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The Last Toast

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I drink to the ruined house,
To the evil of my life,
To our shared loneliness
And I drink to you—

The Last Toast – Anna Ackmatova

 

2002

"C'mon," Richie said, all pent up energy and enthusiasm, looking back over his shoulder to see if Dean was following, and Dean was, not like he had anywhere else to be tonight.

Richie knocked on the metal door, two times then one, then a scrape with his knuckles against the peeling paint. He smiled when he heard the bolt unlatch from the other side.

Yeah, Dean thought, okay, you said so. The door opened, flooding the alley with blue light, with voices and a frenzied rhythm. The goon in the entryway was big, taller than Sam and twice as wide, but he let them pass. And that was good too, because Dean'd had enough of the smell of piss and vomit coming from the ground.

It was so cold. Another night of snow.

Inside, the air was stuffy with the smell of sweat and alcohol and too many bodies. Richie smiled again, took out his wallet and Dean went for his own, but Richie just shook his head.

"My treat," he said, and slapped Dean's shoulder. Dean frowned at him and Richie stepped back looked embarrassed.

"This way," Richie said after a minute, then walked through a corridor as dark as the night outside, out to the dance floors.

The place was huge, crowded. Exactly what Dean was looking for.

He turned off a cell phone that wouldn't ring and elbowed his way through the writhing bodies on the dance floor, straight to the bar. He let the techno rhythm of the music pace the beating of his heart, let it melt the tension like the snow on the sidewalks come morning.

The strobe lights revealed squares of naked skin in starts and flashes; Richie's hair was slick with sweat and too much gel, but he was grinning like he'd won the lottery and Dean grinned too. Amiable. Easy. Richie's heart was in the right place. Sure he wasn't very reliable on the job, but Dean'd had worse company.

"Happy birthday," Richie screamed above the music, and still, Dean had to read his lips. He pushed a glass into Dean's hand and Dean drank, felt the alcohol hit his empty stomach, felt it spreading fast, the same jolt of adrenaline as the moment before the kill.

The noise was so loud he couldn't hear himself breathing; after his fourth shot, he couldn't hear himself think.

The girl on the stool right next to him laughed loudly, and the sound was lost in the swirl of colors from the lights above, she put her hand on his chest, then trailed it under his shirt, smooth and steady. A straightforward invitation.

She smiled and took his hand, led him toward the darkness of a corridor. She shoved him against the wall, and he let her take the lead, pushed down the noisy thoughts that threatened to rear up, pushed them deep down until all that rested of him was just skin, nothing inside but want and need.

Her tiny hands settled on his hips and her mouth on his cock.

He awoke to a stranger's face the next morning, the make-up smeared around her eyes made her look like a racoon; she stretched the full length of the bed when he stood up, mumbled something and hugged the pillow.

Dean smacked his lips at the sour taste on his tongue, found his shorts under the bed and his jeans and shirt this side of the bathroom door.

When he left her room, she didn't so much as move and Dean was glad for small mercies.

He drove the Impala back to his motel room, found John still passed out on the bed, exactly like he'd left him the night before. His breathing was good, and the bandage was still fast around his middle.

Happy fucking birthday to me, Dean thought, and he never checked his cell phone.

 

2003

He awoke to the white noise of a hospital room, to his father's worried face.

In the light filtering from the hallway, he could see every scar and crinkle there, could feel all of John's years on top of his own.

"You're awake," John said and Dean nodded, mutely, fought not groan when he scooted higher in his bed, not because of some manly need not to show pain, but because his father was already wearing his guilty like a cloak, darker even than the room they were in.

"That bad, huh?" Dean asked, more out of that habit that anything else, longstanding tradition of filling John's silences with words. Dean knew it was as bad as he felt. The steady throb in his head and the numbness of his limbs. Heavy painkillers, the good stuff.

"You tell me," John said, something fierce behind his simple words Dean was too tired to face now.

"Dad--"

"It's done, son."

They fell silent after that. The guy in the bed beside him snored loudly, then muttered some unintelligible words, and Dean couldn't help himself. "Fuck! He's worse than you." Put a surprised expression on John's face that was close to comical.

"Mind your tongue, boy. You're not old enough that I can't get you," John said, but he was smiling.

Dean snorted. "Even a baby would get me right now."

He knew it was the wrong thing to say even as the words left his lips.

In what little light was filtering through the open door and from the corridor, he saw John's face closing, then nothing as he sat back on his chair, disappearing into the deeper shadows.

"Dad," Dean started, but John just made a shushing noise.

"Rest now," he said, and for a long time the silence was broken only by snores coming from the other bed, by John's breathing, whenever the guy quieted. The rustling sounds John made as he tried to find a comfortable position into the hard chair.

He startled awake when John touched him lightly, tensed but there wasn't urgency in John's voice.

"Are you awake, Dean?"

He mumbled a yes, blinked the fuzziness away, and opened his eyes to John's face, blown up big and too close, his eyes bright and shiny.

"What--"

"She gave a big party. Your first birthday."

"What, Dad? Who?"

"Your mother. She... she wanted it to be perfect." Dean could see the small smile on his father's face.

"She invited the entire freaking street; we had fifty-seven people that night. She bought decorations, baked for three days and bought you a cake."

