Not going to caveat this one at all. I've had it finished for a while, but I had to sit on it for a week or so just to make sure I was done. Thanks to the always rockin phantomasfor the most excellent beta. She always makes me much better than I otherwise am.
Title: Living Inside the Box (1/2)
Author: Dodger Winslow
Challenge: Psych 30 Chart
My Prompt: #6 Inferiority Complex
Genre: Gen, Pre-Series
Word Count: 16,000
Disclaimer: I don't own the boys, I'm just stalking them for a while.
Summary: He had to give it to the soulless bastard: this fear demon certainly knew its shit. Knew exactly what John was afraid of, knew exactly how to put him in the worst of all possible scenarios.
Living Inside the Box
John hadn’t moved more than a couple of inches in any direction for – by his count – more than thirty-seven hours. He’d spent the first couple of those hours unconscious, but the rest had passed slowly, torturously, like water dripping from a leaky faucet. Time marked itself with every beat of his heart, counting him down inexorably to the edge of what he could actually endure without losing it.
He had to give it to the soulless bastard: this fear demon certainly knew its shit. Knew exactly what John was afraid of, knew exactly how to put him in the worst of all possible scenarios. But then again, who wasn’t going to lose it a little, waking up to find themselves being buried alive in a box about the size of a cheap coffin? That kind of thing would scare God Himself … if not the cramped confines of the box, then the pitch black of what little air existed between your skin and unfinished wood, or the feel of it being lowered into the ground, or the sound of dirt hitting the lid by the shovelful.
No matter how you sliced it, that was just plain scarier than hell.
Of course, that’s what fear demons were good at: scaring the hell out of people. Or the hell in to people, as was more accurately the case. Which followed, if you thought about it, because if they weren’t any good at what they did, they’d probably be a lot scrawnier than most of them tended to be.
Not that size mattered all that much when it came to demons. Or fear either, he supposed. But still, considering what was required, biologically speaking, of the human body before a fear demon could actually tap in and suck your soul dry, along with pretty much everything else you owned, if it couldn’t whip a guy into a pretty reasonable panic, it’d get pretty damned hungry before someone like John Winchester rolled along to send it back to hell where it belonged.
Fear. That would be a crappy menu choice 24/7, wouldn’t it? What am I going to have for lunch today? Hey, a little fear sounds good. Do you want to go to dinner, baby? I hear there’s a good fear place on thirty-second street.
John closed his eyes, opened them again. It made absolutely no difference at all in terms of what he could or could not see. It was darker than the inside of a kangaroo in here, and the only way he knew if his eyes were open or closed – other than remembering how he last left them – was by the burning of stale air against their surface or the lack thereof. Lack of burning, not air. Because lack of air isn’t something a man could afford to think about when he’d spent thirty-seven hours locked inside a box, buried in the ground, waiting to run out of it.
Air, not burning.
So he wasn’t thinking about that. At least, he was trying not to think about it. Instead, he’d decided to think about what a boring crap existence it would be to never get to eat anything other than fear.
John closed his eyes again, left them closed longer this time, then forced them back open. He was losing it. He could feel himself starting to unravel.
It was something he knew was inevitable, of course. He’d known it from the moment he opened his eyes to this featureless black hell of living inside the box. If living was what you called it, instead of just waiting to die.
But dying wasn’t the hard part. Dying was going to be the easy part, in fact. It was the whole waiting to die thing that would no doubt prove to be the real bitch.
Because fear demons weren’t in any hurry to help you along in that. The payoff for them was the buildup. The whole taste part of sucking a person dry was in how dread escalated to fear, and then to panic, and finally to insanity.
Or at least, that’s what he’d been told.
So here he was, lying flat on his back in the pitch black, starting to unravel and hoping like hell the fear demon choked and died on whatever pleasure it got out of tasting him to a state of pure terror. Because fuck the soulless bastard, John Winchester wasn’t going to panic until he had to.
And then he was going to do his damnedest not to panic even then.
There was only so much air in here, and he couldn’t afford to waste it kicking and screaming and tearing his fingers to bloody stumps against the wood above him like there was someone out there to hear him, to give a fuck, to save him. Because there simply wasn’t. He’d come alone – stupid thing to do, on reflection – and he was going to die alone. With any luck, still in full possession of his faculties. Or at least, the lion’s share of them anyway.
That was the best John could hope for because as much as there wasn’t anyone out there to hear him, there wasn’t anyone coming to rescue him, either.
And that was a good thing. It was a good thing because the only one who might even care John had gotten his ass thrown in a hole and covered over with dirt was Dean, and the last thing Dean needed was to face a demon like this. The last thing Dean needed was to have his fears turned against him; turned to reality; turned to some kind of gorge-fest for a low level demon that had nothing better to do than snatch people up at random and whip them up into a frenzy of fear so it could suck them dry of everything that made them who they were.
What a crap ass job that must be. Hey, what do you do for a living, big guy? I whip people into frenzy and then suck em dry. You?
Sounded like the job description of a hooker or something. That was a good way to look at it, John supposed: fear demons were the street walkers of the demon class. No, whores. He liked whores better. It was more demeaning. He hoped that intent translated to the demon waiting outside, the demon waiting to suck him into a state of terminal soullessness.
Too bad he couldn’t reach his wallet or he’d leave a five on the nightstand as he crossed over.
