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PART ONE

Generally speaking, Dean does not ever have an urge to hit a female. Sure, he’s dealt with some real witches in his day, and okay, there was that time he pushed down Stacy McFadden while playing tetherball in fifth grade, but after he hit puberty he understood yes, it’s wrong to hit girls.

Dean is willing to make an exception for this one.

He runs a hand through his hair for the fifth time in the last ten minutes, fixing the glowering girl at the English office with his most impatient look. If it were possible to destroy people out of sheer frustration, he would’ve done it already. “Okay,” he enunciates, trying on his most charming smile, “I see that we’re not really understanding one another.”

“I understand you,” she insists, and it sounds like she might be trying to be polite but doesn’t really want to, “there’s just nothing I can do. If you can’t make any of the class times, then there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“Could I speak to one of the professors? Something?” He is two steps away from begging on his knees.

“Sir, there’s not going to be any professor who will work with you on class times for an entire semester.”

Dean places his hands flat on the counter and looks her in the eye, another smile gracing his face—this one is Sincerity, it’s Help Me, Sweetheart, You’re My Only Hope. “Look. Ma’am. This is the last lit credit I need and I’ve got to get it out of the way now—I’m graduating in May and I have all major-related classes in the spring.” He thinks about his brother, Sam, who he has to pick up in—oooh, little brother! “I have a little brother I bring to school and pick up,” he wheedles, “every day. Nobody else that can do it. He’s fifteen and cute, want to see him?” Dean is not above dangling the adorable brother as sympathy bait. Sam, tall and gangly and goofy, is the perfect antidote to female bitchiness. They all say he’s flat-out precious.

She gives him a dirty look. “There’s nothing I can do. Take it next semester.”

“I don’t have room next semester,” he snaps, good graces gone. He’s not going to spill his life story to this woman, tell her how his mother’s dead and his father’s a drunk, and that he works at least forty hours a week and still manages to get good grades so he can send Sam to a private school in Kansas City. He doesn’t tell her that it’s an hour away, and that he’s been taking care of Sam since Sam was ten. He doesn’t tell her that he’s tired, and twenty-four, and nearly dropped out of school three times but always went back because of Sam. Sam needs him. Sam needs Dean to have a degree so Dean can get Sam to school in a few years.

He doesn’t tell this woman any of it, and she simply gives him a tight smile. “I’m sorry.”

Dean chews on his lip for a moment, sensing defeat rank in the air. “Fine. Thanks for your time.” Even though you didn’t do shit.

He takes a step to the side as a man comes into the office. The girl brightens considerably, giving him a radiant smile. Dean can practically see her pupils dilate as she goes into heat. The man is average height, maybe a little under, and his untidy dark hair doesn’t fit with the crisp white dress shirt, black vest and pants, and dark red tie. It looks like he’s ready for his violin concert. Julie damn near gives him a once-over. “Hey, Dr. Milton. I have your mail right here.”

“Thank you, Julie.” He takes the package and letters from her, but doesn’t spare her more than a brief smile. His posture is a little remarkable, very straight with thrown-back shoulders. He could probably walk with a textbook on his head.

Dean tilts his head as he looks at the man, thinking. Dr. Milton. Teaching Shakespeare in the fall, on Mondays and Wednesdays at nine. “Excuse me, Dr. Milton?”

The professor looks at Dean with dark blue eyes and a raised eyebrow. “Yes?”

“He can’t do anything,” Julie says, and she sounds super pissed now, probably mad at Dean for encroaching on her alone time. “I’m not going to have you harassing the professors of this department.”

Dr. Milton holds up one hand, giving her a very small smile. “It’s okay. What can I help you with?”

Dean tries not to smirk at Julie, but he fails. “Can I please speak to you in private? Are you busy right now?”

“I am not. Follow me.” He takes his mail with another small smile and leaves, heading down the hall and turning right. Dean follows, trying to think of what to say in his head, a way to make this guy work with him. If not this guy, then he’s going to try Dr. Barnes, but she eyed him like a tasty dish when he passed her office and he’s not sure it’s worth it.

Dr. Milton’s office is clean and neat but crammed with books from floor to ceiling. There aren’t any windows, which should make it feel gloomy and oppressing, but there’s a softer light bulb or something in the lights, and instead the room feels quiet. The books on the shelves (and on the floor) range from Bibles to outdated literary criticism to Stephen King. There seems to be a specific order in which they’re placed, but Dean can’t discern what that might be. Despite the aged look of his textbooks, there’s a brand new iMac on his desk in all its white glory, as well as a Macbook Air pushed off to the side. Dean would have absolutely pegged him for, oh, maybe a typewriter or something.

Dr. Milton motions to one of two empty leather chairs in front of his desk and Dean takes a seat. “All right, I’ve got a major problem.”

Dr. Milton settles in his own chair and smiles again, a little wider than before. It softens his sharp facial structure and makes him look rather kind, as if in his spare time he is a soother of babies and hysterical women. “It might help me to know your name.”

Shit, of course. Dean blushes vaguely, embarrassed to look like a fucking freshman when this is his sixth year of college. “Oh, sorry. I’m Dean Winchester.” He extends his hand first, which Dr. Milton shakes, grip very firm and continuing for the appropriate amount of time. Dean always appreciates a good handshake. It says a lot about the person, and this one in particular tells him that Dr. Milton is probably prompt and hard-working as well as efficient.

“Nice to meet you, Dean. I’m Castiel.”

Dean blinks at him a moment but decides not to mention the name. He needs to be on this guy’s good side. “Hi, nice to meet you. Okay, so my problem. I’ve got to take my core lit class this semester, but I literally can’t make any of the class times. I graduate in May, so I have to take all my core classes then.”

“That’s always unfortunate,” the professor says, and Dean smiles suddenly because it sounds like a genuine response rather than making fun.

“Yeah, right? Exactly. And since I bring my brother to school in Kansas City every day, and I bartend on the weekends and do mechanic work during the week, I was wondering if there would be any way, at all, for me to maybe…I don’t know…meet with you at another time? I’ll do all the work, I swear. I’m a hard worker.” Now that he’s saying it to a professor it sounds ridiculous. Requesting to miss all class time and make the professor work extra?

Dr. Milton watches him for a moment in a way that makes Dean squirm a little. Those blue eyes are intense. They make Dean want to be honest about everything. “How old is your brother?”

Dean doesn’t expect that and takes a moment to respond. “He’s fifteen and totally brilliant. He goes to Pembroke Hill.”

“Why do you take him to school?”

Dean should’ve known there would be a catch. Now he has to tell this guy every little secret. “Well, our mom died when he was a baby, and our dad—he’s not around a lot.”

“Does he work often?”

“Yeah,” Dean lies, and immediately feels guilty about it. “Actually, no. He’s just. He’s not really—do you think we can work something out or not?”

Dr. Milton leans forward, hands clasped together. He’s serious now, and not smiling, and Dean feels a prickle in his stomach. “What is your weekly schedule going to be like?”

Dean sighs a little and doesn’t want to repeat it, because he literally has no life. “I leave at six-thirty to bring Sam to school for eight, then I come back here. I’m usually here by nine-thirty, then I go to work until two, when I leave at two to pick Sammy up, and I’m home by four or so.” He has to pause to think about his schedule, since he just signed up for fall classes. “Um…right. Then I have night classes on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from six to eight-thirty, and on Thursday I take Sam to a study session in Kansas City. Friday and Saturday are late shifts at the bar.” He clenches his jaw as he looks at the professor. “Is there anything I can work out with you? I really am a hard worker. I’ll do anything you ask. I just can’t make anything fit, and I know I should’ve done this before but I’m really bad with literature and I don’t like a lot of stuff and I put it off. Please. Can you help me?”

Leaning back in his seat, Dr. Milton folds his hands together again. “I can work something out with you.”

Dean exhales a sigh of relief, hanging his head for a moment. “Thank you so much. You don’t know how grateful I am.”

“It’s not going to be easy,” he points out, turning to his spiffy computer and signing in, fingers moving quick across the keyboard. “But considering you’re as busy as you are and you aren’t dead yet, I think you can do it.”

Dean smiles a little at that. Sometimes he thinks the same thing. “Thank you so much. I really do appreciate this.”

“I’m teaching three classes this semester,” Dr. Milton continues. “Shakespeare, World Literature II, and the Bible as Literature. Which one would you like?”

Making a face, Dean runs a hand over his already-messy hair. “Um, which one’s the easiest and least boring?”

Dr. Milton laughs at that. It makes his whole face crinkle up and a dimple flash in his cheek. It’s endearing as hell and Dean hates that he notices—he thought he’d put that bullshit behind him since high school. “I’m teaching it, so of course I think it’s all interesting. But for you, I’d say to go with Shakespeare. Are you familiar with Shakespeare at all?”

“I know Romeo and Juliet,” Dean hedges. “And Hamlet. I think that’s it. That’s all I remember, anyway.”

“We will be reading eight plays over the course of the semester. I usually begin each new play with a PowerPoint concerning the history of the play and the culture at the time. I can email you those as we do them.” He tilts his head as he studies Dean. “I believe we should meet for two hours every week and discuss the current play. What do you think?”

Feeling that he doesn’t even deserve this much, Dean agrees. “That sounds good. When? What time? I can try to do what I can during the week, but weekends are easiest for me.”

Dr. Milton asks for his student ID and Dean gives it to him, watching those nimble fingers flick across the keys, the look of concentration that creases his handsome face. Dean looks away. He will not start this again. “I can do Saturday or Sunday mornings, before you go to work. My weekend evenings are usually filled with grading.”

Dean scratches his head, trying to decide if he wants to deal with Shakespeare on a Saturday morning before work. “Um, Saturdays are fine.”

“Shall we say nine, then? We can meet here, in my office, if that is convenient for you.”

Dean smiles, a genuine one, grateful as hell. “Dude, just you agreeing to help me out is convenient for me. I can be here.” And he can. Despite it being early, and despite the four hours of sleep he’ll get, the fact that Dr. Milton is willing to meet with him at all is a miracle. Dean can show his compromise in the form of sleep.

Dr. Milton smiles at him again, typing on the keyboard for a moment longer. “You are registered. I will mark you as present each day as long as we talk on the Saturday previous. If for whatever reason you must cancel, please let me know and we can try for Sunday.” He plucks a business card from his desk and hands it to Dean. “That is my office number, home number, cell phone, and email. You can even text me.”

Texting a professor sounds weird, but Dean smiles anyway. “Thanks. Here, let me give you mine, just in case.”

He does and, with everything worked out, Dean stands with a sigh. “I really do appreciate this, Dr. Milton.”

“I know,” the professor stays, rising as well. “I am happy to help. And you may call me Castiel. Dr. Milton makes me feel rather uncomfortable.”

Dean extends his hand and shakes it, grinning at a second firm, perfect handshake. He’s aware that he’s blushing, but hopes it doesn’t show in the soft light. “Castiel, then.”

“It was nice to meet you, Dean.” He picks up the black blazer on the back of his chair and slides it on. “I have a meeting I must attend, but please keep in touch. I will email you the list of plays you must read, as well as the syllabus. If you have any questions, please get in touch with me in whatever manner is easiest.”

“Thanks,” Dean says again. “Really.”

Castiel smiles at him and leads him out of the office. “Of course. I am happy to help.”

Dean watches him go down the hall before turning into the English office again, smirking at Julie. “Castiel worked it out with me. Thanks for your help.”

She stares at him with an open mouth until he laughs and leaves.

*

Dear Dean,

Here is the list of plays you will need to read over the course of the semester, as well as the syllabus. Briefly explained, as I’m sure you are not a syllabus person, you will be taking two exams—a midterm and a final—and writing two papers over two separate plays. We will discuss these papers as you get closer to them. I normally give a quiz at the start of every class to see how well you are reading, but as you and I will be having a face-to-face discussion, I will count that as your quiz grade each week.

Here is the list of plays you will be reading, in order:

1. Henry IV, Part I
2. Richard III
3. Macbeth
4. Hamlet
5. King Lear
6. As You Like It
7. The Taming of the Shrew
8. The Winter’s Tale

I always begin with the histories because they are boring (to most people), then the tragedies, and end with the comedies. In our first lesson we will discuss the publication of quartos, folios, etc., and I will prepare you on how best to read the text. You will also be reading a few sonnets, but I have not chosen those yet. I will let you know as soon as I do.

All best,
Castiel

P.S. If it is acceptable to you, I would prefer to meet once before the first week of classes so I can get you started a bit earlier. I believe this will help you.

Dean grins as he reads the email, and responds in the affirmative with more enthusiasm than he anticipated, considering it’s classic literature. He shuts down his computer and rushes to his car, hurrying to pick Sam up at school.

*

The last few weeks of summer drag by for Dean. He’s taking two summer school courses, his last basic math and writing, but they’re online so he tries to work even more. He’s so close to getting his mechanical engineering’s degree he can almost taste it. He’s exhausted all the time from working so much—roughly seventy hours a week in the summer—but it helps to bring in enough money to get both Sam and himself some new clothes for the fall.

It’s been almost a week since he’s seen his dad, even though they live in the same house, and Dean tries not to think about that much at all.

Before he knows, it’s time for his first meeting with Castiel. Dean’s gotten all the plays at a local used bookstore and even flipped through them a little, but he has no idea what Shakespeare is trying so say. He puts them away until he’s forced to read them. He gets to Castiel’s office a little before nine, but he isn’t there yet. Running on nothing but four hours of sleep and half a cup of day-old coffee, he’s inexplicably miffed at being early, blaming not Castiel but Shakespeare for his lack of sleep. If Shakespeare hadn’t written so damn much, Dean could have slept more. Bastard. Grumbling more to himself, he plays Sudoku on his phone, finishing a full game before he hears footsteps and looks up.

Castiel, dressed more casually than before in navy pants and a striped shirt, smiles at him and Dean smiles back. Though he’s tired he realizes that he’s been looking forward to this, and it has nothing at all, in the slightest, to do with the handsome professor. Of course. “Morning.”

“Good morning, Dean.” He gestures to the box in his hands, unlocking his office. “I hope you like donuts. I’m about to make a pot of coffee as well, if you’d be interested.”

Dean thinks he still tastes the tepid coffee from an hour ago and quickly agrees, taking a seat and flipping open the donut box while Castiel makes the coffee. He takes a glazed donut and eats it in three bites, having not been hungry when he woke up but starving now. He looks around the office again, but it’s exactly as he remembered, crammed with books yet somehow organized.

“I don’t know how you take your coffee,” Castiel says, coming back in the room and pushing the door closed with his foot, “so I brought you cream and sugar.”

Dean takes the mug offered to him and grins. “I take it black, but thanks.”

“Ah. I’ve always tried to drink it black—I thought it was more manly that way—but I rather like sweet coffee.” He rips open four packets of sugar as if to prove his point and dumps them into his own mug. “How are you this morning?”

“Exhausted,” Dean admits. “I worked for my dad’s friend yesterday morning from six to about nine, then I went to the bar to help inventory from ten to twelve, then I worked all the way until three covering some shifts.”

“In the morning?” He sounds surprised and Dean just laughs.

“Yeah. It’s the last week I do that, though, then I go back to my regular hours. I just needed to get as much in as I could before school started.” He’s glad for it. He managed to make up the money needed for Sam’s tuition much quicker than he normally did. It’s one less thing he has to worry about. He’s lucky Sam’s such a smarty and receives a scholarship, allowing Dean to pay only six thousand each year. Otherwise Sam probably wouldn’t be able to go to the fancy private school.

“You do work hard,” Castiel comments, blowing on his coffee and taking a sip.

“I do. But it’s worth it in the end, right?”

“Do you think it is?”

Dean shrugs. “I hope to God it is.” He doesn’t put as much humor behind the words as he intended to and doesn’t miss the soft look that Castiel gives him. “So, um. What are we doing today?”

Castiel clears a space between them and hands Dean a few papers. “There’s a hard copy of your syllabus, plus the handouts I intend to give the class on Monday. All we’ll be discussing is, essentially, historical and cultural value. What do you know about Shakespeare?”

And that’s pretty much how their first lesson goes, Castiel asking questions and Dean answering them, then Castiel giving him a lecture that doesn’t so much as feel like a lecture as a friendly discussion. Dean even takes notes as well, able to focus more despite his distaste for the subject because Castiel is quiet and earnest and patient, delivering the material in such a way that even Dean, inept as he is with it, can understand.

They take a break for more coffee about an hour into it, Dean telling Castiel more than he expected to, Castiel sharing details about himself as well. He’s the youngest of three brothers and a sister, and his parents are world-famous Bible scholars who have spent all their time traveling since their youngest was able to take care of himself. He grew up rich, was about to turn thirty, and got his four degrees in ten years: Bachelor’s in English from Purdue, Master’s and PhD in a joint-track program at Notre Dame in literature, and a PhD in Comparative Literature from Brown . None of his siblings understand why he chose a small town in Kansas to live in, much less teach in. “They’re all advertising executives or lawyers or doctors,” Castiel says, smiling wryly. “They don’t know why I willingly deal with young people.”

When eleven o’clock rolls around, Castiel finishes a little abruptly. “You must go to work now, so we will talk again next week. Read the first two acts and take notes, especially if you don’t understand something. And if you’re really and truly lost, I suggest SparkNotes. Though,” he adds with a smile, “that does not in any way mean you should not read the play. I expect you to be able to converse with me on it.”

Dean thanks him and heads home for a snack and to pack his lunch before work, thinking about dark blue eyes and small smiles and hands with slender, delicate fingers.

*

“I love Hotspur,” Dean announces as soon as Castiel rounds the corner and approaches the office. Castiel gives a grin, which is rare, and unlocks the door.

“Do you?”

“Yeah. Dude is badass. I want him to win.”

“How come?”

“Because! He’s, like, the really good son, you know? Fuckin’—excuse me, sorry—Prince Hal is a lazy dick. Hotspur’s what Hal should be.” He sits down in what is becoming his chair, taking the box of donuts from Castiel and setting them down, changing his mind and following the professor into the break room for coffee. “And he knows what he wants. Hal’s just this fu—screw-up who can’t even be bothered to get off his ass and do stuff.”

“You’re very opinionated on this,” Castiel says, grinding coffee beans and glancing at Dean. Dean snorts.

“I don’t know, it just got to me. And what the hell’s up with Falstaff? Dude is weird.”

“He was Shakespeare’s most popular character for many years.”

Dean watches those hands as they work, picking up mugs, pouring coffee, adding way too much sugar into one. He accepts his black coffee and takes a sip, letting the flavor roll down his tongue and into his throat. Castiel makes some good coffee. “Dude is weird,” he repeats, and he gets a laugh out of Castiel. For some reason, it makes Dean super happy.

During their break, after an hour of Dean bitching about Prince Hal and Castiel trying to redirect him to think about other things in the play (“Did you notice that Hal speaks both in verse and prose? Why do you think that is?”), Castiel looks at Dean with his usual intense gaze. “I have a personal question for you. You do not have to answer.”

“Um, okay.” Dean swirls his coffee around in his cup before taking a sip. “What’s that?”

“Why do you take care of your brother if your father is at home?”

Dean looks down at his feet. There are holes in his sneakers. He’ll have to get new ones soon. “I’d rather not answer.”

“Fair enough. How’s Sam doing?”

Dean appreciates the change in topic and smiles at the chance to talk about his brother. “He’s great. Really great. I really wish I could get him a car for his sixteenth birthday in May, but there’s no way we can afford one. Bobby—my dad’s friend—is going to see if he can give me a junker to fix up. I know Sam really wants to be able to drive himself to school, but it’s an hour each way. I don’t know about that yet.”

“You and your brother both seem quite independent. I was like that.”

Dean gives him a look. “Don’t make it sound like you’re all old. You’re not even thirty yet. We’re pretty close in age,” he adds, though unnecessarily. Then he blushes and looks down at his mug again.

“We are,” Castiel agrees, “though sometimes I feel as though I’m about forty. I literally went to school from age three to twenty-six. I don’t think I ever had time to be a kid. My parents were very strict.”

“Do you ever see them?”

Castiel glances at the only frame on his desk. It’s filled with nondescript people. Dean assumes they’re the Miltons. “Sometimes. Once a year or so, usually around a holiday. Once I graduated high school they started traveling much more.”

Dean falls quiet and finishes his coffee. He looks at Castiel, who’s already watching him. “I have a personal question for you.”

Castiel smiles. “Shoot.”

“Your name is—interesting.”

“You mean weird,” he says, eyes bright, and Dean laughs and nods. “It is weird. My parents are Bible scholars, I believe I told you, but my mother is also an angelologist. She named us all after angels. My oldest brother is Michael, then Gabriel and Lucifer—yeah, I know—and Anael, my sister, and then me. My name was supposed to be Cassiel, but my mother slurred when she said it and my father wrote it down wrong.”

Dean laughs at that, grinning. “Well, it’s kind of a cool mistake, at least. It fits you.”

“Does it? That’s good. I don’t know what I’d do if I had a name that wasn’t suitable.”

For the next several minutes, Dean laughs more than he has all week. Saturdays are becoming his favorite days.

*

On the next Friday into Kansas City, Sam finds Dean’s copy of Henry IV, Part One and flips it open. “Did you write all these notes?”

“Yeah. My professor expects me to know shit, remember?”

“Do you like it?”

“What, the play?” Dean asks, merging onto I-70 to Kansas City. “It’s okay.”

“Do you like your teacher too?”

Dean glances at Sam with a raised eyebrow. “Why all the questions? Go to sleep, get some more rest before the long day of knowledge ahead.”

“I just want to talk,” Sam argues, placing Dean’s book back on the seat between them. “I feel like I haven’t talked to you in forever.”

Dean softens a little, pats his brother on the knee. “I know, buddy, but it’ll get easier soon. I won’t need to work so much this semester since your school’s paid for.”

“Dean, you know—”

“No, Sam. You’re staying at Pembroke Hill, all right? It’s the best thing for you and we’re making it work. Don’t worry so much.”

“You’re killing yourself each week just to make enough money for my school and food and some of the bills,” Sam says, sounding far too bitter for fifteen. “If Dad would only—”

“Dad’s got his own problems,” Dean interrupts again. “He does what he can, when he can.”

“I hate the way you make excuses for him.”

“Yeah, well. I hate your haircut.” He really doesn’t, but it makes Sam roll his eyes anyway. The tension in the car eases somewhat. Then goes right back up when Dean reaches into the glove compartment and pulls out a pack of cigarettes.

“Dean—”

“Don’t start. This is the pack I bought three weeks ago and I still have ten left. Let me have this one bone, Sammy, okay?”

“I’ll let you have your cancer bone,” Sam says, a little frosty, but he digs out the lighter for Dean and hands it to him. “I want to hear more about your Shakespeare class. Your teacher sounds cool.”

“He is,” Dean says, and thinks about the intensity of Castiel’s eyes as he lights his cigarette.

*

On the first Saturday of discussing Richard III, Dean is a little late. Castiel’s already in his office with two hot mugs of coffee by the time Dean races in, hair wild, teeth unbrushed, wearing the shirt he slept in.

“Alarm didn’t go off,” he pants, falling into his chair. “Sorry. Last night was late and I put my alarm for p.m. instead of a.m.”

“But you’re here,” Castiel says simply, pushing the mug of coffee to him. “Let’s talk.”

They don’t spend much time talking about the play, though, instead going off on tangents that lead them to other conversations. Dean even calls Ellen, his boss at the bar, and asks if he can be late. She agrees far too quickly, adding that he’s so reliable he can always take off if he needs to. So he plans to come in no later than three, having been asked to cover someone else’s shift in addition to his own. He figures that’ll give him enough time with Castiel, and they pick up right where they left off.

So this is how Dean ends up having lunch at a diner with his professor, discussing life, school, and a little bit of Shakespeare. It’s embarrassing to admit, but this is the most interaction Dean’s had with someone in a long, long time. He doesn’t exactly have friends—only coworkers and classmates—and even if he did have friends, it’s not like he often has time to do nothing. Hanging out doesn’t pay bills.

He takes his time with his bacon cheeseburger because it’s just that good, sipping his milkshake intermittently, listening as Castiel explains common themes found in Richard III and taking notes with his free hand.

“You’re ambidextrous?” Castiel says, sounding surprised. Dean nods, stuffing fries into his mouth.

“Yeah. Always have been. Dad wanted me to be a baseball player—switch-hitter, you know—but I was never that great at it.”

“That’s very interesting,” he says, and Dean feels that hot gaze on him. It makes him blush a little.

“Not really. I mean, not to me.”

“I’m clumsy with my hands, so I find it fascinating.”

Dean looks up in surprise. “You have nice hands, though.”

There’s an awkward silence. Castiel looks as though he’s trying to hide a smile. Dean stares down at his fries. “I mean, you know,” he says, and can’t finish because he has no idea what he means.

Castiel changes the subject back to Shakespeare and Dean’s incredibly grateful for it. He doesn’t like feeling embarrassed—it makes him hot and prickly all over, like he’s about to combust—and Castiel seems to know it, easily finding another avenue of conversation.

When they get the check for lunch, Castiel pulls out his credit card and hands it to the waitress. Dean stares at him.

“Hey, um.” He wants to say that he has cash, thank you very much, but Castiel just looks at him again and Dean can’t say shit.

“Dean,” he says patiently, “I have noticed something about you.”

“And what’s that? Also, what does it have to do with you buying me lunch?”

His professor smiles and leans forward just a little. “I have noticed that you are one of the hardest working men I think I’ve ever met. You put in over forty hours a week every week, you are taking fifteen credit hours, you bring your brother to his private school—for which you pay—four hours a day, you fix meals for him and take care of your home. And you are only twenty-four. I have noticed that you don’t seem to get a lot of thanks for what you do either, and neither do you think you deserve it, for it is what you are supposed to do. Family takes care of one another. So this is simply me thanking you for all your hard work. Please accept it.”

Dean’s at a loss for words now, He opens his mouth to say something but nothing comes out. He stares at Castiel’s vivid blue eyes until Castiel pushes his milkshake closer. “Finish that up. Would you like any dessert?”

“I’m good,” Dean says, voice small, and he sucks down the last bit of his milkshake. He doesn’t know what to feel at that moment. He recognizes that he has a crush on his professor, but he figures it happens often, and he can sometimes forget that Castiel is a man, like him, and that men shouldn’t feel such things for other men. He learned that in high school when his dad caught him masturbating to the Kansas City Royals’ charity beefcake calendar.

“You’ve made my Saturdays quite enjoyable,” Castiel says, signing his name on the receipt and standing up. “Thanks for that.”

Dean blushes again and can’t seem to fucking stop. “Thanks for letting me have Saturdays in the first place.”

“Next week, would you like to meet for coffee instead of at my office?”

It sounds like a date. Dean wouldn’t mind—no, it’s not a date, it’s his professor, who is male, so therefore not a date. “Yeah, that’d be cool, thanks.”

Even while serving beer and liquor to the Roadhouse’s usual patrons, Dean’s brain is occupied by Castiel despite his best efforts. He goes home with a blonde that night and fucks her until he forgets navy blue eyes and tousled dark hair.

*

Sam flips through Macbeth during breakfast, chewing his bagel slowly. “Do you like this one?”

“Hell yeah,” Dean says, frying a couple of eggs for himself. “Lady Macbeth is a total bitch and I love her. She’s fucking crazy.” He sits at the kitchen table with a glass of orange juice, eating quickly so they aren’t late. “Did you want to go see a movie tonight?”

“Don’t you have to work?”

“I let Jo take my shift. She wants a Prada purse or something.” It isn’t exactly the truth. He’s taking the night off because he has to catch up on homework, and he’s been missing his little brother something fierce.

The look on Sam’s face is worth losing the fifty bucks he tends to make on Thursday nights. “Seriously? A movie?”

“Jesus, Sammy, don’t sound like a friggin’ Disney Channel show. It’s just a movie.”

“We haven’t done that in a long time,” Sam says, and Dean has to turn away, eyes glassy.

“I know, little brother. We’ll do it tonight. And how about we get ice-cream after?”

“Dude, yes,” Sam grins, and that expression carries Dean’s tired body through his day.

 

He’s caught up on his homework and Sam’s done writing his paper by seven that night. Their dad is passed out on the couch, so the brothers sneak out to the car. John doesn’t like when they stay out on a school night.

They see a really awful action flick but it works out okay because they make fun of it the whole way through, sharing popcorn and laughing. With a pang of loneliness, Dean realizes that Sam’s only going to be around for a couple more years before heading off to bigger and better things, hopefully with a full scholarship. He’s saving up in case, though, already has a couple thousand dollars in his savings account. He figures that if Sam does get a full ride, he can spend that money on getting him a decent car.

They walk from the movie theater to the Marble Slab a few blocks over, and Dean freezes when they step through the jingling door. Castiel is sitting at the table closest to the register with a gorgeous redhead. For some reason, just for a second, he feels the sting of betrayal. Then he pushes it away quickly, because what the fuck, he’s not dating his teacher.

“Do you know what you want?” Sam asks, hands in his pockets, and Dean looks up at him—when the hell did Sam grow so much?—and shrugs.

“I don’t know. What are you feeling?”

“Dean?”

Dean stills his expression and turns that little bit to smile at Castiel, who’s clearly happy to see him. “Hey, teach.”

“So this is Dean,” the woman says, and Dean blushes because it means Castiel has talked about him.

“This is Dean,” Castiel confirms, glancing at Sam. “And you must be Sam, yes?”

Sam blinks at Dean, then nods. Dean remembers his manners. “Sammy, this is Castiel, my professor. Cas, Sammy.”

Castiel shakes Sam’s hand, then indicates the redhead. “This is Anael, my sister. We call her Anna.”

Anna smiles at the Winchesters, in that same small way that Castiel has, and Dean feels some tension bleed from his muscles. Not his girlfriend or his wife. “Hello.”

“Hi,” Sam says, shy, standing just behind Dean even though he’s almost two inches taller now. Dean rolls his eyes a little and speaks to the Milton siblings, trying not to grin too much at Castiel.

“We just came from a movie.”

“I thought you worked tonight?”

Dean chuckles. “I took off. Had some homework to do and wanted to hang out with him.”

“You told me Jo wanted your shift!” Sam protests, giving Dean one of his Looks. “Dean.”

“She really does want that Prada purse,” Dean insists. “I just…am helping her get there.”

Castiel chuckles a little bit and the sound makes Dean happy. “We just came from a movie too. It wasn’t that great, so we figured ice-cream might be in order.”

“Oh, ice-cream was totally on our list,” Dean says, nudging Sam. “Speaking of ice-cream, go get what you want. Use my card.”

Sam smiles at the brother and sister, still shy, mumbling a “nicetomeetyou” before turning to the counter. Anna excuses herself to go to the restroom. Dean watches Castiel with as much calm as he can muster. “So.”

“So,” the professor responds, eyes bright.

Dean blushes again, looks down at his feet. “Oh, shut up.”

Castiel laughs and reaches out to pat him on the shoulder. “Are you weirded out seeing your teacher outside of school?”

“Kind of. I don’t know, it’s like you’re a person now, you know? Not that you weren’t before, but. It’s hard to imagine you anywhere else but your office with all your books.”

Castiel stands a little closer to him; not for the first time, Dean notices the sharp spokes of lighter blue at the center of his irises. “That reminds me, how are you liking Macbeth?”

“Dude, I really like it. Lady Macbeth is a nutjob in so many awesome ways.”

Castiel seems pleased. “I knew you would. Good. I can’t wait to talk to you about it on Saturday.”

Dean’s heart lurches in his chest a little and he shifts his stance, hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, trying not to look overeager. “Yeah, same here. I’ll be sure to read up through Act III.”

“That sounds like a very good plan.” Castiel glances back as Anna approaches, then gives Dean another one of those smiles, a totally genuine one. “Nice running into you, Dean. You have a good night with your brother.”

“Have fun,” Dean says, something caught in his throat. He watches the two of them leave and turns back to Sam once Castiel’s out of sight. “Did you get your ice-cream yet?”

Sam’s got a funny expression on his face. “Yeah. Just waiting for you.”

Dean orders chocolate ice-cream with marshmallows. He can’t stop smiling now.

*

He doesn’t exactly say it aloud, not even to himself, but Dean takes time in choosing his clothes (which makes no sense, seeing as how he has t-shirts, flannel button-downs, and that’s about it) before heading to the coffee shop near the school to meet with Castiel. After running into him at Marble Slab, his crush may have gotten even bigger. Dean grumbles with himself about it, but reconciles that he’s not actually doing anything other than crush, so it should be okay.

He gets there a little earlier and orders coffee for both himself and Castiel, settling in a chair by the front, book and notebook out and ready. He idly reads over the notes he’s made and makes a few more, looking up when he feels someone approaching him. He tries not to do the thing where his eyes sweep across Castiel’s body, but it’s a little hard. Dean’s never seen him look so casual in ripped jeans and a retro Royals t-shirt.

“Laundry day?” Dean asks with a grin, and Castiel rolls his eyes and reaches for his cup of coffee.

“Actually, yes. I was supposed to do it last night but I got caught up in the Star Wars marathon on Spike.”

“That’s an acceptable reason not to do laundry.”

“I thought so too.” He tilts his head to the side and smiles at Dean again. “Good morning.”

Dean barely refrains from sighing. “Good morning.” And it really is.

“So. Macbeth.”

“Is awesome,” Dean says immediately, leaning forward. “I really like those witches too.”

“Most people do,” Castiel smiles, and he watches Dean with a soft affection that even Dean can see. “What else? What themes do you see in the first three acts?”

They discuss the idea of absolute power corrupting absolutely, Dean taking careful notes and asking questions. Most of their two hours is spent on Macbeth, and for about fifteen minutes Dean sits quietly while Castiel talks, watching those hands gesture and move. They really are nice hands.

They stop about ten minutes early and talk about other things. Dean brings up some of the schools Sam’s looking at, and Castiel thinks for a moment before saying, “Tell him to look into Stanford. I think he’d fit in well there.”

“Isn’t that, like, super expensive?”

“Sam will get a scholarship,” he says, as if it’s a final thing. Dean feels a sudden surge of affection towards his professor and can’t help but to smile.

“Yeah, hopefully. He’s so smart.”

“So are you, Dean. I don’t think you give yourself enough credit. I have better conversations with you about Shakespeare than I do with most of my class.”

Dean’s surprised to hear that and can’t help the blush that spreads into his cheeks, so he looks down at his hands, rolling his empty coffee cup in his fingers. “I don’t know about that.”

“Truly. I don’t give compliments—you have to earn them. It really has been a pleasure discussing literature with you.”

And seriously, what the hell can Dean say to that? He mumbles something stupid and scratches the back of his neck. He’s never thought of himself as smart. Capable, sure, and damn inventive when he needs to be. He’s good at the things he knows how to do—bartend, take care of Sam, fix cars. But he’s not brainy.

“Dean,” Castiel begins, but he’s interrupted by Dean’s phone ringing in his pocket. Dean slides it out and flips it open.

“Dad? Hey, what’s—what? Dad! What the hell is—Dad!” Dean pulls the phone away and stares at it, heart beating harder. “Dad, where’s Sam? Where’s Sam?”

His dad hangs up. So does Dean. He stands and runs a hand through his hair, biting his tongue hard to keep the tears away. “I think my dad just burned our house down.”

 

PART TWO

It isn’t burned down, not totally. But there’s not much left to save.

Dean stands at the curb with his brother and his still-drunk father, staring as the fire department finishes putting out the last of the flames. The blue panel on the house is black now, the roof completely gone. Dean thinks about the front porch, where he and Sam carved their names and dates—both significant and random, whenever it struck their fancy—into the wood. The front porch is still there, but as Dean watches it collapses beneath the weight of burnt wood and water.

Sam’s face is tight and still, and he refuses to speak to John, who keeps trying to ask him about school.

“What are we going to do?” Sam asks, and he’s looking at Dean for guidance. Dean doesn’t know what to say. This is way beyond his duties, and all he can think is that he’s a son, not a father, he doesn’t want this responsibility. Instead he wants to ask their dad, to be lead, but John’s not even really there with them. Dean clenches his jaw and takes a breath.

“We’ll…”

“Dean, our clothes,” Sam says, eyebrows drawn in anger. “Our clothes, my schoolwork, your schoolwork. Our computers. Everything.”

“We might be able to save some things.” Even as Dean says it, he knows it’s probably a lie. Their house may have been a piece of shit, mostly in disrepair though Dean had done as much as he was able to, but it was a fucking roof over their fucking heads. It was their home, for God’s sake. No matter how shitty it got, no matter how many times Dean had to carry their father into his bedroom or clean up his puke or Google a tutorial on how to replace faulty wiring, it was their fucking home. It was paid off. It was theirs.

And because their father, drunk and hungry, had left a pot of whatthefuckever on the stove and fallen asleep on the couch, they didn’t have a home anymore. And Dean had just paid the electricity bill too.

“Dean, we can’t save shit,” Sam snaps, voice high-pitched.

“Don’t talk like that,” John says, glaring at his youngest son. “There’s no need for language like that.”

Dean moves towards Sam, holding up a hand, but Sam leans into John’s face, staring him in the eye. “Fuck. You. This is your fault.”

John takes a swing but Sam sidesteps it easily, watching as John stumbles off the curb and into the street. Dean’s never seen Sam look so angry, tears pushing from his eyes. “Dean, what are we going to do?”

Dean has nothing to say to that. He pulls his brother in for a hug and rubs his back. “We’ll figure it out,” he says, and holds Sam while his shoulders shake. John belches and tries to sit up but he can’t. Dean doesn’t help him.

 

They answer questions for a little while and John sits in the ambulance to get looked at for smoke inhalation. Sam wasn’t home when it happened. Dean’s grateful for that. If he lost his brother, he doesn’t know what he’d do, but he knows life’s not worth it without Sam.

“What are we going to do?” Sam asks again, sitting on the curb with Dean, drinking a bottle of water one of the neighbors brought him.

“I’ll call Bobby,” Dean says slowly, rubbing at the back of his neck. “I’m sure Dad can stay with him, I think he’s got a spare bedroom or couch. You have any friends from school you can stay with?”

“What about you?”

Dean waves his hand. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll figure something out. Call your friends.” He feels panic clawing at his chest for a moment—where the fuck were they going to stay after this?—but stifles it with a deep breath. He wants a cigarette but feels that might be in poor taste considering the charred remains of their house in front of them.

“Dean—”

“Sam, seriously. You know Ellen would let me sleep at the Roadhouse if I had to. Just call your friends. It’ll be easier for you to stay there.” He thinks about the money he has in his savings account—Sam’s college fund, the small portion he’s set aside for a full thirty-day rehabilitation stay—and presses a hand to his eyes. He can’t afford to buy a house. His dad gets the bare minimum of unemployment, then spends a hefty portion of it on Wild Turkey. He could maybe look into a two-bedroom apartment, but it wouldn’t last for long.

With more pain than he cares to admit, he realizes he won’t get his degree. He can’t. Not now. “It’ll be okay, Sammy. Just call your friends. We’ll work it out.” He won’t cry in front of Sam, but fuck, does he want to.

“You shouldn’t have to do this,” Sam hisses, taking Dean’s hand and squeezing it hard. “Dad should—”

“Dad can’t, Sam. We’ll be okay, I promise.” Sometimes promises were the only thing he had. Sam’s looking at him, he can feel it, but he keeps his eyes on the pavement in front of him. Sam uses his free hand to dial some numbers. Dean pulls his phone out and calls Bobby, gets permission to take their dad to Bobby’s house after the fire department leaves.

Dean realizes that all of his albums are probably toast, along with the rest of his Shakespeare plays for Castiel’s class. He puts his head on his arms, arms on his knees, takes breaths until he knows he won’t break.

*

Dean,

I haven’t heard from you in three days and you aren’t answering my phonecalls. I’m worried. I spoke with the registrar and you have not attended your other classes. Please call me.

—C

Dean closes down his email and leaves the library before they can kick him out. He pulls out his checklist and sees what he has left to do. With the money set aside for his dad’s rehab, he bought Sam new clothes and a new laptop, gave him enough money to last him through the week, made sure he was settled in at his friend Darren’s house. He took all the shifts he could at the Roadhouse, but there weren’t many more he could take. Ellen had given him every available hour.

He lied and told everyone he was staying with this girl he knew, but instead he parked his 1985 Chevy Nova at a truck stop on I-70 and slept (badly) in the backseat. He’s too proud to ask for help and hates himself for it. So does his back. It feels like his spine is permanently twisted.

During his work at Bobby’s shop, Dean glimpses his dad going in and out of Bobby’s house, which is situated just a little ways off the lot. John makes eye contact with him and Dean quickly looks away. Bobby doesn’t say much other than to tell Dean he’s doing a good job, and Dean takes the praise and holds onto it as hard as he can.

After getting dinner at McDonald’s, Dean scrolls through his phone’s directory, landing on Castiel’s name. He really should call him, let his professor know that a.) he’s okay and b.) he’s dropping the class. It’s the least he can do. So he finishes his Coke and tosses his trash and calls Castiel.

The answer is immediate. “Dean? Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, yeah. Sorry for not getting in touch with you.” The concern in the professor’s voice is too much for him to handle. His throat tightens hard.

“Where are you?”

“Just got some dinner.”

“You haven’t gone to class. Is your family all right?”

“They’re okay. Sam’s staying with some friends from school. My dad’s at Bobby’s.”

“And you?”

Dean pauses. He can’t lie to this man and he doesn’t much want to. “Sleeping in my car at a truck stop.”

Castiel curses, and Dean thinks it’s the first time he’s ever done so. “That’s unacceptable. Don’t you have any friends you can stay with?”

“I don’t really have friends,” Dean says, and he puts a hand over his mouth as he starts to cry. Everything hits him all at once, the chin-up attitude he’s kept this whole time dissolving like sugar on the tongue. He’s not tough. He’s not strong. He’s not even very smart. Of course everything falls to pieces—Dean’s made of nothing but paper, a tower of cards, one breath will blow him over.

Castiel is quiet for a long moment. “Do you have a pen and something to write on?” He waits for Dean to respond. Dean takes a while to calm down.

“Yeah, I do.”

“Write this down.”

Dean balks as soon as he hears an address. “No, no, no. It’s fine, okay? I’ve just. I’ve got to work it—”

“I did not ask you, I am telling you. I have a four-bedroom house. It’s ridiculous for you to stay in your vehicle when I have three rooms you can use. And my basement is fully furnished. It would be like having your own place.”

“I can’t—”

“We’ll talk when you get here.” He pauses, huffs a little. “Dean, please.”

And Dean can’t say no to that.

 

Castiel lives in a nice neighborhood, much nicer than anything Dean’s used to. He parks along the curb at the front of the house and notices, first, how big and green the lawn is. He wonders if Castiel pays for landscaping. Probably.

He climbs out of his car and shuts the rusty door. He cried the entire way there so he knows his eyes are probably red and puffy; he forcibly composes himself before heading up the short driveway.

The house is pretty big and angular, with khaki paneled siding and a dark brown garage door. It looks maintained. Even the windows are clear and clean. Before he can knock, Castiel opens the door and they look at each other for a long moment.

“Come in,” he says, holding the door open for Dean, who steps in feeling awkward, out of place, and rather like a charity case. The front entryway is clean and neat and the light hardwood floors shine. To his left there’s a breakfast nook, with cream-colored carpet, a small table, and four matching chairs. On the coat rack beside the front door is Castiel’s black peacoat.

“Sorry I didn’t call,” Dean says as a greeting, staring at his feet. He bends to take his shoes off, not wanting to scuff the floor. His socks have holes in them. He feels pathetic.

“You should be,” Castiel says, and Dean looks up at him. There’s a softness to his expression, though, and he locks the front door. “Come on. Pick a room.”

“I can’t—”

“You’re going to. I’m not having you sleep in your car, Dean. That’s dumb.” He jerks his head and Dean follows.

“I can pay you,” he says, uncertain now. He knows Castiel is his professor but he certainly doesn’t feel it right now. “I just need a week or so until I can figure out what else to do.”

“Here’s the first bedroom,” Castiel says instead, flipping on a light. “This is where my brother Gabe usually stays, but I cleaned it since he’s been in here, so you don’t have to worry about finding anything unsavory.”

The joke does nothing for Dean, who blinks at the queen-sized bed and black comforter with confusion. He looks at Castiel now, jaw tight. “Why are you doing this?”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t need charity, okay?”

“I never presumed that this was charity. I was pretty sure we were friends.”

The statement hurts a little and Dean messes up his hair again. “Cas, I appreciate it, but—”

“Good. I’m glad you do. I’m happy to do it. Let me show you the other rooms.”

Dean goes along on the little tour, seeing the living room and the den and the deck in the back yard, but he doesn’t really process it. He’s thinking about where the fuck they’re going to live after this, and wondering how long he can put off his degree before he has to start over. He’s been trying for six years, for Christ’s sake.

Castiel shows him the basement, which, indeed, looks like a miniature apartment. The walls are a dark navy blue, and there’s a little nook area with a microwave, a sink, a few cabinets and a mini-fridge, as well as a small bathroom. A full-sized bed sits against one wall, a couch along the other. There’s even a TV and a desk with a computer.

“This would probably be best for you,” Castiel says, looking around the room with Dean. “It’s pretty much fully-contained. Plus there’s an entrance over there, by the bathroom, if you’d feel more comfortable with that, rather than going through the first floor.”

Dean rubs at the back of his neck and takes a shaky breath. “If I could just have a week,” he says, tentative, and jerks in surprise when Castiel takes his hand.

“Whatever you need. I will enjoy your company for as long as you’re here.”

Dean chews hard enough on his lip to taste blood. He swallows several times before attempting to speak. “My dad got drunk, tried to cook, and failed. Burned the house down way beyond repair. No homeowner’s insurance.”

