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The Great Escapist

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loversforlycanthropes' AMAZING art masterpost for this fic can be found here!

Soundtracks: 8swords' mix, loversforlycanthropes' mix

notes: Golem-sized thanks to loversforlycanthropes and diamorem! Loversforlycanthropes has not only created some gobsmacking art for this fic, she has encouraged me in its writing from the very beginning, back when I was despairing of this ever being worth reading. It would not exist without her. And the delightful diamorem put more work into editing this fic than I did into writing it! Her incredible comments and advice have made the fic a hundred times better than it ever could have been without her! You should definitely go check out her Big Bang, In the Shuffling Madness, when it gets posted Oct. 29!

disclaimers: 1) Supernatural is the property of Eric Kripke and The CW. I have sprinkled canon lines throughout the fic in addition to the ones quoted in the chapter epitaphs. I do not own any of them. Nor do I own any of the proper nouns within this fic. 2) I am not a licensed medical professional. The conditions, diagnoses, assessments, and treatment plans in this work of fiction are based far more on textbook knowledge than clinical experience. They are as accurate as I have been able to make them, but please do not take them as medical "canon." 3) Similarly, I've taken great liberty with many of the locations in this fic. For example, although the University of Kansas in Lawrence does have a nursing program, it does not actually offer the specialized dual Family Nurse Practitioner/Acute Care NP program with emergency care focus that Dean is enrolled in within this fic.    







"...then what the hell do we do now?"

-- "Torn and Frayed," 8.10


            When Castiel and Alfie were children, Dad told them the best bedtime stories. Mothers and ghosts and children and angels and the two brothers who met them all, who fought them or saved them.

            Castiel thought, then, that the stories were real. He thought he was named after an angel who pulled a Righteous Man from Hell. He believed it so fervently that he drew a picture of it in his second grade art class, and when Mlle. Hester wrote a note in his agenda asking his parents to come in for a conference, he thought it was so that she could tell them what an excellent artist he was.

            Apparently he hasn't outgrown his stupidity.

            A rap on the doorjamb makes him look up. His mother stands in the doorway, her fingers resting against the frame. She's already in her black suit for the service. "Time to come out of there, Castiel."

            "Is Dad here yet?"

            Naomi's lips compress. "I haven't heard Inias let him in yet, no."

            "Then I'll stay here." Castiel lets his eyes drift back to the motivational calendar hanging over Alfie's desk--DARE, it reads in white letters underneath a picture of a rainbow bisecting a blue sky--and waits for her to leave.

            Eventually she does, heels clicking on the hardwood floor. 


- o -


            The funeral is short and sparsely attended. It's the first one Castiel's been to since their grandfather died when he was nine. That was right before their parents' divorce was finalized; Castiel can remember gripping Alfie's hand and trying to shush him while the priest spoke, because Alfie kept whispering, kept asking if Mother and Dad hated each other, "Cassie, is it my fault, it is because I didn't make an A in math and Mother's mad?"

            They were in the second row, back then. Now, Castiel sits in the front pew next to his parents, his hands empty, his mouth closed. He sits silently as the priest speaks, stands silently while the coffin is lowered, nods silently as a blur of people offer their condolences.

            Such a shame, they say. Such a tragedy. He was taken so young. What a terrible accident.

            Thank you, Naomi says.

            Thank you, Chuck whispers.

            Castiel does not thank anyone. He goes to the black sedan Inias drove them in and sits with the tinted windows rolled up, and does not speak when his parents get in, does not speak when they get home.

            Only when he is in the bathroom he used to share with Alfie does he make a sound, and then it's only the sound of vomit splashing into the toilet.

            He retches until his eyes and throat are on fire, and when he hears the clink of liquor bottles from the guest room across the hall he lets himself cry.


- o -


            Dean frowns at the time on his phone, digging his chin into the tabletop as he stares at it, willing it to ring.

            It doesn't.

            He looks at the clock. Drums his fingers. Then pulls the phone toward him, ignoring the racket someone's making on the breezeway outside, and presses the auto-dial for Sam's number.

            The muffled strains of "Smoke on the Water" begin to play outside.

            "Dude!" Dean cries, jumping to his feet and shoving the door open. His stupid little brother's standing there, grinning with his phone in one hand and two duffel bags slung over his shoulder with the other. "I told you I would pick you up, you doucheface!"

            "Oh, nice, Dean, first time you see me in nine months and you call me a doucheface." Sam huffs but lets himself be hauled into a hug, returning Dean's smarting thumps on the back. He smells like the back of a cab, which was to say not real good, but he could be covered in horse shit and Dean would still be jamming his temple against Sam's the way he is right now. "It's been too long, Sammy."

            "Pretty sure this qualifies as a chick flick moment," Sam says. Dean shoves him off with a huff.

            "What the hell are you doing here anyway?" he demands, going to the fridge in an attempt to find something for Sam to eat. He'd planned on grabbing them something on the drive to the airport, to have it waiting when Sam and his stupid huge grin slid into the Impala. "I thought your flight wasn't coming in till nine!"

            "I may have told you that so that I'd have time to catch a cab home and give you more time to study." Sam's shrug and grin aren't even a little apologetic. When Dean gives him his Eyebrows of Doom, Sam exclaims, "Bobby told me you have three exams this week! I know how rough that is, Dean, I didn't want you to have to waste three hours picking me up."

            "Driving in my baby is never a waste," Dean retorts, then grabs Sam's shoulder and hauls him in for a hug again. "Damn, Sammy, it's good to see you."

