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Smile, Come On

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Amelia died exactly one year ago today.

Even the nurses who had seen it all before hadn’t seen this one coming; not the nurses, or the doctors, and certainly not Cas.

Amelia died exactly one year ago today on what should have been the most wonderful day of their lives.

They’d been so prepared for that day, too. They’d made a birth mix for the delivery room, and Cas remembers laughing when Amelia added Hurts So Good by John Mellencamp to it.

They had picked out a name for the daughter they could hardly wait to meet – Claire Wynn Novak.

They had even painted the nursery in pink and yellow and decorated it with little gray elephants.

At the baby shower they got everything first-time parents need, along with the love and support of friends and family who had travelled far-and-wide; who promised to help them along the way as long as they could laugh at these two college-sweethearts as they clawed their way through parenthood.

Where the hell were all those people now?

No one could have known that a highly-trained and experienced team of doctors and nurses in the most advanced hospital in the county – hell, in the state – wouldn’t be able to stop the pulmonary embolism that took his wife away before she could even hold their baby girl.

Afterwards, Cas overheard one of the attending nurses call it a “freak accident.”

Freak accident – two words he will never forget.

In a place that should be sensitive to pain and suffering, the death of his wife had been termed a freak accident.

The first time Cas held his daughter, she was in her car seat. Since the hospital was liable for all patients until they were outside the building – and that included Claire – Cas was made to sit in a wheelchair with the car seat in his lap while a nurse wheeled them both to the parking lot. Amelia’s parents, Carl and Sally, walked alongside them silently.

And though he tried, he couldn’t fully ignore the sympathetic looks the staff gave him as they were escorted out.

After that Cas didn’t hold his daughter for nearly a week.

Amelia’s parents fed, bathed, and cared for Claire while Cas numbly chose a casket and wrote a eulogy for his wife. He arranged the funeral, collected the death certificates, and cancelled or transferred all of Amelia’s accounts.

There was an inordinate amount of work that went into settling a deceased spouse’s accounts.

Honestly, he doesn’t remember a whole lot from that time.

The only clear memory he has from then was the first time he held Claire in their home. She had been so tiny; only six-and-a-half pounds and 18 inches long. She was wrapped in a pink blanket and sleeping when Sally passed her over to him. He held her close to his chest, the feeling of holding his own child so foreign…

Then Claire opened her eyes – her delicate eyelids blinking heavy with sleep – and looked up at him…

All he saw was Amelia in those eyes, and it only took him a moment to realize that he’d never be able to look at this child without thinking about everything he’d lost because of her.

He remembers a sudden, paralyzing fear that he would never love this child the way he was supposed to; the way a father is intended to love their child. He would never be able to look at his daughter without remembering all that was taken from him.

Sally carefully collected the child from his arms, and that’s when he realized he was sobbing.

How was everyone else so composed? Amelia’s parents – two people who had just lost their only child – were able to function, fussing over a baby that Cas could barely bring himself to look at.

He asked them about it once; about how they were able to keep it together. Carl just gave him a kind smile, put a firm hand on his shoulder, and said, “God will never give us more than we can handle.”

What a beautiful, encouraging… bullshit cliché that was.

Cas had never been a very religious man; he and Amelia were married in a church of course, and Amelia would drag him to Easter services and midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and once she joked about giving up sex for Lent, but that was about the extent of it. God wasn’t really a part of their life together, but at this moment Cas wondered if all this would be any easier if He had been.

***

Amelia’s parents went back home to Pontiac thirteen days after the funeral, and Cas and his infant daughter were left alone – after Cas could prove that he’d finally reached a point where he could hold the child and not break down into debilitating sobs.

Actually, he and Claire had worked out a somewhat comfortable routine that was dictated mostly by the baby’s incessant need to eat, shit, and sleep constantly: Claire would wake Cas early after a fitful night of crying, feeding, and changing, and Cas would lift her from the crib that he’d moved into his room. There was something very soothing about her warm weight in his arms first thing in the morning. He’d carry her downstairs, switch on the coffeemaker and feed her the formula (which Sally, thankfully, had shown him multiple times how to properly heat up) while waiting for his coffee to brew. Then they’d bathe; Claire in the kitchen sink, Cas in the shower with the curtain halfway open so he could keep an eye on her as she wiggled or slept or cried in her little bouncer seat. Cas would then make himself breakfast and watch the news or check his email. Occasionally he found himself reading news articles aloud the child.

Then, Claire would nap and Cas would work in his office until the baby woke and he’d prepare lunch. After lunch he’d bundle her up in her stroller and they’d walk around the quiet neighborhood for a while, then head back to the house where he’d continue working and Claire would lie on her back next to his desk on her Fisher-Price Baby Gym Playmat, cooing at herself in the mirror and sometimes reaching for the noisemakers.

Next, there’d be dinner, probably another bath for Claire, some television, and bedtime – the whole day interrupted with intermittent diaper changes, feedings, and periodic meltdowns from one or both of them.

Bedtime was hard for Cas. Claire was a good distraction from the pain he was perpetually staving off, but when Cas would put her down at six-thirty and he didn’t have her to fuss over and talk at, he was left only with his wandering thoughts of what if and if only and but why? He’d try to busy himself with work and cleaning the house until Claire woke between ten o’clock and midnight for her midnight snack.

Putting Claire down after that was even harder because that was when he’d try to sleep as well. Sometimes sleep came easily; like when Claire had kept him up the night before, he’d usually fall asleep relatively easily and wake to a crying baby around three o’clock to feed and burp and change before conking out again.

Most of the time, however, he’d lie awake listening to the sounds Claire made from her crib and trying not to think about Amelia. But eventually the heaviness of being alone would sink deep into his chest and he’d be left gasping for air as he pressed quiet, dry sobs into his pillow.

How was he ever going to get through this without her?

***

He used to be a dreamer. He used to be happy.

Now he is a single father, a widower, and a loner.

But still, despite it all – the exhaustion and stress and the constant reminder of what he’d never have again – he learned to love his daughter with a dangerous, all-consuming kind of love.

Cas was used up and run down – but he was hell-bent on taking care of Claire. He would never let her find out about the awful, crippling pain that her birth had caused him. He’d never let her know the horrible thoughts that had gone through his mind when he couldn’t sleep at night.

No, Claire would never know.

***

So, where were we?

Ah, yes.

Amelia died exactly one year ago today, because today is Claire’s first birthday.

On their walk Cas takes a slight detour to the market and picks up a small carrot cake, which one of the parenting books he read said was the best type of cake for a baby’s first birthday. He doesn’t remember why.

Maybe he’ll take pictures of her making a mess with the cream cheese frosting.

He doesn’t have many pictures of Claire’s first year – just another one of those things that riddles him with guilt while he lies awake at night.

First, though, he decides to take them to the park. The last time they went to the park Claire had started trying to imitate the noises that the ducks were making. He had tried to get her to do it at home, but she just cooed and made wet raspberry sounds instead. He wanted to get it on video to send to Amelia’s parents. They couldn’t come up for Claire’s birthday, and that was okay with Cas. He wasn’t sure if he was ready to see them yet, and although he knew it would be good for them to be in Claire’s life, he was selfishly afraid of having even more reminders around of… of…

As they walk along the sidewalk to the park, Claire making all sorts of noises in her stroller, they’re met with orange cones and a short corridor of construction on the side of the building resulting in scaffolding being put up in their way. Cas navigates around it as a large bulldozer barrels loudly down the other side of the street. His palms start to sweat.

He hears a noise from above, and when he looks up he sees men walking around atop the scaffolding with tools – tools that could easily slip from their hands.

He starts to panic. Claire is still so small and fragile. There is so much that could go wrong. There is so much potential for a freak accident…

Cas breaks into a jog, pushing the stroller in front of him and getting as far away from the construction site as he can. He runs until he’s halfway through the park and out of breath. He slows and comes to a stop next to an empty bench underneath a brilliant-yellow sugar maple tree. His hands shake as he struggles around the blanket, trying to get Claire out of the stroller, trembling fingers fumble with the small restraints, and when he’s finally able to get her out he pulls her tightly to his chest and nearly collapses onto the bench, gasping for air. There’s no stopping the quiet tears that come as he rocks them both back and forth, trying desperately to control his breathing and squeezing Claire probably a little too tightly. She doesn’t seem to mind, though, and just gurgles and hums as Cas breaks down.

“You can do it sweetheart, push! That’s it, baby you’re so strong.”

“I can’t do it…” He remembers her screams as she pushed; the pain and fear in her voice. “Cas I can’t…”

There’s a shrill beep from a machine attached to his wife.

The doctor says that the baby’s heart rate is dropping rapidly.

A decision is made – an emergency cesarean birth.

He tries so hard to stay strong as Amelia cries. He strokes her hair and kisses her forehead, holds her hand. He tries to soothe her as she’s prepped and cries through the epidural.

“I’m so sorry Cas…”

“It’s just a little hiccup sweetheart, that’s all. No need to be sorry.” He kisses her hand and her cheek, her skin clammy and hot under his lips. “It’s almost over. She’s almost here.”

He stays with Amelia, not watching the doctors cut her open on the other side of the sheet, but instead looking into her eyes and gently wiping her tears.

Suddenly the sound of Claire’s harsh wails sliced through every other sound in the room.

In a flurry of movement, the doctors wipe and wrap the baby in a blanket. They need to take her to the NICU to monitor her breathing – but not before bringing her around the drapery that kept the birth from view.

“Oh Amelia… that’s our baby… That’s our little girl…”

“Is she okay?” Amelia says weakly, trying and unable to move – trying and unable to reach for their child.

“She’s just fine,” the nurse says, congratulating them with a smile as the doctors continue their work on Amelia behind the sheet.

“You did it, sweetheart, you did so good baby.” Tears fall from Cas’ eyes as he kisses his wife’s forehead and cheek and lips. “I love you so much Amelia.”

She weakly kissed back until her eyes closed and she fell asleep.

“Are you alright dear?” A small voice comes from behind them. Startled, Cas turns slightly to see the concerned look of a small, older woman in a long tweed coat.

Cas wants to scream at her. He wants to scream that no, he absolutely isn’t alright, and he’ll never be alright again because he’s alone and scared and he can’t fucking do this on his own.

What comes out instead is a calm, “Yes, I’m alright thank you. We’re alright.” He relaxes his grip on Claire and wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. The woman is clearly a little troubled, not completely believing his words as she looks down at the child then back up at his undeniably red eyes. “Today is Claire’s birthday.” He says, as if that will explain away his odd behavior.

The woman nods and walks off towards the fountain, glancing over her shoulder a few times like she’s considering calling the police to report the man in the park who cannot possibly be stable enough to care for a child.

Cas kisses Claire on the forehead and buckles her back into her stroller then tucks the blanket in around her.

It isn’t until they get home that Cas realizes he left Claire’s cake on the bench in the park.

Chapter Text

Claire is 16 months old when she finally takes her first steps, and while she’s a bit smaller than other children her age, her pediatrician deems that she’s perfectly healthy after giving her a full check-up.

Cas, however, gets an earful.

“You look like shit Castiel.”

“Well, I feel like shit, Pamela.” He says, watching as Claire plays with a few blocks on the linoleum floor of the examination room.

“When was the last time you went out and did something fun, huh? When was the last time you spent a night away from Claire?” Pamela leans back against the counter and crosses her arms. He knows she means well but that sad, worried expression she’s giving him only puts him on edge.

He doesn’t have to think about the last time he’d gone out.

“I haven’t.” He answers, not meeting her eyes and instead focusing solely on Claire.

Pamela doesn’t say anything. He knows she’s upset with him, and despite the fact that she’s more professional than he gives her credit for, he can tell she’s formulating a response that will get her point across and make him feel even worse.

They’ve known each other for a long time. Pamela was Amelia’s roommate in college and her Maid of Honor at their wedding seven years ago. They’d since grown apart, but she always stayed in touch. She was the first familiar face to show up when the news began to spread about Amelia’s passing.

“It’s not healthy, Cas. You’re going to develop a co-dependency on your daughter, and what’s worse is that she’ll develop a co-dependency on you, too.”

Cas doesn’t look up as Pamela talks. Just the mere thought of being away from his daughter makes him anxious. That’s why he’d chosen to take a position that allowed him to work from home.

“Claire needs to socialize with other children to learn the skills she’ll need to function later in life. Has she ever even had a playdate with another child since she was born?”

