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In Sickness and in Health

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There’s one floor of the hospital that doesn’t reek of death, doesn’t reek of illness, doesn’t have that characteristic stench of stick absorbed into the wall paper. No, there’s one floor of the hospital that isn’t so bad, isn’t so bad because naivety and innocence wards off the reapers, holding them off with laughter and dreams, a place that might as well be make-believe, especially when so many are lit up with hope that most people lose when they mature, leaving it behind for the boring life of an adult.

Dean Winchester, in his light teal scrubs and rubbery sneakers he snagged at Goodwill, gets to press the button to Heaven just about every day, standing beside a bunch of folks in white coats and similar sanitary garb, waiting for the light atop the door to illumine as something goes DING! DING! Then the elevator doors slide open smoothly, and Dean takes a step into the brightest place on earth, bright when it really shouldn’t be, bright when there’s not supposed to be sunlight.

The walls are covered in drawings, some of finger-paint and others of crayon, some of flowers and sunshine and others of dinosaurs and trucks and several of castles and dragons and a couple of rainbows and birds. Underneath every steely room plate, there’s a big piece of paper pinned with a thumbtack of some loud colour, scribbled on it the names of all the patients living together in the room, handwriting ranging from loopy scrawls to sharp chicken scratch. But Dean’s been here long enough that he can recognise each name without even glancing.

Ben. Jesse. Claire. Lucas. Peter. Asher. Michael. Todd. Tyler. Annette. Katie. Emma. Bobby John.

He knows them all, so well that he can answer any question someone asks about them, in some cases faster and more accurate than their parents. Lucas likes watching Transformers and every Saturday morning Dean gets to work just a little early so they can watch it together. Annette hates the colour pink so before Dean gives her a box of crayons he gets rid of the pink for her so she doesn’t have to chuck it across the room. Tyler has a doll collection at home and tells Dean about how much she misses them. Peter wants to be a professional cyclist but doesn’t know how to ride a bike and Dean promised that he’d teach him one day.

But there are other facts Dean knows about them that, just like the kids, he doesn’t like to think about. Jesse has Reye’s Disease. Claire’s got GBM. Annette has leukaemia. Bobby John has a tumour. It’s pretty nasty stuff, and a lot of it is the kind that kids don’t get better from. There are a bunch of smiling faces, all glowing with youth, which will pale with Death’s touch before developing any further. The twinkles in their eyes will dim not because they realise the harshness of reality, but because they’ll fall victim to its cruellest tricks.

Death’s something Dean’s always been around, but facing it is another story. He still chokes up when he talks about his mother, who died in a house fire when he was just four. He’s not all that comfortable when people bring up when Sam almost died, when he got real sick and started babbling about a bright light. And then there are the kids he’s been with who, through all their toothless smiles and courageous fighting, just didn’t make it. And even though that happens sometimes, happens because it’s a part of life and because the Lord works in mysterious ways and because of every other Hallmark sympathy card reason, Dean still can’t stand it. He’ll see their pictures on the wall, but he won’t believe they’re gone, won’t believe it because every kid deserves a chance to live.

He tries saving lives here, but his real job description is keeping them looking up, keeping them cheerful. It’s impossible to look a child in the eye and tell him he’s gonna die, or tell her she won’t turn make it to her next birthday, or tell any kid anything like that. People don’t give little squirts enough credit; they can figure out when they’re dying. They usually know when they are but don’t say anything, don’t say anything because they don’t wanna admit they’re sick, don’t wanna admit that they are going to leave forever without saying goodbye, leave when they only just got here. No, kids ignore that, pulling that whole blissful ignorance thing, going on and on as though they’ve got their whole lives ahead of them, because they’re obviously gonna get better so they can go on to be a baseball player or Disney princess or whatever they wanna be. Life’s a big old game of pretend after that, and they’re not gonna break character until the pain gets so bad that it just breaks them. That’s the beautiful tragedy of childhood; it all ends when that one little thing snaps innocence in half and thrusts the child into life, forcing boys to be men and girls to be women.

Dean wasn’t a child. His mother died and he became a man. He had to provide for Sam and comfort John and tell himself the wet patches on his pillow weren’t tears from when he cried over Mary at night. He had to be the big boy and he had to keep Sam the baby, because little Sammy needs to live up his younger years while he can, because once he sees how scary the real world is he’ll start running, start running but he’ll always be too slow, start hiding but he’ll always be sought out, start bawling but he’ll only be wasting his sobs.

And now, now Dean’s job is to play with kids, keep them happy, keep them smiling, keep them from growing up and asking him “Dean, am I gonna die?”

