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An Exercise In 'Worthless'

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Dean hears the tinkle of the bells on the side door and balances one more set of plugs on the tiny shelf, then closes the glass cabinet and turns.

God dammit.

“Hey, man, I’m really sorry, but you’re gonna have to leave your coffee at Gabe’s or drink it there,” he sighs, stripping off his glove and slingshotting it into the trash can. Fucking three-pointer, right there. “Food’s unsanitary, can’t have it in here.”

“Oh,” says his customer, wide-eyed, “my apologies. I’ll be back shortly, in that case.” Dean has a couple of seconds to take a good look before the door tinkles again and a wave of coffee blows through the usual vaseline-and-disinfectant smell of his shop.

He’s got half a mind to just fucking board up that glass door between his side of Physical Graffitea and Gabe’s, but it does bring in a ton of customers, so he won’t. He makes a mental note to bitch at Gabriel to put up more no food/drinks signs on his side, and then his brain turns right back to the guy who’d just walked back into the coffee shop.

It’s not like weird people never come in. Weird is good. Dean likes weird people. This guy, though, looked cookie-cutter suburban for all ten seconds that he’d been in – sensible collared shirt, sensible jeans, sensible fucking wingtip oxfords.

He mentally shrugs, pulls out another glove, and opens up the wall cabinet again. There are three more shelves that need to be re-arranged because of last night’s shipment, plus the glass display under the counter. And probably the other wall case, too. It’s Ash’s day off and Jo’s not going to be in until 4, so he can’t shove it all onto her until then.

He sighs.

 

Ten minutes and a shelf and a half later, the door chimes. Cookie-cutter is back, hands in his pockets, and peering interestedly at a row of bone and horn jewelry.

“Can I help you out with somethin’?” he asks, because as much as he’d like to keep quietly going about his business, it’s also his business to make business.

“I’m just admiring the artwork,” the guy answers. Dean tries not to stare, he really does, but there’s something about the clean lines of the way that tucked-in shirt hugs his hips that’s unfairly nice. Dean forces himself to check out the guy’s ears instead – those are weights he’s looking at – and realizes that he doesn’t even have a standard 18G ear piercing.

“Ah, that stuff’s meant to be shown off, not sitting in a case,” Dean sighs. It really is. Honestly, he’d be wearing a pair of those catalox filigreed tunnels if he ever decided to not be stingy. And if they weren’t hundred-fifty-dollars-each leftovers from Crowley’s days. He closes the cabinet yet again and walks up to the case, next to cookie-cutter. “Those are mammoth bone, by the way.”

Never let it be said that he doesn’t like showing off. Just a little bit.

The raised eyebrows he gets in response are priceless. He chuckles.

“Yep, those beauties are carved from fossilized mammoth. Over 30 grams each.”

“Surely that’s too heavy for hanging weights,” murmurs cookie-cutter, and frowns at the jewelry. Dean’s nearly speechless. This guy looks like he’s the type to say ‘gauges’ instead of ‘stretched ears’ (or worse, to call the whole shebang barbaric), but apparently, Dean is being much too quick to judge by appearance.

“Nah,” he says, “weights aren’t meant to be worn for a long time, anyways.”

“Various cultures would disagree. I apologize if I’m intruding, but are you from Kansas, perhaps? Or southern Nebraska, maybe, or northern Missouri.”

Dean blinks, completely thrown for a loop.

“I– why?

“You’re exhibiting the low-back merger, along with some short-a raising,” he rattles off casually, like he’s talking about the weather. “Of course, you’ve also got some significant Texan influence, what with your monophthongalization and vowel breaking.”

Dean stares.

A full twenty seconds pass.

“Forgive me,” says cookie-cutter with a sigh and tight lips, “I keep forgetting it’s not polite to go without preface. I study dialectology.”

“Dude,” Dean finally says, “I still have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”

Okay, yeah, he’s officially being categorized as ‘weird.’ This is probably the most interesting, weird thing to happen to Dean in a long time and, despite himself, he’s actually intrigued.

“Dialectology is the study of a language’s dialects,” he explains, with a patience that makes it obvious he has to explain this at least three times a week. “I, personally, have taken an interest in dialects of American English, and I can usually guess where someone is from.”

“Just based on how they talk?”

“Yes.”

“Damn,” says Dean, grin creeping across his face, “that’s badass.” He realizes he’s still got a glove on so he pulls it off and walks it to the trash can. “I am, actually, from Kansas,” he continues. “Kinda grew up all over, though. Stayed in Dallas for a while.”

“Interesting,” muses cookie-cutter.

It occurs to Dean that he should introduce himself and learn this guy’s name, but the introvert in him hisses like an angry cat at the thought of being social, on top of Gabriel wanting him and Sam to go out to dinner tonight to meet his new-in-town-cousin and socialize. His job might involve brushing elbows with lots of people, but that doesn’t mean he likes them.

The side door jangles harshly, making moot his entire train of thought.

“Heya, Dean-o,” calls Gabriel loudly, Shit-Eating Grin #9 plastered on his face and half a pastry in his hand. Dean slams a fist on the countertop.

“Gabriel, for fu– for god’s sake, stop bringing food in here!” he snaps. “How many times do I have to tell you it’s not sanitary?”

“Oh, good,” Gabe says, ignoring him completely and turning inexplicably towards cookie-cutter, “you’ve met already.”

What?” Dean realizes that both of them said it at the same time, which means he’s not the only one confused as fuck.

“Dean,” says Gabriel, and Shit-Eating Grin #9 turns into Cocky Smirk #14, “meet my baby cousin, Castiel.”

 

 

Castiel smoothes down his tie out of habit, takes a short drink of water, and straightens out his cuffs for what feels like the hundredth time.

“Looking nice doesn’t mean you have to wear a tie,” grumbles Gabriel from next to him, sprawled inelegantly as ever in his chair. “I bet you anything, Dean’s gonna drag his ass here in a flannel shirt.”

“The standard I hold myself to has nothing to do with the standard others hold themselves to,” Castiel replies stiffly.

“Hey, Gabe!” booms someone from behind them, and Castiel turns to find arguably the hugest human being he’s ever seen loping towards their table.

“Heya, Sammy,” says Gabriel cheerfully, and nods towards the person borderline sulking behind him. “I see you convinced him to ditch the flannel.” Sam is the younger brother, Castiel remembers, and Dean is the brother he met earlier. Sam makes a face at Dean, who glares right back, then extends his hand.

“I’m Sam–” Castiel remembers to shake his hand after Gabriel kicks him under the table. “–and I heard you already know Dean.”

“Yeah, we met,” says Dean, and smiles politely. It’s a little distant, a little plastic, but it still lights up his face and gives Castiel an excuse to take a long look.

He’d already come to the conclusion that sitting across from him is probably one of the most gorgeous people he’s ever seen, but he takes a step back to look at him more objectively. Dean’s grin shows off a lone stud sitting under the middle of his bottom lip (he can’t remember the name for it, but it’s something with a Latinate root, labio, labium, labrum) and a perfect set of cheekbones. The lighting in the restaurant is low so he only catches a short glimpse of long eyelashes and the quick-bright flash of a ring in his nostril and, for a handful of milliseconds, Castiel is transported back to India, back to dim red light filtering through thin cotton, gold jewelry glinting dully through the haze of sweet-sharp incense.

The waiter comes by and they order drinks and appetizers and food; Sam is talking at a mile a minute and the more he talks, the more Gabriel indulges him with witty banter, Castiel notices that Dean relaxes until his smiles are unfiltered and his laughter is genuine.

One hand keeps his notebook open so he can jot down all of the features of the Northern Cities Shift that the waiter exhibits, and he’s halfway through transcribing the waiter’s most recent visit when Dean interrupts him.

“What are you doing?” he asks, amused and genuinely curious. Castiel holds up a hand in the universal wait gesture, finishes the sentence, and sets down his pen.

“IPA transcription, right?” Sam blurts excitedly.

“Yes,” he replies, surprised. “Not a lot of people guess correctly.”

“But what is it?” presses Dean, chin in one hand and leaning forward. Gabriel groans loudly.

“Oh, god, don’t get him started,” he complains. “He’s gonna tell you where you’re from, and he’ll never shut up once he gets going.” Dean shoots him an easy grin.

“Yeah, he already did that,” he says, and Castiel makes a soft, bashful noise. Intelligent though he might be, a braggart he is not.

“I told you I study dialectology,” he starts. “IPA is a way of representing every sound with a symbol, a sort of universal phonetic alphabet.”

“So you write something down, and anyone can read it off and pronounce it correctly.”

“Yes,” says Castiel, surprised again. Very few people catch on this quickly. “I would like to write a dissertation on the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, hence the move here, for graduate work. I’m lucky that Gabriel lives so close to the university.”

“Wait, you’re a grad student here?” asks Sam, and he’s so excited that Castiel is worried he’ll shoot off like a rocket. He nods in confirmation. Sam is instantly endearing to him, throwing his emotions wide open for everyone to see. He glares accusingly at Gabriel. “You never said anything!”

“You never asked, kiddo,” replies Gabriel with a maddening smirk.

“In any case,” Castiel continues with a furtive glance to check if the waiter’s coming, “I’ve been transcribing what the waiter said. He’s a fairly advanced shifter, and I could use this.”

“What Cassie means to say is that he’s an eavesdropper,” Gabriel says. Castiel glares at him.

“A linguist needs to be able to–”

“I know, I know,” laughs Gabriel, cutting him off. “Don’t get your panties in a bunch. You guys are coming over for a beer, you know.” He changes topic with a nod at Sam and Dean.

Hell yes,” says Dean loudly, smacking the table with his palm and earning a glare from the old couple a table over. Gabriel sneers at him.

“Convenient, how you’re only social when you know I buy the good beer.”

Castiel knows there’s no malice in it and he catches himself chuckling quietly; it’s surprisingly easy to fall back into step with him and, by extension, it’s easy to feel comfortable around Sam and Dean in a way he’s really only ever felt comfortable around Gabriel and Balthazar and Anna. If it’d been glaringly obvious over the phone to what extent Gabriel had taken Sam and Dean under his wing, it’s practically tangible now.

Sam is warm and open in a way that’ll attract anyone; Dean is guarded, careful of his emotions and careful in choosing who he’ll open up to. By some miracle, he thinks he’s found himself in that tiny circle. He’s known these men, this family, for less than twenty-four hours but there’s something tugging at him that this is something he shouldn’t let go of, something he can’t afford to let slip. Gabriel values these people to an extent that’s almost absurd and if that’s not a reason to trust them, he doesn’t know what is.

 

 

The first thing Dean does at Gabe’s (other than cracking open one of his beers) is to unbutton the top of his shirt. Sam had forced him into what he called a ‘nicer’ button-up, some dark cottony thing (he doesn’t understand why the nice, soft, worn, plaid flannel had merited an ‘ugh, Dean’), and he’d bitchfaced until he tucked it in, too. Fancy dinner be damned, Sam’s still getting itching powder for this.

He sighs and unbuttons his cuffs, too, as Gabriel bangs around next to him in the fridge and fishes out three more beers. Sam’s voice is carrying from the living room as he motormouths the living shit out of Castiel.

“Dude, I don’t know how much longer your cousin’s gonna be able to deal with Sam,” he grunts, rolling up one of his sleeves.

“He’s patient,” Gabe says with a shrug, “and polite. At least Sam shuts up when he drinks.”

“Yeah, thank god,” mutters Dean, and finishes the other sleeve. He follows Gabriel into the living room but misses the couch in favor of helping himself to the sound system. He’s had extra copies of most of his favorite albums here for at least three years, so he sets his beer down on a side table and decides that tonight is a Physical Graffiti sort of night. Ha, ha.

“Your brother talks a lot.”

Dean nearly drops the side A/B vinyl. Castiel just fucking materializes out of nowhere at his elbow, regarding the sleeve with a regal sort of calmness that his cousin rarely displays.

“Jesus christ, dude, you need to make noise when you walk,” he says, and clears his throat to recover. “You a Zeppelin fan?”

Castiel frowns, and Dean’s hopes plummet.

“I’ve never...” Castiel gestures towards the stereo. Dean sets his jaw.

“Alright, then you’re about to be educated,” he declares, and lets the album play – not too loudly, but loud enough. He taps the sleeve as ‘Custard Pie’ starts rumbling through the speakers. “This is Physical Graffiti.” Castiel’s frown disappears.

“Oh,” he says, and Dean can practically see the lightbulb. “Graffi-tea. And your shop– bodily, physical art. Graffiti. Clever.” The first semblance of a grin Dean’s ever seen spreads across Castiel’s face. It’s gorgeous. He chooses to ignore that. “I’m sure it took a good amount of convincing for Gabriel to approve that.”

“It was worth it,” Dean says with a shrug. “He thought it was lame, you know, Physical Graffitea? Who the hell’s gonna come in? Joke’s on him now, though. We get, like, 90% of the coffee-drinking, cafe-food-eating, pierced, tattooed student population through our doors.”

“How did you end up working together?” Castiel asks, taking a sip of beer, and Dean definitely does not watch the way his tongue darts out to catch a stray drop on the mouth of the bottle. “Gabriel isn’t one for details.”

“Oh, man, it’s kind of a long story.” Dean runs a hand down his face and tugs on his plugs, a habit he never checks that tends to weird people out. Thankfully, Castiel doesn’t seem to care. “I moved out here four years ago. I met Gabe completely by accident, actually. Knew someone who knew someone, that kind of thing. Crowley and Gabe and I were all looking for a new place to start up business, so we figured we might as well do it together.” He takes a long draught of beer and leans against the bookcase. He is so not used to telling this story. Most people just don’t care, they just want their tattoo and breeze out. “Sammy started school here a year ago, ‘bout the same time Crowley went back to the UK.” He shrugs. “Long, complicated, boring story, but that’s basically it.”

Dean shifts his weight. It’s a little unnerving, the amount of staring that Castiel does, because Dean can’t remember the last time someone gave him such absolute focus. Especially when telling some dumb story.

He hasn’t even known the guy for twelve hours but Dean can already tell that Castiel is awkward where he’s charismatic, quiet where he’s brash, thoughtful where he’s insensitive, and as clichè as the yin-yang thing might be, he could definitely learn to dig this.

 

 

Life goes on. Sam starts school in two weeks – he’s already stressing – and Dean shamelessly spends nearly every other night with him at Gabe’s, drinking in Castiel’s company.

Things shift. Castiel starts joining Gabriel when he visits him and Sam, and then sometimes it’s just Castiel, and Dean will keep a constant stream of music going so that everything from early AOR to the peak of hair metal keeps playing softly in the background. Dean has never been more glad that he only lives a block and a half away from Gabriel.

The shop gets progressively busier as students trickle back into town for the new school year, and as just-turned-18 freshmen discover that they can do Rebellious Teenager Things like get tattoos and piercings.

“Oh my god, just sleep with him already,” says Jo the Saturday before Sam starts school, completely exasperated.

Excuse me?” Today, of all days, he is not in the mood for dealing with anything. He’d had two complete dumbasses come in for consultations and he’s been booked the whole day, an hour of which was spent with fucking four giggling sorority girls. He’d kicked out the three not being tattooed after the first hour. He’s got five unread texts and a missed call, and his phone chirps yet again from his pocket.

“You’ve been waxing poetic about him for the past four weeks,” she says stubbornly. “Either sleep with him, or–”

“Give it a rest, Jo,” he snaps. “I clock out at seven. Seriously, just give me fifteen minutes of goddamn peace.” She sighs and crosses her arms.

“Just think about it,” she says, more gently this time, and he knows there’s an underlying fine, I give up there. Dean snorts and moves past her into his room. Fifteen minutes is barely enough time to let the autoclave run through everything so he’s definitely going to be going home later than anticipated tonight, and by the time he finishes cleaning and disinfecting, he’s past being in a foul mood and he’s just tired.

“I’m headin’ home,” he mutters, leaning his elbows on the counter next to Jo and running his hands down his face.

“Go get some sleep. Or beg some coffee out of Gabe.”

“Yeah, yeah.” He straightens, pulls Jo into a one-armed hug, and drops a kiss on the top of her head. “Didn’t mean to snap at you.”

“Go home, Dean,” she laughs, and ducks out from under his arm. The door tinkles. “Hey, Castiel.”

“Coffee, man,” says Dean tiredly. “Not in here.”

“I’m in the doorway,” Castiel fires back, deadpan. “I’ve yet to set foot on your premises.”

“Told you he’d bitch,” says Sam from behind him, all floppy hair and a grin. “Gabe’s got coffee for you back there, figured we’d err on the side of caution since you didn’t answer any of Castiel’s texts.”

“Thank christ,” Dean sighs, and pushes past both of them into Gabe’s cafe. “See ya, Jo.”

“Hey, whoa, Dean–” He can hear Sam scrambling so he turns around, eyebrows up. “We’re gonna finish eating here, so you’re on your own for dinner.”

