Breathe out, count your heartbeats. One, two, three, four, five. Breathe in. Tune out the sound of barflies chewing peanuts, the heat of the lights, it's all a distraction. Listen to the meter, right thumb on C major. It's like a fish returning to water, so easy, so familiar…
Dean Winchester had been just four years old the day that his life changed forever. He remembered it clearly, because even now it still seemed surreal. On November 2nd, 1983, Dean had seen an angel.
The experience had created a chasm; a longstanding difference of opinion which had only distanced him from his family over the years. To them, it was a freak “electrical accident.” To Dean it was, and always would be, something different. No number of therapists telling him that what he’d seen was just a child's mind trying to come to terms with the tragedy would ever convince him otherwise.
Dean had seen what he’d seen, he maintained, and since it had also been the very last thing he’d seen, it was disrespectful to imply that it hadn't been real. It was an angel, not bizarro lightning, which had burned his eyes out.
It's not the crescendo that makes him emotional, something with which Dean battles every time he plays. That would imply that only the end of the story was deeply personal. Every part of it makes a cut. By the time he reaches the lift, Dean has usually steeled himself for the inevitable pain. He will not cry in public, not anywhere, not when he’s already so very vulnerable. A single tear would be too many.
Afterwards, Dean would make the bar his home. It was one of the few times in life that he wouldn’t have to buy his own drinks. So long as he stayed cheerful, the whiskey kept flowing. So did the women.
She smelled nice, but then they always did.
“I can't believe you're drinking alone.” Her voice was surprisingly mellow, toned. At once, Dean knew that she used her voice to work. Better, she wasn’t uncertain; her words were direct, and her breath fell on his cheek. She was looking him straight in the face, and Dean could sense that she wasn't unsettled by his eyes as some people were. He would hear the rustle as she turned away, otherwise.
“Not if you join me,” Dean purred, desperately hopeful for someone to help him take his mind from the day he’d had.
“I will, thank you.”
She settled on the stool beside him, offering a tempting waft of her perfume in the process. She smelled good, and Dean felt his face warm under her gaze, feeling almost naked beneath it.
“I know you maybe hear this all the time,” she continued, “but you are so very handsome.”
It was a compliment Dean had heard often, but it came with an unintended sting. For all he knew Banksy could have spray painted his face while he was sleeping and he’d never know. The fact that he couldn't look at himself in a mirror was a nonissue compared to some of the other difficulties he faced, sure, but it was always frustrating when it came from people who were just trying to be nice. That was all she was trying to do. But if only she'd complimented his piano playing, his choice in beer, or the texture of his suit, minor things Dean was actually able to control in a world that kept on spinning with or without him, he might have gotten laid tonight, rather than screwing himself instead.
It wasn’t his fault. Today had been shitty right from the start.
“Is that all I am to you? A pretty face, nice abs, a tight ass?” Dean turned to face her. He didn't need vision to see the look on her face.
She stuttered in surprise. “What? No, I… No!”
Her feet hit the floor so fast that it left Dean reeling in a cloud of her fading perfume. He could hear her saying “What an asshole!” to mid air or a friend halfway across the bar, but it was already too late. Dean was left to realise that maybe it wouldn't have been all that bad. After the day he’d had, burying himself in something warm and soft would have been easy. All he would’ve had to have done was not be such an asshole about it, and overlook the perceived transgression like he had every other day. It should have been easy, and it would hardly be the first time he’d stowed his attitude for the sake of a roll in the sheets. Hell, he prided himself on the fact that he wasn’t that delicate anyway, and could laugh about the crappy hand that life had dealt him.
But every other day wasn’t today.
He’d woken up on the wrong side of bed. Instead of his usual alarm clock slowly drawing him back to consciousness, the imposing blip of a police car siren outside his bedroom window had jerked him suddenly awake. Dean had flung his arms out wide, expecting to find the support of a mattress on his right and had ended up flinging himself wildly off the side of the bed instead.
At the very least he’d managed to avoid clonking himself on the head against the bedside table on the way down, not that that particular stroke of luck had made the morning any easier.
The authoritative knock on the door came just as Dean managed to reorient himself. It was clear and insistent. An officer waited on the other side. Uniform. Dean could smell leather polish from his boots and the chemical scent of Vaporub from the cold he was fighting. The morning was brisk, too, and a combination of fear and chill prickled the hairs on the back of Dean’s neck.
This couldn't be good.
“Mr. Winchester?” His voice was nasal, and Dean resisted the urge to step back. He hated getting sick; it was disorientating, filled his head with goop and threw off his balance. But if he stepped back, the guy would get offended, or worse see it as an invitation to step inside and more than probably he’d touch things and leave his germs god only knew where.
