July 8th, 2012
Okay, take two.
You don’t need to send me ten pages signed with a kiss or anything but it would be nice to know if you’re alive. Did you think Dad put me up to that letter? Some weird plot to get you back under his thumb? Because he didn’t. It was my idea to write you, and he doesn’t even know that I did. Also, I don’t even think Dad’s mad anymore, not really. And if you still don’t want to talk to him, fine.
Or maybe you’re thinking that there’s no way I really wrote that first letter anyways cause it was all sappy and emotional. But I did write it. And I meant it.
Just throw me a line here, Sammy. I know it’s been a long time.
I’m not mad anymore, either.
October—Four Months Ago
It is a night for sudden changes.
The midnight quiet of the house at Greydove Lane is broken by the shrill of a phone ringing. The man in the dark bedroom there fumbles around for his cell phone, bringing it up to his ear.
“Hello?” he mumbles. A professional voice on the other end starts talking rapidly. The covers slide off his shoulder as he sits up—too fast, he winces and rubs his hand into his chest. “I—” he says. Suddenly it seems like the caller is speaking from a far, far distance away. “What do I need to do?”
Two hours away, an OR has just been prepped for surgery. The surgeon is carefully washing up. The body on the operating table is hooked up to a blood pressure monitor, to an EKG, to a ventilator that pushes the breath in and out of his lungs. Besides the two scrub nurses and the technician and the surgeon’s assistant, there is also an anesthesiologist, although her only job is to monitor and nothing more. The body is past pain.
Outside the hospital, Dean Winchester can’t find his car. It’s dark and all the rows look alike. His vision seems to be closing in. He takes another few steps and then his legs give out, folding bonelessly away beneath him. He slides down the side of a car. Someone is calling for him, but he can’t seem to get enough air to call back. And then, suddenly, he finds he can make sound—and that’s how Jess finds him, fist pressed against his mouth, trying to stifle the awful noises he can’t seem to stop.
“Dean,” she says. She doesn’t say anything else. She slides down next to him and then, after a few seconds, her fingers come down tight and bruising around Dean’s free hand. He doesn’t know how long they sit like that—hours, maybe. Overhead, the air thrums with the sounds of a helicopter’s blades starting up. They tilt their heads back and watch the dark shape of it lift off the roof of the hospital. For a brief second it’s directly above them, like it’s close enough to touch, like a toy helicopter Dean played with as a kid—pinched between finger and thumb, held overhead as he raced down the back stairs and through the yard. But this one is powerful, loud, sending a wash of light over them as it goes, bright enough to blind. Dean doesn’t look away, though. Soon it’s just a dot in the dark, and then a pinprick. Small enough to be mistaken for a star, really, if there were any out to confuse it with. This night, the sky is empty.
Even as hard as Dean stares, the helicopter eventually disappears. It blips out of sight and Dean’s left looking at an empty stretch of sky, a blank space where there used to be light.
The thing is, Dean hasn’t written a letter in a long time.
A few years ago, he’d probably been keeping the local post office in business through his mail alone. But after a while he hadn’t needed the written communication anymore—he’d found a new job, moved. Most importantly, he’d moved closer to the subject of his letters. Snail mail no more.
But here he is again. Except this time he’s standing in one of the stationary stores at the local mall, already regretting his decision, with the lady in line in front of him demanding why she can’t have personalized wedding invitations ready to be picked up by the next day. The store clerk’s eyes lift over her shoulder and find Dean’s, a kind of tortured help me look that Dean’s ill-equipped to deal with. He shrugs.
Dean’s only buying one thing. A sheaf of nice stationary, without decoration, but the paper is thick and has a nice cream color. For any other occasion he wouldn’t have gone through such trouble. Normally he’d just tear out some notebook paper and stuff it into an envelope.
But, he guesses, it’s not every day that you reach out to the person who has your brother’s heart in their chest.
It hadn’t really even been his idea. In fact, he’d stubbornly been refusing to think about it all. It was Jess who showed up to his house one day with take-out in one hand and a folder in the other.
“I’ve been doing research,” she said without any preamble, kicking off her shoes and pushing the bag into his hand. “I got Chinese.”
“I’ve been craving MSG all day,” Dean had called after her back. She was already rifling through his kitchen drawers to find actual silverware, rather than the plastic fork and knife included with the meal that probably couldn’t cut a stick of warm butter. At the time, the biggest thought on his mind was that she could have called to let him know she was coming over. The counter was lined with beer bottles that he knew, by the look she cast him, that she’d seen. He put the bag of Chinese down and went to grab an armful of bottles.
“Research on what?” he asked.
One of the bottles slid from the crook of his arm, bounced off his foot and went rolling under the cabinets.
“Fuck!” He dumped the remaining bottles in the bulging trash can and hobbled over to the kitchen chair. He winced as he examined the top of his foot, which had a red mark already flaming across it. “I think I just lame ducked myself.”
“Dean—” Jess slid into the chair next to him.
“I know, I know. I’m better than this. Alcohol doesn’t solve your problems, it gives you new ones, et cetera. Trust me, I know.”
“Rejection of the organ is most likely to happen in the first year. Eighty-five to ninety are still living one year after their surgery, which means there’s something like a one-in-ten chance that, after all of that, you end up—”
“Don’t,” Dean said. “Just—why are you telling me this? Christ.”
“The organ recipient can’t drive for two to three months,” Jess said. “Can’t go back to work for six. They have this mad amount of pills they have to take every day—up to twelve different kinds of immunosuppressants. Can’t eat a bunch of different kinds of foods, have to make sure to exercise consistently, routine doctor visits—and a whole lot more. Basically, their life is never the same again.”
