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Pies and Prejudice

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Part 1: Meryton

The clock flashes, numbers tumble, counting down to zero in a lurid green glow. Dean’s attention is focussed, honed down to a sharp point of clarity. There is a job to do, and in this moment there is nothing more important than getting it right. There are nerves. He can feel them in the slow tremors that make their way down to his fingertips, leaving them twitchy and unreliable. It’s an annoying reaction though it’s hardly surprising. Dean’s only human, and this is a chance to change his life, to change everything. To change a future he thought was mapped out for him as surely as if it was set in stone. So the nerves are understandable and only felt because, most importantly, Dean knows he can succeed. The task is familiar. The actions are well rehearsed. A sequence of movements performed a hundred times over. All Dean has to do is trust his instincts and he can win.

He has to win.

And that, right there, is what does it. A single desperate thought that tips the scales, pushes a case of nerves over the edge, into full-on panic. A swell of adrenaline rushes through him, freezes his veins, and tightens, binding and constricting like a rope knotted across his chest, to squeeze the air from Dean’s lungs. The last thing he needs right now is some lame-ass panic attack. So he tries to push it aside, squash it down, pack it away in some creaky old corner of his brain, where it can gather dust and be forgotten, hopefully forever.

His fingers are splayed out on the pale countertop, his workspace for the duration of the competition or until he gets kicked out of it, whichever comes first. The feeling of cool acrylic against the pads of his fingers helps to ground him. He tries to concentrate on it as he wills away the surge of anxiety he will never, ever, admit to anyone. He studies the counter intensely while he catches his breath, eyes wandering the path of a hairline scratch, scored across the corner by some unknown red-coated crew member; they probably got shit from the set designer for that.

A vague memory rises to the surface of Dean’s mind, some hippy crap Sam was spouting a few days ago. Dean tends to zone out when his brother starts on with all that Californian new-age shit, but this time something stuck. He draws in a breath through his nose, holds it for a few rapid heartbeats, and then blows it back out slowly, through his mouth. He figures it’s best to try it a few more times just to be on the safe side, before getting back to work; after all, the damn pie isn’t going to make itself and Dean isn’t going to win a baking competition – however fucking lame it is – without doing any actual baking.

The moment of whatever-the-fuck-that-was ebbs away. Dean’s hands find the plastic dish where chilled cubes of butter are waiting for him, hard and icy cold, perfect for making rich golden pastry, the sort that melts in your mouth when you take the first bite.

“You can never have your fat too cold,” his mom had told him. At four years old he sat on the counter beside her, watching in awe, as she spun this miraculous thing called ‘pie’ into being. It was a very ordinary and quiet kind of magic but he had been entranced. It was one of the few clear memories Dean had left of her, and so he had taken the advice to heart, and it had served him well over the years. Who would have thought it would suddenly become so important? The idea that she’s helping him now makes him smile, as he scrapes the squares into a large glass bowl. They fall onto the mound of flour inside with a flumping noise, and push up little white clouds that resettle lazily, sinking like glitter in a just-shaken snow-globe.

He turns, putting a greasy spatula by the sink to deal with later. Dean’s a tidy cook. People always seem surprised by that for some reason. Not that many outside his family even know about this particular talent, but that’s all about to change now, isn’t it? Dean’s hip brushes against the mixing bowl as he turns back. It’s sitting a little too close to the edge and it moves. Not by much, the distance could be measured in millimetres. Just a gentle nudge and it’s sliding across the too-smooth surface (good for rolling-pins, bad for friction) and its game over.

Dean watches wide-eyed as the bowl teeters on the edge and he knows there is nothing he can do to stop it. Flour dusted cubes of fat pitch to the side, tripping and falling over one another, tumbling like a landslide as the whole thing overbalances and heads towards the floor. The bowl turns as it travels, spilling its innards onto the floor before it lands.

There’s a disaster at Dean’s feet. He stares at an exploded-star made of lumps of flour and butter. The bowl covers what didn’t escape; the glass dome making it look like a display, like an exhibit in a museum.

“Fuck,” Dean says, eyes cast down at the horror.

His voice is loud. There’s an answering chorus of gasps and hissing intakes of breath from among the other contestants. One complaint is louder than the rest. One of the older ladies mutters about “young people today” and “lack of manners.” It’s probably Betty, a steel-haired matriarch who’s pottering about at the workstation behind Dean’s. The other voices are too indistinct to recognise, either the words or the speakers, and whether they are voicing sympathy with his plight or distaste at his language, Dean can’t tell. He also doesn’t give a crap either way and to emphasise the point, as a camera closes in on him and the unfolding drama, with its lights blinking so he knows he’s being recorded, he dips his head close to the microphone pinned to his chest and says, “Fuck,” again. Slow and clear, so there’s no mistake about Dean’s feelings on the matter.

He looks at the mess. There’s white powder dusting the bottom of his jeans, and his black boots look grey and dirty, like they’re covered in cobwebs. This really isn’t what he needs on the first day of the competition, the first full day of filming, when there’s public humiliation waiting at the end of it – or Judges’ Comments as the production team had blandly labelled it on the schedule. At least the judges aren’t actually in the room to see what just happened and to look on with pity, or scorn, at Dean’s carelessness.

“Jesus fucking Christ, why did I ever let Sam talk me into doing this stupid fucking show?” he grouses under his breath, only remembering about the microphone afterwards.

It hardly matters. Pam’s the head honcho around here, and for some reason obvious only to her, she’d gone all out to secure Dean’s place on the so-called cast (they were competitors really, TV show or not, this was still a competition). She wasn’t likely to throw him out for a bit of bad language and a sour attitude, even if the sound techs snitched on him for bad mouthing the show. They can edit it out later. Though if they bleeped the swear words that would be cool, or at least, as cool as you can get when you’re taking part in The Great American Bake-Off. Not that Dean gives a flying fuck what anyone he doesn’t know thinks about him. He’s never cared much for anyone’s good opinion outside of his little ragtag group of family and friends in Lawrence, and he doesn’t intend to start now, national exposure or not.

One of the red-coats approaches, brandishing a clipboard in one hand and a broom in the other, a headset perched on her dark hair. A connection to the powers-that-be, hiding out away from the heat and noise, in the comfort of the media trucks. “We think it’s best if you start over,” she says, nudging him back from the mess with the end of the broom. Another red-coat appears from nowhere with a shovel, and between them they have the floor flour free in a matter of seconds. The girl looks up at Dean when they’re done and he grumbles a sort of half-hearted apology in her direction. “Don’t worry about it,” she says breezily, flapping a hand as if it’s nothing at all and there isn’t a whole heap of money resting on the outcome of today’s bake. “This is the most interesting thing that’s happened so far and it’ll make the show more exciting when it’s edited together.” She raises her eyebrows, considers for a moment. “We might have to remove some of the more colourful language but don’t worry about it. There’s plenty of time left, just carry on.”

Dean pulls a face. “I would, but that there,” he says as he points to the floor. “That was all the butter I had.” There’s a moment of doubt, a twist in his stomach at the thought that he’s lost his chance. No. This is important and he isn’t a quitter. He isn’t about to run away at the first obstacle. He’s wriggled out of much more difficult situations in the past; this is just a bake-off for fuck’s sake.

He casts about for an idea, looks down at the petite assistant and takes in the faint pink stains darkening her cheeks and the base of her throat – gotcha. Dean licks his lips. Turns his most winning smile on her, and, yahtzee! She flushes and her blush deepens. Dean’s lazy smile widens as he sees it happen, because this, yeah he knows how to do this. “I don’t suppose you could get me some more could you? I’d be really grateful if you could.” He leans his hip against the counter, crosses his arms over his ribs so that his t-shirt pulls, stretching out over his chest and arms. It has the desired effect, and the young woman – whose name he can’t quite remember, but he thinks it might start with an ‘E’ – takes a deep breath and blinks rapidly, flustered.

“Oh,” she says, “oh dear.” She looks away in distress. “I’m sorry. I... I don’t think that’s allowed.” She brings up the clipboard and peers at it closely, as if she needs reading glasses. She searches. Pages flip but the rustle of paper is drowned out by the electric whirr of the ovens in the background. Something-beginning-with-E taps the end of her pen against the clipboard in triumph, tap-tap-tap, and she quotes, “Each contestant is supplied with all ingredients, in the exact amount they request, before each challenge. It is up to the contestant to ensure they request enough supplies to cover mistakes, accidents, or any other eventuality. That’s it, that’s all it says,” she finishes sadly.

“There must be something you can do?” Dean asks and pulls a face so pathetic he’d slap himself if it wasn’t so completely necessary (and good God, he hopes the camera isn’t on him right now).

She bites her lip, leans forward to put a hand on his forearm and looks up into his face like she’s about to tell him the secret of life, the universe, and everything. “I can’t help you,” she confesses. “But I do know that some of the other contestants asked for more on their lists than they really needed.”

He grins at her in thanks. No one can resist the Winchester charm when he turns it on. She grins back and the skin on her face and neck is now almost scarlet in hue. Her head tilts to the side, pointedly, silently telling him what he needs to know, directing him towards the person who can help keep him in the game. She smiles, makes a happy satisfied noise, and walks away with a bounce in her step.

She doesn’t notice the way Dean’s smile drops off his face the moment she turns away. Something-beginning-with-E thinks she’s helped Dean out of a tough spot, but his spirits sink down into the soles of his boots, and then leak out through the holes in them to spill across the floor.

Fuck his life.

Dean slumps forward to lean both elbows on the counter and drops his chin into his hands as he stares daggers into the back of the only person who can rescue him. Of course it just had to be Castiel Novak didn’t it? Of-fucking-course it did. Because when has Dean’s life ever been easy and why should it be any different now?

Castiel Novak is one of the most unpleasant people Dean has ever had the misfortune to meet. He’s a rude, cold, selfish, asshole, and to make matters about a million times worse, one of the few people in the world who seems to be utterly immune to Dean Winchester’s charms. And now Dean has to ask him for a favour. Well, isn’t that just perfect.

Dean steals a glance at the other contestants hoping there might be another way out of his predicament. But everyone else is back at work, heads down, hands busy mixing, rolling, and trimming, lips pursed tight in concentration. The marquee is filled with the knock and clatter of plastic utensils, ceramic dishes, and metal pie-plates, the sporadic drone of electric mixers and God only knows what else. The dusty smell of flour hangs in the air. It tickles Dean’s nose and catches at the back of his throat but soon it will be joined by a better scent, the sweet tangy fragrance of cooked fruits and warm bubbling syrups.

There are kind looks from his favourite contestants-in-arms; a sympathetic smile from Jody Mills, a well-that’s-life-what-can-you-do shrug from Charlie Bradbury, and then there’s Andy “I learned to bake by making space cakes” Gallagher, who has Dean huffing out a laugh as he blinks at him blearily while he droops over the top of his rolling pin (suffering from the after effects of his too enthusiastic use of the free bar last night).