Castiel tightens his grip and Dean returns it. The touch is both painful and soothing at the same time, like pulling a hangnail. “I sent Sam to a friend’s,” he continues. “Tried to take more shifts at the bar. Ellen—my boss—is helping me as much as she can. I can’t finish my degree. I’ve got to find a better job and get a new place and help Sam, and I’m trying to get my dad into a rehab program but the one I can get him into in Wichita is six thousand dollars, and I lost the only pictures of my mother I had.”

Castiel’s arms are around him before the first tears fall. “Breathe,” he says, and Dean gasps and clutches at him, breaking down hard. He starts babbling uncontrollably, saying something about his savings account and college for Sam and how he’s got no clothes other than what he’s wearing and how hurt he is by his dad, and why the fuck does he always have to be the adult, and why can’t things be good for once, and how long can he put off his degree before he has to start over.

Castiel threads fingers through Dean’s short hair, one hand rubbing his back, and waits until he’s done talking. “First of all, you aren’t stopping your degree yet, not when you’re so close.”

“Cas, I appreciate you letting me stay with you, but that can’t be long term.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.” He presses a cool hand to the back of Dean’s neck for a moment, voice very soft. “For now, you’ll continue exactly as you were. You will go to class and work. If you would prefer Sam be closer to you, please let him know that he is free to stay here as well, either with you or in any of the other guest rooms.”

Dean doesn’t point out that they’ve never had their own rooms. “Cas, I can’t.”

“You can and you will.” He cups Dean’s face in his palms and Dean was right about him having very nice hands. “We’re friends, right?”

Dean only nods. His voice won’t work now. He feels hot all over.

“Friends help each other. Wouldn’t you do this for me?”

“Yes,” Dean says, quiet, because he would, without question.

“Then why is it different me doing it for you?”

“You’re my teacher.”

“I’ve considered that, yes. But I don’t think you’ll take advantage of the situation, will you?”

Dean blinks at him. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Castiel smiles a little, as if Dean gave him the answer to the question. “My point exactly. It’s not as if I don’t have the space, and with as busy as I am you’ll have much time to yourself. I won’t step on your toes and you won’t step on mine.”

Dean doesn’t know why he’s fighting so hard except that he feels like he should. “I want to pay you.”

“You wouldn’t pay a friend,” Castiel points out, and finally drops his hands. His touch is missed immediately. “Don’t worry about it so much, Dean. Sometimes good things do happen. And while you’re here, I won’t be quite so lonely.”

“Don’t you have other teacher friends you hang out with?”

Castiel smiles just a little. “Sometimes. But I find most of them to be overbearing and I value my privacy.”

Dean smiles back at that. Some of the pressure eases in his chest. “Thank you.”

“Of course. You should go get some clothes, though.”

With a sigh and a nod, Dean pulls out his wallet and looks at what he has in his bank account, scribbled on the back of his receipt. “Yeah, I guess I’ll have to.”

“Let me go with you and I can get a key made.”

“Cas—”

“You’ll need one,” he butts in, “especially with your schedule. Doesn’t it make sense?”

Dean shrugs a little. He can’t argue with that. Castiel pats his shoulder and leads him back upstairs. Once they’re outside, Dean goes into his glove compartment and fishes out the pack of cigarettes. Castiel says nothing, but holds his hand out for one. Dean smiles again.

Nothing in the fucked up situation is close to being okay just yet, but it’s better than sleeping in his car.

*

Dean still hasn’t spoken to his dad once the next weekend rolls around, but he does coax Sam into agreeing to stay with Castiel, despite Sam’s protests that this is your teacher, Dean, isn’t that weird? because it’s weird as hell but is the best option they’ve got.

Dean and Castiel live well together. Dean tries not to think about what that means, exactly, but there isn’t any awkward tension between them once they settle into a routine. Castiel likes to cook but hates doing dishes, so Dean cleans up in exchange for kind of amazing meals. Though their schedules are radically different they still manage to see each other a couple of times a day. He thinks Castiel might be getting up earlier than usual to see him and that makes Dean feel both warm and strange inside.

Not surprising, what with his living room filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, Sam and Castiel get along very well. In the afternoons after Dean brings Sam home from school, they all sit at the kitchen table and do homework, Castiel usually grading and helping Sam with his papers. Dean feels rather domestic and likes it, though he keeps waiting for the bottom to fall out.

He’s doing some yard work (it’s the only kind of thing Castiel will let him do for repayment) when he goes into the garage to look for a shovel to work on the flower beds and finds a car, one that isn’t Castiel’s Honda Fit. He stares at it for a long moment before heading inside.

“Hey, Cas?”

“In the office.”

Dean goes upstairs and finds Castiel doing more paperwork, sitting behind his big oak desk, books scattered around him—Bibles, literary criticism, and even an MLA Handbook. “Um, why didn’t you tell me you have a classic car in your garage?”

“What?”

“I was looking for a shovel and I found a 1967 Chevy Impala.”

Castiel smiles suddenly, sliding off his glasses (he usually wears contacts, but sometimes, he says, his allergies prevent him from putting them in). “Oh, that’s my brother’s. He meant to restore it but never got around to it. I don’t know how to do stuff like that, so I just left it in there. I didn’t know if he’d want it back or not.”

Dean starts to say something then stops. He can feel the itch in his bones, the need to work on such a magnificent vehicular specimen. “Would. I mean. Talk to him about it, but I could restore it for him.”

“Really?” Castiel tilts his head a little. “Wow, you’re a jack of all trades, aren’t you?”

Dean flushes a bit and wipes his hand across his sweaty forehead. “Not really. I just know my way around cars. I could do it. I’d really like to.”

“How much do you think it’ll cost?”

“I’ll have to take it apart to see.” He almost says he’ll pay for the parts, but knows he can’t afford it. He literally feels himself salivating, though.

Castiel thinks for a moment. “I think he’d like that. Go ahead and do it.”

“…Seriously?”

“Yeah, why not? Might as well get it up and running, right?”

Dean wishes he could fix it up and buy it from Castiel’s brother, maybe give it to Sam for school. He figures he can always ask when the time comes. “Okay, cool. I’ll need more space, though. Um, could I—”

“You can take it out of the garage. Will the driveway give you enough space?”

Dean chews on his lip. “Yeah, it will.” It would be an all-day project, though, maybe two, to get the car apart and inspect everything. But it’ll give him something to do with his hands. And maybe this could be a way for him to repay Castiel more, even though the car isn’t for him.

“What’s that look for, Dean?”

“It’ll take a while, that’s all.”

“Won’t you be here a while?”

Dean meets his eyes and hesitates, but Castiel just snorts and waves him away. “You’ll be here a while. Go.”

“I’ll finish with the yard first.”

“I pay someone to do the yard. Don’t worry about it. Go have fun with the car.”

Dean grins at him, leans over the desk to clap him on the shoulder. “Thanks, man.”

Castiel catches his hand before he can pull away, and there’s a tension between them that isn’t uncomfortable. Or unwanted. “Can you take off of work tonight?”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“I wanted to speak with you and Sam about something.”

Dean frowns and pulls his hand away. “About what? What’s wrong?”

“Why do you always assume that something’s wrong?”

“Because it usually is,” he says, feeling sick. “What is it?” He steels his expression, waiting for it. Castiel watches him for a moment, stands and leans against the edge of the desk nearest Dean.

“First of all, I’d like to start working with Sam on his college applications. I’d also like to discuss you cutting back your work hours and focusing more on school.”

Dean frowns at him. “Dude, you know I have to work. You know why I have to work, too.”

“Yes, I do. Because you are saving for your brother’s school, for you father, and you usually are the one to pay the bills.”

“That’s right,” he says, incensed. “So what the hell?” He has no fucking right to ask something like this of Dean, not when he knows what Dean’s life is like. It’s ridiculous and wrong and—

“Dean. You want to calm down and listen for a moment?”

Dean shuts his mouth.

“Thank you,” Castiel says dryly. “I would have preferred discussing this with your brother, but seeing as how you are impatient, I will have to repeat this twice. Listen to me, Dean. Are you listening?”

“I’m listening, Cas.”

“Sam will not need you to pay for his school. I guarantee you that he will get a full ride wherever he chooses to go.” The conviction in his voice is nearly palpable. Dean’s never heard him sound quite so assured.

“That’s not—”

“It is guaranteed, for Sam. So you can put that out of your head. Your father is living with Bobby, is he not?”

“Yes.” Dean grits his teeth. He’s not entirely sure where this conversation is going, but he knows he won’t like it.

“So you are not paying bills.”

“We’ll have to find somewhere to live soon.”

Castiel waves that away as if it’s unimportant. “But for now, you don’t. I was wondering if you and Sam would like to live here until the school year is over. You will be graduating in May, and with your considerable skill set—and my connections—I know I can find you a good, steady, high-paying job that you will enjoy.”

Dean snorts. “Right.”

“I’m serious. As long as you have your degree, I can make sure that you are comfortable.” He watches Dean with those soft blue eyes. “You would be able to get help for your father. And buy a home for your family. I promise you.”

Dean doesn’t believe in promises if they aren’t from Sam. “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why would you do that?”

Castiel looks down at his feet for a moment, his dark hair shifting across his forehead. “Because besides being uncommonly kind, you’re the hardest working man I’ve ever met. And to be honest, it makes me feel—I had everything handed to me growing up. I was never left wanting for anything. I had an easy childhood.” He looks up, more serious than Dean’s ever seen him. “You had the exact opposite. Yet, for it, you’re stronger than I’ll ever be. I just want to help you where no one else has. You’ve got so much potential.”

“There’s a catch,” Dean says slowly. “There’s always a catch.”

“Sure there is,” Castiel replies, easily. “I want you to make good grades. And get eight hours of sleep a night. And keep your brother on the track he’s on. You’re very, very good to him. He’s lucky to have you.”

Dean never thinks of it that way. He knows he’s the lucky one. “Cas, I don’t think I can do that.” It means depending too much on someone else, someone who could rip it all from his hands and leave him more broken than before.

“I’d like you to consider it. Speak with Sam. You think of everyone else before yourself. I’m offering you the chance to think about yourself.”

“That’s too much money to ask from you.”

Castiel actually rolls his eyes, shaking his head. “Dean. Not to belittle you or anything, but I have two million dollars in my savings account. I wasn’t lying when I said my parents are wealthy.”

Dean’s jaw drops, because that’s one hell of a lot of zeros. “Are you fucking kidding me.”

“No, I’m not. And I like Sam’s company. He’s intriguing and very intelligent.” He hesitates, as if he’s not sure if he should speak again or not. “And I like your company as well, of course.”

Dean picks at his cuticles for something to do, looking down at his hands. In his peripheral vision he sees Castiel reaching for him. “Dean.”

“Cas.”

A finger presses to his chin, tilts his face up. “Dean, please think about it. I don’t intend to…screw you over in any way. I want to help your family because you’re good people. This isn’t charity. If it were charity I could get a tax write off.”

Dean smiles at that, eyes a little glassy. “I’ll think about it.”

“Good.” He drops his hand, still gazing at Dean. “Sometimes bad things happen to good people. I just want to help. You can trust me.”

Dean wants to believe that, genuinely he does, but certain experiences have taught him otherwise. He’s not one to rain on Castiel’s parade, though, and if Castiel feels better tossing words like trust and help around, then so be it. “I’m gonna go inventory that car.”

“Keys are on the hook by the front door.” He pauses again, reaches out to brush some dirt off of Dean’s shirt. “Can you take off tonight?”

“Pretty sure I can,” Dean murmurs, backing away before he gets himself into trouble. “I’ll let Sammy know.”

Castiel replies but Dean doesn’t hear it with his heart pounding so loud in his chest.

*

Sam, of course, with his girl crush on Castiel, is fully on board with the offer. “Dean, you have no idea how it makes me feel to know that you have to kill yourself just to keep us above water,” he says, with tears in his eyes and a trembling lip, and dammit, fuck him for doing that and knowing what it does to Dean. He’s still not sure if Sam’s doing it on purpose or not. “If he can help us out, why not take it? Huh? It’s way more than Dad’s ever done. And Cas is so nice. I don’t think he’s trying to gyp us or anything.”

“It’s just. It’s a lot to ask for.”

“Yes,” Sam says carefully, “but we haven’t asked. He’s offered. Just take it, Dean.”

Against his better judgment, and against everything he’s learned in his twenty-four years, Dean concedes. With Bobby’s quick permission, he works Mondays and Wednesdays only at the auto shop, plus the weekends at the bar, which give him a ballpark total of twenty-nine hours a week. He doesn’t even know what to do with this sudden freetime, almost lost when he wakes up that first Tuesday, brings Sam to school, and comes home to stare at the clock for half an hour, feeling out of place and late and as if he’s done something wrong. So much free time that he hasn’t had in years.

So he works on the Impala.

It really is a thing of beauty, though many of the parts are either rusted or worn. Dean takes very careful inventory of everything, noting every serial and manufacturer’s number he can find, Googling for hours on different parts and costs. Counting in the free labor—because Dean enjoys working with cars so much—he’s come up with some price plans.

On the next Saturday morning, while he and Castiel are drinking coffee and preparing to discuss As You Like It, acts one and two, Dean exhales and shows him the paper. “Okay, here’s what we’re looking at for that car.”

“What is all this, exactly?”

“There’s a few different ways to restore a car. You can go for broke and find all the original factory parts and pay out the ass, find the high end stuff that’ll run well but might not be original, or simply go with budget purposes just to get it driving.”

“What do you suggest?”

“For that car? Dude, it would be well over a hundred grand to find the original factory parts for everything it needs, not to mention reworking the body because of the rust, plus a paint job and the interior and all sorts of things. If your brother can afford it, I’d say go with the second tier. That’ll run him about sixty thousand. And she’ll be gorgeous.” Dean can see it in his head now, the slick, shiny black paint and the leather upholstery; he can hear the grumbling purr of the engine, feel the gears shifting smoothly. Sometimes the thought of that car in her restored glory is all it takes to get him hot and bothered.

“He can afford it,” Castiel smiles. “I will let him know and get his credit card number. Can you order the parts online?”

Dean almost wiggles in his seat out of excitement. “Yeah, definitely. I’m finding good stuff.”

“And what about the cost of the labor?”

“Cas, shut up. I won’t let him pay me to do the labor. I like doing it. I don’t mind doing that for free. It would be like me paying you to read books or something.”

Castiel rolls his eyes and pushes the paper back towards him. “All right, Dean, you’ve made your point. Open your book, class is in session.”

 

Dean has to admit that he’s doing better in school. And he’s putting on some of the weight he’d lost due to stress and lack of sleep. He and Sam don’t bicker as much anymore, and he’s got more energy now, going on morning runs with Castiel before bringing Sam to school. He doesn’t find himself often thinking of his father, checking in with Bobby only on work days. He mentions to Bobby that he doesn’t like burdening him, but Bobby tells him to shut up and take care of himself. For the first time since he was fourteen, he does.

But something’s been prickling at the back of his mind for a while. As the weather turns colder, and he and Sam go shopping for warmer clothes, and as Castiel starts to light the fireplace to warm the house, Dean realizes that he’s got more than a crush on his professor—friend? best friend?—and it kind of scares him.

There’s just something about him, but isn’t that always how it goes? Isn’t it always just something about that person? He can’t ignore it any longer, though, and he thinks that Castiel might sense something too. They touch more often now, linger with it, hands on shoulders or backs, bumping together in the kitchen as though it’s smaller than it really is. Castiel sometimes has personal space issues, but Dean doesn’t mind anymore. He likes whatever shampoo Castiel uses and finds himself in Walmart sniffing different brands to see if he can find it.

He’s got it bad, whatever it is, and he’s happy enough that he can’t bring himself to care or worry too much. The only thing he’s worried about is fucking something up and putting Sam in jeopardy. So even though he longs sometimes to play with Castiel’s soft hands, or maybe brush those dry lips with his own, he doesn’t.

But every now and then he and Castiel will find themselves alone in the kitchen, and they’ll stand close together and talk in hushed tones, not looking at one other. That’s enough. It fills Dean with a contentment he’s rarely known.

They get a week off for Thanksgiving break and Dean takes off of work too. He’s making progress with the Impala, even though it’s slow, but it’s enjoyable work. Castiel parks his Fit in the street now, along the curb, and gives Dean the entire garage to work with. He even gets him a space heater so Dean doesn’t shiver himself into a coma during the many hours he spends out there.

They have a quiet Thanksgiving dinner together and Sam falls asleep on Castiel’s shoulder on the couch, right in the middle of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Castiel looks at him with genuine affection, then over at Dean, who’s curled up in the giant armchair, his stomach stuffed to bursting with turkey and honey ham and three different kinds of pie.

“I love your brother,” he says quietly. “You two are lucky you have one another.”

“We are,” Dean agrees sleepily. “He’s a pain in the ass sometimes, but I wouldn’t trade a goddamn thing.”

Eventually, an hour or so later, Sam wakes up and trudges up to his room. Dean stifles a yawn and stretches out, hands on his stomach. “Is it sad that I’m still on the verge of puking but I could go for more pie?”

“Nope,” Castiel smiles. “I’m considering it myself. Come on, let’s split a piece.”

Dean groans and shakes his head. “Dude, I can’t. Literally can’t.”

“Your stomach’s been settling for two hours. Quit complaining.” He rises to his feet and heads into the kitchen. Dean watches him move, all lithe strides and an easy pace, before getting up himself and following.

The fire crackles and the TV’s on low, the only sounds in the first floor of the house. Dean hears water running upstairs, which means Sam’s decided to shower before bed. There’s that damn tension again, building between them like it does every time they’re alone.

Castiel cuts a slice of cherry pie and heats it up in the microwave, watching it spin for a few seconds. “How far along are you in The Winter’s Tale?”

“Haven’t even started yet. Please don’t fail me.”

Castiel laughs and takes the pie out of the microwave, plopping a scoop of vanilla ice-cream on top and getting two forks. “I’m not going to fail you, Dean. You have time. I want to see what you think.”

They stand at the counter together and eat the slice in silence. Castiel likes more ice-cream with his, so Dean scoots the dripping mess closer towards him, opting instead for the thick end crust. Forks scrape against porcelain. Dean’s heart starts beats harder and faster. He’s sure that if he could bottle up this chemistry between them, he’d probably make a fucking killing.

“Dean?”

“Yeah?”

“What would you like for Christmas?”

Dean looks up from his bite, surprised. “I don’t want anything for Christmas.”

Castiel chuckles and nudges him with his foot. “Of course you do. Everyone wants something for Christmas. I was thinking of getting Sam an iPod. Or maybe an eBook reader.”

Frowning, Dean scoops up the last bit of crust. “I don’t want you to get him that. You don’t need to get us anything, you’ve done—you do enough for us. Okay? So please don’t. It wouldn’t feel right.”

“What wouldn’t feel right? And why?”

“Seriously? You have to ask me that?” He sets his fork down and presses his lips together. “Cas, you’ve given us a home. And peace of mind. You’re. I just. There’s so much and it wouldn’t feel right making you do even more.”

“You’re not making me do anything,” he says after a beat. “I would like to buy you gifts for the holiday, that’s all.”

“You give us enough,” he insists.

“Were you planning on getting me something?”

Dean opens his mouth, then closes it. Looks down at the floor. “That’s different.”

Castiel laughs, his eyes a little bright when Dean glances up. “How the hell is that different?”

“It just is,” Dean says. Then he stills because Castiel’s moving towards him, getting closer than ever, and his eyes are that crazy saturated blue that should definitely be illegal at least in the continental U.S.

“You’re a remarkably selfless person,” Castiel murmurs, laying a palm to Dean’s cheek, “and I would like to buy you a Christmas gift—just one—to show my appreciation for you. You know, since that’s what you do during such a holiday.”

Dean’s mouth is dry and he swallows with a click. Castiel has dark eyelashes, but they aren’t black. “Give me an A and we’ll call it even.”

Castiel grins at that and pulls away, and Dean can’t figure out if he’s relieved or disappointed. “I’m going to get you a gift. Just one. And Sam as well.”

“You don’t—”

“I know I don’t need to. But I want to, so I will. I’d like to know what you want, though, or else I’m going to get you socks or something.”

“I could use socks,” Dean hedges, and he gets that full-throated laugh that’s so rare and makes his toes curl with sheer pleasure.

He goes to bed a few minutes later with that laugh in his ears, and if he touches himself that night, moans low and vibrant into his pillow, well, it’s not his fault.

*

Bobby calls Dean as Dean’s finishing his shift at the bar. “Your dad wants to see you boys,” Bobby says, without preamble.

Dean counts his tips and puts the cash in his back pocket before responding. “I don’t know.”

“Come on, Dean. He hasn’t seen you two in weeks. Just come by for an hour or two so he’ll quit asking.”

Dean wonders when his father became such a burden to everyone, then pushes those thoughts aside. He doesn’t mean to be a bad son, but sometimes it’s hard to be a good one. “Okay. We’ll come over tomorrow, okay? For dinner?”

“Sounds good.” Bobby pauses. “How are you doin’, kid? We don’t talk much at work.”

“I’m…actually, I’m doing pretty good.” He falls quiet for a moment. “My grades are coming up. I’m not tired all the time.” He can tell Bobby these things. Bobby’s more of a father to Dean and Sam than John’s been in a long time. Ten years or so.

“That’s good,” Bobby says, “I’m happy for you.” And he sounds it. “Come by tomorrow at six, all right? Make sure Sam is in a good mood.”

“I’ll butter him up,” Dean promises, and they chat a little more before hanging up. Dean wishes he could bring Castiel along, but his dad would probably just embarrass them all.

Dean wonders when he started thinking about Castiel constantly rather than occasionally.

 

Sam, predictably, does not want to go see their dad. “I’ve got work to do,” he snaps, sitting at the kitchen table with books and papers around him. “I have a paper due tomorrow.”

“You’re almost done,” Dean points out. “Come on, just an hour. I promise.”

“I don’t understand why we have to go over there.”

Dean bites the inside of his lip, runs a hand over his hair. “Because he’s our dad, Sam, Jesus. And he wants to see us. You can spare one hour—”

“He burned down our house,” Sam hisses. “And you know what? I’m happy here.”

Castiel comes into the kitchen, looks at the two of them, then turns around and leaves. Dean sighs. “Sam. Please.”

“No, Dean. I’m not going.”

Dean doesn’t want to do this, but he can’t find another way around it. He sits next to Sam and takes one of his big hands. “Sammy. Please. For me.”

Sam clenches his jaw. “He’s just going to be drunk again, Dean. And I’m sorry if I’m tired of dealing with it. He always says he’ll get help but he doesn’t. And, oh yeah, he burned our house down.”

“He’s still Dad.” Dean realizes that Sam doesn’t remember how their dad tried several different types of outpatient care almost ten years ago now, and why would he? It’s not like it worked.

“He hasn’t been Dad in a long time and you know it.” Sam watches his brother with fierce hazel eyes. “You’re more of my dad than he’s been in—God, Dean, how long? At least five or six years. At least since you graduated high school.”

“Then do this for me, Sam, please. We just have to go see him so he’ll stop asking Bobby.”

“Why doesn’t he call us himself?”

Dean squeezes his brother’s hand. “I don’t know, but I don’t think he has our numbers.”

Sam makes a terrible sound in his throat and pushes Dean’s hand away. “This is so fucked up, you know that?”

“Yeah, I know. But please, Sam. Just for an hour. I’ll do anything.”

Sam’s expression changes entirely. “Will you?”

“…Within reason. I’m not, like, getting you a Volkswagen full of cheerleaders or anything.”

Sam watches Dean for a moment. “Would you answer a question for me?”

Dean frowns. “Um, sure. But come on, let’s get going before it’s too late.”

They both give a little wave to Castiel, who’s dusting in the living room. Dean meets his eyes and Castiel mouths You okay? Dean just nods and forces a smile, tells him they’ll be back in an hour and a half.

In the car, buckled up and trundling out of the too-nice neighborhood, Sam speaks up. “Can I ask you that question now?”

“What if I said you asking to ask the question was the question? But yes.”

Sam looks out the window. “Are you and Cas into each other or something?”

Dean jerks a little bit, surprised by that. “What?”

“I’m serious, okay? I just. You guys—I don’t know. I was just wondering.”

“I don’t—Sam. No.” He chews his lip because he thinks he might be lying.

“You know it wouldn’t bother me, right?”

“What wouldn’t?”

“If you and Cas, like. Got together or something. I mean, if Cas were a girl, I’d be surprised if you hadn’t made a move yet. I don’t see what the difference is just because he’s a guy.”

“Well, the whole ‘being a guy’ thing is kind of major considering I’m straight.” But he doesn’t say that it isn’t true.

“I don’t know, man. Sometimes I think if you find that one person, it doesn’t matter what gender they are. And to be honest, I think you guys get along a lot better than any girlfriend you’ve ever had.” He glances at Dean, who keeps his eyes steadfast on the road. “So…is there something there? And please don’t lie to me. It’s not like I’ll think any differently of you.”

He chews his lip as he tries to decide how to answer. “I don’t know about him,” he says carefully, “but I’m…there’s. I mean, there’s something there for me.” Even as he says it he feels the heat spread up his neck, burn in his cheeks. “If you fucking tease me about this, I swear to God—”

“I won’t tease you,” Sam interrupts. “Dean, it’s okay. I figured. You guys just. You work.”

“I don’t know. I probably won’t do anything about it. It’s just weird.”

“What’s weird?”

Getting advice from your fifteen-year-old brother, for one. “All of it. It’s weird. He’s a guy. Not to mention my teacher.”

“You’re friends first, everything else second. And…Dean, if you could be happy, really happy, why should it matter what his gender is? Isn’t it the person you like?”

Dean rolls his eyes a little as they rumble into Bobby’s neighborhood. “God, you’re such a girl sometimes, Sammy.”

“Dammit, Dean, I’m serious. I know you keep joking because you’re trying to hide the way you feel, but I’m serious, okay? Just think about it. It doesn’t make any sense for you not to—”

“Sam, we’re done.” He pulls into Bobby’s driveway and shuts off the engine, glancing at his brother. “I’m probably not going to do anything about it. It’s just…it’s not the right time. Way not the right time. Or the right situation.”

“If you put it off, you’ll never do a damn thing,” Sam says, sounding angry. “Like always.”

Before Dean can respond to that, or whack the shit out of him, Sam scrambles out the car and storms up to the door. Dean makes a mental note to slap Sam later.

 

The dinner doesn’t go bad at all. Their dad is sober and dressed, and though he looks much older than his forty-six years, he’s attentive and remembers what they tell him. In fact, it’s so good that even Sammy enjoys himself, and they stay almost three hours just talking. Bobby looks rather proud of himself, so Dean’s sure he had something to do with John’s sobriety. But Dean’s learned not to expect much from it. John can go a few months without drinking, get a job, even keep it for a while. But it never lasts. Dean takes all the good times he can.

“So Dean,” John says, refilling a glass of sweet tea, “how’re you doin’ in school?”

“I’m…good, actually.” He and Sam didn’t tell their dad where they’re living. It would possibly create problems. “Doin’ okay.”

“That’s good, Dean. I’m proud of you.”

Dean can’t help but to smile a little at that, even though he knows his dad will forget it the next time he drinks. It’s the way it works, he thinks—he feels like a good son until there’s liquor in his father’s veins. “Thanks. I’m proud of Sammy here. All A’s again.”

John ruffles Sam’s messy hair, smiling with affection. “Of course. I wouldn’t expect less from the brains of this family.”

“Dean’s smart,” Sam says, and Dean just rolls his eyes, loving Sam very much right then.

When they stand to leave, John hugs Dean for a long time, and Dean, craving it, just lets him. It’s not one of those heavy drunken hugs, it’s a real one, and Dean can’t let go.

“You take care of your brother,” John murmurs in his ear, and Dean nods, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Yeah, I will. I do.”

“And yourself, Dean. Have a little fun.”

“I’ll try.”

John pulls back, claps Dean on the back of the neck. Emotion brims in his eyes as he struggles for words to speak. “I’m…really sorry, Dean.”

It doesn’t matter what it’s for, Dean realizes. There’s so much to be sorry for. At least John’s saying it. “I know, Dad.”

“I’ll fix all of this,” John says, even quieter than before. “I promise, Dean. I’ll fix all of it for us. I’ll get us a new house.”

“Yeah,” Dean says, and his good mood starts to evaporate. He turns to Sam, who’s expression is unreadable. “Gotta get going. School tomorrow and all.”

John hugs each of them one more time before they head to the car. Once inside, Sam speaks up first.

“That wasn’t too bad.”

“Told you.”

“I really think you should do something about Cas.”

Dean snorts a little, shaking his head. “You know, you really suck at changing the subject.”

“I’m serious, Dean. Stop making so many jokes about it.” He props his feet up on the dashboard and Dean doesn’t even think to tell him to put his fucking feet down. “I know you’re freaked out, but just go with it. Jesus. You never do anything to make yourself happy and I’m tired of it.”

“How do you know this will make me happy? Huh?”

Sam touches his hand, squeezes for a moment before letting go. “Because I know you. You’re my big brother.”

Dean’s getting a little tired of people leaving him speechless.

 

PART THREE

Classes end for the semester quicker than he expects them to, accumulating all at once and ending abruptly. Before he knows it, Dean’s made four A’s and two B’s. Castiel was sure to let him know that he only made an A because Sam helped him with his papers and quizzed him for the tests. Dean doesn’t test well, never has, but he’s grateful anyway. He even buys Sam a used PlayStation2 for putting up with him. Sam’s delighted, so Dean is too.

He keeps his under-thirty hours at both the auto shop and the Roadhouse, spending most of his free time working on the Impala. Although Castiel tries to coax him to interact more with his classmates or at least his coworkers, Dean’s best friend for the moment is that car, and there’s not much anyone can do to divert his attention. It also doesn’t help that Lucifer gets him all the proper tools he needs for restoration, sparing no expense to have the best. With the space heater, and a stereo playing loud rock, Dean is literally the happiest he’s ever been. He smiles all the time now and the ever-present anxiety in his chest has eased, hidden away for the moment. He hasn’t smoked in a month.

Sam’s still in school, will be until the twentieth, so it’s Dean and Castiel alone in the house until Dean has to leave to pick up Sam. Things are weirder than ever between them, almost a breath-catching intense, and Dean is more aware of Castiel than he is of his own body. There are moments where it seems like they’re teetering on the edge of something, when Dean’s fingers itch to reach out and simply take and touch and possess, but it never quite happens. A phone rings or Castiel lowers his eyes, breaking their connection. Uncertain of what this means, exactly, Dean tends to work on the car as much as possible. Cars he understands—spark plugs, pistons, crankshafts, hydrometers, ignition coils, carburetors. He can take a car apart and put it back together, make something dead into something alive and running. He can turn the ignition and, by ear, tell how well the power steering’s working, or if a new alternator is needed.

And then something seems to click. Castiel often catches him in the kitchen (they’re always in the kitchen when it happens and Dean isn’t sure why) and they press together if they aren’t in a hurry, a natural progression, and Cas’ hands rest on Dean’s elbows, his sides, wrists, sometimes his hips, and Dean feels like he’s trying to swallow a rock, or his own heart, and his throat aches from it. Castiel licks his lips and Dean bites his own. He can tell, at these times, that Castiel’s breathing too hard, and the slow skittering touches on Dean’s body make him shiver.

Then they break apart. Dean isn’t even always the one to start it. Often it’s mutual, as if they can tell that it’s the right moment to break away, their voices normal but a bit softened when they speak, as if they’re afraid to shatter the fragile bubble of peace they’ve found themselves in. Dean cannot understand a damn thing about what any of this means, much less how to deal with it.

So he works on the car.

The Impala’s up on jack stands, Dean underneath her on the creeper Castiel bought him so he doesn’t have to use a Goodwill skateboard anymore, when someone grabs his foot and pulls him out.

Dean, covered in grease and oil with a wrench in his hands, stares up at Castiel and forces a smile. “Hello, sunshine,” he remarks, testy. He doesn’t like being interrupted, and Castiel knows this. “What can I do for you today?”

“I have to talk to you about something. It’s very important.”

“Can it wait?” He wants to get the rest of these bolts finished so he can move on to some more exciting stuff. There’s still so much work to be done, but she’s coming along great. Dean hates leaving her even for a moment when he has the time.

“No, it can’t.” Castiel looks more agitated than Dean’s ever seen him, hair a wild dark mess on top of his head, eyes pinched at the corners. “Can you come inside, please?”

Dean sighs and sits up, taking Castiel’s offered hand, standing and wiping his face with an old dishcloth. “What’s going on, man?”

“Inside,” he says, and Dean follows him, glancing back at the Impala with longing. God, he can’t wait for her to be finished.

Before Dean can even get his beer open, Castiel’s speaking in a rush. “So my brothers want me to visit them for Christmas, but they know I won’t accept because I don’t like traveling to New England at this time of the year, so Gabriel told Lucifer and Michael that they would all come here, and I just spoke with Gabriel and said that I’d have to talk to my roommates, and then he asked me why I had roommates and I told him it’s because I want to, and then he asked me—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down. Okay, so your family wants to visit for Christmas? And? Families and Christmas kind of go together.” He hates when Castiel does this, explaining a problem that Dean doesn’t see as a problem. Then Dean just feels stupid.

“They want to stay here,” Castiel says, impatient. “My brothers want to stay here for a few days over Christmas.”

“So what? It’s your house, man.”

Castiel purses his lips in a way Dean thinks he got from Sam. “You live here too, Dean, both of you do. And not just as my guests. You have your own rooms for a reason. This would force Sam to stay with you, since my brothers refuse to sleep on a couch.”

“So what?” He takes a swig of beer, staring at the cream-colored kitchen floor. “Sam and I have shared a room since he was four.”

Castiel tilts his head but doesn’t remark on that. He twists at a thread on the hem of his sweater, a nervous habit he has sometimes. “You’re my roommates. This would mean imposing on you as well.”

“Dude? I really don’t mind, okay? And I know Sam won’t either. We’ll probably spend part of Christmas day with our dad, anyway.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. How bad can your brothers be?”

Castiel grimaces a little, taking Dean’s beer and swallowing a good portion of it. Dean watches his throat work for two seconds, up and down, before realizing what he’s doing; he looks down at the kitchen tile, which has been recently scrubbed clean. “Sometimes they can be bad,” Castiel rasps, sucking in a long breath of air.

“…Okay, you’ll have to explain that to me.”

Michael’s the eldest Milton and he’s a lawyer in New York City. He’s quiet and arrogant but generally keeps to himself, though he tends to be bossy. Then there’s Gabriel. Castiel had a hard time describing him, other than to say that he’s an advertising executive in Los Angeles and to not take anything he says seriously. “This will be hard for you, Dean,” Castiel says, and there’s a fondness in his tone that he started developing whenever Dean would make an astute connection in class. “You take everything too seriously and he’ll pick on you every chance he gets.”

And then there’s Lucifer. Dean doesn’t know why but he’s nervous about meeting him, probably because he’s named after the Devil and he’s a surgeon in Chicago. Castiel speaks a little highly of him, though, says that while Lucifer can be manipulative when he wants something, he’s easy to get along with.

“If you don’t consent—” Castiel begins, but Dean waves him off and cracks opens another beer. Castiel, bless him, switched from his usual Bud Lite to Shiner for Dean.

“It’s your family. Family should be together for Christmas. Don’t worry about us, we’ll stay in the basement and get out of your hair.”

“No,” he says, even sharper than before, stepping towards Dean. “I don’t want that either. You can hang out with us too.”

“Won’t that be weird?” He’s fairly certain that hanging out with your roommate’s family on a family-oriented holiday has got to be a little odd.

“Probably,” Castiel admits, and he leans against Dean in that way Dean likes, their angles slotting together easily, hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder. “But—don’t laugh at me—they pick on me when it’s just me. And I kind of hate it.”

Dean smirks at him and gives him a patronizing pat on the head. “That’s because you’re the little brother. It’s the big brothers’ prerogative.”

Castiel bats his hand away and huffs, eyes flashing in annoyance. “This isn’t funny, Dean.”

“I think it’s hilarious.”

“So it’s okay with you? Will it be okay with Sam?”

“Sam’s good with people,” Dean says, and doesn’t have to see that neither he nor Castiel are. “He’ll get along just fine with them. You and I can just get drunk.”

“I might be on board with that once they all get here.” He looks a little gloomy so Dean, without thinking, hooks an arm around his waist. It brings them closer together, face to face. Castiel’s blue irises are a thin ring around his heavy pupils.

“Dude, if they’re only going to be here for a few days, you’ll be fine. Chill out. You’re probably making this worse than it actually is.” He has to force his voice to remain normal, Castiel’s breath soft and warm when he exhales, brushing Dean’s lips.

“You don’t know my brothers.” And he sounds normal too, but there’s a quiver in his skin that Dean can feel, highly tuned to Castiel as he is.

“Your parents or sister aren’t coming?”

Castiel shakes his head but doesn’t elaborate. Instead, he rests a hand at Dean’s hip and draws him in. Dean hears the muted click of their belt buckles bumping together and he desperately thinks of anything but Castiel and the heat of his lithe body. “What do you want for Christmas? You still haven’t told me. I refuse to shop on Christmas Eve.”

“I don’t want any gifts, you know that.” His heart feels like it’s bouncing from his stomach to his throat, making him sick.

Castiel touches the back of his heated neck with his free hand, no more than a few inches away now, speaking normal and calm. “Then what do you need? If you’re not going to let me buy you something frivolous, at least tell me what could benefit you.”

Dean’s eyes flick down to Castiel’s lips, just for a moment, before he looks away. They’re almost cheek to cheek now, and Castiel’s body is in a long unbroken line against his. It’s delicious. “I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it.”

“What are you getting Sam?” Those long, sensitive fingers card through his hair in a slow, soothing motion. Dean can’t suppress a shiver.

“Probably more video games,” he murmurs, and his voice sounds rough even to his own ears. He’s going to explode or throw up. Maybe both. Castiel moves the hand on Dean’s hip to Dean’s shoulder, smoothing out a small tear in his flannel shirt. “Um. Also some…some, uh. Books. He’s a quantity over quality kind of guy, so I was gonna go crazy at Half-Price.”

“Perhaps I will get him something to do with books as well.”

“Don’t you dare buy him an eBook reader. I looked it up, those things are expensive. He doesn’t need one of those.”

“It would be beneficial to him once he gets to college. He can simply download his textbooks and will not have to carry around so much weight in his backpack.”

That does sound like an idea, but Dean shakes his head anyway. “He’s not going to college for two more years.”

“Then I will buy it for him for graduation.”

Dean turns his head a little, meets Castiel’s eyes. Something in those words stirs him, even as he tries to push it down. Castiel knows him too well by now, though, and cups his cheek gently.

“I’ll be here as long as you want me here.”

“Cas…”

“I mean it. You can trust me.” His thumb brushes Dean’s bottom lip and Dean sucks in a breath, holds it. “We’re friends, Dean. I want you around.”

Friends don’t have this much sexual tension with one another, he wants to say, but can’t because Cas is pulling him in, and Dean sees a flash of blue eyes before lips are on his. It might’ve been meant to be gentle and brief, almost teasing, but he doesn’t think Castiel expects him to react much—certainly he doesn’t expect Dean to jerk him closer by his hips, put one hand at the back of his head, and lick his mouth until it gasps open. Dean doesn’t expect it either, but now that he’s here he’s going with it, his pulse heavy in his veins, Castiel’s tongue in his mouth, a body trapped in his greedy hands. He wants to touch everything, push up that stupid bulky sweater and find out what Castiel is really made of.

In only moments it’s burning up in the kitchen, and if Dean thought Castiel was the passive type he was completely wrong. Hands press against him fucking everywhere, not tentative at all, searching, exploring, and he arches into Dean so Dean has to tip his head back, let Castiel hold him still and take, take, take, barely breathing except in sudden sharp inhalations, and their chests press together, ribcage to ribcage, and then Castiel slides away, out the kitchen, and Dean’s left feeling cold with his heart rattling in his chest.

*

They don’t bring it up and Castiel doesn’t kiss him again. Dean works on the car in between taking Sam to school and picking him up. It’s slightly awkward but only for a couple of days. Then they’re back to their same routines, though Dean definitely watches him more, noting every movement of his hands and the way he sets his shoulders when he has something important to say.

The kiss was fucking amazing and he wouldn’t mind having it again, despite his brain supplying all the reasons he shouldn’t. He keeps thinking about Sam’s words, how he never does a damn thing. Maybe Sam’s right (the little bastard). Castiel does make him happy, happier than he’s ever been. They clearly get along well. And the chemistry is there in unholy amounts, can spark between them with nothing but a simple look, though Dean knows instinctively that Cas is far too good for him. He can’t help it, though.

It’s flat-out strange. Dean likes taking care of things, always has. It’s why he’s good with his brother and his father, and with cars, with customers. But Castiel doesn’t need to be taken care of. He’s independent and self-sufficient, and for some reason it works for Dean. Castiel doesn’t need to be taken care of, but Dean wants to take care of him. And get cared for in return.

So four days before Christmas, while Sam is passed out on the couch, Dean knocks on the open door to Castiel’s room. “Hey, Cas?”

Castiel looks up from his tall bed, where he’s reading a book. Dean’s never been in his room before, very carefully stayed away from it. He thinks of it as a volcano—too hot to handle. “Come on in.”

Dean does, taking a breath, hands in his pockets, noticing that the walls are a soft cream, the baseboards bright white. Even the bed is in neutral tones of brown, classy and understated. There’s not a thing out of place, the half dozen pillows on the bed perfectly lined up. “I figured out what I’d like for Christmas. If you still want to get me something.”

Castiel puts his book aside and grins, swinging his legs over the edge of his bed but not standing. “And what’s that, Dean Winchester?”

Dean flushes and looks at his feet. “I don’t have anything specific, but if you want, I’d like you to make me something. I’m not, like, a gadget kind of guy. And all the stuff I’d want is for that car and your brother’s paying for that. But if you wanted to make me something, I’d be—I’d like that.”

“A handmade gift, then.” There’s something distinct in his voice but Dean can’t quite place what it is. He thinks it sounds a bit fond, though.

“Yeah. I don’t know. It’s all I could think of.” He smiles with self-deprecation. “I know it’s kind of pathetic.”

“It’s not,” Castiel says, watching him with a slight head tilt. “It’s actually very you. Though I have to say, I would really like to buy you a gift, if I may. I have something in mind.”

“It’s not crazy expensive, is it?” Dean’s biggest complex with Castiel is money, or rather his lack of it and the fact that Castiel can swim in a pool full of hundred dollar bills and not even blink. It always makes him feel slightly off-kilter. He’s never been ashamed of being a working man—hell, he’s a working man who gets to go to college, for Christ’s sake—but there’s a distinct separation between what he does for a living and what Castiel does. Dean washes his hands five or six times a day, paranoid about touching Castiel with grease under his nails.

“Not at all,” Castiel assures him. “And I believe you’d like it. Though it’s not practical at all. It’s downright superfluous. Is that acceptable?”

Dean shrugs a little, smiling crookedly. “As long as it isn’t crazy expensive. Don’t go all out on me, Cas. You do enough the rest of the year.”

Castiel holds out a hand and Dean, after a beat, takes it, stands between Castiel’s knees and tries to look at anything but him. It’s hard, though, because Castiel is so close and Dean, like a moth, is drawn to his light, ready to burn up. “Thank you, Dean.”

“You don’t have to thank me,” he mumbles, embarrassed. It’s as if Dean letting him buy a gift is a gift in and of itself. It shouldn’t be. Dean’s not worth that.

“I do. I’m glad you’re letting me get you something. It means a lot to me.”

Dean looks down at him then, pushes that messy fringe of reddish-brown hair away from his eyes, tracing a smooth eyebrow with his thumb. “What do you want? For Christmas?”

Castiel seems to think for a moment, absently smoothing the wrinkles from Dean’s shirt with his long, slim fingers. The touch makes his stomach muscles twitch and jump. “Honestly? I don’t think I’ve thought about it.”

“Well, think about it.” He covers Castiel’s fingers with his own, stops him. “It tickles,” he explains at the funny look he gets. Castiel actually blushes and takes his hands away.

“My apologies.”

“No, it’s fine. It just tickles.” He picks up his hands again, lacing their fingers together, playing with them, focused enough on the bedspread to notice that it’s very carefully stitched with an asymmetrical bird pattern. He’s damn good at evading things when they’re right in front of his face. “So, what do you want?”

Castiel swallows with a click and Dean feels a little triumphant. Finally, he’s not the only one who’s affected. He chances a look at Castiel and sees that his eyes are wide, his cheeks flushed, and something in Dean stirs with pride. “Ah. I’m not sure.”

“Come on, there has to be something,” he wheedles, smiling a little and squeezing Castiel’s hands. “Think.”

Castiel looks up at Dean and seems on the verge of saying one thing but changing his mind. “I would like something handmade as well. Let’s be honest with ourselves—if I want something, I buy it. But something handmade from you…that appeals to me.”

“I can do that,” Dean smiles, and he’s tired of resisting quite so much, and Sam’s stupid words still ring in his head, and so fucking what if he’s not good enough for Castiel? This isn’t marriage. This isn’t settling down and committing to one another forever. It’s enjoying what they have and exploring what could be, so he presses his palms to Castiel’s, bends, and kisses him. It’s slower than before, Dean taking his time to learn the shape of Castiel’s mouth, the plush bow of his top lip, but that inescapable heat builds up quick and ignites something in Dean’s chest, and he gives himself a few more moments of this, of Castiel, and it feels like he’s getting punched in the solar plexus with each urgent press of mouths, and he finally pulls away before he goes way too far, maybe pushes Castiel onto the bed and watches those blue eyes spark, that body shudder.