“Jess,” Dean said. He was surprised to hear his voice shaking, breaking on just that one word. He thought he’d trained himself out of that by now, had enough practice. But he forgot there were always more ways to surprise him—surprise like a punch to the gut, like a slap that keeps your head ringing for days. Like when he saw a tall man with longish brown hair stuff a few dollars into a street musician’s open violin case. Like when he drove behind a car that had a Stanford U bumper sticker, or found a balled-up sock—not his own—squirreled away beneath the passenger seat of the Impala. Those kinds of things.
“Jess,” Dean said again, managing this time to keep his voice even. “Why does it matter?”
“Because there’s someone out there whose been through some major shit for the last four months, and is still going through some major shit—there is someone out there walking and talking and breathing, who would be dead if they didn’t have Sam’s heart in them, Dean. That’s why.”
“Yeah, well, goodie for them,” Dean said.
Jess opened and closed her mouth and then she collapsed forward across the table, taking one of his hands and pinning it between her own. Her engagement ring caught the light in a way that sent it beaming right into his eye.
“Please don’t,” she said. “Don’t say stuff like that. I’m just trying to make you understand. This is important to me.”
“And I think it should be important to you, too. Maybe—maybe this sounds super cheesy and Lifetime. But if Sam’s still here, somehow, if that heart transplant worked and there’s someone alive out there thanks to him—I want to believe that he’s still making a difference. Another point for the good guys. That was his thing, remember?”
“So what do you want me to do about it?” Dean said heavily. “Why now? It’s only been four months, it just seems way too soon—we could just wait another few months, years, whatever. What’s the fuckin’ rush?” He really wasn’t trying to be a dick. Trying would mean that he was actually putting effort into being the most disagreeable person in the tri-state area, and most days Dean wasn’t able to summon up that kind of energy.
Jess looked down at their clasped hands for a long moment. “Winchester in everything but name. That’s what you said the first time you met me.” She glanced up. “Still true. And the transplant center won’t give me any information about the heart recipient since I’m not technically family.”
“You’re his fiancée!” Dean said.
“Yeah,” Jess said. Her eyes were glassy. It was the closest Dean had seen her to crying during the last few months. “Guess that doesn’t count for anything.”
Which brought Dean to here. No matter that, if it were up to him, he’d rather pretend to think that there was a clear-case finality in the first shovelful of dirt thudding onto the casket four months ago. But that wouldn’t be strictly true. Some horrible act of science could resurrect parts of Sam, could Frankenstein his brother and send tissue here, a heart there, all while the real, actual Sam was under a gravestone outside of Berkeley.
And he wouldn’t be doing it, either, if Jess’s last name was Winchester now instead of Moore. But Sam’s accident had preceded their wedding date by six months. So that’s why Dean’s waiting in line at the stationary store, carefully not thinking about what he’s going to write in a letter that’s gonna be passed through Golden State Donor Services to the anonymous recipient living somewhere in Central to Northern California who, for all Dean knows, would probably like to pretend there was a clear-case finality in their operation, too. Nothing owed, just business. Maybe this person doesn’t want to talk about Frankenstein hearts or still-grieving brothers and fiancées or the still-present possibility of organ rejection. Maybe this person just wants to live their life, and if that’s the case Dean might as well send his letter directly into the void. Because he doesn’t know what’s worse—that his letter might be ignored, or that the person might actually want to meet with him.
That day, with Jess, he’d tried to warn her. She’d smiled after he’d agreed to write the damn thing.
“I can’t see how this is gonna help anything,” he had mumbled. “You’re the nurse here. Always lecturing me about unhealthy coping habits. And then you want this? You don’t have a leg to stand on.”
But Jess had just laughed and pointed to his foot, propped up on the kitchen chair, and the bruise forming on it. “Technically, you don’t have a leg to stand on.”
“Real fuckin’ funny,” Dean had muttered. Because as much as he knew Jess was trying to make light of it, she was just as scared to reach out to that anonymous someone, too.
The next day, Dean has something.
It’s not much. It’s the product of four new beer bottles stuffed around the rim of the overflowing trashcan, as well as three crumpled-up pieces of stationary. But here is what he has so far:
My name is Dean. You don’t know me, but
After a fruitless few hours of staring at that pathetic start, he’d gone to sleep. The thing is, the donor service—although not recommending this course of action, saying it best to wait a year or more before trying to contact the donation recipient— had told him a whole list of things he could and couldn’t include in this letter. Not allowed: last names, personal address, the city he lives in, his phone or email. Allowed: information about Dean himself, his hobbies and interests. How Sam’s donation affected him and others. He could even include pictures, if he wanted. Small wonder he went to bed.
And now he’s up again, his alarm clock blaring, because he has to get to work, regardless of the fact he could count the number of hours he slept on one hand.
He ends up shoving the letter into a drawer just so he doesn’t have to look at it while he’s getting ready. Not that it matters. It’s a measly eleven words. Not exactly hard to forget. But he pretends it’s not burning a hole in his desk drawer while he shaves and gargles mouthwash and finds a decently clean pair of jeans to wear.
At the garage, his few hours of sleep aren’t commented on. Garth gives him a sympathetic look, and lays a hand very briefly on his shoulder—he does that, has been doing that, every time Dean comes in looking “a bit under the weather.”
“I’m fine,” Dean mumbles.
“Yeah, yeah, of course you are,” Garth says quickly. “Bossman wants to see ya, by the way.”
