dean's hand.
Taking a deep breath, she began, "I thought I did… for a long time, I thought I did."
"There's a 'but' in there, right?" he asked hopefully, trying to mask his discomfort with a wavering smile.
Jo peered up at him, her voice earnest as she spoke, "But... I know now that... that what we have is the real deal. I love you. Nothing else could come close to this. Eric wasn't the right guy for me, because..."
"I am," Dean stated definitely, his eyes boring intently into hers to convey the certainty in his words.
Jo nodded wordlessly as his lips brushed hers, and he kissed her until her heart began to hammer in her chest and she wound her arms tightly around his neck.
"You've always been my guy, Dean," she confessed almost shyly, rolling her eyes at the slightly smug grin that tugged at his lips, "as infuriating as you can be sometimes."
"Shhhh," he shook his head, chuckling as he rolled her beneath him and began dragging languid kisses down her neck.
"Can I stop talking about my feelings now, princess?" Jo asked hopefully, biting her bottom lip and grasping the fabric of his shirt as his tongue flicked teasingly against her pulse point.
"Uh-huh," he murmured, suddenly lifting his head and concealing a grin as he asked, "hey sweetheart, you wanna go make me a sandwich?"
"Depends," Jo answered, her smile sweet as she added, "you want me to kick your ass before or after?"
Laughing, Dean lowered his face towards Jo's so that their foreheads were touching, and her breath tickled his cheek. He peered into the depths of her eyes intently for a moment, before opening his mouth to speak.
"That's what I love about you," he whispered finally, the sincerity taking Jo aback somewhat. "You got it all, Jo… beauty, brains, spirit… and the biggest heart."
"Gees Winchester, if I'd have known all it would take to make you go all chick flick was to turn up an old boyfriend, I'd have done it months ago," Jo teased gently, swallowing hard as Dean continued to stare at her.
"I wouldn't change a thing," Dean insisted, caressing Jo's cheek with the back of his hand and beaming as she closed her eyes in response to his touch.
Suddenly craning her neck, Jo stole a glance at the small metallic box attached to the nightstand. "Magic fingers has stopped..."
Sweeping his eyes over her in a thoroughly suggestive manner, Dean shrugged and lowered his lips to hers. He paused suddenly, extracting a frustrated groan from Jo, who was entirely done with conversation.
"Don't worry about it, darlin'... these magic fingers are just getting started."
Jo giggled merrily, brown eyes narrowed in playful disdain, "Lame. So lame."
Dean arched an eyebrow and shook his head dismissively.
"We're done talking," he stated, the rest of his sentence dying on his lips as Jo sighed impatiently and grasped the neck of his shirt.
"Finally," she breathed, mirroring his smile in the few remaining seconds before their lips met.
Stirring the second sugar into his mug of black coffee, Eric let out a sigh. The diner was crowded and the bustle and chatter did little to help his sour mood. He would never have anticipated the sting that would result from seeing Jo once again. He had presumed that ever since she had shattered his nose with a well-placed fist, any feelings he may have harboured for the blonde hunter would have waned.
Eric raised the mug to his lips, half smiling as he took a sip of the cheap and nasty tasting liquid.
The dramatic yet heartfelt sigh of a young waitress caught his attention, and he paused to slowly swallow as his eyes skimmed the features of the sullen blonde. Bunching up the cleaning cloth in her hand, the young woman tossed it haphazardly under the counter. Her blue eyes were downcast, although Eric could already see that they were usually wide and expressive, and the tip of her nose was delicately upturned.
Eric bent his head in order to read the gold name badge pinned to her apron, summoning his patented brand of charm as he declared, "Well now... Christie, that's a big sigh for such a pretty lady."
Christie glared back at him with apparent disdain, although the fleeting smile that twitched at her lips betrayed her. Interest piqued, Eric lowered his mug to the table.
"Uh-huh," she replied, folding her arms across her chest as she tilted her head back and eyed her customer warily.
Eric smiled, taking another sip of coffee before he announced, "He's an idiot."
Christie's eyes narrowed, but her curiosity was obviously growing, "Alright, I'll bite. Who's an idiot?"
Eric shrugged in a very noncommittal manner, "The guy you were thinkin' of right there."
The waitress nodded, her smile widening as she responded, "Won't disagree with you there. Listen, you're not a friend of his are you, because I've told Jimmy, I don't want to talk to him, and I meant it, 'kay?"
"Well, I don't know this Jimmy, but... I reckon you should talk to me. I'm a pretty good listener," Eric coaxed, flashing his latest victim a wide smile that displayed a row of perfectly white teeth.
"Oh, you are, huh?" Christie giggled, glancing up momentarily at the clock on the diner wall before she turned back to her customer.
"What time do you get off?" Eric asked, realising from the grin on the young woman's face that he had managed to successfully draw her in. He was hardly surprised since he had been delivering such faultless performances for over a decade.
"Eight thirty," she said, circling her fingertip over the counter top as she peered up at him from behind a fan of thick lashes.
"How about I take you for a drink, and you can tell me all about it?"
Eric caged a triumphant smirk as the waitress bobbed her head and then headed over to dutifully refill coffee cups at the other side of the diner, a new bounce to her step.
Lifting the menu from the table, Eric began to examine it, searching in earnest for something that sounded even half palatable. The act of ordering would allow him to stick around for longer and, perhaps if he opted for dessert too, he would be able to draw his visit out until Christie's shift ended. Spirits considerably brightened, Eric began to hum along softly to the song filtering into the diner through a set of speakers affixed to the walls.
The day was beginning to look up, and Joanna Harvelle was one name that he would not look back upon again in a hurry. For Eric, there were no real scars in matters of the heart, just flesh wounds that healed easily once the balm of some other pretty face in some other no-name town had been applied. Leaning back in the booth, Eric flagged down a waitress, content to perhaps stay awhile longer than any hunter, or any serial heartbreaker, really should.
Author's Note – This was a piece we co-wrote for a Fandom For Children compilation. In accordance with the organiser's wishes, we've been sitting on it for a little while. We felt now was the time to post to thank you all for your immense patience whilst waiting for updates on all our solo and joint fics. 2012 has been a very busy year for us so far, but we are pleased to announce that the new baby Spoon arrived on 18th June 2012 after a long spell of ill health. His name is Samson, and he is deliciously squishy. Please also congratulate Welsh on her brand new job and impending move! We'll be back really soon with an update to all our fics.