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The air outside is a bitter cold, the kind that is always followed by a wind that stings upon contact. Castiel can’t feel a thing as he leans against the lamp post, feeling numb and blissfully unaware of anything besides the yellow glow of the street light and the tendrils of smoke that rise and mingle above his head with every puff of his joint.

“Quit bogartin’ the joint, Clarence,” Meg grunts, her red polished fingernails snapping at Castiel impatiently. Castiel passes it with a slow hand and Meg snatches it quickly. He watches as she sucks in a deep drag, the end of the joint sparking momentarily before fading away.

Snow begins to fall lightly. It looks like dust in the light, and Castiel thinks that’s what it is until he sees a flake fall on one of Meg’s dark curls. He brushes the flake away without even thinking, and Meg startles, tensing under Castiel’s touch.

“Snow,” Castiel says, tongue thick and mouth dry. He licks his lips and swallows while both Meg and Crowley stare at him perplexed. He tries again.

“It’s snowing.”

Crowley laughs. “How stoned are you?” he asks.

Castiel shrugs and finds himself smiling anyway. Meg is still staring, one eyebrow raised in questioning, but doesn’t say anything. Castiel thinks she may be blushing, but everything is blurred. His mind could be lying.

There aren’t many places to hang out in the suburbs of Lawrence, Kansas. The bowling alley, the shopping center, the movie theater, and the Chili’s are all in one convenient plaza that is deserted most weeknights. The trio are standing on the sidewalk behind the Walgreen’s, a few streets down from Crowley’s house, which Castiel has only seen from the outside—once, when he was seven. His mother had been driving him to a friend’s house and Castiel had seen Crowley sitting outside on his front steps, burning ants on the sidewalk with a magnifying glass. Castiel had always been afraid of Crowley. There was perpetual darkness that seemed to loom over him when he walked by, and he looked at you as if he knew your deepest secrets and was ready to use them against you at any given moment. It unsettled Castiel every time their eyes met; a sick pooling in his stomach would begin to grow and turn into knots that would only dissipate at Crowley’s departure.

Now he stood, at two in the morning on a Wednesday night, under a light on Victor Street with Crowley and his girlfriend, Meg. Meg, who was just as intimidating as Crowley, only it didn’t sneak up on you the way Crowley’s intimidation did—rather, it hit like a smack to the face.

Something in the distance catches Crowley’s eye and he burns out the roach and stuffs it into his cigarette pack, taking out one for the three of them. Castiel takes it and his eyes follow Crowley’s to a figure on the opposite side of the street. It’s practically deserted out tonight, the whole town asleep in their bedrooms, except for three teenagers and a man with his hands in his pockets, head hung low.

When he passes a street light, Castiel’s breath catches.

Dean.

Dean looks up, his gaze narrowing straight at Castiel. Castiel hadn’t meant to call out Dean’s name; he didn’t even think he’d said Dean’s name out loud. But there he is in his winter jacket, standing in the middle of the sidewalk as the snow begins to fall, heavier now, staring directly at Castiel.

And then he walks away.

Disappointment settles deep in Castiel’s heart, followed by a hazy stream of thoughts that his head cannot seem to latch onto at the moment. His heart is pounding loudly in his ears and his pulse is racing until he brings the cigarette to his lips and inhales. He leans against the lamp post, exhaling a long stream of smoke, and hangs his head low.

“The fuck was that about?” Meg asks.

Castiel shrugs.

“We might as well split now,” Crowley says.

Castiel feels guilty, but he’s not sure what about. His head hurts. His high fades fast and thrusts him back into the reality of the cold. He doesn’t so much say goodbye as nod to his cohorts before turning down Orchard Street and hoping his family doesn’t hear him when he closes the front door.

*

The light is on in Dean’s bedroom, Castiel notices, when he makes it to his own room. Dean’s blinds are down but not closed, and Castiel hides in his bed, watching Dean move around his bedroom. He’s wearing the sweatshirt Castiel bought him a year ago for his birthday. Castiel’s eyelids feel heavy but he watches with a sick fascination as Dean peels the sweatshirt off, the t-shirt underneath sliding up to reveal the flat expanse of Dean’s stomach, and balls it up before throwing it in the corner.