“‘Long as you can haul your own asses home,” Dean grunts, and makes a beeline for the paper coffee cup waiting for him in Gabriel’s hand.

 

He drains the 20oz coffee before he even parks (which is honestly a little impressive, given that the shop’s not even on the other side of the old downtown area), grumbles his way up the stairs, and makes a beeline for the liquor cabinet.

He’s a glass and a half into the Hunter’s Helper and sprawled across the couch with The Empire Strikes Back on in the background when Sam opens the door, hauling his bike on his shoulder and talking animatedly to Castiel about something-Latin-something-something.

Dean groans inwardly and stares up at the ceiling. Today of all days, he doesn’t need Sam and Castiel making doe eyes at each other. He’s a mopey little shit and he wants to mope in peace and not think about how Castiel seems to prefer spending time with Sam, how Sam is always around Castiel, how Dean is, in this respect, like in every other, gently pushed to the side.

He is very much allowed to be a bitchy teenager after a long day at work.

Sam and Castiel are making the usual racket that accompanies making a place for their bikes in the apartment and he blindly turns up the TV.

“That bad of a day, huh?” calls Sam from the kitchen, but his voice is sympathetic. Dean grunts.

“What are you watching?” Castiel asks, leaning on his forearms against the backrest of the couch.

Dead silence.

Artoo whistles.

We’re not going to regroup with the others, answers Luke. We’re going to the Dagobah system.

“Oh my god,” says Sam from the kitchen. Dean’s bolt upright and much closer to Castiel than he’d calculated.

“You’ve– what?” Castiel just looks between him and the TV. “No. Shut the fuck up and sit down, you’re spending the rest of the night with George Lucas.”

“Oh my god,” Sam mutters again, this time completely exasperated.

Dean’s stuck in the middle of a moral dilemma. By all means, he should be introducing someone to Star Wars starting with the original trilogy, as it should be, but at the same time, those dumb prequels are there for a reason. Unfortunately.

Castiel parks himself on the couch like he belongs there, which, for some reason, really fucking warms Dean as he’s digging through the DVDs.

“We’re going to start with Episode I and if anyone asks you, you’re going to tell them you started with A New Hope.” Sam makes a gagging noise from the kitchen. “Shut up, Samantha. That goes for you too,” he snaps.

Sam’s still chuckling snarkily as the opening blares and he settles in on the other side of the couch. Dean ignores him; sitting here, on the worn-out couch between Sam and Castiel, is the most comfortable he’s been in a long time.

 

Dean’s alarm goes off way too early the next morning – early, considering the very adult decision he’d made last night to stay up until four in the morning marathoning Star Wars and having more fun being drunk than he’s had in at least a year – but work is work, and he has to be in before 10 to open.

He runs his hands down his face, scrubs at the stubble that’s getting out of hand. Dean’s not entirely sure how he’d managed to shed most of his clothes before passing out but he doesn’t bother putting them back on, ambling across the hall into the bathroom in boxers because clothing just isn’t worth the effort. He feels slightly more human after washing his face and brushing his teeth, which is when he realizes that there’s noise in the kitchen which means breakfast and praise jesus.

“Goddamn, Sammy, you nev–”

And then he freezes like a deer in fucking headlights because that’s not Sam.

Castiel is equally as frozen as he is, with a fork in one hand and something sizzling on the stove behind him, but that’s not what matters, what matters is that Dean feels buck fucking naked without a shirt on, without pants on – not because he’s body-shy (hell no, he knows he’s a fine piece of ass) but because without clothes, Castiel can see his tattoos.

He realizes he’s hunching his shoulders up like a freaked-out cat, arching over, and that Castiel is definitely going to take this the wrong way if he doesn’t offer some kind of explanation.

Sorry, it’s totally cool that apparently either you broke in or slept here, but you can see my tattoos and that freaks me out. No big.

Dean takes a deep breath, pushes his freak-out into his Very Adult Freak-Out Box, and walks up to the stove. Castiel is still staring at him like he’s going to explode at any second, but Castiel is staring at him, at his face. Dean knows exactly what it looks like when someone’s trying to avoid staring at your skin, but this isn’t it. There’s a flood of something warm in his chest.

“Bacon, eggs, and toast? Damn, dude.” He slides a grin towards him. Or, at least, tries to. “If I paid you, would you do this for me every morning?”

“This is a hangover breakfast,” Castiel replies, voice rougher than normal, and now Dean can definitely tell that he looks worse for wear.

“D’you sleep on the couch or what?” he asks, trying to be casual, because the last thing he remembers from last night was when Sam had called Castiel into his room to double check a something in one of his books or his notes or... something. Castiel hums an affirmative.

“Sam brought out an extra comforter and some pillows.” Dean pulls two plates out of the cabinet (Sam’s not gonna be up until, like, noon), fishes some mostly-dry mugs out of the drying rack, and starts on the coffee.

“You know, ‘mandala’ is a Sanskrit word,” says Castiel carefully. Dean can’t do much more than barely glance at him, meet his eyes for a split second before busying himself with the percolator. He self-consciously tucks in the tattooed elbow in question.

“Yeah, I know,” he answers, and all of a sudden, the tension skyrockets. “Traditional mandalas, they–” He turns around, takes two steps towards the hallway, turns back to face Castiel, then takes half a step back into the kitchen. “I– okay, just to clarify, I don’t have, like, a no-clothes freakout thing, it’s just that no one’s really seen–”

“Dean, it’s okay,” Castiel says, low and quiet. “I’m intruding. You shouldn’t have to bare your soul to everyone who sees you.”

Which, naturally, completely throws Dean for a loop.

Oh.”

He’s never thought of them as his soul. They’re all a part of him -- he can’t imagine life without Vonnegut calmly watching everything from his forearm, without the perfect lines on his side, without the rayed sun-star over his heart that matches Sam’s. He’d never thought of them as his soul, but now that he considers it, it’s completely true.

And here he is, in his kitchen, baring his soul to Castiel.

And it’s okay.

Cas gives him a short, small smile, and piles a fucking mountain of eggs onto a plate.

 

 

Cas still spends more time talking to Sam, but Dean’s the one who learns more about him. He learns that Cas likes his scrambled eggs with ham and green onion, and that he likes his coffee with half-and-half (which is totally not the reason it starts appearing in the fridge). Cas is a fan of Eastern European fantasy literature and he spent the majority of the last two years between India and Europe; he’s got the majority of some PBS special called Do You Speak American? memorized because he’s seen it so many times. He’s beautifully passionate about language, even though most of their communication is a mug slid across the counter, a movie on in the background, coffee waiting for him after work, extra help grading homework.

Slushy rain slogs against the windows for what feels like the tenth day in a row; Dean loves this weather way too much, but, as he browses plane ticket prices to John Wayne Airport (and holy shit, an airport named after John Wayne), he thinks it’ll be kinda nice to see what a Californian winter looks like. January is still three months away, but he should’ve gotten this crap done earlier.

Sam murmurs slightly botched Latin from the kitchen and Cas murmurs back in freakin’ perfect Latin, clerical pronunciation, flawless declension. Dean catches every few words, but he knows the quote, anyways.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

“Yo, Denzel Washington, you know tonight’s your night for dishes, right?” he yells in the general direction of the kitchen. “It’s almost eleven.”

“Fine, Ellen,” snarks Sam loudly. Cas walks into the living room, chuckling, and hovers over his shoulder.

“California?” he asks.

“Body Arts Expo in January,” Dean says, leaning back in the chair. He doesn’t know if he’s imagining the warmth radiating from Cas or not, but it’s nice, regardless. Cas hums, interested, and he leans over Dean’s shoulder to reach for the mouse when there’s pounding on the front door that sounds like half a Roman army.

Dean gets up, frowning, and checks the peephole before opening the door.

“Jesus christ, Jo, what happened?” he asks after she storms in, eyes brimming and absolutely fucking furious. Cas has some sort of silent exchange with Sam and then he’s practically running towards the kitchen.

“Are you okay?” Sam presses, when it’s obvious she’s incapable of non-yelling speech and thus isn’t talking. Jo takes at least five deep breaths.

“Mom’s pissing me off,” she says, carefully. “She keeps treating me like I’m ten.”

And then everything just fucking goes to hell because she’s sobbing into Sam’s shoulder within a span of seconds. Dean starts quietly panicking because as much as he loves Jo, he’s got no idea how to handle emotional things like this. He turns and Cas is there at his shoulder like he’d fucking teleported, holding a hot mug of something that smells heavenly.

“Here,” he says, holding it out towards Jo. “Gabriel taught me how to make his hot chocolate.” Jo reaches out for it, sniffles nice and wet and manly, and takes a long drink.

“Thanks,” she mumbles, and a couple of stray tears make tracks down her face. Sam makes a you can go now face; Dean rolls his eyes.

“Got any more of that?” he asks Cas once they’re back in the kitchen. Cas just smiles.

 

Sam walks through the kitchen approximately forty-five minutes later, looking tired in just about every single way possible.

“Crisis averted?” asks Dean, keeping his voice down.

“Crisis averted,” Sam sighs back. “I’m gonna go crash. She’s gonna spend the night here, talk to Ellen tomorrow. You know how it is.” And with that he stumbles off towards his room. Poor fucker has school tomorrow. Cas frowns.

“If Jo’s on the sofa–”

“My bed’s more’n big enough, if you’re not squeamish about sharing,” says Dean, aiming for casual and missing it by at least seven astronomical units.

“I’m not,” Cas murmurs, and looks oddly at Dean. He clears his throat and pours a tall glass of water, then walks it over to the living room, willing himself with every fiber of his being to calm the fuck down.

Jo’s curled up like a cat under the blankets, and he leaves the glass for her on the coffee table before kissing the top of her head and heading back to the hallway.

Cas is already in his room, hands at the buttons on his collar (no inappropriate thoughts, Dean Winchester, no inappropriate thoughts), and Dean swallows several times before fishing a clean t-shirt and sweats out of his closet.

“Here,” he says, and holds them out to Cas. “Your clothes are probably a bitch to iron, no point getting ‘em wrinkled.”

He pulls his shirt over his head and shimmies out of his jeans with fucking agonizing casualness as Cas steadily unbuttons his oxford, drapes it neatly over the back of his chair, then steps out of his own pants before folding them in half over the shirt. Dean’s half-surprised to see that Cas is ignoring the sweatpants in favor of just a t-shirt and boxers.

No complaints.

The bed dips when Cas slides under the covers with him and Dean’s practically swooning; the sensation is so strange but so welcome, and if it’s a little weird that they fall asleep facing each other, it’s no one else’s business.

 

Dean wakes up at precisely 4:13 in the morning from one of the most vivid nightmares he’s ever had. He lies in bed for a couple of minutes, trying to breathe, trying to stop panicking.

He used to field-strip and clean his dad’s guns on nights like this. Practiced motions, old motions, fluid and easy like breathing. The noise never woke John, drunk and dead to the world, and it was like a lullaby for Sam.

It’s out of the question now, so Dean gets up as quietly as he can, shuffles over to his desk, and starts drawing in the weak light coming through the window.

He captures the terror in his dream-Hell, the tortured souls, a hand – his hand – holding the knife, the too-familiar torture-master’s twisted face. He captures the way radiant light finally burst through the stinking clouds of ash and sulphur and he captures the hope on the faces of all the other souls, but something about the angel that rescued him resists. The face isn’t right, the wings aren’t right, nothing’s right except for a hand, gripping him tight, and his shoulder still tingles where it was burned in the dream.

Dean’s not big on omens or dreams or any of that hoodoo crap, but there’s something about this one he really can’t shake. He’s on his fifth try of the wings when the comforter rustles.

“Dean?” Oh, christ, the way Cas says his name, all sleepy and rough, burns right through him in ways it really shouldn’t.

“Sorry,” he whispers back. “I wake you up?”

“No,” says Cas, voice low. “I had a... strange dream. Are you alright?”

“Yeah. Uh, couldn’t sleep.” He knows Cas knows it’s a lie, but he’ll explain in the morning.

“Come to bed, Dean,” murmurs Cas, and fuck everything, he so could’ve chosen a better way to phrase that. Dean swallows.

“Yeah,” he finally breathes, and drops the pencil back in a jar before sliding back under the covers, honestly a lot closer to Cas than he’d intended.

Cas’s eyes search his face, glimmering faintly in the darkness, and then he reaches out and puts his palm on Dean’s still-bare shoulder.

It feels right.

 

Dean’s awake before Cas the next morning; he steals a couple of seconds to admire how completely relaxed he looks when he’s asleep, long eyelashes painting shadows on his cheeks, no trace of the typical furrow in his brow. He’s so totally screwed, he thinks for the thousandth time, but he’ll deal with it.

He gets out of bed (again), quiet and slow so as not to wake Cas, and checks his phone.

Jo Harvelle
>> I’m heading home fyi. Sam locked the door behind us, he’s at school and I’m gonna go to the roadhouse

Sasquatch
>> Jo’s heading back to The Roadhouse. I think she’s feeling okay, for now.

They’re from roughly an hour and a half ago; he types back a reply after closing his bedroom door behind him as quietly as possible.

Jo Harvelle
<< Ok I how you’re doing better. Don’t worry about coming in to the shop today,. Ash and I can deal without a piercer for the day
<< Hope*

Cas is still asleep by the time he finishes showering; he contemplates shaving the half-beard he’s been growing out of sheer laziness, decides it’s not worth the effort (for the fourth day in a row), and heads for the kitchen.

He makes a quick detour to put the B-side of The Times They Are A-Changin’ on; it’s not often that he gets in a Bob Dylan mood, but whatever. It has nothing to do with the fact that Cas has an unchecked obsession with this record. It’s not even Dylan’s best – at least in Dean’s superior opinion – but he’s the last person to judge musical taste. Well, except when it comes to Sam and Gabe.

So he starts on some omelettes and coffee and toast and bacon, hums along as he stirs half-and-half into Cas’s coffee, and by the time ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ is on, Cas pokes his head into the kitchen.

“‘Morning,” says Dean cheerfully, because it’s obvious that Cas woke up less than two minutes ago and his hair is sticking up everywhere. He drops himself into a chair and Dean passes him his coffee, steadfastly ignoring how.... kind of awesome this feels.

“Jo left?” Cas rasps, after taking a long drink of coffee.

“Yeah.” Dean slides the warmer omelette onto a plate and hands it to Cas, then puts his own back onto the pan. “She and Ellen do this every so often. I get it, though, they’re–”

The racket his phone makes cuts him off, and he stares at the Ellen Harvelle calling in fear before swallowing and answering it.

“Uh, hello?”

“Thank you for telling me where my daughter was last night,” comes Ellen’s voice, sharp and familiar.

“I, um–”

“Save it,” she sighs. The pan’s started smoking; he fumbles with the phone, says, “shit, hang on a sec,” and switches it to speaker on the countertop.

“Are you guys– is everything cool?” he asks, flipping his omelette over and wincing at its half-burned state. Cas snorts at him.

“Same ol’, same ol’,” Ellen replies. “And you really think I didn’t know where she’d go? After finding the three of you all squeezed together Jo’s bed every time John had a bad night? I thought you were smarter’n that, boy.” He can feel his ears turning red as Cas starts covering his laugher.

“Yeah, well....” He clears his throat. “I’ll talk to you later, Ellen.”

“Thanks, honey,” she says, and Dean hides a smile as he hangs up.

“Interesting,” says Cas, eyes sparkling with mirth. Dean sneers elegantly at him and goes to change the record out of spite.

“What time are you teaching today?” Dean eventually asks around a mouthful of egg.

“One-thirty.”

“Perfect.” Dean swallows and grins. “I’m in the shop at two, I’ll drive you to campus.”

“We’ll need to stop by my house,” Cas says, then yawns enormously with his arms over his head and his whole body arching into it. Dean accidentally inhales some coffee, coughs, and then drains the rest of his mug’s contents.

Cas raises an eyebrow at him then gathers his plate and mug and utensils and sets them down in the sink; Dean scoops up the last of his bacon and follows suit. It’s already nearing eleven and they need to get a move on; Dean changes his boxers and throws on some jeans and his favorite henley as Cas takes a quick, three-minute shower and comes out smelling like Dean.

“This is what you were doing last night?” asks Cas, leaning over the sketchbook on his desk.

“Mm-hmm,” Dean hums back, hunting for a clean pair of socks.

“It’s beautiful,” murmurs Cas, and Dean just side-eyes the fuck out of him.

“Dude, it’s Hell,” he says. “That’s what I dreamed about. Tortured souls, demons, you know.”

“That’s why you couldn’t sleep.” Cas phrases it like a statement but it’s more of a question, looking for confirmation. Dean suddenly feels shy, like it’s childish of him to admit to a bad dream.