That’s it, there doesn’t seem to be any other option left in the room. There’s no way out but through, as someone somewhere said one time, and Dean’s not about to give up the chance of winning some real money, a life changing amount of money, without a fight. Suck it up Winchester, he tells himself, just get it over and done with.

Novak moves around behind an orderly workstation, unaware he’s being watched. He’s straight backed, unruffled, and completely oblivious to anything going on around him. Not as much as a twitch of his shoulders to show he noticed Dean’s accident, though it happened just a few feet behind him. Dean is still sending imaginary daggers into the stiff vertical line of Novak’s back, when he stoops to shut the oven door. Novak does it gently, properly, not shoving at it with his foot until it bounces up and into place with a satisfying slam, like Dean would. But then Castiel Novak doesn’t seem to do anything for the sake of simple enjoyment. He is all efficiency, and already has his pastry case baking-blind. Getting it ready for whatever jumped-up fancy-pants filling he’s going to ruin it with. Dean follows the action as Novak taps on the temperature dials with his stupidly long-fingered hands then pushes back his shirt sleeve to check his watch – it doesn’t look like gold or anything out of the ordinary, but Dean would place bets that it cost more than a year’s worth of his own mechanic’s wage.

Novak crouches to look through the dull smoked-glass of the oven door. The bend of his knees makes his already snug-fitting pants pull tighter. The material stretches taut over an infuriatingly fine backside and that just makes Dean even more pissed-off. It really is way too fine a thing to be wasted on someone so irredeemably crappy. Dean comforts himself with the thought of how many personal trainers it must take, how many dollars it must cost, to get someone who probably doesn’t move unless it’s to sign a cheque, into such great shape. There really isn’t much that money can’t buy is there? It’s a shame the asshole couldn’t invest it in a decent personality.

Dean takes a deep breath, steels himself for whatever insult might come back at him, and leans over his workstation. “Hey, Novak,” he calls, keeps his voice soft and friendly even as the effort sticks and clogs in his throat. Novak doesn’t move a muscle. Dean can only see a sliver of his face, but there isn’t so much as a flicker of reaction. He just carries on staring and frowning into that poor innocent oven, as if something inside there has dishonoured him, his family, and his cow. Dean’s left to study the solid dark line of his back. The white slash of his apron tied just above his hips is the only feature of note.

Dean tries again, calls a little louder this time, “Hey, Castiel.” Still there’s no reaction. He’ll try one last time. He’ll even leave the relative safety of his workspace and go over there if he has to, if that’s what it takes. Dean opens his mouth to call again, just as Novak spins around, standing as he goes. He’s fast, and remarkably graceful as he moves, probably does yoga or some other bendy-exercise-garbage that Dean wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole (though he did once spend a remarkable and enlightening weekend with a yoga instructor – but he isn’t going to think about that right now, and definitely not in connection with Castiel Novak, who he also wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole).  

Novak’s scowl remains fixed to his face, and he has a wooden spoon raised in one hand, tense and defensive, as though he’s about to hit someone with it – probably Dean. “I’m trying to concentrate, Mr Winchester, what do you want?” Novak’s voice is hushed, but it still manages to snap in the air and leave a crackling trail of annoyance behind it. He does, however, lower the not-very-terrifying-spoon-of-death, so Dean has a lucky escape there.

“Relax man,” Dean soothes, lifting his hands and spreading his fingers in what he hopes is a peaceful gesture. “I just want to know if you’ve got any butter going spare,” Dean nods towards what’s left of the mess on the floor, the ghostly grey remains of the accident.

Novak’s eyes widen at the sight and his brows twitch. He really hadn’t noticed what had happened. Jesus, what was this guy, some kind of robot? Actually that would explain a few things, including his lack of appreciation for all things Dean-related. “Had a bit of a mishap,” Dean explains and tries to keep an inoffensive smile stuck to his lips. He shoves it roughly back into place each time it starts to slip away. Novak does not need to see the disgust Dean feels at having to ask for his help, though unless he really is a fool, he must at least suspect it. “So, you know, if you could help me out that would be great.”

Castiel’s scowl drops, and his face is all but expressionless as he looks between the floor and Dean (yep, definitely a robot, are those gears Dean can hear clunking in the background?). “You should have asked for more than you needed to start off with,” Novak unhelpfully replies. “To cover anything that might go wrong. It said that in the handbook, didn’t you read it?” Somehow he manages to make it sound like he’s questioning Dean’s ability to read.

Smile fixed and probably not looking as sincere as he was trying for, Dean does his best to stay cool. “Yeah, thanks Castiel, I must have missed that part. Can you help me or not?” His face starts to warm while irritation bubbles below his skin. Stay calm Winchester, he tells himself, wait until you’ve got what you need, you can punch his smug fucking lights out later if that’s what you need to do. Dean’s fingers curl up unconsciously, and there is a tickle, a flutter of pleasure in his chest, at the idea.

“I’m not sure if...” Novak’s brow furrows, falling back into those habitual lines, and he presses an index finger to his chin while he mulls over the pros and cons of helping Dean out of this fix. Perhaps he’s calculating how it would help his own chances in the competition if Dean failed at this early stage – hard to say on the first round, no one knows who the serious contenders are yet.

There is a moment of quiet while Novak works out whatever it is he needs to work out. Dean’s nerves stir to life as he recognises, with a sinking feeling in his gut, the very real possibility that the asshole might actually refuse. Perhaps if he went round all the others, begging for scraps, he could scrounge up enough to at least attempt the pie. It would be a mishmash of fats, all warm and slippery now, from the heat that’s steadily building in the tent, the combined output of the lights overhead and the ovens below the counters.

Dean swallows, there’s a twist of something like nausea in his stomach, and an uncomfortable tightening in his throat. It’s not like he hasn’t had to beg for things before, he’s done worse, when it was necessary. But to do it now, here, in front of the cameras and for this challenge – it feels all kinds of wrong. This is his mother’s recipe. It deserves more care and attention than being thrown together from a load of mooched leftovers.

He turns back and finds Novak watching him, as close and as critical as ever. Dean’s a heartbeat away from throwing his hands up and saying what-the-fuck-ever-dude, and stomping off, when the unexpected happens. Novak nods. “I don’t like to encourage complacency,” he says, and glances at the dusty discoloured patch by Dean’s feet. “But as long as the rules allow it, I think I can help you on this occasion, yes.” He nods again in affirmation, happy with his decision.

The grin that cracks open on Dean’s face cannot be contained. He forgets himself, dizzy with relief, shakes his head and says, “Oh, man I could...” kiss you? What? Nope. That was definitely not where Dean was going with that, no way, not ever, no. “Thanks, Castiel,” he goes with instead, and hopes Novak didn’t notice the awkward stumble and redirect. “I owe you, man, seriously.” Maybe the guy isn’t quite as bad as they all thought?

The next moment, Dean’s holding a hunk of something in his hand. It’s weirdly shaped and wrapped in... is that cloth? “What the hell is this?” he asks, confused. It seemed to have materialised out of thin air, leaving Dean to question just where in the hell had Castiel been keeping it. He hadn’t even seen the guy move. Did he have a larder hidden in his damn pants-pocket or something? Because it really didn’t look like there was much room in there for anything apart from...

“It’s butter. That is what you asked for isn’t it?” The words sound irritable but Castiel’s voice doesn’t waver, it stays contained, and as flat as the roads in Illinois (yep, robot, definitely a robot).

“I don’t recognise the brand,” Dean replies, tries to act casual and put a gloss on the horrible awkwardness that’s dogged all their interactions. Part of Dean protests, begs to know why he should bother hiding the fact that he doesn’t like Novak, when Novak himself doesn’t bother to do the same in return. He has to put that aside. Right now Novak is helping, grudging though it may be, and Dean can’t risk him changing his mind.

“It’s organic, hand churned,” Castiel tells him. “I have an interest in an organic farm. It’s from there.” Dean doesn’t respond and Novak takes it as an invitation to continue. “Its butter, Dean, and it’ll work just like any other butter, brand label or not. Now if you’ve quite finished wasting my time, I really have to get back to my work. Excuse me.” Novak turns, goes back to his workstation where a pile of limes are stacked neatly, waiting for his attention (and who the hell stacks limes? How does that even work, are they glued together?).

And the mirage of Castiel being a decent human person falls away. The asshole has returned. And honestly, he’s relieved; a prickly-edged and selfish Castiel Novak he can get his head around, and laugh at or ignore as he likes. A helpful Castiel would just be weird, and incompatible with Dean’s already fixed opinion of him – one formed, in no small part, by the lingering singe of rejection, and the crash-and-burn failure of the night they first met.


* * * * * * *


Five weeks earlier...

He blinked at the words with gritty work-tired eyes, trying hard to understand what he was reading.

‘Dear Mr Winchester,’ it began. That was weird for a start. Mr Winchester was his Dad, well, up until a few years ago anyway. Dean was always just, Dean, for anything that mattered. Seriously this whole baking thing was bizarre enough, if they started calling everyone Mr this and Miss that, like some crusty old romance novel, he’d have to tell them it had all been some huge mistake and make a run for it.

‘Congratulations on being selected to take part in The Great American Bake-Off.’ He’d have to reserve judgement on the congratulations part. Sam might be convinced this was going to be some magical way to sort out Dean’s crappy life, and solve their debt problems, but he was less than convinced by the whole thing.

‘I would like to invite you, on behalf of Crystal Ball Productions, to join us for a meet-and-greet weekend, where you will be introduced to your fellow cast members, the celebrity judges, and receive further information about the format of the show, and the filming schedule.

We want you to have a great time while you are involved with the show, and we would like you, and a friend, to stay with us at the Meryton Hotel in New York for a weekend, all expenses paid. We look forward to seeing you, and working together to make The Great American Bake-Off a success.

Yours Sincerely,

Pamela Barnes

The paper started to crumple in his hand, and he had the mad thought that if he destroyed the evidence he could forget about the whole thing. Carry on with his regular life as if nothing had ever come along to disturb it. It might not look like much of a life from the outside, or to a younger brother headed towards a big time law career, but it wasn’t so bad that Dean needed to scrabble around for any opportunity to make a change – particularly not one as stupid as this. He made a mental note to throttle Sam, the next time he saw him, for getting him involved in this ridiculous TV stuff in the first place.

It was bad enough that Dean had to go and cook in front of people he didn’t know. On top of that, he had to go through the humiliation of being judged on it, and then broadcast on network TV so anyone anywhere in the country could witness it. It was going to be humiliation piled on humiliation, and now Dean had to go play nice with all the other poor suckers that were involved. Dean didn’t have time to be messing around with this crap. It was a tricky balancing act as it was with two jobs and a mountain of debt that wasn’t getting any smaller anytime soon – in fact it would just get bigger if he took time out to play at being someone else, someone he’s not. Sam should have known that, and Dean should have known better than to go along with it. Trust Sam to make it all sound so reasonable – him and his stupid lawyer training.

