A/N: First to Rhesa - I would apologize for aiding in your Simon & Simon re-love, but that would imply I feel remorse and I so don't. Thank you for the review! (If you're in the States a certain site I can't seem to name here hulu dot com some full episodes up...) Second, awww, it's over. I usually want to shove a fic into a dark corner by the time I'm done with it, but this one defies that MO. I still want to hug it to pieces. :)
This chapter's kind of long. I thought about splitting it for you, but considering I am jetting out of town and won't have internets access for a few days... Bear that last bit in mind if you review and are met with silence. You haven't gone into a black hole. Enough rambling! Thank you all for sticking with me, and again thanks to LdyAnne for her sharp eye and guidance.
Don't Judge a Book
Rick knew something was wrong the second AJ asked for him. He also knew whatever it was, was bad enough for AJ not to think about what he was doing. AJ should have known John wouldn't let Rick near the phone. Though, the last time their office phone had rung, AJ had been getting the life squeezed out of him; he probably didn't remember John's tendency to call "hands off" on the phone. Still, logic dictated that the guy who'd kidnapped them, forced them into a poltergeist fight and generally manhandled them all night might clue AJ in that he should watch himself.
"What do you mean they're gone?" John said.
The anger in John's voice only confirmed AJ hadn't censored himself. So did the glare, the clenched jaw and the handgun now aimed square at Rick's abdomen. Two minutes ago, Rick had entertained serious thoughts of overpowering John; he knew with AJ out of the mix he was much better equipped to take out the guy. Now, he'd lost his chance. And Rick didn't like the implication in John's angry question. He had something at stake here now, which would have been bad enough before he knew things that went bump in the night actually did go bump in the night.
"Don't move, and don't touch a thing. I mean it." John slammed the phone so hard it gave a disgruntled jangle. His eyes were dark with fury.
"What's going on?" Rick asked.
"They're gone. My boys are gone and you …" John clenched his jaw, then took several deep breaths. Anger still bled off the guy, but he was gathering himself quickly. There was franticness about him, though. "Never mind, I need to get there."
Before Rick could say or do anything, John stalked out of the office. Without him. Without pressing the muzzle of a gun against Rick's spinal column. That should have been a welcome relief from John's customary MO, but it worried at Rick's gut. The door, flung hard, bounced on the hinges and slammed shut with a rattle. For a moment, Rick stood motionless, not certain if he really wanted to follow. The terrifying thought that John knew where he was going, already knew the location of Mom's house, got him going. But Mom wasn't there. Oh shit, Mom.
Besides the obvious need to find his mother, even though John hadn't blown a hole in him he might not afford that luxury to AJ, who'd been the whipping boy all damned night. He already knew what John was willing to do – he'd seen murder in the other man's eyes multiple times – and that was something Rick could not let happen. John's control was tenuous, and it had been slipping even more since the confusing fiasco at the Sanchez house.
If there'd been any doubt in Rick's mind that John loved his sons beyond reason, it would have been erased just now. The guy who ran from the office in a near-blind panic was not the same guy who'd laid in wait for him and AJ hours before. Desperate people did desperate things. He knew that lesson before tonight, but somehow it seemed more real when personified by this man whose last name he didn't even know. Based on the limited information he had swirling in his head, he wasn't sure he wouldn't have made the exact same choices John had.
What the hell was he doing, standing there ruminating?
"Hey," Rick called as he lunged for the door.
He knew John was probably already on the elevator, beyond earshot. When he made it out into the hall, it was empty. Rick took the stairs down two at a time in bounding, barely controlled leaps. The last thing he wanted was to be left behind while John raced to his mother's house, whether or not his mother was there. Oh shit, maybe something had happened to Mom and the boys. Or maybe Mom was hurt or dead and the boys were gone. He nearly lost his footing.