“It's about your father. He owns a 1967 Chevrolet Impala?”
Of course it was about his father.
“What's he done this time?”
“There's been an accident.”
“Yeah, he trashed his car drunk, right? So is he dead, or are you just stretching this out to waste both our time?” Dean didn't really want John dead, but he’d just woken up, and Dean was some kind of angry bear before his morning cup of coffee. A grizzly.
“He's in the hospital. It's very serious.”
Great. Wasn’t it just his fate to run ‘round clearing up after his dad? Even years after moving out, setting up in a trailer park rather than living under John Winchester’s roof, Dean was no closer to escaping his father’s influence. He could feel himself scowling.
“I’ll get my coat.”
“Mr Winchester, I only came to inform you this morning out of courtesy…”
“And now you’re gonna courteously drive me to the fucking hospital. It’s two buses and a forty minute walk. Now I could do it myself, sure, but like you said, it’s very serious , right?” Dean pulled his coat on and zipped it up the front, carefully ran his hand down his sides to check for his phone and wallet, then took his cane down from the bracket beside the door. He gave the cop as impatient a look as he could manage. Or, well, he hoped he looked impatient. And pissed . “So let’s blow this pop stand already.”
The last thing he wanted was to sit in a hot police car with a snotty deputy, but what choice did he have? He wasn't going to waste half his morning navigating the city's public transit system when it would take Deputy Snot here ten minutes out of his way, max.
Besides, it wasn’t John that he was going for, he reminded himself. He was going because it was what his mother would have wanted.
When Dean was just thirteen, his mother had taken ill. Or rather, to be clear, she’d been ill for a long time, and nobody had noticed until it was far too late. Dean had not had any context to understand that the change in her scent he’d registered over time was the incursion of a slow, creeping death. How could he? But it was a smell he associated strongly with her now. When he thought of Mary, he thought of that smell. He remembered the metallic scent of chemotherapy, the smell of bleach and disinfectant soap. He remembered being tossed into the back of the Impala with his brother and driven to and from the hospital daily, the kind nurses who would play with Sam while Dean sat in quiet thought, the squeak of the tile floor under his feet, the hushed voices, and the increasingly weak grip of his mother’s hand. It was a place he associated with his childhood’s transformation, the beginning of his father’s descent into despair and the neglectful treatment in the years that had followed. It was a place he associated with death.
Dean had become a parent to Sam after Mary’s death. Her death had ruined his father. But Dean taught himself to take care of Sam because someone had to. Someone had to make Sam’s lunches and take him to school, had to feed him when he returned home, had to protect him from John when he was deep in his cups. Dean had done that. He’d done it all while mourning his mother, and he’d never stopped hating his father for it.
Even now, a decade or more later, stepping inside the hospital where his mother had died was a challenge. But he had made a promise all those years ago, a promise to take care of his father and brother, and that was what Dean intended to do whether or not he thought the old bastard deserved it.
The sickly deputy helped him reach reception, and Dean waited more or less patiently while the woman behind it yammered on the phone.
“And then, would you believe it, Milly kissed him. She kissed him, right there in the OR. There’s this guy on the table all stitched up after open heart surgery and his surgeons are snogging when they roll him out. It was totally disgusting.”
Dean rolled his eyes. It sounded like an episode of Doctor Sexy. Maybe that show wasn’t too far off from the truth, after all.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said, feigning politeness but interrupting her string of “I know right? Right?” to her friend. “My father is dying, and I wondered if you could help me out.”
The receptionist paused and looked up at him. He could hear her scoff. She went briskly back into her tirade on the phone, this time complaining about him, and Dean edged slightly along the desk, reached over it, and curled his hand loosely around the telephone cord. His fingers skid downward as the receptionist fell silent, gripping the phone tighter so that the cord pulled taut under his palm. Meanwhile, Dean grazed his fingertips lightly over the numbers, and once he was oriented on the direction the phone was facing, he casually but deliberately thumbed down on the receiver, terminating the call.
“What the hell, dude! Can’t you see I’m busy?”
Dean grit his teeth. “Seriously?”
“What do you want?”
“Well first of all, since you asked so nicely, I need you to tell me what’s happening to my father. John Winchester. He was brought in this morning. I’m his son. Secondly, I’m going to need you to page a volunteer or an intern to help me get to wherever that is, and thirdly I can’t see a goddamn thing, so if I’m asking you for help you better believe I mean it.”
She fell quiet again, and he knew she was studying his face. A moment later she’d exclaim that she had no idea and rush to do everything she could to cooperate with him.
