Title: Watching the Fireplace Glow(1/2)
Summary: In the Drive 'verse. Follows directly from "Knocking on that Door in my Sleep." "I just figured," John says, "that since we sure as hell aren't having any luck apart, maybe we'd be better off together."
A/N: For those of you who are also reading "Those Who Have Crossed with Direct Eyes" – no, I have not abandoned it. Real life has interfered lately, but I hope to have the whole thing finished by the end of March. I'm so very sorry for the wait.
John wakes up that first morning to a world full of light.
The sun streams through the smudged windows of Bobby's living room and bounces off the dust floating lazily through the air, sets it sparkling like minnow scales. His watch says it's 9:30, which is the latest he's slept in months, but he figures he's due, has been in nonstop motion for so long he can barely remember what it's like to stay still.
He rises and dresses quickly in the bright room, wrinkled t-shirt over even more-wrinkled jeans. The house is quiet, complacent, but he can hear the murmur of voices coming from down the hall; Sam is arguing, the rise-and-fall of his tones punctuated by the brief barks of Dean's laughter, so familiar even after all this time.
In the bathroom, John brushes his teeth at the small sink and spits a stream of red-tinged toothpaste into the yellowed basin. A length of what looks like old pipe has been drilled to the wall beside the toilet – recently, judging by the shine of the silver screws on the tarnished metal, and John stares at it for a moment, uncomprehending. Then he thinks maybe he understands, and feels his face color: with embarrassment or with anger, he doesn't know.
John goes back into the hall, follows the sound of voices to the door of the back porch and then pauses for a moment. His stomach is unsettled, throat tight with nerves, not sure what he's doing here, not sure if it was the right decision to come. Only knows that staying away would have been easier and he doesn't deserve easy.
He pushes the door open and steps out on the porch to find Sam and Dean sitting side-by-side on the dilapidated red couch, identical bowls of cereal held close under their chins as their spoons move steadily up-and-down.
"Mornin', sunshine," Dean says, and a cheerio falls out of his mouth.
John thumps down into the chair next to him. "Mornin' yourself. Where's Bobby?"
"In town," Dean says. "Doin' some maintenance on a busted Camero for some old rich dude who doesn't know how to take care of his shit."
John nods, squints out into the morning. It's late May and the sun is asserting its dominance over the windswept South Dakota plains, coaxing the grass from gold to green and heating the scrap metal in Bobby's junkyard 'til it shimmers, limned with light. The porch is south-facing, catches the full force of the warmth, and it feels good.
"Are you hungry?" Sam asks after a moment, hefts his bowl of cereal. "There's more where this came from. Or toast."
"Nah," John says, nudges his chin at the mugs he sees sitting on an old oak chest being used as a table. "Could go for some coffee, though."
"There's some inside," Dean says, and sets a hand to the arm of the couch.
"I can—" John starts, but Dean waves him down, pushing himself to his feet and reaching for his cane. His bad leg is rigid, something John noticed last night, and it occurs to him that he hasn't seen Dean bend the knee yet.
"Does he have some kind of – thing?" John asks when Dean disappears into the house.
Sam frowns uncertainly, and John gestures to his own leg. "To hold it straight?"
"Oh," Sam says, with the pursed-lipped face of someone who's giving out information that should already be known. "Yeah, he has a brace. It locks around his knee, keeps it still."
John nods, feigns understanding. He wants to ask more questions, but he doesn't know if it's his place – even though, christ, it's his goddamn son they're talking about. Time was he'd just demand full disclosure and both boys would hop to it, even if they didn't want to. But times have changed. Times have changed, and it's his damn fault.
"He's doing okay," Sam offers suddenly, tiredly, and John glances up.
"Well, besides the fact that his knee is screwed to hell." Sam shrugs spasmodically, lifts his chin as if inviting John to fight.
"You taken him to a doctor lately?" John asks, at a loss. He doesn't know what Sam wants from him, has never known what Sam wants from him.
Sam shakes his head and clanks his spoon against the rim of his cereal bowl. "I was kinda hoping you'd talk to him about that."
John snorts bitterly despite himself. "Doubt he'll listen to me."
Sam fixes him with a sharp gaze, looks like he's about to say something but falls silent as the door rattles from inside and Dean calls, "Little help, here?"
