Author: Dodger Winslow
Challenge: Bat out of Kansas Ficathon
Prompt: When the day is done, and the sun goes down, and the moonlight shines through; then like a sinner before the gates of heaven, I’ll come crawling back to you.
Word Count: 5,500
Rating: PG-13 for language
Spoilers: No Exit
Disclaimer: I’m don’t own the boys, I’m just stalking them for a while.
Summary: Ellen Harvelle was the last person John expected to see when he looked through the peephole in his front door, one hand on the grip of the nine mil he habitually kept silver-loaded and stashed at the ready in the small of his back. He hadn’t seen her in almost four years. He hadn’t thought he would ever see her again.
The Difference Between Night and Dark
When the day is done,
And the sun goes down
And the moonlight shines through;
Then like a sinner before the gates of heaven,
I’ll come crawling back to you.
Ellen Harvelle was the last person John expected to see when he looked through the peephole in his front door, one hand on the grip of the nine mil he habitually kept silver-loaded and stashed at the ready in the small of his back. He hadn’t seen her in almost four years. He hadn’t thought he would ever see her again.
She was standing on the porch, lit by moonlight, arms wrapped around herself like she was cold. Leaving the gun where it was, John opened the door.
She spoke first, her voice low and calm. "Hello, John. It’s been a while."
"What can I do for you, Ellen?" he returned.
"I want to come in."
"My boys are here. They’re asleep in their rooms, and I’m not going to wake them up to cover ground we’ve already covered."
He wasn’t turning her away; he was warning her, stating the ground rules, giving her the choice to play by those rules or leave. Her answer was calm, level, immediate: "I’m not looking to cause you trouble. All I’m looking for is a little face time."
John wasn’t sure he believed her. He studied her for several long seconds, trying to read the truth or a lie in her eyes; but she showed him nothing. She’d always been a hell of a card player; much better than Bill had ever been.
"All right," he said finally, stepping aside to let her through.
She walked in, brushing against him as she passed. He remembered the smell of her hair, how much it reminded him of Mary. Not the specific scent of it so much as the way a woman’s sensibilities tapped into a deeper, more comprehensive context of how Mary had been. Warm. Alive. Real. Tangible. Those aspects of Ellen had been part of the Roadhouse’s draw from the beginning, part of what kept him coming back as much as, if not more than, the gratifying indulgence of adult companionship, the morale and strategic advantage of sharing a sense of community with others who understood how the world worked.
More than anything else, the way Ellen was — the smell of her, the look of her, the way she talked, the way she laughed — afforded him the almost forgotten comfort of being home.
Of having a home.
John closed the door behind her, locking it before he turned to watch Ellen make her way to his couch. She didn’t need a specific invitation or small talk to red carpet the way. She didn’t wait for him to join her before sitting, didn’t require him to walk with her to know where they were going, or how they would end up.
The last thing he wanted was to have her here; but she was, so he couldn’t do much about it short of turning her away into the night. And he wasn’t willing to do that. Not yet. Not unless he had to.
He left her alone in the living room to walk down the hallway, close Sam’s door first, then move on to Dean’s. The moment he laid a hand on the doorknob, Dean rolled over in bed, his eyes alert even as they opened, his posture already set to ready as he pushed up on one elbow and asked. "What is it? Is everything okay?"
"Everything’s fine. Go back to sleep."
Dean blinked once, then asked, "Who’s here?"
"Just an old friend."
"Did she know mom?"
John smiled a little. From the deepest sleep to an instant awareness that identified not only the presence of a stranger in the house, but also that stranger’s gender. He’d likely already assimilated ten or fifteen other relevant details as well … details as of yet unrevealed simply because any questions he might have concerning them had already been asked and answered within the context of his own, internal threat assessment protocols.
Had John been gone — hunting or otherwise occupied — or even sleeping instead of watching TV in the living room, Ellen would have never made it to the front door before Dean was on his feet and moving, armed and ready to act. It was only the quiet drone of background noise identifying John as the Winchester on guard that allowed Dean’s instincts to slip below his habitual threshold of vigilance. It was only an awareness he didn’t need to respond to changes of environment his senses registered that gave those senses permission to fail to wake him at the slam of a car door or a knock and the sound of a stranger’s voice, even as those same senses roused him to an instant alert the moment John did anything to imply he might need help, might require Dean awake rather than sleeping off the residual exhaustion of a three-day hunt.
