John Winchester’s rage was a palpable force, and Dean took an involuntary step back, covering the act by moving to the table. He rested his palms on the pages spread out there. “I looked all over town, got the cops to let me take a crack at their traffic cam footage--” Dean’s heart was the drum line, setting the tempo, and his tongue almost tripped over itself trying to keep up--”nothin’ there and he’s not answering his phone but after I talked to everyone I could find around here that knew him and every hunter Sam knew I got someone to triangulate his phone and he might be in Arizona but the signal hasn’t moved….”
He choked to a stop, throat suddenly dry on the implication of that. A phone carried by a living body didn’t just stop moving.
Dean had kept his eyes and hands on the evidence of his efforts at locating his wayward brother, using his peripheral vision to track the malevolent force that was his father.
He had been hunting monsters his entire life, and nothing, absolutely nothing, terrified him more than the utterly silent man who was now standing so close that Dean could feel his father’s heat.
“He took his bag,” John’s voice rumbled, deceptively calm.
“Yeah,” Dean grunted, and felt a low tremble start to grow deep in his gut.
“Stole a car. Ran away.”
“Yeah,” Dean whispered, and the tremble grew to a quake.
“And where were you?”
The shaking broke through the surface. John was close enough to feel it, and Dean knew that it gave him away, that even if he never spoke again, his father would know that the guilt and the blame rested solely on Dean’s treacherously shuddering shoulders.
But to refuse to answer constituted insubordination. “I--I was out,” Dean ground out, fighting to keep his voice strong.
“Getting laid?” It was more of an accusation than a query.
As suddenly as it had begun, the trembling ceased. Dean hung his head, shoulders limp. “Yes.”
The force that was John Winchester exploded, spinning Dean around to land a blow to the younger man’s jaw, pulling him off of the table the boy landed on to throw him into the wall, pinning Dean with one hand while he buried his fist in his son’s stomach, then throwing the object of his blind rage to the ground, steel toes of his boots raising a nearly satisfying grunt of pain from his target as bone gave way beneath the impact.
“You put some skank-ass whore, some slut with no standards, above your own brother ?”
Dean curled in on himself, arms wrapped over his head, knees pulled tightly to his chest. John moved behind him, lashing out with his boot at an unprotected kidney, and Dean arched back in pain.
John buried his fist in his older son’s hair, yanking the boy’s head up, shaking it to emphasize his words. “You think a blow job is worth more than your brother’s life ?”
Dean’s eyes were glassy, the words barely registering as he fought to stay conscious through the agony spreading out from his lower back.
His head was released violently, and he rolled to his stomach, forehead pressed against coarse carpeting, struggling to breathe.
Dean believed that it was over. Thought he’d push himself slowly to his feet, stagger to the bathroom, piss blood, wash his face, then go out to find his dad sitting in the driver’s seat of the Impala, waiting for him so they could go get Sam. Together.
When Dean heard the unmistakable sound of a belt being unbuckled, of leather sliding along denim, he almost vomited.
“No,” he whispered, the sound of his shame and desperation sinking into the already soiled flooring beneath him.
“Get up,” his father growled, and Dean’s heart stuttered in his chest.
“You either get up and take what’s coming to you or get the fuck out.”
Tears scorched his throat and Dean swallowed convulsively as his life spiraled out of control in the length of that one sentence.
Without Sam he was nothing.
Without Sam and his father, he was less than nothing.
There really was no choice.
He bit back a gasp as the act of getting to his feet caused a sickening bone-on-bone grinding of fractured ribs.
He stood, one hand on the back of a chair for support, swaying slightly.
“You know the drill,” that gravelly voice reminded him. “Strip.”
From across the room Dean watched himself comply, shaking fingers making slow work of the buttons on his flannel, face pinching in sudden pain as he raised his arms to remove his t-shirt, eyes downcast as he stood, bare-chested, praying that this would be enough.
Dark bruises were already coloring his pale skin.
“I said ‘Strip’. Don’t make me do it for you.”
Abruptly Dean was back in his own body, the visceral memory of the last time his father had said that to him dousing him like ice water.
