It was raining when Johnny walked out of prison, and he felt nothing like Charlie Potatoes. Then again, he didn't feel much like anyone — least of all himself.
The suit he'd been given had been uncomfortable even before it got wet. Now, as it clung to his skin, it was almost unbearable. But his own clothes had long since been disposed of, probably from fear of lice or something, so there wasn't much he could do about it.
Without so much as a backward glance, Johnny began walking down the street. He didn't know where he would go, but it didn't matter a whole lot. Anywhere was fine, as long as he got away from the place that'd held him for more years than he liked to remember.
A pickup truck was parked on the side of the road. It, just like him, had seen better days. Johnny paid it little heed, aside from his mind idly recognizing it as a '51 Chevy. He didn't even think someone was in it, when the horn suddenly honked.
Clenching his jaw, he averted his gaze. The driver probably didn't like the idea of a con staring at his ride. But no, the guy kept honking at him.
The blaring sound finally took its toll, and Johnny flipped him the bird. "Shut up!" he yelled.
He hadn't gotten more than a few steps past the car when he heard the door open, and footsteps approaching. It was almost laughable, the idea of getting into a fight right in front of the damn prison walls.
Johnny tensed, ready to throw down as a hand grabbed his shoulder, yanking him around. His fist was already moving in an upward arc when he realized just who stood in front of him.
"Oh, so you do remember me," Cullen said. "Come on, get in the car."
Mind reeling, Johnny allowed himself to be led. The car was blessedly dry, but he was still unable to contain a shiver.
"How you doin', Joker?"
"Why are you here?" Johnny demanded, ignoring the question. Still, it brought back memories — igniting a spark of warmth somewhere deep inside.
"I'm picking you up," Cullen replied, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. He started the car, and calmly pulled out into the road.
"What for?" He regretted the words as soon as they'd left his mouth. It didn't matter why Cullen was there; only that he was.
"Did you have something planned?"
"There you go." Cullen's eyes left the road for a moment, gracing Johnny with a blinding grin. "I got something fixed. Give it a chance, yeah?"
The rest of the drive passed in silence. Cullen focused on driving, eyes squinting through the heavy rain. It gave Johnny plenty of time to drink in the sight of the man he hadn't expected to ever see again.
Back when they got caught after their escape attempt, he'd had the foolish notion that they would be able to stick together. Reality had quickly made itself known, as they were both thrown into solitary confinement upon returning. After that, Johnny would sometimes catch a glimpse of Cullen across the mess hall. The prison was heavily segregated to begin with, but the warden and the guards seemed to make an extra effort to keep them apart.
Then, he'd heard that Cullen had been released. He'd felt both joy, and an acute sense of loss. Prison life suddenly seemed a whole lot lonelier.
That was two years ago. Two years of growing to accept that their strange friendship no longer held any relevance, only to be proven otherwise in a matter of seconds.
So hell yeah, Johnny was willing to give it a chance. Well, short of pulling a bank robbery — he wasn't about to give that another go, not even for Cullen.
Something was touching his throat. It tore him from a fuzzy dreamscape, making him lurch awake with a racing heart. He knocked the roaming hand away, before even realizing where he was.
"Easy," Cullen mumbled, "it's just me."
Johnny grunted. "How long was I out?"
"Just 'bout an hour." Cullen slowly lifted his hand, moving it towards Johnny's throat once more. Brown eyes held his gaze, clearly searching for signs of unease. He must've been satisfied with what he saw, as his fingers met the skin again. "Never saw this before. How'd it happen?"
Johnny grimaced. "Some guy went crazy. Guess I was in his way, or somethin'."
"He carved you up good."
Frustrated, Johnny cringed away from the trailing fingers. "He had a piece of broken glass. I coulda gotten him off me, but..."
"But I just had two months left to go, alright?!" Johnny snapped. He felt a flush of shame creeping onto his face. "I wasn't gonna risk that," he finally added, voice subdued.
Cullen was silent for a painfully long time. Then, "Even if it meant getting killed?"