Rick got to the ground floor just in time to see the front door swinging shut. It was only when he exited the building himself and saw John standing at the driver's side of the Impala that he remembered he had the keys. It was also when it seemed John was recovering that hardened son-of-a-bitch persona, judging from the way the gun was pointed at Rick again, with an unwavering hand. No wonder the guy was wired so tight, though Rick suspected he himself understanding John even a little would do nothing to stop a bullet from slicing through his liver.
"Give me the keys."
"No," Rick said. "I'm drivin'."
"This has gone beyond just needing my boys back," John said. "What if … I think something's got 'em."
But Rick didn't know. Not more than the tip of a very large iceberg and he was beginning to believe he didn't want to know more than that. What he wanted was for the tip of that iceberg to melt away, disappear before his very eyes. Unfortunately, he had a feeling what he wanted was not what he was going to get. Jesus, Mom. He and AJ should have never involved her in this. It was no excuse that they didn't know what this was at the time.
"Besides, I know where we're going. You want to get lost and waste minutes you might not have, or you want to let me help?"
Help. Yes, that was exactly what he and AJ had done all night. Held at gunpoint and forced into unreasonable, insane situations. That was the kind of helpful guys they were. Never mind. He wouldn't call every single thing that had gone down tonight bygones, but he had to prioritize. The only thing that mattered was getting to Mom's. Finding Mom, and those two little boys who had thrown him for a complete loop before he knew poltergeists were real and that not all things were as they first seemed, that was the important thing. For the first time, he wanted to lend a hand.
He watched as John opened the door, slid behind the wheel and kept sliding until he was in the passenger seat. Rick was in no way surprised when the gun was still at the ready when he reached the car himself. The guy wasn't going to shoot him mid-trip, so he did his best to ignore the threat. The horrible, sick feeling roiling through his belly when he thought about what might have happened to Mom was bad enough to keep him tight like a drum. He wondered, briefly, if this feeling was even a fraction of what John felt every day.
It wasn't a happy thought.
The buildings and street signs seemed to blur. Rick drove by memory, on automatic pilot because his mind was only on speed. He wanted to get to Mom's in record time. Rush hour morning traffic was easily avoided by taking back routes and side streets, so he was making good time. Beside him, John remained a silent, ominous passenger. Rick was glad he didn't know the specifics of John's world, the things he might be imagining with unerring clarity and experience had happened to his boys.
All Rick's mind could conjure in regards to the supernatural were images of Boris Karloff and Linda Blair's head spinning around, and those things were too manufactured to be believable. The only experience he had was the maybe-ghost from a few years back at the Hotel de Coronado, which he was more inclined to believe in all of a sudden, and the poltergeist tonight. Both capable of causing physical harm, but not likely to make people disappear. Still, he didn't much like the thought of his mom being terrorized by some invisible monster any more than he wanted to think werewolves might be real.
It couldn't have been more than a fifteen minute drive, but to Rick it seemed like he'd driven cross country when he finally screeched the vintage Impala to a halt behind his truck. He was about a foot from the curb and crooked as all hell, but he didn't care as he jumped from the vehicle and ran up the sidewalk. John was hot on his heels. Rick didn't knock on the door, opting instead to barge in.
"AJ?" he called.
"We're in here," AJ said.
From a distance, his brother still managed to sound embarrassed. Rick wondered what that was about, but more to the point he latched onto the word we. Rick took a step toward the kitchen, where his brother's voice had come from. AJ had said we. He heard another soft voice. Before he took another step, he grabbed John's arm in the first offensive maneuver he'd managed throughout their entire acquaintance and it was, more accurately, defensive.
"He said we." Rick gestured to the gun in John's hand, aimed at the floor instead of him. "What do you say you put that thing away? We don't need any accidents."
John looked as though he'd just as soon clock Rick one, but he did jam the gun into the back of his waistband. Then he tromped forward, taking the point position.
