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Through Time Itself

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10.

The cigarette ash floated lazily over the half-rotted park bench, dancing over Dean’s hands and soaking into the leather of his jacket.  He took a deep drag and blew smoke over the disappearing sunlight.  Grandpa Samuel would be pissed when Dean came back smelling like an ashtray, always muttering about how John raised his kids with bad habits.  As if he knew the first thing about how John raised them.

Dean jammed his fist into the jacket pocket.  As long as he kept smoking in it, the jacket would still smell like John for years.

He glanced at the sinking sun and sighed.  Sam would be getting back from soccer practice soon and Dean had to start on dinner for the two of them.  Not that Samuel wouldn’t feed Sam if Dean didn’t get back in time- but it was the principle of the thing.  Dean wasn’t about to let Samuel- the grandfather who’d cut them off when Mary died- be the one to take care of Sam.

The last drag of a cigarette was never as satisfying as he wanted it to be.  He sighed in a puff of smoke and dropped the butt on the ground to grind it into the dirt.  It wasn’t cold out, but Dean wrapped the jacket closer around himself as he wandered away from the park.  If he didn’t pay particular attention, it kind of felt like John was there still, giving Dean the hug he never gave out while he was alive.

He paused at the street corner, a solitary figure across the way catching his attention.  Hunched shoulders under a trenchcoat far to bulky for such a slender frame, messy hair topping it all off.  Dean swallowed, glancing toward Samuel’s house in the distance.  He still had a few minutes.  Decided, he jogged across the street, slowing before he reached the curb so he wouldn’t be out of breath.

“Cas!” he called.

Castiel didn’t turn, kept walking aimlessly down the street without even looking up from his shoes.  Dean hesitated with one foot on the sidewalk, the other still in the gutter.  Cas probably wouldn’t want to talk to him, not outside of class.  It’s not like they were close, and something was obviously bothering him.  But then again, it was so rare to see him without his gaggle of admirers, the people Cas called his “friends” but Dean was pretty sure were just groupies.  If Cas was upset about something, he should have someone to talk to.

Plus, the guy was about to walk into a telephone pole if he didn’t look up.

“Hey! Castiel!”  Dean hurried to catch up and grabbed his sleeve, pulling him to a stop.  Cas flinched, hands coming up defensively.  Dean let go immediately.  “Woah, hey, it’s just me.”

Cas blinked at him.  Recognition finally flickered across his expression- and then his face fucking lit up.  Like seeing Dean was some big treat, like they didn’t see each other every day Dean bothered to go to school, like Cas actually talked to him when they weren’t working on a project together.  Dean’s face heated, matching the warmth diffusing through his chest.

“Hello Dean,” Cas said warmly.

Dean shuffled his feet.  “Hey,” he said.  “Um.  Sorry I scared you.”

“You didn’t- I was just thinking,” Cas said.  He paused, then when Dean just nodded, tilted his head like a goddamn bird.  “Did you need something?  I noticed you didn’t come to English class today- do you want to borrow my notes?”

“Oh,” Dean said.  “It’s alright, Andy already gave me his.  I just.  Uh.  Wanted to say hi.  I guess.”

Smooth, Winchester.

Weirdly, Cas looked more startled at that than he had when Dean grabbed his arm.  “Oh,” he said.  “Oh.  Well, hello.  I- I already said that, sorry.  Um.  How are you, Dean?  Are you and Sam settling in at your grandfather’s alright?”

Dean shrugged.  “Yeah, it’s fine,” he said.  “Grand old time at grandpa’s place.”

“Dean.”

He glanced down at his shoes.  The gentleness in Cas’ eyes was too much for him to look at directly right now.  “It’s- I miss my dad,” he confessed.

“Of course you do,” Cas said.  He lifted a hand like he was going to put it on Dean’s shoulder, then dropped it at the last second.  “I’d be surprised if you didn’t.”

Dean swallowed.  This was why he and Cas weren’t close, if he was honest with himself.  Because Cas cared so much about everything and everyone, and it was so easy to just confide everything in him.  Because Dean wanted to spill all his thoughts and feelings out to this kid, and that’s not something he did with anyone.  Not even Sam.

“Yeah,” he said, making the mistake of meeting Cas’ eyes.  Fuck.  “Yeah- but why do I miss him?” he continued in a rush.  “It’s not like he was ever around in the first place, this is only a little bit more not around than he always is.  And we have a place to stay, which is more than what we had sometimes when dad was alive, and Sam gets to be in the same school for more than five seconds- so why should I miss him?”

There were cracks all through Cas’ sad smile, a pain unrelated to Dean’s words.  “Because he was your father, and you love him.”

Dean nodded with a deep breath.  Cas looked down, one fist opening and closing at his side.  Dean frowned.  “Hey, are you okay?” he asked, remembering why he’d approached in the first place.

“Yes I’m fine,” Cas said, in the most wooden, unconvincing tone Dean had ever heard.  Maybe he was biased because he was so practiced at that particular lie.

“Bullshit,” Dean said, stepping closer.  “C’mon, I just spewed out all my teenage angst on you, now it’s your turn.”

“I-” Cas began, then stopped.  “I haven’t told anyone about this.”

“What, you think I’m going to tell someone?  I got no one to tell, so spill.”

Cas took a deep breath.  “My parents are getting a divorce.”

Dean blinked.  Of all the things he thought Cas might say, that was way down at the bottom of the list.  Maybe not even on the list at all.  Which would be weird for any other teenager, given how many divorces he’d seen his classmates live through in every small town he’d been in- but Cas was different.  His family was different.

“But-” Dean said, not sure what he should say.  Probably not what he was about to say.  “But I thought your parents were, you know, solid.  That’s your dad’s whole thing, isn’t it?”

Cas shook his head.  His eyes had the glassy look of someone who’d cried so much in the past few hours that he had no more tears to give.  “My parents’ timers don’t match,” he confessed quietly.

And that.

That was it, wasn’t it.  The end, the final period at the end of a marriage.

Destiny shouldering its way back in.

“My father has had his for ages, obviously,” Cas continued.  “One of the first working models, so obviously it was blank.  He and my mother had just gotten married when he finally got the timers to work the way he wanted, but.  My mother didn’t want one.  She was happy with the way their lives were going, I guess.”

“But then…” Dean said.

“My father’s timer just started, and my mother still doesn’t have one.”

And scratch what Dean was just thinking of Cas not having any more tears left in him, because the other boy’s shoulders were now shaking with suppressed sobs.  Before Dean could talk himself out of it, he stepped closer and wrapped his arms around Cas in a tight hug, letting Cas leak tears onto his shoulder.

“Hey, it’s going to be okay,” Dean said, rubbing circles into Cas’ back.

“How though?” Cas said, muffled through the smoke-stained leather.  “My father doesn’t even know who this person is and he’s already leaving her for them!  How is that okay, how could he do that to us?  We’re his family and we’re not good enough for him, he has to go find a new family-”

“Shh,” Dean breathed.  “It’s not about you, okay?  It’s him being a dick, it’s not about you.”

Cas sobbed into his shoulder, past the point of forming words.  Dean held him like that, pretending that he wasn’t also taking comfort in the solid warmth of Cas pressed against him, that they didn’t both need to be held.

It was a long time before either one of them let go.

Chapter Text

9.

 

 

“Hello, and welcome back to Vibes! I’m your host Pamela Barnes,” the TV host says with a sly wink.  The studio audience cheers and wolf-whistles, which only prompts her to laugh and lounge more provocatively in her armchair.  The short bearded man in the seat across from her shifts uncomfortably with an awkward smile.  “In case you missed it, I have here as my guest the a-dorable Chuck Shurley, the founder and CEO of The One Inc.  The One Inc. is best known for creating the Time Monitor for Establishing Romance- or as we all know it, the TiMER.”  She brushes her hair back from her face, giving the audience a flash of the slim, unobtrusive implant on her wrist counting down from five years.

“Yeah, I wanted to call it the TMFER but my guys down in marketing told me it wasn’t as catchy,” Chuck jokes, oddly confident in his awkwardness.

“Hmm,” Pamela says, putting a hand to her head in a sarcastic gesture.  “Yes… I’m getting a vision that you made the right move there.”  The audience laughs with the timed precision of people with a sign telling them when to applaud.  Pamela smiles and sits forward.  “So Chuck, for all the viewers who might not be familiar with your work, tells us how the TiMER works.”

“Well, since we have nearly a hundred million participants worldwide, I doubt anyone watching has never heard of us,” Chuck says easily.  “But it is always surprising to find out how few people actually understand how the TiMER actually does what it does.”

“So how does it do it?”

Chuck smiles and sits forward to explain.  “I’m sure that everyone watching this show is familiar with the destiny gene, since that’s what Pamela taps into for her readings.  The destiny gene covers a lot of different aspects of our lives- and one of those is our soulmate.  Everyone has a soulmate out there somewhere, and that information is actually written into every cell in our bodies.  The TiMER actually taps into the gene and reads that information.  Now, it can’t tell you what your One’s name will be or anything as superficial as that, but what it does do is connect with the TiMER network to determine exactly when you’ll meet the love of your life.  It’s romance made easy.”

“Easy as pie,” Pamela says with a lipstick-stained smile.  “Of course, there’s been some controversy about the TiMER, from people arguing the system is too invasive, to activist groups arguing that the device isn’t accessible, to people who are just confused because their TiMER is blank.”

“Any revolutionary technology will have it’s share of controversies, Pamela,” Chuck says with a wave of his hand.  “The One Inc. has made efforts to broaden the scope of the TiMER so that people who are hard of hearing can select a vibrate feature once the clock hits zero, or a homing beep that will help the blind find their One in a crowd.  And as for the blank TiMER, it’s not that you don’t have a One.  Both people need to have TiMERs in order for the interface to work- when I got my TiMER, way back when we had five working models, it was blank for ten years.  It started counting down two years ago, and I’m now in a happy relationship with my new wife.”

The crowd coos at the ring he flashes at them.  Pamela smiles and covers his hand with hers.  “I can see that it’s going to continue to be a happy relationship- but I guess you knew that already.”

“That I did, Pamela, that I did,” Chuck says, rubbing his thumb over the zeroed out TiMER on his wrist.  “It’s amazing, really.  My TiMER counted down to the midnight before I met her, just like I designed it- but I didn’t really understand the emotions of that day, all the anticipation and fear, asking yourself all day is this them is that them, and then finally that moment when you meet someone’s eyes, and you hear that beeping telling you that this is the love of your life.  It’s magical.”

“I’m sure that it is,” Pamela says.  “Now, knowing all that on a personal level, what do you say to those who say that it isn’t right to know our destinies, or that destiny isn’t real in the first place?”

“I say…” Chuck says thoughtfully.  “I say, don’t get a TiMER then.  But the truth is, whether you get a TiMER or not, your destiny, your One is still out there.  You’re going to meet them someday whether you believe in destiny or not.  All that the TiMER does is remind you that it’s coming, and help you be ready when it does.  You wouldn’t want to let the love of your life slip away.”

“And what about the criticism that you’ve been making quite the profit off of people’s desperation?”

Chuck leans back in his chair.  “Oh no, it’s not about the money,” he says.  “It’s all about love.”


Cas leaned back against the warm brick wall.  He nudged Dean’s shoulder with his own.  “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”

With his shoulder still pressed against Dean’s, he could feel as Dean took a deep, wavering breath.  “No, I- I want to,” Dean said quietly.  “Just give me a minute.”

They stood in silence for a long time, neither one of them stepping away.  Cas tilted his head back and closed his eyes.  The late afternoon sun was just on the right side of too warm- if they had been doing anything else today, he would have started to doze.  As it was, all of the tension Dean was giving off made it impossible to relax.

He turned his wrist, dragged his thumb over the timer implanted there a few months ago.  Blank still, so his One still didn’t have theirs.  He wondered how much longer it would be.

He glanced down at Dean’s empty wrist, then hurriedly looked away.

Cas had been so nervous to get the timer, more nervous than Dean was now.  Looking back, it probably had less to do with wanting to know when he’d meet his One, and more to do with Chuck and the impersonal phone calls more often than not filtered through his assistant.  Either way, Dean had been so supportive the whole time Cas had panicked, waiting outside the clinic just like they were doing now until Cas’ breathing evened out.  All the ads and promotions Chuck did for the timer didn’t really show how terrifying it was to walk in and see exactly when your life would change.

“I just need another minute,” Dean said, breaking the silence suddenly as if Cas had been pestering him about it.

“Whatever you want,” Cas said.  His eyes tried to wander to the empty space on Dean’s wrist where the timer would go; he stopped himself before he made Dean even more uncomfortable with this whole thing.

Sam had been surprised when he found out where they were going.  “You know that when you’ve met your One you can’t date every girl you see, right?” he’d said, his voice cracking even more than usual.  Puberty was never a fun time for anyone, but Sam seemed to be taking the whole growth-spurt, uneven voice thing too seriously.

Dean hadn’t responded, just grabbed Sam in a headlock and noogied him until Sam cried uncle.  He was still blushing by the time he’d let go of his little brother; Cas politely didn’t mention it.  He knew Dean well enough to know what was going through his mind when he made this decision.  That all those girls didn’t make Dean feel any less lonely, that he wanted- needed- to know that it wouldn’t always be this empty.  Sam was too young to understand, but Cas felt it all too acutely.

He tilted his head back against the bricks, and rubbed his blank timer yet again.  Nerves fluttered in his stomach.  He quashed them as best he could.

“Do you think it’ll be Cassie?” he asked to distract himself.

He felt Dean twitch next to him.  “I don’t know,” Dean said after a moment.  “Could be, I guess.”

Cas lifted his head to squint at his friend.  “You don’t want it to be Cassie?”

Dean shrugged one shoulder.  “It kinda doesn’t matter who I want it to be.”

“Right,” Cas said.  “It’s- you’ve just been together a while now.  Longer than Robin, even.”

A tiny, nervous smile touched Dean’s lips.  “Our six month anniversary is in two weeks,” he said.  “I think that’s a gift anniversary- right?”

“I don’t think she’d complain about a gift even if it isn’t,” Cas pointed out.

Dean’s smile widened.  “Yeah.  That’s… okay.  Thanks, man.”  He took a deep breath, then pushed off the wall.  “Okay, let’s do this.”

The clinic was just as clean and welcoming as Cas remembered it being, which oddly made him feel more nervous.  Like they’d just walked into a doctor’s office and everyone was being too friendly to compensate for the terminal illness that had just been diagnosed.  A consultant spotted them right away and smiled with the mechanical smile of someone who does it for a living.

“Hi there!” she said, practically skipping over to them.  Her nametag practically screamed BETSY in all caps and highlighter yellow flowers.  “Are you two here for some TiMERs?”

Cas shrank back a little in the face of her forced cheer.  “Just him,” he said, waving his wrist to show his timer.

Betsy nodded, about to turn to Dean, when her eyes widened.  “Hang on,” she said, some humanity creeping back into her voice.  “I remember you, you’re Chuck Shurley’s kid!”

Cas sighed internally.  “Yes,” he said shortly.

“That’s so cool!  You know, I met your dad once- I mean, not for real, but he came by to inspect the clinic about a year ago.  He seems like the nicest guy, it must be great having him as your dad.”

“Sure,” Cas said.  She missed the sarcasm and beamed.

“So, are you doing our recruiting for us, joining the family business?” she asked, grinning conspiratorially.  “I bet you’d be great at it.”

Cas ground his teeth.  “He just wants a timer,” he said, pointing at Dean.

Dean gave Betsy a tight smile when she finally glanced at him.  “Oh, of course!” she said, looking a little flustered.  Idly, Cas wondered if it was because she’d dropped the professional act, or if Dean’s smile was doing to her what it did to every girl and woman he directed it at.  “I’ll go grab the forms for you to fill out- you’ll need a government issued ID to show you’re over 18.”

“No problem,” Dean said, handing her his driver’s license.  She glanced it over, then handed it back.

“Thank you, Dean, and I’ll just be a moment.”

Dean smirked at Cas as soon as she was beyond earshot.  Cas frowned.  “What?”

Dean’s grin widened.  “Seriously, you’re that dense?” he asked teasingly.  “She’s totally into you.”

“She’s totally into my dad,” Cas retorted with a wince.  “Probably thinks if she dates me she can meet someone famous.”

“Whatever, you didn’t see her checking out your ass when we walked in.”

“She did not.”

“She thinks you’re dreamy,” Dean said with a laugh.

“What are you, twelve?” Cas said.  “Besides, it’s not like I’d go out with her, we both have timers remember?”

Dean shrugged.  “So what?  You can date around before you meet the One.  Just because you’ve got some clock ticking down doesn’t mean you can’t have fun in the meantime.”

Betsy was coming back, sorting through a folder with the company’s logo emblazoned on the front.  Cas jerked his chin at her.  “Tell me that again once you’ve got your own countdown to look at every day.”

Dean swallowed, the nerves reappearing in his eyes.  He stepped closer to Cas as Betsy approached.

“Alright, so I’m sure you know all of this, with your connections,” Betsy said, winking at Cas.  “But it’s company policy to explain everything, so just bear with me.”  She handed Dean the folder.  “This is your information booklet, which has all of this on paper in case you forget anything.  The TiMER will be a small, non-invasive implant on your left wrist.  The procedure takes about five minutes, and you shouldn’t feel anything more than a pinch.  We’ll go over your medical history before the implantation just to be sure, but ninety-nine percent of the time there isn’t a problem.  If you do experience any discomfort or swelling, there’s a number on the forms you can call.”

“Great,” Dean said, eyeing the list of potential side effects that went on for three pages.

“Oh, don’t worry about those,” Betsy said with a wave of her hand.  “I think those only happen in like, one out of a million or something.  So, once you get your TiMER it will turn on automatically.  If your One already has a TiMER, it’ll start the countdown to the midnight before you meet them.  Once it reaches zero, it’ll beep three times at midnight, and then beep five times when you’ve made eye contact with your One.  If your One doesn’t have a TiMER yet, yours will stay blank until they get one.  Any questions?”  Dean shook his head, still looking at the side effects out of the corner of his eyes.  “Great!” Betsy said.  “Come on back, let’s get this started!”

She led them to a room in the back labeled “Procedure Room 4” in bold letters.  Dean smiled and nodded at her chatter, his nerves apparent in the tightness around his lips and tapping of his fingers.  Cas found himself rubbing his timer again, over and over again, heart starting to beat a little bit too fast, and he wasn’t even the one who’s life was about to change.