“Why? I’m not late.” It comes out harsher than Dean means it to; Garth’s eyebrows shoot up.
“No clue. Sure it’s nothing but good things, though!”
Dean tries to give him a smile, but it ends up more like a grimace, and then he’s trudging off to the boss’s office. The door is already open. Inside, Bobby’s leaning back in his chair, trying to hold a piece of paper at arm’s length in order to read it. He’s farsighted and too stubborn to get glasses.
Dean raps on the doorframe. “Heard I got called to the principal’s office.”
Bobby’s eyes rake over him. “Why don’t you come and take a load off, Winchester.”
“My shift starts in a few minutes,” Dean says. But finally he kowtows and comes to sit in the squeaky rolling chair opposite Bobby’s desk.
Bobby shuffles his papers on his desk and flips his lamp on and then finally folds his hands together. “How ya been, Dean?”
Bobby’s eyes narrow down. “Great. Now why you don’t you try answering the question seriously.”
Dean pushes his foot off of Bobby’s desk and succeeds in rolling away another few feet. “I’m fine Bobby, really. Can I go back to work now?”
“There’s been some…talk,” Bobby says. “I haven’t paid it too much mind. But lately I’ve had a few calls about one of my mechanics being hostile towards customers.”
“Is this about the guy the other day? Because he’s the one who copped an attitude with me—you can’t friggin’ barter with your mechanic just ’cause you don’t like how much it costs.”
“That guy…and others,” Bobby says. He pauses to scuff his nails on his shirt and then study them. “Look. Like I said, normally I wouldn’t pay it much mind.”
“Except I never got calls like this before,” Bobby says. “And over the past few months they’ve all been about one specific employee of mine.”
“Me,” Dean says flatly. He feels a weird, savage kind of glee in getting right to the chase, right to the subject that Bobby’s been uncomfortably dancing around. He doesn’t know why. It doesn’t explain the weird pit that just opened up in his stomach.
“You,” Bobby agrees. “And, well, it got me to thinking. You never did get around to using all your vacation days after the—the accident. Got back to working pretty fast.”
“Are you kicking me off the island?” Dean says.
“I’m just saying—” Bobby begins testily.
“I’m fine,” Dean says quickly. “I’m getting more fine every day. I’m doing great.”
“Don’t send me home, Bobby. Come on. Don’t make me stare at the walls every day ‘til my vacation time is gone. I’ll work on my people skills, yeah? And keep my mouth shut when I should.”
“I’m just wondering if some more time off would actually be a good thing,” Bobby says.
“Look, I’m sorry if I screwed up a few times,” Dean says. “I know, I know, bad business—”
“I’m not doing this because of the business,” Bobby says. “The business will be here when you get back. I’m doing this for you.”
Even Bobby seems surprised by his admission. He crosses his arms over his chest and looks away.
“Okay,” Dean says slowly, after a long moment. “But really. I’m doing great. I’m dealing with it. In fact, I’m writing a letter to the person who got Sam’s heart. So I’m doing awesome.”
Bobby’s eyes widen. “A letter? What are you doing that for?”
“To get some closure,” Dean says. He avoids Bobby’s stare and instead nudges his rolling chair back and forth with one foot.
“Closure?” Bobby says. He’s still looking at Dean like he doesn’t know quite what to do with him. “What the hell does that even mean, anyhow?”
Bobby lets him stay.
It should make Dean glad—glad that he could convince Bobby he was fine enough, glad that he’s not home. But it doesn’t make him feel that good, really. He goes back out to the garage and looks around at his coworkers and just feels hollow, straight through. He’s worked here for over two years—ever since he moved here to be closer to Sam. These guys are his beer buddies, his shit-shooters, his friends. And yet they’ve been watching him warily, smoothing down situations with angry customers and, when that wasn’t enough, going to Bobby with their worries.
And somehow that’s the worst part of it. They’re not mad at him for fucking up on the job—they’re worried. Dean doesn’t want his shitty actions diagnosed and explained away with sympathy and excused. He doesn’t deserve it.
Around lunch he finds a notebook in the break room and tears a page out, jagged edge and all. He hunkers down on the folding chair there and has it written out in less than five minutes.
My name is Dean. You don’t know me, but my brother Sam is the donor who gave you your heart. I would like to meet you, if you are healthy enough, and also if you even want to. Write back if you do.
Dean’s oil-stained fingerprints are smudged along the edges of the paper. It’s no nice stationary like from the store, that’s for sure. But he folds it up anyhow, and slides his fingers closed over the crease, and then begs an envelope from Bobby. And then he writes out the address for Golden State Donor Services, the one they’d given him on the phone when he called. And after that the only thing to do is stick it in his pocket until the end of the workday.
He tries not to think about it, he really does. He tries not to think about the way his pen shook when spelling out S-A-M, or how he had to force himself to write that last sentence. Closure—Bobby’s right: whatever it does mean, it isn’t a whole lot. But for Jess, at least, it means something.
Around five-thirty he’s at the post office. Dean feels a rush of relief when he slides the envelope across the counter to the mail clerk. He’d been clutching it so hard in his hand while waiting in line that the envelope had become crumpled. His hand had closed in a fist so tight that, if the letter had been a living thing, had had a pulse, he would have smothered it.
July 21st, 2012
One last thing. I swear I’m not stalking you—if you don’t answer this one, I’ll get it. I won’t write anymore.
I’ve been thinking about that time at the fair when you were seven. I don’t know where Dad was. We knew practically everyone that was there, anyways, so I begged Mom to let us go off by ourselves. I think there was a reason I wanted to get away from her so bad. I think that reason was a girl a grade above me.
