"I got fired again."
Dean Winchester has uttered those words one too many times in his life for his liking. Enough times that he already knows what the reaction to this news will be, enough that he doesn't even bother to try to deliver it in person; a phone call will be hard enough.
His brother Sam's voice yelps over the line, tinny with disbelief.
Plopping down onto his sofa, Dean runs a hand down his face and contemplates the myriad ways in which he's been fired and the reasons behind them. This one is new, at least, something semi-interesting to add to the long list.
"They said I was too smart for the job."
"Dude. I'm pretty sure that's illegal."
Well, Sam would know. He's the highly educated golden boy of the family, after all. A Stanford-law graduate and, if the way the way the members of his firm fawn over him is any indication, soon to be the youngest partner ever to grace the halls of Wesson, Adler, and Smith. Dean is the thirty-something loser that can't even keep a customer service job.
Dean can hear a brassy female voice interrupt whatever platitude his brother was going to say next, and his gusty sigh. Ah, must be Ruby the secretary-slash-girlfriend, then.
"Crap. Dean, I gotta go. Meeting."
"No, that's cool. I understand, man." Dean must manage to sound as dejected as he feels because Sam pauses instead of just hanging up like he usually would.
"You have plans tonight, don't you? With Cassie?"
"Don't sound so thrilled there, Romeo."
"It's just...she's been acting strange lately."
"Dude. I know six months must feel like a lifetime for you, but you're just getting into really knowing her. I think you're just not used to actually dating someone. Just...go out with Cassie tonight. Have fun, let her take care of you."
Sam may have a point. Dean's dating history before hooking up with Cassie is riddled with one or maybe two night stands, a long string of women (and the occasional man) who Dean hadn't been interested in knowing beyond the biblical sense or being fuck buddies. Cassie was different, though. She was smart, funny—someone he could see himself with for the long haul. She's always saying how she wishes Dean would let her into his life more. Perhaps an evening with her, talking and opening up is just what they both need.
Dean can feel himself perk up. "Yeah, alright."
Sam rings off right after. Dean sets about getting ready, spending a little extra time to preen, picking a nicer button-down shirt in a soft green Cassie once said complemented his eyes and his only pair of flat-front dress slacks, purchased after Cassie had regaled him with the evils of pleated. A shower, shave, and gelling of his hair later, Dean is ready to leave. Dodging raindrops, he gets in his car and slips in some Alice in Chains, finding himself singing Staley's parts while Jerry Cantrell snarls harmony in the background. The rain that started as a light sprinkle is now a downpour, the drops smacking against the car's metal roof an extra layer of percussion.
His cell ringing interrupts the impromptu jam session. Caller ID displays 'Cassie' when Dean looks, so he answers despite the fact that he's still driving.
It's hard to hear her over the music and rain. Dean shuts the radio off.
"Have you left yet?"
"Yeah, I'm almost there. What's up?"
"Umm..." There's a long pause on Cassie's end. Dean thinks he can hear another male voice, a bursting swell of music.
"I'm actually not feeling good," Cassie says.
Dean tightens his grip on the cell. He can hear the cheap plastic creak under the strain. "I can bring you some soup or something. Maybe stop off at that tea place you like?" Dean offers even though a large cheer resounds in the background, too raucous to have merely come from Cassie's television.
"That's sweet," she says, "but I think I'm just gonna turn in for the night. Maybe get up later, wash my hair."
Dean knows the ultimate brush-off when he hears it; he didn't think that line was used outside of outdated teen movies. Cassie must realize how it sounds, too, because she stutters, "Oh, God...Dean, I-"
"No, Cassie," he says, with a wide smile she can't see and he doesn't feel. "It's fine. Guess this has been comin' for a while, eh?"
"You have fun tonight," Dean tells her, surprising himself with how genuine he sounds. "Take care, Cassie." He hangs up and throws the phone across the seat next to him, then presses the knuckles of the hand that'd held it against his mouth and takes a deep breath.
