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In Castiel’s experience, public schools were very bleak, and it seemed Garrison High School was no exception. Castiel had attended private schools all his life, and he was used to wood floors and soft lighting and new textbooks. At the very least, he was used to a building where everything was in functioning order, where his windowsill didn’t leak when it rained or where the fluorescent lights didn’t flicker haphazardly for the first twenty minutes after he turned them on.

His classroom was white-bricked and very ugly, and he had little in the way of decorations to brighten the place up. The teacher who had held this classroom before him had left little but a single magnet with a red tulip on it stuck to the cold, gray filing cabinet by his new desk in the corner. When he got closer, he could see that it read, “They may forget what you said, but they will not forget how you made them feel,” in flowery script. He wasn’t really sure he understood what it meant, but he didn’t remove it.

At the front of the room, there was a big tube television on a rolling cart. There was a whiteboard—at least he wouldn’t have to breathe clouds of chalk dust all day—and three markers. In the middle of the room on the worn old carpet, there were five rows of six mismatched desks. He’d been told that he might need more, which was alarming, because he couldn’t really conceive of controlling a class of ten students, much less more than thirty, but he was aware that over-crowding was a problem in public schools, and he’d been aware when he’d accepted the position.

Class was not yet in session, and the halls outside were empty of students. Every once in a while, another teacher would crane their neck curiously as they walked by his classroom. No one stopped to say hello, and it wasn’t as if he’d had any sort of new teacher orientation, so he felt strangely isolated in his dire, white-bricked classroom. After an empty half hour of staring down the strange magnet on his new filing cabinet, he figured that he’d packed himself a lunch, so he may as well go deposit it in the teacher’s lounge and if he ran into someone along the way then so be it.

The school was just one story, and it sprawled in a big, many-runged ladder shape across what clearly used to be farmland. There were still cows to the south, but civilization was encroaching in the form of restaurants and houses and little shops to the north. It was easy to get lost because all the hallways connected to all the other hallways, and he never could quite figure out which way to turn. He had to stop frequently at all the cross halls and reassess where he was situated. It didn’t help that everything looked exactly the same, an endless parade of white brick and blue-framed doorways straight out of the 1970s. Every once in a while he found a cheesy inspirational poster to help him to differentiate, though.

When he finally got to the teacher’s lounge, he was confronted with one of the only people he had met thus far at the school. Castiel had interviewed with him before signing his contract, and he didn’t think the man would’ve taken all that kindly to him—Castiel’s resume was neither impressive, nor overly well-suited for a teaching position—if it hadn’t been for the fact that he had graduated from the same private religious high school, and he clearly had a very uncomfortable infatuation with his alma mater that Castiel did not necessarily share. He also had the sneaking suspicion that Zachariah Adler was in some kind of debt or under some sort of obligation to Castiel’s mother. Castiel would never say as much, because he really, really needed this job, and his mother would have liked him to have this job, and he had absolutely no other prospects for his life at the moment. So, when he’d interviewed, he’d painstakingly recalled and recited the old motto—Fly, fly Fighting Angels!—right alongside him, and he’d spoken in vague, fond recollections of his mother when called to do so.

“I hear you’ve got a Winchester to deal with this year, Castiel,” said Principal Adler from across the teacher’s lounge when he walked in the door. Castiel felt himself scowl automatically, which his mother had always told him was a surefire way to not make friends, but Zachariah was too busy scrounging through the communal refrigerator to notice. He raised his voice, and it echoed out the fridge door, “I don’t envy you that your first year here, no sir.” Castiel walked toward the open fridge and planted his sloppily-wrapped sandwich in the side of the door. Zachariah gave it a sidelong glance and then returned to rummaging in the fridge’s innards.

“Yes, I do recall seeing a Winchester on my Freshman English roster,” he said, and that was the truth. The name had been uncommon enough for Castiel to take note. Zachariah resurfaced with a Tupperware container full of egg noodles. He gave it a once-over, clearly looking for a name, and when he didn’t find one, he cracked it open to take a sniff. “Why? What’s wrong with having a Winchester in my class?”

Zachariah chuckled, fetched a fork, and sat down at the small, circular table in the corner of the room. He gestured for Castiel to sit down across from him and Castiel did, considering that he’d left the classroom to get away from its ugly emptiness, and this was the kind of out he’d been looking for. Meanwhile, a dour-faced, dark-skinned man entered the lounge and made a beeline for the coffeemaker on the counter just past Castiel’s shoulder. He spared Castiel an absent nod. Castiel nodded back.

“Well the older one was in my office just about every day,” Principal Adler said. “Little bastard just couldn’t keep himself out of trouble.”

Castiel’s frown deepened at the word choice.  “What kind of trouble?”

“Oh, mostly he just didn’t give a crap about the work we assigned him, but there were definitely worse things. He’d just up and leave the grounds all the time. Skipped class. And don’t get me started on what would have gotten him expelled if he hadn’t dropped out first.” He stopped to suck on his fork for a moment. “Hell, at least he couldn’t talk back. Don’t know that you’ll be so lucky with the younger one.” He cracked a smile and clapped Castiel on the back.

Castiel tilted his head in confusion. The dark-skinned teacher cut in. “Are we talking about Dean Winchester?” Disdain dripped audibly from his every word. Zachariah speared some stolen noodles on his fork and chuckled condescendingly again.

“Castiel, Uriel. Uriel, Castiel Novak. Castiel is the new English teacher. Uriel teaches upper-level math. He also has some very personal beefs with Mr. Winchester, don’t you Uriel?”

Castiel turned to face him. He was startled by the abject coldness of his expression. The animosity in his coworker’s eyes hardly seemed appropriate to be directed toward a mere high school student, he thought, but maybe worse had been directed at him in high school and he just didn’t know about it. “That ape couldn’t tell a factorial from a denominator.”

Castiel squinted. “Really? That sounds rather extreme. Perhaps there was something deeper the matter with him. A learning disability or –”

Uriel gawped for a moment, then guffawed hugely in Castiel’s face like he suddenly got the joke. “Just a turn of phrase, Castiel. And anyway, there was nothing the matter with Dean Winchester,” he enunciated carefully, deeply, “except that he was as dumb as a post.”

Castiel started to sweat underneath his starched collar and sweater vest, abruptly uncomfortable with the direction that the conversation had taken. Both men seemed to notice his discomfort, and they looked at one another knowingly. He could almost hear the silently exchanged isn’t-that-just-adorable.

Zachariah polished off the noodles and stood to toss the Tupperware evidence into the trashcan by the door. “It’s cute that you’re still so optimistic, Castiel,” he said from the doorway, half a smarmy smirk beneath wide, glinting eyes. “But you’re going to learn pretty quickly that some of them don’t have excuses, and some of them just can’t be saved.” He disappeared down the hallway. The door slammed behind him, and the lights overhead flickered briefly.

Castiel looked at the table in lieu of looking at Uriel, but Uriel was undeterred.

“Are you new to the area, Castiel, or just new to teaching here?” He asked as much somewhat disinterestedly, distractedly, like a parent pointing at a picture in a book and asking for the color of an illustration even though they already knew it was blue.

Castiel cleared his throat. “I was born in the city and my mother bought a house out here in the suburbs when I was very small, so I know the area. I’ve just returned from school, though, so perhaps things have changed.”

He nodded. “Well, me and some of the other Garrison folk are going out for a drink tonight. Would you care to join us? Get to know the local watering hole?” Uriel brushed him awkwardly on the shoulder with his knuckles in some rough approximation of camaraderie. Castiel flinched away, stopped himself, thought of his mother’s echoing house and his ugly white-bricked classroom. He hadn’t come here to make friends—he’d just come to be able to put food in his mouth. To survive. But it had recently come to Castiel’s attention that there was perhaps more to surviving than just eating and sleeping.

“Yes. Certainly. Where should I meet you?”

They took Uriel’s car at Uriel’s insistence. It was a dark, sleek sedan that smelled too clean, and Uriel laughed humorlessly when Castiel told him that he drove a weathered old hatchback that kept trying to quit on him. It was the sort of barbed laugh his mother used to direct at service workers that got her lunch order wrong or shop employees that rang her up incorrectly.

The only personal effect in sight was a disconcerting religious bobble-head taped to the dash. It seemed too silly for Uriel, which could only mean that he wanted Jesus nodding at him from the dashboard unironically. Castiel squinted and flicked the head absently as he climbed into the car, and Uriel gave him a sidelong glare. Castiel pulled his trench tight around himself and childishly considered the nature of the Jesus bobble-head and which of them was truly being more inappropriate here.

At first, Castiel thought that Uriel was leading him to a rustic little establishment called The Roadhouse right off a promenade in the center of town. But they parked the car and walked right past it, toward a bar that was all clean lines, white and glass and chrome, a decidedly modern design. It did not look like somewhere that Castiel imagined public school teachers congregating, but Uriel said that one of the higher-ups was connected with the person who owned the place, and they all drank cheap. Uriel led him to a small group that was chatting quietly in the back and introduced Castiel to the congregation.

“Castiel, this is Hester,” he pointed to a blonde woman with a square face, “Rachel,” a smart-dressed blonde with sweet eyes, “Virgil,” a broad, dark-haired man, “Inias,” a slender, dark-haired man, “and Esper,” a bearded man who nodded sagely. None of them looked overly excited to see him, and they resumed talking about something money-related as Castiel sat down and ordered a pint of beer. To his left, Uriel twitched minutely, and Castiel, resigned to having committed another taboo, glanced around the table to attempt to discern where his folly had been this time around. He noticed that none of them were drinking alcohol. All of them had fizzing sodas with ice and bending straws sitting serenely at their place settings. He flagged down the waiter and changed his order to an orange soda, blushing a little. When he finished, he realized that Hester had been speaking to him.

“—I’m sorry, what?”

“I said, I recognize you from school. You were an Angel, weren’t you?” She cracked a smile for the first time. “You were in the graduating class at St. Charles two years behind me, I think. Remember?”

Castiel did remember, vaguely. She played on some sort of sports team and he recalled her having very muscular arms. All he said was, “Yes.” She blinked at him.

Rachel piped in then, “I think you were in the same year as me, Castiel, don’t you remember me?” He looked her direction, fixing a concentrated stare on her face, and he supposed yes, now that he was taking a closer look, she was in fact quite familiar. He got a strange feeling in his gut.

The others at the table gradually revealed the year of their graduation from the very same vaunted academy, all of them St. Charles alumni or St. Charles associates in one way or another. He was thrown back to the staticky phone call, Castiel exhausted and on his break at the coffee shop as Zachariah chanted an old fight song down the line at him. The job offer had almost seemed too good to be true when he’d been desperate for money and completely without prospects, only an old house to his name, but now it seemed almost contrived. He was a little sad to see that maybe it hadn’t strictly been his own merits at work. He had always known his mother came into play somewhere, though.

“It’s a bit strange that we’re all working at the same school, isn’t it? I mean, didn’t many of you go to out-of-state colleges like I did?”

“Yes of course,” Virgil said, “We all attained a high quality education and returned to bring the experience back to our hometown.” He said it as if there was some sense of loyalty that he clearly thought must reside in Castiel as well. Castiel did not bother to tell him that he was mistaken; he had come for the free living accommodations, the decent paycheck, and his mother’s memory, not to enrich the community of his birth. “You attended a Christian college, did you not Castiel?”

“I did.” He sipped his soda and did not elaborate.

“What did you study?”

“English. With an emphasis in religious texts, naturally.”

“Naturally. And did your St. Charles name help you there?”

It had and it hadn’t. It had followed him right up until he graduated. The headmaster at St. Charles was notorious, though he had disappeared in recent years and delegated guidance of the school to one of his sons. The monthly newsletter had said his name was Raphael, and Castiel had never met him. Even so, graduates of St. Charles were held in the highest regard, and things had been expected of him that perhaps hadn’t been expected of other students.

“To an extent, I’m sure,” he said.

“Hey, you’re Naomi Novak’s kid, aren’t you? A name like that is bound to follow you around, too.” A name like that was probably a large part of the reason Castiel had a job, a large part of the reason Castiel had been accepted into college, a large part of who Castiel was and would always be.

He just said, “Yes.”

“Y’know, most of us went to private religious schools like you,” Virgil gestured widely to the group, “and many of us were considering the clergy before we began our time here.” There was murmured agreement around the table. “Have you ever considered being a part of the church, Castiel?”

Castiel said, “My mother encouraged it,” lowly. He grasped awkwardly at the edge of the table. “I suppose it’s still an option.”

“You know,” Esper picked up in the awkward silence, “The superintendent of our school district is also a St. Charles graduate. Michael Shurley?”

Castiel thought for a moment. He hadn’t been in Castiel’s class. He’d been a student years and years before, so Castiel had never really had occasion to think about him. “Ah. The Headmaster’s son?” They all still referred to their headmaster as the one and only headmaster the school would ever have. It was one thing that all St. Charles graduates seemed to be in agreement on.

“The very same,” Esper confirmed. In that moment, the wafting snatches of nepotism became hard, gusting winds. It was nepotism that had worked in Castiel’s favor, but it was nepotism nonetheless.

“You know Castiel,” Rachel said, fingering the rim of her soda glass, “the woman you’re replacing was a St. Charles grad as well. Anna Milton.”

Castiel looked at her sharply. “Anna? She’s here?”

Uriel shook his head. “Not anymore. I’m not certain if she’s in town, but she’s certainly not with the school anymore.” He then belted back his soda like it was a beer and raised a palm toward the barman for another, making a circular sweep with his index finger to indicate a whole ‘nother round. Castiel squinted at his orange soda.

He asked, “Why isn’t she here anymore?” He tried not to let the emotion creep into his tone, but Anna was the first name he had heard this evening that seemed to elicit any lingering feeling, be it the conflicting fondness or disdain, and Castiel wondered if he would have liked to see her face again. He felt a sinking longing he hadn’t even known ten minutes before for a woman he hadn’t thought about in years.

“Well, there are a few reasons, some more ah, intriguing than others,” Inias leaned across the table and looked Castiel straight in the eye. “But the simple answer is that she started teaching banned books.”

Castiel tilted his head, entirely unsure the level of alarm he was supposed to be exhibiting. “Oh,” he said dumbly.

“’Oh’ is right,” Uriel said. “Her head was on the chopping block the moment she let Slaughterhouse-Five into those kids’ hands, never mind what happened afterward.”

Castiel flinched.That did sound like Anna. “Well, I don’t think much of Vonnegut, but he seems relatively harmless, doesn’t he?”

Esper tutted. “Shame, Castiel! The man wasn’t a patriot!”

“Or a Christian,” said Virgil, and the table lit up with a strange chittering laugh that Castiel didn’t join in on.

“I suppose,” Castiel agreed tentatively.

“And there’s blatant bestiality somewhere in there. Space aliens, profanity, violence, homosexuality, nonsense. It’s just not good reading for material for kids that age. They’re so impressionable. We have given you the list of banned books, haven’t we?” Uriel clapped him on the shoulder and looked earnestly into his eyes. “I know you’ve been working off the recommended curriculum for the school to create your syllabus, but we don’t want anything unsavory sneaking in there.”

Castiel narrowed his eyes. “You’re the math teacher,” he intoned slowly. “Forgive me, but I’m confused as to why you’re handling the banned books.” How could he possibly be responsible for maintaining the literary merit of a text? It seemed strange.

They all did that odd, chittering laugh again.

All he said was, “We’re a tight-knit community here, Castiel.”

Castiel hmmed, but figured it wasn’t worth causing a row over, especially given how much he did need this job, how much he needed these people to approve of him. Perhaps it wasn’t fair to assume that Uriel was a man of so little talent. “Isn’t it odd that we’ve all ended up at the public school that our sports teams seemed determined to annihilate? Why are none of you teaching at the private school itself?” Castiel hadn’t even thought to pursue teaching, so he hadn’t been looking for positions like this at all, much less positions at his alma mater. But these people all seemed to itch for their old life at St. Charles.

“We are needed here,” Hester said loftily, “far more than we’re needed at our alma mater.”

And that was the end of that. It was good enough for Castiel, because he liked the idea that someone might need him, and that he might be instrumental to the ends for this particular group, whatever that was. He also knew that his mother would like him being here, in his hometown, working toward some greater purpose, and he was pleased to serve his mother’s memory.

They started back in on something relating to money again, and Castiel tuned them out, wondering if he should push his luck about Anna, not wanting to push too far. They were bound to have her address with the school, or maybe some of these teachers knew where she lived. But it wasn’t really his nature to seek out people from his past like this, and he was only really thinking about her because he’d had such a shock to his system with all the St. Charles graduates in one place after such a long time without them. He hadn’t thought about his high school like this in a long time, though it was probably his own fault for being caught off guard. He should have predicted that he would be encountering people from his past, and he should have prepared himself. And anyway, Anna definitely wouldn’t want to see him. Not after the way that they had parted.

After an hour or so of mostly watching, listening, and being ribbed by Uriel, Castiel yawned and excused himself. The others around the table made token noises of disappointment, but Castiel found himself strangely lost in the thread of conversation after all the revelations of the evening, and he begged feeling sick, dizzy. It was half true.

As he was passing by the big, illuminated bar on the way out of the building, he confirmed that there were in fact liquor bottles on a shelf behind the bar. The chubby bartender smiled and waved. He glanced back at the table.

Once outside, he remembered that Uriel had driven him, and he dithered about going back inside to ask him for a ride, but he ultimately decided that the walk wouldn’t actually kill him. He debated on which was farther from the bar, his house or his car, and he eventually decided that he would make his way back to the school for his hatchback so that he wouldn’t have to worry about transportation in the morning. It was only September, after all, and it wasn’t as if it was too cold to make the walk.

Just as he had firmed his resolve to walk all the way back to his car, he ran headlong into a very solid, very tall human being in a white apron and sprawled back onto the pavement. The solid, tall thing said nothing, but Castiel had the wind knocked out of him, so he just might not have noticed. He had bitten down hard on his own teeth with the impact, and when his head stopped jolting and his vision stopped jarring, he looked up into the face of one of the most handsome men he had ever seen. He had a tense jaw, and he was still strangely silent for having just plowed so aggressively into him. Castiel had been expecting expletives or raised voices, but instead the man turned around and faced the wall for a moment. Castiel could see him visibly calming himself through the un-tensing muscles under his olive green undershirt. The man panted, then slowed his breathing, and then when he seemed to have himself under control, he turned around and said, “Suhorry,” with just the slightest little breath on the “s.”

Castiel shook his head, sufficiently distracted from his evening in the not-bar now and sort of grateful for it, but puzzled by the stranger’s show of calmness. It wasn’t the most cordial apology, but it had been an obvious effort to rein himself in from whatever precipice he’d been courting, and Castiel could appreciate the effort even without the context. “It’s quite alright, I wasn’t watching where I was going either. Are you okay?”

He raised his eyebrow and nodded. It gave Castiel an excuse to concentrate on the details of his face rather than the jarring pain in his head, and he saw now that, without all the lines the anger or frustration had put there, he was much younger than Castiel had first thought. He felt abruptly guilty for his first instinct, but it was still impossible not to notice. He looked like a rugged young film star of a bygone era.

His eyes flicked over Castiel’s expression, scrutinizing, and then after a moment’s hesitation, he shoved his hand right into Castiel’s face, and Castiel went cross-eyed trying to follow it. He slipped his own hand into the waiting palm and thought they were shaking hands until the stranger used his strong, solid counterweight to lever Castiel to his feet. Castiel promptly slipped in the garbage that the man had apparently been carrying around the back of the bar and tipped straight into the bar’s brick facade. The man laughed, a low sound that resonated deep in his chest, then quietly stooped to sweep the rubbish back into its bag. It wasn’t like the laugh Uriel had leveled at him in the car earlier.

Castiel said, “Let me help,” and stooped alongside him.

The man breathed in deeply and said, “S’okay.” He swallowed. “Guh-hot it.” The left side of his mouth ticced up in something like a grimace, and his mouth flapped once without sound. He busied himself with shoving garbage back into the half-busted bag.

Castiel paused for a moment with a hand on a cracked beer bottle in the face of what, in one word, had become a very obvious stutter. Castiel had a friend in childhood named Samandriel who had stuttered from a very early age, but he’d been in speech therapy most of his life and he had it mostly under control by the time they hit high school. It was the facial spasms that gave the stranger away—Samandriel had a tendency to screw his face up hard without meaning to whenever he blocked on a word and couldn’t manage to get the whole thing out. Castiel said nothing as he piled garbage back into the bag, and the stranger looked determinedly at the ground.

Just then, a dark head, illuminated from behind by a warm brightness from inside the bar, popped out the door and said, “Dean, these tables ain’t gonna bus themselves. Don’t really got the time for you to lollygag.”

Dean the Stranger waved a vague affirmative without turning around and then pulled the bag shut despite the grossness still on the sidewalk. He rose to his feet, looked Castiel straight in the eyes, nodded in a way that was simultaneously assessing and affirming, and beat a hasty retreat into the alley to throw the bag away.

Castiel took that as his cue to retreat as well. It was a long, strange walk back to his car.

“Don’t you ever think about the curriculum here, Castiel? What we’re missing out on going to a Christian school?” Castiel looked up from where he’d been reading and half-heartedly jabbing at his school lunch; he tilted his head to the side. Anna Milton talked to him sometimes, when there was no one else in the lunchroom that she wanted to talk to and Castiel was sitting alone. She had a strange fascination that bordered on erotic. Sometimes, Castiel wondered if she was flirting.

He read books from the school library, and according to Anna he wasn’t really considering the implications of choosing his reading material specifically from their Christian school library. Castiel didn’t really know what she meant by all that—it wasn’t as if the library was archaic. It had copies of some of the books by Stephen King and Anne Rice and Terry Pratchett and in his experience, those books could be pretty racy. He just liked adventures, and it sometimes annoyed him that Anna Milton thought she knew better than him just because she’d read some banned literature.

Anna was pretty. She tucked a bit of red hair behind her ear, and Castiel closed the worn library copy of Watership Down.

“Have you ever read any Vonnegut?” Castiel shook his head no and took a bite of brown, blocky hashbrown. “No, I don’t suppose you have, because they don’t have it in the library, do they?” Castiel scowled hard at her, and she laughed. “Don’t be a sourpuss, I’m just wondering, you’re one of the only people around here that likes to read like me. I’m just trying to see if we have the same tastes, and I just read some Vonnegut.”

“Which book?”

“Just the most famous—Slaughterhouse-Five.”

“I’ve heard of it,” Castiel said. “What’s it about?”

Her face screwed up, and she clicked her nails idly against the lunch table. One of her earrings was hooked into her ear canal because she had been fussing with the hair over there too much, and it made her look a little bit absent-minded.

“That’s a complicated question, because you won’t want to read it if I just tell you the hook.”

“Try me.”

“Free will doesn’t exist. He basically just says free will doesn’t exist. The main character is this traumatized soldier named Billy Pilgrim that has uh—‘come unstuck in time.’ He meets this alien race that can see all moments of every person’s life at the same time, and they say that the idea of free will is a strictly human convention, and linear time isn’t real. It’s kind of depressing.”

Castiel gave up on reading his own book for the lunch period, and he stuck Watership Down back in his bag, leaving dependable little Hazel for whoever the hell Anna is talking about today.

“Then why would you enjoy it so much?”

Anna bit her lip. Her eyes were so brown. “I…dunno. I dunno. It’s also about war. And weirdo nationalism. And…like, I…I mean I haven’t quite sorted out how he feels about free will, you know? I haven’t quite sorted out if he believes himself when he says that war is inevitable and conflict is inevitable. Because without free will, it’s like people are just heading perpetually toward violence and there’s nothing we can do about it. You should read it. Tell me what you think.”

Castiel looked away from her, across the cafeteria, to where other tablefuls of high school students were eating lunch, laughing and talking amongst themselves. Castiel had seen someone slam Samandriel face-first into his locker last week. He’d gone home with a sprained wrist and a black eye. All of these people had such potential for violence in them.

“It’s on the banned books list for St. Charles.”

“Jeeesus, Castiel –“

“Don’t say that.”

“Castiel, I ask you if you think people have free will, and you come back at me with the book being banned? That’s the fucking reason it’s banned, Cas, because it makes people think about shit like this.”

“Don’t say that!”

She looked at him long and hard with her brown, brown eyes.

“Someone else already made the decision for you, Castiel. And that sucks.”

Castiel has the potential for violence in him, too. Maybe he’s just hurtling toward that inevitability as well. “…I could still read it at home.”

“Atta boy,” she said. “You should pick it up from the library sometime.”

For some reason, Uriel took it upon himself to keep Castiel company.

Castiel’s mother had left him a big, old, Victorian-style house in the midst of the town’s charming little numbered street neighborhoods. It had been too big for his family when he’d been the only child of one aging scholar, and now, with just Castiel and his mother’s strange, muted memories and ghostly expectations, it was dauntingly enormous. It had a kitchen with two ovens, one on top of the other, and a root cellar and a food storage room. It had a sitting room and a living room and a dining room. It had a library and a study and an office.Castiel didn’t know how the three of those were all separate rooms, but he figured that there had maybe been more bedrooms before, and his mother just liked to have an excess of space for academic work. Castiel lived in his bedroom from childhood, and he kept his mother’s bedroom tightly shut. He moved between his bedroom, the kitchen, and the sitting room. He didn’t even get to utilize any of the study spaces. They were too full of his mother. That was where she had lived, so Castiel respectfully kept them shut up, too.

When Uriel was there, the house didn’t necessarily feel any warmer, or smaller, or more welcoming. It felt like the same house, big and too drafty, with two people in it instead of one. Castiel got along with Uriel well enough, though. The first night he came over, Uriel cooked Castiel lentil soup at the stove. Castiel suggested that they eat it with the radio turned on in the sitting room, but Uriel rejected him as if that was the most abhorrent idea he’d ever heard in his life. They ate silently at the kitchen. Sometimes, it was nice to have someone there to remind him that he wasn’t alone, even though he did speak too little and what little speech he had was heaping with condescension.

His first Sunday in town, Uriel took Castiel to his church, and Castiel was very surprised to learn that he had a wife. She was just as sour and dour-faced as he was, hanging from his arm limply as they wound through the hard, wooden pews.

It was, if he were honest with himself, kind of an ugly church. It was relatively new, having been erected after he left. The church of Castiel’s childhood, where he had attended services weekly with his mother, had been condemned following a brutal storm sometime while he was in college. He’d driven by it once or twice, and now it was little more than rotting planks lit by broken stained-glass, and it was still prettier than Uriel’s church. This one was streamlined and modern, and the windowless congregation room in the middle managed to be stuffy and claustrophobic despite its high ceilings. Castiel hadn’t attended church very regularly since his obligatory attendance in college, and without the aid of natural light, he found himself dozing off and on through the service.

“He came again this week,” said Uriel’s wife in the rowdy noise of the afterward. She was looking toward where the rest of the congregation was filing out, and her eyes were full of daggers. There was a man slumped against a pew in the very back of the church, and Castiel thought he was asleep until his head popped up and his dark, dark eyes darted around the room. When they caught on the pastor at the head of the chapel, he wavered unsteadily to his feet and the lurched forward, right past where Uriel’s wife was tittering and Castiel was staring unabashedly. He gained momentum as he made his way down the aisle, and the pastor didn’t look at all surprised to see him, just resigned, maybe a little bit sad. Castiel couldn’t hear what was being said over the din.

“Who is that?” Castiel murmured distractedly. He looked almost familiar, and Castiel wondered if maybe he was someone from his time before.

“John Winchester,” she said, voice dripping with disdain. They followed the ebb and flow of the congregation out of the church, though Castiel kept glancing over his shoulder. The last impression he got of the church room was a loud, banging slap as John Winchester slammed his open palm on the church pulpit. When the room faded from sight, Castiel was finally able to tear his eyes away from the ugly scene. “Such an angry, angry fellow.”

“Winchester. The same Winchester that…?”

“Yes, Castiel, there is only one Winchester family in the area. Though we all wish there were none at all. You’ll meet one of the terrors soon enough, we needn’t dawdle on the little maggots’ father, now.”

Castiel stopped in the midst of the sidewalk outside the church and people flowed around him, slick like minnows. It was warm for September.

“Was that man drunk?” he asked.

“Oh Castiel,” Uriel’s wife said without looking back, “Anymore, we only bother asking if he isn’t. Those are far more unusual circumstances.”

They were silent for a while, but finally, on the drive home, when Castiel couldn’t resist not knowing anymore, he asked weakly, softly, “What about Mrs. Winchester?”

The resounding silence of the car told Castiel nowhere near enough. But it told him something.

When they dropped Castiel at his house, Uriel rolled down his window. Castiel thought he’d say goodbye, but he only gazed airily over his lawn and said, “You should find yourself a yard boy,” before he pulled away from the curb. Castiel scuffed his feet in the tall grass.

Castiel went to bed alone the night before school was set to begin. He looked over his syllabus one last time in front of the radio in the sitting room. He looked at his class rosters, took another moment to be horrified by the high class numbers, and pretended that he wasn’t lingering over the name Sam Winchester. When he couldn’t think of any more excuses to be awake, he wound his way through the house, flicking off all the lights from first floor to second, until he was left with nothing but his bedroom lamp, and he subsumed himself in the absolute dark of the house. In his bedroom, with only the moon to light the walls, he could almost imagine that it was a different time, that he hadn’t taken all his posters off the wall and painted and replaced the furniture and bedding. His bedroom had the same layout from his childhood, and he could almost imagine that his mother was sleeping just beyond the bedroom’s eastern wall, opposite of his bed.

When he went to sleep that night, images from his past dancing in the shadows, the nostalgia became mirror-twisted in his dreams, and he dreamed about Anna.

He dreamed about Anna in his room, Anna biting her lip, Anna’s big brown eyes, and Anna’s hand in his pants. He dreamed about Anna stroking him and quoting Vonnegut and wiping her hand on his bedspread when he came in her palm. (“The little death. So it goes.”) He dreamed about Anna’s indignant expression when he kicked her out afterward in a panic, and he dreamed his mother was alive and giving him funny looks from the kitchen table as he pushed her out the door, and he dreamed about the next day at school where Anna wouldn’t even talk to him, because his dreams were just as cool and logical and incomplete as he was.

Chapter Text

The next day before school, his car wouldn’t start. It wasn’t as inconvenient as it could have been, because he was running about two hours early, leaving the house just before six for classes that didn’t start until eight-thirty. He looked helplessly toward where it was making alarming sputtering noises, listened closely as if he could diagnose the problem despite his complete ignorance, and made a valiant effort at starting the dying beast at least ten more times. When he noticed neighbors rustling at their curtains in the early morning light, he forced himself to stop. He didn’t have so much pride that he would risk waking everyone on the block.

He glanced at his watch, looked up and down the street as if someone would materialize to help him, and then gave up and went inside to call a local garage. He was drifting without coffee, so he picked the first garage his finger landed on and didn’t look back. Singer Salvage had a presentable enough logo in the phone book to suit his needs. Someone that sounded about twelve years old answered the phone, cheerfully relaying Castiel’s address to a low, grumbling voice in the background before he hung up. It occurred to him that this could have waited, and he could’ve called Uriel for a ride, but the idea of begging a ride off of Uriel this early and today of all days sounded grossly unappealing. Especially considering his earlier judgment of Castiel’s car. No, he would take a bus from the garage or call a cab.

The tow truck arrived a little after seven, and the young man who had answered the phone was clearly in the passenger seat. In person, he looked a little older. He chattered away animatedly to the broad figure in the driver’s seat; Castiel could see his mouth flapping as they pulled up in front of his hatchback and backed into place. The boy got out of the passenger seat and greeted him with a casual wave and a mellow smile. He said, “Hey man, we’re just gonna take her to the garage. You know the address, right? I’m Sam. My brother Dean is the one hooking you up. We’re really glad you called; business has been slow at Bobby’s for a little while. Dean was worried about getting enough hours, weren’t you Dean?” He had a slow way of speaking, calming and, even though his voice was definitely still that of an unbroken adolescent, very deliberately deep. It rolled over Castiel in waves, and he really didn’t mind the rather substanceless chatter. From where he was fussing with chains in the back of the tow truck, Dean grunted wordlessly. “He was.” Sam smiled.

“You aren’t…the Winchesters? Sam and Dean Winchester? Are you?” Dean looked up sharply, and Sam’s smile sort of shuttered like a camera lens. There, gone, back.

“You hear that, Dean? Our reputation precedes us once again.” When he looked over at Dean with Sam, he could see his face clearly now, and Castiel made two realizations at once. The first was that these boys were definitely the sons of that man in the church. John. Sam was dark like him, and Dean had his heavy, handsome features. The second was that he had met Dean before.

“You’re the man from that night. In front of the bar.” Dean colored and fumbled with the chains. Sam looked at Castiel sharply.

“You’ve met? Have you spoken?”

It was funny that those things were separate, but Castiel knew exactly why they would be. He said, “I just ran into him in front of the bar the other night. I—he dropped some garbage. I helped him pick it up.”

“He dropped the garbage or you made him –”

“Sammy!” came the muffled call from the other side of the cab. “He’s fuh-fffine. No third duh-duh-duh-duh-duh—.”

Sam squinted at Castiel in a way that was supremely unintimidating and said, “Yeah, yeah, I got it,” when Dean gave up on the word he’d been trying to say, moving right along as if he had finished it.

“My apologies, but I really need to get to work or I’m afraid class will start without me.” Sam perked up, still a little wary but warming since Dean’s objection. Dean had composed himself and resumed hitching up Castiel’s old car, face aimed down and cloaked in a mask of concentration.

“You a teacher?” Sam asked cautiously.

“I’m the new English teacher at Garrison,” he said and tried at a smile. “That’s the reason I asked if you were a Winchester. You’re on my Freshman English roster.” And the whole town likes to talk about you like you’re insects, but that’s very much beside the point.

“Oh!” Sam’s face brightened considerably at the prospect that his relationship with the new man in town hadn’t been ruined before it had even started. “You assigned Animal Farm to read over the summer.” He jerked his thumb toward the tow truck, then hooked the other in his belt loop. “I’ve got it in the cab, Dean’s gonna drop me at school before he drops off your car. We can drop you there, too, right Dean?” Dean grunted in a way that sounded vaguely affirmative and Sam grinned.

“That sounds excellent, thank you. And how did you like Animal Farm?” Castiel asked not really expecting much of an answer, but Sam exploded. He noticed Dean smiling a little to himself as his little brother started off about which pig was which Russian leader, and just as Dean was pushing the button to hoist the front of his hatchback off the ground, Sam was fretting at him about Boxer.

“I liked Boxer best. I liked the horses. Clover was Dean’s favorite,” Sam said, and Castiel flicked his eyes in Dean’s direction. Dean turned red and busied himself with checking all the chains, making sure that everything was secure. “I read Dean the book this summer, and he said Clover was his favorite.”

“People often identify most with Boxer or Clover,” Castiel said, “I think we’re supposed to, as members of the working class.” He could see Sam’s brain working in his eyes.

“I wanted to cry when they sent Boxer away. He didn’t do anything but work for them. It was all an allegory, but I didn’t hurt any less for Boxer.” He looked over at Dean. “Or Clover.” Dean slammed the driver’s side door and honked the horn once, and Sam gestured him toward the cab of the truck and opened the door so he could slide in. Castiel picked up his briefcase from where he had removed it from his hatchback and did so without thought. He found that he had to smush right up against Dean’s side with his briefcase pressed tight to his chest so that all three of them could fit in the cab. Sam looked young, but it was clear he was stretching in all directions, and his gangly legs needed most of the floorspace. Castiel’s arms and legs edged right into Dean’s body, but Dean didn’t comment as he reached over to start the truck. He smelled overwhelmingly of the engine oil that was smeared on his working coveralls.

“My apologies for being in your space, Dean. You aren’t too cramped to drive, are you?” Dean looked startled to have been addressed. He shook his head in lieu of a response. “I’m glad you got to appreciate the beginning of my freshman reading list with Sam.” Sam looked inordinately pleased. He kept looking between Dean and Castiel like a happy dog. Dean gave himself whiplash switching from a shake to a nod.

“You know, lots of the other kids I talked to hadn’t done their summer reading assignments,” Sam said thoughtfully after a moment of silence.

Castiel looked down at his hands. “I can’t say I wasn’t expecting that. It is my first year as a teacher, but I was a student very recently and recall how my classmates often felt about the reading.” Sam’s enthusiasm was more than he ever could have hoped for. He hadn’t yet fooled himself into thinking that all of his students would be so excited.

“I don’t get it. It was a good book, why wouldn’t they want to read it?” Dean tightened his hands on the steering wheel. When Castiel flicked his eyes to Dean’s face, he was smiling fondly, and he mouthed nerd inaudibly when he thought no one was looking. Castiel’s mouth quirked.

“It’s honestly beyond me as well, Sam.”

Sam continued to fill the airspace with words like it was his God-given duty, and every once in a while Dean would smile or nod when Sam prompted him for input. They pulled up to the school five minutes later, and Dean let them out on the curb without a word. When Sam got out to let Castiel out as well, he started away from the truck with just a wave to his brother, but Dean rolled down the window and shouted after him. It was the first time Castiel had heard him raise his voice above the mere minimum required to be heard.

“Sam,” he said. “Your lllunch.” He thrust a little paper bag out the passenger side window. The stutter wasn’t even apparent in that statement if you didn’t know to look for it, but Castiel should have known better than to think the people in this little suburb wouldn’t know the exact nature of the exchange. At least two groups passing toward them into the school were looking knowingly between Dean and Sam, and one of those two groups was comprised completely of teachers. Castiel waited patiently by the tow truck as Sam fetched his lunch, and he watched bemused as Sam and Dean exchanged some pretty fluent private words. From this distance, Castiel couldn’t hear them, but he could see that Dean’s face wasn’t really exhibiting any sort of tic.

In the final moments of the conversation, Sam was insistent upon something, and gestured frantically back toward Castiel, and Dean raised his eyebrow and looked really properly indignant in a way that didn’t suit what Castiel had seen of him thus far. Maybe it suited another Dean that Castiel wasn’t aware of.

Eventually, he rolled his eyes and shouted, “Bye, Castuh-tuh-tuh-uh.” The more he struggled, the more the volume sort of petered off, until eventually, he just squalled, “Cas!” His obvious churlishness overtook the usual quiet for a moment, and Sam grinned like it was his birthday. Dean didn’t stick around to see what sort of attention he was getting. He tore out of the parking lot, Castiel’s blue hatchback bobbing along behind him.

“Sorry,” Sam said, returning to his side, “He gets nervous with people he doesn’t know, and that’s a letter combo he still has a lot of trouble with. With his disfluency. Cas-tee-el. But he did try, so that probably means he likes you.” He shrugged. It was strange to hear him confronting the stutter head-on, the disfluency, because no one that complained about the Winchesters ever really talked about it. Sam paused to heft his backpack higher on his back with the paper-bagged hand. Sammy was written on the front in hard, blocky letters. “And, y’know. Thanks.”

They worked their way toward the building side by side, and when they entered the English hallway, there were already students streaming around them. There was a reason Castiel had been planning to arrive two hours early. Nothing in his classroom was prepared, and he felt a bit nervous going in blind like this, though he would grudgingly admit that his syllabus was perfect and he had memorized his lesson plans inside and out. He knew that at least an hour of his time this morning spent stewing here probably would have gone toward ensuring that his name was written on the board in perfectly symmetrical block lettering.

“Why are you thanking me? It was the two of you that helped me out of a tight spot this morning.”

Sam just shook his head, and then brightened when a thought struck him, “Oh, Dean says you should come sometime after school this week after he’s done a consultation on your car. He’ll be picking me up, so you can just hitch a ride.”

Castiel smiled just as they hit his classroom where students were already starting to congregate. Sam said, “Well, I’ll see you fourth period, then!” and took off down the hallway. Castiel waved.

It was at that point that Castiel remembered that he was supposed to be afraid of Sam Winchester, and he snorted to himself.

Uriel did not seem pleased when Castiel told him the events of that morning in the teacher’s lounge at lunch, but the biology teacher, whom Castiel had never met, thought it was all a “hoot.”

He clapped Castiel on the back and said, “You got Dean Winchester to shout your name across the parking lot? I couldn’t get that kid to speak up when he forgot to put his name on his homework. Honest to god, one time he let me throw it away. At that point I knew it was him and I was kinda just fucking with the poor kid, but hell, he just went ahead and let me do it. Gotta give determination like that full points.”

His name was Gabriel. It was clear that Uriel couldn’t stand him, but Castiel felt strangely drawn to him. Gabriel dug purposefully in the fridge as Uriel chastised him for using the first auto shop that he happened upon in the phone book.

Gabriel said, “I know I left that cheesecake in here somewhere…”

Castiel said, “Those boys were very professional.”

Gabriel said, “Have you guys seen it? Red Tupperware, polka dot bow on top, labeled ‘Sex Cupcake’?”

Uriel said, “I could have pointed you toward a much more reputable Christian automotive shop if you had only asked me, Castiel. My wife is good friends with a couple that runs a garage across town.”

Gabriel said, “They must not have realized that ‘Sex Cupcake’ was my name. They must’ve thought that was what was inside and thought it was too good to resist.” He slammed the door and twisted his thin lips. He had been rattling banter since Castiel had met him, but leaning against that fridge door, he looked frighteningly capable of much more than wisecracks. He took off out the door.

Castiel said, “I trust that Dean Winchester will do an excellent job repairing my vehicle.”

Uriel just laughed. “You had better hope that he’s not the one who puts those things back together, Castiel. You had better hope he’s just the tow monkey. Anything he touches is sure to come back stuck together with wadded chewing gum and shoelaces.” He spat as much with venom and tromped out the door. Castiel sat for a moment in pensive silence, waiting for the end of lunch bell to ring and signal the start of fourth period.

When the bell rang and Castiel walked out of the room, he saw an empty red Tupperware container filled with messy cheesecake remains in the same garbage can where Zachariah had thrown the noodle evidence a couple of weeks before.