John smiled, played with that notion in his head for a while. Been a good long time since he’d had himself a good lay. Is that what they even called it any more? Getting laid? Or was it alright to actually call it getting fucked now, times being liberated the way they were. Or considering the progression the demon had in mind, maybe he could even get by with calling it a good suck-and-fuck. That’s what he was looking for: a good suck-and-fuck. And who was going to tell him he couldn’t call it that in the confines of his own head?
Nobody, is who. Not a good God damned body on the planet.
So that’s the way John decided to think about it. A good suck-and-fuck. Some cheap whore in fishnet stockings and a belt skirt, running her tongue along his psychological prick, her lips painted fuck-me red to match her fingernails, because women were like that, always matching shit up: shoes and bags, curtains and bedspreads, lipstick and nail polish.
The way his luck was running, the damned fear demon was probably butt ugly.
And a guy.
John laughed. Yeah, that was pretty much his luck these days. Lying here in the dark, eyes closed (or were they open?) in some kind of vain effort to convince himself it was just a really fucking dark room rather than a coffin planted in the ground and running out of air, he was pondering the notion of getting his first good suck-and-fuck in damned near twenty years, and he couldn’t even get it done by a damned woman.
Not even a damned demon woman.
Or female, he supposed would be the right way to look at that. Because demons weren’t really men or women, just yin or yang, male or female. And one or another of them was always fucking him or sucking him in ways that never had anything at all to do with what he wanted or needed or even what might feel good, if only for just a passing moment. It always had to do with something like this: fear. Or hatred. Or just pure, old-fashioned, unadorned evil.
That was the kind of demon that was always latching on to John Winchester. The bad kind. Because, you know, there are no good demons. That only happens on television.
The only time you get a good demon is when a writer needed somebody who can cut through the shit to tell the audience what old broody boy is thinking under all that broody boy stoic melancholy. When you needed something like that, you could paint an actor green and call him a demon, and hey, isn’t that all working like it could almost be the way it was?
But that wasn’t the way it was. Not in real life.
In real life, the demons weren’t talented. They didn’t sing, didn’t crack wise, didn’t help the hero out in a pinch or run their own karaoke gin joint for their own nefarious purposes.
All they did was suck and fuck a man in all the worst possible ways.
Which, in and of itself, was kind of an amusing thought, now that John thought about it. Because how, exactly, does a suck-and-fuck become something a man thinks of as having a worst way to it?
Maybe Dean was right. Maybe it had been too long for him. Maybe his son was onto something when he told his old man he’d be an assload easier to get along with if he’d just get himself laid every decade or so.
Laid. There he was, back to that word again. Matter of age, he supposed. Dean was more the type who could look at a woman and think "suck-and-fuck!" John, on the other hand, had always needed a little more in the line of commitment than that. At least an exchange of names, or a phone number or something.
Of course, that was back in the day, when he was still looking for something he hadn’t found yet. Once he met Mary … well, okay, he still didn’t ever think of it as a suck-and-fuck, but he didn’t really think about it as getting laid, either. He thought of it more along the lines of …
Aw, hell. That was just peachy. Here he was, conjuring mental porn to distract himself from fixating on the inevitability of unraveling to a pile of neural yarn under the duress of being buried alive, and he has to go and start thinking like a girl.
He’d actually almost put those two words together in his head like he’d been putting suck-and-fuck together. Making love. Son of a bitch, Dean was right.
That was a hell of a thing, wasn’t it? To have your own son be right when he tells you to go get yourself laid? Fucked? Made love to? Whatever?
Good God, what a pitiful shell of a man he’d become. At the very least, you’d think he could manage a little of the whole fishnet stocking thing when he was trying to whore up the notion of getting himself dead the hard way. A little more fuck-me red lipstick and a little less Mary whispering in his ear; Mary moaning against the base of his throat; Mary making that sound she made when he had her balanced right on the knife edge, and she was just starting to fall.
Yeah. That’s the way women and old men thought about it. Or if not women in general, then good girls at least; in the way the term "good girls" used to be applied back when he was of an age that girls were rated as either good or bad based on how hard they clamped their legs together on a date. Which was around the same time you could still call them girls without getting kicked in the head for it.
Mary was like that. A good girl. But only as good as she had to be. She teased him about that a lot. Told him he had provincial attitudes toward women, and that she’d never been as much of a good girl as he’d been an old-fashioned boy who saw her the way he wanted to see her.
Because the whole challenge aspect of convincing a good girl to unclamp her legs for him got him all hot under the collar, was the way she used to put it. At which point he usually pointed out that under the collar was not where such things got him hot. Which usually unclamped her legs for him, and they were off.
But that was a long time ago. He hadn’t been hot under the collar – or much of anywhere else, for that matter – for so long now he hardly remembered what it felt like. Hardly remembered the burn of wanting someone because he needed them, not just because they had all the right parts in all the right places. He hadn’t felt that for more than twenty years now, and after so long, who could really be bothered by wanting to feel it any more?
He realized suddenly he wanted it now. Hell of a place to get a woody, but there it was, sneaking up on him and fucking with his blood pressure in the dark. It was thinking about Mary that did him in. Thinking about the taste of her skin, thinking about her legs wrapped around his hips and the way she moved when he was inside her.
Thinking about those things – dreaming about those things – always put his libido back in action, even when those thoughts slicked through his mind at the most inappropriate time.
Inappropriate like now. The very definition of inappropriate: thinking about what it felt like to make love to his wife – no, wait, to fuck his wife – while he was locked inside a box, waiting to unravel enough to lose it so the fear demon’s suck-and-fuckage could begin.
