Author's Note: This story was written for a Christmas Fic Exchange on LJ, and it was written for Minx.
December 24th, 1998
He has a bad feeling about the job from the start. No, scratch that. He has a bad feeling about all of 'em; goes with the territory. A little superstition in this line of work keeps you alive. So, yeah, John's not entirely surprised that the old woman hosting the spirit is bat shit-crazy enough to actually enjoy its homicidal company, or when she fails to mention the little fucker enjoys throwing its victims down the stairs before decapitating them with an axe. No, at this point, he's come to expect adversity. Which is why he's here in Cabot, Nebraska, in this dump of a motel on Christmas Eve morning, throwing his shit together and nursing bruised ribs.
John tosses some dirty laundry into his bag, grimacing at the smell. No time for a laundromat, though. Not if he wants to be with his kids on Christmas Eve. A phone call to Bobby's two days ago confirmed Sam over his flu, but Dean was still keeping the boy inside. John bets the fifteen year-old is bouncing off the walls by now, protesting that decision. The thought has a smile tugging at his lips. Usually he wouldn't envy Dean or Singer's position, but he finds himself missing the antics of both boys this morning.
He zips up his duffel, listens with a frown to the static reports from the room's dusty radio, waits for bad news, but for once he seems to have caught a break. The forecast predicts a slim chance of snow for this part of the Midwest. Might just make it home yet, Winchester, he thinks, as the station resumes its holiday program, complete with jingling bells and the cheerful tones of Perry Como. Mary used to love the guy. John remembers that first Christmas with Dean, coming home to find his wife singing along to the radio and rocking Dean in her arms. The rocker was the only thing Mary brought over from the old house, and the rickety piece of furniture must have been magic, because it always put Dean to sleep within minutes.
"His first Christmas," she murmurs, as he moves behind her, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. She doesn't turn, but he sees the tear drop, splash silently onto Dean's baby blanket.
"Hey," he says softly, circling to crouch near her knees. "What's this?"
"I wish - "
He knows what she's wishing for, knows all too well, but you can't bring back the dead. "Don't. Look at our future," he tells her, nodding at the downy-haired child cradled in her arms. "The best is ahead of us, I promise."
She nods, and her smile is genuine, if teary. "I love you."
And he's never been so sure; they're going to be just fine.
A sharp rap comes at the flimsy motel door, startling John from his thoughts. Annoyed, he walks over and cracks it open a few inches. "I'll be out of here in just a hey," he says, surprised when he looks down to find a skinny urchin instead of the surly manager. Dark eyes peer at him from beneath the knit cap.
"Hey, yourself. Can I come in?" The kid shoots him a glance through long lashes.
John frowns. "Actually, I'm just Jo?" It's been three years since he stood outside the old cemetery, watching Bill Harvelle's funeral from a distance, but he's never forgotten the look on the girl's face. Blank, hopeless. He'd seen that look before, hoped to never see it again.
The kid rolls her eyes, and that's when John knows it's really her. "Yeah, I know, I've really grown. Can I come in now? I forgot to wear my sweater."
John opens the door a little wider, lets the girl in. Watches as she pulls the cap from her head and stuffs it into the pocket of her jeans. She shakes honey-blonde hair to her shoulders as she looks around the room, nose wrinkling slightly at the grime. John closes the door, brows drawn together. "How'd you find me?" He steers clear of most hunters these days, expects them to do the same.
"Overheard Mom talking to Uncle Bobby, said you'd be through here." Jo's lips purse as she rubs her arms through the thin turtleneck she's wearing. "Not a very big town, is it?"
"Big enough," John tells her, taking in the coltish legs and angled face. Grown some, then. Thirteen now, and starting to look it. The dark eyes and high cheekbones the kid gets from Ellen, but the brazenness, well, he's pretty sure that her father's. Jo should know better, after all; know what coming to a man's room in some pay-by-the-hour motel might get her, what kind of men spend their time in these dives. Men who won't see the sweet, pigtailed girl that used to follow John around, the girl he used to let beat him at darts. Motel's nearly vacant for the holidays; there'd be no one to hear her scream
"Haven't seen you in a while." The girl flicks her gaze in his direction, and John shakes himself from his morbid musings.
