Chapter 3 – The Fear
John doesn't figure out that he's experiencing other people's nightmares when he's dreaming until midway through his first year at Uni.
For a moment he's frustrated that his Aunt won't just come out and tell him things like this, but he understands that it's things like these that he has to learn himself.
She taught him all about how different fears work against different people, taught him how people tick, what buttons to press to make someone angry and fearful as opposed to pissing their pants in fear, but she's definitely not the type to hand him all the answers… so this makes sense.
It's still frustrating, but it makes sense.
It makes him feel bad, though, as his dreams usually get scarier when he has the time to affect them, and it's an enjoyable thing to only him.
So he calls up his Aunt and asks how to move from one dream to the next, because he figures that instead of terrifying Jake Pierce down the hall again, or Robert McKinty who has a test to write day after next, he'd give a couple of people a few frights and move on.
Maybe an abrupt wake-up from falling, or the feeling of something following you in your dream until you lose it, or even just the idea of something crawling up their leg…
The next night his Aunt shows up in the Grey Place in his mind, and shows him how to move through the shadowy grey matter of people's minds.
Halloween is still John's favorite holiday.
John quickly becomes the go-to guy for costumes and party planning, and he's always willing to help decorate for a house party, and he helps people get their costumes just right in return for class notes and some tutoring, and on Halloween night goes out trick or treating.
He'll never be too old for it, and the parents who would have turned him away without candy for being too old end up so impressed and frightened by his costumes that he gets candy from them anyway.
(Well, unless they get frightened enough to slam the door, but that was fun in it' own way…)
After he gets enough loot, and stopping for a number of pictures with kids and some parents (it was the same every year), he goes to a few house parties and gets properly drunk and accidentally causes a riot on the way home.
His Mum tuts at him over the phone, but his Aunt just laughs and laughs.
Mike Stanford is just down the hall from his room and is afraid of overly enthusiastic religious people (which makes John laugh, as this is actually a first for him), and is the one to go to when you want any gossip or news of what sort of events are happening around the campus.
He's friends with everyone, and probably knows enough about everyone to blackmail them twice over, and doesn't flinch when John smiles in greeting.
Doesn't flinch when he accidentally shows his teeth.
He's also the one to introduce John to Adam, and says nothing when John ends up dating the bloke for three months before breaking it off.
John experiments while in University, and takes a number of psych courses, enough that he could get a minor, and signs up for some student (non drug-related) testing in the department, having a laugh when he probably screws up their numbers by being himself.
He learns enough in the course about phobias that he teaches a couple of things to his Aunt (that's a novel experience), and Harry still shakes her head at him when he's strange, and his Tad has somehow managed to convince himself that John's normal.
The rest of the family trade looks when John has to pretend to be scared when he sneaks up on him, when he ignores the fact that the sketchy figures loitering around alleyways avoid looking at them when John's with them, and try not to worry when he drinks himself into a stupor anytime John slips.
It's why John packs all of his cuddliest jumpers, lets his hair grow out just enough to make him look boy-next-door, and doesn't wear anything his Aunt makes him when at home.
Because you've never seen a jumper look so menacing as the ones his Aunt makes him.
Probably never looked at a scarf and thought how similar to a garrote it was, either.
John gets high marks on his papers in all of his classes, and his Prof's marvel at his willingness to go into detail past what most students are comfortable with.
In labs he's the preferred partner because of his skill with a blade and his knowledge of chemicals, though one day his partner does faint when, while holding a scalpel, John grins at a joke another group has made.
(He hadn't even had the damn thing pointed her way.)
(Some people were just so delicate…)
(He honestly hadn't meant to show his teeth, really.)
John makes sure she isn't teased about it, but she's still jumpy around him
When he does graduate, and is getting ready to head off for training and the RAMC, and his Tad is afraid but proud, Harry thinks he's being stupid, and his Mum cries the entire trip to the airport.
His Aunt looks at him with narrowed eyes, and when he hugs her goodbye, she whispers one thing to him, the only thing she's said all day.
"They can't hurt you if they're afraid."
John has a hard time, at first, making friends while in training.
This is due to the fact that most of the other guys thinks he's doing something on purpose to look menacing.