Theoretically his life had already changed, not that his timer reflected that.

Betsy directed Dean to sit in what looked like a dentist’s chair to fill out his medical forms.  Their voices faded into the background, Betsy bright and bubbly, Dean half-heartedly charming.  A half formed thought of what if swirled around Cas’ head, bringing with it thoughts of Dean.  Dean smiling, Dean laughing and making terrible jokes, Dean’s warmth and his loyalty, all his contradictions, his passion and his compassion-

Cas blinked, cutting off his train of thought.  That way of thinking was dangerous.  That way of thinking led to hope.

“Alright, Dean, are you ready?”

He snapped his attention back to the present.  Dean was nodding nervously, but when he spoke his voice was resolute.  “Yes, I’m ready.”

“Alright, put your left arm on the armrest, wrist facing up- that’s it,” Betsy said.  Briskly, she held Dean’s wrist still and pushed a button on the side of the chair.  Immediately, a metal sleeve popped out of the side; another button and the sleeve pressed briefly against Dean’s skin with a mechanical hiss.

Dean grunted, and then it was over.  The metal sleeve pulled back, and the timer was implanted on Dean’s wrist.

“There you go!” Betsy said cheerfully.  “Everything looks good to go.  Once you’re ready, I’ll take your payment out in front.”

Dean didn’t seem to hear her.  He just stared at his wrist, at the timer now counting down thirteen years, five months, seventeen days, seven hours, thirty-two minutes, twelve seconds.

Cas looked down at his own wrist.  His timer stared back at him, blank as ever.

“I guess it’s not Cassie,” he said, his voice sounding strange in his own ears.

Dean swallowed.  “I guess not,” he said quietly.

Chapter Text

8.

The blaring rock music jarred against Cas’ vague, tranquil dream.  He flinched into wakefulness, squinted at the dark room, and closed his eyes again.  If the sun wasn’t up yet, neither was he.  The ringing phone stopped eventually, thank god.  Cas sighed and turned over, trying to chase the comfortable spot in his mattress and the peace in his dream.  Something about an eternal Tuesday afternoon and a kite.

His eyes snapped open when the music started again.  He groaned and rolled over again, finally realizing whose ringtone that was.  Dean would never stop calling if he didn’t answer, no matter the hour.

“What?” he grunted into the phone.

Dean’s laugh was far too bright considering how dark it was outside.  “Good morning to you too.”

“It’s not morning if the sun isn’t up,” Cas grumbled, letting his head fall back on the pillow and his eyes close once again.  Now that the annoying music wasn’t playing, it was actually soothing to have Dean on the phone, speaking in his ear as he drifted back to sleep.

“Caaaaaaas,” Dean said in a singsong voice.  “You’re falling asleep again, I can practically hear you snoring.”

“I don’t snore,” Cas mumbled.

“Yeah, try telling that to someone who hasn’t had to deal with you passed out after eight shots of tequila.”

“Mmm.”

“Hey, c’mon, we need to get an early start today.”

“Why?” he said, still half asleep.  Then his brain caught up with what Dean said; he opened his eyes again with a suspicious frown.  “Wait, why?  What did you do?”

A knock on his bedroom door startled him so badly he nearly fell out of bed.  He barely had time to recover before Dean was poking his head in with a grin, which was a whole other reason for his heart to be pounding.

“Morning sunshine,” Dean said.

Cas scowled at him.  “I gave you that key for emergencies, not to torture me.”

Dean’s smile didn’t dim for even a second.  “There’s coffee,” he said, waggling his eyebrows in a hammed up seduction.

Cas groaned, falling back onto his pillows.  He could smell the coffee now, strong and tempting.  He thought maybe Dean had brought some nice coffee specifically for him- the real stuff brewed in the French press Dean bought him a few Christmases ago, not the instant crap that Cas usually made.

“Fine,” he said finally.  “But I’m going to the bathroom first, and you’re not allowed to pester me while I’m in there.”

He felt a little more human at the first taste of the coffee Dean had made- something dark and caffeinated and fantastic- and even more once he’d finished his first cup and started in on his next one.  Dean wisely didn’t say anything while Cas inhaled his caffein, just sat at the table and waited.  Well, just sat would be inaccurate; Dean looked like he had a colony of ants living in his clothes for how much he was fidgeting.  He shifted his weight, scratched his arm, bit his lip, rubbed his hand over his mouth, flicked his eyes around the room.  It almost distracted Cas from his coffee.

“Are you alright?” he asked finally.

Dean jumped, as if in his thorough examination of a freckle on his finger he’d forgotten that Cas was there.  “Yeah, I’m fine,” he said.

Cas raised his eyebrows at him.  Dean looked away, so obviously not fine that the lie was even less believable than usual.  His hand came up and rubbed at his left wrist, tracing the implant there in a familiar gesture.

Cas sighed.  He set aside his now-empty mug and leaned forward.  “How long is left?” he asked gently.

“A week,” Dean said without even glancing at his timer.  “Uh, six days, actually.”

“You don’t have to be scared,” Cas said.  “That’s the point, isn’t it?”

Dean huffed a humorless laugh.  “Try telling that to my brain,” he said.  “It’s just like an endless parade of what ifs, it’s driving me up the fucking wall.  What if she doesn’t like me, what if our jobs or whatever aren’t compatible, what if I screw things up-”

“Dean.”

“I’m telling you, this is hell,” Dean said with a sigh.  “You’ve got it easy, man.”

Cas froze.  Dean seemed to realize as soon as the words left his mouth that it was a mistake, because his mouth fell open and his cheeks flushed.

“Cas, I didn’t mean…” he said quietly.

“It’s- it’s fine,” Cas said.  “I know what you meant.”  He didn’t look down at his timer, because he never needed to.  It never changed.  Always just twelve dashes across the screen, the same as it had been since he was eighteen years old and sitting in the clinic.  He always told himself that after fourteen years of a blank timer, he’d resigned himself to never finding his One.  Moments like this reminded him how absurd the lie was.

“So, you came to my apartment at five thirty in the morning on a Saturday because you were freaking out about your timer, and it just couldn’t wait another four hours?” he asked, brushing aside the sinking feeling Dean’s comment had prompted.

Dean grinned suddenly; the quick change from contrite to gleeful made him look a little manic.  “No, I came here at five thirty because we’ve got a lot of ground to cover today.”

Cas squinted, but understanding still eluded him.  “What?” he said.

“We’re going on a road trip!” Dean said, practically quivering with excitement.  “Vegas, baby!”

Cas blinked, then put his head down on the table.  He should have just gone back to sleep.


The first jangling chords of Ramble On settled in Dean’s skin along with the itch to just go, speed down the road and not look back.  He drummed his hands to the beat against the wheel, on his legs.  He glanced at the clock.  Five fifty-two.  If he stared at the clock long enough, the number would shift up, and up, and up, inexorable and glaring at him like a deadline.

He gave it two more seconds, then laid on the horn.

Cas emerged from the dark stairwell with a glare that could knock a man dead at point blank range.  Dean lifted his hand from the horn sheepishly and went back to drumming his fingers as Cas locked the gate behind him.

“I have neighbors you know,” Cas grumbled as he approached the car.  He tossed his duffle bag into the trunk and slid into the front seat, still looking adorably rumpled.  “Neighbors who are allowed to sleep until reasonable hours of the morning.”

Dean grinned at him, clapped him on the chest.  “Cheer up, grumpy,” he said.  “We’re going to Vegas, that’s worth one early morning.”

“Right, because Vegas has always appealed to me,” Cas deadpanned.  “Tell me again why I’m going along with this?”

“Because you love me,” Dean said.  Then, as the words actually registered in his brain- way too late, so thanks for nothing- he sputtered and coughed.  “And because I already talked to Hannah, and they cleared you for a week off.  No use wasting it moping around at home.”  He started the car, feeling the rumble of the engine like a shock to the heart.  “By the way, how do you manage to store up two months worth of paid time off?”

Cas shrugged, slouching against the window.  “I like my job,” he said.  “And I don’t run off to Vegas any time I’m feeling insecure about something.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m gonna let that slide since you’re cranky,” Dean muttered.  “And dude, you realize that nurses rank at the top of the taken-for-granted list, right?  I’m just saying that maybe you should take time off more often, get some perspective on the fact that you pull candlesticks and stuff out of people’s asses on the regular.”

“That only happened once,” Cas said, his voice going slurred and quiet as he closed his eyes.

“Once is already too many times.”

Cas just hummed in response, probably already asleep despite the music and the rumble of the Impala’s engine.  Dean didn’t push the conversation, just let the quiet take over the car as they sped up the onramp for I-70.

They’d only been driving for a few minutes when Cas stirred, looking out the window in confusion.  He turned the frown on Dean, who only caught it out of the corner of his eye- and thank god for small favors, because with the bedhead and the confused tilt to his head, Dean just wanted to pinch Cas’ goddamn cheeks.  “Aren’t we going the wrong way?” Cas asked.

“Huh?”

Cas nodded at the signs for Kansas City in thirty miles.  “Vegas is the other direction, unless I’m mistaken.”

Dean laughed.  Only Cas would pull out phrases like “unless I'm mistaken” when he was still half asleep.  “It’s a road trip, Cas!  Haven’t you ever been on one before?”

“Yes,” Cas said, petulant in the face of Dean’s laughter.

“Apparently not,” Dean said.  “You’re supposed to go the wrong way, that’s the whole point.  In fact, there is no wrong way on a road trip.  We’ve got a few hundred detours and tourist traps between us and Vegas, trust me.”

Cas sighed, long suffering except for the tiny smile at the corner of his mouth.  “Whatever you say,” he said, punching his coat into a pillow and resting his head on the window again.  “Just wake me up if there’s more coffee.”

Dean grinned and turned the music down.

The road disappeared under the Impala’s hungry tires.  In the semi-darkness of false dawn, they were practically alone on the highway, without weekday traffic to bog them down.  Dean’s grin slipped into something quieter, more content.  This was exactly what he’d been missing.  All these years in Lawrence, he’d forgotten what it was like to take on the open road like this, nothing but him and his baby, and Cas snoring on the bench seat next to him.  His car, his tunes, and his best friend.  It was pretty much heaven- except for the timer counting down on his wrist.


Cas woke with a start and a crick in his neck from the awkward position of his head against the window.  He opened his eyes blearily.  Dean had pulled the Impala to a stop and was shutting off the engine with a grin in his direction.

“Hey, sleeping beauty,” he said, nudging Cas’ elbow.  “Time to get up.”

Cas glanced at the clock.  They’d only been on the road for half an hour- the sun wasn’t even fully up yet.  “What?” he mumbled, looking around.  A familiar block of apartments sat just outside the window- though it still took him a moment to realize exactly where they were.  “Oh, is Sam coming with us?”

Dean shook his head and opened his door.  “Nah, I just thought we’d bug him for coffee before we really hit the road.  You’re no fun when you’re asleep.”

Cas perked up at the magic word- coffee, even just the sound of it was enough to motivate him out of his seat and into the cold morning air.  He still trudged reluctantly behind Dean, using his shoulder as a pillow when Dean stopped in front of Sam’s door.  It was too early for him to be functional even with the promise of coffee.

Dean gave the door a cursory knock before pulling out his keys and unlocking the door.  Cas nearly fell over when Dean moved from under him.  “You abuse your spare key privileges,” Cas muttered as he followed Dean inside.  Dean just shot him a grin as he flipped the lights on.

Cas undermined his own point immediately by making himself at home in the kitchen.  He wasn’t as intimately familiar with the layout of Sam’s apartment as he was with Dean’s, but he at least knew exactly where Sam kept his coffee, and how to use his expensive machine.  Five minutes later, the kitchen was filled with the amazing smell of Italian roast and he already felt more awake, even before taking a sip.

The front door rattled as he was pouring Dean a cup.  Sam jumped a little when he walked in to find two people standing casually in his kitchen, then sighed.

“You could have called first,” Sam said casually.  He was dressed for a run and sweaty from it, music still playing from the headphones draped around his neck.  Dean wrinkles his nose at his brother’s attire; Sam rolls his eyes without a word even passing between them.

“We needed coffee,” Dean said with a shrug.  He leaned against the counter with his mug cradled in his hands.  “What the hell are you doing up this early?”

Cas sipped his coffee and smiled to himself.  Watching Sam and Dean banter never failed to warm him more than a cup of coffee ever could.  Maybe it was because he’d never had that relationship with his siblings, not even with Jimmy, or maybe it was the Winchester’s easy acceptance of him into their homes.

Sam raised his eyebrows.  “I could ask you the same question,” he said.  He jerked his head at Cas.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Cas before noon.”

Dean smiled and set his mug down.  “Cas and I are going on a road trip.  Vegas, baby!” he said loudly- too loudly for the early hour.  Cas winced and chugged more liquid caffeine.

Sam seemed to be of the same mind.  He darted forward and grabbed Dean’s mug, stealing a sip before Dean had a chance to protest.  “Sounds like fun,” Sam said.  “Any reason I wasn’t invited?”

His tone was light and teasing, but still, Dean’s smile faltered.  He swallowed.  “I- uh,” he sputtered.  “You- you could…”  He trailed off, clearly uncomfortable.

Cas stepped in, if only because in this way, he and Sam almost had something in common.  Almost.  “Sam,” he said gently, and nodded at Dean’s wrist.

The realization spread across Sam’s face quickly, followed by a mixture of rueful understanding and old, buried grief.  “Oh,” he said.  “This is about your timer, isn’t it.”

Dean shifted his weight and rubbed his hand over his face.  “I wasn’t gonna-” he started, but Sam cut him off with a wave of his hand.

“Dean, it’s fine,” he said.  The grief was still there- would always be there, Cas suspected- but his expression was more wry than anything else.  “It’s not like I’m not surrounded by that stuff all the time anyway.  You can talk about it, I won’t break.”  He glanced at Cas as he said it, and not for the first time, Cas felt guilt wash over him.  He hated that his very presence was an unwelcome reminder of what Sam had lost, hated that he couldn’t separate himself from his father’s legacy that way.

“Right,” Dean said, still uncomfortable.  “Well, I thought you’d want to sit this one out, but if you want to come…”

Sam shrugged, still drinking Dean’s coffee.  Dean didn’t fight him for it, probably too uneasy about scratching at old wounds to argue with his brother.  “It’s alright, I have a meeting with this, uh, group tonight anyway.”

At that, Dean’s awkwardness immediately dissipated, a light appearing in his eyes instead.  “Group?” he asked.  It was like he could smell the opportunity for brotherly mischief.  “What kind of group?”

“Just a group of people I know,” Sam said, hitting casual right on the mark.  Even Cas could see that it was an act.

Dean narrowed his eyes.  “Uh huh,” he said.  “What kind of group?”

“It’s a few friends-”

“What kind of group, Sammy?”

Sam sighed, shoulders slumping in defeat.  “Fine, if you must know, it’s a support group.”

Dean looked positively gleeful at digging up this juicy piece of blackmail.  “Group therapy Sam?  Really?”  He grinned and snagged his coffee back from Sam.  “Do you hold hands and sing kumbaya together?”

“Dean,” Cas said disapprovingly, sending him a glare.  Dean’s smile shrank a little and he busied himself with refilling his mug.

“It’s not group therapy,” Sam said.  “It’s just meetings for people who have lost their One, and need someone to talk to about it.”

The laughter drained from Dean’s eyes.  He looked down, and Cas could see new tension in his shoulders.  Guilt, and probably not just for teasing Sam either.  Cas knew Dean well enough to know that he was feeling guilty that he couldn’t be the confidant that Sam needed, not with his One alive and well and waiting for him.

Cas shuffled a little closer to Dean and pressed their shoulders together wordlessly.  “It sounds like a good program,” he said to Sam.

Sam shot him a grateful smile.  “Yeah, it is,” he said.  “It’s been… helpful.  More than anything since Jess…  It’s good just knowing other people are going through the same thing.”

Dean shifted his weight.  “Uh,” he said.  “Good.  I mean- I’m glad it’s helpful.  I mean, I don’t really get it, but…  It’s good.”

“Yeah,” Sam said quietly.

He glanced at Cas, and a flicker of understanding passed between them.  Dean didn’t get it, wouldn’t get it unless something awful happened, but Cas did, just a little.  After all, they both had blank timers.  And while Cas hadn’t lost anyone like Sam had, neither one of them would ever see their One in this lifetime.


The scenery flying by the window wasn’t much to look at, but Cas found himself staring at it more often than not.  Flat fields interspersed with billboards, a farmhouse here and there, maybe a stream lined with trees.  The endless monotony of it was mesmerizing.

“Hey, don’t fall asleep on me again.”

Cas smiled to himself before turning back to Dean.  “Well, since you failed to provide in-flight entertainment…” he said.

Dean rolled his eyes and drummed his fingers on the wheel to the beat of the music.

“Aren’t there… games appropriate to this situation?” Cas asked.

Dean snorted in laughter.  “You really have never been on a road trip, have you,” he said.

Cas shrugged.  “Father paid enough in alimony that we didn’t have to drive,” he said, aiming to keep his voice light and breezy.  And Dean didn’t push into that, because it was Dean, because Dean already knew all the pain and disappointment hidden behind that statement.

“Alright, consider this your education,” Dean said, eyes shining with excitement despite his gruff tone.  “First things first, tunes.  You gotta have the right music, otherwise the whole trip’ll be boring.  And none of that frouffy crap you listen to, it’s gotta be real music.”

“I wasn’t aware that Stravinsky didn’t write ‘real’ music,” Cas said.  Dean ignored him, searching through the old shoebox on the bench seat between them, finally pulling out a tape by touch alone.

“Ah, here we go,” Dean said, ejecting the tape in the deck and inserting the new one.  The music began playing with a warped guitar riff that Dean immediately blasted even louder.  Cas winced.

“I think I know this one,” he said as the singer began crooning, then shouting about satisfaction.

“The Stones, man!” Dean said with a grin.  “This song was already classic to the classics.  One of the best songs written pre-1970.”  He bobbed his head to the beat, mouthing the words absently as he cut in front of a semi going too slow for his tastes.  “Just let it wash over you,” he added, glancing at Cas.

Cas listened to the music, trying to figure out what Dean meant.  The song had a catchy beat and intriguing lyrics, but it lacked the complexity that he enjoyed about classical music.  He’d enjoyed some of Dean’s other music better- perhaps the classification of “one of the best” had less to do with the actual music, and more with it’s place in the history of the genre.