Fair enough. John had two people he was worried about, and Rick could already hear his mother's quiet, almost chiding voice more clearly. He needed a moment to make his legs start working again; relief had the strange effect of turning his muscles to Jell-o. No monster had dragged his mother off, or done something worse he didn't even want to give a name to. He didn't allow more than a few seconds to pull himself together. With several long strides, he was shoulder to shoulder with John again. They entered the kitchen simultaneously.
"Mom, you're okay," he said, sounding surprised though he'd already figured out she was.
His greeting was mostly drowned out by John's booming mantra of, "Where are my boys?"
For a moment, Cecilia and AJ both stared open-mouthed at them. Not surprised, more like they were trying to process and sort what he and John had said. And, Rick noticed, his family was the only one in the kitchen. He was glad to see Mom, but confused as all hell, and worried about Dean and Sammy and, more immediately, John.
"Of course I'm okay," she said, like Rick had said the dumbest thing in the world. Then she blushed and looked at John. "You must be Dean and Sammy's father."
Rick snagged John's arm again, held fast to it. He could feel the guy shaking, every muscle tense with the worry and frustration pent up for hours. The last person he wanted John to unleash on was his mother. John's attention, he noted, was actually on the plates of waffle remnants set on the kitchen table. Something in John's face made Rick's heart ache, and he couldn't say exactly why. Funny, he'd had that feeling more in the last nine or so hours than he had for years.
"Wait a minute, John," Rick said. "I know there's bound to be a story here. Mom? AJ?"
"I'll make this short, because - and I'm sorry –, " Cecilia said as she looked again at John. "Your boys aren't here. I don't know where they are."
"Dean locked her upstairs in your old room," AJ said, his expression one Rick would normally have found funny. "She didn't hear when I called for her, and I, uh, didn't think to look upstairs. My mind was on … other possibilities."
"We'll talk about that later, AJ," Rick said, darting a look at his mother.
AJ had not had a great night. Once John had him that first time, Rick suspected his kid brother hadn't fully caught up. It was hard to be at the level Rick knew AJ was normally, when dazed and confused.
"When I couldn't get out, I lay down for a moment and fell right asleep. That's not your fault, AJ." Cecilia patted AJ's arm. "I'm not used to staying up all night."
John shifted between his feet, clearly getting angrier rather than calmer. Rick kept his hold on him firm, thought about disarming the guy. He shot AJ a warning glance.
"The best we can figure, Dean took the little one and ran," AJ said. "I tried calling the office to let you know, but you'd already left."
"Your Dean is …" Cecilia paused, eyebrows furrowed as she sought the right word. "…resourceful. He tried to escape earlier by jumping out the ground floor bathroom window and almost succeeded. I didn't expect him to try again after I showed I was on to him. I sure didn't expect him to know how to jam a lock from the outside."
"They ran away?" Rick asked. He was a little dumbfounded. He'd expected blood and gore and monsters, and what he got instead was something very ordinary. "Just … ran away."
"There's nothing just about either of those boys," Cecilia said wryly. "You've forgotten about your split lip and warnings you gave me earlier. You were convinced Dean was the second coming, if I recall. And I see you've got more injuries. I think there's something you and AJ need to tell me later."
Rick noticed John had stopped shaking. He stood stock still, utter concentration hardening his features. Or maybe that was anger. It was tough to tell with a guy like John. Either way, the look wasn't directed at Cecilia Simon, but at the wall just behind her.
"It was the strangest thing, though." Cecilia chewed on her lip for a moment, brushed a stray hair from her eyes. "I was telling AJ the boys seemed fine. Dean was scared, of course, but he was behaving, and Sammy's just a darling. They were okay until I got a visit from an Avon lady. She wasn't my usual gal, and it was odd that she called on the house so early in the morning. After I assured her I didn't need anything and she left, Dean got real skittish. That's when he made up some story to get me upstairs – he said he wanted a toy for his brother."
