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Castiel stares at the words on the pages of the open book in his lap. He hasn’t read a single letter since he opened it twenty minutes ago and he doubts that he’s going to flip the page any time soon. Even if he’s heard the presentation a hundred times over by now, he still can’t help listening to it. If he wanted to, he could mouth along or even give it himself if only they asked.

Mr. Adler, the man on the stage, isn’t even one of the Caretakers. He’s the bureaucrat in charge of running this Center. Castiel wonders if he’s ever even seen another Familiar aside from the rat curled comfortably on his shoulder, watching the crowd of children with its beady little eyes. He doesn’t have anything against rat Familiars. Castiel just doesn’t like Mr. Adler or the smug way he recites the presentation as if he’s so much better than everyone else just because he’s the head of the Center.

“We all know that Familiars will be the closest to you. Your bond with a Familiar will transcend family, friends, and even your future husband or wife. A Familiar becomes a part of you, and you a part of them.” Mr. Adler’s dull tone rolls across the auditorium and it’s clear to everyone that he doesn’t care about the topic. It makes Castiel feel bad for his Familiar. “Now, can anyone tell me why Witches need Familiars and why they need us?”

Immediately Castiel slides a little further down in his chair for what little good it does him. No one else in the audience is as tall as he is. It’s the downside of being almost twice the age of everyone present, aside from the chaperones sitting along the walls and the Caretakers standing by the entrances. You’d think, after coming here for over ten years, they would let him pass on the hour long presentation about the history of magic and Familiars.

A half dozen hands shoot into the air, waving wildly as Mr. Adler squints out at them. He picks a girl in the front row. She looks like one of the younger ones – probably eight years old, maybe nine. Castiel lost the ability to tell the difference between them a few years ago. Once you’re considered an adult, everyone younger than you kind of all look the same age until a certain point.

The little girl stands, clears her throat and recites a response as if she was reading it from a textbook. She probably did memorize it. At age eight, there are whole classes in school devoted to training students to be ready for this day.

“Familiars help to regulate a Witch’s magic. Our magic cycles through a Familiar, keeping our powers from wearing themselves out while keeping the Familiar’s natural magic fresh too. Without being bonded to a Witch, a Familiar’s magic will run out by the age of twenty-one and they will lose their humanity and the ability to transform. Without a bond, a Familiar will return to nature as an animal.”

“Very good.” Mr. Adler applauds her and the rest of the auditorium copies him as she sits down. “Which is exactly why we have these Centers. Here, we breed Familiars for every little good Witch boy and Witch girl. And now that you know the history behind it, I’m going to call Miss Milton to the stage to explain what’s going to happen.”

Castiel likes Anna much more than he does Mr. Adler. She’s nicer and has never once made him feel bad for being an unbonded Witch at the age of nineteen. Mr. Adler always makes a point of running into him before the presentation to point out that he’s come ‘yet again’ – as if Castiel had any choice. It’s law. If Castiel had his way, he would have given up trying to find a Familiar years ago. After three Choosings a year since he turned eight, it’s kind of hard to hold out any hope that a Familiar is going to pick him now.

Anna’s red hair catches in the stage lights and her wolf, Uriel, padding at her heels gets a chorus of ‘oooo’s from the children. Castiel tilts his head back and looks at the ceiling, only half listening to her explanation about how the Choosing process works.

“Our first step today is to introduce you to the breeds of Familiar we have available. We’ll be moving to the outdoor track for that. There you’ll have a chance to see the different breeds and what they can do.” Anna’s explanations are always clear and concise. Castiel wishes she had been working here when he was a child. Maybe if that was the case, he would have a Familiar by now. “During the demonstrations I would like you to think long and hard about what kind of Familiar you want. Make a list of your top three and keep them in your head. You’ll need that later.”

She goes on into explaining about how after the demonstrations, the students will be taken back into the auditorium for a ‘fashion show, of sorts’. Castiel wrinkles his nose at the description, but several of the children make excited noises around him. During the ‘show’, all the available Familiars will come out to take their human form for the children to see what they all look like before they’re introduced. Castiel dislikes that part almost as much as he does Mr. Adler’s presentation.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that he’s the only nineteen year old here, all the available Familiars are children. None of them are older than ten and in the decade that he’s been coming to the Choosings, he’s only ever seen a handful of older Familiars without a bond. From his experience, they’re usually Familiars who have already decided that they’re going to stay an animal when they turn twenty-one.

Usually, by age ten, a Familiar has picked a Witch. They should be of relatively the same age so they can grow together – all for the sake of compatibility. Witches can start attending the Choosings when they’re eight years old. With three Choosings a year happening at the Centers, it’s extremely rare for a Witch to have not been picked by the time they turn ten. Castiel is, unfortunately, one of those cases. It’s hounded him almost daily – the worry that there might be something wrong with him. Why else would any of the hundreds of thousands of Familiars he’s met over the years never want him?

This would be so much easier if a Witch could pick the Familiar. But it’s not even the Familiar’s decision really. From his understanding, a Familiar resonates with a Witch – whatever that means. He had tried to get Jess to explain it to him when they went to her first Choosing together – four years after his first – and she walked away with a spotted owlet perched on her shoulder.

He tunes Anna out and focuses on remembering the conversation with Jess when they bussed back from the Center to their neighbourhood that day. They’ve been next door neighbours since the dawn of time, basically, and Castiel has never had a closer friend, even if he is four years older than her. Jess’s owlet Familiar had perched on Castiel’s knee and introduced himself as Sam. It wasn’t the fanciest of names Castiel had ever heard for a Familiar, but it certainly wasn’t the worst.

Between the clicking of his beak, Sam had explained the Familiar’s half of the Choosing. That’s something they don’t teach in schools or during Mr. Adler’s presentation and Castiel has kept Sam’s words close to his heart all these years.

“There isn’t just one Familiar for every Witch and vice versa. Sure, we need to resonate with a Witch – and that’s something that we feel deep inside, down to the very core of us where our magic resides. But sometimes, more than one kind of Familiar will resonate with a Witch and more than one Witch will resonate with a Familiar. That’s why we’re separated into breeds and you only see us one breed at a time.” Sam had explained. “The Familiar picks the Witch, but the Witch picks the kind of Familiar they want. That way, no one gets bonded to something they’re allergic to.”

It made sense and Castiel had asked his teachers at the time why this wasn’t taught in the classes. No one had an answer for him and he’s tried to spread the information around, but it’s hard when the children at the Choosings sort of avoid him. It’s understandable, really. Obviously there’s something wrong with him if he’s still unbonded at his age. Castiel just wishes he knew what was wrong.

“After the show, you’re going to be divided up into groups based on the Familiar you want to have. Start with your top pick, numero uno.” Anna’s explanation cuts into his memories and Castiel sits forward sharply, scrambling to grab his book before it falls from his lap. “You’ll go into the Meeting Room with all the other Witches looking for the same kind of Familiar. Once everyone’s ready, the Familiars will join you. Make sure you talk to every Familiar. Shake hands, smile, and give them your name. They’re just as shy to meet you as you are them. If a Familiar picks you, you’ll leave the room with them to go enter the Choosing into the Registry.”

After a moment’s pause, Anna’s voice gets that soft tone people take when they’re trying to comfort someone who’s upset. Castiel has heard it enough times while he’s been here to know it. “If none of the Familiars from your first choice pick you, don’t worry. You’ll be moved to the room where you’ll meet your second choice, and onto the third room if it happens again. It’s common to not find a Familiar during your first Choosing, so don’t worry! After your third room, you’ll have the option to go home and come back next time, or you can see the remaining breeds of Familiars.”

She lets that information sink in before smiling and clapping her hands together once. “Does anyone have any questions?”

A few hands are raised again, but that’s typical. Even if all of this gets explained at school, there’s usually a few students who don’t pay attention. Castiel is once again eternally grateful that he lives in a rather small town. There’s only a hundred or so children here and it’s better than the masses he’s seen on TV at some of the bigger Centers in the large cities.

“What happens if a Familiar never picks us?” One of the kids asks and Castiel winces, sliding further down in his seat.

“You keep on trying. You come back for every Choosing and you meet everyone we have available. One day, a Familiar will pick you – even if it takes a long time.” Castiel doesn’t need to look up to know that Anna is probably looking toward him while she gives the answer. He always sits in the same chair every time. All the Caretakers know him by name now.

Anna calls on another student. “Are they the same Familiars every Choosing?”

“No, they aren’t.” She crouches and pats Uriel's head. “All Familiars are rotated through the Centers. Everyone you meet today who doesn’t find their Witch will leave in a few weeks to travel to the next Center and prepare themselves for meeting another group of Witches at the next Choosing.”

When no more hands are raised, the Caretakers and chaperones lead everyone outside to a field with a track running around its edge. There are balance beams and all sorts of obstacles set up in the middle of the field and the children get seated on bleachers in the middle of it all where they’ll be able to stand up and look at the track as it goes behind them if they want to.

Castiel has seen the owls fly, the cats balance, the frogs swim, the rats maneuver through their mazes, and the wolves run laps around each other more times than he cares to count. Out here, it’s easier to read and he waits for what will undoubtedly be another failed Choosing. If he goes in without hope, it doesn’t hurt as much when he leaves alone again.

*

Just as it’s gone with every other Choosing before this one, Castiel sits in a corner of the room and pastes a nice smile to his face. He shakes the hands of the young Familiars as they come by to shyly ask his name, but they never stay for long. It’s a routine Castiel knows well and he feels more and more numb inside with every room that he moves too. First the owls, then the cats, then the wolves, frogs and rats. None of them ever give him more than a second glance, and he is never, ever, chosen.

The pitying smiles of the Caretakers is just salt in the wound. They always cheerfully tell him “Maybe next time!” but Castiel stopped believing them years ago. He stopped believing everyone well before his parents died when he was fifteen and long before his cousin/appointed guardian, Gabriel, moved out when Castiel turned eighteen and was deemed fit enough to live on his own.

Which is just a nicer way of saying living alone. At least it’s not so bad, especially with Sam and Jess living next door. Whenever Jess is in school and Castiel isn’t in class, Sam comes over to help him study. Castiel imagines that it is what it would be like to have a Familiar, since the only thing Sam doesn’t help him with is cycle his magic.

Jess is sitting on Castiel’s front porch when he pedals up the street. She has her headphones in her ears and her eyes are fixed on the sky where she’s making coloured rings of light appear for Sam to twist and roll through. It’s a simple spell that most children learn before they’re even in school – often used for nighttime trips to the bathroom. Castiel used to use it to read under his blankets when he was supposed to be sleeping.

Sam abandons the rings to streak towards the ground, flaring his wings and transforming mid-landing in a fluid run until he comes to a stop at Castiel’s side. He doesn’t need to look in the basket on the back of Castiel’s bicycle to know that there’s no Familiar in it.

“Next time I’ll go with you.” He smiles, and Castiel appreciates that there’s no pity behind it. “I can put a good word in with the other Familiars.”

“You can’t do that.” Jess announces, striding up next to him and lightly punching Sam on the shoulder. Castiel is briefly envious of their close relationship – one he can only ever dream of having since he’s resigned himself to never finding a Familiar. “It would be so weird for him to show up with a Familiar for the Choosing. That might scare the others off.”

Castiel gives them both a smile and they follow him around the side of the house to where he ties his bike up in the back. He knows they notice that he doesn’t use a spell to better secure the lock around the bike, but he doesn’t want them to know just how much his magic has waned. Simple spells aren’t as effective anymore, and ones that he’s used his whole life where he could maintain them for hours before hardly last for more than thirty minutes.

But he knew this was what was going to happen to him. Castiel knew when he walked away from his tenth failed Choosing that he was probably never going to find a Familiar to accept him. This knowledge has been the guiding force behind his life since then. It’s why he works in an apothecary, and why his studies focus on potion making and herbalism. There were thousands of other things he could do, but his parents wanted him to work with magic in some way and he wants to stay true to their memory. It’s just lucky for him that he actually likes plants and working out the complex recipes for potions. Castiel has always been good with puzzles.

“Let’s celebrate!” Jess says enthusiastically, pulling on Castiel’s arm and leading him to the backdoor of his own house. “You got through another Choosing day and you don’t have to worry about it again until November!” Four months feels like too short a time for him.

The back room of the house has been repurposed from the laundry room into Castiel’s study. He sold the washer and dryer and just takes everything to the local Laundromat now. It lowered his bills and cleared up enough space for several bookcases and shelves. Over the years, they’ve accumulated an impressive collection of jars, beakers, books and bric-à-brac. There are even drying herbs clipped to lines strung across the ceiling. It almost looks exactly like his work station at the apothecary.

This is where he studies and the only immaculate part of the room is his desk.

“You really need to clean this up one day.” Jess chides him as she drags him through into the kitchen.

Castiel gives Sam an imploring look over his shoulder, but Sam only shrugs and gives him a toothy grin. He follows with his hands tucked into the front pocket of his hoodie. “I dunno, Jess. I like it. We get a lot done in here when you’re at school.”

“You should be at school with me.”

“I already know everything I need to know. Haven’t you heard? Owls are wise.” Though that’s what Sam says, Castiel knows it’s not true. Jess lets him stay home while she’s in school so Castiel has some company during his days off.

She snorts and lets Castiel go to start rooting through the fridge. “Without me you’d crash and burn, and you know it.”

The teasing back and forth between them is so familiar that Castiel finds it almost relaxing. He leaves Jess and Sam to rummage through his fridge while he hangs up his bag and changes out of his nicer clothes. Castiel always tries to make a nice impression. He avoids wearing his trench coat, as Jess has informed him on numerous occasions that it makes him ‘look like a creeper’, and he usually wears a vest over a nice button down with the sleeves rolled to his elbows. Jess always gives him a cursory once over before he’s allowed to leave the house for a Choosing.

It’s nice to change into a light, comfortable sweater and a worn pair of jeans. Being comfortable makes it easier to forget that in a few months he’s going to be twenty. In another year, he’ll likely have no more magic and without it, he’ll never get a Familiar. No Familiar is going to want a powerless Witch who won’t be able to cycle magic through them to sustain them both.

*

When the next Choosing day comes the air is cooler. This is one of the rare times he’s left the house without Jess and Sam there to wish him luck. They left on a school trip the other day and it feels a little ominous to bike to the Center alone. Most times, Sam flies beside. He claims its to make sure that Castiel actually goes like he’s supposed to, but they both know he’s there to offer his support.

He may not have many of them, but what few friends Castiel has are some of the best.

As he walks in through the front doors, Castiel’s stomach drops to his shoes. Mr. Adler is standing at the front desk, greeting the children and their chaperones as they arrive. A simpering, wicked smile curls over his face when he sees Castiel. “Trying again, are we? Good for you!” He claps him on the shoulder as he walks by. “I’m sure you’ll get one this time!” His sarcasm makes the Caretakers at the front desk frown, and for that Castiel is thankful.

He spends the entire presentation with Jess’s borrowed headphones in his ears and the Lord of the Rings soundtrack playing loudly. He takes them out when they go outside, but that’s only so he can read in the sunlight. It’s too nice outside to just listen to music, even with a chill winter breeze blowing.

Castiel can’t remember the last time he actually watched the demonstrations. There are only so many times you can see an animal do what it does naturally, whether a Familiar or not, before you’re bored of it. Today starts out no different until a hush falls over the murmuring children and Castiel looks up to see what has stolen their attention.

Anna is standing next to a perch taller than she is, a platform at its summit. There’s an owl sitting on her hand, big and sleek and covered with beautiful spots – just like Sam. For a moment, Castiel almost thinks it’s him. But the owl gives a loud hoot and hops onto the perch where there’s already a whole gaggle of owlets grouped at the center of the platform. The big owl hoots again, loud enough that everyone in the stands can hear it, and shuffles over to the owlets – each of them only a small fraction of its size.

They make little noises that sound pathetic in comparison to the deep hoots of the adult. It spreads its wings over the owlets as they gather around it and Castiel realizes it must be the guardian of this particular parliament. He wonders which of the Caretakers has this Familiar, as he’s never seen this one before. Castiel closes his book and watches as the older owl guides the younger ones to the edge. After a few minutes, one by one, the owlets fling themselves from the ledge and flap their way across the field to a matching perch. They lack the grace Sam has, but they’ll develop it soon enough.

All the children around Castiel clap loudly and there’s even a few cheers. Anna reaches up to tap the edge of the platform and the spell magnifying her voice echoes her words across the stands, silencing all the children. “Your turn.”

The big owl’s feathers fluff, nearly doubling it in size as it glares down over the edge of the platform at her. She shrugs and gestures to where all the owlets are hooting and cheeping together. Castiel fancies that he can almost hear the Familiar’s grumbling as its feathers smooth out again. Clearly it wasn’t planning on being a part of the demonstrations.