After a few moments Cas shakes his head and finally looks up.

“You’re probably right.” He concedes.

“I am right. That’s why I’ve got the M.D after my name.” She smiles at him, and he attempts to smile back but it feels much more like a grimace. “I’m going to give you the number to a gal I know. She’s sort of a wonder-woman of early childhood development.” Pamela turns and starts writing on a pad, but continues, “She’s got great references. She used to watch the Obama’s daughters before he became a senator, and…” she tears the paper from the pad with a flourish, “she owes me a favor.”

“The Obamas?” Cas is a little awestruck, but when she tries to hand him the slip he doesn’t take it.

“Yup.”

“And she’s a babysitter?”

“Among other things.” Pamela gives him suspicious looking grin. “I’m recommending that you call her and set up a consultation, that way you’ll get to see how she jives with Claire. You’ll like her, I know you will.”

There’s an uncomfortable tension between them until Pamela speaks softly, her obvious concern gently cutting through the silence.

“You shouldn’t feel guilty about doing something for yourself, Cas. Amelia would want you to…”

“You can’t tell me what Amelia would want.” He interrupts her, practically spitting the words in her direction. He takes a deep breath, trying to steal his nerve, before bending to scoop Claire off the floor and standing up as straight as he can. “Amelia is dead.”

Pamela’s emotions aren’t often obvious, but Cas watches a glimpse of sadness flit across her face before she, too, straightens up.

“Yeah. She is. But you’re not.”

Cas doesn’t have a response to that, so he stands there feeling like an asshole until Pamela speaks again.

“Speaking as a professional, and as your friend whether you like it or not, I’m highly recommending that you consider spending some time apart from Claire. Just a few hours here and there, that’s all.” Cas stares at the piece of paper that she’s still holding out for him, and what feels like ages later, plucks it from Pamela’s fingers before forcing out a “thank you” and leaving the room as quickly as possible.

***

Cas absolutely hates unnecessary sex scenes in movies. He’s actually gotten into the habit of fast-forwarding through them. At first he thought it was because of the baby in the room, then he noticed himself doing it even when she was already put down for the night and he was alone.

God, it’d been a long while since he’d allowed himself to have more than a passing thought about sex, and exponentially longer since he’d actually had sex.

Amelia.

As always, his mind goes back to Amelia.

They’d made love quite a few times while she was pregnant. Cas remembers being afraid that he was going to hurt the baby by putting too much pressure on her stomach, but Amelia was so lovely while she was pregnant...

At least he thought so, though she compared herself to a whale more than once. But Cas thought she was stunning. He was an educated man, but he was still completely blown away by the fact that she was carrying his child – their child - in her tiny little body. He would swear that she had an aura around her, glowing with life – she would say it was just light reflecting off the beads of sweat she worked up while vomiting all morning.

Toward the end she looked like she was hiding a basketball under her dress. It was the most incredible thing he’d ever seen. He’d be looking at her and he couldn’t help but start to rub her belly; first over her clothes, then under, and then things would progress…

It felt like so long ago.

Hell, it was so long ago. He could hardly remember anything about the last time they were together; what it felt like, how they moved together, her warmth and softness, the sounds she made...

Sure, there were a couple of women before her, but once he had Amelia he knew… he just knew. It was sophomore year in college when they met; they learned everything on each other’s bodies and spent over nine years figuring out different ways to please each other.

He didn’t even know how to touch another woman, and honestly the thought alone made him feel ill.

Who says it would need to be a woman? A monstrous little voice in the back of his mind chimes in.

If he’s being honest with himself, that’s not the first time he’s had that thought.

They had talked about having a threesome, and just talking about bringing another woman into the mix worked them both into a bit of a frenzy. And, in the midst of their love-making, Amelia gently whispered how she’d also like to try having another man in bed with them.

At first it made Cas stop cold, but when he looked down at Amelia, naked and beautiful underneath him, she must have seen something on his face that made her quirk her eyebrow, grin, and ask, “Yeah, babe?”

That was one of the most memorable nights of their marriage. They went for hours.

Amelia was convinced that Claire was conceived that night.

No third-party, male or female, ever made their way into their lovemaking. It had always just been the two of them, and that was just fine.

But that thought lingered occasionally as it lingers now – it doesn’t have to be a woman.

Cas presses play on the remote and sees that the characters are now dressed and in an entirely different location. He fast-forwarded for too long as he was lost in thought, but he doesn’t mind. This movie isn’t very interesting anyway.

***

Claire toddles along behind him as Cas carries the full basket of dirty clothes to the laundry room. She’s getting better at balancing herself and can almost keep up with him. Sometimes Cas hears a dull thunk behind him and when he looks back she’ll have fallen on her knees or her diaper-clad behind, but she always pushes herself back up and continues after him, and she never cries.

As he’s checking the pockets of his pants before throwing them into the washing machine, Cas feels a thin piece of paper in one of them and when he pulls it out he recognizes it as the slip that Pamela gave him at Claire’s appointment last week.

He hadn’t even read it before sticking it in his pocket and running away from the situation, but he read it now.

Charlie Bradbury
cc.bradbury@gmail.com

That’s it, just a name and email in Pamela’s scratchy cursive.

Pamela had mentioned that he could begin to develop a co-dependency on his daughter – but he was afraid that he already had. He couldn’t imagine leaving her for ten minutes, let alone long enough to drive somewhere downtown, order a drink, and strike up a conversation with a stranger.

He tucks the card in his shirt pocket and finishes the laundry.

***

That night after he’s put Claire to bed and had a beer, Cas boots up his laptop and drafts a short email.

Dear Ms. Bradbury, I’m contacting you on the recommendation of Dr. Pamela Barnes, my daughter’s pediatrician and long-time friend. She suggested that I reach out to you in regards to a consultation, and I was curious as to whether or not you had time to meet my daughter and I in the coming weeks. I look forward to hearing from you soon. Thank you, Castiel Novak

He hits send and is about to turn his computer off and head to bed when he hears a ping meaning he’s got new mail.

Hello Castiel! Pamela told me to keep an eye out for you! I’d love to set up a time to meet you and your daughter. Attached is a calendar of my available times, so please let me know which one works best for you. Usually I like to spend an hour getting to know you and your needs, and then another hour with the child to build a rapport and see if we are compatible. Afterwards I will take as much time as you need to answer any other questions you may have, so most first meetings generally run about I’ll see you soon! Cheers, Charlie Bradbury

Castiel looks at the available times, chooses one for three days from now at 2pm, and sends his response to have her come to the house before he loses his nerve.

He doesn’t sleep at all that night.

***

Cas is blown away by Charlie’s charisma and how quickly Claire takes to her.

Charlie sticks to the schedule she had laid out in the email – spending one hour listening intently to Cas about what he hopes this experience will provide for Claire and asking insightful questions, some of which were difficult for him to answer, especially the ones about Amelia, but Charlie acts as though she has all the time in the world for the two of them.

She then spends a full hour on the floor playing with Claire and following the child as she patters about the house. She speaks to Claire in a gentle, yet mature voice that, for some reason, Claire responds to extremely well. Cas is asked not to interfere, but he hovers restlessly.

Claire and Charlie interact beautifully, and Charlie has nothing but the utmost respect for his child and his home.

At the end of the hour, Charlie takes a seat across from Cas in the living room. Claire continues playing with the wooden blocks on the floor between them.

“So,” she begins, “do you have any questions? I know that leaving your child with someone can be scary for a parent, especially a single parent, and I want to nip any concerns you have right in the bud, so please, ask away.”

And he does. Cas opens the notebook he had left out on the coffee table and begins asking the young woman the questions he’d been writing down for the past two days: What sort of disciplinary actions would she take when Claire misbehaves? How many clients does she currently have? What educational elements will she bring to her time with Claire? What was her plan for various types of emergencies? Why is this job important to her?

She’s smiling as she talks; speaking with passion and excitement that’s almost contagious, and also a professionalism that he can appreciate.

Pamela was right – he does like her, and more importantly so does Claire.

He lets her know that he’ll be in touch the next day with his decision– even though his mind is made up before the door even closes behind her.

Chapter Text

It takes two solid weeks of constant, minor anxiety before Cas is ready to leave Claire with Charlie for a few hours. He decides to go out and run some errands on his own on a Tuesday.

At noon Charlie brings over gender-neutral educational games appropriate for a 16-18 month old child, a large foam playmat that she sets up on the floor in the living room, and immediately gets to building a fort over it out of blankets Cas keeps in a basket by the couch.

“Don’t worry,” she says, looking up, possibly misreading the way Cas is looking at her, “this’ll all be cleaned up before you get back at four. Won’t it, Claire?” The child is squealing and pulling more and more blankets out of the basket, piling them into a mound on the floor.

Cas tries to act like this isn’t a big deal; like his heart isn’t about to beat out of his ribs. He’s only going out for a few hours, there’s absolutely no reason to worry. Claire will be home behind locked doors and windows with a trusted, vetted, qualified child-care professional.

Except… except he’ll miss her.

That’s the problem.

He’s hasn’t spent a moment away from her since Amelia’s parents left them after the funeral. Whenever he wants he can look over and see his baby girl safe and sound.

He hasn’t had an opportunity to miss her before, and he doesn’t like it at all.

Trying to be as stoic as possible, Cas kisses Claire on the top of her head and reiterates that he’ll be back by four o’clock.

He’s fine when he gets to the garage, and actually starts thinking that maybe this won’t be as hard as he thought…

He starts the car and backs out- down the driveway and onto the street.

He gets about seven houses down the street before he must pull over and take some deep breaths to pull himself together, and it is there that he sits for five minutes crying behind the steering wheel before cursing at himself, wiping his eyes, and pulling back out onto the road to head into the city.

***

Cas decides that his first stop should be to a coffee shop he drives past every time he drives to the grocery store. He gets his order to go, expecting to continue on with his errands with coffee in-hand, but the smell of the shop has engulfed him, and it’s warm and quiet, so he decides to sit down at one of the open tables next to a window.

He drinks his coffee slowly and listens to the hum of activity that goes on behind the counter. Across the shop a woman throws her head back in laughter. Music he’s never heard before pulses softly through speakers he can’t see. Raindrops create patterns on the window and change colors as the streetlights change.

He takes it all in – noticing things he hasn’t had the bandwidth to notice. His mind is always so focused on Claire; does she need something? Is she hungry? Does she need a nap? A diaper change? Why is she crying? Is she hurt? Did she just say “Dada” or is she just making noise?

But now, for the first time in almost two years, he turns down the volume on that part of his brain and tries to just simply be; tries to act like he’s an ordinary guy in a coffee shop and not an utter wreck of a human being.

He tries to act like he’s not completely torn to shreds on the inside- and he feels like a fraud.

When his coffee cup is empty he tosses it in the bin and walks out into the rain.

***

His regular errands take half the time they usually do when he’s carting Claire along with him. He doesn’t have to untangle her from her car seat when he needs to go into the bank or the barber’s.

There’s a feeling of loneliness, but it’s different from the loneliness he normally feels. This one doesn’t hurt as bad.

He just misses Claire.

It’s just about three o’clock and Cas has breezed through almost everything on his list. He drives around for a little while with the radio on, trying to figure out what he can do to pass the time.

He’s close to Pamela’s practice, so he takes a turn in that direction.

***

Pamela is with a patient when he arrives, but when she walks out of her office and sees him in the waiting room – sans Claire – she smiles.

“Hey stranger.”

“Hey Pam.” Cas stands to greet her. “Got a minute?”

“Of course. Come on back.” She winks and turns to head to her office. Cas follows.

“I just wanted to stop by and say thank you,” Cas begins as soon as Pamela shuts the door behind them. He’s felt slightly guilty since they parted weeks ago.

“Oh yeah? For what?” she gives him a knowing grin, and Cas looks at the ground. “Charlie’s great, right? I told her you’d be in touch, so I’m glad you didn’t make me look like a jackass.”

“She’s with Claire now. I thought I’d start small and do some errands and see how I feel.”

“And how do you feel, Cas?”

“I miss her.” The words fall from his lips before he can think, but then after a moment, “But I had coffee in a coffee shop. I actually sat down and drank my coffee at a table. And I listened to some alt rock radio station in the car instead of those Baby Mozart cds.”