Dean stopped mouthing along and started actually singing under his breath, getting more into it as the song went on.  I can’t GET no, oh no no no!” Dean sang, off key and glorious.  He grinned at Cas, and Cas couldn’t help but laugh, caught in the joy on Dean’s face.

He didn’t enjoy the music much, but it was worth it to watch Dean enjoying it.

Dean switched the tape out after the song was over, putting in another one at random.  This song started out quieter, dreamlike, and Cas felt the same trance from before slip over him.  Dean had fallen silent, only mouthing along at the louder, faster paced chorus, his expression distant.

And if you say to me tomorrow,
oh what fun it all would be,
then what’s to stop us pretty baby,
but what is and what should never be?

Cas blinked when the car slowed down abruptly, turning down an offramp he hadn’t seen coming.  He turned to Dean with a frown.  “We’re stopping already?” he asked, glancing at his watch.  They’d only been on the road for a few hours, just barely past Kansas City going toward… wherever they were headed.

Dean jerked his head at the billboard they were just passing.  Cas tried to read it, but only got an impression of something patched with black and white before the offramp led them past it and to a narrow country road.  “Second lesson in road trips,” Dean said with a smile.  “Go on detours, and always stop for food.”

They pulled into a gravel lot with a smattering of cars and one truck, facing a modest and run down building painted over completely with black spots that looked like-

“Cows,” Cas said flatly, staring at the dairy cow ambling along in front of the diner like she owned the place.  Judging by the decor, maybe she did.

“Best burgers in the state,” Dean said cheerfully, getting out of the car.  Cas opened his door more hesitantly, and was instantly smacked in the face by the smell of cowhide and manure.  He looked up at the gaudy sign above the diner, in the shape of a cartoon cow leering at them, with flashing letters saying Ben and Corey’s Cow Palace right in the middle of the cow’s tongue.

“‘Come suckle at our teat’?” Cas read out loud.  “That’s just disturbing.”

“Best burgers, and they have every kind of fried cheese you can think up,” Dean countered.

Cas took a second to consider that.  Dean just raised his eyebrows at him, that dumb smug expression he always got when he knew he was winning.  Asshole.  “Fine,” he sighed.  “But only because I’m starving.”

Dean clapped him on the shoulder.  “You won’t regret it,” he said, guiding him toward the entrance.

Cas opened his mouth to respond when his foot landed in something soft and most definitely not dirt.  “Oh my god,” he said quietly.

“That’s called authenticity my friend,” Dean said with a laugh.  “Authenticity.”


Whatever tension had still been lurking in Dean’s shoulders began to melt away as they rolled into Sioux Falls.  He’d missed this this town that looked like so many other towns in middle America, surrounded by flat empty fields and parking lots.  Shoulda stayed here when dad died, really, but he’d just had to be sentimental about it.  Set up near where mom and dad were buried for Sam’s sake if not for his own, as if Lawrence had anything to offer other than a couple of slabs of concrete and some browning grass.

But… if they’d stayed here with Bobby, he never would have met Cas.

“So,” Cas said, sitting up for the first time since he horfed down that burger.  He looked around at the town, recognition lighting his face with something like a smile.  “Detour, huh?”

Dean shrugged and tried to hide his own smile.

Singer’s Salvage Yard was just as chaotic and rusty as he remembered it, a maze of junkers already looted for what parts they were good for.  A couple of the cars were relative newcomers; Dean made a mental note to look them over for parts he could take back to the shop, or maybe even use for the Impala if she needed a tuneup.

Bobby was already on the porch when they rolled up the drive, arms crossed and expression the least grouchy that Dean had ever seen it.  Dean threw the car into park and tried not to leap out the door, settling instead for a manly nod and smile.  Bobby jerked his head in return.  “You two idjits coming in or what,” he grumbled, going back inside without another word.

Coming from Bobby, it was practically a tearful embrace.

Dean grinned at Cas and hefted his duffle bag on his shoulder.  The porch creaked at the exact place he remembered it; the screen door still had holes so big entire cats wouldn’t be deterred, let alone bugs.  Good old Bobby.

“You coulda called, you know,” Bobby said from the kitchen as soon as the screen clacked shut behind Cas.  “Give a fella a chance to prepare.”

Dean grabbed the beers already sitting out on the table for them, and passed one to Cas.  “You don’t seem too surprised,” he said as he popped it open with his ring.

Bobby snorted.  “Boy, I heard that beast of yours coming from ten miles off.  How’s she handling these days, now that you’re spending your time on other folk’s rides?”

“You think I’d let my baby just sit there while I fix up minivans?” Dean retorted.  “She drives just fine.”

Bobby grunted his approval, then jerked his chin at Cas.  “Don’t just stand there, angelface, sit down and drink your damn beer.”

Anyone else would’ve taken offense at that.  Cas just smiled a little and sat at the kitchen table, nursing his beer and looking around in silence.  He and Bobby always got on bizarrely well, considering that Bobby was born a grouchy old man and Cas was… well, Cas.  It made the fiery knot in Dean’s ribcage burn just a little hotter every time Bobby treated Cas with the same gruff affection he gave to Sam and Dean.  It felt right.

The conversation meandered from there, glancing off subjects without delving into them, from Dean’s work at the garage to the asshole doctors Cas has to work with to Sam’s nonexistent lovelife.  After a lull, Bobby set his empty bottle on the counter and crossed his arms.  “So, you boys got a destination with this road trip of yours?”

“Vegas, apparently,” Cas said.  “Although at this rate it’ll take us all week just to get there.”

“Vegas, huh?” Bobby said, looking at Dean with a critical eye.  “This wouldn’t have anything to do with that timer on your wrist, would it?”

Dean looked down and didn’t answer.  Under the table, Cas’ foot knocked against his, solid and comforting.

Bobby sighed.  “Hell, Dean, it ain’t a death sentence.”

Dean snorted.  “You’re one to talk-”

The words were barely out of his mouth when Bobby lifted his wrist, showing the slim implant that Dean had somehow missed this whole time.  Dean’s bluster left him in a rush of air.  Four months and twenty two days flashed at him from Bobby’s wrist.

“Your dad might be the biggest asshat I’ve ever seen,” Bobby said, nodding at Cas, “but he’s brought a damn good thing into the world.  You boys will never know what it was like, not knowing.  Even when you got that feeling in your gut that this is it- there was always gonna be that little doubt in the back of your head.  This is better.”

Dean swallowed.  “When did you get that?” he asked quietly.

“Couple of months ago.  It was time.”

“But I thought-” Dean said.  “What about Karen?”

Bobby shifted, arms crossing again.  He cleared his throat.  “Everybody needs someone, boy.”  And without another word, he walked away, leaving Dean and Cas to look at each other in surprise.

Chapter Text

7.

“It’s been five years, but I still wake up every time I reach out and the bed is empty.”

Sam clasped his hands together between his knees, bending his head down as Tamara spoke.  Her voice was gentle tonight, nostalgic for the good times.  He didn’t know if it was a good thing or a bad thing for her to remember the happy times she’d had with Isaac, when so many of their last years together had been overshadowed by his drinking.  But then, maybe that was just his own past weighing him down.  He’d never really figured out whether he should be angry or forgiving.

He wondered if a meeting like this could’ve helped dad, if timers had existed back then.  If John would have even come to one.

Tamara ended her share to a smattering of supportive murmurs and gentle applause.  Sam briefly considered if he should volunteer, say some of his musings out loud- but then again, it wasn’t really relevant to the situation.  Whatever his issues with his dad, it had no bearing on his relationship with Jessica, and the emptiness after she’d gone.

A woman a few seats away from him cleared her throat.  He hadn’t seen her before, but then again, he’d only started coming a few weeks ago.  “I guess I have something to say tonight,” she said.  “I guess it’s been a few weeks since I last came to one of these, so many new faces…”  She waved with a charming smile but an awkward movement.  “I’m Jody.”

The collected grievers murmured the expected hello.

She took a deep breath, squaring her shoulders.  Sam smiled a little at her obvious discomfort to speak, but her determination to go through with it anyway.  “Things have been a little bit crazy in my life, which is why I’ve been pretty absent lately.  My foster daughter, Alex, got into some trouble about a month ago and it caused… some problems at home.  We’re still trying to negotiate our relationship, but I’m not her mom and she isn’t- can’t be- a replacement for my son, so it’s been a bit… hard to deal with.  But we’ve been getting through it, so I was finally able to come to a meeting.”

Sam watched her with sympathy.  In some ways, as much as it was nice to know he wasn’t alone in struggling with the loss of his One, it was even worse to hear everyone else’s stories.  Especially when some of them had lost more than just a fiancé, but their whole families.

“Anyway,” Jody said.  “I came tonight because I found out last week that Alex has a new girlfriend, a girl from school named Claire.  Which- I’m so glad that she’s found someone who can support her, who she can open up with, and Claire is a little rough around the edges but she’s a good kid.  But, uh.”  She paused, running her hand over her left wrist in an absent gesture.  “It turns out that Claire is the granddaughter of Chuck Shurley.  As in, the founder of The One Inc.”

A murmur of surprise passed through the room.  Sam sat up straighter, eyes wide.  He’d known that Cas had siblings, of course, but he didn’t know that any of them had kids of their own.  For all that Cas was a part of the family at this point, it was still surprising how much about him Sam didn’t know.

Jody took a deep, wavering breath.  “So now whenever I see Claire, this wonderful kid with a big heart, all I can think of is Sean and Owen, and how I had this whole life promised to me by her grandfather that got ripped away from me.  And it’s not fair to her, but I can’ help it.”

Sam’s fingers laced more tightly together.  Maybe once Jody was done, he could open up about Cas, how he’d had the same experience just after Jess had died- but then again, it wasn’t like it still happened whenever he saw Cas.  And anyway, Cas had been hanging around Dean far longer than Sam had known Jess, so maybe it wasn’t the same thing after all.

“But then, the other day,” Jody continued, a tear slipping down her cheek unheeded, “Claire noticed my timer.  When I explained what happened to my family, I expected her to give me the look- I’m sure you all know the one.”  A few smiles cracked around her.  They all knew the Look, the mixture of horror and pity that made you feel small and pathetic no matter your size or age.  “But instead, she told me a little about her grandfather.  How he left his family in the dust when the timer thing really took off, how he’s been distant and hurtful to her the few times she’s met him.  How her father Jimmy only got his timer to try and please him, and in the end all that did was cause problems between Jimmy and his wife.  And… it got me thinking.  About my timer, how I always look at it anytime I feel like I’m somehow betraying the memory of my One.  Because I keep telling myself that ever since Sean and Owen were taken away from me, that I might as well have died with them.  But the thing is, I’m still here.  I’m still here, and all I’ve been doing is using my timer as an excuse not to be living, because I thought that with my One gone I wouldn’t have anything left to live for.  But after talking with Claire… I realized that these timers, our Ones- they aren’t the only things that define us.  That each one of us has so many things to reach for, a future to look forward to.”

She took a deep breath, interrupting the flow of her speech.  Sam leaned forward, all his attention focused on her.  Something about her story… It wasn’t the first time a share had spoken to him, but there was something about her, specifically, that made her words more intense, more meaningful.

“That talk with Claire gave me the courage to do something I should have done a long time ago,” Jody said quietly, and held up her left wrist for the whole room to see.

There, where her blank timer should have been, was just the line of an incision, stitched up into a glaring scar.

Everyone in the room gasped in shock, even the counselors.  It couldn’t have been the first time someone had gotten their timer removed- but Sam knew that it happened so rarely that not even the oldest members of this group, the ones who had been mourning the longest, had even considered making that move.

Jody shifted in her seat, dropping her arm down slowly to rest in her lap.  “I can’t really believe I did it, either,” she confessed.  “But it feels right.  I’ll always keep my husband and my son in my heart, nothing can ever change that.  But I have my whole life ahead of me, and that dumb little timer was holding me back.  It kept me from really connecting with Alex the way she needs me to.  So from here on out I want to start living again, the way Sean would’ve wanted me to.  I want to be there for Alex, and for Claire, and anyone else who might need me.  They’re my new future.”


Sam took a sip of the coffee provided after the meeting and grimaced.  Maybe next time he should just bring a thermos from home, so he wouldn’t keep automatically pouring himself a cup every time he came.  He wasn’t sure his taste buds would stand for being abused like this every week.

Although…  He swallowed when someone came up next to him to pour a cup, a certain short-haired woman with laughing eyes and a new scar on her wrist.  There were certainly benefits to hanging out near the snack table.

He steeled himself and shot Jody a small smile.  “Hey,” he said.  “That was a good share, earlier.”

She seemed startled, maybe from the comment, or maybe just because not a lot of socializing tended to happen after meetings.  “Thank you,” she said.

“I’m Sam,” he said, offering his hand.  He couldn’t help but glance at her wrist as she shook it- not on the hand that she offered, but the left, dangling by her side.

“Jody,” she said, then her eyes widened.  “Uh, which you knew already, I guess.”

“Nice to meet you, Jody,” he said with a smile.  He took an unthinking sip of his coffee and immediately regretted it.  He coughed.  “So, I uh…  I think we might have an acquaintance in common.”  God, why did that sound like a terrible pickup line?  Probably because he maybe half meant it at a pickup line, he realized as he glanced at her.  She was older than him by quite a few years, but there was a spark in her eyes that hinted he would be hard pressed to keep up with her.

She tilted her head in curiosity.  “Really?”

“Yeah, Cas- Castiel Novak?  I guess he’d be your, uh, foster daughter’s girlfriend’s-”

“Claire’s uncle, right!” she said, looking pleasantly surprised.  He winced internally- she’d definitely noticed how bad a pickup line it had been.  “Yeah, I’ve seen Cas at the school a lot, he picks Claire up when Jimmy isn’t able to.  How do you know him?”

Sam rubbed the back of his neck, trying not to hunch his shoulders unattractively but still be closer to her level.  “Oh, right, Cas is-  He and my brother have been best friends for so long he’s practically family.”

Her eyes widened.  “Wait, so you must be Dean’s brother!”

Sam blinked.  “You know my brother?”

“I met him a couple of weeks ago, when he came with Cas to pick Clair up,” she said.  “Plus Cas talks about him all the time- I honestly thought they were a couple at first until I saw their timers.”  She shook her head, smiling a little.  “Wow, small world, huh?”

Privately, Sam wondered if maybe it wasn’t so coincidental as all that.  After all, they both were connected however tangentially to Chuck Shurley- and here they both were, at a meeting to support people let down by Chuck Shurley’s invention.  “Small world,” he agreed.

Jody glanced around the room, picking at the stale cookie in her hand.  “Honestly, I was expecting you to say something completely different,” she confessed.

“Huh?”

She waved a hand dismissively.  “Oh, you know, maybe badger me about getting my timer removed.  I’ve had so many people yelling at me about it over the past few days that I’m sort of expecting it from all sides by now.”  She popped the cookie in her mouth and looked him up and down.  The glint in her eyes was brighter now, mischievous and wry.  It reminded him of the way Jess used to tease him- but at the same time, it was something completely new and different and exciting.  “Either that, or I thought maybe you were trying to hit on me.  Badly.”

He choked on air.  “I- it wasn’t-” he stammered.

“Relax,” she said, laughing.  She gave him another once over, dragging her eyes a little more appreciatively over his shoulders.  Sam felt his face burn in a blush.  “Normally, I’d tell you to fuck off, but… I don’t know, I guess I’m feeling a little adventurous.”

He swallowed.  He was definitely going to have a hard time keeping up with her.  The prospect sent a tingle down his spine.  “Yeah?” he said, raising an eyebrow at her.  He was rusty at this, but he could still flirt.  Probably.  “You’re talking the talk, but are you ready to walk the walk?”

She looked down at his wrist, where his timer still sat blank and glaring on his wrist.  She returned his challenging look with a smug twist to her lip.  “Are you?” she said.

Oh hell yeah.

Chapter Text

6.

Dean and Cas pulled out of Sioux Falls the next day, three hours later than they planned, full to the bursting with leftover chili from the night before and Bobby’s mud-like coffee.  Armed with a full night’s rest and more caffeine than his body could handle, Cas found himself actually enjoying the passing landscape, Dean’s off-key singing and the music blasting from ancient speakers, the vibration of the engine humming through his bones.

He did not enjoy it when Dean pulled abruptly onto the shoulder of the highway, his eyes lit up with mirth and mischief.  “Holy shit,” he said, stepping out of the car.

Cas sighed and followed him, if only for the opportunity to stretch his legs.  At the sight of the billboard looming over them, he turned right back around.

“No no no, we have to get a picture of this,” Dean laughed, grabbing Cas’ arm before he made it two steps back to the car.  “It’s fucking priceless.”

“I think you mean mortifying,” Cas muttered.  He allowed Dean to manhandle him back toward the billboard anyway.

“Oh come on,” Dean said as he pulled out his phone.  “You have to admit this is the most ridiculous thing he’s ever done.”

Cas glanced back at the billboard and felt a smile tug at his lips despite himself.  The picture was generic, an uninteresting shot of the sun setting between two clasped hands, a timer clearly visible on one wrist.  It was the text that had Dean breaking into laughter as he tried to frame the shot.

“‘Now you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch your love story- anytime,’” Dean read out loud in an overly dramatic voice, barely managing to keep a straight face.  “Who decided to use all the five senses for this?  It’s an app, not a time machine.  Hey Cas- smell my love story.”

Cas rolled his eyes at his friend, at the exact moment that Dean snapped the picture.

“Oh man, Sam’s gonna love this,” Dean said.  He turned the phone around to show Cas the picture.

Cas raised his eyebrow.  “If you really want to annoy my father, you could post it to social media.  I believe there’s even an appropriate hashtag.”

“What, #smellmylovestory?” Dean asked, slinging his arm around Cas’ shoulders.  “Nah, let’s not poke a sleeping bear with a stick.  It’s enough knowing this bullshit exists in this world.”

Cas didn’t look at the billboard again as they walked back to the car and pointed the Impala onto the road.  He was sure they’d see many more billboards just like it, varying attempts by The One Inc. to innovate their own invention, and get Chuck Shurley richer in the process.  He didn’t need to examine each one; it was enough knowing his father’s bullshit was still surrounding him after all these years.


The bar was louder, darker, and seedier than Cas really wanted to deal with after a long day’s drive.  “Really?” he asked, moving aside as a biker his height and twice his weight pushed past him.  “Can’t we just find a motel for the night?”