John finds it much harder to seem harmless when he can't wear fuzzy jumpers and where he can't help but be a good shot, where more often than not he has a needle or knife or scalpel in hand, but things work out when the other guys realize that's just how John is.
(You can't fool yourself otherwise when John looks scarily like he could be planning a murder in his sleep)
It's oddly comforting to be known as the naturally scary one in the camp, when he's shorter than everyone, and certainly not the most muscled, but John still misses when he can pretend to be normal.
Regular normal, not family normal…
He does his best to keep from his bunk mates dreams, but he isn't always successful, and it's only when training's done and he's able to find those on the other side in his walks about the Grey Place that he really lets himself loose for the first time since before university.
He doesn't mind being the object of other people's nightmares.
Especially when the other people are pointing guns at his friends.
He meets with his Aunt Marsha at least once every week in the Grey Place, and talks about what's been going on, laughs over some of the new fears that have cropped up, and though they see each other every time John is between tours, John is always happy to see her.
She tells him more secrets about the Grey Place, and shows him more tricks to keep him and his people safe.
Teaches him how to hide in the blinding sunlight like it's the more familiar shadows he's used to, teaches him how to find out what's on a person's mind in their dreams, teaches him how to find a person when he can't see through the dust, the glaring sun, and teaches him how to let himself loose.
It's from his Aunt that he finds out that his mum isn't feeling okay, and he's already frowning when a letter from home comes confirming it. She's in the hospital.
A little later he's told that she's doing much better now, and seems to be making a full recovery from her sudden illness, and John is constantly reminded that for all that he's close to his family while sleeping, he's still thousands of miles away.
He's never felt so far from home.
He writes a letter to his family saying that he's made Captain of the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers, and ends up telling his Aunt about it well before it reaches the UK, is told the next night that his parents are happy for him, that Harry and her new girlfriend Clara are expecting pictures ASAP, and gets his cheeks pinched when he insists his Aunt call him Captain Johnny before she wakes up, and John goes for a stroll through a terrorists mind and makes him terrified of bombs for the fun of it.
In the morning he has a greenish bruise on his cheek from his Aunt's pinch, explaining it away with shrugs and smiles and a vague possibility of being hit the day before.
He's out with Bill collecting the injured when things start to change.
He's covering while Bill checks on Marson, confirming he'd be okay for transport, and he's wired for sound, hitting his targets even through the blinding sun and swirling dust devils, and he's looking back to check when he catches Bills wide-eyed look.
"What is it?"
He'd thought it was a concussion and a fracture, but if Bill was… oh.
Oh, was he…?
John resettles his gun and checks a sliver of skin showing at his wrist, but doesn't make a face like he wants to.
Bill shakes his head, startled at the question, and John focuses on getting Marson moving, and knows Bill will explain what he saw away himself.
The sun, the heat, maybe it was a strange shadow under his helmet…
People were good at explaining away things they don't understand.
People were also very good at noticing when other people have noticed something.
Especially when what the other person is noticing is something they've seen themselves.
John saw the sideways glances Bill kept giving him, but didn't see that others in his regiment were noticing the same, so focused on acting like the normal John Watson they knew.
So he didn't hear that others had noticed the occasional grey tinge to his face, didn't hear that in the flash of enemy fire that sometimes his hair looked darker than sweat and dirt could explain, didn't hear the speculation about his ability to hit his target through the worst conditions.
He didn't hear any of it, and so explained away his teams new focus on him during assignments as them getting used to him as Captain.
People were good at explaining away things they don't understand.
His Aunt tells him, a month into his third tour, that his Mum is sick again.
His squad doesn't need to be watching him to know he's upset.
One day he walks away from a rookie American, one of the few newbies who decides that the way to prove himself competent, one of the Big Boys, was to belittle those from other platoons and units. The Rookie had snorted and chortled at John being a "Momma's boy" when he'd been updating Bill and Ted and Hale of his mothers condition (stable at the moment, but they'd said that before), and he'd had to walk away. Had to, or else he might have done something… unwise.
As it was, he knew whose dreams he'd be visiting that night, and he comforted himself with visions of enclosed spaces with too little air, snakes with improbably sized fangs and insects with more legs than they knew what to do with.