“That’s good, Cas. That’s really good.” Pamela is practically beaming. “It’s healthy, and it will get easier and easier the more you do it. Charlie can help you find little friends for Claire. She’s got a great network of families all over the city. She’ll help you schedule play dates with children her age and find fun classes for you two to take together and interact with other families.”

“There are classes?”

“Oh yeah! And activity centers you two can go to that teach gymnastics and art and all sorts of things in an environment that’s full of other kids and adults. It’ll be good for her development. There’s a lot out there for you guys, you know. You don’t have to do this all alone.”

Cas remembers getting mad at Pamela when he was here a few weeks ago, but he knows, and even knew then, that she’s really got his and Claire’s best interests in mind.

“I know.” His voice is quiet.

“And, who knows, maybe sometime soon you’ll be able to go out and have some grown-up fun. Hell, go to a bar. Do karaoke. Have a one-night-stand.” Cas rolls his eyes and Pamela laughs, “Meet some new people, make some new friends. I know you love Claire, but she needs you to take care of yourself too, you know.”

The intercom on the office phone beeps and the voice of her receptionist announces that her next appointment has arrived.

“You gonna be okay?” she asks, and Cas nods. “Good. Hey, let’s get lunch soon or something? It’d be nice to see you and Claire outside these walls.”

“That would be nice.” Cas agrees, and before he can stop it, Pamela pulls him in for a hug and a peck on the cheek.

“See you later, Cas.” She says, and he leaves the office- still anxious, but feeling lighter than he can remember feeling in a long, long time.

***

Weeks go by and the weather gets colder, but things start to feel a little better. Cas spends at least two days each week out of the house and away from Claire. Sometimes he’ll go to a movie on his own, or back to the coffee shop to read or people watch. One day he even went for a run and was so sore he could hardly lift Claire the next day.

Charlie is great with Claire, and Cas tries not to be jealous of the way Claire gets so excited when Charlie walks in the door.

He tries not to get jealous.

***

After one afternoon out, as soon as he walks in the door Cas hears the happy squeal of his little girl saying “Dada! Dada!”

He drops his groceries and scoops Claire up into his arms.

He knows she’s a little behind, and that most kids are saying dada well before their first year – but right at that moment he doesn’t care. It’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever heard. His eyes well up and his voice chokes, and Charlie is sweet enough to pretend not to notice.

***

“Can I get you another coffee, Clarence?” The young female barista, who is often working during the hours Cas finds himself at the coffee shop, asks him as she approaches his table. For some reason lately she had taken to calling him Clarence. He wasn’t sure why.

“Oh, uh, no. I’m alright, Meg, thank you.”

It was strange seeing her out from behind the counter. This isn’t the type of place that brings food or drinks to the table; you generally have to wait at the counter for your beverage.

His interest doubles when the girl sits down in the empty chair across from him.

“Are you sure you don’t want another latte? Or a scone or a date or something?”

“No thank you I’m…” he’s halfway through speaking when what she said finally registers. “I’m sorry, but did you just say ‘date?’”

She smiles and it’s warm – but not in the same way that Amelia’s smile was warm: Amelia’s smile was warm like coming home, whereas Meg’s smile is more like an open flame.

“Yeah. You know, you could take me out for a nice dinner, we could have a couple ‘a drinks, then maybe go back to your place and move the furniture around a bit.”

“Why would we rearrange my…” Cas begins, but Meg raises one of her perfectly-shaped eyebrows and Cas understands. “Oh.”

So this is how people start dating now, he supposes.

The phrase blunt force trauma comes to mind.

Things certainly have changed since his last first date.

“Oh.” Meg repeats playfully and crosses her arms, leaning casually back in the chair.

Cas looks down at the dregs of coffee in the mug in front of him and swirls it around nervously. Sure, Meg is a beautiful young woman, but he’s not even sure how old she is. Would she be asking him out if she knew he had a daughter? If she knew about all his baggage?

Nothing could ever just be easy, could it.

Sensing his discomfort, Meg breaks the silence.

“No pressure here Clarence, I just figured I’d ask seeing as you’re all manner of hot and you always come here alone. Thought you might be fun.”

“Meg how old are you?” It probably isn’t the most appropriate thing to say at the time, but he has to know.

“I’m nineteen. My ID says otherwise.”

Nineteen.

The girl has no shame, that’s for sure, but Cas feels enough shame at that moment for the both of them.

“I’m sorry, Meg, but I’m going to have to decline your offer. You’re a very nice, very lovely young lady, but...”

“’Young lady?’” Meg makes a sound of disgust and then chuckles.

“Well you are young.” Cas argues quietly, frustration growing when Meg rolls her eyes. “I’m ten years older than you!” Saying that aloud makes him feel like a creep.

“So? I’ve always had a thing for older guys…”

“I’m not an older…” Cas almost wants to argue – he’s still in his twenties for Christ’s sake! – but instead he cuts himself off. “I have a two-year-old daughter.”

Finally, Meg’s young-hot-and-confident facade wavers just slightly. He doesn’t mention that his wife is dead. The poor girl doesn’t need to know about all of his baggage.

Cas continues after a few moments, “I’m very flattered, but, I can’t. I’m sorry.”

The girl shrugs like it’s no big deal, but Cas still feels like a jerk.

“Fair enough,” she says and stands. “My break is over. See you ‘round, Clarence.”

Cas waits for Meg to walk through the door leading to the kitchen before bussing his own table and rushing out of the coffee shop.

***

As uncomfortable as it was rejecting Meg’s advances, Cas is somewhat relieved to know that he’s still seen as desirable.

And he can’t really deny it any longer – it would be nice to be with someone.

As always his thoughts linger on Amelia, but it’s not quite the same this time.

He thinks of how Amelia might be upset that he was considering sleeping with someone else, and that would be true – if she were still alive and they were together.

But she isn’t, and they aren’t.

And as he’s sitting on the side of the bath tub keeping a careful eye on Claire while she splashes around and plays with her colorful bath toys, he thinks that maybe, maybe, it’s time to see what’s out there. It doesn’t mean he has to settle down. He doesn’t have to go home with anyone. He doesn't even have to talk to anyone if he doesn’t want to, but maybe Pamela was right – maybe he should just put himself out there and do something… fun.

“Claire, would you be mad if Dada went out and spent some time with other grown-ups?”

“Dada yaya Dada yaya!” Is all she says before making a big splash in the water and screaming out a laugh.

Cas decides that he’s going to go out on Friday.

Chapter Text

The first bar Cas arrives at had four stars on Yelp, but as soon as he walks in and is faced with loud music and a slew of drunk college-aged kids screaming over each other as they throw back shots, he turns and walks out.

The second bar he ends up at is more to his liking; a dark, quiet, sit-down bar with a man playing piano in the corner. But, it doesn’t seem to allow for much opportunity to approach someone you didn’t come in with. It’d be a nice place to take someone on a date, but not where one could potentially meet someone new.

Cas navigates around the puddles in the parking lot as he walks back to his car. He tries not to slam the door out of frustration when he sits down in the driver’s seat. Two bars down and he hasn’t even ordered a drink. He is officially a failure at this.

This third bar is his last chance, and he decides that no matter what he faces when he walks in, he will sit himself down at the bar and order at least one drink before leaving. Charlie is home with Claire until one o’clock, and he was showered and shaved and dressed up in a pair of dark jeans, a dark gray long-sleeve t-shirt, and the worn in leather jacket that hadn’t left his closet in years.

He knew he’d done alright getting ready when he answered the door and Charlie – the self-proclaimed “gold-star lesbian” he’d learned – wolf-whistled at him.

He pulls into the gravel lot in front of a stand-alone building on the outskirts of the city. In red and yellow lights above the door reads Harvelle’s Roadhouse, so he knows he’s in the right place. He parks behind the building next to a big, black beast of a car and walks toward the door, the rocks and mud crunching under his boots.

It’s dusty and smoky inside, and the whole scene looks like it belongs along an abandoned highway in Missouri, not in a suburban Chicago neighborhood. There’s an eclectic mix of people around, and classic rock sounds coming from a jukebox – an actual jukebox, not one of the new computerized ones like in the bars he and Amelia frequented. Cas figures that of the three bars he’s been to, this is the one where he could sit alone at the bar and look the least out of place.

Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves (and noticing that for how smoky it looks, it doesn’t actually smell like smoke, just stale beer and old wood), he walks to the bar and finds a stool to himself towards the end.

“Evenin’ pumpkin, what can I get for you?” A lovely, middle-aged woman behind the bar approaches him immediately and sets a coaster in front of him.

“Umm… I’m not sure.” Cas looks up and down the bar and sees no menus, and there’s nothing but shelves of liquor and a mirror behind the bar, no written menus or specials boards. “What is available?”

“Well what do you like?” She gives him an appraising look, “You sorta look like a hophead beer snob.”

“I’m sorry,” Cas apologizes, though he’s not sure why, “I don’t know what that means.”

The woman lets out a hearty laugh and immediately turns and grabs a glass from a shelf behind the bar.

“Honey, that’s good because we don’t have anything but Bud Light and PBR in this joint.” She pours three fingers of amber liquid from an unmarked bottle into the glass and slides it over to him. “Tell you what, you drink that and if you can still talk afterwards, let me know what you think. I’ll be back around to check on you in a bit.” The woman winks at him and turns to help some other patrons at down at the other side of the bar.

“Yes ma’am,” he mutters after her and takes a sip of whatever she gave him.

It tastes like pure heat and ethanol and it shocks his senses awake but goes down relatively smooth considering. He feels it burn down his throat and hit his stomach; the warmth of it spreads into his limbs instantaneously and he realizes now why the woman said if you can still talk because this stuff isn’t messing around.

He looks at the glass afterwards, inspecting the liquid, when his thoughts are interrupted by a rough voice from a few stools over.

“Man, Ellen must like you. She doesn’t normally give out the good stuff to strangers.”

Looking over, Cas sees a man with his elbows on the table and his fingers wrapped around a glass half-full of something that looks similar to the jet fuel he’s drinking. He’s hunched over the bar slightly, but straightens up when Cas looks at him.

“If this is the good stuff than I’m afraid to ask what the bad stuff might be.” He responds, feeling clever when the man chuckles into his glass.

“Well, the good stuff Ellen makes in barrels in the basement, and the bad stuff she makes in an old bathtub in the shed.” The man is looking at him and grinning, and Cas can’t tell if he’s joking so he just nods and takes another sip of his drink as the man says, “Tonight I got the bad stuff,” and wrinkles his nose as he sniffs his glass.

The bartender – Ellen, apparently – walks by again as the man is explaining this, and she gives him a glare that Cas is glad isn’t directed at him.

“That’s what you get for cheatin’ Jo at darts.” She says.

“Sure, she throws her knife instead of a dart an’ it’s fine but when I happen to sneeze as she’s going for triple bullseye it’s ‘cheating.’” The man retorts. Cas looks around for the dartboard, and sure enough there’s a knife sticking right out of the center.

Ellen looks over at Cas and says, “Sad he’s gotta cheat to beat a little girl at darts, innit?” She cocks her head in the man’s direction, her mouth quirked in a subtle smile, and before Cas can respond he hears a sarcastic snort from the man.

Little girl. Right. She’s a hellion is what she is.”

“Well she’s my daughter, what do you expect?” Ellen grabs a plastic pitcher and heads toward the taps on the other side of the bar.

“I take it you two know each other?” Cas asks the man, proud of himself for continuing a conversation with a stranger. It must be The Good Stuff because Cas already feels like he’s melting into the barstool.

“Oh yeah. Ellen was friends with my folks way back. After they died she basically raised me and my brother, ‘n Jo is like the annoying little sister I never wanted.” He speaks of these people fondly despite what he says about the girl apparently named ‘Jo.’

It was the first time Cas has heard someone speak so cavalierly about death since he’d lost Amelia. He wonders for a moment if he’ll ever get to that point when he notices a shift in the air next to him and feels something brush up against his arm. The man has moved and has taken a seat on the stool next to him.

“I’m Dean.” The man holds out a hand to Cas. “I’m drinking alone because my dickhead brother bailed on me for a chick.”

Cas takes his hand and shakes it firmly. He looks this man, Dean, in the eye and stops himself from saying I’m Castiel and I’m drinking alone because I haven’t left my daughter’s side in almost two years, I have no friends or family to speak of, and my wife is dead and instead says, “I’m Cas.”

He’s proud of himself.