"No," John said gently. "She never did." Then, because there were a hundred questions in his son’s eyes he wouldn’t actually ask, John added, "I used to hunt with her husband. He’s gone now, and she needs to talk."
Dean nodded, accepting that as an answer. "Okay." He laid back down. "Goodnight, Dad."
John closed the door, then rejoined Ellen in the living room. He took a chair rather than sitting beside her on the couch. She smiled a little, but he wasn’t sure if it was appreciation or wry amusement at his expense.
"I’ll spare you the pain of small talk," she said, clarifying her expression as bitterness mixed with understanding, and perhaps a little regret. "I want to know what really happened."
"I told you what happened," John reminded her.
"I’m not stupid, John. Don’t treat me like I am."
He sat back in his chair to put more distance between them. Rather than answering the question she put to the table as her reason for finding him after all these years, he asked, "How’s Jo?"
"She misses her father."
This time, it was John who smiled the bitter, smiled the regret. "Yeah. I imagine she does."
His response seemed to shame her a little, which wasn’t his intention, so she added, "She misses you, too." It might have been an apology for the low blow of answering him that way, or it might have simply been her telling him the truth. It was hard to tell with Ellen. She wasn’t much for letting what she thought show enough to be read unless she wanted it read.
As much as Bill Harvelle had been an open book to anyone and everyone, Ellen had always been a closed one. Not just to John, but to everyone. Everyone except Bill.
"How are your boys?" she asked when he didn’t comment.
"Still alive," John said, then regretted saying it the same way she might have regretted telling him Jo suffered the loss of a man he’d killed. Unlike Ellen, however, John offered nothing to soften the moment. He let it stay hard and cold, hoping as much would encourage her to tell him why she came so they could deal with it, be done with it, and she could leave.
"So are you going to tell me what really happened or not?" she asked after several seconds of strained silence between them.
"I told you what happened," he repeated.
"Fine." She stood, looked at him in a way that hurt twice as much as anything she’d yet said. "I should have known better than to expect anything more from you, I suppose."
He stood, too. "Yeah," he agreed calmly. "I suppose you probably should have."
He walked with her to the door, was reaching around her to open it when she asked, "Did he do it to himself, John? Will you at least tell me that much?"
He met her eyes, lied to her the same way he’d lied four years ago. "It was my fault. I fucked up, jumped the gun, and he’s the one who paid the price." He hesitated, then forced his tone hard to add, "Do you want me to put that down in writing or something? Maybe sign it in blood so you can let it go and move on?"
He expected her to slap him. She slugged him, instead. There was enough power behind the blow to knock him off balance, rock him back on his heels, forcing a two-step retreat just to keep from falling on his ass.
He rubbed at his jaw, cracking it before he asked, "Feel better?"
"Guess you should have taken your one free shot to a different location then. Wouldn’t suggest you going to the well twice."
She tried to slug him again, the left hook coming fast and hard; but he knew it was in the offing this time, so he avoid it with a simple shift of his shoulders. When it skimmed by rather than connecting the way she intended, the momentum of the follow through pulled Ellen off balance. She stumbled, fell into him. He caught her and put her back on her feet.
Her face was no more than six inches from his, her knee no farther than that from his groin, when he said, "Pushing it, Ellen. I’m only going to pay the toll for so long before the road closes and I put you to the asphalt hard."
This time, he expected her to hit him low, to try and hurt him badly enough he’d remember it for weeks when he pissed. He was prepared to deflect it enough to keep from leaving his sons vulnerable while he recovered, prepared to fail at deflecting it enough to let her get the satisfaction she was looking for, let her feel like a little agony cutting through his body was at least some small down-payment on what he owed her.
What he didn’t expect was for her to kiss him.
He wasn’t prepared to defend against her slipping one hand behind his neck and pulling him down as she stretched up, their lips meeting in the middle, her mouth fire against his, her body too soft in how it pressed against him, fitting in a way it shouldn’t have fit. He jerked back from the assault, shoving her off him by putting the heel of one hand harder to her gut than he intended. She slammed against the door. It rattled with the force of the contact, and she winced. Her expression dazed up for a moment as she gasped to recover the air his hand knocked away.