“Trust me,” Dean said.  He led the way through the crowded room to a rickety table by the window.

“I’ve been doing that for two days straight,” Cas muttered.

As loud as it was in the bar, Dean still managed to hear.  He paused, some of his cheer and bravado slipping away.  “Hey, I didn’t mean- if you want to crash, that’s fine,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly.  “I know I kinda dragged you into this-”

Cas sighed and cut him off with a pointed stare.  “Dean,” he said simply.  “This trip is for you, and I’m with you the whole way.  Now go get me a beer.”

Dean’s shoulders relaxed.  He smiled and moved toward the bar.  He’d barely made it two steps, however, when a blonde blur crashed right into him.

“DEAN WINCHESTER,” the blonde girl a full head shorter than Dean shouted, wrapping her arms around him and nearly lifting him off the ground.

“Woah there,” Dean choked out.  He looked over to Cas for help; Cas just smiled, amused at the sight of a grown man incapacitated by a tiny girl.  “C’mon, Jo, how are you gonna enjoy my charms if you squeeze me to death.”

The girl- Jo- stepped back immediately, her face coloring slightly but still split into a grin.  “Yeah, like I’d fall for that act in a million years,” she retorted.

“You love it,” Dean said.  He turned to Cas and put a hand on his shoulder.  Cas noted that the tips of Dean’s ears were just as red as Jo’s face.  His stomach sank, absurdly given the situation.  “Jo, this is Cas, I’ve told you about him.  Cas, this is Jo Harvelle.  Her mom Ellen took me ’n Sam in a few times, so Jo’s basically like my kid sister.”

“More like your babysitter,” Jo scoffed.

Cas’ eyes widened.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jo,” he said, holding out a hand.  “I didn’t realize we were at the Roadhouse.”

“The one and only,” Jo said, shaking Cas’ hand with a surprisingly strong grip.  “Good to finally meet you after all this time.”  She clapped her hands together.  “Right!  We need whiskey, we need jalapeño poppers, and we need mom, in that order.  I’ll be right back.”

She disappeared into the crowd with a wave.  Cas raised his eyebrows at Dean, who shifted his weight uncomfortably.  “What?” Dean said.

“Nothing,” Cas said, pulling out a chair and sitting down.  “I just didn’t realize this was a family reunion trip, that’s all.”

“It’s not!” Dean protested.  He dropped into his seat, folding his arms across his chest.  “I just thought, the Roadhouse was kinda on the way, and you’d never met Ellen and Jo.  That’s all.”

Cas swallowed and refrained from mentioning that most people in Dean’s situation didn’t drive around the country introducing their best friend to their surrogate family.  Most people spent the days before their timer went off drinking and fucking anyone who would have them- there was a whole industry that fed off that in Vegas, their supposed destination.  And yet here Dean was, sitting in a bar that was more watering hole than playground, looking at Cas like there was nowhere he’d rather be.

“Dean Winchester, as I live and breathe.”

Ellen turned out to be a stern, formidable woman when she was standing over them in the shadows; all of her hardness melted away when she pulled Dean into a hug.  “Hey Ellen,” Dean said, relaxing into her embrace.

“Is it that hard to pick up a phone once in a while?” she said when she finally pulled away.  “Thank God your brother’s got more sense, else I’d have tracked you down in Lawrence long ago.  And who’s this?”

Jo seemed to materialize out of thin air at Ellen’s elbow, setting down a whole bottle of Jack and four shot glasses.  “That’s Castiel, mom, the guy Dean never shuts up about.”

“Hey!” Dean sputtered.

“Castiel, huh?” Ellen said, looking Cas up and down.  He hurriedly got to his feet and offered his hand.

“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Harvelle,” he said.

She looked at him with hard eyes for one long second, then burst out laughing.  “I like you,” she said, and, to Cas’ utter consternation, pulled him into a hug just like the one she’d shared with Dean.  “Call me Ellen, hon.”

It made sense that the owner of a bar would be able to hold her liquor- Cas just hadn’t realized how far that tolerance would go.  Dean started getting loud and boisterous after the sixth shot, and Jo’s face was red starting from the fourth.  Cas lost track of the number after that, too focused on not falling over sideways into Dean or doing something stupid like try to speak.  And yet Ellen seemed completely unfazed, laughing at them for getting drunk, plying them all with water, and telling stories about Dean and Jo as kids.

“She wouldn’t talk to him for weeks after that,” Ellen told Cas with a sparkle in her eye.  “Didn’t stop him from following her around like a lost puppy, which meant Sam was trailing after him.  It was like a damn parade.”

“I did apologize,” Dean protested, though his cheeks were stained pink.  “She just wouldn’t accept it.”

“You said you were sorry I was so sensitive,” Jo said.  “Pretty sure I was justified in not forgiving you.”

Cas laughed and let himself sink into the warmth of Dean at his side.  It was easy to fall into the rhythm of this family, the banter and the stories that were familiar even without ever having heard them.  Dean’s arm around his shoulders, the brightness of his laughter, were just an added bonus.

“I gotta pee,” Dean announced at some point, alcohol making him even more blunt than usual.  He got to his feet, unsteady on his feet but determined with the resolve of a practiced drunk.  Cas watched him go, only yanking his attention back to the table when Ellen started speaking.

“Jo, could you go check on Lizzie?” she said, frowning in the direction of the bartender.  “She might need some help with this crowd.”

“I’m off the clock,” Jo said.  She slumped in her chair and flashed her mother a cheeky smile.  “Can’t help right now.”

Ellen fixed her with a glare that straightened Jo’s spine immediately.  “Joanna Beth, go fetch Emily to help tend bar.”

Jo swallowed.  “Yes ma’am,” she said, and hurriedly took off.

“Like I’d let her work in that state,” Ellen said with a sigh.  “I swear that girl will be the death of me.”

“Seems like you’ve done a wonderful job with her,” Cas offered.  He didn’t even trip over his own tongue when he said it.

Ellen smiled at him warmly.  “You’re sweet,” she said.  “I can see why you and Dean get on so well.  You bring out that sweetness in him.”  Her smile faltered a little.  “How is he, really?” she asked more quietly.  “His timer’s almost up, isn’t it.”

“That’s why we’re here,” Cas said.  He looked down at the water glass cradled in his hands.  “He’s panicking,” he added.  “It’s supposed to be a good thing, but I think knowing me and my family ruined it for him.  What happened to my family because of this stupid thing… it doesn’t make the process very romantic.”

“Are you sure that’s why he’s scared?” Ellen said.

Cas frowned.  “What else would it be?”

She sighed and fell silent for a moment.  Cas went back to nursing his water, listening to the swell of indecipherable voices around him.  Not for the first time, he wondered how many of their lives had been affected by his father’s invention, how many of them had broken marriages and families because the countdown told them it was time to leave.  At least Dean had never stuck with one person long enough for that to happen now.

“He talks about you near constantly, you know,” Ellen said suddenly, pulling Cas out of his reverie.  He squinted, trying to follow the jump in conversation.  “The rare times he came by or called, most of his stories were about you.  Mostly the good stuff, I’m thinking,” she added at the look on his face.  “Don’t think Dean’s capable of saying a bad word about you.”

“Dean’s kind like that,” he said, hoping his blush would be hidden in the dim lighting.

She laughed.  “No he ain’t,” she said.  “Don’t get me wrong, that boy’s got a lot of love in his heart, always has.  But he don’t hand it out to just anyone, especially not since his dad passed.  He only gives it to people who’ve earned it.”

Cas frowned.  “That’s not a bad thing,” he pointed out.  “Not with how he and Sam grew up.”

“No, it’s not a bad thing,” she agreed.  “The point is, though, that you’re one of those people that earned it.”

He looked away, not able to face whatever it was she was trying to say.  He watched the crowd without seeing them, until his eyes caught on Dean’s familiar profile at the bar.  Dean was smiling, that one smile that Cas both loved and hated, that made the girl he was talking to swoon.  Not that Cas blamed her.

“Oh honey,” Ellen said quietly.  “You’ve got it bad, don’t you.”

He startled, eyes wide.  He opened his mouth to say something, deny it, spout the litany he’d been giving himself since he was seventeen years old- but no sound came out, his tongue caught by alcohol and Ellen’s understanding eyes.

“It’s alright,” she said, taking his hand gently.  “He’s one of those that just shines brighter than everyone else.  There’s plenty of people who get caught by that boy.”

Cas swallowed and looked down at his hand enveloped with hers, his blank timer resting right beneath.  “Plenty of doomed people,” he blurted, and regretted it immediately.  He’d decided long ago that the best way to deal with this- this thing was to ignore that it existed at all, yet here he was, admitting it to a virtual stranger.

Ellen hummed and turned their hands until his wrist was exposed.  She looked at his timer impassively for a moment.  “Jo’s father was the love of my life,” she said suddenly, tapping his timer and then releasing his hand.  “Nobody else in the world quite like him, and definitely nobody who will make me feel like that again.  Your daddy would call him my ‘One,’ and I wouldn’t argue with that.”  She held up her other hand, revealing a timer on her wrist, steadily counting down four months and twenty one days.  “But when I got myself one of these, after Bill died, it started counting down just like that.  You know why?”

“Because he wasn’t your One after all,” Cas said, his shoulders slumping.  Yet another family ruined by the timer, even if Ellen’s husband had already passed.

Ellen leaned forward, meeting his eyes with an intensity that Cas hardly knew what to do with.  “Because there is no such thing as just one person for the each of us, Castiel,” she said.  “We ain’t cogs in a machine or puzzle pieces that fit together neatly.  We’re people, and people are messy.  You can’t fit us into neat little countdowns.”

It didn’t make sense what Ellen was saying.  There was no doubt that the timers worked; no matter what else his father had done, his invention was real.  “If you don’t believe in it, then why did you get one?” he asked.

She shrugged.  “I’m a single mom with a grown daughter who’ll be leaving sooner rather than later.  The timers, they make it easier to find someone, and in my position I need that.  But just because it says one thing don’t make that the only truth, and I’ll be thinking on that just as much when this thing hits zero.”

Cas looked at Dean, still chatting at the bar, and for the first time, he let himself wonder.  What would happen if he admitted it.  What it would be like if it worked out, if he could wake up every morning with Dean’s arms wrapped around him, if he could kiss him, if he could come home after a long shift and find Dean waiting for him.

It was nonsense, of course.  Not even wishful thinking, something even more ludicrous than that.  Reality was what it was, and not even a woman as formidable as Ellen could change that.

“Thank you for telling me,” he said quietly, “but I can’t think like that.  Not about Dean.”

“Cas-”

He clenched his hands in his lap.  “I’m sure you loved your husband very much, Ellen, but if you’d had mismatched timers, do you think your marriage could have lasted through that?” he said.  “Because my parents’ didn’t, no matter how hard they tried.”

Ellen sighed.  “Love doesn’t have one right answer,” she said.  “You’ll learn that before long.”  She patted Cas’ arm with a look in her eye that he wished wasn’t pity.  He kept his eyes on his water and let the silence between them linger.

Chapter Text

5.

It took them another day and a half of farms and plains changing to rugged mountains to red rock desert to yellow dirt desert before they reached Vegas.  Two days of detours, of “genuine” dinosaur footprints and homemade jam stalls and motels right out of a cheesy horror flick that somehow were still running.  Dean only gave in to Cas’ persistent request to drive when they reached Cedar City and the long line at Starbucks almost drove him to exhausted tears.  He passed the keys over warily, ignoring the contentment in his chest at seeing Cas so at home behind the wheel of the Impala.

The next time he opened his eyes, they were passing through an impressive canyon that wound through a corner of Arizona.  He had to admit, it was nice to be able to enjoy the scenery passing by for once.

Which was a sentiment that lasted until the canyon dumped them unceremoniously into Nevada, and the towering walls leveled out into dusty, featureless desert.  He stole the keys back when they stopped at a gas station crowded with slots and cheap keychains; Cas just sighed and slid unprotesting into the passenger side.

The road, for so long only populated by semis and the occasional vacationing minivan, began hosting more and more cars the deeper into Nevada they went.  More minivans, sedans with Utah and Arizona plates, trucks loaded with fishing gear and towing boats incongruous with the dry landscape around them, even more semis slowed down by the increased traffic.  Dean pumped the brakes to avoid rear ending a snail-like Prius, and found traffic all around them stuck at an even slower pace, overshadowed by the flashing lights of a “Road work ahead” sign.

“Shit,” Dean said, sitting back in his seat.  “Fucking construction.”

Cas hummed, irritatingly calm about the situation.  “We’re almost there, I think we’ll survive a few more minutes.”

A few more minutes turned out to be a good hour before they hit the northern outskirts of the city.  Dean squinted at the long line of cars visible ahead, and the distant casinos reflecting the afternoon sunlight.  With a growl, he flicked his turning signal, cut off another Prius- California plates, it fucking figured- and sped down the nearest offramp.

The motel he drove up to was about as unappealing as expected for an off-off strip dump in Vegas.  Even the discounted rate was more than the nicest motel they’d stayed in so far, and this place could barely be considered a building compared to that place.  Dean turned off the engine, but found himself unable to move.  He stared straight ahead, taking in the entrance to the sleazy-looking front office, the woman pretending not to be a prostitute, the man trying to open his door with shaking hands.  He’d probably stayed in worse places in his life on the road, probably when he was far too young to be exposed to this shit.  And yet, his hands remained firmly on the wheel, his feet planted by the pedals.

“Dean?”

He heard Cas’ voice from a great distance, a lifeline pulling him back.  He blinked, suddenly seized by the urge to leave.  Go anywhere except here, as long as Cas was there with him.

“You ever been to the Grand Canyon?” he asked abruptly.

Cas’ face, when Dean finally looked over, was utterly perplexed, head titled and brow furrowed in a way that Dean couldn’t help but find adorable.  “No,” Cas said slowly.

“Me neither,” Dean said.  His mouth was moving faster than his mind- he had no idea where the Grand Canyon idea came from, but now that he’d gotten it he couldn’t shake it.  “We should go, it’s only a few hours away from here.  If we left right now we could get there before sundown.”

“I-” Cas said, his frown deepening.  “The Grand Canyon would be great, but I thought…  You said you wanted to ‘hit the strip’ and sow your wild oats.  If we go to the Grand Canyon, you won’t have time to do that before we have to leave.”

Dean’s fingers drummed against the wheel like they were possessed.  “I didn’t- yeah, I said that, but…”  He paused, looking at the motel in front of them with disgust.  “I don’t know, man, maybe Vegas just isn’t the place.  I mean, I know that you’d hate every second of it.”

“Dean,” Cas chided.  “I’m happy to accompany you in Vegas.  This trip is about what you want to do.”

“That’s not-”  Dean sighed.  His fingers tapped a rough rhythm, tap taptap tap tap, to match the anxious humming in his mind.  “The point was to spend time with you, alright, before…”  He trailed off, resolutely not looking at Cas anymore.  The hooker made her way across the parking lot, and the guy in the office flipped a sign saying he’d be back in one hour.

“Okay,” Cas said finally, breaking the long silence.

Dean blinked.  “Okay?”

“Okay, let’s go to the Grand Canyon,” Cas said, and he was smiling when Dean dared to glance over.

“Awesome,” Dean said, unable to stop his answering grin from spreading across his face.


Red dirt crunched under Dean’s boots as he stepped out of the car.  His legs were stiff from the drive, too much time spent on the road even for him.  Especially not these days, when the longest road trip he made was to Kansas City to visit Sam.  Even his back twinged a bit as he stretched with a grunt.

The parking area he’d chosen was little more than a cleared patch of dust in between surprisingly towering trees.  Cas hadn’t said anything when Dean turned off the main road, away from all the signs telling them where to go, and chose this path instead.  All they had to do was follow the dirt path until they hit the canyon, no directions needed.  They walked in silence, with only the rustling of birds in the trees, squirrels in the undergrowth to accompany them.

They reached the rim just as the sun was kissing the horizon, painting the whole world in orange and pink and purple.  Dean could see glimpses through the trees, hints of the grandeur waiting for them on the way to the lookout point.  His feet slipped on the loose gravel; he kept his eyes on the ground after that, trying to avoid the sheer drop on one side as they clambered their way along the rocks.

“Shit,” Cas muttered.  His hand came up, vice-like, to cling to Dean’s arm, his eyes fixed on the edge dropping down almost a mile to the canyon floor.

Dean tried to chuckle, but it emerged a little more breathless than he would have liked.  “Cas, maybe you should have told me you don’t like heights before we came here,” he said.  He avoided looking at the edge.  If he did, a small but insistent part of his brain was convinced that he would immediately tumble over it to his death.

“I don’t mind heights, I mind this height-” Cas began.  He swallowed his own words in a gasp, his grip loosening and then dropping entirely from Dean’s arm.  Dean almost complained- at the sudden destabilizing movement, or just because it was Cas- but he looked up, and was stunned into his own awed silence.

In all those years of traveling across the country, nothing had ever compared this.  The scale alone was staggering, like standing at the edge of the world before it dropped into something deeper than human minds could imagine.  The fading light highlighted the layers upon layers of rock still being carved by the distant river, drawing out all the colors into the broad strokes of an impressionist painting.  It was all so old, so intricate, so much grander than the insignificant humans standing at the rim- but at the same time, something about it called at a deep part inside him, a primal connection to the forces of nature that no creature could deny.  Dean had never really been into all that hippy-dippy mother nature crap, but he could suddenly see why someone might get passionate about it after seeing a sight like this.

They stood silently for a while, taking it all in.  They were alone out here- the tourists were all at the official viewpoints, the bustling visitor’s center, the crowded hiking trails.  Here, their only company was a pair of ravens dancing on the breeze.  Here, it was just the two of them and the vastness of nature.

“Can you believe?” Cas said after a long time, his voice hushed like they were standing in a cathedral.  A lizard scampered by his foot and he smiled.  “Millions and millions of years of this river flowing over solid rock, and it carved this.  All this- it’s just water and time.”

The look in his eyes was an almost religious ecstasy, more like a painting in Vatican City than a real life human standing there next to Dean.  Dean couldn’t stop staring, not at the magnificence around them but at Cas’ peaceful expression, the way the sunset made him glow in etherial light.  He’d never seen anything as beautiful as Cas was in that moment.

Cas turned to glance at him.  He dropped his eyes quickly, hoping that Cas hadn’t caught him staring.  “Thank you,” Cas said, earnest in that way that only Cas could be.

Dean startled.  “For what?”

