John Smith sat alone on the cedar chest at the end of his bed. Sunset had long faded and the sky beyond his open window was pocked with stars twinkling serenely through the wisps of straying clouds. His blue eyes tracked a falling star from the upper sash until it disappeared behind the sill. He did not move and barely breathed, overwhelmed and exhausted by the day's events.
Herb Smith was dead, had been dead in every way that mattered since 1978. The man beneath the garden was a shell. His mind twisted by the scenes that flickered to life at the barest touch. Controlled and ultimately crushed by the weight of the world. Now was finally time to grieve the loss of his father. Now before the nightmare that had reared to life could take a firm hold and tear John's world asunder once more.
He felt nothing.
Tears remained unshed, anger unvoiced, grief and pain stifled beneath a blanket of weariness that might never lift. Everything he had wanted for the last six years lay in ruins. His life was the first but certainly not the last victim of a madman. If not for JJ, John was sure he would have disappeared completely, and that knowledge was the heaviest of all. He sighed raggedly, the sound inordinately loud in the quiet room. JJ needed him. Needed, wanted…
JJ had called him dad.
The moniker sent a tiny shock rippling through John's aching body and forced a tremulous smile to his lips. It was a fleeting sense of pleasure which dissolved almost instantly. JJ had seen…
The room dimmed behind a crimson haze. John blinked and the outline of a charred city faded back into the paneled walls.
JJ should have never known the truth but there was no going back now and no way forward without explanation.
John dragged his eyes from the comfort of the starry sky to the open doorway opposite the window. The hallway beyond was empty and silent save for the low drone of Sarah's radio at the other end. On the ride back from the cabin they had barely spoken. The moments of understanding shared at the lake had been smothered by the reality of their situation. He could not confide in her about Herb. Not yet, not when so much lay between them. He dare not tell her what he knew for certain about JJ. There was wisdom in secrecy despite the high cost they had all paid in the last six months.
He had to speak to JJ.
The creak of a door was not wholly unexpected, nor the thrill of resigned panic that prickled the flesh on the back of John's neck. He sat up a little straighter and listened to the light, slow steps moving closer. They stopped when a shadow cast by the lamp outside of the bathroom fell upon the burnished wood in front of his door. "It's okay, son," he whispered.
JJ stepped into the open doorway. He was dressed in sweatpants and a faded t-shirt and he did not look up from his white hands, which were fiddling absently with the brim of a Red Sox cap. A gift, a curse, John had given him in what felt like a lifetime ago.
"Come in," John invited in the same level tone.
His son walked straight to the window without looking at John. His fingers caressed the dark blue bill of the cap with jerky strokes. They appeared skeletal in the weak starlight and John fought down a chill. The moment was at hand and suddenly he had nothing useful to say. How do you tell a child that life, as he has known it, is over? That he can never be like his peers? That no amount of hiding or denial can change the images he's seen and the sense of terrible purpose they evoke?
"Do you smell things? Like wood burning and stuff? Do you smell…death?"
The relief that JJ had spoken first was immediately replaced with guilt. John blushed and stared at his own fingers twining anxiously between his knees. JJ was speaking of the practical because it was the only way his mind could approach the problem. "Sometimes."
"Sometimes?" JJ repeated faintly.
"It depends on what I'm seeing."
John looked up and studied JJ's shadowed profile. The small, full lips were pursing and flattening as the child pondered the ramifications of this tiny reassurance. Sometimes he would just see things and not have to smell, hear, touch or taste. Only the horror brought the complete sensory experience. That truth seemed to come to him in a rush and JJ closed his eyes tightly. John felt a clenching deep in his chest at the appearance of a single tear on the pale curve of his son's cheek. He wanted to take it back, to kill Stillson for ever awakening the sleeping demon with a cruel shove to the floor. To chain JJ genetically to the dead father who had loved him unconditionally for his first 12 years. Shield him from a birthright neither of them could ever control. Only the extermination of Greg Stillson remained within his power however and John's sudden fierce rage dissolved as JJ turned from the window and met his eyes.
"You see it all the time. The burning city… Washington D.C.?"
"I did," John said, unable to stand, unwilling to draw JJ close until his son was ready, until John knew for certain that he could break the embrace once it commenced.
"For a while."
JJ looked down at the cap and then up again. His eyes were two glittering sparks in the deep shadows. "When?"
"The day of your dad's funeral." John forced his face to remain impassive at the sharp gasp the reference evoked from JJ. He felt no guilt, jealousy or grief at the characterization and noted idly that this was the first time he had ever completely accepted Walt's role in his heart and not just in words.
"But you saw it again?" JJ asked, his voice was low, strangled as he fought through the grief to the present.
"When I did?"
"Yes." John barely recognized the hoarse affirmation as his own.
JJ did not seem to notice. "Do you know why?" he asked.
"I think so."
"But you're not going to tell me."
It was a statement said with resignation, not at all petulant or rebellious. John expected nothing less from a child who had grown immeasurably beyond his years in just a few seconds. "No," he confirmed with only a trace of regret. "You'll understand in time. I think it's better that way."
JJ stepped closer, his hands now still on the cap. "Will I see it again?"
The urge to protect roared forth and John's hands twitched and whitened with strain. He nodded, bestowing the certainty on both of them, and felt the burn of tears. "I'm sorry."
"You didn't do it." JJ's cheeks lifted slightly, denoting a grin. "You don't have to say you're sorry."
His son's silhouette blurred for a moment and John blinked rapidly to clear the sheen of tears. He was close, so close, but now was not the time to lose control and show his fear. JJ needed strength, guidance, a plan of action. He drew a shaky breath and clenched his hands together to stop them from trembling.
"What?" he breathed.
"Is it okay if I sit here for a few minutes?"
JJ sat on the chest. After a moment his small arm snuck around John's waist and he rested his head against his shoulder.
The wind gusted suddenly through the open window and lightning sheeted the sky, singeing the air with damp ozone. John felt an answering strike, sharp in his chest. His son's hair lay smooth and cooling against his fevered skin, his small body more comfort than it should have to be. Thunder rumbled and rolled away and he stared hard at the clouds gathering low and black on the horizon. His hands fell apart of their own accord and he slung his arm carefully around JJ and pulled him close.