The blinds make it difficult to see, but Castiel thinks he can see Dean looking out the window into Castiel’s room. He’s standing there in front of his window completely still for a moment, and then he hangs his head low, grabbing the wand to shut the blinds completely. Castiel turns onto his back and looks up at the glow of the dark stars he pasted on his ceiling until he finally shuts down and sleeps dreamlessly.

*

In English class the next morning, Castiel half expects Dean to ask him what he was doing last night with Crowley and Meg. There’s a part of him that is desperate for that to happen, even if it’s out of Dean’s anger. Dean doesn’t say a word to him in class. Instead he doodles in the margins of their textbook while Mr. Adler prattles on about poetic forms and meter and rhyme scheme. Castiel had always liked English. No matter how boring the plotline, the literature his teachers had picked was always filled with fanciful language and Castiel could find the beauty in each line.

By senior year, Castiel had lost that ability.

In fact, he has lost a lot of things by senior year. His grades are falling dismally low, his perfect attendance is ruined, and the one person he has relied on year after year has abandoned him. Or is it the other way around? Castiel can’t remember now.

The words on the page begin to swirl and blur until there’s nothing but a mass of gray before Castiel’s eyes. He shuts his textbook with a loud slam that causes some of his classmates to jump. Mr. Adler looks up at Castiel from behind the stack of papers on his desk but doesn’t say anything to him. Castiel folds his arms across the book and lays his head in between them, closing his eyes for the rest of the class until the bell rings and he’s forced to move on to the next wasted hour.

*

When Castiel was six, the Winchesters moved next door: little Sammy, his big brother Dean, and their father John. The first thing Castiel noticed about Dean Winchester was how loud the little boy was. Castiel always knew Dean was outside because he could hear Dean’s playing. There were a lot of sound effects: explosions, car crashes, punches. Inevitably there would be crying from Sam and then Dean would yell at his little brother for being such a baby. In Sam’s defense, he was in fact, a toddler at the time. Castiel would watch from his bedroom window on the second floor of his home, high enough above his neighbor’s home that he could see over their fenced in backyard, and watch Dean playing. Sometime he would be sad with jealousy that Dean could have so much fun with just his imagination and an empty yard while he and his brothers were stuck in the house, busy with chores or homework, but eventually he grew to care about Dean and enjoyed watching his fooling around.

One day Dean fell off the roof of the shed and into the pile of tools that were leaning against the side while Castiel was watching him play. Dean let out a shrieking cry when he hit the ground, hugging his left knee to his chest in pain. Castiel’s body moved faster than his mind as he ran out his room, down the stairs, and around to Dean’s fence where the gate had luckily been left open.

Dean wasn’t crying, Castiel remembers, but his face was contorted in pain as he clutched his leg tightly.

“Who are you?” Dean asked through gritted teeth as Castiel loomed over him with concern.

“Castiel,” he answered. “You’re bleeding,” Castiel noted then. The knee of Dean’s jeans had ripped and was soaked in blood.

He ran back to his house with the First -Aid Kit his mother kept under their bathroom sink and returned to Dean still in the backyard to patch him up. Dean fought him at first, protesting at Castiel’s every move until finally he let the boy patch him up. There were bits of dirt all around the wound that Castiel cleaned up carefully and covered up with a band-aid.

“Thanks,” Dean mumbled when Castiel had finished. “I’m Dean.”

“I know,” Castiel said. “I watched you fall.”

“That’s creepy.”

Castiel blushed.

Dean got up, slightly wobbly, and dusted the dirt off his knees as if nothing had happened.

“Hey, you wanna play Captain America?” Dean asked.

“Okay,” Castiel answered. He didn’t know what Captain America was or how to play exactly, but he knew he wanted to play with Dean.

*

At lunch, Castiel sneaks outside with Crowley and Meg to smoke a bowl in the school parking lot. Castiel’s already tired and sluggish but he only has two more classes, one with Sam and one with Dean, and he doesn’t see the need to be stone cold sober for either of them.

They smoke with the windows up and Castiel feels like he’s choking. Whatever they’re smoking now is much stronger than the joint from last night. Castiel takes one hit too big and he releases a thick cough, spitting and hacking up everywhere while Meg and Crowley laugh at him from the front seat.

“You like that?” Crowley asks, laughter still in his already smug voice. “It’s a special blend, that bit. I can’t even sell it, there’s not enough supply to meet the demand. If there was, I’d be richer than I already am.”