Cas shrugged, not in dismissal but in acknowledgement, like he didn’t know what he’d meant either.  “For everything,” he said simply.  “For this- for bringing me on this trip.  I know I’ve been a pain about it, but… it means a lot to me.”

Dean thought he might be blushing.  “Hey, no- save the hallmark, alright?  I’m the one who should be thanking you for coming along, and putting up with me.  Not just this trip, even.  You’re-”  He swallowed to keep himself from spewing too much of his guts- and then he couldn’t speak if his life depended on it, because Cas had shifted closer, and the backs of their hands were brushing against each other.

Dean held his breath as his hand moved past Cas,’ so that their palms were touching.  It wasn’t even a touch, really, just the electrical, almost magnetic pull between the atoms of Dean’s skin and the atoms of Cas’.  Cas didn’t say anything, but Dean could hear his breathing speeding up, and that gave Dean the courage to lift his hand, trail his fingers up Cas’ arm.  His fingertips just barely grazed the skin of Cas’ forearm, calluses whispering against his timer, snagging the fabric of his shirt.  Cas shivered and his eyes closed as Dean’s hand reached his neck; Dean could see goosebumps forming on Cas’ skin despite the lingering heat of the day.

Dean watched his own hand like it belonged to a stranger, because it didn’t make sense that he’d be touching Cas like this.  That Cas would allow him to trace the space beneath his jaw, that he’d sigh and lean into Dean’s hand as he cupped Cas’ face.  A puff of Cas’ breath crossed the short distance between the two of them to caress Dean’s lips.

Sie sind so süß zusammen!” someone shouted nearby.

Dean stepped back hurriedly, rubbing the back of his neck as a gaggle of German tourists brushed past them, all chattering excitedly.  He could feel his face burning; he just hoped that the blush was hidden in the twilight.  Cas blinked owlishly at him, a dazed look in his eyes.

“We- we should get going,” Dean said, his voice cracking like a teenager.  “Find a motel or something, come back tomorrow when there’s more light.”

“Alright,” Cas said.

Dean cleared his throat awkwardly.  “Cool- uh, good.  Let’s, um.  Let’s get out of here.”

He led the way to the trail, along the mile hike back to the car.  The weight of almost pressed in on all sides around him.

Chapter Text

4.

The sun dipped too far down the horizon for its rays to touch the sky, and the Impala still sped down the winding desert road in search of a place to spend the night.  Cas heard Dean muttering about froufy hotels and tourist traps as they passed outside the bounds of the national park.  He barely listened.  His skin was buzzing too much for him to hear the individual words through the mesmerizing lift and fall of Dean’s voice, the breaths and stops and barely-there catches just like the ones that trembled in his voice before his hand touched Cas’ cheek.  Cas took a deep, unsteady breath, trying to drown out to the magnetism of Dean sitting only a few inches away from him.  It didn’t do much good.

He traced the outline of his timer on his wrist, more familiar to him than the lines of his own face.  It was just as blank in the dark as it was in the light.  Never changing, never promising what he both hoped for and dreaded.  Hoped for because maybe then the ache in his chest whenever Dean was nearby would finally leave him alone.  Dreaded because he didn’t know what he’d do without it.

Dean exhaled slowly next to him, bringing back the shivering anticipation that refused to go away.  The question of what just happened and will it happen again.  They were standing at the edge of something still, not just a cliff of white and red and brown rock but something far more dangerous.

Cas wondered what would happen if he took the last step off that edge.  If Dean would fall after him, if they could catch each other at the bottom.  Why Dean would follow him, with the wait for his One almost over.

The soft sigh of the brakes shook him free from his thoughts.  He blinked at the sight of the motel Dean had found, not sure when they’d even left the highway.  The motel was only faintly illuminated by the flickering Vacancy sign; even in the dark, it didn’t look much better than the seedy motel back in Vegas.

With the engine off, the car was silent enough that Cas could hear the aborted breath that Dean took, like he’d wanted to say something but changed his mind.  Neither of them spoke as they got out of the car and headed for the motel office.

The man at the counter didn’t even look up when the bell over the door rang out.  He kept his eyes glued to the trashy magazine he was reading as he drawled, “King or two queens?”

Dean choked and coughed.  Cas bit his cheek and looked down, outside, anywhere to avoid looking at Dean blushing and sputtering.  “Two queens,” Dean managed once he got his breath back- but Cas could hear the waver in his voice, the tiny catch of his breath.  Cas’ heart started to pound once again.

The room smelled like feet and stale cigarette smoke despite the clear no smoking signs plastered everywhere.  It was a little bit nicer than the outside looked, although for how much it cost it was practically a trash heap.  It was surprising that when Dean tossed his duffle on one of the mattresses, it actually held up under the weight.

Dean turned back to Cas, who was still standing awkwardly by the door with his duffle over his shoulder.  He didn’t think he could manage another step into the room, not with Dean so close and the what ifs still racing his heartbeat.  “So,” Dean said, rubbing the back of his neck.  “Do you want to shower first?  Um.  Not that you smell, or anything, I just meant-  it’s hot in here, uh, out there I mean, and the showers here probably suck but at least it’s refreshing, or something.  I could go first though, if you- if you wanted, I… Um.”

Cas stared at him as he rambled himself into silence.  Dean’s face was flushed, had been since the canyon, his eyes sliding to look at Cas’ lips before he caught himself and looked away, only to dart back.  It was like a punch to the gut, or maybe trying to climb the last step in a staircase only to find it wasn’t really there.  It hadn’t occurred to him that Dean was just as scared of this as Cas was.  That Dean felt it as deeply as Cas did.

Oddly, the shock of the realization steadied him.  They were in this together, no matter what happened.  Just like it always was.  Dean and Cas against the world.  And if Cas had two days to have just a little more… well.  He’d take what he could get.

He dropped his duffle on the floor with a thump.  Dean started at the sound, watching him with uneasy eyes as if he didn’t know what Cas was about to do.  As if it wasn’t just as inevitable as their timers tearing them apart as soon as they came together.  You couldn’t have one without the other, after all.

Cas strode forward, grabbed the front of Dean’s jacket, and yanked him into a kiss.

There was a second, right as their lips pressed together, that nothing happened.  No fireworks, no eureka moment, no movement from Dean.  All Cas could feel was the unfamiliar pressure against his lips, a little wetter than he’d expected, a little harder than he would’ve liked, a little strange to be pressed this close to another human being.

But then.

Then.

Dean moaned, so quiet Cas felt the vibration in his lips instead of hearing it- and then Dean tilted his head, his mouth opening just a little, and- oh.  Oh.

It wasn’t like fireworks, wasn’t like lightning or wildfire or any other metaphor Cas had seen in a movie.  It was just Dean, Dean kissing him, and that was better than anything than any romcom could dream up.  Dean’s mouth was soft and tasted like coffee, like skin and a little bit of sweat, and fuck it didn’t matter what it tasted like, because that was Dean’s tongue and suddenly Cas wasn’t sure his knees could support his own weight.  He moaned, or maybe it was just a whine building deep in his chest and swallowed by the movement of Dean’s lips.  He tightened his grip on Dean’s jacket, to pull him closer or to stop the shaking in his hands, he wasn’t sure which.

He gasped when Dean’s fingers slid over his jawline, swallowed when nails scraped against his stubble, shivered when Dean’s hand came to a rest on the back of his neck, curling his hair.  It was too much, too much- he pulled away just a hair, his breath tearing his throat ragged.  Dean wasn’t in much better shape- he panted with closed eyes and red cheeks so beautiful that Cas couldn’t help himself.  He leaned forward and pressed his lips against the flushed skin.

Dean hummed in appreciation as Cas’ lips traveled down, from his stubbled cheek to his jaw to the arc of his neck.  The hand that wasn’t tangled in Cas’ hair grabbed Cas’ hip, slipping just a little to meet bare skin.  “Cas…” Dean mumbled.

Cas’ breath caught in his throat at the sound of his name on Dean’s lips.  He pressed his forehead into the crook of Dean’s neck.  His heart was pounding faster than could be good for him, his head spinning with how much he wanted this.

“This is a bad idea,” he said despite every inch of him screaming at how right this felt. His hands moved with a mind of their own, dragging down Dean’s chest to rest at his hips, teasing at the hem of his shirt.

They were so entangled in each other’s space that he felt Dean swallow.  “Right- uh.  Bad idea,” Dean said.  He shifted his weight and swallowed again, his fingers still skimming over Cas’ hips and back.  Cas made to pull away, which only resulted in his nose brushing along the curve of Dean’s neck, his lips barely brushing his skin.  Dean’s hands tightened on Cas’ back as he shivered.  “We probably shouldn’t-”  Dean cut himself off with a breathy sigh when Cas made it to the base of his jaw.

“We should definitely stop,” Cas murmured, the grabbed the back of Dean’s neck to pull him into another kiss.

God, there was nothing better than the taste of Dean’s lips.

He deepened the kiss with his fingers pressing dents into Dean’s skin, greedy for every taste of Dean he could get.  Impossibly, they moved even closer together, and -oh, there was that pressure Cas hadn’t known he was missing, Dean’s thigh nudging between his legs to graze Cas’ crotch.  He fisted his hands in Dean’s jacket once more, this time pulling him all the way back until Cas’ legs hit the mattress, until Cas toppled over backward and dragged Dean along with him.

Fuck,” Dean gasped, barely catching himself to hover above Cas on his elbows.  Cas wasn’t sure if he meant the exclamation in surprise or in need, but he didn’t have any time to consider it before Dean was catching his mouth in another deep, searing kiss.  Cas tugged on the folds of cotton still tangled in his hands, arching up into the kiss desperately and letting out a moan when Dean dropped the last few inches to press the weight of his body into Cas’.

Shit- shit- Cas had never been this turned on in his entire life.  He could feel Dean’s erection hard against his hip, ever so slightly misaligned with his own but fuck, Dean’s thigh was back between his legs and who the hell cared if the position was awkward.  He chased the sensation, shifting his hips as best he could with Dean’s weight holding him down.

They should slow down.  Cas gasped as Dean pulled on his bottom lip with his teeth and matched the tiny shifting movements that were driving him insane.  They should- “Dean,” he breathed.  They should definitely slow down, he couldn’t bear it if their only time together was cut short because he couldn’t hold it together long enough to even take off his pants.

Dean shivered and bit his lip again, harder this time, swiping his tongue over the bruise when he was done.  They were dry humping like goddamn teenagers and it was the most glorious thing Cas had ever felt.  “Fuck,” Dean moaned into Cas’ mouth as he thrust into Cas’ leg.

Dean-

“Wait- fuck, Cas,” Dean said, pulling away just a little, his eyes screwed up like stopping his movements was physically painful.  “Clothes, we forgot about clothes.”

Which Cas had cared more about a second ago, but the problem of clothing dimmed in comparison to the fact that Dean wasn’t kissing him.  He growled and hooked his leg behind Dean’s.  Dean barely had the opportunity to look startled before Cas was shoving at his shoulders, flipping them both around so that he was lying on top of Dean’s glorious body.  Which was currently covered up by offending layers, so yeah, maybe the clothes needed to go.

He sat up reluctantly, straddling Dean’s lap so that he could wrestle with the buttons of his shirt.  Dean wasn’t any help: he merely stared, his thumbs running over the skin of Cas’ hips.  Cas had already finished with those goddamn buttons and shrugged his way out of his shirt before Dean got with the program.  Five seconds was definitely too long to not be kissing him, Cas decided then and there, especially once Dean’s muscled and ever-so-slightly pudgy torso was revealed.

Cas dove back down as soon as Dean’s shirt was out of the way, never mind that neither of them had gotten to their pants yet.  The feeling of so much skin against skin was enough to give him an aneurism.  He groaned and began trailing kisses down Dean’s jawline, his neck, to the jut of his collarbone.  Dean’s hands flew up to his hair, tangling in it and pulling it in a sharp, unconscious movement.  Cas swallowed and couldn’t help but bite at Dean’s skin, sucking just a little too hard in his eagerness to taste the salty tang of him.  It was definitely going to bruise in damning evidence of what they were doing, right where everyone could see.

Let them look.  He didn’t care, not when Dean was tugging on his hair and digging nails into his back and making those wonderful noises, not when this was the only night would ever get with him.  Dean could meet his One with the hickey Cas gave him dark and glaring on his throat.

Dean groaned and tugged on his hair to pull him back into a devouring kiss.  Electricity skittered across Cas’ skin, originating from the lightning storm of Dean’s lips.  He let out what was probably a whimper and fumbled at the button of his jeans, nearly sobbing in relief as he unzipped them and his cock bobbed free.  Even with the release of pressure, the sudden sensation of Dean’s leg against his erection only somewhat dampened by his briefs, he still couldn’t stop kissing Dean, licking into his mouth with a hunger that almost shocked him.  He tugged at the waistband of his pants with one hand, his other hand occupied with tracing the shape of Dean’s nipples- and grunted when his pants refused to cooperate and disappear immediately.  He tried to pull them down again, still kissing Dean while trying to wiggle his way out of too-tight jeans.

Dean’s head fell back at a particularly uncoordinated swipe of Cas’ tongue.  Cas whined, trying to chase his lips and take his own pants off at the same time, and ended up knocking his forehead against Dean’s rather painfully.

“Ow, fuck,” he said, pulling back.

Dean took one look at his face and burst out laughing.

Cas scowled.  He sat up and swung his legs so that he was no longer straddling Dean’s hips.  “Shut up,” he grumbled.  He eased out of his pants and briefs properly, without Dean’s skilled tongue to distract him.

Dean kept grinning, propping himself up on his elbows.  “It was cute,” he said.  He ran a hand up the length of Cas’ spine, the touch teasing and featherlight.  Cas suppressed a shiver.  “Besides, if you don’t laugh during sex, you’re doing it wrong.”

Cas glared at him.  “Pants, off,” he said.  “Before I make you take them off.”

Dean smirked at him, but the hitch in his breath was obvious.  He pulled his pants off with just a touch too much eagerness to sell the smug expression.  Cas filed that information away for later, ignoring the fact that there probably wouldn’t be a later.

“Alright, bossypants, what next?” Dean said, wiggling his hips teasingly.

Cas sighed and bent down to kiss him again, more gently this time.  Dean’s lips were just as sweet and addictive like this, when he was being an asshole, when he was being caring.  “I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done this,” Cas reminded him.  “Don’t make fun.”

Dean hummed, and suddenly flipped them over so that Dean was the one on top.  They both gasped into each other’s mouths at the feeling of skin skin skin- too much to process, too good to understand.  Dean panted for a second before pulling away.  “Want some pointers?” he asked breathlessly.

Cas rolled his eyes and pulled Dean’s head back.  Dean went willingly most of the way- then, maddeningly, stopped just a hair’s breadth away from his lips.  Cas tugged harder.  Dean made as if to close the distance before pulling back again with a grin, leaving Cas open-mouthed and panting.  “Dean,” Cas complained, trying to catch Dean’s lips again only for Dean to move just out of reach.  Dean,” he snapped, and yanked Dean’s head down with all of his strength.

It did the trick.  Dean groaned as their lips goddamn finally met again, kissing Cas with so much force that Cas could feel Dean’s heart beating at the same rough rhythm as his own.  Dean’s cock pushed up into the crease of Cas’ hip, fast and needy and- oh.  Cas wasn’t the only one affected by the teasing.  He felt his own cock twitch in response.  Dean Winchester wanted him, and god, that was the hottest thing Cas could think of.

Cas pushed at Dean’s shoulders, rolling them over again.  He let himself settle on top of Dean, holding him down with the weight of his body and his needs.  Their eyes met for one long moment, warm and comforting because it was them, Dean and Cas, Cas and Dean.  Everything about coming together like this felt just as inevitable as the moment when they would have to separate.

Without breaking eye contact, Cas lifted his hand and licked a broad stripe down his palm.

“Can I?” he said.

“Fuck, yes, please,” Dean breathed.  Then, “Fuck, Cas,” as Cas wrapped his hand around both of their erections.  Dean’s eyes rolled back, his head pushing back into the pillow, his teeth grazing over his plump bottom lip.  Cas stared.  Never in a million years had he thought he could have this, see Dean falling apart like this, just for him, even if it was only for a night.  The awe almost eclipsed the relief of friction against his own leaking cock.

That is, until Dean’s hand reached down and joined his in a sloppy and uncoordinated grip.  Cas moaned, his entire being shuddering with the callus-roughened touch, Dean’s and twisting just a little with every stroke.

“Shit,” Dean said, his body jerking under Cas’.  “Shit, you’re so hot, no poi- ah- no pointers needed.  Fuck.”

Cas bent down to capture the curse with his tongue, tasting the salted and bitter sweat lingering on Dean’s skin.  Their hands were out of sync, running into each other more often than not, and it was so good-  “Dean,” he breathed, his eyes closing without his permission.  He was on fire, pleasure coiled in his gut like the molten core of the earth, moving faster and faster toward the inevitable volcanic eruption.

They panted into each other’s mouths, too far gone to coordinate a kiss more complex than that.  Dean’s thump swiped across the head of Cas’ cock, smearing precome down both their lengths, picking up the speed while their hips snapped in instinctive movements.  The friction of Dean’s palm on him, his palm on Dean, their skin pressed sweat-slick together- shit Cas felt like he was about to burst, spine tingling with electricity.

“Dean,” he said, more urgently.  He mouthed at the skin of Dean’s jaw, breathed in the familiar smell of him.

“I’m close,” Dean babbled.  Cas could feel his lips grazing his cheek with every word, leaving trails of himself behind.  “Shit, Cas-

The spring-loaded pressure in Cas’ was built on a hair trigger, and maybe he should be embarrassed with how quickly he’d come to this point but in this moment all he cared about was Dean, Dean, Dean-

Fuck, Dean, I lo-” he began.  His orgasm took him by surprise, ripping through him right at the word he’d never be able to take back, a gut-punch of pleasure that bordered on pain in its intensity.  He groaned, waves of it overtaking him in sensation and sudden release, a fucking godsend after spending a week, years really, in Dean’s space but unable to reach out.

Dean came with a shout two strokes later, his face opening up so beautifully that Cas had to kiss him, even through his own post-orgasm haze.  Dean’s body curled tense beneath him as come streaked the space between their stomachs.  It was probably gross, the come and sweat and spit; Cas couldn’t bring himself to care, not when Dean collapsed onto the pillow, responding to the kiss sloppily.

“Mmmm,” Cas hummed, and dropped his head onto Dean’s chest.