            Sam clings for a minute. It's a reminder of the Octo-Sam he used to be, his sharp chin always digging into Dean's breastbone--sternum, he reminds himself, eyes catching on the anatomy notes open on the table--and too-long hair smelling like whatever food he'd gotten stuck in it that particular day. Dean relishes it, and lets Sam be the one to pull away this time.

            "So?" his little brother says, sitting at the table and examining Dean's notes. Dean pretends to be busy pulling soda out of the fridge for them, but he's watching over his shoulder as he does, anxious, the way he somehow always has been when it comes to school and his brother.

            But Sam's looking up with a mixture of disbelief and horror that Dean hasn't seen since the kid was twelve and practically shouting, "Holy crap, Dean! You have to give lady part exams?"

            And Dean's bursting into laughter, because damn is it good to have Sam back.


- o -


            He wakes up the next morning to Sam's phone going off in the living room. Sam's bedded down in there, since Dean had downgraded to a one-bedroom apartment after the kid left for Stanford. He'd offered to make room in the bedroom for a blow-up mattress, but Sam had said, "Dude, I've gotten used to having my own room. There's no way I'm going back to sharing, even if it means couch springs."

            Dean had hidden the small bit of hurt that he knew he shouldn't have felt with a "Good, I didn't wanna have to deal with your gas anyway. You killed that roommate of yours with your burrito fumes, yet?"

            "I hate you," Sam had muttered through gritted teeth as Dean cackled.

            Now, Sam's voice is coming from the living room through the closed door, a mumble that abruptly becomes much clearer as he pushes up from the sofa-bed, the springs groaning audibly. Dean strains his ears to hear, pulling his blanket from over his face, but all he gets is "I'll be there, just stay where you are," and the sound of the floor creaking as Sam stands.

            Dean frowns, and scrambles out of bed to find out who the hell's calling his brother at ass o'clock on a Saturday morning.


- o -


            His cell phone begins to ring again. Castiel fumbles inside the suit jacket he's still wearing to turn it off. When he does, the silence inside the car is almost overwhelming. He doesn't have the radio on, and in the leather-seated BMW his mother picked out for him two years ago, there's practically no such thing as road noise, just the quiet purr of the accelerator as he bears down on the gas.

            He's not sure what he's doing. His brain hasn't caught up to the rest of him yet, to the arms and legs that pushed him up from his bathroom floor and crept down to the garage and into his car, that steered it out of town and onto the interstate. That was nine hours ago, and Castiel still isn't sure where he's going, just that he's not going back.

            At 3:02 a.m., he pulls off the interstate into a no-name motel and collapses into a bed that smells of mildew. At 3:37 a.m., he shoves up with a start, realizing that he didn't think, that he was stupid, that he used one of the credit carts linked to his mother's account to pay for the room. He scrambles out of the bed, cursing himself for not changing out of his carefully laced Forzieri loafers before he left Syracuse and hopping out to the car with them shoved half on.

            He hightails out of the near empty parking lot with a haste born more of exhaustion and paranoia than sense, and as he pulls back onto the interstate, the night stretching out silent and tight around him again, his panic recedes, becomes foggy and distant. He feels closer to Alfie, suddenly, in the darkness of his car surrounded by the darkness of the night, like being underground, like being inside that coffin they'd lowered into the ground, the sound of the dirt thudding onto it.

            He doesn't stop for breakfast. Doesn't stop for anything. At 7:42 a.m., he's pulling past a sign that says Welcome to Lawrence. There's a McDonald's coming up, and he pulls in, splashing through a huge puddle in a pothole from an overnight storm he hadn't encountered on the road, and opens his phone.

            Sam answers on the fifth ring. "...Cas?" He sounds groggy, and Castiel recalls that he would have only gotten home yesterday; Sam's con law exams were always on the last days of finals. " 's that you?"

            "Would you like to do the summer term in Palo Alto?"

            "What?" Confusion colors Sam's voice. "Cas, we didn't get housing--"

            "I can take care of that," Castiel says, because he can; there's any number of apartments to sublease over the summer, and money isn't an issue for him, never has been.

            "Cas." Sam sounds awake now. "What's going on?"

            Castiel shrugs. "The registrar added some classes that sound intriguing. I thought it might prove more fruitful than a summer in our respective hometowns."

            "I got an internship here," Sam says slowly. "Sort of. One of my dad's friends wrangled it for me... It actually pays, so I would be able to cover more of my costs next semester instead of mooching off you."

            "I don't mind paying," Castiel says, and now he's starting to sound desperate even to his own ears. He stops and presses his lips together.

            "Dude, what's going on, really?" There's sounds like Sam is making his bed now, the sharp flapping sound his covers always make when he tucks in the corners of his sheets, so familiar to Castiel that he feels sick with how badly he misses it. 

            Maybe that's why he blurts out, "I'm in Lawrence."

            It isn't what he'd intended to say, he hadn't planned to tell Sam he was here at all, really, had just intended to ask how Sam was doing, had just wanted to hear another person's voice. But now it's out, and Sam is spluttering, "What?" and Cas is staying silent because he knows the "what" is rhetorical, that Sam heard him the first time or he wouldn't be spluttering to begin with.

            "Wha--why--" Eventually Sam settles on, "Where are you?"

            Castiel squints at the shopping plaza across the way. "At a McDonald's near a Winn-Dixie."