“Dean, I’m only seven, am I gonna die?”

“Dean, what’ll Mommy and Daddy do if I die?”

“Dean, I’ve got a kitty cat at home, Dean I can’t die.”

“Dean, why did God say I gotta die?”

No, he’s not letting them ask those questions. Because they’re gonna get better. They’re all gonna get better and go on and live happy lives. They’re gonna meet their little brothers and sisters, and cuddle with their animals, and go back to school, and get older and older until they go to prom, and start dating, and join sports teams, and graduate, and settle down, and make families. None of them are ever gonna die. No, no kid’s gonna die.

Dean has a later shift today, and that means a bunch of the kids are spending their couple of hours in their playroom. The time in the playroom to them holds the same meaning as a Sunday Mass to a religious man. It’s sacred and holy, a chance to run around cackling, with rosy butterflies painted on the cornflower blue walls and the shag of ugly green rugs tickling the children’s toes. There are blocks and a television and a table with little chairs and a chest of pretty costumes and all sorts of things. It’s basically Wonderland or Oz or Narnia or whatever dream realm the squirts dream of these days.

And looking at the time, they’re all rounded up in there, starting the ceremony without him, probably wondering where-oh-where Mr Dean is. Mr Dean said he’d play dress up with me. Mr Dean promised he’d teach me how to draw a special car called an Impala. Mr Dean told me he’d read Green Eggs and Ham and do all the special voices for Sam-I-Am and whatever other characters there are.

Mr Dean is the most popular nurse on this floor, because he’s basically one of them whenever he’s there. He’s the only one who, when he gets down on his knees, talks to them like he means it. He’s not demeaning the kids, or elevating himself because he’s older, or treating them like sick little shits who don’t know anything other than basic addition and how to do the Dracula cough. Mr Dean lets the kids teach him things, lets them be the bosses, lets them dress him up and set him on top of a little collection of bitty chairs calling him ‘Princess’ and telling him that he’s trapped in the tower because of the evil witch’s spell and can’t get out unless a knight comes to break him out.

Dean waves to a couple of the passing nurses—Jo and Charlie—giving them a half smile to the little sister he always wanted and the little sister he never asked for. Jo looks at him with her big brown eyes, brushing a stray strand of golden hair behind her ear, and Charlie brushes back her flowing red hair, meeting Dean’s warm olive gaze. In the brief few seconds as he walks past, Charlie and Jo look at one another, eyes boring into each other sternly, and hold their faces in the most rigid, solemn expression until Dean bumps Jo’s shoulder. Then, with his back turned to the girls, they both burst into laughter, the hysterical sort that drives a person to tears of hilarity, the kind that doesn’t die down until they two walk into the elevator and the metallic doors slide closed.

He rolls his eyes. Girls are weird. And Miss Dungeons and Dragons and Miss Freak with a Knife Collection are grade-A examples of the insanities of the feminine species.

The windows of the playroom make it into view, the gleaming panes showcasing the children at their happiest. They’re the proof that no matter what’s going on, a kid can sew himself together and grin through the agony, smirk at the death sentence laid upon them and believe in optimism. These kids, after all, are the ones who taught Dean that silver lightings can exist, just like fairytales and unicorns really do too. No, he doesn’t mean that sarcastically, he means it from the open-minded perspective that all the children see from too. Maybe it’s because he spends so much time on his knees staring from their point of view, or maybe it’s because all the reruns of Sesame Street really have rotted his brain.

Little pint-sized kids zip around inside the room, all the energy they stored from hours of bed rest boiling to their surfaces, shrugging off the shrouds of sick and letting them play the carefree parts of typical children. A few girls twirl in their hospital gowns, twiddling their fingers as they stay in a line. The boys are arranging chairs, rows of four, a space in between large enough for a man to walk through. As Dean nears, he spies Ben casually sitting on the table, leaning leisurely back as he talks to a dark-haired man in a long white lab coat, one with scintillating eyes which rival the stars and a rare smile that makes Dean’s chest warm with a smouldering flare, adding an extra few degrees depending on whether his nose crinkles or his chapped lips stretch too wide and he accidentally reveals his perfect pearl teeth.

This is Dr Castiel Novak, or as Dean refers to him mentally, Dr Sexier. Dr Sexy was already taken by Dean’s favourite daytime TV show, and even though he doesn’t wear cowboy boots to work, he’s more worthy of the name. Him with his stupid blue eyes and his stupid dishevelled hair and his stupid gravelly voice and his just too stupid personality that raises Dean’s temperature and quickens his heartbeat.

