Characters: John, Dean, Sam (Gen)
Rating: PG-13 (language)
Warnings: Spoilers through Season 2's "In My Time Of Dying"
Summary: This credo defines John Winchester to the bone: A man who won't die for something isn't fit to live…
Author's Notes: This was my entry for the last Hell Quarterly edition. I was given the prompt in italics above, which clearly said "John" to me. The characterization here (stemming from some interesting discussions with winterlive months ago) is more sympathetic than I typically feel about John, because this is John's viewpoint of his choices and not the outsider's observation. Also for my switch_25 table, this is "Foundation."
"You've got to step up, son. Got to do what's right."
The jungle is death in waiting, and it's always too dark at night.
Out here, far away from city lights, the moon filters blue shadows down through the leaves and branches. It isn't much— John can hardly ever see more than six feet in front of him—but he's seduced by the idea that looking harder will show him more. John spends his watch skimming over the area all around him, fixing on shapes and waiting for movement, then continuing on to the next section down. His eyes strain trying to separate blackness out of black. His ears buzz from listening, listening, until they hear nothing but the blood inside his head.
He is here, fighting this war, because this is who he was raised to be. You do what you're told, you come to the aid of your country, you take it like a man until the day when it takes you.
"A man who won't die for something isn't fit to live."
John's father was a World War II veteran, and his grandfather fought on the Western Front in World War I. Back through the line it went, one generation after another. The Winchesters have never turned their backs on duty.
In the rank, muggy battleground of this Hell where the enemy never sleeps, John wonders what his country's purpose is here. He used to think he understood it, but now that he's here in the thick of it, it all seems pointless. This war has been going on forever, gradually losing ground in a conflict where even the people they're fighting for don't want badly enough to win.
John lost half his platoon last week two klicks to the north, caught between trip-wire mines in the underbrush and a trapdoor-hidden sniper squad. The enemy tactics are as treacherous as the terrain.
Ten more months left in his tour, if he makes it that long. Every day is goddamned miracle. But his country aside, John knows why he's here—it's to keep the rest of his fellow soldiers alive.
The smell of smoke still clings to Sammy's blanket three days later, and it's enough to make John sick.
They're living out of suitcases at a motel while he decides what to do. They won't be settling back into the house again—after what happened to Mary, John can't put the boys through that risk, even if he could somehow stand the memories.
The room is damp from the rain outside, cold and clouds seeping in like early Winter. Dean is crying over by the window, like she's coming back if he waits long enough. John has to look away, his arms filled with a hungry baby and a bottle of formula. He couldn't fix this if he tried.
He doesn't even know where to begin.
He thought about it and thought about it for a week before he had enough.
How do you get past something like this, he wondered? He finally decided that the answer was, you just do.
Waiting around in Limbo isn't an option for him—patience is a virtue that has clearly passed him by. So he leaves the boys with Mike and Kate a few weekends, looking into fires and how they start, just anything to help make sense of it all.
John needs answers for what happened. He isn't sure himself—Sammy was crying and he went in to check, and then Mary was on the ceiling dripping blood and the world exploded into flames.
He couldn't get her down from there. It was too late even by the time he realized. He gave Sammy over to Dean, but then he just stood there, helpless, until he had to get out himself.
That image of her is fixed in his mind, that's how he knows he didn't imagine it. He also knows it seems crazy, but he damn sure saw it and now he's got to reconcile the facts.
Mary was murdered, and he doesn't know why. And her being there on the ceiling means that what did it wasn't human.
He lay in bed night after night, thinking about what that meant. Something evil set its sights on her, and nothing stopped it from destroying her. Where was God when Mary needed him, sweet, wonderful Mary? How could He let that happen to her?
John can't let that go, not the anger, not the need for resolution. What kind of man would he be if he turned his back on Mary's death and just let it pass? Something walked up and took what mattered most to him—took his soul's salvation, his boys' future, their peace of mind. That isn't something you forgive, and it isn't something you accept.
He thought his days of fighting were over for good when he left the 'Nam. But he knows that this is his battle now, finding the truth, whatever it takes.
