Looking Like Lions

(c)2007 b stearns


Salvation AU. John Winchester handles his daughters-in-law the same; it’s how they react that’s different. For girlguidejones by request. PG, 1955 words.


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Dani got out of the car with a sigh.


It was a typical central California early-autumn day, seventies and mostly clear, breezy. Her ideal kind of day, really. All she had to do was grab Charlie and they could maybe have an outdoor picnic for dinner.


Dean was out of town and Dani had found herself working on a Saturday, but rather than defaulting to a day at Sam’s, John that had called dibs. He took her for the day, and they agreed to meet up in Charlie’s favorite park down the road late in the afternoon.


There was no way she could say she didn’t like John. That wasn’t it. In him, she saw all the things that Dean had once tried to emulate, magnified. There was an outward calm that was spread thin over a tendency to obsess and jump to conclusions, to run off in any available direction and assume that everybody else would understand. He was blunt and had a tendency to expect people to do exactly what he said, but there was no malice to it; he was simply accustomed to being in charge. She had known almost immediately that it didn’t come naturally to him, even after all the years in the military and out in the world hunting. There was always an edge to it, as if he couldn’t let anything go. Dean did all the same things, as if he felt he had to.


It was John that had finally made her realize why Sam made her nervous; he was a natural at what John had spent a life working at. It intimidated her, and she hated the feeling, but there wasn’t much she could do about it when he was always watching everyone and everything, observing and cataloguing. There was a wide, quiet strength beneath everything he did. She’d never seen him truly angry, and never wanted to.


She crossed a sawdust trail into the play area, rounding a tree and pausing. There were a lot of kids out, and plenty of parents and grandparents standing around or having coffee at the few picnic tables and benches scattered around in the grass. She looked for a telltale blue hoodie and blue jeans with pink flowers on the knees and pockets, the play outfit Charlie had left the house in that morning. She saw reddish curls at the top of one of the slides, and watched six-year-old Charlie speed down....head first. She came partway off the end into a near-handstand, little sneakered feet waving for a moment. She began to topple, and as soon as she did, a large hand wrapped around one small ankle and steadied her. She began to walk forward on her hands, face showing nothing but delight. John ‘walked’ her across to one of the ride-ons, a garishly yellow dinosaur on a single huge spring. He hefted her into the air by both ankles, then righted her and set her onto the dinosaur backwards.


She twisted to look up at him with one eyebrow cocked, an expression that had come straight from her father. He laughed and lifted her to turn her around. She shook her head at him as she wrapped her arms around the neck of the thing. He grinned.


Dani had seen enough to know that John adored each of his grandchildren the same. He still seemed amazed that they existed; maybe he was amazed that he still existed. Still, there was something between him and Charlie that didn’t so much indicate she was his favorite as it suggested they had a shared mindset. Sometimes Dani wondered if her own contribution to the mix that was their daughter had survived at all, except for her own maternal grandmother’s red hair.


She sat down on a bench near the trail, facing the playground.


She loved watching them play; she wanted them to be that close.  


Charlie swung back and forth on the dinosaur, and broke into song at the top of her lungs. Dani could hear her voice but not the content; probably the one they’d just learned in school: A, alligators all around, B, bursting balloons.... That song had been old when Dani had been in school.


John glanced up as if he knew he was being watched (and he usually did, Dani thought), and when his gaze settled on her, he smiled. He ruffled Charlie’s hair, then pointed toward Dani.


Charlie waved and went on singing. G, getting giggles, H, having headaches. Dani waved back.


She was proud of herself for not tensing up when John said something to Charlie and then headed straight toward her. She could talk to him, they could trade pleasantries, it was no big deal. He wasn’t much of a talker, anyway, and all they had in common was Charlie. He had a mild but intent look on his face and there was purpose in his stride, but that was how he approached most things.


“Hey,” he said, sitting down next to her.


“Hey,” Dani said. “You guys have fun today?”


“Yeah. Kid can outrun me.”


She smiled. “She talks about you all the time,” she said. “All the girls do. I’m glad you guys got a chance to hang out today.”


He leaned back against the bench with one arm stretched along the length of the backboard, expression thoughtful and slightly closed off, and she did tense, then. “Listen...I gotta bring something up.”


She glanced over at him, holding her face still, keeping a look of mild interest in place. There was no telling what was going to come out of his mouth.


“I know she talks to you and Dean,” he said. “She’s not a kid who holds everything in, and that’s good. So it’s not any surprise when I tell you that changing from house to house every week is tough on her.”