They breathed in tandem and silence for a long time.  Everything felt soft, quiet.  A gentle breeze from the air conditioner.  A creak of the mattress when Dean shifted his weight.  Dean’s fingers tracing featherlight designs into Cas’ back.  The thump of Dean’s heartbeat in Cas’ ear.

“Wow,” Dean said.  He didn’t follow it with anything.  Cas understood anyway.  Just… wow.

He hummed again and lifted his head to rest his chin on Dean’s sternum.  “That was… unexpected,” he said.

Dean’s chest rumbled beneath him in a quiet laugh.  “Hey, you were the one who kissed me, remember?” Dean said.  His eyes were still a little dazed, his hands still trailing fire along Cas’ sides.  “If anyone gets to be surprised, it’s me.”

Cas raised his eyebrows.  He couldn’t really think why Dean would be surprised that they would fall into bed together eventually.  Dean was so sure of himself, so secure in his charms and good looks that if he’d given Cas the right kind of smile years ago, Cas would have dropped to his knees to worship him without a second thought.

A small, strange smile flitted across Dean’s face.  He trailed one of his hands up Cas’ bare back to cup his face, the same movement he’d made just a few hours ago that had shattered all of Cas’ defenses.  His hand was gentle as he guided Cas’ face to meet his, his lips even more so.  Cas sighed into the kiss.  He cradled the curve of Dean’s cheek with all the tenderness he could muster.

If he let his mind go blank, he could even pretend that this was the start of something new.

Chapter Text

3.

Dean felt the morning sun before he opened his eyes, far too warm right where the beam crossed his face.  He squeezed his eyes tightly together and burrowed further into the pillow and the mop of hair tickling his face.  The movement caused the man next to him to grumble and tangle his body closer to Dean’s.

It took Dean a moment to identify the feeling washing over him.  Happiness.

He opened his eyes slowly.  Cas’ face was only an inch or two away from his, close enough that all he could see was the smooth curve of his cheek, the gentle flutter of his eyelashes, the crinkle of his brow.  Dean smiled and pressed a gentle kiss to Cas’ forehead.

Cas mumbled something in his sleep and buried his head into the crook of Dean’s neck.  Dean chuckled.  He brushed his hand through Cas’ adorable bedhead, straightening the tangled strands and relishing the silky smoothness of them.  “Morning sunshine,” he murmured into Cas’ hair.  The smile on his face must look ridiculous, so wide and dopey that it hurt.

“Mph,” Cas said blearily.  “No sunshine.  Only sleeping.”

Dean continued carding his fingers through Cas’ hair.  “Really?  Not even if there’s coffee?”

Cas lifted his head, looking around the room eagerly.  After a quick glance revealed no caffeine to revive him, he glared at Dean.  “Liar,” he groused.  His voice, already deep and gravely, was even rougher than usual.  Warmth spread through Dean’s chest at the sound.

Dean grinned cheekily at him.  “I just wanted to see what would happen.”

The impact of Cas’ glare was softened by his eyes puffy with sleep.  “I’ve been betrayed,” he said.  He rolled over onto his other side so that his back was facing Dean.

“Aw, c’mon,” Dean said, still smiling.  He wasn’t sure he could stop at this point.  He leaned over Cas’ back, stroked his fingers teasingly up his side.  “You’re just so cute when you wake up, I couldn’t help it.”  He pressed a kiss onto Cas’ bare shoulder, reveling in the tiny shudder he felt travel up Cas’ spine.  He pressed another into that spot, and another, trailing them upwards until he reached Cas’ ear.  “Don’t be mad,” he murmured.  “I’ll make it up to you?”

Abrupt movement startled him, catching him in a whirlwind of skin and sheets until he was lying flat on his back with Cas pressing him down into the mattress.

Fuck yeah.

“You’re an ass, Dean Winchester,” Cas said, and dove down to capture his mouth.  Dean arched up into the kiss, suddenly much more awake than he’d been just a second ago, ready and rearing to go.  Even with morning breath marring the experience, it still ranked in the top ten kisses he’d ever had.

They made out for a while, lazy and uncoordinated despite their bodies’ interest.  Every movement felt syrupy and slow, muted by the growing summer heat, by the distance between them and their daily lives.

“Mm,” Cas hummed after a few minutes, pulling away.  “What time is it?”

Dean groped for his watch on the bedside table.  “Nine-thirty,” he said.  Huh.  He hadn’t slept in that long in years.  He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that the best night’s rest he’d gotten in his life was with Cas curled up by his side.

Cas hummed again, his expression contemplative.  “We should get going if we want to get back to Lawrence in time.”

Dean blinked.  “In time for what?” he asked.

Cas gave him an odd look, then reached over to grab Dean’s left hand.  No- his left wrist, where his timer was still ticking away, had never stopped ticking away.  Dean just hadn’t let himself think about it, too caught up in finally, finally having Cas close enough to hold.

One day, fourteen hours, twenty-eight minutes.

“Right,” he said weakly.

Cas didn’t get up right away.  Instead, he rested his head on Dean’s chest, toying with Dean’s fingers, tracing designs on the back of his hand, even grazing his fingers over Dean’s timer.  Dean’s breath hitched in his chest.  Surely Cas heard the half-sob from his position, but he didn’t say anything, just laced their fingers together and brought them to his lips.

They stayed like that for a long time.

(One day, fourteen hours, eleven minutes.)


Cas was surprised to find that the motel where they’d stayed was almost an hour away from the canyon.  He’d been so wrapped up in his thoughts the night before that he hadn’t noticed the passage of time; the realization shook him just a little.  One whole hour passed him by without him even realizing.

“Route 66, Cas!” Dean called, pointing excitedly at the road sign.  “Now that would have been the way to do a road trip.”

Cas avoided the obvious answer, that it would have taken even longer to get here, that maybe they never would have had this if they had taken the historic highway.  “But then we would’ve missed out on Bobby’s chili,” he pointed out instead.

Dean waved his hand dismissively, then wrapped it around Cas’ waist.  Cas fought the urge to close his eyes to savor the feeling.  “Oh well,” Dean said easily.  “Next time, I guess.”  They were standing close enough together that Cas could feel the shudder in Dean’s chest, but he didn’t mention it.  Dean wanted to pretend, and Cas- god help him, Cas wanted too, just for these last few hours.

They continued down the street.  It was a surprisingly cute town they’d ended up in, run-down motel aside.  Maybe a little overrun with gift shops, but there could be worse things.  At the very least there were plenty of cafes and restaurants to give Cas his necessary caffeine fix.

Cafes and restaurants that Dean was determinedly passing by, eyes on his phone.

“Dean, where are we going?” Cas asked, too tired to keep the petulance out of his voice.  If he went much longer without coffee, he couldn’t be held responsible for his actions, and Dean knew that.

“It should be- Ah!  There!”

He dragged Cas around the corner and toward a diner, which thankfully had COFFEE written in neon letters by the Open sign.  The Pine Country Diner didn’t look like anything special though, not even as good as some of the cafes they’d already passed-

Oh.  Cas laughed at the look on Dean’s face when they walked in and saw the display case.  It was his turn now to drag Dean toward a table and shove a menu into his hands.  He glanced down at his own and felt instantly overwhelmed.  The pie section was longer than the rest of the menu combined.

“I’m in heaven,” Dean mumbled, staring at the list of nearly fifty kinds of homemade pies.

Cas couldn’t help but let out a full belly laugh at Dean’s dazed expression.  Throwing caution to the wind, he leaned forward and wiped the corner of Dean’s mouth with his thumb.

(One day, thirteen hours, forty-two minutes.)


If Dean thought hard about it, he remembered making it back to Lawrence somehow.  The drive must have happened, somewhere in the haze of happiness and dread fogging up Dean’s consciousness.  Somewhere in between knocking knees against Cas’ in the pie diner; Cas putting an arm across the back of the bench seat of the Impala with his fingers brushing the nape of Dean’s neck; Cas laughing at Dean’s dumb jokes that not even he thought were funny; Cas arguing earnest and passionate about the state of the country’s national parks; in between kisses and held hands and warm looks caught at the edges of his vision.  It was a two day haul back, so for them to be passing signs for Lawrence at half-past eleven at night the drive must have happened somewhere.

He must have lost track of it, as much as he’d been hoarding what time he had left with every inch of his awareness.  They’d spent too long in tourist traps, got caught up in making out in the car at truck stops.  He should have tried to hold on, just a little bit harder.

But no, by the second day (the last day) it started to catch up to him- to both of them.  The change came with the shadows lengthening over Kansas highway signs, and just as insidiously.  He noticed it gradually, a quiet tension beginning to prickle under his skin.  It could have just been him, or maybe just Cas- or it was both of them, stuck in this godawful countdown with no way to get out of it.

The last hour of the drive was almost entirely silent.  Dean found himself glancing at Cas more often that was probably safe, but he couldn’t help it.  For his part, Cas never seemed to look away from the dark window.  Gone were the warm smiles from earlier, replaced by just the endless rushing of night beyond the road.  Even with the lingering summer heat, the air was laced with a deep chill.

They arrived in front of Cas’ apartment just a few minutes before midnight.  Wasn’t that some cosmic fucking timing right there.

He turned the key in the ignition.  The purr of the engine cut off abruptly, leaving them in complete silence.

Cas made no move to leave the car.  He sat, twisting his hands in his lap, brow crinkled like he wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words.  Dean watched him with his heart pounding somewhere in his throat- almost harder than when Cas had first kissed him.  God, it had only been two days ago, but it felt like a lifetime, and a snap of his fingers simultaneously.  Dean opened his mouth to speak- to say God knows what- but then.  The clock hit midnight with a quiet click.

The three long beeps of his timer were deafening.

Dean looked down at his wrist, at the timer implanted there thirteen years, five months, and seventeen days ago.  The familiar shape looked utterly strange in that moment.  The familiar spectrum of numbers had disappeared, leaving just zeros in their stead.  Zero years, zero months, zero days, zero hours, zero minutes.  Today was the day he would meet his One.

Cas let out a breath that shook just a little.  “So this is it,” he said, so quietly Dean almost couldn’t hear it.

Dean found that he couldn’t even do that much, his breath frozen in his chest.  How did he let this happen?  How could he have rushed into this, hurt himself- hurt Cas- like this?  Two days, when they could’ve have thirteen years, or nothing at all.  Either option would have been better than the miserable pittance they’d given themselves.  “Yeah,” Dean managed.  “I guess.”

They sat in silence for a moment longer, but then Cas was turning in his seat, his eyes wide and sincere and so, so kind that it broke Dean’s heart.  “I want you to know,” Cas said, “whatever happens, I will always be your friend.  Nothing can ever change that.”

Dean choked on a sob.  “Of course,” he said.  “Of course we’ll always be friends, that’s not- that’s not even a question.”  Anything else he wanted to say caught in his throat.

“Good,” Cas said, leaning back again.  The relief in his shoulders was clear, and Dean hated that it was his fault they’d ever been burdened in the first place.

“I’m so sorry, Cas,” he whispered.

Cas hesitated.  Then, with a sigh, he leaned over and brushed his lips against Dean’s.

“Don’t be,” he murmured.

Dean lifted his hand instinctively, reaching for Cas’ face, but Cas had already pulled away.  His hand dropped like a lead weight as Cas opened the door, stepped outside, pulled his duffle from the trunk.  Cas paused by the passenger window, bending down with his duffle over his shoulder with too many words and not enough time in his eyes.

Instead, he lifted his hand in silent farewell.  Dean mirrored him, and watched with his heart in his throat as Cas walked up the stairs to his apartment.

He waited there in his silent car for a long, long time.

Chapter Text

2.

It was six in the evening before Dean was forced to leave his apartment.  Even then, he dawdled in the hallway, picking at invisible specks of lint off his shirt, rubbing at the scuff marks on the wall from where the doorknob hit it, straightening the peephole cover only for it to fall crooked again.  None of his efforts to clean the hallway were successful- he’d already done everything he could to make the apartment spotless, and anything beyond that was a job for a professional cleaning crew.

He’d spent the day poking into corners that he hadn’t even known existed, dusted shelves and the ceiling and the air ducts, scrubbed the bathroom drains, fixed the loose wire that made his living room lights flicker.  He ordered pizza for lunch and passed the delivery guy a twenty without ever making eye contact.

But now, six hours later, he’d eaten the rest of the pizza, and his stomach was still growling.  He stared blankly at his empty pantry and fridge for a long time.  He’d thrown out most of his perishables before leaving with C- before the trip, and there hadn’t been much to begin with.

Leading him here, to the hall by his front door, toying with his keyring and wishing he could just stay inside.  But of course, it didn’t matter what he did anyway.  He could probably stay curled up in the back of his closet up to midnight and somehow, his One would find him before the day was done.  That was how it worked, right?  Destiny, or whatever.  There wasn’t any way to run away from it, or delay it, because no matter what you did it was only what you were supposed to do.

Fucking hell.

He sighed and yanked the door open.

The store was crowded, and loud.  He winced as the automatic doors slid open for him.  After spending the day alone in his apartment, it all felt like more than he could handle.

He maneuvered his way through the throngs of people with his eyes fixed on the ground.  Not that it would change anything, but…  Well.  He kept his gaze down anyway.  The path through the grocery store was familiar anyway, his feet taking him automatically down the cereal aisle, the dairy, then meats.  He grabbed what he needed without really looking at the labels, finding things through muscle memory alone and groping blindly when that failed him.  After stuffing a package of Italian sausage into his basket he paused, considering.  Cereal, eggs, milk, sausage, whiskey.  He could come back for anything else tomorrow, when it was less dangerous.

Decided, he spun around decisively to head to the self-checkout line.  If his luck held (as if luck had anything to do with it) he could make it out of the store without interacting with anyone at all.  Least of all-

One second he was walking normally; the next, he was falling flat on his ass, a pain in his stomach the only indicator that something had run into him, hard.

He hit the ground with an oof as all the air was knocked out of his chest.  His basket went flying- damn, the eggs- and littered the aisle with his pathetic haul.  Nearby, a woman’s voice scolded, “Ben!  Be careful!”

He blinked, trying to gather his bearings from where they were scattered with his groceries.  Looking up, he found a boy, maybe ten or eleven, staring at him with a sheepish expression and holding his head.  Ah.  The source of the collision then.  “Sorry,” the kid offered, about as sincere as any ten year old would be.

“Oh my god, are you alright?”  A woman rushed into his line of sight, holding the kid with a mother’s protective embrace and turning toward Dean.  “I’m so sorry, I told him not to run through the aisles-”

She looked up from her son just as Dean sat up.  He caught a glimpse of gorgeous dark hair and matching amber eyes, just before five long, loud beeps interrupted whatever she’d been about to say.

Their timers.

They gaped at each other, Dean and the stranger whose timer matched his.  Dean was still sitting on the cold linoleum floor, an ache in his spine from falling on his ass.  She was still half turned, her hands holding her son in half a protective gesture and half a grip to ground herself.  There was some kind of white noise surrounding them, picking up in the silence after their timers stop beeping.  It took Dean a second to realize that the shoppers around them had heard the timers as well, and were applauding in celebration.

The first person to move wasn’t Dean or the woman, but her son.  He tugged on his mother’s arm, excitement flashing across his face like wildfire.  “Mom!  Was that your timer, is he your One?”

She didn’t say anything, just looked down at Dean dazedly.  Abruptly, it occurred to Dean that maybe sitting in the middle of the baking aisle at Checkers Foods wasn’t the best first impression he could give.  He made to stand up.  She moved forward abruptly, holding out her hand to help him up.  Her skin was soft and lovely, and it made something twist in Dean’s stomach.  Shouldn’t there be sparks and a haze of happiness?  Shouldn’t this moment be as special as standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, not awkwardly meeting in a discount grocery story?

She dropped her hand as soon as he was on his feet.  He occupied himself with dusting off his jeans.  What were they even supposed to say to each other?

“Congratulations!” someone called from the crowd nearby.  He jumped and touched his timer.  They were definitely supposed to do something other than just stand here awkwardly, with her son looking between them in confusion and random strangers peeking into their private lives.

He cleared his throat and glanced at the woman- at his One.  She looked just as uncomfortable as he did, her dark eyes flicking between him, the crowd, and her son.  “So,” he said awkwardly.  He took a deep breath, digging deep inside himself to find his usual charming smile.  “I’m Dean.”

Her answering smile was hesitant, but it lit up her face beautifully.  “I’m Lisa, and this is my son Ben,” she said.

Dean swallowed.  There was a lump in his throat and a tremor in his hands.  He felt like he might be sick, or maybe just burst into tears.  He could already see that she was just his type, that this was the kind of meet-cute that they could tell grandkids about, and that thought made his stomach churn.

“Well, Lisa,” he said, keeping his tone light and jovial.  “Maybe we should get a cup of coffee sometime.”


Sam checked his hair in the mirror one last time.  It looked fine, just the same as it had the other ten times he’d tried ruffling it and adjusting it strand by strand.  Jess used to make fun of him, used to say he took longer to primp before a date than even she did.

Dammit.  He’d told himself he wouldn’t sit around thinking about Jess before his date with Jody.  Then again, maybe it was inevitable.

A knock on the door interrupted his musings, thankfully.  He glanced in the mirror again- still the same hair, why did he keep expecting it to be different?- and went to answer.  Nerves fluttered in his stomach.  Ridiculous, since their first date had gone so well, aside from the waitress thinking Jody was his mother.

“Hey,” he said as he opened the door.

Jody looked stunning even in jeans and a plaid over shirt, he noted as actual goddamn butterflies stirred in his chest.  “Hey,” she said, smiling and a little shy.  It gave him enough courage to lean forward and kiss her cheek, though his own cheeks were burning as he did it.

“Come on in.”

“Sorry this had to be a lunch date,” she said as she came inside.  “Cop hours don’t leave a whole lot of room for wining and dining, plus Alex has this thing later-”

She stopped short at the entrance to his living room.  He waited nervously in the middle of the room, next to the table he’d set up with a table cloth, some of Grandma Deanna’s nice silver, Benny’s famous jambalaya, and about two dozen candles- most of which were even still lit despite the gentle breeze from the window.

Jody just gaped at the set up for a while, long enough for Sam to start feeling self-conscious about it.  He was such a dumbass, she’d probably been expecting a nice restaurant or something, not a borrowed meal in his shitty apartment.  “I, uh,” he said awkwardly.  “I thought since we both have such hectic schedules, it might be nice to eat in for once.  We don’t have to, though!  It was just-”

She cut him off with a gentle kiss.  “It’s perfect, Sam, thank you.”