“Dean—” There’s a petulant breathlessness to his tone that Dean has to ignore for the time being.

“I’m gonna go work on the car,” he says, voice rough like he’s been hollering, and touches Castiel’s sweet swollen mouth so it’s not a rebuff. “I’m almost halfway done. She’s looking great so far.”

Castiel closes his eyes, exhales against Dean’s thumb. His body thrums finely, probably from not getting what it wants, and it takes him several moments and two long swallows before he can even speak properly (Dean wants to pat himself on the back for a job well done). “Come find me later, then. We have to decide what to do for dinner. What do you think Sam will like?”

“Probably anything, he’s such a fucking trash compactor. I vote for pizza. Your pizza. I don’t know what you do to the crust, but goddamn, it’s so good.”

“Garlic butter,” Castiel murmurs, and he reaches up, curls fingers in the collar of Dean’s shirt, and pulls him in, mouth slack and wanting. “One more. I need it.”

Dean kisses him, even as he unravels at the words, pulsing in every pore and nerve ending of his body. One kiss turns into three, and three turns into Castiel working to pull Dean onto the bed, heels pressing into the backs of Dean’s thighs. “I have to work on the car,” he breathes, tangling fingers in Castiel’s hair. “Cas, please. I can’t start this yet.”

“Why not?” he demands, and there’s such a fierceness in the way he says it that Dean laughs.

“I actually have stuff to do and it’s daytime and my little brother’s here. Do I need to go on?”

“You can do that stuff later and we can close the curtains and Sam’s a big boy.” He huffs a little, chewing on his lip. Dean bends closer and licks it, grinning when Castiel shoves him away. “No. You don’t get that right now.”

“Don’t be like that,” Dean goads, and even though this is weird for him—legitimately interested in another man, kissing another man, wanting to fuck another man—it’s oddly comforting and…right. It’s Castiel, after all. Not some random guy. Dean knows him better than he knows just about anyone in his life that isn’t family. “Come on. Don’t you want to wait for the right time and all?”

“I’m not a girl,” Castiel snorts, but he slides back onto the bed anyway, still all pink in a pretty way. “Any time is the right time.”

“I’ll take a raincheck,” Dean offers, and Castiel looks up at him with interest, as if Dean’s a very tasty bit of prey. It makes Dean nervous.

“All right,” he says, after a beat. “That sounds good. You go do your little project. I’ll speak with you later.”

“Right,” Dean says, and he bolts before he can get himself into more trouble. His jeans are way too tight and there’s something growing in his chest, constricting his lungs and his heart. He thinks about Castiel’s eager, round mouth, the way his hands moved fucking everywhere as if they were possessed, and knows there’s going to be another marathon session with his left hand that night.

*

Over the next few days, Castiel is a cleaning fiend even though he hates doing most of it, sweeping and mopping and waxing the floors, vacuuming the carpet, dusting the walls and the blinds, wiping down the cabinets and scrubbing the fireplace. He gets all the laundry done and folded and put away, which has usually been Sam’s job, and tells Dean and Sam not to worry about it. “Just go Christmas shopping,” he says, streaks of grease from the oven across his face, hair tangled and sticking up all over his head. “I’ve got this covered.”

So Dean takes Sam to the mall. They split up for about an hour so they can buy presents for one another, Dean going to the gaming store and picking out all the games he think Sam would like, then meet up again in the food court to discuss the other three people they’re buying for.

“If we got Dad a few cases of water, do you think he’d get the hint?”

Dean glares at his brother, scooping up more chow mein on his fork. “Don’t be a smartass. If you’re not going to make a real suggestion, shut up.”

“What about a neon sign that says No Liquor?”

“Dammit, Sam. Fine, forget about Dad for a minute. What about Castiel, what are you getting him?”

“What are you getting him?”

Dean slurps up his Coke, swishing the ice around. “He wants me to make him something.”

“He told you that?”

“Yeah. I told him what I wanted and he told me what he wanted.”

Sam leans forward, grinning like the bastard he is. “Oh? What did you say you wanted? You looked at him and told him you want him wrapped up like a—ow! Dean!”

Dean glares at him as Sam rubs his nose, having gotten smacked in the face with a fortune cookie. “That’s what you get for being a dick.”

“I’m just trying to help you with your pathetic love life, my God.”

“Yeah, well, quit helping. It creeps me out.”

“Have you done anything about it?” Sam snorts, throwing the cookie back at Dean, who dodges it easily. “Probably not.”

“I’ve—” He pauses, chews the inside of his lip. He really shouldn’t be telling Sam a damn thing. “Sort of. But that’s all I’m telling you, so quit trying to pry. You sound like a creeper.”

Sam looks pleased for the rest of the day, though, which puts Dean into a good mood. They finish their shopping, getting Bobby a new leather planner for the upcoming year, since he likes using those rather than a computer for his schedule. Dean finds a nice hand-carved wooden chess set, remembering how he and his dad used to play all the time back when Dean was in high school. Sam doesn’t even say anything to contradict it, silently adding a chess clock with it.

As they’re about to leave, navigating through crowds of harried mother and screaming children, Sam stops suddenly by the pet store, eyes wide as if he’s been hit with a wonderful idea that will change the world. “I know what to get Cas.”

“I don’t think he wants a bunny,” Dean remarks, looking at the lethargic rabbits.

“No, you moron. I’m not going to get him a pet. But I know what to get him.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m not telling you. You’ll ruin it.”

“Well, don’t do anything dumb, all right?” He can see Sam now giving Castiel his blessing for marriage or something retarded like that. Though Dean loves his brother with everything he has, he hates when Sam weasels his way into things that aren’t his fucking business.

Sam glares at him a little and starts walking towards the mall entrance. “You’re such a dick, Dean. You’re lucky I put up with you.”

Dean grins even more and follows Sam, looping an arm around his neck. He hopes things stay this good for a little while longer, because he rather likes his life at the moment.

*

“My, my, Castiel, your houseboy is quite the looker. Do you make him clean in an apron too?”

Dean doesn’t know how to respond to that, staring at the outrageous smirk of one of Castiel’s brothers. Several options run through his head: Hit him, punch him, kick him. Before Dean can do any of these things, Castiel rolls his eyes and extends his hands, calm as can be. “Give me your bags and shut up, please.”

“No, no, I’m curious.” He leers at Dean again, who can feel an itch in his arm that means his muscles are tightening up in preparation to swing and swing hard. “My, such a nice mouth as well.”

“Hey—” Dean protests, glaring down at the annoying little man, but he can’t do anything about it because Castiel gives him a very clear ‘cease and desist’ type of look.

“Dean, this is my brother, Gabriel. Gabe, this is my roommate, Dean. His brother Sam should be here soon from the store.”

“There’s two of them? You’re such a dirty whore.”

“He is not—” Dean starts again, but Castiel kicks him on his way towards Sam’s bedroom.

“Gabe, you can stay in here again.”

Gabriel gives Dean a rather saucy wink and follows his brother. Dean already wants him out of the fucking house, but it isn’t his house and it’s not his family, so he’s got no say in the matter. Instead he goes into the kitchen and makes himself a sandwich, trying to heed Castiel’s words of not taking Gabriel seriously, but his hands shake when he slathers mayonnaise on the bread.

He’s just taking his first bites of his rather epic ham and turkey sandwich when Castiel comes in the kitchen and grabs his arm. “I told you not to listen to him. He does it on purpose, Dean. Now he’ll do it more because he knows you’re reacting.”

“Well, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help it.” Dean swallows and gives Castiel a glare right back. “I didn’t know he’d be like that.”

“Well, he is. So just chill out, okay?”

Dean looks at him for a long moment. He’s never seen Castiel this agitated before. “Dude, deep breaths. We’ll get through this.”

“I know. I just. They make me feel—it’s not important. I’m going to go check on him, make sure he isn’t do anything ghastly.” He leans in, stretches up, and gives Dean a brief, hard kiss. “Stop letting him get to you.” He rushes out the kitchen and Dean watches him go, aching instantly for more.

 

Dean shouldn’t be surprised by it, but Sam gets along well with all of Castiel’s brothers, including Gabriel. While Dean and Castiel squeeze onto the huge armchair together, half-drunk on eggnog, Sam’s engrossed in a conversation with Lucifer and Michael about med school versus law school. Michael seems to be winning, but he is a lawyer, after all.

They sort of ignore Dean, which is fine by him, really, but it feels odd to be sitting right next to Castiel and not be addressed in the slightest. Gabriel doesn’t ignore Dean, but he stops trying to needle him when Dean doesn’t respond. Instead he’s on the floor, playing with his French bulldog, Pierre, and a German Shepherd puppy he hasn’t named yet. Dean’s allergic to dogs but he doesn’t tell Castiel this, turning his head every time he has to sneeze and counting to ten.

Michael’s the first to leave for bed, bidding good night to Sam and Castiel before making his way upstairs. Dean makes a face at him behind his back and gets a snort out of Gabriel for it.

“I should go to bed as well,” Lucifer says quietly, looking at Castiel. “What time should I get up?”

“I was going to cook breakfast around ten,” Castiel says, and there’s a slight slur to his tone, as if he’s trying to speak through molasses. His skin is flushed and Dean has to refrain from licking him. Fuck, but he’s hot.

“That late?”

“Dean and I run in the mornings and Sam likes to sleep in now that school’s out.” He raises one eyebrow at his brother, and for the first time in months, Dean sees a professor in him. “Would you like to cook breakfast?”

Lucifer smiles a little. “I am a guest.”

“You are family.”

“I can make breakfast,” Sam speaks up, clearly trying to dispel the tension. “It’s not a problem, I can get up early. There’s usually good stuff on TV in the mornings, anyway.”

Dean loves his little brother very much right then. Lucifer gives Sam what looks to be a quite genuine smile. “I will help you.”

Dean doesn’t really like that, the attention the creepy guy seems to be giving his brother, but it’s probably harmless. Castiel doesn’t react to it, just tells them both good night as Lucifer heads upstairs and Sam goes downstairs to Dean’s basement.

Gabriel looks at the two of them on the chair. “Please don’t fuck too loudly tonight. I need my beauty sleep.”

“Hope you never wake up,” Dean says cheerfully, though he feels his body fill with heat at the words. Gabriel gives him a deferential nod.

“I like him. He talks back.”

Castiel snorts a little and stretches out. “Of course you do. Go to bed. Take a Xanax if you have to. I don’t want to have any issues like last time, okay?”

“Fine, fine. It’s not like they stayed that long.”

“Overnight was too long, Gabe.”

Gabriel waves him off and, whistling to his dogs, heads into his room. It’s quiet in the living room without any other people with them, and the crackle of the fire in the (very clean) fireplace is soothing. Dean feels warm and happy and good, and when Castiel leans into him, angles his head that little bit, Dean lets him, craving his touch.

“Your brothers could come down,” he murmurs, shifting a little, trying to fit on the chair.

Castiel puts an arm around his back, hooks his knee over Dean’s. “They won’t. I promise. What if Sam comes up?”

“He won’t.” Dean doesn’t say it’s because Sam will try to give them privacy. “He looked pretty tired, and if he’s gotta get up early to cook he’ll pass out.”

Castiel traces Dean’s bone structure, fingertips gliding along his cheeks and his forehead. “Should we talk about this?”

Dean flushes and looks down, curling his fingers in the soft cotton of Castiel’s sweatshirt. “I don’t really want to. If we talk about it, then I have to think about it, and when I think I about it I kind of get a little weirded out by the whole thing.”

“You mean a lot weirded out.”

“Yeah, that. So. Talking isn’t good.”

Castiel presses him a little closer, cupping his cheek. “Then we won’t talk.”

“That works,” Dean says, hoarse, and he’s lightheaded from the eggnog and Castiel, whose touch is a slow burn on his body. Dean kisses him this time, maps out the contours of his plush mouth, licks the dry lips until they’re damp and soft. Castiel slides them around until he’s on his back against the arm of the chair and his limber body is wrapped around Dean, legs pulling him closer, hands on his back and in his hair.

Dean feels it again, the need to have more, take more, but he can’t, not on the chair in the living room with all kinds of family members under one roof. So he pulls away, bites his lip, and runs a hand through his hair. “I should probably go to bed.”

Castiel touches him, tugs him closer, kisses him with an open mouth, a noise falling from his throat. “Dean, please.”

“I don’t trust myself,” he mumbles, breathless, and slides a hand into Castiel’s hair, holding him there and kissing him as if he can’t control it—which, really, honestly, he can’t.

“I trust you.”

“At least one of us does.” Dean’s greedy now, like he knew he’d be, and maneuvers Castiel onto his lap, wishing he wasn’t wearing the stupid sweatshirt because his body is a little on the awesome side. “Cas, look—”

“We said no talking and I intend to honor that.” Castiel kisses him with that same urgency and Dean groans, shifts, rests his hands on Castiel’s thighs and tries not to lose his mind. He’s never been kissed like this—hell, he’s never had sex like this, where everything is hot and bubbling and each kiss he receives feels like it’ll be his last. Like he’s starving for it, will die if he doesn’t get it. It should scare him, and it probably will, after he’s alone and sober and able to think, but right now, he’s just fucking goddamn hungry as hell.

Castiel makes these noises in his throat that would probably be best if they weren’t legal, little grunts and moans and stuttered gasps, and Dean echoes them—it’s all he can do, really—and pushes his hands under the sweatshirt and presses skin to warm skin and Castiel arches his spine until it pops and Dean bites his throat and Castiel rocks his hips against Dean—

—and Dean can’t take it anymore, pushes him away, panting, eyes squeezed shut. “We’ve got to stop or else I won’t.”

Castiel makes a frustrated noise, pressing his forehead to Dean’s shoulder. “We can go to my room.”

“I’d feel really, really weird with a surplus of brothers here.” He curls fingers through that soft hair again, murmuring. “Though I want nothing more than to…just. You know.” He feels twelve again, can’t even say the word ‘fuck.’ Castiel noses at his earlobe, kisses there, and some of their passion cools, simmering.

“Then why don’t you?”

“There’s the whole family thing, and the fact that we’re kind of drunk. Did you forget the part where we drank all that eggnog?”

“It was good eggnog, though.”

“Oh, it was. I liked it. Obviously.” He pulls back a little and meets blue eyes. “Just for the record, um. I like you.” He’d never say this while totally sober. It sounds juvenile and girly, two things Dean is not.

“I would hope that you did,” Castiel smiles, kissing the tip of his nose, his cheekbones, chin. “I would also hope that my intentions towards you are clear as well.”

Dean swallows and closes his eyes, letting Castiel touch him gently all over, enjoying the caresses. “I don’t want to label this.”

“Neither do I.”

“Okay, good. I don’t, like. Want to be. Your. You know.”

“Boyfriend, Dean. The word you’re desperately trying not to say is ‘boyfriend.’”

“Yeah, that.” He makes a face. “I hate that word for two guys. It sounds so lame and dumb.” And not important enough.

“We can just continue as we are, then. It works, right?”

“Yeah, exactly.” He’s relieved that Castiel sees it the way he does. He doesn’t think he could be much more than this even if he wanted to be. They’re on different levels in just about any way he can think of, Castiel always one step above Dean, always that little bit better. Even though they work well together, and fit together, and obviously have a ridiculous amount of passion, Dean knows it can only go so far. Castiel will eventually deserve better. He’ll also eventually see it.

“I do have one request,” Castiel murmurs, pressing a little closer until Dean fits hands around his slim hips.

“What’s that?”

Castiel touches his bottom lip, and his eyes are very big and very dark. “Kiss me more? Just do it whenever you want to. Please.”

Dean exhales a little, flicking his tongue out to touch Castiel’s fingertip. “I can do that, yeah.”

When he goes to bed half an hour later, feeling less drunk and more tired, Sam rolls over to face him once Dean’s settled in.

“Did you and Cas have a good time?” he slurs, and Dean punches his shoulder lightly before pulling him in. Sam used to be a cuddler when he was younger, and even now, every so often, it’s like he craves it or thinks Dean will disappear and needs it one last time. Dean doesn’t mind. It’s like when Sam was four and he was thirteen, and Sam would have nightmares all the time about the car wreck. Before their father was an alcoholic. Before their mother died. Dean would hold Sam and rub his back and it was the only way Sam could fall asleep. Not even John could put Sam to sleep like Dean could.

“We did, yeah.”

“I left you alone for a reason. I hope it worked out.”

Dean rubs his back in wide circles, noting that his little brother is almost as big as he is now, and Sam makes the same noise he’s been making for ten years. It’s soothing and comforting. “We’ve made some decisions, but shut up for now, okay? It’s time to sleep.”

“I really like Cas.”

“I know you do, sleepy, that’s damn clear. Come on, go to sleep.”

Sam tucks his head beneath Dean’s chin, long hair tickling his nose. “I think he loves you sometimes.”

Dean says nothing to that, but the thought makes his heart shiver in a very strange way.

 

PART FOUR

They celebrate the Milton family Christmas on Christmas Eve. It’s probably the most extravagant gift-exchange Dean’s ever seen in his life. Castiel gets a six-person hot tub from Lucifer, a red Porsche Cayman S from Michael (Dean nearly wets himself when he sees it gleaming in the driveway), and a two-week vacation to some Italian villa from Gabriel.

Oh, and the German Shepherd puppy is Castiel’s as well. Sam’s delighted. Dean sneezes.

Castiel’s gifts to his brothers aren’t quite as big, but they say thank you anyway, though Dean thinks, with a prickle of annoyance, that they don’t really care either way. For some reason that bothers him for the rest of the day, though he can’t quite say why, but he thinks it has something to do with how awesome Castiel is, and how Dean views his own brother, and how he thinks everyone should just be awesome to their brothers. It doesn’t make sense to him that the Milton family dynamic is all fucked up.

Sam and Dean squeeze onto the armchair together, late afternoon sun in stripes on the floor, Sam’s legs long and gangly and out of control. The Miltons congregate in the kitchen with wine, talking about their parents, who seem to be on some sort of a safari. Sam pulls the sleepy puppy onto his lap and Dean tries not to make a face.

“Should we give Cas our presents?” Sam asks, ruffling the puppy’s fur.

“Nah, not until he says so.” Dean would honestly rather not give Castiel his gift in front of Gabriel, if he can help it. He’s not embarrassed about it, exactly, but it’s a little dorky and he’s not particularly in the mood to deal with the inevitable teasing.

“I want to give him his gift.”

“What the hell did you get him, anyway?”

Sam sticks his tongue out. “I’m not telling you.”

Dean snorts and reaches out, despite his allergies, to pet the puppy. The damn dog really is cute, he has to admit that. And he’s better than Pierre, who has already chewed up three or four pairs of Castiel’s shoes. “Fine. But if you embarrass me in any way, I’m disowning you.”

“You will not. You love me, moron.”

“Eh. Sometimes.”

Dean punches him in the shoulder as Lucifer approaches them, eyes on Sam. “Would you like some pie?”

Dean wants to flip him off but feels it would be inappropriate, and, not to mention, totally ignored. He literally can’t wait until the brothers leave.

Sam slides off the chair, smiling politely and giving Dean a knowing look. “Yeah, I do. I’ll come get it.”

Dean glares at both of them when they go into the kitchen together, feeling a little left out, but the puppy licks at his face and makes him smile, even though he itches and gets little bumps on his skin. All things considered, it’s not that bad of a Christmas Eve. There’s no yelling or fighting, no Dad getting drunk on eggnog and whiskey. The fireplace is warm and Dean feels at home, and dammit, but it’s a nice fucking feeling. It’s stable. It may not be entirely normal, but Dean’s not sure what normal is, anyway.

When Castiel joins him about ten minutes later, with a big slice of apple pie for him, Dean gives him a smile that says more than he can, and Castiel returns it, reaching out to thread fingers through his hair, palm on the back of his neck, and Dean simply looks at him until Castiel actually blushes.

The rest of the evening goes smoothly, with a nice dinner and hot chocolate outside on the deck, roasting marshmallows over the barbecue pit, Sam eating all the burnt ones that Dean burns “on accident.” It’s at this point that even Gabriel seems to be feeling the calm Christmas cheer, because his lewd jokes are kept to a minimum and he keeps smiling at Castiel like he’s never seen him before, and Dean isn’t sure why until he notices, belatedly, that he’s been holding Castiel’s hand most of the night, fingers interlocked. It surprises him that it’s become such an unconscious thing between them, but he doesn’t worry about it at the moment. Things are good. Things are really good.

The Milton brothers, minus Castiel, turn in before midnight, leaving the others in the living room, Sam on the floor with the puppy and Castiel tucked into the chair again with Dean (who hasn’t moved in an hour).

“What are you going to name him?” Sam asks, shushing the puppy when he gets too bark-happy.

“I don’t know. I never really anticipated owning a dog, but he seems friendly enough. What do you think, Sam?”

“I don’t know.”

“Think about it.” There’s a tone in his voice that Dean can’t quite figure out, but he gets a feeling that this is Castiel’s way to give the puppy to Sam. It makes him smile, and he squeezes Castiel’s fingers, hands resting together in the small space between their bodies.

“What do you think, Dean?” Sam asks, pulling away as tiny teeth try to bite his hair.

Dean looks at the puppy rolling all over Sam. “I vote for Macduff. Dude was badass. Or maybe Orlando?”

Castiel gives him a rare wide grin, all crinkled nose and teeth. “I appreciate your effort in naming the dog after a Shakespearean character, but there’s no way we’re naming him Orlando. I didn’t like Orlando, I thought he was a fool. I’d rather name him Ganymede.”

“I don’t like that,” Dean says, and he shifts to rest his legs over Castiel’s, feet dangling off the arm of the couch. “I still like Macduff.”

“Cas, don’t you also teach British lit and stuff?” Sam asks, holding the puppy like a baby as the exertion of the last few hours causes him to pass out.

“I teach many things,” he says quietly, and Dean’s mind wanders instantly into pornland. Yeah, Castiel could teach many things, starting with that mouth of his.

“We’ll figure out a cool name,” Sam smiles, standing slowly. “Dean, can the dog sleep with us? Will that bother you?”

“Probably, but I’ll get used to it.”

Castiel looks at him in surprise. “You’re allergic to dogs?”

“Yeah, but it’s not a big deal. I just sneeze sometimes.” He squeezes Castiel’s hand, rolling his eyes at the look of concern he gets. “Really, chill out. I like that dog.”

“We’ll find a name for him soon,” Sam says, smiling at the two on the chair. “Night, guys. Merry Christmas.”

“Not Christmas yet,” Dean tells him, and Sam rolls his eyes.

“Merry Christmas Eve, jackass.”

“That’s more like it.” He watches Sam go to the basement, listens for the click of the door shutting, and turns to Castiel with narrowed eyes. “Okay, what did you get him for Christmas?”

“What did you get him?” he counters, leaning closer and pressing his mouth to Dean’s neck, warm hands slipping beneath his thin sweater. Dean’s instantly distracted, ten fingertips burning on his ribs; it takes effort, but he pushes Castiel away so he can have a conversation that doesn’t involve half-desperate moans in the back of his throat.

“Four video games and ten books. What did you get him?”

Castiel smiles, lips barely upturned at the edges, and puts his hands right back to where they were. “You will not be pleased with me, I don’t think, but I really don’t care.”

Dean frowns at him, stopping him from sneaking further beneath his shirt. “Cas, what did you get him?”

“I made him a house key and a mailbox key and a coupon for a room redecoration,” he says promptly, pushing Dean to where he wants him before sliding on his lap. “I want him to have his own room, one he likes. I’d like him to be here for a while. Also, I’ve been meaning to mention to you that you can do whatever you like with the basement. I noticed that you keep it the way I had it. You’re free to make it more you.”

Dean doesn’t know what to say to that, so distracted by the admission that he doesn’t notice Castiel taking off his own shirt. This gift for Sam is too much. Dean doesn’t pay rent, and he usually has to fight to buy the groceries, going early in the morning before Castiel wakes up to restock whatever they need. Castiel doesn’t let him do the yard, and the house is already maintained so it’s not like he can fix anything. He and Sam do most of the household chores, but that’s it.

His second thought isn’t much of a thought, but a feeling. He thinks he might love Castiel very much at this exact moment. “Cas, we gotta talk.”

“I knew you would say that. I’m not taking back his gift.” He frowns petulantly, sitting up straighter on Dean’s lap and looking rather serious and regal despite the fact that he’s not wearing a shirt and his hair is all wild. “You’re not just guests here, Dean. You haven’t been for a while. And Sam needs some sort of stability, and he’s got there here. He’s happy here—told me so himself.”

“I got that, and I appreciate it. But if we’re roommates and not guests, we’re paying rent.”

“Dean—”

He presses his mouth to Castiel’s, quieting him. “I’m serious, okay? You know it’s a big hang-up for me. Let us do some rent and groceries and I’ll feel better. I just.” He doesn’t know how to explain it, how he feels like a freeloader in Castiel’s home, as if he’s a pretty pet. Gabriel’s houseboy comment still bothers him. “You don’t understand, but I’ve got to pull my weight, man. There’s a big…I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”

Castiel tilts his head and watches Dean with those keen eyes of his, speaking slow as if he’s testing what he’s saying. “You don’t feel we’re on equal footing.”

Relief. Castiel gets it. “Yes, exactly. I know I can’t pay half the rent, but I need to do something.”

“And my saying that your company is enough—”

“Come on,” Dean argues. “That just sounds like I’m kept or something.”

“I don’t mean that at all.”

“I know you don’t. But I’m serious. Let me pay rent and I’ll…just. Please.”

“If I let you,” he says, considering each word, “then will you treat this as your home?”

“I can try.” He still doesn’t feel like he deserves any of it. He misses his dad a little, but not as much as he should. Castiel is right—there’s permanence here. They have a routine, one that works for all three of them, even if it’s a little domestic and boring. Dean doesn’t have to do weekly searches for hidden liquor bottles, or come home early from work because his dad’s yelling at the neighbors for something stupid. He doesn’t have to be exhausted all the time. Dean, for all of his commitment fears, for all of his waiting for the bottom to fall out, likes this quiet, simple homelife.

“That’s not good enough for me.” He kisses Dean then, a delicate brush of lips. “I want you to live here with me. Both of you. You tiptoe around here, never change anything. I want you to. So if I let you pay rent, you’re going to treat this like your home.”

Dean bites his lip. Changing things, picking furniture or even paint colors, is a little final. “The best I can do is try.” Anxiety catches in his chest and he takes a breath. “Cas, I don’t—”

“I know, Dean. Commitment is tough for you. You don’t believe in promises because they’ve been broken so often. And you always think of Sam first. But I’m not asking for much. You can change your mind at any time, or move out, or anything. Whatever’s best for you and Sam. I won’t make you sign contracts or anything, all right?” He pauses, softens his voice. “Aren’t you happy here?”

“Christ, of course I am—”

“I just want you even happier,” he adds, cupping Dean’s face in his warm palm. “Comfortable. I want you to do well in school because it’s important. And your mental health is important too. You can trust me, Dean. I’ve never lied to you.”

Dean picks at threads on his shirt, heart pumping uncomfortably in his chest as Castiel presses closer, arms a solid warm weight around him. “I know you haven’t.”

“You don’t have to be quite so on guard with me, you know.”

Castiel doesn’t know much about Dean’s life with his dad, but he clearly knows enough. Dean doesn’t look up at him. “Yes, I do. Because eventually something’s going to happen and it’s going to be harder to leave.”

He tilts Dean’s chin up, eyes a soft dark blue. “What could happen?”

“Anything. Shit happens, Cas. It always happens.”

“Is there anything I can do to make you believe me?”

Dean smiles at him a little, but there’s no humor in it. “Not really.”

Castiel strokes his hair lightly, kissing his cheekbone, temple, the curve of his jaw. “I’ll keep working on it.”

Dean closes his eyes and leans forward, pressing close enough to hear Castiel’s heartbeat. It’s a confident sound, he thinks, rhythmic and soothing, skin so warm and soft. “How much rent do you want me to pay?”

“How much can you pay?”

“Cas.”

“I’m serious. Just tell me, Dean.”

He thinks about his expenses—gas, groceries, lunch money for Sam, the occasional dinner out, what he puts into his savings for his dad and college—and calculates in his head. “Probably four-hundred a month.”

“Oh, okay. I was thinking three-hundred.”

“I’m paying you four.”

“That’s fine. Covers your portion of the utilities.”

Dean pulls back and looks at him, eyebrow raised, not trusting the wide innocent eyes Castiel gives him. “Are you teasing me?”

“Only a little.” His smile softens then, sweet enough to make Dean ache a little bit. “You know I think it’s silly for you to pay, anyway.”

“I know. But I have to.” He does feel better, though, and eases closer to Castiel again. The fireplace throws soft golden light over everything, turning the cream-colored couches and carpet to butter yellow. “I’ll pay you on the first.”

“All right. How are you redecorating the basement?”

Dean rolls his eyes and glides hands over Castiel’s bare chest, thumbs brushing against his dusky pink nipples. “I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it.”

“Start thinking about it.” He leans into the touch, rocking against Dean, whose heart catches a bit when he feels an erection pressing into his thigh. “Dean?”

“Yeah, Cas?”

“Come upstairs with me?”

Dean nods, swallowing hard, throat dry. “Yeah. Yeah, I will.”

He’s not sure what the difference is now, what with the multiple brothers still in the house, but he follows Castiel up to his room, glad that it’s so dark so he doesn’t have to think about it quite as much. He focuses not on the fact that Castiel is a man but that he’s Castiel, someone who makes Dean feel all carbonated and light and warm, and once they’re inside the bedroom, and once the door is shut, Dean’s not worried anymore.

He doesn’t remember the space of time between being clothed and unclothed. Castiel’s mouth is too good, moving across his own in perfect rhythm, tongue pressing at the right time, and then he’s stretching out on Castiel’s bed, propped up on pillows like a young god on a throne, and he can’t see Castiel’s eyes but he can feel them, hot on his bare skin.

Hands. It’s a fragmented thought in his feverish brain, hands on his knees, pushing them apart, hands on his bare thighs, hands on his hips, stomach, chest. He swallows and there are hands ghosting across his throat, up to his face, fingertips brushing across his parted mouth. He thinks he says Castiel’s name but it’s lost with another noise, incoherent, as Castiel’s mouth falls wet and heated to the slip of skin where hip and thigh meet. Then that mouth is on his cock.

Dean forgets to breathe except in gasps, fingers tangling in Castiel’s dark hair, and he arches his back when Castiel pulls Dean’s legs over his shoulders, mouth tripping down to caress his balls—Christ, it feels like he has two tongues sliding all over his sensitive skin, and then his cock is buried in Castiel’s throat again, over and over, in a rhythm not quick enough to bring him off but to keep him balanced on that sharp edge. Each time he lets out a strangled moan Castiel offers attention elsewhere—the underside of his knee, nails on the backs of his thighs, teeth on his hipbone. It goes on an indeterminate amount of time until Dean can’t take it anymore, squeezing his legs and crying out and shaking, begging.

“I’ve got you,” Castiel says, his voice breaking, the hum of the heater clicking on cutting into the quiet of the room. “Just breathe.”

“Can’t,” Dean moans, and he pulls on Castiel’s hair, just a little. “Fuck, please. Please.”

Mouth, tongue, throat. Wrapped around his cock. Wrapped tight. Wet. Warm. Muscles tighten and release, and he thinks his heart beats hard enough to pump blood through four bodies instead of one, and then he presses his palm to the back of Castiel’s head, and then he comes.

There’s ringing in his ears that distracts him, and he knows he’s making small noises as his cock twitches a little more. Then, somehow, Castiel presses against him again, naked now, his own erection hot on Dean’s thigh. Dean grips him without a thought, finds, with surprise, that Castiel is not circumcised. It stills him for a moment—he’s never seen one before—but then Castiel shudders and rocks against him, pushing all of Dean’s uncertainties away.

“Need you,” Castiel murmurs darkly, sliding his tongue against the salt on Dean’s neck. “Please.”

Dean jerks him tight and quick, fist firm, fingertips grazing over his head each time it’s exposed, liking the loose skin because he doesn’t need lotion to get Castiel off. And he does get him off, pretty fucking fast; in no time Castiel’s coming with a jolt all over Dean’s hand, teeth pressing into Dean’s shoulder with a damp gasp.

He doesn’t quite know what comes over him, but he rolls closer, wrapping around Castiel as tight as he can, kisses sloppy and unfocused. They both come down from their high, and when Dean’s heart beats normal again, and when his body temperature cools, he forces himself to slide out of bed despite Castiel’s protests.

“I can’t sleep in here,” Dean murmurs, catching Castiel when he tumbles toward him, not wanting to let him go. “Another time.”

“Dean.”

“Another time,” he promises, biting Castiel’s lower lip, kissing his pout before pulling away.

“Good night,” Castiel says, dazed and distant, and Dean echoes the same sentiment as he shuts the door, sneaking down into the basement for a quick shower before crawling in bed with Sam, who’s dead asleep and snoring on his back.

*

The Milton brothers that Dean hates leave by ten on Christmas morning, thank God, giving the rest of the day until six that evening to Dean and Sam. Castiel seems relieved too, though he keeps eyeing the puppy as if he doesn’t know what to do with it. Sam’s in love with the dog, Dean can tell, and has a list of names with most of them crossed off.

“I want to name him before we open presents,” he announces, running a big hand over the puppy’s soft fur.

“How about He Who Makes Dean Sneeze?” Dean offers, but only gets a dirty look for his humor.

“What do you think, Cas?”

Castiel takes a sip of his orange juice, looking surprised to have been asked. “Oh…I’m not sure. I’m not a fan of cutesy dog names, though. I prefer people names for dogs.”

Dean grins at him as Castiel passes him to pick up the presents from under the tree (Sam insisted on a tree and Dean couldn’t tell him no). “So is Castiel a human name, or…?”

“Haha, Dean.” Castiel sits between the couch and the tree, designating himself as Santa and getting the presents in order.

“I kind of like Supertramp,” Sam says, rubbing his hand along the puppy’s belly, sending its hind leg into overdrive.

“That’s not a human name, bro.”

“I know, but it’s what Alex McCandless called himself in Into the Wild. I kind of like it.”

“I still vote for MacDuff.” Dean sighs and shakes his head, sliding from the couch to the floor. He tells himself he wants to hand out presents too, but really, he wants to be closer to Castiel. “God, Sam. You’re weirder than I thought you were.”

“I love that book,” Castiel says, setting out one big wrapped box, a smaller wrapped gift, and a tiny gift bag. Dean knows the gift bag is for Sam. He feels okay about it now. “It made me want to hike in Alaska and never leave my couch at the same time.”

“I know, right?” Sam chimes in, with that bright-eyed look he gets with Castiel sometimes, as though they’re twins separated at birth. “I think what I loved was the idea—”

“Hey, hey, hey,” Dean protests, giving them both a look. “It’s fucking Christmas. We’re not discussing school stuff on Christmas. That’s ridiculous.”

“It’s not my fault you can’t read,” Sam says, and Dean flips him off.

“I think we should open presents first,” Castiel smiles, but Dean can see the tension in his shoulders, the strain in his eyes, and knows he’s nervous. It’s kind of endearing. “Sam, here’s yours.”

Sam takes the gift bag and there’s a softness in his expression that Dean doesn’t see often. “Thanks, Cas.” He digs through the paper, pushing the puppy away with his foot, and pulls out a set of keys—one big and silver, the other small and gold—with a curious smile, then fishes out a really horribly made coupon. His eyes scan the words, mouth moving, before he looks up in total surprise. Whatever he’d been expecting to get for Christmas was clearly not this. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” Castiel confirms, reaching for the puppy to keep him occupied and away from the tasty wrapping paper. “Whatever you’d like to do, it’s your room now.”

Sam looks at Dean and says nothing, but that’s okay because Dean can read everything on his face so easily, has always been able to, every expression bare in his eyes: Is he serious? Are you okay with this? Should I accept? Can I accept?

“We’re paying rent,” Dean tells him, and Sam looks tentatively at the coupon again. It’s quiet in the room except for the fireplace and the puppy’s snuffling. Then he presses a palm to his eyes for a moment.

“I really like green,” he murmurs, and Dean swallows hard, looks away, singing a Led Zeppelin song in his head to keep his eyes dry.

“Green,” Castiel repeats. “Sounds good to me. We’ll go shopping after the holiday rush is over. Your turn,” he says to Dean, and there’s more pink in his cheeks than there usually is, his voice a little strained as if he’s trying to keep himself in check. He gives Dean the big box first, and Dean’s surprised to feel how light it is. He blinks a little as he unwraps it, pulls the tape off the box, and picks up a pillow.

It’s a plain twelve-by-twelve inch square, the fabric of the Kansas City Royals, Dean’s favorite baseball team. The stitching is all off and it’s stuffed too full, almost hard. One of the corners is inverted.

Castiel looks more embarrassed than he’s ever been, watching Dean with uncertainty. “You told me to make you something, but I’m not good with my hands. I tried, though.”

Dean looks up, can see Sam smiling out the corner of his eye, but he’s watching his friend. This isn’t just a pillow and he knows that, something in him clicking into place. “I like it,” he says quietly, more touched than he cares to admit as he traces the uneven white stitching, the busted corner. “Thank you.”

Castiel shrugs and rubs the back of his neck, which is lovely and pink. He can’t meet Dean’s eyes. “It’s really horrible.”

“I know. That’s why I like it.”

“I have a better gift for you,” he says, handing Dean the other package.

Dean takes it, but he’s still looking at the pillow, smiling. “No, I really like this one.”

Castiel sighs, smiling and blushing more, the blue of his eyes shiny and bright. “Open that one, though.”

Dean does, placing the pillow to his side. He thinks he’s going to sleep with it for a while. When he gets the wrapping off the second gift, he stares at it, looks up at Castiel with an open mouth. “I thought we said nothing fucking crazy expensive.”

Sam leans forward. “Whoa, is that what I think it is?”

“If you think it’s the ‘Free at Last’ Portfolio, then yes,” Castiel says, looking a little sheepish. “When you said ‘crazy expensive,’ I took that to assume crazy expensive for me, which this was not.”

Dean’s got something caught hard in his throat as he opens the portfolio of Kurt Vonnegut silkscreen prints, hand-drawn by Vonnegut himself. There are fifteen prints altogether, including ten of the open birdcage Dean has considered, more than once, getting tattooed somewhere on his body. They’re all numbered and they are signed, the paper sturdy in his hands. He doesn’t know how Castiel knew that this would be something Dean would like, but he doesn’t care. He must’ve mentioned at some point during one of their conversations and Castiel remembered. Castiel remembered and he got him this, something Dean would never have chosen for himself but has always wanted, having told himself that when he came into money he’d get one of these prints, one of the originals, and frame it. Now he has several. And Castiel gave it to him.

“I can’t accept this,” he says at last, tracing the lining of the bright blue birdcage.

“You can and you will. I figured you’d like it. Don’t you?”

He does. And not because it’s signed, exactly, or because of the thousands of dollars Castiel must’ve spent on it, but the thought behind it. The fact that Castiel remembered something that Dean didn’t even realize he’d told him. “Cas, I—”

“Dean.” He reaches out, touches Dean’s hand. “Just say thank you.”

He pauses, swallows brokenly. “Thank you.”

Sam’s grinning as though this is his present, and Dean can’t speak anymore than that for several moments. Then he leans over, puts his arms around Castiel, and holds him close, tight, using his body to say what he can’t say aloud. There’s an I love you in there somewhere, and in those brief breaths of the hug, he loves Castiel with everything he has, loves him fiercely, somewhere just below Sam, will do anything for him.

Then Castiel lets go and touches his cheek and Dean flushes, looks down. “Thank you.”

Sam leaves the room, probably to get his gifts, and Dean brushes his mouth to Castiel’s, chaste but promising. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” is the soft reply he gets, and Dean takes a breath, settles onto his chair with the pillow in his lap, looking at the prints with reverence. Kurt Vonnegut made these. Dean touches something that Vonnegut touched, something Vonnegut put his heart into. Something Castiel bought for him. It’s a little overwhelming.

Sam comes back, probably after deciding that he’d given his brother and Castiel enough time together, and hands Dean a small black wallet. “That’s yours. Sorry I didn’t wrap it.”

Dean rolls his eyes a little, taking it. It’s heavier than he expected, which surprises him. “Dude, I already have—” He opens it up and sees that it’s not a wallet, exactly, but one of those photo wallets that he thinks he saw Ricky on I Love Lucy whip out one time. Out of the twenty available slots, five are filled.

They’re older pictures, a little creased and torn, but Dean sees, with a dropped jaw, that they’re of his mother. Beautiful blonde Mary, smiling, holding a five-year-old Dean in her lap. Mary with Dean when he was ten, after a Little League game, and a baby Sam resting on her lap. Mary by herself, on the couch, trying to hide from the camera. Mary baking in the kitchen wearing the pink and blue teddy bear apron Dean made for her in seventh grade. Mary and John—sober John—with a small blue bundle in their arms, young and delighted with glassy eyes and huge smiles.

Dean puts a fist to his chest, gazing at his mother’s face—he forgets her so often, especially with the fire that took the only pictures he’d managed to preserve—and somehow finds words. “I thought they were all lost.”

“I kept these in my backpack,” Sam says, putting arms around his brother’s neck, tighter and stronger than Dean expects him to be, always seeing Sam as a little kid wanting to be held and picked up and tagging along behind Dean with little hands reaching for him. “I want you to have them.”

“God, Sammy, no—”

“Dean, please. Just keep them safe for us, okay? Please. I want you to have them.”

“I can’t take those from you.” He knows Sam doesn’t remember Mary at all, too young to recall her; taking these from him feels like a crime, makes guilt twist in his gut.

“We’ll share them,” he murmurs, and his voice isn’t a child’s voice anymore—it’s deep and strong and sure, and even though Dean has always taken care of Sam, Sam has always taken care of Dean. “Just hold onto them for me.”

“I’m giving them back when you go to school,” he chokes out, eyes burning, because yes, Sam will leave one day soon, quicker than Dean expects, and he doesn’t want to be left with nothing. He wants to have a life outside of his brother, and fuck it, he wants to have a life with Castiel despite it all. Dean’s always been a realist, and realistically speaking he is out of Castiel’s league, probably can’t offer him half of what Castiel gives, but fuck it, fuck it, he wants to try.

“That’s fine, just take them.” Sam clutches at him and Dean’s sure he leaves bruises on his back with the strength of his grip. This right here, with Sam’s monumental gift, and Sam’s generosity, and Sam’s kindness, has made everything he’s ever gone through in the last ten years worth it a thousand times over. He’d do it again exactly as he has, with the sleepless nights and the six-year bachelor’s degree and the two jobs (sometimes three) and the constant worrying if his brother will end up like this—a wonderful, brilliant, compassionate individual. Dean has given him everything he could and Sam has given it right back. He’s never been so proud of his brother, or so grateful for him.

“You’re a good kid, you know that?” Dean mumbles, one hand in his brother’s long hair, holding on.

“I know. I was raised right.”

Dean crooks a smile, kisses his brother’s wet cheek. “I love you, Sammy.”

“I love you too, Dean. I really don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Dean pulls away and wipes at his eyes. Castiel’s not in the room with them, and Dean hears some cabinet doors opening and closing in the kitchen. He’s grateful for it. He has a hard time letting himself express so much emotion—he’s always had to be cool-headed and even-keeled with an answer for every question. Breaking down like this feels weird and he thinks he’s been doing it more lately. He’s not sure what that means, or if it’s even a good thing, but as long as Sam’s good, Dean can be happy with it.

When they compose themselves and are chatting quietly about the puppy’s name, Dean looking at the pictures often and touching the edges of his pillow, Castiel comes out with a plate of apple pie and a glass of milk for each of them, and they eat together and feed the begging puppy before Sam hands Castiel what looks like a wrapped book.

“That’s from me to you,” he smiles, and he looks excited. “I hope you like it.”

“Of course I will,” he smiles. “It’s from you, isn’t it?” He tears open the wrapping, which is a much better job than Dean’s ever been able to do, and pulls out a plain black composition notebook.

“There’s stuff in it,” Sam says, before Castiel can ask. Castiel, expression curious, opens it. Inside, Dean sees Sam’s neat, small writing but can’t read what it says.

Castiel can. His eyes go big as he turns the pages, dozens of them with Sam’s handwriting. “Sam.”

“What’s it say?” Dean asks, stretching to see, but Castiel hides it and leans to give Sam a hug.

“The size of your heart amazes me,” Castiel tells him, almost a whisper, and Dean feels like an intruder. “Although I shouldn’t be surprised any longer.”

“I hope it helps,” Sam says, beaming with pride. “I think it will.”

Castiel smiles but there’s something wrong in it, a sadness that shouldn’t be there. “Regardless, I appreciate your kindness.”

“What is it?” Dean asks again, paranoid, sure that whatever the notebook’s about, it must say something about him. “Seriously, guys.”

“It’s nothing,” Sam says, and there’s a distinctive ‘leave it alone’ tone in his voice. “Don’t worry about it, Dean.”

“But—”

“Why don’t you give Cas his gift?”

Dean glares at his brother even as he passes his gift bag to Castiel. “You’re a little bit of a jerk.”

“We just had a moment,” he scoffs, punching Dean in the shoulder. “You can’t call me a jerk yet.”

“You know I do it out of love.” He watches Castiel and waits for the reaction. Castiel reaches inside—it’s pretty plain, Dean can’t wrap to save his life and has no idea how to add floofy decorations—and pulls the gift out. It’s about a foot high, four to five inches wide, and made entirely of car parts he found in Bobby’s scrap yard. It took him hours to find the right pieces that weren’t too rusted but were sturdy, and even longer to weld, making it perfect.

“Is…this an angel?” Castiel asks, already smiling.

“Yeah.” He looks down at his feet now, embarrassed for sure. Now that he’s looking at it, he thinks it’s kind of fucking stupid. He made an angel for the guy named after an angel. What the hell’s wrong with him and where did his balls go?