"What the fuck was that for?" John demanded rather than apologizing for an instinctive retaliation he wouldn’t have indulged if it had occurred to him for even a moment to expect her tongue and her teeth rather a well-placed knee to the nuts.
She was still struggling a little to catch her breath when she said, "We used to be family once."
"Fucked up idea you’ve got of family there, Harvelle," he snapped, embarrassed now, as well as angry. She stepped into his space again; and he retreated, putting a buffer of air between their bodies. "Keep your God damned hands to yourself," he warned. It was hard to keep from showing how angry he was. How surprised. How caught off guard. "And your mouth, too. And any other part of your anatomy you might be thinking about pushing up against me to an effect that is not the one you’re looking for, trust me."
"You have no idea what I’m looking for," Ellen said grimly.
"I have a better idea now than I did five minutes ago," he countered. "You need to go. Just leave. Go outside, get in your car, and drive the fuck away from here before things get any uglier than they already are."
She stepped in close again despite his warning to keep her distance. He didn’t retreat this time, stood his ground even though it meant allowing their bodies to remain within touching distance if either one of them moved at all. She reached out, laid one hand flat against his stomach. His gut jumped at her touch. She responded by pressing her fingers deeper into his shirt, harder against his skin.
"Tell me what really happened," she said a third time.
He was all angles and anger, the muscles in his jaw jumping with the effort it took not to shove her off him again. His hands trembled, wanting to grab her by the shoulders, wanting to slam her back into the door again, but harder this time, hard enough to make her believe him when he said he wasn’t fucking around; that he not only didn’t want what she was offering, he wouldn’t tolerate it.
"He was bait," John ground out between clenched teeth. "I jumped the gun. It took his guts out, but left him alive enough to die in agony. I shot him in the head to keep that from happening. Now get the fuck off me and get out of here before any leniency that mistake bought you expires, Ellen."
She stared at him for several moments, trying to read the lies in his eyes, trying to find some truth behind them he wasn’t ever going to let her have. He thought she might hit him again, but she didn’t. Instead, she laid her face against him, closed her eyes to listen to the thunder of his heart jumping erratically in his chest, telling her more about what he was feeling than even the cold hard of his skin did.
"Hold me, John," she whispered. "Please. Just for a moment. I know you don’t want to, but I need you right now. I need you to put your arms around me and hold on. Just hold on long enough for me to find my feet again, okay? Just long enough for me to get it together so I can leave you alone. And I promise I will, John. I promise I’ll leave you alone. But just hold me for a moment first. Just put your arms around me and hold on."
It hurt to do what she wanted — what she needed — but he did. He owed her that. He owed her more, but he couldn’t pay what he owed, so he paid what she asked. He didn’t want to, but he could, so he did. But only because she asked.
Slipping both arms around Ellen’s shoulders, he exerted only enough pressure with the embrace to let her know he was doing what she asked. She responded by sliding her arms around his waist, holding on to him more tightly than he was holding on to her. He kept his body hard to her touch, but she relaxed into him anyway. Her spine went soft as she let go, her shoulders slumping to round in his arms, her knees surrendering enough autonomy to lean against him rather than supporting herself.
He tightened his grip instinctively as she abdicated more of her weight to him to carry, as she asked more of a commitment from what he’d agreed to do than he was giving. He lowered his cheek to the top of her head, tried hard to give her enough of what she needed to matter.
Just a moment’s respite from carrying the weight of it. Just a moment’s refuge from the unrelenting pressure of bearing unbearable grief. Just a moment where she could let it go, let him have it, let herself be weak, let herself trust someone else to be strong in her stead.
Just one moment to be held by someone who understood, someone who wasn’t your child and didn’t see your weakness as the potential to lose everything they had left.
He stood that way with her for almost ten minutes before she found her feet again. Her spine recovered its strength first. John felt it straightening beneath his hands, felt the defeated bow of it lessen, and then disappear all together. Her shoulders squared up and her knees reclaimed the burden of her own weight before she patted his back and let him go, telling him it was over, telling him she was fine and it was okay to drop away an embrace he held only because she needed it enough to ask.