To everyone’s surprise, the big owl doesn’t glide from the platform. It walks over to the spiraling pegs that stick out of the perch’s post at intervals and starts hopping down those. A few snickering giggles arise from the children and Castiel looks over his shoulder to give them a dirty glare. There’s no reason to laugh at the owl. Maybe its wings are clipped or it might be injured. But the laughter only increases as the owl reaches the ground and crosses the field on foot with its beak in the air.

Anna shushes the children while the owl climbs the perch to sit with the owlets, fanning its wings over them again and ducking its head – likely to talk with them. Castiel turns back to his book after that as the wolves start running. He doesn’t think anything about the big owl until everyone is seated again in the auditorium for the transformations.

The owlets march out slowly to change one by one in the middle of the stage before lining up at the back against the wall. Most duck their head shyly, some wave with wide smiles, and others twirl on the spot before giggling and running to join their friends. They may be Familiars, but they’re still children. Castiel’s attention isn’t drawn fully to the stage until everyone goes quiet around him again. The only sounds are surprised whispers and the chaperones hushing the children from their places by the walls.

To Castiel’s surprise, the large owl from before is crossing the stage to the middle. Just like the owlets, it transforms and Castiel sucks in a sharp breath as a tight hope pulses behind his ribs. They wouldn’t make an adult Familiar transform on stage if they’re already bonded. He knows Anna wouldn’t do that. She wouldn’t give him any kind of hope that there’s an unbonded adult without it actually be true.

He’s as tall as Castiel, at least, with sandy brown hair that looks almost blond in the stage lights. Castiel is sitting too far back to see much else except that he’s clearly more skilled in transforming than the owlets are. They’re all wearing plain white dresses, girls and boys alike. It’s easier for them to change with and they won’t learn more complicated clothing for a few years yet. But the big owl is wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and an open shirt overtop. Impressive.

Sam says that transforming with multiple layers of clothing is a tricky thing. He only learned how to add layers a little over a year ago. Which means that this owl should be, at the very least, no younger than Sam. Castiel can handle a four year age difference. It’s certainly better than ten.

For the first time in years, Castiel pays close attention to everything else. He watches the adult Familiar lead the transformed owlets off stage and his knee bounces nervously while he waits for the rest of the Familiars to parade through. He doesn’t want to have any kind of hope only to have it ripped away, but Castiel can’t help it. This is the first time he’s seen an unbonded adult of this age – not that he knows for certain that he’s unbonded, and even if he’s free there is still every possibility that he might be one of the ones that wants to remain an animal.

Hope is toxic and it makes Castiel feel queasy all the way to the Meeting Rooms. He’s always wanted an owl Familiar. Right from his very first Choosing and even more so since Sam picked Jess – which was her third option, actually. While the children gather in groups and talk amongst themselves, waiting for the Familiars, Castiel paces. His palms feel sweaty and he wipes them on the front of his sweater, ignoring the curious looks from the children and the pitying eyes of the Caretakers.

“Don’t worry about it, Castiel.” Jo whispers as he paces past her. “It’s going to be fine. I’m sure someone is going to pick you this time!”

Castiel stops and turns to her, his hands twisting nervously in the ends of his sleeves. “The big owl from earlier – is he one of the – is he just here for the owlets? Or is he bonded to someone?”

“Who, Dean?” Jo asks, sharing a look with Chuck standing on the other side of the door from her. Castiel doesn’t like the look and that little glimmer of hope scrapes a hollow groove in his chest as it starts to slowly fade.

“He’s the only adult we’ve got right now.” Chuck shrugs and he won’t meet Castiel’s eyes. “He’s, uh, no, he’s not bonded with anyone. We think he’s probably going to stay an owl.”

Jo winces and looks back at Castiel. “I heard he’s going to be turning twenty-one in a few months and he’s never showed much of an interest in the Choosing. But maybe it’ll be different this time! You’re a nice guy. He might like you!”

All he can bring himself to do is nod. There’s a tight knot in his throat and Castiel doesn’t trust himself to speak right now. He’d been stupid to let himself actually hope. What was he thinking? He knows he’s never going to get a Familiar now – and yet he was foolish enough to let himself down like this again. Castiel finds one of the chairs kept in the corner and sits with his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped between them as he stares blankly at the floor.

This isn’t going to be any different than the other times. He has to remind himself of that and erase any ounce of hope he has left. That way, when this Dean doesn’t pick him, he isn’t going to be hurt by it. He’ll move on to the cat room, then the wolves, then the rest. No one will pick him again and he’ll go home alone until Jess and Sam come back in a week. He only has to do this for another year, maybe two, before his magic is completely gone and he won’t be required to keep coming back for this humiliation.

It might be too late for him now. His magic has already degraded so badly, how could getting a Familiar help with it? At best, he’ll be able to keep the bond with one but he won’t be able to use his magic the same again. Maybe. He doesn’t know. What few cases like his that have been documented either never bonded or they found a Familiar much earlier. He stopped looking for information years ago. Information leads to hope and he’d rather not deal with that pain any more. If he doesn’t hope, he isn’t disappointed and if he isn’t disappointed, it doesn’t hurt.

When the door on the far side of the room opens, Castiel sits back and he waits. The young owlets come in, lead by a caretaker who introduces the two groups. Under three watchful sets of eyes, the children intermingle. The sound of all the small voices is louder than Castiel feels like dealing with and he winces, but he never takes his eyes off the door. A small part of himself feels like it freezes over when he realizes that Dean isn’t joining them.

Chuck and Jo are right. Dean has likely already decided to remain unbonded and he’s probably just here to take care of the owlets. For the sake of the children, Castiel forces a smile and keeps his voice pleasant when they come over to introduce themselves. He shakes their hands and asks their names and he isn’t surprised when they walk away after a few questions. At least they’re polite and they always seem to mean it when they say ‘nice to meet you’.

Within half an hour, anyone who was chosen has already left. The owlets do one last walk through of the remaining children – Castiel included – before the Caretakers announce that it’s time to move on to the next room. A few students start to cry, whispering to their friends about how badly they wanted an owl. Chuck looks uncomfortable with those children, but he ushers them out of the room with the rest. Now they’re going to have to split all the children up again to send them to the different rooms of their second preferences.

Castiel sighs and gets to his feet. He can feel himself shut down again, just like he’s done for every Choosing. By the time he leaves the third room, he might not even be capable of smiling. It’s too much effort when he feels so empty and alone. Jo gives him a small, hopeful smile as he heads toward her and the door.

“Good luck.” She whispers, but Castiel barely hears it over the sudden tittering of the owlets.

He glances back to see the owlets swarm around the door and Dean. They’re tugging at his hands and arms, pulling at his clothes as they all talk at once. Dean’s laugh echoes over them and he’s smiling down as they try pulling him to their level so he can hear all about the Witches that they met. A little pulse of hope flickers briefly in Castiel’s chest, but he stamps down on it. Dean doesn’t want a Witch. He’s not looking for a bond and Castiel can’t force it on him just because he doesn’t want to be alone anymore.

Jess had told him once that Witches can feel it too when a Familiar resonates with them. She swears on the blood pact they made when he was eleven and she was seven that she felt it when she shook Sam’s hand. Her description was that it felt like a swarm of butterflies locked in the cage of her ribs.

But how is Castiel supposed to tell that apart from the nervous twisting he feels now? He’d felt it before Dean had entered the room and it’s not like it’s changing at the moment. He shouldn’t waste his time hanging around just to see if Dean really will resonate with him. If he doesn’t hurry, he’ll get to the room with the cats late and he might miss a Familiar who does want a Witch.

“Hey, wait!”

Castiel is halfway out the door and partway through his ‘goodbye’ to Jo when he stops. He turns around and is slightly surprised to find himself on the receiving end of an intense, somewhat calculating, stare. The young owlets no longer hold Dean’s attention and Castiel finds it very difficult to breathe under the scrutiny being given to him from across the room.

“I think he’s talking to you.” Jo hisses, grinning excitedly as she pulls him back into the room.

“Move it kids.” Dean says, pulling his hands from theirs. “’Scuze me. Comin’ through.” The kids part around him as he carefully picks his way through them and across the room.

In the few seconds it takes to happen, Castiel manages to register that Dean is bowlegged and just a hair or two taller than him. He has freckles, and green eyes, and judging by how Jo blushes, Castiel thinks he wouldn’t be wrong in saying that Dean is aesthetically pleasing. That tight feeling in his throat and the nervous fluttering behind his ribs only gets worse when Dean leans into his personal space.

“You. You’re a Witch?”

It’s a ridiculous question. Everyone is a Witch unless their magic deteriorates completely – like Castiel’s is doing. “For now, yes.”

“Duh.” Dean rolls his eyes. “I mean you’re not a bonded one? You’re actually here for the Choosing? You’re not a chaperone?”

There are so many questions and Castiel briefly reels from them. Why would Dean be asking if he doesn’t have a Familiar? Does this mean that Dean – No. Castiel will not allow himself to hope. He can’t handle to get this close to having a Familiar only to be rejected again.

He swallows thickly and shakes his head. “I’m not a chaperone and I don’t have a Familiar yet.”

“You’re shitting me.” Dean gasps in surprise and he looks like he’s caught between disbelief and being very happy by this news. “How old are you?”

“I turned twenty in September.”

“Holy shit. And you’ve never been Chosen?”

Castiel frowns. Clearly that’s the case if he doesn’t have a Familiar. “No.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Dean leans away and rubs a hand over his mouth. “I don’t believe it.”

This is going nowhere and the longer they talk, the harder it is for Castiel to hold back hoping that Dean will Choose him. “I’m sorry, but I need to go to the cat’s room now. They’re going to be mingling soon.”

“Why the hell would you go look at cats?” His expression twists into confusion and the owlets start giggling on the other side of the room.

Castiel takes a step back, already starting to turn away. “Because none of the owl Familiars Chose me. It was nice meeting you, um, Dean, was it?”

He’d like to think that he imagines the flash of panic through Dean’s eyes before he grabs Castiel’s wrist. He’s not sure if the jolt in his arm is from Dean’s touch, or from being sharply pulled back towards him. “You’re not going with no stinking cat.”

Jo makes a small squeak of surprise and Castiel gives her a confused, almost desperate look. This is unlike any Choosing he’s ever seen before, and he’s certainly seen a lot of them in all the years he’s been coming here. Dean is being rather unconventional. There are certain ways to conduct yourself during a Choosing and those seem have been completely thrown out the window.

“This is my stop, guys.” Dean turns around and waves at the owlets. “Good luck and behave!”

They all get very excited, jumping as they wave back to him in a chorus of goodbyes. Castiel stares at them, then at Dean, and then back at Jo as she crosses the room to the owlets. Hope is starting to creep in again, but Castiel shoves back against it. This can’t really be happening.

He taps the back of Dean’s hand where he’s still holding his wrist. “What are you doing?”

“I’m Choosing you. Got that, Jo? I’m Choosing – uh, what’s your name?”

Any happiness Castiel feels is tarnished by his doubt. Jess said he would know when he resonates with a Familiar and nothing feels especially different about this – aside from how unusual Dean’s methods of Choosing are. They’re supposed to introduce themselves, shake hands, and ask a few questions of each other. Not – not this, whatever it is.

“Why?” Castiel doesn’t mean to ask the question, but it slips out on a breath.

Dean looks back at him, a confused frown pinching his eyebrows together. “Because that’s what Familiars do. We pick our Witches, and you’re my Witch – and I still don’t have your name.”

“My name is Castiel.” He shakes his head and gives his wrist a futile tug. “If you were going to participate in the Choosing, why didn’t you come out with the owlets before?” If Dean is actually looking for a Witch, he wouldn’t have been hiding away until he thought all the Witches were gone. This is why Castiel has doubts. This is why he can’t believe that Dean is resonating with him.

“I was busy taking care of the younger ones.” Dean shrugs and gestures over his shoulder vaguely. “They were freaking out knowing that some of their brothers and sisters were going to be leaving and I had to calm them down.”

“Really?”

“Really.” He nods, flashing a bright grin.

Castiel narrows his eyes and his voice drops into a whisper he knows Jo won’t be able to hear. “The Caretakers said that you’re turning twenty-one soon. How do I know that you’re not Choosing me for convenience’s sake so that you can get out of the Centers for a few months?” He leans in closer. “If I ask the trainers, are they going to corroborate your story?”

It shouldn’t be this hard to believe that someone is actually Choosing him, but Castiel can’t bring himself to accept Dean’s words at their face value. He’s gone home alone too many times now for this to actually be happening. There are so many Centers in the country that it’s no surprise he’s never encountered Dean before, but Sam said Witches can resonate with more than one Familiar. So why Dean? Why now? There has to be a reason for it.

Dean shifts on his feet and looks down at the floor. His hand is still around Castiel’s wrist and he squeezes it tightly as an embarrassed flush rises in his cheeks. He mumbles his response. “Because they laughed at me.”

“I’m sorry?”

“When I walked instead of flying – the kids all laughed at me.” He snaps, lifting his head but still not looking at Castiel. “I saw you – front row, bottom corner – and you didn’t laugh.” Dean takes a deep breath and looks over his shoulder at where Jo is filing the kids back into their waiting room. “We can resonate with bonded Witches too, y’know? It wasn’t fair that I saw you and felt like I swallowed a live caterpillar. I thought you were a chaperone, but then one of the kids said you were actually meeting with all of them and I – Shit. I don’t know if this is how resonating feels, but I think it is, okay?”

Castiel swallows hard. He wants to believe Dean. Every fiber of him that’s craved the companionship of a Familiar for the last decade wants to believe him. “I don’t believe you.”

For a moment, Dean stares at him before he tilts his head to the side in a very bird-like gesture. “Wow. You’ve really been stung by this whole Choosing process, huh?”

That strikes at a sensitive, raw part of Castiel and he nearly flinches. “Please let go of my hand now.”

“No way.” Dean steps in even closer and some small voice in the back of Castiel’s mind tells him he should be uncomfortable with the invasion of his personal space. Surprisingly, he’s not. He finds it weird, but not uncomfortable. “I’ve waited way too long for my Witch to come along, and you’re him.”

“You don’t know that.” Castiel hisses, desperately trying to keep the door shut on that swelling hope.

“I do.” He says it with such conviction that Castiel wants to stop fighting it, instead he shakes his head.

“But you just said that you weren’t sure if what you were feeling was the resonating or not.”

Dean makes a frustrated noise and he squeezes Castiel’s wrist again. “Why are you making this so hard? You want a Familiar, and I want a Witch. I said I feel something I haven’t felt with another Witch before, so that’s gotta be the resonating, right? I don’t see how this is a bad thing.” He sighs and gives Castiel a pitiful look. “Worst case scenario is that I’m wrong. We’ll know in a few weeks if the bond doesn’t form and then it’s just a matter of coming back. I’ll move on to the next Center and you’ll come back for the next Choosing. Simple as that.”

It’s the exact opposite of simple.

The Familiar gets to do the Choosing. Castiel can understand how frustrated Dean must have been never meeting a Witch he resonates with. But are those frustrations even comparable to what it feels like to be continuously rejected? To think that something must be wrong with you because none of the Familiars resonate with you? But… maybe Dean thought something was wrong with him? Maybe he’s been struggling to accept that he might never be able to resonate with a Witch and he has so much more to lose than Castiel does. He’ll just lose his magic, but Dean holds the chance of losing himself.

At twenty-one, Dean is going to lose his ability to transform. His own natural magic will run out and he won’t be able to take a human form. There are some cases, one in a few million, where a Familiar retains their memories and personality once they’re completely stuck in their animal form. But nearly nine out of ten times, the Familiar loses all sense of who they were.

“Fine.” Castiel sighs, relaxing into the hold on his wrist.

Dean’s smile is nearly radiant and he lets go to sling his arm around Castiel’s shoulders. “That’s the spirit! C’mon, let’s get this show on the road.”

Going to the Registry Room does lift Castiel’s spirits somewhat. At least he gets to see Mr. Adler shocked into silence when he walks in with Dean’s arm still around him. They wait in line for one of the computer terminals and spend a solid ten minutes filling out digital forms and signing their names on a touchpad with an electronic pen.

“Do you have a computer?” Dean asks while Castiel reads over the form one last time to make sure they didn’t miss anything. “They told us that there are some Witches who don’t like technology. We only really got to use computers during classes and half the internet was blocked for us. It was pretty annoying. I couldn’t even get any porn with it. I’m just lucky the Caretakers took pity and smuggled me in some skin mags.”