“Yeah, I guess,” he mumbles, and pulls on his socks. “C’mon, we gotta get going if you’re gonna be on time.” Cas looks at him like he understands, which is about seven kinds of weird and not something Dean wants to process right now.

He grabs a jacket and his favorite scarf from the coat closet (something Sam had gleefully pointed out was chic, whatever that’s supposed to mean – it’s gray and soft and long enough to pile all around his neck, so he doesn’t give a shit), along with a navy-blue, slightly lumpy, hand-knitted beanie that he mostly only wears because Jo had made one for him and a dark red one for Sam. He is so ready for this weather.

Cas puts on one of his fucking metrosexual itchy wool cardigan things and then pulls on his trench coat, the one that Dean’s learned to spot in a crowd. He’s got no idea how Cas stays warm like that but it works for him, so whatever.

The stop at Gabriel’s house is slightly longer than intended; Cas makes lunch in his slightly-rumpled shirt from yesterday and then starts practically fucking stripping in front of him while Dean’s on the phone with one of yesterday’s consults, rolling his shoulders as he slowly unbuttons and pulls off his oxford, trading it for a clean one. Thankfully, getting changed out of his pants is only slightly less pornographic. Dean doesn’t put it past Cas to be completely unaware of what he’s doing.

They’re on campus a bit before one; Dean ends up walking with Cas to his office because they’re engrossed in a conversation about which one of Gabriel’s pastries is the best, and, because it’s such a vitally important and pressing conversation, Dean doesn’t want it to end.

Cas’s ears and nose are pink by the time they reach his building; Dean pulls off his hat and rotates the jewelry in his earlobes, then tugs on them.

“Why do you do that?” asks Cas, all curiosity and zero judgement. His voice echoes unnaturally in the stairwell.

“Huh?”

“You tug on your ears,” Cas clarifies, and walks out into the hallway proper. It’s much warmer in there than it was in the stairwell.

Dean grins and says, “Giving ‘em some play is good. It keeps the circulation going. ‘Specially important when it’s cold like this, just like you don’t wear metal jewelry when it’s freezing, because that’s how dumbasses end up with frostbite.”

“Interesting,” says Cas, and leans forward to scrutinize the jewelry he’s wearing. It’s some of his favorite, actually – gorgeous olivewood plugs with amber cabochon inlays – but he can smell his own shampoo and body wash on Cas and his hair is still rumpled and it’s all so distracting. “Those look nice on you.” Dean grins even wider.

“Um, excuse me? Castiel?” Both of them turn to see a short, sort of super adorable brown-haired girl shifting her weight and looking everywhere but Cas’s face.

“Yes?” And Dean can see the shift from Cas-his-friend to Castiel-the-TA.

“I just, um– I was wondering, on the homework? If it’s okay to use Labovian transcription.”

“That’s fine,” says Cas, with a reassuring teacher-smile.

“Oh, okay,” she says, breaking into a nervous smile. “Thank you!”

The second they walk into Cas’s office, Dean bursts out laughing.

“Dude, are all your kids madly in love with you?”

Excuse me?” Cas makes a strangled sort of laughing noise and hangs his coat over the back of his chair, then sets his leather satchel on his desk. Dean is forcibly reminded that he’s friends with a guy who owns and uses a leather satchel. He’s also related to another one.

“She thinks you’re gorgeous,” Dean explains, trying to hide a shit-eating grin, “that’s why she was all nervous. It’s obvious.” Cas snorts.

There’s a knock on the open door, and Dean half-turns.

“Hey, Castiel, I was wondering if you could proofread something real quick,” says a paunchy, slightly older guy, roughly their height. He’s clearly at the tail end of the graduate program. “I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”

“No, please come in,” says Cas, glancing quickly at Dean.

“Who’s your–” A pause, and his eyes flick from Dean’s eyes to his nose to his chin to his earlobes. “–friend?”

Dean is instantly on edge.

“Zachariah, this is Dean, a family friend.” Dean shakes Zachariah’s hand with a vicious sort of pride at the honor of being called a family friend. “Zachariah and I both TA in the department.”

“Well, I’ll get out of your guys’ hair,” says Dean with a tight smile. “Hey, uh, Cas– I’m at work ‘till nine tonight, so...”

“Oh? Where do you work? On campus somewhere?” asks Zachariah, and there’s a particular kind of sneer curling his lip that makes Dean want to punch his fucking lights out.

“I own my own business,” says Dean, cold and flat, “and if I don’t head out now, I’ll be late. See ya, Cas.” Another curt smile and a nod and he’s out of there.

He’s still so damn put off by that conversation that he nearly forgets to clock himself in. Ash is instantly wary; he knows how bad Dean’s temper can get when he’s provoked.

“What happened, man?” he asks, in that calm voice of his that could pacify a whole plane of crying babies. Dean can feel himself relaxing slightly, being back in his environment, in the familiar smell of the shop.

“Nothin’,” he mutters. “Some guy was bein’ a douche, that’s all.”

Dean regrets nothing about his life. Absolutely nothing. He doesn’t regret stretching his ears or any of his tattoos or piercings; he only wishes that people would be polite enough to just leave him alone. He’s never had any huge confrontations over his mods (barring The Diner Incident, but neither he nor Sam will ever talk about that), but all of the little ones add up and make him progressively lose his faith in society. His phone chirps.

Castiel Milton
>> I’m sorry about Zachariah. He’s often unapologetically rude in his refusal to mind his own business.

<< It’s ok I’ve dealt with douchebags before. Don’t waste your time apologizing for him. Go teach your class remember to file with your students
<< Flirt* dammit

>> I don’t flirt.

Dean puts his phone back in his pocket and takes a deep breath. It’s more touching than he’d care to admit, that Cas was worried about him being upset.

He spends the hour before his first appointment drafting a tattoo – a sun/moon themed half-sleeve for next Thursday – and he’s satisfied with it so far. The appointment goes smoothly, too, since it’s just filling the color on last week’s linework; the dude he’s working on is just the right amount of talkative, and it turns out he’s also a fan of Springsteen so Dean gets to listen to Born To Run as he works. Not bad at all.

Sam comes in and flops down on the couch in their front room approximately twenty minutes later, and Dean shoos him into Gabe’s place because the kid is seriously in need of some coffee and nutrition. He wheedles food out of Gabriel on his break and helps him tie Sam’s shoes together, where he’s sprawled gracelessly in an armchair. He’s back at the shop when Sam wakes up, but hearing the reaction is just as good.

Cas stops by a half hour before the shop closes, while Dean’s cleaning and disinfecting, and Dean’s back home with Sam and the Miltons before he knows it.

This, he could get used to.

 

 

October blurs into November blurs into December and the next thing Dean knows, he and Sam are making plans to spend Christmas Eve with the Miltons before their customary Christmas Day with the Harvelles. Bobby’s coming out from South Dakota this year, which is a fucking momentous occasion, and Dean is both anxious and excited about introducing him to Castiel. He knows that Bobby is gonna like him, though, because Cas is so very much family now that it’s absurd.

He’s got all of his presents bought and wrapped – in proper wrapping paper, even. Dean’s always been total crap at gift-giving so he’s really glad that no one he knows is into it. He usually just gives and gets one thing per person.

His phone rings, way too early in the morning. He picks it up without looking at caller ID.

“Hello?”

“Dean, my siblings are coming for Christmas,” blurts Cas, without preamble.

“What?” he mumbles, rubbing his eyes and turning over on his back. He can hear Gabriel in the background, sounding frustrated.

“They decided that they want to spend Christmas with us,” Cas huffs, clearly irritated at the prospect. “They’re... They can be difficult, if you don’t know how to deal with them.”

“So? Sam ‘n I’ll just stay home if it’s too crowded at Gabe’s. We’re talking Balthazar and Anna, right?”

“No,” says Cas quickly. “Well, yes, Balthazar and Anna, but I don’t want you to stay home. I’d like to spend the holidays with you.”

“Aw, Cas, I feel my heart growing two sizes too big,” Dean teases. “If it’s cool with you that Sam and I crash your family time, we’ll do it.”

“Thank you,” breathes Cas, and Dean can feel his gratitude over the phone.

“Just next time, don’t call this early,” Dean chuckles. “I’ll see you later, yeah?”

“Yes. Thank you, Dean. I mean it.”

They hang up and Dean tosses his phone somewhere near his feet, then scrubs a hand over his face and stares up at the ceiling. He doesn’t know much about Cas’s and Gabe’s family. They don’t like to talk about it; Dean gets it. He doesn’t really talk about his family, either. He’s learned that their family is huge and mega-religious and that it was hard for them to escape, as Gabe had let slip one night while fantastically drunk. Cas has a grand total of five siblings but only two he keeps in contact with – Balthazar, older than Cas, who grew up in England, and Anna, a year younger than Sam, who moved to England with him when she started college.

As selfish as it might be, as far as Dean’s concerned, Cas’s family is him and Sam and Gabe and Ellen and Jo and Ash. They’re the ones who love him and make him smile and cook food for him and make him coffee and tease him; family don’t end with blood, and they’re the evidence.

 

Bobby drives into town a week later, and Dean’s hit with a flurry of texts the second he leaves the shower.

Jo Harvelle
>> Dean I can hear the truck it’s like a mile down the road
>> Get our ass over here seriously
>> Your*
>> BOBBYS HERE asking why you’re not and
>> Sam
>> Bring Cas

Ellen Harvelle
>> If u dnt get ur butt here in 5 min im not going to feed u

He hastily towels off his hair and sticks a toothbrush in his mouth.

Cas Milton
<< You’re not busy right? We’re gonna be at your house in like 2 minutes to pick you up Bobby’s here

Gabriel Milton
<< Get to the roadhouse asap Bobby’s in town

“Sam,” he shouts through the door, but he can already hear sounds of frantic scrambling from down the hall.

Gabriel Milton
>> Oh shit. I’ll take a long lunch today and stop by


“I know, I know,” Sam yells back, “Jo sent me, like, seven texts. Lemme get dressed.”

Cas Milton
>> You’re lucky I was up early today. Call me when you get here, I’ll be ready to go.

They’re out the door in record time and Sam’s grinning this grin, huge and infectious, and Dean can already feel it starting to creep across his own face. The Impala purrs to life under his hands; he blasts Led Zeppelin the whole way to Gabe’s place and from there to The Roadhouse, and Sam doesn’t even complain.

Bobby, Ellen, Jo, and Ash are still outside when they pull up, and Dean can still feel the heat from the truck’s engine when he vaults out of the Impala.

“Hey, Bobby,” he calls, still grinning, grinning, then Bobby’s beard twitches in his own approximation of a smile and Dean hugs him, tight and brief. He can smell the old leather of the truck and grease and gun-cleaning oil and everything his childhood was.

“You’re takin’ care of that car, right?” asks Bobby gruffly.

“‘Course I am,” Dean scoffs back, and he knows he’s glowing as Bobby claps him on the shoulder.

“God damn, Sam, you grow any more’n you won’t be able to fit in a house,” Bobby grumbles, then lets himself get swept up in a huge, Sam-sized hug. “And I’m guessin’ you’re Cas, right? The boys’ve been singin’ your praises for months.” He sticks out a hand. “Good to meet you, kid.”

Cas shakes it and Dean thinks that if he grins any wider, his face is going to split in half. He looks at Ellen, who’s got one of her rare, soft, I’m-not-going-to-gut-you smiles on.

“Food?” he asks hopefully, and throws in a charming smile. She crosses her arms.

“Get your ass inside, Winchester,” she barks, without real malice. “You too, boys. No point freezin’ our asses off in the snow.”

Breakfast ends up being a three-hour-long affair with way too much food and apple cider and no beer just yet. Gabriel waltzes in as Ellen brings out the pie, slaps Bobby on the back, and eats nearly as much of the pie as Dean does. At 2:04 in the afternoon, Dean remembers he’s supposed to be at the shop four minutes ago; he grabs his jacket and scarf and distractedly kisses Ellen on the cheek while promising to be back for dinner, he’ll close early and send Ash home at three, it’ll be fine. As he’s leaving, Sam and Cas are huddled close together, discussing something to do with the language used in legislation. He doesn’t let himself dwell on it.

He’s lucky it’s a Sunday, because he gets away with closing fifteen minutes early and gets back to The Roadhouse at six, where he catches Sam sneaking a drink from Cas’s beer while Ellen’s in the back room. Dean elbows him and says, “you know you’re driving us home tonight, right?”

Sam scowls and Cas laughs, his nose crinkling up in the most endearing way possible.

Dean braves the cold and the dark to head outside with Bobby and a flashlight, where he proves that yes, he’s been taking good care of his baby. They stay out there for an hour, verbally picking apart the Impala, and Dean can’t feel the tip of his nose by the time they head back inside, but he forgets about it as soon as Ellen announces that dinner’s ready.

He ends up really spectacularly drunk and equally as giddy two hours after that, in spite of the truly staggering amount of food he’d eaten. The only things that really stick out to him are belting out ‘Wanted Dead Or Alive’ with Sam and kissing Gabe on the face for bringing scotch, but everything else comes as brief flashes: Cas’s fingers curling around a glass of beer, the way he laughs, full-throated, when Bobby tells a dumb story about the garage, the look on his face when he tries eggnog for the first time, watching him down a row of shots without even getting fazed.

Jo stumbles up to her room at 10:30, yelling at Dean the whole way for having to work Monday mornings when it’s his day off. Dean laughs like it’s the funniest thing he’s ever heard and finishes his whiskey.

Somehow, the clock flies, and then it’s past two and Sam’s ushering him and Cas into the back seat of the Impala while both he and Bobby yell, slurred, that he’d better not screw her up in any way, shape, or form.

It’s only when they’re back in the apartment that Dean realizes something is off.

“Hey, wwhhhoa, Cas,” he says to Sam. Sam raises his eyebrows.

“I’m Sam,” he corrects, pointing at himself. Dean shakes his head and immediately regrets it.

“No, no, no, no,” he says firmly, “Cas’s here. Why isn’t he–” He gestures vaguely. “–not?”

Sam rolls his eyes. At least, Dean thinks Sam rolls his eyes. Everything is rolling around, at this point. Cas is leaning heavily against the kitchen wall.

“Just go to sleep,” Sam says, and pushes Dean lightly towards his room. He’s struggling to get out of his jacket and button-down and shirt and he catches glimpses of Sam standing in front of Cas in the hallway, his hands at the buttons on Cas’s shirt; Dean makes a sort of half-grumble, half-snort noise and just falls the fuck into his bed with his jeans half-on.



A phone rings at the fucking crack of dawn the next morning. There’s a grunt from somewhere next to him and the screen’s lit up on the floor next to his bed and a pile of clothes, then:

“Dean, hand me my phone.”

Cas reaches over him towards the floor and, in the process, presses his chest flush against Dean’s back (and how the hell did either of them even end up–? and Dean could’ve sworn he’d been wearing pants–) so Dean numbly reaches down, grabs the phone, and hands it to Cas.

“Hello?” He tries to go back to sleep but Cas is still close, much too close, can-feel-his-breath close, and that’s all he can process right now. His limbs feel like lead. “No. Yes. On a bender.” Dean can’t help but chuckle at Cas’s tone. The voice on the other end of the phone gets much louder.

Oh my god, are you with someone?” comes a filtered, crackly female voice.

“Goodbye, Anna,” Cas groans, and tosses the phone back onto the floor next to the pile of what Dean now realizes is Cas’s clothing. “For the love of god, Dean, please don’t wake me up for at least the next six hours.”

“Uh, yeah,” he manages to choke out, because that’s when it finally clicks that they’re in the same bed, under the same covers, wearing a negligible amount of clothing, and the last thing he registers before passing the fuck out is that that’s Castiel’s arm around his waist.



He wakes up some time later to a crippling hangover and Cas curled into his side. Cas’s hair is sort of tickling his shoulder and he does his best not to wake him up as he checks his phone.

Jo Harvelle
>> You works NOT believe how hungover I am
>> Would*
>> It’s not fair Ash doesn’t get hangovers and he isn’t working till 1. You owe me coffee so bad

Sasquatch
>> Are you even awake yet?

His phone ends up somewhere between his bed and the floor and he groans quietly because it’s only nine in the morning and the more of this hangover he can sleep away, the better. Cas is still passed out, breathing slow and steady into his shoulder, so Dean turns in to face him and falls asleep like that, with Cas’s hair tickling his nose every few breaths.

 

“Dean.”

A hand and gentle shaking and light coming from the windows and Dean just turns onto his stomach and groans.

No.”

“Dean, wake up. You need to eat.”

Back up, that’s Cas’s hand on his back now so he pushes himself up, blinks blearily, and tries to come up with something intelligent to say. All he can think of is Sam’s hands on Cas’s shirt.

“You slept here?” he ends up blurting out. “The whole night, I mean.”

“No, I slept on the windowsill,” Cas deadpans.

