The chill of the air outside caught Dean by surprise, and he felt himself shiver under several layers of clothing as the breeze wound around his neck and down his spine.
Jo sat on the makeshift porch of the cabin, a long homemade spear in her hand, as she stared past the flickering beacons and out into the woods beyond.
Dean still could not quite believe the sight before him, and despite the seriousness of his current situation, a smile tugged at his lips as he watched her.
"You gonna sit your ass down or just stare at me? Because the staring thing... it's a little creepy," Jo drawled, glancing back at him and arching an eyebrow.
Caught a little off-guard, Dean nodded and strolled uncertainly toward her, his hands jammed in his pockets. He sat down next to Jo on the wooden planks that comprised the floor, and cast a careful gaze out at the woods. He hoped that the next few minutes at least would be free from supernatural intrusion, and every subsequent rustle of tree branches in the wind threatened to push his nerves over the edge.
"Ignore my Mom. She's... she's just..." Jo began, peering steadily into the flames of a nearby pyre as she sighed out loud and simply shrugged.
Dean drew in a measured breath, surprised to find the night air faintly permeated by the scent of wildflowers. He had assumed such things would not exist in the depths of Purgatory.
Jo tossed her mane of curls over her shoulder and she stole a glance up at Dean when she was almost certain he had turned away. Dean intercepted her gaze, shaking his head as his eyes roved over Jo, and he realised that, at some unknown point in time, he had perfectly memorised every last detail of her face. It had certainly been imprinted in his mind since their parting, but Dean had always worried that perhaps some aspect of his memory had failed him, and the image he saw of Jo Harvelle every time he closed his eyes was an inaccurate one; however, here she was, and every last little detail was just how Dean had remembered it.
"You're just as beautiful as you always were," he murmured, "it's like you stepped out of a dream or something."
Jo laughed self-consciously and her smile was teasing, "You dream about me, Dean-o?"
Dean swallowed hard, his mouth becoming unbearably dry as he struggled to respond with the level of honesty that was so uncomfortable to him, and yet which he knew Jo deserved.
"Lot of things changed since you were gone," Dean stated, his eyes narrowing as he regarded Jo, who shivered a little as the breeze whipped up around them. The inferences behind his words were indistinguishable, but Jo was not even certain that she wished to decode them. Figuring out the mystery that was Dean Winchester had once appealed to her, but that was before her life had become complicated by hunting and all it entailed.
"I'll bet," she replied, her voice dropping to barely above a whisper. During her time in Purgatory, Jo had often thought of the world she had left behind, wondering what could have become of the people she cared most about in her absence. She hoped that they were alive and then she prayed that, if they were not, their souls had at least found some measure of the peace that had always managed to evade them in life. One soul in particular occupied her thoughts more than others, much to Ellen's annoyance. However, Jo had realised early on that the only way to make it through the days without driving herself half insane with worry was to attempt to distance herself from it all, and so she had banished all thoughts of a certain Winchester from her mind. Seeing Dean again only served to reopen a wound that had all but healed over, and her mother's reaction to his presence was the proverbial salt to be rubbed in it.
Jo was suddenly stirred from her thoughts as she felt Dean's hand enclose around her own, and she found that her fingers somehow wound through his of their own accord. She mentally berated herself for her lack of resolve but, try as she may, she just could not find the desire to let go.
Jo licked her lips nervously and nodded her head toward the door of the cabin, where she had no doubt that Ellen was holed up licking her wounds, "I thought my Mom just told you to stay away from me?"
Dean chuckled at the teasing smile that illuminated her features, and he arched an eyebrow as he realised the similarities between this and another conversation that had taken place in the roadhouse all those years ago.
"Yeah, well let's just say I'm not as afraid of your Mom as I used to be," he stated, with more confidence than he felt. Jo giggled, and Dean's heart soared at the sound.
"You know she's probably eavesdropping right now. You wanna say that a little louder so she can hear you?" Jo taunted.