John closed his eyes, left them closed this time. His gut was burning, cramping, twisting. He felt sick. His skin was cold and clammy, and his head ached like someone had a crowbar in his ear and was trying to crack his skull wide open.
He wanted Mary. He wanted her so bad he could taste it.
This was always the way it played when he let himself think of her outside the context of the boys, when he let his memories of her stray from the mother she was to the wife she’d been, to the woman he’d wanted, needed, had. The sweet warm of her nestled against his body always turned to a mortal evisceration in how much he missed her. The salty slick of her on his tongue always burned like fire in the way he knew she was gone, knew she was never coming back.
Knew how much he wanted her, how much he needed her, simply didn’t matter because God, or the universe, or whatever the fuck was in control of this rigged game didn’t give a rat’s ass about what John Winchester wanted or needed or couldn’t live without so badly it consumed him to ash inside just to remember it in the ways he most needed it.
At the times he most needed it.
He wished it was just over with, already. Wished the fear demon would just get on with the damn thing and put him out of his misery.
Even as he thought that though, he knew it was him standing in the way of that happening. The smart thing to do would be to stop fighting and give in to it. To just let his mind wander down the wrong road instead of re-directing it every other God damned place in the universe in some bullshit effort to keep from walking a road he was going to eventually walk anyway.
But no one had ever accused John of being a smart man. Not smart that way. Not smart in terms of taking the paved road instead of hacking his own way through the thick of the jungle. And it wasn’t even that the jungle was more in the direction he wanted to go. It was far more simply explained that he chose the jungle path for no reason other than because it wasn’t already paved.
Which, now that he thought about it, was probably what Mary was saying when she teased him about the draw of charming good girls into unclamping their legs for him.
The road less traveled and all that crap. When it came to women and fear demons, evidently. And she was right. Mary was always right about that kind of thing. She saw him so much more clearly than he saw himself, and she wasn’t afraid to call him on his bullshit. Wasn’t afraid to tell him when he was being an ass and how to stop.
She always told him how to stop.
She never left him out there on his own to figure it out, never just walked away when he was foundering and didn’t even know it. She told him how to do the right thing, took him by the hand and showed him the better way to go about things.
It was his nature to do things the hard way. It always had been. It probably always would be. Well, for as long as there still was an always, anyway.
And that had served him the past. In the Marines, in particular. He’d survived a couple of times he wouldn’t have simply because he refused to give in. To give up. But that was different. Those were humans. Inhuman humans maybe, but still humans.
And this was a fear demon.
A fear demon.
You couldn’t outwait a fear demon. Couldn’t hold on until it just got tired of fucking with you and went away. The longer you held on, the more it got out of the deal. John knew that – knew it better than most – but still, he just couldn’t seem to make himself give it up. Let it go. Let it happen.
If there was any chance of surviving this – any chance at all of escape, or rescue – he’d hold on forever if that’s what it took. But there wasn’t, and he knew it. Hell, Dean didn’t even know where he was. He’d done that deliberately – left without telling Dean anything about where he was going or what he was hunting – just in case something like this happened.
Not because he didn’t know he needed someone backing him up to pull his ass out of the fire if things went down the way they did, but rather just because he wasn’t willing to take the risk of what Dean would do if things went down the way they did. He wasn’t willing to risk the certainty of Dean charging in on his kamikaze horse to try and save the day because that is exactly what Dean would do.
When it came to his old man, Dean didn’t have a damned brain in his head. He’d storm hell itself if that’s what it took to save John – or Sammy, for that matter – and he wouldn’t even bother to put on a little sunscreen for protection first.
His son was nothing if not a sacrificial little bastard. John had to give him that. And the boy didn’t know the meaning of the word fear in that context. Not personal fear, at least. Not any fear for himself.
Which was exactly why John couldn’t risk him coming along on this one.
Because Dean had no fear for his own safety, but he had all kinds of fear about other things. Fear about losing things, fear about being left alone. And that was exactly the kind of fear an ambitious, low-level demon would be looking to exploit. Hell, the juice jolt alone from breaking someone like Dean would bump it up a notch or two in the "Axis of Evil" rankings. As strong as Dean as was – as fearless, as indomitable – breaking him as completely as he would break if it figured out where to push, how to push, would be the coup of the decade.
And demons always knew. Or more accurately, they didn’t just know so much as they were hardwired to figure it out. They were good at that kind of shit … probably why they were in the whole demon business in the first place. Because they could sense it when they hit your hot spot. They could feel it. They could taste it.
And he’d be God damned if he was going to let anybody suck-and-fuck his son unless it was the way Dean liked that kind of thing … meaning pretty much anywhere, any time, as long it was a girl – a human girl – and she was pretty. Or she had a decent figure. Or she at least still had a pulse.
God Lord, how he’d ever raised such a horndog was beyond him. Mary would be so proud of Dean in so many ways, but she’d be a bit horrified if she knew the way her little boy went through women.
Or maybe she wouldn’t be. Maybe she’d understand he was looking for something he couldn’t find. Maybe she’d get that he was trying to recapture a feeling he had once but that had been stripped away from him when he was just a little kid.
John had done everything he could to teach Dean sex wasn’t love and visa versa; but he hadn’t really gotten the job done on that front. At least, not to his satisfaction. And he was reasonably certain, not to Mary’s either. There was just something missing in the boy his old man was never going to be able to replace. Never be able to help him with. Never be able to fix.