Castiel elbows him in the side out of reflex, glancing around to make sure that no one overheard them. “There are children here.” He hisses. “And yes, I have a laptop and an internet connection. You can do with it as you will, but if you drag me into it – just remember that I can return you.”

“But you won’t.” He laughs and knocks his shoulder against Castiel’s as they stand up. “I cook, I clean, I was top of all my classes, and I’m frikken adorable. You’ll be too in love with me to bring me back here.”

“We’ll see if you’ll still be saying that when the bond doesn’t form.”

If it doesn’t, and I’m pretty sure it will.” Dean follows him out through the front doors, waving goodbye to all the Caretakers as they pass them and stopping only to get a backpack from the front desk with some of his things in it. The rest of his things – no more than a few boxes – will be delivered to Castiel’s home within a week.

As soon as they’re outside, Dean stretches his arms above his head with an explosive sigh. “Sweet merciful crap, I’m free! No more Centers, no more moving. I think I’m turning over a new leaf here, Cas. It’s the dawn of a new day!”

Castiel leans over his bike, pulling the lock up to get the key in. “It’s the middle of the afternoon and I’ve known you for half an hour, at best, and even I can tell that you’re not going to be turning over a new leaf any time soon.”

“You wound me! You barely even know me, how can you – what the hell is that?”

He looks up to find Dean staring at his bicycle. There’s nothing altogether exceptional about it. It’s a standard single speed with higher handlebars because Castiel doesn’t particularly enjoy being hunched forward while riding. He prefers sitting straight backed. The only different thing about it is the milk crate he has strapped to the rack over the back wheel. It’s helpful for carrying groceries, books from the library, or any materials he has to take back and forth between his house and the apothecary.

“I highly doubt that you’ve never seen or heard of a bicycle before.” He rolls his eyes and swings a leg over it, using his foot to adjust the pedals while he gets comfortable.

“I meant, why don’t you have a car?” Dean looks around nervously as he hands his bag over to Castiel to put in the basket. It’s as if he’s hoping Castiel is simply making a joke and a car is going to appear.

“Because an owl can fly, a wolf can run, and any other kind of Familiar could ride in the basket. A car is an expense I don’t need when I can simply take the bus to anywhere that is further than I care to go on my bike.” Castiel shrugs and twists around to put his bag in the basket too so it won’t be bouncing against his leg while he pedals. “Just keep me in sight and you won’t get lost.”

Dean shakes his head and moves to plant himself in front of the bike. “I’m not flying.”

Before Castiel can say otherwise, Dean grabs the handlebars and transforms. In a few seconds, there’s a large spotted owl sitting on the bar in front of him. Dean blinks up at Castiel and turns around to face forward, his feathers puffing slightly as his beak clicks. “Get on with it.”

As soon as Castiel starts pedaling, Dean’s wings spread and bump against his forearms. They twitch and flap every time the wheels bounce over the edge of the sidewalk or a crack in the road. Castiel only manages to get a few blocks and to the crest of a hill that leads further down into the valley before Dean hoots loudly.

“Stop, Cas, stop!”

“What’s wrong?” He looks down and tries not be amused by how Dean’s feathers are spread to the point that he’s nearly tripled in size. “Are you going to fly now?”

Dean turns his head around to narrow his eyes at him. “No. I’m going to ride in the basket.” To make his point, he hops from the handlebar to Castiel’s arm and walks up that to his shoulder. From there he flutters down to the basket and wedges himself into a space between the bags. “Okay, I’m good.”

When Castiel doesn’t move, Dean glares up at him. “What?”

“Why don’t you just fly?”

“I don’t feel like it.” He huffs, turning his head away. “Get pedaling already.”

For the rest of the trip home, Castiel repeatedly looks over his shoulder to check on Dean. He seems much better in the basket than he did perching on the bars. It doesn’t take a whole lot of thinking about how he didn’t fly during the demonstrations and how he wouldn’t fly now to figure out the two options.

“You don’t like flying, do you?” Castiel asks when he lets Dean hop up his arm to sit on his shoulder while he locks the bike up behind the house. “You can fly, you just don’t like to.”

Dean doesn’t answer him, though he does puff up again and hunches his shoulders up around his ears. He clicks his beak a few times, but he turns his head away whenever Castiel glances at him. It’s rather amusing, actually.

For the tour of his new home, Dean stays in his owl form. Castiel likes to think it’s so he won’t see how Dean is embarrassed. The tour starts with the vegetable garden, turned down for the season. It takes up most of the backyard. Then it’s the greenhouse Castiel had built so he could cultivate herbs all year round. Most of the windows are frosted glass, though some of the panels can be seen through.

He carries Dean through the house afterward. It’s not very big, just a two bedroom ranch with one bathroom and an unfinished basement he uses as storage. Castiel ends the tour in the guest bedroom – which was his childhood bedroom. Since Gabriel moved out a few years ago, Castiel has taken to using the master bedroom. Now that Dean will be staying here – for an indeterminate amount of time – he wonders if it can still be called a ‘guest’ room.

The bond that forms between a Witch and a Familiar when their magic syncs normally takes a few weeks. Castiel won’t know until then whether or not Dean actually resonated with him. For now he’s fine with letting Dean stay. At least it means that he won’t be alone. If Dean doesn’t come with him to work, at least Castiel would be coming home to someone. If he has a nightmare, he won’t be waking up to an empty house. He hates waking up alone.

While Dean unpacks his bag, Castiel makes supper and calls his boss. He’s overjoyed to hear that he’s finally found a Familiar and is happy to give him the next day off. It’s normal to be given a few days off school after a successful Choosing. The extra time is needed for a Witch to help their Familiar settle down in their new home and for them to adapt to the Witch’s routines.

Dinner is awkward for Castiel. He barely says two words, but Dean talks animatedly about how nice it is to be out of the Centers. In the course of one meal Castiel learns about how Familiars alternate between human foods and the natural prey of their animal selves. It’s with no small amount of conviction that Dean announces how he prefers bacon cheeseburgers over live mice. (“Though they’re not bad every once in a while. But not while they’re still alive and squirming. That’s just weird.”) He goes on to talk about how their training and upbringing is rather strict because they’re supposed to be assistants to Witches, even if they’re basically considered people themselves.

After showing Dean how to work the TV and the laptop, Castiel retires for the night. In the morning, he finds Dean hugging a pillow on the couch, snoring into it while still fully dressed and with the TV on mute. He wakes up while Castiel makes breakfast and spends nearly a half hour in the bathroom with the shower. Apparently they’re never allowed to spend that long in the showers at the Centers and Dean is now very fond of the water pressure in Castiel’s bathroom.

Despite how the morning is spent in a moderate amount of silence, Castiel does enjoy the company. Dean mulls over his coffee and flips with interest through the sections of the newspaper that Castiel isn’t reading. After cleanup and Castiel’s own morning rituals, they leave the house together. With Dean in the basket behind him, Castiel takes him on a tour of his neighbourhood and the part of the town he often goes to.

They bike past the Laundromat and the grocery stores that Castiel usually frequents. He shows Dean the library, and the cinema, and he takes him down a street of shops and restaurants that he likes to go to whenever Jess drags him out with her. Castiel hasn’t mentioned her or Sam. It doesn’t feel like the right time yet and he thinks it might be better that he introduces them in person instead of through stories.

Part of the tour includes making a stop at the apothecary. Dean is just as shy to meet Castiel’s coworkers and boss as he was to meet him. That is to say, he’s all cocky smiles and firm handshakes. He seems a bit more skittish around his boss’s Familiar, and Castiel wonders if Dean doesn’t like cats.

“It’s self-preservation.” He clicks his beak snappily from the basket while Castiel bikes home. “Cats and birds don’t mix, y’know. We’re natural enemies. I’ve never met a cat I like.”

“Well, don’t be rude to Meg. She’s there to help just like you will be, if you decide to actually come with me.” Castiel glances back over his shoulder. “I usually work Wednesday through Sunday. You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to.”

“I might.” Dean ruffles his feathers, which may be the owl equivalent of a shrug.

Castiel gently applies the brakes as he approaches a corner with a Familiar shop. “Is there anything you want to get while we’re out? A perch? Vitamins? Spell components? What about more clothes?”

“No, I’m good.” Dean ducks down inside the basket, but he does look at the merchandize in the windows. “Maybe in a week or two. After my stuff arrives.”

He doesn’t say it, but Castiel can read between his words. Dean doesn’t want to get anything in the case that the bond doesn’t set. If what he thought was the resonating wasn’t it, they’ll only be together for a few weeks. After that, Castiel doesn’t know what will happen. He doesn’t want to have to go through the Choosing process over and over again until not even a Familiar will save his magic. For all he knows, even if he does bond with Dean it might be too late for him.

But maybe Dean doesn’t want to buy anything because he knows that the bond isn’t going to work? Castiel keeps bouncing back and forth between the hope that Dean meant it, and a kind of uncaring numbness. He’s already half convinced himself that Dean just wanted out of the Center so he could have a few months of freedom before he becomes an animal for good. It makes more sense that he use an adult Witch to get out of the Centers instead of a child. It would probably be scarring, and Dean doesn’t seem like he could be mean to someone so young.

*

In the days that follow, Dean comes with Castiel to the apothecary, claiming that it’s what a good Familiar does – though Castiel knows that he doesn’t actually want to be there. By the third shift, half of Dean’s time is spent reading a book in the corner and the rest on a perch by Castiel’s work station, on the verge of falling asleep.

It only takes a few days for them to fall into a steady routine without even realizing it. The most surprising aspect of all, by the time the weekend rolls around, is that Castiel is comfortable. He can hardly wrap his head around that realization whenever he starts to think about just how easily Dean has fit himself into his life.

Their day starts with Dean taking the bathroom first while Castiel makes breakfast. He cleans up afterward while Castiel takes his turn with the shower and they leave together for work. If Castiel doesn’t pack a lunch for them both, then Dean will go out on the bike to get them something at lunchtime.

After work they spend the rest of the day doing their own things at home – unless Castiel asks for the help he would normally have from Sam while he studies and does his university assignments. Most of the time though, when he’s not helping Castiel, Dean spends hours in the living room with the TV turned down low while he clicks away at the laptop.

He’s not very conspicuous about changing the windows on the screen whenever Castiel enters the room. With the couch pushed up in front of the bay window, it’s not like Castiel can walk behind him and see what he’s doing. But Dean always glances up and quickly hits a few keys so that the screen is blank when Castiel sits next to him.

From what he said before, Castiel thinks that Dean is likely looking at porn. That’s the only thing he could think of that Dean would try to hide from him – not that he’s prying. He meant it when he told Dean that he can do whatever he wants with the laptop. Castiel rarely uses it and if Dean gets any viruses on it, he can be the one to get it fixed.

“You know, there’s a bar in town specifically for Familiars.” Castiel announces the night before Jess and Sam are supposed to come back. Dean had been typing away like crazy until Castiel joined him for a bit of TV before bed. “I can show it to you tomorrow if you’d like. You could go out and meet women – or men – and you wouldn’t have to spend so much time looking at porn.”

Dean turns slowly to look at Castiel, his eyes wide with surprise. That lasts for all of a few seconds before he bursts out laughing – and takes more than a couple of minutes to calm down again. “I’m not looking at porn all the time! And until we’re sure we’re bonded I’m not going to bother going out to meet people. It’s too much hassle until we’ve got a guarantee that I’m not going back to the Center.”

“Oh, I thought you were –” He blushes and keeps his eyes firmly focused on the TV. “Never mind then.”

“It’s emails, mostly.” Dean explains, moving the laptop to the table. “There’s an intranet in the Centers for all the kids to keep in contact with each other if they get divided up, and it’s a good way to keep talking to our parents too. We can log in remotely once we leave so we can still keep in touch.”

This is the first time in the week that Dean’s been here that he’s mentioned his parents. Castiel finds himself curious and he turns away from the TV, bringing one of his legs up onto the couch and folding it under him as he faces Dean. “Do you talk to your parents a lot?”

“About once a month. Just my dad, though. My mom had an accident – well, forever ago.” Dean shrugs, turning to mirror Castiel’s position, though he rests his elbow on the back of the couch and leans his head into his hand. The memory makes him look sad and Castiel feels a pang of sympathy behind his ribs. “My dad lives a few states away now. Their Witches were married and it just kind of happened for them too, I guess. Far as I know, my brother and I are the only eggs they ever had.”

“You have a brother?” Castiel asks and immediately regrets it as Dean’s expression closes off.

He looks away out the window behind the couch. “Yeah. He’s a few years younger than me. Familiars enter the Centers system when we’re five years old, so I didn’t know him for long. But my dad told me that I had to look out for him when it was his turn. I tried, but we’re moved around with the Choosings even before we’re old enough for it just to get us used to it, y’know? By the time he entered, my mum was gone and something happened between our dad and him. Dad never said what it was, but it was enough for my brother not to give him his email. Best I know, they haven’t talked since then.”

There’s silence between them for a moment before Dean gives him a weak smile. “I never did manage to find him. And since I was ahead of him in the rotations, I couldn’t really ask if any of the Caretakers had seen him. All I ever got was an email from dad saying he found his Witch – since the parents get notified when their kids are bonded. That’s all dad ever said about him. We don’t really talk much anymore either.”

“Are you still trying to find him? Your brother, I mean.” Castiel asks slowly. “Maybe if we contact the Registry, they can –”

“Been there, done that. I’ve been friends and more with a ton of Caretakers and not one of them has been able to get me that information because it would’ve cost them their job.” Dean shrugs and turns away again, reaching for the TV remote. “I gave up looking for him a long time ago.”

Castiel frowns and looks down at his hands. If he had any brothers or sisters and only a few months left for a chance to talk to them, he doesn’t think he’d just give up like that. He only has cousins and even then he’d try his hardest to say goodbye to them. Is Dean even going to go visit his father? There are so many questions, but Castiel has the feeling that the conversation is over.

The air between them feels awkward and Dean is slouching down into the couch, staring listlessly at the screen as he changes channels. After a few minutes, he tosses the remote into Cas’s lap and stretches. “I’m going to hit the hay early. You got work in the morning, right?”

“Tomorrow, yes, but it’s a day off on Monday. Are you coming?”

“Might as well. Not like I’ve got anything better to do.” He stoops to pick up the laptop. “It okay if I take this with me? I’ve got a few more emails to send.”

“Go right ahead.” Castiel waves him away as he turns the TV off. He might as well go to sleep too. With inventory to take at the apothecary, and Jess and Sam coming home tomorrow afternoon, it’s going to be a busy day – especially once they meet Dean. He’s going to need all the rest he can get.

*

Castiel isn’t sure if it’s good or bad that Jess and Sam aren’t waiting on his porch when he and Dean come home. While he locks up his bike, he waves at Jess’s dad sitting in his hammock and monitoring the rake as it collects the leaves scattered across the lawn. Since he doesn’t say anything, Castiel assumes that they aren’t home yet.

“I have to check on the plants in the greenhouse.” He explains to Dean. “You don’t have to join me.”

“Thank fuck.” Dean cheers, flapping briefly out of the basket to transform in midair. “If I have to hang around plants any more today, I might go crazy.”

Castiel rolls his eyes and shoves Dean toward the back door, a little surprised with himself for the casual gesture. “Go. And I promise I won’t ask you to check the higher shelves on the next inventory day.”

“Don’t lie, Cas. It doesn’t suit you!” Dean calls back over his shoulder with a laugh as he heads inside.

An hour later, Castiel has worked halfway through the contents of the greenhouse to make sure all the plants are growing well and have been sufficiently watered. He hears the slam of a car door and glances out one of the windows to double check that Sam and Jess are home. He can see her mom talking to someone over the roof of the car and gesturing towards his house.

Now it’s just a matter of counting the seconds before they find him. Castiel starts counting and when he reaches a minute, he gives up. They probably had to put things away in their own house before coming over here. And it’s not like he’s their first priority with coming home. He’s ashamed with himself for thinking they would be that excited to find out what happened with the Choosing.

That stays his conclusion for another thirty seconds before the combined shrieking of two spotted owls comes from the open kitchen window, loud enough for him to hear it. Castiel drops his watering can and nearly forgets to shut the greenhouse door on his sprint to the house. The first he sees is Jess, standing stock still in the entrance way into the living room from the front door. She runs over to him as soon as he comes in from the kitchen, turning the corner to find Sam and Dean in their owl forms.

They’re flapping and hopping around each other, hooting and screeching loudly. At first he thinks they’re fighting when they keep flaring their wings forward over one another. But there’s no pecking or clawing and he’s fairly certain the sounds they’re making aren’t ones of anger. There would probably be feathers all over the floor if they were fighting.

Jess grabs his arm and tugs sharply, though she never takes her eyes from their Familiars. “Can you do a suspending charm? I don’t think I can stop both of them.”