“Is it made out of car parts, Dean?” There’s amusement in his tone but Dean can’t tell if it’s for him or at him.

“Yeah. I can work with cars.”

“I know you can.” He runs his long fingers over the bolts and wires and metal coils, reaching for Dean, who presses into him automatically. “Thank you very much. I love it.”

“I know it’s kind of dorky—”

“No, it isn’t. It’s thoughtful, which is exactly what I wanted.” He squeezes Dean’s hand, sparking that something between them that always seems to ignite when they get close, like static shock. “Thank you, Dean.”

Dean would like to kiss him but he feels weird with Sam right there, so he pats Castiel on the back and pushes Sam’s present toward him, a box filled with books and video games and a couple of new shirts. Sam’s thrilled once all the wrapping’s torn off (and the puppy loves the wrapping), turning on the TV to play one of his new games.

It’s been a good Christmas so far, though Dean knows they’ll have to go to Bobby’s later. He’s tried hard to avoid thinking about it too much, hoping his dad’s still doing well and is still sober and remembers everything his kids told him the last time they were together.

But for now he lets himself lounge in the armchair with Castiel, reading the To Whom it May Concern print for a fourth time, pillow on his lap, looking often at the pictures of his mother’s lovely, smiling face. When Castiel puts an arm around him and watches him with a tender expression, Dean watches back. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” Castiel says, and he leans in to brush his mouth against Dean’s rough jaw. “Merry Christmas.”

“Yeah,” he smiles, Sam’s excited whooping making the puppy bark in excitement. The fireplace is on again and Dean is very happy.

 

PART FIVE

Christmas with their dad goes well, better than Dean expected it to, and John’s genuinely happy to get the chess set. He and Dean end up playing two games together (John winning both, of course) before they head back to Castiel’s. John, sober and funny, got Sam several books and Dean some as well—all dystopians, to Dean’s delight—and interacted with his sons better than he has in a long time. Dean was almost sad to go, but he looked forward to spending time with Castiel again, promising to do dinner with John at least once a week. Even Sam’s on board with it, hugging John long and tight before following Dean out to the car.

Two days after Christmas, Dean heads back to work and spends his free time under the Impala. He’s stopped worrying (for the most part) about what that stupid black notebook says because Castiel’s in the best mood Dean’s ever seen him, and of course Sam’s walking around with a perpetual smile. Dean feels like he’s made some good choices. Starting especially with his determination to work out a different class time for Shakespeare.

The puppy is finally named towards the end of the month, when Sam starts calling him Tex, and Dean’s not sure why but he thinks it has to do with a movie or something he and Castiel watched. He doesn’t care as long as Sam is happy. He’ll even deal with the hives and the red eyes and sneezing. That’s what they make Benadryl and stuff for, after all.

Sam comes to Dean while Dean’s working on the Impala’s engine, that overly innocent look on his face. “Hey, Dean? Can I talk to you for a second?”

“What do you want?” he asks, because that’s what the big doe-eyes and sweet smile is for. Dean’s seen it plenty of times when Sam wants something he knows he has to ask for. This doesn’t include anything deemed necessary, such as school supplies or books or lunch money. Dean realizes then that Sam rarely asks for anything.

“My friends Taylor and Brent want me to go to St. Louis with their family over New Year’s,” he says, handing Dean his grease rag. “Can I?”

Dean wipes the grease off his face, leaning against the car and considering his little brother, who’s shifting from foot to foot as if either cold or nervous. Maybe both. “St. Louis is far,” he says at last.

“Not really. We’d leave tomorrow and come back the 2nd. Would that be okay?”

Dean doesn’t point out that they’ve spent every new year together, usually playing video games and eating pumpkin pie, because sometimes things have to change, and anyway, it’s not like he’ll be alone. He has Castiel, who’s as much of a hermit as he is. No Sam in the house would equal a lot of sex, probably. Dean likes that equation. “Who’s driving?”

“Their dad. It’ll be them, their dad and his girlfriend, and their two sisters, Jessica and Danielle. We’ll be staying at their aunt’s house and shooting off fireworks and hanging out and stuff.” He rattles it off as if he knew Dean would ask, and hell, he probably did. Nobody knows Dean better than Sam.

“Do they drink?”

Sam rolls his eyes, a bit impatient now. “Dean, we’re not even sixteen yet.”

“I don’t care, Sam, I’m serious.” He had his first drink when he was sixteen, stolen from his dad. After that he tried not to drink too much again. “Do they?”

Sam sighs, giving Dean an indulgent little smile. “No, they don’t, paranoid. But even if they did, I wouldn’t. You know that.”

Dean shrugs a little and wipes off his hands, looking through his toolbox so he doesn’t have to meet his brother’s eyes, feeling distinctly like a parent. He kinda wants to be a parent one day, maybe, figures he’d be pretty good at it. “Just get me some phone numbers in case of an emergency and yeah, you can go. You’re not retarded, you’ll be fine.”

“Gee, thanks.” Sam’s smile widens and softens at the same time. “What are your plans?”

“Dude, do I ever have plans? I’ll probably work extra at the bar, get some good tips, and come home to sleep.”

“You aren’t going to spend it with Cas?”

“I don’t know. We didn’t talk about it.” He knows, though, that he’ll work anyway. December 31st always means some goddamn good tips for him. And Ellen closes down the bar anyway on the first, so he can deal with it. Though spending the start of a new year with someone like Castiel appeals to him.

“You should. You might have fun.”

“Yeah, maybe.” He looks at the engine again and tightens some bolts, working the wrench in his hands. This is why he fixes cars instead of trying to work through relationships—cars are so easy and straightforward, unlike most people (minus Sam). He doesn’t have to worry about how good he is for a car, or if the car is better than he is. Cars just are. You can put everything you’ve got into a car, all your sweat and blood and effort, but that doesn’t guarantee it’ll run when you start the engine. Though if the car doesn’t run, you can get a new one. Assuming you aren’t in love with the car. “When are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow morning. I’ll go let them know I can go. It was kind of last minute.” He hesitates. Dean can feel it like a ripple in the air between them. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”

“No, Sam, I’m going to break down and cry because you’re gone for a few days.” He snorts and looks through his tools again. He’s being sarcastic, but it’s not entirely far from the truth. He doesn’t know why he’s so upset about Sam going somewhere and having fun, but he is. He was looking forward to pumpkin pie and video games and Castiel and the giant armchair, even if it means no sex.

“Dean, come on.”

“Dude, I’m fine. Seriously. I want you to have fun—safe fun,” he adds, giving his little brother a big brother look. Sam snorts.

“You don’t have to tell me that, man. I’m the most responsible one I know.”

Dean watches Sam head back into the house and tells himself he is not worried.

 

After Sam leaves with his friends, Dean’s nerves go way, way up. He and Castiel are completely alone together, for days, in the big house. It’s different from the last time they were alone together, when Sam was still in school, because now they’re alone at night. There’s something monumental in that, the aloneness of it tapping into his anxiety about Castiel, the little voice in the back of his head—he honestly doesn’t know who it belongs to, but it certainly isn’t his own—telling him that this is going to fall apart, he is not strong enough to hold it up, he will fail. He feels like that Greek guy who was cursed or whatever to push the boulder up the hill for all eternity, only to have it fall to the other side when he finally reached the top. He doesn’t think there will be any good way out of this. Eventually Castiel will see just how broken and burned Dean is on the inside. Eventually Castiel will not be so kind to him.

Yet for all Dean’s isolation and withdrawn attitude, Castiel is kind to him. Exceptionally so, more than usual without the little brother in the house. He sits in the garage and watches Dean work, every so often asking questions, and because they are talking about cars and because Dean is so good with cars, Dean relaxes a little. Things between them are oddly strained yet comfortable, Castiel giving him the space he needs but being wholly willing when Dean comes to him, unable to stay away for long. He sleeps in Castiel’s bed for the first time, not wrapped together like he thought they’d be but resting with space between them. Castiel strokes Dean’s hair with his beautiful fingers, and Dean falls asleep soon, Castiel’s lips tender on the back of his neck.

When he wakes up the next morning, stretching and warm in the bed, Castiel’s still asleep. So Dean does what he usually does and watches him, wondering how Castiel looks to everyone else, if they get a quick heartbeat when he smiles or blinks real slow. He knows Castiel’s downright beautiful, has that interesting mix of feminine and masculine, but he’s clearly male. Dean thinks that no one knows Castiel quite like he does, though, and he slides closer to the sleeping man, one hand at the center of his back, kissing his bare arm.

It turns out that Castiel is not a morning person at all, grunting when Dean tries to wake him. “What time is it?”

“Just after ten. It’s getting late.”

“Late? You’ve got to be kidding me. Go away.” He rolls over and jerks the covers up over his head, and Dean laughs because he can’t help himself. Castiel, always put-together Castiel, with his nice suits and his straight spine, is grumpy.

“I could probably let you have another half hour,” he teases, and gets absolutely nothing in return except Castiel pressing his back to Dean’s chest for warmth. “Or we could use the next half hour to occupy ourselves with other things.”

“Are you seriously trying to entice me with sex? It won’t work.”

“It won’t?” Dean slides a warm hand around his hip, just dipping below the waistband of his flannel pants. Castiel stills.

“It won’t work much,” he amends, pressing a hand over Dean’s, pushing it down, in. They lie together, Dean with his fingertips on the sweet slope just above Castiel’s cock, Castiel not moving at all, and then he says, so quiet, “Please.”

Neither of them make it out of bed for another hour, but Dean’s much happier for it. While Castiel showers, Dean looks around his room a little more, impressed with the bookshelf that spans one wall and the sophisticated sound system set up in the window nook. The books surprise him a little though, he reminds himself, it’s not as though Castiel only reads what he teaches. Of course he’d read other things. But among all the Milton and Shakespeare he finds Jhumpa Lahiri, Rick Moody, Joyce Carol Oates, Chuck Palahniuk, and, much to his delight, a full collection of Kurt Vonnegut.

The music collection intrigues him even more, not for the impeccable organization of it, because he expects that from Castiel, but the wide variety of it—Beatles, Green Day, Incubus, Iron & Wine, Massive Attack, The Postal Service, Snow Patrol, and…hell yeah, there’s Led Zeppelin. Curious about what Castiel’s been listening to, Dean turns on the stereo and plays the CD currently slotted. He makes a face when he hears it, turns as the bathroom door opens and Castiel, dripping and tousled and in a towel, appears.

“What is this?”

“Oh, that’s Ke$ha. I like the new CD. Gets me going in the morning.”

“I don’t understand,” Dean says slowly, shutting off the noise, “how you can have the Beatles and Zeppelin and also listen to this.”

“I listen to everything, Dean.” He reaches across and turns the song back on, dropping the towel—immediately distracting Dean, who’s very certain that Castiel may have the best ass of anyone he’s ever seen—and rifling through his drawers for underwear and socks. He moves his hips just a little to the beat, shoulders shifting, and Dean has a sudden hilarious image of Castiel dancing just like this every morning.

“Yeah, but. Ke$ha?”

“I have Lady Gaga too, and AC/DC and Bach. Sorry if that shames you.” He pulls his boxer-briefs on and Dean misses the view. “Not all of us are stuck in the mullet rock era.”

“I have good musical taste,” Dean grumbles, falling on Castiel’s messy bed again. “I’m happily set in my ways.”

“I’m going to make you enjoy other things,” Castiel smiles, pulling on a pair of jeans. Dean likes him in jeans, especially the ones that hug his hips and have rips in the knees. They make him look different, softer and sexier somehow.

The song still plays and makes Dean cringe, but it’s then he realizes how little he actually knows about Castiel beyond the basics, and beyond the fact that their chemistry together is up to holy-hell levels. “Have you always been, like. Really all over the place with your music?”

“Yeah. I traveled a lot when I was younger. It exposed me to a lot of different cultures. I loved Colombian rock and Japanese pop, so I told myself I wouldn’t turn anything down simply because it wasn’t anything I knew.” He settles on the bed next to Dean, reaching out to play with Dean’s hair. “How’d you get into classic rock?”

Despite the fact that they’d just gotten up to get their day started, Dean lays around with Castiel for another two hours (turning Ke$ha off after one more song, though) and…talks. He finds out how distant Castiel is from his parents, mostly raised by nannies and liking Rosemary the best, whom he had from ages nine through fourteen. He spent several years in London, and one in Venice. He speaks six languages, and when Dean hears smooth French roll from Castiel’s tongue they don’t talk for a while after that, Dean too worked up to focus on much else.

And then Dean tells him about his life, stretched out on his back with his head resting against Castiel’s knee, starting with the car accident that killed his mother, moving into the way he raised Sam once his dad started drinking. Castiel’s quiet, hand sifting through Dean’s hair, fingertips occasionally brushing across his closed eyelids, the slope of his nose, tracing his jawline. It’s the most intimate he thinks he’s ever been with Castiel, and just a couple of hours before, he had Castiel’s cock in his mouth. This is different, though. Dean’s been physical with countless women before, and even loved a couple of them, but he’s never told anyone how he stole DVDs from Walmart and returned them for cash so Sam could go on a field trip to the Kansas City Zoo. He tells Castiel this. And Castiel simply says, “Of course you did. I would have as well,” before covering Dean’s mouth with his own, soft and sweet.

 

The day before New Year’s Eve, when Dean is in the garage, Castiel comes to see him. When he realized the new parts for the car came in, Dean took the day off so he could get more work done. He looks up at the sound of footfalls and smiles a little. “Hey there.”

Castiel bends down to turn up the heater, and it’s only then that Dean realizes he’s shivering, his thin t-shirt oil-streaked and dirty. “You’re going to get sick,” he chides, and Dean only laughs.

“Nah. I’m used to it.”

“Doesn’t mean you can’t change.” He pulls up the chair he usually sits in, surveying Dean’s handiwork for a moment. “Ah. I’ve been invited to Anna’s New Year’s party and was wondering if you wanted to go with me. I wasn’t sure of your plans, and I understand it’s last minute, but I figured I’d ask just in case, since I didn’t want you to be alone if that’s what you were doing, but I didn’t know what you were doing so I figured I would ask.” He says it all quickly as if he’s not sure how to say it, or what to say, and his uncertainty makes Dean smile, diffuses some of the apprehension in his chest.

“I think I’m gonna go ahead and work,” he responds, replacing the battery with practiced hands. “Thanks for the invite, though.”

“You’re sure?” Castiel stands and leans against the car, hip close to Dean’s, and when Dean glances at him as he always does when Castiel is near, he notices that his hair’s gotten a little longer, more untidy than usual. Dean fucking loves it. It’s that perfect length for him to pull and play with.

“Yeah. I can get some really, really good tips.” He grins suddenly, one of the first real smiles he’s given in days. “I have rent to pay, after all.”

Castiel snorts and rolls his eyes, pink settling into his cheeks. “You’re so funny.”

“I know. I’m cute as hell too.” He reaches for a screwdriver but Castiel picks it up and hands it to him. Dean’s not sure, but he looks like he’s trying to figure out how to ask a question.

“Are…are you sure you don’t want to come? It will be only a few days.”

Dean looks at him, head tilted a little. “Do you want me to come?”

Castiel glows even more, lowering his eyes. “If you aren’t busy.”

“Cas. Do you want me to come?” There’s something kind of sweet about it, and Dean distinctly feels like he’s being asked out to prom or something, though he never went to prom.

“Yes.” He sighs it as though he doesn’t want to admit it, running a hand over the back of his neck. “If you do want to come with me, we need to leave as soon as possible. I checked and the next flight out is from Kansas City.”

“Wait, next flight out?” Dean’s not sure why he assumed that it would be here in Lawrence, but of course it’s not. Anna lives somewhere else, though he doesn’t know where.

“Yes? She lives in Phoenix.” Before Dean can open his mouth, Castiel adds, “She’s a flight attendant, so family flies free. You’re included in that for this purpose.”

Dean narrows his eyes at Castiel, considering. “You’re sure? I wouldn’t put it past you to flat-out lie just because you want me to go.”

“I’m not lying,” Castiel laughs, and it’s a great sound that echoes throughout the garage. “She’s been a flight attendant for almost fifteen years. She gets free flights for family and friends, and really great discounts on cruises and hotel rooms. If you ever want to go somewhere, let me know. You can take a vacation for cheap.”

Castiel says you but Dean hears we and it makes him a little happy.

It doesn’t take them long to pack, though Castiel mentioned that the party would probably be “smart casual,” which Dean takes to mean “clothes he doesn’t have.” When he isn’t upstairs in the allotted ten minutes, Castiel comes down to the basement.

“Dean? Is everything okay?”

Dean looks at the clothes he has spread across his bed—jeans, t-shirts, plaid button downs, one nice dark green shirt. “Just figuring out what to bring.”

Castiel stands just behind him, quiet for a moment. “Your jeans are fine. The darker ones. I think they’re Diesel?”

“How’d you know that?” Dean picks up his nicest jeans, glancing back at Castiel with a raised eyebrow. “Did you sneak a peak at the label?”

“No, but I know clothes.” He shrugs, pointing to the green shirt. “That will be fine. Grab two more.”

“Are you wearing jeans?”

Castiel gives him a small smile. “I could. You shouldn’t worry quite so much. You look good in anything you wear.”

Dean usually thinks the same thing, but the fact is that he’s meeting Castiel’s sister again after that first time at Marble Slab, and he’s supposed to dress nice. He’s certain everyone else at the party will be in designer clothes and designer shoes and probably really nice haircuts. He runs a hand over his own hair, which is shaggy and in need of a trim. He turns back to Castiel and looks at him for a moment.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Castiel says quietly, touching a hand to Dean’s back. “And you should probably stop. You’re incredibly charming and funny. You’ll be fine.”

“I don’t want fine,” he says, feeling inadequacy building up inside him. “I don’t own a fucking pair of khakis.” He tosses his jeans down and drops his backpack, moving across the room to find the remote. “You go ahead and go. I’m not—”

“Dammit, Dean. It’s just a pair of jeans.” Castiel grabs his shoulder and turns him around, frowning in that stern, professor way that he has sometimes. “What you wear is not nearly as important as everything else about you. Please stop being a child.”

Dean glares at him, standing up straighter because he’s taller than Castiel that way. “I’m so glad that you never have to worry about things like this, but your friends are gonna fucking judge me when they see me. That’s what you people do.”

There’s a tense moment between them that has nothing to do with sexuality. Castiel’s mouth is in a small tight line, his eyes, such a deep shade of dark blue, dangerous now. “What exactly do you mean by that?”

“You know what I mean, Castiel. Rich people. Which I am definitely not.”

“Do you honestly think that the upper-middle class has nothing better to do than judge everyone around them? Or that I would allow you in a situation where I thought that might happen?” He makes a rough sound in his throat, rolling his eyes in a very un-Castiel-like way. “I appreciate how highly you think of me.”

Dean’s not sure if he’s in the wrong or if it’s Castiel, but that doesn’t matter much. This is the first time they’ve ever fought and Dean’s certain it was bound to happen. No two people can be so agreeable for so long without fighting about something. Yet, despite everything, despite his insecurities and the knowledge that it would have to fall apart eventually, he’s a little relieved. Things were simply going too well. If there weren’t any bumps in the road, he’d be a little nervous.

“What are you smiling at?” Castiel snaps, but there’s not quite as much anger in his voice as before. He looks confused.

“I think this is the first time we’ve ever fought about anything. I’m kinda relieved.”

Castiel softens entirely, his shoulders easing, chuckling a little and rubbing at his forehead. “I don’t think I can keep up with you, Dean Winchester. I’ve never heard anyone being pleased to fight.”

“We never fight. That can’t be normal.” He reaches out and tentatively pulls Castiel in by his hip. “Sam and I fight all the time. That’s normal.”

“I’ve never disagreed with you before,” Castiel admits. “I still think you’re wrong and, frankly, you’re being a dick.”

“Sure,” Dean says, in love with the crooked smile on Castiel’s face. “Whatever you say.”

Castiel rolls his eyes again, only now it’s inviting rather than annoying, and pulls away to fold up a couple of pairs of Dean’s jeans. “You’re going to be fine. I think they’ll really like you. You’re polite, funny, and painfully attractive. Good combination.” He pauses a little, tilting his head to the side in that birdlike way he has. “Are you all right now? Do you believe me at all?”

After a pause, considering, Dean nods. “Yeah, I’m okay. It’s just one of my things, you know? I don’t spend a lot of time around, like. Rich people.”

“I think you’ve got an assumption in your head that rich people have yachts and helicopters and stuff. Most of the people that will be at that party are flight attendants, pilots, and people we knew from school, one of whom is an exotic dancer. I assure you that everything you’re worrying about will be totally unfounded.”

“I doubt anyone’s going to be a mechanic and a bartender,” Dean adds. He always has to poke the tiger in the face, just to see how badly he’ll get bit. In the case Castiel is the tiger and Dean wants to know where his boundaries are, which buttons to push.

Now, though, Castiel simply smiles at him. “Then you’ll be unique, won’t you?”

“Not the word I’d look for,” he mumbles, jumping when Castiel swats him on the ass with an open palm.

“Just pack your damn things and let’s get going, okay?”

And so Dean does.

 

Dean is most definitely the most underdressed one at this stupid little party, which is held in Anna’s million-dollar condo, but Castiel is the second most underdressed one so it’s okay. Although Castiel keeps a huge bulk of his parents’ money in his savings account, apparently the other Milton siblings are not beyond using theirs. And boy, did Anna use hers—she’s in one of the trendiest areas in Scottsdale, and Dean’s almost positive he’s drinking from a wine glass encrusted in real diamonds, but he could be wrong.

The condo is enormous, set in a loft layout with dark hardwood floors, exposed air ducts, and pink brick encasing the living room, which is set a few steps down from the make-a-chef-jealous kitchen. The balcony is huge, and most of the apartment seems to be made of fucking glass. Dean thinks about Tralfamadore and Willy Wonka’s elevator, which make him distinctly uncomfortable.

He wants nothing more than to rewind back to the previous night, or hell, even that morning, when he and Castiel stayed in their hotel room—the fucking Hilton, Dean’s never stayed in one before—and did nothing but watch TV in their underwear and go on pretty epic binges involving making out and blowjobs and nonstop touching, murmuring. He feels his brain glaze over a little as he thinks about it and jerks when Castiel shakes his arm, nearling spilling his drink.

“Dean, where are you?” he asks, impatient, looking around him as though waiting to get pounced on. There’s so many people in the room, though, fifty or sixty at minimum, that they’re virtually invisible tucked in the corner of the kitchen.

“I’m back at the hotel room,” Dean admits, focusing on Castiel and admiring, yet again, the way the black shirt makes his eyes look so blue. “Where I fucking want to be right now, if I can be totally honest with you.”

“I know, but unfortunately we’re here with all these yuppies and we should probably start looking involved in our conversation so no one comes over to talk to us.” He sips his wine and plasters on his polite face, the one Dean remembers him wearing the first time they met. Now that he knows Castiel he finds it kind of hysterical, because that is not a real Castiel face at all, especially directed at him.

“Aren’t you one of these yuppies?” Dean says, completely straight-faced, and Castiel blinks at him for so long that it makes Dean laugh. “I’m kidding, okay? I’m just kidding. Jesus, I’m so bored.”

“At least we’re not being made to converse,” Castiel adds, deadpan and unhelpful, and then swears under his breath. Dean, eyeing his wine glass, where he thinks a hair of some sort floats near the bottom, looks up to see a couple approaching. A well-dressed, yuppie couple in shiny shoes and pearls and cocktail attire. He and Castiel are in nice shirts, sure, but they’re both decked out in jeans, the only ones in the room as such.

“Fuck,” Dean smiles, trying to copy Castiel’s polite face as well. He thinks it comes off all wrong, though, because the woman—tall, Hispanic, and an absurd kind of gorgeous—looks him over with a raised eyebrow.

“Good to see you, Cas,” the man says, extending his hand for Castiel to shake, and for a brief moment Dean is pissed off that this jerk is using his nickname. “I didn’t know if you’d make it this year or not. Anna says she was delighted when you’d decided to show.”

“I’ve been quite busy,” Castiel responds, and Dean’s not sure if he imagines it or not, but the handshake seems to go on longer than it should. “I don’t use my trust fund to spend the winter in Bali, you know.” When the man laughs, Castiel gestures to Dean with a slim hand, and Dean thinks he looks almost regal now, submersing himself in this high society in a way Dean will never be able to. “Balthazar, this is my friend, Dean. Dean, this is Balthazar. He and I attended Brown together.”

Dean holds out his hand and thinks it takes Balthazar a few seconds to reciprocate. “Hi. Nice to meet you.”

“You as well.” He looks Dean over in a deliberate way before smiling a little. “Your boyfriend, Cas?”

“Oh, no. My roommate.”

Dean feels a distinct oddness at that, two parts of himself warring against one another, but he doesn’t have time to be either upset or relieved because Balthazar places a hand on Castiel’s back—too low, way too low—and tugs him closer.

“I have someone I want you to meet,” he says smoothly, looking over at Dean with a half-smile that is much more like a smirk. “Don’t mind, do you, Dean?”

“Oh, uh, no,” he stammers, wanting out of this apartment so bad he’s considering jumping off the balcony and taking his chances, though since they’re on the fifteenth floor, that might not be wise. “No, of course not.”

“Excellent.” He leads Castiel away, and though Dean wants to say something he’s not sure what it is and keeps his mouth shut instead, watching as Castiel moves through the crowd in the fluid way that drips of money and experience with this kind of thing. He loses Castiel in the well-dressed bodies in moments, and the Hispanic woman pays him no attention, so he gives her a polite smile, mumbles something incoherent, and makes his way as unobtrusively as possible to the balcony.

It’s cold outside, colder than it should be in Arizona in December, and as such there’s no one there despite the tasteful decorations and plump cushions on the iron chairs. He can still hear the soft jazzy music playing through the glass, but it makes him think of elevators and cramped space; he wishes, distinctly, for Ke$ha, and for Castiel’s body to move in time with the heavy beat.

He also wishes to break Balthazar’s fucking neck, bothered a lot by the man and certain now, when he’s had time to process their touching, that something happened between them. Probably more than once. And now he can’t get it out of his head, seeing that smarmy British bastard put his hands all over Castiel’s body, the body Dean’s touched and kissed and worshipped, the body he’s taken into his mouth, and he wonders if Castiel made that funny little half-shudder, half-wiggle when he really liked something, or if Balthazar did things that Castiel really liked. Maybe he did more things Castiel liked than Dean does, and though Dean doesn’t measure up Castiel doesn’t have the heart to tell him. They’ll probably leave the party together soon so Castiel can get his fix in of good sex, maybe have a quickie in the coat closet because there’s actually a coat closet, and then Castiel will come back to him and tell him he lost him in the crowd and he’s ready to go, and he’ll be smiling but it won’t be because of Dean and Dean will have to pretend like nothing’s wrong. Of course. The other shoe had to drop, damn thing’s been hovering for far too long. Of course it would happen in a situation where Dean wants to be Castiel’s boyfriend, for the first time, so smarmy British bastards don’t hit on him, and now he’s worrying that it’s only because he’s jealous that he wants this—that isn’t fair to Castiel much, is it?—and then he thinks about how quickly Castiel said Oh, no. My roommate and wonders if he, Dean, is the only one thinking about being a boyfriend. Eventually he decides that he is, and by the time there’s a hand on his shoulder, Dean has convinced himself that Castiel and Balthazar are running away to London together and leaving him here at this lame party where he’s completely underdressed and there’s not even any fucking beer.

“I almost lost you in all the people,” Castiel says, when Dean turns, and there’s a brightness in his blue eyes that catches Dean’s breath, once again. “I was wondering if you’d like to meet a couple of non-boring people.”

“Where have you been?” Dean asks, and it comes out much more confrontational and much less politely curious than he intended it to be. He leans against the railing, looking over Castiel’s shoulder, where Balthazar, tall and fucking blonde, pours champagne for a redhead.

“Oh, I was basically led around like a dog on a leash. I was worried you’d left, actually.” He tilts his head, narrowing his eyes at Dean in that laser way that makes Dean uncomfortable, because he likens this expression of Castiel’s to the Southern Oracle in The Neverending Story, as if Castiel can see straight through to his heart and destroy him for what he finds there. “Dean, forgive me for asking, but are you jealous? Because if you are, I should really insist that you not be.”

He chews his lip for a bit, grateful for the cold air because he’s blushing pretty hard, hard enough to make him a bit dizzy. “Did you ever sleep with him?”

“Yes.”

It’s the answer he was expecting and dreading. “How many times?”

“Many. I lost count.” Fuck Castiel for his fucking honesty. “But not since I’m with you, obviously.”

“What do you mean, not since you’re with me? Not since you blew me, or—”

Castiel takes a step forward, putting a hand over Dean’s mouth to silence him, watching him keenly, a bit annoyed. “If you would care to stop making assumptions, I’ll tell you everything you want to know, Dean. I don’t have anything to hide from you. Just don’t be such a dick about it.”

He glares just a little, pulling back. “I always thought it kind of bothered you, being with me. The same way it bothers me.” If they’re going for honesty here, he’s not going to back down.

“It would not be very conducive to my sexuality if I were bothered about being with you.” He tilts his head to the side, steady. “Dean, I’m gay.”

He doesn’t know why he thought otherwise, tracing back everything he knows about Castiel, every memory they’ve shared together, and can’t think of Castiel even once mentioning being involved with anyone else, much less strictly men. And now there are more hands than just Balthazar’s on Castiel’s body, a whole circus of them trooping in, taking Castiel for themselves and leaving him marked. Dean’s sick with anger by the time Castiel touches his face, light fingertips on his cheek.

“What’s wrong now?”

“You’re gay.”

“I didn’t realize that would be a problem.”

“You’ve been with a lot of people.” He lowers his eyes, chewing his lip for a moment. Hell, he’s been with a lot of women. He’s even lost count, never got names sometimes. Who is he to throw these stones? They’re only shattering his own house.

“I’m sure you have as well. What, exactly, is the problem here?”

He’s not sure, other than the fact that he’s jealous that people before Dean have touched Castiel in the way Dean loves touching him. “When was the last time you were with him? Or anyone?”

Castiel’s too quiet for a moment. “About a week before I first kissed you.”

A week. A week? “One week.”

“Yes. Dean—”

“So wait, all that stuff that was happening between us and you—you were. Just a week, and—” He can’t even vocalize it, the anger building inside him, the hurt, because goddammit, a week before Castiel’s lips touched his, and a week before Castiel made certain that Dean would never be able to love anyone else again, that lovely mouth was on someone else’s mouth, someone else’s dick. He doesn’t know why he expected Castiel to simply wait for him—after all, Dean reminds himself, when he realized how much he liked Castiel he took that blonde home from the bar. But this is different. It has to be different. Because Dean’s the one hurt.

“Why don’t we get going?” Castiel suggests. “I’m not entirely sure this is the right conversation to be having at this party, and to be honest I’m glad for an excuse to leave.”

“I thought you wanted me to meet your friends.” He looks over Castiel’s shoulder into the condo, where some people are starting to dance now, expensive martini glasses in one hand.

“I don’t want you to meet them when you’re in such a mood,” Castiel says, and it’s definitely a chastising tone he’s using. “Let’s go back to the hotel and talk about this, since you’re obviously so upset.”

“Don’t make it sound like I’m being a little bitch,” Dean snaps. “I have a right to be pissed at you.”

“Would it have made a difference to you if it was a woman I’d been with before you? Or does it only piss you off because it was a man?”

Dean has no real answer for that, staring down at Castiel with barely contained anger. He doesn’t feel the urge to swing his fist like he so often does when this incensed, instead focusing on the annoyed plush bow of Castiel’s mouth, the way his eyes look sharp as glass, the defiant lift to his chin. Castiel makes a snitty little noise before turning away. “Come on, Winchester. You’re trying my patience and I don’t much want to have some sort of a couple’s spat in public.”

It doesn’t take long for Castiel to bid a hasty goodbye to his sister, who isn’t too concerned that he’s leaving just before eleven, and while the cab ride back to the hotel is awkward between them, Dean’s grateful for the chance to calm down, to press his head against the cool window and consider that, perhaps, he’s being a little irrational. Castiel hasn’t done anything wrong this entire time. Dean thinks he might be looking for something to go wrong, grasping at whatever he can reach, no matter how inconsequential or imagined. And if Castiel fucked Balthazar a week before he kissed Dean—hell, if he fucked fifty guys a week before he kissed Dean—that was still before anything had started between them. Christ, Dean’s definitely done worse in his own life, and had worse done to him. He doesn’t know why it’s so different with Castiel. (Well. He does know, he just doesn’t like admitting it.)

Back at the hotel, unable to wait until he gets into the room, Dean pulls Castiel to him in the empty elevator, hands on his waist, leaning in and kissing him hard, possessive, voice rough when he speaks. “I don’t like the thought of anyone touching you, especially not that fucking guy.”

“Balthazar? Dean.”

“No, shut up.” He cups his hand at the back of Castiel’s neck, fingers pushing up into his hair, kissing him again and again and again, aching to erase any trace of others on Castiel, to leave nothing but his imprint on that smooth skin.

“You’re distracting me from being mad at you,” Castiel gasps, clutching right back, his whole body into the kisses in that way Dean loves, as though Castiel doesn’t know any other way to kiss but with his mouth and hands and torso, hips getting into the fun in slow hard rolls.

“That’s kind of the point,” he growls, pulling away only when the elevator dings, moving with swiftness toward the hotel room and waiting for Castiel’s fumbling hands to pull out the card. He swipes it, looks at Dean, and when they hear the click of the lock unlocking, Dean pushes the door open, grabs Castiel around the waist, and hauls him inside.

Castiel’s breathing hard by the time Dean gets him out of his shirt, dragging him closer and kissing his chest, tongue on the cut of his collarbone, pushing him onto the bed and climbing after him. “How many people have you been with?” he asks, rocking his hips into Castiel’s as he unbuttons his jeans.

“Dean.”

“You said you’d tell me,” he reminds him, kissing him again, loving the way Castiel pulls on his hair, directs his mouth to where he wants it most. “So tell me.”

“If you keep kissing me, I can’t talk.” He stretches his arms up, bowing his spine, giving Dean the opportunity to graze teeth over Castiel’s nipple, one then the other, pulling his jeans off.

“I’m going to put my mouth elsewhere, so yours’ll be free.” He settles down on his stomach, draping Castiel’s legs over his shoulders and focusing on the smooth skin on the inside of his thigh. He finds it interesting that Castiel’s legs are as smooth as they are, the hair that he does have soft and baby-fine. He bumps his chin against Castiel’s growing erection, looking up at him. “Talk.”

“Can’t really when you do that either,” he says, head falling back and one hand pushing into Dean’s hair. “Ah. Dean. Fuck.”

“Talk or I stop.”

“I can’t remember,” he says instantly, pushing lightly on the back of Dean’s head. “I’ve lost count by now, but I’ve never been one for flings or one-night stands. Balth and I—Jesus, Dean—”

“Talk,” Dean reminds him, taking Castiel’s cock into his mouth again, hand and mouth working but listening as best as he can.

“I can’t—my God.”

At least Dean knows he’s good enough at this to make Castiel speechless. He does that thing with his wrist that makes Castiel’s thighs tighten before pulling back, peeling his underwear off his legs. “Come on, Cas. You can do it.”

“I can’t.” He presses his feet against Dean’s sides, trying to pull him in. “Dean, please.”

“What do you want?” He knows, though, has felt Castiel on the verge of asking for it before but always fading away, probably knowing, instinctively, Dean wasn’t ready for that, not exactly the act itself but what it represents, what it implies.

“Since we’re being so honest tonight,” Castiel says, reaching down to curl fingers around his own cock, “I would give anything for you to fuck me.”

“Okay,” Dean says, sliding over him again with a wild heart in his chest and a pulsing, thrumming desperation in his veins. He’s fairly certain this is what it’s like to be an addict, to have this need so pressing in his mind, demanding all his attention and every shard of thought he can spare.

“Condoms in my suitcase,” Castiel says, and before Dean can ask he adds, “just in case. I always hope with you.”

Dean smiles as he leans over the bed, dragging Castiel’s black leather carry-on toward him, unzipping the side pouch and pulling the foiled packets out. “You’ve wanted this for a while, huh?”

“Pretty much ever since I had lunch with you around mid-semester, when you said I had nice hands. I’ve tried to be a good boy about it, though.”

Dean yelps a bit when Castiel straddles him, hands pushing his shirt up and trailing down his sweaty back. “Dude, I’m not a fucking horse.”

“I could ride you like one, though,” Castiel murmurs, and Dean’s intrigued as fuck by that, certain that Castiel could last much longer than the required eight seconds for broncos and bulls.

“Maybe later,” Dean says, rolling over with effort beneath Castiel, letting himself get undressed by those lovely hands. “Fuck, I want you.”

“I know you do. You’ll have me.” He licks at Dean’s neck, biting, leaving a mark on his pulse point and sucking until Dean whimpers. “You’ve had me for a while now.”

Cock to cock is so fucking good Dean can’t speak for a moment. He’d considered this before, in high school, when he had a crush on one of his friends he played baseball with and didn’t know how to deal with it, but he didn’t think it would be like this, without shame souring his stomach. Here there’s nothing but excitement, the knowledge that this will be good because everything with them is good—hell, even their fights are good—and it’s the most secure he thinks he’s ever been with himself. Certainly it’s the happiest.

Once Castiel’s underneath him, though, noises rough in his throat and whole body heated and slick, Dean falters a bit. He’s done this exactly twice, with girlfriends, and each time it took forever to get it ready, so long, in fact, that he swore he wouldn’t do it again. Who the hell wants to spend twenty minutes just getting to the sex, then listening to complaints during?

“Don’t I need, like—lubricant?” he asks, feeling awkward but enjoying the way Castiel’s hands move all across his body, as if they can’t get enough of him, can maybe gain sustenance just by touching him.

“No. The condoms are lubricated. And I’ve done this before.”

“You sure? It won’t hurt you?” He remembers the faces Lindsey made, and they were not good faces.

“No, Dean.” Castiel smiles up at him, curling one leg around Dean’s waist and pulling him closer. “You won’t. I promise.”

The ripping of the foil makes Dean’s spine shudder, and all he can think is this is it this is it this is it. They’ve shared a lot together, experienced a lot, physically and emotionally and in between, but this is the last barrier he thinks they have to cross.

He slides the condom on, slots himself into place with one of Castiel’s long legs draped over his shoulder, the other with bent knee on the bed. “So I just…”

“It’s sex,” Castiel tells him, smiling crookedly and stroking Dean’s face. “You know how to have sex.”

“It’s different.”

“It’s not. Look.” He tightens his legs, coaxing Dean in closer, reaching down and gripping Dean’s slick cock in his hand, angling it the right way. “Just push slow. My body knows yours, it’ll let you in.”

Everything about Castiel knows Dean, and vice versa, so Dean takes a breath and pushes in. He gets resistance but Castiel doesn’t make a sound other than a soft sigh, and there’s pressure, tight pressure, that gives little by little. “Jesus,” he mumbles, closing his eyes and letting his other senses take over, listening to Castiel’s gentle but quick breathing, the slip of skin on cotton sheets, feeling this heat like a vice around his cock. It’s wonderful. It is fucking wonderful.

And then…they’re there. Dean’s inside Castiel, all wrapped up together, the scent of Castiel’s shampoo in Dean’s nose from where he nuzzles at his hairline, moving his hips with practiced ease, out and in, but Castiel’s active as hell, much more active than anyone Dean’s ever been with, and soon enough this sweet easy rhythm turns wild, almost rough, Castiel demanding more from Dean and Dean—Jesus Christ, fuck—Dean fucking gives it.

Maybe it’s because they’re alone in a hotel room rather than being in the house with Sam, but Dean’s never quite heard Castiel get so loud, vocal enough that it makes Dean laugh a little, bite at Castiel’s vibrating throat, getting nails on his back in return.

“Fuck, I think this is what they call howling,” he grunts, closing his teeth around Castiel’s earlobe.

“Shut up,” Castiel cries out, and spasms again when Dean thrusts into him, hard, tossing his head back and letting out another string of noises. “God, right there, right there, right there—”

Dean slows down, though, gripping Castiel’s damp hips in his hands, watching him writhe. He’s terribly beautiful, even better when he’s not all dressed up and put together, and Dean thinks he prefers him like this—unraveled and undone, deconstructed entirely and left with only the basest of instincts, need and lust and the thirst for more.

“What are you doing?” Castiel snaps, opening his eyes and gripping Dean’s shoulder hard. “You’re fucking stopping? Why? What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m just savoring it,” Dean retorts, passing a hand over Castiel’s hair and bending to kiss him. “Jesus, don’t you want me to take my time?”

“We can do that the second time,” he whines, pushing his hips up and wrapping both legs around Dean’s waist, pulling him in closer. “Please, Dean, I need it too bad. I can’t wait.”

Dean sighs a little, swiping his tongue along Castiel’s, tracing his lips. “I don’t know what it is, but God, I love when you beg.”

“Don’t make me beg, just give it to me.”

Dean, loving the bossy tone and the trembling skin, pushes forward again, harder than before, until Castiel has to reach up and brace himself against the headboard for leverage. Dean fucks him because Castiel tells him too, and he’s not sure if it’s the sex itself—which holy fucking God, is it good—or the look on Castiel’s face when their eyes meet, but something pushes him over, tilts him until he’s falling and coming and gasping, and when he collapses on top of Castiel, rubs Castiel’s cock between them, the shameless creature beneath him arches his back and comes and yells until he’s hoarse, until Dean’s name is nothing but a breathless whimper in his raw throat.

They lie plastered together for a while, and Dean comes around when the blood rushing in his ears has quieted. He looks at Castiel, whose pupils are normal again, not swallowing the blue, and kisses him with tenderness.

Castiel smiles a little, blinking slow. “Can I tell you one more thing if we’re being honest?”

“Yes,” Dean says, though he already knows what Castiel’s going to say.

“I love you.” It’s not a stuttered statement, and it isn’t shy, instead soft but firm, as though Castiel feels this conviction and doesn’t care what Dean thinks. Dean’s sure it would bother him in any other context but this, and he keeps eye contact with Castiel before nodding.

Castiel draws him in, lighting little kisses along his face, fingers moving through his hair, down his neck, back, up again. “I’m not expecting anything from you in return, you know. I don’t think you should say it back, and I won’t be disappointed if you don’t. I thought you should know. Because I do. Right now, I absolutely do.”

“Are there times when you don’t?” he asks curiously, pressing an open mouth to Castiel’s pretty cheekbone, one hand reaching down to cup his hip.

“Not anymore,” he says, hushed in Dean’s ear. Dean nods again, smiles, and folds Castiel closer.

He gets a text not long after that from Sam, who sends along a picture of a pretty blonde kissing his cheek, the message saying a rather exuberant HAPPY NEW YEAR DEAN!!!! He chuckles and shows it to Castiel, who laughs a little.

“That is a very cute girl,” he comments. “I sincerely hope Sam does something about her.”

“Me too. That kid needs some goddamn action.” He rests his head on Castiel’s chest, turning on the TV to look for a movie, too wired to go to sleep. “Oh, Happy New Year, by the way.”

Castiel kisses the top of his head, one hand moving up and down his side. “You as well. No more being jealous about people I’ve been with, because I’m not with any of them now and I don’t want to be.”

“Okay,” he blushes, rubbing his face against Castiel’s shoulder for a moment. “I do have a question, though.”

“What’s that?” He picks up Dean’s phone when it buzzes again, flipping it open for him.

“Am I the best you’ve ever had?” Dean grins, looking at the text message and softening even more.

“Yes, Dean, God. I thought that would be obvious.” He pauses. “Who’s the message from?”

Dean turns the phone around, smiling. “My dad. He’s never done that before. Texted. Look, he even spelled everything right.”

There’s an expression on Castiel’s face Dean’s not quite sure he’s seen before, but it’s a loving look and softens him even more. “That’s awesome. You should text him back.”

Dean does, adding in a love you before putting his phone on the nightstand, turning over so he can see the TV, because Star Wars is on.

Dean feels like he usually does at this time. It’s a mixture of emotions that he gave up years ago trying to figure out. There’s always sadness at the realization that yet another year has passed. In three weeks he’ll be twenty-five. A quarter of a century old. But there’s hope, too. With a whole new year stretched out ahead of him, anything can happen. It’s at this point that he’s at his most hopeful, feels his most vulnerable. It’s at this point, minutes into another three hundred sixty-five days, that Dean thinks everything is possible. All of it.

“Me too,” he says, as Leia jumps down the garbage chute. Castiel says nothing and Dean doesn’t look at him, but the arms that hold him tighten and curl him closer.

 

PART SIX

A week after New Year’s, Sam goes back to school and Dean’s still out until the eighteenth, so he works for Bobby when Sam’s in classes (getting to do a really neat restoration on a Chevy Bel-Air in the process), and in the evenings spends time on the Impala. Castiel hangs out with him for a good amount of time, sitting cross-legged by the space heater with his laptop open, creating his lesson plans for the spring, occasionally passing Dean tools he asks for, or looking at something to learn how it works. For the first couple of days, whenever Castiel got close, Dean couldn’t help himself and they ended up inside instead for a few hours. He thinks Castiel might have planned this, because he sure smirked a lot the rest of the day.

Early on the second Tuesday morning, after Dean literally tightens one bolt, the car is ready—in theory—to run. Castiel’s eating cinnamon oatmeal by the space heater, wearing one of Dean’s high school sweatshirts that Dean can’t quite fit into anymore, watching him work. When Dean turns to him with a grin, Castiel raises an eyebrow.

“What? You’re done?”