Sammy didn’t have that. Sammy knew his own worth, assumed the whole world loved him just because he was him. But not Dean. Dean played that "everybody loves me" card like he had a whole deck of them up his sleeve, but he didn’t believe it for a minute. All that swagger, all that braggadocio … it was just cover fire for a little boy who got it in his head early that he wasn’t worth loving because nobody had ever loved him enough to stick around.
Like it was his mother’s fault she got murdered. Or like his old man hadn’t stuck around despite everybody and their dog telling him he needed to leave the boys somewhere safe while they were growing up. Someplace stable. That he needed to think about his kids first; let them live normal lives even if he was determined to take on the weight of the world and carry it around on his back like some jackass nailing himself to a cross for no better reason than he wasn’t getting laid any more.
The collective stance of just about everyone who took it upon themselves to offer an opinion he’d never fucking asked for in the first place seemed to be if he wanted to make that choice for himself, then fine. They didn’t approve, but they wouldn’t dog him for it either. Damn white of them. But making that choice for the boys? Raising them the way he had, making them into small soldiers rather than letting them be little boys who at least had a chance of growing up into functional men? No, they were going to dog him to the grave for making that choice. They were going to judge him unworthy to be a father, tell him he had no idea what was really important or how to put his kids needs above his own.
They were so full of shit it made John want to puke.
Like his boys ever had a chance to grow up normal once the demon torched their mother. Like they ever had an option to be anything other than the kind of children who would know how to protect themselves if something happened to their dad like what happened to their mom. Or if something like what murdered their mom came after them next, and their dad wasn’t right there to protect them, right there in the room with them instead of downstairs sleeping in front of the TV, or half way across the country, hunting a vengeful spirit while a vengeful demon hunted his sons in their own home.
Like they were ever going to have a home again. Ever going to have a home like they had when their mother was alive. A home that was safe from monsters in the closet and where shadows in the dark weren’t the reflections of demons watching over them with yellow eyes.
The image of the demon watching them while they slept skipped John’s pulse, made his heart pound, made it race. He tried to push the idea away, force it out of his head like it had no business being there, but it wouldn’t go. It lingered in his mind with the persistence of cat urine in a couch cushion, haunting him with the fear of yellow eyes watching from the corner as Dean slept beside him in the bed and Sammy snored his baby-chortle snore in a crib so close John could reach out and pluck his son to safety almost as quickly as he could get to the hunting knife he kept under his pillow.
His chest hurt, made it hard to breathe. He wasn’t sure if that was because he was finally running out of air in this fucking box, or if it was because the fear demon threw him half way across a warehouse to the tune of "Wall Meet Johnny" before it stuck him in here, buried him in the ground, and left him to soften up and rot in his own fear until it could suck him dry to the dead-flat fuck of being totally fucked.
Suck-and-fuck. There he was, back to that again. Come full circle to where he started.
But he was going to play it that way, play it as if this was a previous state of mind to which he’d returned, because that was the only thing he could think of to do to keep from having to own up to the idea that the pressure settling into his chest and crushing the resiliency from his lungs wasn’t failing oxygen content so much as it was just his own damned inadequacies reaching up to bite him in the told-you-so.
He wasn’t going to admit – even to himself – that the constriction tightening through him came from knowing all the wrong choices he’d made with his boys, came from all those wrong choices closing in on him from every side. He wasn’t going to admit he was choking on all the wrong things he did when he was raising them a way God never intended John Winchester to raise children – without the softening influence of Mary to mitigate the things a Marine might consider acceptable when training teenagers to survive in a war zone but that a mother would instinctively know were utterly unacceptable even if he was doing it to try and train those boys how to survive their own private war zone.
She would have told him he was being an ass. She would have taken him by the hand and showed him a better way to go about things, a better way to get it done that didn’t damage his children so much in the doing. She would have helped him figure it out, or would have figured it out for him, but she wasn’t there to do that because he let the demon strip her from him, let it strip her from the boys.
Lying in the dark, thinking about things he was too stupid to avoid thinking about, John knew exactly what tightened his chest to a painful clench; but he was going to consider it a lack of air instead, or some kind of injury sustained in the line of duty. Because admitting it was what it was – him knowing who he was as a father, him knowing who paid the price for him being that way – was too much like giving up. Too much like giving in. Too much like pulling on that loose string in his mind until it unraveled him.
Because as much as he feared getting put in a box and buried alive, he feared what he’d done to his boys more. That was the thing that scared him numb those first few months after Mary’s murder. Not so much the idea of the demon coming after the boys again – that idea was so far beyond fear he couldn’t even put a name to it for a while, couldn’t really let it sit in his mind long enough to risk it taking up residence there and pushing him into a bottle, or a loony bin, or something even more inaccessible to the child who didn’t talk for all those months, grieving his lost mother the way he was – but rather, the idea of how utterly unqualified he was to try and do this alone.
Not just to raise them alone like he would have if Mary had died the way other mothers died; but to raise them alone in a world chock-full of evil he’d never even seen before, let alone knew how to defend against. A world where all the things he’d seen with his own eyes to the knowing that they were the truth of reality were things that would get his kids taken away from him if he looked to the system for help. Things that would get him committed if he told a doctor, or a cop what he saw, what he feared. Things that meant he couldn’t even talk to a counselor about his grief, or about Dean’s grief, or how to cope with Dean’s grief, or how to help Dean cope with his own grief.