“I can try. Count of three?”

Simultaneously they cast a small spell that only temporarily suspends the target’s movements. Generally it’s used to stop something that’s been knocked off a table or shelf. Castiel used to practice it with leaves on the trees during the fall. It stops Sam and Dean mid hop, though it doesn’t stop them from making noise. They both give outraged cries and to Castiel’s horror, Dean starts swearing.

“Stop that.” He scolds as he and Jess pull them apart, though his spell ends rather suddenly and Dean starts struggling in his hands. Now he’s making the angry noises. “The neighbours can hear you and you both look ridiculous. What in the hell were you doing?”

“It’s him, Cas, it’s him.” Dean hisses, transforming even while Castiel is holding him. “It’s Sam.”

“Yes, I know Sam. I’ve known him for years. That doesn’t mean you have to lose your head – Oh.” The revelation comes to Castiel suddenly and he looks at Sam and Jess in surprise. “Your brother?”

As soon as Jess lifts the spell, Sam transforms too. He crashes into Dean for a hug and Castiel shares a mystified look with Jess. Do coincidences like this even exist? Aren’t they supposed to be confined to movies, books, and television shows? The chances of all the little things that happened to make this meeting possible are simply astronomical and Castiel finds himself floored by it.

“So.” Jess says flatly, elbowing him in the side. “You have a Familiar.”

“I do.”

“And you didn’t think to text me?”

“It would have distracted you from the school trip. You were supposed to be learning.” He rolls his eyes and gestures at the pair still hugging before them. “Jess, Dean. Dean, Jess. She’s the little sister I never wanted and our next door neighbour. She’s also Sam’s Witch.” Again, astronomical.

Dean steps away from Sam long enough to pull Jess into a tight hug of her own. “I’ve been trying to hack that frikken Registry all week and he lives next door.” He grins down at Jess as he steps back. “I could kiss you for this.”

Don’t.

It comes in triplicate and Dean glances around at them in surprise before his laughter starts to bubble up again. In the week that he’s been here, Castiel has heard several different variations of Dean’s laugh. But this, this is the happiest he has seen yet. With good reason, too. Castiel can’t even find it in himself to be mad that Dean left out the bit about hacking the Registry when he explained everything with the emails last night.

“Let’s let them talk.” Castiel pulls Jess away from Dean, aiming her toward the kitchen. “They have a lot to catch up on and I’d like to hear about your school trip. You can help me prepare dinner.”

No sooner are they in the kitchen does Jess start talking about how happy she is that Castiel finally has a Familiar. Even she is amazed by how the stars must have come into alignment for Dean to have resonated with the only Witch at the Center that was his age and neighbours with his long lost baby brother. When she starts talking about all the great things that he and Dean are going to be able to do – maybe even entering into magical competitions like she and Sam do sometimes – Castiel doesn’t have the heart to interrupt her.

How is he supposed to explain to her that he doesn’t think he felt any kind of resonating with Dean? How does he explain that he’s almost convinced himself completely that Dean only wanted out of the Centers because he turns twenty-one in a few months? With Jess looking as happy for him as she does, how is Castiel supposed to tell her that he doesn’t feel any more hopeful for the return of his magic than he did before he met Dean? It’s been a week and there hasn’t been even a modicum of change in his magic. By now there should be some sort of difference, right? If his magic is syncing with Dean’s, it should start getting better.

“I can’t wait until I can start dueling you again.” Jess grins, leaning back against the counter while Castiel pulls ingredients from the cupboards. “Just watch. I’m going to totally kick your ass this time.”

“You do realize that I know more spells than you do, right?” He shoots back, giving her a small smile. “Before you start plotting all the truly astounding ways that you’ll best me, would you and Sam like to stay for dinner?”

He wouldn’t mind the company and it seems a shame to separate the brothers now while they’re talking excitedly in the living room. Castiel can’t hear what their saying, but their voices are a steady murmur. It’s just a few extra voices, but it makes the house feel somehow warmer.

“Yeah!” Jess jumps away from the counter and heads for the back door. “I’ve got to bring our bags in from the car, but I’ll tell mom that we’re eating here and I’ll be back in a minute!”

Castiel presets the oven to heat up and gets a casserole dish out before he goes to tell Sam and Dean their plans. It’s Sam’s tone that brings him to a stop in the short hallway between living room and kitchen, just shy of the corner where they would be able to see him. He shouldn’t eavesdrop, and he doesn’t mean to, but he doesn’t want to interrupt them if they’re talking about something important.

“Did you seriously spend a whole week trying to find me instead of getting to know Cas?”

Dean sounds vaguely insulted when he answers. “Hey, I’m a good Familiar! We talked, and hung out. And I’ve gone to work with him and everything. I’m not a complete asshole.”

Sam sighs and Castiel hears the couch springs creak. “The Caretakers talked about you sometimes. They gave me your email, but I could barely remember you and I chickened out every time I tried sending one. All I really knew about you was the stuff mom and dad used to tell me. Dad always said you were going to look out for me. Was I your priority? With getting out, I mean.”

“Well, yeah. I figured I had to get out of there if I stood any chance of finding you. I’ve got a countdown hanging over my head, y’know.”

For a moment there’s nothing but silence until Sam speaks again in a voice almost too quiet for Castiel to hear. “Did you have any idea that Cas was my next door neighbour when you met him?”

“Not a clue. I was pretty surprised to see a Witch his age there, but it was pretty damn convenient. Mom always did say that angels were watching over me, but I didn’t think she meant literally. He’s named after an angel, did you know that? Castiel, Angel of Thursday. I Googled him and that’s what I got.”

There’s a heavy thud and Dean hisses in pain. “Ow! What the hell was that for?”

“You jerk. Did you lie to Cas to get out of the Center?”

“I –” Dean stops and Castiel can almost imagine that he hears him swallow nervously. “I might have? I don’t know, Sammy. At this point I’m not sure if I’m even capable of actually resonating with a Witch. I just wanted –”

Castiel takes a slow step back, turning to lean against the wall. He isn’t surprised, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t disappointed, even though he’s tried so hard not to be. His fingers curl in the hem of his pullover and he swallows around the sudden tightness in his throat. This is what he suspected all along and he’s not upset with Dean. He figured Dean had to have some reason to Choose him. Even if Dean didn’t know that he was so close to Sam, he must have at least figured that Castiel wanted a Familiar bad enough that he would have taken him without being absolutely sure that they were resonating.

Sam swears loudly and there’s another heavy thud. “I can’t believe you! Cas is my friend, Dean!”

“Well how was I supposed to know th–”

“He’s my friend and he’s been waiting for years for a Familiar to resonate with him.” He continues, talking over Dean in a loud whisper. “He’s gone to doctors and everything because he thought something was wrong with him. His cousin stuck him in counseling for months when he was still living here because Cas was so depressed with it.”

Castiel winces at the memories. Those were some of his darker times and he likes to think he’s moved past that somewhat. He wishes that Sam hadn’t brought that up. It won’t do any of them any good to make Dean feel bad too. If anything Castiel has learned in the last week just from observing and interacting with Dean, it’s that the guilt for this probably already weighs heavily on him. He tries to hide it, but he feels deeply.

“You can’t just lie to him like this!” There’s another thud and another pained hiss from Dean. “Do you have any idea what it’s going to do to him when he finds out that you’re just using him? Your magics are both going to fade and in a few months you’re going to be stuck as a goddamn – And he’s going to be alone again. He’s so alone, Dean, and you’re just using him.”

Dean sounds so small when he finally answers. “I didn’t know. I –”

“No, you didn’t. But you have to tell him. Cas can still keep going to the Choosing. He might still have a chance to –”

He turns away and returns to the kitchen. Castiel feels numb as he goes through the motions of starting to prepare supper. Dean had a good reason for wanting to get out of the Centers. It’s a better reason than anything Castiel had come up with in the last week when he was trying to be rational and convince himself that none of this could be real.

But then he’d actually started to like Dean over the last few days. Even with the few hiccups where their personalities clashed – their taste in music in particular – he thought they were getting along so nicely. Dean just fit into Castiel’s life, like he belonged in the hole a Familiar would have filled. Knowing that their magics aren’t going to sync is made all the worse by the knowledge that in two months Dean is going to leave. He’ll be twenty-one and his ability to transform will dry up.

They’re probably going to have to talk about that now that Dean found Sam. What was he planning to do if he managed to hack the Registry? Was he going to leave to go find Sam? Now that they’ve found each other, is he going to stay around until his birthday or is he going to say what he has to say to Sam and then leave?

As much as Castiel hates to admit it, that would be for the best. It means he wouldn’t run the risk of getting attached to Dean. He’s already going to miss him and it’s only been a week. From here on out it’s only going to get worse. If Castiel had the heart for it, he would tell Dean to leave now. He could give him some money to get a motel room or something until he can get a job for the next two months. It’s an option, but it’s not one that sits well with him.

“Hey, Earth to Major Tom. Come in, Major Tom.” Jess pulls at his ear and waves a hand in front of his face. “Are you listening to me?”

Castiel blinks away his thoughts and looks down at her. “Yes, sorry. What were you saying?” He hadn’t even heard her come in.

She gives him a suspicious glare before gesturing toward the living room. “Did you tell the guys that we’re going to be eating here?”

“They were talking. I didn’t want to interrupt.” He looks back down at his hands and can’t remember when he started mixing the sauce to go in the lasagna.

After another minute scrutinizing him, Jess turns toward the living room. “Sam! Dean! Come help get supper ready if you want to actually eat any of it!”

When they shuffle into the kitchen, Dean is rubbing at his arm and sending sour looks toward Sam. Castiel tries not to pay any attention to it. He can’t let them know that he overheard what they were talking about. It was rude of him to listen for as long as he did and he doesn’t want to ruin their dinner. This is supposed to be a celebration of sorts.

He finds it impossible to believe that Jess of all people doesn’t pick up on the animosity between Dean and Sam during the meal. Dean seems better at putting on a fake smile than Sam does, and he talks at length with Jess about what his life has been like so far. It’s nothing Castiel hasn’t already heard. Anything that Sam says to Dean while they eat is curt and earns him more than one disapproving glare from Jess.

Maybe that’s why she excuses them both once they’re done, only staying long enough to enchant the dishes so they’ll clean themselves. It’s her thanks for feeding them and Castiel is grateful for it. He doesn’t feel much like washing them right now. If anything, he’d rather just crawl into bed and sleep until all of this is over. For one fanciful moment, he briefly wonders if it would be possible to sleep long enough for time to actually reverse itself – though he can’t decide how far back he would want to go.

A hand on his shoulder draws him from his thoughts again and Castiel looks up from wrapping the leftovers to put in the fridge. Dean has a concerned frown pulling at his lips. “You alright?”

“Just tired.” Castiel forces a small smile. “Could you finish cleaning up? I think I’d like to go to bed a little early tonight.”

“A little early?” Dean glances at the clock. “Cas, it’s barely seven. Did you even finish up in the greenhouse before?”

He didn’t, but that doesn’t really matter right now. Tomorrow is his day off and he can go spend all morning in there if he wants. Surrounding himself with plants might actually improve his mood. Or he hopes it will, at least. Castiel says goodnight and tries hard to ignore the worried look Dean gives him as he withdraws to his bedroom.

It might be the early hour, or it might be everything he learned tonight weighing heavily on his mind, but it takes Castiel hours to fall asleep. Even then it’s far from restful. He doesn’t have dreams that he remembers, but he wakes in the middle of the night feeling no better than when he went to bed. For several minutes after waking, he stares at the ceiling and wonders what woke him. It takes far too long for him to notice a rhythmic pulling of his hair moving slowly across his scalp.

Turning his head to the side results in a face full of soft feathers and Castiel leans away enough to be able to look at the owl nestled comfortably on his pillow. “Dean?”

“Yeah?” He whispers back, beak clicking around the word.

“Why are you combing my hair?”

A feather brushes his cheek as Dean steps close again. “A good Familiar helps their Witch. I could hear you from the other room and I thought I’d come and try doing to you what I used to do for the owlets. A good preening always put them out. Did I wake you?”

“It was just bad dreams.” He rolls onto his side, facing Dean when he probably should be facing away. It doesn’t even occur to him that it should be weird to wake up to Dean in his bed, even if he’s in his owl form. “I’m sorry I woke you.”

“I wasn’t sleeping.” Dean mumbles and Castiel can feel the point of his beak dragging through his hair again. It actually feels surprisingly nice. “Too exciting of a night to sleep, y’know?”

Castiel hums in answer, closing his eyes and focusing on the rather soothing feel of Dean’s preening instead of thinking about what else might be keeping him awake. If he imagines hard enough, he can almost relate this feeling to when his mother used to run her hand through his hair when he was sick, humming songs until he fell asleep. One of his last thoughts before he nods off again is that it would feel nicer if Dean was using his fingers instead.

In the morning, Dean has moved to sleep on Castiel’s dresser, nestled comfortably on yesterday’s t-shirt. He makes small noises in his sleep, soft hoots that might be snoring were he in human form. It’s rather endearing. Castiel gathers his things and edges quietly from the room to let him rest. He leaves a covered plate of breakfast in front of the microwave for Dean and spends the rest of the morning in the greenhouse, finishing all that he didn’t do yesterday.

It’s a surprising turn of events to find that Dean has lunch ready for him when he comes back inside. He’s withdrawn to a corner of the couch in the living room, the laptop abandoned on the coffee table. Castiel notes how Dean has trouble looking at him when he takes his sandwich to join him on the couch. Dean feels guilty and Castiel doesn’t know how to tell him that he that he knows and understands.

The entire day is awkward. Dean doesn’t quite avoid him, but he barely talks to him. When Sam comes over in the afternoon for a few hours before Jess comes home from school, they both lock themselves in Dean’s room. Castiel can hear them talking, sometimes loudly, sometimes just a soft murmur through the door. To keep himself from overhearing anything else, he keeps to his work room and memorizes pages from a book of potion recipes for class.

Even the next day is the same, though Sam visits earlier in the day and leaves briefly in the afternoon. He comes back while Castiel is cataloguing the plants in the greenhouse and Dean has left with the bike and a shopping list. It’s best they get that done on their last day off. Anything he misses or can’t carry on the bike they can pick up on their way home tomorrow from the apothecary – if Dean can stand to come with him.

“Hey, Cas?” Sam sounds troubled when he knocks at the door to the greenhouse, peeking around its edge. “You busy?”

“Come on in, Sam.” He gestures for him without looking up. “How are you and Dean getting along?” He already knows the answer, but he can’t let either of them know that he’s well aware of it.

“Um, well –” The door bangs shut behind him and Sam leans back against it, looking up at the ceiling as if he’ll find his answers there. “Not that great, actually.” A few minutes of silence pass before he sighs. “Listen, Cas, there’s something I’ve gotta tell you.”

Castiel’s looks up from checking the leaves of a mandrake to take in the pained look on Sam’s face. He must have been fighting with himself and Dean for the last two days about whether or not to tell him everything. Since Dean clearly isn’t doing it, Castiel isn’t surprised that Sam is taking it upon himself to say something.

Sighing, he puts his notebook down and turns toward him. “I already know.”

It obviously isn’t the response Sam was expecting and it leaves him stunned. “You – what?”

“I knew it the day of the Choosing. Witches are supposed to feel something too, right? I didn’t feel anything special.” He explains, leaning his hip against one of the tables and crossing his arms. “And I overheard you two talking on Sunday.”

“If you know, why are you going along with it?” Sam asks, incredulous.

Shrugging, Castiel looks down at his hands and removes his thick gloves. He wishes he could wrap himself in a thick skin to protect his heart like the gloves do his fingers. Maybe then he wouldn’t feel such a sharp sting behind his ribs. Maybe then the next two months won’t hurt him as much as he suspects they will.

“I figured Dean was lying when he said he Chose me, but it must have been for good reason. And his birthday is soon – the end of January, I believe.” He lays the gloves aside and gives Sam a small smile. “I’m never going to find a Familiar. Why shouldn’t I let Dean pretend to be mine for a little while? It’ll give him the chance to live in the outside world for a bit.”

“But you need a Familiar, Cas!”

“Only because it’s law that I keep trying. I’m fine being magicless, Sam.” Castiel shakes his head and looks away from the frustrated frown twisting Sam’s lips. A faint tingle of warning tickles across the back of his neck and he looks out the window toward the house. “I resigned myself to that a long time ago.”

Sam makes a small, outraged noise. “But, Cas –”

“It’s fine, Sam. I’m alright with it. Dean is the one you should be worrying about. He’ll be just an owl before long, and one who’s afraid of flying at that.” Castiel can see the bike tied up against the side of the house, a few bags of groceries still in the basket. He raises his voice. “Isn’t that right, Dean?”