"...I'd be dead anyway. I couldn't take one more day in there, Cullen. Not even one day."
The hand returned, this time bypassing the scar to instead circle the back of his neck. Cullen squeezed it, reassuringly. "I hear ya, Joker. I hear ya," he said.
It was easy to just relax into the hold, eyes drifting shut once again. "So," he forced out, more from trying to stay awake than anything else, "where we at?"
"Viola's General Store."
"What?" Johnny asked, opening his eyes to stare at Cullen. He simply grinned in response, and pointed to a place across the street. Johnny turned his head, and indeed, there it was. A general store with a gaudy sign, windows displaying everything from canned food to fabrics.
"Let's go," Cullen said. He got out of the car without waiting for a reply, sauntering across the road while Johnny scrambled to follow.
"Look," Johnny hissed as they reached the door, feeling as if a hundred eyes were staring at them. "The place is closed! What are you-"
Cullen took up a key from his pocket, and unlocked the door with a flick of his wrist. "After you," he said, holding the door open for Johnny.
Not really knowing what else to do, Johnny walked inside. He half expected a shopkeeper to suddenly appear, sporting a shotgun and being none too pleased at the intrusion.
Cullen's sudden yell made him jump. He turned around, glaring. "Who you talking to?"
"You'll see," Cullen said, tilting his head towards the stairs behind the counter. Johnny could hear someone walking down them, and tensed. It wasn't that he didn't trust Cullen — and wasn't that funny realization? Johnny really had no business trusting him, not after all those years, but he still did. But trust aside, he had no idea what was coming down the stairs.
A little old lady, as it turned out. Well, no, she was rather plump actually — but an old lady nonetheless.
"Joker, may I introduce the lovely Viola Remick."
The supposedly lovely Viola Remick snorted. "Nice try, Noah," she said, "but the woman is supposed to receive the introduction."
Cullen let out a great big laugh, and Johnny could only gape as the old lady joined in. She was still chuckling as she moved forward, hand reaching for his face. He reflexively took a step back, only to be hindered by Cullen's palm on his lower back.
"Stay still," he said, "she just wanna take a look at you."
The words made no sense at first. Then Johnny saw her eyes. They were milky white, and completely unseeing.
Surprise, more than Cullen's steadying hand, was what kept Johnny in place as her hand roamed all over his face. At least she was fairly gentle; didn't poke his eyes out or anything.
"You weren't lying," Viola said as she lowered her hands.
"Told ya," Cullen replied.
"Oh, that poor boy — you didn't tell him anything, did you, Noah?"
"No," Johnny broke in, "he sure didn't."
"I see," Viola said, smiling. "I think it'd best if you were to fill him in. I'll see you both tomorrow morning, I hope."
"Want me to walk you home?" Cullen offered.
"Nonsense," she said. "You stay with your friend. I'll be fine on my own."
Johnny stared as Viola Remick made her way out of the store, navigating the area with ease. Cullen held the door open for her, but that was all.
The door closed, drawing a tinkle from the bell that was fastened above it. That little sound heralded the end of Johnny's patience.
"She blind as a bat, Cullen! Dammit, does she know?"
"Know what?" Cullen answered, coolly.
"You know what!"
"That I ain't white?"
Johnny froze. The thought hadn't even crossed his mind — and it should've. "Well, that too," he began, lamely.
"That too?" Cullen repeated, lifting an eyebrow.
"I meant more like if she knows I'm a con or not."
Something in Cullen's demeanor had closed off during the questioning. Now, he visibly relaxed. "Oh," he said, a slow smile flitting across his lips.
"Well?" Johnny prompted, trying hard to ignore the fact that seeing Cullen smile made him want to smile, too.
"She knows everything."
"Mhm. And you're telling me she left us here, despite knowing we once tried to rob a place like this?"
"Yep, pretty much." Chuckling, he added, "Don't worry, I'll fill you in. So let's go upstairs."
"Someone live up there?" Johnny asked, wary.
"Yeah," Cullen replied. "We do."
Johnny almost tripped over his own feet. "You mean..."
