He wakes up to the sickly sweet smells of blood and death. It's hot and dusty, and it is the clean clothes and sheets that tip him off to the fact that he's not humpin' in the jungle.
That, and the stinging bite of antiseptic in his nose, the back of his throat.
Evac hospital, he realizes. Wounded. Quickly John starts counting everything important -- ten and ten and one and two. Two arms and two legs still, two eyes. If anything is missing, someone else is going to have to let him in on the secret.
But it's the choppers that woke him up, the sound of the rotors, the percussive force disturbing anything and everything as they land. They're bringing in more wounded. More dead.
Nurses -- steely eyed, hard lines of mouth, and still beautiful -- rush past him through the ward. The doors are thrown wide to yellow light, dust, and one nurse stands at the threshold after they've all passed, hands holding the doors open. Waiting.
John, sleep overtaking him once again, thinks she might be saying a prayer, head bowed and eyes closed. She must feel him watching her, because she looks back at him, hard in the eye. No smile, no flinch. And then she's running too.
By the time he's fourteen, Dean Winchester's learned a lot about the world. Hunting, killing, studying -- though not for school, unless the unified school district of Bumfuck, Idaho is now teaching how to salt bones and burn them, all while keeping tabs on a kid brother prone to the stupidest kinds of trouble.
But that's another story entirely.
He's also had the chance to meet a lot of his dad's friends. Some are better friends than others, some are just guys Dean's dad has worked with from time to time, a passing partnership. And for the most part, Dean's liked most of them, but there are a few that creep him out -- even a select few that he trusts with his life, despite the high creepiness factor.
One of these -- numero uno, in fact -- is Dodger.
Dodger knows his dad from way back. Actually, Dean suspects that they've been friends since before the hunting started, but he's never asked. There's something about how they speak, how they move around one another that tips Dean off.
Yeah, he's observant when he needs to be. What of it? He'd be a pretty shitty hunter -- or dead, for that matter -- if he weren't.
But anytime Dodger shows up on their doorstep, Dean knows they're going to be in for a world of hurt. So that's why when Dodger shows up with a woman at his side, Dean's brain starts in on ten kinds of overdrive. And that's before his dad looks at the woman -- who, despite being old enough to be Dean's mother, is totally kind of hot, even looking pissy as hell -- calls her "McMurphy", and then quickly orders Dean and Sammy to go with Dodger for a while.
"But, Dad --" Sammy starts, and for once Dean's right there with him. Unspoken by both of them is the obvious, "Dodger's crazy."
But Dad is hearing none of it and they're quickly pushed and pulled out the door. But they're not even halfway to Dodger's beat up old Chevy truck before Dean and Sam are asking questions.
"Who is she?"
"Well, yeah." Dean knows that strangers don't look at each other like that. "But who is she?"
"Got that part too, but who is she? And why was she giving Dad the stink-eye?"
Dodger grunts, non-committal. "They've got history."
"History?" Sam asks, voice breaking.
And that's when Dodger pulls up short and fixes them with a crazy eye of his own. Sam smacks into Dean's back as they rush to a stop.
"Your father did have a life before you boys came along."
He's pretty fucking sure that angels don't look this annoyed, so he doesn't even ask if she is one. Instead, he asks the second question that comes to mind.
"Where am I?"
The Annoyed Angel quirks a smile, just a little one, "510th Army Evac Hospital. China Beach."
Wait, an Army hospital? "But I'm a Marine."
She fidgets with his IV, the hem of his blanket. Her tag says that her name is McMurphy, a lieutenant, Army nurse and tough as nails.
"Dodger brought you in, on his back." McMurphy rolls her eyes, and John can clearly tell what she thinks of that.
Dodger. Crazy eyes, killer instincts, and the guy that saved his life. And just like that it all rushes back to him -- the screams, the blood, the terror.
The inhuman thing that he and Dodger were tracking by the river when all hell had broken loose.
They'd been tracking it for days, whatever it was -- at first it looked like a squad of VC might be going through the area, exacting a price on friendly villages. Death and destruction, the kind of thing that they had all seen before, too many times. But the crops and foodstuffs were untouched, homes left intact.
John picked up on it before most of his platoon. Something was off.
It wasn't Charlie, and it wasn't only interested in the locals.
Flanery was first, then Smith and Gutierrez. Three Marines picked off in the middle of the night. They were being hunted.