Mom said we could but only if we held hands. She put your hand in mine and made me squeeze it really tight. She said I couldn’t let go for even a second.
And even though I can remember walking through the booths with you, and stopping to buy a funnel cake and to play that game where you try to shoot the bottle off the shelf—those games are fucking rigged, man—I don’t remember who let go. I just remember I lost you and couldn’t find you anywhere. And then I started crying and that girl a grade above totally saw me and thought I was lame.
When I found Mom in the crowd I was so fucking upset, Sammy. I knew that I was going to have to tell her you were gone, and that it was all my fault. I didn’t know how she’d react. But when she saw me she smiled, and I couldn’t figure how she could be so happy, seeing me without you, when she pointed up. You were waving from the top of the friggin’ Ferris wheel. You ever been so happy to see someone you could just about kill them?
I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about it so much. Maybe because it was one of the last times with Mom. One of the last good days, at least.
I guess I’m wondering if you remember it, too. Or if you remember who let go of whose hand. I don’t know. My memory’s shit, anyhow.
Most of him was thinking he wouldn’t get a response at all—and if he did, at least not for months, maybe not even for a year or more. So he’s surprised when he goes to check his mail after work a few weeks later and there’s a letter tucked in there along with all of his bills, postmarked from Golden State Donor Services.
Inside, he knocks the cap of his beer off against the counter and slumps down in the kitchen chair, staring at the innocent-looking white envelope on the table. It had been light in his hand when he had sifted it from all his other mail. He wonders what that means. He takes a few long pulls from his bottle and then finally reaches forward and slits open the envelope with a finger. Inside is another envelope, the front of which merely says Dean in large, neat handwriting. Dean lets himself look at that for another few minutes before he flips it over and rips up the flap.
I admit I have been thinking about reaching out to you, and any of Sam’s family—it is nice to know his name, finally. I decided against contacting you so soon mostly because I realize Sam’s passing has had a profoundly different impact on our lives.
My name is Cas. I live in Chico. Donor Services told me that, if I would like to continue contact with you, we can start communicating directly rather than through them. So I’ve included my business card, which has my home address and phone number, whichever method of communication you prefer.
I would very much like to meet with you. I think we have much to discuss. I’m not back at work for a while yet, so please tell me when and where would best work for you.
Dean holds the envelope upside down and shakes out a small, rectangular card. There’s Cas’s full name—Castiel J. Novak—just over the words CPA: Broussard & Broussard LLC. Then there’s three separate phone numbers, his work address, and his home address—121 Greydove Lane, Chico, California.
Dean flicks it back and forth between his index and middle finger, thinking. Finally he shoves it and Cas’s letter back into the envelope and stands to grab his keys from the counter. Fifteen minutes later, he’s standing outside Jess’s door, knocking. When Jess answers, she’s wearing a long Stanford U nightshirt, makeup-less. She seems surprised to see Dean on her porch.
“Hey,” she says. She looks him over and then stands back to open up the doorway. “Come on in.”
Dean maybe forgot, in the haze of driving over here, that he actually hasn’t been back since the week Sam died. In fact, he’s actively avoided it, and Jess has tacitly acknowledged it by never inviting him over for dinner, or saying that she hadn’t seen him around lately. She just shows up at his place, instead.
But now he’s here, and it’s funny how just walking over the threshold into the house, he’s hit by this scent that he couldn’t explain but just immediately recognizes—in his brain, it just registers as Sammy’s house, and he’s as sure of it as he’s sure that Sammy’s razor is still in the cabinet over the bathroom sink, that his smelly gym shoes are in the hallway closet, that his law books are still perfectly alphabetized on the shelves in the den. He’s only one step into their house and he already wants to pivot right around and walk out. But Jess is there, shutting the door, and she lightly puts a hand on his elbow and steers him into the kitchen.
“So,” Jess says. She pulls out one of the stools by the counter and slides into it. “What’s up?”
Dean reaches into the pocket of his leather jacket and pulls out the envelope. He pushes it into her hand. “You got what you wanted. The donor got back to me. He’s a he.”
Jess doesn’t say anything right away. She carefully unfolds the letter, and Dean watches her eyes move back and forth as she scans over it. A smile slips over face and then slides off again. “Cas,” she says softly, like she’s trying out the sound of it. “From Chico.”
“Yeah,” Dean says. “He’s an accountant.”
“Cas the accountant, from Chico,” Jess says. She looks up. “How do you feel about meeting him?”
Dean glances distractedly around the kitchen. It’s pretty dim, with just the light over the sink on, and quiet, too. This house is so very quiet now.
“What do you mean, how do I feel about meeting him? You’re the one who wanted to meet him.”
“No, I know,” Jess says. “And I do. But you read the letter. I would very much like to meet with you. He’s talking about you, Dean.”
“Okay, don’t pull that—I only agreed to write the damn letter, Jess. ’Cause that was the only way it would get passed through to him. I never agreed to go meet the guy.”
“Well he’s not writing here that he can’t wait to meet me,” Jess says. “And, really, there was no guarantee he was going to write back in the first place. Something about you, and your letter, it must have spoken to him—”
“Fucking unlikely,” Dean says, thinking of the short, four-sentence letter he posted to this Cas guy. There was nothing about it to be emotionally attached to, or moved by. It was just Dean, doing the bare minimum.
“So that’s how it’s going to be? You’re just going to refuse to have any part in this?”