“They’ll pay you, Dean.” That had been Sam’s key argument, and he’d looked so excited and happy about it. “You’ll get paid no matter what, and just look at the prize money.” A brightly coloured advertisement was shoved under Dean’s nose. It screamed, in giant black print that looked ready to crawl off the page, that “Talented home-bakers are wanted for a brand new TV show.” Sam tapped at the page with his finger, pointing to the figure for the prize money. It stood out, garish, in big bright-red print.

Dean pushed the paper away, and ignored Sam’s grumbling protest. “Okay,” he conceded, “that’s a fair number of zero’s. But let’s be real, I’m hardly likely to win. I’m a mechanic, Sam, not a baker, and Bobby can’t afford to keep my job open while I go off chasing some stupid TV show halfway across the country. He needs someone here who can work every day.”

“Then you make sure they pay you enough up front to cover your wages,” Sam replied. “I can help you check over any contract. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they pay you more upfront than you’d make at the auto repair shop and the Roadhouse anyway. I mean it’s not exactly much.”

“Thanks for reminding me of my lowly state, Sam.” Dean said, throwing his brother a dirty look. “You’re not exactly rolling in it yourself yet. Or had you forgotten we’re still paying for those fancy schools you went to. Hey, here’s an idea, maybe you should apply and leave me out of it?”

Sam looked sheepish. “I didn’t mean...” he started to explain, to smooth over the accidental insult. Dean was touchy when it came to money. It was a side effect of a life lived never having quite enough of it, no matter how many hours he’d worked. “Dean,” Sam said. He dropped his voice low, tried to sound reasonable and reassuring. “You love baking, cooking as well. I know you pretend you don’t, but you do, and you’re good at it too.”

Dean made a derisive noise. “Well you would say that, since you’re the one that’s been forced to eat it.”

“No, Dean, you know I’m not the only one who thinks so. Bobby, the guys at the auto shop, Ellen, and Jo, and Ash... And you know Dad thought so too, even if he never said it.” Dean snorted at that. He had no idea where Sam came up with that idea. John Winchester had hardly even been around while they were growing up, preferring to stay out of the house, and away from the reminders of his dead wife. Sometimes working but often drinking. Dean could count on his fingers the number of times they sat down to eat together as a family. More to the point, John had straight up refused to eat the first time Dean had made Mary’s apple pie recipe. Long story short, Sam was talking out his ass. “We all think you’ve got talent,” said Sam, “and maybe, just maybe, this is an opportunity for you to do something with it. Look, I’m not saying you’ll definitely win, but why not have a try? Bobby’s not going to replace you if you take some time off, and if he tried, Ellen would probably shoot him.” Sam laughed.

He let his head loll onto the back of the moth-eaten couch as he thought about it. Noticing, absently, that the cracks in the plaster on the ceiling were getting worse, spreading out, growing wider and darker. He’d have to do something about that soon. Dean wasn’t one for false modesty, he was a decent cook, and his apple pie had been known to reduce a grown man to tears on occasion (though Bobby had sworn him to silence about that, on pain of death). The prize money was tempting. Too tempting for someone barely carrying the weight of all the debt loaded onto his shoulders – Sam’s school bills, the cost of Dad’s medical bills and stints in rehab – no matter how hard or how many hours Dean worked, it would take nothing short of a miracle to lift those debts from him. It was a situation Dean had learned to accept, and God, was that depressing.

“Come on then,” Dean said a moment later, grudgingly holding his hand out for the paper. “Show me again.” It really was a lot of money, enough to take a good chunk out of the debts and maybe even enough to do something else, something more pleasant. For a few years Bobby had been talking about setting up a second shop, about how he would make Dean a partner in the business, if they could find the money for it. That was the dream. A business, something Dean could spend his time and effort on, and maybe get a little something back from at the end of the day.

God help him, the money was tempting, too tempting. With only a little more prodding from Sam, Dean caved, and sold his soul for a place on a reality TV show.

“That’s great!” Sam beamed. He looked far too smug for Dean’s liking. “Because I’ve already put in an application for you.” Sam stopped smiling when he was smacked in the face with a ratty pillow a few seconds later.

The meet-and-greet invitation was printed on thick paper, so thick the thumbtack didn’t want to go through it when Dean tried to pin it to the notice-board beside his door. Apparently it was as reluctant to engage with the whole thing as Dean was. But it was too late now. The deal had been struck, the contracts signed, and this was Dean’s fate. It comforted him that he could drag Sam along with him for the weekend. His brother had got him into this, and therefore Dean considered it his brother’s duty to share some of the inevitable pain of the experience. It was only fair.

And in the end, the weekend wasn’t nearly as bad as Dean expected. Not that he was going to let Sam know that, so he made an effort to play the martyr as much as was humanly possible whenever Sam was nearby.

Dean had met Pamela “just call me Pam” Barnes – show-runner, owner of Crystal Ball Productions, and the brains behind the whole operation – during the audition process. She was just as charming, flirty, and enthusiastic as he remembered. She gestured wildly with her hands as she talked, used a frankly alarming amount of “air quotes,” and had an unnerving ability to work out just what you were thinking. She wanted the show to be a success, but seemed truly interested in the people she recruited onto the show. All while carrying an amused twinkle in her eye that belied the smooth media-slick image she presented, with her blood-red lips and sharp-cut hair. Dean could read people and if Pam’s shtick was all an act, then it was a damn good one, because it had him fooled right along with the rest of them.

The contestants were a decent bunch, on the whole. A real mixed bag of personalities, drawn from every walk of life you could imagine. Each of them had a definite “story” to tell, as Pam put it, and not one of them was naive enough to believe that they had ended up with such an interesting and diverse cast by happy chance. “This is show business,” was all Pam said with a shrug, and a tap of her pointed shoes on the hardwood floor, when Dean had asked about it. Dean had expected to be alone among a crowd of little old ladies, and it was a pleasant surprise when he found the other contestants were just regular folk – and yes, that did include some older ladies. It turned out baking was a more popular pastime than Dean had realised. Then again, how was he supposed to have known when his own skills were born out of necessity, not choice?

Shared anxiety was a good bonding agent, and after the first few cautious hours, all twelve contestants (and their plus-one guests) were getting along fine, and had started to relax. Pam, as ever, had played an ace with the location and remaining doubts or nerves were quite forgotten in light of the warm, and what Dean would call over-the-top, hospitality at the hotel. All on the production company’s dollar. Though the five-star finery was outside Dean’s comfort zone, he eventually conceded that the Meryton Hotel was pretty amazing; with its spa, and roof terrace, and amazing food, even if he wasn’t the biggest fan of the locale (too many people, in too much of a hurry, too much of the time, and wow, rude, was Dean’s judgement of New York, and he didn’t care how much Sam bitch-faced at him before he started droning on about all the culture, culture, culture).

They weren’t just there for the over-indulgence though, and over the weekend they had to attend a series of talks. Dean was handed binders filled with endless rules, page upon page of filming schedules, travel plans, and anything and everything he could possibly need to know about the shit-storm (aka show) that was rapidly approaching.

“We want this to be as easy and enjoyable for you as possible,” Pam told them, phone clasped in one hand, oversized coffee in the other, liquid sloshing dangerously at every animated word. “We’ll cover all your travel costs and only the very best accommodation will be good enough for my cast. It’ll be fun,” Pam told them, and her eyes lingered on Dean. “Think of it like a holiday. You’ll get to stay at some of the finest properties in the country.” The idea of being stuck for days at a time, in a load of creepy-ass old houses in the middle of nowhere, did not fill Dean with an overabundance of joy. The others seemed excited so he tried his best to turn his frown up-side-down and play nice. Pam kept her gaze on him, as if she’d heard his thoughts. “You might be surprised at how much fun you’ll have, before we get to the end,” she said, nodding at him as she lifted her drink to her mouth. She took a long pull, sighed dramatically, and turned her attention elsewhere, to Dean’s relief.  

There were lectures on the format of the contest by Pam’s harassed looking assistant, poor guy. Each round would consist of three challenges; a signature bake, a technical challenge, and a show-stopper bake. All of it had to be completed in a single arduous day. Each day would have a theme such as ‘breads’ or ‘cakes’ or ‘cookies.’ The judges would do their thing after each challenge, and at the end of each day one of the contestants would be named overall ‘star baker’ and another would be sent home with their tail between their legs. While Dean was in it for the prize money; they all got paid an appearance fee no matter how long they stayed in the competition. In some ways the first contestant to get the boot would be the luckiest (apart from the winner), since they wouldn’t have to spend long jumping about for the cameras.

The last item on the agenda was the introduction of the celebrity judges. The first was some English dick named Crowley “just Crowley” that Dean had never heard of. Who the hell did he think he was to only have one name? The guy wasn’t exactly Madonna. Whoever he was, it left some of the ladies tittering and flapping about, as if some rock star had just walked in. Not that Dean was above a bit of fan-girling himself. When Pam introduced Missouri Moseley as the second judge Dean could barely contain himself, inadvertently handing Sam enough ammunition for the teasing to last until Christmas. Dean didn’t care. He wanted to run over and hug the living daylights out of her. Dean had learnt to cook from Missouri’s shows and books – books that Mary Winchester had bought and never had the chance to use. On the most difficult days, when Dad hadn’t come home and Sam was hungry and upset, it had been Missouri’s calm voice and friendly face that comforted and encouraged him to carry on. Dean didn’t know whether to be ecstatic or terrified that she would be the one to taste and pass judgement on his skills.

One mystery remained. Any dead space in conversation was filled with speculation; who was the thirteenth contestant? Right from the go Pam had said there was a “baker’s dozen” of contestants. Ignoring how terrible that joke was, it meant there should have been thirteen of them. Yet only twelve people had been introduced over the two not-very-action-packed days. Though Pam was full of glossy red smiles, and ready with a wink and a hint and a “don’t you worry about it handsome,” she never told them why there was a seat unfilled. Her evasion only served to tantalise. It lent an air of intrigue, a thread of mystery for them to follow, and it lasted until the farewell cocktail party on Sunday night.

When the revelation finally came it was the biggest damp squib in the history of all the squibs that ever dampened stuff (and Dean should probably find out what a squib is before he uses that phrase ever again).

“It fits perfectly with the ethos of the show,” Pam was mid-explanation about something-or-other, when Dean arrived at the cocktail party with Sam in tow.

He waved a hello at Jody and Charlie and snagged a couple of tall glasses filled with fizzy-fruity stuff from a waiter. He handed one to Sam with a shrug. The quirk of Sam’s eyebrow, creeping up his giant forehead, was an unspoken agreement that they were not going to talk about the sparkly ‘girl-drinks’ they were holding, on pain of death – no matter how amazing they tasted (and what was that? Peach? It was frigging delicious whatever it was). Pam nodded in greeting but carried on talking, not one to be distracted mid-flow, especially when the talk was about her favourite topic “the show,” as she wiggled her fingers around the words.

“The zeitgeist right now is for simple things, old-fashioned things. People are looking to the past for a quieter more sedate kind of life-style, some way to balance out the impact of our hectic twenty-four seven lives. What we’re doing is taking advantage of that mood, of that craving for traditional skills by showcasing the best of home baking in America today.” She looked at Sam and Dean and waited for a sign they were following her before going on. “How better to evoke that nostalgia than by showcasing some of our beautiful old buildings as well? And if the arrangement is mutually beneficial” she winked, “all the better.”

