Title: Of Fevers and Ghosts
Pairing: Johnny Hale/John Proctor
Disclaimer: I don’t own.Author’s Note: Been awhile. There will probably be more chapters after this, but my pace at this point is more random than it is anything else. The urge to work this particular project comes and goes.
“My husband, Mr. Hale?” Elizabeth asked as he entered their small cell. “Is there any news?”
“No news.” He smiled. “But by now I believe him well.”
“Safe, do you think?”
Before he could answer in his way, Rebecca Nurse bustled over. She’d been set to hang the day before, but in Proctor’s escape had been forgotten.
“Oh, now. Don’t go about asking him ridiculous half-questions. There’s no one listening, Elizabeth. Say it straight out.” She stopped and stared him dead in the eye. “Did you get tired of waiting for those little boys to do the right thing?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Hale felt something like a little boy himself, facing this woman.
“So have I.” She frowned. “But it’s good he’s gone at least. He’s the keystone to their madness. Once they lose their scapegoat, they’ll all hit the mud.” She stopped and looked him dead in the eyes for a long moment and it took a great deal of his willpower not to flinch.
At length, the only woman nodded and her smile was a sad twist of the lips.
“Don’t get yourself sunk in too deep.”
And then she wandered off again, back into her place amongst the mass of women.
“John will get into trouble the moment you let your eye off him.” Elizabeth smiled, her hands tangled together. “I’d make sure he’s not leaving where you left him, if I were you.”
“Why would he leave? He knows the danger he’s in.”
“He’s like a little boy sometimes, Mr. Hale. Whatever it is he can’t have, he wants the most.”
Worried now, Hale couldn’t keep from glancing at the window.
“He wouldn’t risk it.”
“He’ll want to see his boys.”
Hale’s eyes shot wide. He could be seen. And his boys were far too young to keep quiet about anything, much less that they’d seen their father.
“Excuse me.” He choked out, and bolted from the cell.
Proctor checked the new seal on the loose pane again and stepped back. It was only a little thing, but he felt useless wandering around the reverend’s house.
Suddenly, the door slammed open and he could hear running footsteps on the wooden floor. It was only when the man cursed that Proctor recognized him and pulled from the shadows.
“What’s happened? He frowned. “Are you well, Hale?”
A shattered sigh as Hale raked his fingers through his hair.
“You’re here. Thank god.”
“Are you sure you’re all in order?” Proctor took a step forward and stopped to hear his labored breathing. “Did you run here?”
A sharp nod and the man stood straighter.
“Have you been out at all?”
“Only into the woods. Why?”
“If they see you, John—”
“I was careful.” He smiled and rested a hand on the man’s shoulder. “What set you to running here?”
“Elizabeth mentioned you might find your sons.”
“Do not, John. You mustn’t.”
Proctor laughed and turned away.
“I am not so much an idiot as everyone seems to think.”
“You would do it.” Hale sighed again and sunk down into the armchair. “I believe your wife when she says you long for what you cannot have.”
“It is the fault of all men.” He stopped, looked at the reverend, the morning playing over in his mind. He’d wanted, lusted for what he could not have. And then…
“You said I’d cut myself this morning when I hadn’t.” Proctor said slowly, gauging the man’s reaction.
“I mistook what I saw.”
“And yet it happened.” Proctor crossed his arms, eyes seeking Hale’s though the reverend refused to face him. “Not five minutes past and I was bleeding.”
Another elegant shrug.
“Coincidence.” An odd flicker of fear in his eyes and he stood, running a hand through his hair. “I must return to the prisons, John. There’s work to be done.”
Proctor’s eyes darkened.
“What are you avoiding?”
“I am avoiding nothing.” Hale stopped, frowning, but the fear never left his eyes.
“Did I not answer it?”
Proctor was almost certain that look of confusion was a mask, hiding the panic welling beneath.
“What are you, Hale?” he asked, and his voice was gentle.
