It's loud. The helicopters, the shouts of young men acting braver and dumber than they are, and the fire of guns. Always there's a gun firing somewhere. Or maybe it just seems like that in the blur of memories.
There were other sounds too, in the dense wooded jungle. Birds and animals amid the sounds of all the rest of it. And the constant buzz of mosquitoes, and he never thought a low buzz could be that loud, loud enough to drive him crazy.
Sometimes, it's completely silent. When they know something's about to go down and the best they can do is hold tight to their guns and try not to fall the fuck apart.
He hates that silence, hates it so much his body rages and fills that void with the sound of his hearbeat, thick and dark and pounding in his ears.
Then guns. Shouts. Noise.
Bad ones. But at least it's not silence.
John lies to his boys. A lot.
But with good reason. For instance, when Dean asks him about that moment, that ounce of terror and silence when something is about to occur, John tells him it isn't real. He tells him that it's in his head, that there's always sound, there's always information to be gathered if a hunter keeps his head. It feels like the world has gone silent, gone numb, but it hasn't.
Dean nods and promised to remember.
It wasn't true. There was a gap in time, a gap in sound, in those moments of still helplessness. But John told Dean that this particular monster - silence - wasn't real, that it was just a scary story after all.
John wished someone had told him that. It would have made his days over there easier, he thinks.
John does well; he's respected. He doesn't underestimate the enemy, he's careful, and he checks four times to make sure every man in his unit has what they're supposed to have and knows what they're supposed to know. In their time off, he is laid back, he can laugh, so they know he is human, they know he likes them just fine.
He learns to be calm. He learns to outthink. He learns, after a bad lesson, when to retreat, even if his CO has to remind him again once in a while.
Other hunters respect John. He's smart, he knows his stuff, and he thinks on his feet. He's a good man to hunt with if you can ignore his short temper. They talk - hunters are the biggest gossips around - and the consensus is that John was one of those men who never got over the thing that made them hunters (not that any of them did). But John was the kind who worried that every laugh, every friendship, was a distraction from the enemy - that every moment he wasn't thinking about killing things was a betrayal, an unacceptable retreat.
A boy, 19, is bleeding, a stripe of red down his leg, pooling at the thick sock. John can't find where it's coming from so he asks, yells, "Where were you hit, where were you hit?"
The kid doesn't answer. An eyelash flutters and John thinks he's coming to, but he's not. John finds it eventually, a chuck of metal in the thigh, and it doesn't look good.
John carries him a half mile, and as the weight gets heavier, John hopes it's not because he's dead.
At the hospital, they take him away. He was in John's arms for a half mile, for who knows how long, as he held the boy tight and dodged bullets to bring him here but now they take the kid, they leave his hands empty, they tell him they'll see what happens-it's too soon to tell-you did great-now go wash up John you look like shit. They brush him away and hold the kid's life in their hands and John has to sit there and do nothing. Being good at luring the enemy, killing the enemy, didn't help anyone unless he did it before the enemy's bullet hit.
Sam's hit. Blood down the arm, a gash on the shoulder that's spilling faster than a surface wound would. Dean is pressing on it, getting there faster, and John catches just a glimpse of fear in Dean's eyes at he looks up at John, as he waits for John to fix it, and for a second John realizes that the one thing that he could do to turn his oldest boy against him is to let Sam die.
John goes over and pushes Dean's hands down onto the wound harder. Can't worry about causing further injury if the bleeding isn't stopping. Sam screams at the pressure and John tells him that he will be all right, tells him they'll get him safe soon.
They stop the bleeding for a while and load him into the car, pushing his long legs in as carefully as they can. They ride to the nearest town in silence.
Sam's 18, a senior in high school, and he should have been more careful, John wants to say, he wants to hold his boys and to yell at them to be more fucking careful because they're all he has that isn't vengeance and loathing. But John knows that in hunting, like in war, you can be careful and prepared and pretty dang perfect but still get hit, still end up in a bleed that won't stop.
At the hospital, they take his boy from him. They want to know how it happened, and John somehow manages to remember where he hid the fake badge of "Agent John Sherman." He and Dean sit quietly in a little room under bright lights and do nothing, do absolutely nothing for Sam, as strangers stitch him up, as strangers decide what needs to be tested and what will be just fine on its own.
Sam is well enough to hunt again in four days. The scar peeks out from the white tank that Sam's wearing, and John looks away when he sees it.
A tree, a rock, a chair, a puddle. Moss on the ground. A wire so thin it looks just like the air around it.
Any of them could be explosive.
Any of them could be the enemy.
The element of surprise, of deception, is important. The fear more so even. Every object was a monster waiting to be revealed. Every step you took was a possible mistake, a possible end, a possible betrayal of your will to survive.
It took its toll.
Nothing could be trusted. Nothing was what it seemed. Not the orders, not what the newspapers and politicians said, and definitely not that rock. That puddle. That space over there that looks safe but surely can't be.
Surely if it looks safe, it's a trick.
John is a suspicious hunter. He assumes the worst.
This is surprisingly a good strategy.
His friends feel the same way - Jim, Bobby, Caleb, Bill. They get up in the morning to kill those bastards out there.
They tacitly all believe that the more secure and normal something looks, the more likely it is to be hiding something.
John is positive that this is correct. This is the right way to look at things.
Yet for some reason he doesn't teach this to his sons. He teaches them to be careful, suspicious, to check and check again. But he somehow can't bring himself to teach them to fear every object they see, to fear every step they take. He hopes he is not making them soft. He hopes that he isn't getting them killed.
Sometimes, they would go to a village, no idea what the people there knew, what side they were really on. John tried to understand the politics behind it, even though he knew that understanding wouldn't help, wouldn't change anything. He didn't know why he was there, but it was obviously not to understand the situation.
Sometimes he would find someone - on his own side -pushing around a local, a soldier with a gun being cruel because he could. He didn't bother to control his temper more than a little. He wouldn't let himself forget that the enemy was not literally an inhuman monster. He wouldn't let himself become something he wasn't.
The other men complained. But when the bullets were flying - when it was okay to see the enemy as the-thing-you-kill - John was better at it than any of them, so they obliged.
When it was a monster, it was easy.
Spirit. Easy. Vampire. Easy.
Not easy to kill. But easy to live with the killing. To be thrilled with it.
He never let himself enjoy it too much, though. He decided as long as he put saving people first and killing things second, he wasn't too far gone.
When Mary and he had dated, he told her everything about the war. Everything.
His war buddies told him not to, but she handled it. Didn't judge, didn't fear John because of it, just listened. The fear, the tedium, the silence, the noise. The blood. The helplessness. The fact that human nature wasn't all it's cracked up to be.
She didn't even seem surprised by most of it.
He wondered what it was that made her know these things, things that John never would have guessed when he was a naive young man enlisting for the first time. But she wasn't talking. And he was grateful enough for her listening that he didn't push it.
When he had to find a way to live without her, he didn't talk about her to anyone. He devoted that energy to killing the enemy.
He learned everything he could about the supernatural. He had to understand why.
Slowly, he began to think of his old life - his old self - as the problem. So naive, so stupid to think that they could live a normal life when there was a war going on, when anyone or anything could be something different, where you couldn't trust your eyes or your heart or anything else.
He began to see this weaker self, this softer self, as his real enemy.
He tried to kill it without too much collateral damage.