"I'm good," Dean retorted with a grimace, and Jo let out a suitably amused snort of laughter.
"All I know is," he stated definitely, giving her little room for argument, "I'm getting out of here, sweetheart, and you and your Mom are coming with me."
Jo sighed, and her head dropped to rest absently against Dean's shoulder. Dean blinked in surprise at the familiarity of her action, but he smiled as he watched Jo blush with the same realisation.
"I'm not sure I belong in that world anymore," she mused. Her tone was troubled as she continued, "Time moves differently. It's been three years and I haven't aged a day. I guess most girls would be grateful for that at least but… I don't know… it feels like we've been here a lifetime already, Dean."
"Well, the flying cars will take some getting used to, but..." Dean tailed off, grinning, and Jo swatted at him. Dean let out a low chuckle as Jo muttered 'jackass' under her breath, although her own amusement was evident in the slight upward quirk of her lips.
"You uh... you belong with me," Dean murmured as his laughter subsided, his voice exhibiting a certainty that shocked Jo, "and I'm not leaving without you. There's no way I could walk away without you again."
Jo appeared to mull this over, and she tried desperately to lighten the moment with humour, even as the sound of gas canisters exploding echoed throughout her memory.
"Is this the patented 'first night in Purgatory' speech, Dean?" she enquired, returning her gaze to the woodlands before them as she awaited the cocksure reply she felt sure was imminent.
"Sweetheart, please," a chuckle reverberated from his chest, before he flashed Jo a comically serious expression. "Why? Is it any more effective than the 'last night on earth' speech?"
"No!" she scoffed, realising she had laughed more in the past ten minutes than she had for the last three years. It was admittedly difficult to find much humour in the situation that had been thrust upon the Harvelles, even after their sacrifice for the greater good, and Jo had often felt like in those three years, her soul had aged thirty.
She blinked as Dean's arm landed around her shoulders and a kiss was pressed to her cheek, and the innate tenderness of the gesture made her heart ache.
"So, you know how we got our seats on the little bus, but what's the deal with you being here?" Jo asked, disentangling herself from Dean's arms as the sound of a twig snapping somewhere within the surrounding forest set her nerves on edge. For a few seconds, both hunters remained silent and still, scoping out the darkened landscape as they awaited the appearance of some otherworldly creature. When nothing happened, they settled back, bodies relaxing somewhat, although Jo hefted the stake in her hand and kept her narrowed eyes affixed on the forest line.
"Pretty similar story," Dean replied, "Cas and I got dragged here on the ass of a big fugly dude I stabbed in the neck."
Jo shot a look at Dean but he failed to elaborate further, deciding that the goings on of the past three years were perhaps best left to discussion when they had managed to return topside. The very fact that this might never be possible was one that Dean bluntly refused to entertain.
"You said Cas is here?" Jo pressed, her eyebrows shooting upwards as she considered the possibilities that having a divine being on their side opened up. She was confused when Dean's features clouded, and his face became a mask of obvious fury.
"Cas was here," he all but snarled, emphasising the key word in his response. "Bastard left me here to rot."
Jo appeared shocked, her mouth falling slightly open and her eyes widening.
"He left you?" she echoed, her tone disbelieving. She shook her head dumbly, and Dean shrugged.
"It's... a long story," he answered, realising that the whole 'evil ex-angel becoming ruler of all creation' story would have to wait for another time; preferably a time that involved large quantities of beer and pizza.
Jo puffed out her cheeks and blew out breath, realising that it was perhaps best not to press the issue of the absent angel. "Okay. So... what's your big plan? Because I hate to break it to you, Dean, but some people have been down here for literally centuries, so... if you know how to get us out..."
"I'm working on it," he replied with a wince, only succeeding in extracting a dubious look from Jo. He continued unabashed, "And hey, I'm sure Sammy's on the case... you know Sam's the brains of the operation. You got nothing to worry about, sweetheart. Trust me. Sam will have us out of here in no time."