“Wait–” He racks his brain and comes up with something that involves a pretty dangerous amount of spooning through the haze of alcohol. “Oh.” Then, “Wait, you made breakfast?”

Cas gives him this look, like does it look like I could’ve survived this morning without breakfast? and yeah, Cas definitely looks like he’s been through the wringer.

Dean tries to grin but his stomach lurches, so he excuses himself, stumbles into the bathroom, and proceeds to vomit up what feels like all of his intestines and then some.

“Gabriel called,” says Cas from the kitchen when all sounds of retching have stopped. “He’s wondering if we’re still alive, and he says that Jo seems ‘unhappy.’”

“Jo do’en’t ‘ake hango’ers ‘oo well,” Dean calls back around his toothbrush. Everything tastes fucking squeaky and disgusting. A chuckle from the kitchen.

“Neither do I.”

“Hey, where’s Sam, anyways?” he asks, after most of the gross is gone from his mouth. He tosses his shirt back into his room from the hallway (it now stinks like sweat, alcohol, and puke) and walks into the kitchen to find Cas in rumpled pants and a half-buttoned oxford, sitting at the table and looking like he’s about to pass out. Again. Cas shrugs in response.

God, yes,” Dean groans, and helps himself to the mountain of pancakes. “Cas, seriously, you keep makin’ breakfasts like this and I’mma have to marry you.”

Oops.

Cas’s eyes are wide and he looks like he’s almost about to be on the verge of saying something but Dean winks exaggeratedly and chuckles, smoothing the whole thing over. Good going, dickwad. He pulls out his phone and dials Sam.

Hey, this is Sam! Can’t reach the–” He hangs up.

“Fine, asshole,” he mutters, and pulls up his texts.

Sasquatch
>> Where did you run off to please tell me you’re not studying it’s winter break

Jo Harvelle
>> Go bug Gabe for coffee. He’s probably hung over too

Cas puts his forehead down on the table with a quiet thump.

“I feel like I’m going to throw up again,” he groans.

“Not at the table,” Dean replies quickly, and pats his shoulder. He gets a muffled grunt in response.

 

They eventually crawl their way back to Gabriel’s house and find Sam there, sprawled across the couch and with Gabe somehow in the crack between Sam’s gangly limbs and the couch’s backrest. Dean muffles his laughter and takes a picture, definitely not for blackmail purposes.

Cas forces a cup of chamomile-mint tea on him, which tastes like minty, wilted grass, but Dean chokes it down anyways because Cas has promised him in every language he knows that it’ll help settle his stomach.

He warms his hands on the mug and looks around the room as Cas changes into old jeans and a t-shirt that’s nine kinds of faded, under the pretense of definitely not sneaking a look at him. He’s never seen Cas in clothing that’s not pants-and-an-oxford (or boxers and a t-shirt but he’s not gonna think about that) but hey, he’s got no complaints. He takes a couple of minutes to study the handful of DVDs Cas keeps in his room. Gabe’s ‘private collection’ consists of every Casa Erotica DVD ever made, but Dean’s not surprised to see that Cas has fancy collector’s editions of classic movies, and a couple of newer titles, and then–

Watchmen?” He whirls on Cas, DVD case in hand. “You like Watchmen?”

“It’s a brilliantly crafted social commentary,” Cas says, frowning deeper than the fucking Grand Canyon. “My interests aren’t limited by medium. The Cold War and mid-eighties were a fascinating time period, and Watchmen frames the–”

“My god, dude, I could kiss you right now,” Dean blurts out again, without thinking.

“Uh, am I interrupting something?” says Sam from the doorway, looking distinctly uncomfortable and equally as sleepy.

“No,” says Cas smoothly, “unless Dean intends to make good on that.” Dean snorts to cover his tracks and walks out, still holding Watchmen. Gabe turns to look up at him from the sofa.

“Damn,” Gabriel rasps, “you sure as hell look happy.”

“The next time you find a happy person with a hangover, let me know,” he snaps back, and then throws the Watchmen DVD into the tray, turns the TV on, and flops down by Gabe’s feet.

This is getting much too out of hand. He’s already reviewed and assessed the fact that his feelings about Cas are way past the point of his dick saying ‘god yes’ and have crossed into the dangerous territory of ‘please don’t leave my life,’ which is a) absolutely terrifying and b) not something he ever wants to admit to, ever, but if his dumb brain keeps up like this, he’s going to seriously mess things up between him and Cas.

He can deal with the unrequited thing. That’s cool. He might be egotistical and over-confident at times, but that’s only to mask the fact that he’s got a big fat zero as far as sense of self-worth goes. He loves his job and he loves his mods and he loves Ash and Jo as co-workers and he loves his family but the bottom line is, he’s a high school dropout with a GED who has nothing to offer to someone who graduated with honors from an Ivy League school. He can deal with the fact that in this respect, Sam is much better than he is. Sam is the obvious choice. He can deal with that, as long as he’s still got a little place in Cas’s life.

A mug suddenly appears under his nose, with Cas’s hand attached to it. The opening title and ‘The Times, They Are A-Changin`’ just started playing on the TV, which is probably what attracted Cas to the living room in the first place.

“You really should finish this,” he says, with one of those dumb adorable not-quite-smiles.

“Yes, Ellen,” he sighs back, and takes the mug. Their fingers touch.

 

Anna and Balthazar fly in from Chicago a few days later and Gabriel forces another nice dinner on them, so, naturally, Sam is freaking out.

“Jesus christ, Sam, it’s not your wedding night,” Dean grunts, and adjusts the uncomfortable collar of his nice, respectable shirt, respectably tucked into a respectable pair of pants. He’s disgusted by his reflection, and puts in the most eye-catching plugs he can find. Rebel against society, that’s him.

“I know, but this is Cas’s family,” he says, fumbling with his tie.

And? So’s Gabe.”

He gets a long-suffering Dean for that.

The drive to the restaurant only serves to make Sam more and more anxious, and put Dean in a progressively worse mood. Parking sucks because it’s primetime dinner hour at a nice restaurant, and Dean can’t help but worry if someone’s gonna accidentally knock his baby.

“We’ve got a reservation, under Gabriel Milton,” Sam says to the Nice Lady Up Front, whose official title Dean can never remember.

“Dean,” comes Cas’s voice from behind, and he turns to see Cas walking quickly towards them, looking distinctly frazzled. His hair is more haphazard than usual.

“Whoa, is everything okay?” he asks, automatically reaching a hand out towards him.

“I’m gonna–” Sam finishes by motioning towards the waitress that’s walking away.

“Oh,” says Cas, distractedly running a hand through his hair, “yes. Gabriel is parking, and– Dean, I have to warn you, Anna and Balthazar can be a handful.”

“Dude, it’s cool.” Dean shrugs. “They’re your family.”

“So are you,” Cas says quietly. Dean can feel the side of his mouth quirking up in a smile and he puts a hand on Cas’s shoulder, just briefly.

“We should, uh, follow S–”

“Cassie,” booms someone from the door, “aren’t you going to introduce us?” Cas flinches like he’s been electrocuted and whirls.

“Balthazar, this is Dean,” he says after clearing his throat. “Dean, this is my brother.” Dean politely shakes his hand. Balthazar is blonde, with Cas’s bright-blue eyes and lean body, wearing the most ridiculously low-cut v-neck Dean’s ever seen.

“I’m Anna,” says the willowy, equally-blue-eyed redhead. “Castiel’s sister.” She’s got Cas’s shy smile. Dean shakes her hand, too, and nods at Gabe, who looks tired.

“Sam’s over that way,” he says awkwardly, and they weave towards where Sam’s shaggy head is bent over the menu. He jumps up the instant he sees them and introduces himself enthusiastically; Balthazar seems instantly smitten and Anna does a lot of batting her eyelashes. Dean sits in the corner closest to the window and opens his menu to the alcohol.

Cas sits down right next to him and leans over.

“Relax, Dean,” he murmurs, just for him, and touches his forearm. Dean experiences the fascinating sensation of having his heart rate triple while simultaneously feeling all of the tension leave his body.

Dinner is a mostly normal affair; Dean finds himself relaxing slightly after half a beer, but it’s still nothing compared to what it was like meeting Cas for the first time. That was all of his walls crumbling as if they’d never existed, realizing that Cas is good, Cas is okay. This feels more like Anna and Balthazar reaching out, feeling his walls, acknowledging them, and leaving it at that.

He and Sam leave the Miltons to do Various Family Things and head to The Roadhouse. Dean spends the entire time wishing Cas and Gabe were there.

The night passes slowly and the next morning positively crawls. Both he and Sam are mopey and bad-tempered and Dean spends the whole day re-watching his Dr. Sexy DVDs until, at 10:32pm, his phone chirps.

Cas Milton
>> Are you or Sam home right now?

<< Yeah what's up

>> I’m coming over.

<< Is everything ok,
<< ?*

>> I’ll be there in five minutes.

“Sam?”

“What,” he drones back tonelessly.

“Uh, d’you know if everything’s cool with Cas?” he asks, and pauses Dr. Sexy. “He’s on his way here, so...”

“Wait, what?” Sam pads out into the hallway. “Did something happen?”

“I’ve got no clue,” says Dean, frustrated, and hunches his shoulders.

True to form, five minutes later, there’s a knocking at their door. Sam is nearly flattened by the door as Cas storms in, looking more furious than Dean’s ever seen him.

“Are you okay?” asks Sam, quiet and calm. Cas takes a deep breath.

“Cas?”

“My, uh, siblings,” he says, enunciating clearly, “can be difficult to deal with.”

Sam opens his mouth and Dean knows he’s about to ask for clarification, if Cas wants to talk and share, but Dean can tell that’s the last thing he wants right now.

“Hey, sit down,” Dean says, getting up from the couch. “Tonight I’m gonna introduce you to Indiana Jones.” And fucking bingo, right there – Cas’s shoulders relax, ever so slightly, and he looks at Dean with gratitude written on his face.

Sam’s asleep halfway through Temple of Doom and taking up most of the couch, so that Cas is trapped between Sam’s shins and Dean’s side for the rest of the movie, and he’s yawning heavily by the time the it’s over.

“I’ll shove Sasquatch off so you can sleep,” Dean says, and he’s about to do it when Cas’s arm stops him.

“No, don’t wake him,” he scoffs. “That’s rude.”

“You’re not gonna sleep on the floor, and I’m sorry, but Sam hasn’t cleaned his room in years. I’m pretty sure it’s radioactive in there.”

“Your bed’s more than big enough for two, if you’re not squeamish about sharing,” says Cas, and in the half-light from the TV, Dean can see his mouth quirk up. He puts his hands up in defeat.

“Your call, dude,” he says, and gets up to find their extra comforter. Cas is already in Dean’s room by the time he walks back into the living room to throw the comforter over Sam, and he can’t help but flick some hair out of Sam’s face. His brother’s turning into a total moose. He also needs to shave those fucking ridiculous sideburns.

Cas is sitting on the bed by the time he goes into his own room, holding his lit-up phone, and looking just plain defeated. Dean know he’s absolutely terrible with talking about it and words and making people feel better, but he thinks he should at least try. He clears his throat.

“So, um, what happened?”

Cas glances up at him and sighs.

“Anna and Balthazar are very loud with their opinions,” he finally says. “Sometimes they don’t realize their hurtfulness.”

Dean nudges at some clothing on the floor with his foot, and shoves it in the general direction of his closet. The only light in his room is coming from his desk lamp and Cas’s phone.

“Yeah, I know how that is,” Dean mutters. A sympathetic ‘sorry’ seems out of place.

“I was also fairly rash in my reaction,” continues Cas. “Gabriel has called four times, Anna’s called twice, and Balthazar three times.”

“Are you gonna call ‘em back?” He sits down on the bed, a respectable distance from Cas. A respectable, three-inch distance. Cas shakes his head.

“It’ll be better if I let this sit overnight,” he murmurs. “I should’ve expected to get into some sort of argument, though. It’s never peaceful when the four of us are together.”

“Yeah, well–” Dean clears his throat. “Family’s real good at getting you pissed off. Sam and I sure as hell know that.” God, he’s fucking terrible at this; he lifts a hand with the honest intentions of resting it between Cas’s shoulder blades but he ends up stuck on his lower back, with the knots of his spine smooth under his fingers. He knows he should move but his hand isn’t responding. When Cas leans back into the touch, it seems instinctive. “You, uh, sure you don’t want me to kick Sam off the couch?”

“I’d rather sleep with you than wake Sam,” Cas says, voice low.

Ouch, dude,” Dean replies, and uses a theatrical wince as an excuse to finally move his hand.

“Thank you,” murmurs Cas softly once they’re both in bed and the lights are off. “I’m sure I ruined yours and Sam’s evening.”

“You’re always welcome here,” Dean fires back, a little indignant and a lot more touchy-feely than he’d like. He’s never been one for these bedtime confessionals. “I mean, seriously.” He rolls over onto his stomach and slides his hands under the pillow, turning his head resolutely to the side so he doesn’t do something dumb like stare at Cas.

“Thank you, Dean,” Cas repeats, and Dean squeezes his eyes shut so hard it hurts.

 

 

Christmas is the usual food-filled, alcohol-fueled, crazy affair.

It turns out that Balthazar is actually a stunning chef (and the person who taught Cas how to cook, which explains a lot) so Christmas Eve’s dinner is probably the best Dean’s ever had. Anna is charming and Balthazar is ribald, and Dean spends the whole dinner pressed tightly between Cas and Gabe at the small table, shoulders rubbing every time either of them moves.

Dean gives Cas a silk-cashmere scarf with a gruff so you don’t have to steal mine all the time. Cas’s whole face lights up and Dean thinks yeah, he made the right choice, because the scarf is the same exact shade of blue that Cas’s eyes are.

Dean gives Sam a huge box of books and movies that he always complains about missing on TV or having to renew from the library. Sam’s grin is his favorite thing in the world.

The three of them – Dean, Sam, and Cas – sprint to the Impala and haul in a huge, commercial panini press, all wrapped up complete with shiny bow on top. It’s the closest Dean’s ever seen Gabriel to crying.

Dean has to fight back his own tears when he gets a flat, square-shaped box from the three of them, in turn, and opens it to find the rare-as-fuck, expensive, 20th anniversary commemorative Stairway to Heaven set, mint condition. He lets himself get swept up in Sam’s monster hug when he’s finally able to choke out a “thanks, guys,” and buries his face in his brother’s shoulder to hide his grin.

The evening winds itself down after that, and they dig out the eggnog; Dean ends up spending a good amount of time talking to Anna, and notices at one point that Gabe pulls Sam aside. He can’t hear what they’re saying, but Gabriel puts something small in Sam’s hand, covers it with his own palm, and then – Sam must be drunk, god damn, because he’s handing out hugs like nobody’s business tonight.

He tries, hard, not to think about the hug Cas gives him when they finally leave.

 

Dean wakes up the next morning and decides, arbitrarily, to blast some Asia for no other reason than Christmas Day falling on a Tuesday this year.

“Dude,” Sam complains loudly from his room, “Asia?”

“C’mon, man, you love this song and you know it,” he yells back, and dances into the kitchen singing along to 'Heat Of The Moment' as loudly as possible.

Sam eventually cuts him off with, “okay, Dean, just– Merry Christmas, okay, will you shut up?”

Christmas Day is another whirl of food and booze and laughter and old holiday music at The Roadhouse. Ellen’s food is top-notch, as per usual, and Ash is wearing a sleeveless cutoff shirt, as per usual, and Bobby is drunk by three, as per usual. Dean takes a rare day to let himself bask in his family, how lucky he is to be surrounded by people who yell at him and fight with him and laugh with him and deal with the fact that, essentially, he’s worthless and selfish and undeserving, but who love him despite that.

They might not be a conventional family, but Dean would die for any of them in a heartbeat.

 

 

Bobby leaves the Friday before New Year’s, the day after Anna and Balthazar fly back to England; Dean drives Sam and Cas and Gabriel out to The Roadhouse again, where they all have one last beer before Bobby hits the road.

Ellen hugs Bobby and Ash slaps him on the back and Jo kisses him on his whiskered cheek. He shakes hands with Gabriel and threatens his balls if anything happens to Sam or Dean, then shakes hands with Cas, lets Sam hug him, and then, inexplicably, he pulls Dean aside.

“You’ve got somethin’ special in Cas, kid,” rumbles Bobby. “Don’t let it go.” Then, in a gesture more sentimental than he’s ever shown, he gently pats Dean on the cheek, and clambers into his truck.

“What the hell was that about?” snorts Sam, coming up from behind him.

“I... nothin’,” he finally says, dazed, and looks over at Cas. He’s smiling as Bobby pulls away, hands in his pockets and nose pink with cold. “Nothin’ I didn’t already know.”