The only woman he's cried over in his entire life is his mother, and Dean will be damned before Cassie changes that. She doesn't deserve to be in the same category as Mary Winchester, Dean thinks, not even close. Dean is so busy not crying and holding back tears that assuredly aren't about to fall that he doesn't see the deer standing in the middle of the road.
They collide hard. The deer's backside explodes in a mess of burst flesh and shattered bone, its fragile body no match for the solid frame of Dean's classic Impala. Blood splatters in an arch across the windshield. The loss of visibility and the force of the impact is enough to send Dean careening off the road. The Impala's right side bounces off a tree, pushing it back across both lanes of the road. The front end catches on something—what, Dean will never know—and flips. The car slides on its hood for several feet before coming to rest in a culvert. He has just enough presence of mind to grasp his cell (which, by some miracle, ended up resting beside his head) to call Sam before passing out.
The beep of a heart monitor is what wakes Dean. Blinking slowly, he looks down the length of his arm, seeing the IV in the crook of his elbow, the little plastic sleeve capping his middle finger measuring his heartbeat, the bright white of bandages and medical tape that span the length of his arm between them.
"It is good to see you awake."
The man standing at the end of his bed is unfamiliar. Dean takes in the stranger's dark messy hair, fair skin, sharp-edged nose and full mouth carefully, but can't recall having ever met him in his life. His clothing is not the norm for any of Dean's acquaintances either, with his black-on-black trousers, dress shirt and waistcoat. The only spot of color in the man's clothing comes from the slick-shine of a bright blue satin tie, resting loosely below his unbuttoned collar. It is the only thing that makes Dean think this man didn't walk from the pages of one of Sam's questionable 'men's magazines'; even his shoes, black and stylishly square toed, are polished to the point that Dean is certain that if pressed the stranger would be able to use them as a mirror.
"Dean Winchester?" the man prompts.
"Yeah, that's me," Dean helpfully supplies. The man takes two steps closer. Past his square, wire-rimmed glasses and considering squint, Dean can see the stranger's eyes are the exact same shade of blue as his tie.
"Can you tell me what happened?"
It doesn't occur to Dean to think this is an odd question. He's a smart ass because it's his nature.
"I'm pretty sure I was in a car accident."
At this the guy gets even closer, and Dean catches a whiff of something clean and grassy, underlaid with an exotic spice, like the kind that are always on those foreign foods Sam thinks he should try. The reason he's able to smell this stranger so well, Dean thinks, is because he's the one thing in the room that doesn't smell like cleaning chemicals or antiseptics. Dean likes it, more than he should.
"I meant before that," the man prods gently. "What happened earlier in your day before the accident occurred?"
Dean blinks. He almost forgot there had been an equally sucky early part of his day to go with his fantastically crappy evening.
"Well, to start I was fired from my job, which I hated, so I suppose I should be happy about, but money's money, ya know?" He pauses to see the guy's reaction, but when he just continues staring at Dean as if he's waiting for him to continue, Dean finds himself doing so. "And then the only steady girlfriend I've ever had dumped me over the phone. From what sounded like a party. Where she was with another dude."
"These sorts of days happen to you often, don't they Dean? Days where everything seems to crumble upon you all at once."
Annoyance and frustration flops in the bottom of Dean's stomach, caused as much by the guy's unwanted close proximity as his words. "Are you my doctor?"
The man pulls away, as if just becoming aware that he'd been practically shoving his nose in Dean's face. "Of a sort. If you wish." He pulls a card out of a pocket on the inside of his waistcoat. It's light, light pink, the sort of color people try to call salmon or something like that to hide the fact that it's freaking pink.
Castiel Milton, it reads, with a phone number underneath it. A small stylized bird, wings outstretched, is embossed on the top right hand corner.
"I'm a therapist."
Oh, hell no.
"A shrink?" Dean laughs to cover his sudden nervousness. He hadn't felt threatened in the man's—Castiel's, he tells himself, because people's names are good to remember—presence before, but he does now. "No offense, doc, but I was in a car accident. That's not something you can fix by laying me out on a couch and asking about me about my childhood."