The first thing on his agenda was the syllabus and then the freewrites. Castiel had determined early on that he would have his students keep a daily journal entry of 300 to 500 words so that he could assess their writing ability and their improvement as he moved through the grammatical lessons. And because writing and literacy were important skills, apparently. Castiel was not a trained teacher, but all the literature seemed to indicate as much.

The topics weren’t terribly exciting, and having read through some of the entries from his morning classes at lunch, Castiel realized that he had put himself in the unfortunate position of having far, far too much reading to do. Five classes of over thirty students in some amounted to almost 45,000 words worth of reading every evening. A rookie mistake. He knew that he could not let on how much skimming he would be doing, though, because he knew that they would sense his weakness and stop working on them nearly so hard as they should have been. So he committed to serious read-throughs of all the prompts, at least for the first couple of weeks.

By the time he reached fourth period that first night of grading, Castiel was so tired of hearing what a bunch of snotty children wanted out of life. The prompt had been, “What would you wish for, given the opportunity?” And he’d gotten pretty consistent wishes for riches, beauty, success, and wisdom with outlying requests for boy band members or movie starlets.

Sam Winchester’s began so innocuously that Castiel wouldn’t have been able to identify him at all if it had continued in the same vein for its entirety. He had gotten to autopilot mode, to the point where he was check-marking and commenting without even looking at the names. He didn’t realize he was holding Sam Winchester’s paper in his hands until he read the final line.

The first 300 words explained to the unassuming audience why Sam needed a puppy.

The last twenty or so said, “And I also would wish I had the money for a speech therapist. Those things are like 400 dollars per session.” Castiel didn’t have the words to respond, so he just check-marked the page and moved on to a girl who bemoaned her desire for curlier hair for about 500 words.

That night he dreamed Anna’s mouth around him in the broom closet, an angry and surprising blowjob in graduation gowns. Anna’s head was bobbing aggressively somewhere down below his belt, her pale skin light against the dark of his formal attire, and Castiel could hardly see her because his eyes were crossed and her red hair was buried in the folds of his gown. It was one of the most uncomfortable things he had ever experienced. Even in his dream, he could feel the lip of the big basin sink digging hard into his back with each forward thrust of Anna’s head.

But then Anna pulled off him, and she started accusing him of the same things she had on that night, years ago. Asking him why he was attending a religious college. What he planned to do. It he planned to live in his mother’s shadow for forever. If he ever planned to make any friends now that I won’t be around to cuh-cuh-uh-uh-uh-coax you into talking every once in a while, Cas.

Castiel woke with a vaguely aggravating erection, wondering why the sexual dreams he had couldn’t ever be just sexual. Castiel had never had a proper wet dream in his life; they were always accompanied by damp shame and annoyance, but maybe that was because Castiel had never really had a sexual experience that didn’t end in damp shame and annoyance. He thought of rebellious Anna’s covert blow jobs, and about Balthazar, back in the boys’ dorms at his Christian college, who liked to rub up against him and come on his belly and had done so as often as he could convince Castiel to go along with it for the entire time that they had been roommates.

It was only as he was drifting back to sleep that he remembered Anna stuttering into the skin near the join in his thigh.

“Boys seem’t’ve taken a liking to you,” Bobby Singer said, nodding toward where Sam Winchester was taking out books for his homework on a workbench in the Singer Salvage auto shop. Castiel’s car was up on lifts in the middle of the shop, and even though there were three more lifts, a spacious garage, and a whole salvage yard out back, Castiel hadn’t seen any other customers. Dean was currently preparing to drain oil underneath his car with a grease rag slung over his shoulder and his tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth. Sam and Dean had given him a ride from school, and Dean had even said, “Hey Cas,” when Castiel crawled into the middle of the cab, pressed tight to Dean’s side. Sam hadn’t stopped chattering about the supplemental reading for Animal Farm. Castiel smiled fondly. He had taken a liking to them as well.

“God knows they don’t like you for your car sense, though. Battery connectivity is fried ‘cause of how poorly maintained your battery cables are. Have you noticed the flickerin’ lights at all? Means you haven’t been gettin’ proper power for a long time, now, and it might mean your alternator is screwed. We cleaned the ports, gave you new cables, and Dean’s doin’ some regular maintenance and check-up work that she was in some dire need of, clearly. How’s it, Dean?” Bobby shouted.  Dean gave a thumbs up from underneath the car. Bobby sighed. “Anyway, she’ll be right as rain by the end of the day, I think. All ready for you to drive on out of here.”

Castiel nodded. “Thank you. You’ve all done me a great service.”

“Ain’t no great service,” Bobby scoffed, “Gotta keep in business. I’da given you a deal for being good to m’boys but that one already doesn’t eat enough and god knows if I don’t pay him, he ain’t gonna feed himself at all. Anyway, you can just wait around until she’s done. Won’t take too much longer.”

It was Wednesday of the first week of school and Castiel had nowhere better to be aside from at home drowning in freewrites, and he didn’t particularly want to be there. When Dean lowered the car from its lifts and started rooting around under the hood, Castiel pulled a bench away from the table where Sam was reading and sat a few feet from where Dean was working silently. Sam eyed the pair of them sidelong when he thought Castiel wasn’t looking. Castiel cleared his throat.

“I’m afraid I don’t know anything about cars,” he said.

A pause. “No kidding,” Dean said as he was fiddling with some instrument Castiel couldn’t begin to guess the purpose of. Dean lifted his eyebrows meaningfully, with all the purpose of a man who was used to speaking with his features. Today, the particular disbelieving draw of his eyebrows said, I can tell you don’t know shit about cars because I can see the blatant disrepair in this junk heap, thank you.

“What’s that?” Castiel pointed. “That little part that you’re tugging on.”

Bobby had been making loud, crashing noises where he was pounding a piece of a door back into shape with a metal hammer across the shop, but the sound stopped conspicuously and abruptly when Castiel addressed Dean. It was the same startled reaction Sam had to Castiel addressing Dean in the tow truck that first day. Dean had a smile that made him look even younger, quirking up one corner of his mouth and tugging at the corner of his eye. He didn’t seem to notice the oppressive silence that had taken over the rest of the shop.

“Alternator,” he said, and he hooked his greasy fingers in a little rubber band that ran from the device he’d been checking on. “Ttesting the alternator buh-buh-buh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh—“ Sam didn’t say anything. Bobby didn’t say anything. Castiel didn’t say anything. He got the feeling that it was supposed to be awkward, that maybe the other people in the shop thought it was awkward or just thought he thought it was awkward, but Castiel just waited with his hands balled on the stool between his legs. He’d never seen Dean block so hard before. Possibly because he’d never really seen Dean try to talk. But Dean’s face froze, and he looked down. He took his fingers from the alternator whatever-it-was and grasped hard at the grille of the car. His knuckles went white and his bottom jaw clicked out past his top jaw once, twice, three times, four. He stopped making sound to accompany the tic around his eyes. Eventually, he slapped an open palm on the hood of the car above him and said, “—belt,” vindictively. The image of John Winchester at the head of the church, slapping his hand on the pulpit, came to his mind.

It was silent for a moment more, and then Castiel said, “What does the alternator belt do?” with genuine curiosity. Dean looked at him like he’d just denied any part in a crime that Dean had witnessed him committing.

Then Sam burst out laughing from across the room. “What the hell Dean, you said ‘alternator’ but not ‘belt’? You’re so lame!”

Dean’s face shed about five layers of concern in a little under a second, and he chucked a greasy rag toward where his brother was full-belly laughing. It landed right on top of Sam’s shaggy head.

“Shaddap!” Dean said, but he was smiling. The air in the whole room felt lighter.

“Well, ya idjit. Answer the man’s question!”

Wonder of all wonders, Dean did. Tension thus broken, he stumbled through an approachable, if blunt, explanation of the alternator and what it meant when his alternator belt was loose. Which, it turned out, it was. Castiel watched him replace it, and asked him questions, and when he got the bill, Castiel got the strong sense he’d been given a discount despite Bobby’s earlier assertion that he hadn’t. When he said as much, Bobby just called him and “idjit” again and told him to “scoot.”

By Friday, Castiel had decided that he hated freewrites, and that he couldn’t care less about literacy and grammar and improving writing ability. He was going to reduce the freewrites to one day a week. A month. A year. He was exhausted of reading what amounted to a novel’s worth of adolescent angst each night. Early that morning, he stumbled into the teacher’s lounge looking for coffee. Gabriel was there with six full Tupperware containers and a little white bottle. Castiel tried not to be nosy, but he couldn’t help looking over Gabriel’s shoulder as he poured himself coffee from the pot by the microwave, and he overflowed the boiling liquid onto his fingers when he saw Gabriel systematically spooning white powder into a Tupperware container full of vanilla pudding.

“You seem like a pretty cool guy,” Gabriel said, mixing the powder until it was undetectable in the pudding, then tapping the spoon over the side of the container. He made hungry eyes at the spoon, but then he very carefully set it untouched next to the container, sealed everything, and put it in the fridge. “Not like the rest of the St. Charles bozos, are ya?”

Castiel put the coffee pot back on its burner and shook the liquid off his fingers. “I did go to St. Charles,” he said. “I like to think that I am not a bozo.”

Gabriel laughed, then opened the next container of sweets and began judiciously distributing the white powder there, too. “Don’t we all, brother. Don’t we all.” He patted Castiel on the back. “I’m going to assume you aren’t the food stealing culprit though, right?” Castiel shook his head. “Good! Do you know who is?”

Castiel looked at the door as if the culprit might appear and carefully considered his loyalties. “I, uh.” Gabriel laughed.

“Don’t worry, Castiel. I won’t make you rat out your little Fightin’ Angel buddies. I’ll know the perpetrator soon enough, anyway.” He put the lid on the second container, placed that carefully in the fridge as well. It was then that Castiel got a good look at the white container on the counter.

“Laxatives?” he asked, perhaps sounding a little relieved by the confirmation that it wasn’t rat poison and he wasn’t witnessing premeditated murder.

Gabriel’s bowed mouth split with a telling grin, and he started on the third container. This one was filled with greasy potato salad, and Gabriel, in a clear disregard for any sort of dosing instructions, forewent the spoon this time and just overturned a little pile of white powder straight on top of the potato salad. He glanced at the clock, said, “Here, make yourself useful,” and thrust the container at Castiel with a big spoon. Castiel, after only a moment’s hesitation, took the container and began stirring tentatively. “Gotta hurry or someone might catch us and ruin the whole experiment! You’re here awfully early today. I didn’t think I’d have a partner in crime.”

Castiel shrugged. “My car had been in the shop until Wednesday evening, and I had been getting into work late. I felt the need to make up for lost time.”

Gabriel cast a glance over his shoulder. “God, that’s right, you went to Singer Salvage, didn’t you? I remember I liked you for a reason, you ballsy bastard. You must be new here.”

Castiel’s stirring slowed. “I went to school in the city. I was mostly raised in my mother’s home out here. I’m afraid I don’t understand why everyone keeps telling me that.”

Gabriel had a face built for disbelief, a light brow that could spring from heavy consternation to raised incredulity in a split second. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not exactly in the same Jesus fan club as them so I couldn’t hope to know all the ins and outs. But Uriel said that you went to church with him on Sundays, and, uh, you gotta know the fold isn’t exactly friendly to those kids? Or anyone connected to them, especially Bobby Singer. Nearly the whole town started boycotting that place right around the time when Dean ‘dropped out’ this January.” Gabriel made scare quotes around dropped out, and Castiel shook his head. Then Gabriel leaned up on the balls of his feet to see into the Tupperware container that Castiel had stopped stirring. “Dude, that’s still all grainy. You want this assmunch catching on?”

Castiel was surprised when he felt chastised about incorrectly stirring a laxative into food meant for his employer. He started stirring again in earnest. “I wasn’t aware that the Winchesters’ fall from grace was religious in nature.” It was incredible that one of Gabriel’s eyebrows could achieve such altitude and the other such depth.

“You’re kidding, right? Everything in this stupid suburb is about the church. You hafta’ve noticed the way that church members have infiltrated the faculty here, right? I’m still givin’ it the old college try at teaching evolution, but I’m pretty sure it’s only a matter of time before I get canned. Gotta take our little victories where we can, right man?” He tipped the Tupperware at Castiel. Castiel felt his brow furrow and said nothing. “Y’know, you go places like Singer Salvage, you might be on the chopping block, too,” he said, with genuine feeling.

“The Winchesters are good boys.” Gabriel took the potato salad from Castiel’s hands gently. He inspected the texture, and he must’ve deemed it appropriate, because he put the lid on and placed it in the fridge with great tenderness. “Dean Winchester has a good soul.”

“You sound like my girlfriend. Just ask her. She’ll tell you all about Dean Winchester getting the short end of each and every stick. I’m almost worried about the competition sometimes, you feel me?” He jabbed Castiel in the ribs with his elbow and winked.

Castiel agreed, “Dean Winchester is quite handsome.” Gabriel busted out laughing.

“Oh goddamn, Cas, I like you. Have they invited you to one of their creepy nights out in the white room, yet?” Castiel thought of that first outing in the bright, modern bar.

“Yes.” In hindsight, creepy was perhaps a good word for the experience.

“Well, how’d you like to come out with my girlfriend and I? Compare and contrast the experiences?” Castiel shut the fridge door with grave finality.

“That sounds good.”

“Excellent!” Gabriel said, and slung an arm around his shoulder. “Do you want to pick the strip joint or shall I?”

On Saturday, Castiel read Sam Winchester’s last freewrite of the week with the same trepidation he had approached everyone else’s, because they were starting to get quite bold in their responses and maybe they all believed that by the end of the first week of school, he was no longer reading them. They were half right. He had skimmed many, taking note of participation in his gradebook. But Sam’s first line caught his attention.

Sam Winchester

Hour 4, Freshman Honors English

Mr. Novak

Freewrite Prompt: Who is your hero?

My hero is not my dad. That was not the question, but my hero is not my dad. My hero is anyone but my dad. My hero is so far on the other side of the “my dad” spectrum, my hero is probably defined by all of the things my father is not and does not do.

  1. My hero doesn’t drink. My hero doesn’t try to drain his problems out the bottom of a bottle, because my hero realizes that bottles have bottoms to them, and all the problems just fill it up and spill everything right back out.
  2. My hero doesn’t yell. My hero can just talk. My hero likes to chat things out. Well, okay, not really. I mean, not always, but he’s okay with having a conversation that doesn’t end in us arguing from different sides of the house and dogs barking along with us from three houses up the road. My hero listens.
  3. My hero trusts me. My hero knows that I’m an intelligent human being and not some kind of puppet. My hero trusts the fact that I can make decisions for myself. My hero wants me to do well in school so that I can maybe go to college and get a job and be away from the damn darn suburbs. Did I mention that my hero listens? My hero is a very good listener.
  4. My hero has a job. My hero has more than one job. My hero has three jobs, and still works odd jobs on the side, and my hero doesn’t complain over the fact that he doesn’t do anything for himself and I’ll never know why.
  5. My hero makes me dinner. My hero buys me shoes. My hero remembers my birthday. My hero knows how old I am.
  6. My hero is not a Marine. My hero will never be a Marine because he cannot be a Marine, though I know how much he wishes for it sometimes. My hero is still capable of love because of it, though.

My hero is everything that my father is not, and yet my hero chooses to define himself through my father. And he’ll never measure up because no one ever can.

(Please don’t tell Dean. He’d be so embarrassed.)

Chapter Text

Uriel redoubled his efforts to keep Castiel company after he heard about Castiel’s encounter with Singer Salvage, and Castiel realized, as Uriel was staring at him blandly over a cup of tea at his mother’s dining room table on Saturday, that it was perhaps less of an effort to keep him company and more an effort to keep him under his thumb. He wondered, vaguely, if Uriel even liked him.

That Sunday, Uriel took him to church again, and the sermon was as bland as the giant church itself. He found himself looking out for John Winchester, kept looking up to see if he was asleep at the back of the church, but this Sunday, he didn’t show.

The Pastor’s name was Samuel Campbell, and he really liked to talk about lambs and folds and being inside versus being outside, like there was some wall dividing them from everyone else in the world, like they were special or like they were the favored ones just because they sat in this stuffy room for a few hours a week. And the more he talked about the distinction and the walls, the more Castiel felt that maybe he was being shoved out of a room. Pastor Campbell’s first sermon last week had been about helping those less fortunate, but this one had a definitive bite to it. Castiel had never attended a church service more alienating, like Christ’s love was some sort of inclusive club and Pastor Campbell was the bouncer. But everyone else nodded and mumbled agreement and congratulated the pastor on an excellent sermon.

It was strange how many people still approached him about his mother. His mother had died over a year ago. He felt strangely disconnected and numb from her memory, and maybe he had to, living in her house. Being so close to so many pieces of her would feel worse, somehow, if he didn’t make an effort to separate himself at least a little bit. But people seemed endeared to him, close to him, welcoming him into their fold simply because his mother had believed what they believe, and now Castiel was following in her footsteps. An old woman approached him as he was trying to squirm his way through the overwhelming throng of churchgoers to lay a spindly hand on his arm.

“Naomi would be proud,” she said, “that you’re doing God’s will at that school.” Castiel smiled at her, and it pulled strangely at his face.

When Uriel dropped him off at home, he commented on the state of Castiel’s yard again and his lack of a yard boy, looking up and down the block like he was concerned about the status of the neighborhood if Castiel let his grass get so long if listed to the side a little bit. And okay, Castiel hadn’t cut it at all since he’d moved in a little over a month ago, but he’d had other things on his mind, and he’d never had to care for a lawn on his own before. In keeping with the philosophy of the other good churchgoers, apparently, his mother had a gardener that came once a week to take care of everything for them. Castiel thought about that old woman’s hand and startled himself with rebellious desire to cut his own grass.

So that afternoon, he changed into khaki shorts and a white button-down, strapped himself into a corded, brimmed hat, and drowned himself in sunscreen before he tromped to the old garden shed in the backyard with all his misinformed determination. He had to tromp back inside once to get the key to the rusted padlock barring the door, but it hardly broke his stride, and once he had managed to access the garden tools, he knew that he would be in serious yard-cutting business.

Except that the power mower wouldn’t start.

He had never done the yard work before, granted, but he was fairly certain that it just involved pulling the cord on the mower and getting it going. He pulled it several more times. He tried to put more of his shoulder and back into it, and when that didn’t work, he began to think that maybe the silly thing was out of gas. He cast around the shed for the red gas tank he knew was living somewhere around there, and there it was, half-full by a coiled-up garden hose in the corner. He filled the tank, pulled the cord again and again and again.

All the wind went out of his sails. It was still warm for September, autumn hadn’t yet hit its stride and the leaves hadn’t really started falling from the trees in earnest. He found that there was sweat running in rivulets down his brow. His eyes started burning from the sunblock. In the relative darkness of the shed, the sting in his eyes seemed to be mocking him.

He loaded the power mower into the back of his car and took off for Singer Salvage. It was the next best rebellious action he could think of, and it would lead to him fixing up his own lawn, and he…

If he was honest, he wanted to see the Winchester boys again.

The atmosphere was different in Singer Salvage when he arrived, though, and perhaps it was the addition of the dark-haired man against the back wall of the shop. When Castiel entered, trailing his useless lawnmower behind him, he took note of the positions of each member of the Winchester family in relation to one another. Dean was hunched over a minivan in the center of the shop, broad back to Castiel. Bobby was only visible in the form of a baseball cap in the windowed office. Sam was hunched in the corner defensibly, knees to his chest and eyes squinted over the top of a book. And John Winchester was sitting on a tall bench, beer bottle held loosely in his fingers, looking vaguely between his sons. No one was talking, but Castiel had the creeping feeling that he was interrupting something nonetheless.

“Ah, hello,” Castiel intoned mildly. Dean perked up so quickly he hit the back of his head on the hood of the minivan.

“Ssssonuvabitch!” he cried, and Sam lost his slouch against the wall and, alarmed, lifted a hand toward Dean. Bobby poked his head out of the office with a baffled expression on his face. John didn’t say anything, but he rolled his head languidly on his neck until he was facing Castiel.

“Mr. Novak,” Sam said blankly. Castiel suddenly felt a little silly. Was their shop even open today? He had assumed they would be happy to see him, because he knew that they wanted all the business they could get. But he’d just been here a little more than a few days ago, and it was silly to believe that just because the sermon had alienated him enough to feel slightly marginalized elsewhere, he was welcome to interact with this group of people that he hardly knew anytime he wanted.

“I’m sorry. It’s a Sunday afternoon; I’m clearly interrupting.”

“No!” Dean barked, more quickly than it would have taken him to think out the response, which was unusual for Dean. Dean made critical eyes at his bare legs under the khaki shorts and said, “It’s fine. Whu-whu-whu-huh-hut you got?” He inclined his head toward the lawnmower Castiel was trailing.

“Another job for Dean?” Sam asked. “Dean liked the extra work from your crappy old car, right, Dean?”

Dean nodded. “Don’t do llllllawnmowers much.” He crouched by the old thing, and from the way his eyes flicked between Cas and the machine, Cas and the machine, he was thinking are you serious? “At all. That thu-thing’s old,” he said.

“Yes. I’m afraid my mother left me a shed full of tools that I simply don’t know how to use.” Dean ran his hands over the top of the lawnmower, looking for cracks or deformities or…something. Sam watched interestedly from the corner, but every once in a while his eyes would shoot back to his father near the back of the shop. Not nervously though—defiantly, like a parent daring their child to misbehave in front of company. Bobby had given up on the proceedings altogether, retreating back into his office. Castiel wondered if he should make an effort to introduce himself to Mr. Winchester since it was clear neither of his children were going to do it for him. He hadn’t expected that Dean would, but Sam was inclined toward social niceties from what Castiel had seen. He didn’t want to introduce himself, because that would implicate him in the town’s nosiness, and it wasn’t necessarily something he wanted to be involved in. He definitely didn’t want to let Sam and Dean know how much he knew about their family.

“It’s alright if you don’t have time to work on it right now. I saw that you were working on another project when I came in. That is probably more pressing.” Dean waved his hand dismissively. His face said, say no more, and his lips twisted with the unsaid words. Then he flipped the lawnmower over.

Castiel had almost forgotten that John Winchester was there by the time Dean found the source of the problem underneath the mower. Admittedly, he was a bit busy watching Dean’s broad hands skim over the little mower’s guts, skillfully tugging and twisting and testing all the basics in the machine. His fingers found a cut line that leaked a bit of fluid onto his hands when he reached it. He rooted around for a moment, searching for the other end of the tubing, and then crowed enthusiastically when he found it. He looked at Castiel with the ends of the tube in either hand and smiled brightly. On the other side of the room, John snorted.

Sam’s head jerked in John’s direction so quickly it looked as if someone had pulled him on a leash. Dean’s smile grew a little uncertain, but he remained undeterred from the task at hand. Castiel tread carefully, his heart stuttering to the tune of that silence in Uriel’s car those few weeks ago.

What about Mrs. Winchester?

“Ah—what does that do? Or rather, what is it supposed to do?”

Dean got so far as “it’s the” before he blocked hard on a word that started with the letter “f.” He tried for a full thirty seconds, stuttering out frequent unintentional “ums” inbetween gasping breaths he couldn’t seem to stop, before he turned away from Castiel, away from his father, away from Sam in the corner. Castiel could still see the muscles in his back twitching and writhing as he made a visible effort to calm himself down. But his breathing was just intensifying, and his fists were clenching hard at his sides, and Castiel realized, then, what exactly he’d been doing that first night in front of that bar. He’d been trying to reel in his stutter. He’d been trying to regain control.

Then a switch seemed to flip, and John slurred, “Christ, Dean, just fuckin’ breathe through it.”

Castiel had been around grand total of two stutterers in his lifetime—Dean included—but he knew enough to know that was probably the wrong thing to say in this situation. But Dean heard, nodded, and seemed to genuinely be doing his best to follow his father’s orders. He clenched, unclenched, clenched, unclenched his fists. Wriggled his fingers. He breathed in through his nose, out through his mouth. It was clearly an old routine that he was trying to push himself through.

But then Sam was off from across the room, screaming his disagreement at his father. “Dad, you know that doesn’t mean anything! You know it doesn’t mean anything when you tell him to do that! You just have to wait for him to get it out!”

John hopped gracelessly from his stool and staggered over to Castiel’s side as Sam was still protesting impotently from his station across the room. John leaned down, got his own broad hands into the lawnmower. He had the same square fingernails as Dean. “It’s your goddamn fuel line,” John said. “It’s wore right out. Stop fucking around and just go get him a new one, Dean. Jesus. Jesus.” He took another swig of his beer, and Castiel was so busy wordlessly studying this strange vision of parental ineptitude that he didn’t notice Bobby appear behind John to place a firm hand on his shoulder. Neither Sam nor Bobby looked apologetic or guilty like Dean did, though. Dean looked as if he’d kicked Castiel’s puppy when he turned around to get another hose from the wall of spare parts across the room. Bobby steered John toward the office, and when they reached it, he definitively shut the door. Sam collapsed against the wall, and he only looked at Dean for a second before he looked fervently back down at his book, face completely red.

Dean returned and wouldn’t look at him. Castiel couldn’t stop trying to catch his eye, though, which he didn’t gather was a mistake until Dean had avoided his eye for a full five minutes and Castiel successfully parsed Sam’s pointed stare downward. Dean probably didn’t want the attention. Didn’t want anyone looking at him. Didn’t need the extra attention right now, as he tried to untangle and loosen out.

They stayed completely silent as Dean popped off the severed fuel line and tested a few different sizes of tubing to see if they would hold. At this point, he could see it was just dogged determination making Dean finish the job. From the office, they could hear the muffled sounds of what was undoubtedly a tired, well-worn argument. He could practically see the grooves in their lives, the tracks of this conversation pressed deep into Dean’s lined face.

Castiel took a deep breath and said, “What does the fuel line do?”

When Dean looked at him, his pupils were pinpricks and his eyes looked bright. He wasn’t smiling.

Across the room Sam said, “No, Mr. Novak, it’s a nice thought but, I mean. Maybe you should go.”

“Alright,” he said calmly. He rose to his feet and dusted off his pant legs. “You can tell me later.”

Dean didn’t look at him as he walked out the door.

In school the next day, Sam approached his desk during lunch period. Out in the hallway, he saw a brown head peek in occasionally, clearly waiting for Sam.

“Dean told me to say I’m sorry to you. He insisted, actually, and he usually doesn’t do that much talking after. Dad. So. I’m sorry, I guess. He said the repairs on your lawnmower were on the house.”

“Please, I’d really like to be able to pay your brother for the things he’s done. And you have nothing to apologize for, Sam.”

Sam huffed out a flustered breath, “Yeah, I know, try telling Dean that! But he’s just so fucking stubborn. Oh shit, please don’t report me for swearing. Crap. Geez, please don’t report me.”

Castiel had been wearing reading glasses to skim a grammatical worksheet from his pre-lunch classes, but he took them off to get a better look at Sam. He looked sullen, sleep-deprived, and a little frantic. Like maybe this was the first available moment he could find to go talk to his teacher, but he’d been stewing over the words he would say for hours before he actually got a chance to.

“I won’t, Sam.” Sam slumped into one of the desks at the front of the room. He should tell Sam to leave now. This school and this town were already far more involved in the lives of the Winchesters than was right for those boys, and Castiel should turn a blind eye and take a reasonable step back from the very blatant favoritism he was nursing. “Sam, does that happen often? Your father—undermining your brother like that?” But it was strange—he found that he couldn’t.

Sam nodded miserably. “When Dean was younger. After—well. He went to this—bullshit therapist. I don’t know. I can’t remember the therapist very well. I was young. I just know that Dean was—really disfluent. Could hardly get a sentence out at first. And Dad didn’t.” Sam’s fists clenched on top of the desk. The brown head at the door peeked around the corner to look inside. “Dean tells me all the time that Dad didn’t used to be like he is now. Always talks about how he wasn’t this—angry. I’m not sure I believe him, because he’s been this way for pretty much as long as I remember. Dad took him to a therapist, but I don’t think he was very good, or maybe he just didn’t understand, because he gave Dad all this really horrible advice, and now he feeds it to Dean every chance he gets. And whenever I hear him say breathe through it or slow down and power through, Ace I just want to scream. I mean, what does that even mean?” Sam deepened his voice to imitate John, then he ran a hand over his mouth in a motion Castiel was almost certain he’d seen on Dean before. And then, weakly, like there was a part of him that wanted to believe in his father as well, “I think he really believed that Dean was just gonna get better. I think he still believes that it can go away. He’s a lot more patient with Dean’s disfluency when he’s sober...”

Sam hovered at the end of the sentence in and unspoken but…

But he probably wasn’t sober all that often. This was the difficult part of becoming this involved. Was it Castiel’s responsibility now to take John Winchester’s kids away from him? Sam threw around drinking and drunk and when he’s sober, but the thing that neither of them said was alcoholic. John Winchester was an alcoholic. But Dean was eighteen, and he could remove himself from the situation if he really wanted to. Couldn’t he? Castiel was involved, yes, but he wasn’t acting to help the boys and didn’t know how he could. Maybe that was worse than never getting involved at all. Because it certainly felt worse for Castiel.

“I’ve been reading your freewrites,” Castiel said carefully. “Did you mean what you said? About getting him a speech therapist now?”

Sam colored. Castiel knew personally the disconnect between writing something and knowing that it would eventually be seen, and writing something and finding out that someone had been reading it. His mother had written books, and she had chastised Castiel whenever he talked about having read them. Finding out that Castiel had read and remembered, specifically, what he had wanted for his brother had to be a little humiliating. Sam was one of the most collected teenage boys Castiel had ever met, but he was still just a teenage boy.

Samandriel had seen a speech therapist once a week for the entirety of his childhood, Castiel knew. That was how he’d progressed as far as he had—at least in part. From the sounds of it, Dean had seen a speech therapist for a few weeks when he’d first exhibited the stutter, and that speech therapist had done little more than give their father a whole lot of bad habits.

“Of course. I want him…it’s almost worse now, y’know? He can talk to me alright, but I’m the only one. He panics in social situations and he stutters—sorry. He’s more disfluent. He hardly has any friends. When he was in school, he had to talk sometimes, and he had a teacher who was really helping him out… But she dropped off the map, and he dropped out, and now he just buries himself in work. He’s just regressing farther and farther into himself.” Sam spoke like someone who had spent a very long time on the internet researching his brother’s condition. That is to say, he sounded just one degree away from really knowing what he was talking about, but there was so much warm concern in his tone that is almost made up for it. “What happens when I go to college and he can’t order himself a cheeseburger when Dad’s around without hyperventilating?”

Castiel waited as Sam considered, glancing briefly out into the hallway for the whisper of brown hair around the corner. He craned his neck until he saw it and then looked at Castiel again.

Castiel asked wryly, “Who is waiting for you?”

Sam clearly hadn’t expected that question. “Ah—Ruby. My friend Ruby.”

It was such a strange relief to hear that Sam, at least, had friends. He seemed to calm a bit at the mention of her name. He hadn’t ever seen Sam being very close with anyone in class, and he—he had been concerned that perhaps the cruelty of the town had extended so far as to take away the boy’s social outlets, and it was good to hear it hadn’t. Castiel nodded and smiled softly.

“Okay, Sam. So, you believe that Dean needs a speech therapist. I have someone that helped out one of my childhood friends if the two of you would like to consult with him about Dean’s specific needs in greater detail.”

That did not get the reaction that Castiel was expecting. Sam looked a little indignant, then. “You obviously weren’t reading my freewrite very closely.”

Ah, of course. The caveat. “Your family doesn’t have the money.”

“We’re not starving or anything. Dean—does his best.” He tapped his nails on the desk in front of him. Castiel said nothing about the fact that it should not even be Dean’s responsibility in the first place. “We don’t really have insurance coverage, either, anyway. Bobby is doing his best to keep me covered. He and Dad used to own the shop together before Dad sorta went off the deep end, so he always kept Dean covered before, but he’s eighteen now and Bobby can’t do a lot for him. He’d have to pay out of pocket for insurance, and we don’t have that either. And anyway. It would have to be—my money. I want to do it for Dean. I don’t think Dean would ever do this for himself.”

And here was where personal involvement took one step too far, Castiel knew that absolutely. He had a paycheck that he wasn’t really spending now that he was living rent free in his mother’s old place. But no, even he knew that it was too much to offer hundreds of dollars to one of his students and the older brother that he hardly knew, even if it was very freely and willingly given. And something told him that Dean Winchester would never accept it anyway. However, something else came to mind.

“How are you at yard work?” Castiel asked.

Sam Winchester was not at all what Uriel had in mind when he had said “yard boy,” but Sam certainly knew his way around a trowel and a hedge trimmer and a gardening hose.

“We live in a crappy old apartment,” Sam said, eyeing Castiel’s too-big Victorian house with closely-guarded jealousy, “But I’ve always wanted a house with a big yard to play around in. Keep a dog in.”

He came home with Castiel that Friday after school and Castiel showed him the shed in the back and let him have at it. Castiel made him lemonade while he fussed with the flowerbeds out front. “First thing’s first!” Sam had said. It was the thing that had driven him to distraction when they’d come up the drive—the deluge of weeds in all his late-blooming flowers that Castiel insisted would be dead soon anyway like a petulant child. He tackled them with startling efficiency, determined and on his knees in front of the house, and Castiel was helpless to do much but bring him drinks and try to stay out of the way as he sprayed dirt and dug weeds and generally just “got the beds ready for winter.” He sat outside with him in the early September warmth and discussed Orwell and Wordsworth and Dean.

“I liked ‘The World is Too Much With Us,’” he said, tenderly pulling out weeds from around the base of a perennial flower that Castiel had absolutely nothing to do with. His mother had died over a year ago, now. The neighbors had done the most basic lawn care in Castiel’s absence—he had arranged as much after his mother’s funeral, before he left town again—but they hadn’t cared for the trees or the plant beds at all. All of the flowers were strange, achy remnants of his mother’s life here. “Dean hated it. He’s not exactly a ‘back to nature’ guy.”

“I don’t blame him. I must admit it’s even a bit extreme for my tastes, but it’s required reading for freshmen.” If he was honest, Castiel thought Wordsworth was a bit of a hack. He hated analyzing his poems in class. Especially poems like “The World is Too Much With Us,” where the meanings were so obscenely clear, the message so glaringly obvious, Castiel’s first inclination was to say alright, everyone got it? Good. and move on. Castiel had cut his teeth on religious texts all the way through college, and there was nothing quite like a lost biblical passage in terms of hidden, encrypted meanings. Not only that, but Wordsworth was a proponent of a message that was so overwrought and so overdone ever since industrialization had started. Everyone loved to preach that human beings did not appreciate mother earth enough, and it wasn’t without merit, but Castiel liked reading about humans so much more. Human experiences. Industrialization and innovation. Humans were much more interesting than nature.

“Do you read all of your homework with your brother?” Castiel asked. Sam was pulling up flowers now. Castiel had been slightly upset by that earlier, but Sam explained that they were choking each other. They needed more room in the bed so they could breathe because they’d gotten out of control without regular care. Again, much of what Sam said sounded like it had been taken off a “How To” website, and Castiel found he quite liked the mental image of Sam at the library for hours at a time, looking up stuttering and speech therapy, the finer points of pruning bushes and how to maintain perennials, even though it was also just a little bit sad.

“Well, sometimes. Dean works all the time, and he’s quiet a lot now. But he’s still—social. He likes it when people talk to him and he doesn’t have to talk back. I’ve read to Dean since I was little.” He got a fond smile on his face, looking down into the ground, absently patting the dirt where he’d just torn out a flower. “I remember a while ago, Dean was working nights stocking a grocery store. He was like fourteen or fifteen, I must’ve been ten or eleven. He’d just gotten old enough to look old enough to get a job.” Castiel squirmed uncomfortably where he was seated in the grass. “Anyway, he’d take me into work with him even though he wasn’t supposed to, ‘cause Dad was gone a lot, but it was a big superstore so it wasn’t like they could monitor all the employees all the time. And he’d be working one aisle, and I’d be the next aisle over, reading through the holes in the shelves as he stocked them. This one time he got so into the story, he knocked over like, a whole shelf of pickle jars trying to hear it better.” Sam laughed. “He spent the rest of the night cleaning it up, but he heard the end of the story.”

Castiel smiled and tugged at the grass stalks by his leg. They shared a comfortable silence. Something just wasn’t adding up, though. “Your brother dropped out of high school,” Castiel said flatly.

Sam’s smile disappeared, and he resumed tearing up plants, perhaps with a bit more force than before. “Doesn’t mean he doesn’t like to learn. I’d like him to get his GED. I told him I’d help him get his GED. It’s not like he felt good about dropping out, you know? He was so close. But they forced him out. He had to.” And Sam wouldn’t say anything more about that.

At around seven, Dean pulled up in a junker from Bobby’s lot with Castiel’s lawnmower in the trunk. He spotted Sam and Castiel immediately, waved, and moved around back to pull the mower out. By that point, Sam had graduated to the hedges. He was doing a rather violent job of pruning them where they had become overgrown—which was pretty much everywhere—and Castiel had been on the verge of asking him if maybe that bush has had enough, hm? when Dean started toward them.

Dean looked much better than the last time Castiel had seen him. He was smiling, and when he reached Castiel, he held up one finger, then pointed down at the mower, and then reached down and yanked hard at the starter cord. The lawnmower roared into life. Dean smiled, raised his eyebrows, shrugged with his palms open and up, and mouthed I’m awesome! at Castiel. With the roar of the mower, he couldn’t hear anyone, and in that moment, there was no difference between Sam and Dean. Sam rolled his eyes and reached down to turn the mower off. It sputtered to silence. In the late September evening, birdsong became audible again. The wind sighed through the trees, and Dean’s silence was palpable.

Just when Castiel was about to address Dean, he held up his pointer finger again, a one second! gesturethis time, and then he rushed back to the car and started to root around in the backseat. Sam and Castiel exchange curious glances, and when Dean emerged from the backseat, he was carrying a giant covered pot.

“Oh,” Sam whispered, voice cracking a bit. “He made you stew.”

He had made Castiel stew. Thick and hearty and spicy, it would have made Uriel’s lentil soup weep in jealousy. It was clear from the way he had tried to foist the giant pot on Castiel right out there on the lawn that he hadn’t intended to stay for his own dinner, but Castiel refused to take the pot, ushering Dean inside instead. Dean had frozen on the threshold, big work boots dancing a little tentatively in front of the plush carpet that marked the end of his mother’s entryway, like maybe he didn’t think he was clean enough. Castiel, who was covered in dirt just from watching Sam root around in his flowerbeds, made a point to step around him and right onto the pretentious flooring. Sam had trounced in a few minutes afterward, exhibiting far less concern for his mother’s things.

It was funny, though. The more Dean warmed to his surroundings, the more his mannerisms seemed to thaw. By the time they had put the pot on the stove to heat it and were sitting down to dinner all together, Dean had decided it was alright to kick his feet up into the opposite dining room chair, to chew with his mouth open to gross out his little brother, and to pick up a piece of beef from where it had fallen from his spoon onto the table in order to put it right back into his mouth. He was beginning to realize that Dean was shameless in every way except one. Ten minutes into dinner, Dean still hadn’t said a single word.

“So, Dean,” Castiel said after Sam had finished chatting about something that occurred in his history class. “You never answered my question.”

Sam’s face darkened, but Dean just looked curious as he shoveled another spoonful of soup into his mouth.

“What does the fuel line do?” Sam looked conflicted, and Dean looked like he didn’t know how to react. He just looked at Castiel for a moment before he absolutely burst out laughing, and it sounded so pleasant and unhindered coming from his mouth. It took Sam a moment before he was able to smile.

“Juh-juh-juh-juh-jeeeesus, Cas, you duhdon’t quit,“ he said. “It um-um it-um it-um-um-um-um.“ He stopped. His mouth flapped without sound. His brow twitched. His breath came out in a hard snort through his nose. Castiel was placid and immovable. He had definitely seen him communicate better than this.

“Dean, did you work a double at the bar last night?” Sam wheedled. Dean nodded reluctantly. “You shoulda taken a nap or something, geez.”

Dean glared. “Not a baby,” he gritted out determinedly, pausing a little between words.

“Yeah, Dean, babies don’t work all night at a bar, and then get up and work all day at an auto shop, and then take off and make a giant pot of soup out of some weird misplaced guilt. We know you’re not a baby. You’re a person who needs sleep.” Sam shifted his attention to Castiel. “It gets worse when he’s tired.”

Dean’s clenched his jaw, and Castiel could see the muscles jump. He glared murderously at Sam—don’t talk about me like I’m not here!—and Sam baited him with pursed lips, a condescending pout, and some dubiously raised eyebrows.

“Bbbbbbitchface, Sammy!”

Castiel laughed. Dean shifted a little, lost his thread, glancing at him and licking his lips as Castiel’s chuckles petered off. He took in Dean’s discomfort and realized how the whole situation could have been misconstrued.

“I’m not laughing at you, Dean,” he said. Sam and Dean’s smiles faded abruptly to twin expressions of disbelief. “I’m not. You should be made aware. You seem self-conscious about when you stuttered just now, and I want you to know that it wasn’t anything to laugh at.” It wasn’t disbelief anymore—it was sheer incomprehension. His eyes skimmed Castiel’s face and then settled on his eyes. Green, Castiel noted. He had green eyes. He searched Castiel’s eyes long and hard without saying a word, his Adam’s apple bobbing around hard swallows. Maybe he was looking for disingenuousness, insincerity. Castiel did not make an effort to break the gaze, but looked calmly and openly back, knowing he would find nothing. Castiel got the strong sense that no one had ever told Dean that before.

Sam cleared his throat loudly, and Dean was the first to inhale and break away. “You’re a wuh-wuh-wuh-wuhwweird dude. And the fuh-uh-uh-uh-uhel line is exactly what it um it-um-um-um-um sounds lllllike.”