Surprised, Sam turns around in time to see the shape of Dean’s transformation from owl to human through the frosted glass of the door. He pulls it open and Dean gives them an embarrassed little wave. “How’d you know I was listening?”

Maybe it was his magic that warned him to look toward the house. Maybe it was something else. Castiel doesn’t know what to tell him and all he can do is give a shrug in response.

“Sorry.” Dean ducks his head, unable to look at either of them. “About everything.”

“I said it’s fine. I’m not mad.”

It’s the truth. He isn’t angry. Castiel isn’t even sure if he’s properly upset. The only thing that he knows for certain is that he’s sad. It would have been nice if Dean was truly his Familiar. They get along well and he finds that he really would have liked that to be true. Of course nothing is perfect. Nothing ever works out that well and Castiel doesn’t look forward to losing his new friend in just a few months.

“How come you’re not pissed?” Sam looks back at him. “He lied to you, Cas.”

“And I told you I suspected as much at the Choosing.”

After a minute of glancing between them, Sam throws his hands in the air. “I give up. You’re both insane. I’m going to go pick up Jess.” He pushes past Dean and transforms as he crosses the yard, taking wing and soaring around the corner of the house and out of sight.

“He’s pissed at me.” Dean says flatly, looking back at Castiel. “Like – really, really, pissed at me. Honestly, I’m pretty surprised that you’re not super mad at me too. Even if you ‘understand’ and you ‘suspected’ and everything. Seriously.”

Castiel shrugs and pulls his gloves on again. “Being angry is a waste of time. It wouldn’t change anything. The only thing for us to talk about is what you plan to do now.”

“I don’t know.” Dean shuts the door and makes his way around the lines of tables to him. He picks up the notebook and pencil, ready to record anything Castiel says about the plants. “I mean, what do you want? Do you want me to leave?”

“You can stay, if you’d like. You’ll be close to Sam here, and he’ll calm down soon enough.” He gets out a box of ear plugs and hands a set to Dean. “Nothing between you and I needs to change. As far as I’m concerned, nothing has.”

“You’re too nice for your own good, Cas.”

The smile he gives Dean only earns him a frown in return. “There’s a difference between being nice, and being tired. I’m tired of worrying about needing a Familiar. I’m tired of struggling with failing magic. I’d rather just get on with my life and you’re welcome to join me in it for as long as you choose to stay.”

Dean’s frown grows deeper, watching as Castiel puts the earplugs in. He says nothing more, but Castiel can almost feel the words filling the space behind his lips. With a sigh, Dean pushes the plugs into his ears – though he still winces at the scream when Castiel pulls the mandrake from the pot to measure and record its growth.

When they’re putting the groceries away later, Dean shuts a cupboard and turns to Castiel sharply. “I want to stay here. I don’t know how much me I’ll still be after I change, but if I’m still me enough, I want to stay after that too. Please.”

“I would like that.”

And this time Castiel’s smile gets one in return.

*

From that day on, Castiel stops using his magic completely. There’s no point to fighting with the simplest of spells anymore. It doesn’t even make much difference in his life. He already rarely uses it. Now it’s easier to focus on his potions and herbalism studies and throw himself completely into his work at the apothecary where he mixes all sorts of salves and medicines.

After another week, it’s apparent even to his coworkers that the bond with Dean didn’t take. Dean as much as tells them one day when he refuses to change to his owl form for some lovely mice that Meg had the forethought to catch for him. He claims it’s because he doesn’t like mice, but Castiel knows he considers them a treat on occasion.

Later that same day, Castiel confronts him about it. Dean explains that his own magic is deteriorating too. He can only change so many times a day before it’s too exhausting for him. Changing too much runs the risk of being stuck as an owl for part of the day. With his fear of flying, it’s frustrating to get around let alone get something to eat. Which further explains his love of human food and why Castiel has noticed that he spends more time in his human form than he does his owl.

It is rather different from what Castiel knows of Sam. He usually spends equal time between being human and being an owl. Jess likes to use him to carry messages to her friends in the neighbourhood when she feels like being fancy instead of texting. Sam is also rather fond of hunting for his own food.

“If I asked, would you tell me why you’re afraid of flying?” Castiel asks, not looking up from his textbook in case Dean decides that he can’t talk while they’re making eye contact.

“I guess.” Dean sighs and kicks his heel against the edge of Castiel’s desk. He shouldn’t be sitting on it, but Castiel is enjoying his company too much to say anything about it. “I tried flying before I was ready.”

Now Castiel looks up, watching the side of Dean’s face as he stares at the far wall and the shelves of jars covering it. “I was only a few weeks old, just a fledgling. But seeing mom and dad flying all over the place, shit, I wanted to try it so bad. I waited until they were both away dealing with their Witches and gave it a shot.”

“Your wings couldn’t possibly have been developed enough for that.”

“They weren’t.” Dean snorts and gives Castiel a wry look. “I dropped like a rock and busted a wing and a leg. I was in the infirmary for months and wasn’t allowed to start transforming until I’d gone through rehabilitation. They were worried if I transformed before I was properly healed that my human form would be fucked up somehow.”

Castiel tilts his head to the side and regards Dean closely. “So it was a traumatic experience for you?”

“I barely even like heights unless there’s someone around to catch me.” He suppresses a shudder and looks down at his hands. “I know I can fly now and I have done it, when the Caretakers basically forced me to, but it kinda gives me a panic attack. I’m a pretty shitty owl.”

“Good thing you’re not going to get stuck as one in a few months.”

Dean snorts a small laugh and backhands Castiel’s shoulder as he hops off the desk. But his smile is genuine and it seems Castiel’s attempt at a joke was successful. Knowing this pleases him far more than it probably should.

*

During their days off from the apothecary, Dean spends all his time with Sam while Jess is in school. Most days he comes with Castiel to work, though some he stays at home to hang with Sam. Their relationship has improved since the greenhouse. Jess had a talk with Sam later that day and put some more sense into his head, pointing out that it would be foolish of him to waste what little time he has left with his brother by being angry with him.

Dean’s evenings are, more often than not, spent with Castiel. He seems hell bent on converting Castiel to his beloved medical soap opera. Which means that almost every evening is spent suffering through episode after episode. It’s still fun, though. Castiel likes seeing Dean get so enthusiastic about something – laughing and excitedly explaining any of the more ‘complex’ plot points that he thinks might have gone over Castiel’s head.

Even then, more than once their evenings turn into long conversations about their lives and dreams. Dean talks about places he wishes he had the time to see, things he would have liked to own, and things he would have liked to do. He talks at length about the perfect car while Castiel often talks about the sky. Flying has always been a dream of his. More than once he’s considered getting a tattoo of wings. If his magic wasn’t fading, he would be trying his hardest to master the flight spell.

It’s a very difficult spell that requires a special permit to be allowed to cast. There are fees to pay and security checks to take to even be allowed to learn it. And there’s a strict list of the objects that you’re allowed to cast it on for actually flying with. Most Witches don’t bother. They consider it too much of a hassle when there are other less troublesome means of transportation.

When Dean hears this, he laughs. “Is that why you like taking that hill in the valley? You let ‘er rip and just go flying down it?” He ruffles Castiel’s hair and pokes at his cheek when he blushes. “And here I’ve been thinking that you’ve been taking that hill just to freak me out.”

“That’s just a bonus.” Castiel shoots back and shoves him away, nearly knocking Dean from the couch.

Dean shoves back and, like many times before, they end up wrestling. Sometimes Dean wins, sometimes Castiel wins. Usually it ends in a draw and they break apart laughing, settling back against the couch to continue watching whatever it was they forgot to pause.

It’s one of the many things Castiel will miss doing when Dean is gone.

*

Castiel nearly snaps his pencil in half when the first chords of the song start echoing through the house. He’s got an exam in a few days that he needs to study for and Dean is making it nearly impossible to concentrate. It’s all well and good that he’s trying to be helpful by cleaning the house, but does he have to take over the stereo system to do it? Better yet, does he need to crank every single one of his favourite songs to a decibel that shakes the very foundations of the Earth?

He’s already told him a half dozen times today to turn it down, and Dean has sworn each and every time ‘It’s just for this one song, Cas. Listen to that guitar solo!’ and continue on into a rather good air guitar. But none of that changes how Castiel needs to study. Usually, he can handle a low volume. Background sound is just background sound. But when it’s making the windows rattle in their panes and Castiel starts worrying about complaints from the neighbours – that’s when it becomes a problem.

Which just might mean that he needs to find a way to get Dean to stop cleaning.

Sighing, he goes to the living room where Dean is vacuuming and wiggling his hips in time with the music. Castiel can understand turning the volume up to hear the song over the sound of the vacuum, but right now it’s at a level that has left the line of ‘excessive’ in the dust. It’s a tad unnecessary, but Castiel pulls the plug on the whole sound system. Dean spins around in surprise, a blush rising in his cheeks. He winces and immediately looks contrite, flipping off the vacuum so they can actually hear each other speak.

“Sorry. But it was Back in Black, Cas. Y’can’t not turn that up.” A small, apologetic smile lifts his lips and all the rage Castiel had evaporates.

He doesn’t have the heart to be furious with Dean over this. “Stop vacuuming and come quiz me.”

“But the house –”

“The house can wait until after exams. They’re the only time I actually need to go to campus and I really need this time to study, Dean.” Castiel drops the cord for the sound system and gestures for Dean to follow him. “Come quiz me. Just another hour or two and then you can clean and blast music until you’re deaf in both ears.”

“You could just get me my own iPod, y’know.” Dean teases, leaving the vacuum where it is as he follows Castiel back to his work room. “Then all you’d have to deal with is my horrible singing.”

Castiel won’t admit it out loud, but Dean’s voice is better than the most of the original singers of the songs. He’d prefer listening to him belt out Back in Black as opposed to the mind numbing screeching of the actual band. He also won’t admit that if Dean was going to be staying indefinitely, like a proper Familiar should, he would have bought him a top of the line phone with built in music storage the moment he would have mentioned wanting one.

*

They’re standing side by side at the front counter, working in tandem as if they’ve been doing it for years instead of barely more than a month. Christmas is a busy time as people buy tonics and salves to deal with the aches and pains that come with the colder weather. Even if they live too far south for them to actually get any snow, the northern winds bring a bit of a chill into their valley.

While Castiel works the cash register, Dean carefully bags and boxes the purchases. Something tingles along Castiel’s spine whenever Dean is behind him, moving out of his sight. It’s a familiar feeling now and he ignores it. He’s always been very aware of people around him and it probably isn’t anything different – certainly nothing specific to Dean.

It’s not like Castiel notices that he sometimes catches himself drifting into a cloud of thoughts that revolve around Dean. Mostly he wonders what it’s like for him, knowing that in a little more than a month he’s going to be a shadow of himself – maybe even less. It must be like the people who find out they’re sick with something not even magic can cure, the people that the doctors tell them they only have so many months to live.

He doesn’t like that thought and Castiel shies away from it whenever it manages to creep into his head. The idea of Dean even remotely dying is as unappealing to him as Jess or Sam passing away too. It’s a little surprising at how quickly Dean keeps burrowing deeper and deeper under Castiel’s skin. Even though they spend every day together, is it really possible for them to just click like this?

For Castiel it feels like he’s known Dean for years instead of barely a month. And he’s surprisingly okay with it. He just has to fight with trying not to think about how Dean is fast becoming his best friend and there’s a ticking timer on their relationship.

Thinking about that now only renews Castiel’s attempts to focus on the customers. His people skills, as Meg calls them, are apparently a little rusty and somewhat awkward (not exactly her words, but close enough). His smiles are nice, but often times he’s not exactly sure of the right thing to say. That’s another spot that Dean seamlessly fills for him. The proper words come to him as easily as the lyrics of his favourite songs do.

It was a little amazing the first time Castiel saw him talk down an irate customer who had bought the wrong tonic and blamed the attendant at the time for selling it to them without checking the label – though they hadn’t done that themselves first. After the customer had left, Dean had ranted for five straight minutes about how ridiculous they were, but he hadn’t shown that at all while he was handling them. It was rather impressive, actually.

When the rush of customers dies down enough, Dean disappears for a little while. Castiel doesn’t know where he goes, but he doesn’t mind. The Familiars aren’t required to do work while they’re here. They don’t get paid for it and it’s entirely up to them to do whatever they want to do as long as it’s within store policy. He’s lucky that Dean even wants to come to the apothecary with him instead of staying at home and spending extra time with Sam.

His stomach rumbles for the umpteenth time and Castiel quietly berates himself for having forgotten to pack them a lunch this morning. They had been running late when he’d gotten distracted with spraying down a new plant he purchased for the greenhouse. It’s a temperamental species that requires quite a bit of water. That reminds him, he should send Dean home to give it another misting. He’ll ask him to do it when Dean comes back from wherever he went.

Twenty minutes later Castiel is considering a run to the corner deli for a sandwich when Dean walks in the front door. In his hand is a large paper bag. It looks eerily like the brand that they keep at home and use for their lunches.

“Lunch time.” Dean announces, gesturing for Castiel to join him in the break room. “Meg, you’re up.”

She crinkles her nose at him, but makes no objection. Castiel hands her the key to the register as they switch places. He follows Dean and reaches for the bag. “Where did you go?”

“Took the bike and went home.” He lifts the bag out of reach and hooks his foot around the leg of one of the chairs, pulling it out and pointing at it. “Sit and relax for thirty minutes.”

Castiel obeys if only because he really is hungry and Dean seems set on denying him the contents of the bag until he listens. A still warm container of soup is removed from the bag with a flourish and placed in front of him, joined by a sleeve of crackers and another container of orange slices. Dean gets a bottle of water from the fridge and a spoon from the drawer and sets them almost reverently in front of him.

“Bon appétit.” He grins, sitting opposite Castiel and pulling out almost identical containers for himself.

“You got us lunch.” It’s a little hard to wrap his head around. “You went home and made us lunch.”

“Don’t sound so surprised.” Dean huffs, crumbling the crackers into his soup. “That weed thing needed to be watered, right? Two birds with one stone.”

Castiel looks up in surprise. “You watered the – Why did you – I mean, how did you know to –”

He shrugs and twists the cap off his own bottle. “You said it this morning. I figured you were too busy to do it yourself, so I’d took care of it. You were going to ask me, weren’t you?”

“I – Yes, I was.” After a few moments of watching Dean eat, Castiel realizes he’s forgotten his manners. “Thank you, Dean. This was very considerate of you.”

A strange expression flickers across Dean’s face before he ducks his head almost shyly. “Yeah, well, I didn’t want you bitching about killing the plant or something later. Don’t get used to it.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” Castiel teases as he picks up his spoon.

He’s pleased by the smile he gets in return and something warm pulses tightly in his chest. The conversation they fall into does well to distract him from the thought that he really shouldn’t get used to Dean being there for things like this.

*

Christmas and New Year sneak up on everyone. Before Castiel realizes it, he and Dean are being dragged over to Jess’s house on her parent’s invitation for a big dinner and gifts in the morning. They’ve done this every year since his parents died and he’s glad to see that it’s no different just because Dean’s here this time. It’s just a small get-together of their two families, although Castiel’s family has only been him – and Gabriel for those few years that he stayed here.

Despite being small, the atmosphere is warm and welcoming. It’s exactly what Castiel needs to forget that this is going to be Dean’s last Christmas. He and Sam spend a decent chunk of time trying to explain how the holidays are celebrated in the Centers. It seems like a mess, as it’s done differently at each Center. Some do a Secret Santa, some don’t even celebrate. Castiel can’t imagine how confusing that must be, but Dean swears that it never stopped the kids from having fun. He made sure of it.

He and Dean spend the night in Jess’s guest room, even though his home is next door. Dean sleeps perched on the headboard, his head tucked under his wing. The soft coo of his snores lulls Castiel to sleep. As nice as that is, he certainly doesn’t appreciate how Dean screeches in the morning to wake him and cackles madly as he flaps out of the way of the pillow Castiel throws at him.

They spend all of Christmas day with Jess and Sam. She has a video game console and they spend hours and hours fighting over who gets to play which character. It gets extremely competitive at some points and more than once Dean and Sam cheat, actually shoving at each other to try and cause distractions. It doesn’t go over well when Jess uses a cloud charm to wrap their heads in a fog too dense for them to see through.

Despite all that, Castiel still wins.

They spend New Year’s Eve at their house too, watching the countdown on the TV and blowing into noisemakers when the ball drops. By then Dean has had his fair share of drinks and he cheers louder than everyone when Jess kisses Sam to the tune of the chimes of the grandfather clock in the hall.