"You were in an accident," Castiel acknowledges like he's doing Dean a huge favor by doing so. "But all your life you've been stumbling from one accident to the next, haven't you? You live alone, devote all you time and emotion to your vehicle and you haven't held the same job for over six months since you were 19. Before this now broken relationship you satisfied yourself with a series of empty sexual encounters. The only person you talk to on a regular basis is your brother Sam...how am I doing?"
Too fuckin' well, Dean wants to say. The mention of Sam by name has Dean thinking that maybe this guy is here because of his brother, though, in some sort of misguided attempt to help his fuck-up of an older sibling out, so he settles for keeping his mouth shut and glaring at the therapist when he really wants to yell and rage.
"Just think about it," Castiel tells him with a nod to the business card. He then exits the room, his super-shiny dress shoes silent on the tile floor.
"Think about..." Dean sputters. "Think about what?" he shouts after Castiel, but the man is already gone.
"Kate, I'm fine. Really, you don't need to come over."
Dean's wearing his choo-choo train pajamas and slippers shaped like bear's feet, complete with plush claws. They're his guilty pleasure, don't feel well clothes, things he only wears when he's fairly certain no one will be around to see him. Dean would like to maintain the illusion that words such as 'choo choo train' aren't even in his vocabulary, never mind the fact that he dons pajamas covered in them. (Or that he sleeps in pajamas, period, but that's besides the point.) Dean doesn't want anyone-even his well-intentioned step-mother with her fierce determination to fulfill that whole 'mother's unconditional love' hole in his life—to see him like this.
"Nonsense, honey, it's no trouble at all!" A wince crosses Dean's face at the endearment. It's not that he dislikes Kate; on the contrary, he thinks one of the smartest things his dad ever did was re-marry. He shudders to think what John would be like today without his wife. It was simply that her affection for Dean had an almost manic quality to it, as if she believed that by smothering him with attention that he would suddenly no longer be a thirty-something year old man whose family felt it necessary to check up on him to make sure he hasn't drowned in his bathtub or slipped down his building's stairs and cracked his head open or something equally inept and tragic.
"You just got out of the hospital, Dean, and I want to check on you."
It's on the tip of Dean's tongue to politely but firmly refuse her kindness again when the doorbell rings. Dean whirls around to stare at the wood-framed entry, silently begging God, the saints or anyone who will listen that he imagined the sound.
The doorbell chimes again, mocking him.
"Aww, Kate," he whines into the receiver, but he opens the door anyways, because the woman means well, and Dean has never been able to work up to being really mad at her, getting caught out wearing choo-choo pajamas or no. Besides, he tells himself, Kate won't care too much if he hasn't showered in three days and his hair's so greasy it's laying like double-flattened roadkill on top his head, right? She's seen him in worse shape.
Except when he opens the door, not just Kate is on his stoop. His father is there, too, along with—holy shit—grandma and grandpa Campbell, who Dean didn't think could stand to be within thirty yards of each other since that incident with the square edge and the butcher block counter. As the cherry on top, Sammy and Ruby brought up the rear, wearing identical expressions as they stared in disbelief at what Dean was wearing.
"Oh, Dean." Kate envelops him in a hug. "I brought the supplies to make you some breakfast because I know you never have anything in your fridge and with circumstances and all your upcoming medical bills-"
If Dean were a different sort of man, he might be hissing at his step-mother to get her to shut up, but he had been raised to be more respectful than that. Besides, when Kate Winchester gets to talking, trying to stop her is like standing in front of a steamroller and expecting any other result than getting flattened.
"Son," Samuel and John nod towards Dean at the same time, causing them to ignore Dean in favor of glaring at each other instead. Grandma Deanna made some noises about helping Kate in Dean's kitchen, leaving the two alpha males to their posturing. Which left Dean facing Sam and his hell-bitch girlfriend.
"Nice jammies, Dean," Ruby smirks.