“But cooking in a tent in the middle of summer...” Charlie argued, “... in Georgia? That sounds to me like a whole other kind of baking. It doesn’t sound comfortable, even if it is next to some crumbly picturesque old house. It’s making me sweat just thinking about it.” It was good to know Dean wasn’t the only one with doubts about the travelling involved – surely it would be easier for everyone to just stay put for the duration; the closer to Kansas the better as far as he was concerned. He’d never been fond of travel, and not just because he had to pop a borrowed pill or two to get through the ordeal of flying. He was a home-body at heart, happiest among familiar sights and sounds and people.

Pam laughed. “None of the places we’re going will be crumbly, Charlie, I can assure you. Most are hotels these days, and you’ll be staying in some of them. I’ll have no expense spared for my cast.” She put a reassuring hand on Charlie’s shoulder, her voice going serious. “And really, don’t worry about the marquee; it will be more like a building than a tent by the time the crew have finished with it. We’ve tested it out and it’s pretty sturdy. Crowley and Missouri helped with the design and specifications and I don’t think we can question their credentials.”   

“Okay,” Charlie nods but doesn’t sound convinced, “Still not sure about going south in the summer though.” Dean snorts a laugh at that, and she hits him hard on the arm. “Shut up, I’m being serious, Dean.”

Pam ignored Dean’s interruption in favour of giving Charlie an encouraging little pat on the shoulder. “It’ll work out great,” she said. “I just know it.” And there was so much conviction in her voice that everyone believed it must be true. “Have fun, sweeties, and I’ll see you later,” she said with a smirk and drifted off to charm the socks off the next loitering group.

“Well she’s right about the ‘spared no expense’ part,” Jody said, her eyes darting about. “If the rest of the hotels are going to be anything like this, I’ll end up spoilt, and won’t be able to go back to my boring old house.”

The party was in a private function room in part of the Meryton Hotel they hadn’t seen before. The rest of the place was swanky, as you might expect from a luxury hotel, but they had definitely saved the best for last.

“Don’t you think it’s a bit over the top?” Dean replied. The room was opulent to say the least – and to Dean’s mind it was a toss-up as to whether it managed to stay on the right side of tasteful or spilled right over into the realms of the absurd – the amount of marble and gilding on display gave him concerns about the sanity of the interior decorator. All it needed was a zoo and a sarcophagus or two, and it would be right up there in Jackson levels of weird.

“It is a bit much,” Charlie chipped in, “When I saw all the gold, I thought for a second I’d taken a wrong turn and found Smaug’s lair.”     

Sam laughed, “Let’s hope they came by all these doodads in a slightly less gruesome way, huh?”

“Nerds,” Dean said under his breath, shaking his head as he took in the surroundings. The decadence of it made his skin itch. To someone who had spent a life time worrying over money, and how to make each new penny stretch twice as far as the last, it looked like a wasteful display. It was beautiful in its way, but they might as well have just cut to the chase and papered the walls in hundred dollar bills. It kind of pissed him off.

Just like the other contestants he was impressed by the hotel and took full advantage of enjoying it. Hey, if Pam and her company were going to make money off the back of his humiliation, he had no qualms about taking everything they offered in return. He’d started to feel weirded-out by it after a while, like there was something patronising in being given this freebie holiday, like they were children to be distracted with something shiny so they wouldn’t complain.

“You’re being paranoid again,” Sam gently mocked when Dean asked him to check through the paperwork for a second time. “Money isn’t the enemy, Dean. Not everyone with it is out to get you, or to get one over on you. Pam Barnes is no megalomaniac, she knows her stuff and I really think she just wants to make a good show, not a freak-show. This isn’t The X-factor.” He was right, Dean was being paranoid. He couldn’t help it. All he knew of money was his own debts, and the way they hung over his head like a boiling cloud, threatening to break and ruin everything at any moment.

Part of Dean’s growing discomfort was more basic than that. The way some of the paying guests side-eyed the contestants, clutching their designer bags and briefcases close whenever the show folk happened to go by, as if old Mrs Lucas was about to pull a grab-and-run at the first opportunity. Then there was the flip side of it; the way the staff crept around. Always ready and waiting at your elbow to help you in every situation, even when you didn’t want them to (and Dean was perfectly capable of carrying his own bag, thank you very much). He couldn’t imagine what sort of person would want that sort of service, apart from Crowley of course, who seemed to enjoy it rather too much, the creepy fucker.

Across the room there was a gold-edged mirror that covered half the expanse of the wall. Dean’s reflection showed that he scrubbed up pretty well, though his collar, stiff and uncomfortable, rubbed against his throat. What he wouldn’t give to be wearing a good old-fashioned t-shirt.

“Make an effort,” Sam had told him. “First and last impressions are the ones that count the most.” No doubt that was something he’d been taught in lawyer school, and he shushed Dean’s arguments about how he didn’t give a crap about any of that. “You want to win don’t you?” Sam asked, serious all of a sudden.

“I thought I’d do that by, you know, baking,” Dean said and batted at Sam’s hands as he held up a nasty red tie in front of Dean’s chest.

“It’s still a show, Dean, and you need to get everyone on your side anyway you can. They aren’t going to want to hand the prize over to some scruffy grumpy asshole, this will be a popularity contest just as much as a test of your baking skills, whatever Pam says about it.”

Dean grumbled a quiet, “fine,” and fastened the top button on the tight-fitting shirt Sam had handed him, “but no ties.” Dean did not do ties. Eventually Sam got the message and threw the limp strip of cloth back into his case. Dean thought it would look better in the trash.

Among the white and gold of the function room, Dean wondered if Sam had the right idea when he’d put on a suit (much to Dean’s amusement. He hardly ever saw Sam in his other life, so Sammy in a suit would never not be hilarious). The other contestants had all made an effort, dressed in smart suits or cocktail dresses. He was annoyed for feeling that fleeting sense of self-consciousness, so instead of letting it fester, he lifted his head, winked at his reflection and let it go. He was who he was and he didn’t need to put on a disguise for anyone. The whole show could go to hell if they expected that of him. What did it matter if he didn’t own a suit or tie? He hardly needed one for work. Bobby would slap him round the head with one of his grubby trucker caps if Dean showed up at the auto shop in one, and Ellen would hit him twice as hard and laugh him all the way out the Roadhouse.

“Relax, Dean, you look fine,” said Sam, catching Dean winking at himself like an idiot.

“Damn right I do,” Dean crowed. He didn’t lack confidence in his appearance. He looked good and he knew it. No point in pretending he didn’t.

Pam was in the far corner holding court under a startlingly horrible work of art. God only knew what it was supposed to be. It looked like something Dean might find on the sidewalk outside the Roadhouse.

“I’m glad you asked...,” Pamela said, in reply to a question no one else had heard, her voice suddenly growing loud enough for everyone to hear. She nodded acknowledgements, as each little group broke off mid-conversation and turned their eyes in her direction. She kept her voice casual as though continuing her conversation rather than making an announcement. “Now, you all know we have one more cast member who wasn’t able to join us for the weekend. He’s very busy, and his work has kept him overseas until today. But I’m very pleased to tell you his assistant just called to say he’s back home and will be able to join us tonight after all.” She bounced in excitement, an amazing and dangerous feat considering her high-high heels.

“Who is it Pam?” Charlie called out.

“Yeah,” said Andy, just arrived and already holding a drink in each hand. “Can’t you just tell us? The mystery seems a bit over the top.”

“I think it’s better to wait and see,” Pam replied, dropping the pretence that the room was just overhearing a discussion instead of receiving important intel. “I know you’ll all stick to the confidentiality agreements you signed,” she said pointedly. “But better to be safe than sorry, and we don’t want any of your names appearing on those pesky social networks now do we? Not before we get the PR machine cranked up and working for us.” She put a hand on her hip and tapped her foot, looking like a teacher telling off a classroom of disruptive students. “And that means absolutely no tweeting or blogging about anyone or anything to do with the show, especially you Mrs Lucas,” she added, teasing the baffled old lady.  

Nervous anticipation filled the room as Pam stopped talking, her voice replaced by a buzz of speculation. None of it sounded very probable to Dean, and given how disproportionate Pam’s enthusiasm often was, he suspected it would come to nothing. Dean was in the process of saying as much to Jody (“tragic history, very tragic,” Pam had told him under her breath when she introduced them “the viewers are going to love her.”) when Pamela bustled back over, all broad white smiles. “My gorgeous mechanic and the lovely small-town sheriff, having a good time I hope?” Her cheeks were rosy from the champagne, eyes glittering and entirely too knowing as she grinned at them. “I just knew the two of you would get along famously, didn’t I tell you that?” she turned to Jody who was smiling tolerantly back at her.

“That you did, Pam,” Jody replied with a smile.

“Of course I did, and as you know I am never wrong. I know how to look after my ‘stars’ and how to keep them happy.” Dean smiled as Pam wiggled her fingers in the air. She was right, he’d give her that. It was an uncanny ability and no doubt useful in her line of work where predicting the changing tastes of the television-viewing public was essential. “This is a happy show after all isn’t it? Old fashioned skills, family values, competition, and a bit of human interest thrown in. It’s a winning...” she paused, and looked towards the doors which remained closed and uninteresting, as far as Dean could tell. “... formula,” she finished, at last. “And now we just need the icing on the cake,” she added in a whisper that only Dean heard.

The doors creaked in soft sighs as they opened, gilded scrolls and fleur-de-lis shining in the dimmed light. There was a moment of suspense before everyone fell silent then turned, as one, to stare. The new arrivals entered to find a room filled with gawping people, transfixed like the little green aliens from Toy Story, waiting for The Claw.

“That’s my cue,” Pam said. She threw a quick, “good luck sweeties,” in their direction and glanced at Dean on her way by. Then she was gone, swept off to meet-and-greet the ‘icing’. And an ill-tasting icing it turned out to be.

The first person to appear was a beautiful woman. Tall and elegant in a close fitting blue dress that showed off the gym-honed curves of her figure to great advantage (“body-con” Charlie muttered in appreciation. Dean had no idea what that meant, though the way she licked her lips as she said it made him think it was sex-thing). An abundance of well-styled hair tumbled in dark waves around her shoulders and down her back, it bounced as she greeted Pam with a warm hug. Her heels clacked on the wooden floor as she beckoned her companions forward and into the party, spikes sharp enough to pierce hearts.

A whistling intake of breath from Sam struck somewhere in the balance between shock and appreciation. If there was ever a time to make a smart-assed comment about a woman being out of Sam’s league this was definitely it. Dean was ready and willing to tease his brother but he didn’t get the chance. As her entourage followed, the chorus of gasps grew louder. The susurrus of hurried words increased as people whispered to each other behind their hands or looked on with astonished eyes. 