Because their grief wasn’t just the grief of losing a wife, losing a mother. It was a shared a grief about the way they lost her, and for everything else they lost along with her.
Their lives. Their sense of reality. Their ability to understand the world as anything other than a place where a woman could be pinned to the ceiling of her child’s nursery and eviscerated, then incinerated alive while her husband stood by and did nothing.
Did absolutely nothing.
John gritted his teeth, struggled against the sounds that were pressing through his lips, littering the darkness with evidence of all he wasn’t, all he hadn’t been able to do. He tried to force his mind to another subject, but it wouldn’t go. It wanted to stay here, wanted to wallow for a while, indulge the poor pity me that invariably put him in a Jack Daniels state of being.
That had been the hardest thing to overcome: the need to grieve for himself in ways that would have taken him away from Dean. Not Sammy so much – Sammy was so young, he didn’t even really know who his dad was yet, right? – but Dean. He couldn’t leave Dean by grieving Mary in the ways that might have helped him get through it instead of getting hung up on it forever, fixating on it, fixating on finding the thing that murdered her, on destroying it.
Like that would make everything better. Like getting that fucking demon was going to give his sons their mother back, give him Mary back. It wasn’t going to do that, and he knew it. He’d always known it. But he fixated on it anyway because it gave him something to focus on, a reason to keep going that wasn’t just because there was a little boy looking to him as the end-all and begin-all of everything he had left.
Because that weight – the crushing weight of that boy’s need – made the grief worse, not better. Seeing it in Dean’s eyes killed him a little more each day until there wasn’t anything left of him to kill. Until he was so sick with the fear he wasn’t up to it, he couldn’t do what Dean needed him to do, that it began to immobilize him, began to break him worthless.
He couldn’t keep living just because Dean needed him to. He tried, but he wasn’t strong enough, wasn’t selfless enough. He wasn’t the kind of man who could walk off the wound of losing Mary, of watching her die and not being able to do anything to help her, to protect her, to die with her rather than go on without her.
That became the only thing he could think about: wishing he’d died with her so he didn’t have to go on without her.
So he gave himself something else to think about. He gave himself something besides dying to focus on, to fixate on. He made it about the demon, and killing the demon became his reason to go on. Vengeance. It was a good reason. One of those biblical reasons. And it was something he could hold on to when knowing he was all Dean had simply wasn’t enough to make him willing to live through this, willing to deal with this, willing to just keep walking, just eternally keep walking through these icy waters of a fast moving stream where every other step was a risk on slick stone that could spill him to his ass, or a danger in the space between slick stones that could break his fucking ankle, that could cripple him, leave him face down in the runoff, drowning, taking Dean down with him, losing his grip on Sammy so his baby – Mary’s baby – was floating downstream to the rapids ahead without anyone – without him, without his brother, without anyone –to protect him from the rocks and the water and the hell of running the rapids alone without any hope of survival.
John’s skin had gone cold, and he could feel the panic starting to own him. His breathing was worse than labored now, it was coming in small gasps, tearing in and out of him while his chest cramped and his head swam. He needed to move suddenly, needed to move so badly his leg started kicking without his permission, slamming into the top and the sides of the box only inches from where they started.
The moment he started moving, the need to move escalated by a factor of ten.
He had to get out. He had to get out now, had to get out so badly it was the only thing he could think about. But he wasn’t thinking, he was panicking. A deep, mindless, gut panic that made everything go as dark inside his mind as it was inside this box.
He was going to die here. The air was going to run out, and he was going to die, and Dean was never going to even know what happened to him. He was always going to think his old man just walked out and never came back. He was going to think he’d done something to make John leave. He was going to think it was his fault, that he was the one to blame, the reason his dad left, the reason he was all alone.
It wasn’t rational, but it was what Dean would think.
That’s what he thought about his mother; what he’d always thought about his mother.
John did everything he could to make Dean understand what happened to Mary wasn’t his fault – it wasn’t either of their faults – but Dean was too sensitive to believe John when he could sense his dad’s anger, his dad’s guilt, his dad’s pain. He took it all on himself, made it all about him, because that’s what children do. He couldn’t see John blaming himself for failing to protect Mary, he just felt John blaming someone, so it had to be him.
It only made sense that it was him. It was his fault. He was the reason his mother left.
And he’d be the reason is old man left, too.
Dean wouldn’t think it through. He wouldn’t realize John would never leave him, wouldn’t realize John never had left him, not in all those years when it would have been so much easier to just walk away, to just never come home again.
But Dean wouldn’t think of it that way. He’d just know his dad was gone now.
And even at twenty-three, he’d take it the same way he took his mother being gone when he was four. Because despite everything John had done to try and help his son, to try and get him through what a demon did to him – what a demon did to them all – he’d never been able to do it. He’d never been able to unstick Dean from that moment in time when he was standing in the hallway outside Sammy’s nursery, looking up at his dad while the house burned around them, taking his little brother and running away because that’s what John told him to do – what John ordered him to do – instead of staying behind and fighting to save his mother.
For the rest of his life, Dean was going to be stuck in that moment in time. He was going to be that little boy, going to be four years old, looking to John to tell him what to do and then blaming himself when he did it instead of doing something else.