Except that wasn’t what happened.
“Hey! Being blind doesn’t mean you can be a total jerk.”
Dean bared his teeth. “So what’s your excuse?”
Thank God for small mercies: the smell of disinfectant arrived just in time, with a flutter of padded footsteps.
“Mr. Winchester? Dean Winchester?”
There was something familiar about the voice. Masculine, aged like wine. “Do I know you?”
“I’m Doctor Hansem.”
Dean remembered him now. “Doctor Handsome . What’s up, Doc?”
The doctor chuckled, and Dean flushed and ducked his head. Dumb. Seconds alone with a doctor he hadn’t even talked to in more than a decade, and he was already a disaster. It hadn’t quite the same adorable ring to it as it had when he was a kid trying to find light in a horrible situation. Now it just sounded like flirting.
“I’ve been okay, thank you for asking. Now, Dean. We should probably talk about your dad. Do you mind taking my arm?”
“Uh…” Dean considered it. He could follow the sound of Hansem’s footsteps, but it would be difficult to do that, talk at the same time, and try to memorize the way back. He reluctantly nodded. “Yeah, sure.”
Hansem took Dean’s hand and placed it on his elbow, and Dean negotiated a better grip by linking their arms together, then fell into trusting step beside him.
“Alright. Well I have to tell you straight up, Dean, it’s not great. That old death trap you call a family car took the brunt of the collision, but your dad didn’t make it out unscathed. The surgeons patched him back up, but it’ll be a while until he’s able to go home, and when he does… Well.”
“He’s going to need assistance while he recovers. Something which, unfortunately, his insurance doesn’t really cover.”
“I’m guessing the surgery wasn’t free either,” Dean muttered. Honestly, though, Dean could care less about the money; it was the threat of having to look after his father for any amount of time, nevermind an indeterminate period while he got back on his feet, which really tore him up. He couldn’t stand even five minutes in his father’s company since leaving home. This sounded a whole lot like caring for the old bastard while he was immobile and grumpy. It sounded like hell on earth.
Dean sighed and rubbed at his temple. “Did it hurt?” he asked, finally. “Or was he so drunk he didn’t notice?”
“It hurt. Still does. And there’s going to be lasting consequences this time.”
Dean clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “You’ve made my day, Doc.”
“I’m truly sorry,” Hansem said after a moment. “What’s happened to your family since your mother died… it must have been difficult.”
Pity. Awesome . Dean hated pity, even from doctors who obviously really did give a fuck. There was no need for his childhood to have been as hard as it was, but the world was full of suffering, and it had a way of begetting more, dragging you down an insatiable whirlpool that spat you out weak and half-drowned if it spat you out at all.
“It was,” Dean answered. “It was super difficult. But this is America, right? Poor kids holding things together for their heartbroken parents while they ought to be in school? It’s our national legacy. So...”
“So,” said the doctor, who had no other reply for Dean’s bitterness. They walked in silence down another corridor, then stopped outside a door. Dean could hear the nurses talking in the staff room across the hall. “This is it. Your dad’s in here. I’ll speak to the nurses so that one of them can show you the way back.”
“No need, I got it.”
“You sure?” Dean could hear Hansem’s uncertainty, but there was an urgency there, too, a lilt and a rustle which implied a genuine need to get moving. Busy man, busy doctor, and he’d already spent far too long helping Dean out. “Okay then. If you have any more questions call and ask for my office hours, otherwise the hospital will let you know when he’s being discharged.”
Dean held his breath beside the closed door and listened to the doctor’s footsteps as he walked away. He was here. Now for the hard part.
“May I buy you something to drink?”
Dean hadn’t paid much attention to the person moving up to the bar behind him, but the low rumble of his voice was clearly intended for Dean, and he turned slowly to face the stranger.
“Are you hitting on me?”
Hesitation, then confusion, creeped into the man’s curated tone. “No. If I hit you I believe we’d both be thrown out.”
Wow . That was a-fucking-dorable . Dean found himself grinning despite himself, shaking his head. “Hitting on, not hitting. Like flirting? Nevermind. Yeah, I’ll take another drink, I’m done with this one.”
Dean downed the last of his free whiskey to make a point, then turned the rest of the way around on his stool. “You here alone?”
Damn it. Whether or not he admitted it, this guy was definitely flirting, but Dean wished he’d be more forthright with it. It was much more difficult to read another person’s interest without being able to look them in the eyes, and Dean hadn’t been able to do that since he was four. Still, at least nobody had ever punched him for coming on too strong. You didn’t hit a blind guy.
“So what do I call you?”
“Castiel. My name is Castiel.”