Dean really misses the days when he could talk to his brother without Ruby around.
"You look like you just got out of the other hospital." Her tone and inflection make clear which hospital Ruby is referring to. The 'other' hospital is what the Winchester clan calls the local State Hospital, which was a nice, bland way of saying 'state run mental facility'. It was where Kate worked as head of the Human Rights and Advocacy Committee, and where she had first met John just over nineteen years ago when he was a patient and she was an aide. They hadn't married until they'd met again and began dating years later, but the hospital and how John and Kate met is still a sensitive subject in their family.
"I guess you always did want to emulate your daddy, though," Ruby continues on blithely, clearly courting a death wish. John is standing a bare three feet away, where it is almost impossible for him to not hear her and-
And what? Dean asks himself. Have his feelings hurt? Dean knows perfectly well John will never say or do anything to perfect, sweet Ruby who makes Sammy so happy...not when by doing so he runs the risk of re-alienating the son he's only recently begun speaking to again.
Sometimes Dean wonders if John loves Sam more because he talks back and stands up to their father. If that makes him more of a man than Dean is in John's eyes.
He already knows that's the case with Samuel.
"So," speak of the devil, "Dean." Samuel breaks the tension Ruby brought to the room with a wry twist of lips and expectantly raised eyebrows. "When are you going to marry that girl of yours and work on making me a great-grandfather? I keep encouraging Sam here to take that step, but I think he's afraid Ruby will tell him no."
Ruby tinkles out a laugh. "You know I'm waiting for you to sweep me off my feet, Samuel." His grandfather replies, but Dean barely hears him. Internally, he's wincing; his relationship with Cassie had been the only thing in Dean's life the old man approved of.
No use delaying the inevitable, Dean thinks. "We're actually not together anymore."
John must hear the raw edge of pain in Dean's voice because he steps in with a well-intentioned but ultimately unhelpful, "That's my boy. Don't let yourself be chained down too soon. Ladies like the chase."
Sam opens his mouth to redirect the conversation (or, for all Dean knows, to remind their father that he'd been the one to pursue both their mother and Kate, if the stories they'd heard from Grandma Deanna were true) but Ruby beats him to it.
"What about work, Dean? How's that going for you. You're at...where is it again? A call center?"
Dean flushes. Ruby knows perfectly well he's no longer at the call center. Sam tells her everything.
"I'm not there anymore."
Kate winces in sympathy as Deanna drops the green pepper she chopped on top of the omelet Kate is making and exclaims, "Oh, Dean, what happened?" Dean thinks pessimistically that she's wondering what she ever did to have her namesake be the one that is partner-less, jobless, and apparently too irresponsible to even properly feed himself without parental interference.
"I'm sure Dean will find something else soon," Kate offers, nervously. Deanna always makes the other woman uncertain, as if she's an interloper in the Winchester family, despite the fact that she's known John for most of Dean and Sam's lives.
"Yeah," Ruby cuts in, all fake sweetness and venom, "I hear the city metro is looking for train conductors. Maybe you could apply for that." It's one comment too many in a room already choking Dean with both swirling disapproval and good intentions.
"You know, I may not have it together as Sammy, but you don't walk into my apartment and talk to me that way, Ruby."
John warningly says, "Son-"
"No, Dad!" Dean jerks away from his father's outstretched hand. "Don't you dare tell me to be nice to her just because you're looking for a sure way to stay on Sammy's good side."
"Dean-" Sammy and Samuel say, the condescension so eerily similar that Dean finds himself taking a step back.
"No, you know what? I can't do this." Dean turns and goes to his bedroom, slamming the door behind him. It's only after he's shoved a chair under the knob when it begins rattling to the accompaniment of Sam's tired sounding calls of his name that Dean realizes how ridiculous it is for a grown-ass man to hide from his family in his own apartment, how Ruby has really been rather mild compared to her naturally acerbic self and her comments are really nothing to react this way over. Instead of facing things like a rational human being, though, he snatches his battered leather jacket from where it's tossed across his object-strewn desk, slips it on, and crawls out his window.