“Cas.” The man repeats, like he’s really going to try to remember it for longer than the next few minutes, and Cas likes that. “Mind if I drink with you, Cas?”

“Not at all. I’d enjoy the company.”

Dean smiles, and Cas takes a drink to squelch the nerves he’s feeling for no reason.

Cas has made a friend.

***

A drink and a half later and Dean is laughing and yelling over all the other sounds in the bar. He’s close enough that Cas could hear him even if he wasn’t yelling, but he figures that Dean’s been here drinking longer than he has so he’s probably farther gone by now.

“No! No way! You did not rush Dennis DeYoung on stage!” Dean whoops out a loud laugh and slaps the bar multiple times when Cas confirms that he did, in fact, get arrested for rushing Dennis DeYoung at the Illinois State Fair seven years ago.

Cas would be self-conscious about the way this man seems to hang on his every word, but The Good Stuff that Ellen has refilled his and Dean’s glasses with seems to have dampened his uneasiness.

“Man, I don’t know what’s more depressing, the fact that you couldn’t outrun those security bitches or the fact that Mr. Roboto plays county fair gigs now.”

“To be fair, they had the advantage. I was incredibly inebriated and tripped over John Blasucci’s keyboard stand.”

Dean throws his head back and lets out an honest-to-God laugh that Cas worries might knock him off the barstool. He can’t remember the last time he made someone laugh like this, and can’t help but grin at the man. The expression feels so foreign but also kind of good.

“Dude,” Dean says, chuckling softly and taking another swig of his drink. The two of them have been talking for a while now, and Cas doesn’t pretend to be ignorant of how the man keeps swaying into his personal space. Either he’s drunker than he’s letting on, or he’s trying to be subtle in his flirtations. “So, why are you here, anyway? Were you waiting for someone before I started talking your ear off?”

“No, I-” Cas is unsure how much information to give, but he knows better than to unload this weight he’s been carrying around right here and now. “I just haven’t been out in a while. I thought I’d try something different tonight.”

“Huh.” Dean takes another drink. “I hope you didn’t come out to meet someone ‘cause as much as I love the Roadhouse, it definitely ain’t the best place to pick up chicks.” Dean taps a thumb against his glass.

“I may have left my house tonight with the intention to pick someone up. It’s been…” Cas is embarrassed but can’t seem to stop talking. His tongue is carrying on without his explicit consent. Damn The Good Stuff. “It’s been a long while since I’ve been with… um. Anyone.” He goes to take a sip of his drink, realizes that his glass is empty, and sets it back on the bar with a hollow thunk.

“Anyone, huh? So, like, you swing both ways or somethin’?”

“I, uh…”

“Hey, man. I’m sorry. That was out of line, I-I didn’t mean… I’ve had a lot to drink…” Dean starts to stutter out excuses but Cas cuts him off.

“No, it’s fine. It’s, um… yes?”

Both of them are mumbling through their sentences at the same time – Dean more from alcohol and Cas from nerves – and it’s hard to follow the conversation but they both seem to arrive at the same conclusion at the same time.

“Yes.” Dean repeats, and looks right at him.

This guy, this stranger, doesn’t need his life story. Dean doesn’t need to know the turmoil in Cas’ head and wouldn’t understand it anyway, even if he spent all night trying to explain it – so instead Cas is going to do something different…

… something very different.

Dean swallows the final bit of his drink, sets his glass down, and leans in to speak into Cas’ ear.

“Give me five minutes and meet me at my car. Mine’s the big black Chevy out back.” His breath is sweet and harsh like the whiskey they’ve been drinking, and Cas finds himself leaning into the warmth that Dean’s body gives off as he tilts his body close.

Cas nods and feels himself blinking hard like an imbecile while Dean throws a twenty down on the bar and slides out of his stool in one fluid motion. Cas watches him walk across the bar and out the door, and finally he’s able to exhale like he’d been holding his breath all evening.

Five minutes.

What on earth did Dean need five minutes for?

… Oh.

Right.

***

It takes him at least three minutes to get Ellen’s attention and pay his tab, and at least three more for her to run his card. He leaves her a tip and thanks her profusely before nearly falling off of his stool and heading toward the door.

It’s completely dark now and for that he’s grateful. The late-November air hits him like a splash of cold water on his face, making him feel much more sober and aware than he did just moments ago.

Maybe he’s making a mistake here. Cas has never had sex with a man. Sure, he’s thought about it, but thinking and doing are two very different things.

And was it normal for someone to go from being in a loving, committed marriage to having one-night stands with strangers?

It hits him then that he hasn’t been married for nearly two years. He’s technically single – not by choice, but that’s his status nonetheless.

No. Forget it. He’ll just head to his car and go home. Dean will never know – it’s not like they exchanged phone numbers or last names or anything. Chicago is a big city, so the threat of running into him around town was minimal. He’s stepped out of his comfort zone enough for one night – he can try again next weekend; somewhere far, far away from The Roadhouse.

Yes, that’s what he was going to do until he realized that the big, black car he parked directly next to is a black Chevrolet Impala with the motor running. There was an endless puff of steam from the exhaust, and even in the darkness he could just barely see the outline of Dean’s head and shoulders silhouetted in the back seat.

He walks around to the back door on the driver’s side, still partially convinced that he’d be able to talk his way out of this, however much he mumbles and stutters and makes a fool out of himself – but then he opens the door and sees Dean with his jeans around his ankles, his knees pulled up to his chest, and two fingers deep in his own ass.

“Dude that was only like two minutes.” He says, voice stuttering just slightly.

Cas looks at his watch.

“Get in here and close the door! It’s freakin’ freezing. I’m almost ready… here,” Dean is almost laughing as he hands over a condom and slides to the other side of the seat so Cas can crawl in and shut the door behind him.

The small, foil-wrapped packet feels heavy with the reality of what he’s gotten himself into.

He hasn’t put on a condom since before he got married.

Fortunately, he has a few moments to gain composure while Dean finishes preparing himself. Cas unbuttons his jeans with shaky fingers, trying to hide them from the man in front of him, but Dean is gone in his own little world it seems, trying to kick off one of his shoes so he can get his pants the rest of the way off. By the time Cas has his own pants down to his knees he notices that Dean has turned himself over and is now on his hands and knees, his behind in Cas’ sights, and a surge of excitement courses through him. Dean continues rubbing his lubed fingers over his hole, occasionally dipping one or two in, and Cas watches quietly with rapt attention, ignoring how he keeps knocking the back of his head against the roof of the car.

He’s never seen anything quite like this; it’s incredibly erotic and he’s suddenly very confident that he can figure out the mechanics of how this is going to work. This is actually happening he thinks as he tears the condom packet open and removes the slippery rubber from it.

“C’mon man. I know I’m pretty but you gotta do something back there besides just look…” Dean’s voice sounds different than it did inside – almost strained, like he, too, is nervous and trying to hide it. He was in his element in there at the bar, Cas figures. This out here must be relatively new territory for him.

That makes two of them, at least.

“Sorry. I’m just- I…” He’s unsure how to finish the sentence, so he doesn’t and instead rolls on the condom, hissing at how cold his hands feel. The constriction of the condom feels strange.

“Take this,” Dean hands him a torn packet of lube and Cas, taking the hint, squirts the rest of it onto his erection and gives himself a few strokes to spread it around. He wipes his hand on his jeans and for the first time, reaches out to touch Dean, placing his palm on the man’s left butt cheek and curling his fingers around toward the front of his hips. He’s trying so hard not to shake, but he is and hopes that Dean thinks it’s because of the cold and not because he’s afraid.

“Are you ready?” He asks, moving closer and lining himself up with Dean’s entrance.

“I was ready the second I saw you sit down at the bar,” Dean says, and Cas doesn’t know how to respond to that, but luckily Dean doesn’t expect him to. “Just… c’mon…”

Cas takes it slow – as slow as he can possibly will himself.

The pressure of Dean’s entrance is seemingly merciless, but when it gives way to him… oh, oh shit… his cockhead is engulfed in a hot, tight channel. Dean grunts softly, and Cas rubs his thumb over Dean’s skin in an attempt to soothe that probably isn’t helpful in the least.

“Okay?” he asks, the word practically clawing its way out of his dry throat.

“Yeah. Keep- keep going…”

Cas moves slowly at first. Seemingly millimeter by millimeter he pushes into Dean, and he watches the entire time as he’s admitted entry into Dean’s body. He feels the slide and sees the delicate skin around Dean’s entrance stretching to accommodate him.

He’s never felt anything like this in his life. The pressure is unreal and feels amazing, and the heat, oh, God…

And finally, finally, he feels the front of his thighs against the back of Dean’s.

Now what does he do?

“You gotta move, man. Please, you’re killin’ me…” Dean’s voice squeaks on the word please. Cas knows that if he had to speak right now his voice would do the same, so instead of saying anything he responds by putting both hands on Dean’s lower back – surprised by how warm his skin is there – and begins to pull out and oh Christ that feels good. Dean squeezes around him as he pulls halfway out and then slides back in again just a bit faster.

Before he was shaking with nerves, but now he’s shaking with restraint as he wills himself to keep up the slow pace for a little while longer. Dean seems to have a differing opinion of what he needs because the next time Cas pulls out, this time almost completely, Dean pushes himself up from his elbows this his hands and shoves himself back on Cas’ cock eliciting loud moans from them both.

Cas starts to move, really move, and despite his body being lost in sensation and his mind swimming and trying to process what is happening , he tries to pay attention to the way Dean responds as he thrusts into him at different angles and different speeds.

When he finds the angle that brings Dean down to his elbows again with a loud groan he figures that’s the spot to aim for and tries to hit it every time. He’s got one foot on the floor and one knee on the seat and he’s hunched over but the back of his head still hits the roof when he thrusts particularly hard. Dean’s knees are slick from perspiration and sliding against the leather. Dean makes enough noise for the both of them, and Cas finds that he really enjoys getting Dean to make those sounds – enjoys it so much that his orgasm starts to sneak up on him.

“D-Dean… ‘m close…” he warns, and then feels Dean shift slightly beneath him, resting his head on his forearm and reaching with his free hand to stroke himself. Cas keeps fucking into him, trying to hit the spot that makes Dean gasp out a surprised sound.

Somehow, Cas isn’t quite sure how, but somehow Dean comes before he does. He knows this because he feels the man get even tighter around him and then hears him cry out, sudden and loud.

And then there’s nothing stopping him from coming, too, and Cas feels a powerful orgasm roll through his body; feels it from his toes to his scalp, cascading warmth and pleasure throughout every limb as he shoves deeply into Dean one final time and feels himself release over and over into the condom as Dean’s hot channel pulses around him.

For a minute there is nothing but their combined, frantic breathing as it slows, and Cas suddenly feels very aware that he just had sex with another man and is now going soft inside of a stranger’s ass. He pulls out slowly and winces, and Dean slumps down onto his stomach on the bench seat, legs tucked awkwardly underneath him. It’s uncomfortable as Cas pulls off the condom and ties it in a knot to keep its contents from leaking out, and he’s not sure what to do with his so he shoves it in his coat pocket before pulling his pants up and fastening them again. He wipes his hands off on the front of his thighs and ignores the potent stench of latex on his fingers.

Dean shifts to sit up and leans his head against on the headrest. “Man, that was good,” he says, eyes closed and looking relatively content. Although Cas envies how relaxed Dean seems right now, he’s also glad that the man seems to have enjoyed himself. Not bad for my first time… Cas thinks, allowing himself just a moment to revel in his success before a nearly debilitating embarrassment engulfs him.

He needs to get out of here.

He needs to get out of here now.

“Thank you, Dean,” he gropes for the door handle, “I, um…” he doesn’t know what else to say as he opens the squeaky car door.

“You don’t have to… I mean, we can...” Dean’s suddenly hurrying but struggling to get his pants back on, and Cas is afraid if he doesn’t get out of there right now that Dean will chase him down and then what would he do?

No. He needs to get out before Dean gets dressed.

“Goodnight.” He says, and he’s barely able to hear Dean say “ Cas, wait!” before the door slams shut. With trembling hands he digs his keys out of his pocket and unlocks his car as quickly as possible. He hears a door of the Impala creak open as he slams and locks his own door. Normally he likes to let his car warm up, especially when it’s this cold out, but he doesn’t have that luxury because Dean is standing next to the Impala now and Cas hits the gas, the tires spinning out and spitting up gravel before finally finding traction and lurching forward. He speeds out of the parking lot and turns toward home.