Dean’s legs stiffen, cartilage frosting to ice in his knees, eyes wide and face red. It’s him. What’s he doing here? Doesn’t he have some other floor to be on right now? The thoughts race through his head, running marathons while his hands clam up and his breathing thins. As his pupils dilate—a typical human reaction of both fear and love, according to one med school text book he skimmed one day before the exam—Bobby John looks up from the red chair he sat at the end of the last line. His eyes meet Dean’s, and while Dean’s still mostly focused on Castiel, Bobby John smiles. In fact, he’s smiling more because Dean isn’t noticing him, smiling because Dean’s looking at the doctor.

The glass mutes the kids, but he sees from the corner of his eye Bobby John look over to Castiel, lips moving wordlessly as he asks Castiel a question. Castiel’s humble gaze shifts from Ben to Bobby John, listening with open ears. However, as Bobby goes on, his eyes shift, wander, and drift.

And then he’s staring at Dean. He stops what he’s saying and just stares at Dean, jaw dropping just a centimetre, the slightest part forming between his chapped lips. His Adam’s apple bobs when a hard wad of saliva slips down his throat, the kind of lukewarm hard ball that makes the right guy start choking. Castiel doesn’t choke, but Dean wants to, wants to choke and stop breathing and get wheeled over to one of the other floors, falling ill without a cause and then healing when he’s out, out, out of this jam, this jam brought on by giddiness and sheepishness. In the back of his mind, he thinks that all his time with kids is making him act like one; bashful, twiddling his thumbs, biting his lips and shuffling his feet, glancing down at the tiles on the floor while he drawls out the first-grade phrases and passes them as decent conversation.

In the eternity it takes for Dean to bat an eye, the screech of the playroom’s door hinges tears Dean’s attention away from Castiel, fixing on the little boy rushing out of the room and over to Dean.

“Mr Dean! Mr Dean!” Bobby John cheers, wrapping his arms around his Dean’s leg, “Mr Dean you came here just in time for the wedding.”

“Hey B-J,” Dean says, simpering through the rouge painting his cheeks. It takes one, two, three and a quarter Mississippi before he asks, “What wedding?”

Bobby John laughs, taking a couple steps back and tugging on Dean’s pants, “Yours.”

Mine?” Last Dean checked, the only intimate encounter he’s had this past month has been between him, his hand, and a copy of Busty Asian Beauties.

He stumbles as Bobby John tugs him towards the door, the little boy cackling on, “You’ll see.”

Dean doesn’t wanna see, but he’s in the room before he can even close his eyes in dread. One blink and suddenly there children are all around him, all screaming and shouting, vying for his attention.

“Mr Dean, you’re late for your wedding!”

“Mr Dean, I drew you a bouquet!”

“Mr Dean, you need to wear your veil!”

“Mr Dean, you kept the groom waiting!”

“Mr Dean! Mr Dean! Mr Dean!”

All the cries blur in to one, construction paper scribbles of flowers shoved in a triangle and work-in-progress friendship bracelets dismantled and tied into one large elliptical headband shoved into his hands. Some of the kids scurry to their seats, a regular game of musical chairs as they plop in the bitty chairs and fold their hands, kicking their feet and chuckling in choir. Ben straightens up as Tyler pulls Dean down by the hem of his shirt, grabbing the headband and adjusting it on his head, all as Katie folds the paper into a cone and puts it between Dean’s fist.

Asher leans against the shelf of books, getting a signal from Michael to start humming. And when he starts humming, the girls all clutch at Dean’s shirt and pulling him forward, one step at a time, joining in the humming. Soon enough, all the kids are in tune.

HMMM HMMM HMMM HMMMMMMMMMMM, HMM HMM HMM HMMMMMMMMMMMMMM, HMM HMM HMM HMMMMMM-MMMMM-MMM...

Oh, they’re really into this.

Castiel’s arms squeeze against his sides, the most serious of expressions etched onto his face as the girls push Dean in front of him. He looks dead into Dean’s eyes, reading everything displayed, analysing his soul, probably noting the curious scarlet deepening on his face. Dean opens his mouth, tempted to apologise, start spilling about the reflex of blushing and how kids are so creative but crazy and how, oh, he should look down now. But shyness seizes his words, locking them in his throat, leaving him to lick his lips and nod his head a bit.

Suddenly, it’s pre-school, and Cassie Robinson just kissed him on the cheek and, gosh, he doesn’t know what to do.

AHEM!” Ben calls all eyes to him, picking up a copy of the Hungry Caterpillar, flipping through the pages, settling on a random page before looking between Dean and Castiel respectively. He puffs out his chest, deepening his voice, “Dearly beloveds, we call you hear today to join you in the holy bond of marriage.”