 

New Year’s Eve finds him and Sam at Gabe’s place, all four of them squeezed onto the couch and already hammered by the time they’re counting down as the ball drops. Gabriel yells loudest of them all when the new year officially rolls around, and Dean laughs until he cries when Sam full-on grabs Gabriel’s face between his huge paws and kisses him, square on the mouth. Cas is laughing harder than Dean’s ever heard him laugh. Sam turns redder than a stoplight and slumps down against the couch, slurring, “you assholes.”

Dean then entertains the idea of kissing Cas and passing it off as I was drunk, and immediately dismisses that notion with the distinct aftertaste of self-disgust.

Sam ends up wandering away around 3 in the morning and, thirty minutes later, Gabe finds him passed out on his bed. He shrugs, drops his jeans, and kicks the door closed.

Dean’s thoroughly alcohol-sodden brain finds this absolutely fucking hilarious, and he’s still giggling when Cas helps him unfold the sofa bed in the living room and unearth sheets and blankets. He can forget for the night that he’s a full twenty-three years old. Cas stumbles away, laughing to himself, and then with a quiet flick, he turns the lights out.

“You bastard,” Dean says loudly, and is overcome by laughter again when he trips over something. He picks out Cas’s dark shape a split second before they collide, shoulders-chest-hips-thighs in a clumsy line.

“Quieter,” hisses Cas back, and then both of them are stifling laughter and stumbling towards the bed. Cas is pulling at his shirt in the dark, fingers fumbling up over his collar, against his neck, and then Dean’s calves hit the side of the bed and he topples over, bringing Cas down next to him.

“We’re gonna be so hungover,” Dean says to the ceiling, goofy grin plastered across his face. Cas is tangled up like a rag doll somewhere near him, warm and pliant, and Dean can feel every area where they’re touching – Cas’s thigh against his knee, a hand splayed across his stomach, their sides pressed together.

“Dean?”

“Yeah?”

Cas slings himself over Dean’s body and that’s it, he’s gone, he can’t even move. He can feel Cas’s fingers, still searching for something on his chest, neck, jaw, warm breaths curling against the patch of skin under his ear – does he even know what he’s doing to Dean right now?

“Dean,” Cas murmurs again, and then there are fingers wrapping around the back of his neck and a nose bumping accidentally against his jaw and oh, oh, that’s a mouth, and Dean can’t – he can’t deal with this, even though his body’s arching up to meet Cas against his will, even though he’s sweeping the pad of his thumb across Cas’s bottom lip the way he’s always wanted to, but he can’t, he can’t do this, he cannot do this.

“I–” He swallows, mouth dry. “I can’t–” And shit, one of his hands is half-curled in Cas’s hair and he’s got no idea how it ended up there.

“You are insufferable,” breathes Cas, cheek against his, stubble scratching, and Dean’s impressed that he was able to actually pronounce ‘insufferable’ before Cas is gone. He slides off to the side and the warmth is gone, but it’s not a rebuke, not with the way Cas’s fingers trail across Dean’s chest. He misses the contact, misses it so much in the split second it’s gone that he immediately reaches out and pulls himself close to Cas.

Cas is out within seconds, breathing softly against his shoulder and with an arm draped across Dean’s hips. Dean lies awake much longer, much more sober than he’d like, drowning in how little he deserves this.

 

The next morning is positively brutal and Dean swears he’s hung over for the next three days. Cas spends the rest of the week slowly gearing up for the next quarter, and Sam festers in anticipation and anxiety for his new classes. The only ray of light, Sam constantly repeats, is that Cas is TA for the Language and Law course he’s taking.

Dean, in turn, scrambles to make sure all of his paperwork is done for the Body Art Expo – seller’s permit, health license, re-doing his bloodborne pathogens certification just in case. He also spends a fair amount of time digging through his sketchbooks and folders upon folders of half-finished doodles, trying to find something suitable that could pass as a portfolio. Or something. He eventually whirls into Gabe’s kitchen, slams an inch’s worth of art down on the table, and makes the three of them pick five somethings each. To his surprise, Cas picks out the still-half-finished sketch from Dean’s nightmare all those months ago, where there’s a hand gripping his shoulder tight.

He cleans up the pieces that are unfinished while Sam powers through his first week of classes; Cas is the one who drives him to the airport, since Sam has classes and Gabriel’s working. Cas drives a 2008 Prius (and Dean complains about him being a hippie for the whole drive) and stays with him for the whole check-in procedure, as his nerves get steadily worse and worse.

Relax, Dean,” he murmurs at one point (Dean’s about to twist his driver’s license in half) and then leans in and puts a palm on his lower back. One simple gesture, and 90% of the tension is gone. He is so, so screwed.

He manages to get his bags checked without incident – he has the airline employee assure him at least three times that the bigger suitcase has been marked fragile, because there’s no way he trusts an airplane to not damage his favorite tattoo machine – and then Cas gently prods and nudges him towards the security screening and Dean can’t breathe because he’s an hour away from being hurled through the air in a dinky metal tube.

“Airplanes don’t even look aerodynamic,” he hisses vehemently.

Cas, bless him, is infinitely patient.

“You’ll be fine, Dean. I promise.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Remember to call Sam when you land,” Cas says, and the corner of his mouth turns up. “I’m sure he’ll want to know all about your ordeal.”

“You know, I might still be able to get a refund if I cancel fast enough,” Dean says quickly, shifting his weight and fiddling with the strap of his messenger bag. Cas does the closest approximation of an eyeroll Dean’s ever seen him do.

“Here,” says Cas, and in one smooth motion, he pulls something out of his pocket, steps much too close to Dean, and fiddles with something on the side of his bag for a good ten seconds.

“Whoa” is all Dean can say when Cas steps back (too far, much too far away now), because whoa. There’s a keychain dangling from one of the loops on his bag, a round, silver medallion with Jimmy Page’s symbol on one side and Bonzo’s on the other.

“Good luck charm,” Cas explains, and smiles just a tiny bit wider.

“Thanks, Cas,” he manages to whisper, and then they’re hugging and it’s weird because Dean doesn’t do hugs. Cas is warm and solid and lean in his arms and Dean breathes him in, breathes in Gabriel’s house and the cold chill from outside that still clings and the light smell of his aftershave.

“Have fun,” Cas says, when they eventually pull apart. Dean realizes that his hand’s stuck on the slope of Cas’s neck and that Cas still has a hand on his side and wow, this is awkward, but Dean resolutely refuses to let go.

“Yeah,” he murmurs back, and Cas’s eyes are so fucking blue. He clears his throat. “I should, uh...”

“Go,” says Cas, and that stupid smile is back on his face. He uses the hand still on Dean’s side to give him a push; Dean reluctantly slides his hand away and moves into the line.

“And relax,” Cas calls after him, “you’ll be fine.”

Dean looks back once he’s through security, after putting his shoes and flannel shirt and belt and jacket and scarf back on, and grins at Cas, who’s standing on the other side, hands in his trench coat’s pockets and flyaway hair a dark smudge against the huge windows.

 

He nearly has a heart attack seven separate times on the flight and thanks every deity he can think of for Gabriel reminding him that his phone can play music, too. Metallica sort of helps remedy his anxiety but when he finally lands in Orange County, he doesn’t even stop to flirt with the hot blonde stewardess, just scrambles to be first off of the plane.

The airport is small and crowded and there’s a fucking statue of John Wayne in the baggage claim area. Dean takes a picture of it and sends it to Sam, then dials his number.

“Hey, Dean,” he answers brightly, and with that, almost all of the tension and leftover anxiety in his chest dissolve.

“Heya, Sammy.”

“How was your flight?” Sam asks, and Dean can see him snickering.

“Uh, nice, thank you,” he replies stiffly.

“At least you landed,” Sam reminds him, much too cheerfully.

“Yeah, okay. I’ll talk to you later, asshole,” Dean snaps, and Sam’s laughing as he hangs up.

 

Pre-reg and set-up are long and boring and Dean actually breaks a sweat helping some other artists and piercers set up their booths, because it’s fucking 68 degrees out in January. He ends up running into Sara Eberle, which turns him into a blabbering fanboy when she remembers him and confirms his appointment for Saturday afternoon.

He scopes out a couple of stick-and-poke artists and then finds himself in the chair at 5 the next afternoon, getting a kao yord yantra hand-poked by a ridiculously serene guy named Mike, who spent the last 15 years traveling between Thailand and Malaysia and Tibet.

He remembers a really shy girl watching nearly the whole process – she had messy, short black hair and bright blue eyes, which is definitely not the reason she stood out to Dean.

Friday’s half-day passes in a blur – between getting tattooed, getting appointments, and three people who’d just sat down, stripped, and said ‘find some skin and tattoo it,’ he’s had no time to call or text back home. When he finally trudges back into his hotel room, his phone is chirping petulantly at him.

Jo Harvelle
>> Is Ignacio Barrera there omg get pierced by him so I can live vicariously through you
>> Buy some jewelry for me too
>> And this time remember that I’m 27mm NOT 1”

Sasquatch
>> Knee-deep in work yet?
>> Wow, guess so. Let me know how it goes.
>> If you come back with drunk tattoos I’m going to laugh so hard.
>> I would say “don’t forget to eat,” but I figure that’s not a problem with you.

Ellen Harvelle
>> Good luck kiddo have fun :-)

Gabe Milton
>> Get your ass tattooed. I’ll be checking when you get home ;)

Cas Milton
>> Sam assures me it’s not disruptive to be texting you. Enjoy yourself, хорошо проведи время, diviértete, amuse-toi, hab Spaß, and help me keep Sam from worrying too much. He misses you. I do too.

He grins and calls Sam.

“You’re not actually going to get your ass tattooed, are you?” Sam asks, without preamble.

“It is tattooed, pipsqueak,” he snarks back.

“Oh. Ohhhh, yeah.” He hears a low murmur in the background. “Cas says hi, by the way.”

“What, so you’re bummin’ over at Gabe’s place again?” Dean puts the phone on speaker and sets it down in order to tenderly remove his t-shirt and admire the still-red yantra on his back. Sam chuckles.

“Yeah, Cas and I went out for dinner and Gabe was working, you know how it is,” he says, and Dean’s heart drops. An uncomfortable, familiar thought-fear-feeling worms its way into his stomach.

“Well–” He’s interrupted by a monstrous yawn. “–give Cas a pat on the head and Gabe a nice, big smooch for takin’ care of your ass.”

“Uh, yeah, Dean,” says Sam with an awkward, almost-nervous laugh, “sure.”

Dean makes some excuse about waking up early and jet lag and ends the conversation. He ends up falling asleep to vague dreams about chasing after dark wings.

 

The knot of worry in his chest takes root overnight and grows, snaking tendrils into every inch of his skin, and all he can think about when he’s not tattooing is Cas – the way he’ll smile at Sam sometimes, the way they have of huddling together to work on something, the way Cas listens when Sam’s talking and talking about something that excites him.

(It never occurs to him to look at the flip side of the coin.)

The second that needle hits skin under his gloves, though, he’s sucked into clean lines and soft colors and that thing that apparently he’s gotten well-known for – Ash says ‘all the blogs online’ love the way he fills color but Dean can’t really see anything special about it. It’s not very traditional and it’s washy and watercolory but hey, at least he makes good money for it.

His hand’s cramped up like a bitch by the time his appointment with Sara rolls around; she teases him for missing some spots while shaving and cleans up his knees and ankles for him. This is usually where he’d be turning up the charm, getting tattooed by a really ethereally gorgeous woman, but there’s something so Jo about her that Dean keeps the banter strictly outside the bounds of flirting.

Right before she lays over the transfer paper, Dean’s phone makes a racket from where it’s stuck in his discarded jeans.

“Go ahead,” says Sara, with a smile and a tilt of her head. Dean fishes the phone out, stares at the Cas Milton calling in warm disbelief, and answers.

“Hey, Cas.”

“Hello, Dean,” comes Cas’s low rumble and fuck, Dean’s filled with a warmth he shouldn’t be feeling. In less than two seconds, all of his worry dissipates. He realizes, belatedly, that he’s grinning. “Am I interrupting?”

“Nah, you’re good. What’s up?” Sara mouths at him and indicates that she’s gonna start with the transfer paper; he nods back at her.

“Oh,” says Cas, “I didn’t have a particular reason for calling. Sam and Gabriel are busy, and it’s very quiet without you.”

Dean chuckles because, oh, the irony – Cas is trying to say ‘I miss you’ to someone who has an even harder time choking out ‘I miss you too.’

“Man, you’d have a field day here,” he says instead. “Tons of people with weird accents.”

“Really?” Dean can see the way he’d lean forward, way past any normal boundaries of personal space. “California English, no doubt, and probably some fantastic examples of Chicano English.” Dean laughs and says he’s got no idea what Cas is saying.

The end up talking all the way through Sara’s multiple corrections of the pattern, and Dean fumbles through an explanation when Sara says, “Alright, hun, I’m gonna get started,” and the sound of her gun rattles over the phone.

“I’ll show you on Monday,” he replies, grinning, when Cas asks what he’s getting tattooed.

“I hope you aren’t taking Gabriel’s suggestion seriously, then,” Cas fires back, and Dean can perfectly picture the wicked, teasing look in his eyes.

“Whatever, dude,” Dean scoffs, and Sara’s smiling wistfully up at him by the time he hangs up.

“Boyfriend?” she prompts, needle moving purposefully across the side of his calf.

“Nah,” Dean says, going for off-hand, and his laugh comes out forced. “Just, uh, good friend of mine. Kinda like a family friend.”

Sara just keeps looking at him, much too long to be comfortable, and then nods like she gets it.

“You’ve got it bad, huh?” she finally murmurs, mouth turning up wryly.

“No way,” Dean scoffs automatically, but he can feel the tips of his ears reddening. Sara gives him another look and gently pats his knee with her free hand.

 

Sunday finds him hobbling around the expo, trying to move his still-tender new additions as little as possible. He tattoos nearly ten more people after his second session with Sara, then winces his way to where most of the booths selling jewelry are as the expo winds down. There’s a pair of rough-faced amethyst plugs his size that are just begging to be bought so he sighs and splurges, then buys Jo a really stunning pair of plugs hand-carved from rutilated quartz.

The expo winds down quickly and it’s actually chilly when they’re taking all of the booths down; Dean gets a solid couple of jetlagged hours of sleep before heading back to the airport, sadly without Cas to see him off this time. His return flight includes a stopover at O’Hare, which is a fucking blessing, and he’s still so traumatized by his flights that he even lets Sam have a quick hug at the airport.

Gabe and Cas are over a half an hour after he and Sam get home, at which point Dean is hobbling around in basketball shorts and trying to find a way to lie down on the couch without actually touching his legs to it.

“Damn,” sighs Gabe wistfully, “so it wasn’t an ass tattoo.”

“That’s beautiful,” Cas murmurs when Dean gingerly sits down and ends up resting his feet on the coffee table. “The level of detail is incredible.” He shakes his head disbelievingly and sits down next to Dean. “It suits you very well.”

Dean preens. Of course it’s fucking beautiful, Sara Eberle tattooed it – he’s solid black from his knees to his ankles, broken by swirls and eddies of crosshatching, loops of flesh-tone breaking the black ink. He doesn’t think he’s ever loved a tattoo more than this one.

He takes a swig of beer, savoring it with his eyes closed, when a light touch on his shin makes him jump and nearly spill half the bottle down his shirt. Cas’s hand is hovering an inch over his leg and he’s got this sorrowful, apologetic look on his face.

“My apologies,” he says, holding his hands up the way you would to a freaked-out animal. Dean snorts.

“No, no,” he says back, setting the beer down, “you just, uh– wasn’t expecting it. ‘S kinda tender.”

May I touch it?” asks Cas, carefully moving his hand back down towards Dean’s leg. Dean shrugs.

“I guess. Just, uh, be gentle. Still hurts like a bitch sometimes.”

“Cute,” says Gabe cheerfully, flopping down on the loveseat next to Sam. Dean rolls his eyes and tries his best not to shiver; Cas’s fingers are dancing softly down his legs, tracing patterns he hasn’t memorized yet, grazing so fucking tenderly across his skin that he thinks he’s finally going to go crazy.

 

 

The Friday before his birthday, Dean wakes up on the Miltons’ couch at some ungodly hour in the morning to quiet noise in the kitchen. The morning sun is filtering weakly through dark-bellied clouds and there aren’t many lights on, but he’s got an idea of who’d be up this early.

“Cas?” he croaks.

“My apologies,” Cas whispers back, standing close with a coffee tumbler in hand, “I didn’t mean to wake you. Go back to sleep, Dean.” And then – he thinks he might be dreaming this – Cas leans over the back of the couch, gently pushes his fingers through Dean’s hair. By the time he’s at the door, Dean is dead asleep again.

He wakes up again somewhere in the region of 9:30 to Gabriel and Sam banging around in the kitchen this time; he sits up, rubs his eyes, and grabs his phone.