It was the most consecutive words Castiel had heard Dean say today. His chest gave a little flutter, just like it had before, when Dean had explained the workings of the alternator. He had a very nice voice. It was deep, and his words were a just a little bit rounded and rough in his mouth when spoke, like a verbal limp.

“A line for fuel?”


“To…carry the fuel to other parts of the mower?”

“Fuh-fuh-fuh-fuhfuuuuhking yes.

“Alright,” Castiel said, and went back to eating his stew.

He paid Sam fifty dollars for the afternoon of work, and Sam’s face lit with excitement. As they were walking to the car, Dean’s arm slung over Sam’s shoulder, he heard Dean ask, “S’that fuh-fuh-fuh-fuhfor more nerd buh-uh-uh-uh-uhooks, Sammy?”

Sam said, “Something like that.”

Castiel dreamed of Balthazar that night, and he was quite thankful, at first, that it wasn’t Anna this time. Even in his dream. Sex with Balthazar had been fun and exciting and experimental when it wasn’t humiliating and degrading and panic-inducing. Balthazar had been very opportunistic about it, had started coming on to Castiel not long after he’d confided that he felt strange about going home during school breaks now, as if his mother’s very shadow would be enough to stop Castiel even thinking about another man.

His dream was colored strangely by his mother’s non-presence, there and not there in the way that only dream substance can be. He dreamed Balthazar fucking him. Balthazar had only fucked him maybe four times—both Castiel and Balthazar preferred it the other way around whenever they had the patience or discipline to get up to something so involved—and of course he couldn’t even dream of the third or fourth times, where it had started to get fun, where he had only begun to really think that maybe he understood why people could enjoy this. Instead it was the second time, where Castiel had been upset by something and had wanted to give up control and had ended up giving up too much. Where he’d been hurt and uncomfortable and hadn’t ended up coming at all, even though Balthazar had sunk to his knees afterward in an attempt to give him a very apologetic blowjob when he realized how awful Castiel felt.

The dream amplified all the things he felt that night tenfold with absolute crystal clarity. Balthazar biting him on the throat, Balthazar running hands down his back, over his ass, possessive. Balthazar entering him and punching the breath from his lungs. The dream was mostly a view of his hands in the sheets, bent over forward with his ass in the air as Balthazar nudged him none-too-gently back into place every time he tried to make the positioning more comfortable for himself. Sometimes Balthazar could be selfish and the both of them laughed it off, but there had been something about that night, the negative headspace he’d been in when they started, maybe, that made him feel wrecked and completely out of control by the time it was over.

Anna loomed in the darkness with her worn old copy of Slaughterhouse-Five in her hands and said, “Why won’t you read it? Someone took that choice away from you.” At some point, all the residual comfort that came from being fucked by Balthazar disappeared, and it was just the bedsheets, and the violent feeling of being fucked by someone, and his mother’s shadow, and Anna’s embarrassing presence, by the bed, on the side of the bed, stroking his hair. “I just want you to choose for yourself.”

At least Castiel did not wake with an erection this time.

Chapter Text

“You’re leaving for college tomorrow,” she said into his mouth. “Just once? I have a condom.”

Castiel licked his lips. It was late. The library would be closing in maybe a half hour, and they would be checking the unisex bathroom on the third floor before they locked the front door. If he actually did get around to having actual sex with Anna, he didn’t think time would be much of an issue, though. Castiel would be the first to admit his lack of experience and lack of prowess. Anna was wearing a big floppy dress that spread across the counter when she hopped backward and planted her behind gracelessly beside the sink. It was a tight fit between the pink soap dispenser and the paper towel machine. Castiel swallowed hard and ran his index finger tentatively over her knee. Her leg twitched at the sensation and she shamelessly rucked her skirt up around her hips, revealing plain white panties to the flickering light of the bathroom. Castiel had never really gotten around to touching Anna the way she touched him; she liked to do most of the exploring herself, and it took a moment for him to let his own hands follow the progress of the skirt up her left leg.

“I thought you hated me,” he said, moving closer, speaking into her mouth. “I thought you hated what I chose. How I was with you.”

“Is it wrong,” she said, shivering, “to think that I might still be able to change your mind?” Castiel could feel the heat of her through his pants the closer he moved. He was very familiar with the responses she could wring from him at this point, at least. His body knew well how to respond when Anna and her intoxicating scent was near. He felt himself harden in his pants.

“Yes,” he said. “I am leaving tomorrow. My bags are packed. I shouldn’t be with you now, my mother is expecting me at home.” Her hands went for his belt buckle, swiftly undid the zipper and then slipped deftly into his boxers. He found he couldn’t control the erratic thrusting of his hips up into her hand, driving toward the warmth at the core between her legs.

“Castiel,” she said, words gusting through his hair. “You could be so much better than what you are now. Than what your mom is trying to make you into. You should do what you want.” Castiel—faltered.

“It is what I want,” he said. She backed off from his shoulder, and looked down right into his eyes, her brow furrowed and her eyes sad. “I’m doing what I want.”

“Oh honey,” she said, running a hand through his hair. “No it’s not. You’re not.” She patted his cheek condescendingly. His erection was still throbbing in his pants, but he backed away.

“Do you know why I was here? I was returning that—stupid book you told me to read.”

Anna put her knees together so that her legs weren’t spread quite so lewdly across the counter. Castiel felt a little cold now that he wasn’t between them.

“Stupid? You mean Slaughterhouse-Five? I recommended that ages ago, and you’re just now getting to it?” Castiel nodded.

“’So it goes,’ right? Isn’t everything predetermined in that book, anyway? How could you read that and possibly think that the decisions I make here about my college and my life mean anything? Aren’t I being controlled? By my mother, by the Tralfamadorians—”

“They aren’t being controlled, god, did you miss the point completely? Don’t be so obtuse. Everything in life that’s going to happen is already going to happen because it already happened. They didn’t do it, they’re not controlling it, no one can control you, it’s just that time isn’t linear –”

“So there’s no free will, anyway. What’s the point? You’re so concerned I’m letting my mother make my decisions for me, but you believe in this book where it doesn’t even matter.”

She bit her lip, clenched at the pleats of her skirt. “There’s a difference between letting yourself be controlled and acknowledging that some things in your life are beyond your control, that you’re moving undeniably toward certain facts. You just need to—live in the moment. Give in to yourself, right? You could be fucking me up against the counter right now if you could make a simple distinction.”

Castiel looked at her coldly and began the embarrassing task of stuffing himself, still half hard, back into his pants.

“Castiel,” she said, “Goddamnit, don’t do this. I think that’s part of what Vonnegut is trying to say. That some people just let themselves be pulled and shit just moves forward, totally beyond their control.”

“And I think Vonnegut is garbage.”

She hopped off the counter and her skirt resettled in its proper place. “Fine then! Go to college and be exactly what your fucking mom wants you to be and don’t come crying to me when you realize that this isn’t you.”

“How on earth could you even begin to understand who I am? When I—” Castiel turned toward the door, fists clenched.

When I don’t even know myself.

“Oh, Cas,” she said. She stepped forward, and he could sense more than feel her hand hovering up around his ear, waiting to stroke his hair.

Castiel said, “Just leave me be, Anna.” And he walked out of the third floor unisex bathroom, downstairs, and straight out the front door. And maybe it was predetermined by someone, somewhere, that he would always go home to his mother for grace and goodbye dinner, because that’s exactly what he did.

Gabriel did not plan to actually take him to a strip club, for which Castiel was incredibly grateful. He said that they would have celebratory drinks in honor of Zachariah and the diarrhea that had kept him home sick from school for a full two days last week. Zachariah sent out an email to gravely warn the faculty of a “stomach bug” that, quite mysteriously, absolutely no one else had suffered from.

“Three of the containers were empty.” Gabriel’s little bowed mouth quirked up like a cat’s as he ticked the empty containers off on his fingers. “The man ate the entire container of pudding, all of the potato salad, and four of those little éclairs. God bless his poor little soul.” The wickedness came into his smile. “Assuming he didn’t flush it with everything else last week.”

“Why don’t we go to that place downtown—The Roadhouse?” Castiel suggested, perhaps denying to himself how much of his decision was driven by the thought of Dean bussing tables. Gabriel hesitated.

“My girlfriend is super not into that place. Had a uh—bad experience with a bowl of snacks there once, I think. How about the bar a few blocks over? Great music, minimal food-borne illnesses,” he waggled his eyebrows, “no strippers, as promised.”

“Oh,” Castiel said, barely concealing his disappointment. “Well that’s fine.”

They met that Saturday night, and Castiel probably should have been more wary when Gabriel started buying him drinks, but the lingering vestiges of the dream refused to be shaken, and he found that the idea of being intoxicated just then was more appealing than it would have been otherwise. Castiel hardly took noticed as Gabriel continued to order him increasingly outlandish drinks even as he himself continued nursing the same beer for the better part of two hours.

It was approaching nine o’clock when Castiel interrupted a story about sewers and alligators to ask, “Wasn’t your girlfriend supposed to meet us here?”

Gabriel checked his own watch. “Meet us, yes. Here, no. Though I guess we should probably get going soon, if we want to get there on time.” Gabriel gave a winning smile and tapped the table hard twice with his palm. Castiel’s head spun.

“I’m—confused. Where exactly are we going?” Gabriel shushed him and ordered him one more shot of straight whiskey just as he tipped back the last dregs of the same lukewarm beer from the beginning of their evening. The pieces slotted together.

“You said we could share a cab,” he growled accusingly.

“No, sir, you suggested we share a cab after your second Tequila Sunrise. If you’ll recall, I didn’t necessarily agree. Besides, why waste money on a cab? I’ll drive!” Gabriel’s smile was one of the most versatile Castiel had ever seen, so he was never quite sure how he was meant to interpret it. His muddled brain wasn’t really helping him any. The smile Gabriel cast at the end of that sentiment gave Castiel a confusing jumble of simultaneous fear, endearment, and excitement in turn. Against every ounce of his better judgment, he downed the last whiskey and followed Gabriel out the door.

The route they took went from bittersweet and nostalgic to terrifying in about twenty minutes. When he’d been a teenager, he’d driven from their suburban home to St. Charles in the city almost every day for the entirety of his middle school and high school education. When they turned onto the highway that led to the city, Castiel nursed just a bit of a drunken twinge of remembrance. He voiced as much to Gabriel, and he probably should have learned his lesson back at the bar, but he didn’t even catch on until the wispy threads of remembrance became a full-blown tapestry. Every turn was the same, ever merge and exit. At the twenty-five minute mark it became undeniable. Gabriel was taking him to St. Charles.

“Gabriel,” Castiel growled in warning. Gabriel laughed.

“Listen, man, like I said, we’re meeting my girlfriend!”

If Castiel were inclined toward senseless cruelty, he probably would have been a very violent drunk, because his mood swings while under the influence were tumultuous—not necessarily unpredictable, but definitely very intense. He let the gravel into his voice and tried to steady himself in the sway of the car beneath him. He clenched his teeth. “We’re meeting your girlfriend to do what?”

St. Charles was coming into view, now, big stone turrets cast against streetlights. On a Saturday night, the parking lot was completely empty, save for one little yellow car at the very end, idling with its lights on. Gabriel made a beeline for it the moment he spotted it.

“Hey, listen, you made such an awesome partner in crime last time! Just the thought of me turning you to that unsavory life brings a happy tear to my eye! And you’re not a bozo, right? We both agreed you’re not a St. Charles bozo, didn’t we?” Castiel’s drunken brain said, yeah, we’re not bozos! because Castiel’s drunken brain was apparently very susceptible to peer pressure. “And anyway, we’re just gonna prank the new headmaster a little bit. Just a little.”

Castiel rubbed hard at his forehead. “Do you intend to break into the school? Because putting laxatives in some food that someone may eat is very different from breaking and entering. And anyway, what do you even plan to do? Toilet paper his office? Smash some raw eggs on the windows?”

Gabriel tutted. “You have no imagination, Castiel. It’s why I’m the brains of this operation and you’re just my minion.”

Castiel scowled. “You’re not doing a very effective job of convincing me to help you.” Gabriel laughed again and pulled into a space beside the yellow car. Its lights turned off as Gabriel powered down their engine as well.

When a familiar shade of red appeared over the roof of the yellow car, Castiel’s first drunken inclination was to think, Anna!? His second, more logical, inclination though—no of course not, it can’t be. Anna isn’t here, Anna is anywhere but in the parking lot of their alma mater, in a little yellow sports car and dating Gabriel of all people.

In a twist of fate, drunk brain was the correct one. Anna Milton surfaced from behind the car, and she smiled to see Gabriel coming toward her, leaning down through the kind of absurd distance to peck him on the lips. Castiel was really too drunk to deal with all of this.

When Anna spotted him, her eyes went large and dark and carefully blank. “Castiel,” she said. Castiel held a single finger aloft as he leaned to the side and vomited. When he was through, he felt marginally better, but Anna was still there when he looked up though watering eyes, and then he felt marginally worse.

“Good!” Gabriel said, clasping his hands together and rocking onto the balls of his feet. “You are that Castiel! I figured—how many Castiel Novaks can there possibly be, but you never know what crazy names people are giving their kids nowadays.”

“Fuck, Gabriel,” said Anna. “You couldn’t have fucking told me?” It was nice to know her vocabulary was much the same as he remembered at least.

“Tell you what? That the stiff guy you were shtupping off and on in high school was back in town? Oh, hey, Anna, the stiff guy you were—” Anna smacked him upside the head.

“You told him about our—relationship?” Castiel ground out, slightly scandalized. Anna looked completely dumbfounded.

Relationship?” she said incredulously. “If when you say relationship you’re referring to all those times I gave you awesome head and then you threw my ass out in the cold while you had a religious crisis about going home impure to your mommy—then yes, I told him about our relationship.” Castiel narrowed his eyes. Anna tightened her jaw. Gabriel looked between them like a kid trying to choose a gift to open on Christmas morning.

“Well! Now that we’re all reacquainted, let’s get this show on the road, shall we?” Castiel reached up to wipe vomit from his chin with the bottom of his sweater vest.

“I’m leaving,” he said, and he turned around. His feet caught a little on the ground as he tried, but then he hit his stride and began strolling determinedly out of the parking lot. In that moment, he couldn’t really fathom why he had thought that seeing Anna again would be a good idea.

Behind him Gabriel called, “Oh come on, Castiel. There’s a live chicken in Anna’s trunk, and you’re really just gonna bail, just like that?”

“Yes!” Castiel barked over his shoulder.

“And you’re gonna walk back?”


“Jesus—wait up.” Gabriel jogged up behind him and grasped him hard by the arm. Castiel shook him off, but stopped and turned clumsily to look at him. He saw Anna lurking somewhere behind him, and she didn’t look angry, she just had her brows furrowed in a way that was simultaneously concerned and condescending, but he remembered that being just her general state of existence when they were in high school. He half-expected Gabriel to say something heartfelt or passionate to lure him back inside, but he was batting zero for three when it came to predicting Gabriel’s movements that evening, because Gabriel just said, “There was a history teacher you used to dislike here, no?” He waggled his eyebrows. “A little birdie told me that he is still teaching here. And that there are two chickens in the back of Anna’s car.” Castiel narrowed his eyes.

“Why?” he said. Gabriel’s eyes flicked over his face, strangely serious.

“Why not, right? Live in the moment!” And. Well. That actually made about as much sense as anything, right now. It was better than walking drunk back home, and if anything, he could prove that Anna was wrong about him and definitely always had been. He rubbed at his eyes, sighed. Nodded.

Gabriel crowed, “That’s my boy!”

Anna stood a little awkwardly at Gabriel’s side when he brought Castiel back, glancing at him sometimes and very pointedly saying nothing. When Gabriel cleared his throat, she mumbled, “Oh, right,” and keyed her way into her trunk.

As it turned out, there were more than chickens in the back of Anna’s car. There was a boatload of fliers, face down in the trunk, and when Castiel turned them over, there was a picture of a very young man, maybe eleven or twelve years old, dressed up in what Castiel recognized as full Kiss regalia, complete with black and white face make-up and a shiny studded outfit. The top of the flier simply read, YOUR HEADMASTER. He didn’t ask as Gabriel distributed tape and staplers and pushpins to Anna and Castiel, then slung a covered, clucking cage underneath one of his arms. Then he started loading up on various other little things that Castiel couldn’t even begin to guess the purpose of—Styrofoam cups, Play-Doh, and an entire plate of raw fish covered in flimsy plastic wrap.

“Alright,” he said, “We’re going all out here. Pulling out all the stops. I want you two to hang those, and then we’ll regroup in Raph’s office.” He gestured in a sloppy imitation of military sign language, directing Castiel and Anna to a door at the far end of the school with a chicken-laden hand. The vomiting had helped Castiel, and he found that he was thinking a little bit better now, though his movements were still a little clumsy. The fliers seemed the least illegal of all the tasks, so he gladly accepted it. “And don’t skimp, I printed like a thousand of those things, you plaster every locker if you have to!”

“How will we get in?” he said. And that turned out to be the easy part. Gabriel put down the chicken cage to an indignant squawk and then fished around in his pocket for a moment, coming out with a key ring with a little smiley face and a lucky rabbit’s foot keychain. He detached the key with the rabbit’s foot and tossed it to Castiel. Then, with a little oh yeah! he bent back into the trunk and pulled out three big flashlights and tossed two of those to Castiel and Anna as well.

“We have keys?” Castiel asked incredulously as he fumbled to catch the flashlight.

“What Castiel, did you expect to have to pick the locks like some kind of animal? Of course we have keys!” Gabriel shook his head disparagingly, but the effect was ruined when he picked up the squawking chicken cage again and started toward the front door. “We’ll regroup in an hour! Go!”

He and Anna looked at one another. Anna looked a little bit miffed to have been left with Castiel, but Castiel was sure he just looked completely baffled. They started toward that far door without a word, and once inside, they began obediently hanging posters in silence. The hallway was long and decadent and familiar, and the neons of the little fliers simply didn’t mesh with the dark wood grains and nice navy carpets. He’d never seen it so still. It was sort of sinister with just the flashlight guiding the way.

Anna lasted all of five minutes before she blurted, “You look good, Castiel.”

She didn’t appear to be struggling near so much with the tape as he was, and he was not quite so far down his side of the hallway as she was. He tried fruitlessly to flick some double-sided tape off his thumb and forefinger and grumbled, “I have vomit on my shirt.”

Her eye-roll was so pointed it was almost audible. “You know what I mean, Castiel. You look good in general. What are you doing back in town? Move back in with your mom?”

“In a sense,” he said, straight into the locker he was working on. “My mother died while I was in college. She left me her house as my inheritance.”

“I—oh. Jesus. I’m sorry, Castiel.”

He waved a tape-covered hand dismissively. “It is not of import. Zachariah Adler offered me a job at Garrison, so I am teaching in the position I believe you recently vacated and living in my mother’s home. My job options have been somewhat limited.”

“Oh,” she said. “You took over my position?” She sounded slightly pained.

“Yes. Zachariah called me several months ago.” He hesitated for a moment before he added, “I suspect he owed my mother a favor.” He said the last with a bit of a bite, maybe he was attempting to make amends with Anna by confirming that the things she suspected were true and Castiel really was a failure. Maybe he was reminding himself.

“Oh,” she said. They hung fliers in silence for a few minutes.

“What is this all about, anyway?” Castiel asked weakly. The hallway behind them was peppered with fliers, straight along then divoting in at the dark wood doorways, but it had been fifteen minutes and they had barely papered one hallway. Gabriel’s one hour estimation had not been very shrewd. As he had moved through the pile of fliers, though, he had found that there was more than one variety of flier. All of them said the same thing at the top, but all of them featured someone who was presumably Raphael in various differing compromised positions. On top of the Kiss outfit, there was Raphael in a leotard, Raphael looking rather intoxicated and nursing a beer bottle, Raphael with his arms around two women.

“The headmaster here is a dick,” she said. “We’re giving him a taste of his own medicine.”

“Did he come to your school and paper the halls with vaguely embarrassing photos of you?” he asked.

Anna scowled and slammed a flier into the locker harder than was strictly necessary. The effect was impeded somewhat when it fluttered defiantly to the ground. “He might as well have,” she said. “All these crazy religious assholes do is spread rumors and fear monger. We’re just giving him a taste of his own medicine. We’ll hit all the Shurleys one dick at a time. Raphael is just the easiest to take down a notch. As you can see from fliers.” Castiel looked down at the topmost flier in his hand, and Raphael’s drunken leer stared back at him.

“How did Gabriel even get all these photos?”

Anna turned toward him. The fliers hung loosely in her hands. “Seriously? Raphael is his brother.”

Castiel started. “What?”

“Yeah, you do know his full name, right? Gabriel Shurley. They planted him at Garrison early because they expected him to fall right in line with all their plans, but Gabriel’s not a fucking asshole, so he’s pretty much just been doing what he can to take it down from the inside.”

Castiel wasn’t sure he wanted to inquire about the bigger picture. It all seemed too big for him right now—a conspiracy? Nepotism, sure, but—honestly, he was just too drunk still to concern himself, so instead he asked, “By pranking the bigwig assholes?”

Anna shrugged. She looked besotted. It was kind of sweet. “That’s just the way Gabriel functions.”

“And you really think that putting up fliers of this Raphael character will do that much to defame him?”

“Do you even understand how much this town and its godforsaken suburbs depend on, on—reputation? And hearsay? Rumor and religious bias? Maybe you don’t. You’ve always been a bit blessed in that department, I forget,” she said bitingly, then she inhaled sharply. “Agh, shit, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry. I don’t. I’m sorry about your mom, I really am, I just –”

“It’s alright,” Castiel said quietly. His mind went straight to Sam and Dean Winchester and all the garbage he had heard about them within weeks of his arrival. Maybe he wouldn’t have understood a week ago, but he certainly understood now. “I get it. I do.”

She turned to scrutinize him with her nose scrunched and her eyes dark, like things were going out of focus, like she didn’t recognize who she was talking to before. “Well, alright. Do you really think a man who is so immersed in this—rumor mill—wouldn’t be absolutely pissed off by a blatant affront on his personal reputation? Wouldn’t be pissed at the fact that someone revealed that,” she waved the Kiss poster emphatically, “Mr. Head-of-a-Religious-School was into heavy metal glam rock?”

The answer was obvious enough. “No.”

“Yeah. No. Gabriel knows what he’s doing. The chickens are just a bonus.”

Over the next hour, they worked their way down the hallway in silence for a while. They were moving slowly toward a strange white glow, illuminated even on a Saturday night, and Castiel knew, if only because of the unmistakable and excessive pride in that gesture, that it was the massive trophy case right at the center of the school. A halfway point, at least. It was funny how he knew his old school in the dark better than he knew his new one in broad daylight.

When they reached the case, Castiel went on calmly plastering fliers, but Anna stopped and ran her fingers along the glass.

“Remember all these?” she said fondly. “You’re in here somewhere. For that stupid Bible-a-Thon or whatever.”

“The National Bible Bee,” Castiel said curtly. “It was an honor to win. My mother won when she was a girl.”

Anna snerkedpointedly and resumed her fliering. Castiel did as well. Near the middle of the trophy case, however, Castiel hit a name and a picture that caught his eye.

“Mary Campbell,” he read aloud. There was a picture and a plaque. The plaque stated that she had taken first place in a national shooting competition, and in the picture, there was a young blonde woman who looked vaguely familiar standing and smiling proudly with the butt of her gun on the ground, the tip of her gun in the air, and old noise cancelling earmuffs slung around her neck. She was looking straight at the camera, but right next to her there was a dark man who was smiling the same besotted smile he’d seen on Anna’s face just a few moments before in her direction. He was younger and thinner. Fitter and clean-shaven. He looked a lot happier and a lot less drunk.

The sound of Anna’s fliering stopped across the hallway, and she said, “What about Mary Campbell?”

“She’s…” he gestured vaguely toward the plaque in the trophy case. “She’s with John Winchester.”

Anna was suddenly at his side. “You know John Winchester?”

“I’ve—been speaking with his boys. Do you know his boys?”

Anna followed his line of sight into the trophy case. She said, “I knew Dean,” in a near whisper. “Oh, she’s very pretty. I’d never seen her before.”

He had a sneaking suspicion, but he had to ask regardless. “Who is…?”

“Mary Winchester nee Campbell. She’s their mom.”

That explained the familiarity. He could see a lot of Dean in her smile, in her face, in her hair, in her eyes. He could see very little of Sam in her, though. Sam was all their father. Then something else occurred to him.

“Wait—Samuel. Samuel Campbell. Sam. Is he…?”

“The bigwig pastor at that mega-church in the burbs? Yeah. Their grandpa.”

“Oh.” Words seemed too small for the enormity of that realization. ‘Oh’ would have to do. “So she went to St. Charles as well.”

“Yeah,” Anna said. “From what I understand though, John didn’t. Which I think was a point of contention in the Campbell family. John wasn’t religious, and he didn’t raise his kids to be religious, that’s for sure. Not after Mary died.”

“How do you…?”

Her eyes went bleak and distant. “Like I said. I knew Dean.” Castiel was just considering putting a poster over Mary Campbell’s face to stop himself from staring when Gabriel came bolting down the hallway toward him with a single chicken, free of its cage, clutched tight under his arm. It was clucking loudly and indignantly, struggling fervently to get free, and trailing a cloud of white feathers behind them.

“Security is here!” he shouted jovially. “Time to make ourselves scarce!”

Whatever drunkenness was lingering in Castiel’s system fled. Anna looked nothing but entertained as she took off running after him, trailing the rest of her fliers down the hallway and carpeting the floor behind her with them. Castiel did the same. Anna’s longer legs and more efficient stride meant that she quickly pulled out ahead of Gabriel, and from behind, they could both see her add a jovial leap to her stride every few paces. Gabriel was smiling fiercely.

It quickly became apparent that they were taking a very elaborate route to get outside, diverting down one of the side hallways that he and Anna had covered in fliers earlier. The posters flashed by him in a neon streak as they sprinted through the halls, dozens of shamed Raphaels blurring together on the pages.

“Where are we going?” Castiel shouted as they passed yet another exit they could have taken. “We’re close to the car now!”

Gabriel hoisted the chicken comically higher, and its squawk resonated in the empty hallways. He wasn’t sure where security was at this point, but given their trail of white feathers and fliers and their insanely un-stealthy noise levels, he couldn’t believe they weren’t on top of them yet.

“I promised! We have to visit your history teacher’s office! The map says it’s down here, right?!” Gabriel shouted back. And Castiel realized, yes, the path they were tracing now was one that he had sullenly made for every bad history paper he’d ever written. There was something satisfying about sprinting the same route with a chicken under one arm.

“Yeah, this way!” Anna answered for him.

Gabriel hooked a final left after her, his feet skidding outward as they hit a few of the fliers that Anna had still been trickling behind her and lost control. Castiel was right behind him now—because Gabriel was the shortest of the three and had been running the longest, and was burdened with some extra struggling chicken weight—and he caught Gabriel’s arm as he slid, propping him up and keeping him on track. He kept hold of Gabriel’s arm as he started to lag, making sure that he kept pace with Castiel and Anna, because leaving behind a man who would full-out sprint an extra couple hundred feet with a chicken slung under his arm just to get revenge on a man who had given Castiel a few bad grades on his papers was simply inexcusable.

They reached the office, found the door slightly ajar, thrust the chicken inside to one last panicked squawk, and then slammed the door shut behind it.

Gabriel clutched at a stitch in his side all the way out, running in funny little hop-skips that probably meant he’d pulled something. Gabriel and Castiel were both wheezing as they tore out of the parking lot, Anna’s little yellow car behind them, and all three still hadn’t caught their breath when they regrouped a couple of miles out. Gabriel and Anna blabbered at each other, couldn’t keep their hands off of one another, couldn’t stop laughing. And Castiel found that he couldn’t fight his smile.

Gabriel dropped him at home that Saturday at around three in the morning. Castiel slept for three hours and then Uriel picked him up for church at seven. Castiel felt sleepy and sore all the way through the service, and he was pretty sure the only thing he saw clearly was Sam’s face in Pastor Campbell’s—because it was easy to see when he was looking for it. Sam had his eyes, his nose, his jaw. Naming Sam after his grandfather had been an apt decision.

Zachariah, as it turned out, attended the same church, which, in light of some of his drunken revelations last night, wasn’t much of a surprise. He sat next to them the whole time, and he’d get impassioned looks on his face every once in a while, weird little rapturous fits, when Pastor Campbell said something that he particularly agreed with. The sermon was about families, about the importance of raising a family and staying with one’s family and spending time with one’s family. Zachariah kept looking at Castiel like he pitied him, and then after the service, he gave Castiel a commiserating pat and invited him out to brunch with him and his wife.

“I know how much you miss your mother,” he said. “We all do. We’re all lucky to have you, son. You’re doing your best to fill her shoes.”

Castiel realized that he could think of nothing less appealing than brunch with Zachariah Adler, even though watching Anna and Gabriel interact with one another last night had left him hungry for some kind of company. He let Uriel drop him off at home, and Uriel asked him if he’d had moles rooting through his flowerbeds. Castiel did not tell Uriel that the mole was Sam Winchester.

Sam had given Castiel the number to Dean’s cheap little disposable cell phone. “It’s not like he ever uses it for anything but texting,” Sam had said. “It might as well be mine.” When he got home, Castiel called it. Sam picked up on the third ring, and Castiel asked if he’d like to come over and spend his Sunday afternoon doing yard work. They were clearly in the garage—Castiel could hear the sound of banging tools and deep voices in the background. One of them was definitely John, which perhaps accounted for Sam’s urgent agreement. And pathetically, on the off chance that he maybe possibly perhaps wasn’t busy, Castiel invited Dean too.

He made Sam pink lemonade this time, because that was the concentrate he had left in the freezer. He also tried to scrounge together some food, but his empty cabinets and three hours of sleep combined produced nothing more a few granola bars, three sticks of string cheese, and a stale package of Chips Ahoy.

When Dean arrived, he waved at Castiel through the big picture window in the kitchen and hopped straight behind the helm of the power mower, like he couldn’t fathom taking a moment to stop working. Sam stood with his hands on his hips on the porch when Castiel made his way outside.

“I told him it was my job,” Sam said, hand flat above his eyes to shield them from the sun. “I told him I was the one getting paid for all this!” Castiel found him a rake for the ambitious leaves that had started falling before the rest and directed him toward the hedges that hadn’t yet seen his attention. Sam set to work too.

Castiel sat on the front step and watched them and felt maybe not quite so lonely as before, just having them in the front yard of his house. Dean was weaving back and forth across the yard in a worn gray Henley. His legs bowed a little, and every time he would loop toward Castiel, he’d smile or mouth you still here? or make a funny face. When his circling of the yard brought him close to Sam, he’d snatch at the hedge trimmers or bump him into the bushes, and Sam would chuck grass clippings at his retreating back. Dean would laugh loud enough that Castiel could hear it over the lawnmower.

By the time the sun set, the front yard looked excellent. Sam had enthusiasm; Dean had finesse. Between the two of them, the bushes were somewhat presentable, the yard looking a little less overgrown. Castiel scrambled to find something else that they could do. It would be weeks before they’d need to come over to rake more leaves or mow the lawn again, and then in the winter he didn’t know what they would do at all. Shoveling? Did his house have rain gutters to clean?

He was craning his neck to check the status of the gutter system when Sam approached, chattering at Dean about planting bulbs for the springtime and laying down hoses to create a drip system for the bushes and trees.

“Mr. Novak, do you think you would want to plant some spring bulbs? You gotta do it the fall before, you know, and I was thinking maybe some tulips would look really nice in your front yard, y’know, make the color of your house pop.”

“The paint on my house,” Castiel said carefully, “is a little bit dim.”

Dean said, “Wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh-whe can pppaint.”

Castiel smiled, and without thinking, he’d reached forward to put a hand on Dean’s dirt smudged forearm. Dean looked at the hand, looked into Castiel’s face. Castiel said, “I think the rain gutters need cleaning as well.”

Upon closer inspection, Castiel’s house did not, in fact, have rain gutters. The Winchesters agreed to come back regardless.

Chapter Text

Dean left his cell phone at Castiel’s house that Sunday, right next to the crumbs of empty packet of Chips Ahoy, and it took Castiel a full day to work up the courage to find him to give it back. It was silly, because he saw Sam in class that Monday and he didn’t say anything as the cell phone sat in his desk drawer. He assured himself that he simply forgot, and he almost convinced himself.

Finally, after three hours of working himself up after school was through, he decided it was time to try to catch Dean at one of his places of employment, and it was late enough that he knew that Dean probably wouldn’t be at the garage. With his father. And his brother. Dean would probably be alone if he confronted him at the Roadhouse. And he could even try to make it look like an accident. He could have accidentally brought the cell phone along, right? That was plausible.

When he arrived at the bar looking for Dean, he was met with a matronly woman with a stern face and a no-nonsense attitude who clearly knew the kind of negative attention those boys got daily and would have none of it in her bar. He should have figured—employing Dean for so long in a not-so-friendly town, in an environment that inspired rowdiness, she had probably thrown out her fair share of assholes. There was a glimpse of something fierce and unyielding in the set of her jaw, and that glimpse was enough to put a pretty healthy fear in Castiel.

“Who’s asking?” she said when he inquired after Dean’s whereabouts, tipping her chin toward him and slinging a wet rag over her shoulder. Behind her, a pretty young blonde appeared, smiling in anticipation as she looked between Castiel and the bar matron.

“Ah—I’m Castiel Novak. I met him here before. I know he works here, and I was hoping to return this.” He produced Dean’s cell phone from his pocket and placed it gently on a freshly cleaned swathe of the bar. The woman scrutinized it, and the younger woman practically bounded forward, smile widening.

“Holy shit,” she said. “You’re Cas!? Sam talks about you all the time! Dean too, insofar as he talks about people, I guess. I’m Jo.” Jo reached forward and took his limp hand from where it had just released the phone, shaking it vigorously, utterly unfazed by Castiel’s non-response. She reminded him a little bit of Dean, on that night when he had eaten dinner at Castiel’s house. Maybe this uninhibited cheerfulness was what Dean was capable of in the right situation.

The bar matron side-eyed the girl critically and reached out for the phone, but Castiel snatched it back as if he hadn’t noticed, pocketing it again. “I can return it,” she said slowly, like she was wise to his game. “He’s not working here tonight, but he’ll be in tomorrow.”

“Oh,” Castiel said, feeling crestfallen. “Is he at home?” Castiel didn’t really want to know why he had placed his every hope into meeting Dean alone.

“No,” Jo piped up behind the woman. “He’s at—”

She said, “Jo, you know how he would—”

Mom. He’s at his third job, Cas.”

Joanna Beth—”

“Mom. He won’t care. This guy is like the only thing Dean has opened his mouth to talk about in two weeks.” Jo tipped her head meaningfully in Castiel’s direction. Castiel blushed, but a warm, happy, pleased feeling settled in his gut.

Jo’s mother turned back to him, and her eyes flashed dangerously. “He needs his cell phone,” Castiel said reasonably, earnestly, as if Dean used it with any frequency.

They gave him an address. They also sold him a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label with the promise that he’d need it to get to Dean at all. The bar matron’s name was Ellen, and as he was leaving, she said, “That job is like a haven for him. You can’t let anyone know it’s him up there. He likes the quiet.”

Castiel didn’t know what that could possibly mean, what job would grant him that kind of sacred anonymity, until he pulled up at the given address saw the tall neon reds of a big multiplex cinema. The sign out front said that there were ten screens, and the blocky black letters on the marquee beneath the theater’s name (Turner Ten Cinemas with Stadium Seating!) proclaimed that at least two of the ten would be playing classics at any given point in time. Right now, it was Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and Creature from the Black Lagoon.

When he asked after Dean in the multiplex, he was met with confused glances from the box office employees, shrugs from the doorman and concessionists. He was about to cut his losses and leave when a dark-skinned man in a suit overheard him describing Dean to a box office cashier, gesturing just above the top of his head to indicate Dean’s height, and pulled him aside.

“Who the hell are you?” he said, hand clasped tight on Castiel’s upper arm.

“Ah—” Castiel gasped, jerking minutely underneath his hand. “I’m looking for—”

“Yeah, yeah, I know pretty well who you’re looking for, but you ain’t gonna find him here, so you just get on outta here if all you’re gonna do is harass my goddamn employees.” He remembered the bottle of whiskey in his pocket and used the hand that wasn’t currently in the man’s grasp to reach across his body and fish it out. His eyes caught on it, and Castiel was abruptly whisked away, through a door that he hadn’t previously seen, hidden in the shadows between the box office and the concession stand.

“Who the hell sent you?” he said, releasing Castiel’s arm. “Was it Bobby?”

“No, no,” Castiel said, rubbing briskly at where the man’s hand had been clasping moments before. “Ellen Harvelle.” Just seeing the lengths that the kind (if frightening) people around Dean went to in order to protect him would have been enough to make Castiel like Dean even if he didn’t already. It was simultaneously endearing and frustrating to have to penetrate so many layers to even have a chance at conversation alone with him. Though he didn’t imagine this assisted isolation was helping the regression Sam had spoken to him about earlier, back when he’d expressed his desire for therapy for his brother. Even Sam, though, had required that Castiel go through him before giving the subtle permission for him to get close.

The man promptly uncapped the whiskey and took a generous swig, as if assessing its authenticity, and when he looked back at Castiel, one eye closed to the burn, he must’ve been satisfied, because he said, “He’s our projectionist. He’s upstairs.” He nodded straight up, like Dean was just above them now. “If Ellen trusts you to do good by Dean, I guess I just about have to.”

He recapped the whiskey and stashed it in a drawer under the desk shoved up into the corner of the little office, then he whisked Castiel out the door and down a long, long hallway lined with old movie posters and heavy, red theater doors. Most of them were closed now, their shows in progress.

“I’m Rufus,” he said, walking briskly. As they went, Rufus looked at each theater’s little marquee, as if cataloguing the movie playing inside. “Hired Dean a coupla years ago to do some maintenance and ended up letting him run the projection booth, too.” He ducked abruptly into a dark alcove at the end of the hallway where there was another door with an automatic keypad locking mechanism. “Bobby sent him my way. He’s a good boy.” He input a five-digit code that Castiel couldn’t see into the pad, and the door clicked open. “Don’t you tell a goddamn soul.” Rufus didn’t move aside to let Castiel up the dark stairs ahead of him until Castiel had nodded gravely, mouth set in deep, straight line. And then Rufus made a grand sweeping gesture to motion him up. “He’s up there. Can’t miss it. Only one door.”

Castiel allowed himself to feel a bit humbled as he ascended the stairs and the door behind him closed, plunging him into the dark. There was only one swinging bulb to light the whole staircase, and it didn’t do much at all for the depth of the shadows. It was strange to be given permission to go into places where so many others clearly hadn’t been allowed, and simply because he had shown the Winchesters the barest amount of respect. Castiel opened the door to the projection booth, and it wasn’t at all what he’d been expecting. He’d pictured a series of little smoky rooms, close and tight and dark. Instead, there was just a single, airy oblong room that clearly extended the length of the theater. It had white linoleum floors and ten big projection machines creating a significant din with their collective hum. It was dim, and the ceilings and walls were all unfinished, and pipes threaded together in intricate patterns above his head. Images from different films flickered all the way down the booth, little reflections of the larger than life images flashing in the booth windows. It only took a moment to spot Dean at the very far end of the booth, sitting with his head propped on his arms and tipped toward a booth window. His eyes were glazed with concentration, and his mouth was moving along with words that he could hear only distantly.

Castiel didn’t dare break the spell. He moved through the length of the booth quietly, all the way to the machines at the end, and it was like stepping through different moments in time, in history, as he caught snatches of the different films. Laughter and explosives and cars screeching and swelling music. It was a powerful position to have, presiding over so many worlds at once. Castiel could definitely see the appeal.

The projector that Dean was seated next to was larger than the others that came before it, equal in size to its fellow behind it. It had big winding spools of film where the other projectors seemed to be lacking as much. It hummed even louder than the others, clicking rhythmically with each turn of the film reel. Through the window, Castiel could see flickering black and white images. Dean was still mouthing along to the distant sound of the words, and Castiel could hear him start a word every once in a while only to abandon it when the stutter made itself known. It sounded like he might be practicing. Sometimes he would get farther than others. He had just reached a part where there were clearly no lines, only swelling music, and he was responding with big, sweeping arm movements corresponding to the tune of the menacing crescendo, when Castiel decided he was done waiting for Dean to notice, done invading his personal space without his knowledge, and said, “Hello Dean.”

Dean, arms still flailing to the upbeat of the music, jumped to his feet so fast he knocked a film reel off its spool and the image on the screen behind him jumped and halted. Castiel managed to catch the reel that had fallen, but the reel still turning on the projector continued attempting to feed onto a reel that was no longer there, so it started spitting film violently onto the white linoleum. Dean remembered himself, scrabbling after the off switch and then floundering to save the film and get everything started again. Castiel just stood, silently awaiting instruction, holding the second reel aloft. It was a full five minutes before the movie restarted, and Dean had to muck with some audio settings to get everything lined up properly. His hands were shaking by the time he was finished.

“Cas,” he said after he’d set everything right. “Juh-juh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-” He cut himself off, running a hand through his hair, clearly trying to regulate his breathing before he started the word again. John’s words pushed unwanted through Castiel’s mind—breathethroughit, breathethroughit, breathethroughit. In through his nose, out through his mouth, in through his nose. But when he tried again, he couldn’t even get the first sound out, it was just a series of ‘ums’ in quick and uneven succession for the next thirty seconds, like he was stuck, like he couldn’t get off it. His face was red. He clenched both his hands in his hair and paced a path between projectors.