“Stop bragging, Crowley, and hit the bowl,” Meg whines.

“They don’t call me ‘the King’ for nothing, love,” Crowley says.

“You are the only person that refers to you as ‘the King.’ I hope you know that.”

Crowley shrugs her off and sparks the bowl with his lighter. The school bell rings in the distance.

“Ah fuck,” Crowley growls.

Sneaking back into school is much harder for Castiel. He’s only been friends with Crowley and Meg for a short time and he isn’t as skilled in deceit as they are. The rush of “being bad” isn’t exciting for Castiel in the least, and he wonders why he does it all, wonders if it would be easier to just have no friends at all than be friends with these two. But he makes it to class on time with red eyes and wearing the spare sweatshirt he keeps stowed in his locker, sliding into the desk next in between Anna Milton and Sam Winchester.

Psychology is dreadfully boring and every time Ms. Barnes looks over at Castiel she has pity in her eyes. Like he does in every class, he folds his arms over his textbook and drifts off. He’s so tired his body feels like it will give out completely any second now.

Ms. Barnes leaves the last five minutes of class for everyone to get a jump start on their homework and Sam turns in his chair, giving Castiel’s shoulder a stiff nudge. Castiel looks up and sees Sam’s eyes, just as expressive and honest as Dean’s, and he sighs.

“How you doing, Cas?” Sam asks.

“Fine,” Castiel lies. “And yourself?”

“You don’t look fine,” Sam says.

“Sam, don’t.”

“Look, just because Dean and you aren’t friends right now doesn’t mean you and I aren’t friends,” Sam reminds Castiel, just as he does every day. “If you want to, I dunno, hang out one day. Just you and me. We can totally do that.”

Castiel does his best to return Sam’s earnest smile and from the way Sam’s face falls, he probably fails.

“Thank you, Sam.”

“You’re welcome.”

The bell rings and the class hurriedly packs their bags. Sam offers another smile before following Jess out the door with the rest of the other students. Castiel is lazily stuffing his books into his backpack when Ms. Barnes comes up to his desk.

“Castiel,” she says, “can we talk?”

Castiel gulps, his fear of confrontation and disappointing others rising steadily. “I have to get to class,” he says.

“It’s about your grades,” she says. “Your test scores have been fine but your homework, your essays. Castiel, you can’t get a passing grade in this class on test scores alone.” Ms. Barnes looks up at Castiel with eyes full of pity and lays a hand on his shoulder. “You’re better than that,” she tells him.

“I have to go to class now,” he says. Swinging his backpack over his shoulder, he nearly hits Ms. Barnes’ arm with the force he uses to rush out of the classroom. His headache continues to pound and the bell rings before he can make it out of the science building. He knows he’ll be late and it’s his last class of the day anyway.

He walks out the front and jumps into his pick-up, peeling out of the parking lot before the school security guard can flag him down for skipping.

*

Four months ago, about two weeks into their senior year of high school, Dean began dating Lisa Braden. Lisa was beautiful with long, dark hair and a cheerleader’s body she worked hard to maintain. She played Madden with Dean on his Xbox and never complained when Dean took her on dates to cheap, hole-in-the-wall diners.

“They’re showing one of the old monster movies at the drive-in on Friday,” Castiel said one night when Dean and Lisa first started dating officially. They were in Castiel’s basement playing Call of Duty in the middle of a homework break.

“Can’t,” Dean replied, not tearing his eyes off the screen. “Takin’ Lisa to see that Jennifer Lopez flick or whatever. She won’t stop talking about it, figured I’d take her to see it so she’d finally shut up about it.”

Castiel’s shoulders fell just slightly and he looked down at his controller, discouraged. “What about Saturday?”

Dean shook his head. “Party at Bela’s. Lisa’s making me go.”

Castiel set his controller down and ended his part of the game. He just didn’t feel like playing anymore. Dean made no notice of it, still hitting buttons and blowing shit up, his face as close to the screen as he could get it without moving from the couch.

“You know Cas, maybe you should find some other friends to hang out with,” Dean said. “You haven’t hung out with anyone but me since the first grade. Don’t you think that’s a little, I dunno, weird?”