“What’s happening?” Dean asked, bemused by the reactions. Agitation spread through the room. It made the air feel odd, close, and heavy with expectation (though admittedly that might have been the heat from the two unnecessary fires burning in ornamental fireplaces on either side of the room). He was missing something here, something important, and he didn’t like it. A muscle in Dean’s jaw twitched as his irritation increased.

Sam started to laugh. “Oh my God, Dean,” he whispered, caught by the mood in the room. “Pam was right. This is huge.”

“What’s huge?” Dean looked back at the new arrivals. There were five people, three women and two men, each of them as elegant and well-turned out as the next. All of them, apart from the beautiful woman who was looking about with a friendly expression, looked unhappy about being there. The fact that people were unashamedly staring, as if they were a circus freak-show that had wandered in off the street, probably did not help.

“Dean, don’t you know who that is?” Sam grabbed his sleeve like an over excited kid.

“Should I?” Dean scanned the group again, double checking he wasn’t missing anything obvious, but no there was nothing. He didn’t recognise them. Though now Dean took the time to look he noticed that one of the guys was pretty damn fine as well. Jesus, where the hell did these guys come from? And could Dean go there on an extended vacation? There was a warm twist of sensation under Dean’s ribs. A bright spark of interest he hadn’t felt for anyone in a while, male or female. 

“Dean, do you never read a newspaper?” Sam’s voice was thick with disbelief. Dean could practically hear when Sam rolled his eyes in despair at his uninformed brother. “That’s Castiel Novak,” he hissed under his breath.

Dean blinked, blank faced, and uncomprehending. “And I’m supposed to know who that is because..?”

“Novak,” Sam repeated slowly, using his patented Dean’s-being-an-idiot-again voice. “As in the Novak Corporation... as in heir to the entire Novak family fortune. I think he owns a whole state.” Sam looked at Dean for some kind of recognition or response, but all he could do was shrug. Dean had no frigging clue what he was talking about. Why should he? What good would that sort of knowledge ever do Dean? Mega bucks and big companies were so far outside his experience it would be useless information. Well, up until this moment and who could ever have predicted that.

“He’s old money, Dean.” A dreamy far-away look was in Sam’s eyes, “lots and lots of very, old, money.” Sometimes Dean thought that law school had not done his little brother any favors. He half expected to hear a ca-ching! and see dollar signs in Sam’s eyes.

“Which one?” Dean asked, acting nonchalant as he pretended not to check out the solemn looking guy with the serious case of bed-head – artfully unruly in the studiedly casual way that moneyed people had. Dean didn’t mind. It was begging to be ruffled and pulled about for real – Dean licked his lips. “Which one is Novak, the older one or the good looking one?”  

Sam looked away from the lady in the blue dress and frowned. “The good looking...?” Sam’s eyes went wide as Dean grinned. Sam clearly recognised that look. “Dean, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but seriously, do not go messing with this guy,” he warned. “This competition is important for you, the last thing you need is to go causing trouble with one of the most powerful people on the east coast. Pam might think the sun shines out of your ass right now, Dean, but believe me, she’ll drop you from the show in a heartbeat if you so much as look at Novak. Leave him alone it’s not worth the risk.”

Dean pressed his hand over his heart, and looked up at his gargantuan brother in mock earnestness. “I promise I will not go messing with the rich folks.” He smirked and elbowed Sam in the ribs, “unless they want to be messed with. There will that do?” Dean asked innocently. Sam just tutted and looked away.

The more Dean looked, the more he saw the obvious wealth of these people. It was evident from their glossy hair, through the cut of their clothes, and down to the shine on their shoes. They wore it like armour, their backs straight and heads lifted high into the air; acting as an invisible barrier between them and the rest of the room, cordoning them off from the poor schmucks who could only goggle in envy. The contestants shrank back as if awed by their magnificence, and Dean noticed more than one person casting sad looks at their own attempts at glamour.

Pamela was, as usual, in her element and busy being introduced to the beautiful woman’s companions.

“That’s Sarah Blake,” Jody told them as she leaned in conspiratorially. “She’s been Novak’s advisor since forever, they go almost everywhere together.”

“Are they a couple?” Sam asked. He sounded a tad disappointed but it was a reasonable assumption, and Dean was no less keen to know the answer.

“Oh no, not that I ever heard,” Jody replied. Sam brightened immediately. “I think she’s been linked with a few people over the years – I think there might even have been an engagement at some point, but no, I’m sure they’re just friends.”

Dean poked his brother in the ribs none too gently. “Seriously, Sam, she’s way out of your league,” he finally got to say.

“I’ve seen pictures of Novak in the gossip magazines before but they really didn’t do him justice.” She blushed as she spoke, a side effect of the free cocktails most likely.

“Gossip magazines, Jody?” Dean teased. “I didn’t think you were the type.”

She cuffed him soundly on the back of the head. “How do you think I know this stuff smartass? Gossip is for everyone not just for teenagers.” She nodded as she spoke, as if imparting the wisdom of ages. “And don’t begrudge me my solace,” she added. “I get little enough news or scandal of my own these days, so I have to make do with everyone else’s. Why do you think I started talking to you on the first day?” She prodded his arm and Dean flinched. She was freakishly strong. “It’s because Pam promised me you’d be good value for gossip in the future, so there.”

“Well you shouldn’t have to wait too long for that,” Sam assured her. He laughed as he turned to Dean and gave him a good natured slap on the back. His big paws made Dean stumble forward as he grumbled some choice words. Jesus, what was with all the manhandling, had someone nominated him to be the resident punching-bag for the day or something? “I’m surprised you managed to get through the weekend without any incidents,” Sam said with a smirk. “Hey, do you remember that time in the motel with the pool, when you got locked out of the room without your clothes?”

“I remember it was because you stole them, you pervert, while I was busy helping out the lovely young lady on reception,” Dean teased back.

“Now something like that would definitely be worth gossiping about,” Jody said and clapped her hands together enthusiastically. “Maybe there could be photos too,” she mused her voice softly mocking.

“Hey, you want to see me naked honey, all you got to do is ask and I’ll throw the photos in for free.” Dean winked and Jody blushed. She looked younger as she laughed.

“Who’s seeing who naked?” A polite voice asked.

Dean, Sam, Jody, Charlie, and Andy, all turned at the same moment to find themselves looking at Sarah Blake. She was even more lovely close up, and Dean was sure he heard a girlish sigh from someone (Charlie or Sam – it was anyone’s guess which). There was an amused twist to her lips, but she was otherwise unabashed at the racy tone of their words. Novak stood a step behind her, also just as lovely close up, or perhaps even more so Dean thought as he caught the flash of dark blue eyes. But there the similarity ended. Novak’s expression was closed off and cold, quite different from Sarah’s. A frown drew a line down between his eyes, it was obvious he had heard the end of their conversation, and he had not found it funny.

Pam beamed as she introduced Novak, the last of her “wonderful and talented cast.” They greeted him warmly as Pam pointed them out to him, including Sam and the other plus-ones in her round of intros. She was nothing if not thorough in her efforts to put everyone at ease, but even her warmest compliments and salutations didn’t work on Mr Castiel Novak. He remained aloof throughout and as close to silent as his manners would allow.

“Pam told us you’ve been overseas. I hope you didn’t have too far to travel today?” Jody said.

“No. Not far,” was the meagre response.

Charlie tried to coax him with something more relevant. “How long have you been baking?”

All she got in return was two clipped words, “not long.”

Andy came up with the slightly-too-personal-but-very-Andy-like, “I’m surprised you’re not too busy for something like this, big businessman like you.”

“No. I have time,” Novak replied adding a small squint of confusion to his frown for that one.

And so it went.

Even Sam’s valiant attempt to engage Novak’s interest with business news, “investment in green tech” or something else as equally dull, fell as flat as the first soufflé Dean had ever attempted (and shit, they better not be doing soufflé on the show, he sucked at them big time).

After those failed attempts, Dean couldn’t think up anything more exciting to say than a friendly, “hey, how’s it going?”

Novak looked at him for a moment like he was expecting something more. When nothing happened he nodded but the frown didn’t move or change in the slightest. Then Pam was guiding him away and on to the next unfortunate group of contestants who were about to have all their hopes for a fun celebrity encounter dashed to pieces.

“Maybe he’ll chill out a bit later on,” said Andy, breaking open the discontented silence that had fallen. “Maybe he’s just shy and needs a bit of time to relax.” Then he grinned impishly. “Maybe I should bake him one of my special cakes.”

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” said Jody.

“Aw shit, sorry, forgot you were the law.” Andy shook his head.

Dean put an arm round his shoulders. “Don’t worry, Andy, if she arrests you, I’ll get Sam on the case.”

Despite being (allegedly) the best of friends, Sarah Blake was cast from a very different mould to Castiel Novak. They couldn’t have been more opposite in character. She was attentive, charming, and chatted casually with the other guests long after Castiel Novak had beat a hasty retreat back to his friends. The glamorous group occupied a prime position close to one of the ornamental fireplaces, from where they took every opportunity to cast disgruntled and dissatisfied looks at everything and everyone – it was quite a skill to look so thoroughly miserable in the middle of a party. Dean couldn’t help wondering if it had taken a lot of practise to perfect.

“They’re Sarah’s sisters,” Sam informed Dean nodding towards the two women currently failing to engage Novak in conversation. “The one with dark hair is called Meg, and the other is Hester – she prefers to be called Mrs Hurst, the other guy is her husband.” Sam had managed to trap Sarah in conversation for more than quarter of an hour. Dean had considered launching a rescue mission, but Jody stopped him with a hand on his arm, pointing out that Sarah didn’t seem to mind. She was right too, judging by Sarah’s smiles and the way she absently twisted her hair around her fingertips. Dean knew the tells. They’d been directed at him so often he could read them as if they’d been painted in letters ten feet tall.

The sisters talked to each other or to Novak; not that he gave them much more attention than anyone else in the room, despite their determined efforts to engage him. There didn’t seem to be any snide observation worth making that wasn’t made to Novak first and foremost. It was fascinating how they hung on to every response they pulled from him, triumph glinting in their beady little eyes, at each hard won word. You had to give them credit for persistence.

The brother-in-law was an unpleasant kind of guy. He got great enjoyment from running the female members of staff ragged. Dean watched them darting back and forth, from the bar, to the kitchen, to the party, and back again, catering to his every whim. They never seemed fast enough for his liking. Mr Hurst found it hilarious to send them scurrying, with frightened eyes, in fear for their jobs. He was a total dick. Dean had to force himself to look away or risk stepping in and causing a scene.

“He looks lonely,” Jody said, out of nowhere. Dean had to follow the direction of her gaze to see what she was talking about.

It turned out to be Castiel Novak, who in a rare moment had been left to fend for himself without the eager assistance of the ugly-sisters (they really weren’t ugly, it had to be said, but the name just fitted them so well that Dean couldn’t help using it).

“You should go and talk to him,” Jody smiled. “Handsome face like yours could cheer anyone up.” She snagged a couple of glasses of a champagne-cocktail from a passing waiter and handed Dean the drinks. “Take these, it might help him relax.”