            Sam starts moving again--putting on clothes, if the rustling and snapping buttons are anything to go by. "Are you okay?" His voice has gone suddenly soft, the way it is when he's worried about the middle school children he mentors, or his female friends who have just broken up with their boyfriends and are crying into his shirt.

            "I am fine," Castiel says impatiently. "What is your address?"

            "Uhhh...let me come meet you," Sam says, instead.


- o -


            By the time Sam arrives, Castiel has been sitting in front of a tray of McGriddles long enough for them to seep impressive circles of grease into the paper they're sitting on.

            Also, his mother has called five times. Six if you count the call from Inias that was probably her using Inias' cell phone.

            Nothing from Chuck.

            Sam pushes in through a set of side doors. He has a backpack slung over his shoulder, and he looks...different. Castiel is used to seeing him in shorts and hoodies, the shorts replaced with pajama pants at bedtime. Now, as he hesitates next to the garbage cans and glances around the restaurant looking for Castiel, he is wearing jeans and a flannel shirt; he looks older and rougher and...odd.

            Sam's eyes land on him, and he strides toward his table. "Cas." His voice and expression are surprised even though they spoke on the phone, as though he wasn't expecting to find Castiel where Castiel had said he was.

            "Me," says Castiel tonelessly, and pushes both McGriddles toward Sam. Sam puts a hand on the tray but doesn't move to unwrap them, nor to sit down.

            "What're you doing here, man?"

            Castiel purses his lips. "I don't wish to be in New York this summer."

            A moment passes. Then Sam raises an eyebrow, gently. "And?"

            "I thought we together," Castiel says lamely. Only now does he realize what he had half hoped for, half expected: an offer to stay with Sam's family for the summer. To spend the school break with them the way so many of the other students at Stanford visit their friends' places of residence during breaks. Sam's house is a place of warmth, he imagines, with a mother who will smile and say that Sam has told them so much about him, a father who will shake Castiel's hand firmly and say that any friend of Sam's is a friend of theirs.

            "Hey! Sammy!" A voice comes from the front of the restaurant.

            Sam half turns, still standing. His mouth compresses as a man dressed similarly to him comes up beside him. "Dude," he says, voice low. "I said you could wait in the car."

            "And maybe if I'd trusted you to get me something that wasn't rabbit food, I would have," his companion says easily. His gaze is anything but easy, though, taking Castiel in, sharp and sweeping. Cas is suddenly and acutely aware that he didn't brush his teeth before falling asleep in the motel the night before, or change his clothes, or bother to look in a mirror to see what his hair might look like. He is, in fact, still in his suit from the funeral, and there might be flecks of vomit on the collar, God only knows.

            The man's eyes narrow. "Sorry to break up the party, but who are you?"

            Sam sighs. "This is Cas."


            "Cas? My roommate? I've only mentioned him like fifty times, Dean, jeez."

            Dean's eyes change. "Castiel?"

            He says it wrong, all Midwestern twang, and Naomi would be pursing her lips in distaste --"I didn't give you an angel's name so a heathen could butcher it"--but Castiel has long since given up on trying to correct people, and anyway, Sam is sighing and saying, "Yes, now will you just go get your precious artery-clogger?"

            Finally Castiel realizes that this must be Sam's brother, of whom he rarely speaks, which is perhaps why he doesn't introduce him to Castiel, now. Sam's brother seems to notice this, even if Sam doesn't, for he hangs back a moment longer, looking at Sam expectantly. When Sam doesn't say anything else, just raises a brow, he shrugs and goes to join the line at the register, though not without another glance back over his shoulder.

            "Uh," Sam says when he's gone, and his eyes have gone soft and sincere again beneath his shaggy hair, "Cas, not that I don't love us being roommates, but you know I'm rooming with Dean, right?"

            Castiel frowns. "I was under the impression you were staying with your parents," he says as delicately as he can.

            Something in Sam's face changes. He shakes his head, hair falling over his forehead.

            Castiel is not, as so many have pointed out, a people person, but he knows enough for this. Enough to understand that there is something tender and even infected here, that he wishes Sam had told him earlier, and not only because he is angry with himself now, for expecting something like this from Sam in the first place.

            "I see." He begins to stand. "I'm very sorry. I apologize for disturbing you, Sam--"

            But Sam catches his sleeve. "Cas, what's going on, man?"

            Sam's brother is looking at them again. Standing at the soda dispenser, watching them from above the half wall that separates the dispenser from the rest of the restaurant, his eyes on Castiel's arm where Sam has caught it hold barely veiled hostility. He raises them, meets Castiel's eyes, and then he's striding over.

            "Everything okay here?" he says suspiciously.

            Castiel looks away, focusing on Sam, who's saying, "It's nothing, Dean. Cas just wanted to know if I wanted to room with him over the summer."

            "You kidding?" Dean says with a smile, like he's joking, but it's not quite enough to cover the edge underneath. "You just got here and you're already trying to skip out on me, Sammy?"

            Sam seems to bristle at this. "It's not like we have that much space, Dean. I'm sleeping on the cou--"

            "Look here, college boy," Dean cuts him off, turning to look at Cas. "I called dibs on my brother for the summer." His tone is still light, teasing, but Castiel senses, as he did before, that there is something more beneath the surface here. "Don't you go tryin' to steal him."

            "I wouldn't dream of it," Castiel says stiffly.

            "Cas," Sam says suddenly. He's looking at Cas with the clear-eyed look that will probably serve him quite well in court, piercing as it is. "Do you want to stay here for the summer? Is that what this is?"