Dean tried to picture it beyond the distance and confusion of those lost memories. His father's voice in the dark rumbled bodiless, painting a too vivid image of a crowded room, laughter and happiness, a warm house. Hard imagining him at the core of it.

"She was glowing, Dean. You… you should have seen her. God, she was beautiful."

John's voice cracked and faded, and that right there was why he'd never asked, why he'd screamed at Sam whenever his questions about their mom had been too insistent.

"It's okay, dad. It doesn't matter."

John's voice was a notch above a whisper. He cleared his throat.

"Anyway, you got a fever that night. Nothing serious. It's something that happens to kids, but you wouldn't stop bawling, you screamed your lungs off. Nothing would calm you down, I had fifty-seven people that were hungry like wolves, and your mother took you upstairs, out of the crowd.

"Later, I found you in our bedroom. You were both asleep, and I remember, Dean, I remember standing on the threshold and thinking – God help me I did – I thought I was the luckiest sonofabitch alive."

 

2004

"Yes, dad, she's dead."

"I'm sure. You don't get deader than that."

"I'm not being a smartass. No sir. A shkogra, yeah. Fucking bitch."

"Shit!"

"What? No, no..."

"Dad, no. I'm not hurt. It's this fucking room, it's worse than that one in Minnesota."

"Yeah. I remember. "

"The toilet is flooded, and there's something alive on the carpet."

"Nah, it's all right, Dad. I think the mud is killing it. Got the shotgun on the nightstand, though."

"No, Dad, I'm just tired. I'm gonna sleep for two days straight."

"Got it. I'll be there."

"Huh? Fuck, what day is it, again?"

"Sorry, Dad. Yes, I know I said it three times. Sorry, sir."

"No, I forgot. Kind of. Thought it was still Saturday."

"Thanks, Dad."

"Nah, maybe later, got to sleep first."

"Yes, I will. Sure. See you next Thursday."

"Yeah. You too."

2005

"Are you angry, Dean?"

"About what?"

John pointed toward the apartment on the other side of the street, toward the lights bleeding from the windows; there was a crowd inside, there was music pumped at a high volume that they could hear from where they were parked. If Dean'd had to guess, he'd've said that it wasn't exactly Sam's scene.

"Nah," Dean said, but his gaze couldn't stray from those windows, like he was a fish and the apartment the hook, and if John thought he was lying, he didn't say a word.

He'd never been angry, really. He'd known Sam would want to be gone the first chance he got, and as far as chances went, Stanford had been a good one. But Sam going had had consequences, and he wasn't thinking only of the hunt.

"Why are they partying, by the way?" Dean asked instead, took a drink from his bottle, and winced at the lukewarm beer.

A girl and a guy came out the front door, the girl took two unsteady steps, then threw up on the sidewalk, his boyfriend or whoever the fuck he was, looked a little green himself in the glow of the streetlights.

When John didn't reply, Dean turned in the seat, found him looking at the apartment on the first floor. The truck was in the shadows of the building and John's face only half visible. His look was unreadable.

"We could go inside, you know?" Dean said. He knew John would never say yes.

Dean wasn't so sure he liked the idea himself. He'd never liked to crash a party, even if the party was at his brother's place. And then what would they say? Three years going on four and there'd been only silence on both sides.

"It's Sam's girlfriend's birthday."

Dean needed to backtrack to tie those words to question he'd asked earlier. It took him a moment for it to sink in.

"Well, huh..." He sounded stupid even to himself.

He'd seen the girl hanging on his brother's arm one of the times he'd come to check up on Sam, wavy blond hair, slim body.

Dean doubted he had something in common with her. Nothing more meaningful than a freaking birth date, anyway. He wondered if Sam thought anything of it, if he thought it was just a stupid coincidence.

"I'm not angry anymore," John said.

Maybe John was more drunk than Dean had realized, the way he was following the thread of Dean's thoughts in jumps and starts. But they'd only shared two beers over the last two hours and if John was drunk it wasn't from the alcohol.

"I was, you know? I've been angry for a long time, Dean. But I'm not angry, not anymore. Not at Sam, anyway."

Dean nodded, waited for John to go on, heart beating stupidly fast, because this was the first time John had openly talked of Sam in years. He'd become a taboo subject after he left, like his mother was after she died.

But apparently, John was done.

"We better go now," John said, and he turned on the engine, the truck rumbling under them, different music than the Impala, dangerous and aggressive.

The idea blossomed and exploded, suddenly. To stitch back together this four years long rip, the chance was so close that he couldn't let it pass.

"You should tell Sam that" he said, had to bite his lip not to say more.

It was never a good idea to push his father too hard. Better to leave him to figure out the rest. Ease him into the idea until it took roots. Not so different from Sam – the one he remembered, anyway.

But John just shook his head.

"I will, Dean, don't worry." He eased the truck from the curb and onto the street and drove away from Sam's place.

"Not today, though." John took the streets with the ease of familiarity and Dean realized this wasn't the first time he'd swung by to check up on Sam.

Stubborn sonofabitch. Both of them.

They'd get back to this, Dean thought. At a different time, they would.

"You want to grab a bite?" John asked, "I could go for a cold beer."

Dean nodded, smiled. "And pie."

"That can be arranged, too."

On the highway, Dean grinned at the California sky: as black as it was, it was starting to look friendly.

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