“I don’t know, Jody.” Dean replied. “He looks more angry than lonely to me, doesn’t look much like he wants to talk to anyone.” The guy had a handsome face, for sure, but there was something off about him. Something that made Dean hesitate when he was normally all about jumping in feet first. It was probably something to do the money and a natural aversion to the blind privilege that came with it.

Jody flapped a dismissive hand at him waving Dean’s objections away. “Maybe he’s just shy?” she countered. “And anyway you’re not just anyone are you? You’re Pam’s pin-up, the working guy with a heart of gold,” she teased. He squirmed under the praise and snorted at the ‘heart of gold’ crap he knew Pam had been spreading about. He wasn’t anything special; if anything he was the opposite of special. “Everyone wants to talk to you; you’re the most handsome man in the room. Well...” she drawled before she added, with a nod towards Novak, “...apart from him perhaps.”

“Maybe he wouldn’t be so handsome if he wasn’t so rich?” Dean snarked right back. “I’ll bet those millions can buy a lot of nose jobs and hair plugs.”

“Millions?” Jody goggled. “You really don’t read the papers do you?” He shrugged. She put her mouth close to his ear and whispered. “His family’s fortune is in the billions, Dean. Multiple billions if you count the company’s value as well.”

“Shit,” said Dean. “Forget the hair-plugs; with that kind of money you could probably get a full body transplant or something.”

He considered it for a moment. He didn’t give a shit about the money. If anything it was a negative in Dean’s book, but the guy was attractive and no one could say Dean Winchester wasn’t up for a challenge.

“Does he like guys then?” he asked eventually. “Have your gossip magazines told you that?”

Jody looked pleased, or maybe just drunk, and she did a weird little shoulder dance of joy at Dean’s change of heart. “I have absolutely no idea,” she said. “But you know, I’m only suggesting you go talk to him, Dean. I’m not telling you to jump his bones right here and now. And anyway...”, she giggled looking impish, fine lines crinkling the corners of her eyes. “I think Pam would murder you if you did something as juicy as that without the cameras rolling.”

Dean let his gaze drift back to Novak. He was sitting completely still, statue-like, save for the telltale twitch of his fingers which bounced up and down against his thigh in agitation. The guy really did look pathetic, all alone, while people sneaked peeks at him from every corner of the room and gossiped about what a disappointment he’d turned out to be.

“Maybe you should go and speak to him yourself, Jody?” Dean grinned. “You’re a fine looking woman, maybe you could cheer him up, and he might like you more than me.” He meant it but it was also a ploy. A last chance to get out of something he knew, deep down, was stupid – but then Dean was full of stupid ideas, as Sam reminded him daily.

She blushed and shushed him, embarrassed by the attention. “Flatterer,” she said giving him a light slap. “I don’t think it would do me much good to think things like that,” she said tartly. “At my age it’s only likely to end in disappointment.”

“Don’t put yourself down, Jody. I would make a play for you myself if you’d shown the slightest interest.” Dean pressed a kiss to the top of her head to emphasise the point.

“Don’t you try and sweet-talk me, Dean Winchester, and don’t change the subject.” She crossed her arms, lifted her head, and suddenly Dean was aware that he was sassing a sheriff (albeit one that was wearing a cocktail dress and not a uniform). “Now get going, and cheer that boy up.” She nodded in the direction of Novak, who seemed to be doing a first rate impression of an item of furniture.

Novak was hot; there was no denying it, even if it was in a cool and aloof way. And hell, the drinks were flowing freely (literally). The buzz of excitement was building again, whether that was due to a renewed enthusiasm for the show or just plain old fashioned drunkenness was anyone’s guess, and it vibrated in the atmosphere like an electric charge. They were stuck here for one last night, and so, Dean thought, why not make the most of it? Maybe this Novak guy just needed someone to ruffle his feathers, and Dean was a charitable fellow. Why the heck not?

Decision made, Dean gave Jody a hopeful look, pasted on his most charming smile, one that flashed just the right amount of teeth, and sauntered over. He didn’t plan his approach. He’d never needed to before, and Dean had no idea what was going to come out of his mouth until he opened it, and... "So what's a guy like you doing in a show like this?” came out. Dean winced. Jesus Christ that was a bad line. Definitely not up to his usual standard. It must be the alcohol; he’d never had champagne before – maybe the bubbles made it stronger? He shook his head in surprise and tried to get rid of the sudden prickle of heat in his face.

"Excuse me?" Novak turned slowly in his seat, and tilted his head back to look up at Dean through eyes drawn tight, like little commas.

Dean held up his hands in surrender. "Relax man it was just a joke; just a very bad joke. But seriously, you look like you'd rather be anywhere but here right now so..."

"No,” Novak interrupted. The word was sudden, firmly spoken, and it made Dean lose his train of thought. He opened his mouth, but the words disintegrated on his tongue before he could push them out. “I'm perfectly fine. Thank you for your concern." Novak turned away, his eyes fixing on the fireplace at his side, where blue flames flickered pointlessly among the coals.

Novak’s tone was not so much offensive as indifferent. It wasn’t a reaction Dean was used to, and it needled at him to be dismissed so casually. Instead of turning on his heels like most people would, and with hindsight like he should have, Dean felt a perverse delight in slowly and deliberately sitting down next to Novak, just to find out what he would do.

What he did was freeze. Dean held out one of the cocktails putting the fluted glass as close as possible to Novak’s face. “You want one of these? I don’t know much about wine and fancy stuff like that, but this is pretty good.” He waggled the drink in the air and Novak jerked his head back to frown at Dean and the proffered glass. Looking mildly confused he accepted the drink. Dean considered it something of a triumph and raised his cocktail in friendly camaraderie, only for Novak to ignore him and put his own down on a table nearby, untasted.

“Have we been introduced?” Novak asked, giving Dean his full attention in the form of a deep-blue glare. “I don’t recall. My name is Castiel Novak, and you are?"

“Dean,” he said, responding on auto-pilot, while he tried and failed to work out if that was supposed to be a joke. If not then it must be an insult. They’d been introduced less than two hours ago. There was no way he could have forgotten. Was there?

Novak waited with a hand outstretched. Dean took it for a firm but perfunctory handshake. Novak’s skin was warm, really warm. He dropped Dean’s hand as fast as possible as if it stung to touch him. Novak sighed, with a puff of warm air, as if he was resigned to being always surrounded by idiots.

“And what is your family name, Dean?” He asked, managing to sound both irritated and bored.

“Winchester,” Dean replied, thrown by the solemnity of the question. “My name’s Dean Winchester.” He took a deep breath, and decided to press on, choosing to ignore the deepening crease between Novak’s brows.

“So how did you get involved with the show, Castiel? You don’t look like your average baker; a banker maybe, but not a baker,” Dean laughed. Castiel did not.

“And what exactly do you think a baker should look like, Mr Winchester?” Castiel asked. His voice was a low vibration between them; each word spoken with careful precision rang in Dean’s ears like a bell.

Dean was lost, wandering in unknown territory with no sign of rescue on the horizon. “I don’t know,” he admitted as he struggled to find familiar ground. “It was a joke. I suppose I just meant you know...” Dean tipped his head to the side and let his gaze slip down over Novak’s body, before lifting it again to meet his eyes. “You don’t exactly look like you eat a lot of cake.”

Novak did not react. There was no hint as to whether the compliment had hit home, or missed its target by a country-mile. Novak gave Dean a squinting look of appraisal and Dean felt pinned, exposed somehow.

“Neither do you,” Novak said after an uncomfortably long pause. Was Novak returning the compliment? Dean could not figure it out. There was nothing in Novak’s empty look, nothing in his voice or the oddly formal and dusty delivery, to give him a clue.

“Well,” Dean smirked. Fuck it he thought, in for a penny in for a pound. “I do like putting things in my mouth but the trick is... I only swallow if it’s really good.” When in doubt go for a bad innuendo, that was Dean’s motto – actually he didn’t have a motto, and if he did that still wouldn’t be it.

There was silence. Novak didn’t move and Dean couldn’t breathe. The space between stretched out, into a vast emptiness where tumbleweeds rolled and eagles screamed their loneliness in cloudless skies. Well done Dean.

“I should go and find my friends,” was all Novak had to say. He stood up quickly, a knee knocking against Dean’s thigh in his haste to get away. There was a hard edged politeness in Novak’s voice when he spoke again, his displeasure betrayed only by the clench of his fingers as they curled into loose fists at his side. “Good luck in the competition, Mr Winchester,” he said keeping his eyes averted. He walked away, dragging the scent of warm sugar and cinnamon with him – Dean had wondered where that was coming from. The drink Dean had given him was left untouched and forgotten on the table. He swiped it and gulped it down, even though the bubbles tickled his throat and made him cough. Whether it was a weak revenge for the rejection, or to cover up the suspicion of embarrassment in his heated cheeks, Dean couldn’t say.   

Getting the brush-off was not a common occurrence in the world of Dean Winchester, and he sat there for a minute or two while it sank in. Screw Castiel Novak, or don’t screw him, whatever; it was Novak’s loss. Dean wasn’t desperate for anyone’s attention or approval, least of all someone who could barely stoop low enough to talk to the ordinary folk. He’d been willing to give Novak the benefit of the doubt, judge him on his own merit, but clearly he was just another rich asshole doing exactly what he wanted without a thought for anything else. As the idea took hold it soothed the burn of Dean’s wounded pride.

“That looked like it didn’t go too well, sorry, Dean.” Jody’s face was a picture of guilt. “I shouldn’t have been meddling like that. I am really sorry.”  

He shrugged it off. “Nah, its fine. I’m a big boy I don’t need to blame anyone else for my bad decisions.”

“So, Castiel? Nice crust, shame about the filling, huh?” The joke was half hearted. “I’m sure he’ll realise he’s made a mistake,” she said, offering comfort Dean did not need. “And when he does, just imagine how much fun you’ll have shooting him down.”

“I wouldn’t worry, Dean.” Charlie joined the conversation; apparently all his friends had seen his epic fail. Great, that was just great. At least Sam had wandered off somewhere, so Dean didn’t have to hear his take on it as well. “Novak has already pissed off nearly everyone. I was over there making nice with the cocoon crowd.” She waved a hand towards a gaggle of grannies. “And they were pretty darn fierce about how rude he was. He flat out refused to answer their questions, then walked off without saying a word. They’ve decided they aren’t going to talk to him again, not even to give him advice during the competition.”

“And that there’s fighting talk,” Andy added, “coming from the golden oldies.”

“We don’t need to worry about him.” Charlie hooked one arm round Dean’s shoulders and the other around Jody’s and pulled them in for a good hard squeeze. “So what if he thinks he’s too good for the likes of us, we don’t need him.”

Andy looked annoyed at being left out of the huddle, and grumbled under his breath, until Jody grabbed his arm and pulled him in to join what was rapidly becoming a soppy sports-movie style group-hug.