It's not that he's looking to die, that's not it at all. But this was Mary, and she deserves that devotion, and John has to uphold it—his nature demands it. He'll give up his life if he has to, if it's necessary, but he won't go easily. He wants it to be worth something if it finally comes to that.
Getting a handle on the kind of information he needs is harder than he thought.
He spends time in libraries, reading books on supernatural phenomena. Soon, he's delving into an entire society of people that he'd written off as freaks back when he was still in junior high.
The reality of what he's seen himself—that it makes him one of those freaks—forces him to reconsider. He can no more dismiss all those people than sell his story to the tabloids and beg for public humiliation. Of course, some of those people actually are still crazy, but open mind… grain of salt… Nothing in his life is simple anymore, especially the truth.
Meeting Missouri Mosely a few weeks back had helped. He'd gone to a few palm readers in an especially desperate period, all of them spinning well-rehearsed lies except for this one woman—Missouri was the real deal.
He felt the difference right away. It was like she looked down into him and saw his past and his pain all in one. It was a comfort—the first time anyone had listened and believed. Two visits later she went to the house with him, and told him the general caliber of the thing he was up against.
Another man might have stopped then, rightly afraid of something so powerful and dangerous. But John is stubborn and ornery both, and that news was the trigger to arm himself with more knowledge until the day he'll finally be able to settle Mary's score.
One of the first things he decides is that he can't stay put. Lawrence is a small town, and whatever he's searching for has already moved on. So he gives up the garage and packs the boys up, leaving as many of the painful memories behind as he can. They don't stay gone.
John chases news of things that sound like his own trouble, reading between the lines of newspaper stories and scouring those damn tabloids. He checks out more books, some of them ancient and some probably all lies. What he learns about the supernatural stays with him as he goes.
His first victory is a demon by the goddamned Coke machine at the motel. Those impossibly red eyes are advancing on him fast, when he pulls a silver knife from his belt and stabs it in the heart.
After that, he's more careful about leaving the room after dark.
Soon he hears about a ghost in Mississippi, nothing dangerous, so he can take his time. He moves the boys there, gets a job and starts checking into the background. He's read about finding the bones, about salting and burning them to quiet the ghost. When he finds the grave and tries it out himself, he has to hang around for another week to be sure it worked.
He adds more supplies to the trunk of the car, in between the suitcases and the shotgun. He makes notes in his journal, things he's learned and things that only might be true.
It starts with wards on the car, salt lines at the doors and windows of where they're living.
Before long he has to teach the boys basic defense—how to protect themselves, and better safe than sorry even if it's just in case.
Dean handles a gun like a pro, like one of those kid soldiers John saw in the 'Nam (but he pushes that thought down as fast as it comes). Dean listens with his whole heart whenever John has something to teach him, those big eyes just watching him and memorizing every little detail. John's so pleased he never thinks about why.
Sammy's different, all worried looks and fidgeting, and maybe he's just too young for any of it to take hold. Dean promises to keep Sammy safe, no matter what.
The boys are in bed and John's drinking whiskey, listening to the rain. These last few months haven't been one of the better periods, and times like these John starts taking himself to task.
Fourteen years at this, and there's precious little to show for it. Little that's his.
Thanks to him, there are children and parents that still have each other, or people with a future that was nearly taken away. He's saved so many people that he can't remember half of them by now.
But there's little more he knows about what killed Mary; a few parallels in other cities, maybe, but that's it.
He never planned for this to become his life, all of this hunting and all that goes with it. At times he wonders what it's cost him—cost his sons over the years, by putting himself at risk and eroding the boys' stability… and their innocence and peace of mind.
When he lets himself think about those questions, it's like the ground's opening up beneath him.
Sammy tells him regularly how much he hates the way these choices have affected their lives (Please let it be only that, and not that Sam hates him). And Dean… John's raised a child that can't say No to him. Maybe Dean's just awfully obedient (Or sensible, or loyal), and he's a good soldier and a good son. Best not to look deeper, to ask whether it's because Dean's got too little sense of self to ever disagree.