Cas Milton
<< What time are you done today, I’d kill for Ellen’s burgers for lunch

A yawn and a stretch later, he runs a hand through his hair and heads for the kitchen. It smells like Gabe’s doing french toast and his stomach growls in anticipation, but when he rounds the corner, the world stops dead.

Sam’s got this goofy grin on his face and he’s leaning down as he folds up the sleeves of his flannel, leaning down to kiss the smirk off of Gabriel’s face.

Back the fun bus the fuck up.

Dean makes a choked sort of indignant noise and Sam and Gabe look like deer in headlights and then Sam’s yelling Dean, wait, hold on a second and Dean doesn’t even know where he’s going.

“What the hell is going on, Sam?” he hisses, looking between his brother’s earnest, too-big eyes, and Gabriel’s silhouette in the kitchen.

“You didn’t–?”

“No, Sam, I didn’t, so I’d like you to explain exactly what the hell is going on,” he snaps.

“I– well–” Sam swallows and runs a hand through his hair. “Dean, I thought you knew. It’s not like either of us was hiding it.”

“He’s nearly six years older than you,” Dean says, much louder than intended.

“He’s family,” Sam fires back, even louder.

“Sam,” he starts, angry now, but Sam cuts him off.

“I can make my own decisions, Dean,” he snaps. “I don’t need you to be Dad, too.”

Dean is outside and slamming the door before he knows it.

The drive back to their apartment is filtered through an angry, red haze; he’s only home long enough to change into clothes he didn’t sleep in. The reason the house is empty serves to make him even more upset, and the next thing he knows, he’s headed to campus.

Cas Milton
>> I’ll be done at 10:30. I’d love to have lunch with you.

<< I'm going to campus right now. Sam and I had a fight I kinda need to talk to you about something important

>> Wait in my office. I’ll be there as soon as I can.

He fumes his way through the steadily-falling snow and he knows he’s being rude to the people he’s shouldering through to get to the ling department, but he can’t bring himself to care. The door neatly labeled with Castiel Milton, TA – Language and Law/Dialects of America is ajar so he nudges it open and drops himself into one of the chairs.

The clock reads 10:31 when Cas walks into the room; Dean jumps to his feet and they shuffle awkwardly for a second before Dean just blurts out, “did you know about Sam and Gabe’s–?” and Cas stares at him. “That they’re– you know, a... a thing?

“I–” It’s the first time he’s ever seen Cas speechless. “I’ve... had my suspicions, Gabriel has always been extremely fond of Sam, but–”

“Hey, Castiel,” chimes in a third voice, and Dean has to exercise monumental self-restraint to not punch Zachariah right in his smug face. He’s leaning casually on the doorframe, eyes flicking between Dean, Cas, and the three inches of space between them, the way Dean is curved around Cas and their arms are brushing together. “I, uh, hate to interrupt you and your friend, but could I borrow you for a moment?”

“I’m afraid not,” says Cas, low and dangerous and oh. “Dean and I have a bit of a family emergency going on right now.” And then he just blows out the door, right past Zachariah, and Dean can’t help sending a smug smirk over his shoulder as he follows Cas down the hallway.

 

“It’s something more, isn’t it?”

Cas’s voice is soft over the Impala’s deep purr.

“Nothin’,” Dean mumbles, and pointedly stares through the windshield.

“Dean,” says Cas, and he knows that Cas can see right through him.

“It’s just–” He runs his palms over the steering wheel, feeling all of the familiar bumps and nicks in the leather. “Sam has this way of... bringing Dad into our arguments.” He exhales. “I don’t know, man. I need some time to think about this.”

“Gabriel is much older than Sam,” Cas says, and runs a hand distractedly through his hair.

“I know,” Dean replies, frustrated. “God knows Sam’s smart, but I’m scared he doesn’t know what he’s getting into.”

“As much as I care about your brother, I’m worried that Gabriel could either be his usual blunt self and unknowingly or accidentally pressure Sam into something he isn’t willing to do–”

“Cas, jesus, I don’t wanna think ab–”

“–or, Sam could be seeking to experiment and chose someone whose feelings for him are much more than experimental.”

The light is red, so Dean takes the opportunity to stare at Cas in disbelief.

“You’re serious,” he says.

“Of course,” Cas deadpans back. “Gabriel’s actions and feelings have long been outside the realm of platitude. I’m surprised you didn’t notice that earlier.”

“Gabriel is Gabriel, though,” Dean grunts. “He flirts with everyone.”

“Regardless, I hope both Sam and Gabriel know what they’re doing,” Cas murmurs, and leans his head against the window. Flurries of snow keep dancing in halos around his dark hair through the glass and Dean only realizes the light’s turned green when the asshat behind him honks.

 

Sasquatch
>> I’m staying the night here. We need to talk tomorrow.

“Wonderful,” Dean mutters, and throws his phone into his bag with more force than necessary. Jo looks over at him sympathetically; he clears his throat. “Ready to go?”

“Yeah. Look, Dean–”

“Drop it, okay?” He leans his elbows on the counter. “It’s bad enough I gotta talk to Sam about this.”

“Go home, have a drink,” she sighs, and squeezes his shoulder. “Ask Cas how it went.”

“Yeah, yeah.” He turns his collar up before walking out into the near-blizzard; Jo waits for him to lock, gives him a brief, rare hug, and heads home.

Driving through snow, Dean thinks, would be really great if he didn’t worry so much about his car. He loves winter for its quiet and, somehow, it’s even more ethereal from inside a car – silent save for the engine, soft and pale and cold, the stark whiteness of snow set off by dark clouds.

As much as he loves winter, he’s eternally grateful that his and Sam’s apartment complex has a parking garage. He pulls out his phone again as he climbs the stairs.

Cas Milton
<< Hey is everything ok with you and Gabriel? I'm home if you wanna stop by or sow thing
<< Something*
<< Gonna make dinner too idk if you ate

>> I’ll be over shortly.

Well, okay. He opens the fridge and realizes he’s still got a tray of steak tips he’d bought to make a stew (contrary to what everyone around him seems to think, Dean is actually a great cook, thank you very much). He shrugs, pulls out a pan, and starts heating up some oil to sear them in while he peels potatoes. There’s a knock on the door about thirty seconds after he sets them on the stove.

Cas looks... irritated. It’s better than full-on pissed, that’s for sure, but it still means that something unpleasant must’ve gone down.

“Is, uh, everything–?” He gestures vaguely. Cas heaves a sigh as he strips off his trench coat and the three layers he’s wearing underneath, until it’s just him in an old t-shirt and those jeans with a hole worn through the knee. Dean’s surprised. Cas doesn’t often do casual.

“I think...” Cas pauses, rolls his shoulders. “I think they have it figured out. Neither of us gave them enough credit, though that’s understandable, due to the circumstances in which you and I found out.”

Dean takes a deep breath and nods.

“Okay,” he says, and nods again. “Oh-kay. So, uh, dinner?” He jabs a thumb towards the kitchen and tries a smile. Cas’s mouth twitches up.

 

They eat on the couch and Cas ends up roping him into watching one of Sam’s movies, something called The Prestige that Dean is wholly unprepared to love as much as he does by the time the credits roll.

“Cas?” he asks tentatively, because Cas is slumped over like he’s half-asleep. He gets a grunt in response. “You spendin’ the night?”

“Copula deletion,” Cas mumbles. “Common, for you. If you’d like me to, I will.”

“Yeah, I–” He clears his throat. “That’d be, uh, nice.”

Cas sits up and stretches so that the worn cotton of his shirt rides up and, for a brief second, shows a strip of pale skin. Not that Dean looks. Then, to his surprise, Cas gets up, yawns, and pads his way into Dean’s room.

Dean frowns, picks up the dishes, dumps them in the sink, then peers into his room to find Cas sprawled across his bed and already dead asleep, still in the same shirt. He snorts and goes back to do the dishes.

 

Two in the morning finds Dean at his desk. The street lights through the window are just barely bright enough for him to see what he’s drawing and he can hear Cas’s deep, even breaths behind him; he knows sleep is going to come soon.

In the meantime, though, his hand is just itching and he needs to get this out before he can sleep. He’s been thinking about that old Hell-dream he had, about the angel and the light, and he thinks he’s finally got it – dark, shimmering wings flared impressively, a face full of focus and a wild sort of exhilaration, holy and righteous and beautiful.

He lazily scribbles some more shadows and stifles a yawn; he’s done here, and it’s time to sleep. Cas is taking up most of the bed and Dean does his best to clear himself a space free of Cas’s limbs, which ends with Cas unconsciously curling his fingers into the front of Dean’s shirt.

For about the thousandth time that day, Dean regards his situation. He still can’t shake how woefully fucking inadequate he must be in Cas’s eyes, and even if now Sam isn’t an option for him, there’s no way Cas would ever stoop so low. Worthless.

The thought is almost comforting in its familiarity, like the poison whisper of Alastair in his head, the way he used to snarl not good enough, Winchester, you have to scratch ‘em till they bleed and bleed and bleed only this time, the tables are turned and he’s the one bleeding. His arm tingles with phantom pain.

He squares his shoulders and closes his eyes and the last thing he remember thinking before he slips away is that, somehow, the angel turned out looking like Cas.

 

The next morning, when Sam walks quietly into the apartment, he and Dean blurt out, “okay, so I overreacted,” at the exact same time. Sam runs a hand through his hair and takes a deep breath.

“I didn’t– look, I’m sorry about what I said,” Sam explains, earnest and wide-eyed, “and I coulda said it way better, but I think you need to trust me on this.”

“Yeah, you coulda,” Dean says stiffly. “I had reason to worry about you, Sam.”

“I know,” he mumbles.

Dean shifts his weight. He is terrible at this kind of thing. He has no idea how to explain what he’s feeling because he doesn’t know what he’s feeling – honestly, he’s still pretty fucking weirded out because Sam and Gabriel? and he’s worried about Sam and worried about Gabriel and there are really no words for this kind of thing.

“Just... don’t be dumb,” he finally says. Sam scoffs in an attempt to lighten the mood, which, surprisingly, ends up working. Dean squeezes his shoulder and thinks that even if it’s gonna take getting used to, things are gonna be okay.

 

 

It all goes to hell the morning of his birthday.

He’s never been particularly fond of birthdays (what’s there to celebrate? only his sixteenth and eighteenth and twenty-first really mattered), but at least he can use the ‘it’s my birthday’ excuse to get away with doing shit that annoys Sam.

Like blaring Led Zeppelin the second he wakes up.

“Yeah, okay, happy birthday,” Sam grumbles, rubbing sleep out of his eyes as he slumps down in a kitchen chair.

“I shoulda quit you,” Dean croons in response, “looooooong time ag–” Sam takes a halfhearted swing at him and he jerks back, laughing, then turns the stereo down.

When they’re done with breakfast and the runout groove has been making muted pops for fifteen minutes, Sam goes to shower and Dean changes the record. He goes for some Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young because he’s sort of in the mood for folky stuff, and then he realizes that Stills’ ‘4 + 20’ is on the record he’s holding.

If he’s honest, this is why he doesn’t like birthdays – the way he always manages to work himself into a deep session of corny introspection that makes him fucking hate everything.

The song isn’t helping, he thinks, as Stephen Stills softly sings that four and twenty years ago, I come into this life, the son of a woman, and a man who lived in strife. All of his early memories deal with John, John yelling, John being absent, John moving them on a monthly (sometimes weekly) basis just to chase after something that could possibly earn them some money, John working any job available, John trying to make time for his boys, John trying to make money to support his boys, trying to do the best by them, trying so hard and being so earnest, trying and falling short every time. And he worked like the devil to be more.

It kinda goes to show that his most important birthdays were always about Sam – the only ones that really mattered were when he could finally get a driver’s license to drive Sam to school when John was gone, and when he finally became a legal adult (but he doesn’t want to think about that, though, not when it skirts so closely to the narrow escape from his personal hell).

Admittedly, he’s come pretty far from the broken shell of a person he used to be. He’s nowhere near fixed or good or worthwhile but he functions, he’s able to make people happy through what he does, he has some pretty fucking incredible people around him. He’s got Jo and Ash and Ellen and Bobby, Sam and Gabriel. He’s got Cas. Maybe not in the way he wants Cas (but that’s ridiculous, he doesn’t want things, he’s not allowed to want things) but he’s so fucking grateful to have Cas, any way he can get him. He knows he doesn’t deserve a friend like Cas, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t grateful from the depths of his soul.

Stills gets to night after sleepless night, I walk the floor and I want to know, why am I so alone? before Dean just fucking gives up and changes the record, puts on the triple A-side Stairway to Heaven single he got for Christmas instead. He’s not gonna ruin his own mood on the only day he can get away with purposefully annoying everyone else.

 

They go to Physical Graffitea for lunch and meet Cas there; Sam wolfs his food down and hurriedly kisses Gabe (Dean pointedly looks away) before catching a bus to campus and since Cas is done with classes and teaching for the day, he and Dean loiter for a while before heading back home.

“I had to find out from Gabriel that it’s your birthday, you know,” says Cas as Dean fumbles with the lock, fingers frozen to the bone.

“Birthdays aren’t all-important,” Dean snorts. The lock finally turns and he walks into the (mercifully warm) apartment, sighing. “I’m twenty-four now, so what?”

“So you’re as old as I am, for one,” Cas fires back, eyes twinkling, as he sheds his trench coat and shakes snow off of his shoes.

“Yeah, whatever. The only thing that birthdays are good for is having an excuse to be an asshole.” He waggles his eyebrows and winks at Cas. “So in how many languages can you call me awesome?”

Cas deadpans something in Russian and shakes out his coat, eyebrows up.

“You just insulted me, didn’t you?”

“I called you a pig,” Cas says matter-of-factly, and nudges past Dean to get in the coat closet. His face is so perfectly composed that Dean can’t help it, he dissolves into laughter and then Cas starts chuckling too and they’re caught against the door of the closet and, okay, Cas is more than a little close and he smells like the cold and then Dean’s body is moving without his permission, pitching way too far forward, and he kisses Cas.

It’s brief.

Cas’s lips are chapped and his nose is cold.

Dean stumbles back once he’s able to regain control of his body and stares. Cas is looking right back at him, cool and level, and then Dean panics.

“I’m gonna–” He lurches for the front door and nearly trips over himself, grabs the doorknob, then whips around to see Cas still staring at him. “Cas, I’m sorry, I really crossed a line and I’m–” He swallows nervously and grabs for the doorknob again. “I’m just gonna go and–”

“Dean.” Don’t you fucking open that door, says Cas’s face, stormy and righteous and bearing a really creepy resemblance to the angel from that stupid dream Dean can’t let go of.

“Look,” he starts, brain wildly trying to find some sort of reason or excuse, and then Cas is close again, crowding him against the side of the couch.

“The only reason you should apologize,” Cas says, low and quiet, “is if it was a mistake.” Dean blinks stupidly for a couple of seconds while he tries to put two and two together.

Four, shouts his brain, unhelpfully.

“What?”

Cas frowns at him, then reaches out and fixes his necklace so that the clasp is at the back of his neck. The amulet feels like lead.

“I thought it was obvious how I feel about you. Evidently, I was wrong.” He says it matter-of-factly, like he’s talking about the weather, the same way he talks about everything.

Dean stares, hapless, as Cas walks back and actually puts his coat in the closet.

“Wh– you what?

“Next time I fall for you in every single way possible, I’ll be sure to spell it out for you, clearly, in every language I know.” Cas’s voice is soft now, with that delicate edge of teasing that always hits Dean in all the right places.

“I– you–” Dean swallows, tries to swallow around the lump in his throat. “Cas, I can’t.” His voice breaks on that last syllable. Cas looks at him, looks through him, and crosses his arms.

“You poor, selfish bastard,” he murmurs, “you don’t think you deserve this, do you?”

If it’d been anyone else, Dean would’ve decked them. Instead, he just stands there and takes it because that’s what he is – a poor, selfish bastard who knows he doesn’t deserve this. Cas’s words just confirm it.

“There’s stuff I’ve done that I’m not proud of,” he finally says, unable to meet Cas’s eyes. “Pretty bad stuff, okay? I mean, you’re–” He gestures at Cas, in his neat oxford shirt and nice pants. “–and I’m a high school dropout who tattoos for a living.”

“Dean,” says Cas again, and this time his eyes are soft and earnest and then Dean spills everything, tells him all of the things that only Sam knows.

He tells Cas the truth about his family, about John and Sam and Mary and himself, about when he started tattooing. He tells Cas about moving city to city every few weeks or, if they were lucky, every few months, because John always drank his way out of holding a steady job. He tells Cas about doodling on receipts and scraps of take-out bags in the car, to pass the time.

Doodles turned into artwork and the first time they’d met one of John’s old Marine buddies, covered neck to ankles in tattoos, that was it. He’d been bright-eyed with ambition at first – scrimping and saving to buy his first kit, begging and charming butchers into giving him leftover scraps of pigskin to practice on, buying the cheapest ink possible.