When she stepped back, her eyes were dry but her expression was raw. "Thank you," she said. "I’ll leave you alone now. Let you get back to your life."
She turned away from him, reached out to open the door.
He put a hand on her back, and it was enough to break her again. She bowed her head, put her forehead against the cool smooth of painted wood. He stepped in close enough for their bodies to touch before slipping his arms around her waist and holding on because she hadn’t asked this time.
"It wasn’t his fault," he whispered against her ear. "Bill didn’t do anything wrong. He wasn’t being careless, wasn’t chasing the hunt in a way that failed to consider you and Jo. It just happened. He didn’t do anything wrong, it just happened."
Her hands dropped to his arms, held on to him like a life preserver offered in the storm of the open ocean.
"Don’t make me tell you what really happened," he went on. "Just believe me when I say it wasn’t his fault. Let it be my fault if it has to be someone’s. Blame me if you need a place to put responsibility to keep it from falling to him."
Ellen nodded, didn’t answer. He left it at that, holding onto her until she let him go.
She opened the door, stepped back out of his life by stepping onto the porch and into the moonlight that was the only difference between night and dark. Between grief and anger. Between pain and a mortal wound.
When she turned to face him again, she was back to being a closed book. Her expression was as calm as it had been when he first opened the door. Her eyes were as far removed from where they’d been ten minutes ago as the two of them were from being like the family they’d been four years ago.
"Thank you, John," she said. "Make sure those boys of yours have my number to use if they need it."
"I appreciate the offer," he returned. "But I won’t use it. We can’t be like family again. That time’s gone. It’s over as if it never was."
The corner of her lips twisted with bitterness, regret, pain, perhaps even yearning. "We were never like family, John. You’re as much a part of my blood as Jo is. As Bill was."
"I don’t want to be that," he said.
"I know you don’t. But you are. You did it to yourself, to me, to Bill. You made us a family by needing us. We made you our family by being there."
"I killed Bill. You should hate me for that. Or at the very least, cut me out of your life so you can go on. So your child can go on."
"Jo’s fine. She remembers Bill the way I want her to remember him, not the way he really was."
John shook his head, denying her implication. "Bill was a good man. He was my friend, and I wish it could have turned out differently."
"He was a good man," Ellen agreed. "I loved him. And I miss him."
"I do, too," John said. He hesitated a beat, then added, "If I could, I’d be more to you and Jo. Try to make up what I could for what I took away." He looked away from her, studied the far end of the dark street while he confessed, "But I can’t be that. Not for either one of us. It’s just not in me any more. It died when Mary did. Was murdered the same way she was murdered."
"I know that, John. I never expected anything different."
He looked back to her then, met her eyes to make sure she understood he was serious when he said, "If you need me, if Jo needs me, then call. But anything short of that, let me be, Ellen. Let me stay in the past where I belong."
"I know that, too, John." She leaned in, kissed him in a way that didn’t need to be pushed off. Kissed him in a way that didn’t frighten him by catching him so completely off guard he couldn’t defend against feeling what he didn’t feel, against feeling something that might make him feel everything, or anything. "Goodbye," she said. "Be safe."
He watched her walk away, watched until she was in her car and driving down the street before he shut the door, locked it, leaned against it, let the pain have him. He didn’t cry because he’d run dry of tears years ago. He just stood there, alone, leaning, breaking, knowing there wasn’t any glue to repair all the things in him that had come apart.
When he felt he was strong enough to get over his own personal pity party, John pushed off the door and turned to find Dean standing at the end of the hallway, watching. His son had finished growing into his own a while back. His chest and shoulders showed a man’s breadth and depth now rather than the tensile strength of a wiry teen. But he still looked like a child to John; a five-year-old lurking in the shadows in his pjs, fretting over things he had no business ever seeing.
"If I could change one thing about you, son; it would be that," John said. He put enough censure in his tone to discourage Dean from asking questions, but it didn’t, as he knew it wouldn’t.
"We all have our things that piss you off," Dean returned easily. "You okay?"
"I’m fine. I’m just tired and ready to go to bed."
"Huh. Really? I’m not." Padding into the living room on silent, bare feet, Dean dropped to a slouch in one corner of the couch. "Thought I’d watch a little TV. Maybe trade lies with my old man about women I’ve never fucked, or monsters he’s never killed. Damn shame for you to sleep through exciting plans like that."