            Castiel merely smiles, polite. "No, of course not. I'll see you in the fall, Sam."

            He walks outside, confronted immediately with the stench of diesel engine from a truck idling in the drive-through lane. He wrinkles his nose, crossing around the back of its bed, wondering why it is idling so close to the restaurant entrance, and has his question answered when he sees the tow truck behind his car.

            He breaks into a run. "Excuse me!"

            The tow truck driver barely looks up. "This yours?"

            "Yes, but--"

            He slaps a form into Castiel's hands. "Shouldn't've parked in a fifteen-minute spot." He heaves himself up into his truck. "The impound lot's at Third and Main, opens Monday at nine. Hope you got someone who can give you a ride." He shuts his door.

            Cas stumbles backward as the man starts his engine, mouth open. He gets a mouthful of muffler exhaust for his efforts and, coughing, he takes a few more steps backward, bumping against an SUV in the drive-through lane. The driver honks at him irritably, and he flips the woman the bird without thinking about it, stumbles backward again, dropping onto his ass on the curb.

            He feels, more than hears, Sam and his brother come up behind him. "Um," says Sam. "Looks like you'll be needing somewhere to stay after all."


- o -


            They take him to a bar. A bar.

            "You over twenty-one?" The bar's apparent proprietor, a blonde flannel-wearing woman named Ellen, eyes him from over a crate she's got hefted on one hip.

            Castiel is inclined to lie. Sam, however, knows his birthday and is already saying, "Yes." Castiel contains his grimace.

            "Then I sure would appreciate the help," Ellen says. "Lily went and broke her leg, and Ash won't be back from school for another week at least. That's if he doesn't get arrested for his final project."

            Sam and Dean both laugh like this is something funny, which Castiel doesn't understand, because Ellen doesn't sound as if she's joking.

            "Dr. Badass my ass," she mutters, and thunks the box onto the counter, shoves a hand out for Castiel to take. "Any friend 'a Sam's has a good chance 'a becomin' one 'a mine too," she says as she shakes it. "He's also got a good chance 'a knowin' shit about how to mix a drink. Am I right, honey?"

            Castiel hadn't thought it was possible to be more stiff than he was. "You're not wrong," he says after a moment, feeling unpleasantly reluctant to reveal this shortcoming in front of Sam's brother. The other man is laughing at him, he is fairly certain.

            "All right," says Ellen. "Y'all get outta here," she tells Sam and Dean as she gestures Castiel behind the counter to join her. "Dean's been dancing in his pants for weeks waiting for you to get here, Sam, I know he's got more exciting things planned for you than loafing around in this dusty old place."

            "If you call making me sit through all the Dr. Sexy episodes he's missed exciting, sure," says Sam with a grin, and leans over the counter to enfold Ellen in a hug. "You gonna be okay, Cas?"

            This is the most ridiculous question Castiel has ever been asked in his life, as the answer is quite clearly no. He nods, however, smiling politely as Ellen pulls a bottle of rum from a shelf behind her. "Of course."

            Sam grins. "I'll call you tonight," he promises before bounding off to join his brother at the door.


- o -


            Sam does not call that night.

            It is just as well, for Castiel's phone battery is nearly dead, and his charger is in his car, which is in some impound lot in this forsaken town until the day after tomorrow. It is also just as well because Castiel's feet hurt, his legs hurt, his arms hurt, and whatever part of his body is in charge of being polite to sweaty-smelling, intoxicated men and women hurts worst of all. He wishes to take a shower to wash off the grime of secondhand smoke and his own sweat, but he has no clothes into which to change.

            He would also really like to just drop into the bed in the spare room Ellen showed him into and fall asleep and never wake up.

            He digs his nails into his thighs.

            There's a knock at the door. He jerks upright, rasping, "Come in."

            It's Ellen, wearing a blue robe and pink pig slippers and holding a small stack of folded clothes.

            "Figured you might need somethin' to wear." She sets them on the dresser. "They're some of Ash's old things, don't worry, they've been washed. You can take a shower, too, it's not like I'm gonna charge you for using water."

            "I didn't wish to get in your way," Castiel says.

            "Well aren't you considerate," she says, and there's something kind about her tone that he can't appreciate, right now. She ruffles his hair, then turns to leave. When she's got a hand on the door to pull it shut behind her, she pauses and looks back at him. "One more thing, Cas. Dunno if Dean and Sam told you about my daughter Jo? Don't have sex with her even if she flirts with you, or I'll tan both your hides."

            She shuts the door.

            Cas lowers himself back onto the bed. He only has time to consider giving into the tears burning behind his eyes before he's fast asleep.


- o -


            "Castiel. Castiel. Castieeeeel."

            Ellen's daughter, apparently, wakes people by straddling them. Because that is what Castiel wakes to the next morning, a slight weight on top of his stomach. Which is extremely uncomfortable, as he has to use the bathroom rather urgently.

            "Ah," he says, as delicately as he can with bleary eyes and morning breath. He lifts his arm slightly from his face to squint upward. "Jo, I presume?"

            "Aw, I figured you had an accent," she says in disappointment, sinking back on her heels. It puts more pressure on his bladder, and he hisses.

            Jo grins, grinds her hips. "You like that?"

            "No. I need to use the facilities." Castiel scrambles out from under her, heart thudding, because the last thing he needs on top of everything else is to be outed while he's stranded in fucking Kansas. God.