Emma starts sniffling, and Michael glares at her, in a not-so-hushed whisper saying, “Don’t cry yet! People don’t cry until they kiss!” because by God they’re gonna do this right.

“So, Dr Cass,” Ben looks up at Castiel, “Do you take Mr Dean to be your lawfully wedded wife—” Damn kids don’t know the difference, or chose to just keep it wife for their own reasons, “In sickness and in wealth?”

Castiel hesitates, rocking a bit on his lips. His eyes flit from Ben to Dean, seemingly focusing in and out on him. He’s not angry or mad, not scared or upset; he’s confused, his eyes screaming what do I say?

Dean purses his lips, tilting his head to the side: Play along.

Castiel takes a deep breath, exhaling his trepidation as he gruffly mutters a swift, “I do.”

While a weight is lifted from Castiel’s shoulders, Ben’s eyes turn to Dean, aiming the spotlight at him, rendering him frigid with stage fright. It’s all well and good before emotions get in the way. Dean’s always had a problem when it comes to using too much emotion in this job. But he suffers long-time exposure from little kids and carries the gene for chronic attachment issues and, well, he hates himself for that among other things.

“Mr Dean,” Ben smirks, well aware of the little crush Dean harbours, “Do you vow to do the same for Mr Cass? In sickness and in health?” He got it right that time.

Dean pretends Castiel isn’t staring, pretends he’s not really there, pretends he’s like Tyler’s imaginary friend Maggie and he isn’t real. But the gaze is too real, just like the painful knots in his chest and the dryness of his mouth. He needs a doctor—and not Dr Novak.

“I...” Dean starts, feeling every single stare. He mentally swears at everyone in the room—Fuck you, Ben. Eat shit, Emma. Suck dick, Todd.—solely from frustration, solely from embarrassment, solely because he needs to force the anger somewhere else when he breathes the ending, “...I do.”

A few of the kids gasp while others clap, all blissful in what they think is the highlight of their caged lives. The applause makes Castiel fidget, but Dean lightly pats his wrists to assure him it’s okay, it’s over. The blue eyes flicker to his, and Dean flashes him a smile. Inducing another heart attack, Castiel smiles back, a slight and crooked grin coupling a glister in his eyes.

“Now,” Ben slams the book shut, “You may kiss the bride!”

And then it’s awkward again, the colour draining from both their faces. They need to play along; they need to do what the kids say. They’re like dolls for them, living dolls that do everything the children say, like robots or sims. And if they ruin the wedding, well, it’s surely not gonna help any recoveries.

Dean gulps, Castiel wavering a bit, but eventually leaning over. His face inches closer and closer to Dean’s, close enough to count each one of his speckled freckles, close enough to see the full flame of olive in his eyes, close enough to see everything on a level they don’t teach in arithmetic or geometry or biology or chem. And he sees a flash in Dean’s eyes—“Sorry you gotta do this, man,”—the subtle yet profound sort of action that just sort of happens, indecipherable to those who don’t know the code and too quick for most to pick up on, and so meaningful that Castiel can hear Dean’s gruff voice mumbling those words so timidly, so anxiously inside his skull.

They’re too slow, Asher decides, too slow because they should be kissing by now. He sneaks up behind Castiel, taking advantage of the thick, mutual hesitation, giving him a good and hard shove, sending Castiel forward a step and smashing his lips to Dean’s.

That’s their cue to clap, their cue to spring up from their chairs for a standing ovation, for Emma and Annette and Katie to cry and for Bobby John and Michael and Jesse to wipe their eyes endearingly. Peter gets down on his knees, holding up a toy camera that shows slides of different zoo animals, and pretends to take a picture, a snapshot of the most perfect moment in history.

Dean can barely breathe with Castiel’s lips on his, warm and rough, assuring and amazing. He clenches his fists at his sides as he holds back his eagerness, thinking no, no, no, don’t let him know, even if it’s obvious don’t let him know.

Castiel hums, lips vibrating as he tilts his head a bit, eyes so vivid. The side of his nose brushes Dean’s, whispering lightly, “I’m sorry for making you uncomfortable.”

Dean doesn’t know how he hears that over Tyler’s overdone sobbing, but he does, the words ringing in his ears, “’S fine.”

“I think I should take you out for a honeymoon,” Castiel mentions, lower, words slurring and stringing together, because it turns out he’s a bit nervous too, “The Roadhouse at six?”

Ben grabs Dean and Castiel’s hands, prying open their palms and clasping them together. Both of them glance down at him, seeing him smiling just too innocently before they look back at each other.

Dean smiles just as big as Ben, “Yeah, but first I need a doctor.”