He’d been fifteen, sixteen back then and fighting with the law to get a GED as fast as possible; sometimes the seedier tattoo parlors would take him on for the few days they’d be in town and he’d be able to make a solid hundred bucks (if he was lucky) to feed Sam, buy him school stuff, keep his clothes looking nice.

And then they wandered into New Orleans as a hot July turned into an even more hellish August, and Dean met Alastair.

Alastair had been rough and brash and cruel and he took Dean in with a wicked grin, gave him a gun, and told him to use it like a knife. Alastair’s shop – no one knew what it was really called, they just called it The Rack – had been a place where people screamed as they got tattooed, held down by Alastair or whatever gang boss had sent them there while Dean would scratch and scratch, purposefully destroying the skin, purposefully doing it wrong, just to earn money to scrape by.

He’d cried while tattooing a woman once, as she begged him to stop. He’d tucked hair behind her ear with a shaking hand, leaving smudges of bloodied ink on her face, and apologized.

Alastair turned the knife on him for the first time that night.

John Winchester died of alcohol poisoning three weeks before Dean turned eighteen. The second midnight hit on his birthday, he took the Impala, shoved a sleepy Sam into the back seat, and drove for fifteen hours straight before pulling over at a rest stop to pass out.

They’d pulled up to Bobby’s garage, bruised eyes from lack of sleep, and Bobby had taken them in without a word.

Sam had started high school locally, near Bobby’s place. After spending a year without tattooing, plagued by nightmares and haunted by the screams, Dean had made the executive decision to just move. Somewhere up north, somewhere cold and calm and the opposite of New Orleans’ oppressive heat. He’d forced Sam to stay in school, stay in one school, to not fuck up the most important part of his education.

“And I guess you know the rest,” Dean finally whispers, licking his lips. He picks at the label of his beer. “I don’t deserve the kindness that anyone has shown me.”

Cas just keeps looking at him, shoulders and thighs still pressed against his, and Dean can’t bring himself to meet Cas’s eyes. Cas sighs and pulls out his phone.

“I can drive you back to Gabe’s,” mumbles Dean. Cas shoots him an unreadable look.

“I’m not leaving,” he says. “I’m telling Sam to go to our house after classes instead of coming here. I get the feeling you’d prefer to not talk to him right now.”

“You’re not–?”

“What I am doing is brewing you a coffee,” Cas says quietly, then fucking kisses his forehead before getting up from the couch and going to the kitchen.

Dean lets his face fall into his hands. It feels weird, to finally confess to someone everything he’s done, everything that makes him such a worthless excuse for a human being. It’s not only weird, it makes him feel lighter. Like it’s okay, somehow. He’s been internalizing everything since Mary died and he started taking care of Sammy, building up walls and a cocky exterior, but now that he’s fucking bared his soul to Cas, offered it up for him to scrutinize, he feels lightheaded and dizzy.

When Cas comes back with coffee in his favorite mug, Dean accepts it with shaking hands. He takes a long drink, savors the bitter burn down his throat, and sets the mug down before slouching over and rubbing his forehead. He’s still shaking and he can’t swallow and he can’t breathe and it still feels like the world’s gone and upended itself, until Cas puts a hand on his back and suddenly everything slows down.

He turns and Cas is right there, less than a handspan away, and those stupid ocean-blue eyes are all full of it’s okay. Dean hates being comforted – he hates pity and sympathy and are you okays, he’d rather deal with a stressful situation by himself like A Grownup – but it’s different when Cas’s hand starts to curl around his side.

“I’m gonna kiss you,” Dean mumbles, and reaches up to hold Cas’s face between his hands. “That’s okay, right?”

Cas just leans forward and kisses him in response, light and soft, and Dean fucking melts. He slumps forward against Cas and buries his forehead against his shoulder; Cas keeps an arm wrapped around his back, fingers carding idly through the hair at the base of Dean’s neck.

“I have no idea how I haven’t, like, scared you off yet,” Dean croaks, muffled, “but goddamn, I’m glad I haven’t.”

“You sell yourself short much too often,” Cas murmurs back. “I am both lucky and proud to be a part of your life.”

Dean’s spared trying to scramble for an answer when his phone rings.

“Sam?” he answers, frowning.

“Hey, uh, what’s going on?” asks Sam. “Cas said–”

“Don’t worry about it,” Dean sighs. “I just need to talk to him about somethin’.”

There’s a pause. A much-too-long pause.

“Okay,” says Sam, in that tone of voice like he’s up to something.

“Seriously, Sam, forget about it. I’ll see you at The Roadhouse around five, okay?”

“Okay,” Sam says again, still sounding like he’s plotting. Dean hangs up and sighs, then takes another long swig of coffee.

He and Cas kill the next hour and a half watching Star Wars – Cas knows those are his safety blanket movies and puts on Return of the Jedi, god bless him – and Dean tries not to think about it. The big it. The fact that he lays across the couch when Cas goes to the bathroom with the intention of being spiteful, but when he comes back, Cas just slides in next to him as if it’s commonplace, as if they’d been doing it for years. Or the fact that he catches himself doodling idle circles just under the hem of Cas’s shirt, callused fingertips smoothing over his warm skin.

Even though everything between them is different, nothing has changed. Cas still nags at him to dress nicely the way he would on any other ‘nice’ occasion (it’s my fuckin' birthday, Cas, I do what I want) and Dean makes sure Cas takes his own scarf instead of bogarting one of Dean’s – but then Dean finds himself pressed up against Cas, gathering him up, oversized coat and thick sweater and scarf and all, carefully kissing him while still trying to get his mind wrapped around the fact that this is okay, this is good, this is something he’s allowed.

He reluctantly pulls back and shifts his weight, puts his hands in his pockets.

“Hey Cas?” Cas reaches forward and fixes the collar of his jacket. “Um... thanks.”

It’s utterly underwhelming and lame as fuck; he’s horrible at gratitude and Cas knows it, but judging by the way he hooks his fingers into Dean’s belt loops and pulls him in for another kiss (Dean can hear his breath catching when he teases at Cas’s lip with his teeth), Cas knows exactly what he’s trying to say.

 

Dinner at The Roadhouse is loud and raucous and just the way Dean loves it, shoveling down his very most favorite kind of burger and his very most favorite beer, with Cas next to him on one side and Jo on the other and Sam and Gabriel and Ash on the other side of the table.

Sam makes fun of him for choosing ‘Radar Love’ at the jukebox and singing along to the whole thing (it’s a song about a dude who’s in love with his car and Dean can totally relate, so what?) and then Jo puts on REO Speedwagon’s ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’, which Dean gags at, but he’s also (sort of) drunk enough to justify singing along to it with her.

Sam, bless him, sets down his drink and mocks a terrible waltz with Jo for a few seconds before passing her off to Dean, and he grabs her and twirls her around, laughing because it’s so fucking goofy and they’re acting like they’re six years old and he loves it. He looks at Cas while Jo’s trying to get her breath back from laughing so hard and Cas is grinning like an idiot, nose crinkling up and everything, and Dean knows he’s never gonna forget that blissed-out look on his face. He grabs himself a beer and sits down next to Cas and he can’t stop smiling when Cas slides a hand onto his knee, warm and solid, and Dean is so fucking tempted to just wrap him up in a hug, right there in the middle of The Roadhouse.

Gabe calls for an afterparty at his place, but everyone groans because it’s a Thursday and all of them have work tomorrow, so Dean and Cas end up heading for the Miltons’ while Gabe bickers with Ellen, one arm slung around a food-coma’d Sam.

When they reach the parking lot, Dean ends up crowding Cas against the Impala, fucking desperate because he’d spent all that time so close to Cas and not doing this, kissing every gasp out of his mouth, curling his hands urgently into his clothes.

Cas pulls away and grins at him, sly and dark like he’s never grinned before, and Dean can’t help lurching forward and kissing him again before Cas gasps that they should really, really get home.

 

Dean beats Cas back to his own house and he’s leaning against the Impala as Cas pulls into the driveway, fully prepared to give him a nice ha ha, I beat you speech, but Cas slides out of his car with fucking business on his face and then Dean’s meeting him halfway, pressing their mouths together with an almost embarrassing level of need.

Cas pushes both of them towards the house and follows up when Dean’s back hits the front door, crowding him insistently against it; his mouth is deliciously warm compared to the below-zero air around them, and Dean makes an impatient noise when Cas takes longer than half a second to unlock the door.

They make it inside and less than a foot past the door and then Dean’s hands are pushing Cas’s trench coat off and Cas shrugs out of it in one fluid, ridiculously fucking attractive motion before Dean grabs at his shirt and pulls them together again because five seconds without Cas’s mouth on his is a waste of time.

They shed clothing with each step, on their way to Cas’s room – Cas nearly trips, toeing out of his shoes, and Dean has to struggle to unlace his boots – and the next thing he knows, he’s pushing Cas up against the back of his bedroom door, nudging a knee between his thighs, mouthing a line down his neck. Cas makes this noise and it goes fucking straight down to Dean’s dick and oh, yes, he can definitely dig the way Cas’s fingers knot tightly into his hair.

“Dean,” he pants, “bed.”

And yeah, okay, he’s not gonna argue with that. They gracelessly pull and shove each other across the room, shedding pants, hands grabbing at remaining vestiges of clothing, and then Dean’s slowly unbuttoning Cas’s shirt, mouth following his fingers.

Cas’s stomach is winter-pale, broken by a dark line of coarse hair trailing up from his boxer-briefs, and Dean kisses his way back up to Cas’s heaving chest, bites at a collarbone, makes his way up a thundering carotid when Cas throws his head back.

At this rate, neither of them is going to last long.

Cas’s hands insistently pull at his shirt and Dean gratefully strips it off, throwing it onto the floor with the rest of their clothes, then refuses to stop kissing Cas even as he expertly wiggles out of his boxers one-handed. Cas arches up to get rid of his own and christ, Dean’s brain blanks out at the blissful touch of flushed skin against his cock. He swallows Cas’s gasp, bites at his lower lip, falls in love with the way Cas’s fingers dig desperately into his back.

Dean grins at him, breathless, then slides his way back down to Cas’s hips. It’s fucking delicious, the way Cas’s breath catches when he licks a line across one of his hipbones, teases his way down, runs his hands up Cas’s sides.

“Is this okay?” he breathes, mouth so close to Cas’s dick that he can feel the warmth. Cas snarls and curls a hand into Dean’s hair. He swears he can feel his eyes roll back.

“Fuck, Dean, yes,” he growls, and holy shit, there’s something so filthy about the way Cas’s perfect mouth forms the obscenity that Dean nearly fucking loses it, right then and there.

He licks an agonizingly slow stripe up the underside of Cas’s cock and then proceeds to go down like the fucking champ he is. Cas’s breathing goes erratic in under a minute, fingers curling spastically into the sheets, and Dean scrambles his way back up, hips-chest-neck-lips, because he needs this so badly it hurts and Cas is gasping into his mouth and he doesn’t even know whose moans are whose any more.

Cas pushes him over onto his back and follows through, wraps a hand around both of their dicks and expertly finds a rhythm they can both work to. Dean’s short of breath in an embarrassingly short amount of time and oh holy christ he isn’t going to last much longer at all, the way Cas is leaving a stinging line of bites down the side of his neck, the way their sweat is making everything slick and smooth, and then he comes with a hand fisting into dark hair and Cas’s name on his lips. Cas follows him less than a millisecond later, muffling a moan into his shoulder, and Dean’s left seeing stars for a full minute.

He presses a kiss into Cas’s sweaty hairline and exhales, long and slow. He definitely can’t remember the last time sex felt this good. Cas hums quietly and kisses Dean, deep and slow and good, then pushes himself up and makes a face at the sticky mess on their stomachs. Dean laughs breathlessly, feeling sixteen all over again as Cas grabs a box of tissues and they clean up.

Dean is fishing around on the ground for his boxers and Cas is running a hand through his hair (and damn, does sex hair look good on him) and they end up staring at each other, wide-eyed in the semi-dark.

“So,” Dean says awkwardly.

“So,” replies Cas, even and cool.

Dean supposes this is where they have A Talk about whether they’re partners or lovers or any of the other equally-terrible labels that he absolutely hates using and he thinks he’s started panicking because he has no idea how to voice what he wants. He’s never allowed himself to have what he wants; he’s always pushed it away in favor of giving Sammy what he wants, because Sam’s concerns are much more important than his own, and he’s worthless, anyways.

But he wants this. God, he wants it.

“So I guess...” He gestures at the space between them. Cas levels him with a look and then picks up his boxer-briefs, slides them back on like he’s got all the time in the world.

“You’re asking whether I’d like our relationship to move past this fumbling attempt at platitude,” Cas says wryly, mouth turning up at the corner.

Yes,” Dean says, and snaps his fingers. “That.”

He pulls on his own boxers, just to have something to do with his hands, but he and Cas end up gravitating towards each other and there’s still a huge part of his brain that’s in shocked disbelief even as Cas’s thumbs sweep over his hips.

“Ordinary friendship never really worked, did it?” murmurs Cas, and their noses touch. Dean snorts.

“Okay, to be honest – and don’t laugh at me, Cas – I always thought you had a thing for Sam,” he manages to say around choked-back laugher. In retrospect, the thought is bafflingly ridiculous and he pulls Cas close, loving the way Cas’s laughter rumbles through his chest and both of them are still flushed and it feels so good to feel Cas’s skin against his.

Sam and Gabe should be home soon and he really, really doesn’t want to get caught naked (again); his t-shirt is next to Cas but he ignores it in favor of kissing him instead, because this is something he could really get used to. He can feel Cas grinning against his mouth and he slides a hand around to the small of his back and right then, the door bangs open.

“Oh, good,” says Gabriel, completely unconcerned, “you’re not naked. We’re home now, just to let you know.”

“Jesus christ, Gabe!” Dean yells (it’s not a shriek, it’s a yell); Cas looks like he could murder. Gabe just winks and sprints out of the doorway. Dean follows him after throwing a t-shirt over his head and getting his jeans (mostly) on and when he bursts into the kitchen, it’s to the sight of Gabriel and Sam sitting at the table. Sam has his hands neatly folded on the tabletop.

Well, shit.

Cas bumps into Dean’s shoulder as he races to finish buttoning his shirt; the damage is done, though, because Cas has the most blatantly obvious sex hair ever in the history of getting caught in the act. It doesn’t help that Dean’s shirt is on inside-out, or that their clothes are still strewn incriminatingly across the floor in a line that leads straight from the front door to Cas’s bedroom.

“So,” says Sam, and Dean runs through every possible version of I swear I’m not a hypocrite his brain can come up with. “That took you guys long enough.”

“I’m sorry?” blurts Cas. Sam laughs, a little incredulous, and leans back in his chair.

“Come on, man,” he says, looking back at Dean, “You know Bobby thought you guys were, like, a thing, right?”

“What the hell,” Dean sputters.

Gabriel rolls his eyes and tilts the chair back on two legs. Dean’s still scrambling to try and figure out just what the fuck is going on. He keeps expecting Sam to react the same way he did, hurt and angry and confused.

“You guys are kind of... immovable object/unstoppable force,” says Sam, wrinkling his nose. “It was only a matter of time.”

Gabe’s chair legs hit the tile and he snaps his fingers.

“Speaking of which,” he crows, “you owe me twenty bucks, Sam!”

“Hold on a second,” Dean barks. “You were taking bets?”

Cas crosses his arms; Gabriel shoots them both a huge smirk as Sam sighs and pulls his wallet out.

“Sam bet it’d take you guys till spring break to get your shit together,” he explains, and plucks the twenty-dollar bill out of Sam’s reluctant fingers. “My money was on the end of the month.”

Dean looks at Cas, incredulous and indignant; Cas just runs a hand through his hair, succeeding only in making it stick up even more.

“Doesn’t this... I don’t know, weird you out?” says Dean, shifting his weight uncomfortably. Because wow, fuck, this is awkward beyond belief – he’s sort-of-maybe-dating Cas and Sam is Doing Things with Gabriel so it’s all like some sort of creepy not-incestuous boyfriends-in-law thing that Dean is just not going to think about.

“Come on,” says Gabriel, and Dean’s surprised at how soft his voice is. “How thick are you? Sam and I have, for serious, been expecting this for weeks now.” Cas’s hand grazes against Dean’s. “I’ve never seen either of you happier than when you’re around each other.”

 

The days blur into weeks blur into months as the snow melts into slush and Dean and Cas figure how to work around each other, how to stop covering things up and let them be. Dean learns that Cas likes sleeping on the side of the bed closest to the wall and that he doesn’t really snore, and he slowly finds all of the places that make Cas suck in a breath and bite his lip (under his ear, his collarbones, the side of his ribcage, the small of his back – Dean worships them all).