John smiled a little. "How long have you been standing there?"
"Long enough to know Mom must have been more of a player than you are, or I was adopted."
"Ellen is a friend. She isn’t the kind of woman you tap and leave behind just to put a little spring in your step."
"Like you’d do it, even if she was."
John lifted an eyebrow, his tone a borderline warning when he asked, "You trying to say something to me, boy?"
Dean shrugged. "Just making an observation."
"Might want to think about keeping that kind of observation to yourself."
"Just offering a little good advice on how to close a snuggle to a fuck," Dean said.
John smiled again despite his intention not to. "Advice, huh? You think I’m looking for something like that from a kid like you?"
Dean returned the grin, saying, "I’m just saying, is all."
John joined his son on the couch, picking up the glass of Jack Daniels he’d left on an end table when Ellen knocked and taking a long draw before he answered. "Pretty bold talk for a punk-ass bitch."
"I believe the quote you’re looking for is ‘one-eyed fat man,’" Dean corrected.
John shrugged. "Adjust the response to meet the specifics of the circumstance."
"So … you’re up for a movie then?" Dean plucked the remote off the couch between them. "Something bloody and loud, with The Duke if at all possible? Or would you rather hear that advice I was offering, do a little working on your game in the hopes of getting off the bench sometime this decade?"
John took another drink. "I’m not looking to get off the bench anytime soon."
"Anytime ever?" Dean asked. The question was quiet. It was a challenge, but a gentle one.
John shrugged, didn’t answer.
"You think that’s what mom would want?" Dean pressed when his dad didn’t respond. "For you to spend the rest of your life on the sidelines instead of eventually looking for something to make life a little easier? A little more livable?" When John opened his mouth to answer, Dean cut him off to add, "Or is that what you think Sam and I want? Because if you do, it isn’t."
"Not about what she’d want," John said. "Or about what you and Sam might want. It’s about what I want. Now hand me the remote. There’s got to be something worth watching on one of two hundred odd stations."
"What do you want?" Dean asked, keeping the remote, not failing to hand it over so much as he was calmly refusing to do as much.
Dean’s mutinies were always small. They worked better that way, were more effective at getting him what he wanted than big stands on important issues would have been.
"I want the remote," John said. He held his hand out, gestured impatiently. "Give it up, son. I’m pulling rank."
"I’m not fucking around here, Dad," Dean said. "I’m really asking."
"And I’m really not going to talk about it. So turn on the TV or go back to bed, your choice."
Dean looked insulted. "Dude. I’m not ten."
"You’re also not old enough to take me. Or tough enough."
Dean snorted quietly. He scratched at the side of his face as he asked, "You telling me you want to throw down over the remote?"
"I’m telling you to lay off me and turn on the TV." John finished his drink and stood. Because he knew Dean would hear him if he said it, he added, "Please," then walked to the kitchen to pour himself another five fingers of Jack and Jack.
The TV was on when he returned, but the sound was muted. It was Dean’s idea of a compromise: hearing but not obeying. Handing his son one of the two glasses he carried, John said, "Nostrovia." It was his counteroffer to Dean’s compromise: they could drink together, but he wasn’t talking.
Dean sighed. "Vampires don’t exist," he said, lifting his glass in a salute as John sat. "But Nosferatu right back at you."
He was already pointing the remote at the TV, his finger pressing to disengage the mute, when John gave him what he was asking for: "There isn’t a game for me any longer, son. I’m not on the sidelines because I’ve got no interest in even showing up at the gym."
He wouldn’t be bullied, but he could be reached. It was important to him that Dean understand the difference; not only in what he was willing to say, but in why he might be willing to say it.
"Not healthy," Dean said after a beat.
"Better than the alternative," John returned.
"Being happy?" Dean suggested.
"Being dead," John answered.
Dean’s eyes narrowed. He cocked his head to one side, not quite sure how to ask what he wanted to ask. "Dead?" he repeated finally. "That’s a little … dramatic, isn’t it?
By dramatic, Dean meant fucked up.
"I supposed," John conceded, by which he meant, I’m a fucked up kind of guy and you’ve always known that. "But that’s the only game I’m interested in, Dean. The only game I really want."