Jo's expression bordered on amusement and disdain, but she nodded in an effort to at least humour Dean. As he glanced away toward the direction of a faint rustling sound, Jo cleared her throat before she enquired as nonchalantly as possible, "So... you got anybody waiting for you up there?"
Dean's head snapped back, and he stared at Jo for the longest time before finally running one hand through his hair.
"Well, that was real subtle, Harvelle," Dean stated, grinning from ear to ear and dodging the gentle punch that Jo aimed at his bicep.
"Shut up," she growled in mock annoyance, her expression vaguely petulant. Dean snickered, but after a few moments of good natured ribbing had elapsed, his expression grew serious. He knew that Jo was long due the truth, especially where matters of his heart where concerned, and so he stole a steadying breath before he resolved to continue.
"There was someone, a while back," he revealed, watching Jo carefully for signs of a reaction. When it came, however, her curiousity and disappointment were alive only in the recesses of her eyes, whilst her face was an unreadable mask.
"A while back?" she queried, toying with the sharpened point of her stake as she attempted to avoid looking back at Dean. He squared his shoulders and inclined himself more towards the tress, putting a little distance between their bodies; although he was unsure why, it seemed easier that way now that the subject of Lisa and the year he had spent with her had arisen. Sam had once suggested that talking about his last in a long line of failed relationships might prove cathartic for Dean, but he had openly scoffed at the idea and then renewed his threat to break his little brother's nose should he ever mention the Braeden's again. It was a threat he had fully intended to make good on, and one that Sam had wisely chosen to observe.
"Right after we defeated Lucifer, I got out of hunting for a while," explained Dean, careful to keep his tone level, thus avoiding any inflections of emotion, which he knew could easily be misinterpreted by Jo.
Jo appeared puzzled, clearly wondering what could have steered Dean away from the job he had once only half-jokingly referred to as 'the family business'. Hunting had literally formed the basis of Dean's life, and Jo had a hard time imagining what it would mean for him as a person to shy away from it. She imagined it would be much akin to losing a limb, but she kept her thoughts on the matter undisclosed, telling herself that perhaps he had been happy with that development, for the time it had lasted.
"You got out?" she repeated, feigning casualness.
Dean nodded, rubbing his hand across the back of his neck as his thoughts turned to his ill-advised decision.
"Sammy, he uh... he said 'yes' to Lucifer. Jumped in the cage and signed himself up for an eternity of torture... you know, the usual deal," Dean said gruffly. His eyes flashed in the darkness, and Jo sighed as she watched the man visibly struggle to reign in the pain that rehashing old memories brought him.
Jo's eyes widened at the news, and she stared at the ground as she tried to digest this newest piece of information, and she mouthed quietly, "Wow..."
Dean heaved a sigh, "He told me he wanted me to be happy; that I had to go live this normal life... like he thought I wanted. Like I thought I wanted. There was this woman... Guess she'd always been this kind of mystery to me, you know? She had this whole white picket fence thing going on... nice house, regular job, a kid... Guess I just wanted to belong somewhere."
Jo remained silent, her fingertips running over the tip of the stake.
"Dean Winchester being respectable," she teased, attempting to lighten the mood, "who knew?"
An uneasy fluttering sensation bubbled up from the pit of Jo's stomach, and she deliberated over asking her next question until the dull aching in her heart became too persistent to be ignored.
"But, you didn't stay?" she asked quietly, glancing up through a tendril of blonde hair, "how come?"
Dean shook his head, glancing up at the sky. He wondered for a moment if the absence of moon and stars was a permanent status, but he refrained from asking as much, knowing that the swift change in topic would not be appreciated.
"Because... I don't belong in that world. I'm a hunter, Jo. It's who I am, it's who I'm always gonna be. I'm always gonna have my pain in the ass brother around, I'm always gonna keep at least a couple of shotguns in the bedroom closet, and... I guess I'm always gonna be just a little bit screwed up."