The crisp fall air makes Dean glad he thought to grab his jacket almost as soon as his slipper-clad feet touch the fire escape. He clambers down, fishing in his pocket for the keys to his god-forsaken rental car as he does so, his classic Impala-one of the few things in his life he's proud of-still languishing in a garage while his insurance paperwork's in limbo. Dean has no thought of where he might go or what he might do aside from get away from the people crowding his apartment until his fingers brush across the bent corner of what feels like high-grade card stock.
Dean pulls it out, sees the simple words Castiel Milton pressed onto the front of the pale pink card, the phone number, the bird in the corner, same as when Castiel handed it him. On the back, though, there's now an address. Dean had been certain there was nothing printed on the back when the doctor had given him the card.
4 Plum Avenue, it reads.
"Plum Avenue," Dean says softly. In the neighborhood he lives in, all the streets are named after fruit and nut trees—his apartment is on Hazelnut Drive—but he doesn't recall Plum Avenue being one of them. Yet when he looks up, there is a small alley adjunct to where he's standing, bearing that very street name. He can just make out the shape of a small, tidy white house with a blindingly blue door with a gleaming golden plaque next to it. A metal number 4 sits above this, glaringly obvious against the clean white lintel.
"Okay then," Dean nods. He crosses the street, ignoring the blare of horns and the babble of voices from angry drivers, nips into the alley and virtually dives through the house's front door.
It's much larger on the inside than it appears from the street. Dean finds himself suddenly and terrifyingly intimidated. Vaulted ceilings painted with what looks like various Biblical scenes stretch overhead while creamy-warm toned marble floors gleam under his plushie claws. There is an enormous sweeping staircase to his right, also marble. A large desk sits underneath the stairs, a spare woman with highlighted blonde hair and a pinched mouth typing away behind it. The nameplate on her desk reads Rachel, and just Rachel. No last name, no title.
"Uh, excuse me," Dean says softly. "Rachel, is it?" When he levels him a look of pure hostility and doesn't utter a word, Dean shoves the card Castiel gave him in her direction. "I'm sorry, is this Doctor Castiel's office? He gave me this card and I thought maybe-"
"Oh." It's not even a word, more an exhalation, but it transforms Rachel's whole face into something much more pleasant. She smiles broadly. "My apologies. Go right on up the stairs, first door on the left."
"I...don't have an appointment," Dean feels compelled to say.
"Just go on up," Rachel assures him, the smile still firmly in place. "If he gave you a card, he'll want to see you, and he's not with anyone right now."
"Oh." Dean feels wrong-footed. He'd thought...well, he's not sure what he'd thought when he'd found the card in his pocket and saw the house right in front of him, but he's certain most shrinks want you to make an appointment, that this isn't normal protocol at all. It probably won't give the best impression to go charging into the guy's office wearing bear slippers and pajamas covered in cartoon trains topped with a old leather jacket, either.
Then again, the guy is a therapist. He's probably used to ten shades of crazy. Plus the only alternative Dean can think of at this point is to turn around, go back to his apartment and face his family. The amount of dread that idea fills him with makes Dean think that maybe talking to a therapist isn't the worst idea after all.
Mind made up, Dean scuffs his way up the stairs. A brisk knock at the door is replied with a rumbled, "Come in," and swallowing, Dean does just that.
Castiel looks much the same as he did the first time Dean saw him. The only difference now is that instead of a tie, he's wearing an honest-to-God ascot, something Dean has never seen outside of a period movie. A tumbler of some warm-colored liquor sits by his hand, somehow making the room Dean has found himself in feel that much more like a film set and less like real life. Books fight for room on crowded dark wooden casings with records and periodicals, and the curtains—thick, plush velvet things that hang morosely over a thickly glazed window—are pulled back just enough to highlight Castiel with sunlight.
The therapist gestures to the leather chair opposite himself. "Dean," he says, sounding slightly pleased, "won't you have a seat?"