He smiled, probably dopey and ridiculous but he didn’t care.  “Don’t give me all the credit,” he said, pulling her chair out for her.  “I had to bribe a friend of my brother’s to cook all this for us.  I’ve been told I should stick to grilled cheese.”

That earned him a laugh, and eased his nerves just a little bit more.

His nerves dissipated entirely when they were both forced to chug nearly a gallon of water between them, courtesy of Benny’s cooking.

“Quick question,” Jody choked out.  “Does this friend of your brother’s happen to hate you?”

“He’s from Louisiana,” Sam said hoarsely.  “I think to him this is mild.”

They kept gulping down water, until Sam remembered the ice cream hidden in his freezer where Dean wouldn’t find it.  He didn’t bother portioning it out into bowls, just grabbed a few spoons and settled next to Jody on the couch where they could eat it directly from the carton.

After that, the conversation flowed easily between them.  They talked about their jobs, what it was like working in two different parts of the justice system, about juggling work with family, about what movies Sam had in his collection.

It was good.  It was different, but it was good.  Sam found himself smiling uncontrollably without any reason except that Jody was pretty and smart and witty, and she wasn’t Jessica but maybe, just maybe they could make something out of this anyway.

He kissed her in the middle of her sentence, something about thinking her doctor was a literal monster when she was coming down from anesthesia.  She kissed him back, and it didn’t feel like when he’d kissed Jess but it didn’t matter.  Kissing Jody was still something he didn’t want to stop doing.

They made out lazily for a while, Sam didn’t know how long.  A noise at the front door distracted him at one point, but then his hands were in Jody’s hair and it was much nicer to run his hands through the short strands than worry about it.

“Hey Sam, could you help with-”

Sam jumped in surprise- and, unfortunately, away from Jody’s lips- as his goddamn cockblocking brother stormed into the room.  Dean stopped in his tracks, frozen in the middle of a sentence and gaping like an idiot.  Sam probably wasn’t much better.  He felt about fourteen years old again, caught jacking off to an illicit Playboy- which was absurd, since they’d only been kissing.

The staring contest might have continued indefinitely, but thankfully, Jody had more spine than either of them.

“I think that’s my cue to leave,” she said wryly.  “I have to go pick Alex up from school anyway.”  She leaned forward and pecked Sam on the cheek.  “I’ll call you,” she murmured, just for him.  It sent a shiver down his spine that was completely inappropriate considering Dean was standing right fucking there.

“Okay,” he said, a little dazed.  “Talk to you later.”

She shot him a smile as she gathered up her purse from the floor.  When she reached Dean, she patted him on the elbow with a somewhat less intimate smile.  “Good to see you again, Dean,” she said.

“You too,” Dean said automatically.

The click of the door closing behind her was deafening.  It was just Sam and Dean in the room, and really Sam wished it could just be Dean in the room alone with Sam literally anywhere else.

Dean cleared his throat.  “So,” he said, horribly awkward and stilted.  “How do you know Jody?”

“Um.  She’s in that support group I mentioned.”

“Ah.”  Another minute of silence.  “She’s lost her One?”

Sam twisted his hands in his lap.  “Yeah, she has,” he said.

Dean nodded.  Then, in an abrupt twist into full-blown incredulity, “Jody?  Really, Sam?”

“What?” Sam snapped defensively.

Dean sputtered wordlessly, spreading his hands like that should convey everything he was thinking.  “She- she’s like a mom!” he managed finally, not that it clarified his point any further.

Sam raised his eyebrows at his brother.  “She’s only a few years older than me,” he said.  “And weren’t you telling me that your One has a son?  How is that any different?”

“That’s- it’s totally different!” Dean protested.  “She’s my One, the regular rules don’t apply.”

“‘Regular rules,’ really Dean?  What does that even mean?”

“It means that Jody isn’t your One, Sammy,” Dean snapped, making the switch from shock to anger.  “Seriously, what the hell are you doing?”

“Just because-”

“She’s not Jessica,” Dean said.  There was a finality to his voice that brought Sam up short, made his fist clench and his teeth worry at his lips.  “She’s never going to replace Jess, you know that.”

Sam swallowed and looked down.  “I know,” he said quietly.  “But- I don’t want to be alone the rest of my life, Dean.  Would you just give up, if it was you?”

From the corner of his eye he saw Dean’s posture soften just a little.  “Of course not,” Dean said.  “That’s not-  I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Then what did you mean?”

Dean rubbed a hand over his face, shifted his weight from side to side.  “I want to make sure you’re okay, that’s all,” he said finally.  “This just… isn’t going to end well.  It’s going to fall apart, that’s what it means when she’s not your One.”

“I don’t care,” Sam snapped.  “I don’t have the luxury that you do, Dean.  I can’t sit around waiting for my One to show up in some meet cute at a grocery story because my One is gone, and all I can do is keep moving forward.  If it ends badly, then it ends badly, but in the meantime I’m going to give it all I’ve got.  Jess might have been my One, but who’s to say that Jody can’t be just as important to me?”

“That’s not how it works, Sam.”

“Oh?  And you’re the expert then?” Sam said.  He was treading into dangerous territory, he knew that, but he didn’t want to stand and listen to Dean berate him for this just because Dean was too much of a coward to take his own step forward.  “You only met your One yesterday, and you’ve been letting Cas pine after you for how many years now without doing a damn thing about it?  Maybe you just want ‘the One’ to mean one-and-only because then it means you don’t have to deal with your own crap.”

Dean opened and closed his mouth a few times without any sound coming out.  Sam felt himself deflate a little at the look on Dean’s face, but he couldn’t bring himself to regret what he’d said.  God knows Dean gave him enough crap without ever sorting out his own.

“I don’t know if this is going to last with Jody,” he said more quietly.  “I’m just doing the best I can to be happy.  Could you just… respect that?  Please?”

Dean swallowed, took a deep breath, and finally nodded curtly.  “Yeah, I-” he started, the sighed.  “That’s all I want, you know that,” he said.  “I want you to be happy.”

Sam settled back into the couch cushion, relieved.  It wasn’t the end of it: he could see by Dean’s expression his reluctance and disbelief- but maybe now it was directed at himself, and whatever fucked up situation he’d gotten himself into.

One could only hope.

Chapter Text

1.

The cafe was loud with the hiss of steaming milk and grumble of grinding coffee, not to mention the continuous murmur of voices and the occasional childish shriek.  The noise was good, actually.  It distracted Dean from the mess of thoughts stewing in his head that were two seconds away from a full-blown panic.

He rubbed at his temple and sighed.  It was just because it was his first date with Lisa, he told himself.  Anyone would be nervous about seeing the love of their life, and that’s all this was.  The jitter in his knee had nothing to do with what Sam had said a few hours ago, or the text he’d sent late last night and then immediately regretted.  It definitely had nothing to do with the black hole in his chest that had formed the second Cas walked away from him two days ago.

His phone buzzed in his pocket, startling him out of his downward spiral of panic.  He wondered if Lisa was having trouble finding the place as he wrestled it out of his date-night jeans- too tight, which was probably what made his ass look so great in them.  There were seven Starbucks’ all within Lawrence city limits, plus however many independent cafes were on this block alone, and he couldn’t remember how specific he’d been when they made plans to meet up.

He paused when he finally freed his phone.  The text wasn’t from Lisa after all.  It was from Cas.

What’s her name? it read, in a belated answer to the text Dean had sent last night.  Dean was surprised Cas had answered at all.  If the situation was reversed, he probably wouldn’t have.

He toyed with his phone for a moment before unlocking it.  Lisa Braeden, she’s a yoga instructor @ some froufy place on Mass. St.

Cas answered immediately.  Dean pretended he wasn’t overjoyed that he did.  Ha, that’s probably karma for your anti-exercise agenda.

Dean snorted unattractively.  He was halfway through typing a comeback when another text came through.  When are you seeing her again? Cas asked.

Waiting at Starbucks to meet her right now, actually.

The bottom dropped out of his stomach at Cas’ next text.  Good luck! it read, with a handful of thumbs-up and smiling emojis.

Fuck.  He shouldn’t be disappointed at that.

He was still staring at the text message when he heard Lisa’s voice.  “Dean, I’m so sorry I’m late,” she said.

He nearly dropped his phone as he got to his feet.  Lisa looked unfairly gorgeous even though she’d obviously just come from teaching a class- not that yoga pants were a bad look on anyone, really, but on someone so athletic and classically beautiful…  Dean swallowed.

“It’s totally cool,” he said, pulling out a chair for her.  He cleared his throat.  “What, uh, what can I order for you?”

“I’m fine, I have my water,” she said.

With a deep breath, he shot her his most charming smile, the one that’s gotten girls and guys to jump into his bed with an almost a hundred percent success rate.  “Seriously, let me buy you something, make me feel useful,” he said.

The drink she asked for turned out to be some cinnamon sugar latte thing that he couldn’t even pronounce at the counter, and had to resort to pointing at the promotional sign behind the barista’s head to make his order understood.  He stuck to his black coffee himself, but- well, Lisa’s drink smelled fucking heavenly, if he was being honest.

Lisa accepted her drink with a smile and a toss of her hair, which added the scent of her delicate perfume to the smell of the cinnamon latte.  She took a sip and sighs in appreciation.  “So,” she said, eyeing him.  “You’re a mechanic, you mentioned?  Think you could do my oil change for me?”

Dean liked the twinkle of humor in her eyes, the smile playing on her lips- but half his attention was drawn like a magnet to his phone, on the new text from Cas.

I’m so glad you found your One.

He shoved his phone back into his pocket with more force than necessary, and took a generous sip of his scalding coffee.  “It depends,” he said, smiling at Lisa, his date.  “Are you the kind of yoga instructor that drives a prius?  Because that’s a deal breaker right there.”

“A 2016 Dodge Challenger, actually,” she said.  “Classic look, modern safety features.”

Dean raised his eyebrows.  Of all the modern cars around, he probably hated that one the least.  “My kind of woman,” he joked.

She smiled and took another sip of her latte.  The movement of her hands meant that the light caught on her timer, on the twelve zeros that matched his own.  He glanced down at his wrist, and was somehow surprised that there weren’t still numbers counting down to some inevitable fate.

He’d never really given much thought to what would happen after his timer went off.  All the ads made it seem like it would be love at first sight, that your problems would magically disappear as soon as the clock hit zero- but he’d known it wouldn’t be like that, had seen Sam agonize over what he was supposed to talk about with Jessica.

Really, he’d been avoiding thinking about it, and now it was biting him in the ass.

Belatedly, he realized he hadn’t said anything in a few minutes, and neither had she.  They were both just sitting there awkwardly, with nothing in common except for this stupid implant on their wrists, and no way to break the ice.  Dean tried to think back on other dates he’d been on, tried to remember what the hell he’d talked about with virtual strangers.  He must have been good at this at some point, but his mind was completely blank on possibilities.

All he could think of was Cas’ smile as he looked out over the Grand Canyon.

Lisa shifted in her seat, toying with her necklace.  Eventually, she let out a little huff of a laugh, and smiled at him ruefully.  “This is awkward,” she said.

All the breath in Dean’s lungs left in a whoosh.  He let his head sag down.  He could’ve sworn he was good at dating, at some point in his life.  “Yeah, it is,” he said.

She set her latte aside in a decisive motion.  He looked back up at her, surprised at the sudden serious expression on her face.  “Look, Dean,” she said, meeting his eyes with a disarming frankness.  “I’m going to be totally honest with you, because if you can’t be honest with your One then what’s the point?”

“Sure,” he said, a shiver of trepidation making him lock his hands together.  He remembered sitting in Cas’ kitchen in what felt like a lifetime ago, wondering out loud if his One wouldn’t like him.  It was completely nonsensical, and yet the same anxiety stirred in his stomach to join the rest of his nerves.

“I’m sure you’re a great guy,” Lisa said.  They hadn’t even started dating, and yet somehow he felt like he was being broken up with.  Ridiculous.  “We’ve been talking for what, five minutes?  And I can already see how we fit together, and I think there might be something to this whole timer thing after all.”

He blinked.  Not what he was expecting.  He refused to feel disappointed that she seemed to be into him.

“But,” she said, leaning forward, “I need you to understand right now.  You might be my One, but my son Ben is my everything.  If you really want to try this, then you need to be ready to fully commit to both of us, or else this isn’t going to work.  You need to know that my family is always going to come first, no matter what our timers say.”

She sat back in her seat again, looking nervous but determined and Dean respected the hell out of that.  He could see it, too, all the ways that they fit together.  He could see how he might fall in love with her passion and bluntness and dry sense of humor and her dedication to family- except he already knew someone who fit that bill, didn’t he.

It was his turn to laugh humorlessly.  “Life’s more complicated than those ads make it seem, huh,” he said.  He looked down at his hands and smiled ruefully.  “I guess… I’ll be honest with you too, and just hope that you don’t hate me for this.  The truth is, Lisa, I was dreading this.  This, uh, this date, meeting you in general, all of it.  And it’s… it’s not because the bachelor life is so great, because it really isn’t.  It pretty much sucks, actually.”  That earned him a quiet chuckle, and it gave him the courage to meet her eyes again.  “I was dreading it because there’s someone in my life, too,” he told her.  “He’s, um, he’s my best friend, and the truth- the truth is I’ve been in love with him since I was seventeen years old.”

There it was, his deepest, darkest secret, out in the open by his own goddamn admission.  He was in love with Cas.  Had always been in love with Cas, ever since they first sat next to each other in English class and Cas had offered to share his notes to help Dean catch up.  Had only gotten this damn timer in the first place because he’d been hoping, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he’d meet Cas’ eyes and it would beep, telling him that they were meant for each other.  When it hadn’t, when Cas’ timer had stayed blank and his had started counting down to this very moment, he’d told himself he’d never tell anyone how he felt.  Not even when those feelings only got stronger over time, grew roots into his heart that would be impossible to untangle without killing him.

He took a deep breath.  The words were out there; nothing he said could take them back.  “I don’t want to start something with you and have that hanging over us,” he continued quietly.  “It wouldn’t be fair to you or to Ben.  God knows I understand how important it is to be there for your family first.”

Her face was carefully blank, as she listened.  He couldn’t tell if she was disappointed or relieved, but in a way it didn’t matter.  She’d wanted the truth, and now that it was out there he felt, if not lighter, at least a little bit less despairing about the whole situation.

“So,” she said, nodding and looking down.

“So,” he said.

Abruptly, she smiled, not quite happily but not without a touch of relief.  She reached out to touch his arm.  “Thank you,” she said gently.  “I appreciate you telling me.”

Dean nodded, the tension finally leaking out of his shoulders.  As it left him, the enormity of what he just did hit him with all the force of a goddamn train.  He’d just turned down his One, on the off chance that maybe, just maybe…

His heart started pounding.  This time it wasn’t from nerves, but anticipation and hope.  Hope that maybe, just maybe, he didn’t have to follow the script he’d been given.  That maybe he could chase what made him happy, and say screw you to anyone who said differently.

“And you know, maybe this won’t be the end of it, you know?” Lisa continued.  “Maybe when the timing is better for both of us, we’ll cross paths again.  We are fated to be together, after all.”

A grin spread across Dean’s face.  He felt like he was buzzing with adrenaline, faced with a future where he didn’t know what was going to happen but sure as hell wanted to find out.  “Sorry, Lis, but you shouldn’t hold your breath for that,” he said, pushing his chair out from the table.  “I’m making my own way from here.”

She smiled at him, genuine and kind.  “Go get him,” she said.

“I will,” Dean said.  On impulse he gathered her into a hug.  “Goodbye Lisa.”

He didn’t look back as he left the cafe, occupied with pulling his phone out of his pocket.  He had an appointment to make, and a future to rewrite.


It took Cas a long time, way too long, to realize that the persistent knocking throbbing in his ears wasn’t just his heartbeat.  It took him even longer to realize that the someone was knocking on his front door, and thus creating noise.  After another minute, another few shallow breaths, another dozen slow blinks, he thought maybe he should do something about the knocking.

He stood slowly, his muscles creaking like an old man’s.  Had he somehow aged ten years in the past two hours?  But no, not ten years, because otherwise he would have already missed it, missed finding out if this was all worth it-

The door.  Right.

He set down the mug he hadn’t remembered he was holding- it was stone cold to the touch, but it must have held hot liquid at some point.  The space between his kitchen and the door seemed endless.  Somehow he managed to cross it, even if it took him two whole lifetimes, and he wasn’t sure what was happening to time but he was certain it was supposed to move more slowly, or more quickly, or something.

He blinked at the door suddenly right in front of him.  The knocking, he’d gotten up to make the knocking stop.  He reached out and opened the door.

Dean Winchester smiled at him from the other side.

“What?” Cas said stupidly.

Dean’s smile wavered a little bit.  His eyes darted around the landing in front of Cas’ apartment.  “Can I come in?” he asked, rubbing the back of his neck.

Cas stepped aside wordlessly, staring as Dean edged into his apartment almost shyly.  He couldn’t remember the last time Dean had knocked instead of just barging in.  He wasn’t sure if it had ever happened.

Idly, he wondered if maybe he’d hit his head earlier today.  It would explain the bizarre twists and turns his day had taken, not to mention the strange rush and syrupy slow movement of time.

Dean brushed against him briefly as he passed by.  Cas’ eyes slid shut involuntarily at the feeling.  He retrained himself from reaching out, from holding onto Dean and never letting go.  Dean had found his One, and Cas…  Well.

“What’s going on?” he asked Dean instead.

Something wasn’t right.  Dean was being uncharacteristically quiet.  He fidgeted almost as much as he had the day they’d left on their road trip, rubbing his mouth, pacing a little, his eyes bouncing all over the place.  Cas watched him warily, his heart sinking from where it was already wallowing in his stomach, all the way down to the floor.  Dean was going to say it was too awkward for them to be friends after what happened.  He was going to tell Cas about how amazing his One is, how she was everything that Cas wasn’t, that he regretted their night together now that he knew what it was supposed to feel like.

He wondered if this was what it felt like to have a stroke.

“Dean?” he said.

Dean stopped pacing.  He clenched his jaw, determination flashing across his face- and then suddenly he was striding toward Cas, his hands were cupping Cas’ jaw, and his lips were capturing Cas’ in a fierce and possessive kiss.

What?