When Castiel offers to get everyone a refill of their drink of choice, Dean follows him into the kitchen to help. “Hey, Cas, hey. Is it weird that they – y’know, they –” He gestures back towards the living room. “Witch and Familiar. Is it weird?”

“No. It’s not overly uncommon considering how close the bond is for some.” He shrugs and squints down at the rum he’s measuring out into the glasses. Satisfied, Castiel holds his hand out to Dean without looking. “Could you hand me that bottle of Coke, please?”

Instead of handing over a two liter of Coca-Cola, Dean wraps his hand around Castiel’s and pulls him close. He stumbles into Dean’s side and any complaint he has is muffled through the kiss Dean plants on his lips. Castiel goes very still and his eyes go very wide. It’s not his first kiss – that was claimed by Jess on a dare from Sam when Castiel was thirteen – but it is certainly a surprise.

“Good.” Dean’s murmurs against his mouth. He tastes like the whiskey he’s been drinking all night. His smile is a little lopsided when he steps away, but his eyes are wide, clear and captivating. He shoves the bottle of Coke into Castiel’s hands. “Happy New Year, Cas.”

It’s the only thing he says before he leaves the room, his own glass already full again. Castiel remains where he stands, dumbfounded and with more than just a drunken tingle chasing itself through his bones. A million questions run through his head and none of them have an answer. He doesn’t move until Jess’s mother comes to check on him.

Within an hour, Dean is slumped over and snoring against the armrest. Castiel leaves him there for the night and spends too long staring at the ceiling of the guest bedroom, replaying those few seconds they kissed over and over in his mind. The questions keep spinning circles around his head and Castiel has narrowed them down to a small list.

 

- Why did Dean kiss him?
- Is Castiel going to be angry at him for it later?
Is he angry at him for it now? No, he decides. He’s not. Which makes the previous question moot because it’s foolish to be mad at him later when he isn’t mad now.
- Will Dean want to kiss him again?
- Does Castiel want Dean to kiss him again?
- Would he like it if Dean kissed him again?
Should he let Dean kiss him again? No, he shouldn’t. Not with less than a month before Dean will be gone for good.
- Why did Dean kiss him?

In the morning, Dean is bleary eyed and groggy. He gives no hint that he remembers much of anything from last night and he doesn’t mention it at all throughout the rest of the day. Castiel isn’t sure if he’s disappointed or not, but he refrains from saying something about it. They only have a month left and he doesn’t want anything to be awkward between them for it.

Despite that, he catches himself staring at Dean’s mouth several times over the next week and wondering what his lips taste like when he hasn’t been drinking whiskey.

*

The potion bubbles and fizzes inside the little cauldron and Castiel watches it carefully, waiting for the colour to change before he adds the next ingredient. He holds a perfectly measured spoonful of powdered holly leaves poised above the pot and he holds his breath. The change will be subtle at first and he needs to add the ingredient before it completely changes from maroon to magenta.

Dean is seated on the chair next to his work table, his elbow on the desk to rest his head against his fist while he reads the book propped open in his lap. There isn’t much for him to do right now. The ingredients have all been collected and the shop has been dusted and swept. It’s not Castiel’s turn today to be at the counter, so Dean is rather bored right now. He’s announced it to everyone in the shop multiple times this hour alone.

When the bell chimes above the door, Dean lifts his head and whines. “Can I do it?”

“Pamela is supposed to, you know that.” Castiel mutters, barely daring to blink. “Please don’t talk to me right now, Dean. I need to concentrate.”

“Pam is on a smoke break. Didn’t you hear her?”

No, he hadn’t. He winces when the bell at the front desk rings for their attention. Meg is at another of the work benches just a little ways down the wall from him and he knows she’s not doing anything even remotely important. He can hear the clicking of her cell phone from here. She should get it, but she won’t because she never does anything without being asked first.

Huffing quietly, Castiel waves his free hand but never takes his eyes off the elixir. “Fine, go ahead.”

“Yes!” Dean jumps to his feet and nearly runs across the shop with an apology and greeting already prepared for the patron.

Immediately Castiel drops him from his attention. This tonic is more important than anything right now and he can’t mess it up or he’ll have lost hours of – There! The colour shifts marginally, just lightening a little and Castiel carefully shakes the holly from the spoon before dipping it in to stir. Instead of turning magenta, the liquid bubbles into a soft shade of rose and Castiel silently applauds himself for his perfect timing. Now it’s just a matter of setting a timer and waiting five minutes before throwing in a pinch of diced pine needles. Following that, it needs to simmer for half an hour and it will be done.

If only the jar marked ‘pine needles (diced)’ wasn’t empty when he pulls the cork plug from the top. Hurriedly, Castiel brushes past Meg where she’s leaning back in a chair with her feet up on the work desk. She’d get in so much trouble if the boss could see her now, but Castiel says nothing. There’s no point in chastising her when the clock is ticking and he needs to find the spare jar now.

He drops to his knees and starts rummaging in the cupboard where they keep the spare ingredients. It’s in need of an organizing and if she’s lacking anything better to do, Meg could be doing it. He keeps a running count of the seconds in his head and at two and a half minutes, Castiel starts to get frustrated. He can’t find the extra jar and he needs it.

“Hey, Clarence. What’s got your panties in a twist?” Meg asks, her voice at his shoulder.

“Pine needles. Diced.”

“It’s on the shelf.”

“I took that one. It’s empty.” He shoves aside the bag of cedar shavings and the container of mulched mandrake. “Where are the extras?”

“Like I said, on the shelf.” Meg sounds farther away and he looks over his shoulder to see her pluck the jar from the same space he took the other one. “I saw the spot was empty, remembered we were low on the other one, and put this one out in the meantime. I thought the other jar was in the wash or something.” She tosses it to Castiel and he nearly goes to his knees again to catch it. “There ya go.”

“Thank you.” He smiles at her and shakes it, listening to the cshh-cshh against the sides of the jar. Full.

Dean’s laugh stops him short before he returns to his desk. Castiel glances over the low dividing wall between their work space and the main shop to see him leaning his elbows on the counter and talking to the elderly woman in front of him. She’s barely tall enough to see over the counter, but Dean is smiling down at her and laughing as she gestures wildly at a photo in her hand. Castiel knows her. She likes to talk about her granddaughter and how she’s a genius at the violin.

Something hot slides through Castiel chest at the way Dean is giving her his complete attention; laughing and nodding his head at the stories she’s telling. The sensation prickling under his skin gets worse when Dean lifts his head and looks directly at him. His smile turns a little softer and he lifts his hand in a small wave. Castiel wishes he could say that this was the first time the pulse of his blood hasn’t burned like this when he looks at Dean.

He tries not to think about how he knows what that smile feels like against his lips.

The patron looks over too and Dean dips his head, whispering something to her. He gestures at himself before pointing at Castiel and her smile grows. She nods and waves at him too. Castiel can feel a blush creep up his neck as he hesitantly waves back.

When the timer goes off it snaps him from the distraction and he curses, rushing back to his desk to finish the potion. Meg laughs at her desk and Castiel tries valiantly to ignore her. Thankfully, he’s not too late with adding the pine needles and the tonic looks exactly as it’s supposed to when he turns the flame of the Bunsen burner down beneath the small cauldron.

“Next time, I’m going to take a picture.” Meg announces to him, not even looking away from her phone as he walks past to return all the ingredients to their places on the shelves. She's balancing the chair on its hind legs, teetering dangerously back and forth.

“Of what?”

“The stupid face you make when you look at him.”

This time he feels the blush in his ears and only briefly does he entertain the thought of kicking the chair out from under her. He discards the idea when she glances over at him, a wicked smile curving her lips.

“You should see the one he makes when he looks at you.”

*

“I don’t like this idea anymore.” Dean hisses, feathers puffing as he hunkers down in the basket.

Castiel pulls the thick falconry glove onto his right hand and flexes his fingers in the worn leather. It’s on loan from Jess’s mother who kept it from the days when her father was a Caretaker. It’s old and pockmarked from where thousands of talons have dug into it, but it will suffice for what they’re going to do today.

“If you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to.” He twists on the bicycle seat to look down at Dean. “We don’t even have to take the hill first. I can bike along the street and I’ll go slowly.”

Dean’s eyes are wide, the black stark against the white feathers that form crescents between them. He’s almost quivering in the basket and Castiel feels a little bad for even suggesting that they try this. Though he had been entirely joking when he mentioned it over dinner a few days ago.

It had been bothering Castiel for a while now that while he craves to know what it feels like to soar through the sky, Dean actually has the ability to do it but chooses not to because of what happened to him as a fledgling. Of course Castiel understands traumatic experiences – he’s had a few of his own over the years (it only takes one spider egg sac in your shoe, to scar you for life, only one).

“I’m gonna be an owl for good soon.” Dean huffs, shaking himself out and standing to his full height in the basket. “I gotta get used to this. Either that or I’m going to starve.”

He hops up onto the edge and gestures with a wing for Castiel to bring his arm close. His talons dig into the leather over Castiel’s fingers as he closes his feet around them. Carefully, Castiel folds his thumb over top of them, an extra precaution – almost like a seat belt. Dean ruffles his feathers and flexes his wings, nearly cuffing Castiel in the head.

“I’m ready.” But after one look at the hill before them, he turns his head around a hundred and eighty degrees. “But let’s go that way first. We’ll work our way up to the hill.”

Laughing, Castiel complies. He carefully walks the bike around to face the other direction and starts at a leisurely speed, his other hand firmly wrapped around the handlebar though he could easily bike without holding on if he wanted to. It’s for Dean’s sake that he does it, mostly.

Castiel finds it very hard to keep his eyes on the sidewalk and the road. He wants to keep looking at Dean, hoping to see when he finally opens his eyes and stops simply leaning into the wind. It’s from the corner of his eye that he sees Dean open his wings just a bit. By the time they’ve gone several blocks and turned up and down various streets, Dean’s wings are fully spread and Castiel’s arm is aching from both the angle and holding him up.

When he comes to a stop back at where they started, Dean hops onto the handlebar and looks up at Castiel with the closest thing to reverence possible on the face of an owl. “That wasn’t so bad!”

He rolls his shoulder and rubs at it, his whole arm feeling like dead weight. “I’m glad you think so.”

Dean cocks his head to the side, blinking a few times before he reaches out to fold his wing around Castiel’s elbow. “Your arm sore?”

Castiel can feel a blush creeping up his neck and for the life of him he can’t understand why. “A little.”

“Are you tired?”

“Not particularly.”

Without notice, Dean hops from the handlebars, beating his wings once to stay aloft long enough to transform next to the bike. Castiel twists to watch him untie the basket from the rack. He dumps the cords in it and pulls the falconry glove from Castiel’s hand, adding it to the pile. There’s no point in questioning what he’s doing. Dean will do it regardless of what Castiel says.

With a firm grip on the bike to keep it from falling over, Dean guides Castiel to shuffle backward off the seat. It’s not exceptionally comfortable, but it leaves Castiel standing over the rack and the back wheel. He’s more than a little confused about what it is that Dean is attempting to do and when he asks, Dean shushes him and kneels.

“Put your foot here.” He grabs Castiel’s ankle like it’s not an invasion of his personal space and lifts it to the large bolt sticking out of the rear dropout of the wheel. “Be careful and don’t get anything caught.”

“I’m not standing on the gears, Dean.”

“These aren’t the gears. Just don’t really move around much and sit on the rack. You’ll have to hold the basket in your lap.” Dean stands up and looks at him expectantly. “Now you can sit back and relax and I’ll take us home.”

Castiel rolls his eyes but does what he’s told, though he doesn’t bring up his other foot to rest on the bolt until Dean has his leg over the bike and he’s ready to go. The basket is wedged uncomfortably between Castiel’s stomach and the seat edge. He isn’t expecting Dean to reach back and grab his hands, guiding them up to his hips.

“Don’t want you falling off.” Dean grins over his shoulder. “Just hold on to me.”

He’s thankful that Dean turns away before the blush heats his skin. Castiel swallows thickly and carefully curls his fingers into Dean’s belt loops. For the entire ride home, he hates the basket in his lap for being the only thing keeping him from being able to justifiably lean against Dean’s back.

*

“Cas?”

He isn’t sure if it’s Dean calling his name or the rhythmic knock at his bedroom door that wakes him, but Castiel is definitely awake. And at two in the morning, he’s not exactly pleased about it. Rolling over, he pulls his pillow over his head and tries to ignore it for another few minutes. The fact that it actually continues without pause shows that Dean is tenacious, annoying, and this had better be important.

When he throws his blankets back, Castiel immediately regrets the decision. It’s much colder in his room than he expected. Tonight is probably the coldest night this winter and he shivers as he shuffles to the door in his slippers, yanking it open mid-knock. Dean is standing there, hunched over with one arm wrapped around his chest and the other poised to knock again.

“What is it, Dean?” Castiel grumbles, rubbing his arms through the thin flannel of his shirt. “It’s the middle of the night and it’s freezing.”

“You pitched a fit the last time I turned up the thermostat.” Dean gestures down the hall at the little white box on the wall. “Can I turn it up now?”

“I was fine until you woke me. If you stayed in your bed, you’d be warm too.” He points across the hall at Dean’s bedroom. “Go, and actually put on a shirt. That will do wonders, I’m sure.”

Dean shakes his head and rubs his arms. “I can’t sleep with a shirt on.”

“Then sleep as an owl. You feathers will keep you warm.”

“Just let me turn up –”

Castiel rolls his eyes and grabs the edge of the door. “Unless you want to start paying the heating bill, I suggest you put on some clothes or change form. Grab an extra blanket if you must. The thermostat is staying as it is.”

Before he can shut the door, Dean slips into the room and cups Castiel’s face. His hands are colder than expected and Castiel jerks back from the touch, slapping his hands away. “What are you –”

“Do you see how cold I am?” Dean complains, tucking his hands under his arms again. “I’ve already got all the blankets and that’s two. The only spare we have is that one over the back of the couch. Either turn up the heat or I’m stealing yours too.”

He narrows his eyes and pushes the door shut. “You wouldn’t dare.”

They glare at each other for only a few seconds before Dean wheels around and throws himself across the room, belly flopping on the bed before Castiel can stop him. He burrows under the covers, drawing them around himself like some kind of cocoon as Castiel watches. Sometimes Dean can be rather endearing with his more childish antics. Right now, in the middle of the night, it’s just annoying.

“Dean.” Castiel says firmly, walking over at a much more sedate pace. “Get out of my bed.”

“No.” Dean mumbles from under the blanket. “It’s warm in here. You can go sleep in my bed.”

“I am not sleeping in your bed.” He crawls onto the mattress and grabs the edge of the blanket, trying to tug it out of Dean’s grip. “Give it back.”

The endeavor proves fruitless. Dean holds the superior strength and he’s much more awake than Castiel is. After a few minutes of poking at the huddled lump under the blanket and one attempt at shoving him from the bed entirely, Castiel gives up and lies down on his side with his back to Dean. He curls in on himself and stubbornly closes his eyes, trying to refocus on the last dregs of sleep he’d had before being so rudely interrupted.

No sooner has he done that does Dean throw the blanket over him too. A heavy arm slides around his waist and pulls him back against a slowly warming chest. Dean really was cold – though it’s his own fault for sleeping in nothing but his boxer shorts. A heated blush fills Castiel’s cheeks when he realizes this, and it only gets worse as Dean’s knees tuck behind his own and his cold nose presses against the back of his neck.

“So warm!” Dean sighs happily and Castiel shivers at the feel of his breath on his skin.

“Dean?” He should be thankful that his voice doesn’t crack.

His answer is a questioning hum as Dean rubs his nose just above the collar of his shirt.

“What are you doing?”

“Sharing body heat.” Dean says simply. “It’s the only other option you’ve left me.” He muffles a yawn into Castiel’s shirt and his fingers curl loosely in the fabric over Castiel’s stomach – which is already flipping over on itself in a dizzying display of acrobatics.

Is it really possible that Dean has absolutely no idea what he does to Castiel?

Since the New Year’s Eve party, Castiel has become increasingly aware of the space Dean has taken in his life. Almost everything about him catches Castiel’s eye. His laugh; his smile; the kindness he shows to complete strangers; the intolerance he has for anyone who speaks down to others; the consideration he has for Castiel in almost everything that he does. His eyes; his teeth, tongue and lips; his hands and fingers – they all distract Castiel almost daily.

Dean has to know. It’s inconceivable that he hasn’t noticed the way Castiel looks at him. Meg noticed. Pam noticed. Even Castiel’s boss has noticed, and he’s rarely in the store as it is. This only makes it all the more difficult for Castiel to cling to the reminder that Dean isn’t here to stay. They don’t have much longer together and then he’s going to be gone. Permanently.