“Like the angel?”
The other man hesitated. “You know about angels?”
“My mother read me books about angels. I used to memorize their names, long time ago. Castiel is the angel of Thursday, right?”
“Yes.” There was definitely interest in the other man’s voice, Dean thought. God, he hoped so. He’d struck out with the girl, and this guy seemed super cheerful—sort of cute, really. He also smelled very nice, like fresh air after a rainstorm and the metal scent that came after lightning. Dean could imagine burying himself in that scent, maybe in the man’s bed, finding his way between his thighs by touch alone and tasting him…
Castiel coughed abruptly, drawing Dean out of his reverie.
“Um. Right. I’m Dean, by the way. Drink?” Dean asked, trying to rein himself back in. He couldn’t help but feel like he’d been caught in the act, sensing Castiel’s unbroken scrutiny. Heat flushed his own cheeks. Wow. What was he, sixteen years old? This was ridiculous. Fortunately the man turned away with a shuffle of heavy cloth, bar stool squeaking underneath his weight. Dean had time to pull himself back together again while the man ordered their drinks.
“So… did you like the set?”
“The piano. At least tell me you heard my rendition of Stairway to Heaven ?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know that you played.”
“Every Monday and Wednesday. Sometimes the weekend if there’s no game and the band backs out.”
“It sounds exciting. I’d like very much to hear you play.”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” Dean sighed, shaking his head. “I don’t play here again until next week, sorry.”
It sounded like genuine disappointment. He could hear the man turn away from him, the exhalation of his breath shielded by his shoulder. It was. It had to be. Dean chewed on his lip and shifted awkwardly on his stool.
“Won’t you be in town next week?”
“I don’t know. I’m… It’s complicated.”
Dean could tell it genuinely was complicated by the resignation in the man’s voice; he could also tell that he didn’t want to talk about it. Instead he reached out for contact, finding the man’s arm and then feeling his way along it until he could grip Castiel’s hand firmly.
“Trust me, I get complicated. But if you uh… If you really do want to listen, I have a keyboard at home.” He licked his lips self-consciously again, rubbing his thumb in a circle inside Castiel’s palm. “It’s not pretty, but I could play a little.”
He wasn’t talking about the piano, but he supposed that he could be. Castiel wasn’t pulling his hand away, though, which Dean counted as a win. If the guy had any issues with Dean being so full on, he’d probably have mentioned it by now.
“You're inviting me to your home?” This time when Castiel spoke, his voice was lower, strangely worn with emotion. Dean ran his thumb across the back of Cas’ hand, then curled it around his wrist, resting his thumb surreptitiously over his pulse. To Dean’s surprise, his heartbeat was steady as a clock, slow and unflustered. Practically mechanical. He would have expected it to be racing.
No matter, he’d get it beating faster soon enough.
“Pretty much. I mean, if you want to.”
“I… might have implied that,” Dean blustered, flushing. He felt like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. But it was true, wasn't it? There was no point dodging around if they both knew what this was. “I mean, yeah. For sex.”
Their drinks seemed to have arrived, but Dean found he was no longer thirsty. Sure, his mouth was suddenly as dry as the Arizona desert, but Castiel’s hand had curled in tight around his own fingers, and there was so much promise there that Dean found he simply couldn't resist the pull.
“Should I take that as a yes?”
“That sounds… I mean… I think I’d like that, Dean.”
Dean had to admit he was impressed Castiel remembered his name. Still, he’d expected a little bit more enthusiasm. “You think?”
“I haven't exactly had sex before…”
It was such an unexpected response that for a moment Dean missed his point entirely. “You mean with a guy?”
“Wow. Wow, you mean at all?” Dean found himself gulping down part of his glass of whiskey just to conceal his smirk. “Don't get me wrong, but you seem way too nice a guy to have been hiding in your parents basement all these years. Or maybe you just have a really mature voice for an eighteen year old?”
“I haven't been hiding in a basement,” Castiel complained. It seemed like maybe he had something more to add, but instead he fell quiet. Dean heard him swallow and replace his glass on the bar.
“Let's go,” he announced, rising from his stool.
“Sure thing, angel.” Dean set his glass back down and stood up to follow, suddenly twice as excited and gripping Castiel's hand fiercely. This was one catch he wasn't going to let get away. A virgin. He could barely stand the anticipation, so incredibly desperate to get Castiel on his back and literally make him feel things he’d never felt before. Was that obscene? It sounded that way in his head, but who the hell cared? If a guy couldn't be excited about being someone's first lay then it made the world a dull ass place, didn't it?
Especially considering just how lousily this day had started out.