He smiled a grim little smile to himself; there would be a lot of those.
He was so distracted with these thoughts that he didn't see the look his squad shared.
Didn't grasp that they'd seen the shadows bloom in the whites of his eyes, not until later.
Didn't know to appreciate their silence at how his eyes glowed a frosty blue in the darkness behind them.
He and his squad are in between tours when it happens, and he doesn't know if he should be thankful for that or not.
Doesn't know if he should regret that he got to the hospital, got to visit her daily for a little over a month before she goes into cardiac arrest, doesn't know, and somehow doesn't care.
Because now his Mum is dead.
And that is…
That is just…
There's a roaring in his ears, but not the fun kind from any one of the many monsters hidden under the bed. It's not a roar from an exploding truck or bomb, not even the specific whistling-roar of an explosion of shrapnel.
He doesn't know what it is, and he can't see through the sound, can't hear the other Doctor giving them his apologies, can't even hear his family's sobs or words of denial, he can't—his Aunt's hand, soft and harsh, touched the back of his neck, nails sharp and delicate on the skin on either side of his neck, and he hears one small sob.
Distantly, he recognizes that that pitiful sound came from him, but he can't, he can't, because its his pulse that's hammering in his ear, it's blood roaring in his ears and—something—that's making his breathing pick up and heart stutter and clench in his chest.
That something isn't nice, he doesn't like it, he just wants to get away—but no, he can't move, because through the rush of blood and howling in his head, thoughts are blooming in his head.
Because this could happen to anyone. Any one if his family could die this way, with strangers working to fix them up. Because his Mum was dead, and he couldn't do anything to stop it, he couldn't scare heart problems away, he couldn't scare other doctors into being able to fix his Mum up faster, better, he couldn't, he couldn't—
At least in his unit he knew that he would be there—and yes, he'd lost friends both on the field and on his operating table, but in those last moments he could take away that fear of death, that fear of the unknown—
But no one in his family was afraid of death.
Everyone in his family was most afraid of his Aunt, and there was comfort in being afraid of Aunt Marsha, because she would never hurt family, and nothing was scarier than Aunt Marsha.
So he couldn't even do one more thing for his Mum, he didn't have a last minute comfort to give her, because he couldn't take away her fear of death.
He could feel it, because she wasn't afraid of death.
There was nothing to sooth, there was nothing he could have done, there was nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing…
He was sitting, (when had he done that?), and his head was being guided down between his knees, and that something, horrible, horrible something, was still riding his pulse, and he heard words like 'panic attack' and 'completely normal', and all he could think then was what?
This, this horrible thing was normal?
Well other people could take their normal and shove it up their arses sideways, because—
But no, normal died.
Comparatively, his family was normal, and normal people died.
"They can't hurt you if they're afraid."
That's what his Aunt had said to him, way back when, but it was something he kept close to his heart, but it didn't quite work that way for the rest of his family, did it?
Because when he'd gotten close up to a man with a knife, the blade had gone through him like he was made of smoke, but what if his Tad was stabbed?
He would die.
He'd made it to the other end of a bullet of a woman who he'd been sending bad dreams to occasionally, and she'd recognized enough of him that that burst of instinctual fear had heightened, and the bullets had gone through the shadows in his vest and…
Well, they'd gone elsewhere.
But what about Harry?
One drive-by shooting and she was gone.
But it wasn't just things like that he had to worry about, was it? No, there was sickness like with his Mum (dead, why was she dead? No, this was not good, not…), and he'd never been sick in his life.
He remembered when Harry had gotten bronchitis, when his Tad had to have his stomach pumped from alcohol poisoning, remembered his Mum (no, no, dead, no, no, no) being worried about Harry when news of a gay couple being beaten to death came on the news, thought of stabbings in dark alleyways, of rape and torture and the millions of other things that were so much more real and likely than a person's fear of dogs, than someone's fear of
Because people he cared about could get hurt, his family could get hurt, they could die, and there wasn't anything he could do about it even if he wasn't in Afghanistan.
He knew this because just look. He was here, he was here for a whole month, and his Mum was dead.