Castiel should tell him to let go. If he’s firm about it, Dean won’t hold him like this. He’d leave the bedroom too, if Castiel really meant it when telling him to go back to his own. But now that they’re like this, he doesn’t want him to. This is more comfortable than Castiel expected it to be. He can’t remember the last time he shared a bed with anyone and he’s strangely pleased to be sharing it with Dean now. This will likely be the only time they do it before Castiel will be alone again.

He won’t be the only one alone, really. Dean might end up alone too. They have no guarantee whether or not his fear of flying will still be present after he turns. If it is, how will he manage to find other owls? He could always stay here, but will he be lonely stuck as a pet? Castiel doesn’t even know how Dean feels about all this.

“Dean?”

“Are you always this chatty when people are trying to sleep?”

Huffing, Castiel rolls onto his back and he isn’t surprised that Dean immediately shifts to curl against his side. “How do you feel –”

“Gonna stop you right there, Cas.” Dean mumbles against his shoulder, squeezing his arm over his stomach. “You know I don’t do that whole ‘let’s talk about our feelings’ crap.”

Castiel sighs and turns onto his side, facing Dean completely. Their knees bump awkwardly and Dean’s arm is still around his waist. Dean tries feigning sleep for all of thirty seconds before he opens his eyes, squinting at Castiel in the dark under the blanket. He’s certain that he imagines the blush in Dean’s cheeks. If either of them is blushing at their close proximity, it’s Castiel.

“What is it?”

He looks down at his hands, resting in the space between them. “Has anyone asked yet how you feel about all this? About using me and the bond not forming, and how you’re going to be –”

“Sam did.” Dean cuts him off again. “He asked me when he forgave me for using you. I feel like shit for doing that, Cas. Y’know that, right?” He continues when Castiel nods. “First you were just the guy I was going to use to get out of there, but then y’kinda turned out pretty awesome and that just made it even harder to search for Sam. If I found him, I was going to leave and that would’ve been one hell of a douche move.”

“It would have.” Castiel nods in agreement, smiling at Dean’s annoyed huff. “But what about being stuck as an owl? And losing yourself?”

For a few moments, Dean is quiet and he watches Castiel’s hands too before he answers. “I dunno. It feels like it’s not really happening but I know it’s going to. I try not to think about it, really. I mean, after it happens I won’t even really know that it did. Maybe.”

He shrugs and makes a frustrated noise, turning over onto his back. The sudden lack of his arm around Castiel’s waist leaves a cold spot and he slides a little closer. To his surprise, Dean lifts his other arm out of the way, holding it up until Castiel gets the message and shuffles up against his side. Immediately, he curls his arm around Castiel’s shoulders.

“I dunno, Cas.” Dean says softly, his eyes on the ceiling. “There’s nothing I can do about it. It’s like dying, I guess. Once it happens, I’m not going to be able to care about it – unless I’m one of those unlucky few who keeps their memories. At least if that happens, I’ll still be able to talk to Sam and hang around here. But it’ll suck not getting to really talk to you anymore.”

Castiel has to focus on Dean’s words and not the sheer amount of skin under his arm right now. “Are you scared?”

“I’m fucking terrified.” He whispers, his arm tightening around Castiel’s shoulders.

What can he say to that? Words build up in the back of his throat, but none make it out and all Castiel can do is put his arm around Dean’s waist and hug him. Despite the casual front Dean always wears, he’s just as scared as Castiel is. He takes no comfort in knowing this, but he resolves to try and make Dean’s last days with him the best he possibly can.

*

Just as the holidays did, Dean’s birthday comes far too quickly for Castiel’s liking. Before they know it, January twenty-fourth is upon them. Jess and Sam come over in the morning to spend the whole day partying with them, knowing full well that by the time the sun comes up on the twenty-fifth, Dean won’t be with them anymore. They don’t dare to mention it while they decorate Castiel’s living room and kitchen with what could be the entire contents of a party supply store. Everyone, Dean included, bakes the cake together.

At Dean’s insistence they play the cheesiest of party games they have at hand.

Pin the tail on the donkey goes exceptionally well, though Sam is accused of cheating and denies it profusely. Hide-and-go-seek doesn’t last very long, as Jess continuously complains that every time she finds a hiding spot, she has to go pee. Castiel silently agrees with her. They play Twister, but Castiel purposefully loses when Sam’s dial spinning has Dean getting almost intimately acquainted with his personal space while both of them are nearly sitting in Jess’s lap.

Dean vetoes Truth or Dare, but he throws himself into Charades. They only manage to play it for half an hour before Castiel discovers that Jess and Sam are cheating, even though they’re on opposing teams. Charades becomes Pictionary and Castiel hates it with a passion. He can draw any number of plants from memory, but ask him to draw a submarine and it looks more like a watermelon than anything else. He suffers through it if only because everything he draws makes Dean laugh and he’s become dangerously addicted to the sound of it.

Castiel tries very hard not to think that he won’t hear it again after tonight.

After cake and dinner, Dean decides to end the evening with a Lord of the Rings marathon. They finish shortly before midnight and by then Jess is nearly asleep on the half of the couch she’d claimed.

As she sluggishly gathers up her things to leave, Sam remains resolutely on the couch, his arms crossed tightly over his chest. “I’m staying here tonight.”

“You live next door.” Dean twists on his corner of the couch to shove at Sam with his foot. “And that’s where your Witch is. You’ve gotta stay with her.”

Sam shakes his head and slaps at Dean’s leg. “You’re my brother. I should be here when you transform for the last time. We don’t even know when it’s going to happen. It could be during the night, it could be during the morning. Either way, I want to be here.”

“Go.” He says firmly. “There’s shit that me and Cas need to talk about.”

The look on his face leaves no room for objections, though Sam tries. He leaves with a sullen pout and more than one look back over his shoulder as he almost has to carry Jess home. Despite his aforementioned ‘shit’ that they need to talk about, Dean doesn’t say anything after they’re gone. He puts in the first Star Wars prequel and they sit through a half hour of that before he picks up the remote and lowers the volume.

“I’m sorry.”

Castiel glances at him and sits up a little straighter, taking his feet off the coffee table. “There’s nothing to be sorry for, Dean. We went over this already.”

Dean shakes his head but doesn’t look away from the TV. His hands curl into fists over his jeans. “You’re going to be alone again.”

He shrugs. This is something he’s thought about at length over the last few weeks. It’s not something he’s accepted, but he knows that it will be hard to adjust to the void Dean’s presence will leave in his life. Castiel looks down at his hands and doesn’t say anything. What does Dean want him to say? He’ll still have Sam and Jess, and there’s everyone else at his job, so he won’t be entirely alone.

“Do you think you’ll leave?” He asks finally. “I mean, when you’re just an owl?”

“I don’t know.” Dean sighs and slides down a little further on the couch, his knees bumping the coffee table. “I don’t know how much of me is still going to be me.”

“I won’t be mad if you’re not you and you leave.” Castiel says softly.

Dean turns his head enough to regard Castiel out of the corner of his eye. “But you’ll be sad.”

“Probably. It’ll be a happy surprise if you’re still sort of you.” He tries to lighten his tone, forcing a grin. “If that happens, I’ll keep you as a pet. I’ll even get you a nice cage.”

Groaning, Dean rolls his eyes and covers his face with one of his hands, trying to hide a smile of his own. “Fuck you, Cas.”

“You’ll have a bell on a string, and a lovely mirror.” Castiel continues. It’s not as hard to fake his smile when he’s making Dean laugh.

Snorting, Dean shoves at his shoulder. “Stop it!”

He leans into Dean’s hand, putting all of his weight on it and slowly inching towards being fully draped against his shoulder. “And I’ll buy you the finest of mice. Imported from France.”

“I said cut it out!” Dean laughs, shoving Castiel away hard enough that it sends him toppling off the couch. He grabs Dean’s hand, dragging him down too. They land in an undignified heap between the couch and the coffee table.

The table screeches across the floor as it gets pushed out of the way by their wrestling. It’s a squirming, laughing, horrible mess that upends the bowl of chips across the table. They’re lucky all the cups were already empty. Castiel hooks a leg around Dean’s and doesn’t think twice about using his hips as leverage to flip them. It’s purely on chance that he gets his hands around Dean’s wrists and manages to pin them to the floor besides his head.

Any thought of rubbing his win in is lost when Dean’s laughter suddenly stops. It falls away with his smile, replaced with a sadness that steals Castiel’s own laugh. His throat feels suddenly dry and his ribs pinch tightly around his lungs. The urge to hug him skyrockets.

“I don’t want to leave you alone.” Dean says softly.

He answers without thinking. “I’m used to being alone.”

The sadness melts into a fierce anger and Dean’s eyes blaze with it. With a sound not unlike a snarl, he flips them again, twisting his wrists out of Castiel’s slack grip to pin his own against the floor. He’s nose to nose with Castiel now, fury filling where sadness had been. “You shouldn’t be. No one should be – especially not yo –

His throat works around the last vowel but the sound is lost against Castiel’s lips as he lifts his head to fill the bare inch between them. He didn’t mean to kiss Dean, but his words and emotions pulled at something inside him. It’s something that’s been building in his chest for weeks and Castiel doesn’t know what to name it, or what to do with it, but Dean keeps drawing it to him. Castiel doesn’t have the energy to fight it anymore – and he finds that he doesn’t want to.

Maybe, if he was a little more witty, Castiel would have said something snappy like ‘Happy Birthday, Dean’ in a mirror of their New Year’s Eve. His head drops back to the floor and he opens his mouth to say something, anything, but no words come out. He doesn’t know what to say and neither does Dean, it seems. He stares down at Castiel with wide eyes.

When he – when they – move again, it’s a flurry of rushed, desperate movement. Dean’s hands leave Castiel’s wrists to bury and twist his fingers into his hair, pressing bruising, biting kisses to Castiel’s lips. The groan that echoes from his throat surprises Castiel almost as much as how simple it is to just touch. He slides his hands down Dean’s sides and up his back again, dragging his shirts under his fingers just because he can.

The floor digs almost painfully into his back when Dean stops kneeling, resting heavily on top of him. Castiel ignores it in favour of spreading his legs to give Dean room. He stifles another moan when Dean’s tongue licks across his lips and he opens to it. This time Dean doesn’t taste like whiskey. He tastes like something well beyond Castiel’s understanding and he swallows it hungrily.

He wraps his arms around Dean’s shoulders when Dean moves, getting his knees under him again and using one hand at a time to make sure that Castiel lifts his legs enough to rest his thighs on top of his. It’s a rather exposed position, but Castiel doesn’t have the time to be embarrassed by it. Dean is extremely distracting with the slide and twist of his tongue. He pushes one arm under Castiel’s shoulders and wiggles the other under his waist, bodily lifting him from the floor until Castiel is almost sitting in his lap.

By then Castiel has decided that they’re not close enough. As Dean shuffles them around until he can lean Castiel back against the couch, he works on dragging Dean’s shirts over his head. Dean gets the hint and his own hands fumble with the buttons of Castiel’s shirt. They pull apart from the kissing long enough for Dean’s shirts to be pulled off – but that’s enough to break the desperation consuming them.

Dean’s chest is heaving and he stares at Castiel, a heated flush creeping down across his freckled collarbone. Castiel immediately wants to taste it. He wants to run his tongue over his skin and taste the sweat on it. The desire to do that is overwhelming and he leans forward, only to be stopped by Dean’s hand on his chest.

“We shouldn’t –” He swallows thickly and licks his lips, eyes flicking down to Castiel’s mouth. “Shit. We shouldn’t do this, Cas. It’s – fuck, it’s my last night and I –”

“I want to.” Castiel interrupts with full conviction – surprising even himself as he reaches out to slide his fingertips over Dean’s cheek, tracing the curve of his ear and the edge of his jaw.

Everything happening now, everything that could happen still, they’re things he’s thought about with increasing frequency since New Years. That list of questions only got longer, more in depth and now – now Castiel wants this, wants Dean. He wants him before he’ll lose the chance to have him. And God help him, he hopes that Dean wanted – wants – this too.

He tugs Dean’s hand out of the way and it goes easily. Dean falls forward against him, his hands scrabbling to push Castiel’s shirt from his shoulders and work it from his arms. Between their kisses, Castiel somehow manages to keep talking, panting the words against Dean’s mouth when his hands slip across his chest in a quest to find the sensitive spots Castiel didn’t even know he had.

“Wanted to, Dean.” Castiel gasps, arching into the curious brush of thumbs over his nipples. He digs his fingers into Dean’s back, holding on as he tries to get out everything bubbling in the back of his throat. “I didn’t think you – because you were going to – Couldn’t stop thinking about –” A small cry shakes through him when Dean actually pinches. “– thinking about when you kissed me.”

Dean hisses a curse against his lips and surges forward again, crushing their mouths together and licking in possessively. Apparently he does remember New Years and Castiel doesn’t have time to question it when Dean’s hands fall to his hips, holding them in place as he starts to rock against him, pushing him back into the couch with each roll forward. The friction is exquisite and maddening and Castiel arches into it, surprising himself with how easy it comes to him to cross his ankles behind Dean’s back and pull him closer. 

Heat is searing his insides, slicing through his chest like every time he’s looked at Dean and seen his smile; heard his laugh; felt his feathers against his cheek on the nights when his sleep was restless enough that Dean felt it necessary to comfort him. Dean groans and drops his forehead to Castiel’s shoulder when he locks his legs around Dean’s hips tightly, struggling to move with him. It’s not enough. He wants more – wants all of Dean before he’ll never get to see – to touch – to hear any of him again.

This want is terrifying and awe inspiring. It’s new and overpowering and Castiel murmurs it into Dean’s hair. With a groan, Dean drags his head back up and the kisses are messy, sloppy and burning, stealing his breath away. Dean’s fingers stumble over Castiel’s belt buckle and the button of his jeans, tugging them open with the harsh scraping sound of a zipper. His hands are everywhere, the heel of his palm pressing down over his underwear against Castiel’s hardening erection; sliding over his chest to tease at his nipples and grinning at how Castiel shivers and gasps; slipping behind him to spread wide and scalding in the small of his back.

Castiel makes an undignified noise of surprise when Dean’s hands drop to cup his ass, squeezing once before he lifts him and stands. He ends up on his back again, this time on the couch with Dean leaning over him. Breaking their kisses again is almost painful, and Castiel nearly sits up after him when Dean pulls away to stand and fumble at his own pants. Castiel digs his heels into the couch and lifts his hips from the cushions, shoving at his clothing to push them off. Dean only manages to get his own jeans open before he helps Castiel remove the last of his and throws them aside.

For a moment he stands above Castiel and looks him over from head to toe. Castiel can feel a blush heating under his skin and he fights the urge to squirm or cover himself. He’s not embarrassed to be seen naked by Dean. Embarrassment has never been something he’s felt around him. Everything with Dean, from the moment he brought him home, has felt so natural. Of course he’s nervous right now, but there are so many of Castiel’s firsts taking place that he’s lost track of them all.

Dean puts one knee on the couch and leans back down over him. Without thinking, Castiel reaches for him. This feels natural too, pulling Dean down to fit their lips together again. These kisses aren’t as heated. They’re gentle, almost reverent, as Dean slides a careful hand up Castiel’s inner thigh. His touches are cautious and curious as he traces Castiel’s erection with his fingertips. The feather-light touch is like lightning and Castiel’s hips twitch, pressing up into his hand.

“You sure ‘bout this?” He whispers into the kiss. “It’s my last night, Cas.”

“It’s your last night.” Castiel repeats, shivering when Dean wraps his hand around him and strokes lightly. “Make the most of it, Dean.” He wants this, wants to have him before he can’t. Doing this now feels right, even if it hurts knowing that he won’t be able to do it again.

“Yeah.” Dean murmurs, rolling his thumb over the head of Castiel’s penis and spreading the pearling pre-come. “How d’you wanna – Have you ever –?”

He shakes his head, dropping it back against the cushions with a groan as Dean’s grip tightens just a little. He’s never done anything like this before. Never got close enough to anyone to even want it. But Dean is different. Dean fit into the empty space in Castiel’s life like he was always meant to be there. Castiel has no preference here. All he wants is Dean and if he could, he would never let him go.

“Don’t move.” Dean whispers, pulling away and off the couch despite Castiel’s moan of protest. “I’ll – I’ll be right back. Don’t move.”

The look of longing he throws over his shoulder as he turns away screams that he clearly doesn’t want to leave. Perhaps that’s why he’s back in barely a minute, a bottle of lube and condoms in his hand. He tosses those into the opposite corner of the couch as he finally kicks out of his own pants. Castiel sits up and reaches for him. It’s his turn to touch, to feel the shape and weight of him in his hands. Touching another man’s penis is somehow at once both like and unlike touching his own.