***

Shame hits him hard as he walks in his front door at almost three o’clock in the morning. Not only did he just leave a very nice, very attractive man half naked in a freezing cold parking lot after fucking him, but he is also two hours late to relieve Charlie, and he doesn’t notice the dark, wet stains from the lube on his jeans and shirt until he’s in the light of his living room.

Charlie doesn’t seem put out by his tardiness or disheveled appearance at all, but he still apologizes profusely and adds a generous tip to the check he writes for her.

Once she’s gone and he’s watched her headlights pull out of the driveway he rushes to the kitchen and washes his hands thoroughly with soap and scalding hot water. He scrubs and scrubs, like it’s going to wash away the guilt he’s feeling.

He’s not even sure why he’s guilty. It’s not like Dean wanted to really be with him. He shouldn’t feel bad for leaving after what they had decided to do. As two consenting adults they had decided to fuck in Dean’s car, no strings attached.

After Cas scrubs his hands raw and dries them with a dishtowel, he quietly makes his way to his room where Claire is asleep in her crib. She’s on her back with the blanket around her legs, sleeping peacefully despite it not having been her father who tucked her in. It’s the first time he’s missed her bedtime since Amelia’s parents left, and he did it because he wanted to have sex.

What kind of father does that make him?

Cas takes a hot shower and tries not to think about how good it felt being close to another person, even if it was just for a little while.

Chapter Text

The next morning isn’t great.

Despite not feeling too drunk last night, Cas feels incredibly hungover. Claire decided to wake him up before five o’clock, ignorant of his raging headache or the fact that he had just made it home a few hours ago. At first he tried to cover his head with the pillow to drown out the sound, but she screamed and cried mercilessly until he picked her up and took her downstairs for breakfast.

He then proceeded to burn their scrambled eggs, and was so desperate for his coffee that he tried to drink it too fast and spilled half of it down the front of his shirt.

Now he can’t find his wallet.

He checks the jeans he wore the night before. He checks all over the inside of his car. He checks the jacket he wore to the bar and is reminded in vivid detail of the events of the previous night when he finds the dry, tied up condom in one of the pockets.

He must have left his wallet at the bar.

“Shit.”

***

As if she was punishing him for the night before, Claire fusses all day long. At breakfast she kept spitting her eggs out, and she outright refused to go down for her nap at noon. Cas planned on trying to get some work done, but since Claire wouldn’t go down for her nap he was distracted and kept having to get up to deal with her. At one point she started screaming for no reason. She screamed and screamed until Cas was unsure how she had any voice left at all.

He fought the urge to put his hand over her mouth and instead tried to talk to her.

“Claire, honey, please stop screaming.”

“Claire, you are not being very nice. Stop screaming at Dada.”

“Claire Wynn Novak if you don’t stop screaming right now I will rip off Mr. Teddy’s face and shove it down the garbage disposal I swear to God…”

She didn’t listen.

And he didn’t follow through on his threat to mutilate her teddy bear.

Around four o’clock the child finally wears herself out thank God and passes out on the carpet next to Cas’ desk. He knows he should keep her awake so she’d get to sleep early that night so he could get to sleep early, but by that point he’s too grateful that the screaming has stopped he can’t bring himself to wake her up.

It’s finally quiet enough for Cas to call The Roadhouse to see if they happened to find his wallet.

“Roadhouse.” The woman answers the phone in a curt tone, but having just spent the evening at the bar, he knew exactly who he was talking to.

“Hello, Ellen? This is Castiel Novak. I visited your establishment last night and I believe I left my wallet there.”

“Castiel Novak…?”

“Yes. I sat at the bar with a gentleman named Dean…”

“Oh! Cas. You know, there’s a good chance that’s the first time Dean’s ever been called a gentleman.” The woman laughs at her own joke on the other end of the line. “So, can’t find your wallet?”

“Unfortunately, no. I had it when I paid. I think I may have left it on the counter.”

“Sorry honey. Don’t worry, I’m sure it will turn up.”

“Thank you Ellen.”

“You bet.”

***

After careful deliberation and a frustrated groan, Cas decides that his wallet likely fell out in Dean’s car.

He’s just about to call his credit card company and cancel his cards when Claire wakes up and immediately begins to cry.

Fuck it, he’ll do it later.

***

Dinner is a fiasco. Not only is the screaming back, but now whenever Claire puts food in her mouth she spits it out – either whole or partially chewed – in Cas’ general direction. She refused to sit her butt down in her booster seat so he resorted to strapping her into her high chair like when she was a baby.

That did not help with the screaming.

Cas is about at the end of his rope. He’s exhausted and filthy and frustrated and so close to the edge that he can feel the stinging pinpricks of tears in his eyes as he begs his child to just fucking eat the noodles when he hears the doorbell ring.

“What now?” he groans out loud. Claire has a soggy rotini noodle clenched in each fist, one of which she’s mashing loudly between her baby teeth, and one she’s smashing between her fingers. He leaves her to it and walks to the front door.

He doesn’t look through the peephole to see who it is and regrets it immediately when he opens the door.

“Dean?”

The man from last night is standing on his front porch smiling devilishly as he takes in Cas’ assumingly awful appearance.

“What are you… how do you know where I live?”

“Well you were in such a rush last night I didn’t have a chance to get your phone number so I begged my parole officer to run your license plate so I could get your address. He owed me a favor.” He says, and Cas is just about to slam and lock the door and call the police when a malicious grin takes over Dean’s face.

“You’re kidding.” Cas states, matter-of-fact, and Dean holds up his wallet.

“Duh.” He hands the wallet over and Cas checks it – his cards, cash, and ID are all still in there. “Ellen found it on the counter last night and asked if I’d bring it to you. Got your address off the ID. Nice blue steel, by the way.”

Ellen found it on the counter…

Ellen!

Cas’ mouth goes slack, and Claire chooses that moment to scream bloody murder from the kitchen. Cas winces.

“You got a kid?” Dean asks, undoubtedly surprised, and the jig is up.

“Yes.” Cas states bluntly, and Claire screams and laughs again. Cas should really get back in there and see what that hell-spawn is up to.

“Are you, uh,” Dean scratches his head and looks anxiously around him, into the house. “You married?’ he asks, quietly.

“Widowed.” It’s all he can say after a brief pause. He tries to ignore the opposing looks of sympathy and relief on Dean’s face.

“Oh.”

Here in the glow of the porch light Dean is quite lovely. Cas isn’t sure he’s ever looked at a man and thought him lovely before, but there’s no mistaking this man as anything but.

He wishes he could tell him.

He wishes that his life was together enough that he could invite this warm, lovely stranger in for a drink and get to know him just a little. Maybe have another night with him but in a bed instead of a backseat and in a world where Cas wouldn’t feel like he needed to run away immediately afterwards…

But, as another scream accompanies a hollow thunk that Cas can recognize as Claire’s plastic plate hitting a cabinet at full-force, all thoughts of pursuing anything with Dean are pushed from his mind. He blurts out a quick “Thank you” and slams the door as he rushes back to the kitchen to contend with whatever mess Claire has made.

The door doesn’t shut – and on some level Cas notices that Dean was able to sneak a booted foot in the threshold before the door closed completely – so when Cas is on his knees cleaning up bits of Claire’s dinner from kitchen floor and he hears Dean’s voice from behind him he isn’t startled, but he also doesn’t respond.

“Cas?”

Please go he wants to say, but the words are stuck behind the lump in his throat.

He never wanted anyone to see him like this. No one is supposed to see how much he is struggling.

Cas’ hands quake as he scoops up the cold, soggy food and piles it back on the plate.

“Cas, do you, uh, do you need some help?”

With that single question Cas comes undone. He’s pushed over the edge he’s been teetering on all day and throws the plate across the kitchen. It hits the wall and rolls on its side before finally coming to a stop a few feet away. Claire laughs and screams again, and Cas leans back against the cabinets with a thud. He sits there on the floor, wishing it would just open up and swallow him whole.

He’s the father. He’s the adult here – and he is throwing a tantrum on the kitchen floor.

“Hey.”

Then there’s a warm hand on his shoulder.

There are no platitudes offered. There are no cliché it’ll be alright’s. There’s just a firm, solid weight that tells Cas that at this moment in time he is not completely alone.

“I’m sorry,” Cas rasps out. He clears his throat and looks at his hands, picking flecks of food from them and flicking them to the floor, uncaring of where it lands. “It’s been a long day.”

“C’mon,” Dean says after a lengthy silence. “Let’s get you off the floor.”

He stands, because at some point Dean joined him on the tile, and offers a hand to help Cas up which Cas accepts.

“What’s your daughter’s name?”

Cas walks around the counter and takes a seat on one of the stools.

“Claire.”

He sets his elbows on the countertop and slumps over to rest his head on his forearms.

“Hello Claire,” Dean’s voice softens slightly as he talks to the girl. “You been drivin’ your daddy up the wall today?”

“Understatement,” Cas answers for her, and Dean huffs out a quiet laugh.

“Come on squirt, let’s give the guy a break.”

Cas doesn’t realize just how good it feels to close his eyes until he does it…

Just for a second…

***

In his dreams Cas could hear the voice of someone talking. He can’t quite hear what they’re saying, but he can make out the sound of a man’s voice speaking soft and low. It’s comforting and not unnerving like his dreams usually are. And there’s a scraping sound like metal-on-metal and the discernible smell of…

Is that garlic bread?

“Don’t tell me he always snores like that?” The voice asks and gets no response. “That’s a bummer.”

Dean .

Dean was here, and Claire…

Oh God where is Claire!!

“Mornin’ sunshine.” Dean says as Cas lifts his heavy head and pries his eyes open. “Well, not really morning but you know what I mean. Look! Claire and I made spaghetti!” His voice is cheerful, and Cas is confused.

“Wha-?”

When Dean finally comes into focus through Cas’ bleary eyes, the sight is something Cas never would have expected: the man is standing at the stove with Claire on his hip and a spoon in his other hand. Claire is tossing what looks like grated cheese from a small plastic cup into the pot of sauce that Dean is stirring with his free hand. She’s quiet and very focused on the task she’s been given. Dean stops stirring and reaches for an open beer that’s on the counter and takes a drink. Cas notices that there is a full, open beer in front of him as well, and the bottle is sweating like it’s been sitting out and waiting for him for a while.

And, sure enough, there’s a baking sheet with six half-slices of garlic bread, toasted and ready to eat.

“While you were asleep we packed all of your electronics into my car. I was thinking about robbing you blind but I only have so much space so I just took the stereo and TV. Hope that’s cool.”

“Dean…?” He’s not sure what else to say. What does someone say to the man he fucked and is now apparently making dinner for him and his daughter?

When he thinks of it like that it almost seems normal.

This is so not normal.

“I know, I know. This is weird.” Dean says – at least they’re both aware of it - “But I couldn’t wake you up, man! I tried but you were out like a friggin’ light. And I didn’t want to leave Claire without supervision so I just hung out ‘n thought you might be hungry when you woke up…” As he’s talking, Dean is also pouring what appears to be steaming tomato sauce into a larger pot of cooked spaghetti noodles. Claire keeps throwing piece after piece of grated cheese into the mix. “Nice work there, Claire. Can’t have too much cheese…”

Cas is tired enough that he only has a single, fleeting thought of how it could be dangerous to cook with a child in his arms like that, but Dean seems so sure in his movements – he knows what he’s doing – and Cas is so tired.

Not more than a minute later there is a plate piled high with spaghetti and two pieces of garlic bread right in front of Cas’ face. Somehow Dean got Claire back in her highchair without a fuss, and has served her a tiny helping of spaghetti as well.

To Cas’ relief, Dean himself has a plate in front of him and a fork between his fingers. He’s pulled one of the stools around the counter to sit opposite of Cas, and is soon shoving a forkful of noodles into his mouth.

“This is…” Cas really doesn’t know what this is, but as soon as he takes his first bite he mumbles, “Incredible.” His eyes roll back because, “Is this homemade sauce?”

Dean shakes his head, chews and swallows before saying, “Nah, it was the Raggu stuff you had in your pantry, but I just added whatever spices I could find in your cabinets, and Claire added the parmesan.”

“Good job honey,” Cas says to his daughter before taking another bite. He watches Claire slurp up a noodle without using her hands, but by sticking her face directly into the pile on her little plate. “Thank you for this, Dean, it’s delicious. I really don’t know what to say.”