"Been busy." It's a shitty excuse, and he knows it, but there are some things sorry won't cover, some things there just aren't words for.
"For three years?" She reaches for the half-full beer bottle he's left on the desk, not looking the slightest bit guilty when John lightly slaps her hand away.
Jo scoffs. "Yeah, I bet."
John folds his arms, unwilling to be outmaneuvered. "Does your mother know you're here?" he counters. He'd bet his ass she didn't approve this little field trip.
Jo shrugs. "She won't even know I'm gone. Too busy getting the place ready for tonight; deck the halls, and all that crap."
"Are you telling me you're missing?" Christ; Ellen's going to kill him.
Jo rolls her eyes again. "I'm here with you; that's not exactly missing."
He points a warning finger at the girl. "Don't get smart with me, young lady. How did you get here?"
"Caught a ride," she replies, appearing bored with the conversation already.
"You mean you hitched."
"The guy had a 'Honk If You Love Jesus' sticker; I figured I was okay. What'd you expect me to do? Steal a car? I'm thirteen," she reminds him.
"Damn it, Jo. Of all the stupid things
" John rubs a hand over his face, tries to calm himself. Boys, he knows what to do with. Dean or Sam would already be over his knee getting the spanking of a lifetime for a stunt like this. But girls are different; sensitive. Require a subtle touch. No, best to leave this one alone. This is what he agreed to, after all. The time to intervene is long past, and the only thing to do is return the kid to Ellen and let her straighten this out. Decision made, John tosses a duffel at Jo, doesn't wait to see if she catches it before slinging the other up onto his shoulder. "Come on; I'll drop you on the way home."
The brown eyes widen. "But I don't want to go home yet," she announces over the duffel in her arms, as if maybe John doesn't know it.
"Too bad." He snatches the keys from the dresser and pockets them, unwilling to waver in the face of her disappointment. There's an agitated huff, and the sound of his bag hitting the floor, and John glances up at the girl, raises an eyebrow.
Jo glares at him, two bright spots of color staining her cheeks. "Well, merry fucking Christmas to you, too." She snatches the hat from her pocket again and yanks it onto her head. "You know what's really stupid? I actually thought you might be glad to see me."
"Whether I'm glad or not doesn't matter. What matters is you getting back to your mother in one piece," he informs her. "What time is it?" He glances at his watch. "Shit. It's gonna be close, but we'll have you home for dinner."
"Don't bother," she snaps, already turning for the door. "I found my own way here, I'll find my way back."
John moves quickly, catching her firmly by the arm before she can reach the door. "Hey, now, let's not get - " The unexpected stomp to his instep has him swearing, and John wonders who came up with that crap about sugar and spice. Well, the spice, now that they might have been right about.
"Let me go," Jo demands, still pulling in his grip.
"Enough," John growls, giving the thin arm a light shake, and that's when her elbow hits his ribs. "Son of a - " He feels the blood drain from his face, and he tries to blink away the haze of pain as the duffel he's carrying slips from his shoulder and to the floor. Jo freezes in his grip.
"Uncle John?" She sounds nervous now, but John's had enough. The kid just can't go around hitching rides with strangers, and knocking on seedy motel room doors, and she certainly can't go picking fights with grown men twice her size and weight.
"I'm sorry," he grits, forcing himself to straighten. He can just make out the frown crinkling her small forehead.
He doesn't answer, just tugs her over to the bed and has a seat before promptly hauling her over his lap.
"No! Uncle John! Stop!" Jo thrashes over his knees and hollers to wake the dead, and John takes care to guard his aching side. The girl's all flailing arms and legs, and he's briefly reminded of the time Mary coaxed him into giving old Mr. Whiskers a bath. At least this one doesn't scratch, he thinks, as he wrestles her into place and begins bringing the flat of his hand down on her behind with carefully controlled force.