John half-rises from the chair and reaches out to tug the door open, and Dean catches and holds it with a shoulder. He edges carefully out onto the porch, the hand not clenched around his cane holding a cup of lukewarm coffee, upon which is balanced a plate of toast shining with butter. Dean hands them off to John before re-settling on the couch, lowering himself down with concentrated care.
"Thanks," John says, putting down the toast and blowing across the surface of the liquid out of habit.
"Microwave's busted," Dean says. "Else I would have heated that up."
"It's fine like this," John says.
There's silence, then, and John drinks his cooling coffee, eats the toast he hadn't realized he wanted. Dean shifts forward with a wince and works a ragged pouch of Top out of his back pocket, starts rolling a cigarette with neat precision, lip curling as he picks a fleck of tobacco from his tongue.
"Rollies, huh," John comments, just to say something.
"Cheaper," Dean points out. "And it takes more time." He shrugs, flicks his Zippo, and the paper catches and crackles.
"That your idea of cuttin' back?"
Dean doesn't answer, just takes a long drag and lets it out slow. The harsh scent isn't unpleasant in the warmth of the morning, and John remembers suddenly how he'd sit on damp, packed earth and watch Deacon roll cigarette after cigarette, sorting them between those packed with dope and those without. That yellow taste of smoke, hot as the Vietnam sun.
"So what's the plan?" Sam asks, startling him, though John was expecting the question. They'd skirted around any meaningful issues last night, keeping talk small and light and hunting-related, a few shared stories, comparing research. No talk of the future.
"The plan," he repeats.
"Why are you here?" Sam clarifies, and shoots a look at his brother, but Dean's face is impassive behind his wreath of smoke. John rubs his chin.
"Well," he says. "Well, let's consider the facts. You boys've been doing straight research for more than a month, stayin' with the Grand Duke of research himself."
He sees Dean half-smile at this description of Bobby, and he plunges forward, obscurely heartened. "Meanwhile I've been following every goddamn trail I could find, driving from one end of the country to another, and still we don't have shit. All we know is there's a demon out there that killed your mother, and your girl, Sammy, and another that knows our name and apparently has some kinda information on us."
Which isn't all John knows, but some things he's not ready to share just yet.
"Okay," Sam says. "So we're getting nowhere, and we're pretty much screwed. Not exactly a newsflash, Dad."
"I just figured," John says, ignoring his youngest's sharp-spined voice, "that since we sure as hell aren't having any luck apart, maybe we'd be better off together."
He waits but neither of his sons say anything, none of the I-told-you-so's he was expecting. Sam tightens his lips, and Dean reaches forward to tap his cigarette into the empty cereal bowl, ash peppering the leftover milk.
"We can try it out, anyway," John concludes lamely.
"So you're sticking around for a while?" Dean asks.
"For a while," John agrees, and is rewarded with a small grin. He's grateful but he doesn't quite understand, doesn't know why Dean still wants him around, and it unsettles something deep in his stomach, a strange combination of gratitude and disgust.
"You talked to Bobby about this?" Sam asks, still guarded, unsmiling. "This is his house."
"Yeah," John says, scratches the back of his neck. "Says I can stay so long as I earn my keep. Help out around the yard, fix some cars."
Dean nods. "That's what I've been doing."
Sam smirks a little. "Turns out not everyone can live off credit card scams. Some people have mortgages, and bills. Crazy, huh?"
John ignores him, ignores the uneasiness he feels at Sam's tone. Sam is harsher than he remembers, harsher even than the furious teenager who'd slammed his way out of their trailer four years ago. He seems bigger, too, taller, has replaced his former sulkiness with a kind of grim, controlled tension. It makes John nervous, how he can see his son growing older, filling out into – into what, John doesn't know. He doesn't want to think about what he does know, because it's purely theoretical at this point, bits and pieces of conjectured information, but looking at Sam he can't help but notice the flat, burnished pressure of his gaze. The intensity.
"Speaking of," Dean says, starts the climb to his feet. "We should probably get started. I'm workin' on the transmission of a Dodge Ranger, told Bobby I'd have it done by the time he came home. C'mon, I'll do what he did for me – show you around, point out what needs fixing, what's time-sensitive and what can wait, and you can start on whatever you want."