Castiel just waited, arms empty of the film reel, face blank, and hands twitching toward the pocket with Dean’s cell phone should the need to justify his presence there arise soon. After a full five minutes of this, Dean seemed in control of his breathing enough to mutter, “Jesus,” which is probably what he had been trying to say before. He wondered if it gave him satisfaction to finish the word.

 Unflappable, Castiel repeated, “Hello Dean.”

Dean rolled his eyes, shuttered his lids, sighed, and then peeked wryly at him through a single opened eye. “Huhey Cas.”

“I was told I could find you here,” Castiel said, pointing out the obvious. But it never hurt to specify that he hadn’t stalked Dean up here himself.

“I suh-suh-suh-suh-suhee that.”

“I’m sorry to have interrupted the film.”

Dean swallowed and glanced around the booth like Castiel might’ve brought someone with him. “Suhuhuhuhokay,” he said. “Rufus huhumors me. Nuho one ever cuh-cuh-cuh-uh-uh-uhmes to my shuh-shows. Thuhere’s like one duh-duh-duh-duh-uh-uh-uhude in there.”

Dean wrung his hands and looked self-conscious. Castiel looked around the vaulted projection booth, down the neat rows of projectors on either side, and remembered himself, focusing back on Dean. He seemed to have calmed a bit under the lack of scrutiny. Castiel pulled his little flip phone from his pocket.

“You left this at my house on Sunday,” he said. Dean took it reverently.

“You cuh-cuh-cccame just for th-thuh-uh-this?”

Castiel shrugged. He didn’t say, I also desperately wanted to speak with you alone. “I figured you would need it.”

“Who told you?”


“I wuh-uh-uh-uhs here.”

“Ellen,” he said, feeling out the bar matron’s name. “At the Roadhouse.” Dean looked like that didn’t exactly compute until Castiel added, “Oh. And her daughter.”

Dean colored, and the breath snorted out of his nose as he nodded. His jaw twitched minutely.

Castiel asked, “Was that…okay?” He remembered touching Dean in his house that weekend. Remembered the spontaneity of the impulse. He did the same thing again, laying his hand on the forearm that was slung across Dean’s front, crossing over his chest to grasp at the opposite elbow in a sort of closed-off gesture. He kept eye contact, too, in the dim of the booth. Castiel had never been overly touchy, not with anyone, but the sheer physicality of Dean, and the way in which he chose to communicate and express himself seem to dictate it, and he didn’t seem to find the warmth of Castiel’s hand all that odd.

“S’fine,” he said, eyes flicking over Castiel’s face. “Suh-uh-uh-uh-uhmmmmone was buh-bound to know suh-sooner or later.” Dean broke the touch to investigate the whirring mechanism of the projector, making sure it was running smoothly, then looking down into the dark theater below. He had a wistful smile on his face. “Wuh-wuh-wuh-one dude. Like I um-ummm-mmm said.”

Castiel tipped his head to the side. “You could go downstairs and watch with him.”

Dean shook his head without looking away from the window. A swamp creature flickered brightly in his eyes. “Nah. Buheeetter up here. ‘Sides, I knuh-uh-uh-uhow all the words. Duh-duh-duhneed to huhear that well.” Castiel leaned in close over Dean’s shoulder. On the screen, he could see three actors on a boat labeled RITA in large, blocky letters. In the audience, he could see one movie-goer, just as Dean had said. “Thuh-this is the puh-art where Julia Adams gets kidnapped buh-buh-by the monster.” Dean whispered somewhere near his left cheek. It didn’t escape Castiel that his speech became more fluid, easier to understand. Castiel shifted his eyes sideways, took in Dean smiling, Dean being riveted by the movie.

“I’ve never seen this movie before,” Castiel said.

Dean turned toward him, craning his head back to look at Castiel in disbelief. This close, Castiel could see that his eyes were very green, indeed. “No shit?” he said.

“No. I’m not much of a movie person,” he said. “I’m afraid this is the first time I’ve been to a movie theater since I was a child.” Dean looked at him like he’d confessed to murder. Castiel didn’t dare tell him that he couldn’t remember what film he’d seen then. He just remembered his mother, a rare outing to the theater, not being allowed to buy popcorn.

“Whu-uh-uht was the last muh-movie you um saw?”

Castiel thought. And thought. And came up completely short. He shrugged. “I believe I saw the first Lord of the Rings movie at an event at my college.”

Dean’s eyes bugged. “Just the fuh-fuh-fuh-fuh-fuh-first?”

“Well it’s not as if I don’t know what happens,” he huffed. “I’ve read the books.”

Dean laughed. “So whuh-hat? Movie’s duh-duh-duh-different! They’re classics!” Just then a quiet alarm went off on Dean’s wristwatch. He looked down, checked the time, and clicked a little button around the face to turn it off.

“Juh-uh-uhst a sec.” He climbed to his feet, looked Castiel up and down and said, “Whu-wanna see how it wuh-works?” He jacked his thumb toward a projector a ways up the booth, one of the machines without spinning reels.

“Very much.” Dean took his time explaining the whole system under his breath. He walked Castiel through the projection system, explained that the ones without reels were digital projectors, and that it was fucking easy to work with those things, and that sooner or later it’s all going to be automated anyway and then he won’t even have a job anymore. He explained just why old movie projectors were better, which somehow devolved into a truncated rant on why classic cars were better, and then went right back to movie projectors again as if he’d surprised himself with the detour. And if the whole conversation took a little longer than it should have, Castiel found he didn’t care.

“Ruh-Rufus could pruh-uh-uh-uh-uh-um-um-um—” he stopped, reassessed, started another word. It occurred to Castiel that it was only the second time he had blocked since Castiel got there, and the first had just been because of surprise. He had expected this to be more awkward without Sam playing interpreter for the two of them. He wasn’t sure why—it wasn’t as if he couldn’t understand Dean. He was more than willing to wait for whatever Dean had to say. That was really the only secret to having a conversation with Dean Winchester, and it really wasn’t a secret at all. When Dean spoke next, his voice was a whisper again. “Cuh-could do without me huhere.”

“But I’m sure he doesn’t want to,” Castiel said.

“I’m like his phuh-uh-uh-antom. No cuh-cool mask for a stu-tuh-tuh-tuh-uhtter, though.” He lifted a hand, palm toward his eye, and covered the right side of his face.

Castiel tilted his head. “I don’t understand that reference.”

Dean looked at him, sort of smiling, sort of shaking his head. His eyes sparkled. There was volumes to read in Dean’s eyes, and Castiel couldn’t be certain yet of exactly what they said. But he startled himself with how much he wanted to.

“Did you hear that St. Charles was vandalized?” Principal Adler said in the break room one morning. Castiel was proud that he only paused for a moment, just inside the door, though he was almost certain Zachariah hadn’t seen his eyes widening from where he was sitting at that little circular table. Castiel walked straight-backed into the room, lingered in front of the microwave, realized he had nothing to microwave, and then awkwardly made his way over to the coffee pot, knowing that should have been his first stop in the first place. No, Castiel was not a very good liar. More likely, he should have just turned tail and ran from the room like a coward. He wondered which one would be more suspicious, and then figured he couldn’t be much more suspicious than he was acting just then, with his ears red and his face turned resolutely toward the wall behind the coffee pot.

“Oh,” he forced himself to say. “Really?”

“Mmmm,” Zachariah agreed vaguely. “And you know, they think it was someone at Garrison.” Castiel could feel the sweat dripping down his collar. “Apparently someone left fish rotting in the ventilation system. Stank up the place for a week before they found it. But when they did, the fish had a logo from a local grocer on it. Right around the corner from here.”

“Well that’s not exactly conclusive evidence,” Castiel said truthfully before he could stop himself. It probably sounded a little like self-defense. Was self-defense unwise, here? Yes, probably. “I mean. Perhaps.” Good cover.

“Oh, that’s not all. The damn fool used reams of paper from the school supply to print fliers on. Papered that school with them. What a coincidence we lose about a thousand pages of neon blue and green and pink the same day. Isn’t that quite a coincidence Castiel?”

“I suppose it might possibly be someone from Garrison. Assuming that no one. From somewhere else—ah. Snuck in. And stole it,” Castiel said weakly. Zachariah was silent, and Castiel dared to look at him over his shoulder. He was squinting in Castiel’s general direction, looking bemused.

“Right,” he said drily. “Someone snuck into the school and stole three reams of neon paper so they could drive into the city and vandalize the school we all attended.” Castiel twitched his shoulders up-down in a little shrug. Then he became excessively aware of the fact that his tie was on backwards. It generally was whenever he tried to wear it, but today, right then, was the time that he made a serious and concentrated effort to fix it. “You know, if you know the student that did it, you’re honor bound to tell us. Right, Castiel?” Castiel actually couldn’t contain a harsh little bark of a gravelly laugh when he said student. Then Zachariah was right up in his face, mouth a tight, twitching line. Just the corner broke open when he talked, like if he let it open any more than that, he might start shouting. “Was it Sam Winchester, Castiel? You can tell me. I know you think maybe you and little Sammy are good friends but I’ve just been itching for him to fess up to something since he got here. There’s no way that little hooligan –”

“No,” Castiel said firmly. Zachariah looked startled to have been interrupted.


“No.” He would admit to the crime himself before he saw Sam take the heat for something he had nothing to do with. He hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but it absolutely would if it had to. “It wasn’t Sam Winchester.”

Zachariah narrowed his eyes at Castiel and returned slowly to his place at the table. When he sat again, he tipped back in his chair and laced his fingers over his pooching stomach, the picture of casual comfort, like he’d never said anything at all. The table in front of him was conspicuously empty—he wasn’t eating someone else’s lunch today, and it gave Castiel a grim sort of satisfaction to see. Perhaps Gabriel had taught him a lesson. Or perhaps he simply wasn’t hungry, and he was a stuck-up pile of trash incapable of learning any lesson at all. Castiel remained stubbornly silent through each one of his careful motions. “You seem awfully sure,” Zachariah said.

“I am.”

Zachariah shrugged. “You know, whoever did it is really screwed up. You remember old Mr. Quincy? Taught history? He’s been teaching there a very long time.”

Castiel remembered him well, because he’d seen his stupid office about ten thousand times when he’d been a student, and he’d seen it again when he’d been at St. Charles less than a week ago. Castiel nodded.

“They left a dead chicken in his office. He came in after the weekend to a dead chicken under his desk. Sick. Had to call in people to make sure the damn thing wasn’t carrying something.”

Castiel caught himself before he could say dead? It wasn’t dead when we left it there, and then he mumbled something about that being really truly horrible, ran into the doorframe, and walked stiffly out the door. He was aware that he was walking as if all of his vertebrae had inexplicably fused. He’d been teased about it before. His mother told him that it started at a very young age, his complete inability to tell any kind of lie. Not that he didn’t try.

He walked straight-backed all the way to Gabriel’s classroom on the other side of the school, and when he was faced with a classroom full of students, he remembered that it was his planning period, and other teachers were likely in class. Gabriel didn’t seem fazed though. He was wearing reading glasses and looking down his nose at a computer in the back corner of the classroom. The students were working not-so-quietly on a worksheet. One of the students looked up at him and shouted, “Hi Mr. Novak!” and a few murmured similar hellos. Gabriel looked up at the commotion.

“Mr. Novak! Did you come to do a worksheet on ecosystems with us?” he said jovially. “You’re awfully far out of your English hallway niche today, right guys?” A vague mumble of laughter rippled through the room. Castiel had never actually been to Gabriel’s classroom before, because Gabriel was right, he didn’t often come out of the English hallway during the school day. But Gabriel’s classroom suited him well. Bright and colorful and covered wall to wall in posters and student work in a way that Castiel’s wasn’t. Castiel’s walls were entirely bare, still.

“I need to discuss something with Mr. Shurley,” Castiel said. Gabriel got up from his desk chair with a creak and put his glasses down on the table. His classroom wasn’t overly large, and he had to weave his way through the tight rows of student desks to get to where Castiel stood at the front of the room. On his way through, he stopped to look at a few worksheets, offering input and smiling easily. The kids really seemed to like Gabriel, and Castiel could understand why. He was well-suited for this career in a way that Castiel didn’t feel he would ever be. Gabriel’s brothers were headmasters and superintendents, far away from the students they controlled, but Gabriel had chosen to teach, and that was telling. Castiel hadn’t chosen anything. His mother had chosen for him, even though his mother was dead.

When Gabriel reached the front of the room, he led him outside the door and closed it behind him. Gabriel looked bemused, his bowed mouth quirked.

“What’s new, Cas baby?” he said. “You finally get that stick out of your—”

“Zachariah knows,” Castiel interrupted, wringing his hands.

“About…what?” he asked slowly.

“About the…” Castiel glanced up and down the hallway and lowered his voice to a gravelly growl. “About the crime we committed.”

Gabriel laughed out loud. “You mean the fliers? And the chickens? And the fish?” He reached up wipe a mocking, invisible tear from the corner of his eye. “The closest thing I did to committing a crime was the Play-Doh in the locks, and I didn’t even do that on every door. They’re just gonna have to replace a few of them, anyway.”

“One of the chickens died,” Castiel intoned gravely.

Gabriel clapped Castiel on the back with a little sputter of laughter. “He died in the line of duty my friend. He would’ve been proud.” Castiel scowled. “How do you figure he’s got us found out, anyway?”

“He suspects it’s someone from the school because you apparently,” Castiel enunciated carefully, “used paper from the school supply to print the fliers.”

Gabriel did not bother to look appropriately chastised, still grinning his little half grin, “What, you didn’t expect me to buy my own, did you? Teachers get free paper here!” Castiel rolled his eyes. “They just suspect maybe, Castiel. They can’t prove anything. You didn’t do anything suspicious when you were talking to Adler, right?”

Castiel thought back to his behavior in the teacher’s lounge, and was fairly certain he would categorize it somewhere between incredibly suspicious and downright incriminating. Still stiff-backed and awkward, he shrugged.

“Geeeez, Cas, you’d think you never played a prank before,” Gabriel said, reading the look of guilt on his face. Castiel didn’t bother to say that he really, really hadn’t. “Okay, okay. Well duly noted, anyway. Just—don’t give the man a confession just yet. They can’t prove anything, and pretty soon it’ll all blow over. Keep calm, man. You’re making me nervous, here. You and me and Anna can all do breakfast or something soon, okay?”

Castiel nodded. “Okay. Okay.” Then he started walking stiff-backed toward his classroom.

“And seriously, Castiel, you gotta pull that stick out of your ass,” Gabriel called after him.

He very purposefully slumped all the way back to his classroom.

Castiel didn’t have rain gutters, but he did have a whole house full of his mother’s ancient appliances. Time marched on, Sam became one of his favorite students, and the Winchesters just kept on coming, exchanging what Castiel could spare from his pitiful salary for excellent company and more cheap labor than he deserved.

Dean accepted his stew pot back with grace, and Castiel would never admit that he’d consumed its contents as thoroughly and as quickly as he had. Castiel didn’t cook much. Castiel also didn’t cook well, and it must’ve shown. Maybe three visits into their arrangement, Dean was still tentative about his place in Castiel’s home, unsure of what he was allowed to touch, where he was allowed to go. But his swagger in the kitchen was undeniable. While Sam was in the backyard filling in vole holes and laying sod over some of the dirt patches, Dean tromped into the kitchen and started making a big, heavenly-looking quiche. Castiel sat on a bench at his mother’s breakfast bar and watched him fry big, thick slabs of bacon, roll out pastry crust, mix eggs with heavy cream.

“I wouldn’t have figured you a quiche eater,” Castiel said into the companionable silence. He watched Dean, and Dean watched Sam in the backyard unabashedly with a pleased quirk to his lips. Sam looked maybe a little too happy with dirt on his face and green grass stains under his nails. Castiel had no doubt he’d studied the fine science of laying sod in great detail when he heard that Castiel had bought some for the back of the house. He was, as per usual, making up for his inexperience with great enthusiasm.

“Guh-guh-guhood excuse to put buh-bacon in somethin’. Egg fuh-fuh-fuh-fuh-filling. Protein.” Good for growing boys, he said in Dean language, inclining his head toward where Sam was reaching down a vole hole, his whole arm to the shoulder swallowed up by the ground. Dean smiled brightly, all the way up to his eyes. “Plus, it’s buh-buh-buh-buh—” he blocked, choking on the word. He didn’t get frustrated like he could’ve, like he had, but Castiel could see clear on his face that Dean was disappointed in himself whenever he couldn’t finish a word, which was just about one of the most telling things that Castiel could imagine. “Egg pie,” he finished quietly.

“You like pie?” Castiel said. The grin he got in response was startling, splitting Dean’s face automatically. He nodded enthusiastically as he crumbled the cooked bacon with greasy fingers right into the pie shell. He put it on the short list of things he knew Dean enjoyed for use at a later date—pie, films, Sam.

Over dinner, Sam jabbered about a class trip—something Castiel had heard about, but wasn’t directly involved in. He did not to supervise any clubs, because he preferred to have as little contact with the students as he possibly could, if he was honest with himself. Most of the students made him slightly nervous.

Sam shoveled double helpings of quiche into his mouth as Dean picked over his piece with one of his fond expressions.

“Dean, if the Debate Team makes it to nationals, we’ve got a big trip to California. They’re gonna rent one of those big busses and we get to stay in a hotel and everything. If we won, do you think I’d be able to go? I mean, it’d be a little bit pricey but… I’ve got plans for the cash I’m making from Cas or I’d use that…” Sam shared an exaggerated, conspiratorial wink with Castiel when Dean was looking down to pick a hunk of bacon out of his quiche with his fork.

“‘Cuh-Course, Sammy. I’ll duh-do my best.” The tone was flippant, but Dean’s expression said that his “best” would be enough because it had to be. Dean didn’t promise Sam things lightly, Castiel knew.  

As they were leaving, Dean reluctantly and haltingly explained that he couldn’t leave the quiche leftovers with Castiel. He didn’t have the time to make another meal for their father before he had to go split his time between the theater and the bar. And, Sam explained, they didn’t have much in the way of food money for this week. Castiel could’ve kicked himself, couldn’t believe he was allowing an eighteen-year-old high school dropout who was working three jobs to support his drunk father and baby brother to feed him his meals. He was decidedly more financially stable than the Winchesters. When he slipped Sam an extra twenty dollars with his payment, Sam was perceptive enough to guess the reason, and as Dean was loading extra ingredients into the truck, he said, “Please don’t feel guilty. This is just what he does. It’s easy to feel smothered by Dean’s particular brand of affection, but he doesn’t do words. This is all he knows.”

“When did Dean start stuttering?” Castiel blurted as quietly as he could. It was something he’d been curious about for a while. And it wasn’t really his place, but now seemed the time if he was ever to know. Then he thought of how the extra money and the sudden question could be misconstrued, and he said, “You don’t have to tell me if you’re not comfortable.”

Sam’s face hardened into something distant, cold. The answer was well-rehearsed, didn’t sound real or true. It sounded like something he’d been coached to say. “I hardly remember a time when he didn’t.” It was such a strange choice of words, and when Dean waved in big sweeping motions of his arm for Sam to get his ass down to the car! (Dean language, again) he went woodenly, and he didn’t look back at Castiel.

Castiel pondered the answer all the way through that evening and into the early hours of the morning. He knew that Dean would be working at the bar doing inventory late, late into the night, after he’d finished his work at the theater, and Castiel brushed his teeth and pulled back the sheets to the mental image of Dean counting with no words, his plump lips moving through the numbers fluidly, without sound. Maybe he’d be alone. Maybe he’d try counting aloud when he was by himself.

Castiel had googled stuttering. He couldn’t help it. Watching Sam’s patience with Dean was a pretty good indication as to how he was meant to act, but he wanted to know if there was something more he could do when he was talking Dean, because despite his best efforts, Dean never seemed to be able to shed that last mantle of discomfort when he was speaking.

He’d learned there were two types of stuttering. The first was developmental, and it happened when the stutterer was very young. It often went away, but sometimes it persisted into adulthood. That must’ve been what Samandriel had. The second was acquired, and it came as a result of stroke, head trauma, brain injury. It could happen later in life. And Dean’s supreme discomfort with the sound of his own voice had led Castiel to think that maybe it was something that had happened relatively recently.

But no. Because Sam had as good as said he’d had it from a very young age. His behavior was consistent with someone who had been dealing his disfluency for a very long time, probably his whole life, even if their father’s wasn’t.

He went to sleep that night with Dean on the brain. Dean stuttering over liquor bottles as he counted, alone and comfortable.

Balthazar returned to him in his dreams, Balthazar with his sad eyes and his lined face as Castiel told him that he couldn’t anymore, that it was wrong, that he never should have in the first place, that he was ashamed he ever had.

They weren’t in Castiel’s dorm room though; they weren’t in Balthazar’s bed or next to his desk or standing on Balthazar’s ridiculous shag carpet. They were in a big, vacuous pit of gaping space, and it was sucking right at Castiel’s chest, or maybe he was just remembering the feeling of that night, when he’d just learned his mother had died, and that he was an orphan, and his chest felt so tight and packed full and empty, all at the same time. Because in the last few months of his mother’s life, he’d been sleeping with a man, and he’d never had a chance to come clean, and now he just…couldn’t. Anymore. Not anymore.

There had been words exchanged between him and Balthazar—violent, heated words, and when Castiel had come back from his mother’s funeral to finish out his degree, still wearing his mourning blacks, he found that Balthazar had transferred to another building. In his dream, Balthazar yelled and yelled from his cleaned-out, empty side of the room, and Castiel couldn’t hear a thing, couldn’t hear a word. But he held Balthazar in a very tender regard in his memory, and he remembered his face, the way he spoke, and there was something—off. About dream Balthazar.

Castiel woke, groggy and distracted by his dream, to find Dean had left a healthy slice of quiche in his fridge, nevermind what he’d said about not having enough.  Castiel ate it for breakfast, thought again of Dean’s face, wondering if Dean would finally be sleeping now, and he realized—

Balthazar had been stuttering. Hitch, hitch, hitch to his fluid, accented tongue, and Castiel didn’t want to think about what that could mean.

Chapter Text

Church with Uriel. Samuel Campbell, Dean Winchester’s grandfather, talked about being giving, and the sermon turned to a discussion of Naomi’s most generous donation of her entire estate (minus the house in which she had trapped her son) to the church. Castiel did his very best to sink into the pew when everyone started directing pity-filled condolences in his general direction. Uriel patted him on the back, perhaps mistaking his horror for sadness, and somewhere to his left, he saw Zachariah giving him an appraising look.

When the donation pan went around, Castiel left his wallet resolutely in his pocket and passed it to Uriel without putting anything inside. All of his spare change had gone to the Winchesters, and he thought that he might prefer it that way. Uriel looked concerned, tried to thrust it back, and Castiel put both his hands up to block it so quickly he knocked it right out of Uriel’s hands. The coins sprayed noisily across the floor. If enough attention hadn’t been focused on him before, he was quite certain he had all of it now. His ears burned, and he could pinpoint Zachariah’s eyes on him across the room again as he leaned down to put the coins back in the waiting pan. Then he passed it on to Uriel with no contribution of his own again. Uriel took it this time, but he looked down his nose, judgmental, and his wife made a show of extracting a twenty dollar bill from her purse and placing it in the full pan. But Castiel felt like—if his mother had given so very much, why was it his job? To feed into the aesthetics of a church so big and so impersonal that he already couldn’t stand the sight of it?

As they were leaving, Uriel said, “I wouldn’t have suggested you get a yard boy if I’d known it would wring you so dry you couldn’t afford a pittance for collections, Castiel.” He was using that condescending, half-joking, half-spat tone that Castiel, quite frankly, couldn’t stomach. Then he said, “Honestly, what would your mother think?”

He felt his nostrils flare of their own volition, and his ears burned, shamed. She wouldn’t think anything good, Castiel knew. He felt a squirming guilt deep, deep in his stomach, but at this point these feelings were starting to become so deep they were getting buried.

“Would you drop me off at the diner on Third?” he said flatly in lieu of a response.

He had a lunch appointment with Gabriel and Anna at a quaint little diner in the center of town. It was the type of diner where people still smoked inside every once in a while and nobody batted an eye. It had one of those little jukebox song selectors on every table, stuffed pheasants hanging above the patrons in the back room, and tabletops made of brightly flecked formica. He was nearly thirty minutes early and they were nearly thirty minutes late, so he had plenty of time to observe the easy-going business of the Sunday morning crowd.

When they finally arrived, Anna and Gabriel had the lazy smiles and the languid movements of two people who had been enjoying a round of sleepy Sunday morning sex before they showed up there. Castiel fingered his murky cup of coffee and felt a strange little twinge of jealousy, because his only intimate company recently had been vivid and uncomfortable dreamscapes.

“Castiel,” Anna said warmly, taking her hand off of Gabriel’s arm long enough to pat Castiel’s forearm where it rested on the table. They sat down and Castiel told them about his increasingly uncomfortable church experiences with a few strangled laughs. The diner was small and quite busy with the after church crowd, but Castiel kept his voice to a cautiously low growl.

Gabriel, of course, had no such reservations. “Why do you put yourself through that, man?” he boomed. “What’s the point? Be free! Embrace your hedonistic side! Sleep in on Sunday morning!” He turned to wink at Anna, throwing his arm around her shoulder. “Or don’t sleep in, that works too.” Anna blushed to the roots of her hair.

Castiel didn’t know how to explain his compulsion to attend church, because it wasn’t as if his explanations made any sense whatsoever, and he was well aware. It wasn’t just a matter of feeling closer to God—anymore, it was hardly about that at all, because in that big, high-ceilinged church, he felt about as far from God and his idea of God and who he believed God to be as he really ever had. Anymore, going to church, sitting with that congregation, was more about feeling closer to his mother. But that was strange too, wasn’t it? Because wasn’t he trying to get away from her now?

He was spared having to answer when the waitress came to take Anna and Gabriel’s drink orders and then bustled off to get them cups of coffee, too.

“So,” Castiel said gravely. “Zachariah.”

“Zachariah,” Gabriel mocked him, bringing his tone deep and low to match Castiel’s as he parroted the word back. Anna punched him playfully in the arm.

“I fail to see how nearly being discovered is funny,” he said sourly. “We could’ve all lost our jobs.”

Anna rolled her eyes. “Yeah, because how terrible would that be, right Castiel?”

Castiel flinched, “I only meant…”

“Relax, Cas.” She waved a hand dismissively in front of her face as the waitress brought the coffee and left them again to let them decide on their breakfasts. “Everything is gonna be fine, you’ll see. If this much time has passed and they haven’t said anything yet, then you and Gabriel will be okay.”

Suddenly, he heard a high-pitched crow from across the diner. He turned to see the young woman from the bar where Dean worked making her way to the table with her arm waving wildly. Anna visibly paled across the table.

“Joanna Beth,” Anna said faintly when the girl sat down next to Castiel, wriggling her bottom until he scooted in close to the wall to make room for her on the bench seat. She smiled, and he saw her two front teeth, just a little bit oversized, and her scrunchy, wrinkled little nose. Joanna Beth didn’t seem to fit, and his brain supplied Jo. Yes.

“Hello, Jo,” he said.

“If it isn’t Dean Winchester’s two favorite teachers, here eating brunch together! Ain’t it a small world?” She snatched a wrapped saltine cracker from the basket at the center of the table and started unwrapping it noisily. Anna squirmed uncomfortably, and Castiel noticed that Gabriel’s arm was wrapped around her back, rubbing vigorously at her arm. She jostled a little with each movement. The whole table was silent for a moment as the waitress came to refill Castiel’s coffee and ask Jo if she needed anything.

“You were Dean’s teacher?” Castiel said after she left. It sounded so obvious now. It should’ve been obvious. She had been at Garrison when Dean had, and Anna had said she knew Dean when they’d been talking back at St. Charles. She just nodded, but Jo was happy to supply more information.

“They knew each other real well,” Jo said, nipping off a corner of a cracker and raising her eyebrows. There was an odd mania in her eyes. Anna pursed her lips. “Real well. But she’s been skulking around the city all quiet; we haven’t seen her in ages.” Gabriel’s face was doing that thing where it went very dark very quickly, eyebrows turning in and shadowing his eyes.

“I thought Dean would’ve spoken with you about all this,” Anna said. Her eyes flickered nervously between Jo and Castiel. Castiel felt his own brows draw together in confusion. “I thought we were alright.”

Castiel looked at Gabriel for some clue as to what was going on, as to what these two could possibly be referring to. In the process, he noticed that the table behind Gabriel, full of three older ladies in matching pastel pants suits, had gone quiet. They were eavesdropping surreptitiously, ears turned toward their table, hearing clearly attuned. Indeed, when Castiel looked further, he noticed that most of the tables within hearing range had their ears near-visibly perked. It was such a strange feeling, being the center of all this nosiness. Dread pooled in Castiel’s stomach.

“Perhaps it’s not something we should discuss here,” he said, even though he had no idea what on earth they were supposed to be discussing, but he knew it couldn’t be anything good because he was bristling under his skin with the tension flaring between them all.

“Well, I mean, it’s not like I can discuss it with Ms. Milton anywhere else. She’s all but disappeared,” Jo said, narrowing her eyes. “And then suddenly she’s here, eating in the Third Street Diner with her replacement teacher.” She turned to Castiel.  “You gotta know that’s risky business, Cas, being seen with her.” Anna slammed her open palm on the table, and Castiel thought it was just out of anger until he saw a couple of dollar bills in her palm.

“I have to go,” she said curtly. Gabriel hurriedly began rooting around in his wallet for money to pay for his own coffee. Their languid good moods had disappeared. Castiel cast about for a conversation path that would pull them away from this teetering edge, that would salvage the breakfast long enough for him to learn a little bit more about what in God’s name the two of them were on about. When words failed him, Castiel reached across the table to catch Anna’s wrist where her hand was still poised over the money.

“Anna. Please.”

Jo ignored him. She was definitely on some kind of vindictive mission. “Yeah, Ms. Milton, just take off at the first sign of trouble, you’re good at that. Love ‘em and leave ‘em, right?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Anna gritted out through her teeth, too loud in the small diner. Other patrons outside of their immediate vicinity were starting to take notice now too, and churchgoers from across the diner craned their necks to get a better look at the conflict. It occurred to him that maybe it would be best, given the company, to let Anna go. He released her hand, but Anna was riled up now, and she didn’t really seem inclined to go anywhere anymore. “You can’t pretend to know anything about the situation!”

“I know you were supposed to be helping him, and whether or not you did or didn’t fuck him, you left him to deal with all the shit that came afterward!”

The old ladies in the pastel suits were not even trying to disguise that they were listening anymore, and neither was anyone else at this point. All around the room, conversations stopped; the diner was conspicuously silent. Castiel felt his own stomach drop to his shoes. Were they still talking about Dean, here? Stuttering Dean? His Dean? (His Dean?) Gabriel looked a little bit out of his element; he had storm clouds warring on his features and a hand pulled to his temple, simultaneously massaging and hiding his eyes.

Gabriel was totally shameless, but even he seemed to have qualms about discussing sexual relations with students in an overcrowded diner on a Sunday afternoon. “Anna, honey,” he said under his breath. “Maybe we should go.”

“I didn’t have sex with my student!” she all but shouted. It came from her forcefully, emetically, like she’d had it punched out of her. He remembered this type of anger from when they were younger, the self-righteous, directionless outrage she had with stasis and with situations she couldn’t change. The rebellious anger that had her tugging his cock and gnawing his lip right under his mother’s nose. There was more than anger with Jo behind Anna now, and Gabriel’s tentative little pulls at her sleeve weren’t going to calm her down. She had the anger at Castiel’s family, at her own family, at the community and the schools behind her. A fiery flush spread straight up from under her collar, up her neck and toward her cheeks.

The old ladies gasped. A couple of men in suits sitting at the breakfast bar with newspapers and coffee cups that had long ago stopped steaming leered unabashedly. Gabriel said, “God, Anna, maybe we should really take this outside, okay, hun—”

“I gave Dean Winchester Slaughterhouse-Five! I talked to him! I encouraged him to see a speech therapist! And someone shows that kid even the slightest bit of empathy and they assume he’s fucking them because what? Because he has nice hair and a pretty face and absolutely no self-esteem to speak of—”

“Anna,” Castiel managed.

“—And because no one in this town has enough goddamn humanity in them to be able to imagine being nice to that kid without boning him!” She was actually shouting now, gesticulating wildly with big sweeping movements of her delicate little hands. Castiel felt swollen, stiff, unable to move or respond. He felt rooted and heavy. “God knows Castiel here said he’s been hanging out with the kid. He’s probably got all kinds of ulterior motives, don’t you Castiel?”

Castiel’s eyes bugged, and his mouth gaped like a dead fish. His neck had seized up, and he couldn’t bear to look at the churchgoers around him. He knew what their responses would be, he could only imagine what this small town would do, what it would do for his job—what in god’s name was Anna thinking making that kind of comparison. His thoughts flickered to his mother. To Dean, that first night, in the shadows outside of Ellen Harvelle’s bar, and Castiel’s first thought of handsome, handsome, handsome that never quite went away.

And then something from one of his very first evenings here raced to the forefront of his mind. One of Uriel’s teacher friends and the sniggering little aside about the reason Anna had been let go.

“That’s the reason you were fired from Garrison,” Castiel said quietly. It seemed loud in the space because everyone else in the restaurant had gone completely silent. Just to their right, there was a waitress holding a steaming carafe of coffee. He thought she might approach to tell them to leave, or perhaps refill their mugs, but she was watching without reservation. “They believed you were involved with Dean.”

“Gee, Castiel, you fucking think?” Anna sneered. Gabriel, meanwhile, had made eye contact with the staring waitress, and he began emulating her open-mouthed stare, widening his eyes until she knocked herself out of her gossipy trance and stumbled behind the counter again. “They didn’t care what it would do to my reputation to say I had sex with a minor and a student in my class, they just wanted me and him gone. They also didn’t care whether or not I actually fucked him.”

“You really don’t get it do you?” Jo said. The wind fell out of Anna’s sails a little bit, but not enough that the high red flush on her cheeks dissipated any. “I don’t care whether you fucked him or not either.”

“Wh-what?” Anna said, and the stutter was so ironic it was almost comical.

“I care that you left without a word! Dean’s a big boy, he can make decisions on who he decides to mess around with. It’s not like I’m trying to defend his honor or something. Christ, he’s almost nineteen.” She puffed out her cheeks, like she was trying to make herself bigger. She was just a waif of a thing, whip thin and a little willowy, but she was definitely sturdier than Anna. She had a bit of definition to her arms, and her tan made Anna’s natural paleness pop even more than the fiery red of her hair, made her seem a little bit frail. “But he needed you there and you weren’t. You were the first one outside his family to get him to really. To try. On his speech. And then you left when things got hard, so what was he supposed to think? So yeah, maybe he’s banging Castiel.” Castiel went very, very red, shook his head vehemently, and chafed his fingers against one another on the tabletop. “The difference is that Castiel is still here.” Jo patted Castiel absently on the shoulder, then she made a grab for her wallet, slapped down a twenty, and said, “For your meal. My mom did teach me some manners.” And she left. A spell seemed to break, and everyone in the diner returned to their meals. The old pastel birds that Gabriel had been giving the stink eye immediately started gossiping with their heads pulled in close to one another.

And then Anna started crying. Gabriel patted stiffly at her back. Castiel covered his face with his hands and charted escape routes.

Castiel walked home that day because Uriel had driven him to the diner and neither Gabriel nor Anna offered him a ride home. Anna was too busy completely avoiding his eyes, and Gabriel was too busy steering Anna into the passenger seat, so it wasn’t as if he really blamed them. It was a short enough walk home, and it was brisk now that they were well into October, but it still wasn’t cold. It gave him time to think, and he certainly had a lot to think about.

He surprised himself wondering if Anna had actually had sex with Dean. She had been promiscuous in high school; lingering vestiges of his mother’s voice supplied that he she had acted like a tramp, Castiel, and you never know what she’s going to do next. When he’d first started college, determined to begin anew, he’d had vague notions of having been tricked by her feminine wiles or somesuch nonsense, and then he’d started sleeping with Balthazar and he’d realized fairly quickly that you didn’t necessarily need a reason to want to have sex with someone. Sometimes people just wanted to have sex with each other.

But the thought reared its head again when he thought of Anna with Dean. Anna in a position of power, Dean respecting her. Dean isolated from his peers and his classmates. He thought of Anna with her hand down Castiel’s pants, Anna with her mouth on him, and it wasn’t such a stretch of his imagination to replace himself with Dean.

And then it wasn’t such a stretch from there to replace himself with Anna.

And that was the most disturbing thing of all. Did anyone really think that he and Dean were…together? The fact that they had brought that into the picture at all meant that someone had been thinking it. She had been thinking it. Maybe someone put the image in her head. But he had also learned enough about Dean to know that he wouldn’t let himself be taken advantage of. Jo was right about that, at least. Dean was a big boy. Dean was intelligent and capable, even if he was a bit quiet.

Castiel walked through innocuous avenues, shady trees and falling leaves. He saw a few couples holding hands, a woman across the street was pushing a baby carriage. He didn’t know who they were, but it was possible that they knew him, just like all of those people in the diner who had chattered to one another in the booths around him as he methodically ate his way through his brunch in a slow-building panic, repeating to himself again and again—

I don’t think about Dean that way. Honestly.

The boys were at his house when he got there—rather abruptly given his current level of distraction—and it was a surprise that he’d even reached his home at that point, much less that the subject of some of his most recent tumultuous thoughts was on a ladder washing his second story windows. Sam was somewhere below him, washing the windows on the first floor, and every few minutes he’d look worriedly up at Dean above him, and Dean would pantomime falling off the ladder, and Sam would scream, “That’s not funny, you jerk! You know you shouldn’t be up there!”

And then Castiel realized he’d been standing at the edge of his own front walk, very blatantly staring, for the past five minutes at least. He could only imagine what his neighbors would think of that, because there was no disguising Dean’s well-formed backside from this angle. Everyone on the block was bound to see. He shook his head. Honestly, he didn’t think about Dean that way.

“Hello Sam. Hello Dean,” he called. Dean turned on the ladder and waved enthusiastically with the hand currently clutching at a white washrag, then he started down the ladder slowly, clearly very careful and mindful of his footing. Sam held the ladder worriedly, clutching it with white knuckles until Dean was safe and even-footed on the ground. Once Castiel was able to get a good look at Dean, he could see why Sam had been so concerned for Dean precariously balanced on a flimsy piece of metal two stories up.

“Dean. You’re shaking,” he said blankly. Dean immediately tried to hide the tremor of his hands beneath the white washrag, but Sam’s sour face told the whole story.

“It’s worse,” Sam said pointedly, pulling what Dean had aptly named a ‘bitchface’ before, “when he’s tired.” That didn’t make much sense to Castiel, though. Because Dean just had a stutter. Dean sneered without much heat in Sam’s general direction, clenching his hands until his knuckles went bloodless. It didn’t do much to disguise the shaking.

“You had a late night last night, didn’t you, Dean? Forgive me, it’s not that I don’t appreciate the gesture, but I didn’t expect to see you boys here washing my windows this afternoon. Don’t you want the day off?”

Dean opened his mouth to speak and blocked on the first word he tried to say. His facial twitches were more pronounced, too. The right side of his mouth ticced up with every gasped-in breath, his right eyelid twitched spasmodically. Sam made his best effort not to look too concerned, but he still side-eyed his brother warily.

“He wanted to come because of me,” Sam said when he was sure that Dean wasn’t going to try to pick up the sentence again. And no, from the firm, hard set of his jaw, Dean made it apparent that he didn’t intend to finish the statement anytime soon. “I told him that I was coming to see you, and he wanted to come with me. He didn’t have to. He keeps forgetting that I’m fourteen and I can get over here myself.”

Dean didn’t seem to want to try to talk again, but he lifted one hand to flap it like a mouth, emulating Sam’s speech patterns with every up-down motion even as he caustically rolled his eyes back into his head. Castiel couldn’t help but chuckle.

“You’re welcome to nap here if you’re tired, Dean. Sam can keep working on the yard, and we can wake you when Sam is ready to go home.” How would that look to the neighbors, though? Dean disappearing into his house for hours at a time. If they already thought he was sleeping with Dean then this would do little to alleviate that rumor. But Dean was tired. Dean shook his head at the same time Sam nodded earnestly, shoving Dean in the direction of the house.

“That’s a good idea, Dean, c’mon, I bet Cas’s couch is a lot quieter than our house, and you can still make it to work on time; it’s early yet. We’ll wake you up.” Castiel tried to guide Dean by his elbow when Dean looked like he might cave, but at the first touch on his arm, Dean jerked away and tried to speak again. The stutter was much more pronounced, to the point where Castiel had a hard time understanding him, and the most frustrating thing about all this was that Dean’s brain was obviously still functioning fine, and he had a whole lot of things in his eyes that he clearly wanted to say, but his mouth was limping along behind him. Castiel didn’t even understand most of what he’d said until Sam responded.

“You’re not a baby, Dean. No one thinks you’re a baby,” Sam said softly. He started petting absently at Dean’s elbow instead of pushing, which Dean also didn’t tolerate, jerking away half-heartedly. But when Castiel stepped superstitiously behind the ladder and swept his arm toward the front door, gesturing wordlessly for Dean to follow if he pleased, Dean did. Sam watched them from the front lawn as he closed the door behind him, and it left Castiel alone with Dean in the cool, dark foyer of the house. Dean slipped off his dirty boots, leaning heavily on the wall and struggling shakily with the little laces. Castiel waited patiently to lead him up the stairs and down the hallway to the guest room.

“Thu-thought I um um um wuh-wuh-uh-uh-uh-uh-was um on the um um um cuh-couch.” It took forever to get out, and Castiel almost got lost in it. It was so full of extraneous sounds, and he so wanted to find meaning in every syllable that Dean uttered, that he almost lost the meaning of the sentence entirely. It made him nervous. He had recently realized that Dean seemed to trust him to understand. He didn’t want that trust to be misplaced.