“A reverend.” The mask faded, fear turning to steel and ice behind his eyes. War had been called. “You would name me something different, John?”
Proctor took a step forward, slowly, as if approaching a startled horse.
“The look in your eyes before you told me I’d been cut, Hale, is not something I can easily forget.”
“And what look was that?” His voice was calm, but there was a sharp tension in his shoulders as he pressed his hands behind his back. The gesture was startlingly familiar.
“You looked right through me.”
“I was thinking. Nothing more.”
His sons… It reminded him of his sons when they had something to hide. What was it Hale was hiding? A mark? A tremor?
Were his hands shaking, Proctor wondered.
“Thinking of me?”
“I mistook what I saw, John. Nothing more.” There was a terseness in his voice now that belied a lie.
“No,” Proctor shook his head slowly. “You were right in what you saw, I think. But what you saw… I cannot parse it.”
“There is nothing to parse. Why can you not leave it at that?”
Proctor was silent a moment, eyes boring into those of the smaller man before he spoke.
“You are defensive.”
“Defensive? What cause have I not to be defensive when I’m being interrogated in my own home by a… a…” he sputtered the last and stopped dead, the fear in his eyes a tangible thing.
“A what? A wizard?” Proctor smiled slowly; daring to believe a little, see a little outside the doctrines of the church.
“If you intend to accuse me of something, Proctor, have it out now,” Hale spat, muscles working as he clenched his jaw.
“You need hide nothing from me, Hale.” Again that soft, cajoling tone. “You know better than to think I’d do anything to harm you.”
“I hide nothing.” And yet the muscles in his jaw danced on.
Almost absently, Proctor scratched at the cut that had bled so badly that morning. Hale followed his hand with an almost desperate look in his eyes.
If there had ever been a doubt the reverend was hiding something, it was banished now. He had never seen Hale like this before. Broken, yes. He’d seen him weep at the thought of so many dead, seen the nightmares that wracked his sleep and held him when he thought it would still him.
But not this. Not this sunken, dead look in his eyes. It was the look of a man who knew he was staring death in the face and yet still prepared to fight. The look itself was not unfamiliar, but to see it on Hale, sweet, even tempered Hale…
“What is it you fear?” John asked at length. “Another man would have laughed. And yet you stand there like stone with that look in your eyes. You’re hiding something, Hale. I can see it. But the reason why eludes me.”
He could not possibly fathom Hale’s panic in that moment. And it was not so much fear of the questions, but rather fear of the feeling building just under his breastbone and the pressure behind his eyes. Questions he had handled all his life. Every day was a constant practice in shadows, hiding who and what he was.
No, this was the terrifyingly familiar feeling that heralded the coming of a storm. It was a scent on the wind, a dog’s mind as he howls at the moon. And the knowledge that this attack could not be deflected, could not be spent curled in a warm bed was what had him pressed on the knife’s blade of panic.
“You’re far too intelligent for your own good, Proctor,” he said, voice little more than a choked whisper.
After all these years, his farce came crumbling down. His great mask, his masquerade, his living game… his protection. He was broken.
“Hale?” Proctor’s voice sounded a mile off. “Hale, are you well?”
He knew he should go to bed, curl before the fire and let this sickness have its way with him before he rejoined the world of the living. At the very least, he knew he should sit down. But force of will and stubbornness kept him standing, kept him clinging to the vain hope that perhaps he could fight it back, that he could continue on.
I am not mad. Neither am I ill. Send your questions elsewhere, Proctor. Leave me rest in peace.
The words of a head stone passed before his eyes.
Rest in peace.
His mother… wife… child. All dead.
Rest in peace.
He felt like he was falling to pieces, the world shattering around him.
A child’s voice. His daughter’s voice.
A sickness they couldn’t cure. Not with his mother’s remembered herbs, not with their prayers and useless medicines.
We all fall down…
Had Proctor not been moving already, he never would have caught him before he hit the ground.