John's put his life on the line for other people and their families all these years. Who would save them if he didn't? People can't defend themselves against things they don't believe in, and they wouldn't have the knowledge to succeed if they tried.
He can't turn his back on what he knows now. He can't let other people go through the kind of thing that devastated his own family.
John's a soldier, born and bred. There's a war going on, and he can't just choose to look away.
He's made a clean break for the moment. The boys are on their own.
Dean will take care of Sammy, or maybe it's the other way around. John's not sure which anymore, but either way they've got each other.
He still thinks it was wrong for Sam to leave them, but that doesn't matter much now. Watching what it did to Dean was almost as bad as worrying whether Sam was safe.
John's chosen to strike out on his own for this next part, though the boys won't understand. Cutting out on Dean like that was hard, but it's really for the best.
What John finds might be dangerous— he's gotten some good leads lately, and the showdown he's been chasing feels closer than it's ever been before. But he doesn't want to drag Dean down into that with him, just in case it all goes bad. He's willing to sacrifice himself to this battle, but not Dean, not if he can help it.
Sometimes the prey turns predator. A Hunter has to stay alert.
Chicago was a trap—just a means to lure them all close and take them out. John had to part ways with the boys again, and it was too damn soon—cut them like a knife—but they were safer on their own.
It was close, back there in Chicago, and John learned that the thing was damn powerful, even more than he had guessed. He also learned how little he knew.
The thing is, John's got the Colt now. The Colt can kill anything, and that's exactly the weapon he needs.
He doesn't have it with him at the moment—he left it with the boys. He wouldn't risk it as a bargaining chip without knowing what was coming in return. Instead, he took a decoy with him, fully realizing he might be caught in that lie. He got caught period, as it turns out, but he knew that possibility going in. It's why he made the boys stay behind.
The demon's power is strong—it was able to pin him against a brick wall and hold him captive, moving him like a doll. Now John is bound by more ordinary means—tied to a bed frame, to be exact. He's not sure what the demon's plans are, but John knows he's probably the bait. He can't help worrying that his boys will come and take it. Better they don't try…
"A man who won't die for something isn't fit to live."
His father's words come forward to remind him of everything his family molded him to be.
John tried to pass some of that on to his own boys, that sense of obligation. There are times he's afraid Dean might have learned that lesson too well. For Sam it's nearly the opposite: John always thought his youngest should have taken that more to heart, that he ran from having to face up to what he owed. But that's changed over the last year, and knowing what John knows now, about Sam and about the possibilities that are waiting to take hold of him… now he wishes Sam had kept on running instead.
John's body feels like it's burning inside, crackling under the skin.
This isn't the first time—the Demon's already taken over him twice before. By now, he knows what that feeling means, that disconnection of someone else controlling him while leaving just the scorched edges on his nerves to call his own.
It doesn't mean he won't fight it. The Demon's got his boys here, and John'll be damned if he lets his guard down no matter how hard it is to bend the Demon's rule.
Sam's down, and the Demon's turned on Dean now. John's helpless to stop it as it breaks Dean right in front of him, breaks him body and spirit while using John's voice, his eyes, and the cruelest and most dishonest words of all.
John gathers his strength, he focuses, pushes, and it's just enough for the Demon to falter and let Sam take him down.
Sam's ready to shoot, and that's the only answer here—John struggles up through the Demon's hold and begs Sam to do it, to end this once and for all: Shoot, Sammy—shoot!
He fights to hold the demon off to give Sam time. This is it—the thing he's been willing to die for these last twenty-three years, it's right here in front of them all. Shoot, Sammy, c'mon—just shoot! John's aching to end this battle, end the Demon that killed Mary, and more importantly, to take his boys out of this near-death equation.
Time hangs there teetering on a knife-edge of uncertainty, and Damn that compassion. Dean's talked Sam down from it, begged him not to do it. Dean's thinking like a son and not a soldier, and that's a weakness that might cost them everything now.