“Jess, I don’t think I could have made it any clearer!” Dean says. He walks away, pushing his hands through his hair, and turns back. “What are you expecting from this schmuck? An instant connection? A one-way radio tuned to Sam’s heavenly spirit? He’s just some guy from Chico walking around with my brother’s heart in his chest. Writing stuff about having much to discuss and profoundly different impacts. Yeah, no shit.” Dean kicks a kitchen chair away from him; it spins across the tile and crashes into the cabinet. “Because when I was having the worst night of my life, that guy was having his life made. How lucky for him—a brand-new heart fucking helicopter air-mailed to him before Sammy’s body is even cold.”
Jess still hasn’t said anything. When Dean looks over, he sees that her head is bowed down, hair falling forward over her face. And maybe it’s that, seeing her looking so small in Sam’s old Stanford U t-shirt, maybe it’s that, that he came here to this quiet house and made her look like that again, for raising his voice at her and kicking chairs across the kitchen.
“Okay,” Dean says. He carefully picks up the fallen chair and puts it back in its place. He sits down in it. “Look. I’ll write him back. I’ll see him, okay?”
Jess tucks her hair behind her ear. “No,” she says. “You don’t have to do that, Dean.”
“No, I’ll do it,” Dean says. “I want to do it.”
“No you don’t,” Jess says.
“No…I don’t,” Dean finally agrees. That makes Jess finally look up and meet his eye. “But I know you do. And that’s enough for me, okay? If you want to see him, we’ll see him.”
Jess gives him a thin smile. “Thanks, Dean.”
You don’t have to—” Dean says. He blinks hard and looks down at the table. “Not for doing the bare minimum. Which is all I can seem to do, lately.”
Jess gets up and pads over to him, resting her arm around his shoulder. “I know you’re trying.”
Dean can’t seem to find any words to answer her with. But eventually he digs into his pocket and takes out his phone, and Jess drops into the seat next to him and lays the business card out so he can see it. They’re both silent while he types the numbers into his phone.
“Okay,” Dean says. “How about this: Hi Cas, it’s Dean. Does this weekend work for you? Sam’s fiancée Jess and I could meet you in Sacramento—good halfway point. Meet up at a coffee shop? Let me know.”
“How about, at the end, you say, we’d be delighted to see you.”
“Delighted, huh?” In the cast of the overhead light, there are faint bags underneath Jess’s eyes. She has her knees pulled up to her chest, and her arms tucked up into Sam’s shirt, so that the sleeves hang empty on either side of her. This is another one of the reasons why Dean hasn’t let himself come here, but here he is, anyways.
“Yeah,” Jess says. “Delighted.” So Dean adds that sentence to the end of the text and hits send.
Dean wakes up the next morning to two texts.
The first is from Castiel Novak.
How does Saturday work? Last time I was in Sacramento, I quite liked Temple Coffee. I look forward to meeting the both of you—C
He can’t help but snort. Based on what he saw from the letter yesterday and now this text today, everything this Cas guy has said so far has been meaningless polities, distanced niceties, with hardly anything personal to help him get a read on the guy. Just that he’s Cas, an accountant from Chico, and he somehow manages to approach meeting the family of the man who donated his heart with the same nonchalance that someone else would plan for a Sunday picnic.
Jess had texted him, too.
Couldn’t find a Cas/Castiel Novak anywhere on Facebook. WHO doesn’t have a Facebook these days??
Honestly, the thought of trying to find any information about the guy on the Internet hadn’t even crossed his mind. With all of the other nasty feelings Dean’s had about this proposed meet-up, the way the guy looks hadn’t been something that had occurred to Dean at all.
There is one tiny hitch in the plan. Dean isn’t aware of it until late Saturday morning, when he pulls up outside Jess’s house and waits. And waits. Finally, grumbling to himself, he throws the car into park and jumps up the porch stairs.
“Jess?” he calls, but he doesn’t get any answer. The door is unlocked, though, so he walks in and calls her name again. From there, he only has to follow the sounds of someone retching into the toilet.
“Oh, Jess,” he says, coming to a stop at the bathroom door. Jess is leaned over the sink, swallowing water from the tap while the toilet flushes.
She pulls away and wipes her mouth. “I think there’s a problem,” she says, too brightly.
“You think?” He hadn’t meant for his voice to come out so harsh; she wilts a little bit.
“Sorry,” she says. “I think it’s food poisoning—Jacqueline brought a bunch of leftovers from her son’s birthday party for all the nurses last night, and Tony’s already called me to ask if I’m feeling sick, too. I haven’t had a chance to text Andr—” Dean shifts in the doorway. “You know what, you really don’t need to know all of that.”
Dean sighs. “This is just awfully convenient.” Jess starts to open her mouth and he shakes his head. “Not you. I feel like this is more of a cosmic punishment.”
“Are you—are you going to still go? I think you should go.”
“Don’t really have a choice, do I?” Dean says. “It would be pretty dickish to blow him off only hours before we were supposed to meet him.”
“I know this isn’t…optimal,” Jess says. “But I think you’re doing the right thing. As much as I know you’re still unsure about this situation, think about how he must feel. I bet he’s really nervous.”
“Hmm,” Dean says. He looks around the bathroom rather than answering. There are still two toothbrushes in the holder by the sink. He doesn’t want Jess to catch him staring so he twitches his eyes away just in time to see her run to the toilet bowl and start dry heaving over it. He walks over and puts his hand on her shoulder. After a few minutes she pulls away and flushes the toilet again.
“I’ll be fine,” Jess says. “Today’s gonna be pretty rough but I can handle it.”
“You kicking me out?”
“Yep,” Jess says. She wobbles up and reaches for her toothbrush. “I’m gonna brush the vomit flavor out of my mouth, like a champ, then I’m going to go lie down for a little bit until I have to hurl again.”