Dean shrugs, but the smirk he’s wearing as he takes another pull from his beer makes it obvious that he’s got something to say but doesn’t say it. There’s a comfortable silence as they eat, and Cas realizes that this is the first thing he’s eaten since the burnt eggs this morning.

This is also the first time someone has cooked for him since…

“How old is she?” Dean gestures toward Claire, “Sixteen, seventeen months?”

“She just turned nineteen months, actually.” He takes a bite of the garlic bread and it’s crunchy and buttery and perfect.

“My nephew is about her size but he’s only sixteen months. Austin was nine pounds when he was born. And Thomas… man, those boys were huge, and Jess is just a little thing, too. I don’t know how she did it. Makes sense though because Sammy is freakin’ ginormous.”

“Sammy?”

“Oh. Sammy’s my brother. Jess is his wife.”

“Last night you said that your brother ‘bailed on you for a chick.’”

“He did. Jess wanted to go to see Doctor Strange and the bastards didn’t even invite me. Turned out alright I guess.” Dean looks up at him through his lashes for a split second before focusing once again on twisting noodles around his fork, and Cas forces himself to tamp out whatever it is that just ignited in his chest.

“Do you get to spend much time with them? Your brother and his family, I mean?” Cas has to work much harder than he did last night to keep the conversation going, so he takes a drink of his beer and hopes it gives him some courage.

“Oh yeah. Once Sammy graduated and they moved back home I get to see them all the time. And now that they have the boys I get to watch them a lot.”

Dean goes on about how smart Sammy is and how both he and Jess graduated from Stanford and that Jess is way too hot for his “nerdy little brother.” He talks so openly and freely, like he’s got nothing to hide that will accidentally slip out; like he’s got no baggage at all.

Claire rambles on and on in the background speaking mostly gibberish which Dean occasionally responds to with “Good point,” or “See, she gets it.”

When Cas finishes his meal, Dean takes his plate before he can protest and rinses it off in the sink then stacks it in the dishwasher. The man doesn’t look like he’s in any rush to leave, and that is confirmed when he grabs two more beers from the fridge. While he opens them Cas wipes down Claire’s hands and face with a wet paper towel and scoops her out of the highchair.

“Dada,” she says, and Cas gives her a kiss and squeezes her a little tighter. They’ve had a rough day, but everything feels like it’s going to be alright now.

“I’m sorry baby.” He whispers into her hair when she starts to squirm, and he sets her down and follows behind as she toddles to her toys in the living room. Dean follows them both and hands him a cold beer. He makes himself right at home, sitting down on the couch and kicking his socked feet up on the ottoman.

Cas is surprised by how clean and white Dean’s socks are.

Cas sits on the other end of the sofa and sinks into it, and for the first time all day he allows himself to really take a breath.

“So,” Dean starts, “I feel like I’ve talked your ear off for two days straight. I think it’s your turn.”

“Oh, uh. There’s really not much to tell.” The label of the beer bottle starts to peel off and Cas picks at it nervously.

“Come on, I don’t know anything about you. You’re a total mystery.” When Cas still doesn’t say anything, Dean starts to ask questions. “Okay we’ll start with the easy stuff. What do you do for a living?”

“I’m an editor for Chicago Review Press.”

“Yeah? The Chicago Review, is that a newspaper?”

“It’s an independent book publisher. I specialize in biographies and non-fiction. I do some fact-checking, but I mostly make grammatical suggestions and edits.”

“So you’re one of those smart guys, huh?” Dean chides, Cas shrugs. “What about in your free time? What do you like to do?”

“What free time? I’m a single father with a toddler. I haven’t had free time since…”

No. No. He’s not going to talk about this, not right now. He shakes his head, and thankfully Dean gets the point and clears his throat.

“I’m a mechanic.” Dean says proudly. “I work out at my uncle’s garage restoring classic cars.”

“Did you restore your Impala?”

“Sure did.” Dean beams.

“She’s beautiful.”

“She is now. My dad wrecked her when Sammy and me were still in little league. He couldn’t part with it so it sat around in the garage until he died but turns out I couldn’t part with her either so I had her towed to Uncle Bobby’s and every weekend from when I was sixteen until my 18 th birthday he taught me how to restore the damn thing then gave me a job at his shop. It’s the biggest restoration garage in the state.”

They continue to talk, and so long as the topics stay mostly Dean-centric, Cas feels pretty comfortable. A few times he gave up a little information about himself, and Dean didn’t seem at all bored by the stories he told.

In fact, the man seemed enthralled by everything he said. It would have been nerve-wracking if Dean didn’t seem so genuinely interested.

A little after seven o’clock Claire crawls up into Cas’ lap with her thumb in her mouth. She has tears in her eyes and makes quiet little whining noises. She’s exhausted, too.

“I think that’s my cue.” Dean says quietly.

It’s strange interacting with his daughter in front of someone else. Usually it’s just the two of them. Both men stand, Claire in Cas’ arms, and Dean takes the two empty beer bottles back to the kitchen before Cas walks him to the door.

“Dean, I…” what can he possibly say to the man who showed up just in time? “Thank you. For everything. I’m very grateful…”

“Don’t mention it, Cas. You guys get some sleep, ‘kay? And take care of yourself.” He steps over the threshold after slipping on his untied boots.

“We will. Goodnight Dean. Thank you again.” He knows he sounds like a broken record, but he can’t say what he wants to say, which is; I wish you didn’t have to leave.

“’Night Cas. ‘Night Claire,” Dean tilts his head and waves at Claire who burrows into Cas a little more with her thumb stuck in her mouth. “See ya ‘round.”

Cas closes and locks the door and leans against it until he hears the rumble of Dean’s car disappear down the street. Claire is asleep in his arms, and despite how awful the day started out, Cas feels like it was one of the better days he’s had.

He puts Claire down in her crib and takes the baby monitor back down to the kitchen to clean up. He’s just about to put the covered leftovers in the refrigerator when he sees a note scribbled on the back of a receipt and stuck to the refrigerator door with a magnet:

I really like you even though you snore. Call me. 555-9449.

Cas smiles.

He actually smiles.

He’s very aware of it.

By eight o’clock he’s in bed, and by ten after eight he’s out cold.

Both dad and baby sleep through the night.

Chapter Text

As much as Cas wants to call Dean, he makes sure to stay as far away from the phone as possible. Every morning as he’s waiting for his coffee to brew he looks at the number posted on the fridge and thinks of a hundred different reasons not to pick up the phone, and for every single reason he comes up with there is one resounding reason to call the guy: he wants to.

He really, really wants to.

Maybe it’s because he hasn’t had anyone to call in so long just the fact that he can is enough to make him want to. Or maybe it’s because the sound of the man’s voice and laugh have been echoing in his head for days. Or maybe it’s because when he’s just about on the verge of falling asleep every night he replays the desperate sounds that Dean made when they were together; that first time when Cas could feel the heat of the other man’s body under his hands and surrounding him.

He’s known the man for less than a week and he can’t get him out of his head.

He tries to think of how the conversation would go if he did pick up the phone and dial Dean’s number.

“Hi, Dean. This is Cas. Would you like to go to dinner with me?”

“Hi, Dean. This is Cas. Claire just wanted to say hi, and so did I. We’d love to see you again.”

“Hi, Dean. This is Cas. I thought of you while I was in the shower this morning and had to turn the water ice cold to calm myself down.”

Inevitably he’d say something stupid, and Dean would laugh it off. Sure, they’d have dinner, maybe even fool around again, but soon Dean would get bored – the novelty of a sad guy with a kid would wear off quick – which means he would leave, and Cas was no fool. He knew he wasn’t capable of someone walking out on him already.

He didn’t have much to offer, anyway. It felt like Amelia’s death had taken everything good about him with it. He was now the type of person he hated when he was younger – an anxious, irritable loner. Dean was light and laughter and pleasure, and he would notice all too quickly how much of a bore Cas really is.

So, he never dials the number.

He leaves the number on the fridge though, because despite never calling it, it’s nice to know that for a minute someone cared enough to leave it there.

***

It’s Saturday, and Cas has taken Claire to the Logan Square Indoor Farmer’s Market for story time and to buy some apples for pie. It’s been a pleasant Saturday of playtime and naps and pie baking. The house smells sugar-sweet and cinnamon-y, and Cas can see large snowflakes in the gleam of the porch light. Maybe if it sticks he’ll take Claire out in the morning and show her how to make a snow angel.

This is the kind of evening he wishes he and Claire could share with someone. He allows himself a moment to wish that Amelia was there – she loved the snow – but he pushes that thought away as fast as it comes because he can’t let himself go there, not right now. They’ve had such a good day.

At that moment the doorbell rings, as if to distract him from his thoughts. Claire runs to the door imitating the sound of the bell. She’s usually excited when the doorbell goes off because it means Charlie is here and its playtime, but he didn’t call Charlie tonight, so he has no idea who it could be.

“Ding dong Dada! Door! Door!” The child squeals, running through the living room and reaching up to the doorknob.

“Hang on honey,” Cas picks her up. “We have to unlock the chain first, see?” He shows her how and they open the door together.

Both Claire and Cas are surprised to see Dean standing on the porch, but Claire loses interest much faster than Cas and wiggles in his arms.

“Dean. What are- uh,” he sets Claire down and she runs back into the living room, “What are you doing here?”

“You have no idea how badly I want to give you some corny line about coming to make sure your phone is working because you haven’t called me yet, but I’m not going to do that.” His playful smile makes Cas feel warm despite the freezing temperature outside. There are snowflakes melting in his eyelashes. “Can I come in?”

“Oh, of course. Sure. Please.” Cas moves out of the doorway and Dean walks in and takes off his shoes.?

“Hiya Claire, remember me?” Claire is hiding behind the arm of one of the chairs in the living room, peeking over, interested but shy. “That’s okay. Gotta feel out the situation, I get it. Smart girl.” His attention shifts back to Cas. “It smells great in here.”

“We made a pie.” Cas says dumbly, and Dean’s eyes light up.

“Pie? Like, as in pie?” Dean rubs his hands together and breathes deep, analyzing the air. “Okay. Cinnamon. I definitely smell cinnamon. And tart, what is that, apple? Did you make apple pie?”

Dean’s excitement is palpable and Cas nods.

“Now, Cas, tell me one thing. And I need you to be honest with me and I mean, no pressure, but the future of our relationship hangs on your answer to this one question,” Dean puts his hands on Cas’ shoulders, squeezing them tight, and looks him right in the eye before asking, “Did you make the crust from scratch?”

“I did.” He nods again and gasps out a surprised laugh when Dean pulls him in for a fast, tight hug.

“Thank God.” Dean lets him go just as quickly as he pulled him in and is already walking toward the kitchen before Cas can process what has happened. “Do you have vanilla ice cream?” Dean hollers from the other room. Cas looks at Claire and shrugs, like she understands what is going on any better than he does.

“In the freezer.” He hollers back.

Why does this feel so normal?

***

Watching Dean eat, Cas decides, is something of an experience.

At first he thinks that Dean is just a slob, shoving two or three bites in his mouth before chewing – but the more he watches, the more he realizes that this is how the man enjoys his food. He’s not in a rush, he’s excited. He’s not messy – he even rolled up his sleeves and unfolded his napkin in his lap. He doesn’t even talk with his mouth full, except once when he sighed out a, “God, this is good.”

Cas watches him down his entire slice of pie from across the table. The little sounds of happiness he makes around the food has even piqued Claire’s attention, and she’s watching him with an expression with great likeness to Cas’.

When Dean has taken the last bite and set his fork down he finally looks up at them, and once he notices that they haven’t taken more than a bite (or handful, in Claire’s case) out of their own pie he blushes. Cas watches the color creep up his cheeks and to his ears, and it’s quite beautiful.

Beautiful? Can a man be beautiful?

Dean wipes his mouth with his napkin and clears his throat softly, “That was real good,” he says, setting his napkin on the table. “Are, uh, are you gonna eat that?” Dean points to Cas’ plate.

“Yes.” He maintains eye contact with Dean as he takes a bite, and Dean swallows hard and glances over at Claire’s plate. “Ah-ah! Don’t even think about it.” Cas says.

But Dean’s rejected slouch is too much, and he hands over his own plate to the man who smiles wide and digs in.

***

Somehow Dean’s unannounced visits become a part of their routine.