Now that was the Dean that Rick had already come to expect. He almost laughed, except John lurched from his grasp and reached for Cecilia. His movement wasn't violent, just sudden. He watched as AJ blocked his advance bodily.
"Whoa," AJ said, and raised his good arm. "You don't touch my mother."
Déjà vu, sort of.
"Lady? What did she look like? Did she exhibit any strange behavior?" John rattled off the list of questions with barely a breath. He made no more moves toward Cecilia, though AJ didn't seem to be his deterrent. "Did your lights flicker on and off? Anything unusual?"
"Unusual? No…uh, actually now that you mention it, she kept looking over my shoulder and inhaling deeply. Like she smelled something. I don't think it was the waffles."
"Sammy," John whispered. "I knew it."
"Oh," Cecilia said. "There's one other thing. When Dean locked me in Rick's room, he said he was sorry but he had to steal money from my purse. That he had to get Sammy somewhere safe. Maybe that means more to you…?"
"I know where Dean would try to go," John said, ignoring Cecilia's hint for a name.
John spun on his heels and took off for the front door at a dead run.
The three Simons stared at each other for a blink, then Rick and AJ started moving. Cecilia looked bewildered as she trailed after them.
"John," Rick shouted at the fleeing man, who was already at the Impala. "Where?"
He didn't expect an answer. He didn't get one from John. What response there was came from the car, as its engine roared to life. John peeled away from the curb, not giving them so much as a sidelong glance.
"I'm following him. Keys, AJ," Rick barked. He was too far in this to let it go now. His instinct told him that they'd never see their three mysterious visitors again, and he had to know the boys were all right.
"You? We," AJ said. "Keys are in the ignition."
Their mother was already sitting in the truck, slid to the middle of the bench seat. Rick wanted to order her out, but the stubborn set to her jaw and a need to catch John before he got too far away prevented him from it.
"Hold on, Mom," he said instead, and rocketed the Power Wagon in pursuit.
It wasn't hard to keep John in sight. The guy didn't know San Diego and, despite driving like a bat out of hell, the car was a standout. To keep up, he drove a tad more recklessly than he would have normally. Several times, he saw out of the corner of his eye that AJ had to wrap his injured arm around to Mom to keep her from flying about. Both of them would probably delight in lecturing him later. He did slow down when he noticed a slight grimace of pain, not annoyance, on AJ's pale face. Next on the list of things to do: get AJ to the emergency room without upsetting Mom.
Rick didn't know when he started to figure out where they were going, or if it was even a conscious thought. Suddenly, landmarks and buildings looked familiar.
"Rick, is this…?" AJ said.
"Yeah, we're going back to the beginning," Rick muttered.
Sure enough, John had led them straight to the Dolphin Motel and Rick wished he had insisted Mom get out of the truck back at her house. It wasn't like she'd be unprotected, but the thought of his mother in such a seedy place was nearly as bad as finding two little boys there. By the time he, AJ and their mother had their feet on the ground, John was at a door just off the manager's office
"Dean," John said. He didn't kick the door in. He didn't pound on it. He just pressed his forehead against it. "Son, it's me. Open the door for me."
Rick found himself leaning forward, but reluctant to actually encroach on John's space. This was where Dean must have been trying to get when he and AJ found him and Sammy in the room. Poor kid, he'd gone the wrong way. Rick turned slightly to view the ice bin, across the courtyard. A small, gruff voice pulled his attention back.
"Dad?" Dean asked.
"It's okay now, Dean." John crouched. "Open on up."
A click and a scrape, and a freckled face poked out of the door. Sheer relief filled Dean's expression and he threw himself in his father's arms.
"Daddeeeee," Sammy said as he toddled from the confines of the housekeeping closet. "We hide. We win?"
John choked out a laugh, uncurling an arm from around Dean to scoop Sammy close.
"You sure did, Sammy," John said. "You won."
"Yay!" Sammy's voice was muffled, his face pressed into John's shoulder.