            The smell of coffee hangs in the air when he emerges from the bathroom down the hall fifteen minutes later, hair dripping onto the borrowed t-shirt and jeans he had the presence of mind to snatch from the dresser before he fled Jo. She's not in the bedroom anymore when he goes to place his clothes from the day before at the bottom of the bed, thank God, but that probably only means he'll have to face both her and her mother when he goes downstairs.

            Sure enough, she smirks at him from the table when he steps into the kitchen, raising a hand in half-hearted greeting. "Good morning," he says carefully.

            "Mornin'," Ellen says from where she's stirring a pan at the stove. "Hope you drink decaf?"

            "I...can manage decaf," he says, taking the mug she pours him. She points him at the sugar and creamer. "Thank you," he says, availing himself. "May I help you in any way?"

            "You didn't ask me that," Jo pouts at him, and Castiel automatically retorts, "Because you are not doing anything." He's already scrambling for the words to apologize when Ellen lets out a belly laugh and says, "Ain't that the truth! Get off your butt and set the table, Joanna Beth."

            "Why can't Cas set the table?" she whines.

            "Joanna," Ellen says warningly, and Jo huffs, shoves herself out of her chair to slouch over to a drawer in the corner.

            "You sit down, Cas," Ellen says. "I'm figurin' you're pretty sore, after last night."

            Jo snorts even as Castiel carefully suppresses a smile behind his coffee mug despite himself. Their eyes meet, and he finds his smile breaking back out again, coffee nearly leaking out its edges. He closes his mouth quickly.

            "Ha! He can smile!" Jo exclaims. She throws assorted knives and forks onto the table and throws herself back into her chair, shoving it close to Castiel. "Told the guys I'd break you."

            "The guys?" Castiel says.

            "My fellow jailbait," she says. "Madison and Tamara, you didn't notice them last night? We were trying to get your attention."

            "Many people were trying to get my attention," Castiel says, somewhat wearily, remembering the snapped fingers and raised hands and trying to remember who wanted what and how to keep track of it on their tab. Thankfully Ellen had spent most of the night behind it as well, letting Jo take care of the floor. Which reminds him. "I apologize for my slowness last night, Ellen. I will try to be better tonight."

            "Baby, you did fine." Ellen sets steaming plates on the table. "Damn better than fine, for your first time. You sure you don't wanna stay the summer?"

            Castiel, thinking she is just joking, smiles courteously as he brings a forkful of impressively fluffy scrambled eggs to his mouth. But she keeps looking at him, and he realizes as he chews that she is serious.

            He swallows. "Ah," he says.

            She quirks a brow and a smile at him. " 'S all right. I don't need an answer today," she says.

            Jo leans forward and says in a stage whisper, "You know she only offered to hire you because you didn't try to have sex with me, right?"


- o -


            Ellen will not require his assistance again until late afternoon, so Castiel takes the opportunity to take stock of himself. His laptop, like his phone charger, is in his car, but Jo offers the use of her own as she heads out with Ellen for church. They ask if he would like to come along, but Castiel declines.

            "Would you like me to leave the house while you are gone?" He's not sure yet where he will go if Ellen says yes, but he's fairly certain he had seen a chain coffee shop at least a few blocks away when Sam's brother drove them here the day before.

            "Why?" Ellen says, picking up her purse.

            "So that I'm not in your home while you're not present."

            Ellen snorts. "Sweetie, if you were some sort of weirdo, I'd be more concerned about having you in my house while I'm in it than when I'm not. Stay in, go out, I don't care as long as you don't burn the place down."

            Castiel smoothes a palm down the leg of his jeans. "All right. Thank you."

            Jo brings her laptop down to the living room before she leaves, typing in the password with her hair hanging over the screen and keyboard so he can't see it. Castiel politely sees them off from the door before sitting down in front of it. It's an old bulky Lenovo, and apparently Jo still uses Internet Explorer, as it's the only Internet browser he can find among her programs. He's got half a mind to install Firefox or Chrome for her because Internet Explorer--honestly, he can hear Alfie huffing in his head, because he'd been an Information Systems minor as well as a Biology major, and nothing annoyed him like Internet Explorer, except perhaps bees.

            Fuck. Fuck.

            It's minutes before he unclenches his hands from his hair and swipes his eyes. Forces himself to concentrate on the laptop screen and log onto the Facebook Sam created for him. To find someone who's trying to sublease their apartment for the summer. It's not difficult. Within minutes he's sending an "I am interested in subleasing for the summer" message to Andy Gallagher, a boy from his creative writing classes who invariably comes to class with a bag of Bugles and smelling of marijuana.

            More difficult is figuring out what to do once he's back in Palo Alto. Most of his classmates are taking MCAT prep courses over the summer to take the test in fall, and now Castiel wishes he had waited, too, instead of taking the test in January. Wishes that he had gone home for Christmas rather than stayed in Palo Alto with Sam to study over the break, because if he had known it would be the last time he'd see Alfie, he would have gladly dealt with every frustrating, condescending Novak relative at the yearly family dinner. How pleased he had been to escape Christmas with his mother's family; how sly he had felt that he spent most of vacation writing a short story, not studying the way his mother thought he was. The memory of both emotions sits like bile in his mouth now, acidic guilt and sour regret.

            The third message in his e-mail inbox is from the English department advisor. She wants to know if Castiel still wants the slot in Professor Milton's senior writing seminar. Castiel traces the keys of Jo's laptop for a moment before typing,

            Thank you for contacting me, Rachel. My plans have changed, and I no longer require the space in the seminar. I apologize for my delay in answering.

