It’s a stupid idea and in a life that’s seen a lot of stupid ideas, that’s really saying something. It’s been almost a year since they stopped moving around, almost six months since he relented to Sam’s request to get some therapy for the many issues he’s stored inside a bottle of whiskey for as long as he can remember and a couple of days since he agreed to his therapist’s suggestion to ‘try something different’ as part of his recovery.
He’d blame it on drink if he hadn’t been dry for the last seven months.
“Dean? You ready to give it a try?”
He blinks, comes back to himself, does his best not to scowl because it’s not this woman’s fault that his therapist is crazy.
“Uh, don’t you have any smaller models?”
The woman, Jody, laughs. “We’ve got a couple of Shetland ponies but they’re not really your thing.”
“Oh, why not?”
“Well, you’re about four feet too tall and one hundred pounds too heavy.”
Now he does scowl because the horse she’s standing there holding is fucking enormous. Jody has described him as ‘flea-bitten grey’ which makes him sound like a moth-eaten old rug that should have been thrown out years ago. He’s also called Balthazar, which, in his mind, bumps this from a stupid idea into an epically ridiculously insane idea because the Big Man up there clearly has a sadistic sense of humour and this is all bound to end in tears.
But despite all this, an hour a week spent learning to ride is an hour less of sitting in his therapist’s office attempting to explain (without giving the obviously crazy details) how he became an alcoholic and how, when he finally quit drinking, he eventually had the mother of all mental breakdowns.
Sam had gone back to school and it had always been assumed that he would find a job in a garage when they finally settled down in one place but his brother’s successful reintegration to society simply highlighted how unequipped he was for a life without hunting. He knows his medical records talk about suicide attempts after he gave up the booze but he doesn’t think that’s completely accurate – he hadn’t tried to kill himself, more like he’d just given up trying to stay alive.
Sam’s tears of despair after his third hospital admission had made him agree to therapy. And he’s been good to his word – he attends regular as clockwork but he’s never really been very good at talking about his feelings so he figures learning to ride would be easier.
Now he’s not so sure.
Jody helps him climb onboard and he’s pretty proud of himself that he only swears a couple of times as he makes the awkward manoeuvre into the saddle. Once seated however he switches back to stunned disbelief that he ever thought this would be okay. The ground is a long way away, which is bad enough but the fact that he’s relying on a twelve hundred pound creature with a will of its own not to dump him back down there is something that no sane person would consider, in his view.
“Relax, Dean. We’re just gonna walk around for a bit.”
Oh hell, no. Jody is his therapist’s niece so he figures she’s probably been given a little background about the man sent to her with the laughable notion that he could learn to ride as part of his treatment. If she’s been told to be gentle with him then she’s either a sadist or she’s forgotten the instruction completely.
Balthazar is walking before he can make a suitable protest that standing still will be just fine, thank you. His knuckles are white as he grips the reins but as he settles into the unfamiliar yet not unpleasant swaying motion of being astride a moving beast, some long-forgotten part of him, that rose to his father’s endlessly high expectations every time he expected his son to learn something new, surfaces once more. He listens intently as Jody instructs him on how to use his hands and legs to control the horse’s movement and before he knows it, the hour is over.
Twenty four hours later and he’s aching badly. His right leg, broken by the Leviathan and prevented from healing correctly by his own actions in what feels like a lifetime ago, has stiffened up so much that he’s walking with a limp and his backside is happy to remind him that horse riding is for crazy people every time he sits down. Mentally he tells it to chill because he’s not going back. Sam patiently listens to his bitching, then tosses the Tiger Balm at him. Dean grudgingly accepts it but snorts at Sam’s assertion that he’ll probably go back.
Six days later and he’s sitting astride Balthazar again. There’s only one brief blip, when the horse does one of those full body shakes to try and dislodge a fly that lands on its rump but this time he’s determined to stick with it and by the end of the hour he’s guiding Balthazar around the paddock at both walk and trot.
He goes home that evening with a grin on his face and for the first time in seven months he thinks about something other than alcohol.