Every other day or so he’ll show up, usually in the evening between four and six o’clock, and leaves without question when Claire starts to get fussy and needs to be put down for bed, usually between seven and eight o’clock. They’ll sit and have a beer in the living room while Claire plays with her blocks or runs around like a banshee. Or if Cas is still cooking dinner Dean will lean against the counter and talk his ear off or ask him questions that are never too personal.

He’s never asked about Amelia – Cas doesn’t think he even knows her name.

Dean tells a lot of stories. He tells Cas about the concerts he’s been to (which makes Cas realize their similar music tastes) and about pranks he’s played on his brother (which makes Cas realize not to get on Dean’s bad side). Cas listens and laughs sometimes, and Dean always gives Cas an opportunity to respond with his own stories.

Cas had forgotten that he experienced life before – that he had stories to tell, too.

Like that he was an international spelling bee champion; “Super dorky” Dean teased playfully.

And how in college he made news headlines when he accidentally stole someone’s car; “My key worked! It’s not my fault Honda doesn’t make different keys for each and every vehicle…”

Dean nearly cried when Cas told him about meeting Jimmy Page on a high school class trip to London.

It doesn’t take long for them to figure out how much they have in common.

It’s nice. Cas enjoys waking up in the morning wondering if he’ll see Dean that day; that little spark of excitement it causes. He likes having something to look forward to – something besides taking care of his daughter, which makes him feel inordinately guilty, but it’s nice to have an adult to talk to finally.

Even Claire has started looking forward to his visits. She runs to the door and he’ll pick her up and she’ll laugh and squeal as he tosses her up or holds her upside down like she’s a ragdoll. It’s very cute, and Cas doesn’t understand the feelings it gives him but he doesn’t try to fight them either.

At least not at first.

***

There’s something different about the way Dean is acting tonight.

He doesn’t ring the doorbell and instead walks right in and scoops Claire up and kisses her on the cheek. It startles Cas at first, mostly because he thought he locked the door when they got home from their walk, but Claire giggles and gives him a high five when prompted and it’s very cute.

“Hey you,” Dean says, carrying Claire into the kitchen and greeting Cas.

Just like that they find their rhythm; Dean cuts vegetables and Cas puts the rest of the stew together. There is only one beer left and the split it. Dean gives Clare small pieces of the raw vegetables and asks which ones she likes (none of them) and which ones she doesn’t (all of them). Dean sets the table, Cas pours the milk, and they sit together at the table and eat and talk about their day.

It’s like they’re a family.

Except that they’re not; and midway through the meal Cas realizes this. It happens when Dean mentions wanting to take Claire to the zoo for their winter ice exhibit because he thinks she might like to see the penguins.

They hadn’t taken Claire out together before. Cas takes her out. Cas takes her to a lot of places on Charlie’s suggestion, but not with Dean – because they’re not a family.

They’re not even a couple.

Sure, they’d had sex once, weeks ago, but besides that and the hug Dean gave him when he made the pie, they hadn’t so much as accidentally bumped into each other while making dinner.

And yes, they got along and had been slowly getting to know each other, and Cas liked to think of Dean as a friend, at least for now, until…

Until what? Cas never even called Dean. He just started showing up because… because why?

That night Claire gets into Dean’s lap when she gets tired and without blinking Dean says, “I can put her down for bed if you want.”

“No,” Cas replies, sounding much more firm than he means to. “No, that’s alright. I’ll take care of her. You can let yourself out, right?”

“’Course. Goodnight you guys.”

“Nigh’ Dee.” Claire says sleepily when Cas plucks her gently from Dean’s lap.

“Aww, she said my name!”

Suddenly Cas is very angry and he doesn’t even know why.

“Goodbye Dean” He says coldly as he walks toward the stairs.

“Oh, uh. ‘Night Cas.”

Cas doesn’t respond, but when he hears the door shut downstairs he lets out the breath he’d been holding in.

***

Dean doesn’t come over for four days after that, and Cas starts to worry that maybe he overreacted and scared him off, but then one evening he hears the doorbell and Claire shouts “Dee!” and runs to greet him and they fall easily back into their off-kilter normalcy.

***

At the end of January Cas realizes what he’s feeling for this man is genuine affection and it terrifies him.

***

It’s early February and Dean’s visits are now a daily occurrence. Cas has considered asking Dean out on a date and having Charlie come watch Claire for an evening, but he doesn’t.

He can’t. He’s not sure why.

One night after dinner while Cas loads the dishwasher, Dean plays with Claire in the living room. He can hear her laughing and wonders what Dean is doing to make her laugh so much; he wishes that he could laugh with as much abandon as she can.

He’s scrubbing a big pot in the sink when he realizes that things in the living room have gotten very quiet, and he turns to peek in and see what’s going on but Dean’s standing in the doorway looking at him. Cas cocks his head and nods toward the living room.

“Laughed herself to sleep.” Dean grins and takes a slight bow.

“Huh.” Cas turns back to his scrubbing, “I didn’t know that was possible.”

“What can I say? It’s a gift.”

He can practically feel Dean’s eyes on him. Cas feels self-conscious. He’s in his sweats and a long sleeve henely, comfortable but wishing maybe he didn’t always have his pajamas on by the time Dean came over.

He hears Dean softly clear his throat, then feels the heat of Dean’s body against his back.

Dean’s not even touching him, not really, but the air in the inch of space between them is electric, and that is what Cas can feel before there are two gentle hands sliding from the small of his back and around until Dean’s warm fingers curl around his hips.

Oh God it feels so good to be close to someone. Cas lets his eyes slip shut and he leans back closing the small gap between them. His hands are still wet and sudsy from dishes, but he braces himself by grabbing onto the side of the sink because he’s certain that if he doesn’t hold onto something he’ll keep falling back and back and he’ll find himself lost in Dean for good.

“Cas.”

It’s not really a spoken word, just a breath of his name against the shell of his ear, and he feels Dean nuzzle at the sensitive spot between his ear and his jaw. It sends goosebumps down his side so fast and fierce it hurts. Rough, calloused fingers have found their way under his shirt and rest softly against his skin.

“Cas, can I stay with you tonight?”

The words curl their way into him and tickle him in places that have never been touched or even thought about in years.

Yes. He wants that. He wants that so badly.

“Okay.” He can barely get the word out. It takes so much effort but once it’s said he feels lighter.

“Okay.” Dean repeats like he can’t quite believe it and turns Cas in his arms so they’re facing each other. Cas can’t look at him though. He can’t bring himself to look at that much unadulterated happiness.

“I have to-,” he clears his throat and stares at the doorway to the living room, “I have to put Claire to bed first.”

“’Course.” Dean rubs their noses together and Cas’ eyes flutter closed as he nuzzles back even though his words contradict his actions. Their lips are so close, he could close that gap – he should-

“Now, Dean. Have to…” he’s cut off by a groan when Dean backs him up and pins him against the sink, grinning. “But Claire…”

Dean growls playfully but concedes and backs away.

“Okay yeah- good call ‘cause I won’t want to stop once we get this started...”

Cas understands what he means seeing how his whole body is thrumming with the need to be pressed up against that man, but he bites that feeling back and walks to the living room to collect his daughter and tuck her in.

He turns on the bedside light and puts her in her bed – the big-girl bed she’s been sleeping in for a couple of weeks now – and tucks the thin blankets up to her chin. He soothes her hair back and kisses her forehead. She doesn’t even stir.

He grabs the baby monitor from the side of his bed and turns to leave the bedroom but Dean is in the doorway. The awareness that Dean has never been in his room hits him hard. Their time spent together was always confined to the kitchen and living room. Dean had used the downstairs bathroom on occasion, and once or twice gone into the garage to grab something per Cas’ request, but that was it. He’s never been upstairs.

“I don’t mean to be a prude or anything, but I was kinda hoping we could do this without an audience.” Dean whispers as he comes closer, and gestures to Claire’s bed while wrapping an arm around Cas’ waist and pulling him close once again. “Wanna put Claire in her room?”

“She sleeps in here.”

“She does?” Dean sounds confused. “Every night?”

“Since the day I brought her home from the hospital. We can go downstairs. I’ll bring the baby monitor, it’s fine...”

“She’s slept in here every night?”

“Yes…?”

“That’s… that’s not normal, is it?”

“Excuse me?” Cas starts to pull away and he’s grateful that Dean doesn’t hold him too tight.

“Won’t that be a hard habit to break when she gets older? What do you do when you bring someone home or want to beat the bishop or something? Don’t you want some, I donno, alone time for that kinda shit?”

Suddenly Cas finds himself on the defensive.

“I’m a single father of a two-year-old – I don’t get ‘alone time.’” He says, air-quoting Dean’s words. “Do you think I bring people here regularly, to my home… You’re the first person I…”

Too much.

Cas can feel his cheeks go red – whether it’s from anger or embarrassment he isn’t sure.

“Hallway.” He whispers harshly, “We’re going to wake up Claire.” Even though they’re whispering he’s worried that they’ll disrupt her so he walks to the door and turns, waiting for Dean to follow him, which he does, slowly like he’s approaching a strange dog that may bite.

When Cas closes the door they resume their fight in the hallway.

Because that’s what this feels like now: a fight.

“I didn’t mean… Cas, c’mon you know I didn’t…”

“You didn’t mean what, exactly? To judge me for the way I’m raising my daughter? To imply that I bring strange men and women home often? Or to make me sound like a bad parent? Which one of those didn’t you mean?”

“I didn’t say any of that!” There’s a surprised anger in Dean’s voice now and it scares Cas but he can’t seem to stop himself.

“And not that it’s any of your business, but I have never brought someone I don’t know into this home, at least none that hasn’t just shown up unannounced and invited themselves in. Why are you even here Dean? What’s in this for you?”

“What’s in it for- Jesus Christ Cas are you serious?” Dean runs a hand over his face and a muscle in his jaw jumps. “I’m crazy about you, Cas, that’s what’s in it for me. And Claire, she… she’s... It’s like the best deal a guy like me…. And I thought you… I thought we could…”

Cas can’t process this. Not right now. He can’t be talking about this with another man in the hallway outside the bedroom that he and his wife shared. He’s afraid of where this conversation might lead. He’s afraid of feeling anything at all because what if that person is taken away from him again? He has a hard-enough time functioning with the debilitating concern that something will happen to Claire, he can’t worry about Dean, too.

He wants to, God does he want to, but his heart can’t afford it. This will be easier – at least that’s what he tells himself as he continues to fight.

“So what? You thought you found yourself a nice little ready-made family to adopt?” The stunned look on Dean’s face nearly stops him in his tracks, but he persists because he needs to get Dean out of here. He doesn’t want to see that hurt look on his face anymore.

I’m crazy about you .

No. He can’t

“This is my life, and Claire is all the family I have and I spend every waking second making sure that she is taken care of. You can’t pound down my door and play house with us just because you feel like it every few days and then tell me what habits are or aren’t normal. Go have your own child and raise it however you want but don’t you dare think you can tell me how to raise mine!”

He expects Dean to say something – to retort with something just as hurtful and angry. A tiny hope deep down expects Dean to fight for him, for them, but what Cas doesn’t expect is for Dean to give him a hard, silent look before turning and walking away. He watches Dean go down the stairs and then a moment after he’s out of sight he hears the front door open and click shut.

He didn't even slam the door.

Cas leans against the wall and slides down to the floor, tucking his legs under him and trying to make himself as small as possible because that’s how he feels.

Chapter Text

After one week Claire stops asking where her friend “Dee” is.

And after two weeks Cas stops expecting him to show up.

He starts making smaller meals just for Claire and himself.

He starts reading The Hobbit to Claire before bed in the hopes that someday she’ll appreciate it.

He falls asleep thinking about Dean and he wakes up thinking about Dean and sometimes he dreams about Dean which confuses him because he doesn’t remember having dreams about anyone besides Amelia.

***

It’s March and Cas takes Claire to the Sugar Bush Fair for their annual pancake breakfast. While he’s there he meets a single mother named Hannah and her son Joseph. Joseph is a few months younger than Claire and the two children get along right off the bat.

It’s then that Cas realizes that he hasn’t seen Claire interact with another child before.

That’s… that’s not normal, is it?

Hannah is very kind and she seems like a good mother. Joseph is a friendly boy and plays well with Claire. They sit together and eat pancakes with fresh maple syrup, and by the time they part ways Cas has Hannah’s phone number tucked into his wallet.