“All right,” Dean says. He claps her on the shoulder. “Well. I’ll go and uphold the family name, and all that.”
Jess puts her hand over his, keeping it pinned on her shoulder. “You’re going to be nice to him, right?”
Dean scoffs. “Of course I will.”
“Okay,” she says. “I just—I wouldn’t want to scare him off. I want to meet him, too.”
“I’m sure it’ll go great,” Dean says, and tries not to feeling like the biggest liar in the world when he says it, either.
After a quick hug goodbye, Dean tromps back out of the house and into the car. He doesn’t leave right away. He puts the car in gear and just looks at the door of the house for a minute or two. He wishes Jess was coming with him. He wishes—well.
It’s almost two hours to Sacramento. The weather’s nice, like it almost always is here, and Dean drives with an elbow cocked out of the window, a familiar tape deck shuffling through the songs he knows by heart.
It’s funny, how much this drive reminds him of one he took just a few years ago. It had seemed like a big move at the time—Dean, leaving behind his childhood home in Kansas to move close to Sam. His brother had finally replied to the letters Dean had been sending him; a mishap where the only address Dean had had for Sam was for a house he moved out of after his first year in college. That’s how long Dean and Sam had gone without talking to each other: three years. And then, slowly sorting out the fragile feelings between them, feeling their way into being brothers again. And Dean, sick of letters and phone calls, feeling like he had nothing left for him in Kansas, thought that by moving to California, he’d have all the time in the world to make things right with Sam.
In the end, he’d only had two years.
Dean puts that trip out of mind and tries to focus on the road in front of him, the reassuring curve of the steering wheel under his hands. These two drives aren’t that similar, really. Once he was eager, nervous, anticipating a destination where his brother, like an old friend, would be waiting to pull him into a hug. Nothing like this—an awkward coffee date with a stranger.
Sacramento’s skyline slides into view and he sighs. He’s almost there. Closer to closure—whatever that means.
He’s about fifteen minutes early to this meet-up at Temple Coffee Roasters. He’s starting to feel a little jittery, anxious, but after a minute or two of pacing the barista is giving him a strange look so he finally slumps down into one of the tables along the wall, jiggling his knee beneath it while he waits.
If Jess were here, he’d probably feel better. Probably. She’d no doubt be talking Dean’s ear off—how delighted she is, how much she wants to put Castiel Novak at ease as soon as he gets here, how much she wants to hit it off with him. But Jess isn’t here, and now Dean’s thinking that this is the worst fucking idea of his life, and then he’s thinking that—if Jess isn’t here—why can’t he just say Castiel Novak never showed up? In fact, if he got up right now, it wouldn’t even be that much of a lie.
Yeah, Jess, I went to the coffee shop all right. Waited around, but I never saw him. It’s too bad, huh?
Jess wouldn’t question it. In her mind, there’d be no one at fault. Castiel Novak’s absence would be explained away as nerves, fear, maybe even health problems. She’d suggest giving him a few more months to recuperate. Or maybe she’d just never try at all, and this one failed attempt could put the kibosh on any Lifetime feel-good moments concerning Dean Winchester.
The bell over the door chimes as someone walks through. Dean glances up, sees a young woman in an exercising outfit, and then looks away again, his knee still bobbing away beneath the table. That’s probably why he doesn’t see the woman hold the door open for the man coming in behind her, at least not until he senses someone walking by him very slowly, like the person is uncertain of where to go.
This guy is wearing a long tan trench coat, even though it’s easily seventy degrees outside, and slacks. He’s already walked past Dean, so Dean doesn’t catch his face, just sees the dark head of hair, tousled and a little too long, high on his forehead. The guy stops in the middle of the store and slowly looks around. Dean follows his gaze and sees that the guy is staring a little too long at an elderly couple sitting in the corner.
Dean wonders if maybe this isn’t his guy, then, but then he remembers—he told Cas to expect Jess, too. He half-rises from his chair.
“Hey, uh,” he says, raising his voice a little. “You Cas?”
The guy slowly turns to face him. He looks…he looks—Dean’s brain summons and then discards a few different options—he looks different than what Dean was expecting. Young—he couldn’t be more than a few years older than Dean himself. Early to mid-thirties, Dean would guess. A round, full face with blue eyes, currently narrowed down to a squint of confusion, and the suggestion of stubble on swollen-looking cheeks. Overall, he looks normal. Perfectly normal.
“Yeah,” Dean says, still half-crouched over the table. “I’m flying solo. Sorry for the confusion.”
Cas comes over the stands next to the chair opposite Dean. He sticks his hand out for Dean to take. Dean does, staring kind of dumbly at the broad-palmed, long-fingered hand grasping his. “I’m Cas,” he says. His voice is surprisingly deep, hoarse. “Obviously. Sorry. You know that.”
“No problem,” Dean says slowly. After another moment Cas awkwardly drops into the empty chair.
Cas, the accountant, from Chico. A living, breathing, real person. Someone who’d been on death’s door months ago, apparently, living now thanks only to the borrowed heart that beats in his chest. Cas is looking at Dean a little oddly, like he’s surprised by what he sees, too. So for a second they just sit there taking each other in.
He’s a bit goofy looking, Dean decides. Sitting there, shoulders slumped, in a trench coat and slacks and sensible shoes. Even if Dean didn’t know he was an accountant, he could have guessed just from the get-up. Like the guy was dressing to impress, but only had his CPA suits to fall back on. Then again, he isn’t wearing a tie—maybe an attempt to seem more casual, less business luncheon. He wonders how long Cas had spent in front of the mirror this morning, trying and discarding different combinations of button-ups and slacks, carefully rearranging his hair to look cool and effortless. The thought almost makes him smile.
