As is often the case, my mother probably influenced me here. She is, after all, the real Supernatural fan of the family. But...I really do have to agree with her assertion.
John Winchester is not a bad man.
I've heard that its a sort of norm in the fandom to paint him that way, but...no. I don't see it. He's not a bad man. He's effing screwed up, but he's not bad. When all's said and done, he loves Sam and Dean.
I wanted to write something for Devil's Trap, now that I've finally seen it. John was the most willing to talk.
You'll have to be the judge of how I did.
He was himself, for most of their escape.
When he woke up to find Dean hovering over him and Sam splashing holy water in his face, he was himself. He was beaten, drugged, and exhausted, but he was himself (and he had no reason to suspect that he could be anyone else). When he asked about the Colt, the first thought in his mind once he saw that his boys were still standing, he was himself.
When he murmured weakly, "good boys, good boys", he was himself.
Dean cut him loose and supported him (because he was beaten, drugged, and exhausted and as much as John hated to admit it to himself or to them, he couldn't support himself) and they tried to escape, but The Demon wouldn't let them escape, and sent his foot soldiers to get in their way. Dean took the lead, and Sam acted as rear guard, staying behind to salt their escape route before following after them. John was himself, and saw the perfect unity between his boys, and was proud at what good soldiers they'd become.
He put down his own inability to move or to help them to the drugs the demons had been dosing him with. When the demon leapt out of nowhere, knocked Sam to the ground, and began beating him senseless, John wanted to run after Dean to help. But his limbs wouldn't obey him, his legs gave out, and Dean had to lean him against the wall before racing to save his brother.
They all heard the gun shot ring out through the alley, and John didn't have to look up to know that Dean had wasted a bullet. The sounds of raining blows stopped immediately after the shot was fired – that meant that Sam's attacker was dead and Sam was safe.
That was good, but John still felt a flash of anger at Dean. He knew that the boy knew better, knew how much they need those bullets, and John knew that Dean should know how to handle an ordinary demon without relying on those bullets in the first place. He knows that they had. Nevermind the risk he took bringing the Colt with him in the firstplace. Dean had always had a tendency towards panic and rash thought when it came to Sam, John knew, but he's the older brother and John had always tried to teach him that sometimes you just can't be that rash (the times the boys told him that very same thing, that sometimes you just can't be that rash, echoed mockingly in his head).
As Dean heaved Sammy up to his feet, supporting his little brother who had been beaten nearly as senseless as their father was, urging him back with him to John so they could continue their escape, John opened his mouth to tell Dean all of this.
Blackness crept into the edges of his vision as his sons hurried to him, and John felt himself losing the battle with consciousness. He hated himself for that, but had no reason to attest it to the fact that something nestling deep inside him didn't want him to be angry with Dean (didn't want him to get his boy's guard up so they looked after themselves properly). He attributed his imminent loss of consciousness to his own weakness, and not to the fact that something insidious and evil wanted him out of the way now.
"Come on…come on!" Dean urged Sam, all but dragging him along. "We've got to get out of here!"
Those were the last words John Winchester heard for a very long time.
He was unconscious when the boys reached him, but something allowed Dean to help it to its feet, playing the part of wounded soldier to the hilt even though it had the body of John Winchester under perfect control and could easily support itself. It allowed Dean to support him and hobbled with him down the street, Sam stumbling after them with the book.
The thing reached the car with the boys, and rode with them until Dean found the most out of the way shack in the state. The thing allowed Dean to help it inside and onto one of the cabin's beds in a separate room before he went back to help Sam inside as well.
The thing heard the boys talking softly together in the cabin's main room, and heard the faint hiss of salt being poured. It listened easily in on the boy's conversation with one another, listened as they discussed their own fears and the conditions of one another with equal worry.
As it listened, it slowly released John Winchester from where it had locked him inside his own body. It released him slowly, so slowly that the human might think that he was merely waking from a sleep.