“Should be. I think the engine will start, at least. If it does, after I test her out, I’ll be able to start the super fun stuff—body restoration.”

“That sounds hot,” Castiel says absently, tilting his head as Dean impatiently roots through his tool kit for the keys. “They’re on the hook by the door, where they’ve been for months.”

“Shut up, I’m excited.” He pulls open the squeaky driver’s side door and settles in the seat, inserting the key and turning it. Nothing happens. He frowns a little, mumbling to himself because he knows he did this shit right, and tries again.

There’s a sputter and a low whirr that stutters a couple of times. He keeps trying, tongue between his teeth, until the starter turns over and the car roars to life, startling Castiel, who stands up and moves against the wall closest to the door, oatmeal forgotten by the space heater. Dean grins a little and rolls the window down, motioning to Castiel. “Open the garage door and get in! We’re going for a ride.”

“Is that thing even safe?” he asks skeptically, eyeing the running car as though it might explode. “What about gas?”

“She has enough gas to get us to the corner station. Come on, Cas. I’m good at what I do, you’ve said so yourself. Get in the car.”

“I feel like a hooker,” he mumbles, pressing the button to open the garage door and crossing himself theatrically (What an asshole, Dean thinks fondly). He slides into the passenger seat and buckles the seatbelt, making a big show of tightening it as much as it’ll go.

Dean just rolls his eyes. “Quit bitching. I know what I’m doing.”

“I didn’t say a damn thing, hotshot.” He looks at the beat-up dashboard before glancing in the backseat, where the leather is worn and battered. “So you can actually fix this up and make it look new?”

“Yep. Only takes some elbow grease.” He puts the car into reverse, wincing just a little at the heavy clunk. “Okay, so that’s one thing I need to work on.”

“This fucking thing is going to kill us,” Castiel says, using the same tone he does when asking what Dean wants for dinner. “Are you sure it’s ready for the road yet?”

“She won’t kill us, Castiel. She’s totally ready. Just gotta take her out easy, that’s all.” He backs out into the street before putting her into drive, pleased that this transition is much easier. “See? She’s perfect.”

“We have different ideas on 'perfect,'” Castiel mutters, but Dean’s simply happy to have him as a passenger, looking rather good framed in the window.

Once Dean pumps gas in halfway, not wanting to fill the tank all at once, he hits I-70 to Kansas City, intending to go about ten miles before turning back. The wheel shakes a little hard when he creeps up to seventy miles an hour, so he keeps her at sixty-five, windows down and wind loud in his ears. He can’t stop smiling, and after a few minutes of silence, he glances over at Castiel to see him smiling too.

And then, four miles into his intended ten miles, a hand slides onto his knee. Then moves to his thigh. Dean looks at Castiel again, smirking a little. “I thought you were worried about the car killing us. You’re not gonna help if you distract the driver.”

“The driver is skilled at what he does,” he responds, fingers creeping over the button on his jeans, popping it open with one hand. “I have faith in him.” He pulls down the zipper.

Dean stops breathing a little, focusing even more on the road, trying to ignore the hot hand pressing inside his open fly. “Cas…dude, you’ve had me in bed. I’m going to fucking crash. I’ve put too much work into this car to wreck it.” The lines on the road keep him in his own lane, but barely. The wheel starts to shake and he has to slow down as those familiar fingers work their way past the slit in his boxers to tease his soft cock.

“Pull over,” Castiel says, and Dean hisses through his teeth, reaching down to grip Castiel’s wrist, forcing him still.

“There is nowhere to goddamn pull over. Stop it.”

“There are county roads all over here that aren’t even paved. I’ll make it quick. Or rather, you will.”

He lets loose a string of curses before seeing a turn-off point just up ahead, putting on his hazards (which work, luckily, thanks to his skillful rewiring) and trundling down a dirt road half a mile. As soon as he puts the car in park, Castiel unclips his seatbelt and moves closer, watching Dean with a crooked smile before going down on him, tongue and wet mouth working him to full hardness.

Dean settles a hand to the back of Castiel’s head, closing his eyes with a groan. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get tired of this right here, not with that talented mouth and the man it belongs to.

Castiel wasn’t lying when he said Dean would be quick. Five minutes, tops, and he’s coming in Castiel’s mouth with a groan, shuddering at the intensity of it and mewling quietly in his throat as the car rumbles beneath them. Castiel pulls off with a wet sound, licking his shining mouth; Dean tugs him in close, arm around his waist, touching him wherever he can. “You’re so fucking good at that.”

“I’m glad you approve,” he chuckles, watching Dean with that tender expression he doesn’t try to hide anymore. “We should probably head back now, before your baby gets upset. I think I like her, actually.”

“Of course you like her,” Dean scoffs, pressing close without a seatbelt to hold him back. “But we have some time yet. I can return the favor.”

He eases Castiel up against the door, which is sturdy now with some welding he did a month or so back, cupping his face and giving him a kiss before unbuttoning and unzipping him. Castiel’s quiet and warm like he always is when Dean does this, as if he doesn’t believe it’s really happening to him.

“You don’t have to,” Castiel mumbles like he always does, spread open with hips canting slightly upward. Dean’s not a tease, though, has never denied Castiel this; he worships him with hands and mouth, taking in Castiel’s noises like air, needing them to breathe. He loses himself in Castiel’s heady scent and the fingers in his hair, closing his eyes and taking him in the rest of the way. Castiel comes almost as quickly as Dean and they rest against one another, wrapped together on the torn bench seat, not speaking. It’s warm and Castiel is close and Dean breathes.

By the time they think to head back to the house, Dean’s already late to pick up Sam. He drops Castiel off and parks the Impala, hopping out and running to his car, speeding to Pembroke Hill as fast as he thinks he can without getting pulled over. By the time he swerves up the driveway to the school and sees Sam sitting by himself, reading, he’s half an hour late. He’s never been late to pick up Sam, not once.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he says, as soon as Sam straps himself in. “I’m really sorry. I lost track.”

“It’s okay, Dean.” Sam smiles his Sam smile, the big, wide, white one. “It’s not a big deal. Stuff happens.”

Not where you’re concerned, Dean thinks, wondering how on earth he could have been so preoccupied with Castiel that he forgot his own brother. It doesn’t make him feel very good, so he takes Sam for cheesecake before heading back home, paying even more attention to him than usual, getting caught up on Sam’s semester and his progress with Jessica, the cute blonde. Sam rolls his eyes, blushes and won’t answer, but Dean’s happy Sam doesn’t seem to be mad at him. It rectifies a little of the guilt inside him, but he can’t stop thinking about putting Castiel before his brother, even for just half an hour. After all he and Sam have been through, only able to rely on each other, it’s a pretty shitty thing to do.

*

“Dean?”

The voice is too close and too familiar for comfort; Dean jerks from Castiel as though he’s been burned, nearly knocking over their half-full shopping cart. His dad’s got a cart filled with what looks like essentials—a loaf of bread, half-gallon of milk, ketchup, mustard, laundry detergent and ham. He’s also got a look on his face like he doesn’t quite know what to think of witnessing his oldest son groping another man. This is why Dean needs to keep his fucking hands to his fucking self whenever he’s around Castiel in public. This is also why Castiel needs to quit wearing blue cashmere.

“Dad, hi. Hey, Dad.” Dean hears his own voice pitch a few octaves higher and he feels like he’s going to explode, throw up, expel something. “How’re you? What brings you to this side of town?”

“Doing some shopping,” John says slowly. “The mall over here is better for electronics and I was looking for a TV.” His eyes cut to Castiel, who’s selecting Cocoa Puffs as though it’s his only job and quietly putting them in his basket. “You and your, uh, friend having a good day?”

Dean wants to die now, preferably quickly, before he ever has to hear his dad say ‘your friend’ in reference to what is obviously his boyfriend. Or something. “Yeah, just. Just shopping. Dad, um. This is Castiel. Cas, this is my dad, John.”

“Mr. Winchester,” Castiel says, polite, shaking his hand with a charming smile. “I’ve heard a lot about you. I’m glad to finally meet you.”

“How do you know my son?” John asks, and he’s smiling just a little, though Dean can tell it’s to be nice. Dean still really wants to die now, stomach twisting up hard and tight.

“I had a class with him,” Castiel says, bless his fucking heart.

Dean rubs the back of his neck. Technically it’s the truth. But Dean’s been lying (by omission) to his dad for too long, so despite the bile boiling in his stomach, he speaks up. “Um, Sam and I have been crashing at Cas’ since the fire, pretty much. He has a couple of spare rooms.”

“Ah.” John looks at Castiel, his smile fading. “You should come by the next time we have dinner. I’m surprised I haven’t met you yet.”

“I’ll do that,” Castiel says, shaking his hand one more time. “It was nice to meet you, sir.”

Dean’s a little choked when he says, “Good to see you, Dad.”

“You too, son. Tell Sam I said hi.” He turns on his heel and walks away from the aisle without his cart, stumbling back to grab it, pushing it away so fast one of the wheels squeaks in protest. Dean exhales and leans against the row of cereal boxes, sweat prickling at his temples.

“You have got to be fucking kidding me.”

“That went well,” Castiel says, and Dean snorts. “Your father is nice.”

“Yeah, right. He’s freaking out, he just didn’t want to do it in front of you.” He rubs at his face a little and tries to breathe. “This is not good, man, you know that, right?”

Castiel says nothing, instead moving down the aisle. Dean follows him after a moment, unsure now, wondering—once again—what exactly goes on in Castiel’s head. Finally, when they’re looking at the jellies and jams, Castiel says, “I think you’re reading too much into the situation, Dean.”

“Excuse me? My father just caught me grabbing your ass in the middle of a grocery store. Did you forget that part?”

“He was very polite.”

Dean stares at him, wondering if Castiel somehow lost his ability to read people. “He’s faking it!”

“I’m not so sure. I think he was caught off-guard. But he could have yelled at you or me and he did not.”

Dean doesn’t know how to explain it to Castiel, go into all the details of his father’s microexpressions, the ones Dean’s worked his whole life to comprehend, so he says, “Do we need milk?” in a totally obvious way. But Castiel doesn’t call him on it, just responds that yes, they do, and sets off to get it.

Later at home, when Dean’s cleaning up dishes after dinner, his phone rings with his dad’s ringtone—Kansas, “Carry On My Wayward Son.” Dread pools in his stomach as he debates tossing the damn phone into the sink full of water, but he flips it open anyway. He can’t turn his dad away, not for long.

He forces his voice to sound as normal as possible as continues washing the dishes by hand, something he does to keep himself occupied when he’s overthinking something. “Hey, Dad.”

“Hey, son. You busy right now?” John sounds normal, but Dean knows better, can sense the overly careful tone, and he reads everything between the lines as hard as he can.

“Nah. Just doing dishes.”

John pauses for a moment. “I’m not going to bullshit this. Are you doing stuff with that guy?”

“His name’s Castiel,” Dean mumbles, because he’s stalling like the pussy he is, the words doing stuff burning in his brain. Doing stuff. What the fuck does that mean, doing stuff? They do a lot of stuff—they cook and clean together and they watch bad SyFy movies on the couch and help Sam with his homework and argue over who gets to pay for groceries that week and fuck and carpool sometimes and listen to bluegrass in Castiel’s bedroom late at night. “Or Cas,” he adds, sharp and defensive. “Nickname.”

“Cas, then. Are you?”

Dean scrubs at the casserole dish, heart pounding hard enough in his chest to make his ribs ache. He doesn’t know why he’s waited so long to tell his dad, can’t figure out if it’s because he’s ashamed of Castiel or too proud of him. “Uh, yeah, I guess. I do a lot of stuff with him.”

“Don’t be cute, you know what I mean. I didn’t know you were still doing that.” Despite the harshness of the words, and the judgment found there, John doesn’t actually sound pissed or frustrated. Just curious. Dean wants him to be angry. Angry is better than this weird interest, because anger is visceral, like desire and hatred; he can hold onto anger.

“I don’t…I’m not doing that. It just happened.” He prickles with annoyance for a moment, feels the need to defend Castiel for all he’s done, the sheer ease with which he’s slipped into Dean’s life. “He’s a good person. He helped me out when I needed someone. He’s been a good friend to both me and Sam. Not to mention giving us somewhere to stay.” He chooses his words carefully so he’s still being deferential to his father, but what he’s not saying—he gave us somewhere to stay after you burned our fucking house down while drunk—is very clear.

After a few beats, John says, “He seemed nice.” It might be forced, it might not. It just is. Neutral and observational, no emotion attached.

Dean almost snorts, but doesn’t, scrubbing the forks until his hands hurt. “Yeah, well. He is.”

“Don’t get defensive with me, boy. I’m trying to understand.”

“What the hell is there to understand?” Dean snaps, throwing the sponge into the sink in aggravation. There it is—anger. Fighting. This Dean does, and does well. Sometimes it’s the only emotion he thinks he can feel with any degree of certainty. “It’s not that big of a deal.”

“Calm down, goddammit, I’m not mad at you. It’s just weird, Dean, okay? That’s all. I didn’t even know you were—”

“Dad, Jesus, he’s different,” Dean hisses, embarrassed and wanting to be done with this fucking conversation. He’s too old to have to ask Daddy for permission to date. “It wouldn’t matter if Cas were a girl, I’d feel the exact same way. It’s just who he is, not what he is.”

John’s quiet again, though this time the silence stretches out long enough for Dean to finish cleaning and drying the cutlery. “Is that why you haven’t come to see me? Too busy with him?”

Dean clenches his jaw tighter, guilt burning familiar and warm in his gut. Is it? He’s not sure. He doesn’t think he’s actively been avoiding his dad in favor of Castiel, but maybe it’s a subconscious thing. Castiel equals happiness and good sex. Anytime he sees his father is like a roll of the dice—he’s never sure what he’s going to get, whether John will be attentive or apathetic or drunk. The last few months have been clean, but he’s done that before, always picking up the bottle again sometime after. “No, Dad. I’ve just been busy. Period.”

“Well, when are you coming over for dinner?”

“I don’t know,” Dean snaps, turning his anger and frustration at himself onto his father. “Maybe when you stop riding my ass.”

“I’m not riding your ass,” John growls right back. “Quit being so goddamn defensive. Tomorrow night, then. Bring him and Sam.”

Him. “Fine. I will.”

“Fine. See you then.”

Dean hangs up on his dad before realizing that he just made what seems to be a “meet the parents” kind of dinner. Awkward fucking shit. It’s simply going to fall apart, there’s no way it can’t. His dad, sober for now but with that dark past haunting him, will ask homophobic questions of sweet Castiel, who will take any slight against him and roll with it, charming and quiet with polite, interested blue eyes, engaging John in conversation John will not want to be in. Damn Castiel. Sometimes Dean can’t stand him simply because he’s so good. Hell, he even paid for groceries that day, though he’d done it three weeks in a row. Dean’s bank account isn’t dwindling like it should and that bothers him like a forgotten task at the back of his mind, present and nagging.

He turns at the sound of socked feet on the tile in the kitchen, and he’s not entirely sure how he knows it’s Castiel except that he always knows, his body perfectly tuned to the other’s unique electricity. “Did you hear any of that?” he demands, and when Castiel looks down and coughs, Dean groans. “Goddammit. We’re having dinner tomorrow.”

“That’s good,” he smiles, and Jesus, he even sounds pleased. “You and your father have much to—”

“You’re coming.”

Castiel’s eyes widen and he blinks at Dean for a long moment, saying nothing.

“You’re coming,” Dean repeats, rough, and Castiel holds up his hands as if to stop a fight before it begins.

“Yes, of course. You caught me off-guard, but I’ve been wanting to meet with your father for a while now. I think dinner will be a nice way for us to get acquainted.”

Dean stares at him for a moment, something building in his chest that’s been there for a while, just below the surface (and sometimes right at it), but he’s never really talked to Castiel about it before, kept it hidden away out of shame for distrusting someone who clearly cares about him. “Why? Why are you like this?”

“Why…am I like what, exactly?” He leans against the counter, elbows on the shiny granite, and even his stance is open while Dean’s got his arms crossed, concealing the bad things he never wants Castiel to see.

“This. All of it. Just—the way you are. Why are you like this? Why are you so fucking nice and a do-gooder and wanting to meet my dad and shit? Why?” The words trip out of his mouth but Castiel seems unperturbed, tipping his head to the side and watching Dean.

“I thought we went over this. Do you want me to say it again?”

Even the insinuation of it makes Dean glow a little, heart twitching with pleasure despite himself and his anxiety. Castiel has only said it once, in the Hilton in Phoenix two weeks before, right after Dean fucked him for the first time. “There has to be another reason.”

“I thought that reason was rather all-encompassing, considering all the tiny reasons that make up that one big reason.”

“Oh, right, like you’ve just got all these little anecdotes lined up right in your head.” He realizes how ridiculous he sounds but can’t stop now, the question—why?—weighing so heavily on his mind for so long that it’s come down to this, Dean and Castiel in the kitchen and Dean questioning everything about this man who’s taken care of him and his family without much thought. There has to be an ulterior motive—everyone has one. Particularly very nice people with lots of money.

“Where should I even start?” Castiel asks, but it it’s clearly rhetorical. He looks Dean straight in the eyes, not backing down, and Dean thinks about Medusa. He thinks about stone. He’s very aware that the kitchen is quiet except for the humming of the overhead lights and the refrigerator; upstairs he hears Sam’s music playing—classical, which means he’s reading for English since he can’t read and listen to songs with words at the same time.

Dean doesn’t know why he expects Castiel to think hard, but he’s surprised when he starts to speak immediately. “First, I love the way you talk to the dog when you think we can’t hear you. You use this little baby voice that’s endearing as hell. Also, I like the way you fold your shirts—it reminds me of the way they do them in department stores, and you don’t have to iron often because of it. There aren’t ever any creases, and I’ve tried to do it myself but I can’t seem to get it right, so I sometimes sneak my laundry into yours so you can fold them for me. Three—when you use my body wash instead of your own, I get so hard because if you smell like me, it means you’re mine.” He tips his head to the side, eyes bright as coins, flashing white teeth when he smiles. “Which, by the way, you are. And I’m yours, of course. Completely. Fourth—”

“Okay,” Dean interrupts, helium filling his ribcage now, making him too light, ready to float away. “Okay, I get it.”

“There are a ton more that I do have lined up in my head—things Dean does when he cooks, things Dean does when he cleans, things Dean does when he works on the car.” He bites his lip for a moment, fidgets in a slight way. “Dean, I know it’s hard for you to hear it, but it’s just as hard for me to say. You’re not the only one who’s worried about getting hurt here.”

Dean moves forward before he comprehends it, arms around Castiel, gathering him in. The kitchen is their safe space, where they can stand close together, not look at one another, and connect just as strongly as in the bedroom, when Dean’s buried in Castiel and Castiel’s knuckles are white from holding onto the headboard. “I know. I know. Sorry for being so selfish.”

“I don’t see it as being selfish. I only wish you’d trust me more.” He rests his chin on Dean’s shoulder, hands curled around biceps. “I would take care of you, if you’d let me.”

“You do take care of me. Probably too much, you know.” Castiel has used Dean’s shampoo—he can smell green apples when he presses his face into Castiel’s neck, which pleases him and makes him nervous all at once.

“I want to do it even more. Dean. I—”

“Don’t.” He doesn’t think he can hear much more. Such overwhelming benevolence and generosity. It’s going to suffocate him, crush him down into an ugly, ungrateful box. “I can’t. Just. Stop for now. Please.”

Castiel says nothing for a moment. “Stop what?”

“Being so nice. I gotta…gotta catch my breath.”

“I’m just being me,” he says quietly, and there’s hurt in his tone that Dean’s not sure he’s ever heard before; it makes his stomach ache with guilt. He holds Castiel closer, fingers playing with his soft hair.

“I know, baby,” and he surprises himself with the pet name, having never used one before except when teasing. “But you gotta stop. Just a little.”

“I don’t know how.”

“No more buying me things all the time and saying you just saw it and thought I’d like it. You can let me do things for you too, you know.” Maybe that’s what it is, he reasons. Maybe it’s not because he’s waiting for Castiel to betray him, but because Dean needs to have a purpose, needs to care for things. It’s what he’s good at, and if he’s not doing that—especially for Castiel—then he’s useless.

“Do things for me…I don’t know what you mean. What do you mean?” He pulls back and Dean sees real fear on his face, etched there in the shine of his eyes. “What am I doing wrong?”

“Nothing. You’re doing too much right. Just. Fuck up every now and then, okay?” He shakes his head a little, pushing the longish fringe from Castiel’s forehead. “God, you never really fuck shit up. That’s not normal. Fuck something up and I’ll feel better.”

“What do you mean? I don’t understand you.” He pulls back physically and emotionally, putting space between them. Dean sees it in the way he shuts down just a little, politely neutral expression on his face. “Explain it to me and I’ll try to do it.”

He rubs Castiel’s arms as if warming him up, leaning in to kiss his forehead, his cheekbone, the sweep of his eyelashes when his eyes close. “I can’t explain it right, not the way I’m thinking. I’m sorry. But I really, really want you to let me do things for you, too.”

“Like what, buying me things?”

“Maybe. And taking care of you.”

Castiel pulls away even more, won’t meet Dean’s eyes. “You take care of everyone and everything. I only wanted to return the favor. Give you a chance to—”

“I know,” Dean interrupts, “and you already do that. So let me do things for you.” He’s getting frustrated, both with his inability to articulate what he means—feels—and with Castiel for not simply understanding him like he always does.

He raises his head now, watching Dean with an odd expression of anxiety and impatience. “Okay. I still don’t know what you mean and you’re freaking me out, but okay, I’ll do what I can.”

“Good.” Dean kisses him and Castiel kisses back, but there’s still a barrier between them, an uncertainty that Dean can’t shake, even when he and Castiel are curled up together in Dean’s bed that night, splitting their time in the basement and Castiel’s room. The first time Sam saw them going down there for bed he had an odd little smile on his face, like he just beat a boss level of a video game. Triumphant and satisfied. They never exactly discussed it, but when Dean helped him rearrange the furniture in his new room, Sam only said, “I love it when you’re happy. He makes you happy.”

The next day is odd too, at first. It’s the second day of class and Dean and Castiel have breakfast together after Dean brings Sam to school. Castiel doesn’t pick up Dean’s plate when he’s done and he doesn’t get him his backpack. Dean grins a little when they walk outside together and head for Castiel’s Prius. Their schedules match up enough on Tuesday and Thursday that Castiel suggested they carpool. Dean didn’t think he cared about the planet that much, but then Castiel’s practicality showed through when he explained that as a professor he gets an assigned parking space, so Dean wouldn’t have to fight for one on those mornings. It’s another one of those little acts of kindness that made Dean fall more for him and dread him at the same time, so it’s good that Castiel mostly ignored him that morning. Otherwise Dean would have taken his own damn car.

“I see what you’re doing,” he tells Castiel as he slides into the passenger seat of the Prius. “I really appreciate you trying.”

“I think you’re fucking ridiculous,” he says, voice bland as he backs out of the driveway. “I have no idea what my being nice to you does to destroy your manhood.”

“It’s not that and you know it.” He does feel a bit more level, though, smiling when Castiel parks in the faculty-only garage at KU and shuts off the engine. “Thank you.”

“Sure.” He looks at his watch, then Dean. “You need to hurry, but I’ve got time to get coffee. Go.”

Dean’s still smiling when he leans in and kisses Castiel slow and sweet, taking his time, Castiel letting him with a sigh. “I’ll wait for you outside the library.”

“Yes.” The answer is distant but his eyes are soft when he looks at Dean, who hops out of the car and heads to class feeling better. Even that little bit eases the pressure in his chest. It’s not that Castiel is too nice to everyone because that’s one of the qualities Dean admires most in him, but he’s certainly too nice to Dean. A little less doting is good for both of them.

Without worrying about Castiel, Dean has a very good day in the second part of his senior design class, pleased to work with Aaron, Gary and Greg, three guys he’s had several classes with over the last couple of years. Their project for the semester is to build a racecar according to the blueprints they designed in the fall, and if it’s good enough—meaning if they get an A—they’ll have the opportunity to race it against other teams of students across the country in either Chicago or Cleveland. He’s also taking classes on conductive heat transfer, the biomechanics of human motion, and system design and analysis. No liberal arts necessary, though he kinda misses it a little, considered taking another lit class, but Castiel put a stop to that pretty quick (“Dean, don’t be stupid. You can’t be my student again. I don’t even want you in my department. Everything we've done is absolutely against the rules. Stop smiling.”) He’s so excited to finally finish that he throws himself into his work with enthusiasm, disappointed when classes are done.

Then, like a dark cloud of doom, The Dinner approaches minute by minute until it’s six-thirty and time to leave. Dean gets up from the kitchen table, where he and Sam have been going over math homework, and looks at the clock in the hopes that it’s really six-thirty in the morning but it’s obviously not. Castiel’s mostly left him alone all day and now Dean kinda regrets it; considering what he’s about to head into, it would’ve been nice to be coddled, though he’s too proud to ask for it now.

“Ready?” Castiel asks, buttoning up his peacoat and wrapping a scarf around his neck. Sam looks at both of them as if sensing a dissonance between them, but Dean smiles wide and fake.

“Yeah, definitely. Let’s get going.”

They take Dean’s car because he needs the simple control of getting them to their destination, Castiel in the backseat with his head against the window and Sam doing everything in his power to keep up a conversation. When they’re almost there, Sam pulls out his phone and looks at a text message. “Um, hey, Dean?”

“Yeah, man?”

“Do you think you could pick me up later in KC tomorrow? Like, around ten or something?”

Dean glances at him, frowning. “At night? For what?”

Sam fidgets in his seat, rubbing his palms on his jeans and looking steadily out the window. “Uh, Jessica asked me out. On a date? And I want to go. I think we’re gonna get pizza and see a movie after school.”

With a grin, Dean ruffles his brother’s hair, a little relieved. Sam’s school is important, sure, but so’s his social life, which he doesn’t have much of due to living so far away from school. “Yeah, definitely, that sounds good. You better pay for her and open all doors.”

“I’m not a heathen, Dean, I know that.” He looks relieved, though, and his hazel eyes are brighter than Dean’s seen them in a while. He feels a distinct guilt pool in his stomach. He’s been so preoccupied with Castiel lately that he’s neglected his brother. The thought bothers him. A lot.

“Does she like flowers?” Castiel asks, leaning forward a little to speak to Sam. Dean might be imagining it, but he feels a coolness coming from the backseat.

“I don’t know. Should I ask? I think she has allergies. I wouldn’t want to make her sick.” Sam lets out a sigh. “Dating’s hard, isn’t it?”

“Only at first,” Castiel laughs, patting his shoulder. “You’ll get the hang of it. It’s cliché, but you really should be yourself. If she asked you out, she clearly likes you.”

“Yeah. She said she was tired of waiting for me to do it.”

Dean snorts, pulling into Bobby’s driveway. “That should tell you something, Sammy. Ask her out next time.”

“I will.” Sam glances back at Castiel, patting him on the shoulder. “You’ll be okay with Dad. I promise.”

“I’m sure,” he responds, opening the door and getting out. “I’ve been wanting to really meet him for a while.”

Dean looks at the small, well-kept house and knows what’s waiting inside. He’s not sure how he feels. Nervous, sure, that’s to be expected. He wants his dad to like Castiel and vice versa. But more than that he wants his father to be proud of him, and to prove that he, Dean, is a capable adult, not only of taking care of himself and his brother but of finding someone he wants to settle down with. He knows his dad will see Castiel’s nice clothes and ask about his occupation, which will certainly lead into Castiel’s numerous degrees and his rich family. John, raised very middle class, might see it as Castiel being better than he is. He might get defensive. And when he’s defensive, he looks for problems.

Kind of like Dean. Maybe that’s where he gets it from.

The door opens when they approach and Bobby gives them his usual gruff hello, his eyes falling with interest to Castiel. “You must be Cas.”

“Yes, sir. I believe you’re Bobby?” He extends his hand and Bobby shakes it, clapping Castiel on the shoulder.

“So you’ve heard of me. I must be famous.” He’s watching Castiel curiously, sizing him up in his usual way.

“Quite,” he smiles. “All good things, no worries. Well, mostly good things.”

Bobby laughs—Dean thinks that Castiel passed some sort of small preliminary test—and hugs Sam, punches Dean in the shoulder with an off-hand remark about Dean cheating on him with the Impala. Which serves to make Dean relax and tense up all at the same time. Has he seriously been ignoring everyone in his life in favor of Castiel? Apparently he has.

John’s setting the table for five places when they come into the kitchen, a pitcher of iced tea ready on the counter. Dean smells chicken casserole in the oven and his stomach growls—he doesn’t think he’s eaten since breakfast, too busy with his school project and worrying about this stupid dinner. He and John meet eyes, then look away. Dean doesn’t know what to say, so he puts the warm rolls in a bowl and takes out the casserole, hoping that Sam and Bobby will play host because Dean’s too chickenshit to make introductions again.

The dinner is as awkward as Dean thought it would be, though it’s kind of like a power ballad. There’s the usual discussion of what everyone’s been up to, then questions toward Castiel about what he does for a living, how he came to Lawrence, tapering off into Bobby’s work at the garage, John’s work as office manager, Dean’s good grades, Sam’s date. Then there’s the crescendo Dean’s been waiting for; John, refilling Sam’s glass, says, “So do you date your students often?” with eyes like steel on Castiel.

“Dean wasn’t my student then,” Castiel replies, meeting John’s eyes without flinching. “It would’ve been improper otherwise. As it is, I’ve struggled with it.”

“Not very hard, though, right?”

Dean wants to kick his dad and crawl in a hole all at once. “Dad? You wanna pass the green beans?”

“No,” Castiel agrees. “Not very hard.” He leaves it at that and changes the subject, sipping his glass of iced tea. “Sam tells me you—”

“I’m just trying to figure out how it works,” John interrupts, sliding the bowl of green beans toward Dean without looking at him. “How a teacher could do that to a student.”

“How about we lay off that subject for a while?” Bobby suggests, looking at Dean with an unreadable expression. “It’s kind of like religion and politics—not good for mixed company.”

“If it’s my son, I think it’s something I should know.” He leans forward a little, smiling. “Really, Castiel. I want to know.”

Castiel’s quiet for a moment. Dean can see the wheels running in his head, knows Castiel is trying to figure out if he should be honest or silent. “I’m a little uncomfortable talking about this. I’d rather know more about you, sir.”

“And I’d like to know more about you. Rich family, huh? Four degrees isn’t cheap.”

Sam passes the rolls to John, eyes hard. “The bread’s really good. You should try a piece or three.”

“It’s just conversation, Samuel. What, I can’t ask questions of the man who keeps my boys in his house?”

Dean slams his fork down, looking at his father with a tight mouth. “Dad, I think you need to knock it off now. If you can’t, we’re leaving.”

“Don’t bother,” John snaps, standing, the legs of his chair skidding harshly across the tile. He points a finger at Castiel, leaning in close, voice soft. “I don’t like what you’ve done to them. You’ve taken them away from me, from their own father, with your fancy fucking house and all that fine education. I’m sure you think you can buy anything as long as you have enough money, but you’re not going to buy my respect.” He picks up his plate and dumps it into the sink with a clatter, pulling a beer out of the fridge and leaving the room, footfalls heavy on the old wooden floor. A door slams upstairs.

Dean stares at the table, a ringing in his ears.

Bobby leans back in his chair, arms folded across his chest. He sighs. “I didn’t buy that beer.”

Dean has a brief moment to feel guilt tear into his gut again, knowing his father's drinking because of him and the way he feels about Castiel, before Sam picks up his plate and places it in the sink.

Just like that, dinner is done.

*

Working on the Impala is the only thing that eases Dean’s nerves the day after dinner. Now that he’s got the big job finished, he can work on tweaking things, such as the finicky starter and the gear box.

Castiel’s presence used to be comforting and welcome, but now Dean feels closed in, as though he’s being watched. He hunches his shoulders and says nothing, keeps Metallica up loud in the garage. Castiel doesn’t complain or turn it down, which pisses Dean off even more. He wonders just how much Castiel will let him get away with before he blows up, when enough will be enough and he looks at Dean with those hard eyes and tells him to get his shit and leave.

When the CD shifts to Zeppelin’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” he changes it to “We’re Gonna Groove,” needing something harder, something that doesn’t remind him of Castiel crawling into his bed and singing low in his ear before riding him for an hour, refusing to let Dean come until Castiel was satisfied–with Dean's orgasm, his noises, the words that spill out of his mouth. Castiel, in bed, won't quit until he has everything he wants, and gives just as good in return. Though, really, Page’s intense Sweet as sweet as sweet can be, you don’t know whatcha do to me doesn’t help much, making Dean ache insubstantially.

Dean digs in his toolbox, muttering about his pipe wrench, tongue between his teeth and grease smeared on his forehead. A clean, smooth hand holds out the wrench to him and he looks up to see Castiel watching him, head tilted and eyes too soft.

“Don’t you have anything better to do?” he snaps, grabbing the wrench. He realizes it’s not even what he needs—he can't use the damn thing on these nuts, it'll break them. “All you do is follow me around like a goddamn dog.”

“Wow,” Castiel says, lips pursing. “Someone didn’t take her Midol.”

He throws the wrench as hard as he can—it’s not what he wanted and he doesn’t know why it’s in the fucking toolbox to begin with—and nicks the concrete in the process. “Why don’t you go work on your lesson plans for your little kiddies? I’m sure you’ll find one of them you want to take home too, huh?”

Castiel says nothing for a moment. Dean can see the hurt in his eyes, but not in the set of his jaw. He’s pissed. Good. “You mind telling me what your fucking problem is?”

“That’s not the goddamn wrench I need.”

“Oh, good, glad that’s cleared up. I meant the other part where you’re acting like a prissy bitch.”

Dean moves to the stereo, turning it off with force, not bothering to wipe his hands before heading inside. Castiel follows him but only to go upstairs to his room, saying something about putting tampons on the grocery list low under his breath. And that’s the last Dean sees of him before he goes to bed, though he doesn’t know if he’s happy about it or not.

Nothing will break Castiel. He thinks he knows that intuitively in the way he always knows where Castiel is in relation to him, drawn to his electricity. Dean’s ribcage protects his heart, but bones can be broken and hearts can stop, and Castiel can say okay I’ve had enough and leave Dean with nothing because he is nothing.

He doesn’t even know who he is anymore outside of Castiel, and he thinks of Sam—sweet Sam, who didn’t mind being left alone at school while Dean and Castiel fucked around in the car. He thinks of his dad, whom he hadn’t seen before the disastrous dinner, and though he tells himself it’s because he was busy, the fact is that he was busy with Castiel.

His life has always been a stack of cards, sturdy and stable as long as there’s no wind, yet Castiel is a goddamn hurricane and Dean is blowing away.

*

The guy’s name is Sisyphus, the Greek dude pushing the rock up the hill. Dean thinks about him a lot over the next few days, which are spent mostly in his room when he’s not at school, working, or traveling to Kansas City for Sam. He’s stopped fixing the Impala, and his exchanges with Castiel have been brief—painfully polite, almost cursory. Castiel doesn’t seem mad at him anymore but watches Dean out the corners of his blue-blue eyes, either waiting to be attacked or pushed away. They both—Castiel and Sam—give him space, and though Dean knows they’re worried about him, he doesn’t have much of a desire to fix the situation.

Castiel. Dean loves him so much he’s consumed by him, most of his thoughts revolving around him in some capacity. He doesn’t remember the last time he had a real conversation with his brother before his guilt-trip cheesecake run, or when he last bothered to see his dad (sans terrible dinner, of course, which doesn’t fucking count). Family, Dean’s biggest priority, has been put on the backburner for Castiel. Everything Dean prides himself on—his independence, his ability to take care of things, his dedication—has slipped away. Castiel takes care of him. Dean’s dependent on him in ways he never wanted to be dependent on anyone. It’s his own fault, really, for letting himself get drawn to him this much. He knew it would have to end sometime, didn’t he? But Christ, he’d hoped otherwise, that Castiel would do what Dean didn’t want to do.

It’s like this: Dean has worked too hard to be the person he is, spent too much time growing up, to have someone else take that away from him even under the best intentions. Castiel makes Dean feel young again, and he makes Dean forget things Dean shouldn’t, like his loyalty to his family. Though the peace he’s found with Castiel has been nice, Dean has to be realistic. Castiel’s world and his don’t overlap very well, such as at the stupid New Year’s party, and Dean has calluses on his hands and a permanent scent of motor grease in his clothes, and sure, he tries to be a good person, but sometimes that’s not enough. Money isn’t everything, but it’s something, and he doesn’t own a suit and has no skills beyond that of taking care of things. When Dean can’t do that, it falls apart. He falls apart.

He knows, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he is simply scared. His father has failed him in ways Dean is too afraid to comprehend, and that has given him a certain perspective on life, a set of lenses he sees everything with, including Castiel.

Dean’s tired of worrying so much. He’s tired of the inadequacy he feels when Castiel’s credit card slides across the table at restaurants. He’s tired of Castiel being so good to him, because yes, that will dissolve. One day he won’t be there to work on lesson plans while Dean dirties himself. Castiel can tell him that he loves him, and Dean can believe it, but for how long? How long will it take for Castiel to get tired of him? To not be endeared by the way Dean folds his fucking shirts? Maybe fifty years, maybe that’s how long it’ll take, but it’ll still end.

Dean needs control back, has given so much to Castiel he doesn’t remember himself before he refrained from hitting the English department receptionist and was rescued by a convenient professor. He is suffocating in this relationship, his own crippling anxiety and Castiel’s compassion pressing him in from all sides. Things fall apart. Why not this? It’s not as if they’re exempt because they’re Castiel and Dean. Their love isn’t fallible or foolproof. And Dean simply has no more space within him for heartache, and Castiel will surely destroy him.

He finds Castiel in the kitchen, putting something in the oven that looks like lasagna, wearing one of Dean’s Pink Floyd shirts and faded jeans, his feet bare on the spotless floor.

“Hey,” Castiel says, not even looking up, and Dean thinks he’s not the only one with that weird sixth sense. “Ten-layer lasagna for Sam’s A on his math test. We don’t have French bread yet, but I can get some.” There’s a tightness to his voice that Dean doesn’t miss. Castiel’s essentially ignored Dean’s moodiness the last few days, which Dean still appreciates, but it’s clear that he has no idea what to do about it.

“We need to talk,” Dean says quietly, because if he doesn’t do this now, then he won’t, and this needs to happen. Dean can tell himself it’s for Castiel’s own good all he wants, but he knows this is the most selfish thing he’s done and will ever do. Castiel said he’s also afraid of getting hurt, and maybe there’s a reason for it, but Dean’s thinking about himself and saying he’s thinking about Castiel.

Castiel closes the oven and takes the mitt off, setting it back in his usual drawer. He’s not looking at Dean, as though he can read Dean’s mind and is prolonging the inevitable. “What about?”

He wants to run out of the room and forget the whole thing, but he’s determined to be strong. He owes Castiel this, at the very least, for all he’s done for Dean. “I won’t dance around it because that won’t do either of us any good.” He takes a step forward, tries to get Castiel to meet his eyes, but the other man refuses, focuses on their feet instead. Dean is still wearing his shoes, and they are scuffed. “Cas, I think we should break up.”

Castiel says nothing, his body very still, and though Dean waits for a dozen painful heartbeats, Castiel doesn’t move. He might not even be breathing, for all Dean knows. Then, very quietly, he says, “No.”

“There’s—You deserve so much more than I can give you,” he pushes, even as his voice cracks hard. “I’m not…I can’t be what you need me to be. You need someone more than me. Better. And I’m not going to watch you just…settle. Because you deserve more.” I’m scared to death because I love you too much, and if I love you you’re going to hurt me, you’re going to leave me, everyone does.

The oven crackles. Dean counts more heartbeats, the ticks of the clock in the living room, the rhythmic clicking of the refrigerator. Castiel still hasn’t looked up, his shoulders narrow and tense. “You don’t mean that.”

“I do. I’ve been thinking about it. I. Cas, I.” He can’t hold in his tears anymore, pressing palms to his eyes, sounding as gutted as he feels. “You’re too goddamn good for me and you always have been. It’s not fair to you.” You won’t just break my heart, you’ll break everything.

Castiel hunches over just a little, one hand to his chest. It looks like he’s trying to hold himself together, keep the cage around his heart intact. He trembles. His voice is strained. “Dean. No.”

Dean wipes his nose with the back of his hand, swallows hard, gritting his teeth. He can do this. “I love you, Cas. I’m not going to let you stay with me when all I’m going to do is disappoint you eventually. I can’t compare and I’m never going to, and I’m not gonna let you waste yourself on me. You deserve more than that, more than what I’m ever gonna be able to give.” He reaches out and touches Castiel’s cheek, starts to speak again, to apologize and explain and console, but the other man jerks away so hard he hits the cabinet, rattling the silverware laid out on top. He raises his face now, cheeks tear-streaked. Dean’s never seen an expression like that on someone’s face, and he knows it’ll haunt his dreams for a good while.

“Don’t do this to me,” he whispers, looking so small in Dean’s shirt, two round holes splitting the seam of the left shoulder. “Please. You don’t know what you’re saying. You’re wrong. I know you’re scared, Dean, but—”

“It’s best for you,” Dean mumbles, dizzy now with hurt and uncertainty, stomach clenching so hard he knows he’s moments away from throwing up. The rock rolls down the hill again. “It is. You’ll see that.”

Castiel looks completely lost for a few long moments, eyes narrowed as though he knows he left his car keys somewhere and is trying to recall that place in his mind. He rubs a hand over his face, mutters something that sounds like, “This was not on the list,” and straightens up abruptly. He won’t meet Dean’s eyes again; the look on his face is blank and hollow. “I have papers I must grade and emails to attend to. Sam is walking Tex, but he will be back in to take care of dinner.”

Dean reels as if he’s been punched. Castiel’s voice is back to how it was when Dean first met him, cool and calm and collected, polite, so soft. It’s such a drastic change that Dean wonders if he’s dreaming everything, hoping to wake up in Phoenix, maybe, at the Hilton, or in Castiel’s room with Ke$ha on the stereo, or anywhere, anywhere that isn’t this moment, Dean’s crowning achievement of utter selfishness. “O-okay?”

“Feel free to stay. There’s plenty.” He turns on his heel and heads towards his office with a stiff spine, arms hanging limp at his sides. Dean slumps against the refrigerator, knees unable to hold him up anymore. He has nothing left to give. It all walked out the kitchen in a Pink Floyd shirt and designer jeans, taking all of Dean with him.

He thinks, now, that he’s back to where he wanted to be. He’s Dean Winchester—mechanic, student, bartender, brother, son. "Jack of all trades," he was called once. Designer of car-part angels and expert folder of t-shirts and restorer of classic cars and personal chauffeur and whiskey-bottle finder and classic rock listener and devourer of cherry pie and alone, all alone. All alone.

 

PART SEVEN

By some unspoken agreement, possibly a byproduct of their intuition with one another, neither Dean nor Castiel tell Sam about the breakup. For two days they skirt one another, avoiding eye contact but speaking civilly with bland smiles. Dean takes off work from Bobby’s, giving some lame excuse about a stomach virus, and doesn’t go to class; instead he stays in bed, staring at his bare walls where the Vonnegut drawings once colored the dark room. They’re under the bed now, with the Kansas City Royals pillow, lumpy and badly made from Castiel’s own hands, hidden away so he doesn’t have to see them, to be reminded, but close enough that he knows they’re there. He can’t throw them away or give them back, like he knows he should. Selfishly, he wants to keep some part of Castiel as close to him as possible, the parts that can’t be heartbroken. Pillows, after all, don’t cry.

Sam knows that something’s up, but Dean thinks Castiel’s trying just as hard to keep the big, nasty cat inside the very small bag, and for now it’s working. Sam probably assumes their weirdness is because of Dean. After all, Dean had gone quiet and reclusive after The Dinner, and not much had changed except for a weird sensation that he kept waking up in, and walking into, the wrong house.

On the third day after Dean found out Castiel’s limit and shattered it, he returns to work for Bobby. Perhaps sensing the dissonance Dean radiates like heat, Bobby gives him simple jobs—changing fluids, batteries, rotating tires and such—and seems to come by more often than usual to watch him work. The big garage is packed today, and only Dean, Jake, Tanner and Paul are working, moving from one job to the next as efficiently as possible.

When Bobby makes his fourth pass by in less than two hours, Dean, sweating and pink from the effort of replacing engine drive belts, looks up at him with narrowed eyes. “Can I help you?”

“Just supervisin’,” Bobby says, sounding far too calm for Dean’s attitude. “It’s what I do around here, if you’d forgotten.”

“I didn’t forget. Just kinda feels like you’re up my ass today.” He settles under the hood again, where he’s more comfortable right now than in his own skin, using the socket wrench to pry the nuts loose with effort. He feels bad for this Honda Accord. It’s not maintained very well and the belts are almost frayed through. Even the nuts don’t want to come off, resisting his pull despite the fact that the car’s about to break down for good, nothing but prayers holding it together now. Tears clog Dean’s eyes for a moment, threatening to fall when Bobby puts a hand on his shoulder.

“Let’s go in the office for a bit,” he offers, passing Dean a red bandanna for the grease on his hands and face.

“I’ve got work to do,” Dean mumbles, but he turns anyway and follows Bobby, keeping his head down. He doesn’t know if he’s about to get a lecture or what, but Bobby’s too calm and sharp-eyed for a lecture. Dean thinks this might be a conversation, and he knows it can be about one of two things—Cas or John—and he really doesn’t want to talk about either one.

When the office door is closed and Dean’s as comfortable as he’s going to get in a leather chair from the 80’s, Bobby leans forward and looks at him—really looks at him—for so long Dean starts to fidget uncomfortably.