"Ow! Let me go!" she yells, kicking into thin air. "I'm not a little kid anymore!"
"Could have fooled me," he scolds sternly. "Do you realize how much danger you've put yourself in today? You're damn lucky a spanking is all you're getting."
Her breath catches at his next swat, and John hears a tiny sob. "I'm going ow! I'm going to tell my mom!" she wails, throwing a hand behind her in defense. John pulls it away and keeps spanking, intent on warming the seat of the kid's jeans.
"You go right ahead, sweetheart. When she finds out about this, I'm pretty sure she's gonna want a turn herself." Jo twists and squirms, but some of the fight seems to be going out of her, and John thanks whatever God might be listening. "Now, are we done with the nonsense?"
"You're n-not my father," she quavers.
John ignores the sudden kick to the gut the words provide, swats slightly harder. "Joanna."
"Good girl," John praises quietly. He only brings his hand down a few more times, just enough to drive the message home, and considers it done. Jo's crying, but he suspect it's more from hurt feelings and injured pride than the mild sting she must be feeling. With a heavy sigh, he lifts her and settles her in his lap again, this time right-side up. Jo won't look at him, and the sight of her flushed and tear-streaked face makes his throat tighten. Her cap is missing, the silky blonde hair disheveled, and suddenly he feels like the world's meanest son of a bitch.
"I hate you," she chokes, as John's hand rubs gently up and down her narrow back.
"I know," he soothes, wincing at the tearful claim.
"I never want to see you again."
"Okay," John agrees again, mouth twisting ruefully as Jo burrows closer, clutching a fistful of his woolen shirt like a lifeline. He shifts and gathers her closer, murmuring the tender reassurances that have always comforted his boys, his fingers wiping away tears and smoothing back wet strands of hair. After several minutes, the storm dwindles to scattered showers, and finally to a slow drizzle. Jo's a warm weight against his chest, her golden head resting limply against his now-soggy shoulder.
Jo sniffles, mumbles something John can't quite make out.
"It does matter," she repeats in a small voice.
John frowns, puzzled. "What matters?"
"Whether you're happy to see me."
Oh. Back to that. He wonders how the hell Ellen handles these things. "I'm always happy to see you, sweetheart. But running off without telling your mother, climbing into cars with strangers, isn't the way to go about it."
Jo lifts tear-bright eyes to his. "So if I'd asked you to come visit, you would have?"
Fuck. "Jo, your mother and me, we - "
"I know. It's complicated," she says sourly.
John chuckles softly, brushes at her damp cheek with a calloused thumb. "So you do listen to me. Look, Jo, I'm sorry I haven't stopped in to see you. It's been a hell of a couple years, and this old man isn't able to cover the ground he used to."
Hope lights up the girl's face, and John hates himself more than just a little. "You could come by for New Year's, bring your kids you could even stay in your old room, and - "
"I can't, Jo. Not right now," he amends, offering a small smile to soften the blow. "But I'll tell you what I will do. I'll drop you a letter now and then, and I'll give you my phone number my special, not-to-be-given-to-any-other-person phone number," he tells her. "You or your mother ever need me, you call me, no matter what time it is or what you think I might be doing. Okay?"
"No." She pouts for a moment, considering. "But I'll take it," she finally concedes, and John thinks he might be better at this girl stuff than he thought.
"That's my girl," John tells her, and clears his throat awkwardly. "That's my girl."
He stops at a gas station about ten miles out and puts twenty dollars in his tank. The guy's about to close, but John talks him into a fill- up and a couple of hot drinks anyway.
"Ways to go yet tonight?" the man asks, pulling John's change from the register with nicotine-stained fingers.
"Couple hours," John replies, as seventeen dollars and some odd change is counted into his palm. He glances up at the wall behind the register, where the light gleams from some empty beer cans someone's wired into a wreath and threaded with silver ribbon. Some of the cans are dented, and it probably smells of stale alcohol, but the sight is still enough to make him ache. He can't remember the last time he and the boys had a wreath, let alone a door to hang it on, and his eyes must linger too long, because the clerk shoots him a crooked smile.