Rick was pretty sure his mom was going to melt in a puddle right there on the sidewalk. Okay, so he wasn't exactly unaffected by the emotional family reunion himself, and AJ had that kind of constipated expression he got when he was uncomfortable with what he was feeling. Which was quite a bit different than the other constipated expressions he pulled. It was a real sunshine and roses moment, until Dean noticed them.
"Dad, I'm sorry," the boy said, words hurried. "I didn't want to go with them. I tried to … and then this morning, there was something bad at the door, I know she was a bad thing, Sammy didn't like her at all and I knew I had to keep Sammy safe like you said."
John stood, Sammy in one arm and with his other hand on Dean's shoulder. He glanced at the Simons, then back to his son.
"We'll talk about it later, Dean," John said.
A warning bell rang in Rick's head. The guy couldn't possibly blame a six-year-old for what had gone down, but the way he sounded…. Rick didn't want to believe it, but he felt uneasy around John again. He hadn't realized he'd stopped being uneasy. Or maybe his unease was because Dean, tough, spunky, all-attitude Dean, had started sounding like a little boy just now, not six-going-on-twenty, and more scared than he'd ever sounded in front of him or AJ.
"Hey, little man. You did just fine." He crouched again, tilted Dean's chin up. "Now take your brother to the car." John set Sammy down, and the toddler grabbed his brother's hand instantly. "I'll be there in a minute."
Dean caught Rick looking at him, and in a snap had his game face back on. He calmly switched hands and shifted so Sammy was on the far side from the Simons. He frowned, but underneath the mask of irritation there was a still a scared boy.
"Nice … hat," Dean said to Rick in a way that indicated he did not think the hat was nice. Then he transferred his attention to Cecilia, and pulled something from a pocket with his free hand. He shoved a fistful of cash at her. "I'm not sorry I tricked you, because I hadta. I only needed twenty bucks for a taxi."
"It's okay," Mom said, confused but somehow knowing what to say, "It's okay, sweetheart."
Dean gave her a lopsided smile.
"And I want you to know you make really great waffles."
"Waffles yum," Sam said in total agreement. He had syrup in his hair.
"Dean," John said. "You and your brother get goin' now."
Shit. Rick didn't know if they were doing the right thing, letting John ride off with these boys. He'd probably always wonder. He thought back to the Sanchezes, what might have happened to them without John's intervention. He thought of the fierceness of John's dedication to his sons and their safety, often manifested in unfortunate ways but there nonetheless. Those things had to count for something.
"What now?" AJ said.
His brother sounded every bit like his thoughts matched Rick's. They probably did. For all their differences, he and AJ weren't that far apart when it came to it. Even if AJ was from another planet on every day that ended with Y.
"Well, Country Club, now we leave and you go on with your lives," John said. "Just, be safe."
That was as much of a thank you as they were going to get. The hard edges that made up John were still there, Rick noted, unyielding as ever. But John was different at the same time. His eyes were softer, especially in his frequent glances toward his boys. Somewhere deep down, John was a good man. Rick had to believe that. He held out a hand, his way of wishing the guy well.
John took it, his grip firm, the handshake fast. Then John pulled a duffel bag out of the salt-lined, glyph-tagged closet and walked to the car. Once again, he didn't look back.
As the car pulled away, Rick swore he saw Dean flipping him the bird from the backseat while his baby brother pressed his forehead against the glass and gave them a dimpled grin and a clumsy wave. He hoped the little rugrats had true happiness someday, a real roof over their heads and no more monsters after them.
"I don't understand what just happened," Mom said after a moment. She lifted her hand and stared at the crumpled bills.
"You know that adage about not judging a book by its cover, Mom?" AJ said. "Turns out there was a monster in the story we were reading, but it wasn't the one we thought. At least I hope not."
"That tells me nothing and you know it, Andrew Jackson Simon."
Mom had a very good point.