"Please! Dad!” and then it began again, and if anything the hairbrush was landing with more force, each explosion of agony coming one on top of another, and Dean’s fingers clawed into the sheets, trying in vain to pull him away>>
Gooseflesh stood out on his arms, his torso.
He fumbled with his belt, fingers thick, uncoordinated.
“Get your boots off first, dumbass.” The contempt in the man’s voice struck Dean like a blow, and he doubled over, shame stealing his wind.
He staggered, falling against the wall, and leaned there while he fought with his laces.
Time stretched out impossibly long, Dean’s normally agile mind struggling with the dual tasks of measuring his father’s impatience while doing his best to comply with man’s demands.
Finally he found himself staring, slack-jawed, at his socks.
“Dean!” That voice boomed, and the man it named raised his eyes, looking startled. “I said ‘Strip.’ Last chance.”
The menace jolted him, and Dean straightened, turning towards the wall behind him. His mind was blank as he forced denim and soft black cotton over his hips, down his thighs, allowing them to drop of their own accord until they caught at his ankles.
“Hands on your head,” the voice commanded, and it may as well have been God himself, holding Dean’s soul in the palm of his hand.
Dean complied, damaged muscles protesting.
He cringed at the sound of the table crashing into the cabinet, making way for John Winchester’s rage.
There was no lecture, no reiteration of all of Dean’s shortcomings, nothing at all to herald the approach of the storm that broke over the young man’s already battered flesh.
It was fire. It was ice. Wendigo’s claws, vampire’s teeth, the invisible crush of a vengeful spirit...the only sounds leather and metal striking flesh, breath hissing out of each man in a steady rhythm as the exertion of striking resonated against the agony of being struck.
A part of Dean was distantly aware that his father was whipping him with the buckle-end of his belt, that the metal was tearing his flesh, and the warm liquid he felt on his skin could only be blood.
In this moment, John was barely human, but Dean knew that in spite of this, he had to endure, to complete this act of contrition, to wipe his sins away so he could earn his way back into his father’s good graces.
At least for as long as it took for Dean to fail his father as he always did, trapped in this cycle of failure and redemption, shame and relief.
Hatred and adoration.
There was a pause in the hell storm as John Winchester crossed from Dean’s left to his right, shifting the belt from one hand to the other, shaking out his sore arm.
Dean leaned his forehead against the wall. Why are walls always so cool, even when the room is hot?
He held onto that, cool and hot, focusing on the flesh presented to his father. Is it hot, or is it very, very cold? What does hot feel like? And cold? If that were a blade made out of ice, would it burn?
The blows resumed then, fueled by rage, as rhythmic as a metronome.
Groans had become the counterpoint to the striker’s hisses, but all Dean was aware of was the cool wall pressing in against him, so smooth and soft against his cheek and chest, but somehow hard and warm against his knees.
“Get up!” the god commanded, and only then did Dean realize that it wasn’t the wall against his knees, it was the traitorous ground--
And suddenly he was on his side, right shoulder supported by the kind wall, left temple against the floor, bile flowing with lazy ease from his slack jaw.
John stepped back, murderous raging seeping out of him as he took in Dean’s limp form.
Limp... and bloody.
Two memories vied for control of John’s consciousness: Dean, lying on a bed, limp and bloody after a werewolf attack, and Dean, face down on a bed, limp and bloody after the last time John had used his belt on the boy.
As before, the bloodied leather slid from his hand, buckle striking the floor with an audible “thump”.
John’s knees followed as his hands rose to his face in horror.
“Dean…” he choked out, the word a prayer, a plea.
He crawled across the floor, fingers sliding desperately into sweat-slicked hair, following the curve of the skull to the sharp angle of jaw, digging in greedily to the tender flesh there.
“Please, Dean, please ,” unaware of the irony in that, not guessing that his son had sent a similar, but unspoken plea, “Please, Dad, please !” just before the boy’s sanity left to seek sanctuary in a less hostile plane.
The pulse was rapid. Maybe a bit weaker than normal, but John had never had a reason to seek out this validation of life when the vessel it represented was ‘normal’.
John sat back on his heels, one hand clasped desperately to that thready pulse, the other pressed in equal desperation to his own face.
“Jesus. Mary . I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
And the god-like hunter, broken, repentant , sobbed in a way that his battered son had not.