He’s been having weekly lessons for a couple of months when Jody suggests they ride out together. He watches her swing confidently into the saddle and then they’re off, riding shoulder to shoulder along the dusty track that leads away from the farm.
It’s a fine, bright day with diaphanous white clouds scudding across the sky and he almost laughs at himself for entertaining the fanciful notion that it’s the perfect weather for horse riding. They chat as the horses cover the ground easily, their long ears flicking back and forth with a ceaseless vigilance that reminds Dean of himself and Sam in their former life.
Jody talks about her studies, the horses, her loser ex-boyfriend; Dean finds himself talking about Sam, how they’ve moved on from a life that hurt them both physically and mentally and then, surprising even himself, how he thinks the therapy is finally starting to help.
The first time he agrees to try a gallop he’s so tense he’s sure the thundering motion will snap him in two but the intense rush of speed and freedom and sheer exhilaration brings laughter to his lips.
Later on over dinner he’ll try to explain to Sam how alive it made him feel and Sam will give him a look so incredulous that he’ll tell his brother to fuck off and that it’s his fault that he’s turned into such a girl and they’ll laugh about it together as they finish off the lasagne Sam made after he got though with classes for the day.
He’s been making his weekly visits to the farm for almost four months when he arrives one morning to find Jody grim faced and apologetic. Balthazar is lame and his owner is considering having him euthanized as treatment will be expensive, time-consuming and may ultimately not be successful. She offers to let him ride her own horse so he doesn’t miss out on his lesson but he leaves abruptly, saying he hadn’t really been in the mood to ride anyway.
He’s parked up outside a convenience store before he realises he’s come here with the intention of buying alcohol. The realisation hits him like a sledgehammer and he sits behind the wheel of his beloved car and cries for the first time in what feels like forever. When he goes home he tells Sam everything, because he’s promised to be honest with his brother but he feels like shit at the worry that clouds Sam’s features as he talks.
He expects Sam to be sympathetic because the one thing his little brother has always been is an awesome listener, but what he doesn’t expect is Sam’s solution to the problem at hand. His initial instinct is that Sam is crazy and he tells him so in no uncertain terms but twenty four hours later he’s standing in front of Balthazar’s stable with every last cent he’s been able to lay his hands on, imploring that the horse’s owner take it and never come back.
The man studies the unlikely would-be owner with his faded denims, leather jacket and muscle car parked out back and thinks his ship’s come in because who in the hell wants to buy a lame horse but his laughter dies in his throat at the young man’s intense gaze because some self-preserving part of him is prickling with the threat of danger.
He accepts the offer.
Over the next few months the vet bills nearly clean them out but Sam knows they’re worth it when he sees the determination in his brother’s face every time he returns from the farm with the news that Balthazar is weight bearing a little better or has moved more than a few steps around his stall.
It doesn’t take Dean’s therapist to tell either of them that his brother sees something of himself in the damaged creature but for the first time since Dean stopped drinking, it’s like his brother’s life has some sense of purpose. For that, it’s worth all the money worries in the world.
While the horse is out of commission Dean finally comes to the decision that he needs to get his own leg fixed, as the pain threatens to push him towards a dependence on painkillers. He has the surgery where his leg is re-broken and pinned and for the next eight weeks he’s a familiar sight at the farm, sitting in Balthazar’s stall with his casted leg resting on a bale of hay as he tells the horse how one day they’re both gonna be fixed up and won’t that be fucking awesome. The words carry conviction and when he overhears the familiar mantra one day, Sam can only pray that Dean is right.
Six months pass and Dean’s tireless devotion bears fruit. The vet finally declares Balthazar fit enough to be ridden again even though Dean would have kept the horse regardless (and loved him even though Dean would deny it’s love, Sam knows that’s exactly what it is). Having not ridden for half a year, Dean’s leg gives him hell the first few times he gets on board again but they start out slow over the next few weeks and things get easier until Balthazar is giving all the signs of wanting to go faster and Dean is more than happy to oblige.
When man and horse finally allow themselves a gallop across the rolling fields Sam hears his brother’s uncharacteristic yell of elation from the farm’s parking lot.
Balthazar is finally whole again and, Sam thinks, maybe for the first time in his life, his brother might be too.