John Winchester must have been just coming around when Dean quietly entered his room. He sounded like shit, talking haggardly with his doctor while a nurse bustled around the bed, adjusting pillows and hanging fresh saline.
“My son’s here,” John announced, firmly, authoritative despite his condition. “We can finish this later.”
“Mr. Winchester, this is important.”
“My son’s here,” John repeated. “Unless you like having someone talk over you, I suggest we do this my way.”
“He means it,” Dean confided. “He's a stubborn son of a bitch.”
The doctor stormed out, knocking Dean sideward as he did. Fortunately the doorframe was close enough that Dean managed to grab it. It was only a little bump, wouldn't have rattled a sighted person, but the doctor either hadn’t noticed or didn't care. The nurse was more polite, giving Dean a guided tour of the room once he’d righted himself.
“I got it, thanks,” he sniffed, as he dropped into the chair beside the bed, gripping his cane with both hands to make it clear that he had no intention of staying for long.
“I heard you totalled the car.”
“Nothing I can't fix.”
“Not what I heard. I heard it was a pretzel. Heard it was a miracle you came out alive. They still haven't told me what’s wrong with you.”
“Take a look.”
Take a look? Dean thought. Asshole . Dean scowled. The last thing he wanted to do was touch his father, but he was tired of being given the runaround. He needed answers, and at last he was being given the chance to take them for himself. He just wished John would answer his mouth and tell him .
He reached out anyway, laid his hand on his father’s shoulder, and began the process of exploring, forcing a blank expression as he worked his hands over John’s chest and down his arms, up to his cheeks, and back across his temple. Nothing so far. Some bandages, sure, but there was nothing that said permanent injury.
He could hear John take a breath and hold it as he moved his hands down his legs, crossing tubes on the way. That was where things got weird. There was exposed metal running down parallel with John’s legs, and a layer of bandage wrapped around the leg itself, wound between the pins protruding into his leg.
“Smashed to bits,” John said. “They put in nine pins. It’s okay, I can’t feel anything what with all the drugs.”
“Could be worse,” Dean said, fiercely. “Sounds like the surgeons really pulled you through it.”
“And there’s gonna be more. They say it’s gonna take a whole lot of healing. PT. Maybe follow up surgery.”
There was a moment’s silence between them. “Dean…”
“Don’t bother. The doctor explained.” Dean straightened up, picking up his cane again from where he’d set it beside John. “I’m going to be your nurse. I mean honestly? I got better things to do with my time than clean up after you, Dad. I feel like I’ve been doing it my whole life already and now this...”
“There’s always your brother in Cali. I can go stay with him.”
“You—you keep Sammy the fuck out of this. He’s an attorney. A junior partner . He doesn’t need your bullshit.”
“This isn’t all on you.”
“Oh shut it. It’s always been on me. It’s been on me since you dropped it on me when I was a kid. It’s always been that way.”
Maybe if Dean could see he wouldn’t be so brave. But John had never hit him, and right now it wasn’t like he could even chase him across the room. Independence had afforded Dean security, and he had always needed it. He’d used it, too. He’d stood between his dad and his brother more often than he could remember as they argued, faced him without seeing him and known that his sightless glare would overpower John one way or another.
It had made him bold. It had made him a complete asshole, too, at least to his drunkard of a father. But Dean couldn’t tell whether this talk was about genuinely wanting to make it easier on him, or manipulating him into cooperating just so that John didn’t dump himself on Sam instead.
It had the same effect, either way.
“We’re gonna have to sell the house.”
“It’s your mother’s house.”
“It’s too big for you on your own, and you’re not going back to work any time soon. You can’t pay this off.”
“I have savings.”
“Bullshit.” Dean shook his head. “Anything you’ve earned you spent on booze and child support. My college fund, and Sammy’s? The money mom put away for us? You pissed it all up a wall already. And let’s not forget you ran off and had a secret family and a secret son—”
“I get it. I get it, Dean. We’ll discuss it, okay? We’ll get the money from somewhere.”
If Dean squeezed his cane any harder he was going to snap the damn thing in half. He was coming to an awful realization. He was going to have to live there, back in his childhood home; there was no other way. His trailer was hardly wheelchair accessible, and he couldn’t exactly commute back and forth, given he’d purposefully put up his wheels on the other side of town. He really did have to find out how long this convalescence was going to take, considering he’d be paying rent on his own empty place in the meantime.
Dean sighed and stood up. He couldn’t take much more of this, and besides, he’d jumped straight out of bed and he still needed to take a piss and drink some coffee. This was the rudest awakening he’d had since that winter day in ‘83 when an angel had burned away his sight.