For the rest of his life, he was going to blame himself for not being able to do what no child could have done. He was going to blame himself for not being able to save his mother, to save his father, to save his little brother. Even though he’d saved them all at one time or another, Dean was always going to blame himself for not saving them the times he didn’t. The times he couldn’t. The times no one could have.
And he’d blame himself for this, too. It was John’s fault – it was always John’s fault – but Dean would blame himself because that’s what Dean did.
What John could never stop him from doing.
He could feel it starting, feel the demon getting what it wanted from him, feel it feeding, feeling it sucking things out of him he couldn’t afford to lose. The pressure of the box closing in on him had escalated to panic … the kind of panic he only felt when he was failing Dean. Failing Mary. Failing Sammy.
And it was his own fault.
His own fault he was even here. His own fault it was winning. His own fault he couldn’t make himself stop this, couldn’t make himself calm down enough to stop the demon from feeding, from owning him, from consuming him.
He could stop this if he just had the strength to do it, but he didn’t. He was letting it unravel him, letting it win. It was winning and Dean was the one who’d have to pay. Dean was always the one who paid. Always the one who took the weight, always the one who took the blame because John couldn’t get his shit together, couldn’t be a man, couldn’t protect what was important to him, protect his family, protect his son.
Dean was going to blame himself for this because John wasn’t strong enough to tell his own son he was going on a hunt alone and that was that. He wasn’t man enough to tell Dean no and make it stick, wasn’t father enough to convince his own child to obey him. And because he wasn’t, he’d ducked out like a coward, left when Dean was off fucking some girl into a state of calm, out looking for some kind of relief from his own demons, some moment in time where it wasn’t all about him and how much he’d failed everyone he loved.
So Dean would blame himself for John choosing the coward’s way out. He’d blame himself for not being there, for putting his own needs above his father’s like just wanting something for himself, just a little relief for himself, was something he had no right to want, had no right to need.
He’d blame himself for not being there to save a man who couldn’t be saved, a man who’d never been able to be saved.
John forgot how to breathe, forgot how to pull air in and push it out again. The dark shrieked through him, tearing him apart as his mind went dull, went silent, went empty. He was dying and he knew it. He could feel it. Feel the loss of himself as he was leaving; feel everything he was being sucked out of him like water from a glass through a straw.
And then he wasn’t.
He just wasn’t.
Wasn’t dying, wasn’t being sucked dry to the ultimate fuck of becoming nothing.
The panic inside him was still shrieking – shrieking – but he wasn’t dying any more. Wasn’t bleeding to death in his own guilt, wasn’t losing everything he was as his soul turned itself inside out.
He came back to an awareness of his body thrashing around like a wild animal in a box. His legs were kicking in mindless rage, his arms flailing about in fathomless panic. He was frantic to break free, to get out, to get away. Nothing else mattered: not pain, not blood, not death.
For just a moment, he couldn’t control it. Couldn’t do anything except continue what he was doing. It was like he’d been cut from his body, ripped out of his mind and thrown through the windshield of his own perceptions, tearing free of the wreckage he’d become in a way that felt naked and alone rather than safe or sane.
He had no control over anything, and the dark was still shrieking.
And then he did.
And it wasn’t.
Pain washed him in acid. His chest, his hands, his knees, his feet, his elbows, his head, his ribs … he was destroying himself on the inside surfaces of the raw, wood box. He ordered himself to stop. Stop now. Stop thrashing, kicking, flailing.
His body didn’t listen all at once. It obeyed in increments, falling still by degrees. His heart convulsed spasmodically in his chest as the beat slowed to something he could sustain. His lungs charlie horsed with the effort of breathing like muscles that had been run too hard and too fast and too long. He gritted his teeth, knotted his hands to fists.
Tightening every muscle in his body, he focused on locking himself down, locking himself into submission. His will took over, took control. It established a fragile obedience, maintained it focusing every ounce of himself into the monumentally physical task it was just to hold still, just to hold on.
He’d be okay if he could just hold on.
As he body quit fighting him, his muscles settled, his bones easing to rest. Holding on became a mission, and he committed himself to it, put his every resource into accomplishing it.
He was holding on for the sake of holding on. No one was coming and he knew it, knew there wouldn’t be a rescue, knew there wouldn’t be anything but more of just doing everything he could to hold on. Hold on a little longer. But still, if he could just hold on a little longer …
"Dad? Can you hear me, Dad?"
John gasped. His body jolted like someone put paddles to his chest and shocked him back to life. A million volts of triumph arced through his mind. It lit him up, turned everything cold hot again, turned everything dead alive again.
But it wasn’t Dean. As quickly as John came to life, he died again. Resuscitation turned to electrocution as he realized it wasn’t Dean. It couldn’t be Dean.
Dean didn’t even know where he was.
Wood splintered, broke. The darkness on the other side of his eyelids turned to light.
Hands ran across his chest, checked his ribs before running up and down his legs, and then his arms. They felt of his face, his skull, his neck.
John kept his eyes closed, kept his body still, kept his mind in control enough to deny the almost overpowering urge to respond.
"Dad? You okay? Come on, Dad; open your eyes for me."
It was Dean’s voice, but it wasn’t Dean. It was the demon. The demon had him, and it was going for endgame. He wasn’t dying any more because he was already dead. He knew that now, realized it by the way the rules of the game had changed.
It was exerting too much influence on how he perceived things. If he still had a body, still had senses, it would have to work through him, not around him; but it wasn’t. It was changing his environment more every moment, making it feel as if the box was open now, as if he was being liberated, being rescued.