John can't beat the Demon while it's in him, but the Colt could have done it, and Fuck—he wanted that victory so bad he could taste it. Just—fuck. They still haven't won, and God knows what kind of shape Dean's in right now. The Demon could kill his boys in a heartbeat if it wanted to, and John tries not to think that, not to let it surface, because the damn Demon's still running the show.
The anxiety hovers pinprick-sharp behind his eyes, and then everything shifts and jolts and falters as the Demon leaves his body with a toxic roar.
John waivers for a moment—dazed by the sudden change—and then he snaps to in a breathless rush. He picks himself up, and the three of them stumble to the car, half-carrying Dean in their hurry to get out of here and find a hospital.
John's body is used-up tired now, shaking with the vibrations from the engine as Sam drives hell-for-leather fast.
Then the world goes blinding-white blinding-pain loud like the stretch of eternity, fire-hot agony until it just stops.
Should have done it, should have done it… The words are a mantra endlessly repeating in John's head.
If Sam had shot him and the Demon the way he was supposed to, it wouldn't have come to this. The slightest change would have shifted at least the timing of it all, and John wouldn't be here with a broken arm while Dean hangs on the pitiless edge of death.
He's already thought about how he can undo this, already asked for the supplies before Sam told him that a Reaper was after Dean.
Sam thinks John's not even trying to save Dean, but he couldn't be more wrong. He just doesn't realize the extent of what saving his brother is going to take.
John has been to see Dean more often than Sam knows, and God, how it hurts. The image of Dean, so pale and still in that hospital bed, is burned in John's head and on his heart. It brands him like the sum of all his failures. John watches and listens, waits for days, but nothing's changing. He knows Dean isn't coming back.
It turns out that the promise of vengeance means nothing when your baby winds up dying for it instead of you. The threat of losing Dean outweighs everything that used to matter, and that's not a destiny that John's prepared to just let happen—not a damn chance.
The Colt is tin-metal cheap to him now, compared to Dean's life. John's just grateful that the Demon won't see it that way.
In the basement, he summons the hellspawn creature that's defined so much of his life. Face-to-face again, John stands his ground with a calculated air of assurance. His skin prickles hotly as he works the deal so carefully— one wrong word, and he won't get what he needs. He can't afford to show his desperation.
The plan was so simple, just trading away the Colt. John's more worried that the Demon won't deliver its half. But the Colt's not enough, or the Demon sees how badly John wants Dean back. Demons drive a hard bargain, and this is harder than John ever imagined: in the end, he has to offer up himself.
Afterwards, he heads straight to Dean's room and nearly chokes in relief. Dean's awake and sitting up, and he looks so good—nearly perfect, apart from the cuts.
The choice John made was far, far easier than that Demon will ever know. His life for Dean's wasn't any kind of question; it was a gift, being allowed to have that chance.
His heart is at peace now, just knowing Dean is safe and well again. John's already begun stepping away from this world, begun the process of letting go. Just a few things to take care of first… he does his best with Sammy. Dean's more prepared to listen, and John lays out all the apologies and gratitude he felt over the years but probably didn't say, and God, he should have. He says it now.
The last thing he needs to say won't rest easy with Dean, but he's got to do it. Someone has to keep an eye on Sammy… whatever he becomes, and John hopes to God he doesn't.
John says goodbye with his eyes then, even though it should be more when it's the last chance he'll ever get. But he can't hold onto Dean the way he wants to—Dean would know something's up, and he can't ever let Dean suspect.
His goodbye to Sam wasn't what he wanted either, but it wasn't bitter. That's as good as he can hope for now.
John makes it back to his own room before the change hits him—Thank God it wasn't in front of the boys. He collapses on the floor, pain bursting through his chest, and yet he's relieved, he's even glad, because the bargain is complete now. Dean's going to be all right.
The room grows dark around him, his lungs stalled-out between breaths as his father's voice drifts down:
"A man who won't die for something isn't fit to live."
John was willing, so many times over.
Now he's grateful that after everything, he's dying for what matters most.
-------- fin -------