“Did you break up with Cas?” Bobby asks at last, and though Dean’s usually grateful for his hatred of ‘beating around the bush,’ some lead-in might have been nice. As it is, Dean’s caught off-guard and stares at Bobby for a long few seconds, forgetting that Bobby’s his boss when this distinctly feels like a father speaking to his son.

“I…yeah, he. It wasn’t. We were.” He can’t find words to even start his sentence, much less explain, and he grips the torn, puke-brown leather arms with both hands. He’s holding on for this one.

“This wouldn’t have anything to do with your dad, would it?” Bobby snaps, and though his tone is gruff he doesn’t sound angry. He doesn’t even sound all that curious. More than anything, Dean thinks he hears concern.

“A little, but—but there were other things too.” How it became easy to tell this to Bobby, Dean doesn’t know, but he leans forward in the chair and looks at his dad’s longtime friend, hears his own voice crack when he gets much more above a whisper. “I was forgetting everything, Bobby. I forgot Sam at school, I forgot Dad. Everything was about Cas. I—”

“So what you’re tellin’ me is you were scared and acted out first before you could get hurt.”

Dean bites his lip, says nothing, but he doesn’t think Bobby wanted him to anyway. Leaning back in his chair with hands behind his head, Bobby only sighs. “Dean, you’re not the first dumb asshole to ever pull that trick. I’ve done it myself. But you gotta ask yourself why. Why are you doing that?”

“It’s better for—”

“We both know you’re not thinking of him,” he clarifies, dark eyes hard on Dean, who feels heat spread into his face and guilt sour in his stomach. “No, you’re thinking of yourself and your family. I wasn’t gonna say nothin’, Dean. I was gonna leave it alone, since you’re a grown man and you can make your own decisions. But then I realized your daddy was never really there for you kids. Sam had you, but you only had yourself, and to be honest, boy, you’re not all that bright when it comes to being happy.”

Dean can’t really refute this. Growing up with John was not easy, and Dean had to sort of figure shit out on the go, learning how to parent before he could drive. It was hard, but he used to think it was worth it. Now, though, he’s not so sure. His dad still isn’t his dad, Sam has a newfound social life, and Dean…Dean’s fucking alone.

“Dean,” Bobby says, a bit more firmly, and he was probably calling Dean’s name for a little while. “Why’d you break up with Cas?”

“Because I was scared,” Dean says softly, and he can’t go any further than that, swallowing rocks in his throat and looking at the bright white lights on the ceiling.

“I know, son, but you don’t have to be. You can’t control what anyone does but yourself. Sam’s not a little boy anymore, so you’re gonna have to push him out the nest sooner or later. He’ll be a junior next year, graduating the year after that. He’ll be leaving, Dean.” He pauses, letting that sink in until Dean squirms uncomfortably. “Maybe not for good, but for a good while. And your daddy…he’s never been in the best place since Mary died, you know that.”

He knows that, but it doesn’t make anything easier. He aches for his father in an insubstantial way, wanting something he never really had, wanting what he gave to Sam. He’s twenty-four, though, almost twenty-five. He’s too old to need a daddy on a white horse, riding in to make everything better, to hope for someone to take him to Little League and out for snowcones after. He has a life of his own, separate from John, no matter how many times he tries to come back. Of course John isn’t perfect, but Dean thinks he’s had him on a pedestal for years, hoping the reality would live up to his fantasy. Every now and then, John would get sober, find a job, and be a great dad. He’d buy Dean candy on his way home from work or sit with him to do math homework (the only thing he could do, he said, not good with that reading stuff), clapping Dean on the shoulder when he got something right. He would make dinner, really amazing roasts and Italian green beans that were still a bit crunchy, the way both boys loved. Dean took those little memories and hoarded them away, telling himself that was his dad, not the sloppy drunk who dominated most of his life. But the sobriety never lasted longer than Dean’s bag of candy, and before he knew it John was passed out on the couch with an empty bottle in his hand, Dean sneaking the car keys so he can take Sam to the library to research for his science fair project.

“Dean.” Bobby’s voice cuts into his thoughts, makes him look up into the calm, wise old face of his boss and sometimes father figure. “What I’m trying to say here is that you can’t take care of your dad the way you want to. You’ve never been able to. I know you try, and try hard, but John’s always done what he’s wanted to do. Think about it.”

“Doesn’t mean I can’t give it a shot,” Dean snaps, feeling like a fucking failure all over again. His palms are sweating in the warmth of the office, and he feels small beneath Bobby’s soft gaze and the harsh overhead lights. “You don’t know what it’s like, okay? I just. I’ve almost got the money for the rehab clinic—five hundred to go.”

“And if that doesn’t work?” Bobby presses, and Dean hates the way his old eyes look, like he can see right through Dean, skin nothing but paper, translucent and weak. “If that doesn’t help him? Then what? Where does that leave you?”

“Same place I am now,” he argues. “So what am I losing?” There’s a burning behind his eyes he tries to control, but he’s been controlling it so long he’s not sure if he can anymore, turning away so Bobby can’t see, but Dean should know better than that. With a squeak of wheels on tile, Bobby stands from his seat, pulls Dean up from his own, and hugs him with a fierceness that shocks Dean, splinters him. Rushing blood fills his ears and he cries against Bobby’s shoulder, which used to be bigger before Dean grew up, became a man, and he cries and clutches until his eyes are puffy and he cannot breathe. He’s lucky the windows are tinted, because it’s embarrassing enough to break down in front of Bobby; he doesn’t need to do it in front of his coworkers too.

Bobby says ‘There, there’ a few times, nonsensical comfort things, but he doesn’t let go of Dean and doesn’t loosen his grip, holding on the way Dean has tried to hold on, as if having strength alone can keep everything together. His hysterical gasps ease in half a minute, leaving him exhausted and frail and shaking. Bobby claps a hand to the back of his neck, voice rumbling in his chest when he speaks. “What I’m really tryin’ to say here is that you gotta do some things for yourself, and I think that Cas is one of them. Did he make you happy?”

“Does,” Dean corrects, pulling away and wiping his snotty nose on his sleeve. His eyes are so swollen he can barely see, so he’s not sure if Bobby’s smiling or frowning. “Is that a problem? Does it bother you?”

“It did,” Bobby admits, leaning against his desk and folding his arms over his chest. “Thought he was takin’ advantage of you somehow. But he’s not.”

“Dad thinks he is.”

Bobby snorts, a harsh sound in the quiet of the small room. “Your dad don’t want you taken from him. He don’t realize you’re a goddamn grown man and you gotta make your own fucking decisions.”

“He bought beer before the dinner,” Dean points out, guilt a familiar resident in his gut now. It’s bothered him ever since, the fact that his dad, anticipating antagonism, bought alcohol because he knew he’d need it.

“He had that before,” Bobby says quietly, and Dean looks at him with surprise. “He’s been hidin’ stuff all over. He was doin’ real good, Dean, but your dad needs help that even you can’t give. I’ve been savin’ up myself.” He holds up a hand before Dean can speak, stalling his protests. “I’m not hearin’ a goddamn word from you about me not havin’ to do this. John’s been my best friend since before you were born. It’s my responsibility as much as yours. Probably more’n yours, and I’m sorry I didn’t man up before.” His face hardens when Dean meets his eyes, the line of his mouth smoothing out in that way Sam’s does sometimes. “If you broke up with Cas because you’re scared of bein’ abandoned or left behind, my advice is to grow a pair. You will be left behind, if you don’t have a life of your own. What do you think happened to John? He couldn’t let go of Mary, couldn’t move on. Still can’t. I don’t want that to be you. So don’t let it be you.”

Dean presses palms to his damp eyes until a headache blooms, but when he looks up again Bobby’s gone, out supervising in his shop as more customers trundle in through the snow.

*

He manages to finish his day and pick up Sam from school without anymore outbursts. Though he’s quiet on the ride home and Sam is obviously curious, what with his slanting worried looks in Dean’s direction, they don’t talk about anything other than Sam’s date with Jessica on Saturday night.

Dean’s chewing hard on Bobby’s words, running them over and over in his head. He thinks about the way he, Sam and Castiel used to make hot chocolate on Mondays and watch Tabatha’s Salon Takeover, which Castiel admits is his favorite reality show, or play with Tex in the big backyard, the south corner of which is now home to a rather large doghouse, built by Castiel and Sam in a post-Christmas weekend project.

Then there’s the shoe rack next to the front door with spaces for three pairs of shoes; the hooks by the kitchen for each set of keys; the multitude of sodas in the fridge despite the fact that Castiel rarely drinks anything carbonated; the DVR scheduled with each new SportsCenter for Dean, anything about ancient Egypt for Castiel, and South Park for Sam (and sometimes Dean); the door to Castiel’s room always cracked open just a little, an invitation for Dean to come in if he wishes, a second toothbrush laid out in anticipation in the bathroom. So many little things that make up their home, right down to Sam’s baby blanket draped over the back of the couch, one of the only things saved from the fire besides the pictures of Mary tucked safe in his sock drawer.

And Dean had that home with Castiel even when Sam wasn’t there, a different feel without worrying about getting caught, like they’re grown-ups who have sent their beloved kid to college and have time to themselves now. He wants it back. He doesn’t want to walk through the front door and feel like a stranger, out of place and unwelcome. He misses Castiel’s bed and the scent of his sheets, always a mix of laundry detergent, Obsession for Men, and green apple body wash. The body wash is Dean’s. Castiel had been using it for almost a month.

When they walk into the house and put their shoes on the rack by the door, Dean doesn’t hear the TV like he usually does. It’s odd; Castiel’s always watching the five o’clock news when they get in.

“Where is he?” Sam asks, frowning a little. “I don’t think he’s ever missed the news.”

“First time for everything,” Dean mutters, but he knows Castiel isn’t in the house, though the Fit is there, and he hears Tex barking for them in the backyard. The world is off and odd yet again, but Dean tries to put it out of his mind. He needs to talk to Castiel, though he’s not sure about what yet; there’s a half-formed thought in his head and he’ll know what he wants to say when he actually sees him.

But they don’t see Castiel for the rest of the night, which, since it’s never happened before, worries the brothers. Dean tells Sam that Castiel probably went out with some friends after work or something. Sam looks at Dean with worry clear in his eyes, voice a bit rough when he says, “Not to be mean to Cas or anything, but he doesn’t really have a lot of friends he hangs out with. What’s going on, Dean?”

To keep from having to answer immediately, Dean goes into the kitchen and pulls out a pizza from the freezer, pre-heating the oven to 450°. The kitchen feels cold without Castiel in it, bent over the oven while Dean watches his ass shamelessly. So much of his happiness is in this room, saturating every surface, making Dean remember and crave and wish he hadn’t gone and ruined the atmosphere by breaking up in here. “Nothing’s going on,” he tells his brother, though his silence is a little obvious and he knows it.

“Don’t lie to me,” Sam says, sparks in his voice as he moves in front of Dean, forcing their eyes to meet. Sam’s even taller now, Dean’s head tipping back more to look at him. “What the fuck is going on? Where’s Cas?”

“I don’t know,” Dean admits honestly, moving away from Sam, getting out of swinging range. “I haven’t really talked to him in a few days.”

“Why not? What happened?”

Dean goes into the fridge to make sure there’s enough beer for this. There isn’t. He shouldn’t be surprised. “We, uh. We broke up.”

Sam goes silent, and his silence smothers the room save for the whirring of the refrigerator and the ticks of the clock. There’s been an overwhelming silence like this in the kitchen before, back when he and Castiel were still dancing around one another. And sometimes even after, with Dean trying to sneak into the kitchen so he could scare Castiel, who foraged through the freezer for the Blue Bell ice-cream cups he liked so much, having driven forty minutes out of Lawrence to find them since the local stores were always sold out. There aren’t any Blue Bell cups in the freezer anymore (Dean checked), and the warmth that resided in the kitchen, that was born there, is gone too.

“Are you out of your fucking mind?” Sam yells, voice cracking at the end as though he’s thirteen again, and maybe he is, scared that this one good thing is going to leave him, and Dean looks at him and can see Sam’s thoughts as though Sam says them aloud—what about my room, your room, rent, what about my house, what about my dog, where will we go—but the shocked tears in Sam’s eyes catch him off-guard, make his stomach burn with acid. “Dean, how could you do this to me?”

“I did it for you,” he says, barely loud enough for Sam to hear. “I—I was neglecting you, and Dad, and—”

“That happens, Dean! It’s called having a fucking life!” He shakes his head, taking a step back and pressing a hand to his mouth, knuckles white. “For the first time ever, you weren’t wrapped up in the family drama, and I was happy for you. For once you were doing something for you. And then you go and ruin it?”

Dean tries again, hating the way his brother can hack away at all his defenses with nothing but a sharp tongue. “It’s not just that, Sammy. You know he’s too goddamn good for me, always has been.”

“Your excuses just keep getting better,” Sam says, and he’s shaking a little with anger. “He fucking adores you, and for whatever reason you can’t see it. But he clearly thinks you’re good enough and worth it, Dean. If you can’t accept that, then you’re hopeless.”

Dean shakes his head but there’s nothing to say. Sam’s words, Bobby’s words, they tumble in his brain and melt together, neon red letters forming YOU FUCKED UP, blinking against the back of his eyes. “Sam, it wasn’t fair—”

“Save it. You may be convinced of your own excuses, but I’m not.” He turns the oven off, getting in Dean’s face the same way he used to get into John’s, and something about that breaks Dean’s heart, pushes the bile up into his throat. “I don’t like that pizza. It’s not Cas’.” He leaves the kitchen and Dean watches him go, noticing Sam’s posture—taller, broader—and wishing he had a DeLorean real bad.

*

Though Dean calls and texts Castiel, he gets nothing in return. He checks Castiel’s room each morning, but the bed isn’t slept in and the Fit is still in the driveway, untouched, just like the Porsche in the garage next to the unfinished Impala. Sam’s tried calling too, just in case Castiel’s only ignoring Dean, but he gets the same treatment: no voicemails or texts returned, no emails, nothing. As far as Dean knows, Castiel’s fucking dead somewhere, in a ditch, maybe, trapped inside a rental car (a Hybrid, Castiel likes good gas mileage) because he tried too hard to hide his tracks from Dean, unwilling to go back into his own home that isn’t a home anymore; instead, it’s a goddamn tomb, weighing dark on his psyche each time he comes in from work or school. Dean tells himself, though, that Castiel can’t be missing like kids on milk cartons go missing, because the university would have to investigate that shit, wouldn’t they? No. Castiel has disappeared because he wants to disappear, and Dean cannot understand why. (He ends up going to the English department to check on him, just in case, and has a minor confrontation with Julie at the front desk, who tells him, with the same snooty air she had the previous semester, that for your information, Dr. Milton is out for personal reasons—have a nice day.)

The weekend hits with no word from Castiel, and Dean works at the Roadhouse with an air of worry and distraction, serving drinks with belated half-smiles and getting shit tips in return. Sunday night, four days after Castiel disappeared without a goddamn word, Dean comes home from an early shift and has dinner with Sam, who’s drawn and pale, checking his phone every few minutes to see if he’s missed something.

“I hope he’s okay,” Sam says, pushing his spaghetti around his plate. Dean only nods, because his voice doesn’t work anymore, broken glass in his chest. They both throw away full plates and clean up in silence, bumping into each other in the kitchen, out of sync. Sam takes Tex for his last walk of the night and Dean sits on the front porch, flipping open his phone a dozen times before Sam returns.

Close to midnight, after Sam is already in bed with the dog for company, Dean sits by himself in the big armchair in the living room and stares at the fire burning low in the fireplace. There’s soot climbing up the wall to the mantle, right above the white bricks, so Dean gets up and cleans it for half an hour. It’s still there when he’s done, a faint trace of pewter marring the off-white walls. Dean licks his salty lips and washes his hands before heading down to the basement, where he pulls the pillow out from under his bed, falling asleep in his clothes with boots still on, exhaustion and worry and guilt pulling saltwater from his eyes, face buried in his pillow.

The door to the basement—not the door at the top of the stairs, but the other one Dean uses when he has late nights at the bar—opens with a protesting groan that wakes him up in an instant, jerking him from his fitful dozing. He thinks he needs to oil that door, keep it from making so much fucking noise, when a shape moves toward him. Dean stares through the darkness because he knows that shape, has tasted that shape, and now it’s here and coming closer, shrugging off a jacket that rustles when it hits the floor.

“Where were you?” Dean asks, entirely too soft and broken, and he sits up in bed with his hand still clutching the misshapen pillow. “Cas, we called, we texted you—I emailed, I—where were you?”

Castiel shushes him, moving into the slatted light of the narrow window above Dean’s bed. He looks awful, hair in dirty spikes, skin too pale with a high flush in his cheeks from the cold outside, eyes wild and searching Dean’s face as though looking for something he knows is there but can’t quite find. Castiel unbuttons his shirt and slides it from his slender shoulders, letting it dangle from his fingers. “I’m fine,” he says, none of the usual gravel in his voice. It’s stripped clean, like Castiel’s expression, and Dean is so unnerved he feels a tightness in his back that reminds him of the DMV, anxiously waiting in a line that might never end with disgruntled teenagers and stressed-out working mothers on extended lunch breaks, all crammed together like cattle, hot and suffocating.

Dean looks toward the basement door, then at Castiel again, caught by the sight of those fingers he loves unbuckling the leather belt, popping the button of his wrinkled jeans, pulling down the weak zipper. Something is very wrong. “Cas—”

There’s nothing on underneath, and the floodlight outside hits Castiel’s lean body in stripes from the blinds; he sits on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands, still and unmoving. Dean doesn’t know what to do, unsure about where to take this. He wants to put arms around Castiel and comfort him from whatever’s got him wrecked, but doesn’t think he has that right any longer.

“Cas?” he tries again, but gets no response other than Castiel rocking side to side, like he has a song in his head that he can’t get out. “Cas, where were you? You couldn’t even leave a fucking note?”

“No fucking note,” he echoes, turning his head to half-smile at Dean in a strange way, like he’s laughing at something that isn’t funny at all. “I had to take care of some business.”

Dean moves closer, resting one tentative hand on Castiel’s bare back, wondering where the fuck this is going. Castiel’s so put together that this kind of a reaction to whatever business he attended to is completely out of left field. Even in the days following the break-up, Castiel did not look like this, hollowed out and raw. “What…kind of business?”

“Hold me,” he says instead, hands laced together at the back of his neck, head bowed. “I’m fucking losing it.”

Dean doesn’t think We shouldn’t do this or I need to stop myself. Instead, his hand slides down Castiel’s back, arm slipping around his waist, pulling him in as Dean reclines on his pillows again. He cradles Castiel with both arms, strong, as though he can protect him. Castiel presses his face into Dean’s shoulder and breaks down with a cry, mouth dragging open and damp across Dean’s collarbone, exhaling in the hollow of his throat, saying his name like a prayer. Or maybe a curse.

“Where were you?” he murmurs, as Castiel’s shaking hands touch his arms, his chest, neck, into his hair, an almost desperate touching that makes Dean ache, wanting to coddle him and make everything better.

Again, Castiel does not reply, instead bumping his mouth to Dean’s in a way that isn’t so much a kiss as it is a need for human touch, lips to lips, open. He exhales into Dean’s mouth, and Dean, helpless, lets him. Then Castiel murmurs, so soft, “I need you, Dean,” and that’s all it takes. He nods, meets Castiel’s eyes and nods.

Castiel undresses him with a terrible scared urgency, hands rattling in the same way Dean’s heart is. Dean didn’t realize until this moment how much he’s missed the simple touch of skin on skin, his body drinking in Castiel as though parched and leaning into him without Dean’s command. When their mouths meet, an open brush of lips and teeth and anguish, he forgets how worried he was for Castiel, that mantra of fear that dominated his waking hours and his dreams, because Castiel is here, though obviously not okay, and Dean breathes. He can breathe now.

Dean wants to speak again, but Castiel stops him with a finger to his mouth, a small shake of his head, and Dean quiets, his clothes coming off his body in quick jerks, boots and socks and going up. Castiel curves his mouth to the arch of Dean’s foot, the round ball of his ankle, teeth grazing the sensitive Achilles heel. Up, up. Jeans off. Mouth on the knob of his knee, behind his knee, tongue lapping at the thin skin there until Dean’s breaths come faster, the only noise between them that isn’t skin on skin. Up. Up. Castiel begging again to be touched, Dean trying to give it to him, hands all over his warm back, into his thick hair, feral need pulsing in his body. He cannot stop now. No matter what happens after this, he cannot stop.

Shirt off, rolled north on his quivering stomach, tugged past his head and shoved to the side. Castiel’s mouth, in turns sweet and sad, passing open and damp and warm over his nipple, teeth there, tongue there, before shifting to the other. He worships Dean and Dean lets him, making mewling sounds before and after in encouragement, soft yes yes and oh please bracketing stuttered inhalations. Castiel cups his face, eyes tracing the pattern of Dean’s bone structure for long seconds until Dean squirms a little, arching his naked body against Castiel, who is too warm, needs to be cooled down. With a soft exhale Castiel kisses Dean, some unfettered emotion ghosting across Dean’s mouth.

“My mother died,” he whispers, fingers tumbling into Dean’s hair, thumbs stroking his eyebrows. “I went to her funeral in Hoboken.” He tucks his face into Dean’s neck, one hand gliding down his quaking side, over the jut of his hip. “I need you, Dean. Please.”

Though only moments pass until Dean acquiesces, not with words but with his body submitting to Castiel’s questioning strokes, he thinks back to his conversations with Bobby and his brother, remembers the look in Sam’s eyes as though Dean betrayed him, Bobby’s quiet I don’t want that to be you. In his life, all his life, he’s never been as happy as he’s been with Castiel, waking up each morning to cook Sam some sort of breakfast, looking forward to the drive back to Lawrence because it would mean coffee and kisses to start the day. The chair for two in the living room. The fireplace spilling gold across the room and everyone in it. Roasting marshmallows. Castiel’s inability to wake up early on the weekends. Dean surprising him in his office with hot chocolate when his grading got tedious and frustrating. Castiel sitting in the garage with his coat on, watching Dean work on the Impala and asking questions so Dean could happily explain how it works. How licking the curve of Castiel’s ear unravels him completely. The pursed lips Castiel gives him when he’s annoyed, fervor sparking his blue eyes and making them glow. Makeup sex after, transcendent in a way fucking nothing is transcendent, not anything Dean has ever known.

His dad drank before Dean met Castiel, drank while Dean was with Castiel, drank after he knew about Castiel, and Dean could never stop him. Not when he was fourteen and coming home early from school because the neighbors complained that John kept falling down while trying to cut the grass; not when he was sixteen and getting his license so he could drive John to CVS to get Sam cold medicine because Dean wasn’t eighteen and couldn’t buy the kind the pharmacist recommended. Dean has never been able to control John’s drinking, so putting the rest of his life on hold for something so fruitless seems impossibly sad. Dean wants to put his family first, but now his family includes Castiel. He hurt Castiel, maybe irrevocably, and though Castiel is here now in his bed, asking for something Dean is willing to give, they are not repaired. They are still broken, both apart and together, and Dean has so much to learn on his own, about his own self-worth and his own bruised heart, before he can take care of Castiel, but the fact is that he wants this more than he’s wanted anything. Letting Castiel go now would put a dark shadow on him for the rest of his life. He’d be able to survive without Castiel, he thinks, but being truly happy ever again would be an impossibility.

When Castiel takes Dean’s lower lip between his teeth, Dean realizes all of this like a shot to the heart, looking at the man above him, the one whose face in turn crumbles and smoothes as though he can’t decide what he wants to feel right now. Castiel is broken, maybe not in the way Dean is, maybe a little differently, but he’s broken too. Dean’s not the only one fucked up here, if Castiel’s odd shifting expressions indicate anything.

Dean is not alone and doesn’t have to be, if he can only let himself go a little—be vulnerable, be open and honest. He bottles everything up so tight within him that sometimes he wonders if he’ll ever break loose, but he’s told Castiel some things and Castiel didn’t run away or ridicule him. Castiel only listened.

After that, with that tragic knowledge, it takes nothing for him to let his shoulders relax, hands finding Castiel’s forearms, then his biceps, up to his neck. “Whatever you want,” he says at last, in total honesty, and isn’t surprised when Castiel presses their forehead together, the moment tenuous between them.

“I want to be inside you,” Castiel whispers breathlessly, “get as close as I can to you.” He laughs sharply, a loud sound in the quiet of the basement, before cutting it off with a soft whimper, shuddering against Dean. “But you’ll tell me no.”

“You can,” he intones, touching Castiel’s back, fingertips on the soft slopes of his spine, palms smoothing his trembling flanks. “Just because I never have doesn’t mean I won’t let you. I got you, Cas. I love you.”

“Don’t tell me that right now,” Castiel says, voice caught between the space of Dean’s ribs, his tongue sliding along each one. “I know you probably mean it, but don’t say it.”

Dean only nods, understanding, threading fingers in Castiel’s hair, head tilted at an angle to watch him. He thinks he gets Castiel a little better right now than he ever has, trusts him more than he ever has, which is totally wrong considering what he did just over a week ago and the fact that Castiel is shattered. Dean’s disgusted with himself for being glad that he might not be the only fucked-up one.

When Castiel leans over him and digs into the side table for the condoms they keep there, Dean looks at his clock, sees it’s just after two, and remembers that today is his birthday. He doesn’t know if Castiel remembers or not but he won’t bring it up, finds it fitting that on his twenty-fifth birthday, a quarter of a century old, he has finally grown the fuck up. Sam’s going to leave for college one day, and his Dad’s either going to get better or he’s not, and Dean does not want to be left alone with no one by his side and no one to share anything with, be it happiness or desolation. Castiel wants to give this to him and Dean wants to take it.

And then he stops thinking as much as his worried mind allows him to. It’s not as difficult as he thought it might be, having sex this way, because Castiel uses trembling spit-slicked fingers to work him, and Dean’s body, desperate for this man’s touch, simply opens up and blooms in a way that surprises him. It seems to surprise Castiel too, who almost smiles when their eyes meet, mumbling something incomprehensible into the slip of Dean’s hip. Condom on. Hands locked together. Castiel pushes and Dean yields, arching his back and watching Castiel with wide eyes, not wanting to miss any of this in case he somehow doesn’t get it again. Just because he’s realized he doesn’t want to live without Castiel doesn’t mean his efforts will be rewarded or his advances returned. This is different, desperate, this is Castiel breaking and Dean trying to catch the falling pieces.

Movement. Heat. Pressure. Dean bites his lip between his teeth and lets Castiel loop arms under his knees, pressing his legs higher, exposing him and sinking in. It doesn’t hurt like he imagined, having assumed that Castiel, more experienced, simply had the muscle memory that Dean did not. But this is too natural for that, and Dean thinks maybe he was made for this right here, to be what Castiel comes home to. He wants to close his eyes and intensify the spiral of heat curling in his stomach, but he’s caught by Castiel surveying him with a feeble concentration, expression changing rapidly from devastation to delight, like he keeps forgetting and remembering what got them to this place here. It should be terrifying, but Dean’s past that for now, in this dark space of heat and sex. Dean is tired of being afraid all the time.

“Good?” Castiel whimpers, bumping Dean’s head with his own like a great cat, tongue pressing to the rapid pulse in Dean’s neck. “I want it to be good. I need you to like this. To like me.”

Dean clutches his shoulder to reassure him and thinks he says yeah, fucking great but the next instant, Castiel swivels his hips a certain way and something vast and uncontrollable comes to life inside him, tearing a gasp from his throat; when Castiel fists his cock and glides his thumb over the leaking tip, Dean grasps his shoulders with blunt nails and holds on, riding this feeling until it crests again, overtakes him. This is nothing like their first time in the Phoenix hotel room, or even all their times after, the slow ones and the frantic ones; this is Dean giving and Castiel taking, cradling Dean against him after another burst of beauty somewhere within.

Dean shakes and curves his hands around Castiel’s shoulder blades, mouth on the taut muscle of his arm. “I’m so sorry,” he slurs, and he doesn’t specify what it’s for—the breakup, his own debilitating fear, the death of Castiel’s mother—but he thinks Castiel understands, what with the way he gathers him closer, stroking Dean’s thighs where they tighten around his waist.

They move again in a deep rhythm, Dean waiting with painful anticipation for another jolt to course through him but he doesn’t get it until Castiel kisses him and comes, as deep inside Dean as he can be, hips and back shaking with effort, and something he does, whatever tilt he has, brushes against his prostate and punches another cry from him. Castiel wraps fingers around Dean’s cock, strokes twice, and Dean’s gone—spiraling out of control, light-headed without air in his lungs, blood surging in his ears as he comes in a flood between them, smearing Castiel’s trembling stomach and heaving chest.

Time passes with slow ticks of his clock. Dean’s aware of his surroundings again as Castiel’s coming back to bed, having cleaned up in Dean’s small bathroom. They curl toward one another like parentheses, fingers lacing and mouths meeting as they breathe one another in. Castiel is crying, has been since he came back to bed, and Dean’s lips press against the wet salt on his cheeks, tongue following tenderly.

“I’m sorry about your mom,” Dean says at last, pushing Castiel’s sweaty hair back from his forehead, looking at him as though he’ll disappear if he blinks. “Why didn’t you tell us anything? God, Cas, we were worried sick that something had happened.”

Castiel does that thing where he noses at Dean’s temple before sliding his mouth down to his jaw. It’s such a familiar gesture that it makes Dean smile a little, despite the situation they’re in. “I didn’t know how to say it or deal with it. I’ve never been close to them. I’d been meaning to call her back ever since she left me a voicemail last week but I kept putting it off. Then Michael texted me to let me know she’d had a stroke and didn’t make it out of the hospital. I was in a bad place.”

Dean thinks he still is, if that haunted sheen in his eyes is any indication, and he’s at a loss with what to do, searching for the right words and wondering if there are any. “You could’ve told me.”

“I could’ve,” he agrees, shifting so he’s lying on his back in Dean’s arms, head on his shoulder. “But I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

He laughs in a silent way, shoulders shaking just a little. “Because of what you would think of me.”

Dean traces patterns down Castiel’s chest, thumb following the appendectomy scar low on his belly. “What’s that supposed to mean? Cas, I lost my mom too, you know. I know what it’s like.”

“No you don’t,” Castiel snaps, the change in tone startling to Dean, who’s still in that sex-sleepy phase. “You remember your mother as a good mother. I didn’t have that. I had fucking nannies and parents who I didn’t see for weeks.”

“Cas, I—”

But Dean’s cut off by Castiel’s hand over his mouth, fierce eyes glaring down into his own. “No. You don’t understand and you won’t. You don’t know anything about me.” He pulls away, settling close to Dean again, voice an entirely different tone when he speaks next, thin and shattering. “I’ve only told two people in my whole life that I loved them, and neither of my parents are included in that. Yet you are. I told you.”

What the fuck does someone say to that? Dean’s got no words in his throat or his chest, a hand moving on its own to curl through Castiel’s hair. There’s nothing to say to that; apologies won’t work and aren’t nearly good enough, and Dean doesn’t want to be the asshole who apologizes because he thinks he should. He’s trying to grow up a little, to be a man—a good man. Castiel deserves that from him.

Castiel’s quiet for so long that Dean thinks he might have fallen asleep—hell, Dean’s nearly there himself, too many emotions decimating him throughout the day, plus the orgasm of a lifetime—but then he sighs like the weight of the world is pressing down on him. Dean wonders if Castiel knows anything about Greek mythology. “I’ve already hit rock bottom. I’ve got nothing to lose.”

Though he’s half asleep Dean wonders, with a sickness spreading in his gut, what this could possibly mean, if the dark things Castiel has hidden are as bad as his own. “Cas…”

“Sleep,” he murmurs, turning into Dean now and draping over him, comforting and close. “Also, happy birthday. This wasn’t my present to you, so don’t think it is.”

“You got me a present?” He kicks the covers out of the way, needing to cool down his burning body. Castiel smiles against his cheek, just for a moment, and then it’s gone.

“Yeah. I got it a couple of weeks ago. It’s a record player since you lost yours in the fire, and some of the records I know you had to have had. But sleep, Dean. I can’t…do anything right now but sleep. I’ve got nothing left.” He laughs again, an unpleasant sound. “Look at me, falling apart on you like this when I told myself I’d never do that.”

Seconds pass while Dean thinks this over, with what brain he has left. “Okay.” He pauses. “If you need to talk, Cas, I’m here. I won’t even say anything back—I’ll just put my ears to good use, how about that?” He can do this one thing for Castiel, he thinks. Regardless of where they are in their relationship, or whether or not Dean will ask to be taken back, he can man up and be what Castiel needs.

Castiel responds to that by holding Dean closer, which Dean doesn’t expect. He thinks he falls asleep first, with Castiel’s eyes watching him, and Castiel maybe kisses the shell of his ear one more time but Dean’s too far gone to be sure, able to sleep now that he’s not alone in his bed. The thought of waking up in the morning with Castiel so broken and angry and tired makes him nervous, but he knows he doesn’t have much of a choice. The fact that Castiel went to his own mother’s funeral, didn’t tell anyone, and came straight to Dean’s bed, has to be an indication of his state of mind. Dean doesn’t know what’s going to happen in the morning, if Castiel will mellow out with the light of day or if he’ll be worse. His unusual little laughs, inappropriately placed, worry Dean more than anything since Castiel has never been a hearty laugher even when happy, and the fluid expressions on his face are abnormal. I’ve already hit rock bottom. I’ve got nothing to lose. What the fuck could that mean? What is Dean going to find when he wakes up in the morning? Which Castiel will be in his bed—the one he knows or the one he doesn’t?

Dean’s last thought before falling into a deep sleep is of Sisyphus, and if he ever asked someone to help him hold the rock steady at the crest of the hill.

 

PART EIGHT

When the alarm on his phone goes off just a few hours later, Dean groans into his pillow, exhausted. The day’s going to be long, what with bringing Sam to school, working a few hours for Bobby, and going to class. He remembers the night before, though, and glances to his left, where Castiel’s awake and looking at him through the fringe of his hair. Dean stills, shutting off his alarm; the sudden quiet in the room is harsh and makes him nervous.

“Morning,” Castiel murmurs, cutting through Dean’s worry and bringing him back to the present. Their bed is warm with body heat, but the basement is chilled, space heater by the bed shut off. “If you wanted to sleep in, I could bring Sam to school. I have two more days off.”

Right. Two more days off because he’d gone to his own mother’s funeral without telling anyone except the school. “I can do it,” he says, unable to help himself as he reaches out to push back a tuft of dark hair from Castiel’s forehead, which Castiel allows. “It’s routine, no big deal.”

Castiel sticks his thumb between his teeth, chewing on the nail before smiling, and it’s such a familiar smile that Dean’s startled for a moment, having expected something different, broken. “I know, but you’re tired and I don’t have anything to do today.”

Dean surveys Castiel with narrowed eyes, looking for the chip in his armor, but it isn’t there, not like it was. Castiel looks sleepy and ruffled but otherwise very normal, which makes Dean more nervous than he cares to admit. “I’m already awake,” Dean says softly, troubled and unsure. This isn’t the creature he dealt with a few hours ago, but nobody can recover that quickly. “It’s not a problem.”

The only sound between them is breathing for a moment, and there’s a flicker in Castiel’s face of something two notes off, as though he’s pretending very, very hard. “Okay, then. I’ll just be around the house. I’m sure there’s laundry to be done anyway, right?” His smile is too wide, too white. He looks a bit like a doll with eyes just as blank.

Taking a breath, Dean says Castiel’s name softly, preparing to broach the subject of the night before and maybe other things, wanting to address some of what Castiel said once he’d settled in Dean’s bed, but Castiel puts fingers to Dean’s mouth, shaking his his head.

“Not yet,” he says, and only his voice gives anything away, a bit higher than usual and stripped clean, soft. “Don’t start yet. I don’t want to think about it.”

Respecting that, Dean nods, pressing in closer reflexively, easing Castiel’s hand away and finding his mouth instead. Castiel lets him, even returning the sentiment with a soft sigh as they start to twine together like a ball of yarn, wrapped in close and warm. Castiel doesn’t let it go much further than that, pulling away when Dean unconsciously gets too handsy in his effort to love Castiel, pulling away to lean their foreheads together. Dean listens to him breathe for several moments, savoring this, before he begins to untangle their arms and legs, kissing Castiel’s jaw rather absently.

“I need to go make breakfast,” he murmurs. “Sam’s gonna want some eggs and toast. You want anything? You should let him know you’re okay—he was worried.”

“I’ll let him know soon,” Castiel says, fitting a hand at Dean’s waist when he tries to roll out of bed. They look at one another for a long moment, Dean poised to leave and Castiel gripping him as if to make him stay. “Don’t tell him yet? He means well, but—”

“I got it,” he interrupts, pushing Castiel’s hair out of his eyes. “You have enough on your plate.”

This time, though, Castiel shies away from the touch, doesn’t let Dean be tender. Uncertainty pools in Dean’s stomach again as Castiel watches him with shuttered eyes, so Dean stands up and rubs awkwardly at the back of his head. Castiel looks as good as ever with the way he fits on Dean’s bed, his head propped up on two pillows with his throat nicely exposed, the sheets bunched up at his waist. Dean tries not to think about that, focusing instead on what Castiel needs rather than what he, Dean, needs. What Castiel needs is for Dean to be there for him, to respect his wishes, and to not pester him with questions. So Dean tells himself to be on-call for Castiel duty. “I won’t say anything. You sure you don’t want breakfast?”

“No, thank you.” He pauses, picking at a thread on the comforter. “Can I stay in here today?”

Dean doesn’t say he loves it when Castiel stays in his bed, or that the smell of his sheets alone is enough to break his heart. Instead he only nods, pulling on his clothes as quickly and efficiently as possible, sliding on socks, lacing up his boots. “Yeah, sure. I’ll be back for about an hour before I go pick him up.” He hopes, when he comes back, that Castiel will be willing to talk. But he doubts it. “Uh. If you need me for anything…”

“You’re in my phone,” Castiel says, and he gives one of his small little laughs that Dean thinks sounds real. It helps to ease the clenching in his ribcage, as though his bones were too small and have been expanded to fit.

“I’d better be,” he smiles, and Castiel smiles back before Dean goes upstairs to the kitchen to make breakfast, wondering if this is how their lives will go from now on—Castiel deflecting, Dean breaking, neither of them able to put the pieces back together.

 

*

On the ride to Pembroke Hill, Dean aches to tell his brother that Castiel’s just fine at home, but he can’t bring himself to betray Castiel’s trust, not when he shattered him only weeks before. Though Sam is quiet and clearly still upset, Dean doesn’t push or pry for anything; Sam’s clammed up for a while now, though he does seem to be softening more and more, even going so far as to squeeze Dean’s shoulder before he climbs out of the car and puts his arm around Jessica, who’s been waiting for him with a dreamy smile on her face.

The two of them put Dean in a happy, proud-big-brother mood that carries him through the day, his perky smile not unnoticed by Bobby, who claps his back as he makes one of his rounds, or by his father, doing some paperwork in the office and looking up too often at Dean. From his position beneath the hood of a ‘98 Cadillac DeVille, Dean can see John out the corner of his eye, and he waits, tense, to be spoken to, but it doesn’t happen. They skirt around the issue and each another before Dean heads to class, having finished up the DeVille, concentrating marginally less there as his thoughts revolve like little satellites around his father.

But then he’s home again, walking into the house to sounds in the kitchen, familiar sounds, Castiel’s bare feet on the tile, the refrigerator humming louder as Castiel must have been standing in front of it to decide what to pull out, the click-clicking of the oven turning on. When Dean steps into the kitchen he sees Castiel making cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches, which Dean’s always eaten in late summer as the sweat slips down his spine toward his swim trunks. It reminds him of heat and a sense of belonging, and he wonders if Castiel knows that, if Dean’s told him how much he loves those sandwiches.

“Work and school okay?” Castiel asks, setting the plate of sandwiches on the table before making iced tea. It’s snowing outside and Dean finds this oddly endearing, as if Castiel is willing the weather to heat up.

“Yeah, definitely. School needs to go by quicker, though.”

“You’re almost done,” he says, whisking sugar into the tea before adding ice. “It’ll go by quicker than you expect it to.”

Dean approaches him, settles a hand on Castiel’s back and feels some of the tension inside him easing, saying something dumb and unimportant about school, sounding hollow even to his own ears. He wonders what the fucking fuck was wrong with him, how he could deny this of both of them when it’s so obvious that it’s something that can’t be denied. Castiel leans into him, what looks like a reflex, before he shivers and pulls away. Touch, right now, will not be allowed, and though Dean craves it in an intense, lonely way, he respects Castiel’s wishes and leaves him be.

 

Which is the way it goes for weeks, Dean reaching out and Castiel pulling back, closing up, surrounding himself with essays to grade and books for an article he’s writing for some journal or another, as if papers and glue and binding will keep Dean at bay and keep Castiel in his fortress. Sam, absolutely thrilled to see Castiel on the couch when he gets home that first day, has apparently made Castiel his project and works hard to make him laugh whenever he can. Funny enough, it works; Castiel’s laughter will fill the living room or the kitchen in abundance and Dean tries not to think about how he affects Castiel, how everything goes quiet and sad and on-guard when he approaches.

He knows they still need to talk, about the break-up and how Dean would like to please renege that as well as everything else, but Castiel is wholly unwilling, putting on some sort of epic mask where he looks completely normal except for two things: His eyes and his reluctance to let Dean touch him too much. It’s so fucking cold in the house all the time and Dean can’t stand it anymore, finally breaking, knocking on the door to Castiel’s bedroom late at night and entering when told to.

Even then, Castiel won’t talk. Dean sits on his bed and tries, starts off with “I know you don’t want to do this but we have to, been a long time coming.” Then Castiel’s got hands on his back and is pulling him closer, and Dean, stupid boy that he is, falls for it, making a soft noise as Castiel wraps around him, his mouth finding Dean’s, and Dean’s so fucking goddamn thrilled not to be without this that he forgets why he’s there in the first place.

After that, he swears to himself that he’s not going to let Castiel distract him again. But, of course, it keeps happening; each time Dean wants to talk, Castiel has fingers or a mouth or something where it shouldn’t be and Dean sighs and gives in. He keeps trying and will doggedly pursue certain topics, such as all the things Castiel said the night he came to Dean after being away or how he’s handling his mother’s death, but each time, Castiel deflects with his lips and his soft palms, and Dean, sensing desperation, lets him. Sometimes, though, Dean won’t be swayed, will keep asking even as Castiel kisses his neck and curls a hand over his hip. So then Castiel will leave, get up out of bed even if it’s his own and walk out, leaving Dean with a sigh and a shaky tinder heart.

Eventually Dean stops trying quite so hard, but in doing so he sacrifices kisses and long strokes of hands down his back. That hurts, it does, but he’s trying to do what’s best for Castiel, trying hard to put himself in Castiel’s shoes, to see how he’d feel if everything he’d worked for had crumbled beneath him, if he’d lost a parent he wasn’t close to, if the one person he used to be able to turn to had said No thanks, I’m done with this. Dean still doesn’t know what to do, exactly, but he has a better idea now and leaves Castiel alone for the time being, making it clear that he’s there if Castiel needs him. But he doesn’t push.

Castiel does come to him one evening in late March, after a spring break in which Dean worked on the Impala and Sam spent his time in St. Louis with Jessica and her family. Hesitating by the big chair in the living room, where Dean’s sprawled out watching TV while Sam studies in his room, Castiel watches him until Dean looks up for a moment before scooting over. Castiel takes the empty space, packing in close to Dean, whose heart beats harder in his chest at their proximity. They don’t say anything, but being close is enough.

Halfway through The Colbert Report and Castiel’s quiet chuckling, Dean’s pocket vibrates and he pulls out his phone, frowning before flipping it open, arm knocking into Castiel’s. “Bobby? Everything okay?”

“Yeah, everything’s fine, Dean. You got a minute?”

Shifting, Dean nods before remembering that they’re on the phone, something nervous pooling in his stomach. “Yeah, yeah. What’s going on?”

“Your dad’s consented to that clinic you found in Wichita. What do you have saved up?”

He stills for a moment, glancing at Castiel, whose brows are drawn in worry. “I…like, four thousand, I think. Just over. You’re sure? He said yes?”

Bobby sighs a little. “Yeah, son, he said yes. I think I’ve got fifteen hundred. How much was it? Six thousand?”

“Yeah, six thousand. Plus tax, which is like…five hundred or so.” He thinks about his expenses, which have gone up since he broke up with Castiel, who respected Dean’s wishes and splits everything as evenly as possible now. For once Dean regrets it. “Shit, Bobby. I don’t have more than that right now. I just don’t.”

There’s a tug on his sleeve. Dean looks over and sees Castiel watching him with a slight hardness to his eyes. “I can cover the rest. You can pay me back later.”

Dean’s sure Castiel expects him to say no, and before all the shit hit the fan, Dean would have. But Dean’s changed. He wants to accept Castiel’s help because he’d do the same thing in that position. He can lean just a little. Covering the mouthpiece, Dean says, “I don’t know how fast I’d be able to pay you back. We could up the rent a little? Let me do groceries twice, then you once?”

Castiel’s eyes widen for a moment. Dean almost smiles. Then, Castiel nods.

Turning his attention back to his phone, Dean tells Bobby they’ve got it covered. The fact that John consented at all makes Dean wonder if he finally sees the damage he’s caused his family, caused himself. If Bobby finally got firm one day and said what Dean was too afraid to—If you don’t stop now, you are going to die—or if there were threats involved. Guilt gnaws at Dean’s stomach with poisoned teeth; he knows he should have been there, should have done this long ago.