It couldn’t do that if he still had a body. The sense of being ripped free of himself was the truth. The terror of being thrown clear, naked, alone, vulnerable: that was reality. His body was nothing more than a useless twist of bones and blood lying in a box somewhere. The things he thought he felt were aberrations of perception, collateral damage from the demon clawing its way down into the fissures he’d allowed it to break in his mind.
It was inside him now, confounding his perceptions, fouling his awareness as it invaded his most elemental sense of self. He was becoming the lies it told him as it took over, believing what it wanted him to believe so it could separate his defenses from that which they defended.
It was digging for his soul, tearing through whatever was left to protect it.
A man could lie to another man. A man could lie to a demon. But a man couldn’t lie to himself. Not really. Not on the levels that really mattered. On those levels, a man always knew the truth about himself. Always knew where he was weak, always knew what things could destroy him if he ever let anyone – anything – figure out what they were, how to use them against him.
It came as a surprise to find himself relaxing, find himself settling to a mental still as he accepted what had been inevitable from the moment the demon got him. Knowing it was over and he’d lost came as a relief.
He wasn’t sure if that was how he really felt, or if it was the demon telling him how he felt, but it really didn’t matter any more. All that mattered was the relief of feeling it.
Being dead set him free from the need to survive. Understanding it was the demon sustaining him now – the demon keeping his sense of self in a state it still considered alive – freed him to do what he needed to do.
What he wanted to do.
If he could just end it, then it would be over.
"Come on, Dad. I know you’re in there. Open your eyes. Just open your eyes and look at me, Dad. Come on. Open your eyes and look at me."
For the first time in what seemed an eternity, John knew what to do, knew how to do it. He wasn’t fighting any more, he was dying.
And John Winchester knew how to die.
He could feel the demon gaining more control in how much harder it was becoming to resist the temptation of its voice, to refuse to respond to the salvation it offered with its tricks, to give in and believe the charade of truth it offered in an effort to strip him of his last line of defense.
He could hear Dean talking almost constantly now, the fear it put in its voice a tactic to rouse John to the response he wasn’t indulging. And it was working. Even knowing it wasn’t real, he was believing it.
Believing Dean was here. Believing his son had come, and he was safe now. Believing it was safe to open his eyes and let his soul be seen.
Let it be seen so it could be consumed.
He’d expected something more violent than this – something more like the sensation of teeth tearing into him, ripping him apart from the inside out – but the quiet of using his son against him made more sense.
And it was more effective.
He could detach himself from pain. He couldn’t detach himself from his son.
Dean needing him was the key to his very existence and had been for almost twenty years. The demon saw as much in the secrets John could no longer hide from it, and it would use that need to open him to a final fall from faith.
Failing Dean was the one thing John couldn’t survive. Knowing it gave the demon everything it needed to break John open, to desecrate his soul in ways that destroyed something otherwise eternal.
"Come on, Dad. I need you to open your eyes, okay? It’s me, Dad. Dean. Trust me. Trust me, Dad, and open your eyes, okay? Just open your eyes."
Belief was the last line of defense. Trust. Faith. Belief.
These were the things that drove men beyond their own capacity to survive, to endure. And betraying them was the one sure way to break a soul the only way it could be broken.
The moment it made him believe it was Dean – truly believe it was Dean – John would open his eyes of his own volition and see the truth it wanted him to see.
The truth that it wasn’t Dean, it was the demon. The truth that faith was nothing but blind hope in divine disguise. The truth that to believe in someone or something was to allow yourself to be willingly betrayed.
The truth that nothing really mattered, and everything you believed was nothing more than just another betrayal in the offing.
"Dad. I need you, Dad. You’ve got to listen to me, Dad. I need you. Can you hear me, Dad? I need you. Open your eyes, Dad. Just open your eyes. I need you to open your eyes."
He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t endure it speaking to him in Dean’s voice, couldn’t endure it saying things he believed simply because he believed in Dean.
And because he knew how much Dean needed him.
The one elemental truth that sustained him: Dean needed him. That, and nothing more.
Time to die. Time to end it before it was over. Time to lose what he could lose before he lost what he couldn’t lose.
The one thing John knew about dying was that true death is simply a matter of perception. A man doesn’t need a body to die, he needs a sense of self. He doesn’t have to be corporeal; he has to believe himself corporeal. And he has to believe that corporeal self to have ended.
Awareness. Sentience. Soul. Self.
One and the same, these are the bonds that create the sense of corporeal self. Not life itself, but the sense of being alive. Self perception of existence.
We create ourselves and must, in kind, destroy ourselves.
To free the soul from the confines of life, a man need only believe himself gone. Believe himself dead. Believe himself free to do what could be done at any moment in time, if only he believed.
It was the essence of ritual, of symbols, of religion – focusing the power to believe – and John used it now, used his own understanding of all the ways humans have created to give themselves power they already have to free his soul before the demon got there first.
A mouth he no longer possessed began muttering incantations, reciting rituals in Latin, the language of power for no other reason than because it was believed powerful. He invoked his own faith in everything in which he had faith. He felt a rosary in his hands, and it was there, cool against his fingertips, a comfort to the chaos he was stirring in every corner of his awareness by nothing more than the intention to stir it.
His body was gone, but he still perceived himself as corporeal, so he used it. He was still buried inside the box and was still capable of perceiving his rescue as nothing but the fear demon’s charade, so he used it.