            Thanks you for your time,

            Castiel Novak-Shurley

            There's an online nutrition class that should pad his med school applications nicely. He signs up for it and peruses the syllabus until he hears the front door opening.

            "Look who we found at church," Ellen announces. Sam is next to her, ducking his head sheepishly as he grins at Castiel. "Get some shoes on, Cas, I'm takin' y'all out to brunch."


- o -


            Sam makes a face as they walk into the Biggerson's. "Dean's gonna kill me when he finds out we came here for breakfast without him."

            Ellen gives him a sharp look as the hostess leads them to a table for four. "Where is he? I thought he was supposed to have the weekend off."

            "Yeah, guess someone called in sick." Sam drums his fingers on the table. "I don't really know what went down, just saw a note on the fridge when I got up."

            "Check it out! They have Turducken pancake balls again," Jo says in rapture from behind her menu. Castiel looks down to see a large flyer inside his own proclaiming GOT BALLS? TRY OURS! SAUSAGE-WRAPPED CHIPOTLE BACON BITS COOKED IN PANCAKE DOUGH AND TOPPED WITH OUR HOMEMADE MAPLE SYRUP! "You ever had 'em, Cas? They're so fucking good."

            "Joanna Beth, I know I did not just hear that word coming outta your mouth." Ellen ignores the face Jo makes. "Sam, make sure you order some for Dean, you can take 'em home for when he gets off his shift."

            "You really think they'll taste good cold?" Sam says doubtfully, tilting his head at his menu and flicking a glance at Castiel.

            Castiel does not think they will taste good cold. Most likely they will taste vile. But he doesn't get a chance to answer Sam anyway, for Ellen has already changed the subject, asking when Sam's going to let her cut his hair, because no one's going to trust him in a courtroom if he looks like the stoned kid from Scooby-Doo, and Jo's laughing because that makes Dean Scooby, and they're all laughing at jokes Cas doesn't quite understand because he's not part of this, not part of this family that isn't Sam's real family, and the sick lonely bitter feeling builds up in him until a voice says, "Sam, where are your parents?"

            The laughter stops. The table goes silent, except for the blood rushing in Castiel's ears because the voice was his.

            "Come up to the counter with me, Jo," Ellen says abruptly. "I wanna make sure the cook remembers not to put any salt in my order."

            She and Jo get up and walk away, Jo watching Sam uncertainly and Castiel belligerently, and already Castiel is saying, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that, I had no right--"

            "No," Sam says. He looks as young as his age suddenly, because Castiel always forgets that he is twenty-two and Sam is only a freshman, because Sam seems older than nineteen, seems older than Alfie. "I should've told you a long time ago, it just--" He blows out a breath. "When's a good time to tell someone, Oh yeah, both my parents are dead. Just FYI."

            "My brother is dead," Castiel says. "Just FYI."

            Sam's mouth drops open. He stares at Castiel. "Are you ser--holy shit. Cas." His hands are across the table in a second, gripping Cas's fists tightly. "When?"

            Cas doesn't want to do this now. Not here, in the middle of a Biggerson's Sizzlin' Grill and Bar, with his suddenly burning nose dripping onto a discarded Splenda packet. He shakes his head, pressing his lips together.

            Sam squeezes his hands more tightly. Castiel inhales, hard, through his nose.

            "That's why you took your exams early?" Sam says softly.

            Castiel nods jerkily.

            "I'm sorry. I know it doesn't mean anything, but--I am so sorry, Cas."

            Cas clears his throat, blinks until his eyes don't feel wet anymore. "I don't want anyone to know."

            Sam nods slowly. "Okay. Whatever you need, Cas." He releases his hands slowly. "Do you wanna leave?"

            Cas shakes his head. A moment later, Ellen and Jo slide into the booth, pointedly starting a conversation about the weird-ass toys in the claw machine, like an evil-looking stuffed squid and a plush muffin with a tongue sticking out of it. "Must be finger-licking good," Jo says, and Castiel doesn't laugh, can't laugh, but he attempts a smile.


- o -


            Sam scuffs his foot in the mulch outside the Biggerson's as Ellen and Jo head for the truck. "I'll come with you to Palo Alto if you want."

            It's a generous offer. And now that it's been made, Castiel knows he can't accept it. "No. Do your internship, Sam. It will be helpful for you."

            "I don't want you to be alone right now, Cas."

            "He won't be alone." Jo slopes up to them like an alley cat. She hooks an arm through Castiel's, ignoring his frown. He's not sure how to take this, trades glances with Sam as Jo says, "Mom said she'll take you to the dry cleaner's for your stuff, Sam, me'n Cas are gonna walk home."

            Sam flicks another look at Cas. "I don't think--"

            "Go, Sam." Castiel attempts to detach his arm from Jo. "I would appreciate it if you would go as well, Joanna."

            "I'd appreciate it if you'd stop calling me Joanna," she informs him. "Guess neither of us get what we want."

            "Jo," Sam begins in frustration.

            "Sam," Cas and Jo both say, Cas firmly and Jo mockingly, and Sam huffs, stomps off to Ellen's truck.

             Jo waits until they've pulled out of the parking lot to drag Castiel onto the sidewalk. She lets go of him after a while, once her arm gets sweaty around his from the heat. Once they've turned down the tree-lined road to the Harvelles' house, she turns around to walk backward and look at him.