Dean nodded, took a long drink. "That’s fucked up," he said quietly.
John gave him a one-cornered smile. "I prefer dramatic."
"Yeah. But no. It’s fucked up." He stared into his glass, wouldn’t meet John’s eyes as he asked. "So, you want to be dead then? Is that what you’re saying?"
John saw his five-year-old again, trying so hard to be a man, trying so hard to give his dad a friend to lean on to help him through things rather than understanding it was as a son who needed him that Dean had always been most effective at giving John a reason to live.
Or a reason to survive, at least.
"Oh, I wouldn’t put it that way. A little too dramatic. In the day-to-day of it, I do fine. Life is what it is, and I have you boys, I have the hunt. Both of those things give me satisfaction, give me a reason to go on. But in the bigger scheme of things — in terms of the kind of game you’re talking about pursuing, or wanting to pursue — I’m just saying all I really want is to make it back to your mother again some day. Jim assures me there’s a place that can happen, and I hope he’s right. Because if he isn’t, then the game’s over for me. Or at least that part of it is, and it has been since the day that bastard murdered your mother. It isn’t a choice I made along the way, that’s just the way it’s always been."
"Doesn’t have to be," Dean said.
John took another drink, then said, "Let’s bag the yellow-eyed demon first. Then we’ll talk. Now turn on the sound. This actually looks like it might be good."
Dean glanced at the TV, studied it for a moment before he said, "Maybe you need to talk to somebody. Jim. Or whoever she was."
"Ellen," John supplied.
"Ellen then," Dean agreed.
"I do talk to Jim about it. We’ve talked about it for fifteen years. That doesn’t change it. Doesn’t make it something it isn’t. Something it won’t ever be."
"Then maybe you should talk to somebody else."
"I did," John said. When he didn’t clarify, Dean looked over to see what he wasn’t saying.
When he still didn’t clarify, Dean asked, "Who?"
John smiled a little. "Take the mute off, Dean. We keep sitting here, flapping our yaps like a couple of girls, and we’ll miss out on all the good parts."
Dean’s expression didn’t change, but something about his posture did. He nodded — a tight, controlled motion — then pressed the mute button and let the movie play.
John watched until it was over, but Dean didn’t make it another twenty minutes. By the time the credits rolled, he was snoring quietly, his head dropped back, his mouth open and his eyes closed. John took his empty glass and Dean’s almost full one to the kitchen. Not being the kind of guy to waste perfectly good Jack, he drank what Dean hadn’t before putting the glasses in the sink and returning to the living room to flip the TV silent.
Dean shifted, but didn’t wake. Three days on the road and in the woods hadn’t been erased yet by good sleep and good food and the comfortable safety of home. John draped a blanket over his son before he left him, but he did it more for fun than because the house was cold, or because Dean might chill in the night even if it was.
When Dean woke on the couch, tucked in like a five-year-old sleeping with his teddy bear, he’d flush a little in indignation and throw the blanket off like it was an insult he didn’t deserve. But even doing so, he’d know the deeper message, understand why John wanted to remind him who was the father and who was the son.
It would piss him off to be told as much, but it would make him feel safe, too, make him understand nobody was leaving, nobody was dying, nobody wanted to be gone instead of here. It might even make him realize the small ways in which his father still treated him like a child had more to do with what John needed than they did with anything Dean still might.
John walked down the hall to his bedroom without turning on a light. He stripped to his boxers in the dark and crawled into bed even though he wasn’t tired and he wouldn’t sleep.
The smell of Ellen’s hair still lingered in his memory, the warmth of home, the relief of another adult sharing the burden of life in the living. But even in the small flicker of memories rekindled, the heat of her lips against his was fire consuming Mary to charred flesh and chalk-white bones against the ceiling of Sammy’s nursery. The pressure of her fingers against his belly was the crushing knowledge that everything her unexpected touch stirred awake in his body wasn’t something he could bear to feel again, wasn’t anything he wanted, wasn’t something he could survive, knowing it wasn’t her, knowing it wasn’t Mary.
He lay awake until morning, never once closing his eyes for fear he might forget himself and fall asleep; and in doing so, he might give in to the mortal wound it was to dream.