"Dodger. Is he here?" John has a sudden urge to see the man. Strange, because he's more than a little scared of Dodger, even if the man did save his life, and though he's drawing a blank on the particulars, he knows it's true.
McMurphy shakes her head and John watches her hand settle on his chest, index finger tapping an unconscious rhythm. "He went back out as soon as you were stabilized --"
She looks at him with narrowed eyes, the same look from when he woke up before. Like she can see right through him, down to the quick. Like she knows exactly what's going on. And she probably does.
"-- Something about unfinished business."
The knowing in her voice makes John shiver.
China Beach is a strange sort of limbo, John realizes. Sun and surf, music and girls, and all the time, the war is still going on right outside the gates. He's not all that surprised when the bright colors and sounds of life start to wear on his still recovering body, but he forces himself out of bed everyday.
He's got a mission, and her name is McMurphy.
The other thing he quickly realizes about China Beach is that everyone -- or at least the few people he meets -- is in love with McMurphy. Some more than others, and the more he sees of her, the more John's sure he's going to fall into that "more" column too.
She's not as bright and altogether happy as the donut dollies, or even some of the other nurses. She's not flashy and bold like the singers at the club, nor is she strict and ramrod Army straight. Colleen McMurphy's the girl next door with blood under her nails and shadows in her eyes.
John watches her mother the other guys laid up in the ward. Watches as she argues with Dodger when he finally comes crawling back in a few days later. The guy's half dead from exhaustion, a dark, foul smelling substance streaked across his uniform and John fears it is blood. But he watches McMurphy rail at Dodger, the break in her voice.
It makes John's throat tighten, and when Dodger finally looks his way after McMurphy storms out, he can only nod before looking away.
They'll talk about it later.
But he ends up seeing McMurphy first, the next morning in fact, as he's hobbling around the place. She tells him he's disobeying doctor's orders. He tries to shrug -- kind of hard when crutches are supporting his weight, he realizes only too late -- and tries out his most charming smile.
It falls flat, but she does help him over to a nearby bench so he can "rest". He takes it as a good sign that she joins him, even if she says it's just to make sure that he doesn't keel over and die.
He's young, and he heals fast, so John's discharged sooner than he'd like.
But not before getting one dance with McMurphy. She's warm in his arms, smaller than maybe he'd realized, and she lays her head against his chest and hums along with the music. John closes his eyes and tightens his hand around hers, doing all he can to block out the rest of the world, to remember this one moment.
Five months later he's back at China Beach, a little girl dying in his arms. Dodger has carried her most of the way from the now-decimated village, but John is the one to hand her over to Doc Richard.
He looks at his empty hands as they rush her to surgery, their shouted medical jargon a foreign language to his ears. Then another hand slips into his -- McMurphy's -- and he raises his head, looks into her eyes. She merely nods, squeezes his hand and then she's gone too.
Later that night, McMurphy is in his arms and the little girl -- they didn't even know her name -- is dead. Cradling her closer, McMurphy settles against him with a sigh and John places a kiss on the top of her head, trying desperately not to think about life and death and that strange plane in-between.
Any contemplation ceases when McMurphy speaks. "You don't have to follow him."
"After the things I've seen, McMurphy? It's all I can do."
She snorts indignantly. "It won't do any good to say that you could be killed. It's one war or another, and you're all bound and determined --"
"Next time we could get there in time -- save one more little girl, one more GI, one more village. I don't know about you, McMurphy, but that sounds like a damned good trade off to me."
Life goes on back in the world, and Lawrence is the same in many ways even though John has changed in so many more. He tries to forget about all he saw in Vietnam, the horrors that man had wrought and the horrors that were more unnatural in origin. He tries to forget about Dodger and having a knife ready at his side; tries to forget about McMurphy and her wry smile, the sadness in her eyes.
But it's harder than he realizes -- McMurphy was the girl next door, almost literally. It was a small world, and Lawrence was an even smaller town. He'll never forget the way she laughed, deep and clear, when they found out they shared a hometown.
But he meets Mary and she's nothing like McMurphy -- strong in her own right, but softer somehow. John marries her quickly and settles down, starts a family. The forgetting gets easier after that, until --
Dean never asks his dad about the deal with McMurphy, and he sure as hell never asks McMurphy herself. His dad and Dodger each have a healthy respect for the woman, sometimes bordering on fear, and Dean's smart enough to follow the lead of the older and more experienced. At least on this one.