Cas barely registered the thought before his mind went blissfully, gloriously blank.  Dean’s kiss was hard and passionate, and yet somehow so tender that it made Cas’ heart melt.  He couldn’t breathe, his heart was pounding its way right out of his chest, his hands shaking as he reached up to cover Dean’s fingers on his face.

Dean only pulled away from the searing kiss by a hair.  Every inch of Cas screamed at him to chase after Dean’s lips- but he stood frozen, caught in a haze of confusion that had only gotten worse when Dean started knocking on his door.

“Dean?” he whispered again.

Dean brushed their lips together again, so gently it was barely a touch before he pulled away again.  He laughed a little against Cas’ lips.  “I had a whole speech planned out,” he murmured.  “I guess I’m not very good at that part.”

Cas closed his eyes, struggling to not fall apart.  He pulled away, but he couldn’t move his hands from where they’d drifted to clasp Dean’s wrists.  “I don’t understand,” he said.

Dean tilted Cas’ head up, forcing him to meet Dean’s impossibly green eyes.  “I’m so sorry,” he said.  “I’m such an idiot, Cas, I never should have let you walk away.”

Nothing Dean said was helping him to understand.  It was nonsense, like dream words strung together by the loosest kind of logic.  “You had to find your One,” Cas said.  That part he knew.  There was a reason, a good one, for why Dean let him go.  So why was Dean apologizing?

“That’s just it, Cas,” Dean said, shaking his head.  His expression was desperate and happy all at once, manic like a man at the end of his rope.  “I didn’t have to find my One, I didn’t, it’s all bullshit.  You were right all along, about your dad and how none of this timer shit means anything.  It took me a long time to figure it out, way too long and I’m sorry that it did- but I don’t want some stranger as my soulmate.  I want to be with someone who knows me, all of me, who puts up with my crap but doesn’t let me get away with it, someone who will drop everything and come with me on a road trip at the drop of a hat-”

He kissed Cas again, almost like he was trying to stop the river of words coming out of his mouth.  Cas barely had a chance to react before Dean was moving away again.  “If I’m destined to spend my life with Lisa, then I say screw destiny,” Dean said.  “I love you, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

Dean’s hands were warm on Cas’ face.  His breath mingled with Cas’ own, and his eyes were pleading, imploring.  In the silence after his declaration, Cas could hear every single one of Dean’s heartbeats as well as his own.

Dean eased back just a little bit more, some of the eagerness in his expression melting away into something less pleasant.  “I- I mean, if you want to,” he said, the uncertainty quickly overtaking the manic excitement.  “Anything you want, Cas.”

All that Cas could do was stare at him.  At Dean, beautiful Dean, pouring his heart out as if any of this made sense.  As if any of it was possible.  He couldn’t move past it, go from hearing to processing to understanding to speaking.  It was all just white noise.

“Cas?” Dean said.  He took a step back, and another.  A blush spread across his cheeks, to his ears and down his neck.  “Could you- say something, please.”

He rubbed the back of his neck again, and that was when Cas saw what he’d been missing.

Cas grabbed Dean’s arm before Dean could react and stared at the newly made incision on his wrist.  The incision where just yesterday his timer had been.  “Dean, what did you do?”

Dean took his arm back, touching the incision gently.  “I-”

What did you do?” Cas said again, panic bubbling in his throat.  No, no, no, this could not be happening.  Dean couldn’t have done this, not for him, it didn’t make any sense, none of this was even possible.  “What about Lisa?  What- her timer is blank now, she waited all for all this time and now you’ve gone and done this to her-”

Dean’s hands on his shoulders were a comforting weight, evening his breath from close to hyperventilation to something more reasonable.  “Cas, breathe,” he said.  “It’s fine, Cas.  Lisa and I talked about this, and neither one of us wanted to be together.”

Cas shook his head, uncomprehending.  The room spun around him, and his eyes stung like he’d tried to keep them open in a gale force wind.  “I- that’s not- it doesn’t work like that, you can’t just choose, it’s- I don’t-”

Dean pulled him forward, into the circle of his arms.  His hands rubbed soothing circles on Cas’ back, familiar enough that Cas could breathe again.  “It’s okay,” Dean murmured.  “We’re both okay, trust me.”  He paused, his comforting touch slowing until it stopped altogether.  He moved away, just enough to look into Cas’ eyes again with a worried frown.  “Do you… you don’t want this, do you?”

“I-” Cas choked.  He couldn’t force the rest of the words out.

Because the truth was, he did want this.  Whatever nonsense this was, he wanted it desperately.  He’d wanted Dean in his arms, saying those things, for so long that he couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t dreamed of it- even though he must have had other dreams, once, before he and Dean ever met.  He wanted to wake up in Dean’s arms every morning and fall asleep with him every night.  He wanted all the bickering and the laughter and everything in between.  God help him, he wanted the rest of his life with Dean, timers be damned.

“I can’t,” he managed.  “I can’t do that to them, I just can’t.”

Dean took another step back, swallowed like it was painful.  “Lisa is okay with this, I promise, she wanted this as much as I…”  He trailed off, his eyes widening.  ‘Wait, what do you mean, ‘them?’”

Cas didn’t answer, just looked down at the floor.  There was a chip on the tile, he noted dully.

Cas, what do you mean?”

He took a deep breath and rolled up his left sleeve in answer.  There, on his wrist, where for so long he’d had just a useless, blank timer, was now a countdown.  One year, two months, seven days.

Dean moved away, beyond Cas’ reach, when Cas hadn’t even been the one reaching.

“When?” Dean asked hoarsely.

“A few hours ago.”

Dean was silent for a moment.  Cas kept staring at the chip in the tile.  He couldn’t bring himself to look up, to see the expression on Dean’s face.

“Were you planning on telling me?” Dean said finally.

That made Cas smile, a small sickly thing that disappeared quickly.  “I didn’t want to interrupt your date,” he said.

He took a deep breath to steel himself, then looked up to meet Dean’s eyes.  He couldn’t help but flinch at the open hurt and betrayal scrawled across Dean’s face, but he had to do this.  He had to.  “I can’t let this person down, whoever they are,” he said.  “I can’t let them lose their chance at a soulmate, I just can’t do that to them.  If I took this out, they’ll think I died, or that nobody is ever going to love them- and that’s the worst feeling in the world, Dean, you have no idea.”

Dean just stared at him.  As speechless as Cas had been just a few minutes ago.  He looked so crushed, and Cas couldn’t bear it, couldn’t stand to be the one hurting Dean.  He crossed the new distance between them, lifted his hand to Dean’s cheek.  “I do love you, Dean Winchester,” he confessed, so quiet and mournful that it was as if the words never even existed.

Dean flinched away from him all the same.  “Not enough, I guess,” he spat.

He brushed past Cas roughly, and Cas let him go without a fight, without reaching for him the way he so desperately wanted to.  It was the right thing to do, he told himself.

Dean paused in the doorway without turning around.  Cas waited for him to speak, to say something angry and reactive, or desperate and loving- but nothing came.  Dean left without another word, not even bothering to close the door behind him.

Cas sank down to the floor and stared at the empty spaces Dean left behind.

Chapter Text

0.

Cas shifted his weight in the trendy but ridiculously shaped chair, trying to find a more comfortable position.  Everything in here was uncomfortable- the chairs, the sleek architecture, the portrait of his father looking over the lobby with a benevolent grin in neon colors.

He leaned forward a little to catch the receptionist’s eye, to ask her how much longer.  Except she was so focused on her phone that he honestly wouldn’t be surprised if she was staring at the nuclear launch codes and wondering what to do with them.  He sighed and got to his feet.  This was stupid anyway.  He didn’t even really know why he’d come here.  It was better for everyone if he left before Chuck saw him, went back to his apartment to curl on his bed the way he’d been doing for the past three days.

He was almost out of the room when his father’s voice echoed from the very hallway he was aiming for.

“-and you said you didn’t care, Bec,” Chuck was saying.  “Communication is the- yes I’m quoting my own company, it just so happens that we’re the best of the best when it comes to-”

Chuck came around the corner and stopped dead.  Cas met his eyes stubbornly, noting that the years had been kind to him- just a few more wrinkles here and there, his hair now grey mixed with brown rather than the other way around.

“Honey, I’m going to have to call you back,” Chuck said into his phone.  “Something’s come up- yes, really- I’ll talk to you later, bye.”  He hung up decisively, even though Cas could hear Chuck’s wife still talking through the tinny speaker.  “Jimmy!” Chuck said with a warm smile.

“Castiel,” Cas said through the clench in his jaw.  If Chuck had paid any attention over the years he would be able to tell the two of them apart- everyone else could, after all.  He wondered if Chuck even knew that Cas and Jimmy were fraternal twins, not identical, or if he just assumed they were exactly the same to make it easier on himself.

Chuck waved a hand dismissively.  “One of the two, anyway,” he laughed.  He tucked his phone away and grabbed Cas in a hug.  “What a nice surprise!”

Cas patted Chuck’s arm, not willing to actually return the- false- affection.  “Father,” he said stiffly.

Chuck grinned and bumped Cas’ chin like he used to when he was five.  “Why so formal?” he said.  “C’mon, let’s go back to my office and catch up.”

Cas barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes as he followed him into the offices of The One Inc.

‘Office’ turned out to be a misleading term for what was apparently a full bar, well stocked with booze and too many booths considering it was completely empty.  One end of the room was even raised into a little stage with a mic and Chuck’s beaten up guitar propped up beside it.  Chuck went straight to the bar and grabbed a glass from under the counter, then proceeded to do the worst beer pour on tap that Cas had ever seen.

“Beer?” Chuck asked.

“No thank you.”

Chuck shrugged and made his way over to one of the booths.  It apparently served as his desk, judging by the computer set up there, and the framed photo of him and his wife.  There weren’t any pictures of his children anywhere to be seen.

“So,” Chuck said as Cas sat down across from him.  “What brings you here after avoiding me for three years?”

Cas ground his teeth.  “As I recall, you were the one who avoided us for the ten years before that,” he said despite himself.

Chuck turned the glass slowly on the table, looking at his son with a thoughtful expression.  “If that’s how you want to see it,” he said with another shrug.  He took a sip of his beer, as if none of this mattered to him one way or the other.

Cas forced himself to relax before he snapped and got them lost down the wrong track.  “That’s not why I’m here,” he said.  He sighed and extended his arm to reveal his timer.

Chuck’s nonchalant expression broke into a smile.  He grabbed Cas’ arm to read his timer better.  “It started counting down, that’s fantastic!” he said.  “When did that happen?”

“Three days ago,” Cas said.  He took his arm back, not roughly but not particularly gentle about it either.

Chuck eyed his expression.  “I take it you didn’t come here just to show me that,” he said carefully.

“No,” Cas said, but then didn’t know how to continue.  He barely knew his father, didn’t even know how to hold a conversation with him.  He was starting to wish he’d taken Chuck up on the beer.  He took a deep breath to settle himself.  “Do you ever… regret it?” he asked finally.  “The way things ended with mother, I mean.  With us.”

Chuck considered that for a moment.  He was still watching Cas with a calculating look in his eyes, despite all the supposed joviality in his attitude.  It was how it always was with him.  “No, I don’t,” he said after a moment.

Cas nodded and rubbed at the skin around his timer.  He hadn’t expected anything else.  “But if…  Say you’d never created the timer.  Do you think you might’ve… tried harder, to make it work?”

No.”  The word was sharp and abrupt.  Cas flinched at the absolute refusal.  But there was something else in Chuck’s expression, not just dismissal but also fear.

Chuck took a deep breath and pasted a benevolent smile on his face, a perfect match for the one in his portrait.  “It’s the timer, Castiel, not a magic eight ball.  You’re mother and I weren’t soulmates, Bec and I are.  End of story.”

Cas stared at him, trying to parse the buried meaning in his expression.  Because it wasn’t the end of the story.  He knew that much from his own personal experiences.  Soulmates didn’t always last a whole lifetime- like Sam and Jess, her death leaving him heartbroken but still able to continue living.  Soulmates weren’t the only people you could ever love- like Bobby, like Ellen, like…  Like Dean.

“You loved her,” he said quietly.  It wasn’t a question.

Something in Chuck’s eyes snapped.  “Of course I loved her!” he said, almost shouting.  “She’s beautiful and smart and tough, of course I loved her!  But do you really think that I could ignore my timer?  You wanted me, the CEO of The One Inc., the inventor of the timer, ignore my own One when she came along?”

Cas clenched his fist, frustration bubbling up in his throat.  “That’s not what I’m talking about- can you just forget about the goddamn company for five seconds?”

Chuck sighed.  “What do you want me to say, then?” he asked.  “That I wish I could have stayed with her- with you?  That I still think about the life we could have had as a family?  Okay, fine- I do.  Life isn’t picture perfect with Bec any more than it was with your mother.  But we’re meant to be, and that’s what matters.”

“But-”

“She’s my One, Castiel, you understand-”

“But what if there isn’t just one?” Cas shouted.

The bar fell silent.

Cas’ chest was heaving like he’d just run a marathon, his hands shaking with anger and sudden understanding.  It was like the clouds that had been hanging over him for the past few days- the past few years- were finally beginning to clear.  He felt like now, for the first time in his life, he was able to see the full picture, not just the glimpses he’d been given in the past, not just the image his father projected to the public.  For the first time, he saw Chuck not as a petty god, but a human clinging to a belief, because not believing meant letting the past overwhelm him with regret.

He looked down at his timer, still counting down to some point in the future, when he’d meet a stranger who would be compatible with him.  A sense of peace washed over him, the most peace he’d had since the day he found out about his parent’s divorce.  Life was messy, love even messier, but that was okay.  It was all okay.

He got to his feet, pausing at the end of the booth.  He laid a hand on the table in front of Chuck.  “Goodbye,” he said.

Chuck didn’t say anything at all as Cas left the room.


Cas’ knee bounced with his nerves, shaking the half-rotted park bench distressingly, but he couldn’t help himself.  His fingers picked absently at the peeling paint, picked up splinters that he barely felt.  He shaded his eyes to see the auto shop across the street through the rays of the sunset, and checked his watch.  Six twenty-eight.  They should have closed half an hour ago.

He scratched at the paint and watched the disappearing sunlight.

Finally, the door to the auto shop opened to reveal Gordon and Benny arguing about something as they left.  Cas swallowed and leaped to his feet.  Any second now-

Dean emerged from the shop more slowly, stony-faced and tired.  Cas’ breath caught in his throat.  Dean looked like he’d been ill; it made Cas feel sick himself to think that he’d been the cause.

He waited until Gordon and Benny disappeared around the corner before hurrying across the street.  “Dean!”

Dean’s slow steps faltered, and then sped up.  He didn’t look up, doing a credible impression of someone who didn’t know Cas was chasing after him, except for the near jog he broke into.

Cas ran to catch up.  Dean didn’t look at him even as he came up level with him.  “Dean wait, please,” he said.  He grabbed Dean’s arm to stop him.  He kept his hold loose enough that if Dean really wanted to break free, to run away forever, he could do it it.

Dean stopped.  He still wouldn’t meet Cas’ eyes, but he stopped.  “Hey Cas,” he said.

The air rushed out of Cas’ lungs at the sound of Dean’s voice, the blunt pain dulling it.  “Dean,” he said weakly, as if just Dean’s name could express at the things he needed to say.  He rallied himself with a deep breath.  He could do this.  “Dean, I’m sorry.”

Dean still wasn’t looking at him.  “Sorry for what?” he asked.  His voice was so flat that it almost didn’t sound like a question.

“I hurt you, I never wanted- Dean, please look at me,” Cas said, desperate.  He regretted it immediately when Dean looked up at him, his eyes carefully blank.  He flinched.

“No worries,” Dean said, falsely cheerful.  “All you did was crush the guy spilling his guts for you, but hey, what’s a little rejection between friends?”  He tugged his arm back from Cas’ numb fingers.  “Now, if you’ll excuse me-”

“Please, Dean, listen to me,” Cas said.

Dean started walking again, waving goodbye like he hadn’t a care in the world.  Cas gritted his teeth and caught up to him again, walking backwards in front of him when Dean neglected to stop.  “If you won’t listen, then just look,” he snapped.

He held up his left wrist, and Dean stopped in his tracks.

“Cas?” Dean whispered, his eyes wide and his expression vulnerable.

Cas looked at his wrist.  The removal had hurt more than it did to implant the timer in the first place.  The employees weren’t nearly as accommodating and friendly as they’d been when he was eighteen, either.  It had taken all of his stubbornness and talking to three different managers, each higher ranking than the last, to get him to this point, the managers asking him thousands of times if he was sure, if he knew that he’d never be able to get another timer, if he was really sure about this.  He’d almost laughed at them.  This was the best decision he’d ever made in his life.

“What- when-” Dean stammered, still staring at Cas’ empty wrist.

“I went to see my father yesterday,” Cas said.  Dean looked up at him then, meeting his eyes fully for the first time today.  “I told myself I wanted to show him that my timer was finally counting down.  But really, I wanted to ask about my mother.  I wanted to know what makes one person a soulmate, and another person worth leaving- but then, while were talking, I realized something.”  He took a step closer, his heart pounding in his throat.  “All of this, it’s not some glimpse of the divine plan,” he continued.  “Or if it is, it’s been warped and ruined by my father so that he could turn it into something worth selling.  People were falling in love and finding happiness for thousands of years before timers came along, and they’ll keep doing it thousands of years after timers fall by the wayside.”

Dean swallowed visibly.  He had all the right in the world to push Cas away again now, instead of looking at him with growing hope in his eyes.  But this was them, Dean and Cas against the world.  It’s what they’d always been, as friends and as lovers.  And Cas didn’t want it any other way.

“So what is it you figured out?” Dean asked, quiet and breathy.

In answer, Cas leaned in and kissed him, chaste and sweet.

Their lips only pressed together for a second before he pulled away again.  Dean looked stunned, eyes searching Cas’ face like he couldn’t quite believe what was happening.  Cas smiled at him.  “Dean Winchester,” he whispered.  “Would you like to say fuck it to destiny, and let me spend the rest of my-”

He didn’t get to finish his sentence.  His lips were too occupied with Dean’s passionate kiss, Dean’s arms wrapping securely around him, their breath intermingling.  He smiled into the kiss, happiness bubbling out of him and surrounding the two of them in their own little pocket of time.

No, not a pocket of time.  Time didn’t matter anymore, not when they were connected together by something more important than fate.  They had all the time in the world, now.