He doesn’t think twice before throwing it away when he gets home.

***

After seeing Claire playing with another child Cas decides to have Charlie help him set up some play dates with single parents and children around the city and after a few weeks Claire has a small group of friends she sees on a regular basis. She remembers their names even though Cas struggles with it sometimes (Todd, Audrey, Ben, and Alex - he eventually gets it). He even gets along with most of their parents, except for Ben’s mother, Lisa, who is far too flirtatious and seems to know everything there ever was to know about raising a child, most of which makes the other parents roll their eyes. But Ben is a sweet little boy and Cas won’t chastise him for his obnoxious mother.

Honestly, he’s a bit proud of himself. He’s out with his daughter being a human. He’s socializing and watching his daughter laugh and grow.

He’s not laughing though.

Dean was almost always able to make him smile at least.

He misses his stories and laughter and how they could talk for hours yet still have comfortable silences. He misses the way Dean played so sweetly with Claire. The way he praised Cas’ cooking while practically inhaling it.

And he longs for things that never happened. What would it have felt like to kiss him? To feel Dean’s strong hands on his body? To see the look in his eyes as Cas entered him for a second time? A third? He often thinks back to that night and the way Dean looked like he was ready to devour him – before Cas ruined it all.

He misses Dean.

But it’s better this way.

Or, he keeps telling himself that it is.

He even believes it sometimes.

***

By the end of the month Cas has moved Claire’s tiny big-girl bed into her own room.

It wasn’t an easy transition for either of them. It took two weeks before Claire stopped getting out of her bed and walking back to Cas’ room crying, and even longer before Cas was able to get to sleep without waking up to check on her five times.

He hated falling asleep to the complete silence of being alone in the room by himself.

But it was for the best.

***

It’s the last day of April: the day after Claire’s second birthday party with her new little friends and the day after the second anniversary of Amelia’s death.

They’ve had a rough day. Claire cried for most of the night.

Cas cried for most of the night, too.

Claire fussed and refused to eat breakfast, and it was nearly impossible to get her down for a nap. Dinner was an absolute nightmare. When Cas was finally able to get her to bed he was utterly exhausted. They haven’t had a day like this in a while.

It’s almost one o’clock in the morning when Cas is woken by a scream from Claire’s room that makes his blood run cold.

Paternal instincts tell him that something is hurting his baby.

“Dadaaaa!” It’s not a cry, it’s a scream. It screams pain and help and Cas runs to her room without a thought of what he might encounter but only the primal need to protect his daughter.

Of course there is nothing in her room, just Claire sitting up in bed and crying.

“Owie Dada!” she cries and Cas can’t see anything wrong and begins to panic.

“What’s wrong baby? Where does it hurt?”

She finally points to her tummy, and he lifts her night shirt thinking he might find a spider or some type of bite or bruise but sees nothing except her perfect little belly button.

These aren’t fake tears. These aren’t the sounds she makes to get attention or when she’s mad or tired. He hasn’t heard this kind of cry before.

He picks her up gently and holds her to him. She doesn’t feel like she has a fever. He presses gently on her tummy and she screams again.

“Shh,” he tries to soothe her but her crying and screaming is relentless, a constant stream of owies and dadas and sounds that break his heart.

He carries her back to his room and grabs his cell phone off the nightstand and his keys and wallet from the tray on the dresser.

On his way out the door, a last-second impulse makes him tear Dean’s number from the refrigerator door.

In record time he’s got Claire strapped into her car seat – still screaming bloody murder – and Cas is backing out of the driveway, pressing Pamela’s name in his phone.

“Cas?” Pamela answers after five rings, thank God, and even though she sounds like she’s been woken from a deep sleep she hears Claire’s cries and is instantly Doctor Barnes. “What’s happening? What’s wrong with Claire?”

“I-I don’t know. She… she won’t stop crying and she keeps pointing to her stomach. I’m taking her to the emergency room.”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can. Tell them that I’m her pediatrician at the front desk and that I’m on my way. Cas it’s going to be alright.”

He hangs up and feels tears threatening to spill over onto his cheeks.

“It’s okay baby, it’s okay. Shh…”

At the next stoplight he unclenches the crumpled paper in his fist and with shaking fingers dials Dean’s number.

He doesn’t answer until the fourth ring- but he does answer.

“Hello?” his voice is deep and heavy with sleep. Cas knows he can hear Claire crying in the background. “Who is this?”

“Dean…” he chokes out the name, wondering why the hell he thought it would be a good idea to call him at this moment.

He’s probably moved on.

It’s been months.

He’s probably in bed wrapped around someone else without a care in the world.

He doesn’t have a child; he doesn’t know what this is like. He doesn’t need this kind of melodrama in his life.

“Cas? Is that Claire?” The concern in his voice breaks the dam within Cas, his tears flowing freely now.

Thank God there’s hardly anyone else on the road right now – he’s crying, on the phone, and there’s a screaming child in the car. He’s not exactly an undistracted driver.

“Something’s wrong.” He tries to pull himself together a little before talking. “I’m taking her to the emergency room,” he pauses for just a moment before specifying, “the one on Erie…”

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” And with that the man hangs up and Cas tosses his phone into the passenger seat.

“Baby don’t worry. We’re almost there and we’re going to find out why your tummy is ouchie and then you’ll feel all better.”

“Ouchie…” Claire whines from the backseat.

“And guess what? Do you remember Dean? Dean will be there too.”

“Dee! Ouchie!”

“I know baby, I know…”

***

It takes him less than ten minutes to get to the Emergency room, and with the screams Claire is emitting they’re ready send them straight on through.

“Cas!”

Dean.

The man is in green basketball shorts and a black sweatshirt with his leather coat pulled on over it. His hair is fluffy and his face tense with concern, and Cas is so relieved that he’s no longer here alone.

“Is he family?” the nurse asks as he corrals them back to an exam room and Dean runs up to them.

“Uh,” Cas wants to lie. He needs Dean with him right now.

“If he’s not family he can’t come back with you.”

Cas can’t speak. He wants to yell and say he needs him to come back. He wants to cry because he’s exhausted and scared and hates hospitals. He must be staring at Dean with a bizarre look on his face, prompting Dean to answer for him.

“I’m Claire’s uncle.”

“Please,” Cas whispers, a not-so-silent prayer that the nurse will believe him.

With a skeptical look, but without another word, the nurse takes them to a room.

Claire cries and both men hold her hands while she’s examined.

***

The crying has ebbed as they wait for results. Cas is sitting on the edge of the exam bed with Claire in his lap. He hugs her and tries to soothe her as she whimpers.

“Hey Claire,” Dean says gently, reaching for the plastic container of tongue depressors. He takes the lid off and puts it on his head. “Hey, do you like my hat?”

“Huh-uh” Claire whines and shakes her head.

“No? Dang. Okay. Well, how about…” Dean takes two of the wooden depressors and sticks them under his top lip like walrus tusks. “How ‘bout now?” He crosses his eyes, and Claire laughs just a little – just enough that Cas feels about ten pounds of anxiety lifted from his shoulders.

“Charming.” Says a voice from the doorway, and there stands Pamela in leggings and a Ramones sweatshirt with her white doctor’s coat pulled over her. Dean starts and sits up straight, pulling the sticks from his lips and taking the lid off his head.

“You, uh, might want to sanitize that.” Dean sets the lid on the counter next to a small sink and looks nervous, like Pamela is going to reprimand him. Pamela instead just grins and turns her attention to Claire and Cas.

“Is she okay?” Cas asks, absolutely hating the betraying quiver in his voice.

“She is.”

Both Cas and Dean take a deep, relieved breath.

“Then what’s wrong? She wouldn’t just cry like that if she wasn’t in pain.”

Pamela gives him a kind smile.

“Castiel, you are an incredible father, and your daughter has gas.”

***

It’s quiet for a few moments as Cas processes this information.

“Gas?” Cas says it like it’s a question. “You mean, she...” He wasn’t expecting this. “You’re sure it’s not appendicitis or Crohn’s disease?” Claire is leaning against him heavy with sleep, and she chooses that moment to let out a long, loud wind of flatulence that Cas would be sure came from someone else if he weren’t holding her in his lap.

“Pretty sure,” Pamela is nothing but professional, but Dean is shaking with repressed laughter in his chair.

Cas looks at him, somewhat shocked. Dean straightens up again and clears his throat. “Sorry,” he squeaks the word out. His cheeks are pink and his eyes are watering. He’s trying so hard not to laugh.

Because this is funny.

At first Cas thinks he might start crying again because usually when his body starts to shake and he’s welling up with emotion that’s what happens. But this is different. It starts in his stomach, and when the first few low chuckles escape his mouth he realizes – he’s laughing.

There’s no stopping it once he’s started. He laughs until he’s shaking. He laughs until it hurts. He laughs and looks over at Dean, who is laughing with him and looking at him, surprised.

And why wouldn’t he be? Until this very moment Cas has never given him any reason to think of him as anything more than a sad hermit.

When they meet each other’s eyes there’s a split second where Cas knows; he knows that he can fix this now.

And then Claire farts again and both men break down into hysterics.

“I’ll give you guys a few minutes. Come on out when you’re finished and we’ll get Claire discharged.” Pamela says over their fits of giggles and snorts.

When the door clicks closed behind Pamela their laughter increases ten-fold until they’re clutching their stomachs and tears are streaming down their cheeks.

***

Cas gets Claire discharged but leaves her hospital bracelet on because she starts crying when he tries to cut it off. She’s asleep in his arms before they get to the parking lot. Dean stands by awkwardly as he gets her clipped into her car seat. It’s late and it’s cold out but Dean doesn’t make a move to leave.

Once Cas has the door closed he turns to face Dean. He knows what he wants to say, but he’s not sure how to start.

Turns out he doesn’t need to worry. Without a word Dean steps up and wraps him in a hug and it feels natural for Cas to wrap his arms around Dean and hug him back. He buries his face in the man’s shoulder, feeling comforted and ashamed and incredibly raw.

Dean smells like leather and soap. He must shower in the evening instead of in the morning.

“I’m sorry. Dean, I’m-” He mutters into the soft leather of his collar.

“I know, Cas.” Dean separates them enough so they can see each other. He squeezes Cas’ shoulders and rubs them softly; easing some of the tension he perpetually carries with him. “We’ll talk. Not tonight, though, because it’s late and you’ve got a little fart machine to take care of.”

Cas chuckles nervously because Dean’s right, but he wants to talk now. He wants to take this man home and curl around him in bed and sleep for days.

“When?” he asks and presses his forehead to Dean’s closing his eyes and swaying slightly, a new wave of exhaustion hitting him hard.

“Go on a date with me.” Dean asks in lieu of an answer, and Cas nods. They cling to each other until they’re both shivering in each other’s arms. Dean breaks away first and opens the driver’s side door for Cas. Cas had turned the car on and the heat for Claire and the warm air that escapes when Dean opens the door gives him goosebumps. “Can I pick you up tomorrow at six?”

“I have to-” Cas has to clear his throat because something has apparently lodged itself there, “… to make sure that Claire’s babysitter is available.”

“’Course. You just let me know.”

Cas’ fingers twitch like he wants to reach out and touch the man, but he doesn’t. Instead he gets in his car, and as he pulls out of the hospital parking lot he looks in his rearview mirror and Dean still standing and watching him drive away.

When Cas gets home he puts Claire in her bed and turns up the baby monitor so it’ll be sure to wake him up if she makes any noise at all.

He sees that he has two texts from Dean’s number.

>>Text Received<< Thanks for finally giving me your number ;)

>>Text Received<< I’m really glad you called me.

<<Text Sent>> Me too. Thank you.

>>Text Received<< Night Cas. See you tomorrow.

<<Text Sent>> Goodnight Dean.

He saves the number under Dean’s name and falls asleep before he even turns off the lamp.

***

It’s been a hellacious week.

Month.

Year… or two…

But the next evening at six o’clock on the nose, when Cas opens the door and sees Dean standing on the porch wearing a tie and a shy smile with a small bouquet of flowers in his hand, he lets it all go for a moment.

He never thought he’d heal from the wound left when Amelia died. The pain had been so great for so long…

But at that moment, looking at Dean, he’s able to see past the pain. He feels the healing process lurch forward; he feels it in his soul, just a tiny flutter – this little pulse of life that he hasn’t felt in so long.

It is time, and Cas is ready.