Castiel had never thought it was weird. He had no real friends besides the Winchesters because he never thought he needed anyone else. No one had ever even offered to befriend him at school; they could sense there was something off about him. But what Castiel lacked in social skills he made up for in earnestness and loyalty, two traits that kept him tethered to Dean. Dean liked Castiel’s innocence, despite mocking him for it every chance he could. It was entertaining to him, just like Dean’s antics were entertaining to Castiel.

It was more than just entertainment that kept their friendship alive. They balanced each other out – Dean with his capacity for over-reaction and Castiel’s level-headedness. They relied on each other to care and look out for one another.

In middle school, Alistair used to terrorize Castiel: tripping him in the cafeteria, shoving him against the lockers in gym class, calling him a “faggot” to anyone who would listen. “You can’t let him do that to you,” Dean said. “Just punch him in the face and get it over with! Alistair’s all talk. One good punch and he’ll leave you alone.” Castiel punched Alistair in the courtyard the next day. Unfortunately, Dean wasn’t right about him being “all talk”, and Alistair slammed Castiel into the brick wall of the school. Dean had come to the rescue, ripping Alistair’s much larger body off of Castiel and hit him until the principal came and tore them apart.

When Castiel and Dean were sitting in the principal’s office, Dean had smiled proudly at his best friend, his lip still bleeding from Alistair’s fist. “Betcha he won’t bother us now,” Dean said.

Castiel remembered that moment with a pained heart as he sat in his basement with Dean. Maybe he was right. Maybe Castiel needed other friends.

Only he had never expected those friends would be Crowley and Meg, the only people in school who would take him in.

Dean wasn’t too thrilled about it. He had seen Castiel sitting with them at lunch a few days later and Castiel could see him from the table, sitting with Lisa and her friends but keeping his eyes glued to Castiel. When he came over Castiel’s house after school, his face was red with anger.

“What the hell, Cas?” Dean yelled.

“Hello, Dean.”

“Since when do you hang out with Crowley?” Dean could barely even spit out the name, his face pulling into a painful grimace.

“You said I should look into getting other friends,” Castiel replied.

“Yeah but I didn’t mean go hang out with Crowley! The guy’s like a fucking demon. A drug peddling narcissistic asshole demon!”  

Castiel was hurt. Dean had never yelled at him before. Part of him wanted to apologize, promise to stop sitting with Crowley and Meg and go back to playing Call of Duty in his basement with Dean. But another part of him was so angry that Dean was yelling at him over something so trivial. It had been Dean’s idea to stop hanging out as much in the first place.

Castiel narrowed his eyes. “Don’t you have a date with Lisa you should be getting ready for?” he asked.

The expression on Dean’s face morphed from angry to shocked before settling back into a hateful glare.

“That’s how it’s gonna be, Cas?” Dean asked. “Fine.”

Dean stopped speaking to Castiel after that, and Castiel had found himself alone and right on the edge of falling from grace.

*

When Castiel gets home, the house is completely empty. There’s a letter from Castiel’s school sitting on the hallway table, no doubt filed with complaints from teachers about his poor attendance. Castiel chucks it in the trash pail in the kitchen and hopes his mother and father don’t see it. They’ve noticed him coming home late on school nights with glazed eyes and stinking of smoke, but they haven’t voiced any concerns, still safe in their thoughts that Castiel’s grades haven’t slipped and that his room has stayed neat. Only of those things is true.

As soon as he gets to his bedroom he practically slams his body into bed, heavy with the weight of the world he’s been building himself for eighteen years slowly collapsing in around itself. His head is pounding but he’s too tired to make it to the bathroom to grab a bottle of aspirin. He’s itching for a cigarette or something to take the edge off. Eyes closed, his arm flails around his bed looking for his phone to text Crowley and see if he has anything that would help, even if it’s just temporary.

It blips in his hand, signaling a message is already waiting for him. Confused, he opens his text message inbox to see a message from Dean.

Let me in

Castiel’s heart stops, his palms sweating and fingers slippery as he texts back: In where?

Ur house, is Dean’s reply. Castiel’s heart hammers in his chest. He drags his tired body out of bed and rubs at his eyes, re-checking the text message to see if he read it right, before heading downstairs to the front door of his house.