            "You're not how I thought Sam's roommate'd be." Her brows are drawn, her eyes nearly accusing. She kicks a pebble into his path with her scuffed sneakers as though to goad a reply from him. Castiel says nothing.

            They reach the end of the block. Two dusty pick-up trucks rattle past before they can cross the street.

            "Why'd you come here?" Jo hops over the storm drain onto the curb. "You coulda just called Sam on the phone. You got a crush on him or something?"

            "Yes, Joanna," Cas says acerbically. "I'm madly in love with him, and I came to Bumfuck, Kansas, to persuade him to elope with me."

            Jo's grinning. "You're an assface."

            "You're a child," he retorts, tone far sharper than hers, angry at her, angry at himself. When she throws herself onto his back, knotting her forearms around his neck, he's too shocked and furious to shake her off. Just staggers instead, and then keeps walking stiffly as she gets her skinny legs around his waist, and for some idiotic reason that has to do with the way his eyes are burning, he stoops forward to accommodate her weight, puts his hands under her legs to keep her from sliding off. He used to let Alfie ride on his back like this on Halloween, at the end of the night when he was too tired to walk anymore. He still remembers that last time in his Constantine trench coat and how Alfie's fake hobbit feet got all tangled in it. How he'd held onto Castiel's rumpled tie to keep from falling off and fallen asleep still holding onto it, his hand slipping down the fabric until it dangled in front of Castiel's chin, fingertips smeared with chocolate from the Kit Kat he shared with Castiel.

            Jo bumps her head against his, tightening her arms. "You missed my house, Cas."

            "Was making sure you paid attention, Jo," he says, and hitches her knees higher as he turns back around.


- o -


            Ellen's lying on the couch in the living room when Jo lets them inside. She's got the blinds drawn and her head in her hands.

            Jo slides down from Castiel's back. "Mom," she says in a voice so soft Castiel never would have expected it from her, stepping carefully toward Ellen.

            Ellen raises a hand to hold her back. "'m fine," she mumbles. "Just get me my pills, would you?"

            Castiel stays still as Jo disappears into the other room. He feels uncertain, sweat still drying on his back from where Jo was pressed against him. He thinks that maybe he should leave.

            Jo comes back into the kitchen with an orange prescription bottle and hands it to her mother as she goes to the freezer to take out a cold compress. Ellen's struggling with the bottle, hands fumbling; Castiel moves forward and takes it carefully from her. Sumatriptan, it reads, and below Ellen's name it says, Helping Hands Clinic. He pops it open and hands it back to Ellen. She shakes a pill into her hand and dry-swallows it, wincing as she takes the compress from Jo and puts it over her forehead. Then she makes a pained sound and shoves out of the room. Castiel hears a door closing and then the sound of vomiting.

            "Sorry." Jo looks young suddenly, tired and uncertain. "She gets migraines sometimes." She touches the bottle Ellen dropped on the counter before she rushed out of the room.

            "I understand." Castiel stands there for a moment. "Is there anything I can--?"

            "No, we just have to wait it out." Jo picks up the bottle, fists her other hand against her leg. "Um, I guess you can do whatever you want tonight, we don't open up when she's sick unless Ash is here. I'll call Christian to tell him not to come in."

            "Okay," Cas says, but he doesn't move. "Is it because of stress?"

            Jo glances at him. She looks a little amused, for the first time since they came in the kitchen. "What, her migraines? Why, you gonna diagnose her?"

            "No," Cas says stiffly. "I was just--if they are influenced by stress, I thought that us opening your establishment tonight so she wouldn't have to lose a night of revenue would be helpful."

            Jo considers this. "You're not Ash."

            "I am not."

            "But you're twenty-two. And Christian'll be here." She nods to herself. "Okay. Let's do it."


- o -


            This second night is better. Christian, who hadn't been at the Roadhouse last night, takes over the kitchen, which is a good deal busier than the bar--something that often happens, he tells Castiel through the window, on Sunday nights, especially in the summers when most of the college kids have left Lawrence for the summer.

            "I thought Kansas had stricter liquor laws than this." Castiel sticks his hands into the pockets of the fairly awkward-looking black apron Ellen gave him to wear over a white collared shirt while he tended the bar. Jo looks much better in hers, hands on her hips as she banters with a few men gathered around an old Deer Hunter game placed incongruously in the corner near an equally old jukebox.

            "We still got a bunch of dry counties." Christian shakes a basket of fries onto a plate. "But most places approved liquor sales back in the 80s. Places like here and Manhattan, where you've got the colleges, you might as well, 'cause the kids are gonna find their alcohol somehow, right?" He pauses, looks up at Castiel as he swipes his forehead with the back of his wrist. "You go to KU?"

            Castiel catches the eye of a tired-looking man near the end of the bar and goes to pour another finger of whiskey for him, waiting for Christian to clear his throat so he'll know when to stop. "No, Stanford."

            Christian snorts as he slides the plate through the window. "I dunno how Ellen keeps finding geniuses to work her bar. You know Ash?"

            "I've heard him mentioned."

            "Ah." Christian's grinning like he's knows a secret he's not going to share with Castiel. "You're in for a treat when he gets here, kid." He taps the bell. "Order up, Jo!"


- o -


            When he and Jo sneak back into the house at one-thirty that morning, Castiel's arm muscles aching from lifting and lowering so many bottles and holding them steady to pour, Ellen's voice rustles out of the darkness in the hallway. "Get in here."