“We better stop this or people will talk,” Andy said wiggling his eyebrows as they disengaged and moved apart. “I heard that Pam just got Novak on the show for the ratings, and...” Andy’s eyes moved from right to left and back again, checking to make sure no one else was listening, in the most exaggerated and obvious way possible. “...don’t quote me on this,” he said, “but I also heard that Novak didn’t audition, so no one on the crew knows if he can even cook. They just had to take his word for it.”

“Oh, that could be bad.” Charlie’s eyes shone impishly beneath her red bangs, “total bake-fail.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Jody said, but a small crease of concern wrinkled her forehead. “I don’t suppose he has much reason to cook for himself. Rich people have personal chefs that travel with them don’t they? Maybe he’ll be off the show quickly.” She sounded relived at the idea.

Andy scoffed. “I don’t think anyone will be sorry if he makes a total ass of himself. Actually I’m looking forward to it now.”

“However long he sticks around for,” Charlie said, looking at Dean with sympathy. “If... no, when he realises what a catch you are and comes looking for a hook-up, just give him a look like ‘whatever dude’,” she said, holding up a hand like a stop sign. “Then walk away, don’t say a word more.”

Dean smiled at their efforts to cheer him up, but the slight was imaginary and the reassurances not needed. Dean didn’t care about Castiel Novak and he was equally sure that Castiel Novak didn’t care about him. As the smart of the initial rejection faded, Dean began to feel relieved, like he’d had a lucky escape.

“Thanks guys,” Dean said, and meant it; they really were only trying to help. “But don’t worry; I’m pretty sure I can promise you I’ll never speak to Novak again.”  

“It’s a shame though,” Jody said. “It would make things much easier for Sam if you and Novak could get along.”

“Huh? What’s it got to do with Sam?” Dean asked.

With a nod Jody directed Dean’s attention towards an adjoining room. The door was ajar, just a crack, just enough to see inside.  “Look,” she said, and he did as he was told.

Sam was sitting close to Sarah Blake, very close. Their heads dipped towards each other, bodies leaning, curving in and mirroring one another. Shy smiles decorated their faces, and he could hear gentle laugher, if not the words that caused it. Dean watched, just for a moment, and even from a distance he could see there were stars in Sam’s eyes.

“It’s so cute.” There was a faraway look in Charlie’s eyes. “And that girl is so very fine,” she sighed.

Andy murmured his agreement. “Better hope Novak doesn’t see,” he added. “I doubt he’d approve of his bestest friend talking to a peasant.”

Charlie choked on a mouthful of her cocktail (whatever the hell that was – it was blue and green and looked like every witches brew Dean had imagined as a kid). “He’s hardly a peasant. Dean, isn’t your brother a lawyer?”

“Sure is.” Dean’s chest filled with the usual burst of pride. “Just finished law school a few months back. He’s working while he waits to take the bar exam.”

“Most lawyers do pretty well for themselves.” Charlie had a point. “So I don’t think he quite qualifies as a peasant. I don’t think Novak will be so revolted by the idea.”

Sam already had some well-to-do friends and had always fitted easily into that world. It was a world that Dean would never understand; where people didn’t need to scrub dirt from under their fingernails at the end of the day. Money could be dirty but it was a different kind of dirt, the sort that left clean hands but blackened the soul. Sam and Sarah might not be the biggest disaster of all time – maybe just a small-scale one, localised, like a burst water-main rather than a biblical flood.

The through-the-door peep show was abruptly cancelled when Sam looked over his shoulder to discover he had acquired his very own cheer squad. He walked over with a serious case of stop-being-an-f’ing-creeper-Dean face, and closed the door without a word. Nice one Sammy, Dean thought and left him to it.

Novak and Sarah’s not-so-lovely sisters kept to themselves for the rest of the night. They took over a small conservatory – romantically lit with dozens of flickering lights or it had been, until Novak’s group complained about the dim light and the smell of melted wax – and they stayed there, ignored by everyone except those with enough fortitude (or fortune) to brave the icy stares and cold condescension of their clique. Pam was unfazed. No surprise there. And Crowley was apparently deemed suitable company. He turned up late. Stayed in the main function room just long enough to soak up all the flattery he could bear (and he could bear quite a lot). Then disappeared into the conservatory where, Dean was reliably informed, he talked the ear off an exceedingly unimpressed Castiel.  

Guests started to drift away as the night wore on; tired from the weekend and the cocktails, they went in search of their beds. Pam did a final round, thanking everyone for being there, wishing them well for the competition, and making grand predictions about the success of the show. Each farewell punctuated with air kisses and affectionate hugs. Sam was still missing-in-action when Dean and his friends relocated to the hotel bar, taking a table tucked into one corner while they indulged in a nightcap.

Jody, Charlie, and even Andy, soon admitted defeat and stumbled back to their rooms, leaving Dean to wait for Sam alone. Even Pam finally turned in for the night; looking at him, as she passed by, with a strange apologetic expression, then kissing the tips of her fingers and wiggling them at him in a silent farewell.

Dean swirled the liquid in his glass, it clung and patterned down the sides of the tumbler before settling. Sixteen year old Lagavulin, two fingers, straight-up; now that was something he could get used to.  A quality whiskey for once, peaty and fierce, nothing like the gut-rot Bobby kept in his office for birthdays and emergencies.

He was just beginning to consider the possibility that Sam had slipped past him, in some cunning plan to escape Dean’s jokes about his new lady-friend, when he noticed the voices. Warm, sleepy, and skirting along the edge of drunkenness as he was, the sounds at first were indistinct, merged into the bustle of activity as the hotel staff cleared away evidence of the evening’s festivities.

“... hardly spoke three words to anyone.”

It was the increase in volume that finally broke through Dean’s reverie. He could just about make out the shapes of two people through a stained-glass door that had been propped open, by some helpful person, in an effort to speed the to-and-fro of quick footed workers. The open door partially concealed Dean’s table, sectioned it off, forming a barrier between him and the rest of the bar. The people talking would have no idea Dean was there and privy to every word they said.

It was none of Dean’s business. He could have ignored it. He should have ignored it. The instinct for caution came too late; he’d recognised Sarah’s voice, and it wasn’t exactly a huge leap to figure out who her partner was.

“That’s not true.” Castiel Novak’s voice rumbled.

“Oh really, Castiel?” Beyond the coloured glass Sarah raised her hand to rest on her hip, elbow angled out and as pointed as her words. Her pose shouted ‘pissed-off’ louder than her voice ever could. “So not including Meg and Hester, who exactly did you do all this talking to? Who are these people you’ve been charming and chatting-up? Give me names Castiel, names, or I won’t believe you.”

“I don’t need to justify myself to you or anyone else.” Dean could almost feel the ice in Novak’s voice through the door; he half expected to see the spider web pattern of frost beginning to creep over the glass, or see his breath cloud the air as the temperature plummeted.

“Ah-ha! I knew it.” Sarah’s retort was triumphant in the silence that followed.

“I talked to Pam.”

“Pam doesn’t count. She was hosting this shindig and she talks to everyone.” Extra kudos points to the lady for using the word ‘shindig.’

“Well there’s Crowley, I talked to him for a while.” He didn’t sound happy about it, but Dean hadn’t heard him sound happy, period, so who knew what Castiel Novak was feeling. Perhaps he was turning cartwheels on the inside.

“Not that dreadful little man,” Sarah replied, and made an unpleasant gagging noise for emphasis. “I’ll bet he only talked about business. You know he’s been haranguing me about a deal on a new product line. No. Sorry, Castiel, but that doesn’t count at all. Name one other person that you met tonight?” She challenged.

Novak made no response.

Dean felt a swooping sensation in his stomach. As he realised he might be about to overhear something he’d rather not know, from someone he was, potentially, going to have to play nice with for the next few months. He fidgeted in his seat, made uncomfortable by the whole sorry situation. It wasn’t like he’d snuck up to listen on purpose though was it, and to stand up and make his presence known now, well that was just going to be all kinds of awkward.

“Oh, Castiel,” she sounded frustrated, like this was an old conversation, the same old ground being trodden yet again. “Can’t you ever relax? Even just a tiny little bit? This was supposed to be fun wasn’t it? I don’t understand why you can’t give people a chance; you might be pleasantly surprised if you do.”

Novak’s near growl of disapproval sent a shiver skittering over Dean’s skin (and what the hell was that about?).

“Give people a chance to what?” he asked.

“A chance to get to know you like your friends do,” she said, her voice soft as she reached out to squeeze her fingers around Castiel’s hand.

“You know perfectly well that I hate these sorts of events,” he grumbled. “It’s nothing but forced small-talk, false compliments, and people whispering about you behind your back like bad mannered children.” His voice sounded so annoyed it was funny, like he was an eighty-year-old guy pissed off at the world at large. “I’m tired Sarah,” Novak went on. “Just let me be and go back to your friend; you’re wasting your time with me.”

“He’s lovely isn’t he?” She gushed. “He’s just finished law school and he’s working at a small firm in L.A. I think he could go far.”

“Well I’m glad you’re having fun, Sarah,” said Novak. To Dean’s ears the words lacked any kind of sincerity. Nice way to treat your best friend. “But I beg you; please stop harassing me about my social-life.”

“What social life, Castiel? Please enlighten me as to when you’ve been doing all this socialising without me noticing.”

There was an exasperated sigh. “There’s nothing you can do about it tonight is there,” he said. His voice getting harder, louder, the more Sarah pressed the point. “Your sisters have left, I’m tired, and you know it would have been a punishment for me to talk to any other person in that room.”

Unseen, Dean shook his head and curled his lip into a sneer. Wow that was just... wow. With that little speech Mr Castiel Novak had moved himself from the “bit of a douchbag” category, right past “arrogant asshat,” and straight into “total asshole” territory. No matter how dreamy-blue his eyes were, how kicking his body might be under those tailored clothes, or how big his bank balance was, underneath it all the guy was just another rich asshole and ugly as sin.

“Good God, Castiel,” Sarah cried. “I wouldn’t be as critical as you for anything in the world. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with you. I never met so many pleasant people in my life and if you just tried to talk to some of them, I’m sure you’d agree.”

“You were talking to the only half-intelligent person in the room.” It was a weirdly insulting compliment to Sam and spoke thick dusty volumes about Novak’s opinion of the rest of the Bake-Off gang. “He showed good taste and ambition in singling you out, if nothing else,” he conceded.

“Grudging praise if ever I heard it.” She was offended, her words clipped and short. “If only everyone could find such favour with you,” she said, voice thick with sarcasm. “What about Sam’s brother?” She asked out of the blue.

Dean froze with his glass raised half-way to his lips. He didn’t care to hear Novak’s opinion. He should have made himself scarce when he’d first thought of it but the opportunity for escape was long gone.

“I saw you talking to him, to Dean? He seems like a great guy from what Sam told me. Handsome too which a man ought to be if he possibly can, and he’s single...” The way she said it, lingering suggestively on the last few words, was enough to put to bed any questions about whether Novak liked guys or not. It was way too late for Dean to give a crap. What a waste.