“I’m going to set you up in a guest room. You’ll be more comfortable.” Lucky for him, Dean didn’t seem in the mood for small talk as he led him through the quiet house.

He opened the door to the guest room across the way from his own bedroom and turned down the musty sheets without bothering to turn on the lights. Bright white light filtered through the thin, gauzy curtains hanging over the window, but the atmosphere was still sleepy and peaceful. He patted the bed when he was done and smiled at Dean. Dean half-quirked his mouth back graciously and went to climb on top of the covers despite the fact that Castiel had just revealed a welcoming swathe of sheets. Castiel lingered as Dean presented him with his back, face turned toward the window, arm crooked under a misshapen pillow, still in its sham.

On his way home, he’d had illusions of talking to Dean about his experiences with Anna, getting his side of the story, even though Dean didn’t know he was associating with Anna at all, and if the conversation with Jo at the diner was any indication, Dean might be a little bit upset with Anna right now anyway, any sexual history aside. But Dean’s current state precluded the chance for any useful conversation anyway—stuttering heavily, jittery, quiet. He hadn’t seen Dean this non-communicative since that first night, in front of the pub. But it seemed so—important. To at least try.

“Dean,” he said quietly. Dean must’ve been surprised, because he stiffened before he grunted an acknowledgement. “Have you read Slaughterhouse-Five?”

Dean’s paused, and when his response came, it was a mere whisper, calm and quiet, and strangely smooth. He recalled the last time he’d heard Dean whisper, in the quiet reverence of the projection booth as Creature from the Black Lagoon played on the screen. He’d spoken easier then, too.

“Yeah, Cas. I rrrread it.” The muscles in his back that had gone tight at first loosened, unbunching beneath his thin flannel.

“What did you think? Did you—I mean. Did you like it?”

Dean rolled over on the bed, and Castiel noticed that a slip of the skin near his waist peeked out from under his shirt as the motion scrunched it up a bit under his armpits. The pillow was a wrecked mass underneath his head, and his jaw was set hard.  Castiel felt compelled to sit on the edge of the bed, and he did as much, as if in a trance, looking hard into Dean’s eyes, where he could see that the iris had been eaten almost entirely by a dark pupil.

“Liked it,” he said carefully. “Hated Buh-uh-uh-Billy fuckin’ PPPPilgrim.”

“Why?” Castiel said breathily, struck again by the urge to touch Dean, drawn into that physicality, even though he was aware of how this looked, and how this felt, and how he was doing nothing but proving Anna and his neighbors absolutely right just by sitting on the edge of this bed. He was noticing things about Dean, now, too. For a second time, maybe. His pretty lips, his freckles, his sculpted features and broad nose. Handsome.

“Because um. Um, they ha-ah-ah-ve no chu-choice. Nuh-no free will. Right? Buh-ut Buh-Billy doesn’t even tttttry. Billy just lets fuh-uh-fate hand his um um ass to huh-him.” Dean looked down at the old comforter Castiel’s mother had picked out ages ago. It was floral, fraying and aging, and Dean traced absently at the flowers with a square-nailed finger that Castiel knew better from watching it prod at the guts of an engine. But the floral pattern suited him too. “Th-There’s always a ch—” Even though Dean was whispering, he blocked on the last word, and it seemed to physically pain him when he couldn’t get it out. But he stumbled, and breathed hard, and closed his eyes, and tried to push through it, and Castiel knew that this was stuttering 101, but he couldn’t stop himself from finishing for him, because somehow, he knew exactly what he was going to say.

“Choice,” Castiel whispered. He gave in to the need for touch, and he brought his hand to Dean’s face to swipe at the wispy fineness of the hair just above his forehead. He felt rather than saw when Dean nodded against his palm, and it brought his hand into contact with a thick, raised line in his scalp, a place that was nearly imperceptible by sight alone, except there was perhaps a little area just on his crown where hair didn’t grow. Dean was half-asleep and didn’t act startled at all, just fell a little deeper at the touch and then, quick as if he’d been smothered by the lumpy pillow he rested on, sank under.

He pulled his hand away from the jagged little imperfection, cradling the palm that had been on Dean’s head in his other one, eyebrows furrowed down at his own hands, and whispered, “Oh,” as many of his most puzzling feelings and urges lost a great deal of their mystique.

Later, outside, after Castiel had taken a moment to stare at his mother’s front door in blank panic before going to the door with a big pitcher of poor-tasting distraction lemonade, Sam and Castiel both agreed that they wouldn’t wake Dean for work if Dean did not wake on his own. Sam said he would probably be angry, but Castiel couldn’t quite shake the feeling of alarmingly gut-clenching anxiety when he’d seen Dean’s hands shaking on the front walk earlier, so when Sam suggested they just leave him be and let him sleep, Castiel went right along with it.

“He’s been working pretty much non-stop ever since the school year started,” Sam said, frowning into his glass of lemonade. “I don’t think he’s taken a day off in weeks.” Sam clearly hated that he was adding to the strain, bringing him to Castiel’s house to do more work, even when he didn’t have to. So they got takeout and ate it quietly in the kitchen while Sam talked about the poems they were reading for class, and when the start of Dean’s shift came and he still wasn’t awake, Sam crept into the guest room to steal Dean’s cell off the nightstand and called in to the Rufus at the theater. He bitched and moaned half-heartedly before he conceded that yesterday Dean had started a show about fifteen minutes late when he dozed off in the booth and he could probably use the sleep.

Dean slept for nearly eight hours. Sam finished his yard work for the day and took off when it got dark, saying that he had a study date at a nearby house and could get a ride home from there. Castiel considered just how angry Dean would be that he had allowed Sam to walk out alone into the night, and Dean just unhelpfully slept the sleep of the dead in his guest room. Castiel was just considering sleep himself when he heard a commotion just above his living room, and Dean fell out the door at the top of the stairs looking sleep-mussed and tired still. Castiel was reading, and when he staggered in, he looked up to say, “Hello Dean.”

“Whu-wuh-uh-uh-uh-uh—” he stuttered blearily, rubbing at his face and squinting against the lamps in the living room.”—What?”

“You were exhausted. Come to the kitchen, now. I’ve got leftovers for you.” Dean squinted one eye and went where he was led. When he sat at the kitchen table, Castiel placed overflowing cartons of orange chicken and chow mein at his elbows and watched, satisfied, as he bolted down about half of each carton in one go.

“S’good,” he said thickly through a healthy mouthful, eyes still half-mast. He didn’t look very alert yet, his eating somewhat mechanical, so Castiel rose from where he was watching Dean and started his coffee pot boiling. Dean had slept for eight hours, but it didn’t look as if he’d slept at all. He still had dark bags under his eyes, and the eyes themselves were heavily shadowed and dark. He looked just a little bit gaunt, and Castiel thought back to Bobby Singer in his office at the garage, looking at Castiel critically from underneath a floppy old cap and entrusting him with the information that Dean was very bad at feeding himself.

Were the Winchesters hurting for money? No doubt Dean’s position at the garage paid him more than either of his other jobs in terms of hourly wages, so if business was being affected that much by the recent boycott, Dean probably wasn’t making enough to quite make all the ends meet. He did tend to show up at Castiel’s in the daytime hours, but Castiel had figured it was the moments of freedom between the day and the night shifts which—he probably really should have spent sleeping, instead.

When Castiel put the coffee cup in front of him and Dean drank with the same practiced, wind-up toy motions, awareness seemed to come into him all at once, like a physical thing, and he jolted back in his seat. He knocked the container of orange chicken over on the table, but no more than a few pieces skittered away from him onto the table and the floor.

“Where’s Sammy?” he said urgently, running a hand over his mouth, through his hair, stopping to screw a forefinger and thumb hard into the corners of his eyes.

“He’s safe. Don’t worry. He took your cell phone if you’d like to call him, to make sure he made it in from his friend’s.” He waved his cell in Dean’s direct vision, and Dean took it, but he didn’t call. He shot off a text almost automatically. The response was immediate, a little chime that must’ve been Sam’s response from the way Dean’s face eased into a more relaxed relief. But he still fostered a vague look of consternation.

“Nuh-not sure about that Ru-uh-uh-uh-uh-uby girl,” he said softly, an afterthought. It was strange and new for him to stutter in the middles of words, but he wasn’t shaking quite so much as he had been before his nap. His hands on the tabletop were clutching one another gently, trembling minutely, but he seemed less like a broken piece of machinery now, and his stutter had receded to understandable levels. Dean took another sip of his coffee. “I shoulda bbbbbeen at wuh-wuh-wuh-work to-duh-day.” He looked off into the distance, didn’t seem to have anything else to say, but his sentence tapered off in a series of thoughtful ‘ums.’ It was strangely endearing.

“You needed a nap. You took a nap.” He looked at Dean—a long, scrutinizing stare. Dean looked back with surprisingly open eyes, half-full of all kinds sad things that made Castiel want to reach out and pat him, right on that alarming scar he was hiding just underneath his dirty blond hair.

“Cas,” he said softly. Castiel jolted back into himself and started bustling mindlessly, abandoning the practiced movements of his inclination as he cleaned up the empty containers, pushed another mug of coffee on Dean, and patted deliberately at the air just above Dean’s shoulders.

“You should probably be on your way home. Your father will be concerned.” Dean shuttered off the sadness in his eyes, nodded, and—quietly, quietly—did just that.

Chapter Text

On Monday, Castiel discovered that Gabriel had been fired. In his place was a pretty, soft-spoken woman named Hael who seemed to hone in on Castiel with a discomfiting fervor. Castiel entered the weekly staff meeting to find her in Gabriel’s place near his end of the table. And at first, he wasn’t aware that she was even there to replace his friend, though he could feel the beginnings of alarm rising like bile at the back of his throat. He took an empty chair three seats down from her, and when she spotted him, her eyes seemed to pierce him like hooks, and she reeled him in in reverse, indiscreetly moving down the two seats it took to sit next to him. Castiel shifted just as indiscreetly away from her, alarmed, and without the mental capacity to hide it, given that he had just spent half the night dreaming that Dean was having his face pecked off by pastel birds.

Zachariah spent the first ten minutes of the meeting yammering about the superintendent and the importance of the upcoming elections, and by the time Zachariah introduced the woman as Gabriel’s semi-permanent replacement, she had already attempted to initiate a whispered conversation with him four times. Castiel had thwarted her every attempt with very pointed attention to Principal Adler at the head of the room. But every attempt following the announcement was instead thwarted by Castiel’s shock and panic, because it obviously had something to do with what had happened in the diner over the weekend, it had to. The logical part of his mind said no, it couldn’t have happened that quickly, they couldn’t have replaced him so suddenly—they’d been wanting to fire him for years. And Gabriel had a whole mess of other fireable offenses. Maybe they’d gotten him for the fliers. Or the laxatives. Which put Castiel into even more of a frenzy, because he’d been involved in all that muck as well.

At the end of the meeting, Principal Adler issued a warning to the entirety of the faculty to watch how they behaved outside of class too, because they were influential members of an important academic community and must behave as such. Or something. All that Castiel heard was a warning issued to himself, that if he wasn’t careful, he was going to lose his job.

Castiel walked down the hallway following the meeting in a restrained panic, and he only discovered when he had reached his room and turned in several little circles that Hael had followed him all the way there. Her uncertainty transformed into a happy little smile when his eyes finally and unavoidably landed right on her. And yes, Castiel recognized distantly that she was very pretty, in a wild sort of way. She had untamed blue eyes, a heart-shaped mouth, and a mustard-colored sweater that was all skewed from chasing after him at his full-tilt panic-walk. He couldn’t bring himself to be rude to her, because that simply was not the way he was raised, but he could bring himself to be blunt with her, because his mother had definitely never had a problem with brutal honesty.

“What do you want?” he said, trying in so many words to convey that he was busy, that he had too many thoughts coursing through his mind right now to be concerned with any frivolity she was selling, and couldn’t she see that maybe his boss had heard about his somewhat inappropriate thoughts about an inappropriately young social pariah?

But she, as it turned out, had a sunny disposition that was entirely undeterred by his bluntness, and she carried on happily, as if he’d said as much in the most gracious and welcoming tones. “Just trying to get to know my coworkers!” she said.

Castiel squinted. “Coworkers,” he said skeptically, casting a little absently around the room, as if more Garrison teachers would pop out from behind the television and filing cabinets with cake and streamers for some kind of welcoming party. She went pink.

“Well, just you so far, but,” she moved in closer, uncomfortably close, and waved her hand at where his rested slack against his left side. “You’re one of the only cute boys in there without a ring on his finger. Can’t blame a girl for trying.” It hadn’t actually occurred to Castiel until that moment that he was being…romanced. That her somewhat creepy pursuit through the hallway could be construed as flirtation.

“Oh,” he said intelligently. “Um.” She sat down in one of the student desks at the front row of his empty classroom, looking up and down, side to side at the empty walls.

“Pretty dull in here,” she said, flashing him a smile. “Don’t you do any art projects with your kids?”

Castiel squinted again. “I teach—English,” he said flatly. He didn’t really need reminding that his classroom was colorless and bland. He had to stare at its white walls every day. She laughed like he’d told a joke.

“There’s still all kinds of art projects you can do for English classes. I’m sorry, we weren’t really introduced personally. I’m –”

“Hael. Yes, I’m aware.” She’d only been introduced in front of the entire school at the faculty meeting.

“Yeah, that’s right,” she said, smiling. “And your name is—Cas, right?”

“Castiel,” he corrected her immediately.

“Castiel,” she amended graciously. He wondered where she’d gotten Cas. Before, at St. Charles, no one had called him Cas. But now it seemed like people were shortening his name left and right. He didn’t think that he minded it when it was Dean, shortening it for the sake of being able to say it without a stammer, but it sounded wrong coming out of her mouth. “That’s kind of a strange name. Castiel.” He puffed up like an affronted tropical bird. 

“No more strange than ‘Hael,’ I’m sure.” She laughed, light and airy, and it only made him want to puff up more. “It’s biblical! Like the angel!”

“Geez, I was only joking. My name is biblical too, you know.” She lifted her index fingers, pointed blithely to the dimples on either side of her face. “I’m named after the angel of kindness, doesn’t it suit me? Which angel was Castiel, anyway?”

“The angel of temperance,” Castiel deadpanned. “And solitude.”

A moment of awkward silence.

Hael cleared her throat. “Anyway, Castiel, temperance or not, you should really think about putting some color on the wall. I have big plans for my classroom.”

“This is my first year,” he complained, his ears red. “I haven’t had a chance yet.” Though of course that wasn’t an excuse. Gabriel’s room was already covered top to bottom with colorful drawings and models of cells and ecosystems and whatever else they did in biology class, just from the first month or so of classes.

Gabriel. He scowled.

“Why don’t you have them write…I don’t know. Haikus.  Do they learn haikus? Have them write haikus and then illustrate them.” She rose from where she was seated at the front of the room, crossed to the white board and picked up his black marker. She looked back over her shoulder at Castiel’s glaring confusion at her shoulder blades and smiled.

She wrote,

Castiel, an angel

Flies through the blue of his eyes

Very serious

Beneath it, she drew a very crude version of what was probably meant to be Castiel given the bulky trench coat and argyle sweater vest and the serious expression. Then she picked up the blue marker and used it to draw wings sprouting from his back. They were clumsy and massive, covering a vast majority of the board and crowding the haiku into a corner. She kept sneaking playful little glances over her shoulder before she’d make another addition to her drawing, as if she was painting a masterpiece. Castiel tilted his head.

She smiled hopefully as Castiel scrutinized it, fingers stroking his chin as he walked toward it. “My name,” he said, taking the pen from her hand and circling the first line, just like he would if a student had gotten something incorrect on an assignment for class, “has three syllables. Cas-tee-ell an an-gel.” He counted the syllables on his fingers as he spoke them. “Six syllables. You could have avoided this by removing the article, but then you might have to fuss with the word order.”

Hael laughed. “Geez, teach. What kind of grade would you give me here?”

Castiel said, “A B, probably. And that is perhaps exceptionally generous, given that by adding an extra syllable to the haiku you’ve completely misunderstood its purpose and failed at technically producing the poem you were assigned.” She laughed again. Castiel was beginning to get a bit disconcerted with how much she laughed.

“You won’t even give me some extra credit for the drawing of the handsome angel?” She went back to adding flourishes on the drawing of Castiel. Suddenly he was soaring through clouds, and the sun was in the background, and he had to admit that just that much, just on the board, added a whole lot of life to the classroom that hadn’t been there before.

“Perhaps a B plus,” he conceded, and Hael grinned brightly.

“You should do stuff like this with your students, Castiel. It could make a world of difference. You know, I could come over sometime. Help you make some lesson plans.” She fiddled with the marker in her hands coyly, continuing to eye him up and down. Castiel tried to parse the intentions. He was honestly unclear as to how much of this was a genuine offer of help and how much was more flirtation. She was clearly trying to insinuate herself into his home, but his lesson plans probably did truly need the help. He wasn’t trained to teach, and his somewhat lackluster teaching style was reflected in the white of his walls. He wanted to be better, especially in light of Gabriel’s termination. He was hired because of who his mother was, but he did want to keep this job he’d barely gotten, to survive based on his own self-worth.

“Yes. I think that would be a good idea.” She squealed unceremoniously and flung the dry erase marker to the metal pan at the base of his whiteboard. Castiel startled at the noise.

“Perfect! How does Friday sound? I’ll make you dinner. Do you like chicken?” Castiel nodded slowly, lips screwed and puckered.  “Awesome, okay, chicken it is! Say, seven? I’ll see you then!” And then she flitted out of the room. Castiel stood at the whiteboard, contemplating his own likeness with a tilted head. The face was probably the most accurate part, which told him perhaps disturbing things about the degree to which she had been observing him at the staff meeting. Nonetheless, he couldn’t help lifting a hand to wipe at his own scowling face, smudging with his thumb at the line between his brows.

“Art project?” said a voice behind his head, and Castiel startled so hard that he wiped the line clean away. It was Zachariah, looking as smug and self-assured as ever. When Castiel looked at him, he quirked his head at the drawing. “Not half bad, Castiel,” he said.

“Oh. I didn’t draw it. Hael did.” Zachariah’s expression immediately morphed into something lewd, and he shifted sideways to elbow Castiel in the ribs. The motion was not gentle, and it left Castiel feeling ruffled and unsettled.

“You don’t waste any time, do you kid?”

“Oh…I’m not—”

Zachariah lifted his hands in a sort of ‘say no more’ gesture, looking nothing if not gracious and benevolent. “Listen, I know you’re not supposed to cavort with the coworkers, but you know I’ll always turn a blind eye for a friend, eh?” He winked. Castiel was about to protest again when Zachariah said, “It’s about time you started seeing someone around here, Castiel. The rest of the staff was starting to get ideas.” And Castiel knew what ”ideas” they were having in no uncertain terms, because he had spent all day today and yesterday in a blind panic thinking those “ideas” himself. Zachariah was baiting him. He had probably stopped by specifically to intimidate Castiel in the wake of what had happened to Gabriel, because in a town like this one, there was no doubt in his mind that everyone knew exactly what had been said at the diner.

So Castiel said, “You caught me, sir,” with as much frat boy contrition as he could muster. Zachariah winked again.

“Good boy,” he said, patting Castiel on the shoulder. “Now in return for my silence, I expect you to tell me what she’s like in the sack, kiddo.” And then he did that infuriating little wink again.

“Oh. Yes. Of course,” he stammered. And then Zachariah was gone. Castiel stood looking at the blank walls again and tried to imagine having Hael in his house, having Hael in his kitchen, having Hael cooking for him. Abruptly, he turned to the white board and swiped out the flawed line with its six irritating and erroneous syllables. He had the urge to replace it with something contrary, mentally paring it down to five syllables. Cas is no angel, he thought. But in the end, he just wiped the whole board clean.

He needed to talk to Dean. He felt strange and upset thinking about Hael, and he felt strange and upset thinking about Gabriel, and Dean needed to know whatever the nature of their relationship was now, it probably wasn’t acceptable or appropriate. Even though nothing had technically happened but rumors, and even though the very idea of telling him to stay away made his heart hurt a little bit. A lot. He marched into the theater and knocked hard on the door to the office that he had entered before, and then his stringent resolve was made completely moot when Rufus walked right up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Dean’s pal,” he said warily. “What’d the kid forget this time?”

Castiel turned, trying to look aloof, like he wasn’t desperate to get upstairs. “Nothing. I just—I need to speak with him.”

Rufus looked down at his watch. “We’re in the middle of our seven o’clock set, chief. What’s so important?” Castiel looked toward the box office, where a bored employee was completely absorbed in reading from her phone, leaning hard onto her fist.

“Forgive me, but it doesn’t look especially busy tonight.”

Rufus screwed up his lips, looked like he was about to smack Castiel upside the head. “Yeah, well, the projectionist don’t care how busy it is! He’s gotta start all the damn movies anyway. Hell, I don’t care, go distract him, be my guest. I just hope this ain’t gonna turn into a frequent affair. I’ve got a business to run here.” He turned around and keyed his way into the office where he picked up a pad full of sticky notes and wrote a five-digit number. He peeled the note from its pile and then reached out to stick it straight to Castiel’s chest. Castiel gave himself a double chin trying to read it. “That’s the door code. Now go on,” Rufus said, and he waved at the ticket tearer, pointed at Castiel, and gave a thumbs up. “You save me having to go check on him every hour or so anyway.”

Castiel spared barely a thought for Rufus’ final curious statement before he was off for the projection booth. The doorman let him straight through, and Cas started his vaguely familiar path down the long hallway. This time, most of the doors were still open, and there were a few people milling around the hallway, looking at posters and promotional materials. Dean’s non-digital theaters were closer to the front of the theater, probably in the theaters with the smallest screens, the lowest capacity. It was getting on toward Halloween though, so maybe he would have some more success. The marquee outside indicated that Dean was still playing Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, but The Shining had replaced The Creature from the Black Lagoon, which was a shame, because Castiel had already read The Shining, and he’d liked how Dean looked when he talked about Julia Adams. Castiel stopped at the locked door and glanced at an old movie poster on the adjacent wall featuring a giant ant with a woman between its pincers and loudly declaring THEM! Then he shook his head, took the sticky note off his shirt, and input the five-digit number into the keypad.

The light was out in the stairwell, so Castiel picked his hazardous way up from his hazy memory, and when he opened the door on the landing this time, there was no chance of surprising Dean because he was right there, at one of the digital projectors, his tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth in concentration as he switched between what appeared to be promotional materials and the main feature. When he saw it was Castiel in the doorway, his face split into a wide, automatic grin, and Castiel felt that familiar warmth deep in his belly at the sight of it.

Dean smiled just to see him. And his resolve crumpled, just like that.

“Cas!” he said. “’Sup?” He went right on fiddling with the projector, but he was looking at Cas fondly inbetween punching the buttons that he had explained to Castiel previously, not that Castiel could remember for the life of him what any of them were.

“Dean,” he said. “I just. Hello. I just wanted to see you, and now I have.” Dean smiled a secret little smile into the mechanism on the projector, then snapped something shut and patted it definitively. Through the little window, Castiel could see the Please Silence Your Cell Phone screen flicker onto a preview. Then Dean moved a little ways down the booth, mucked with another few buttons, and the lights dimmed.

“Yeah. Huh-huh-uh-hey, Cas,” he leaned against one of the projectors, smiling. He gestured toward the end of the booth where the big reels were spinning away—Dean’s movies had clearly already started. “Wuh-wuh-uh-anna um sit?” He dragged a chair away from the head of the booth, all the way down to the projector on the left side, waggling his eyebrows. “The Shining is juh-uh-ust sttttarting.” Castiel followed him, took the seat where he was directed, and glanced over at Dean sitting right beside him. Outside the booth window, there was a tracking shot, a car moving through a pretty, mountainous countryside.

“Oh. I have read this book,” Castiel said. “I didn’t much care for it.”

“You are in fuh-fuh-ffor a suh-uh-uh-prise then,” he gestured benevolently forward, a sweep of his arm with a pleased grin on his face. And this wasn’t what Castiel had come for, but he would certainly stay if it pleased Dean, and judging from the way Dean seemed to want to watch him more than the movie, it probably did. Dean knew most of the words, mouthed along with them, turned toward Castiel when he was straining to hear the tense lines, and stuttered them with real menace. Every once in a while, he would have to get up to start a film at another part of the booth, but by about eight, it was clear that all the movies had started. Dean sat right by him, and he waggled his index finger up and down and cackled red rum! even though the letter r was not being friendly to him this evening, and he revved like the old engine in Castiel’s hatchback had the first time he had ever really spoken to Dean.

At some point, Castiel stopped watching just because Dean wanted him to and started really watching the movie. By the time Jack was chasing his terrified wife and child through the old hotel, Castiel was full absorbed, only spoke when he needed Dean to clarify a line, and he didn’t even notice Dean stuttering through the tension. Dean watched him and grinned, watched the movie and grinned, just looked unrepentantly happy up here alone with Castiel and one of his favorite films. Maybe when Castiel was finished being terrified, he would feel the same.

“Wuh-wuh-atch Shelley Duvall huhhere,” Dean whispered as Wendy huddled in the corner of a bathroom and an axe pounded through the door. He did watch her. She looked utterly, devastatingly horrified, and Castiel felt his heart beating too hard in his chest. He startled back against the chair back at the first thwump of the axe and reached blindly for Dean, who cackled gleefully and calmly took the panicked flutter of Castiel’s hand in his own, chafing Cas’ knuckles with his thumb.

“Priceless,” Dean said under his breath. Dean didn’t let go of his hand until he had to go and bring the house lights up and reset the projector at a theater a little ways down. But even still, he could feel Dean’s eyes on him as Wendy and Danny were saved and Jack’s frozen façade flashed across the screen. Castiel let out a breath he wasn’t aware he’d been holding. “You’re muh-muh-more ffffun t’watch than the um muh-movie, Cas.” Dean tucked his chin on the top of a digital projector, smiling at Castiel.

“That was far better than the book,” Castiel said breathlessly. Dean snickered.

Castiel watched the credits, committing the actor names to memory because they seemed to be important to Dean. Shelley Duvall. Jack Nicholson. They sat in companionable silence for a while as Castiel tried to really digest the film, but then Dean raised the house lights and the enchantment was gone. There had been several people in Dean’s theater today. He saw at least four shuffling out of the little theater.

“Nice cruh-uh-uh-uh-uh—” Dean blocked, but Castiel had been thinking the exact same thing moments before, so he hmmmmed an affirmative. Nice crowd.

 “It was. I cannot understand why more people would not come to see that film. It’s truly a masterpiece.”

“It cuh-cuh-uh-ame out lllllike um um thirty yuh-years ago, Cas.”

“It shouldn’t matter.” More silence. Dean cracked his jaw open in a yawn and turned toward the second reeled projector, where he fussed delicately with the machinery. He looked dead on his feet, smacking his lips after the yawn, and Castiel knew he was probably heading to the bar after his shift here ended. When did he sleep?

Castiel was struck with sudden inspiration.

“Dean, there is something I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Shoot,” Dean said, rubbing at his eyes, then blinking hard to stay in focus as he maneuvered the film reels back into starting position for the final set.

“I don’t think you should come to my house with Sam anymore,” he said. And Dean jerked up from where he was mucking with reels with a look of pure hurt on his face, open and unguarded in his eyes. Oh. Oh. Castiel wanted to backtrack, wanted to rub a thumb over Dean’s face, right under his tired eyes, no no no, I didn’t mean it like that Dean, no no no.

“What?” he said in a sickly whisper.

“Don’t misunderstand me, Dean. I simply mean that the yard work in addition to your three other jobs is clearly taking its toll on you. Everything is obviously very stressful for you right now, and I merely mean to say that it is perhaps better if—if we conducted our visits on my off time. Like we are today. Perhaps here at the theater?”

In the dark, in the quiet, where you’re not afraid to talk and where—where no one knows you work.

Castiel could come and go as he pleased and see Dean as much as he wanted and no one would even know the difference.

Dean’s face lost some of the hurt cast, but he still looked confused, like things weren’t really adding up. “Did I—duh-duh-duh-duh –” When he gave up on the word, he gestured awkwardly to all of himself in a flat-palmed, juddery, up-down motion. Did I do something wrong?

“Oh, oh no, Dean. You didn’t do anything wrong.” That much was the truth, at least. It wasn’t Dean’s fault that the whole town was out for his head. From what Castiel could understand, it was all just an accident of his birth, which wasn’t really fair at all. “I just. I really hate to see you so exhausted. When you were at my house the other day –”

“M’suh-suh-suh-sorry I fell as-suh-suhleep so lllllong.”

“Dean.” Their eyes met. He didn’t know how to deal with how wrong it felt for Dean to have this kicked-puppy, hang-dog expression. Dean was surly and contrary and stood his ground when he felt comfortable with whatever situation he was in, and Castiel really liked that Dean usually felt comfortable enough with him to be a bit of a jerk. But Castiel’s comment had clearly taken him right out of his comfort zone and flipped some hidden switch that, heretofore, Castiel had only seen activated by John Winchester. “I’m not angry with you. Just concerned.”

They maintained eye contact longer than was strictly necessary or appropriate, Dean squinting and flickering his gaze back and forth, looking for any sign of malicious intent or untruth. Castiel kept his eyes very intentionally steady on Dean’s face, and his back very meticulously lax, lacking the rigidity that had almost certainly given him away to Zachariah in the teacher’s lounge before. Because Castiel was a very poor liar, but he wasn’t exactly lying. He did just want the best for Dean, and he did still want to see him any chance that he could get. But the fact of the matter was, he was keeping him out because it could be disastrous to Castiel’s position if they were seen together. Ultimately, his actions were selfish, and it was one of the most effective lies he’d ever told.

Dean was the one to initiate physical contact this time, and Castiel was so busy beaming truth right into Dean’s green eyes that he hardly noticed at first when Dean took up his hand from where it was settled at his side, chafing at the knuckles like he had during the film. “Like seein’ you,” he whispered, and he finally broke eye contact to look down at their joined hands. Castiel looked at them too—disconnected, as though from a great distance. It was fairly clear that neither of them knew exactly what they were looking at, that neither knew exactly what to do with the way that their knuckles slotted together like puzzle pieces or the way that their fingers felt warmed straight through.

“I like seeing you as well, Dean.”

“Got any muh-muh-uh-uh-uh-ovies you wuh-wanna see?” He looked back up through his lashes, smiling wryly.

When Castiel went home that night, he memorized the five-digit keycode to the movie theater door, happiness warring in his gut with sick dread.

The Winchesters, he realized on Friday afternoon, made his house feel warm and livable. With Sam in the backyard and Dean in the kitchen, he had never been lonely, or tempted to retreat from the too-big space that his mother had inhabited to the enclosed familiarity of his bedroom. He realized this at exactly the point Hael entered and made him feel like just a tiny thing in a too-big world again. She wasn’t a bad person, and Castiel could easily see himself working with her in an office environment, because she wasn’t unpleasant. But.

But her cooking smelled wrong, too much like wine and not enough like butter. She touched him when he didn’t want to be touched. She laughed at nothing. She made plans for them like the future was something they had together, like after one evening at home cooking Chicken Marsala together, she had some sort of stake in his life. She inquired after his past, she insinuated herself into his future, and –

She talked too much.

It occurred to him that he was probably only thinking this way because of Dean. She was his polar opposite, after all, because Dean had learned to make every single syllable count, because in the time it took him to get out one complete thought, she would have talked about his pepper shaker and his mother’s tea towels and how his lips were chapped and how her lips were chapped and how she had some secret recipe for preventing chapped lips. About five minutes into that particular train of thought, Castiel tried to approach the conversation from the perspective of someone who wasn’t completely smitten with someone glaringly inappropriate, tried to imagine that his most meaningful conversation nowadays didn’t happen with a physiologically-imposed filter so all-consuming and complete, he had to assign words and meaning to get any read on Dean’s feelings at all. Hael left nothing to the imagination. He was sure there was more to her than this, but his interactions with her left him with the same vapid, emptied-out feeling as a William Wordsworth poem. Wordsworth was so flowery and ornate, but his words ultimately gave little more than a tired and oft-repeated message, and he didn’t feel the need to go any deeper.

“Have you thought a little bit about what you want to do to liven up your classroom, Castiel?” Hael said as they finally sat down to dinner together. Castiel picked listlessly at his mushrooms, trying to make himself be fair. It wasn’t Hael’s fault that he wanted to be somewhere else—wasn’t Hael’s fault that she wasn’t Dean. She could really help him to develop a new lesson plan, and that was something he should be concentrating on.

“Uh. I suppose I do have a poetry unit coming up.”

“It doesn’t have to be just poetry that they illustrate, Castiel. Though the images in poetry do sort of lend themselves more to the assignment than maybe classic literature. Though, uh, what book are you reading right now? Maybe you could just have them illustrate a sequence from a book. Or maybe you could do something. I don’t know, more abstract. Impressionistic. Have them map out stories or—”

There was a knock at the door. Hael flashed him a puzzled look. “Were you expecting someone, Castiel?” Castiel hadn’t been expecting anyone. Dean had work tonight, Sam hadn’t told him anything about yard work today, and the only other person who had ever been to his home was Uriel, and he couldn’t conceive of a reason as to why he would want to be there. Hael got up before him, headed toward the front door. He hurriedly wiped his mouth with a napkin, cleared his throat, and got up quickly enough to snag her arm before she traveled into the foyer.

“Hael,” he said. “I can answer the door.”

She looked at him sidelong. “Oh, I know, I was just trying to make things easier on you. I figured since you were still eating, and I’m a guest.”

He nodded slowly, squinting. “It’s fine. I can take it from here,” and he crossed the last few steps across the black and white tile and twisted the front doorknob.

It was Sam. He might’ve expected. He glanced behind him to see Hael peering nonchalantly over his shoulder, trying to make it look as if she wasn’t looking at all, and Castiel closed the door enough that the two of them couldn’t see one another. When he turned his gaze to Sam again, he saw that he was holding a big plate full of homemade meatballs, wrapped sloppily in tight plastic wrap. He had a bike helmet on over his shaggy hair, and he was backlit by the lingering pink and purple vestiges of the setting October sun. He said, “Dean made you meatballs! He’s working the bar tonight though, so he asked me to bring them over if I was gonna do any yard work. I’m not doing any yard work, but I brought them over anyway ‘cuz Ruby lives a few blocks that way.” He pointed south, toward where the houses would, in a few blocks, become a little bit shoddier, a little bit more unkempt than his own neighborhood. “They were in her fridge for a few hours, but they’re still fine I think.” He tipped the plate this way and that, eying it critically, nose crinkling.

Hael chose that moment to appear at his shoulder, and just close enough to be a little too personal for him, her hand on her hip and her elbow resting in the curve of his spine. He shuddered and tipped forward, playing off the discomfort with a head tilt toward Sam. His voice cracked when he spoke. “Uh. Hael, this is Sam Winchester.” He expected something negative. He wasn’t sure of Hael’s history with the town or with the Winchesters, but he was always poised to be protective of the both of them.

So he was surprised when she said, “Oh, I know Sam! Hey there little man! You’re in my third period Biology class.” Hael talked down to him like a little boy, which wasn’t ideal in and of itself, but it was a far cry from the way that he was ignored or outright insulted by too many adults in this wretched town. Sam’s expression turned to one of carefully neutral puzzlement. “Oh, how nice! Are those meatballs? Are they for us?”

“Yeah. My brother made them,” Sam said slowly. He held tight to the plate as Hael tried to take it. “For Cas.” He shifted his arms slightly, inclining the plate toward Castiel. “What brings you to the English teacher’s house?” he asked cautiously. “I thought the humanities and the sciences had like a non-interaction pact or something.”

She laughed. It endeared her to Castiel slightly, warmed his belly—just that, just hearing her liking Sam. “We’ve broken it for the evening,” she said. “I’m helping Castiel to make some new lesson plans because I think we can both agree he’s a bit dull.”

Sam’s death grip on the plate of Dean’s handiwork loosened minutely. He saw Sam’s knuckles get some of the blood back. “Oh,” he said, smiling back, face still a little tentative. He seemed to be warming to her, though. “Yeah. No offense, your lessons are very informative, but I think we all could use a little variety.” Sam scrutinized the distance between the two of them perceptively. When Castiel had bobbed forward, he’d dislodged the places she seemed determined to touch him, so now they stood shoulder to shoulder, and Sam seemed satisfied with that.

He clearly had a point to prove, though. He jammed his way between the two of them, butting forward with his bike helmet, putting some of his weight on Castiel as he was pushed gently into the open door. Hael got out of the way before Sam could get her, grunting confusedly as Sam bolted past into the kitchen. When the two of them were left in the doorway, she smiled a baffled smile in his direction, but she did not make an effort to reclaim the physical distance she had lost.

“Sam is very spirited,” Castiel said weakly.

From the kitchen, Sam called, “I’m just going to put these in the fridge!” They waited in the hallway, but when his excursion to the kitchen took longer than putting the meatballs in the fridge could justify, Castiel grew tired of waiting and crept around the corner investigate. He found Sam very obviously scoping out the dining room table where his and Hael’s plates were set at a respectable distance from one another and the notes on his upcoming lesson plans were laid out between them. Sam seemed satisfied with what he saw, and when he looked up to find Castiel he didn’t seem surprised. He smiled disarmingly and unbuckled his bicycle helmet. “Are we really going to get to do some art projects?” he asked breathlessly.

“Sam,” Hael said, mock-scandalized, following Castiel around the corner. “You’re not supposed to be peeking at the lesson plans!” Sam smoothed his hands up and down his sides, like he was trying to rub something off on his jacket. He lifted the bike helmet from his head, and some his hair stuck to it in staticky strands.

“But I can help!” he said, looking hopefully between Hael and Castiel. Castiel—squinted. Hael laughed, seemingly unperturbed by the turn the evening had taken.

“Well alright, Sam.” The meatballs had never made it to the fridge, and Sam moved over to the counter, shucked off the plastic wrap, and foisted them roughly into the microwave.

“Sweet. If you guys have already eaten, I’ll just help myself.”

Sam pulled up a chair to sit conspicuously between them at the table, legs splayed. He ate every one of Dean’s meatballs, and when he was done with those, he finished off Hael’s leftover chicken Marsala. He spoke often and laughed easily, but he very determinedly did not leave until Hael did.

Chapter Text

When Cas stopped to listen, Hael did say good things, useful things, informative things. It was a shame that they sometimes got drowned out by all the little jibber-jabber, but Castiel was, by now, a very good listener. He tried not to liken it to parsing the useful words out of Dean’s speech, but sometimes, when Dean’s sentences did get longer or more involved, he found that he could get a bit lost in them. It helped to think about Hael’s compulsive speaking in a similar way.

She helped him to deviate from the standard coursework for the district for the first time in the school year. He found that it was the first time he’d really been involved with his students, and it was the first time his students had even seemed involved in the material. The problem was, Hael tried to explain, sketching the Grand Canyon to accompany a little sonnet she had written, the problem was that Castiel engaged with the text in a completely different way than his students. He was used to collegiate learning, and he wanted that style of learning for his students as well.

“I wish you engaged with the world in the same way you seem to connect with a piece of literature, Castiel,” she said. She looked at him wistfully for a moment before returning to smudge at the chalk on her page with dirty fingers.

Castiel bristled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. They’d only known each other for a little over two weeks, and he felt strange about her doling out advice like she knew where he was coming from.

“You’re just very passive, Castiel. I didn’t mean anything by it. The only thing I’ve ever seen you get excited about is how much you hate Wordsworth.” She raised the chalk drawing up, flashing him a glimpse of the golds and oranges and reds. The picture that she had been using as a reference fluttered to the ground as she lifted it, and Castiel moved from where he had been standing at the board to retrieve it. She let out a little wolf whistle when he bent over, and he snapped ramrod straight the moment he heard, his vertebrae having been inexplicably fused once again.

“See,” she said, laughing. “Maybe I wish you were more passionate about things because I feel very passionate about you.” He looked at her over his shoulder, straight-backed.

“Hael,” he said pleadingly, trying to express in just that one word that he didn’t want to talk about this. He thought that maybe he might be passionate about someone like that, because he made him feel like he was untangling the threads of the most advanced literary passages, every single time he spoke. And not just because of the stutter. Mostly because he was layered and complex and he wanted to know more about him. He just didn’t feel that way about Hael, but he didn’t want to talk about it, so he tried to put his every feeling into another pleading, “Please.” He’d never really had to turn anyone down before. He’d slept with the only two people to have ever propositioned him. He really just hoped she would take the hint, because it wasn’t in Castiel to lay everything out for her, and sometimes he didn’t think he could explain without bringing in whatever mysterious little relationship he had with Dean.

Hael gave him a sort of baffled look, but it was apparent that she didn’t quite understand and it was also apparent that she wasn’t the giving up type. She went back to working on her sketch and didn’t say anything for the rest of the day, but it was clear from the way her looks still lingered on him, heated and questioning, that she still wanted there to be something. It was hard for Castiel to know what to do from there, but her presence was simply too convenient, too necessary, for him to outright deny her.

That evening at the theater, Dean surprised him by not being where he expected. Usually, Dean stuck to what Castiel thought of as “his” projectors—the two with the reels, way back at the end of the booth. Today, though, Dean was set up beside one of the digital projectors, and there were cords coming off it in strange places, disrupting the clean lines of the smooth exterior.

“Are we watching a more current film today, Dean?” Dean chuckled, fiddling with something else on the projector.

“Kuh-kuh-kinda. Ruh-hufus is out.” He waggled his eyebrows and gestured toward the booth window. When Cas looked out the window, he saw an inexplicable DVD menu screen for The Two Towers. He looked at Dean.

“They’re cluh-uh-uh-ahssics!”

“Dean. Did you cancel a show for this?”

“Juh-uh-uh-st some bullshit ruh-uh-uh-rom-cuh-com.” He waggled his eyebrows again, sweeping his arms grandiosely at Castiel’s chair. Castiel rolled his eyes. “What? It’s a Wuh-Wuh-Wednesday!”