"You like it?"
"Brings back memories," he admits wryly.
The man shuts his till and turns the key, pockets it. "Take it."
John returns to the truck with the wreath under one arm, the drink carrier in the other. He ends up tossing the wreath into the back of the cab, then hoists himself into the driver's seat, careful not to spill any of the hot liquid.
Jo glances over her shoulder to take a look. The girl's mouth curls. "Nice wreath."
"That's a classic," John tells her in mock offense, passing her the styrofoam cup he filled with the station's watery hot chocolate and keeping the coffee for himself.
But the tiny smile lasts the short drive back to Harvelle's. John's careful to pull around to the back, finding cover behind the swarm of cars and trucks parked in the dusty lot. He leaves the vehicle running, switches on the radio as he and Jo sip their drinks, watching customers come and go beneath the twinkling lights Ellen's strung from the eaves of the roadhouse. Sinatra fills the silence from the truck's sturdy speakers.
"I'll be home for Christmas. You can count on me. Please have snow, and mistletoe..."
"Snow." It's an observation, and not the joyous exclamation you'd expect from a kid, but John looks up through the slightly foggy windshield, and sure enough, Jo's right. Tiny snowflakes are starting to fall, fluttering through the night like crystalline moths before sticking to whatever they touch.
John's mouth quirks sadly. "Seems like the perfect Christmas, doesn't it?"
Jo stares into her hot chocolate. "It's different now. Daddy's gone, you don't come around any more." She glances up at the roadhouse. "And Mom. Well, she's more against me being a hunter than ever. She cries sometimes, you know," she adds, avoiding John's eyes. "When I'm supposed to be asleep."
Christ. He doesn't want to know this; Ellen doesn't want him to know this. "It takes time, Jo." John doesn't tell her what he already knows, that time doesn't mend all things. That sometimes things just stay broken.
"I guess. But sometimes sometimes I just want things to go back to being the way they used to be."
John ducks his head, huffs his accord. "That your Christmas wish?"
"Yeah. Same one every year now
" She slants him a curious look. "What about you? What'd you wish for?"
He lifts a brow. "I'm a little old for wishes, sweetheart."
"You're a little old for lots of things," she replies tartly. "What'd you wish?"
John shrugs. "Same thing you did," he admit. "That things could be the way they used to be, that I'd have my wife back, that we and our boys would be a family again."
"Yeah." Jo swallows, nods. To the kid's credit, it only takes her a moment to put the smile on her face. She raises her cup in muted salute. "Merry Christmas, Uncle John.
John smiles back, lifts his cup to knock carefully against hers. "Merry Christmas, Jo." They both drink, and he nods at the roadhouse. "You sure she bought your story?"
Jo's brow furrows. "What am I, an amateur?"
John shakes his head in reluctant amusement. He's going to miss her. "Well, what are you waiting for? Looks pretty festive in there."
"You could come in." It's a wasted invitation, and John can see Jo knows it. He turns slightly toward her, draping his arm over the back of the seat.
"No. I couldn't," he says gently, and then the girl frowns worriedly.
"Am I going to see you again?"
The question catches him off-guard, and he hides his surprise behind a scoff. "Sure you are." He gives her shoulder an encouraging squeeze, earning him a smile, and this time the ache in his chest isn't his ribs. "Now get on with you, before someone sees us and your mother has both our hides."
The kiss is quick, just a peck of her lips upon his whiskered cheek, and then Jo's taking her cup and jumping from the truck. John watches her run through the maze of cars, snow dusting her cap, feet flying up behind her, the sight etching itself into his memory. He'll tuck it away somewhere safe, until it's time for another. If there's another.
"Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light gleams. I'll be home for Christmas - "
John waits until the girl disappears inside before shifting into gear and rolling out of the lot. Time to look ahead. An hour and a half, maybe two, to Sioux Falls. Another hundred miles and he'll be with his boys. He turns up the radio, humming to himself, and steps a little harder on the gas as he finally pulls out onto the highway.
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