“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” was the reply. Dean nearly choked on a mouthful of liquor. Was Novak stoned or something? How many times did they have to be introduced before he remembered Dean’s name – it wasn’t even a hard name and he’d managed to remember Sam’s.

“Then I think you need to pay better attention,” Sarah chastened. “Dean is Sam’s older brother, Dean Winchester – he’s one of the contestants – and I saw you talking to him, Castiel, don’t even bother trying to deny it.”

There was an audible sigh from behind the patterned glass. “Sarah, I’m here to take part in a competition. You said it would be good for me to take part and good PR for the company. I’m not here to give my attention, or anything else,” he said pointedly, “to some ignorant foul-mouthed hustler who’s just out to make a quick buck, and who we all know is only here because he has a pretty face and Pam thinks his ass will look good on camera in a pair of tight jeans. She as good as told me that herself.”

Dean huffed in surprise. He could believe Novak’s bad opinion of him, however uncalled for, but Pam too..?

“I doubt she told you anything of the sort,” Sarah protested, “and stop being melodramatic, Castiel.” Dean wanted to kiss her, but he’d leave Sam to do that, in the mean time he’d take her word over Novak’s on pretty much anything.

“Please leave me alone, Sarah, this isn’t achieving anything,” he sounded so put upon; Dean might have felt sorry for him in any other situation.

There was muttering. Something along the lines of, “I give up,” and “please yourself then,” and Sarah disappeared from behind the stained glass as she walked away.

After a moment Novak also moved; heading into the bar and straight for Dean’s table. Dean deliberately looked up taking a perverse pleasure in tracking the exact moment Novak realised he was there. Novak’s step faltered. Surprise flickered across his face chased by the tiniest hint of embarrassment. Novak’s jaw tightened as he gave Dean an imperious stare. It was a look that challenged, as if to say that somehow, Dean was the one in the wrong.

And, because Dean found it entirely too easy to be a smug ass when the occasion called for it, he raised his glass to Novak in salute and downed the rest of his drink in one go. He stood, turned to leave and made damn sure to bump into Castiel’s shoulder, non too gently, on his way out.

Castiel said nothing. He just stood there, glowering and ridiculous, and Dean laughed, loud and unashamed, all the way back to his room. 

Castiel Novak was an unbelievable asshole.        


* * * * * * *


Right now...

“Come on people, chop-chop.” Crowley yells from the doorway.

It brings Dean back into the moment with a jolt. Crowley claps his hands together, once, twice, three times. It’s loud, and surprising, and some of the contestants flinch at the sound. Around the room eyes snap up and look to the source of the commotion, shocked out of their baking-induced stupors.

“You’re on the clock,” he shouts and follows it with a sneer. “Don’t stand around navel gazing. Get working on those pies, and put some energy into it, we’ve got a show to sell.”

He disappears through a door; a wiggling-wave of his fingers trails behind, leaving an anxious bunch of competitors in his wake. Typical Crowley; wind them up and let them go, then wait and see what happens. Every reality show needs a villain. A professional level bad-guy to pick on defenceless members of the public who dare put themselves forward – and Crowley is a real Disney-style villain, ready at the drop of a hat to make the sweetest old lady cry at the hint of a ‘soggy bottom’ on a bake. At least Missouri was there to counteract Crowley’s posturing. She was no push-over, but her comments were constructive, not cruel, and she gave praise where it was due.

Dean looks down at the bulbous lump of fat growing slippery in his hand. It’s still cool from the refrigerator, which is a bonus, but he has no idea what the overpriced crap will taste like in his pie – though he, the judges, and, if Pam’s predictions are anything to go by, a large slice of the viewing public, will find out soon enough.

Movement in the corner of Dean’s eye grabs his attention as he prepares to knuckle down again and get this bake underway. He catches a flash of blue as Novak glances at Dean over his shoulder, his face blank but his eyes hard like stones.  If looks could kill, Dean would be six-feet under right now. It falls quiet in the marquee and Novak’s tut of disapproval as he turns away is clear. Whatever dude, Dean’s grateful for the help, that doesn’t mean he has to like the guy for it.

Two minutes later and Dean is too busy, too engrossed, in the creation of pie to worry about anything else. The whole butter fiasco is forgotten. It goes better than expected and Dean pulls a more-or-less, perfectly formed, golden crusted apple-pie from the oven. Just in time as the clock at the front of the tent counts down the last few seconds to zero. It smells like sugary-heaven and, as it turns out, tastes divine.

“Honey you better take this away from me right now before I eat more than I should,” Missouri says, all smiles. She wipes crumbs from her lips with the folded square of a white napkin. “It’s very good, very good indeed.” Dean lets out a heavy breath, one he hadn’t realised he was holding, and thanks her for the compliment. “It’s nothing of the kind, honey. I don’t say a thing unless I mean it and this,” she says gesturing to what’s left of Dean’s pie after Crowley all but autopsied it seeking, and failing, to find something to criticise. “This is one of the best things I’ve tasted in months. It’s simple and honest and I like that.” She cocks her head to the side and examines his face as if looking for something. Then hums gently and nods when she apparently finds it. “You cook from the heart young man. Keep this up and we’ll see you go a long way in this competition.”

“It’s good for what it is,” Crowley starts, picking up the instant Missouri stops speaking. “Good bake,” he grudgingly admits, upending a slice and taping his fingers against the base. “The filling tastes good. But, Dean, don’t you think plain old apple-pie is little on the dull side for the final bake of the day? This is supposed to be a showstopper,” he complains. “A celebration of the best of baking. You’re supposed to wow us. How does this show off your skills, Dean? Missouri’s right, looks like you’ve got some natural ability, but you’re going to have to up your game if you want to be a serious contender in this competition.”

Dean nods a bland acknowledgement. He knows the cameras are waiting to capture his reaction so he tries to stay blank-faced, as still as possible, as if he’s doing an impression of Castiel. Then his moment in the judges’ spotlight ends and they move on to the next competitor. Dean breathes a sigh of relief as the cameras roll by and takes the opportunity to scratch vigorously at his nose; the irritating side effect of so much flour floating in the oven-warmed air. He’ll be able to escape back to Lawrence in a few hours. Get back to the real world. He can’t wait. He needs the feel of engine grease on his hands instead of globs of batter.  He needs to feel normal. The contest is a hope, a wish with no more substance than a puff of air, and he needs solid ground beneath his feet in case it all comes to nothing.

“Now this, this is something special,” Crowley crows as he stops in front of Novak and his fancy key lime and ginger pie. It’s perfect, apparently, and Crowley goes into such ecstasies Dean wonders if the footage is going to be suitable for network TV – or if they should all leave so Crowley can have some alone time with the “best thing he’s had in his mouth in years.” Even Novak manages to look a little nauseated by that. Though he maintains his scowl even as he nods and thanks the judges for their kind words about his ‘work’ – what kind of asshat calls baking ‘work’?

Dean can’t stop himself rolling his eyes. Then remembers, for the two hundredth time that day, they’re being filmed. Sure enough when he looks up there’s a camera and it’s pointing straight at him. That’s just great he thinks; just perfect. That’s really going to help him and Novak to get along while they are forced to be in each other’s company.

Pam puts on shows, little rough-cuts, in the short breaks between challenges. “To give you a feel for what the final product will look like,” she says. It’s more like a chance to show them at their worst, when they are most stressed, and their actions are most unguarded.

On second thoughts, Dean can’t really imagine Novak sitting down to watch any of that. He hasn’t so far, instead spending his breaks away from the others, on the phone, or just sitting quiet and alone. Dean’s probably safe from stirring up any more trouble for himself for the time being. The show won’t be broadcast until after the shoot is completed, and by then Dean will be back home and well beyond the reach of any backlash from the likes of Castiel Novak.

Missouri announces that the winner of the first round is “Jody Mills, for her spectacular flavour combinations and consistency across the three challenges.” There are exclamations of surprise. Not that you’d know that from all the hugs and kisses and stage-whispered confessions of “I knew you’d win,” and “you deserve it.” Not that Jody’s baking wasn’t great you understand, it was (though Dean will never be ok with putting rosemary in a fruit pie), but everyone expected Castiel to win after the fuss that Crowley made. Thank God for Missouri.

One of the golden oldies gets the chop. Dean didn’t have much to do with the false-teeth crowd so he makes the same sympathetic noises as everyone else (and kind of hates himself for going along with it), as she dabs at the corner of her eye with a lacy handkerchief. Really they’re all just relieved it wasn’t them.

He’s sure there are some people, no names mentioned (Castiel Novak), who expected Dean to be the first one out.  He hopes they are seriously disappointed to discover that Dean really is good at baking. The prize money is a big deal for him, and no matter how reluctant Dean might have been to get involved, he’s here because he’s in it to win it, unlike certain self-important rich-guys playing about on the show for PR shits and giggles.

“So that’s it my lovelies, the end of the first round,” Pam says as she strides into the marquee. In the glare of the overhead lights her lip lacquer shines a deep dramatic red. If it trickled down her chin she’d look like a well fed vampire. “Congratulations, Jody, on being our first winner-of-the-week and commiserations to you Ms Perkins. We’re sorry to lose you – you’ve been an absolute star!” There’s a small round of applause and people hug it out with the old dear, dropping platitudes about how it should have been them, not her, going home – rubbish really, she messed up badly in the technical challenge.

“You poor sods,” had been Crowley’s helpful statement after setting them loose to make hand-raised hot water crust pies. All their efforts had been pretty disastrous but poor old Ms Perkins effort was an inedible pile of undercooked mush. The judges hadn’t even dared to try it.

“Round two is in two weeks, and the theme is cakes, so I’ll see you all in Virginia. Good luck with your preparations and don’t forget to submit your ingredient lists in plenty of time.” Pam puts her hand to her mouth and blows a kiss to the whole room as a goodbye.

Two weeks. Two weeks until the next round. If he wants to win, Dean has to use that time to study, to practise, and to put in his order for ingredients. Scratch that; his over-order for ingredients. He won’t be making the same mistake again. He harrumphs quietly to himself as the contestants filter out of the tent and make their way back over to the hotel -- so much for getting away from the show and back to his real life. 

Novak cuts a lonely figure as he heads in the opposite direction, moving towards his car. It’s big, black, and shiny, and it’s waiting with the engine running so Novak can make his escape extra fast. He didn’t stay at the hotel with the other contestants. It probably wasn’t good enough. Not up to his exacting standards – the standards that let him make perfect key lime pie and harshly judge a person’s character. Dean can’t even imagine how desperate Novak must be to get away from the other contestants; vulgar people like Dean; the insignificant little people of the world that Novak would never willingly spend time with. The driver opens the door and Castiel is swallowed up by the trappings of his rich-guy life. He must be breathing a sigh of relief right about now.

Dean’s just glad that Novak is gone. He only has to see him during the shoot – just the odd day every few weeks. Yeah, Dean can handle that. He’s not a child, and he isn’t (usually) an irrational person, he can keep a lid on his dislike of Novak, keep it sealed up and away from prying eyes long enough to make it through the summer. So long as it isn’t any more than the odd day everything should be fine.