“It’ll be okay,” Castiel murmurs, taking Dean’s hand once he hangs up. Dean stares at the TV until Castiel squeezes his fingers, leaning into Dean’s line of sight, smiling softly. “Really. This is a good thing.”

Dean nods, keeping quiet until Castiel slides his hand to the back of his neck, squeezing gently, drawing him in for a hug. He presses his face into Castiel’s shoulder, turning awkwardly until he’s more comfortable against Castiel’s side, one arm low on his waist. “I hope it works out this time. I’m afraid we’re gonna spend all that money and nothing will change.”

“I’d like to tell you to keep positive, but I understand if you can’t. Though I think the fact that your father consented is reason to be hopeful.”

Closing his eyes, feeling vulnerable, Dean doesn’t respond, instead focusing on the way Castiel’s fingers card through his hair, which is in dire need of a cut. He’s afraid to talk, afraid to admit aloud what’s in his heart because he doesn’t want Castiel to think any differently of him. But he already does, a dark little voice reminds him. After what you did, how could he not?

“What’s on your mind?” Castiel asks, ghosting lips across Dean’s hairline, down to his temple, hand covering Dean’s forearm where it lies across his waist.

Dean could tell him. He could say the things he’s tried to hide, wanting to be stronger and more mature and all sorts of grand words. He hates being weak. But hiding himself and hiding the parts he doesn’t like got them to this place here—a splintered relationship, the best one Dean’s ever been in. Though he’s scared of putting himself out there, Dean knows Castiel feels the same way, can hear those terrible words from that terrible night tumbling around the cavern of his skull: I need you to like this. To like me. And the killer one—Look at me, falling apart on you like this when I told myself I’d never do that. He doesn’t think he’ll ever forget those words, replays them over and over when he doesn’t even mean to, seeing Castiel’s fractured face and haunted eyes.

Dean could tell him all the things he’s been thinking. He wants to give Castiel something, to show him Hey, I’m broken too. Let’s be broken together. Though it makes the fear twist in his gut and he knows it would be so easy for Castiel to get up out of this chair right now, Dean clears his throat. “Uh. Just. Feeling kinda raw, you know?” It’s a lame answer but he’s trying. Goddamn, but he’s trying.

“Yeah,” he says, “I know.” He says nothing else, waiting instead. Dean tries again, searching for words to things he’s never voiced, not to anyone. It makes his stomach clench tighter and tighter as he wipes sweaty palms on his jeans.

“Uh. I just, like. I should’ve been there. And…you know, I just.” He rubs at his face with one hand, can feel the slight tremors coursing through him at the very thought of actually saying any of this. “I still kinda think part of it’s my fault. That maybe I didn’t do something right before and now it’s…it’s just snowballed out of control and it’s so much worse than it should have been.” He shakes his head, can’t go any further; there aren’t words for what he’s trying to say, only feeling. “Never mind. Don’t really know what—what to say, how to say it.”

Castiel maneuvers him until Dean’s got his back to Castiel’s chest, both of them curved together like spoons on the chair, Dean resting his head on Castiel’s outstretched arm. “None of this is your fault, Dean. I can tell you that with utmost conviction. No matter what you think, none of this is ever your fault.”

He chews on his lip and doesn’t respond at first, sighing soundlessly when Castiel drapes an arm across his jutting hip. “Sometimes I don’t know,” Dean says softly, “I really don’t.”

Squeezing him, Castiel kisses the back of his neck, mouth moving soft over the knob of Dean’s spine before nosing at his hairline, the gesture familiar and sweet and catching something sharp in Dean’s throat. When Castiel laces their fingers together, Dean ducks his head, holds his breath until he thinks he won’t cry but of course he fails—he fails and Castiel lets him fail, keeps kissing his shoulder through his shirt until Dean stops shaking.

When there’s silence and stillness again, Castiel clears his throat gently. “Can I do anything for you, Dean?”

Licking the salt from his lips, Dean gives a half-shrug. It’s better than his usual reaction to say no. “I don’t think so. Unless you can, like. Wave a wand and make me happy.”

“I wish I could, but unfortunately I left my wand at the office.”

Crooking a small smile, Dean leans back until his head is on Castiel’s shoulder, loving when Castiel’s arms tighten around him, holding him close. “Damn. You really need to stop forgetting it.”

“I know. I’ll make sure I have it before I leave next time.” He touches Dean’s cheek and angles their mouths together, tucking his thumb against the soft cleft in Dean’s chin. It’s so sweet Dean shakes a little, afraid to touch back in case Castiel will stop, clenching his fists together and telling himself that this should be enough. Castiel’s mouth falters before pulling away. “Dean?”

“Yeah?” He watches Castiel watch him and can’t help but to blush under the attention of those blue eyes, the ones that caught his breath in his lungs all those months ago. Before Castiel can say anything, Dean admits, “I didn’t want to, you know...push. I don’t really know where we stand right now, you know?”

Castiel’s cheeks flush a little and he looks away, his dark thick hair (also in need of a cut) sliding over his high forehead. “I don’t either.”

Dean licks his dry lips, curling one hand at the nape of Castiel’s neck, fingers pushing up into that hair. “Cas, I really want to talk to you about that.”

“Dean, no. It’s better if—”

“Cas,” he insists, sharp enough that Castiel looks at him, and there it is, just a sliver of it, the fearful set of his mouth, the wide eyes. Dean did not intend to do this right now, but here he is, his tongue flooding with words as he tries to make Castiel understand, make Castiel forgive. “Cas, listen. Look. I made a huge fucking mistake, the biggest—”

“I said no,” he snaps, untangling himself from Dean and moving to slide off the chair, but Dean grabs his wrist and tugs him back, the angle awkward enough to catch Castiel off-balance and tumble him back into the chair, half on Dean’s lap.

“Goddammit, Cas, I’ve given you your space, I’ve tried, but we have to talk. We have to.” It’s slipping away now, he can feel it. If Castiel won’t talk, they can’t fix or move past anything, and Dean doesn’t think he ever actually considered that, was so sure that somehow, in some way, because he loved Castiel so painfully much, he would be forgiven. That, after time healed them both, Castiel would tell Dean I love you too much to let you go and they could be happy again, really happy, and Dean would let himself have it, throw himself into loving Castiel the same way he loves his father and his brother and Bobby, those few people lucky or dumb enough to wedge themselves inside his heart. He never considered not having it again, or not feeling Castiel’s arms around him, or not listening to Ke$ha way too early in the morning. Now, though, it’s a sudden tragic possibility, and he’s scared as hell and ready to fight.

“Why is it on your terms?” Castiel demands, hands pushing Dean away as he stands again. “It’s always on your terms. We broke up on your terms, I gave you everything you wanted on your terms. I’m sorry if I still can’t give you exactly what you want, Dean. God knows I’ve tried.”

Backtracking internally, Dean stands too, not wanting to be on uneven footing as he fights for this, for them. “I know, Cas. I’m telling you that I know. And I want to fix it, okay? Make it better than before, for both of us.” He pauses long enough to swallow, his throat desert-dry. “I fucked up. I really fucked up.”

“Yes, you did,” he hisses, and there’s something white-hot and shining in his eyes, his jaw clenching tight as if in protest of his words. “You did, Dean. You have no idea what that did to me.”

“Then tell me, Cas.” Dean reaches out and cups Castiel’s shocked face with both hands, watching him with intensity, hoping that Castiel can see the sincerity in his eyes, hear the desperation in his voice. “Talk to me. We can’t do a goddamn thing until you talk to me. I’m here, okay? You’ve got me.”

“For how long?”

Dean stares at him, faltering now, the big crescendo of his speech withering away. Castiel’s voice sounds the way it did when he came to Dean’s bed on that night, when he crawled in and shattered under Dean’s hands. It’s a small little thing in Castiel’s throat, this voice, and it’s so naked and bare it makes Dean’s very teeth hurt.

“For how long, Dean?” He looks over Dean’s face like he’s waiting for the answer to appear on his skin, illuminate his eyes. “When will you freak out again and leave me? I can’t do this, I’m sorry. I can’t do this a second time.”

“There won’t be a second time,” he tries, but Castiel pulls away, out of reach, with more than physical distance between them, which hurts most of all.

“I can’t trust you anymore. You don’t even see what you did. You say you made a mistake, but that’s not even close to—Dean, a mistake is forgetting to turn off the coffee pot.” He shakes his head, looking down at the floor. “You fucking gutted me. That’s not a mistake.”

Dean tries again, his uncertain words trembling in his throat. “Cas...fuck, I—Cas, please. Can we just talk? Please?”

Castiel’s already backing up, picking up the book he’d left on the coffee table earlier that day. Dean doesn’t think he actually needs it but is instead looking for something to occupy himself with, something that isn’t Dean. “No. Why should I talk to you? I’m not putting myself out there again. I can’t do it, and you can’t blame me for it. Isn’t that what you did? Tried to protect yourself when you told me you weren’t good enough? Now I’m doing the same thing. I’m protecting myself and you can’t change my mind.”

Panic claws its way into Dean’s chest, scratching at the inside of his ribs. “Cas, I’m begging you here, please—”

“No.” He turns and walks past the couch toward the stairs, and though Dean wants to call out to him, there’s something dead inside him that keeps the words from coming out. Soft footsteps creak on the stairs. A door opens and shuts. Then Dean’s left in the quiet of the living room, a replay of South Park starting on the TV, and he thinks fuck, oh my God, oh my God and not much else.

*

Dean tosses and turns that night, unable to sleep, but luckily—and he feels guilty as hell for this—the next day is spent with Sam bringing their father to the rehabilitation center in Wichita, which doesn’t leave Dean much time to think about Castiel after the quiet, awkward breakfast the two of them have with Sam.

They’re mostly quiet on the two and a half hour drive, Sam in the backseat with his homework and John in the front seat, hands folded on his lap and eyes staring straight ahead. Once they hit I-335, though, John speaks up. “I want to talk to you boys for a moment.”

Dean glances at him before switching lanes to the far left, speeding as fast as he knows he can get away with, waiting for his father to continue. In the backseat, Sam stops fiddling with his notebook, where he’s taking notes for English.

“I—I hope you two know how much I love you,” John says awkwardly, clearing his throat. “I want to make things right, and...I know it won’t be easy. And that I’ve made promises before that I haven’t kept. But I’m...I’m going to work so hard to...make sure that—”

“We know,” Sam interrupts, and Dean looks in the rearview mirror to see his brother as serious as he ever is, face smooth and serene. “We believe you, Dad. We know you’re trying.”

John nods, hanging his head for a moment, still nodding even when he looks out the window at the farms and scenery passing by. “I want to be better.”

“That’s why we’re doing this,” Dean says, trying to help his father along, help him to say what needs to be said from each of them. “It’s going to be fine.”

They fall into silence again and Dean thinks that the Winchester men probably need to learn to communicate better. Castiel crosses his mind for a moment before he pushes the thought away, that bone-deep ache returning to his chest at the thought of him, ribcage feeling hollow. The rest of the ride is quiet, soft classic rock on the radio, with only his thoughts to keep him company.

When they pull up at the center, Dean’s surprised to see how quietly normal and clean the facility looks. If he didn’t know better, he would’ve thought it was a library—boring, with lots of windows and natural light.

He parks close to the front of building, looking up at the cheery yellow and white Valley Hope sign that hangs across the threshold. He grabs the duffel bag in the backseat and starts to get out of the car before he realizes that John isn’t moving, his hands still clasped in his lap, head bowed.

“Dad?” Dean prompts, leaning in the open driver’s side door. “Everything okay?”

John nods, but he’s clearly lying. “Yeah, I’m fine, son.”

“You sure?” Sam asks, leaning forward in his seat to look at his father, who stares at his hands, twisting his fingers.

“What if it doesn’t work?”

Dean smiles, having sensed that question would be coming sometime between home and here. “Dad, the fact that you’re even here means goddamn everything. I honestly never thought you’d agree. I really didn’t. And we’re here, aren’t we?”

John glances at Dean then, his hazel eyes, so like Sam’s only older, sadder, softening a little. “What if I can’t go through with it?”

“You will,” Dean assures him, confident for the first time in a long time, willing to put yet more of his faith into this sick, scared man who’s been inhabiting his father’s body for too long. “We’re here for you, Dad. You’re not the only one doing this.” He looks to Sam for a moment before watching his father again. “You’ve got us. Whatever you need, whenever you need it—you’ve got us.”

The only sounds heard for a moment are the trundling of cars on the highway beside the facility, the click-clicking of Dean’s car coming down from running for so long. The slipping of skin as John wrings his fingers over and over, shaking slightly. Then Sam reaches his long arms around the seat and hugs John from behind.

“You’ll do great,” Sam tells him sincerely, his voice lower than it’s ever been, lower and so soft; after that John gets out of the car and so does Sam, the three of them walking side by side into Valley Hope, Dean putting a hand to John’s back when he stalls a little, and John—John letting his sons lead him on.

 

On the ride back to Lawrence, Sam’s quiet in the front seat until they hit I-335. Dean should have expected the question, but it takes him by surprise. “What’s going on with you and Cas?”

“What do you mean?” He reaches past Sam into the glove compartment, pulling out a fresh pack of Camel Turkish Golds, sliding one out and fishing for the lighter in his pocket. “Nothing’s going on with me and Cas.”

“Things were getting better,” Sam says, and he’s got that stern tone now, the one he uses when he thinks Dean’s being stupid and needs to be guided with a firm hand. “Something good was happening. This morning was weird. What did you do?”

I didn’t do anything,” he spits, taking a long pull from the cigarette, exhaling and flicking ash out the half-cracked window. It’s a gorgeous fucking day outside, he shouldn’t be feeling like this, especially not when his father’s finally getting the help he needs. “I tried to fix it and he didn’t want to fix it. End of story.”

Sam doesn’t say anything for a moment, looking out the window with his long legs stretched out far in front of him, the seat pushed all the way back to accommodate his growing limbs. “Dean. Just because it didn’t work this time doesn’t mean it won’t. Trust me. He loves you. Like, the real kind of love. And I know you love him back just as much, maybe more.”

“I don’t know what else to do,” he says, a bit sharp because yeah, he knows all this, but that doesn’t change the fact that Castiel flat-out rejected him when Dean put himself out there. A niggling voice in the back of his mind reminds him that he did the exact same thing not too long before, and to a greater degree. Maybe that’s why he’s so fucking miserable about it—taste of his own medicine and all that. “Sam, I really don’t know what to do.”

“Give it time,” he suggests, turning up the stereo until the beginning chords of a Bon Jovi song can be heard. “It’s going to take a while, but you can’t tell me it’s not worth it. I guess if it were me and Jessica...I don’t care what it would take, I’d wait it out and keep trying. I wouldn’t stop trying.”

Dean glances at his brother, smiling softly. “You really like her, huh?”

Sam meets his eyes seriously before Dean has to look at the road again. “Yeah, I do. I want you to meet her. Officially meet her.”

Some of the day’s stresses melt away with that and Dean is, once again, terribly grateful to his baby brother. He pats Sam on the knee and takes another inhale of the cigarette, letting the smoke trickle out his parted lips. “I’d love that, man. When you wanna do this?”

“Maybe next weekend? I wanted her to meet Cas too. They have a lot in common.”

Dean nods, feeling quiet inside at the mention of that name. “Yeah, awesome. We’ll see what he has planned and work around that. Sound good?”

A hand squeezes his arm and he can see Sam smiling out the corner of his eye. Dean won’t look directly at him. He has to focus on the road, the cigarette trembling in his fingers. He can’t look. “Just keep trying, Dean. Don’t give up yet. Show him you mean business and that you aren’t going anywhere. He’ll come around when he knows he can trust you again.”

“Since when did you learn so much about this shit?” he asks, but he knows the answer—Sam simply understands him, Castiel, and the relationship they have. He’s not entirely sure why but he doesn’t really question it anymore. At least he has someone to talk to, someone who understands and can give the advice that Dean can’t seem to find on his own.

Sam doesn’t respond but smiles instead, a bright flash Dean can see peripherally, and the drive back to Lawrence is quiet as they spend a day off together, being brothers in a way they haven’t been in a long time.

 

That night, long after Sam’s gone to bed with Tex, who’s starting to look like a real German Shepherd now as he grows into his big paws, Dean pads into the kitchen for a glass of water and spots Castiel at the round table, orderly stacks of paper surrounding him, a few books waiting to be opened, and his MacBook throwing a soft bluish glow across his hands, yellow light spilling from above. He’s got his glasses on and they’re falling down his nose as he bends over a paper, marking something with his favorite green pen. Dean almost leaves, decides to drink from the tap in his bathroom, but Castiel looks up and catches him and Dean can’t move.

That fucking tension again. Maybe not the good kind, but it’s certainly there in extraordinary amounts, making the air feel thicker, making it harder to breathe. Castiel seems to hesitate for a moment before speaking. “How was Wichita?”

“Good,” Dean says, finding the ability to move his feet and making a beeline toward the fridge, opening the door and fishing out the Brita pitcher. “Valley Hope’s pretty nice. It kinda looked like a library, not a rehab clinic.”

“That’s good. How’s your father?” He stands and stretches while Dean pours his glass; out the corner of his eye he can see Castiel’s stomach exposed by his sweater and he has to push down an urge to fall to his knees and kiss that soft skin, feel Castiel’s fingers trembling through his hair. Fuck, but he misses him, not just physically—though that’s a big part of it—but in every way possible. Dean’s sheets don’t smell like Castiel anymore and that breaks his fucking heart.

Dean drops three ice cubes into the water, though it’s already cold. “He’s...I think he’s really good. He was worried about going in, you know, thinking he’d fail, but...he got that far, right? Sammy and I will help him the rest of the way.”

Castiel pads softly toward him, feet covered in thick wool socks that Dean thought were his own. They’d gotten a lot of things mixed up in the laundry. “That’s really good, Dean. I’m glad. Are you able to visit him?”

“Nah, no visits, but he can write and he can make a phone call once a week. They’ll let him call on Fridays.” He drinks down half his water in a couple of swallows, mouth so dry it hurts, tongue rough as sandpaper. He’s nervous with Castiel getting so close; Dean swears he can already feel the heat of Castiel’s body, the furnace of his skin.

“Does he have his own room?” So close now. Dean focuses on the shrinking ice cubes in his glass, staring so hard, not wanting to look up. He’s going to say something damn stupid, he can feel it. He’s going to cry or beg and be rejected.

“He’s got a roommate, older guy halfway through the program. His name is Jake. He and Dad are a lot alike. Uh, they do counseling groups and one-on-one sessions on alternating days, so. Jake’s in Dad’s group. They have different counselors, though.”

Castiel makes a noise to show he’s listening, within two feet of Dean now. “Are they putting him through detox?”

“I can’t remember what they called it,” Dean murmurs, voice thin and reedy, “but basically Dad’s considered, like, a moderate-severe alcoholic but not the worst. So they’re gonna monitor his heart and brain and stuff to make sure that he doesn’t, you know, crash without alcohol. But yeah, they’re drying him out.” He pauses for a long time, long enough that Castiel’s right up against him, placing a hand to Dean’s back. The ice keeps shrinking.

“This is a good thing, Dean.”

He nods, licking his chapped lips. They taste faintly of salt. “Yeah, I know. I’m...yeah, I think it’s gonna work. I do.” He takes a breath and it comes out all shaky, so he clears his throat until he speaks normally again, makes himself look up into Castiel’s eyes, straightening his back. “I feel pretty good about it.”

Castiel gives him a small smile, his polite professor smile, but there’s warmth in his eyes that Dean doesn’t miss. “You should. I’m glad.”

Dean watches him for a moment before leaning in, his brain having zero involvement in this whatsoever because he knows he shouldn’t do this, despite Sam’s honest encouragement, he knows this isn’t the right time at all, but goddammit, he wants a fucking kiss, he wants to be held and coddled and told it will all be okay even if it’s a lie. So he leans in and he brushes his lips to Castiel’s, a brief thing that Castiel responds to—also seemingly without his brain’s involvement—before pulling back and looking at the ground again. “Thanks for everything. I’ll add a hundred to next month’s rent.”

Hands loose at his sides and visibly troubled, Castiel nods. “That sounds fine.” When Dean turns to leave the kitchen, Castiel catches at his sleeve. “Dean, wait.”

The kitchen floor is damn clean, Dean notices, staring at it as hard as he is. “Yeah?”

Castiel gets into his line of vision again, finds Dean’s mouth with his own, more firmly than before, repeatedly, easing arms around Dean’s waist and pulling him in close. He smells like that shampoo Dean likes, the one he could never find at Walmart because it’s professional care, his lips softer than usual. Dean knows it’s Burt’s Bees, can taste the sweet honey on his skin, but he pulls away and doesn’t let himself indulge, half-angry at Castiel for the inexplicable reason that Castiel is still hurt and won’t forgive Dean so they can move past this, put the pieces of each other back together. He wants to take everything back, all the harsh and stupid words he said, reel them back in so his hooks and barbs never landed in Castiel’s flesh. But Castiel won’t fucking let him, won’t even hear him out, keeps changing the subject and leaving the room and shuttering his damn eyes. What the fuck else is Dean supposed to do? He doesn’t yet know, so he has to leave, put space between his heart and Castiel’s.

Castiel lets him go this time, saying Dean’s name once more, half a question, but Dean doesn’t wait to hear the rest as he leaves the kitchen, going to his room in the basement to get another fitful night’s sleep.

*

The following week is fucking brutal, even by Dean’s melancholy standards. His classes are getting harder, what with his more-involved projects in school as he starts to wrap up the semester, and his interaction with Castiel is minimal at best. He does get a letter from his father, though, which makes him feel a little better. He writes one back and mails his and Sam’s together, hoping his dad will get some sort of enjoyment out of them. It’ll be a long road, he knows, but there’s light up ahead now when it had been dark before.

After surviving the hellish week, he caves and works on the Impala on Saturday, getting up early and making breakfast before heading into the garage, turning on the space heater and his radio. He checks the chassis and all the nuts and bolts, popping the hood to fix some things he found were loose after the first test drive (which he tries so, so hard not to think about, but it’s hard to forget that this car has Castiel’s scent on the seats). An hour into his project he feels some of the panic ease from his chest, the monotony of turning wrenches and tightening belts soothing. It’s something he knows, has known since he was little and helping his dad with their 1973 Ford F-100, the one that needed a heavy foot to slam on the brake in order for the old rusted thing to trundle to a stop.

As he looks at the similarly rusting body of the Impala, he thinks about Castiel and his own rust-covered armor. Dean used to think Castiel was perfect and pristine like the ridiculous red Porsche in the driveway that’s barely been touched—expensive, fully-loaded, gorgeous exterior. Drives like a dream, responsive as hell. But now, as he runs his hand over the Impala’s door, he thinks Castiel is this car instead. Driven too much, beaten down. Left out in the rain to rust. But there’s something here worth saving with time and effort. All the care and energy Dean’s put into this car is worth it, and once he gets the engine going for good, and once he sands down the body and primes and paints and glosses, this car won’t be sad anymore. He can love it enough to make it shine through—mend the torn seats, reupholster the ceiling and the floorboards, install a new gear shift and oil the hinges. He can do all of this because he wants to, because he doesn’t need some goddamn Porsche. He’s not good enough for a Porsche. But he’s good enough for this Impala.

Who needs a thumbprint scanner, anyway?

Lost in his analogy, and rather proud of himself for making such a good one, Dean looks up when the door to the house opens and Sam comes out, smiling at him. “Dean? You super busy?”

Shaking his head, Dean straightens up from his position working on the engine. “Nah, not super busy. What’s up?”

Sam sits down on the stool Castiel used to occupy, folding his hands almost primly in his lap. “I was wondering if Jessica could come over tonight for dinner. Are you working?”

“Gave Jo my shift,” he says, glad that he had earlier in the week, “so I’m free. Is, uh. He free?”

With a slightly raised eyebrow Dean interprets as snotty, Sam nods. “Yes, Dean. Castiel is free.”

Not saying anything for a long moment and instead closing the hood of the car, Dean starts to gather his tools and put them back where they go. He’s done with the engine. He’ll need to test drive it later, but for now, he’s done. It makes him feel good, as though he’s actually making progress. He turns to his brother when he’s done, wiping his hands on a rag. Sam has that ‘patient saint’ look on his face, watching Dean with serenity. “Then I guess we’re set,” Dean says, looking away because his brother’s eyes know too much, see too much.

“I’d like to talk to you, now that you’re packing up for the day.” Sam slides off the stool and takes the rag from Dean’s hands so Dean can’t wring it around out of nerves. “It’s about Cas.”

Of course it is. “What about?”

“He told me why he left.”

Dean waits for his brother to continue, but Sam says nothing. To give Sam time to speak the fuck up, Dean amends his earlier analogy and decides that fixing up an old car only works when the car wants to be fixed, no matter how many tools or bolts or coats of paint he’s willing to give. After he wipes down his work station and Sam has stayed silent, Dean turns to him with a tight mouth, raising one eyebrow. “You gonna keep going with that or should I try to guess what you’re thinking?”

Sam grins at him then, putting hands in his pockets. “I’m just making sure you’re listening.”

“I’m listening, so you’d better talk.” He doesn’t have time for this. There’s a lot of lazing around to do in the house and he’d like to get on it. His on and off lethargy makes him want to sleep for days. “What did he say?”

Tipping his head ever so slightly to the side and watching Dean with keen hazel eyes, Sam takes a breath. “He said his mother died and he went to her funeral. He also apologized for worrying me, but I told him I understood. He said he doesn’t know how to deal with it and wanted to talk.”

Dean feels a bit of a fist in his gut at those words, lowering his eyes to hide his expression. So Castiel tried talking to Sam when he refused to talk to Dean. “Oh. Uh. What did you tell him?”

“I said he needs to talk to you if he wants advice.” Sam moves into Dean’s line of sight, watching him even more closely. “I was too young to remember Mom, but you do. And I know you’re still dealing with her death in some ways. I know you can help him.”

“He won’t talk to me,” Dean says, hating the cracking in his voice. “I’ve already told you that.”

“I know.” He puts a hand on Dean’s shoulder, gripping hard, and Dean notices not for the first time how big Sam is—how he’s growing into his bones and his hands and his feet. “Which is why I think it would be good for you to approach him about it one more time. Try one more time.”

Dean shakes his head, moving away to organize his tool collection though it’s already in order because he needs something to do with his hands, something to distract him from the fact that Castiel will readily talk to Sam but not him. “I can’t, Sam. I already put myself out there and got shot the fuck down.”

“Dean.” The command in Sam’s voice is sharp and needy, and it makes Dean look up at him. Sam’s more serious than before, not even smiling in encouragement now. “Dean, you have to try. One more time, please. I think it’ll work. Just once more.”

He wants to believe the earnestness in his brother’s tone, but Castiel’s polite little smiles and half-curtained eyes dampen his enthusiasm. “Sam, it’s hard enough—”

“I know,” he interrupts, putting a hand to Dean’s shoulder. “God, trust me, I know. But you need to try, Dean. Please. If not for him or for yourself, then for me.”

Such a sneaky motherfucker. Dean feels his heart aching at those words, watching his brother’s pleading eyes, the determined set of his mouth, before looking away again. “Fine.” He tosses the rag into the small laundry basket that houses several others. It’s been a while since he’s felt like doing laundry. “I’m not promising anything, okay? I’ve already tried it before and it didn’t fucking work.”

Sam’s quiet for a long few moments, and there’s a space of time, after Dean looks at him, where they hold one another’s gazes without speaking. Then Sam almost smiles. “Sometimes, Dean, you gotta work at it more than just once, okay? That’s all I’m saying.”

Dean doesn’t answer but Sam seems satisfied now, patting him on the back before heading inside. Looking at the car for a little longer, inspecting the body and running his fingers along the door, Dean pulls out his tools again, wanting to get a little more work in before he has to stop for the afternoon.

 

Jessica, it turns out, is damn delightful, tossing playful insults back and forth with Dean, who increases his teasing of her incrementally based on her responses. By the time dinner is ready and on the table, Jessica has succeeded in embarrassing Dean twice and rendering him speechless once. When she’s busying herself with letting an overexcited Tex out into the backyard while the humans eat dinner, Dean gives Sam a thumbs up, pleased when Sam grins wider than Dean’s seen in a while.

Castiel comes into the kitchen as Dean’s making iced tea, a heavy bookbag hanging from his shoulder, hair a wild mess from the wind and snow outside. “Sorry,” he pants, slinging the bag down on the floor by the door leading onto the deck. “I apologize, I’m so sorry. I got caught up in research at the library.”

Dean stirs sugar into the tea as hard as he can, heart beating faster because Castiel is in the same room as he is, and now Sam’s words are rolling around in Dean’s noggin like great rocks, crashing into one another. He vaguely hears Sam introducing Jessica and Jessica asking about Castiel’s research, but Dean can’t focus too much on that. Instead he rolls around ideas in his head of how to approach Castiel later, what he’s going to say. What Castiel will say in return. The thought of getting shot down again makes him sweat, palms damp and clammy when he wipes them on his jeans. He almost jumps out of his skin when someone comes up behind him.

“Need any help?” Jessica asks, her soft sweet voice welcoming, since Dean had expected something deeper, rougher.

“I think I got it,” he tells her, smiling widely to hide how rattled he is inside. “You go sit down and make yourself comfortable, okay?”

She gives him a little grin and takes the pitcher from his hands. “I don’t mind helping. Looks like you need to relax too.” She carries the iced tea back to the table, filling each glass while Dean watches, still standing by the cabinets. He hasn’t put away the sugar yet because now Castiel’s caught his gaze and they’re looking at one another across the span of the kitchen. Even with the distance between them, Dean feels that achingly familiar prickle, the connection that they’ve always had even from their first days together, when Dean was learning Shakespeare and falling in love with Castiel’s kind blue eyes and expressive hands.

He breaks contact with Castiel only when Sam drops a fork, much to Jessica’s amusement, the sound of the silver startling as it clatters on the tile. Dean looks away from Castiel and gets a clean fork, bringing it to the round table, where he seems to be sitting between Castiel and Jessica. Dean meets Sam’s eyes across the unlit candles and Sam gives him a too-tender smile. Swallowing and plastering on his dumb face, because it’s the easiest mask he can hide behind, Dean unfolds his napkin and places it on his lap, starting a conversation he knows Jessica and Sam will take over so he doesn’t have to think about the heat of the man to his right.

Dinner passes easily, though, and if Jessica sees any stiffness between Dean and Castiel, she doesn’t let it show on her face, speaking to them equally and making eye contact, voice growing fond when her story somehow centers around Sam. Dean is fully charmed by her when they finish dessert and thinks it’s nice having a female presence around. He hasn’t had that much and Jessica seems like the type to dote on those around her; when they’re done with their dishes and she starts to gather them up, Castiel stops her with a gentle hand. “You’re a guest,” he smiles, and Dean watches that smile with a growing sense of need. “Please sit down.”

Jessica tsks at him and pats his shoulder. “I’m a guest but I intend to hang around here a lot. Gotta start pulling my weight early.” She bustles into the kitchen to place the dishes in the sink, washing them by hand in the way Dean can remember his mother doing. Mary always hated using a dishwasher, said she didn’t trust it to do the job right the first time.

Before he can tell Sam to go help her, Sam stands and takes the rest of their dishes anyway, watching Jessica with a ridiculous lopsided smile before coming up beside her. Dean likes their interaction together, finds it heartwarming to see his brother so aware of another person, gently taking clean wet dishes from her before drying them and setting them aside. It reminds Dean of the way Castiel would look at him when they did laundry together. His throat grows tight.

“Can we give them some privacy?” Castiel asks, his voice barely more than a whisper. Dean turns to meet his blue eyes and smiles a little.

“Yeah, I think they’ll be okay.” He stands and pushes his chair in, heart beating a little harder when Castiel does the same. "Sam, if you go in your room—door open, okay?” It’s not as though he doesn’t trust his brother—or Jessica—but parent-Dean inside him says it’s good to set boundaries, especially since this is the first girlfriend Sam’s ever had that he was so serious about. Ruby in fourth grade doesn’t count. Dean never trusted that girl.

Sam gives Dean a smile and a nod before returning his attention to Jessica. With nothing left for him to do, he looks at Castiel and offers a smile. “Want to watch a movie or something?”

At this, Castiel hesitates, glancing at the clock on the stove. Dean does too. It’s not quite eight. “I really need to work on my essay,” Castiel says slowly, as if he’s thinking it through as he says it, “so maybe not a movie? What about an episode or two of The Office?”

Dean nods. He’ll take that. Whatever will give his body the closeness he craves, even though his mind and his heart are still distant, battling that fear of rejection and the possibility that things will never get better. As he follows Castiel into the living room, he glances back at Sam and Jessica doing dishes and meets Sam’s hazel eyes. When Sam smiles, so does Dean.

 

Long after Jessica has gone home for the evening (with strict instructions to text when she parks in her driveway), and long after Castiel said he needed to get to work on his essay, Dean is still on the big chair with him, pressing close and getting closer, Castiel’s fingers brushing along Dean’s bare arm, Dean breathing so shallow it’s starting to hurt his lungs.

They’ve gone through six episodes of The Office, recorded ones on the DVR that they’ve both seen a dozen times, but Castiel keeps playing one after another, and Dean, who enjoys the show so damn much, lets him. He thinks they might be pretending that this isn’t happening, that they aren’t touching and pressing together, that Castiel isn’t nosing just behind Dean’s ear. That Dean isn’t putting his hand on Castiel’s thigh just to feel the warmth of him and know he’s there. Dean almost misses the way Castiel would distract him with sex to keep him off-topic from discussing hurtful emotional things, but there had been a sense of wrongness to that sex that left Dean feeling empty.

When Castiel’s open mouth trails tentatively down his neck, Dean’s fingers finding Castiel’s and weaving together, he chastises himself internally. Talk to him. Bring it up now. Listen to your brother.

“I need to talk to you,” Dean says, and his voice is hoarse because they haven’t spoken hardly at all in the last hour, save for little chuckles at the Toby-Michael interaction and Castiel’s outright belly laugh at Jim and Dwight’s disastrous birthday party for Kelly.

Castiel pulls back a little too quickly, licking his lips and flushing, his hands removing themselves from Dean’s body and leaving Dean chilled. “I apologize. I shouldn’t have done that.”

“I don’t mind,” Dean hedges, also reminding himself of that whole being honest and vulnerable thing. It’s not fucking easy, but he thinks the harder thing would be to live without Castiel. “I’ve been fucking craving it, so. I mean, that’s not what I want to talk to you about.”

Swallowing and licking his lips again, Castiel nods. There’s something big growing just behind his eyes, something he isn’t hiding, and Dean watches as Castiel goes far too still. “Did Sam talk to you?”

Dean makes a face, thinking he should’ve known that Castiel would think that, and nods. “Yeah. He told me I needed to talk to you. To try again.” Averting his eyes and rubbing the back of his neck, Dean gives a fake chuckle, telling himself that only his words have to be honest—nothing else. It’s the only thing that will get him through this conversation. “To be honest, man, I’m scared of getting shot down again. I’m hoping you’ll work with me a bit here.”

There’s quiet between them for a moment; on the TV, Dwight wakes Kelly up from her nap with a foghorn. Dean’s got a vice around his lungs, squeezing the goddamn life out of him. And still Castiel doesn’t speak, frozen as a statue for so long beside Dean that Dean can almost forget he’s there, can’t even feel the weight of him. Then, as though it takes great effort to do so, Castiel sighs. “I don’t know where to start. It might be best if you asked me questions.”

Dean can’t look at him so he picks at his fingernails instead, which have a bit of motor oil just under the curve, stuck, no matter how many times he washes his hands. “Um. Well, shit. I know this is hard, but—but Cas...I—”

“I’m ready,” Castiel interrupts, and he starts fidgeting as well—Dean can see it out the corner of his eye, Castiel poking at a small hole in his sweater near the bottom hem—before sighing again. “I can’t promise anything, but I do want to talk to you. Even though you’re going to hate me after.”

Frowning at the TV, Dean angles a little more to face him, curling his left leg over Castiel’s thigh, leaning back against the arm of the chair. “Cas, there is literally nothing you are capable of in this world that would ever make me hate you.”

The look on Castiel’s face is heartbreaking, a mix of hope and disbelief, and his eyes shine in the dim overhead lights as he smiles. “I want to believe that, Dean. But you don’t know what I’m going to say.”

Shaking his head, Dean finds Castiel’s nervous hands and cups them in his own, noticing how cold Castiel’s fingers are now, as though his circulation has slowed down, his heart pumping less blood. “Cas, I swear on everything I believe in on this Earth that there is fucking nothing you can do to me that would make me hate you. Period. You’re just not—you can’t do it, you know? Anything I could hate you for isn’t in your power to do. It’s not you. So let’s skip that part right now and come back to it.” He pauses, searching Castiel’s crumbling face, leaning in to give him a soft, slow kiss on his lips, one that Castiel returns hesitantly. “Why didn’t you tell me about your mom? Why’d you have to leave without saying a word? I could’ve helped you, you know. You didn’t have to do that alone.”

Castiel bites his lip, worrying it between his teeth, his habit of extreme nervousness. “You’d already fucked me over. I figured you were capable of anything. And I didn’t want to go crying to you. I wanted to be...better than that. To not need you the way I do. Because everyone needs you and I wanted to be what you could turn to. Instead of me always coming to you.” His words eke out, stilted and tight, like he’s trying to force them out through a closed gate, make them tumble out against their will. “Because I need you too much, Dean. You mean too much to me.”

Dean watches him with surprise and realizes that Castiel means it—means every word he’s saying, even though Dean doesn’t see their situation that way at all. “Dude, I’m the one who needs too much. I’m taking and taking from you.”

“They are things I want to give,” Castiel says, urgency in his tone. “Dean—I would literally give you everything if I could. I only want to make you happy. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. Maybe I tried too hard, but it’s all I ever wanted.”

Dean shakes his head a little at the pleading in his voice, the contrition and self-deprecation. He reaches out and slide his fingers through Castiel’s hair over his ear, thumb stroking his cheek. “I know that, Cas. And trust me, I feel the same way, but I’m getting ahead of myself here. I wanna backtrack a little—back to that night you came to my room.” Dean can see it so clearly, Castiel coming to him, the slip-sliding expressions on his face, desperation and laughter in his smooth voice. I want it to be good. I need you to like this. To like me, and Look at me, falling apart on you like this when I told myself I’d never do that. Clear as a bell he can hear those words, and he doesn’t think he’ll ever forget them.

“Do we have to talk about that?” Castiel asks quietly, averting his eyes from Dean’s. The episode is finished on the TV and now there’s only the blue screen and quiet, the fire crackling low in the fireplace. They are alone, Sam upstairs probably talking to Jessica on her bluetooth as she drives home.

“I think it’s too important not to, man.” He keeps playing with Castiel’s hair, trying his best to be soothing though he would love for nothing more than to fast-forward through all the hard stuff so they can get started on the happy part. But that wouldn’t be good for either of them. Dean knows, on some basic level, that the pain is necessary, like pulling a Band-Aid off a healing wound. “So I know it’s hard—it’s hard for me too—but I think we need this. At least, I do. I need this.”

Tucking his cheek into Dean’s hand, Castiel looks at him with saddened eyes, clearly uncomfortable, but he isn’t pulling away; he’s trying, too. “I know. But it’s—it’s admitting to you what I’ve tried to hide from you.”

“Which is what, Cas? What are you hiding?” When Castiel sighs and closes his eyes, Dean leans in, brushes his lips against Castiel’s forehead, lowering his voice and pleading. “Please, look at me. I’m right here, okay? Look, I’m sitting right here. We’re just talking. I’m not judging.”

Castiel curls hands around Dean’s wrists, shaking him off, breathing harder; he moves as if to get off the chair, but stops himself, looking at Dean again and trying to smile, a sad little twist of his lips. He’s covering up, Dean realizes. He’s trying to hide. “You’re going to,” Castiel says at last, his voice normal if slightly higher-pitched. “There’s no way you won’t. I’m not the perfect man you think I am—I’m. I have problems.”

“Everybody has problems, you know. It doesn’t mean you’re all fucked up.” He coaxes Castiel in again with little shushing noises, watching as Castiel visibly tries to rein himself in, peering at Dean from beneath those thick lashes Dean loves so much, the ones that have tickled his skin along with Castiel’s kisses.

“I’m too needy.” Castiel shakes his head like he’s trying to forget something. “I’m pushing you away because I need you so much. I’m nothing but a burden. I always have been. This is my problem and I’m going to cripple you with it. This is why no one can love me for long. Because I love them to death.”

Dean takes a moment to process what’s being said so he can say the right thing. It’s hard, hearing Castiel talk like this, seeing him like this. Castiel, who intimidated Dean with his calmness. “Cas, needing isn’t being needy,” he says at last, sliding his arm around Castiel’s back, elbow crooked and hand splayed between his shoulder blades. “And you aren’t a burden, not by far. I do things for you, or want to do them, because I love doing it. I don’t...think you could ever love me to death. And if you did, then I’d be right there with you.”

Castiel leans away at this, voice raising in frustration. “You don’t understand, Dean, and I don’t know what to—”

“Cas,” he breathes, as gentle as he can, trying not to let his frustration seem like it’s aimed toward Castiel because it isn’t; it’s only the situation that’s frustrating him, the need to wave a wand and make it good again. “Listen. I’m trying to understand, okay? But you have to explain yourself more. Because I don’t get where you’re coming from.”

Swallowing and shifting in the chair, Castiel runs a hand through his hair, twice, a nervous gesture. Dean wants to kiss him until his forehead smooths out but he knows he can’t, not yet, so he keeps the desire stamped down, does his best to listen to Castiel’s words, to listen to him, instead of focusing on what he himself needs. “It’s...it’s like...I told you about my family,” Castiel continues, voice slow as he picks each word carefully. “My parents weren’t really there, I was raised by nannies, and I went to boarding school until college. I literally never wanted for anything. But it’s not like I was happy. I was missing a lot and I found so much of it with you and I was so scared to lose that because you were just so...good.” He looks at Dean with such sincerity that Dean’s breath is trapped behind his ribcage for a moment, unable to break free. “Dean...you don’t see yourself the way I do. How genuinely good you are, and how kind. How you don’t hesitate to give and give and give until you’ve got nothing left. Not even material things, but everything else—all the important things, the things that matter. I’ve never met anyone like you and I needed you to like me so I could be that good too. I guess I wanted...I don’t know.”

“No, don’t start that,” Dean coaxes, catching Castiel’s fingers and holding them in his own, lacing together like stitches on a baseball. Castiel makes Dean think of summertime and brightness and the scent of cut grass—all the good things Dean knows in the world. “Just talk to me, okay? I’m listening. Keep talking.”

“It’s hard admitting this stuff.”

Dean smiles, drawing up Castiel’s hands to kiss his knuckles, eyes half-closed from such a simple pleasure. He thinks he fell in love with Castiel’s hands first. “I know, Cas. But I don’t know what else to do. I can’t lose you. I—”

“Then why did you break up with me? Why’d you have to do that, Dean?” The accusation in his voice makes Dean’s stomach sour as though he’s swallowed spoiled milk. The sheer epic proportions to which he fucked up are more evident than ever. He can’t blink and make this better. He can’t simply tell Castiel how he feels. He has to show him. And even then it’s not a fucking guarantee, which, really, is the only goddamn thing Dean would like right now, the promise that he’s going through this for a reason, that Castiel will love him fiercely again after they climb this goddamn mountain of a bump in the road.

He takes a few moments to gather his thoughts, “A lot of stupid reasons, Cas. Mainly because, uh. I was kind of scared to death by the way I felt about you. I was forgetting myself. I guess I just needed to take some kind of control of the situation. I felt like I was...losing things with you. That nothing else mattered.”

Something in Castiel’s face seems to soften, and when he tips his head to the side a little, Dean’s struck by the familiarity of the gesture. “Dean—”

“No, no, let me finish.” He rubs at a forming headache, the pain pulsing just behind his eyes. “‘Cause I know that was wrong, okay? I know it was, and I know that now.” Here it is, he thinks, heart revving up in his chest to beat beat beat far too hard. “I...Cas, like. I keep thinking you’re the Porsche, you know what I mean? Way, way too good for me. And in some ways I still think you are. But I don’t need a Porsche. That Impala is what I want and need, and I think that’s you.”

“Dean.” Just a word, really, four letters strung together to make up a name, something used to distinguish one person from another when addressing them, but since it’s from Castiel’s tongue there’s so much more to it than that—more feeling behind it, the soft syllable, almost chastising in tone but gentle too.

Dean’s throat constricts and he can’t breathe for a moment before giving a soft laugh. “The analogy sounded a lot better in my head, uh. Look, basically?” Deep breath. Another one. Another. “You’re...exactly what I need and exactly what I want. You’re not better than me. And I’m certainly not better than you. Sounds like we both kinda have each other on a pedestal, huh?”

Castiel’s blush is evident even in the dim light of the living room, and the appearance of the color in his cheeks makes Dean want to sigh with pleasure. He fucking loves making Castiel blush, goddammit, because it means Castiel is affected by him. “I don’t want to be on your pedestal, Dean.”

“And I don’t wanna be on yours.” He leans into Castiel without meaning to at first, forehead to forehead, noses bumping, and his voice slips down to barely a whisper, speaking against Castiel’s skin, so quiet. “I’m not so much a fan of heights, so I think you should take me down now.”

Footsteps on the stairs break into their oddly comfortable cocoon and they pull away from one another, hands still clasped, looking toward the entrance to the living room for Sam’s arrival. He grins at them a little, his phone in hand. “Hey, guys? Jessica made it home. Thought you should know.”

Dean doesn’t realize how worried he’d been about that sweet girl driving by herself at night until Sam says she’s okay. Relief floods his system and he gives his brother a genuine smile. “Thanks, man. Are you heading to bed?”