“Thank you for meeting me,” Cas says.
“I’m the one who asked you to meet,” Dean points out.
“Oh,” Cas says. “Of course.” Then there’s nothing but silence.
Dean wonders if Cas has watched all those awful videos on YouTube, the ones where the donor family sets up a meeting with the heart recipient. Dean’s seen enough to get the gist. The families crowding joyfully around the heart recipient, like some big damn reunion. They’re laughing and crying at the same time, pulling this stranger into familiar hugs, laying their hands upon them, like this person is a gift, a miracle. Like this person is the next best thing to what’s really missing. Apparently that kind of stuff is really supposed to knot up your heartstrings.
But Dean can’t—won’t—react like that. Is this guy expecting a hug? He certainly hopes not.
Dean abruptly stands up. “Coffee?” he says.
“Oh,” Cas says again. “Thank you, but no.” Dean must be looking at him funny, because Cas even tries to explain. “I can’t,” he says, and gestures vaguely to the area of his chest. “I’m on a specialized diet. Coffee isn’t allowed.”
“You’re the one who suggested this joint,” Dean says, a little incredulous. It’s not like Sacramento is hard up on a million other places they could have met.
“Right, I—I guess I was trying to stick with the plan. You suggested we meet at a coffee shop,” Cas says.
“Okay,” Dean says. ‘Well. I’m gonna go get myself a coffee, then.”
“Okay,” Cas says. He looks uncomfortable. Well, join the club. Dean walks up to the counter and tries to focus on what’s on the board ahead of him. So people with heart transplants can’t have coffee. Good to know. Maybe something he should have known before. He orders and then lingers nearby, watching the barista deftly making his coffee, trying to cast a subtle glance towards his table to see if Cas is still there. Which he is—sitting with his hands folded like he could wait on Dean all damn day. Which he can. Because he has nothing but time, now.
Dean’s coffee is slid over to him, and he distracts himself by taking a scalding sip that nearly burns his tongue off. Then he walks back to the table and sits heavily in the chair opposite Cas.
“So,” Dean says. He waves his coffee-holding hand to indicate Cas’s upper half. “Everything…in working order?”
Cas gives him a small smile. “Rejection is most likely to happen in the first few months, and I had no complications. So I’ve been doing very well, Dean, thank you.” He takes a deep breath. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about your brother, Dean. As long as you’re comfortable with it—”
“I was actually hoping I could spend a little time getting to know you,” Dean says. He pops the lid off his coffee and swallows back a big gulp of it. “Virtual stranger, and all that.”
“Me?” Cas repeats. He looks faintly alarmed. “I was thinking we would be talking about Sam.”
“All roads lead back to him,” Dean says. He notices Cas’s hands are finely trembling on the table. “You nervous or something?”
Cas follows Dean’s gaze down to his fingers and then moves one hand to cover the other, like the pressure will chase out the slight tremors. “It’s nothing,” he says. “One of many side effects of my medications.” He looks up into Dean’s face, his blue eyes serious, seemingly without guile. “What do you want to know about me?”
Dean shrugs. Technically, he really doesn’t want to know anything. He was perfectly happy sticking with a “the less you know” philosophy until Jess strong-armed him into this. But he doesn’t want to talk about Sam, like he was some rare artifact, some exotic zoo animal, just so this stranger can feel like he knows him now. And he’s not going to talk about himself.
But when Dean shrugs, the strangest expression seems to cross Cas’s face. A look like he had a hypothesis that just got confirmed. Like whatever’s happening here, he’s resigned to it. Cas sits up a little straighter and pulls his shoulders back.
“I have been in and out of hospitals almost my whole life. For years I struggled with a faulty heart valve that can probably be traced back to a childhood illness that was not treated as soon as it should have been. I had surgery to replace it a few years ago, but…it didn’t take.” Cas lifts one hand to rub his chest, seemingly unconsciously. “My cardiologist suggested putting me on the wait list for a heart transplant. At the time, it didn’t seem necessary. But then things got harder. I had to go on leave from work. It reached a point where I couldn’t even climb stairs.” He looks up at Dean. “I have no doubt in my mind that that transplant saved my life.”
“Right,” Dean says. “So what are you gonna do with your new lease on life?”
“I—” Cas falters. The hand on his chest falls back to the table. “I can go back to work in a matter of weeks. I’m an accountant.”
“Yeah, I know,” Dean says. “You sent me your business card.”
“Right,” Cas says. “And—just trying to live the healthiest life I can. Eating right. My doctors have given me some basic exercise routines to stay in shape.”
Dean’s gaze skips down at his coffee, his fingers folded around it. “Right,” he echoes.
Cas seems to be in a similar predicament. He’s sitting there staring a hole in the table like he’s trying to work out the solution to a very difficult math problem.
“When I was a kid, before my illness, I remember I liked to run,” he says finally.
“Like—” Dean mimes his two fingers jogging across the tabletop.
“Yes,” Cas says. He smiles hesitantly, in relief. “Maybe I can work my way up to training for a marathon.”
Dean even starts smiling back. There’s something just so goofy and innocent about Cas’s face when he says it. And then Cas shifts a little in his seat, and for a moment the collar of his button-up gapes open and Dean can see it. The scar. Just the tip of it, a light red color, nestled in the notch of his collarbone. And seeing it is like having cold water thrown right in his face.