This was exactly what John Winchester thought. He thought he was simply regaining the consciousness he'd lost several hours earlier. He got up from bed, only dimly noticing how his body seemed to move easily with little to no input from his brain despite the abuse he'd endured. He heard his boys' voices. He wanted to go to them, and that was where his body was headed. He didn't question. He was still so damn tired, but there was more to be done (there was always more to be done) and he had to get them through this.
He walked into the main room, saw Sam and Dean looking just as beaten and bruised as he felt. He walked in just in time to hear Dean mention the wasted bullet, and felt the flash of anger that had accompanied him into unconsciousness before.
He opened his mouth to deliver the lecture Dean needed to hear, but the words he wanted to say were not said. Instead stern warnings, he spoke…comfort. Reassurance. He spoke the words he'd always thought, always meant to say to his oldest son, but he spoke them at the wrong time and the wrong way and he was confused – so were Sam and Dean (and wasn't that a sorry state of things, that they'd look more anxious when he reassured them than they would if he shouted).
But then the lights flickered and the wind blew and both boys were distracted. Flickering lights and strong wind meant that The Demon was close at hand. They'd been discovered. John knew they had. He practically felt the demon here in the room with them, so close that he couldn't breathe.
He ordered Sammy off to check the salt lines, which made sense, but now John couldn't shake the feeling of something being dangerously wrong. As Sam went off to check the salt lines, and John was left alone with Dean and he asked for the gun without wanting the gun at all. He was in no shape to shoot – Dean was the healthiest of the three of them at this point and so he should keep a hold of the gun. But John still found himself asking for the Colt, more and more insistently even as Dean did the smart thing and refused him.
Then Dean stepped back and said four words (you're not my dad), and John suddenly knew that he was right. He felt the thing inside him, the thing that had been controlling his body and mimicking his voice so perfectly that even he'd believed the lie. He felt it now, as the thing moved his mouth and used his voice to argue against Dean. He felt its power and its evil, he felt it hold him back, and he knew what it was.
He tried to fight. He fought harder than he'd ever fought in his life, and harder still when Sam entered the room and put himself at The Demon's mercy, too. He fought, but The Demon held him back. It punished him for fighting by pushing him even deeper into his own mind. He was awake enough to know, but not awake enough to fight. Eventually, as The Demon got tired of his struggles and his screams, he wasn't even awake enough to see anymore.
The last thing he saw before blackness claimed his vision again was Sam and Dean, pinned against the wall and looking at him with barely disguised terror on their faces.
Then, he didn't see anything at all.
He heard things, however. He heard the thoughts of The Demon (Azazel, it whispered to him, the name's Azazel). He sensed its perverse fascination with Sam and its complete disregard for Dean, heard its plans whispered faintly in dead languages he'd never known, heard its own savage triumph as it attacked his sons. He even heard his own screams for release. He heard himself scream, beg (leave them alone, they're just boys, it's me you've wanted all along, isn't it?), and heard Azazel laugh derisively in reply.
Then, in the tumult of his battered, fettered soul, he heard Dean.
"Dad! Dad, don't you let it kill me!"
He'd never heard his oldest son in so much agony. He'd never heard his son truly plead with him before (because Dean was pleading to him, pleading for him to fight just a little bit harder, dammit). He heard Dean sob, heard him beg for his father to stop hurting him.
John Winchester kept fighting.
For an instant…just an instant…he won.
When he regained full control of his senses, he heard both boys screaming. Sam was screaming Dean's name, and Dean was just screaming as blood poured from his chest and his father held him pinned against the wall.
It took John a few precious seconds to pull himself back together, and in those seconds Dean stopped crying. He stopped moving. He went limp and still and quiet against the wall, as blood continued to pour from his chest. Sam kept screaming and struggling.
It was John Winchester he spoke those words. He didn't know who he was speaking to – himself, maybe, or the demon still inside of him. But it was his own voice, and his own will that made him speak. He was himself.
Dean slumped to the ground as the demon's power ceased its hold over him, but he continued to bleed. He heard Sam hit the ground behind him, and turned in time to see Sammy lunge for the gun so frantically that he all but fell over as he reached it.
Then Azazel surged forward again, and flung him back into the darkness.
But not for long.