He couldn't, he couldn't…
That something clutched viciously at his throat, and something inside of him just…
John didn't remember passing out because he didn't. He didn't pass out, but he did black out, because he came to in the car, more than halfway home, with his Aunt's hand still on the back of his neck.
He took in a breath and looked into her grey-blue eyes, and could still feel that something with him.
He didn't like it.
He wanted it to go away.
He wanted his Mum back.
That feeling choked him up again, and his Aunt told him to breathe, and it was silly but worked just like it worked when he told his own patients to breathe, and she gave him a look that said she would explain it later.
There were a number of things that, over the years, John learned were better discussed between the two of them, and John thought that this horrible feeling would be best explained by his Aunt Marsha.
The Something curled up in a vicious ball just under his ribcage, and he tried his best to make it go away in the meantime.
Somehow he doesn't think it will, but where he's gotten the Watson stubbornness from his father, he never forgets that he's also a Casey.
He is still his Mother's son, and Casey's had their own way of doing things.
His Aunt tells him what that Something is, and he balks, then wonders, and eventually asks how to get rid of it.
He doesn't like it, and tells his Aunt as much, and doesn't take it kindly when she laughs.
He mourns and avoids his Aunt, because what did she know? The rest of his family needed him as well, and while his Tad and sister drink themselves into a weeping stupor, he tries exhausting that horrible thing inside of him away by putting all of his Mums paperwork in order and figures out the funeral, going through all the channels to get a date set out for her to be cremated, and reluctantly goes to his Aunt to help him get in contact with everyone to let them know when the wake is.
His Tad is drunk and crying throughout, and tells everyone during his turn to talk about Mum that she was so special, special enough that when the Doctors said she was dead, everyone in the hospital felt it.
This was his Tad's explanation as to why everyone in the hospital and the surrounding buildings had a fit, and he ignored the look his Aunt gave him, and tried to ignore the look Harry gave him, and almost succeeded in ignoring the looks the Casey side of his relatives gave him, but couldn't ignore the sidelong glances his platoon gave him after the service.
He gave them a sharp look, wondering, and almost as one they jumped, spooked.
He frowned, and Bill hesitantly put a hand on his shoulder.
"We just want you to know we… we're here for you John."
People had been significantly more jumpy around him lately, and he wondered at that, but the majority of his focus was now on his platoon. His friends. Comrades. Did they…
No. They didn't know.
But they had an idea. They suspected, and John supposed he'd let more slip in his years with them than he'd thought.
He moved to stand with his Aunt to accept condolences from other Aunts and Uncles and cousins he recognized vaguely from his childhood, and looked through the crowd.
It was interesting seeing the Watson's and the Casey's mix; more interesting that more Casey's came to give John condolences than the Watsons.
"You came into your own, Johnny. You've leveled up in the game."
He shot a glance at his Aunt. Considered wrecking the gaming console Harry had given her to fill the boredom of John being away. She'd never said things like that before.
"How do you deal with it all the time?" She'd said the same something had come upon her, and her great Grandfather was the one to explain things to her. She'd said that she felt it, too.
It was almost incomprehensible that his Aunt could feel something like fear, more so than the thought that everyone else has experienced this thing all their lives.
That this is what they experience when they have dreams of falling, of drowning, of being chased, that this horrible something that curled tight in his chest and clawed at his throat and set his pulse thumping when he allowed himself to think on it was considered normal.
He didn't know how people dealt with it. He didn't know how she could deal with it.
Aunt Marsha smiled. A couple of Watson's flinched back, and John felt a reluctant smile twitch at his mouth.
Aunt Marsha never covered her teeth when she smiled.
"Fear is a natural thing for everyone, even us… it just takes a lot more for us to find out what is really scary. For us. We…" She seemed to be searching for the words, and John shook hands on autopilot, nodding thanks from people who couldn't possibly understand the quivering fear now always in the back of his mind, couldn't understand it because they'd been crippled with it since birth.
And John couldn't think of it as anything other than that, because this fear thing was crippling. It was always there, staring through his eyes at Harry, at Tad, at even his Aunt Marsha, and it was debilitating.