"You an' me, Joker." Having reached the top of the stairs, Cullen stepped aside and made a sweeping gesture of the place. "If you want," he added.
Johnny walked past him, in a daze. He took in the sights in silence; the kitchen, the living area with the comfortable-looking couch, and the bedroom.
It looked like someone's home, and Johnny felt like he had no business even being up there. Nothing about this made sense to begin with; like a fever dream, wonderful but impossible, the kind that made you wanna weep when you woke up and realized that it wasn't true. He shouldn't be there, he should just...
"Joker. Hey, easy — don't spook now." The words were coupled with an arm slung across his shoulders, steering him towards the couch. "Sit down. I'll get you something to drink."
Johnny stared, unseeing, as Cullen rummaged through the kitchen. "Happened to me too, y'know," he was saying. "I didn't know what I was gonna do. Nothing felt real, and I almost got to thinking that I shoulda stayed in prison — like it was the only place I belonged in, anymore."
Johnny buried his head in his hands. He'd been one step away from coming to that realization himself, and he damn well knew it.
"Here you go. Surprise." Cullen's voice broke through, making him lift his head. A bottle of beer was in his line of vision.
"Cullen," he breathed. "I think I love you."
"Can't say I blame ya," he laughed. "My first beer after prison is still a fond memory."
Johnny eagerly gulped down the beer — half determined to down the whole bottle in one go, but only succeeding in coughing and laughing.
Cullen was watching him, something akin to fondness in his eyes. His fingers toyed with the bottle cap, twirling it around. "I ended up in this town by chance," he said, apparently wanting to continue his story. "I was broke and starving, and went into Viola's store with the vague idea of trying to steal something."
Johnny almost choked on his beer. "Whoa, really?"
Cullen nodded. "But when I walked in, I saw this old woman balancing on a rickety ladder. I held it for her, didn't even realize she was blind till she got down. As she was thanking me for the help, my stomach grumbled. Viola laughed, and asked if I wanted to join her for supper."
"Just like that?"
"I know, sounds crazy. And when we were done eating, she told me she'd had an ulterior motive. Said she was getting old, couldn't run the place by herself no more. Asked me if I was interested in a job."
Johnny whistled. "Damn, Cullen... I wanna say you were lucky, but that don't even begin to cover it."
"I felt bad, though. So I told her the truth; that I'd just gotten out of jail, had no place to stay, and that I was colored."
"What she say?"
Cullen shook his head, chuckling to himself. "I'll tell you what Viola said, her exact words even. She said: 'I've been blind for a long time. Dear, I barely even remember what white folks look like!'"
"And the rest?"
"She thinks everyone deserves a second chance."
"Huh. They sure don't make 'em like that anymore." Johnny frowned at his empty bottle. "But where do I fit in? She obviously knew who I was — she said somethin' about you not having lied...?"
"Well, just 'cause Viola don't care about skin color don't mean others feel the same way. So I told her we needed a pretty white boy to deal with the customers. Meanwhile I could focus on the stocks and the work in the background, and she could just take it easy doing boss things."
"White, sure, but pretty? Cullen, I ain't-"
"Viola thought so," Cullen said, cutting him off.
Johnny bit his tongue, just barely keeping from blurting out 'So did you, apparently!'
"And don't you remember that woman? She was ready to drive off into the sunset with you."
As always, anger flared upon remembering her. "She don't count," he snarled.
Cullen shrugged. "Maybe not... I think she was more desperate than we were. Wonder what happened to her."
"Who the hell cares? Say, do you have more of these?" Johnny waved the beer bottle in front of Cullen's face. "I could do with another right 'bout now."
"Yeah, I do. But wait a while; I'll fix us some grub first. Probably be a good idea to hit the sack early, too."
"Sure, whatever," Johnny muttered. Talking about that dame had completely soured his mood, anyway.
Cullen stood up, looking down at him with furrowed brows. "How 'bout you give me a hand? If you do, I'll let you have the bed tonight."
"I don't care, the couch is fine."
"Joker. Let it go." Cullen held out a hand, making a silent offering.