Dean’s wearing the sweatshirt again. It’s got stains down the front of it, one of the strings around the neck is shorter than the other and slightly frayed at the ends. It’s well-worn but still fits Dean nicely, the mouth of it stretched out just a little bit so that Castiel can see the top of Dean’s navy t-shirt. He has his backpack still on and a folder in his hand. He’s facing Castiel directly but his eyes are focused on something behind him in the house. Probably the flowers on the table in the hall, Castiel thinks.

“You missed class. Again,” Dean says, not hiding the judgment in his voice as he shoves the folder at Castiel’s chest. “Mr. Singer wanted me to bring you these.”

“Thank you,” Castiel replies.

Words that neither of them can bring themselves to say hang in between them like fog as they stand there silently. Castiel looks at the folder in his hands, papers and homework he has to make up from all the days he’s missed in the last few months, but he’s not concerned with them, not right now with Dean standing on his front porch.

A gust of wind kicks up and Dean shivers slightly against it.

“Do you want to come in?” Castiel asks.

Dean bites his lip, brows furrowed, and stays silent for a moment before shrugging. “Yeah,” he says. “Okay.”

They head down to the basement and both take a seat on the pull out couch. Castiel has spent a few nights on that couch, too tired or wasted to make it up the stairs on Friday nights with Meg and Crowley.  The blankets on top of it are all bunched up in a ball between Dean and Castiel like a barrier.

“I broke up with Lisa,” Dean says, grabbing the game controllers from the top of the table and handing one off to Castiel.

“When?”

“Last week.” Call of Duty starts up on the screen and Dean goes through the menu, continuing to talk without looking at Castiel.

“I don’t know what I was doing with her,” Dean says. “The whole thing was just…a big lie.”

“What do you mean?” Castiel asks, his normally deep voice sounding impossibly small.

Dean shrugs and lets out an exhausted breath.

“Being with Lisa made me realize something I should have realized, shit, a long time ago. Because as great as Lisa was, there was always something she did that bothered me. I mean she was perfect for me.  Smart, funny, beautiful, all the stuff I look for in a girl. And I figured, what the hell, y’know maybe I should try this out. See what it’s like having a real girlfriend.”

Dean leans back against the couch, rolling his head back to the ceiling, and lets the controller sit in his lap. Castiel does the same. When Dean turns his head and looks at him for the first time, Castiel notices there’s something dark in his eyes. Apprehension, fear.

“And then I realized why we would never work out,” Dean says, voice low.

“Why?” Castiel whispers.

“I’m no good at this,” Dean says, deflecting Castiel’s question. “This whole apology crap. I never knew how to do it right.”

Castiel wants to tell him he’s doing just fine but he doesn’t, instead he says quietly, “I missed you, Dean.”

A smile blooms on Dean’s face. “You did huh?”

“Yes.”

The smile fades away slowly, the fear creeping back onto Dean’s features, and he turns his head back to look at his lap again.

“There’s something I gotta tell you. Before we can, move on, I guess.” Dean wipes his face with his hand tiredly and groans. “This whole time, watching you with Crowley and Meg. Meg flirting with you –“

“She never flirted with me,” Castiel interrupts. “She’s dating Crowley.”

“Sure looked like flirting from my end,” Dean mumbles. He shakes his head slightly and swallows hard. “Anyway, it got me thinking. About us.”

Castiel knows at that moment what Dean’s been trying to say this whole time. He’s always had a way of reading Dean well. Dean can hide his emotions from so many people but the walls come crumbling down whenever he’s with Castiel.

Pushing the blankets off to the floor, Castiel dives in head first, planting a small, quick kiss to Dean’s lips, drawing away slowly. The game controls fall to the ground with an audible thunk but other than that, the room is silent. Dean’s eyes are wide with shock but he can’t stop the smile from breaking out across his face.

They move in closer together and Dean puts a hand to Castiel’s jaw, cupping it lightly and drawing their mouths together. This time the kiss is fuller, Dean’s movements are slow and his lips soft, catching Castiel’s bottom lip in between his own and pulling slightly before coming back.

Dean tips his forehead to touch Castiel’s and laughs against his lips, little tickling puffs of breath.

“So we’re okay?” Dean mumbles. Castiel nods eagerly and kisses Dean again, just the barest pressure of lips on lips.

Yeah, they’re okay. For the first time in four months, Castiel knows with certainty that he’s okay.