John nods and stands, glances at Sam, but Sam is staring into the distance, one huge hand covering the lower half of his face as he rests his chin in his palm.
"Sam's got other shit to do," Dean says gently, and nudges his father towards the door. "Let's go."
The tour takes nearly forty minutes. Dean leads him slowly but efficiently over the uneven ground of the yard, picking his way with a pair of goofy-looking crutches he'd swapped out for his cane at the front door. The crutches are mis-matched, one a darker wood than the other, and the lighter of the two has a green towel wrapped and tied where the armpit-padding should be.
"Bobby dug 'em up out of the basement," Dean had said when he'd noticed John looking. "Man's a regular pack-rat, you wouldn't believe some of the crap we found down there."
But standing before a decimated pile of what used to be gearshifts, John absolutely does believe it. Bobby's land is expansive, and nearly every inch is filled: scrap metal, half-rusted trucks, car seats set like benches between the rows of dented hoods and stacked tires. There's no method, either – a perfectly good Civic in need of a muffler is as likely to be parked in the garage as it is hidden behind the hopeless wreck of an ancient van.
"So, yeah," is Dean's wrap-up, once they're back at the house. "That's that. Maybe start on the Honda, see what you can get done."
"I'll be around back," Dean says, waves a vague hand. "Come and find me if you need anything."
Dean shifts his weight on the crutches, makes a clumsy half-turn before glancing back. "You all right?" he asks.
John raises his eyebrows. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"I dunno," Dean says, the hint of a smirk lifting his mouth. "You're bein' awfully… cooperative. Thought maybe you were comin' down with something."
That startles a laugh from him. "Get the hell outta here, Dean, before something comes down on you."
Dean grins, hitches a few steps backwards, and the heel of his bad leg drags a zigzag pattern in the dirt. It catches John's eye, that scuffed line etched by his son's boot, the tiny, dusty craters left by the tips of his crutches, and he wonders suddenly if the whole yard's marked-up like that, evidence of Dean's footsteps wearing a claim onto the land.
There's a cough, and John snaps his head up, realizes belatedly that Dean has followed his gaze. The grin is gone from his mouth, has been replaced by a tightness that closes his whole face down, shuts it off, and John curses inwardly. He wants to explain himself, or excuse himself, but he's not entirely certain what he's done.
"Tools are in the garage," Dean says, and turns away. This time he doesn't let the leg drag.
For the first few days, it's almost nice.
It's been a while since John's done this kind of work, and he's forgotten how soothing the details of machinery can be. It's easy for him to fall back into the mindset of a mechanic, all his senses tuned to the car under his hands, to the ping and sigh of the engine, the clank of metal against metal, the rich smell of oil – it soothes him, surrounds him, takes him away. The world of an engine is vast but very small, and John knows exactly how to fix the broken pieces.
He tries to lose himself, tries to ignore how his body hisses go go go, tries not to think about how he can't afford to take this time, how none of them can afford it, how there's so much out there besides cars that he ought to be fixing.
Dean and Sam and Bobby seem to have settled into a routine, and John does his best to fit in – he wakes when everyone else does, eats his breakfast crowded around Bobby's kitchen table or out on the porch, then heads into the yard with Dean as Bobby rumbles off in his pickup truck. Dean goes one way, he goes the other, and he's more or less alone with the cars until the evening. Sometimes Sam sticks around the house and sometimes he takes the Impala into town, comes back with armloads of books, a new theory for every day, a new set of data. After dinner they spread maps and charts out on the living room floor and compare notes, track patters: wildfires in Massachusetts, blackouts in Ohio, everything weaves together and beckons and teases and could be anything, could be nothing.
John tries to be patient – he does – but whatever he'd been expecting, being shunted out to do mechanical gruntwork wasn't on the list of possible scenarios. His boys seem to be doing better than they were five months ago in Lawrence, but there's a fine tremor of tension in the air at all times, and the semi-relaxed atmosphere feels a bit as if it's just for show, a façade that everyone keeps up unconsciously. Out in the junkyard, under yet another car, John can't help but feel as if he's stuck in some sort of interminable wax-on, wax-off scenario. As if this is some sort of test.
"It's not a goddamn test," Bobby scoffs on the third night, Dean outside for a cigarette and Sam upstairs in the shower.