Used it before he lost it.
Exploding into motion, John threw himself against the lid of the box. He let loose, flailing wildly, knowing he could destroy himself against the unforgiving inflexibility of wood, knowing he could hurt himself enough to break bones he still perceived enough to feel them aching, to bleed blood he still perceived enough to feel it thrumming through his veins.
Focusing his every faith on knowing he could die, John believed a body he no longer possessed into a furious, mindless, unstoppable intention to die.
Just die. End. Be over.
The box only had a couple of inches of clearance to either side, and maybe six or seven between his face and the lid; but he didn’t hit anything as he rose, as he threw himself into everything he believed as real … and found it wasn’t.
Not real enough.
"Whoa, there, John. Relax. Relax. It’s just us. Just us, man. No need to go taking my head off. It’s just us."
Something had him by the arms, confining the way he moved, holding on to him, subjugating his will to self-destruct by making him believe he couldn’t do it.
"Open your eyes, Dad," Dean’s voice pleaded. "Come on. Just open your eyes, okay?"
John panicked. It couldn’t do this to him. It couldn’t force him to view himself in terms of a body it could control, a will it could dominate. It couldn’t make him believe it could stop him unless he already believed it could.
Unless he believed he’d failed before he ever even tried.
John struggled harder against the hands restraining him, but even as he did so, he knew it was his own willingness to believe doing so wouldn’t make a difference that allowed the fear demon to contain him. To keep him from destroying himself
He couldn’t let go of it. Couldn’t let go of the idea he was still alive, that he still had a body to control. He couldn’t believe himself already gone enough to believe himself gone.
Despair hit him so hard it stilled him again. It drained every ounce of energy he had, destroyed ever mote of intention he’d marshaled to his last defense. It was over: so over it was already done.
Failed Dean. Failed himself. Failed Sammy. Failed Mary.
John slumped in the demon’s grip, let it have him because it already had him. When it came down to win or lose, he’d let himself lose because he couldn’t believe enough to actually believe. His own lack of faith destroyed him. His own incapacity to let go of what he’d needed to do for Dean so long he didn’t know how to be any longer without doing it.
Live. Survive. Endure.
He wasn’t going to do any of those things, but it didn’t matter any more. What mattered was that his belief in them was proving to be stronger than his need to see Mary again, to save his own soul, to leave Dean and Sam behind so they could be together in the end.
God, help me. Please help me.
He tried so hard not to ask, but he asked anyway. It was all he knew how to do now: beg for a mercy that wouldn’t be shown. A mercy he didn’t even believe in any more. A mercy he hadn’t believed in since the night he watched Mary burn.
John wondered if the demon got sustenance from hearing him pray. He wondered if it gave it power to know it had broken him so deeply he would admit there was still part of him that believed in God; still believed enough after twenty years of cursing Him to pray for mercy when all else failed. Or if instead of power, this final fall from the grace of his own precious nihilism simply tasted sweet.
"Please, Dad," Dean pleaded again. "Open your eyes. Just open your eyes."
"Fuck you," John whispered, betraying himself by believing he still had a voice he could use.
"Whoa, Dad. Mouth, dude."
John lost himself. He lost everything he believed, lost every faith he’d ever had in himself, and in his ability to survive.
Dude. The fear demon called him dude.
And in doing so, it destroyed him. Just in knowing to call him that, it destroyed him into believing what he knew he couldn’t believe, into accepting as reality something he knew wasn’t real.
"Dean?" John whispered.
"Yeah, Dad. It’s me. Open your eyes, okay?"
He was falling into its trap, letting it talk him into surrendering the only thing it couldn’t take from him, but he didn’t have any choice, he was past being able to believe anything other than what it wanted him to believe.
"Open your eyes, Dad. Open your eyes."
"I can’t." It came out like a whimper. Like a whine. The fear demon had reduced him to this: a whimpering, crying, cringing, beaten dog, afraid to open his own eyes for fear of what he wouldn’t see.
"Sure you can, Dad. Just open them. Nothing to it, I promise."
He couldn’t stand the fear. The demon owned him with it now. It owned him by virtue of his own, debilitating fear. He believed this was really Dean, but the fear it wouldn’t be made every moment a new living hell. A hell he’d rather endure than face the fear of finding out what he feared.
Knowing it wasn’t Dean.
"He doesn’t know it’s you yet, Dean. Just keep talking to him, give him a couple of minutes to sort it out."
"He doesn’t know it’s me? What do you mean, he doesn’t—"
"Dean?" John whispered again. "Dean?"
"Yeah, Dad. I’m right here. It’s me. It’s okay to open your eyes. It’s me. I promise it’s really me."
John moved his hands, tried to reach for the sound of his son’s voice, but he was still confined, still wrapped up by someone who wasn’t letting him move. He didn’t question that any more, didn’t think of it as a restraint that didn’t actually exist.
The idea that none of this was actually happening, that it was nothing more than a shadow play the fear demon was creating in his mind, was something John couldn’t conceptualize any longer, something he couldn’t force his mind accept, let alone believe. Realizing he could break free of the demon’s control simply by refusing to believe he still had a body the demon could physically control was beyond him now. Though he still understood it theoretically, it had stopped making sense to him on any actionable level he could use to fight something he no longer had the strength to fight.
The will to fight.
The desire to fight.
He couldn’t fight any more. He just wanted it to be over. Just needed this to end.
God, please let it end.Go to Part 2