A frown creased Jo's brows, and she nodded in understanding, "And that wasn't who she wanted you to be?"
Dean shrugged, contemplating his year with Lisa for perhaps the first time since their parting.
"Did you love her?" Jo mumbled, wincing as soon as the words had left her lips. She knew she had no right to ask that question of him, but she desperately wanted to know how things might have turned out if circumstances had been different.
"I loved the idea of her," Dean answered after a few seconds of heavy silence had elapsed. Jo chuckled, appreciating the uncharacteristically deep response.
"That's kind of sad," said Jo, reaching out and hesitantly touching Dean's arm with the tips of her fingers. He hazarded a smile and shrugged.
"Story of my life, sister," he quipped, fighting hard to prevent the upward curve of his lips from waning. "I like to think that my choices would have been different if… well… you get what I mean."
Jo arched a blonde brow, but remained stoically silent. She sat back on her heels, evidently lost in thought, but all the while her keen brown-eyed gaze swept the landscape for any signs of immediate trouble.
"You mean if… well, Carthage… I guess…?" she stammered, unable to draw a conclusion to her question. She winced as she realised how emotionally stunted they would both sound to a casual eaves-dropper, which more than likely included half of the current occupants of the cabin behind. Jo had little doubt that the others would be pressed up against the grain of the door, ears flapping as they struggled to overhear everything that transpired between Jo and the mystery arrival.
Dean nodded, feeling warmth spread over his cheeks, which he was sure were now glowing an embarrassing shade of pink.
Jo's smile was wistful, and it remained as she sat mourning the chances that had been stolen from them. Shifting uncomfortably, Jo attempted to lighten the almost suffocating mood that had descended.
"Maybe it was for the best. We both know we'd have driven each other crazy," she stated, perhaps disbelieving the sentiment behind her own words. Her breath stilled in her chest as Dean's fingers found their way to her chin and he tilted her head back to encourage their eyes to meet.
"Only one way to find out," he replied softly, his thumb brushing over the curve of her jaw.
Jo remained silent, merely watching as Dean edged closer and she found her eyes inexplicably drawn to his mouth. His lips were full and cracked, and Dean's tongue shot out as he self-consciously moistened them.
Dean's breath ghosted along her cheek before brushing gently across her own lips. Jo could almost feel his kisses, and fear suddenly caused her stomach to plummet as though she were looking over a great precipice.
"But what if we're trapped here?" she whispered, angling her head as his fingers wove through her hair and his hand slid up the back of her neck.
Dean raised his eyebrows pointedly and he bestowed a reassuring smile upon her.
"We're getting out of here... Okay?" He prompted a reply by sweeping his thumb over her cheek.
"Okay," she breathed in agreement, finally closing the distance between them in a moment of decision. The hunters had danced around each other for long enough, and Jo was not about to waste another moment worrying about other people's perceptions of what could exist between them when Dean appeared finally willing to embrace his own emotions.
A gentle sigh left her body as their lips met in an eager kiss that reignited a flame within her that Jo had long ago thought extinguished.
When they parted, Dean pressed his cheek to hers, closing his eyes as he attempted to dispel all thoughts of Carthage and their final moments together. Her skin was warm against his face, and he brushed feather-light kisses across her cheek, seeking out the corner of her mouth. Finally he willed himself to open his eyes and was relieved to see a pair of bright, brown orbs shining back at him.
"So... Now what?" Jo asked, holding his gaze as the tips of their noses brushed and his hand continued to steady the back of her head.
Dean appeared to think this over momentarily before peering out into the darkness and the eerie woodland beyond. From somewhere nearby, an ominous howl that Dean recognised as either werewolf or Wendigo resounded, and even before it had died down a series of feral growls rose up to plague the night.
"Now, we need a plan."
Authors' Note - Any errors or typos are entirely mine (Silverspoon's) tonight. Apologies in advance, but do we get virtual points at least for another update?!