John scowls and scuffs a hand across the kitchen table, chases a breadcrumb onto the floor. "I know that. It's just – jesus, the trail's running hotter than ever, and where am I? Sittin' on my ass in South Dakota, playing around with station wagons and compact cars."
"Nothin's keeping you here against your will," Bobby says, puts down the dish he was drying and picks up another, his face to the sink, back still to John. "The boys – they needed some time to rest, heal up, and I'm sure they appreciate your visit, but –"
"Goddammit, Bobby," John growls, fingers curling into fists. "Don't you play that holier-than-thou bullshit with me. They're my goddamn kids, not yours."
Bobby is quiet, and John grinds his teeth, wishes he could take it back but is perversely glad that he can't. Bobby's the closest thing to a friend that John has around – maybe the closest to a friend that he has period– but the truth yawns deep and dangerous between them: the fact that Bobby was there when John was not, and knows things that John doesn't know, maybe will never know.
Knows what Dean looked like when he first got out of the hospital; knows what meds he's taking, and how many times a day. Knows what Sam looked like when he was happy; knows when to joke with him and when to let him be. Knows why the strongest liquid in the house is vinegar, and knows why things fall so strangely silent when John says he needs a drink.
And christ, he needs a drink right now.
"They're yours," Bobby agrees finally, turning around. "But be that as it may – they came to me. And I'm glad to have 'em, when they're not bein' a pain in my ass. And even though I didn't sign on for this kinda fucked-up Brady Bunch b.s., I'm glad to have you here, too. The boys're glad. We're all freakin' overjoyed."
The corner of John's mouth quirks upward despite himself.
"Look," Bobby says, heaves a sigh and leans back against the counter, damp dishrag still in one hand. "All I'm saying is – hell, I don't know what I'm saying. You gotta do what you gotta do, John. That's what I'm sayin'. And if you gotta be here – then be here. And if you have to be somewhere else – be there."
There's a silence, and then John mutters, "Always goin' fuckin' Yoda on me."
Bobby snorts a laugh and shakes his head. "Yoda, I ain't. I'm just tellin' you things the way I see them."
"Don't mention it."
Bobby turns the faucet back on and begins to rinse the few glasses and forks left in the sink, and John shifts, suddenly so claustrophobic he feels like he could extend both arms and break through the walls. Maybe tomorrow he'll ride into town with Sam, pick up a case of beer, or a bottle of Jack, something, because this is ridiculous. Whether Bobby's on some kind of diet, or they're tiptoeing around because Dean can't mix his pills and liquor, or whether it's something else – John doesn't care. Maybe he'd care if anyone would bother telling him anything, which they don't, but as it stands, he would just about kill for a cold beer. Take the edge off, that sharp, furious edge that keeps jabbing his chest and won't let him alone.
He wants to think about Bobby's words – is already mulling them over, in the back of his mind – but he's still too pissed-off and jumpy, the air still too tense, and his mind's already racing forward.
"Here," Bobby says suddenly, and he breaks from the sink to move to a kitchen cabinet, takes out a labelless jam jar with a layer of white pills on the bottom. He shakes a few into his hand and offers them to John. "Why don't you go and take these out to Dean."
John looks at him for a long moment, then goes to fill a glass of water. He doesn't want to ask, hates that he has to ask, but he's sick and tired of being kept in the dark. "What are they?"
"Vicodin," Bobby says.
"How often does he take them?" He's seen the pills stashed all around the house, in jars and in Ziploc bags and in pharmaceutical bottles lining the cabinet in the upstairs bathroom, but he hasn't been able to figure out a schedule.
"Every five hours or so. Been around six, so he'll probably be wantin' for 'em right about now."
John nods, holds out his palm for the pills and watches as Bobby drops them in. He's a hunter and he's been trained in rituals, and he can't help but read them into everything, can't help but feel as if he's partaking in one right now. Or maybe it's just that he wishes he were.
Outside, Dean is sprawled across the couch, bad leg propped up on the oak chest, ashtray balanced on his good knee. His head's tilted back, eyes shut, and John would think he were asleep if it weren't for the slow movement of his hand to his mouth.