Aunt Marsha continued her thought much later, in the comforting darkness of her living room, with the dead glassy stare of taxidermy animals staring at them. He absently pet at a raccoons scarred pelt and felt the familiar contours of a cougars snarl.
"We are unique, Johnny. You understand this in a base way, but what we have is tradition deep in our bone marrow. I do not think you quite comprehend the whole of this. No other family may warm themselves in the shadows, none may comfort their families through fear, and no one else is calmed by the bump in the night. We are a wholly unique family in this, and we are protected in our way, but there is always one who inherits the tradition. I from my Grandfather, you from me, and at some point you will be there for the next Casey. You will be there for when they find out what they are afraid of, you will be there to tell them what I am telling you now." She took up John's hand and her eyes glowed blue in the dark of her eyes, silver hair steely sharp and skin the solid grey of a nightmare. Her teeth were needle-sharp in the grin she offered him.
"Fear is not something to be afraid of. We control the fear. We may feel fear and use it in a way that no one else can. You are afraid. And it is the best kind of fear."
John snorted, feeling bitter and hollow and strained to his limit.
"How could this be the best kind of fear? Fear is not good! It's horrible!"
"And we can use that. You are afraid in the best way because you are afraid for others. You are afraid for those close to you just as it has been for generations. You may not be able to be there for everyone at all times, but you can protect them in a way that no one else can now! Use your fear! Feel it and make those that would hurt your people feel it! We are unique people in that it takes much more to frighten us than it would anyone else! The only reason I did not say this to you earlier is because you have been keeping to your own mind these past weeks! Had you tried walking through others dreams you would have driven them mad."
John jerked at that, staring with wide eyes.
Because what if he walked through Bills dreams, or Teds, or, gods, what if he'd gone through Harry's mind for once—
"Stop it! Now that you know you can exercise caution. You are lucky in that you may use enemy troops to test how delicately you may walk through their dreams…"
Something in the way that she said it made John stop himself from saying something scathing, wondering, and they were silent the rest of the night.
John didn't get tired anymore.
It was a strange thing to notice, and an even stranger thing to miss, but there it was.
It was just one more thing on top of a dozen others, as John has to relearn how to be non-threatening, has to figure out how to stand and how to talk and how to keep the shadows and nightmares from escaping his eyes.
One day he's feeling especially numb, especially stupid with all that he had to pay extra attention to, and isn't paying attention when Harry comes into the kitchen.
He gets ribbed by Harry that he dyed his hair, and keeps it for a week after that when it keeps Harry from waking up hung over before 'bleaching' it back to blonde.
Harry dyes her hair an attractively dark shade of red in retaliation.
"Can't have my little brother show me up, now can I? Only I have more class than to dye my hair black. Honestly John, you missed your chance at being a moody teenager."
He doesn't have the energy to feel disappointed that Harry has blocked out that he's different like Tad has, and only feels resignation to the fact that she's also taken up drinking to forget the fact that he hasn't ever had to dye his hair to get it that inky black.
He compliments her new look and leaves AA brochures around her house.
John stayed in his own head when he wasn't in the grey space working with his Aunt, and when he was back in Afghanistan he only drove a dozen soldiers on the other side mad.
He didn't feel terribly bad for it, as it meant they were sent home from the war, but it did mean he was getting speculative looks from his unit when reports came through that a number of the other sides guys were going mad with fear.
When he can go into another's dreams without driving them to madness he only ever tries driving someone mad the once.
He now knows how NOT to drive someone mad, as well as how to do it on purpose, and if he feels more comfortable with his friends with them knowing part of the truth… well, it is certainly much easier to keep everyone alive with them knowing some of it.
It's also much easier making reports with the knowledge that they would back him up when he bent the truth.
He missed his Mum, and hugged his fear close to his chest every night as his Aunt taught him how to deal with it. How to manage it.
Things weren't great, but they were good, and that would be enough.
It would have to be enough.
Hope you enjoyed :)
This was hard to write, and yes apparently I have to have some angst and death in my stories, doesn't that just suck?
To anyone and everyone waiting on It's Green, I am working on it; I'm stuck on one plot point, and please have patience with me here.
I am not abandoning the story.