Johnny glared at the extended hand. It remained in place, steadfast and stubborn, until Johnny simply couldn't help himself. He reached up, firmly clasping Cullen's hand and allowing himself to be pulled up.
Attack was the best defense. To wound before being wounded, all the while making sure to reveal no weakness. Johnny knew that; had learned it early on in his life. So, when he saw the outline of Cullen's body in the doorframe, there was only one thing to do.
"What," he snapped, "can't sleep? Gonna bug me awake, too?"
Cullen took it in stride, not even bothering to reply as he walked into the room. There was a strange feeling in the pit of Johnny's stomach, prompting him to sit up in the bed. If asked, he'd say that he simply didn't feel comfortable lying down in the presence of another man — but deep down he knew that was nothing but a lie. A lie belied by the fact that he also scooted slightly to the side, leaving room for Cullen to sit, should he want.
He did. He leaned against the headboard with a sigh, close enough to Johnny that their shoulders were touching. Johnny didn't move away.
"My first night out," Cullen said, "I couldn't sleep either."
"Yeah, well, talking ain't gonna help. Never could sleep when others chatter."
Cullen chuckled, sending a vibration through Johnny's body via their touching shoulders. "Still the loveable fellow I remember, I see."
"You know it."
Silence filled the room, but it was nice — companionable, not oppressive. Johnny was tired, weary to the bone but high-strung at the same time. More than anything, he was aching for human touch. But how did you ask for such a thing?
You didn't, that was how.
"For starters, relax." The order was accompanied by a strong arm, pulling him down. Johnny didn't fight it, and within seconds his head was in Cullen's lap. He twisted around, so that he was lying on his back, in order to look up at Cullen. His white teeth gleamed in the darkness, revealing his grin. It raised Johnny's hackles a bit, but it wasn't like the spiteful sneers he'd been given lately — it was just a warm, genuine grin.
"My ma used to sing to her children, to soothe their dreams."
Johnny scoffed, but didn't protest the idea. He did laugh, however, when Cullen started belting out a certain familiar tune.
"Not that I don't have a soft spot for that one, but don't you know any other songs?"
Cullen grew silent, and seemed to consider. Finally, he started singing something else. It was a song Johnny had never heard before, and so at first it was just a bitter reminder of how much he had missed during the years he'd been locked up. Then he started paying attention to the song, enjoying it. He even felt a slight kinship with the narrator, as the chorus spoke lovingly of a girl with hair of gold and lips like cherries.
Then the end of the song came, unexpected and every bit as cruel as fingers slipping apart while a train continued uncaringly towards freedom.
He wasn't even aware that he was crying until Cullen's hand touched his face. He wiped away the tears almost absently, looking down at Johnny with unreadable eyes.
"The hell did you have to do that for?" Johnny spat, blindly accusing.
"You asked for another song," he replied, voice utterly calm. His fingers, having long since dried the skin, moved to comb through Johnny's hair.
Funny, but the thought to move never occurred to him. Oh, he knew he should, of course — but he couldn't understand why. Not really. Cullen was there, warm and alive. If he ever wanted anything else, well... it didn't matter now. This was enough.
"Go to sleep, Joker."
"It's not true anymore," he whispered, the words slipping out more or less by themselves. It just suddenly felt important that Cullen knew.
"Me, wanting a fancy car with women in the backseat. I don't care 'bout that now."
Cullen's hand stilled briefly, before resuming its slow movement through Johnny's hair. "So it's goodbye to Charlie Potatoes?"
Johnny chuckled. "Yeah, it sure is."
After a while, Cullen began humming. Both the sound and the touch led him to sleep, safe in the knowledge that he finally had somebody waiting for him.
"How you doin', Joker?"
The words were familiar, but the tone wasn't. No, for once the question wasn't tinted by concern, but rather what sounded remarkably like hope.
That precious emotion remained there, shining from Cullen's eyes as Johnny considered the question. Truly thought about it, until he knew exactly how he felt about his very first day as an employee in Viola's General Store.
"Couldn't be better."