He learns how to drive with a hand on Cas’s knee and that while neither of them are really into PDA, he really likes kissing Cas goodbye if he walks him to his office, right where his jaw slopes up to meet his ear. He also learns to absolutely fucking love the look on Zachariah’s face when he sees the two of them, like he’s smelling something gross and trying not to show it.

Cas, in turn, learns about Dean’s body, about all of his little nicks and scars, finds the place on his left arm where the word ‘worthless’ is still visible under the black, if he squints; Cas kisses the scarred letters and tells Dean that he’s not, that he deserves to have been saved from Alastair. Dean thinks his heart’s going to burst.

He eventually succeeds in caressing all of Dean’s tattoos with those long fingers of his, outlines The Hermit on his back, mouths at Vonnegut’s birdcage on his thigh as Dean’s hands fist into the sheets, digs his fingers into the lines down his side while yanking him closer, traces the pentagram over his heart. Dean tells him about every one of them, sometimes while their sweat’s cooling, sometimes when the morning sunlight paints Cas’s face and makes a bright halo in his hair.

 

 

Dean’s discovered quickly that Wednesdays are the bane of his existence, because Cas has a night class and a graduate seminar and he usually doesn’t even get to see him until close to ten at night.

He’s finishing up wiping down one of the glass cabinets when he hears the bells chime on the side door, and he’s elbow-deep in disinfectant so he doesn’t even bother turning around.

"Sorry, man, we're closed, but we open tomorrow at eleven," he calls from somewhere in the sink region.

"I was hoping you'd make an exception for me."

Dean turns around way too fast, dripping more than necessary on the floor, and grins when he sees Cas in the doorway

"What're you doing here? I thought you had your discussion thing tonight." He watches, confused (but hey, without complaints), as Cas shrugs off his coat and drapes it over one of the couches, then stuffs his hands into the pockets of his slacks, rolls his shoulders, and shrugs.

“We got done early,” he says. Dean raises an eyebrow. “Well, fine. One of the syntacticians was doing a dress rehearsal of sorts for presenting her paper, and I decided that, ah, I had more urgent business to take care of.” He wrinkles his nose at ‘syntactician’ and Dean can feel his mouth twitching up because if there’s one thing he knows about Cas’s studies, it’s that he hates syntax with a passion that almost equals how much he loves dialectology.

"Playing hooky to come see me?" chuckles Dean, amused and enamored.

"Actually, I wanted to talk to you about something."

Cas’s tone turns serious and Dean sets down his rag with shaking hands.

Here it comes.

Of course this couldn't last. Of course things were too good to be true.

The second-long pause Cas leaves stretches out like years inside Dean's head as he replays their entire relationship – their entire friendship – and tries to figure out where he screwed up. He doesn’t know whether he’s going to vomit or just fucking stop breathing.

He decides he went wrong somewhere around the time he was born.

"I want a tattoo."

It takes Dean a good ten seconds to parse that as Cas + want + tattoo and not Cas + want + nothing to do with me.

"I–” He swallows past the lump in his throat. “Well, shit, Cas, you know I’m the last person to try and persuade you out of tattoos.”

"I want you to do it,” Cas says, dead fucking serious, and pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket. “Now. Tonight."

Dean panics.

“What?” he croaks, and tries to even out his breathing. It doesn’t work. “No way, Cas. I can’t.”

He can’t, he can’t do this to Cas, not to Cas, because that’s leaving a permanent mark on Cas, on his skin and on his life and oh, fuck, this is rattling through Dean’s fear of commitment (shut up, at least he knows and recognizes that fear) and shaking him to the core, blood running ice-cold. He’s 99% sure he’s having some kind of panic attack right now.

“Why not? I have total confidence in you.”

Well, Dean thinks, that makes one of them.

“Cas–” he starts, but Cas cuts him off almost immediately.

“This is something that I’ve wanted for a few years now. I’ve thought it through.”

His tone is calm and patient but there’s a glint in his eyes. He came expecting Dean’s resistance and he came prepared, that fucker.

“Let me see it,” Dean mutters, gesturing towards the paper. Castiel hands it over and Dean unfolds it. It’s a bunch of non-English, non-Roman characters – not Russian or Arabic or Greek or any of the Asian languages Dean’s familiar with, but simple and with a kind of visual poetry to them. In spite of himself, Dean sorta likes it. Even though he’s got no idea what it is.

“It’s my name in Enochian,” says Cas, answering his question, and Dean can hear a quiet note of pride in his voice. “After I did some digging on the etymology of my name and came up with Enochian, the idea has been chasing after me.”

“Well, uh,” Dean mumbles, “I mean, it’s not difficult or anything. Simple stuff like this ends up looking good almost anywhere.”

“I’m glad you think so,” Castiel replies, loosening his tie right there in the middle of the shop like this is a thing that’s actually going to happen. “I was thinking the base of my neck, between my shoulder blades, about as big as it is there.”

He nods towards the paper and strips his tie off, turning to toss it onto the couch by his coat. As much as Dean generally likes Cas taking off his clothes, this is nowhere near okay.

“Ash is great with lettering, we can–”

“Dean,” Cas growls, and holy fuck, that’s both terrifying and arousing at the same time. “I want you to do it.”

“Cas–” Dean doesn’t even know where to start. He licks at his lower lip and runs a hand over his face. “You know I’d– I’d do anything. For you. Uh.” Wow, shit, way to be articulate, Winchester. “I just– why’d you have to corner me like this, man?” He lets out a weak laugh.

“If I’d asked you would’ve said no,” he answers, and tugs the hem of his shirt out of his pants. The way he does it should definitely be fucking illegal.

Dean swallows hard and squeezes his eyes shut. Something much warmer than fear zooms to the front of his brain when Castiel hitches his shirt up high enough to briefly expose a strip of skin along his stomach.

“Cas, tattooing someone makes– it runs deep, man, it’s leaving my mark on your skin for the rest of your life.”

Cas raises an eyebrow.

“You think I haven’t considered that?” he rumbles, eyes icy. “You are the only person I would trust with this.”

“But this...” He runs a hand through his hair. “There’s a thing between artist and client, I’m leaving something permanent on you, and–” Dean’s fumbling and he knows it, but he can’t do this to Cas, can’t find the words to explain away the horrifying knot of tension in his chest. When Cas finally decides that he’s had enough of him, the last thing Dean wants is for him to be saddled with a lingering reminder. Cas doesn’t deserve that.

“This thing, does it exists with every trendy little sorority girl?” Cas crosses his arms and stands straight, real heat in his tone now as he watches Dean shift nervously.

“No,” Dean insists, “of course not. But–”

“Did it exist with that pair of newlyweds who wanted their initials on each other’s wrists?”

Cas pushes on, rounding the counter that Dean had been so glad to keep between them, steps right up into Dean’s space until all he can see are steel-blue eyes and a set jaw.

“Yeah, but Cas, newly–”

“Dean.”

Cas stops him cold with one word and a look. Dean tries to take a step back but he’s out of room; something clinks on the shelf behind him and he glances up and back, but the stony seriousness is still on Cas’s face.

“What about Sam?”

Silence reigns.

Sam. If he’s honest with himself, tattooing Sam had probably been what had pulled him out of the horrifying slump-slash-actual-depression after Alastair – even after he’d started tattooing here, after he’d started at the old shop with Crowley, there’d been something broken in him. Seeing the trust in his brother’s face, though, that’s something he’ll never forget.

It’s the same thing that’s all over Cas’s face.

“No, there was no thing with them,” Dean admits under his breath. “Not like this.”

“Then you admit that your reluctance is not entirely due to your sense of professionalism.”

“It’s me putting a permanent mark on you!” Dean says, loud enough to fill the little shop, but Cas doesn’t even flinch. Dean can feel the echo of old scars on his left arm. Worthless. “You don’t want that, Cas. Don’t ask me again.”

“Dean,” Cas says softly, reaching out to touch Dean’s arm, “did it ever occur to you that that’s exactly why I want you to do it?” Dean tries to look away – he can’t face this, he literally can’t face this – but Cas catches him with a hand on the side of his face. “Dean. I trust you completely, and you know that. This is what I want.”

All the anger drains out of Cas’s voice until there’s nothing but quiet reassurance there; he’s practically pleading and it hits a spot in Dean’s core that’s usually reserved for Sam. Dean keeps trying to look at Cas in the eyes but he ends up moving from eyes to mouth to jaw back to eyes and, finally, he exhales the breath he’s been holding.

“Okay.”

Cas leans in and kisses him, soft and slow and lingering, and Dean lets himself quietly think that maybe he’s made the right decision.

“Okay,” he repeats, murmured against Cas’s mouth, and runs a hand up his back. “I’ll, uh... yeah. I need to prep some stuff.”

He kisses Cas again, briefly, and then walks into his room. Cas seems to realize that he needs some time because he doesn’t follow; Dean takes a couple of seconds to hyperventilate, grips the edge of the counter with shaking hands – he breathes in, out, in, out, closes his eyes, takes one more long breath, and lets it out slowly. His hands are still shaking when he starts re-disinfecting all of his equipment but, for some reason, he finds himself calming down when Cas walks in.

Once everything has been meticulously sanitized, Dean drifts his way to Cas, hands coming up to slowly unbutton his shirt. Everything feels slightly surreal; Cas leans gently into him, one hand sliding under the hem of his t-shirt. When Dean finally reaches the last button, Cas shrugs out of his shirt, slim shoulders rippling.

“Dean,” he says quietly, “thank you.” Dean kisses him again because he can’t find words, communicates everything with his mouth instead, swiping a tongue over his bottom lip, exhaling softly.

“Ready?”

Cas takes a deep breath and nods. Dean runs his hands over Cas’s shoulders, down his back, mouths over a knot of spine, before prepping the skin and laying the transfer paper over. He makes Cas nitpick at the placement for about ten minutes before asking him another seven times whether he’s positive that he wants this, if he’s absolutely sure this is where he wants it.

Finally, he gets up and shuffles through the abridged collection of records he keeps in the shop. He’s got one of those weirdo, old-school record players that can play both the A-side and the B-side since they’re upright – he’d found it ages ago at a thrift store, covered in dust and barely functional, and he’d fixed it up himself in that year he’d spent at Bobby’s. He decides on Kansas’s Leftoverture tonight, since it’s kinda been a while.

It takes everything he has to will his hands not to shake when Cas sits down on the stool in front of him. The Enochian symbols are a stark, ghostly blue on his skin; Dean runs a gloved hand down Cas’s neck, across his shoulder.

“This is gonna hurt,” he whispers. “I’m sorry.”

Six words he says to every single client, every single time, since the day he left New Orleans.

Cas turns his head, just enough to look at Dean out of the corner of his eye. His expression is soft.

“It’s okay, Dean,” he says softly. “I have faith in you.”

Eight words he’s never heard before.

Eight words that shake the foundations of his life, rattle him hard enough to clear the rubble, just enough for everything to finally fall into place.

The gun buzzes in his hand and the first line comes out cleaner than ever, dark and sharp against Cas’s skin. Cas is totally relaxed and oh, it does wonders for Dean’s nerves. He feels Cas’s hand slide onto his knee and he wishes he could actually press himself close against Cas’s back; he can feel Cas humming along to ‘Carry On Wayward Son’ under his hands.

Dean loses himself in the rhythm of ink and art and music, and he thinks about the road he’s driven so far.

He’s never liked the idea of fate and predestination. He’s a pretty big fan of Do What You Want and, honestly, it works. He’s never tried to walk some imaginary path set in front of him – he’s just always done what’s best for Sam, what’s best for them and, sometimes, what’s best for him. If he hadn’t made shitty choices (well, okay, double-edged sword – most of his shitty choices involved shit for him and a better life for Sam, and no regrets) then he never would’ve learned.

Life sucked for him for a long time. This profession has changed his life so much, for the worse and for the better and now for the best – the evidence of how honestly incredible his life is sits and lives and breathes underneath his fingertips and he asks this monumental, incredible thing of Dean, and Dean can make him happy. Dean can give Cas what he wants and he can make Cas happy.

Without having suffered through Alastair, without having lived away from Sam for four years and without having met Crowley and Gabriel and without this shop, he would’ve never been able to get past Alastair and he never would’ve tattooed Sam or been able to improve his work or get closer to the Harvelles (Ash included, he’s practically a Harvelle) and he’d never have met Cas. Or... fallen for him. Fallen for him, Dean thinks again, firmly, because that’s an acceptably neutral phrase that omits a lot of feelings-stuff he’s not prepared to deal with yet. He wouldn’t change a thing, if it means he wouldn’t have met Cas.

Considering a life without Cas is like a punch to the gut. It’s so coldly horrifying that he instantly shoves the thought away and concentrates instead on the warmth under his fingers and the steady rise and fall as Cas breathes.

“Cas?”

“Hmm?”

“Thank you,” he murmurs, barely audible, and he can hear his voice break slightly. The hand on his knee tightens in response.

 

 

Cas’s tattoo heals beautifully, not to toot his own horn. It looks great on him and Dean feels a vain sense of pride every time he gets the chance to run his fingers over it because even though the thought of his mark being on Cas’s skin is still scary, if he’s honest with himself, he kinda loves that he’s a part of Cas. In a totally non-girly way.

Business booms for Dean. Ever since the expo, Ash says, the number of hits on their website-slash-blog has been growing exponentially, and Dean usually gets at least one email a day asking for a consult. His wait list starts dipping into the next year. According to Ash, his name is getting pretty big in the mod community (which fucking astounds him) and when he dazedly tells Cas, Cas tells him that of course he’s getting well-known, of course he deserves this.

Sam and Cas get more and more stressed as spring break creeps up on them, but then Sam suggests spending those two weeks in South Dakota with Bobby and it takes all Dean has to actually wait for Sam and Cas to finish up their last day before break, instead of peeling out the second Sam says hey, let’s visit Bobby.

It’s been ages since he last visited South Dakota (the last time was Sam’s high school graduation – he wasn’t gonna miss that for the world) and driving, taking his baby halfway across the country, through miles and miles of nothing and cracked roads, he’s already itching to leave. Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man, springs to the front of his thoughts, and the Allman Brothers tell it like it is. Dean always feels twitchy if he doesn’t take at least a four-hour drive twice a month or so, so the prospect of a twenty-hour, thousand-mile drive to Bobby’s is heaven on wheels.

Cas and Gabriel are on board immediately when Sam tells them; Cas positively salivates at the thought of going to a dialect area he’s never been to and Dean is really excited because not only is he going on a road trip, he’s going on a road trip to see Bobby, and he’s going on a road trip with Sam and Cas and Gabe to see Bobby.

Weirdly, as they’re packing up the Impala, Dean remembers what Sam had told him on his birthday, all those months ago – that Bobby had actually thought there was a thing between him and Cas over Christmas. Bobby, of all people. Gruff, sure-footed, no-nonsense Bobby had pulled Dean aside and essentially told him to keep Cas close.

Well, he’s sure as hell been following that advice.

They plan for an overnight stop in Chicago and leave on a rainy Saturday morning; as Dean watches the view slip from urban to countryside to city to suburbs to farmland, he realizes how absolutely, unbelievably happy he is.

He’s still scared – god, he’s scared, scared of what this means and what he feels – but things are right with Cas in a way things have never been right before; Cas blows through all of his careful walls like they don’t even exist and he sees everything ugly that’s in him and stays, not in spite of it but because of it, becomes a part of his family because he wants to be, not because he was born into it. It’s terrifying.

He’s still scared, but as they’re nine hours into the drive to Bobby’s place – the radio’s singing that a gathering of angels appeared above my head, they sang to me a song of hope and this is what they said – Dean looks at Sam and Gabriel in the rearview mirror, sprawled out and dead asleep, looks at Cas, head resting against the passenger-side window and fingers curled loosely between Dean’s, and he thinks that it’s okay to be scared.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 


EPILOGUE
[six years later]

 

“Really, Castiel, I’m so happy for you,” says Kathleen, smile wavering and eyes bright with tears. “This is amazing.” Cas has to fight his own grin back.

“Thank you,” he says, and puts a hand on her shoulder. “I need to get to my office, though, if you’ll excuse me.”

“Yeah, of course,” she says, and sniffles before pulling him into a quick hug. He adjusts his bag and heads down the hallway, where it’s apparent that Raul has already shared the news with absolutely everyone, since he’s interrupted at least four times by a Professor Milton, congratulations!

He finally makes it to his office, shrugs off his coat, drapes it over the back of his chair. He’s barely got time to take a sip of coffee before his lanky TA for American Dialects bursts through the doorway, glasses askew.

“Is it true?” he blurts out, practically shaking with excitement. Cas smiles at him. “C’mon, Professor, is everyone pulling my leg or is it legit?”

In answer, Castiel holds up his left hand, where a wide silver band glints from around his ring finger.