They ended up watching both the movies that Cas hadn’t seen, even though Dean was gone for half of both, fixing up things around the booth, starting and ending films. Castiel was invested in the films, but he had to pretend that he wasn’t watching Dean move instead of the pictures, sometimes. It was nice to watch Dean move, because Dean wasn’t graceful. To call him graceful would completely contradict the concentrated swagger he had when he was alone. When he worked on the projectors, he cocked his hips, sashayed with a bowlegged prowess. He walked heavily, very certain of his every step. And every time he came to sit next to Castiel, he sprawled, boneless and at ease. He was a handsome man before, but Castiel thought he might find him beautiful like this, isolated and completely self-assured.

Close to the end of The Return of the King, when everything in the theater was shutting down or settling in, Dean laid his head on Castiel’s shoulder and sighed tiredly into the juncture of his neck and collarbone. Castiel kept his arm slung right around Dean’s chair back so that it didn’t seem obvious when he started stroking his hair.

“I’m sure you’re all aware of the upcoming election,” Pastor Campbell said near the end of a church service one Sunday, dredging up distant, half-present memories of lectures from Principal Adler and talks in the teacher’s lounge. The entire congregation seemed far more aware of the entire affair than him, though, and they tittered excitedly. Uriel shifted meaningfully in his seat, prodding Castiel with his elbow as he spread over the available bench space. Castiel was at the end of the pew, and he hunched a little closer in to the wooden armrest. Pastor Campbell continued, “I’d like you all to help out with Michael Shurley’s campaign in any way you can. As you know, he’s completely reinvented the entire school district, having served as the superintendent for the last few years. And now he’s running for governor!” The church congregation broke out into scattered applause. “He’s a member of the flock, and he’s exactly what our great state needs right now.” Pastor Campbell’s chest seemed to swell with pride, and he clutched the edges of the pulpit, grinning brightly.

Castiel really needed to stop catching rides to church with Uriel, because he inevitably ended up doing something that he didn’t want to do. Today, it was canvassing. When he insisted that Uriel take him straight home to meet up with Sam (who would be staining his deck today), he agreed half-heartedly to do so after “one small errand,” drove him two blocks in the opposite direction of where he wanted to be, stopped in front of an affluent-looking house, then dragged him to the front door. He was all smiles for the person who answered, a chubby woman with a baby on her hip, insisting that she allow him to place one little tiny campaign sign in her front yard. Then he whipped a big red, white, and yellow sign out of his backseat. It was mounted on a harsh, sharp little pine stake, and read, “MICHAEL SHURLEY FOR GOVERNOR” in a bold, imposing font. The ‘M’ in ‘Michael’ had a yellow halo hooked over it. When she agreed, Uriel set Castiel to the task of driving it in with the flat of a shovel, and he watched critically right up until he was done.

“It’s a little bit crooked,” Uriel said, “But it’ll do.” Castiel scrutinized the sign. It was perfectly straight, and he massaged tiredly at the sore muscles in his neck and back. He figured there was no point in fighting. This could only be good for him, so he resigned himself to a lost afternoon. It was better by far than the last thing he’d been pressured into, because a campaign poster was just a campaign poster, but vandalism with Gabriel had been rather against the law.

Uriel dragged him that way through the whole neighborhood, an entire couple hours of knocking on doors and standing awkwardly behind Uriel, trying not to look menacing with his indifferent glare and his shovel. He kept catching snippets of the way Uriel was selling Michael’s campaign, and the haloes on the signs and the church’s abject support made a bit more sense when he heard that Michael was preaching family values and a government with a stricter moral code and a legislature that answers to a higher power.

“And look how well it’s been working within our school system,” Uriel said, beaming his white, white teeth at the husband and wife who had opened their door as a saccharine, smiling pair. They called their kids rugrats, and that didn’t sit right with Castiel. “Why, just in the last five years, we’ve moved in a team of brilliant educators, and we’ve done our absolute best to remove all the most nasty, negative influences. It’s one of the finest public school systems in the country—the graduation and literacy rates have gone sky high. Imagine if legislation like this were implemented all over our state!” He winked. “The children are our future, you know.”

That couple put two signs in their yard, supposedly to compete with their neighbors across the way, who seemed to be supporting a different candidate if their red and black campaign signs were any indication. Castiel never got close enough to read them because it didn’t seem to be on Uriel’s agenda to change minds. He just wanted to give signs to the people who were already like-minded. They gave the houses with the red signs a wide berth.

As they circled in closer to his home, though, people in lower-income houses several blocks away from his own displayed the red and black signs more and more prominently. Castiel was able to get a glimpse at one house in particular. It had a larger sign than the others, bumper stickers on the beat-up old SUVs out front, red and black banners in their windows.

“Luke Shurley?” he said. Uriel flinched minutely at the name. “Are they related? Luke and Michael?”

Uriel sighed high and thin through his nose. “We’ve talked about this before, Castiel, don’t you remember? The Shurleys. Four brothers. Luke and Michael are both in politics. Raphael is the headmaster of St. Charles. And Gabriel, as you know, is a miscreant.”

“But they’re running against one another?” The black and red signs blurred together as they blitzed past them, headed at last toward his home. Uriel scanned the houses on the passing residential streets, but everyone here was already decked out in red and black.

“They stand on very different political platforms, Castiel. They represent very different things. And the things that Luke Shurley wants for this state are not things that you should want any part of,” he said definitively, just as they were pulling into Castiel’s neighborhood. Castiel nodded like he understood, but the small town politics were just as mysterious to him as they had been when he first moved back, and even though he didn’t necessarily trust Uriel as the one true source of political information, he also didn’t want to make any waves, and this was something that Uriel seemed passionate about, to say the least. Maybe he’d look the whole debacle up when he got home.

Sam was on his porch when Castiel pulled up in Uriel’s car, and Castiel tried to hustle himself out of the passenger seat. He didn’t manage it before Sam waved an arm frantically at the car, his shirt already dyed dark with stain from the deck. There was a pretty girl sitting on the grass by the porch who looked up at Sam when he started waving and then gave a half-hearted, limp-wristed wave of greeting herself.

“Sam Winchester on your front porch, Castiel, really? And Ruby Masters? What sort of company are you keeping here?” Uriel laughed a little. Castiel felt his chest go tight. He’d already sent Dean away, was already only seeing him in quiet silence and isolation that Dean didn’t deserve, but to think that Uriel wanted to take this away from him as well –

“Sam has been doing my yardwork,” he said, tacitly removing Dean from the equation.

Uriel leaned over Castiel’s seat to take a good, long look at the yard. “Ah, yes, it makes sense that he’d be the secret little mole that was rooting around in your dirt, doesn’t it?” Uriel looked out the window, flashed his own palm at them in a wave. His mouth was a flat line, his eyebrows raised, his eyes contemptuous. Sam waved again, half-heartedly wiggling his fingers, his face filled with confusion. Ruby just glanced disdainfully over her shoulder. “Little troublemaker,” he muttered under his breath. Castiel went straight for the door handle.

“I will see you in school tomorrow, Uriel,” he said, slamming the passenger door so rebelliously hard that the little Jesus bobblehead shook his dismay from the dashboard. But Uriel wasn’t finished with him yet, and he rolled down the window as Castiel was marching purposefully across his front yard.

“Castiel,” he shouted, and his face was obscured by the red and white and gold of one of his signs as he thrust it out the window. “For your yard.”

Castiel backtracked to snatch it by the pine handle, scrutinizing the bold type, and slung it over his shoulder like a baseball bat. “Thank you, Uriel,” he said tightly, and then he turned again, the sign throwing a big gust of air. He heard Uriel drive away a few moments later.

Sam was smirking a little as Castiel approached the deck, a stain brush held tightly in the crook of his elbow where he crossed his arms. “Afternoon, Cas,” he said. “How was church?” Ruby tucked a piece of hair behind her ear and drew her knees up to her chest where she was sitting on the grass. She rearranged herself as Castiel came closer, pulling her sleeves over her forearms and rubbing her forefingers over her eyes.

“Enlightening, as per usual,” he said. He inclined his head meaningfully toward Ruby.

“Oh! Oh, this is Ruby, is she not in any of your classes? She agreed to come keep me company ‘cause Dean’s not around here so much anymore. Which I’m alright with, don’t get me wrong. I think he’s sleeping now.” Sam smiled, and his face was a little bit flushed. He looked taller than he’d been even last week, and his eyes were bright when they landed on Ruby.

“I can see Ruby was too smart to be fooled into helping you as your brother has been.” Sam laughed.

“Yeah, my Tom Sawyer-fu doesn’t really work on her,” Sam said fondly. She looked down, picked at the grass, and smirked to herself. Sam had moved the lawn furniture from the deck when he’d started staining, and Castiel took a seat on the green-vined wrought iron of one of his mother’s deck chairs and set the campaign sign along beside him.

“What’s that?” Sam said, tipping his head in an effort to read the sideways sign before resuming his task, dipping his brush, wiping off the excess, and adding another layer of stain to the deck.  Ruby was glaring at the sign like it had done something to her personally.

“Ah. It’s a campaign sign for the upcoming gubernatorial election,” Castiel picked it up again, scrutinizing the type. “Uriel would like for me to put it in my yard because I am told it’s crucial that Michael Shurley win the upcoming election.” He squinted. “I’m afraid I’m utterly indifferent.”

“Michael Shurley is a bad man,” Ruby volunteered, speaking up for the first time in Castiel’s memory, glancing up through her lashes as she itched at her calves. “My parents wouldn’t be caught dead voting for him. My uncle works for Luke Shurley. He’s his attorney.” She sniffed meaningfully. “If you don’t know about either candidate, you should vote for him.”

Sam looked a little put-off at the mention of Ruby’s family and the seemingly steadfast devotion she had to their ideals—that is, if the way she was reciting them in rote was any indication. He just kept on staining the deck, leaving Castiel to deal with the way Ruby’s eyes were suddenly piercing him from her lower vantage.

“I’m…I’ll be sure to look up his platform,” Castiel said. “It’s true that from what I’ve heard about Michael’s, I don’t much care for his.”

“But he’s a member of your church, isn’t he?” Sam said. Ruby made a face.

“I’m not sure that should dictate who I vote for, nor how I go about my daily life.” Sam smiled toothily, clearly relieved. “I have very little love lost for my church as of late, quite frankly.” Sam balanced his paintbrush on the edge of the stain can. He had to scramble to right it when it almost slipped in, and Ruby snickered.

“I—that’s really admirable, Cas. I really appreciate it,” Sam said with one steadying hand on the stain can. Castiel nodded sagely. He couldn’t let Sam know exactly what he knew about his church and his pastor, though Sam might have guessed already. “Dean and I went to church a couple times when we were young. Really young. I don’t remember it very well, but Dean says it was boring.” He looked conflicted, eyes flitting between nails hammered into the wood of the porch steps. He gave up on staining for a moment and took a seat next to Ruby on the grass, splaying his long limbs in the sun like a baby giraffe. “I had a question.”

Castiel smirked as he echoed Dean’s vernacular. “Shoot,” he said.

“I—you go to the big mega church. The one everyone in town goes to.” Ruby punched him none-too-gently in the thigh. “Well. Everyone except Ruby and her family,” he amended. “But I guess. I was just wondering—what it’s like.”

“What it’s like,” Cas parroted, confused.

“Well—yeah. I mean. I’ve. Dean and I used to go there. But now I guess we’re not exactly –allowed? And I don’t remember it and Dean won’t talk about it and see. I—I think I believe in God,” he confessed it quietly to the grass between his legs like he was admitting to having cheated on a test. “Dean laughs about it. I tell him everything. He’ll listen when I tell him anything except for—except for this.”

Ruby looked a little uncomfortable, and when Sam looked in her direction with half a hopeful smile, she said, “Oh no, don’t look at me. I think you’re an idiot, too.”

Sam shrugged and fiddled with the grass. Castiel thought about going to get lemonade instead of confronting Sam’s existential questions, but he’d already stained the portion of the deck in front of the door, and Castiel was well and truly trapped.

“I don’t think you’re an idiot,” Castiel said gently. “It’s never a bad thing to have faith.”

“But am I even, I dunno, believing right? What’s the church like? What’s the—what’s the pastor like?” Castiel put a steadying hand over his eyes.

He wanted to say the pastor is a lot like you. He has your eyes and your nose and your stubborn disposition. But when he found the courage to look at Sam again, he just said, “Honestly, Sam, the servicesare somewhat alienating. I’ve never felt closer to God there than I have just working in the yard with you and your brother. There’s no wrong way to believe. Faith is a personal thing. Just believe what you’d like. Don’t let anyone stop you.” The words were just supposed to be a comfort, but they’d found their way out of his mouth before he’d even fully processed how hypocritical he sounded, nor how distressingly candid he was actually being. “You don’t need the church,” he continued boldly, and his mother’s house seemed to quake at its very foundations from where he sat facing it.

Ruby side-eyed him like she was wise to his game, but Sam nodded very seriously, “Yeah. Yeah, thanks Cas. Some days I feel like we need all the help we can get, you know?”

Cas did know. Cas knew very well. It was the reason Cas stayed out in that lawn chair with Sam, waiting for the stain to dry and talking until long after Ruby went home, long after the sun went down. And by that point, he didn’t have the light by which to put up the campaign sign, so he dumped it unceremoniously in his front hallway and promptly forgot it existed.

One day, after everyone, including the customers watching the final movie of the evening, had left, Dean took Cas around the theater to help with all the standard maintenance. The theater felt enormous with no one in it, all high ceilings and echoing rooms, so he kept close, hooking his forefinger in the belt loop of Dean’s jeans and staring up, up, up at all the brightly glowing neons. Some letters in the theater’s name had gone out, and they had to be replaced. Dean didn’t seem too concerned about the whole ordeal. But the building was tall. He was wary of Dean climbing the ladder even though Dean hadn’t been shaking too noticeably for as long as Cas had been with him today, so he held the ladder tightly as Dean slotted the delicate neons into place. He didn’t pretend to fall when Cas gasped nervously; he just turned back to smile, smug and reassuring, backlit by vivid reds and blues.

“Sam,” Castiel said, a thought surfacing from somewhere. “Dean, when you were cleaning my windows. Sam said you shouldn’t be on the ladder.” He shouted it up at Dean’s backside. It reverberated loudly in the empty, vaulted hallway.

“He’s puh-puh-paranoid!” Dean shouted back. The fragmented “p” surrounded them in stuttered, overlapping echoes.

Castiel felt a surge of emotion like nausea, and he couldn’t quash the feel of his heart beating in his throat until Dean was safe and even-footed on the ground.

After they’d replaced all the burned-out lights, Dean showed him how to fix one of the ice cream freezers behind the concession stand. For some reason, he was feeling chatty, and he kept up a halting commentary, lovingly describing every turn of his screwdriver as Cas held a flashlight aloft so he could see into the dark machine’s guts. Dean sometimes mentioned cars like this as well, like they were something loved and precious. Cas liked to hear him at it because he treated mechanics like a puzzle, and when he spoke about them in such depth, it became glaringly apparent how smart he was, how intuitive these things were for him.

“It’s good to know that I’ll be prepared for a career in fixing commercial ice cream freezers should the need arise,” Castiel said to the hole in the base of the machine where Dean’s head had disappeared, right after Dean had done his best to completely demystify the entire mechanical process for him.

Dean said something that echoed out of the machine in fragments, and with his stutter on top of all that, it was completely incomprehensible.

“I’m sorry, Dean” he said. “I didn’t quite catch that.”

Dean’s head appeared, and with painstaking clarity, he said, “Wuh-wuh-won’t nuh-need it. You’re a um ttttttteacher.”

Castiel couldn’t help laughing a little bit. If there was anything he’d learned from his time with Hael, it was that he was failing as a teacher in the worst way. Things had gotten better with her attentions, but who was to say he could come up with these kinds of things on his own? He wasn’t overly confident in his ability to mold young minds, and he wasn’t sure it was something he wanted in the long run.

“Perhaps I would be a better ice cream freezer repairman,” he said. Dean quirked a half-smile and disappeared again. They sat in silence for a moment. Castiel was thoughtful and distracted with it, and Dean grunted a reprimand every time he let the beam of light from the flashlight drop.

“Wuh-uht gives?” he groused after the fourth apology, reappearing and sitting up.

“What do you want to do, Dean? What do you want to be?” Castiel blurted. Dean’s face went flat.

“A muh-uh-uh-uh-otivati-uh-uhnal speaker,” he said without missing a beat. He went to disappear into the belly of the freezer again, but Cas grabbed him by the ankle and put the flashlight down, eliminating his light source.

“Cas,” Dean grated out warningly.

“I’m only wondering. Don’t you have something you would rather be doing than all this?” Castiel made a vague waving gesture with his hand, not just indicating the theater, but this, the town, the jobs, all of it.

Dean growled, “No.”

“Wouldn’t you like to get your GED?” Castiel pushed.

“Um, um druh-op it, Cas!” he snarled, and Castiel let go of his ankle, pulling back. Dean reeled himself in and then said, calmer, “Puh-uh-uh-lease.”

“I don’t want to be a teacher,” Castiel admitted quietly. “I don’t know if I like children.”

Dean considered that, scrutinizing his face, playing idly with a grease-covered pair of pliers still cradled expectantly in his hands. “Sammy luh-uh-uh-um-loves you,” he said simply, like that was the answer to all life’s problems, like Sam liking his class meant that he absolutely must be good.

“I suppose I must’ve done something right then.” He smiled at Dean and Dean smirked back before looking toward the pliers and hooking them between his thumb and index finger.

His smile became distant and nostalgic, clearly elsewhere, and he said, “Wuh-uh-us always guh-gonna be a suh-soldier. Luh-like m’dad. Guh-guh-get out of huh-huh-ere.” Then he pantomimed tearing out his tongue with the pliers in his fist—a big, harsh ripping motion that cut through the air and jarred Castiel. “Buh-uht I’m ‘duh-duh-duh-disabled.’” He made air quotes around his clumsy mouth, the pliers bobbing sarcastically alongside his curled fingers. “Nuh-no buh-big loss. I’d’a buh-een a gruh-uh-uhnt no mah-ah-tter what.” He gestured himself in a vague little up down motion, and Castiel took in the dirty white t-shirt, the stained flannel, the frayed jeans. A ‘grunt.’


“Nuh-no tuh-time for um um um…GED anyway. Sammy t’think uh-uh-uh-bout.” And then he disappeared back under the machine. It was well past one o’clock in the morning. Cas had barely been hanging on for the last hour at least, and he had to be up early for class tomorrow. But it felt strange leaving Dean when there seemed to be this dark cloud over him, and Castiel couldn’t stop thinking of the way he’d said disabled so flippantly, like it didn’t mean anything to him. But it had been a quote, it had come from somewhere. It had come from someone’s mouth. And it was clear from the tense set of his shoulders as he’d scare-quoted it that it meant something to him.

He didn’t know how to impress upon Dean that he genuinely believed he could do anything, so he followed him around the theater like a lovesick dog for another hour or so. He was careful to be especially complimentary of the way that he tightened the leaking pipe in the kitchen and oiled the mechanisms that lowered the curtains to a soundless, sliding perfection. He even wrapped Dean in a hug from behind as he was using the long, reaching arm to change the showtimes on the marquee above the box office, planting his face into the hard muscles of his back. Dean rolled his eyes and didn’t talk as much as he had been, but as they were locking the doors to leave for the night at around three o’clock in the morning, he caught Castiel’s hand in the soft, pooling light of an overhanging streetlamp and pulled him into his own tight hug, chin hooked over his shoulder as he exhaled softly near his ear.

“You’ll think about getting your GED, won’t you?” Castiel said into the empty air above Dean’s shoulder as the hug lingered a bit longer than he expected. He tried not to make it glaringly apparent that he was looking around, searching for wandering eyes from their little oasis of light.

Dean pulled back, took him by the shoulders, and smiled sadly. “Um um. Sure, Cas,” he said.

Suddenly, Cas’s classroom was full of color. He taught Shakespearean sonnets and the kids wrote their own. Hael’s piece was an example at the front of the room as the kids wrote about nature and relationships or imitated Shakespeare’s own penchant for writing about pretty people. And many of them had gotten a kick out of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, which, he pointed out to his students, was most famous for essentially calling his mistress out on all of her physical faults. My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…

It had made Dean laugh, too, when he’d explained the lesson plan the day before class. Castiel had read it aloud, and he’d asked, Wuh-uht the hell kuh-uh-ind of lllllove puh-oem is thu-uh-at, huh? Castiel was probably the only one who found it beautiful, because hundreds of poems spoke of their perfect subjects, spoke of alarming beauty, but very few dealt in terms of faults. Castiel thought that being blind to someone’s faults was a lot less realistic than being painfully aware of them but loving someone despite it all.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound

Dean liked the idea of the poetry unit even though he didn’t much care for poetry, and when Castiel suggested that he write a poem with some accompanying art for Castiel to hang in his classroom, Dean responded by writing Castiel a haiku. He presented it to Castiel on a flowery piece of stationary that appeared to have come from the desk of some sort of gardening center, and at the bottom he drew a shaky little tulip in black pen. It read:


Is a


And when Castiel just looked at him, puzzled, Dean said, “It’s a haikuh-uh-uh-u whu-wuh-when I ruh-ruh-read it,” and held his belly as he laughed at his own joke until he was blue in the face. Castiel pretended to be unimpressed, but even now, the little piece of paper was attached straight to his filing cabinet with the cheesy inspirational magnet that Anna had left behind.

They may forget what you said, but they will not forget how you made them feel.

For his own project, Sam had written about a girl who Castiel was almost certain was Ruby, and he opined in clumsy verse about the brown of her hair and her pretty lisp. His accompanying drawing was primarily abstract—splashes of color that didn’t make much sense but looked very nice hanging on the wall. It was good to see Sam dealing in lighthearted yellows and purples and reds.

Sam stuck around after school one day when Dean was working late at the garage, helping Castiel to organize some new projects on the wall. He was standing up on a chair, stretching mightily to get at a stray wad of sticky tack, when Hael came into his room to snug familiarly to his side, hooking a finger into one of his belt loops as she gazed up at the wall. Castiel tugged away from her wandering hands, but not before Sam had caught a glimpse of the contact, narrowing his eyes from his perch.

“Oh, Castiel, it looks really lovely in here. We’ll get you some posters about verb usage or something and you’ll be right at home.” She made a grab for his hand. “Let me take you out to celebrate! We’ll go out to dinner.” Sam stepped forward.

“I’ll come with you,” he said, looking determinedly up at Hael. The smile fell from her face, and her eyes flitted to Castiel for help. “I helped with the lesson plans, too.”

“Sweetie,” she said a little desperately. “Why would you want to come with two old fuddy-duddies like us? Don’t you have friends you want to hang out with yourself?”

 “No,” Sam said obliviously, blinking. Castiel almost wanted to laugh, because from Hael’s expression, it was clear she thought that Sam was actually just this stupid, but Castiel had no such illusions. She obviously hadn’t been paying very close attention to Sam in class. Castiel took pity on her.

“Listen, Hael. Not tonight. Maybe you should leave me to talk to Sam.” She nodded, and, with one last confused glance back at Sam, walked right back out the door.

“Sam,” Castiel said.

“What?” Sam said peevishly, turning back to what he’d been doing with the pictures on the wall. He loaded another one, a mediocre chalk drawing of some fish, with sticky tack and stuck it crookedly on the wall. His back was tight and tense, like Dean’s sometimes got when he knew he was going to stutter.

“I do like Hael.”

“Yeah, well, that’s clear,” Sam muttered, scowling.

“She’s my friend.”

Deans your friend,” Sam said.

“I’m not allowed to have more than one?”

“Dean’s your friend.”


“Is this why he hasn’t wanted to come ‘round to your house anymore? Is this the reason he’s been staying away?”


“He said he was tired, and at first I thought, okay, this is good, he’s tired, he should be getting more sleep but –”


“What!?” he snapped.

“I don’t want to fight with you.”

“Maybe you should! Maybe you should want to fight! My brother is worth fighting for!”

“You couldn’t hope to know what’s happening between me and your brother, or between me and Hael,” he said curtly. Condescending to Sam was something he never wanted to do, but he didn’t want to have to answer his questions because he was aware that there were things he needed answer for. And Sam, quite frankly, could match his intellect, and this was the only way he could think to avoid it. So he did.

Sam inhaled high and sharp through his nose, puffed out his cheeks, picked up his book bag, and left.

Dean kissed him for the first time during a Twilight Zone marathon at his theater, just before Halloween. Things were going well in his classroom, and he and Dean had worked their way through more classic monster movies than was probably healthy. Dean had started cycling through all his old reels when Castiel started watching with him. The shows and show times were so spastic and inconsistent that he definitely wasn’t attracting any new audiences. He was essentially catering solely to Castiel’s near-daily visits at this point, and Castiel knew that Rufus knew that he was the cause of it all, but Rufus hadn’t said a word about it yet, at least not to Castiel, so he saw no reason to stop.

They still watched from the booth, even when Dean’s shift was over and the theater below was completely quiet and empty. Castiel could swear he only caught about half of what was said in a movie, but he liked that Dean felt compelled to keep him caught up. It made him speak, and Dean seemed to like speaking in rote. He still stammered, but not so frequently as he might have if he were speaking his own mind.

They had just learned that to serve man was a cookbook! and they had started in on another episode that began with an old hillbilly in worn jacket and wide-brimmed hat chopping firewood with his dog.

Dean smiled. “Wuh-wuh-one of my ffffffavorites,” he said. “Huh-uh-uh-ahppier than the uh-uh-uh-uhthers.” Dean still liked when he liked to watch, and he preened when Castiel really got invested in the things that he selected, like this was him connecting with Dean on a very personal level. So Castiel really tried to be invested in everything, but if he was honest, it was a little bit hard to become invested in The Twilight Zone. He knew that more often than not, there was an unpleasant twist coming, or someone was going to die, or someone was dead already, or the world was going to end. Castiel wasn’t really a big fan of unpleasant surprises. But it helped to hear Dean’s reassurances here, and he watched with an open mind as the man’s dog led him away from Lucifer’s clutches. He smiled when the innocent old man was taken to heaven by an angel with a southern twang and a plaid shirt.

Castiel felt warm to his toes to see it, everything about it—from the sweet, approachable angel who didn’t like to use his wings, to the warm, pastoral heaven with square dancing and raccoon hunts. He smiled and said, “Oh. I like this.”

And then Dean kissed him. Just a chaste press of lips over his, warm and shaking minutely as they formed a little pucker. Castiel was so surprised he didn’t try to deepen it, didn’t move forward or backward, just tilted his head to the side and made a wordless little happy noise right into Dean’s mouth. When Dean pulled away, Cas caught him by his strong jaw, grunting disapprovingly and guiding him slowly back in for something deeper.

Dean was obviously a little inexperienced, though he did know what to do when Castiel licked at the seal of his lips. He let his mouth break open with a breathy little exhale and a whimper, tongue skimming shyly over the textured tip of Castiel’s own before withdrawing. He startled forward, clacking teeth with Castiel, then pulled back and laughed haltingly, drawing his hand up to trace his own plump lips.

It wasn’t something he’d allowed himself to fantasize about, so he had no expectations for the kiss. He had only just barely reconciled his physical attraction to Dean with his desire to keep himself gainfully employed. His relationship with Dean was new and surprising every day. His relationship with Dean surprised him just by being a relationship. He had no expectations and so he had no apprehensions, so it just was, and it was pure, and it was perfect.

Dean also seemed surprised with himself by the kiss, despite being the one to instigate it. He pulled back and blinked twice. He didn’t say a word about it, didn’t try to kiss him again, and then he just threaded their fingers together and settled in against his side to watch another episode.

It was back to a sad one this time. The one that Castiel had actually heard of before, where the woman under the layers and layers and layers of bandages was beautiful, but the mess of ugly townspeople hated her all the same.

Chapter Text

During the weekend, when the theater got really busy, Castiel stayed home to plan his classes for the week, and Hael brought him a bottle of wine. She chatted at him and he hmmed along, occasionally asking for advice in crafting his lessons, and the radio played softly in the background. He did notice her inching steadily closer the more that she emptied the wine bottle, but he wasn’t inclined to act on it, and he was aware that nothing would happen without two willing parties.

When Sam showed up about an hour later toting a massive plate of chicken wings that Dean had talked about making for him almost a week ago, he almost felt sorry for Hael, because she seemed well and truly put out, backing away from all of her hard-won distance.

Sam had a thunderous expression as he thrust the hard lip of the plate into Castiel’s gut and bit out, “Sorry.”

Castiel said, “Good evening.”

“Dean made these for you. I see you’ve got a car out front.”

“I might’ve guessed. Thank you.” Sam rubbed alongside his nose, sniffing.

“I could fix that clog in the sink on the second floor bathroom now if you want me to. Dean’s better with the handyman stuff, but I could try.” He glanced back at Hael. “Or I could finish raking the leaves, or—”

“Yes, Sam, that would be fine. Whatever you’d like to do.” Sam didn’t push his way in this time, though. He waited calmly for Castiel to open the door, and then he just seemed resigned when Hael came into view, much the same as Hael looked when she saw Sam silhouetted in the front entryway. They stared each other down like two big cats all set to squabble over a piece of meat, and then Hael’s expression tilted sideways, and she looked like she was working hard at puzzling something out.

Her eyes flicked from Sam to Castiel and then back again, and then she unfolded herself from the couch with a sort of detached grace and approached Sam. When she reached him, she kneeled to be on his level, patronizing again, and Sam puffed out his chest in response. “Are you here alone with him a lot?” she whispered, which was—an odd question. Not at all what he’d been expecting. “Does he invite you?”

Sam narrowed his eyes, and when he spoke up his voice cracked defensively, “Not alone. Not always. And I come ‘cause I want to.”

She nodded, glanced furtively over her shoulder at Castiel and said, “Right, no, it’s silly.” She shook her head, smiled again. “I’m sorry. How silly of me. I’ll talk to you in class on Monday, Sam.”

She gathered her things slowly as Sam went to snake the drain, like maybe she was afraid to leave them alone together just as Sam had been on that first night. Before she walked out the door, she completely drained the bottle of wine, and Castiel tried not to feel concerned.

There was an unfamiliar face at church that weekend, and everyone gave him a wide berth. Presumably so they could whisper about him without him realizing what they were up to. He was fair and handsome, with high, prominent cheekbones and piercing eyes that couldn’t seem to settle, that darted sharply back and forth across the congregation like he was searching for something. John Winchester hadn’t really shown his face in the church since that first week that Castiel had come with Uriel, but for some reason this man reminded Castiel of him. Maybe it was the commanding presence, the way that his very existence amongst them seemed to demand attention. Castiel knew that he couldn’t stop looking at him throughout the service, couldn’t stop trying to pinpoint why exactly he didn’t want to look away. Mostly, he was almost certain that he knew him from somewhere.

He didn’t find out until the end of the service when he realized that it should have been obvious, because this man had been staring down at him from virtually every billboard in town for the last several months.

“And lastly, I have someone very important to introduce to you all today.” Pastor Campbell said gleefully over the din of people replacing their prayer and hymn books in the pews in front of them. Castiel had never gotten his out, had not stood to pray with the rest of the congregation, so he had nothing to replace, and he was able to focus his every attention on Michael Shurley as he made his way to the front of the church in long, confident strides. He had a woman by his side—a sharply-dressed little blonde that gazed at him admiringly every time he so much as flicked his wrist at the rest of the congregation. She stayed behind him and applauded with everyone else. Pastor Campbell applauded too, his eyes going a little misty. “Yes, Michael Shurley is here to bring some inspiring words to all of us today.” When Michael reached the head of the church, he stopped and surprised Castiel by giving Pastor Campbell a warm hug, and they murmured something to one another outside of the rest of the congregation’s hearing.

Castiel perked up and strained his ears as if he could catch their whispers from where he was seated near the tail-end of the church, but he couldn’t hear anything else until Pastor Campbell got back behind the microphone and said, “I’ve known little Michael for a long time. He and I were almost family once.” Michael had his hands clasped primly behind him, his back completely straight, and he nodded solemnly when Pastor Campbell looked to him for confirmation. Castiel almost snorted at that, because hearing Pastor Campbell refer to this sharp-dressed politician as family while his own grandchildren were languishing in poverty struck Castiel as slightly insane. “I remember Mary getting all dressed up for a dance and Michael in his tuxedo at the door, all nervous and sweating.” The entire congregation laughed a collective, polite laugh. Castiel felt his heart speed up a little bit, and he scooted forward toward the lip of the hard pew he was sitting on. “Couldn’t have been prouder than when I thought I was gonna have myself a Shurley for a son-in-law for a couple years there.” Pastor Campbell reached back and grabbed at Michael’s upper arm, and Michael released that clasp of his hands from behind his back to lay his own hand commiseratingly on top of Pastor Campbell’s. “Nothing against Michael’s beautiful wife and children, mind.” The entire congregation glanced at the lovely blonde, and she waved a Miss America wave, cupped hand on a swiveling wrist. That was when Castiel noticed the yellow-haired children in little suits and little dresses alongside her, the picture of good Christian presentability.

Unheard, unspoken, in their gazes was the truth, though. Mary had married John Winchester instead. Mary had two little boys, and they had dark, heavy features and give ‘em hell attitudes. If he were ever to imagine respecting John Winchester, it was now, just for the sheer mediocre relief that he hadn’t raised his children to be this. The realization coursed acid through his body with every heartbeat.

Michael gave a long speech about what he intended to do for the state, liberally peppering in statements like “for the children” and “overcoming corruption,” and “god’s will.” Castiel wanted to write him off as just another member of the hive, but there was something a little bit dangerous about him. It was clear that he was intelligent—every single word that came out of his mouth was very carefully calculated. Castiel found himself watching the rest of the congregation as much as he was watching Michael at the head of the church, because they were visibly affected by each one of his promises and convictions, and everything he said was just general enough to send a ripple of agreement through the entire congregation. Michael was not a fool, and Michael was shooting for one of the most powerful positions in the state. Seeing him standing at the front of that church, Castiel had no doubt that was something he could attain.

But Castiel could see now that Michael and Pastor Campbell had carried on a years-old grudge against John Winchester by senselessly persecuting his children, and when the rest of the church applauded, Castiel glared him down. Before he stepped down from the pulpit, he could have sworn Michael caught his eye specifically. Michael’s gaze was a piercing blue in a way he recognized, but not from the billboards this time. It was a blue that was intimate and close and old, and he felt a strange twinge in his gut to see Michael running a delicate hand through his children’s hair as Pastor Campbell dismissed the congregation. Castiel didn’t take his eyes off of him until he was swallowed by the shuffling crowd.

Castiel felt on Monday how he imagined Dean must feel all the time—barely there, hardly functioning, brain completely muddled. Some of it was the stress closing in on him—it was only the beginning of November and Castiel already felt as if he’d been teaching for a lifetime—but most of the exhaustion was a result of his own outright ineptitude in the kitchen. Even following a recipe to the letter, he hadn’t been able to create an appetizing pie until around four in the morning. Near midnight, he had considered simply going to the grocery store to purchase something premade, but this was Dean, an apology for a crime he was fairly certain that he hadn’t even committed yet, but an apology that he felt compelled to give nonetheless. The first two pies had been raspberry, and when he had run out of those, Castiel had turned to other fruits. The final product was blueberry, and it had leaked purple juices that burned in his mother’s oven and stunk up the entire house, but it had been the only thing close to successful, and on the way to the movie theater tonight, Castiel would purchase a can of whipped cream and Dean would be none the wiser.

But then Sam showed up acting cold and hurt in fourth period, and Castiel thought that his mother’s congregation had been right all along, and there was a reason for everything, and Castiel had chosen to make his pie on exactly the correct day.

Maybe both the Winchesters were angry with him. Castiel felt tired and impulsive enough to find out just that, and when he went to write on the board, he changed the freewrite that he had been using thus far in the day at the last moment. He was not above using his position to get information, and Sam’s freewrites had been a wealth of useful information in the past. Sam was eloquent and intelligent—and open, when he forgot that someone was going to be listening in.

Castiel wrote, “What has made you angry recently?” up on the board in innocuous blue ink. And Sam furrowed his brows at his paper before launching a veritable assault on the page, nose scrunched in concentration, tongue peeking out from the corner of his mouth. Castiel was a little frightened of what he would find and it chafed that he had to wait until class was out and Sam was gone. He let the ten minutes he generally allotted for freewrites perhaps drag on a little too long when he saw that Sam didn’t really show any signs of stopping, and he only halted Sam’s attack when some of the other, less ambitious, students stopped writing and took to chattering instead. When he told them all to put down their pens, Sam looked as if he was flinching from the recoil of a gun—surprised with himself, shell-shocked. And after class, Castiel knew why.

The diatribe was longer than anything Sam had written during the freewrite period before, longer than the twenty minutes he had allotted should have justified. And it was angry, seething vitriol in every word and laced with profanity that Sam wouldn’t normally condone were he in full possession of his wit. When he had handed it in at the end of class, his hands had been shaking minutely, his lips tightly pursed, and he’d said, “Sorry,” in a way that wasn’t even slightly contrite.

The entry read:

I will make another list because it isn’t a question of what has made me angry recently—not a what, not one what, not a single what—there’s a whole slew of bullshit happening in my life and I need to make a list because otherwise I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep track of it all.

  1. My dad.
  2. My dad.
  3. My fucking dad. The other day he took off with our car again. Again. And it’s not like Bobby can’t give us a spare to use, because I know he can, but he shouldn’t fucking have to because Bobby isn’t our goddamn dad. John Winchester is our goddamn dad, and he shouldn’t be allowed to take off for weeks at a time with our only means of transportation, especially because the only cash in his pocket is money that DEAN has earned because Jim, Jack, and Jose got all of his unemployment check. Like usual. I know he’ll be back as soon as he’s burned through it, but Dean worries about him for some goddamn reason, and he’s gonna be weird and nervous until dad gets back. He’s not gonna be able to eat or sleep the whole time, and he’s already falling apart on me. Sometimes I wish he’d never gotten his license back, because then Dean would be happy to cart his ass everywhere and never lose sight of him. Five years wasn’t enough time. It’s probably only a matter of time until he loses it again anyway.
  4. I’m mad at Dean because he treats himself like shit and it pisses me off. I’m mad at myself because I treat Dean like shit and it pisses me off. Last Thursday, he forgot to put my sandwich in my lunch bag, and I was really annoyed. Like, really annoyed. Like, I turned to Ruby at lunch and said, like, can you even believe my brother? And then I remembered that Dean gets up every morning to make me lunch because he knows that I hate eating at school. And he puts two layers of crunchy peanut butter with bananas inbetween just how I like it. And he packs me way too many cookies even though he knows I never eat them just because he thinks I should. Because Dean pays attention. I wish he wouldn’t. Why would he? Why should he? Why can’t he just stop?
  5. I’m angry at Gordon Walker because last week he ruined my only good jacket when he spilled an entire container of acrylic paint on me during art class. I know he did it on purpose, because he smiled his stupid toothy smile and fake stuttered when he did it. And who makes fun of a dude with a stutter? Seriously? Why would you do that? Especially if you didn’t even know them? If you’ve never really tried to speak with them? We don’t have the money to buy a new jacket, so I guess I’ll try to hide the big splash of yellow all down my back with my coat, but Dean is gonna notice anyway, and then he’s gonna buy me a new one, and I’m gonna be pissed about that too.
  6. I’m angry at my history teacher for giving me a C on our last test. I know he did it just because he doesn’t like me and I argued with him, and normally I’m super respectful of teachers, but he was just wrong about this one fact and he was so goddamn insistent. So on the test he marked me down on every little thing. He even marked me down 10 points for using a blue pen. If I want to get a scholarship to college—and I’m gonna have to get a scholarship to college if I want to go to college at all—I can’t mess anything up. I know Dean is trying, but he doesn’t have any money to save, and if I want to get out of this shit hole, it’s all on me.
  7. I am angry that it’s all on me.
  8. I’m mad especially at stupid assholes who tell my brother that he isn’t allowed to come over anymore because they want more time with their stupid girlfriends and they can’t even fess up to the fact that they have a stupid girlfriend in the first place

I ’m not an idiot, Mr. Novak. And neither is my brother. Treating him like he is makes you just like everybody else in this goddamn town.

Castiel’s face was red by the time he’d finished, feeling as if he’d been caught in the act in a way that made him itch to look over his shoulder and see if he was being observed. Oh. Well, that explained it. Sam had found out about his request that Dean keep away from his home. It made the blueberry pie sitting in the backseat seem silly and small.

But it wasn’t as if Dean knew, was it? Sam hadn’t mentioned telling him. He fidgeted, straightening his pens, turning around to run his fingers over the rough, silly haiku stuck fast to the cold metal of his filing cabinet. Dean wasn’t acting any differently. And if he did know, well, there actually was nothing between him and Hael besides convenience and job security. There was actually nothing to feel guilty about. He held hard to that thought.

He forcefully shoved the freewrite aside, reiterating to himself that he really technically hadn’t wronged anyone. And today, he’d brought Dean pie. Maybe the first indication that he didn’t even believe himself was that his first instinct was to think—I should have just bought the stupid pie. Dean deserves better than my awful baking.

He felt very conspicuous carrying a sloppy pie tin into the theater. They weren’t supposed to have food in the booth, and it was something he knew that Dean respected, but Castiel had stayed up until four in the morning cooking this ugly son of a bitch and now he was going to watch as Dean ate at least half of it in one go. The doorman was used to letting Castiel straight through, but he looked a little conflicted about the pie until Rufus waved him through with an odd, borderline concerned expression on his face. Castiel followed the familiar path to the booth, up the lightless staircase, and when he opened the door, he expected Dean to be alert, working near the door as he had been since the beginning of their neat little arrangement.