Dean climbs back onto the couch with him, pressing Castiel down into the cushions. When their erections slide together, it’s with an uncoordinated and messy roll of their hips. Castiel isn’t even ashamed of the numerous sounds that claw out his throat at the friction and feel of everything, of Dean.

He loses himself in kisses and curious, learning touches. Dean seems to know what he’s doing when he guides one of Castiel’s legs up to hook over the back of the couch. The lube is colder than Castiel expected, but it warms quickly as Dean spreads it generously around a place Castiel never gave much thought to – especially not any thoughts like this.

Castiel didn’t think it would feel so good when Dean presses the pad of his finger against that tight ring of muscle, massaging gently until he carefully presses his fingertip inside. It’s electric and Castiel bites his lip, one hand coming up to cover his mouth. Dean smiles against his chest, tongue laving over his collarbone, teeth worrying at his skin, lips kissing his nipples. It’s a sensory overload and the more Dean works his fingers into him, the more Castiel is certain that he’s going to die. He knows there’s so much more coming and he’s not sure how he’s going to survive it.

When he hears the crinkling tear of the condom wrapping, Castiel looks down again and watches Dean roll it over the head of his penis. Dean does it without looking. His eyes – hooded and pupils blown and burning so, so hot – are fixed on Castiel’s.

“You ready?” He asks softly, his hands stroking gently over Castiel’s thighs, his hips, and his stomach.

There’s so much care in those touches that the words get stuck behind a sudden tightness in Castiel’s throat. He can barely nod and he reaches for Dean again, meeting him halfway for a kiss that threatens to char them both. Dean is gentle and slow when he pushes in, trembling under Castiel’s hands as he holds himself still and waits – waits for Castiel to adjust, to feel comfortable enough to shift his hips and whimper at the feel.

Dean filled the chasm in Castiel’s life – an empty space he carried around with him for years. Now he’s filling him in ways Castiel didn’t even know possible and it’s – it’s beyond words, beyond feeling, beyond the physical slide of Dean actually moving in him. It’s beyond anything Castiel knows how to comprehend, and it’s not enough. He’s realized too late that this one night will never be enough.

A choked plea for more shatters the last of Dean’s will. He groans into their kiss and rocks his hips slowly at first, but every new sound he draws from Castiel only seems to goad him further. Soon the couch springs are creaking under them and Castiel is reaching above his head, gripping the armrest to brace himself and push back to meet each thrust. The slick sound of Dean moving in him, the slap of skin on skin, the soft groans Dean gasps into the curve of Castiel’s throat – they’re fuel to the fire burning deep in Castiel’s belly.

He cries Dean’s name when he comes, spilling over his fingers as Dean strokes him fast and quick, a delirious match to the pounding pace of his hips. Dean isn’t very far behind him. He braces his hands against the cushions on either side of Castiel’s hips and lifts his head. His eyes are squeezed shut and there’s a choked mantra of Castiel’s name tumbling from his lips. He kisses Castiel blindly and even though his hands feel heavy and his arms feel like rubber, Castiel cradles him to his chest and guides Dean into proper kisses.

His rhythm stutters when he finally comes, his hips pressing flush against Castiel’s ass while he shudders through an orgasm of his own. Finally, he sags against him, slipping out with a shared wince. Dean struggles to breathe as he relaxes, though that doesn’t last long. He shudders with the effort to get to his knees again, looking down at the sticky mess on Castiel’s stomach and now on his own.

“You okay?” Dean asks, looking up at Castiel as he leans over the edge of the couch to grab one of his shirts. “That was okay?”

Castiel is well beyond the ability to make words. A pleasant, floating feeling has settled into his bones and filled his head with stardust. He’s a little sore in places, and he’ll probably ache in the morning, but it feels good. All of this feels very, very, good. Smiling, he nods and stretches out as Dean wipes them down with one of his shirts. Castiel even manages a laugh when Dean makes a face at having to peel the condom off and tie it.

He drops it to the floor with the shirt and slides back into place over Castiel. “I’ll deal with that later.”

A hum of acknowledgement rumbles in Castiel’s throat as he drags the afghan blanket from off the back of the couch, pulling it down over them both while he folds his arms around Dean. They shuffle around under the blanket until they’re comfortable, though there isn’t much moving needed. Castiel is perfectly happy to let Dean lay on top of him, his head pillowed on his chest and his arms bracketing his sides. It’s nice and warm and he feels too satisfied to even think of anything sad at the moment. In fact, he very well could fall asleep just like this.

“Hey, Cas?” Dean whispers across his skin, eliciting a pleasurable wave of goosebumps. He waits until Castiel hums again, a sign that he’s listening, before he continues. “Thanks. Not for this – I mean, this was frikken great – but, y’know, for everything. I really liked living here. With you.”

Castiel is too tired to open his eyes, but he has the strength left to run his hand through Dean’s hair. He’s not sure if what he says actually makes it out in comprehensible syllables, but he murmurs a reply. “I like having you here with me.”

*

It’s his alarm clock in his bedroom on the other side of the house that wakes Castiel. The winter morning is still dark and Castiel groans, wishing he’d remembered to shut it off for today. Wincing at the ache in his hips, he sits up on the couch and rubs a hand over his face. He booked the day off from work knowing that he wouldn’t have it in him to want to go to the store and deal with anyone.

The afghan slides from his chest to pool in his lap and the sudden chill across his bare chest snaps him awake rather quickly. Castiel looks down at himself and there’s a handful of dark marks sucked into his skin, scattered across his chest. There are probably more on his neck and the memories of last night come crashing back. Hoping beyond hope, Castiel looks around the room for any sign of Dean. He didn’t know if he would actually wake up with Dean still here, owl or not, but he’d still hoped.

Hope is a poison.

Dean’s clothing isn’t on the floor and Castiel’s shirt and pants are folded on the coffee table. The mess they’d made is cleaned up and everything is back where it belongs, though the birthday decorations are still up on the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Swallowing around the lump that rises in his throat, Castiel blinks away the tears that sting his eyes and he stands. With the afghan wrapped around his waist, he takes his clothes to the bedroom and only bothers with pulling on a pair of boxers and sweatpants. He doesn’t feel like finding a shirt just yet.

Out of a last desperate and all too painful hope, Castiel checks Dean’s room. The bed is untouched, still perfectly made from yesterday morning. His room is immaculate. Since he gave it over to him, Castiel has – had – tried to give Dean his space during his time here and hasn’t – hadn’t – looked in the room once. He’ll have to get used to the past tense now.

It feels like something presses heavily against his chest when he sees the boxes of Dean’s things against one of the walls. Only one of the boxes marked ‘clothes’ has been opened, the rest are still sealed, their tape unbroken. There’s nothing else to show that Dean was here except for the backpack hanging on the closet door and a hamper full of dirty clothes.

The clothing he was wearing yesterday is on top of the hamper and Castiel turns away sharply, the back of his throat stinging. He goes back to the living room to set the afghan right on the couch. It’s the only thing he can think to do. Everything feels static around him, like he’s walking through molasses and all he can hear is the throb of his heartbeat in his ears.

He stops in the hall and looks toward the front door. It’s wide open and a winter breeze is gusting through the screen. Castiel pauses before closing it, looking out at his porch and lawn for a few minutes. Everything feels different now. He’d thought, after Dean was gone, that things would just go right back to how they had been before the Choosing. But not even his house looks the same. It’s changed somehow, and he doesn’t know in what way.

Castiel suspects that maybe he’s the one who’s changed.

With a heavy heart and a painful, pinching ache in his chest, Castiel shuts the door and turns the lock. The heavy thud of the bolt sounds so final that when he turns away there are already tears slipping down his cheeks and he does nothing to brush them away.

What is he supposed to do now? Castiel doesn’t know what to do with himself. He leaves the afghan forgotten and goes to the kitchen. Maybe if he eats, he’ll feel better. Though he’s not sure if he’ll be able to swallow anything around the lump in his throat.

He opens the fridge and stares at the contents, announcing to the empty kitchen his observation. “I’m out of eggs.”

It’s ridiculous, really, to be standing in his kitchen in just his pants with tears on his face. But they only come faster when he remembers the last of the eggs were used for Dean’s birthday cake yesterday. He shuts the fridge and leans his forehead against the door of the freezer. His shoulders are shaking and Castiel does his best to try and stop the sobs catching in his throat. What was he thinking, looking for something to eat? All he wants to do is crawl into bed, pull the covers over his head, and forget the world for a while. He just lost his best friend and he feels so very lost.

A sudden tapping at the kitchen window has his heart lurching and it only hurts more when he looks over to see a spotted owl perched on the flower box, knocking its beak against the glass. For one dizzying moment, Castiel thinks it’s Dean. But the spots aren’t the same. There’s a subtle difference in the pattern that Castiel has known for years. It’s Sam.

Wiping at his face, he crosses the kitchen and opens the window, shutting it after Sam flutters through. He transforms before he touches the floor. Castiel knows he sees the marks on his neck and chest, and he doesn’t care. Sam doesn’t say anything, he only reaches out and pulls Castiel into a crushing hug that does manage to make him feel a little better.

“I’m sorry, Cas.” He whispers, resting his chin on Castiel’s shoulder. “Where is he?”

“I don’t know.” Castiel mumbles, curling his fingers in the sides of Sam’s shirt for something to hold on to. “I woke up alone and the door was open. He’s gone.”

Sam makes a small sound and he trembles slightly, as if he’s holding himself back too. With a sniff, he pulls away. His eyes are wet, but he’s not crying, not like the tears that still fall every time Castiel blinks. He guides Castiel to sit at the table and busies himself with making coffee, as if somehow that might make either one of them feel better.

They sit in silence across from each other, taking small sips of their drinks. The minutes tick past slowly and the tears eventually do stop – but Castiel still feels sick and hollow. He doesn’t like this feeling. If it meant that he’d never have to feel like this, Castiel almost wishes that he never agreed to take Dean home from the Choosing. But that would mean never having gotten to know him and Castiel can’t imagine that. Even if they only had a few months, it was still some of the best times he’s had in years and he wouldn’t change a thing.

The creak of the screen door at the front of the house is followed with a heavy thud as the main door rattles in the frame. It surprises them both and they look up in unison, glancing toward the hall. The door rattles again before the bell rings and a staccato knock echoes down the hall.

“It’s probably Jess.” Castiel sighs, standing up and gesturing for Sam to stay in his seat. “I’ll get it.”

His heart feels like it stutters to a stop in his chest when he opens the door. It feels like all the air in the room – in the whole world – is sucked out of his lungs at finding Dean standing there, a bag of groceries in his hand. The bike is behind him, tied to the porch railing. Castiel hadn’t even thought to check to see if it was still here. He stares at Dean, mouth open and heart thudding hard in his chest. There are so many questions on his tongue but he can’t find the words for them.

Dean’s smile is soft and knowing. “G’morning, sunshine. I bought eggs.” He lifts the bag and gives it a little shake. “And I’m gonna say it again, you should get a car. Bikes are a literal pain in the ass.”

It’s only been one night since Castiel heard his voice, but it feels like forever and Castiel catches himself wondering if it was always that deep. He knows what that voice sounds like when it’s happy, angry, sad, or scared, even what it sounds like gasping his name into his skin. Castiel can hardly believe he’s actually hearing it again.

But maybe he’s just imagining this all. Dean can’t really be here, can he?

The crash in the kitchen is enough of a indication that Sam heard Dean too. He takes that as a good sign, because it means he isn’t crazy or seeing and hearing things. Sam comes into the front hall, skidding to a stop behind Castiel and nearly bumping into him. They both stare at Dean before Sam reaches out and actually touches him, a gingerly little shove at Dean’s shoulder to see if he’s real. Castiel hasn’t had the courage to do that.

Laughing, Dean pushes past them both and heads toward the kitchen. “You should check your magic, Cas. That should probably explain everything.”

With twin looks of confusion, Castiel and Sam follow Dean into the kitchen. While he starts putting together breakfast, Sam helps Castiel try his magic. He throws a spoon into the air and Castiel uses the suspending charm on it. The spell comes easily and the spoon is still hovering in the air at eye level when Dean’s finishes frying the bacon. It’s continues to hold out even when Dean moves on to the eggs.

“See?” He grins over his shoulder. “Good as new, right?”

“But how?” Castiel plucks the spoon from the air, releasing the charm since it doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon. He’s going to have to test just what the limits of his spells are now. “Since when? I thought we weren’t – that we didn’t resonate and we aren’t –”

Sam groans and rubs a hand over his face before shoving it through his hair. “You idiots. Just because you don’t know what it feels like to resonate doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen! I told you, it’s something we feel in our very cores. Dean, what did you feel when you met Cas?”

“Butterflies.” Dean says quietly, not looking up as he puts some bread in the toaster. “It felt like butterflies were having a rave in my chest when I saw him.”

Both Castiel and Sam share a surprised look. It’s almost the same description Jess gave when she was asked to describe her resonating. Sam gestures expectantly for Castiel to answer, maybe hoping for something to corroborate what Dean said.

He shrugs and looks down at his hands. “If I felt anything, I was too nervous to tell it apart from the rest. I felt like I was going to be sick the whole time I was there, almost right from when I saw him transform and started thinking that he was an unbonded Familiar.”

“There we go.” Sam gestures at them both. “I felt like my insides were tying themselves in knots when I met Jess. It felt right to go with her. You were there, Cas, you know that we were like peas in a pod right from the start.”

Dean snorts, looking over his shoulder as he grins at them. “I thought it just meant that I wanted to jump his bones.”

“Dean!” Castiel hisses, flushing darkly as Sam rolls his eyes.

“What? You’re hot!” He laughs, giving Castiel a wink and an appreciative once over. “You gonna try and say that you didn’t want a piece of this when we met?” He gestures at himself with the spatula.

Frowning, Castiel crosses his arms over his chest as if that’ll protect him from Dean’s eyes. “No, I didn’t.”

“Liar.”

Castiel shakes his head and looks Dean in the eye. “Not when I first met you, no.”

“You’re serious?” Dean actually sounds surprised. “You didn’t want a piece of this?”

Sam groans but Castiel shakes his head again. “Surprisingly, no. I didn’t even think about it until I got to know you. And still that was only after you kissed me on New Year’s Eve.”

“Oh my God, will you two stop?” Sam hisses, covering his face. “Can we focus on what’s important here and not who wanted to bone who first? Did either of you feel anything in the first few weeks that Dean was here?”

“Hope.” Castiel says softly, leaning his hip against the counter and looking out the window. “I tried not to, but I thought, maybe, that Dean really was my Familiar. But then my magic wasn’t improving and it was only getting worse and I stopped hoping.”

Dean stops shuffling the eggs around the pan and gives him a long look, his expression hard to determine. He puts the spatula down and pulls Castiel to him for a gentle hug. The small gesture calms the riot behind Castiel’s ribs where he’s still caught between being upset that Dean was gone without leaving a note and being happy that he’s here.

“Well, you know what they say.” Sam shrugs, looking away from them both. “Things get worse before they get better.”

Castiel laughs and leans into Dean’s side, almost resting his head on his shoulder. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Fine, whatever.” He throws his hands in the air and stomps towards the back door. “I don’t know what the hell happened with your magics, but either way, they’re back and you’re bonded. Welcome to the club.” He stops with the door open and glances back at them. “Maybe it’s because both your magics were so deteriorated that they just took longer to sync than usual?”

“I’d buy that.” Dean murmurs, his cheek resting against Castiel’s temple.

“Great. I’m going to go wake Jess and tell her you’re not a feathery football.” Sam rolls his eyes again and slams the door behind him.

After a moment of silence, Dean puts his lips to Castiel’s ear, his teeth catching at the lobe. It sends a shiver down his spine. “Or maybe we had to fuck for it to happen.”

Castiel blushes darkly but laughs as he shoves Dean away. He doesn’t have it in him to be annoyed by his choice of words. Right now he’s too happy – happier than he’s been in a very long time. Castiel can’t even remember the last time he felt like this. He lets Dean pull him close again, leaning into the hug and tilting his chin up for a lingering kiss.

“So, you like having me here with you, huh?” Dean teases gently against his lips, his hand coming up to cradle the curve of Castiel’s jaw. “Guess that means it’s okay if I stay?”

“Of course.” He answers, sliding his arms around Dean’s waist and marveling at how easy the action comes to him. “You can even unpack your things now.” A teasing smile lifts the corners of his mouth and Castiel drops his hands to squeeze Dean’s ass. Two can play at this game. “But next time, it’s my turn.”

Dean’s surprised laughter echoes in the kitchen and it’s one of the best things Castiel can recall hearing. His smile only grows when he remembers that this won’t be the last time he hears it.

END