They both felt the pain as Sam wasted another bullet shooting John's body in the leg. For John, it was painful. For Azazel, it was agonizing. But Sam had wasted the bullet shooting them in the leg in an attempt to save John's life. Azazel did not die. He retreated, in utter agony and rage, but he did not die (John didn't die either, but right now at the end of things that just didn't matter). He was still inside John, deep inside, waiting to come back and strike and kill them all once he got his strength back.
For a few precious moments, however, John was himself again.
He was himself, and Sam was still holding the Colt.
The Colt, with its one remaining magic bullet.
He knew, now, that he couldn't hold Azazel off forever. He never would. John used his precious few moments to shout at Sam, shout for him to take the gun and shoot them both in the heart and finally, finally end it all. He was flat on his back and Sam was standing over him. The boy would never get a better target.
But Sam…his youngest son, and always, always the most defiant…refused.
Azazel saw only the Colt, however, and even the face of Sam's refusal The Demon decided to surrender. John felt his body spasm, wracked with pain as the yellow eyed demon fled into the night. Then, after far too long, he was finally left alone inside his own skin with a shaking Sam and a half-dead Dean and his own frustration at being defeated all over again.
Sam, despite the beating he'd taken earlier at the hands of Azazel's son (the monster had a son, a son and a daughter, and John didn't know if that made things better or worse), was now the least injured of the three Winchesters. John was hurt, bleeding from the leg and from the soul, but he was well enough to sit upright, and limp if he had to, and help Sam tend to Dean. Dean was the worst off of all three, by far. He was bruised and still bleeding from the chest, and he couldn't do more than stir feebly as Sam did what he could.
"We need to get to the hospital," Sam whispered, staring down at his big brother with hollow eyes. John nodded, and despite their own frustrations with one another they were forced to work together to get Dean as painlessly as possible out to the car.
Sam was the least injured of all of them, and so Sam drove (never mind the fact that it was John's car once upon a time, and he'd trusted it to Dean and never to Sam). John sat in the passenger's seat, and they'd leaned Dean in the back. John could see his glassy, half-open eyes reflected in the glare of the headlights.
For a while, they drove in silence. John's leg hurt like hell, and the rest of him hurt on top of it. He wanted nothing more than to take his hopeless, helpless frustration out on someone, but right now his only option was Sam. He had no qualms, here and now, about unloading on his youngest son (because Sam had never been afraid to stand up to him and give as good as he got when John lost his temper). He'd trusted Sam above Dean, in the end, to finish the job. Sam had had a perfect shot, a chance they'd never have again, and he'd frozen.
He'd frozen, and now that yellow eyed demon was free to walk the world in some other poor bastard, laughing at them and tearing apart families the way it had torn apart theirs.
Because Sam had frozen, John was himself again and he knew that, in the end, that was what his boys cared about more.
Here and now, in the car that had once been his with his oldest son dying in the back seat, John wanted nothing more than to just stop being himself.
Only one thing kept him back from going at Sam, and that was Dean. He knew, and Sam did, too, that if they tore into each other then Dean would try to stop them. Sam had as much to say to John as John had to say to Sam – he could see it in the kid's eyes – but the knowledge that Dean would exert himself to try and stop the argument kept them silent. He, at least, deserved to rest.
Some things, however, were just inevitable. They all knew it, even Dean. All it took was the sound of Sam's voice, and John just couldn't stop himself.
"I'm surprised at you, Sammy. Why didn't you kill it? I thought we saw eye to eye on this—killin' this demon comes first. Before me, before everything."
Sam was the one who took care to glance at Dean in the backseat (because John had been trying, trying to keep his mouth shut, but he hadn't, he never could, and now Dean was trying to sit up and pull them apart). He felt something pass between his two sons, some unspoken order, and Dean lay back. Sam waited until his older brother had somewhat settled again before he replied, and even then he kept his eyes fixed firmly on the road.
"No, sir. Not before everything. Look, we still have the Colt. We still have the one bullet left. We just have to start over, all right, I mean, we already found the demon – "
All three Winchesters felt the briefest instant of impact.
Then, they felt nothing at all.