“Uh, no?” Sam scratches the back of his head, looking every bit a gangly almost-sixteen-year old. “Actually we were gonna watch a movie together on the phone.”

Castiel looks at Dean and raises an eyebrow; in an instant, things are normal again in the way Dean remembers them being, when he and Castiel could tease Sam together, when things were slightly unsteady between them only because they were learning how to be them. “Wow,” he deadpans. “That’s kind of serious.”

Grinning hard, Dean whistles. “Watching movies together in separate cities? I’d say so.”

Sam’s snort and eye roll make both Dean and Castiel snicker in appreciation. “Haha, so funny. Anyway, I’ll go to bed after, so I’ll see you guys tomorrow.” He looks down at the lounging, overgrown puppy splayed out on his shoes. “Dean, think you can walk him for me in the morning? Would you mind?”

Dean nods, not wanting Sam to go to bed because then he’ll lose this semblance of normalcy, enjoying too much the way Castiel plays with his fingers, as though there’s never been any tumult between them. “Sure, dude. I don’t mind.”

They both watch him turn around and head upstairs, Tex following dutifully at his heels. When Sam’s door closes again and it’s quiet in the living room, Castiel smiles at Dean. “It’s good to see him so happy.”

“It really is.” He pauses, taking in Castiel’s serene demeanor, not wanting to take such soft eyes away but knowing they aren’t done yet. “Cas...”

But Castiel holds up a hand, shaking his head. “I’m a little tired of talking, Dean. And I don’t think we’re going to fix everything tonight. But it’s good to know that...that...” He struggles to find the right word and Dean supplies it for him, half-smiling.

“That I know I’m a dick?”

Castiel returns the smile, eyes brighter than before. “Yeah. That.”

“We still have a lot to talk about,” Dean sighs, stretching, back tight from sitting so long on the chair, though he wouldn’t change it for the damn world. “Eventually...I want to know why you’re so...why you think I don’t like you. Why you said you needed me to.” The words seem to be coming easier now, not so locked tight within him, because, with a sudden stroke of clarity, Dean realizes that he trusts Castiel more than he ever has. He barrels on without the padlock over his heart and almost smiles because of it. “Cas, Jesus, I fucking love everything about you. Even when you piss me off. Most of my issues aren’t even about you—they’re about me. That’s what I’m working on, ‘cause I know I gotta work on me. If that makes sense.”

“It does. And we will talk. I just can’t anymore. I’m playing this a little close to my chest right now, but I’ll come to you when I’m ready. I need time to figure out how I'm feeling about my own family before I can say it all out loud.” He hesitates here, starting to flush again, a pretty thing that blooms in his cheeks and bleeds outward. He tries to speak twice but stops himself. When Dean squeezes his fingers, Castiel sighs. “Dean, I would really like to kiss you right now. If that’s okay.”

There aren’t many words better than those, Dean thinks, so he leans in and aligns his body with Castiel’s, wrapping him close, smiling like he’s won the goddamn lottery. Maybe he has. This is a step, he knows. This isn’t the finish line, but it’s not a race, and Dean’s learning how to pace himself so he doesn’t burn out in the beginning, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and ready to chase it down. He says nothing but he smiles, and it’s answer enough, Castiel angling his head that little bit, slipping his mouth to Dean’s as though they are made to go together, slotting against one another with an ease that isn’t surprising any longer. Dean thinks of their first kiss, when Castiel brushed lips to lips and Dean crashed into him with near-violent need, unable to breathe without Castiel’s hands on him, craving him with aching teeth and tongue, body thrum-thrumming as the blood in his veins called for Castiel. He thinks of all the other kisses after that, the fierce ones and the sweet ones, the chaste. The ones with tongue and without. Dean kisses Castiel now and sighs into him, cupping Castiel’s face and holding him close. “Fuck,” he breathes, the word hanging and caught between them. “I don’t know how you got in my skin like you did, but fuck. I’m glad for it.”

“I had some help,” Castiel says, curling one slender hand at the nape of Dean’s neck and kissing him like he used to, without the barrier of distrust between them. “Your brother was accommodating.”

Dean pulls back a little, just enough to see the blue of Castiel’s eyes, his calm expression. “What do you mean?”

Smiling all secret-like, Castiel works to untangle himself from Dean, who protests until Castiel kisses him again, short and sweet. “I’ll be right back. I’d like to show you something. I’m sure you’ll remember it when you see it.”

He takes the stairs two at a time and Dean wonders for a moment what the hell Castiel could mean when he thinks about his words more carefully—having help from Sam—and with a jolt he remembers the little black notebook that was Castiel’s Christmas present from Sam, something inside the pages that Dean wasn’t meant to see. He aches to know what’s in there and how the hell it could’ve contributed to anything that happened between them. Before he can think too hard, though, stomach sick with tension, Castiel comes into view again, sliding into the chair and fitting against Dean’s side.

“Sam has been uncommonly kind,” Castiel says, handing Dean the notebook, a ghost of a smile on his lips. “He gave me that in the hopes that it would help you trust me. I think, though, it contributed to you pushing me away. I’m sorry for that.”

On the front of the notebook, written in Sam’s very neat script, is 300 Things You Need to Know About Dean Winchester. Throat tight, unable to swallow, Dean opens the cover to find an official title page, with By: Sam Winchester beneath the title, and it makes him smile reflexively, loving his brother with that fierceness that’s gotten him through some hard times.

“He knows everything about you,” Castiel says quietly, reading over Dean’s shoulder, though by the look of the notebook—worn and dog-eared, the cover peeling at the edges—he’s probably got it memorized. Dean feels himself filling with helium at that, a sort of lightness taking over as though he’s having an out-of-body experience, watching his own incredulous face as he touches the pages, turns to the second one. At the top, it says #1. Dean was born January 24th and is an Aquarius. Right below it is #2. His favorite color is green, followed closely by blue. All the way down the page and onto the next one, Dean turning them one at a time and skimming the information found there (#21. Don’t overestimate Dean’s Cro-Magnon macho-ness—wear his clothes if you want to make him happy, and definitely wear his classic rock shirts. He’ll like that.) growing more and more shocked with each number that rolls by—seventy-three, one hundred-fourteen, one hundred ninety-nine. All the way up to three hundred, nearly every page filled up with Sam’s handwriting in different pens, but everything he says, every observation or fact about Dean, is true. Dean recognizes some of Castiel’s behavior as relating directly to this book, these three hundred things about him, but so many of Castiel’s well-placed or well-timed actions precede Christmas, so he couldn’t have known—he couldn’t have known from Sam. That was all Castiel’s doing, all from his intuition, his need for Dean—hell, from his love.

Dean looks up at Castiel when the words on the pages start to blur, and without a word Castiel folds him up in his strong arms, holding him close, one hand tucked at the back of his head with long fingers carding through his hair. “Don’t cry,” Castiel tells him. “This is a good thing.”

“Half of that stuff,” Dean manages to choke out, “half of it you did before the stupid book. That was all you, Cas. It was you.”

“I noticed that as well,” he says, thumb and forefinger cradling Dean’s chin, leaning in for a saltwater kiss. “I...may have been slightly overjoyed at the fact.” His lips move over Dean’s nose, his cheekbones, across his closed eyes and wrinkled forehead. “Don’t be upset. Sam only wanted to help.”

“Not upset,” he mumbles, one hand clutching the notebook and the other curled in Castiel’s sweatshirt. “Just...feeling stupid and young for doing what I did to you. I fucked up so bad.” The weight of it presses on him like never before and he lets out a soft noise, half a cry, before pressing palms to his eyes. Every word Sam wrote was for him and Castiel, for them, and Dean had a beautiful fucking thing, the best he’s ever known, and he destroyed it, let the stone roll down the hill without even trying to hold it at the top. No, he panicked, got scared, and ran, tail between his legs, a frightened little boy with daddy issues. Dean has never felt so miserably small in all his life.

Castiel coaxes him in until Dean’s tear-stained face is buried in his shoulder, and he lets Castiel shush him with soft words until Dean calms down and can breathe again, pulling back enough to wipe his eyes. “Sorry,” he says shakily, “I didn’t mean to—that’s a cool gift, I-I’m glad Sam did that.”

“It’s one of my favorites,” Castiel says, and Dean thinks his voice, too, sounds a bit tight, but he can’t be sure. There’s too much adrenaline and exhaustion flooding his system. “Dean, look at me.”

Dean does, but it’s not easy letting Castiel see him so broken, though he knows Castiel feels the same way—doesn’t like falling apart in front of Dean because he thinks he has to be strong. Dean thought the same thing, thought he had to be the pillar, the beacon of light and strength, but he’s tired of being strong. He’d like to lean a little, every so often, to let himself need. So he does. “What?” he asks, slumping into Castiel like he’s run a hundred miles.

“Nothing,” Castiel says, and there’s a small but very real smile on his lips as he tightens his hold on Dean, the two of them fitting together on the chair like they have for so many months now, like Dean hopes they will for hundreds more to come.. “I just wanted to look at you.”

Laughing a little because he can’t do anything else, Dean closes his eyes and sighs, resting his head on Castiel’s shoulder again. “I’ll let you look.”

Castiel starts up another episode of The Office after that, but Dean falls asleep halfway through, head slipping down to Castiel’s chest, rising and falling with Castiel’s breath.

*

As usual when extra busy, weeks pass as though they are minutes, Dean spending his time between work, school, the Impala, and a little bit of Castiel, who comes home in the evenings, later than usual, because he’s got dozens of papers to grade and a final exam to prepare. He lets Dean rub his shoulders and bring him sweet coffee and generally dote on him, only saying thank you even though it’s clear in his eyes that he’s not used to being taken care of, not like this. It’s a change, Dean thinks, from the way they were before, Castiel lavishing him with attention and gifts, always jumping to do things for Dean, always wanting to be there. They’re finding a balance he isn’t sure they had previously, and though they’re still walking along a fine line, unclear of where they stand, Dean can say with sincerity that at least the situation has improved. Instead of floundering along, lost from one another, they seem to be headed, though blind, in the same direction.

On the Thursday before dead week, the last Thursday John is in rehab and the last Thursday of classes before graduation, Dean spends a happy half hour talking to his dad on the phone, giving him a quick rundown of his pre-graduation schoolwork and gossipping shamelessly about Jessica. John sounds good, Dean realizes—good and healthy and strong, his familiar baritone not as raspy as before.

“So this girl,” John prompts, “she likes our Sammy?”

“Totally,” Dean grins, holding the phone between his ear and shoulder as he slaps some meat and cheese and mayo on bread, the quickest lunch he can manage. He’s only got ten more minutes before he has to haul ass to work again until six, when he’ll leave to pick up Sam from Jessica’s. “She’s really cool, Dad, you’ll like her. She’s all blonde and pretty, way too good for him, but hey, he’s happy and so is she.”

John makes a noise of understanding, his voice sounding tinny on Dean’s cell phone. “That’s good. I’m excited to meet her.” He pauses for a moment and Dean takes a huge bite from his sandwich. “Bobby said he’d pick me up tomorrow. I didn’t know what your plans were, and I figured you’d be getting ready for school to be done with.”

Dean stops chewing, swallowing with effort, something cold in his stomach. “Dad, we were gonna come get you. I thought that was, like...just. That we were set with that.” For a brief moment, he feels like a failure, wondering if he forgot plans somewhere down the line or didn’t say something when he should have.

“Dean,” John says, using a particular tone Dean hasn’t heard in years, a little chastising but gentle too. “You have your own life, son. And I didn’t want Sam to miss another day of class. There are a lot of reasons for it, all right? You’re okay. I just—thought I’d try thinking of you, for a change.”

Something small takes root in Dean’s chest, a feeling he rather likes but isn’t entirely sure what it is yet, so old and unused that he can’t quite wrap his mind around it. It makes him stop what he’s doing, sandwich half-eaten and forgotten in his hand, eyes staring unseeing at the floor. “Oh.”

“I’ve done too much thinking about myself, so one of my goals is to think about my kids during, uh. During recovery. To focus on you guys and not on drinking. It’ll...give me something to work toward.”

Dean can’t help but smile, sitting down at the kitchen table and holding his phone a little tighter. “We’ll help you, Dad. I know we haven’t done a great job of that, but—we’re here for you. Whatever you need.”

“I’m grateful for that, boy, but you and Sam tried a long time ago. I’m sorry I didn’t listen.” He clears his throat; Dean’s is too tight to speak. On John’s end of the phone, Dean can hear a woman telling him his time is nearly up. “Dean, I should probably get going. I’ve been thinking, too—why don’t you decide what you’d like to do after the ceremony? Maybe dinner or somethin’?”

“We don’t need that,” Dean says quickly, heart beating so hard in his chest it’s about to bust through his bones and skin. “Honestly, Dad, I just want you and Sammy and Bobby there.” And Castiel, but Dean doesn’t mention him, hasn’t brought up that name to his father the entire time John’s been at Valley Hope, and he doesn’t intend to start now. He refuses to stress his father out any more, and besides, Dean has stopped caring—to an extent—about what his father thinks. Dean’s going to proceed with his life the way he wants, as long as nobody gets hurt. He knows, eventually, that John will be tolerant of Castiel, and that will be enough.

There’s quiet on the end of the line, an odd quiet. “I wasn’t—I don’t know if I should go to graduation, son. I don’t think that would be right.”

Dean’s quiet too, echoing his father’s uncomfortable silence. His first thought is I worked so fucking hard for this and his second is What did I do wrong this time? “I don’t...I mean, why not?”

“Dean...that’s a day of celebration for everything you’ve done to get your diploma. I’d be a distraction. I guess...” He takes a breath. “The way I feel”—Dean almost smiles at the phrasing, thinking it’s something John’s been working on with his therapist—“is that I haven’t earned that. I haven’t earned that privilege as a father because I haven’t been a father.”

Taking another bite of his sandwich, Dean chews quickly and pulls open the refrigerator to get a bottle of water for the road. “Dad, come on. I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit. I’d really like it if you were there. I’d appreciate it.” He doesn’t want to ask outright, fearing that his father really doesn’t want to go but is trying to spare his feelings. If that’s the case, Dean will gladly let him. His feelings, these days, are like exposed nerve endings--raw and painful and quick to alight.

“I’ll think about it,” John says at last, “but I don’t want you expecting me, okay? I’ve disappointed you too much. I don’t really want to keep adding to that.”

Dean nods though John can’t see him, not saying that he’s already disappointed again because John needs all the positivity he can get, even if Dean has none to give. He’ll try anyway. “Don’t stress out about it, okay? You’re still trying to get better and I understand that. I want you to focus on you a little more.”

“Dean--”

“No, I’m serious.” He climbs into his car and puts his dad on speakerphone, hooking the phone in the neck of his t-shirt. “Once you get better, we can focus on all of us, right? It makes sense. You need to relax some.” He hesitates. “You gonna be staying with Bobby?”

“For now, yeah.” John covers the mouthpiece when the woman tells him it’s time, and there’s the space of a few seconds where all Dean can hear is silence. “Sorry, kiddo. I can’t squeeze more time out. But I’m stayin’ with Bobby for now, gonna try and get my own place soon. I’ll see you sometime this weekend, maybe?”

“Yeah,” Dean says, feeling a little cold and, distinctly, like a bad son. He puts the thoughts out of his mind, though, telling himself that he isn’t a bad son, not even close. That he’s done everything he could, and if that wasn’t enough, well, it’s not all on his shoulders. He can’t take blame for everything if he’s tried his best. “I’m pretty busy with my final project for class, but if I can, I’d like to.”

“Sounds good to me,” John says, and Dean can hear the smile in his voice. “Love you, Dean.”

Dean nods, voice slipping softer than he expects it to. “I love you too, Dad.”

There’s a click as the line dies and Dean slides his phone off his shirt, flipping it shut and shoving it into his pocket, foot heavy on the gas as he races to Bobby’s, a little late but thinking it’s worth it. He tells himself it’s not the end of the world if his dad skips out on his graduation, but no matter how convincingly he reassures himself, he can’t seem to shake the emptiness from his chest.

 

Work at Bobby’s, pick up Sam in Kansas City, meet his group for the project. More Bobby’s on Saturday, more groupwork. Some studying, some making out with Castiel when Dean can’t stand it anymore, brief and heated in the kitchen before Castiel pulls away, then bartending at the Roadhouse. Repeat on Sunday. Monday is everything but the bar. Add in one little brother to the mix. This is Dean’s life the final week of school, and though he’s scheduled to graduate on Saturday--before his final grades are in the following Friday--he doesn’t feel like he’s anywhere near the home stretch. There’s just too much goddamn work to do.

One of his only reprieves is late in those few evenings, after Sam’s gone to bed, when Dean sits at the kitchen table with Castiel and studies quietly, looking up occasionally to watch as Castiel writes out corrections on essays with a particular green pen. Only once during these few days, caught up in an impromptu kiss with Castiel at the refrigerator, did Dean try to broach the subject of possibly trying with them again. Castiel had shaken his head, said I can’t do that yet, and Dean backed off, feeling only a little dismayed. He’ll keep trying. Sam’s right--sometimes you have to do it more than once. Or even twice. Hell, he’ll do it a thousand fucking times if it gets Castiel back to him again.

It’s Tuesday before Dean has a chance to talk to his dad with more than just a passing hello as he comes and goes from the auto shop. John looks damn good--so good, in fact, that Dean sees some resemblance in their features, the shape of their nose and a certain set to their mouths. Sam, he knows, looks the most like John, while Dean was a spitting image of Mary when he was a baby. Even now he has her eyes, her freckles.

There’s not much substance to their conversation, but it’s not as tense as it was before, when Dean couldn’t stand to look at John’s puffy, reddened face for long without feeling guilty, as though John took to the bottle because of something Dean did, some way Dean had behaved. They hug when Dean has to leave to get Sam and Dean consents, after John prods, to having a barbecue at Bobby’s when they’re done with graduation. John doesn’t say if he’s going and Dean doesn’t ask, but it’s clear that the question hangs somewhere between them.

On Thursday, after his final class is completed and he knows for sure he’s made all A’s for the semester, Dean heads to the garage to get his three hours in before he has to pick up Sam. He’s changing tires on a Dodge pickup when his brain, mostly quiet and focused until this exact moment, decides to shoot him up with anxiety until he can barely breathe. He’s graduating on Saturday. The last six years of his life have been geared toward this moment, even though several times he thought he wouldn’t see it. He’s graduating on Saturday and he lives in his ex-boyfriend’s basement and has no idea what he’s going to do after because he hasn’t considered it, has worked at a mechanic’s garage and a bar since he was old enough to do so, and literally hasn’t a clue what he’d like to do beyond those two jobs. What skills does he even have? This right here, making cars run, and making cocktails. This is what he can do. What the fuck else does he have?

His wrench slips due to a lack of concentration and Dean has to shake his head hard, dispelling the thoughts. He can’t panic about this. That’s a child’s reaction. He has time to think this through, to decide where he’d like to go next in his life, and if he needs help he’s going to goddamn ask for it from the people who love and care for him, because that’s what they’re there for. You help your family and they help you, even if it’s with the big things, like putting a roof over your head and letting your little brother have a mailbox key. Big things are okay. They don’t have to be repaid with money, just with trust and love and all that other good shit that makes you feel pleasantly achy inside.

He manages to finish up without any other mishaps, waving to his dad, who’s filling out paperwork in the office, before climbing into his rickety Nova. This is another thing he knows he needs to take care of. Dean may be a great mechanic, but he also knows a lost cause when he sees one, and his car is not going to last him too much longer. He supposes he should start saving up for a new one, but in the back of his mind all he can think about is that Impala and how much he would love to have her. It’s a thought, but he knows he can’t afford it, and besides, it’s for Castiel’s rich brother. Dean will have to find another car. (He entertains the notion of driving the Porsche, the fantasy of which occupies him until he picks up Sam at Pembroke Hill.)

As soon as he and Sam come back into the house that afternoon, taking off their shoes at the door and hanging up their jackets, Dean realizes that he’s done. Sam still has two more weeks and is frantic for it, taking the stairs three at a time with his long legs so he can start studying, but Dean’s done. He is done with his undergraduate degree and he will soon not have to go to classes. Of course, he’ll have to start paying back his loans, but he thinks he’ll be able to afford that. Not much else, but at least that.

“Cas?” he calls out, not sure if Castiel’s home yet since he hasn’t been in the garage. “You here?”

“Kitchen.” His voice sounds clipped and brief and Dean knows he’s stressed as hell, so he follows the sound of Castiel’s voice and comes up behind him while Castiel is hunched over another small stack of papers.

“Did you eat lunch?” Dean asks, putting one hand lightly on his shoulder. Ever since they started touching semi-regularly again, Dean can’t seem to keep himself from doing it as much as possible. At least Castiel’s the same way; even now, he reaches up to cover Dean’s hand, fingers holding firm.

“I haven’t. I didn’t have time to make anything.”

Dean lets go only so he can move to the refrigerator, opening it up and inspecting their options, which aren’t many and make it clear that they really need to go grocery shopping. “How about a leftover slice of Pizza Shuttle?” They used to be Dean’s favorite pizza. Now it’s Castiel’s. “You know Sam won’t mind.”

There’s silence from the kitchen table so Dean looks over, sees that Castiel has the end of the pen between his teeth and is staring at an essay. “Hmm--what?”

“Pizza Shuttle,” Dean repeats, smiling a little. “You want Sam’s leftover Hawaiian?”

“I am not taking Sam’s pizza. I’m not hungry yet, thank you.”

Dean grumbles a little, opening up the freezer this time and searching through there for something edible. “I didn’t ask if you were hungry, I asked if you’d eaten.”

There’s a pause before Castiel laughs, and Dean thinks the kitchen gets a little brighter with it. “All right, mother. I guess I can eat something.”

They end up eating sandwiches on hamburger buns, quiet at the kitchen table, Dean watching Castiel and running through possible topics of discussion in his mind, since Castiel won’t grade while he eats. The Impala takes up thought space and Dean clears his throat. “So, I’m nearly done with the car. Just gotta repaint now and fix the upholstery. Everything else is done.”

Castiel smiles at him, tongue sneaking out to lick at the mustard at the corner of his lip. “That’s great, Dean. How much longer, do you think?”

“Not too much,” he murmurs, “especially with school out. I think I want to reupholster the seats myself so I’ll have to find a tutorial on that. Luckily the Internet exists, right?”

“Right,” Castiel confirms, smiling a little with narrowed eyes, as if he’s trying to see through Dean; Dean’s sure Castiel can hear the waver in his voice. “Are you okay?”

“Uh, yeah.” He doesn’t know why he’s so nervous except that he is, rubbing his damp palms on his jeans and taking a breath. “I was wondering how interested your brother is in that car. I--I don’t know how I’d do it, but I’d like...I mean, if he’s maybe somehow lost interest?” He realizes how he sounds so he tries to make a joke, trailing off with, “You know you rich folk get bored easily...” because he doesn’t know where he’s trying to go with this, exactly, and halfway through decides that he’s got no right to ask.

Castiel sighs a little and shakes his head, looking at Dean with that odd little smile. “Dean, he decided five months ago that he doesn’t much care about the car. I was planning to offer it to you as a graduation gift but I didn’t think you’d accept.”

Jaw dropping, Dean stares at him, not laughing even though Castiel does, a happy little sound. “Fucking--are you fucking serious?”

“Yes, of course. I just kept using his credit card to pay for things. He hasn’t even noticed.” His smile tips up into a grin. “It felt kind of good, actually.”

“There’s a lot of money in that car,” something in Dean makes him say, “so if he doesn’t want it, it would probably be a good idea...to sell it.” He rubs at his forehead. “Fuck. Cas.”

“You want it.” Castiel leans forward on the table, and the small distance that separates them is too great, makes Dean reach across student papers to grasp Castiel’s hand. “Please, please, please take it,” Castiel continues. “Your car is not going to last you long, and Sam could use something in the fall for school. You’ve already put the work into it. Take it, Dean.”

It’s not about the money, not really. It’s about Castiel giving something to Dean that he knows, knows Dean wants. There’ll be time to pay for it, and if it takes him until the day he he dies, Dean will make it happen. His soul is in there, and maybe part of Castiel’s. That car helped bring them together and Dean doesn’t want to let it go. “I’m going to pay you,” he says slowly, looking down when Castiel’s bright smile nearly blinds him. “Or, you know, Lucifer--whatever. But I’m paying you. Don’t know how much I can do right now, but I’ll do what I can.”

“Whatever you want,” Castiel says, squeezing his hand and brushing lips to his knuckles, and Dean’s chest eases from its tightness, replaced instead with that feeling he gets so often around Castiel, the one that makes his face hurt from smiling so much, and he meets Castiel’s eyes quietly, both of them smiling in a sweet dumb way. Dean wants to ask How is this any different from being with me? but he knows it is, knows that, no matter how much Castiel gives him physically, there’s still a distinct separation, a wall Castiel has put up that Dean doesn’t think will come down for a while, no matter how hard he tries.

Castiel’s lips brush his knuckles again before letting go, picking up his pen with a sigh. “I have forty more papers to read, plus the final exams. Why did I assign such long papers? I said eight to twelve pages. Most of these are twelve. These kids never do the minimum.”

Dean grins at him before standing, intending to go Google for a little while on the best way to reupholster leather seats. “It’s because their professor is fucking smart and hot and they wanna impress him.” When Castiel snorts, Dean nudges him with his hip, crowding his personal space until Castiel’s arm comes up and curls around his waist. “I’m serious. You have no clue how gorgeous you are. I bet you all the girls and at least half the boys watch you walk around that room with bad thoughts in their head.”

“I wonder if that’s why they don’t talk in class when I ask them questions,” Castiel muses, looking as though something has just occurred to him. “Nobody sleeps. They’re all clearly paying attention.”

“They’re struck dumb by your beauty,” Dean tells him, sliding away with a grin. “I’ll be in the garage if you need me.”

“Dinner at eight,” Castiel says distractedly, bent over his essay again, and Dean gives his assent before striding happily into the garage.

*

Memorial Stadium, where commencement is held, has more people in it than Dean knew existed in the goddamn world. He’s a little later to the ceremony than he should have been because he forgot his fucking cap at home and had to race back for it, bumping incidentally into Castiel, who isn’t part of the ceremony this year but who’s scrambling to help the rest of the English faculty do what they need to do. They shared a brief but intense kiss as they both rushed out the door, Castiel calling out, I’m fucking proud of you, and Dean saying, I fucking love you, as soon as he’s in his car. He doesn’t think Castiel heard, which is probably for the best.

Now...he waits. Sitting in his seat, the ceremony having begun, he wishes he could somehow find Sam and Bobby in the crowd but there are way too many people, some of whom are actually sitting in the aisles between seats. Dean’s got his cell phone on him, but his reception is terrible. Instead he plays Tetris, waiting for his name to be called, which is fairly early because of where Engineering is placed, but after that he knows he’ll have to wait forfuckingever.

When the microphone is handed off to the Dean of Engineering, Dean starts to perk up a little, wanting to look like he’s paying attention as his fellow Engineering majors are announced one at a time. His phone buzzes three or four times in his pocket as he receives belated text messages, so he pulls it out and flips it open, only seeing the most recent one from Sam. It shocks his system a little, short-circuiting his brain. Dad’s here. Bobby brought him. Thought you should know :)

Dean looks up with a pounding heart, though it’s stupid, of course he can’t see his dad in the thousands of people, but knowing that he’s there, even after he said he wouldn’t be, after he said he didn’t deserve to be, makes Dean’s eyes burn. He has to blink several times, finally responding to the text with thanks because he doesn’t know what else to say. What can he say? He’s got nothing, no words; nothing in his head other than an overwhelming feeling of gratitude that clenches him up all tight but in the best way.

He’s so dazed that he stands up belatedly when its his row’s turn to walk, swishing in his gown toward the end of the aisle, shuffling along with other students he doesn’t know and looking up halfheartedly into the stands. Too many people, far too many, and he only knows four of them anyway. They’re all here, somewhere, and that makes it easier to walk, to stand on stage and move forward when his name is called, hearing his little group yell for him and smiling so big it hurts, shaking hands and taking his diploma and standing in line for his picture. The flash dazes him, makes walking back to his seat a damn difficult task. When he sits down again, he breathes. He’s done. He’s done.

 

After the ceremony is done, Dean and Sam text with plans to meet back at Bobby’s instead of trying to navigate the goddamn Atlantic Ocean of human beings. They’d never find one another in this mess, anyway, so Dean heads out to his car alone, cap in his hand and hair mussed on his head. On the drive over he thinks about calling Castiel and inviting him to lunch, but he doesn’t want to stir up anything with his dad. Nah, best leave it as the four of them. Maybe he and Castiel can do dinner later.

He pulls up in the driveway and is startled to see Castiel’s Fit parked behind Bobby’s old Cadillac. Barely remembering to turn off the engine, Dean stumbles out and lets Sam hug him so tight his bones ache. “Cas is here?” he asks dumbly, staring at the familiar car and wondering if it’s somehow someone else’s.

“Cas is here,” Sam confirms, grinning and grabbing Dean’s arm, tugging him along toward the front door. “Dad invited him, if you can believe that. Cas didn’t think he’d be able to make it with the school stuff he was handling, but he said he got out of it for a couple of hours.”

The enormity of such a gesture doesn’t escape Dean, who sees the implication of it and is terribly, terribly heartened by what it could mean. But he doesn’t have time to dwell on it, even though it’s such a good feeling. Instead, he heads into the house, noticing first the smell of apple pie baking in the oven and John leaning against the counter, laughing at something Bobby says, a glass of ice water in hand. The second thing he notices is Castiel rubbing a dry marinade onto several steaks.

“There he is,” John says, such tenderness in his tone that it makes Dean smile reflexively, happy to have made his father proud, moving into his quick embrace before getting himself a Coke. “You looked pretty good up there, kiddo.”

“It was the most boring goddamn thing I’ve ever been to,” Dean says dryly, earning a chuckle from Bobby and a snort from John. Sam, peeling potatoes, gives a sigh.

“Dean, it’s a ceremony. What did you expect?”

Shrugging, he snaps the top on the can before sitting at the kitchen table next to Castiel, glancing at him and giving him a small smile, one that Castiel returns. “I don’t know. Fireworks, at least. Something more entertaining than that long-ass speech.”

Bobby takes a bowl of salad from the refrigerator, sliding it on the counter next to the Thousand Island dressing and the cut-up tomato and lettuce and jars of condiments. The salad, for sure, is for Castiel and Sam. “The only fireworks they had in that place were when that girl kissed that old fella handin’ her the diploma. That was somethin’ to see.”

While John and Bobby find themselves discussing (arguing over) the best way to grill a steak, Dean turns to Castiel and looks at him, amused by the sheer concentration Castiel displays over the dry rub on the steak. When Castiel glances at him and catches his eye, he smiles. “What’s the look for, Dean?”

“Just glad you’re here,” he says honestly, to which Castiel smiles a little more before looking down at the steak again, hands covered in tiny red granules.

“I’m glad your father invited me,” Castiel says after a moment, turning the last steak over to season it properly. “It was very kind of him.”

Dean nods, having no real words to say, and smiles. John takes the steaks that are ready from Castiel and says thank you before going out to the smoking barbecue pit. Dean watches him go before looking at Castiel again, who’s washing his hands at the kitchen sink, wearing jeans and a plain gray polo, the shape of his back visible beneath the thin fabric. Dean wants to do something for him, show him just how much Castiel means to him, how important he is, how Dean knows he was dumb but wants to try again. It seems like he’s almost there, that Castiel is starting to come to the other side of the hill; there isn’t nearly as much wariness to his eyes when he looks at Dean anymore, their banter starting to slip into familiar regularity. All Dean needs is that push, that something that proves it. Dean needs to show him what he wants, like Sam showed Castiel how to win Dean over.

The idea hits him so hard he actually chokes on gulp of Coke and has to fight off Sam, who’s pummeling his back way too aggressively. He grabs Sam and tries to punch him in return, but Sam’s too tall now, too feisty, and he scrambles away with a laugh. Castiel shakes his head at the both of them and says something about barbarians, but Dean’s not paying attention. His brain is on a roll now, almost feverishly so, with the sounds of his family going in and out of the kitchen, grilling steaks and tossing salad and taking the pie out of the oven. The warmth of the sunshine streaming through the window doesn’t compare to the hope brewing in his chest.

Determined now, and feeling vibrant in a way he hasn’t in a long time, he stands and grabs Castiel in a hug, surprising him, before heading outside to bring his father the steak tongs.

*

He puts his plan into motion just after midnight on Monday morning, mind frenetic with thoughts. He’d wanted to wait until the weekend but found he couldn’t, excitement flooding his system with adrenaline. So Dean rolls out of bed. He dresses and takes the side entrance from the basement, not wanting to wake anyone in the house, particularly Castiel. He puts his car in neutral and walks it away from the curb until he feels safe starting the engine, heading out of the quiet neighborhood and toward the nearest CVS. Once inside, he greets the tired blonde at the front with a slight wave, noticing how her eyes perk up a bit at his entrance. He’s not here to flirt, though, so he goes into the school supplies and selects a black composition notebook for $1.17 and a package of multi-colored Post-Its. He surveys the available pens and decides on a pack of the retractable ones with green gel ink so his handwriting will be neater.

He pays for everything with a ten dollar bill and makes small talk with the cashier girl, exaggerating his smiles and leaning on the counter toward her, watching her blush, thanking her profusely until her smile widens as far as it can go and she tells him to come back soon. He hopes she’ll have a better night now.

Once at home, he sits at his desk and turns on the lamp, upending his plastic bag and tearing open the pens, taking off the small stopper on each tip and testing it out before putting the other two within reach. He opens the composition book and he starts to write.

 

Dean’s hand hurts by the time he has to stop at six in the morning, and he’s disappointed to see he’s only halfway done. He’d wanted to finish up and have enough time to get the second half of the plan ready earlier in the day, but now he sees that won’t happen. It’s time for him to take Sam to school, so Dean knows he’ll have to wait until the afternoon to do what he needs to do.

He’s quiet on the drive to Kansas City and is grateful that Sam lets him be quiet, doesn’t try to pry him open. He parks to let Sam out at Pembroke Hill, giving a little wave to Jessica waiting on the curb, and is pleasantly surprised when Sam leans across the seat and hugs Dean awkwardly. Patting his brother’s back, Dean almost kisses his temple in the way he used to do when Sam was younger, but he manages to refrain. No need to embarrass him in front of his girlfriend, especially when they’ll be studying all day together. Nah, Dean has plenty of time for that later.

He hurries back to Lawrence and goes straight to his room, opening up the notebook and writing more in the last day and a half than he’s written in a long time. It’s almost easy, though sometimes he has to sit and think, trying to figure out how to phrase what he feels, put words to the shivers and the nervous stomachs and the double-time beats of his heart. But he does. He does, he gets it all down in a matter of hours and his hand is killing him but it’s done.

He rips open the Post-Its and gets to work on that too, jotting down as many as he can until four o’clock, knowing that Castiel won’t stay much later than five and will instead bring his work home. Dean has to do this with Castiel in his office. He has to do it now.

He parks illegally up at the school and hopes he doesn’t get a ticket as he races toward the English building, notebook under his arm and Post-Its in his hands. Once he gets to Castiel’s hallway, Dean starts putting up the Post-Its on the walls--only the ones that are PG-13 or lower, of course--where he knows Castiel will see. He even sneaks into the mailroom when Julie behind the front desk isn’t looking, decorating Castiel’s inbox with a few of them, colorful pieces of paper that can’t be read as anything other than what they are, what Dean feels.

Then Dean goes to Castiel’s office. The door is closed and locked but the light is on. Pressing his ear to the door, Dean can’t hear anything other than the hum of the air conditioning, so he figures Castiel either went to the bathroom or to grab coffee. So Dean gets to work with the Post-It stack in his hands, reaching as high as he can up the outside of the door to stick them in neat little rows, one after another, making sure to leave Castiel’s posters and pictures of England free from obstruction.

His heart pounds in his chest as he focuses on this task, hoping it will do what he intends it to do, hoping Castiel will see this and will understand how sincere Dean is. How he knows he fucked up but that he wants to try again, more than anything, that he needs Castiel and isn’t afraid to show it. He’s not running from this again and will chase Castiel as long as he needs to--until Castiel can forgive and love him again, and not have that closed-off look in his eyes for fear of giving away any more pieces of himself.

Dean breaks things, he does, but he puts them back together, too, and he would like nothing more than to patch Castiel up and for the two of them, now that they’ve shown one another what they believe to be the very worst aspects of themselves, to settle down and breathe a little. Dean isn’t satisfied with only fifty percent of Castiel; he wants everything, the good and the bad, and he wants to do it right this time. He may not be the brightest crayon in the box, but goddammit, he loves Castiel and Castiel loves him. It can be as simple as that, and as easy, if they both can let their guards down and show one another what hides beneath their armor. Dean knows this now, finally, and he’s unwilling to let things slide away.

He runs out of Post-Its when the door is only half covered, but he thinks that’s okay. He’s got the hallways covered coming from both the bathroom and the teacher’s lounge, so there’s no way Castiel can miss them. Looking at his watch and seeing it’s twenty to five, Dean leans against the wall by Castiel’s door, reminded of doing this all those months ago, so early on Saturday mornings, and waits.

 

Castiel turns the corner from the break room not two minutes later, walking slowly and distractedly because he’s reading each Post-It with great care, eyes wider than usual, mouth slack . He doesn’t notice Dean at first, too busy scanning every word, shaking his head as if in disbelief. Dean watches him and smiles, heart clenching when Castiel reaches out to touch a little pink square, which Dean can read even from where he is: #107 You snort when you laugh too hard. Castiel turns his head and spots Dean, stilling with one hand clutched around his coffee and the other one just about to pluck a green Post-It from the wall (#200 Your hands are soft no matter what you do), frozen as though he’s been caught. He tries to speak but nothing comes out for a moment. Then he looks at the colorful squares on the wall again. “Did...did you do this?” he asks, his voice an octave higher than usual, eyes scanning the Post-Its again. He tries to smooth out his expression, to not look too hopeful, but Dean can see it all over his face. Castiel can’t hide when he feels something this much.

“I did.” Dean pushes off from the wall, one hand in his pocket, the other gripping the notebook like his life depends on it--which, it kind of does. “Can I talk to you for a minute in your office?”

Castiel nods several times, approaching Dean with a sense of shyness Dean isn’t sure he’s ever seen from him, as though Castiel is somehow surprised by him and sees him differently. “Yes...yes, that would be fine.” He sidesteps Dean, who smiles at him like he’s conditioned to do so, and reaches for the doorknob to his office. Then he stops and looks at all the Post-Its on the door. Takes the time to read some of them while Dean fidgets a little, hoping he isn’t out of line. It’s not like he wants to get Castiel in trouble or anything. After a few more moments and a few more head shakes, he glances at Dean, eyebrows drawn together over glassy eyes, mouth small.

“I ran out of time to do more,” Dean explains, scratching at the back of his head. “Kinda wanted to get it done today before you really get all stressy about grading.” He steps closer to Castiel but doesn’t touch him, looking steadily into his eyes. “I won’t take too much of your time.”

Castiel nods once more, swallowing visibly before unlocking his office, letting Dean follow him inside. The office is in a sort of organized chaos, stacks of paper on the floor like little skyscrapers, books in similar topheavy formations along the wall, all of which correspond to the essay Castiel’s been writing for publication in a journal. On the desk, which is mostly clean except for one student essay, the green pen Castiel loves, and several empty cups of coffee, Dean sees, with startled surprise, the car-part angel he’d made for Castiel for Christmas. His entire plan looks even better now.

“Sit down,” Castiel says, taking a seat in his chair but holding himself rather stiffly, eyes on the notebook in Dean’s hands. He looks as though he’s on the verge of climbing out of his skin, shoulders tense. “What can I help you with?”

Dean wastes no time, sliding the notebook across the desk, leaning forward and clasping his fingers together. “I’m in love with you,” he states honestly, looking Castiel in the eyes and not shying away. “So in love with you, in fact, that you might want to open up that notebook. Because I have three hundred reasons in there why I love you.”

Castiel’s eyes shine like glass as he touches fingers to the composition cover, tracing over Dean’s title, which is a bit more clever than Sam’s Christmas gift with Reasons Why I, Dean Winchester, Love You, Castiel Milton, subtitled (an ongoing project).

“I was gonna do more,” Dean says, reaching over to open the cover since Castiel hasn’t, “but I liked the idea of starting with three hundred because of what Sam did. Also, my hand started fucking hurting. So I’ll just keep adding to it. New stuff comes up every day, anyway.”

There’s a long pause while Castiel looks over the first page, his fingers trembling finely, his chest visibly rising and falling too fast. “Dean.”

“I mean it, Cas. I was actually thinking of, you know, serenading you outside your office window, but...” He crooks a grin when Castiel smiles at that and chuckles softly as he touches Dean’s most honest words.

“I don’t have a window.” He looks up then, eyebrows drawn together, swallowing. “Dean.”

Smiling a little more, Dean presses fingertips to the back of Castiel’s hand, voice softer than before but no less earnest, no less serious. “Cas. Please. Give me another chance. It’s all I need. I won’t hurt you like that ever again. I’m not saying it’s gonna be perfect, but it’ll be really good. I’ll make you happy or die trying. Please.” His heart grows a little when two tears, one after another, slip down Castiel’s flushed cheeks. “One chance, professor? Work this out with me?”

For a moment it doesn’t look as though Castiel can speak, his mouth opening but no sound coming out. Then he curls his hand over Dean’s and holds on so tight it almost hurts, but Dean holds back just as tight, just as hard. “Yes. I’ll work it out with you.”

To hide the tears prickling at his own eyes, Dean gives a bit of a laugh. “Okay, you’re supposed to say, ‘I can work something out with you,’ since that’s what you said the first time and pretty much changed my life.”

Castiel seems to collapse at that, spine curving as he leans forward, reaching for Dean, but it’s okay because Dean’s reaching back, standing so he can bend over the desk and cup Castiel’s face, kiss the breath out of him and give back his own. The kiss is a damp and salty thing that isn’t much more than a sloppy meeting of mouths, both of them lost in the effort to touch and possess, hands clumsy and all over. “I love you,” Castiel shakes out, dragging his open mouth up Dean’s chin, finding lips. “I love you so much, you fucking idiot. I love you.”

“Good,” Dean says, one hand curling in Castiel’s hair, remembering the first time he touched it, how soft it was, remembering all the new things he learned about Castiel, little by little, that contributed to this moment. “Otherwise that would make this awkward as hell right now.”

Laughing, Castiel pulls away and wipes at his eyes, looking down at the book again, closing it to read the cover. “This is the cheesiest thing you’ve ever done. You know that, right?”

“Yeah, I know.” Dean settles back in his chair, body loose and happy and warm all over, like being bathed in sunshine. It’s been so long since he’s seen Castiel like this—his Castiel, looking at him with fondness and a bit of a roll to his bright blue eyes.

“Seriously, Dean. The Post-Its...I can’t believe you did that.”

“I swear I only used the polite ones,” he laughs, head tilted and gazing at Castiel like he can drink him down just by looking at him, nourish his body in that way. “There’s about fifteen in there praising your cock. I left those out of your department mailbox.”

Castiel shakes his head, smiling so wide it looks as though it will split his face, eyes crinkling up small and sweet. “Thank God you did. Not sure what the department chair would have thought about that.” He gives another laugh, elbow on the desk, running a hand through his hair. “Dean, I can’t tell you...I don’t know if I’ve ever felt like this before.”

“Cool,” Dean says, eyes half-closed with pride. “Whatever you’re feeling, it looks good on you.”

“It’s like there’s been a weight taken off,” he explains, opening the notebook again to read some of the numbers (Dean can see number thirty-three: You aren’t afraid to call me on my bullshit and love me for it anyway). “Have you ever heard of the Greek mythology of Sisyphus?” Castiel continues. “The man doomed for all eternity to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down?”

If Dean didn’t think they were fucking made to go together by the hand of God Himself, he sure knows it now. Glancing at the angel perched near the iMac, Dean leans forward again, lacing his fingers with Castiel’s and holding on, meeting his eyes with a soft crooked smile. “Yeah. Dude should’ve asked for help.”

They break away shortly thereafter, Castiel wanting to finish grading the paper he’s working on before they go home, so Dean elects to stay with him, content to sit and simply watch Castiel work, admiring the particular curvature of his face, his sharp cheekbones and shock of dark hair, messy from Dean’s own hands. Something quiet builds inside his chest until it takes him over and all he feels in the world is sublimely happy.

So many little and not-so-little things have happened in the last year, everything bringing Dean to Castiel like a funnel, narrowing down until they met at a fine point. All the decisions he made, even the bad ones, have gotten them here. Now, Dean thinks, it was a good thing the way it all happened as it did, even though they still have so much to resolve, even though Castiel will have to work through the death of his mother, his own fears of failure. But it’s okay. They have an understanding now that they didn’t before and they can start new from here on out, Dean asking for help when he needs it and Castiel doing the same, each of them trusting the other to hold out his arms when one of them begins to fall.

Nothing is easy, much less the two of them, and their road is a long and bumpy one filled with doubt and anger and fights, but there are good things too. There are big living room chairs and Ke$ha and Castiel’s tall bed, comfortable not because of the thread count of the sheets but because of the man it belongs to. Dean isn’t running from the good things anymore for fear of the the bad. Being an adult means facing the bad things head-on, working through them, getting to the other side; and he doesn’t have to do this alone, not ever again. Some day, Sam will leave and go to college to start his own life apart from Dean, but that’s okay, too. It happens. It’s called growing up. At least Dean has Castiel here to help him crest the hill, hold steady at the top so they don’t tumble down and have to start all over.

With the knowledge of that burning bright in his heart, he is no longer afraid.