The door bangs softly behind John as he comes out into the cool night air, and Dean takes his time easing his eyes open, sliding them to his father. In the mellow light of the porch his skin is moth-pale, the hollows of his cheekbones dark, and John is struck, not for the first time, by how unsettlingly young he looks. He's not as thin as he was five months ago in Lawrence, has put on muscle, most of it in his shoulders and his arms – probably from the crutches, John figures, or maybe some extra PT – but he's still down about fifteen pounds. It's been said that pain ages a person, and it's true there are new furrows in Dean's brow and sketched around his mouth, but at the moment he looks all of seventeen, and not twenty-seven. It's Sam who's aged.
"You talk to Sam about the maps he got in today?" Dean asks after a moment.
"Not yet. He disappeared upstairs with them before I had a chance to take a look."
"Sneaky bastard," Dean says, levering himself up slowly, a grimace chasing itself across his face. John holds out the water and the meds and Dean raises his eyebrows in surprise.
"Bobby said you're due."
"Yeah," Dean says, stubs his cigarette decisively in the ashtray and reaches over. "Thanks."
John settles into the armchair, watches Dean swallow the pills and lean back. There are signs, he thinks, signs that he should know, that Sam probably knows and Bobby too – Dean's lips are tighter than usual and his movements are cautious, one hand settled low across his bad hip, fingers pressed in just a little.
"Think I might go into town tomorrow," John says. "Stretch my legs, get a drink."
"Yeah?" Dean says, flicking open his pouch of tobacco and taking out a pack of papers. "I could go for that. God, beer. Real beer."
John doesn't answer, lets that settle. So Dean's meds aren't the reason for the absence of alcohol. He thinks maybe he knew that.
"We could take the Impala," Dean suggests, fingers busy rolling a filter out of a strip of white cardboard. "She hasn't been out in a while."
"Only if I can drive."
Dean shrugs, eyes focused on his cigarette. "Sure. I don't drive much, these days."
It seems like the time, so John asks, "You seen a doctor recently?"
Dean shrugs again, licks the paper closed and hisses his Zippo to life, takes a long drag and sighs out a contended grey haze. John watches him, suddenly wants a cigarette so bad his mouth waters. It's been almost twenty years since he last smoked, but the memory is fresh.
"You want one?" Dean asks, noticing his gaze, and his tone is only half-joking.
"No," John says, going for revulsion and failing.
Dean grins, eyebrows high. "You know if I rolled you one, you'd forfeit your right to bitch at me about smoking forever."
Dean takes another long drag, frowns down at his hands. "This shit may be cheaper, but it tastes like ass and it's turning my hands yellow."
"Your teeth aren't lookin' too pearly either."
Dean snorts but he rubs his tongue over his teeth and scowls. John was lying – Dean's teeth are as bright as ever, but it's only a matter of time.
"I am cutting back," Dean says a second later. "I did cut back. It's a process."
John's about to make another snide remark when the door bangs open and Sam comes out, shoulders tense and squared around his ears.
"What?" Dean says, immediately alert.
"You have to come see something," Sam says without preamble. "C'mon."
John glances at Dean, but Dean's already struggling to his feet, jaw tight and wincing as he reaches for his cane. Sam reaches out a hand to his elbow to steady him, and John's stomach does a strange flip when he sees that Dean doesn't brush him off, just leans on him as he gets his balance and starts for the door. He'd push John away. John is sure of it.
Sam leads them into the living room, where he's spread a map out on the floor, a large sheet of tracing paper over it. There's a series of small, drawn ovals connected by dashed lines, and it doesn't mean anything to John, Dean either, judging by the way he frowns in confusion and fumbles for the arm of the couch, lowers himself down.
"What is this?" John demands.
"Map of the county," Sam says. "These," he trails a finger along the dashed lines, "are roads, mostly back-roads, whose lights have lost power in the last week. We were talking about that car wreck last night, remember?"
"And these," Sam says, hand coming to rest above one of the ovals, "are indicative of suspicious fires. A schoolhouse, here. A hardware store here."
"And," Sam says, leads his father's gaze along a series dashed highway lines, and jabs a finger. "That's the epicenter. Everything's circling around that."
John squints, and for a moment the location doesn't make sense. And then it does.
"It's Bobby's junkyard," Dean supplies. "It's circling around us."
to be continued…