Instead, he was greeted with a soft, fluid voice echoing down the length of the booth. He tilted his head, closed the door as quietly as he possibly could behind him, and hardly dared to breathe. The voice was familiar, but it wasn’t at the same time. He wasn’t accustomed to the still, unhurriedness of it. But it was lovely. It was calming and clear.

And it was Dean.

Dean was singing—just softly, under his breath. And even if he hadn’t known Dean was the only one up here, he would have recognized it nonetheless, regardless of the fact that he had never heard that particular gravelly depth without the cruel shadow of its disfluency.

He was in the middle of the second verse of an easily recognizable “Hey Jude,” a heartfelt don’t be afraid echoing toward the booth window in front of him, the words steaming the glass where he was leaning in too close. It was haunting and sad and so pretty even though it was just a step away from being in tune, and he felt like the feelings were being ripped from his chest. He couldn’t stop the shattered, “Dean—” that clawed its way out of his throat. “You’re—you can—”

Dean glanced sidelong at him, chin still perched on his forearms in front of the window as the second verse petered out into silence. He smiled a sort of zen smile, eyes unfocussed. Black and white images from whatever movie was playing this evening cast extremes of light and dark across his face, now furrowing his brow in the dark, now making him enlightened in the bright white.

“S’only suh-uh-uh-uh-uhhhh-sssongs I knew befuh-uh-uh-uh-ore.” Before. A giddying confirmation of the mythical before. “Sssso up huh-here,” he tapped his forehead, “thu-thu-there’s some Zep.” Dean punched out an uninterrupted imitation of a dirty, spiking guitar riff, moving his left hand to imitate the slide of a guitar’s long, smooth neck in the palm of his curled hand. “Some Muh-uh-tallica.” The riffs became less bluesy, more hard and fast. “A wuh-wuh-uh-icked ‘Wheels on the Buh-uh-uh-us.’” He bit his lip and pumped his arms like children did when they sang the song, up and down like a locomotive, and then he stopped, abruptly, to let his hands fall to his side. “And ‘Hey Juh-uh-uh-uh –” he struggled to say the word for a little while, and the contortions of his face accompanied by the panting, breathless quality of his stutter made it seem as if he were trying not to cry. Eventually he just stopped, breathed in hard through his nose, and sang the notes, crystal clear. Hey Jude. “S’like it cuh-uh-uhmes from a duh-duh-different place,” he whispered, gesturing vaguely between his chest and his head. They sat in silence until, to Castiel’s surprise, he volunteered, “M’mom used tuh-to suh-suhing it.”

It was the first time Castiel had ever heard him mention his mother. The first time he had even uttered the name. Just the confirmed existence of a mother and the prospect of a time before felt like a blade to his chest.

“I still muh-muh-muhiss her, y’know?” Dean whispered. “S’bad it muh-muh-makes me ache sometttttimes.”

Castiel didn’t know. Castiel didn’t know what it was like to really miss his mother, to feel her absence like a physical pain. And it was becoming increasingly apparent that there was something wrong with that—with the strange, vacuous feeling he had in his chest whenever what he thought about his mother wasn’t what he should be feeling. Dean always seemed to feel so much. It was one of the things Castiel admired about him, even when that feeling was pain. Castiel felt more feeling for Dean than he could comprehend feeling for himself in a long while.

“My mother died a little over a year ago,” Castiel said flatly. He wasn’t expecting much to come of it, and he wasn’t entirely certain why he’d indulged the information in the first place. It wasn’t something he normally talked about, because it made him a bit uncomfortable when people looked at him with those pitying eyes, expecting him to feel something that he didn’t know how to feel. It was probably because he didn’t expect Dean to pity him, and Dean didn’t disappoint there.

His face did take on a cast of horror, fresh pain in his eyes as he looked at Castiel. “Juh-juh-uh-jesus, dude. M’sorry.”

Castiel shrugged. “Sometimes I think I remember feeling sorry,” he said. “But now I just feel numb. Everyone seems to think that’s the wrong way to feel.” Dean looked affronted, reeling back with half his upper lip pulled up over his teeth and one eyebrow raised in disbelief. He searched Castiel’s face, looking for a lie. When there was none, he blew his lips out in a loud raspberry.

“Nuh-uh-uh-uh-uhobody can tuh-tuh-uh-tell you how to ffffff—,” he got stuck on the f for a long while, and for the first time, Castiel noticed that his hands, tucked between his thighs on his chair, were shaking hard tonight. His facial muscles were also fluttering, and there was a bit of a tremor to his voice even when he wasn’t stuttering. He hadn’t even noticed, as preoccupied as he had been with the uninterrupted singing. For a moment, Dean had been entirely unhindered, and he had wanted to believe that Dean could just be fine, just as simple and as easy as that. He thought maybe he understood a bit about how John Winchester felt. Taking his son to a speech therapist, seeing any minute improvement, and just wanting the whole horrible ordeal to be a thing of the past.

When Dean finished the word “feel,” he went on to say, “Sammy duh-doesn’t remember huh-uh-er llllllike me. N’that’s ffffine. I think he muh-uh-uh-muhisses the idea. Of huh-uh-er. Of what-ah-uh-uhat whu-we were. Whu-uht he nuh-never guuuh-ot t’be.” What Dean never got to be, Cas thought. Castiel hadn’t been there for the before, but he thought maybe he missed that too.

He sat down in the chair Dean always kept opposite his own, just for Castiel. He rested the pie on his knees. “What about you, Dean?” he asked quietly.

“I still rem-muh-muh-muh-member the wuh-way she smmmmelled,” he said by way of an answer, flexing his shaking hands between his legs, like he was trying to reach out and touch something.

And that made Castiel think, made some unseen gear thunk into place, lifting a trapdoor, bearing a buried memory to the light. “My mother,” he said tentatively, “smelled like hand sanitizer and libraries.”

Dean grinned, “Yeah?” Castiel nodded. “Muh-muh-mine smelled llllllike apple puh-pie ‘n huh-uh-uhnnysuckle. S’a good stah-ah-ah—” He blocked, gave up. Castiel put a hand on his knee to show that he knew exactly what Dean meant. It was a good start. Dean’s eyes were alight as he finally looked down at the pie on Castiel’s lap. He lifted one shaking hand, pointed toward the pie and then himself with a gently curled finger he couldn’t seem to unfurl completely.

“Yes, Dean,” Castiel said, eyebrows furrowed, unable to fully appreciate the levity in light of the worrisome new symptom. “The pie is for you.”

They spent the rest of the evening not watching the film and eating blueberry pie, Castiel wordlessly lifting his own fork to Dean’s mouth when the tremors became too bad for him to keep the food on his. Dean played it off as some kind of romantic gesture and allowed Castiel to wipe the shaky smears of pie filling from his face with little resistance, but he kept his hands tucked tight between his thighs. And Castiel kissed the purple stains the filling left on his cheeks and told himself—it had to be normal. Someone would do something if this wasn’t normal. Dean was tired, and it was worse when he was tired. And besides, it gave him an excuse to get so close to Dean that he could feel the rumbling in his chest when Dean started to hum “Hey Jude.”

That weekend in church, Pastor Campbell lamented that his baby girl had died nine years ago this week, and everyone in the church gasped and tittered sadly, offering Pastor Campbell commiserating hugs and pats on the back. Cas felt a little numb with surprise, until suddenly he could feel the lingering vibrations in his chest. Watching this, he was inordinately glad that even if Dean couldn’t have this kind of support, the outreach of an entire loving community—well, at least he hadn’t been alone in that dark booth.

After that, Castiel didn’t feel much like hearing Pastor Campbell preach anymore, because Pastor Campbell liked to talk about the “flock;” it was his favorite thing to talk about. But Castiel was coming to realize that a flock without Sam and Dean wasn’t necessarily a flock he wanted any part of.

In the teacher’s lounge, Uriel said, “You seem different lately, Castiel.” And the inflection was neutral, but his expression was that of a man who had just stepped in a troublesome puddle that was much deeper than he had once assumed. “I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

Castiel missed when it was Gabriel in the teacher’s lounge regularly. He missed the casual defiance he had for the administration. Nowadays, somebody was always running into him, some other teacher always wanted to talk, and Castiel was still making a half-hearted grasp at fitting in with the people here, because, he told himself, he was just starting to become involved with his job and he didn’t really want to lose it.

But today it was the same crowd that hadn’t been all together since that first night, early on, when he’d wondered why Uriel was the one in charge of regulating the banned books list. They sat around the teacher’s lounge during the lunch period, all of them eating bland white bread sandwiches or wilted salads and drinking from milk cartons they’d gotten from the school lunchroom. Castiel had leftover meatloaf that Sam had brought him before he’d found out that Castiel had asked Dean to stay away. That day, he’d also raked up the leaves from his front yard. They’d begun to fall in earnest, and Sam had doggedly raked the whole thing even though rain at the tail end of October had made them soggy and heavy and fragile like wet tissue paper. Castiel was making the meatloaf last as long as he possibly could, because he didn’t imagine that Sam would feel like raking his leaves again anytime soon.

Castiel said, “I feel different,” and took a pointed bite of meatloaf.

“One of my student aides told me you’ve been spending a lot of time down at the Turner Cinema,” Uriel said, biting into his sandwich and looking nonchalant. “He works there as a concessionist, I believe. Apparently you’ve delved straight past ‘regular’ territory. I hear you’re on first name terms with the manager.” Castiel—twitched. It’s true that he wasn’t exactly discreet. Often, he tore right out of school to go to the theater as soon as he knew that Dean would be there. He didn’t think he needed to be discreet, because it wasn’t as if anyone knew where Dean worked. He hadn’t expected any of the students to be working there.

“I hear that theater plays a lot of horror movies,” Rachel volunteered. Inias nodded. This all felt shockingly familiar. Different now, though. Like maybe if they were back at the bar instead of at school, Castiel would have gone through with ordering that beer. “Is that something we should condone?”

“That’s the reason why I go so frequently,” Castiel said unrepentantly, sucking idly on the tines of his fork after he’d taken a bite. “They have a new horror movie almost every night.”

Everyone looked vaguely chastising, except for Uriel, whose mouth was twisted suspiciously. Hael entered the teacher’s lounge then, and she smiled to see Castiel, which made him twitch again. She pulled up a chair by him, and Virgil scooted out of the way to be accommodating, leering a bit at Castiel when he saw.

“Maybe there’s another reason you’ve been going to the movies so often, eh Castiel?” Castiel could clearly tell that if he’d still been sitting by Virgil, he would’ve been elbowed with great purpose. Castiel’s face went pale with the horror of the implication, trying to imagine Hael sitting by his side at the movie theater as Dean watched helplessly from the booth above.

“No,” he said quickly. Hael picked delicately at her salad, looking at Castiel through her lashes in a way that—honestly, seemed a bit more suspicious than coy.

“The movies, Castiel?” she said. “Have you been holding out on me?”

“What? You haven’t been taking her? Have you been taking anyone, Castiel?”

“You mean you’ve just been going to the movies alone?”

He wanted them to stop talking about this. He really did. He felt like he was getting some kind of a stress rash, right there in front of all of them, as he started to itch under his collar. The booth felt so safe and quiet and so far outside of this teacher’s lounge that he had a hard time saying anything other than, “Yes.”

Rachael looked at Hael conspiratorially, a sort of fondly condescending eye roll that just screamed ugh, men! and made Castiel’s blood boil a little. “I guess Castiel needs his me time too, right Hael?” Rachel said, plucking a cherry tomato out of her own salad and popping it into her mouth. Castiel finally gave into the urge to itch under his collar about the time Hael decided to put a hand on his knee, which was also about the time that he noticed Uriel just staring from across the table. All of the others were teasing him gently about whatever relationship they presumed he had with Hael, but Uriel was just—looking right through him, quiet.

They held eyes for a moment, until Castiel realized that he was being addressed by someone across the table. He inhaled sharply, blinked away, and said, “I’m sorry, what?”

It was Rachel again, eying him strangely, and then she said, “What do you and Hael do for fun?” Castiel put the lid back on the Tupperware containing his meatloaf, shifting uncomfortably away from her hand.

“Lesson plans, mostly,” he said distractedly, unsure as to why the table broke out into a fit of giggles at that.

“He’s quite the romantic, isn’t he?” Virgil cooed.

“Excuse me,” Castiel said, his entire body itching now with the thought of Uriel’s eyes seeing straight through him, and he left without another word.

There came a point where he realized that most of the time, he had to resist talking about Dean. Maybe it was the fact that he wasn’t allowed, but he wanted to talk about him all the time. He wanted to talk about all the movies they’d watched together, all the places they’d touched. He wanted to talk about all the little ways Dean remembered him, like when he picked movies based on famous books just so Dean could listen to him get excited about all the ways they were different. Just after their first kiss, Dean showed him Hitchcock’s Rebecca, which, much like Kubrick’s The Shining, beat out of the novel it was based upon in terms of sheer tension and drama. It also succeeded in effectively ruining the mood for a repeat performance on the kissing front, though he was content to hold hands, stroke his thumb over Dean’s palm, rub their shoulders together. And that was the strangest thing. That was what left him feeling sort of shocked and dumb. Because mostly, more than anything, Castiel wanted to talk about all the things that Dean made him feel.

Not just happy things—though he did have a lighter step around the school, around his classroom, in front of the whiteboard. His readings of things were more optimistic, his discussions more involved. For Halloween, he had assigned the students to read Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” and then he asked them to write short stories like it and was delighted with the responses. In early November, he read his favorites to Dean alongside the original Poe, and Dean sat in rapt attention as amateurish little tales of horror unfurled, his thumb tucked into the corner of his mouth and his eyes filled with wonder. He asked to see the illustrations, he wrote blocky words of praise in red ink that said things like kickass! and fucking awesome! which his students loved and which he made them promise not to tell their parents about.

But no, it wasn’t just happy things. Dean made him feel everything deeper. Made him laugh more, made him want to cry sometimes. Made him worry. Made him worry when Sam came to class with a split lip one day, made him worry about the woman in the congregation at church who was struggling with cancer, made him worry about where Anna and Gabriel had gone, made him worry that Dean wasn’t getting enough to eat. He was almost overwhelmed with it, wasn’t at all used to it, and he had to actively shut some of it out just to go on from day to day.

There came a point where he even began to think that it might be okay to share some of these things. Because how could feeling, feeling so many wonderful things, be bad?

Hael asked to take him out again, and she seemed determined this time. Like maybe she was trying to prove something to herself. She said she had a surprise meal for him, and it did surprise him, because she took him to The Roadhouse, and nothing could surprise him more than the look of nothing that passed over Dean’s face when he walked in with Hael clinging to his arm. Jo was taking orders, Ellen was manning the bar, and Dean was clearing dishes and wiping down tables with his head down. Dean was, for once, not at the theater, because of course he wasn’t. Why would Castiel be so lucky? Jo eyed him suspiciously, seated him suspiciously, and took his order suspiciously, acting like she didn’t know him except for the fact that she used his name like a swear word every chance she got.

Hael hmmmed and chattered about the décor and Castiel did not hear a word of it, because his whole body was attuned to Dean, thrumming with the proximity. It was the first time in weeks he had been close to Dean outside of the booth at the multiplex, and he felt almost possessive about seeing Dean here, as if Dean was something just for him that he could keep safe and ferretted away.

Dean disappeared a few minutes after Castiel had entered, and the first chance he got, Castiel slipped away from the table, begging a bathroom break. He left Hael with her head perched on her hands, humming to herself as she looked out the window. Hael did not know Dean (and that was so foreign to him now, not knowing Dean) so she probably hadn’t thought anything of the handsome busboy ferrying dishes back and forth. She probably didn’t even think it was odd the way Castiel parroted his head around, looking this way and that for where Dean had disappeared to. She might’ve found it odd when Castiel slipped through the big, swinging double doors that were clearly meant for employees only, hissing Dean’s name into the sterile alcoves of the industrial kitchen—though he didn’t really care to check.

“He’s washing dishes, brother,” said a big bear of a man who was wrist-deep in red-raw hamburger meat on the counter, tenderly kneading in onions and spices. When Castiel found his eyes through the steamy kitchen air, they were a kind blue, and the man nodded his head genially toward the big basin sink at the rear of the kitchen where he could see Dean, his back to Castiel, manipulating a big hose hanging from above his head.

“Thank you,” Castiel mumbled and crossed the kitchen to stand at Dean’s side, eyes caught on the gleaming flatware fresh from the steamy-hot water.

“Ellen truh-uh-uh-ies to tuh-tell muh-uh-uh-ee I’d muh-make um muh-more money as a wuh-uh-uh-aiter. Can yuh-yuh-you imagine?” he barked out a laugh. “Suh-sorry it’s nuh-ot suh-so um. Um um. Glam-am-muh-orous.” He shook his hands above the sink when he’d finished rinsing the soup pot he’d been working on, then he reached down to dry his hands on a towel to the right of the sink.

“Dean,” Castiel said, not sure which point to confront first. Ultimately, though, there was only one thing on his mind, one singularly important person who wasn’t all that important at all. “About Hael.”

Dean leaned abruptly forward and smacked a hard kiss right on his lips. His hands were still a bit warm and wet from his dishwashing, but he planted them on Castiel’s cheeks anyway, stroking his cheekbones clumsily with his thumbs. Castiel’s first instinct was to melt into it, and he felt his muscles start to go slack, but there was a man he didn’t even know standing a few feet away, whistling as meat patties sizzled merrily on the grill, and Dean sensed his distraction, felt him go tense, and pulled away with a look that was too knowing, too bleak.

Castiel cast a glance over at the cook. “You thuh-think I duh-uh-uh-uh –” he blocked, eyebrows going up toward his hairline, mouth flapping. When he restarted, it was barely a whisper, maybe because it had to be for him to say it at all. Deep breath. Restart. “You think I don’t knu-uh-ow what they suh-ay about muh-me? That it’s nuh-ot um ummm-mm duh-duh-anger-uh-uh-us for you? M’not…m’not duh-duh-duh—” he got a pained look on his face, different from the pained expression he generally wore when he was stuttering. And Castiel knew what he was trying to say—I’m not dumb. Castiel’s heart clenched.

Dean closed his eyes, breathed so hard through his nose that he snorted, and finished instead with, “M’not a um um um kid.” Castiel wasn’t sure he was comprehending, wasn’t sure he understood the thought process that had led him to this, until he said, “And I nuh-know m’no pruh-uh-ize. Duh-do what you guh-guh-uh-uh-hotta do, duh-dude.” Dean wasn’t a kid, that was true. Dean wasn’t a kid, and he was essentially giving Castiel permission to see Hael, to date Hael, to touch Hael like she touched him.

Castiel hadn’t realized until that very moment of utterly crushing disappointment how much and how long he had actually been waiting for—wanting, deserving—Dean to be angry about this.

“Aren’t you upset?” he said, voice quavering a little, eyes searching. The man at the stove glanced over his shoulder when Cas spoke, but this had to be the beginning of the end, because Cas didn’t care.

“Gee, Cas,” Dean said, brow furrowing, “Yuh-you try’n tuh-uh-uh muh-muh-make me juh-uh-jealous?” His voice was shadowed with beginnings of anger.

“Yes,” he said impulsively, on reflex. Then he shook his head frantically. “I mean—no. No, Dean. You should be upset, though. You have a right to be upset.” 

I deserve it.

“Well ummummummm’nuh-uh-uh-ot!” he shouted, really struggling, and the man at the grill actually turned his head at that, glancing over his shoulder in thinly veiled disbelief. “M’not. M’poison, Cas. Yuh-yuh-you could luh-lose everything. ‘Sides. Sammy um um alruh-ready tuh-tuh-told me abuh-out her. Hael. S’okay. He seemed tuh-uh thuh-think I shuh-ould be muh-mad ttttooo. Buhhht s’okay. You tuh-uh-uh-old me tuh-uh stttay awuh-uh-ay. I cuh-can. I am.”

He wondered how many times Dean had kissed him knowing that Castiel could possibly have feelings or loyalties with someone else. How many times he had let Castiel touch him knowing that Castiel had been keeping him hidden. It filled him with a deep dread, a horrible hurt, and Castiel wasn’t used to being the one that had to feel. Dean kissed him again, quiet and without expectations. It was dry and raspy and filled with carefully restrained desperation, and a kiss had never made Castiel so sad before.

“Dean,” he said again. “I have been unforgivably lax through this whole endeavor. We need to talk about this. Something needs to change.” He reached forward and ran his own thumb over Dean’s bottom lip, unspeakably bold. All of his actions now felt so close to him, without the telescopic distance of some of their earlier experiences. He could remember Dean touching him, holding his hand, from eons and eons away. “We need to talk about this.”

Dean recoiled like Castiel’s touch had burned him, fear trickling into his expression. “No. It’s fuh-fuh-fine the wuh-wuh-way it is—”


“Wuh-wuh-we’re fine.”


“I duh-duh-don’t wuh-wuh-wuh-uh-hant to talk.”

Dean wasn’t letting him talk, and Castiel wasn’t used to all this feeling pooling in his gut, so he would claim that was hardly aware of himself when he snapped, “Well that’s hardly unusual, is it?” And he didn’t mean it like that, and he regretted it almost before the words had even left his mouth. He backtracked immediately, reaching out for Dean’s hands. “Dean—I didn’t –”

But Dean looked as if Castiel had physically struck him. His face went red, and Castiel at least had a moment to be satisfied that he didn’t react the way he did to John, or the way he had earlier, when he felt as if he’d been abandoned. He started shouting, and he quickly became completely incomprehensible. The words were coming too fast for his struggling tongue and the stuttering was happening so frequently, a never-ending stream of breathy ums and uhs, that it sounded like he was hyperventilating.

And just when it reached a fever pitch, Dean’s face contorting hard and fast and ugly, it all—stopped. Dean stopped, staring ahead for a few seconds like he had just blown a fuse, short-circuited.

Cautiously, Castiel said, “Dean…?” Dean was taller than him anyway, but he got right in close, looking up into Dean’s vacant eyes where his neck muscles seemed to have failed him and let his head fall forward a bit to look down at the ground. The cook was at attention now, could no longer turn a blind eye in the face of Dean’s complete shutdown.

“Dean,” the cook said, laying a hand heavily on Dean’s shoulder. Dean kept staring a few more anxious seconds, then inhaled heavily and righted himself, continuing right on where he left off. The whole episode couldn’t have lasted more than fifteen seconds, and he found himself sharing a tense look with the cook as Dean railed on breathlessly, both of them thinking, perhaps, that they had imagined the whole incident. Dean’s expression went from thunderous to confused when he noticed the cook at Castiel’s side.

“Buh-Benny?” he said, brow furrowed. He shook his head, laid his fingertips against his forehead. “Wuh-where…?” He looked at where the cook, Benny, had been a moment ago, pointed absently toward where the burgers he’d been cooking were smoking on the stove, burning slightly. Their acrid smell filled the kitchen, and Dean rubbed hard at his nose.

“Alright, brother,” Benny said, patting the air placatingly. “Alright, maybe you should sit down, hm?” He went to grasp Dean’s forearm, but Dean jerked away, pulled the apron roughly over his head, and slung it over the edge of the basin sink. He leaned over the edge of the sink, ran the tap on cold for a moment as Cas and Benny watched, then splashed a handful of the cold water into his face and shook himself out from head to toe like a wet dog.

“Tuh-tell Ellen I’m chu-uh-uh-uh-ecking uh-out for the nuh-uh-uh—” he blocked and swallowed hard, giving up on the word quickly and rolling his hand in tight little circles as if to say, you know what I mean.

Benny said, “Go home and get some sleep.”

Dean shrugged and walked stiffly out the back door. The whole time, he didn’t look at Castiel and Castiel didn’t move a muscle.

When the knock came on his door at three o’clock that morning, Castiel wasn’t asleep. He’d had to call off his date with Hael earlier after he’d sleep-walked out of the kitchen and back to their booth, completely unequipped to handle her company any longer.  She had sensed his mood and tried to back off, joking that she wouldn’t have let Uriel suggest the restaurant if she had known that it would upset him so much. Which should have set off all kinds of alarm bells in his brain, but he felt muddled and far away, and before Jo could return to the table and suggest another place to shove his drink order, he’d begged feeling sick and fled.

And then he’d gone home and stewed, stewed so intensely, apparently, that he’d stewed right to three o’clock without even noticing. As he levered himself heavily from the couch, he wondered if he would have sat right through class the next day if no one had come to distract him.

It was Dean at the door, and he looked scruffy and exhausted. His jaw was shadowed dark with stubble, his eyes were tired and sad, the green in them muted and subdued.

Castiel said, “Dean,” and Dean didn’t say anything. He just looked around at the groomed yard, the clean lines that Sam and Dean had both painstakingly maintained going south and a little sloppy in the way of winter. The little perennials in his front bed weren’t blooming anymore despite all of Sam’s careful research, but he had insisted they would come back brighter in the spring because of all of his maintenance.

Then Dean pushed his way inside. He butted the flat of his palm up against Castiel’s shoulder none-too-gently, not stopping until he’d arced forward and Castiel was up against the wall. He slammed the door behind him, was even so thorough as to ensure that the porch light was off, and then he mauled Castiel, coming down on him from his imposing height, encompassing him in those broad shoulders, bringing his mouth down on top of Castiel’s in a kiss that felt more like a fight for his life. It was so radically different from every little kiss they’d shared at the theater, so much more aggressive and honestly, so unlike Dean himself.

Castiel whimpered and responded in kind though, felt his body responding to Dean with the same happy whimper it always did. When Castiel arched just a little bit, though, searching for an inch of leeway, Dean gave him all of it, went limp like a cat who’d been grabbed by the scruff and let Castiel crowd into his space, overtake his greater height, fill the entire front entryway. Castiel took and took freely, hardly realizing what he was doing. He ran his hand through the short, fine bristles of Dean’s hair, bit on his lip, broke the kiss and mouthed aggressively at his jawline.

And then Dean sank to his knees, right there on his mother’s black and white tiles, where Dean had been afraid to even take off his shoes before. He guided Castiel’s hands back to his head when Cas released him, uncertain. Then he went straight for his fly, jerked it down in one fluid motion, and fished gracelessly in Castiel’s underwear for a moment before pulling out his soft cock and swallowing it down in one sloppy and unpracticed motion. Castiel could feel himself responding to the attentions, twitching and thickening in the wet heat of Dean’s mouth.

Castiel wasn’t really sure how, in not five minutes, he had gone from drifting aimlessly on his couch to receiving a blowjob in his front hallway, but he was aware enough to notice now where Dean’s hands were shaking on his thighs as he clenched and gulped and breathed hard around his cock. He tried to let go of Dean’s head again, tried to gain some more perspective on the situation, but this time, when Dean took him by the wrists and guided his hands back, he kept them there. The gulping stopped, and he looked up through his long lashes and then started using his own fists around Castiel’s wrists to guide his movements, a subtle rocking motion at his wrists, which moved Dean’s head like a doll’s where Castiel’s hands were clutched in his hair and which had Castiel taking control, using Dean’s mouth.

All of the blood that wasn’t in his dick had rushed to his head at that point, and he found that even after Dean stopped moving his hands, was just letting his fingers coil loosely around Castiel’s wrists, a weight that ensured they stayed in place, he couldn’t stop the rocking motion, couldn’t stop the pull-push-thrust that felt so much better than Dean’s clumsy attempts at control.

And then there was another knock at his door. He knew, logically, that no one could see through the frosted glass, but Castiel’s first reaction was to shove, and Dean came off of him with a near-comical pop, his lips swollen as he hit the opposite wall headfirst with a little bark of pain. Castiel fumbled to shove himself back into his jeans, and it wasn’t terribly difficult, given how he’d deflated the moment he’d left Dean’s mouth—unable, until then, to articulate how disgusting all of this felt, how upsetting it had been to feel Dean urging him to use, push, pull, take. That night with Balthazar ages ago came back to him trickling, biting fragments of hurt, pain, fear.

He zipped his fly and thrust out a hand to help Dean to his feet. Dean clutched at his head, said nothing, and didn’t get up. There was a rope of saliva trailing out of his mouth, down to his stubbly chin. He looked completely disoriented. Castiel would have helped to make him look a bit more presentable, but somehow he didn’t imagine that touch would be welcome.

Castiel thought he might have a good idea who was at the door, though. He pulled it open, and Dean was up against the wall where the door would slam if it were given space to open fully, so he wasn’t immediately visible. Sam’s drawn face surfaced from the dark of the outside world as the light from his hallway spilled out onto the front step. The porch light was still off.

“Have you seen my brother?” Sam blurted without preamble. “Ellen said he left right after you came into the Roadhouse, but that was like,” he pulled Dean’s cellphone from his pocket and flipped it open to check the time. “Jesus. Like eight hours ago. And he hasn’t been home.”

Castiel didn’t say anything, but he opened the door a little further until Dean’s booted foot was visible from behind the open door and allowed Sam to push his way inside. He kneeled by Dean, hand on his knee, and got right up under his face like Castiel had earlier, when he’d gone away for those scary few seconds.

“Hey,” Sam said, shaking his knee. “Hey, Dean. Hey. You okay? I’ve been worried sick, dude.” Dean’s mouth flapped uselessly, and he flinched against the overhead light, curling into himself a little bit. Sam shook his leg harder. “It’s me, Dean. It’s me. Do you recognize me? Sammy. Remember?” The last part was said with such urgency that it left Castiel feeling unsettled. Why wouldn’t Dean know who he was? Who else would Dean think he’d be?

“Sammy,” Dean rasped.

“Good. Yeah. Good.” He nodded frantically, petted Dean’s leg. “Listen, Dean. Listen. Let’s go home, huh? You can get some sleep and maybe call in sick from work tomorrow.” Castiel stood to the side with the door handle in his hand, shifting against the uncomfortable, sticky feeling inside his boxers. “I know it’s been a weird time, but I have some real good stuff I wanna discuss with you that’s gonna turn everything around, huh?” Sam looked up at Castiel. “Right, Cas? Right?” Dean opened his mouth to speak again, but all that came out was hard, panting wheezes.

Castiel said, “Right.”

Sam tried for another smile, right up in Dean’s face, so much so that Dean had the presence of mind to shove at him, pulling his face back until his head hit the wall behind him, and he groaned at the impact. Sam reached up when he did, absently running a gentle hand over the scar that Castiel knew graced the top of his head, just under the bristling softness at his crown.

“It’s just—Dean, it almost seems like your stutter’s been getting—worse lately.” He licked his lips, then seemed to remember himself and shut his eyes hard. Stupid, stupid, stupid. “Sorry dude. Your disfluency. And, well, it’s getting worse, and Cas here has been helping me—raise the money to get you some help.”

The silence in the front hallway was palpable. Sam’s expression was cautiously optimistic, but Castiel knew, with a sinking feeling deep in his gut, from the way Dean’s eyes widened down at his clenching fists, that Dean’s would be less so.

“Whu-uh-uh—” Dean got stuck on that one for a long time, but somehow it only made it more fearsome when he finally bit out, “What?

“That’s why I’ve been working at Castiel’s, Dean. He was helping me to raise money so you could get a speech therapist!”

“Sam,” Castiel said cautiously, like Dean was some wide-eyed animal that he could startle, that he could scare away. Dean just looked utterly betrayed, somehow, the depths of his eyes gone cold with disbelief. Sam clearly wasn’t expecting this response, so he just looked confused, disappointed. “Sam, maybe this isn’t the best time.”

But Sam had worked so hard, and he didn’t understand. “Dean,” he said, taking Dean’s hand. “Dean, you need to talk. You need to start talking to people. I mean, I know you talk to me and to Cas, but—but can’t you hear yourself, Dean? Everyone knows that it’s been getting worse.”

And god, Castiel did know. Sam looked to him for backup, and even though Castiel did know, he didn’t know what to say, because Dean was on the ground glaring bloody murder at him if he even dared.

Sam finished with, “You sound awful, Dean,” on a mumble. And Sam didn’t mean it like that, just like Castiel hadn’t meant it like that when he’d bitten out the comment on Dean’s speaking at the restaurant earlier. But Dean’s face looked completely stricken, his jaw tightened, his brows furrowed, and he nodded gravely. Then he regained his feet and strode silently into the kitchen, trying his damnedest not to look like his legs were wobbling underneath him. There was a big, broad swathe of white wall that Sam and Dean had re-spackled. Something had happened to it after he’d moved out—his mother had been trying to move a bookshelf or something, and it’d cut into the drywall and left a big, gaping crack. So Sam and Dean had patched up the hole. They hadn’t repainted it yet because Castiel was still thinking about repainting the living room, and he’d taken a great amount of pleasure in discussing possible outrageous color palettes with Sam, who had never had a home of his own to decorate and seemed to want to make up for it with outlandishness in this one.

When Sam and Castiel scrambled to follow Dean’s even stride around the corner, they saw him snatch up a red sharpie from where Castiel had been grading art projects at the kitchen table a few nights before, then march over to the over-white patch of spackle and uncap the pen. He threw an unrepentant glance over his shoulder at Castiel, then wrote in his big, blocky handwriting all across the wall piece I DON’T WANT TO TALK ANYMORE. It was shaky around the edges where his hands were unsteady today.

Castiel looked at it like it was one of the poems on his classroom wall for a second, trying to figure it out like he had Sam’s indefinite splotches of purple and red and yellow. Then Dean recapped the pen with a definitive click and strode out the front door. Sam scrambled after him, calling his name, but Castiel just sat down on the hardwoods of his mother’s living room, stared at his most recent piece of poetry, and thought and thought and thought.

It was such a bold statement, there in red on the wall. It was Dean standing up for something that he didn’t want, something that he felt like he was being forced into, something that was obviously making him miserable.

So he wasn’t sure why it felt so much like Dean was giving up.

Chapter Text

There came a point where everything broke. Everything. Broke like the spackle on his mother’s wall hadn’t held quite right, cracked a fracture right down its middle, spewing out poisonous red words. It was a cold day, the very beginning of December, and Castiel had that same feeling of bone-deep tiredness from before, but without the pie, and without the warming prospect of Dean waiting for him at the theater to cheer him.

It was cold, but Castiel couldn’t stomach the thought of eating his lunch inside. For one, his lunch was a wilted salad just like everyone else had, because Dean wasn’t cooking for him anymore, and even if he was, Sam wasn’t delivering it. Mostly, he was tired of being assaulted by people asking for tidbits about his nonexistent relationship, and he really wasn’t in the mood for another well-meaning chat with the subject of said relationship. He was tired of Uriel’s condescension, his thinly-veiled attempts at control. Mostly, he was a coward, so he probably deserved to eat in the cold anyway.

He sat outside on a the bleachers that overlooked the football field, fingers shaking with the chill and reminding him a bit of Dean, shaking so badly he couldn’t eat a piece of blueberry pie. He was staring into the distance, trying to tamp down the little twinges of fear and anxiety that kept wanting to surface, and his eyes were focused on nothing at all until the moment they were suddenly focused on Sam Winchester pummeling another boy into the forty yard line. The other boy was much sturdier than Sam. Taller, broader. It was strange, because in that moment, before he even thought to move to stop it, he thought of Sam’s freewrites. All the impotent rage of every word he’d ever written about John Winchester. Because every punch, every kick, was like a personification of those essays, was the sheer anger manifested and given physical form.

Castiel abandoned his lunch on the bleachers once it fully hit him what exactly he was witnessing, and he sprinted toward where the larger boy was protecting his head on the ground from a series of vicious kicks. When he reached Sam, the boy hadn’t slowed, and maybe Castiel had expected a more visible form of remorse when he got close—tears on his face, frown on his brow, something. But there was only hate in Sam’s expression, and the compassionate kid seemed completely lost underneath it all. Castiel remembered Zachariah’s warning on his very first day here. Remembered that he was supposed to be afraid of Sam Winchester.

In that moment, he was.

Castiel wasn’t very strong, but he was wiry—scrappy. When he shouted for a moment and Sam didn’t show any sign of letting up, he managed to hook his arms in Sam’s armpits and haul him back from where he towered above the cowering figure on the ground. He expected Sam to quit there, but he flailed again, then turned abruptly on one leg and hauled back to punch Castiel hard, right in his right eye. Castiel reeled, staggering away from where Sam’s shoulders were rising and falling in hard pants. He put his hands over his right eye, still seeing fireworks behind it, but through the left one he saw Sam’s eyes—soften. There was the remorse.

“Cas, ah. Mr….Mr. Novak. I’m…” On the ground, the boy Castiel finally recognized as Gordon Walker—a senior, at least three years older than Sam—looked up and smiled through teeth covered in blood.

“S-S-Sammy!” he stuttered with big, exaggerated movements of his mouth. “W-W-What have you duh-duh-duh-duh-done!” Castiel’s mind flared briefly in panic as he thought, had Sam really kicked this boy into neurological damage? But then Sam flinched and floundered as if to strike the boy again, and Castiel realized that it was the stutter that Sam had reacted to. Oh. Suddenly, he felt a bit like kicking Gordon Walker while he was down, but that wouldn’t really help either of them, and it would definitely get Castiel fired.

Instead, he left Gordon Walker chuckling to himself on the football field as he let go of his eye to grasp Sam by the bicep and lead him toward the school at a quick walk. Somewhere ahead of them, the lunch bell rang, and students would be filing into his classroom without him. Sam thrummed like a ticking time bomb with a clock he couldn’t see. The right side of Castiel’s face twinged in time with his steps, and, hell, Sam was a ticking time bomb that, until about ten minutes ago, Castiel hadn’t even realized was wired to explode.

He was whimpering things as Castiel half-dragged him forward.  And Castiel hadn’t really noticed until he got stuck on one in particular on repeat. “Doesn’t…he doesn’t. He doesn’t. He wouldn’t,” he murmured.

“What, Sam?” he snapped. At that point, he was looking for Sam to come out with something that would make sense, that would relieve him of guilt, that would work with the Castiel’s mentally catalogued images of Sammy Winchester, under his brother’s arm, shoving grass clippings down the back of his brother’s pants. “Who wouldn’t what?”

He looked up for the first time, right into Castiel’s eyes. “He wouldn’t stutter on my name,” he said. “He never does. He never does.”

Castiel couldn’t even manage a nod, because that hurt a little bit. He was reminded abruptly of the blatant favoritism inherent in hauling Sam off the field and leaving bloody Gordon Walker to his fate on the football field. He also wasn’t so naïve that he believed removing Sam from the situation would get him out of trouble, even though Sam’s ramblings turned occasionally to, “Please please please don’t call my dad.” He maneuvered Sam through the big, heavy double doors of the English hallway, cast around for a place to take him. He had blood on his knuckles, blood on his face, and Castiel was quickly developing a black eye. He could feel the swelling around his lids that told him pretty conclusively that he wouldn’t be able to see out of it in a few short hours. It would be a bad idea to take him back to his classroom, to the sea of judgmental faces that made up his fourth period class, all of them in there now and waiting expectantly for him to teach them Steinbeck.

Castiel steered Sam instead into the empty bathroom as he became increasingly inconsolable. “Don’t call Dad. Don’t let them call Dad, please, don’t let them call him.”

“What were you thinking, Sam?” He steered them to the sink, turned the tap to hot, and let it warm up. He’d been guiding Sam by the shoulders, but he let his hand trail down his arm to his balled up fist, and he coaxed it open gently. Sam had hands like a German Shepherd puppy’s paws. They were big, wide-palmed hands that betrayed his current size and made it pretty apparent that he was going to be enormous someday. His hands were bigger than Dean’s, even, and they usually looked awkward on him. But now, covered in blood, they didn’t just suit a more mature version of Sam than Castiel knew—they suited a different person entirely. Angry Sam. Rage-filled Sam. He thrust Sam’s hand under the hot spray, and Sam hissed.

“Wasn’t thinking,” he said as Castiel turned his hand over and over, scrubbing lightly. The water turned pink when it hit the sink basin. “Was just angry.”

“Yes,” Castiel said. “I could see that.” Belatedly, he realized that some of the blood was coming from Sam himself. There was a broad, deep cut, right on the webby, patterned indentation between two of his knuckles. Castiel ran his thumb over it. “Is this…?”

“I think,” he paused, “It’s from when I punched him in the mouth.” Castiel’s vague illusions of self-defense evaporated. He cleaned the rest of that hand in silence, splashing warm, sudsy water up his forearm as well when he saw the fat drops of blood spatter, all the way up to his elbow. “Jesus,” Sam said quietly. Castiel abandoned that arm and picked up the other. It was his right, his dominant, and it looked decidedly worse for wear. Sam didn’t hiss when that one went under the warm stream. Sam started breathing in hard breaths through his teeth. “Jesus. You know. Some people. Some things. There are some things that people can’t control.”

For a moment, Castiel was sure that he was referring to Dean’s stutter and what had inevitably been the cause for the whole assault. But after a moment of listening to the harsh, sibilant breaths, he realized—maybe that wasn’t all. He thought of Anna. The Tralfamadorians. Every moment of Sam’s life laid out in front of him, and this rage was always there.

“Sam,” he said, with real feeling.

“I think if you hadn’t been there,” he whispered, “I would have kept going.”

It was a terrifying thought, and there wasn’t really anything he could say to that, so he just kept on scrubbing, more determined now, working away at the blood spatter in Sam’s wispy forearm hair.

“I’m in trouble, aren’t I?” Sam asked eventually. Considering that Zachariah had been looking for excuse to kick Sam out since the beginning of the semester, that was almost a fact.

“I believe we’re both in trouble, Sam.” That kicked Sam into gear, and abruptly, he was done with man-handling. Castiel could see a little bit of Dean in the set of his jaw.

“You go to class. You don’t have to be in trouble, no one else saw you pull me offa him. Just go teach Of Mice and Men and I’ll go get suspended or expelled or whatever.” He moved to the paper towel machine, pumped out a big wad of them, wiped vigorously at his wet hands and his sweaty face. Castiel didn’t point out that Gordon Walker had most definitely seen Castiel pull Sam off of him, and Gordon Walker was probably in the office at this very moment ratting them out to Principal Adler. They didn’t even make it out of the bathroom before they were both summoned over the school’s intercom system. It was almost funny, because Castiel had certainly never been summoned before, not through the entirety of his own school career. He had to become a teacher before he got in enough trouble to do so.