“Sam used to run marathons,” Dean says abruptly.
Cas’s face turns serious, unsure of this new territory. “Oh, yeah?”
“Yep. All around. Sometimes he’d even travel to other states for ‘em.”
Cas nods. “I’m sure he was very good at it,” he says.
And that great nasty pit opens up in Dean’s stomach like it never left.
“Are you?” he says. “Are you sure? ’Cause you and Sam were such buds, right? You just knew him so well?”
Cas’s shoulders hunch in his coat. “I didn’t mean to—” he says softly.
Dean pushes his coffee cup to the side of the table. “You want to know about Sam? Okay. I’ll tell you all about him. On the last night of his life, a semi ran a red light and plowed Sammy’s car through a guard rail. Poor son of a bitch should have just died right then. Brain bleed. But they took him to the hospital and stuck a bunch of tubes in him and let us say goodbye to whatever was left. He was still breathing when I left, you know that? It was like he was just sleeping.”
Cas looks stricken. “That sounds horrible.”
“Yeah,” Dean says. He’s breathing fast. “Yeah. Jesus.” He moves to get up and Cas puts his hand over Dean’s.
“Dean,” he says. “Please. I know—”
Cas flinches when Dean rips his hand away. “No, you don’t know, that’s the whole point.” The chair screeches and rocks on its legs when Dean stands up. He knows the other patrons in the coffee shop are staring, but he doesn’t look away from Cas. “Don’t say that you know. Don’t say that you’re sure he was good at something. Like that somehow makes it better, right? Don’t try to say nice things about him like you’re doing me a favor.”
“I’m sorry,” Cas says, head bowed, barely audible.
“Sammy was my brother. He was my best fucking friend in the world. And he had a purpose in life, he was going to do things. Great things—” Dean has to stop and press his fist to his mouth for a moment. “His purpose wasn’t for you, okay? He wasn’t just—just some guy.”
“He wasn’t just some donor,” Cas says to the table.
“I gotta go,” Dean says. “I just, I can’t—” He doesn’t finish his sentence. The door is already closing behind him.
August 3rd, 2012
I’m not talking to Dad anymore, either, if you were wondering.
I wanted to tell you this differently—on the phone, or in person, I don’t know. But you might as well know. Dad’s gone. I don’t know where he went.
For a while I’ve been waiting for him to come back. But I think he’s okay. I think he’s being out of touch on purpose, honestly.
And, okay, clean slate. Maybe I did finally write to you because he was gone. And I’ve just been stuck here. Because where am I supposed to go now? I can’t just leave the house empty and fuck off somewhere. All of Mom’s stuff is here, and all our kid stuff, too. So in the meantime I’ve been working—got myself a job at Don’s, that mechanic on 7th, remember?—and trying to figure out what to do next.
I really owe you an apology, Sammy. I can still remember how angry you were at me. Angry and hurt. I know you’d expect that pushback from Dad but not from me. It was always the two of us against the world, remember? But color me surprised that I ever agreed with Dad about something in the first place. And maybe the reasoning was different—you said so yourself, Dad didn’t want you to go to Stanford because he’d rather keep you under his thumb. But I was a dick about it, too, because I didn’t want you to leave me behind with him.
The thing is, I never thought it would go this far. Us not talking for so long. I didn’t think Dad was serious about the whole ‘never show your face around here’ thing, either. Just shows how stubborn we all are. But I really got a taste of my own medicine when I tried to pull the same stunt. Dad caught wind that I wanted to leave town and he laid into me like you wouldn’t believe.
I do think it’s a control thing. I think you’re right. Because when he saw I was serious about leaving, he just up and disappeared, because he knew there was no better way to keep me here. So now you know why I’ve been acting like a pen pal hopped up on acid these past few weeks. It is partly because I have nothing else to do.
Write me back already, would you?
At first Jess is laid up with the food poisoning so it’s easy to avoid her.
Then, after a few days, not so easy. He’s lucky that she works two evening shifts in a row once she’s feeling better, but his luck runs out eventually. She uses her spare key and walks right into his house to where he’s wallowing on the couch.
“Mind explaining why I’ve gotten the freeze the past few days?” She sits down on the sofa before he can move his feet aside. He awkwardly tries to unwedge his stuck foot from beneath her.
“I don’t know what you’re—”
“Bullshit,” Jess says. “Dean, what the hell. You went completely AWOL after meeting Cas. You know how much I wanted to meet him. I have a million questions, and you’ve purposely been avoiding me.”
“Yeah…” Dean says. He can’t seem to find it in him to look her in the face.
“Dean.” She leans forward and catches his eye. “Are you okay? Just let me know what’s going on.”
Dean feels tears prickling at the edges of his eyelids. Now he’s done it. He’s been laid up for hours watching mindless medical drama after mindless medical drama, he knows he must reek of alcohol, and now he’s about to bawl all over the both of them. Fuckin’ pathetic.
“I,” he says. He puts his palms over his eyes. “Jess, I might have done a really bad thing.”
There’s a long silence before Jess draws his hands away. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t think you’re gonna have a chance to meet him,” Dean whispers. “I don’t think he’s gonna want anything to do with us ever again.”
He’s not even aware that he’s crying until he feels Jess pulling him up into a sitting position, and there they are, a tangle of limbs on the couch, his head finding its way into her shoulder. The material of her shirt is sticking wetly to his eyes.
“It’s okay,” says Jess, who already has so much to deal with, who deserves so much better than this. He just wants to let her know how sorry he is.
“He was just a guy,” Dean says thickly, wonderingly, his voice catching in his throat. “He was just some—guy.”