            Castiel glances at Jo. They'd tried to be quiet coming into the house, since Jo said Ellen's migraines often last overnight, and noise makes them worse.

            She takes Castiel's wrist and eases Ellen's bed room door opens so they can peek inside. "Yeah, Mom?"

            Ellen's lying in her bed, the room pitch dark. But in the very faint light peeking from under her curtains, Castiel can see the gleam of her eyes, cracked open and pinned on them.

            "Not that you shoulda done it," she says after eyeing them for a moment. "But thanks."

            Jo grins. Ellen closes her eyes again, and they tiptoe back out of the room.


- o -


            Sam calls and offers to make Dean drive him and Castiel to pick up Castiel's car, but Castiel knows Sam's job starts at 7:30, and the impound lot doesn't open till 8. He doesn't want to make Sam late on his first day, nor does he really wish to be beholden to Sam's disgruntled brother, so when Jo offers to drive him Monday morning, he accepts.

            Ellen's up early to see him off. She looks better today, hair pulled back and flannel sleeves rolled up as she follows them onto the front porch.

            "Well. It's been a real pleasure, Cas, and I ain't bullshitting you." She pulls him into a hug. "You come and stay with us whenever you want, you hear me?"

            "I--yes," Castiel says, and isn't sure where to put his hands. He puts one carefully on Ellen's shoulder blade, glowers when she snorts at him.

            He's pretty much just as awkward half an hour later, when he's unlocking his car in the impound lot and turning to look at Jo.

            "I'm not hugging you," she says, raising her eyebrow.

            "Why hug when you can sexually assault?"

             Jo snorts with the beginning of a laugh before she can smother it entirely, then glares at him. Somewhere between leaving the house and driving into the impound lot she's become hostile, arms crossed and lips pressed together. "Would you just leave already?"

            "Yes," he says, sliding in. Then he pauses, gripping his familiar steering wheel, and pushes back out of the car. "Jo."

            She raises an eyebrow.

            "When is Ash coming back?"

            She squints at him in the morning sunlight. "Probably next week. Why?"

            "Perhaps I should stay. Just until he gets here to help."

            Jo's grin is sudden and bright, like the sunlight bouncing off his windshield. "Maybe you should."


- o -


            "You're staying?" Sam says in astonishment.

            "Only until Ash gets here."

            Sam's quiet for a minute on the other end of the line. "This is really weird, Cas."

            "I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks so," Cas says in relief, and Sam breaks into laughter. Cas feels himself smiling, suddenly, and for the first time since he left Palo Alto, it feels like something's broken between them, in a good way; it feels like they're laughing from their bedrooms in the dorm again, their doors open so they can call back and forth to each other until Sam gives up and comes into Castiel's room with his laptop to sprawl on the carpet beside his bed. He wanders over to Ellen's spare bed and sits on the edge, dropping onto his back to look at the ceiling as he listens to Sam laugh.

            "Hey," Sam finally stops laughing. "You're only helping at the Roadhouse in the evening then, right?

            "I imagine so."

            "Well, get this," Sam says. His voice is so excited it's gotten loud; Cas has to hold the phone away from his ear. "I was thinking. Shoot it down if it's stupid, but I was thinking about how you'd said you were gonna shadow your uncle in Syracuse this summer, right? Well, if you wanted to, till you leave, there's this clinic in town I used to volunteer at. They let students shadow the doctors there, and I was thinking you should do it."

            A hand grabs Cas's ankle. "Do it."

            Cas jumps so hard his head nearly slams into the wall. Laughter explodes from under his bed.

            "Cas?" Sam's saying anxiously through the phone, but Cas is scrambling to get both his feet up on the bed, crouching to look over the edge. Jo beams up at him, pushing herself out from under the bed frame like a mechanic on a creeper.

            Cas puts the phone to his ear again. "Sam, I don't think Ellen's daughter is from this planet."

            Jo flops onto the bed and grabs the phone from him, putting it on speaker. "Sam, you interrupted me and Cas having sex. Hang up."

            Castiel rolls his eyes.

            "It must not've been very good sex if he could talk to me on the phone without making any noises," Sam retorts.

            "It's 'cause he's a robot," Jo says. "We were having hot robot sex." She grins at Cas. "Hot alien-on-robot sex." She makes beeping sounds into the mouthpiece.

            "Ooh, stop, you're turning me on," Sam says dryly. Then there's a scuffling sound, and a squawk.

            "The fuck, are you having phone sex?" exclaims a voice that isn't Sam's.

            Jo cackles. "Oooh, yeah, baby, harder!"

            "Jo?!" The voice, Castiel realizes, is Dean Winchester's. "Get off the phone and go harass things from your own species, you little troll--"

            Jo snickers and hangs up. Cas eyes his phone a little mournfully, not having gotten to say goodbye to Sam, but a moment later, a text pops up from him, with an address and phone number and an order to Call them.

            "You should go," Jo says from over his shoulder. She's got her own phone out now, texting something. "That's where Mom goes, they're really nice."

            "Helping Hands Clinic?" he says, looking at the message from Sam and remembering the label on Ellen's medication.

            "Yep." Jo hops off the bed. "She's been going there since my dad died."

            There's more there, another story to be told, but Jo's plopping down at his desk now to investigate his laptop, making fun of his boring bamboo wallpaper, so he doesn't push.

            He does, however, check under his bed before he goes to sleep that night to make sure there isn't an 18-year-old under it.