Dani nodded and suppressed a sigh. “It’s been discussed.”


She didn’t encourage him to continue. He did anyway.


“The older she gets, the harder it might be, no matter how used to it she is,” he said. “You guys must be able to figure something out, something that keeps her in one place more often. Maybe you could change your hours and move closer to Dean.”


The perceived insinuation, that she was in control of the whole thing, made her furious. She was a scientist above most other things, though, so her ability to pull back and rationalize where he was coming from wasn’t much of a stretch.


“You moved your kids from town to town, all over the country, sometimes inside the same week. They never got a chance to really settle down until they got married. There was almost never a stable thing for them to cling to.”


John nodded. “Right. So who would know better about what that does to a kid than me?”


The only thought that entered her mind right then was that even Dean would probably have punched him, right after saying, yeah, we turned out okay.


“You are seriously in no position to make parenting suggestions to me,” she said in a carefully calm voice. She placed her hands on her thighs in preparation of rising. Charlie was still singing away on the dinosaur, oblivious to their tension. A boy maybe a year older than she was approached the dinosaur, and she stuck a foot out towards him to ward him off without missing a beat of her song.


“What exactly was it?” he said suddenly.


Despite her better judgment, she looked at him.


“The last straw, the thing that made you tell him it was over. It’s not like either of you changed in the short time you were together.”


“John,” she said, “first off, it’s really none of your business, and – “


“Won’t kill you to just say so, though,” he said.


“It’s complicated. And I have the feeling that no matter what I say, you’ll find fault with it. I want you and Charlie to spend as much time together as you can, but I don’t want to have this conversation with you. Ever.”


“So there’s no chance you’ll ever get back together,” he said, face and tone still mild but interested.


She blinked at him for a moment. She opened her mouth to say no and it just didn’t come. “We have very different goals,” she said instead.


“Bullshit,” John said warmly.


“John – “


“Danielle, you can’t tell me you didn’t know what you were getting into. The degrees don’t really separate you, and you know it, and you knew he was a blue-collar kid the moment you met him. So don’t explain it to me. But get it straight in your own head one of these days, because you share a kid, and that’s basically a bigger vow than the ‘’til death do us part’ stuff. I’m not saying you didn’t have perfectly good reasons to split. Sometimes he sets himself up to fail, and so do you. Don’t make her part of that.”


She swallowed hard and stood. “Thanks for keeping her today,” she said.


“You still love him,” John said. “That’s okay, because he still loves you.”


She nearly ran. “Hey, Charlie! C’mon, girl. Let’s go.”


Charlie stopped singing and slowed to a stop. “Papachester’s not coming for dinner?”


“No, babe, he’s not,” Dani said, lifting Charlie off the dinosaur. “We were talking about having a picnic, remember?”


“‘kay,” Charlie said. “Chicken? And watermelon.”


“Good enough,” Dani said, heading for the parking area. “Say goodbye to Papa.”


Charlie waved with both hands. “A-bye, Papa! I love you more than chicken and watermelon!”


Okay, no matter how shaken up she was, she had to laugh at that. She waved at John without looking directly at him. Damn Winchesters and their inability to come at a subject from an angle. Everything was a frontal assault with those guys.


She got Charlie into her seat, listening to her talk about her day, and tried to step away from thinking about John or what he’d said.


They picked up a few things from the store, then went home. She told Charlie to go wash up while she put dinner together. The moment Charlie walked away, though, Dani went to her bedroom and closed the door, leaning against it.


She hadn’t been able to get all the way in, and hadn’t let Dean all the way in, and they had hidden so much. They had been equally guilty of the things that had made them pull even further away.


Charlie still talked about the year before when Daddy was sick and we went to Sam’s and Sam fixed him and there was more to it than Dean’s explanation of I came down with the flu.


She had never quite gotten into the secret society of Sam and Dean, and if she could handle really thinking about it, she’d admit to herself that there was something going on there that she couldn’t even imagine, something that made her flinch away from looking too hard.


He still loves you.


She burst into tears, hands over her face, giving in for just a minute and struggling not to be heard.


It had been easier to be afraid, and to run, than to try and really fight even herself for the chance to be part of something she could never control.


She wiped at her face and coughed, trying to stop crying. She didn’t want Charlie to think something was wrong. She took a few deep breaths and whipped the door open again. “C’mon, kid, let’s go!”


Charlie ran out and headed for the door. Dani grabbed the bag of groceries and took it along. The paper bag would do as a picnic basket.


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