Principal Adler said, “What were you thinking, Novak? Leaving a boy on the football field to—to bleed to death?”

The office said that Sam’s parents had been called, which meant that Bobby had been the only one to finally pick up the phone, and he’d told Dean, and Dean had told their father, and now someone was on the way over to the school to “rip Sam a new one,” or so the principal’s secretary said. Sam was waiting quietly in a chair next to Castiel’s, and it felt like they had both been throwing punches today, that Castiel was in just as much trouble as his young charge.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Castiel said quietly. The nurse had given him a blue coldpack after one look at his swelling eyelid, but Castiel could tell that it wasn’t doing him a whole lot of good, and he knew that if he took the coldpack away from the swollen eyelid now, he still wouldn’t be able to see. It hurt like holy hell. Sam was playing nervously with the torn skin at his knuckles, hand curled into fists that tugged gruesomely at the torn flesh and revealed broad swathes of shiny new skin where the top layers had been scraped away. Blood still bubbled sluggishly to the surface of Sam’s hands, but he had not been given any medical attention like Castiel had.

“Sorry? You’re sorry that you brought a lawsuit down right on top of our heads? Well I’ll tell you something. I’m sorry too. I might be sorry that I owed your mother the goddamned favor that brought you here in the first place. What the hell am I supposed to do now?” Zachariah slammed his hand hard into his desk. Sam looked over at Castiel, and Castiel had seen that face enough in class as Sam chewed through a dense line of text or puzzled out the meaning of a poem to know that he was being scrutinized. Considered. Read. Castiel’s felt his face flush with shame of its own volition, and Sam’s eyebrows furrowed.

“It’s not his –” Sam started, much to Castiel’s horror and surprise. Zachariah turned hard, deadly eyes on Sam.

“I don’t want to hear anything from you,” Zachariah snapped coldly. “I would rather I didn’t have to speak to your family about this. I would rather I didn’t have the displeasure of speaking to your family at all. You must understand, Winchester, that if it were my decision—solely my decision, if I didn’t have to answer to anyone for this—I would have expelled you so fast it made your head spin. I would have had you out of this school for good an hour ago, and I would have had your locker gutted and the contents burned.” Zachariah’s nostrils flared, and Sam looked down at his lap and nodded. It wasn’t a contrite nod, though. It was one of understanding and mutual hatred. His expression said and I would have gladly punched you in your face just as quickly. Sam peeled away another piece of torn skin from his knuckle, and the blood welled up dark and red against his skin.

They waited in silence for a while. Zachariah watched them imperiously down his nose, and his expression slipped frequently from disdain and anger to a sense of abject glee. Castiel knew that Principal Adler was not concerned for Gordon Walker, who had, upon a brief rendezvous with the school nurse, required a transfer to the local hospital to have a broken arm set and some stitches put in. No, Zachariah was pleased that he had finally nabbed a Winchester—and for a big time violation, too. Hell, Sam could have been littering in the school hallways for all Zachariah cared, he would have dragged him in regardless. But he well and truly had him for something now, and Sam wasn’t getting out of this one unscathed.

There was a commotion in the front office, and Zachariah’s harried secretary ushered two sets of clomping footsteps into the office on Castiel’s blind side.

Castiel looked around, and he knew he should’ve been expecting Dean, but it didn’t prepare him for his grim, ashen countenance when he came in the door, immediately preceded by John Winchester, who was listing back and forth, who smelled overwhelmingly of liquor and body odor, who was very obviously, very visibly intoxicated. Dean kept one hand on his father’s shoulder and led him to the only remaining chair in the room, then he stood behind him, hands clasped to his front like a silent sentry. He looked like he was about to fall over. Castiel’s first reaction was instinctive.

“Dean, would you like my…?” He moved to get up, offering Dean his chair, but Dean shot him a look of pure, seething anger at the very idea that he may need to sit down, and Castiel shrank back into his seat, curling around his stomach, contrite. He kept the cold pack pressed over his eye with one wilted arm. Zachariah’s eyes flitted between them, narrowing, before they settled on John, splayed lazily in his own chair, eyes narrowed in return.

“Mr. Winchester,” Zachariah said, “And Dean. What a pleasant surprise.” He flashed his teeth in a smile that looked more like a grimace. “I haven’t seen you since you were sitting in your brother’s place—what was it? Only a year ago, now?” Dean’s jaw clenched, the muscles under his ear bunching tightly. It was the only acknowledgement he allowed. “Still not much of a talker, are you kid? Either way, I’m sure you’re aware of why you’re here, Mr. Winchester. Another troublemaker in the family. I supposed it’s to be expected when his sibling set such a glowing example while he was here. Can hardly blame Sam for ah—idolizing his older brother.”

Dean continued to say nothing, and something told Castiel that there was nothing new about this interaction. This was something Dean had been subjected to a thousand times before, and his vow of silence the night before in Castiel’s living room was a restriction he’d placed on himself to in public a lot sooner than he had in his private life. Dean didn’t fight back because he couldn’t fight back without stumbling and stuttering, and people around him took every advantage of that. Castiel hadn’t realized how little he’d seen Dean interact with people outside his close-knit group of companions until this very moment.

“You leave Dean outta this,” John slurred, slicing his hand definitively through the air. Castiel wanted to nod, pump his fist. Yeah! Leave Dean alone! Dean flexed his fingers. “This is about Sam.” Sam shrank in his seat, drawing his too-long puppy limbs in on himself in a way that he hadn’t when he was being chastised by Principal Adler. Zachariah just nodded with one last sneer in Dean’s direction, and then he set about explaining Sam’s fight in gruesome, exaggerated detail, like he had been there watching at the sidelines during Sam’s beating. And the strange part was—Zachariah wasn’t even really exaggerating how brutal Sam had been. Certainly, Zachariah was recounting everything with great relish, enjoying the rehash just a bit too much, but Sam had been violent and unforgiving and a little bit terrifying. Castiel had gleaned that Sam had been tormented by Gordon Walker for a few weeks beforehand just from Sam’s freewrites, and he was tempted to say that Gordon deserved whatever holy terror had been inflicted upon him. But he was a teacher and he wasn’t allowed to think that way. Plus, he couldn’t quite get the image out of his head—Sam kicking mercilessly at Gordon Walker’s head on the ground. He had been out. He had been done. He hadn’t been defending himself anymore, and Sam should’ve stopped.

Castiel looked up at Dean as Zachariah prattled on, trying to be discreet as he side-eyed him (but failing spectacularly, because only one of his eyes was functioning), trying to gauge his mental state. He hadn’t slept, that much was clear. It was worse when he was tired, he repeated to himself in a helpless mantra. It was very possible that Dean was clenching his hands so tightly because otherwise they would be shaking too hard for anyone in the office to ignore. More worrisome, though, was the fact that he didn’t seem to be all there. He was concerned for Sam, and he was trying to concentrate on what Adler was telling them, that much was clear. But Castiel noticed that he had to periodically shake himself, straining to find his concentration.

“—vak. Novak. Castiel.” Suddenly Zachariah was snapping fingers in front of his face, and Castiel, alarmed, dropped the melting coldpack into his lap with a wet plop. Dean’s face screwed up when he saw the black eye, and Sam shrunk into himself a little bit more when he saw what had become of the right side of Castiel’s face. “I asked you a question.” Principal Adler said, looking between him and Dean with a strange expression on his face.

“I’m sorry, Principal Adler,” Castiel said. “I didn’t catch it.”

Zachariah sighed. “I asked where you got the black eye. Assaulting a teacher is grounds for immediate expulsion. But if it was just a fight between students, Winchester will be suspended and considered before the school board for expulsion. Gordon reported that it was Winchester here that did this, but we need to hear it from—”

There was never any question of what Castiel would say. Because Sam Winchester had all of that terrifying rage inside of him, certainly, but he was also Dean’s baby brother, and he’d talked about God with Castiel while the stain dried on his front porch. He’d tenderly pulled weeds from his mother’s perennials. He’d read books to Dean for hours at a time, just so Dean wouldn’t have to talk back. He was a good boy. “No. It wasn’t Sam. It was my fault.”

Zachariah just looked at him in disbelief. “Your fault,” he said flatly. “I fail to see how you can inflict a black eye upon yourself, Novak. You don’t need to defend this little –”

John clasped hard at the armrest to his chair and growled at the same time Castiel said lightly, “I fell.” Sam looked at him with wide eyes. Dean shuffled a pleased little shuffle behind John’s back. Zachariah huffed out an unamused breath.

“Maybe you don’t understand the gravity of the situation here, Novak,” Principal Adler said, like he was speaking with someone particularly slow. “If you’re going to defend Winchester, just like you did out on the football field, like Walker reported it, I’m going to have to suspend you until further notice as well.”

It was a little alarming how much of a decision it wasn’t. Zachariah had gotten close, leaning over the desk and narrowing his eyes to deliver his ultimatum. Castiel responded in kind, hands on the lip of Zachariah’s desk, sweaty palms folded and almost fogging the gold nameplate that read Principal Adler and the wicked-looking silver dagger letter opener beside it.

“I,” he said, just as slow-ly and care-full-y as Zachariah had, a strange and intoxicating thud of adrenaline beneath his ribs, “fell.” The rest of the world disappeared for a moment, narrowing down to just Zachariah, who looked as if he was seeing him for the first time.

“I want all of you off the premises within fifteen minutes, or I’m calling the police,” he said.

They left. Castiel dared to look back just as the door to Zachariah’s office was closing.

“Christ, Sam. At least your brother made it to his senior year. Now I’m all set to have two dropouts in the family.”

Sam and John walked ahead of Dean and Castiel in the parking lot, arguing loudly, but Castiel carefully tried to phase out the hurt in the conversation. There was no telling what Dean was hearing, walking slowly behind, kicking at stones, jingling the keys in his pocket, dragging his feet and meandering a little bit. He looked as if he was caught in a malaise, draped in lethargy, inconsolable. Perhaps a little confused. He’d looked this upset in the office, and Castiel had attributed it to exhaustion, to the surprise of seeing his little brother suspended, perhaps expelled, and the perpetrator of a fight that left another young man with a broken nose, several stitches, and a fractured forearm. But no, that rage hadn’t seemed new to Dean. He had been very firmly on Sam’s side, as if he would be anywhere else.

Of course, he’d also figured that Dean was still angry with Castiel and hadn’t wanted to talk to Castiel anyway, if he even wanted to talk at all. Ever again. He tried to catch Dean’s attention just as Castiel was about to split off from the straggling group to head toward his own car, tried to perhaps tell him that he would like to meet Dean at their usual place in the theater, and they could try to talk out whatever he was feeling. And Castiel would really like to apologize properly, please.

But Dean didn’t look well. Dean looked as if the meandering wasn’t on purpose. He was pale, slightly gray in the face. His steps grew increasingly ragged and uneven the farther he got from the school, and his eyes were unfocussed and distant. Castiel could see a light sheen of sweat forming above his upper lip, all across his forehead. Castiel was about to suggest he sit when he went down all by himself, staggering a couple of steps into the tail-end of a parked truck before he fell headfirst into the trailer hitch attached to the truck’s underbelly.


At first all he could see was the blood. The wounded noise came from somewhere above himself as he sank to his knees, the upset of seeing a Winchester covered in blood for the second time in less than two hours almost too much to bear.

Dean went strangely stiff. In the distance, he could still hear Sam shouting at his father, could still hear John Winchester slurring drunken reprimands, and it was—baffling that this was happening and they didn’t know. That Dean had hurt himself and they weren’t immediately by his side, hyperaware of his every bruise as Dean was of theirs. But they hadn’t seen, of course they were still arguing.

Castiel inched toward Dean’s form on the ground as Dean let out the most unholy, tortured moan he’d ever heard and then started shaking in earnest. He was tipped onto his right side, almost face down on the asphalt, but the trailer hitch had stopped him from landing completely flat. Instead, his arms were twitching and curling in awkward sprawls in front of him, his legs mimicking the movement below.

As Castiel tried to work himself up to scream for help, he noticed that Dean was knocking himself up against the trailer hitch hard with every convulsion, and he inched forward on his knees some more with the intent to draw him back from every crushing, rhythmic blow, still not quite sure what he was witnessing. And then John Winchester tore around the corner of the truck bed and fell to his knees at Dean’s head, drawing him away from the trailer hitch, rolling him fully onto his side, and resting his bleeding forehead right on his thigh. Dean was still shaking in earnest, his features obscured by blood. John seemed to want to inspect the wound on his head, but his hands hovered just above his gasping, grunting son, not yet daring to touch.

Sam was on a cell phone speaking to the paramedics behind Castiel’s back, rattling off Dean’s age, Dean’s medical history, Dean’s medications. Castiel had never realized that Dean took medications at all, but the list was extensive, a slew of unfamiliar medical jargon streaming out of Sam’s mouth with practiced confidence.

John said, “Alright Dean. It’s alright.” He shushed him gruffly. The sudden show of affection was completely wasted on Dean; he gave no indication that he’d heard it at all, just kept right on with the inconsolable spasms. Sam’s breathing picked up again behind his head as he began counting, a number that was going too high, he was sure, as the convulsions went on and on and on. At one point, Dean’s shaking seemed to slow down, seemed like it might stop, and his limbs settled stiffly to his sides. John was about to touch his head, about to try to staunch the flow of blood, and Sam paused in his counting a moment, but then Dean gurgled like he was choking and started with a renewed round of convulsions.

“Dad,” Sam said between numbers that just kept on growing, sounding small and helpless. The phone was still pressed hard to his ear, 911 probably still on the line, probably still listening to the increasing figure with the same concern that the three on-site spectators were feeling. “Dad…”

A stain spread slowly through Dean’s jeans at the same time the red on his forehead seeped into his father’s pants. John touched him with delicate fingers for just a moment, and he seemed to be making sure his neck was straight and his airway clear. Dean didn’t breathe any easier for it, but at least it was clear he was still breathing.

“Jesus. I know. Keep counting, Sam.”

Sam hit two-hundred. Every number came edged with a barely stifled sob. John didn’t seem to quite know what to do with his hands. Dean was still convulsing, but he was losing blood all the while. Castiel was aware that head wounds bled a lot—distantly, abstractly. But this wasn’t like the movies he watched with Dean, where terrible things happened away and outside of himself, through multiple layers of glass and dissociation. This was blood he could reach out and touch, seeping from a split on his forehead, a visible seam where there hadn’t been one before. Like when Dean would laugh and point to the zipper on a classic movie monster’s costume.

“Damnit, damn this whole fuckin’ town,” John said, fingers prodding at the spreading stain on his own pants in lieu of Dean’s head as Dean kept right on shuddering and gasping and bleeding. “Bet they’re taking their goddamn time. Bet the ambulance is taking its sweet ass time for John Winchester’s kid.”

Sam hit two-hundred and fifty, which translated to a little over four minutes since he had started counting, and he hadn’t even started counting for almost a minute after Dean’s fit had started. Four minutes. Four helpless, brain-breaking minutes of this. Sam’s breathing was edged with panic, coming too quickly. He had just come out of an extremely stressful situation, only to be plunged straightaway headfirst into another one. His face was bloodless; he looked seconds away from a panic attack. From his place on the ground, Castiel laid a hand on Sam’s calf. John didn’t notice. He vibrated with anger, still drunk, Castiel realized, though it was easy to forget in the presence of what appeared to be very practiced first aid. He was probably faring just about as well as Sam if his unhealthy, ruddy complexion was any indication. Castiel, meanwhile, was just trying to process the reality of the situation. The world didn’t seem to have the air he needed to breathe too quickly, so his breath rattled out of him too slow.

They heard sirens at three-hundred, and there were paramedics swarming Dean by three-fifty. One of them crowded Sam to ask him the number, and Sam still had the phone held fast to his ear even though Castiel knew the dispatcher was probably not on the line any longer. While Sam stammered, groping for the answer, a bell chimed from the school—classes were released, and people started to stream out every set of double-doors, rubber-necking the ambulance like their lives depended on it from a safe distance away. The bell seemed to draw Sam from a stupor, and he gave the number to the waiting paramedic, who clapped him perfunctorily on the shoulder and turned back to the other two EMTs as they concentrated on safely transporting a violently shaking Dean to a stretcher. It all happened so quickly, and then John climbed into the back of the ambulance beside Dean, still covered in garish blood and screaming obscenities at the paramedics.

“If Mary was still alive,” he screamed. “If Mary was still alive, d’you think I’d’ve had to wait this long to get my boy to the fuckin’ hospital?” He didn’t say anything to Sam. Sam didn’t move to get into the back of the ambulance before they slammed the doors and raced off, sirens blaring. Sam still held the phone to his ear. He was left alone with Sam for the second time that day, except he was the one covered in blood spatter this time.

“I…” Sam said, dropping the phone to the ground. Then he hunkered down to sit on his haunches, hands over his face, stiff and careful. “I should’ve been the one to go with him. Dad doesn’t know shit about his treatment. I bet he doesn’t even know what drugs he’s taking right now. Doesn’t even know when his last doctor’s appointment was…”

Castiel looked at where the ambulance had disappeared, feeling a little shell-shocked. “Sam what—what was that?”

Sam ran the hand down his face. “Dean’s epileptic. That was—I think that was a status seizure. I’ve never seen him have one before. Dad has. He said they were awful.”

Castiel nodded vaguely. “That—that was awful.”

Sam’s face twisted miserably, and he buried it in his knees for a moment. Castiel thought he might be crying, but when Castiel placed a hand between his shoulder blades, he jolted up and his face was stoic and dry. People were still ogling the area where the ambulance had taken off from, so Castiel trailed his hand down Sam’s shoulder to grasp at Sam’s elbow and help him to his feet. “Come on, Sam. We can go get in my car.”

It seemed to take Sam a moment to register, and Castiel didn’t really know what to do with that—what to do with Sam. Because Sam had always been so driven and so fiercely independent, but he merely shrugged when Castiel asked if he wanted to get up now, it he wanted to meet the ambulance at the hospital.

“Dean hardly knows who he is after he’s had a seizure,” Sam said, going where he was pushed, allowing Castiel to corral him toward his little blue hatchback. His voice was toneless and weak. “He won’t recognize me. He won’t care that I’m not there.”

Castiel wanted to argue, because he couldn’t really imagine a world where Dean didn’t recognize his little brother, but he quickly realized that he couldn’t. As he slammed Sam’s door and circled the back of the car to get at the driver’s side, his mind kept rousing vivid images of Dean seizing, the chokes and the guttural moans, and Dean’s absolute non-presence in his own body. His complete lack of control. Like he was possessed, and his body was trying to expel some taint from itself on its own. As he closed his own door with a slow, sticky clunk that meant the damn thing hadn’t latched shut, he could admit to himself that it wasn’t so far beyond the realm of imagination to think that those were pieces of his self that he was expelling, and that he would never be the same again.

But that was crazy. Because it was just a seizure, right? People had seizures every day and they were fine. People pulled through these things all the time. In college, Balthazar had a friend who wouldn’t go out dancing because she said the lights in some clubs might trigger her epilepsy. So she had stayed at the dormitories with Castiel to wait for him some weekends, and they had played very unenthused Scrabble while Balthazar went to clubs with fake IDs and probably grinded up against with other boys. She never asked why he put the pieces on the board so fiercely it was like the board had done something to him personally. She probably knew why he did it before Castiel did. Either way, that girl had probably had loads of seizures, even if Castiel never saw her have one, hadn’t been sure what they would look like until about five minutes beforehand when Sam had clarified the exact nature of Dean’s nightmarish shaking. And she was okay. Maybe. Who the hell knew where she was now.

Castiel tried to close his door again, but he was met with the same sticky resistance. The way he felt when Balthazar went to clubs—he wondered off-handedly if that was how Dean felt each time he left the theater or each time he met with Hael. Castiel closed the door a little harder, again and again, gaining force and momentum as he went. When he met no success, no progress at all, he thrust the door out, pulled it hard back into a slam. Again. And on the outswing of one big, final slam, his murky blue door flew out of his grasp and carried all its momentum straight into the next car where it carved a broad swathe of dark color into the door of the little yellow coup to their left.

Sam watched the whole display dispassionately, but when he said, “Your seatbelt’s caught in the door, dude,” it was not without kindness. Castiel looked down for the first time, saw the buckle dragging the ground outside, the woven strip of the belt jammed up just under the fastening mechanism of the door.

“Oh. Yes. I—forgot.” He tugged at the belt over his shoulder and was met with zero answering tension. “The seatbelt refuses to coil back into its housing. I was going to have—Dean…” He trailed off. The car was silent. Gently, Castiel lifted the buckle, swung it up into his lap, and shut the door for real with a definitive click. He put his keys into the ignition, but he made no move to start the car. And then, before Castiel could lift a finger to stop him, before he could even blink, Sam’s hand flew to his own door handle. Castiel was half afraid that he was about to flee, but then he just slammed his own door outward in an arc that had a frightening amount of force behind it. It collided with the tan sedan parked to their right. The sedan was much closer than the coup had been, and Sam perhaps had a bit more wiry teenage muscle on his side, so the door did more than leave a strip of paint. With a definitive screeeee of metal on metal, it cut a massive dent into the sedan’s door, and it bent the tip of the frame of Castiel’s. But that wasn’t enough for Sam, and he thrust his arm out again and again and again to the chorus of more sickeningly satisfying crunches until Castiel’s frame became so bent out of shape and the other vehicle’s door had become so concave that they no longer did any damage to one another. Sam still kept flapping his arm to no result for a few moments until he was panting and sweating. The car, unaware that anything had wronged it, beeped disconsolately to indicate that a door had been left ajar.

Between the blue smudges on either side, the area around their car looked as if some uncoordinated blue-winged creature had tried to take off here and had largely, from the looks of things, failed.

Castiel said, “Do you feel better?” as he reached over Sam’s lap to test whether or not the door would close at all anymore. It did, a little bit grudgingly, the bent metal gouging awkwardly into the side of the car. Sam managed to keep his face completely stoic as he shook his head no. He managed to maintain the stoicism until he said, “Something else for Dean to take a look at,” and his voice cracked right in the middle of “Dean” and his face just crumpled.

He cried. He cried like the world was ending. He cried wet, messy, and incomprehensible. They were ugly tears, tears that leaked snot from his nose and turned his complexion a dull red as he wiped ineffectually at his face with the sleeves of a jacket that, when Castiel was able to catch a look, just as Sam doubled over to put his face in his hands, had an enormous splash of dull yellow all down the back.

Castiel closed his eyes tight, felt them crinkle at the corners, breathed out hard through his nose. Before Sam’s crying had really calmed enough for him to understand what Sam was saying, Sam gasped out a few garbled words into his own palms. Castiel was reminded painfully of Dean, trying to make himself understood. Both brothers seemed so fragile in that moment in a way that they never had before. Castiel hadn’t been sure what to do with his hands when the crying jag started, but now he reached over to lay a light hand on the denim of Sam’s knee.

“I couldn’t understand you, Sam.” Sam made another visible effort to get ahold of himself, but he’d reached that violent, unstoppable stage of crying, and he was gulping down sobs and panting so hard that he was hiccupping, each breath punching out of him like a hard-fought battle. He wiped hard under his nose with his sleeve, then snorted inelegantly, scrunching his face. His cheeks were completely saturated.

“We had this car,” he said thickly. Castiel realized from the cadence of the garbled monstrosity he’d said before, he was repeating himself. He didn’t dare to interrupt. “We had this car,” he repeated, “and it was this big, black boat. A Chevy Impala. 1967. It was giant and—and scary and sort of mean looking and I can still remember the big bench seat in the back that Dean and I used to share. We never had those—those kid arguments. You know—one kid puts his foot on the other kid’s side and then one kid screams bloody murder.” He paused to wipe at the tear trails on his glistening face, dislodging several tears from his eyelashes in the process and starting the whole messy thing over again. “And it’s so stupid. I was just thinking, ‘man, think of the damage the Impala’s door coulda done to that fuckin’ sedan.’ That thing was a monster. Dad woulda said it was ‘all American, all real metal, none of that cheap Japanese shit,’” his voice went gruff emulating his father’s speech, but he smiled a little like it was a fond memory, which was more happiness than he had ever seen Sam express toward his father before. “It’s stupid,” he continued, “that I still think of it as this, this safe place. Where Dean and I tangled our legs together and listened to classic rock and played with Legos. It’s stupid still wanting that big metal shield to crawl into. I mean. I was just little, but—it’s stupid.”

Castiel felt like a lot had been leading to this, felt the tension of the moment making the air inside the car stifling, so there was a feeling of penultimate dread in his gut when he said, voice just a little shaky, “I don’t think it’s stupid, Sam. Why would you say that?”

Sam clenched his fists. “You’re not dumb, Cas. C’mon, what do you think? It’s stupid because it wasn’t safe, was it? It crashed. It fucking—do you need me to illustrate a sonnet about being five and having my big brother’s cracked-open head in my lap while that all-American metal screeched and cried and groaned and my mom wasn’t responding and my dad was screaming how bad is it Sammy how bad is it? Because I had a hard time illustrating to my dad what it was like to be looking at the hair flapping off Dean’s skull, and I might have a hard time putting it into verse now.” He broke again, his throat cracked open in a keening wail. “Fuck. Fuck. I can’t do that. I can’t do the hospital. I can’t do Dean not—not knowing me again.” He shook his head violently, tears another sloppy flood. Castiel had never hated one word so much as he hated ‘again’ in that sentence.

Castiel didn’t really know what to say. Information he’d been yearning for for the longest time finally freely given, and he had no idea how to respond. But it was about time he said something, wasn’t it? Even if it was fucking wrong. “Alright Sam. Alright. We won’t go to the hospital, then,” even though his every muscle was screaming to. “How about I take you to get something to eat. And then you can go—you can go back to my house? Is that what you’d like to do?” Sam sniffled, nodded.

Alright. Alright. Protect Sammy, said a familiarly cadenced voice in his mind. Puh-puh-puh

So he did. Mind and face carefully blank, poised with the level cool-headedness that Dean bore on his shoulders as casually as his well-worn leather coat, he got Sam a hamburger, watched patiently as he ate it, and then he put him to bed in his mother’s floral-printed guest bedroom. Sam was quiet the whole time, exhausted of crying, exhausted of fighting, exhausted of talking, and he fell under just as simply and quickly as Dean had in the same bed all those weeks ago.

And Castiel had pulled the door to click quietly, quietly shut before he allowed himself to—if he were to use Dean’s vernacular—freak out.

Okay. Okay. He paced down the upper landing, through the closed doors of his mother’s empty-walled hallway.

He was suspended from his job. Okay. He could deal with that. He hadn’t been fired yet. He had a place to live. He wasn’t sure if he would be allowed back, wasn’t sure that he wanted to be, but it wasn’t as if he was going to end up on the streets. He was well-off. He was lucky.

Okay. Dean was at the hospital right now. Dean had a seizure. Sam had said “status” seizure, and Castiel didn’t know anything about epilepsy, and the word felt bumpy and rough and upsetting even inside his mind, but he had guessed that a status seizure was maybe a little bit worse than normal.

Okay. Dean had a seizure because Dean’s head had been cracked open like a melon in a car crash when he was nine years old. Jesus, he thought, like Dean always said when he got really stressed. Jeeesus. He was used to that being a prayer, but it wasn’t. Jesus. Five-year-old Sam with his brother’s bleeding head in his lap, and after today, after seeing that big wide gash that the trailer hitch had caused, it wasn’t so hard to imagine. He had felt the raised line of scar tissue at Dean’s crown and now the mental image of him bleeding out from the top of his head wasn’t something that would leave him. He didn’t need Sam to write him a poem. He was doing well enough on his own. Jesus.

His mother had always used to tell him that his imagination was his worst enemy whenever Castiel asked her about monsters in his closet or under his bed. All those things you’re imagining, she’d say, eyes firm and practical over the rims of her cats-eye glasses, are a thousand times worse than anything that could happen in reality. It seemed silly now, coming from a woman who studied demon signs and angelic wars for a living (and what’s more, believed in them), but at the time he’d believed her, and he’d made himself stop believing, because that was what gave these things life. But Castiel got the feeling here that—being in that car, cradling your brother’s delicate head in your hands while your father screamed and cried from the front seat. Anything he would imagine, anything he could hope to imagine as a sheltered religious youth from the suburbs, could never live up to the sheer terror of that reality.

It didn’t stop his brain from trying. It didn’t stop him from thinking it over and over, thinking about the grate of metal on metal and his mother’s dead body in the front seat –

Castiel stopped his rampant pacing and pivoted straight into a firmly closed doorway with his fists raised to give it a satisfying punch and with enough momentum that the weak little knob on the door, held previously by Castiel’s sheer determination to never enter his mother’s most personal spaces, just flew open, and the door flew back against the bookcase lining the wall within with a dull and entirely unsatisfying thud.

Okay. Okay. His heart slowed down a little bit as the room opened up to him. Okay.

He hadn’t come in here since his mother’s death over a year before—no, since before that, even. Since before he had gone to college. He stopped just inside, suddenly a little short of breath. It might’ve just been the dust. It came up from the hard floor where Castiel stepped, wafted up from the bookcase where the draft from the door had disrupted it. It was early yet, but it was winter, so the sun was coming in weak and gray from the closed blinds, and it projected slatted beams of parallel lights onto the big oak desk right in the middle of the room. This had been his mother’s study. The new layer of dust belied the sterility that the entire area had during her life. The desk was completely clean of papers. He hadn’t expected there to be work left undone or anything; that would have been entirely antithetical to her personality. She’d barely left unfinished work on the table during her lifetime. Her papers had been firmly tucked into her briefcase when she wasn’t actively working on them, and all the books went straight back to the shelves from whence they came.

He took a few tentative steps forward. He seemed to remember being louder on this floor in his childhood. He could remember the clicking shuffle of trying to get a book from a shelf without attracting too much of his mother’s attention, or trying to play on the area rug in front of her desk without disrupting her work. Maybe it was the dust muffling the sound now, or maybe it was the confidence in Castiel’s new adult steps. He was a grown man and his mother was dead and this was a space he was entitled to, just as much as any other place in the house was.

It occurred to him how much he thought of everything in this house as his mother’s. Her lawn chairs, her dining room table, her entryway, her wall colors and sofas and radios. The only things that didn’t seem to be his mother’s were the things that Dean held in his hands, warmed with his touch, brightened with his presence. When Dean was in his kitchen, it wasn’t his mother’s anymore. When Dean was in his kitchen, he owned it and claimed it and it was his, so utterly, without question.

Castiel reached the desk, ran a hand along the solid edge of it, embossed with fancy patterns, like smooth gems and flared wingtips. He’d had grubby hands as a boy; he’d always been into something, his mother said.

He surprised himself with the thought. He hadn’t thought about that lecture in a long, long while, but it had been here, hadn’t it? In front of her big, expensive desk, because he’d touched it with sticky hands, and he’d sat in her big chair to color with his crayons and had gotten them all over the big green blotter. He trailed his hand around the desk, running his fingers over the textured edge then trailing up the tall back of the big leather chair behind it. It had been there for as long as Castiel could remember. Almost as if he were disobeying still, when he was twenty-four years old and mostly independent, he tentatively pulled the chair out and sat behind the desk.

The blotter had been replaced since then, of course. It was unmarked green again, but it looked much the same as it had when he’d been a boy. At the edge of the desk, there was a little crystal clock that his mother had been awarded at a conference for some outstanding achievement in the field of biblical studies. He could see the insides churning through the rainbow-flecked shell, and there was a biblical verse inscribed on the gold plate at the clock’s base. Castiel could remember looking up at it from his place on the floor as it cast rainbow-colored shadows onto the floor where he was playing. He put a hand to his forehead and wondered why, suddenly, with Sam asleep down the hall, this was all coming back to him. Why now, in the midst of all this, when most of all, he needed to get to Dean.

His eyes settled on the crystal clock, ticking away at the edge of the desk. He was briefly alarmed by the time it displayed until he realized that it was an hour off because his mother hadn’t been around to reset it for daylight savings time. But that hardly mattered now, because it was his clock, wasn’t it? In the middle of the desk, there were seven books all lined neatly, the spines facing him. He knew they were his mother’s books, extended pieces of academia that she had pieced together in her lifetime instead of taking him to see movies or chasing the monsters from under his bed.

Those books were his now, too. He grabbed one at random, looked for a moment at his mother’s unsmiling face on the book jacket, then, as calm as anything, he used the book to propel the crystal clock straight into the sturdy oak bookcase set into the study wall. It shattered completely on impact, spraying crystalline shards and gold cogs across the floor prettily. Then he began systematically tearing pages out of his mother’s book, peeling out more and more pages, papering the floor with them, until he ran out and started in on the next one. Studying Theology and Maintaining Faith, this one was called. The Bible as a Literary Text and a Religious Guide. This was her last book, one she had published while he was away at college. He would have never known she’d released it if it hadn’t shown up on the required reading list for one of his theology courses. She looked older in the author photo, her eyes crinkling a bit around the corners, her hair graying at the temples. She looked the most like he remembered her when she died. Looked the most like she’d looked at the open-casket funeral during his senior year of college. Looked the most like how she must’ve looked while he was fucking around with Balthazar behind her back –

His book now. He ripped out the author photo first. Then he tore the rest of the pages out, too. For good measure, he tore the spine in half when he was finished. The other books went faster because he had very little hesitation when he went for those pages, and he did so with steadily increasing desperation and violence. By the time he was finished with the books, he had enough momentum that he didn’t want to stop. It felt a little like slamming and slamming and slamming the door had earlier. There was nothing to be gained from it, he was getting absolutely nowhere, but he felt like he was. He felt like if he slammed long enough and hard enough, the door would finally—close.

So he did. He put his foot through the old globe in the corner of the room. He swept an entire shelf full of knick-knacks to the ground. He vaguely hoped that he wasn’t waking Sam a few doors down, and he broke a picture frame from the wall over his knee. It was a framed print of The Last Supper and he was satisfied to see that he’d split the silly thing right between Jesus and Judas, effectively curtailing that whole event. He chuckled a little manically, and when he found that there was very little left to crush or break or tear, he surveyed his handiwork.

His books. His desk. His clock and his little statuettes and his leather chair and his big green desk blotter.

His life.

And now it was all broken, but all the fragments, every little piece, belonged to him.

Chapter Text

When he arrived at the hospital, he expected to request Dean’s room number at the door and receive it. He expected the difficult part to be dealing with John Winchester, not finding Dean, who didn’t have a room number or a friend in the world to speak for him. Sam was right. He should’ve been the one to come, because he wouldn’t have left Dean alone like this.

Someone finally pointed him down a long hallway branching off from the main nurse’s station in the ER, and he found Dean propped on a gurney pushed to the side of the hallway like a piece of luggage, an IV trailing out of his arm and a wad of blood-soaked gauze taped haphazardly to his forehead. He was breathing like a racehorse, and his eyes were rolling beneath his eyelids, so he wasn’t asleep. Castiel was afraid to touch him, so instead he went to find someone who could tell him why the trained medical personnel were streaming around him like fish would avoid a troublesome stone in a river.

A harried triage nurse who was checking the threat level of some toddler’s sniffles didn’t have much to say, cool in her professionalism in a way that only served to aggravate Castiel. “The status epilepticus patient?” she said, glancing down the hallway to where Dean was flopping his head disconsolately. Cas didn’t know what status epilepticus meant, so he just raised his shoulders in a spastic shrug. He had a pang of sympathy deep in his gut for John Winchester then, couldn’t stop himself from thinking, as if you don’t know exactly who he is, as if you didn’t leave him in the hallway on purpose you witch.

“They got him to stop seizing on the way over, but now he needs imaging and bloodwork. And. Well.” She moved to the nurse’s station, flipping pages on a few charts to find the information she already seemed to know. She pointed to the paperwork filled out in blocky handwriting that looked a bit like Dean’s, then she tapped a short-clipped fingernail on the empty Insurance section. “He doesn’t have insurance.” Cas took the clipboard, got it right up in his face, squinting at the unfamiliar information. “His father made a bit of a scene when we asked for it, so he’s speaking to the financing department in private, now. And given that he has a pre-existing epilepsy diagnosis, we’ve deemed him non-critical enough to get him on a payment plan or to send him home.”

Castiel looked back at Dean, alone in the hallway, flapping the hand with the IV line into the empty air beside his gurney. “Not critical?” he said, and his voice cracked. He looked at the clipboard, back at Dean, back at the clipboard. Back to the nurse. “Can’t you even stitch his head up?”

She sighed, then moved away from the desk with businesslike efficiency to where Dean was resting.  When she peeled back the sticky bandage from his head, Dean winced and groaned haltingly, flinging his hand outward again. Castiel took it without a second thought, chafing Dean’s knuckles with his thumb just like Dean had so many times, up in the projector booth when they were watching movies. It was clear that the head wound had stopped bleeding for the most part, but removing the gauze pulled away some of the dried blood and started it bleeding again. The cut was pulled together with a few butterfly bandages, and it was a lot less intense than Castiel would have assumed from the gruesomely bloody scene outside the ambulance.

“That’s—that’s not so bad,” he said with a tentative little smile. “Right?”

The triage nurse’s eyes flicked down to where Cas had Dean’s hand in his own, and Cas tamped down the twinge of panic because he wasn’t regretting this anymore, he wasn’t, then she said, “It does need a few stitches, but it could be worse. I don’t like his coloring, though. His blood pressure might be a little low.” She bit her lip. The sluggish trail of blood from the wound started to wind between his drawn brows, following the track that another blood trail had taken earlier. No one had cleaned his face. It had to be sticky and uncomfortable for him. And the trail of fresh, red blood standing out against the dark, flaking brown of the older stuff made it pretty apparent that he was pale. White, white skin that cast smatterings of freckles into harsh relief. Dean reached over with his other hand, mumbled something, patted Castiel’s hand where it rested on top of his own.

“Should he be this…unresponsive?” Castiel asked. There was a tingling at the bottom of his throat like bile about to surface, and Sam’s words were tickling at his peripheryI can’t do Dean not—not knowing me again.The triage nurse lowered her brow, then got up abruptly and disappeared around the corner. She returned with a wad of fresh gauze like a peace offering, and patted at the little rivulets of blood with a gloved hand before she taped that over the gaping wound instead.

“He just suffered a major trauma. Seizures make people sleepy and confused, and sometimes that confusion can last for hours, but—he does need some tests,” she said. “He needs to be admitted. He needs to be monitored. But they probably already know that.” She patted Dean’s head definitively. “If you’ll excuse me.” Castiel didn’t want to leave Dean, but he couldn’t just let this go now. He petted around Dean’s temples with a heavy hand until he seemed as if he might be entering a tense sleep, then he shook Dean’s hand from between his fingers and trailed after the nurse a little bit aggressively, waving the clipboard in the air with all of his newfound assertiveness.

“Listen,” he said, gravelly and deep. “I want—I want him to be admitted. It’s been three hours. I want him to be admitted.” The triage nurse did her best to just ignore him, busying herself with paperwork behind the counter of the nurse’s station. Deep down, Castiel knew it was stupid to fixate on her, because what was she supposed to do? She had done more for Dean that most of the doctors had, more than she was obligated to do, just changing out the gauze on his head. But it wasn’t enough.

He continued to bother her until she rolled her eyes, gave up on ignoring him, and disappeared into an office down the hall with a big, bold NO ADMITTANCE sign on the door. He shuffled awkwardly outside, wind taken out of his sails, maybe not quite mentally prepared for that level of assertiveness. In the empty moments, he found his gaze drawn back to the Insurance heading on the form in his hand, and his eyes caught on a word just as a different nurse stepped out of the office to take the first triage nurse’s place. The new nurse was dark-skinned and heavy-set, and he could tell just from the size of her presence that she probably had more authority here than the poor woman he’d been hassling. But she also had a high, soothing voice when she spoke, and her scrubs were covered in cheerful red balloons. Castiel tucked Dean’s clipboard close to his chest and determinedly stared her down as she approached him, refusing to be intimidated. She kept her hands up like she was approaching a snarling dog.

“I get that you’re upset, honey,” she said, surprising him with her gentleness. “And I get that you’re concerned. I can see it coming off you in waves. But you have to understand—you aren’t his daddy. You aren’t even his family. He’s got no insurance, and we’ve got our orders. Simple as that.”

“What if I co-signed,” Castiel blurted, pointing to the innocuous line somewhere in the finances section that he hadn’t really seen until just a moment before. He swallowed hard. He could remember a few months ago, the reluctance he’d had to become too involved with the Winchesters, the reluctance he’d had to give Sam the money it would take to get his brother speech therapy for fear of the blatant favoritism. It was gone, now. Now he was apparently impulsively seeking to give away money he didn’t even have because—what? Because Dean liked that he liked The Twilight Zone and showed him how to fix an ice cream freezer and told him that he thought he was a good teacher and sang Hey Jude and missed his mother more than anything—

“Please. What if I made myself. Ah. Responsible.”

The nurse eyed him up and down again, and Castiel was suddenly self-conscious of his cheap winter trench, his scuffed dress shoes, his argyle sweater vest that just did a so-so job of covering up the fact that his white dress shirts were all just a little bit too big for him in the shoulders. Suddenly he felt his age in a way that he never did at the school or around Dean and Sam. Being around high schoolers made him feel older than his years, but now he was twenty-four and new to the world and scared. “Sugar, something tells me you haven’t got the money to give, just like John Winchester don’t.” Jesus, Castiel practiced again. Jesus, he’d just been suspended from his job this morning, what was he thinking? What was he thinking?

“No. No. I really don’t.” He put the clipboard to his forehead and breathed hard through his nose, closing his eyes and willing a solution out of the stark black and white of ink on paper. He wasn’t able to see anyone approaching, didn’t know there was anyone at his shoulder until he felt the tug at the clipboard.

“He doesn’t,” a chilling voice said, just to the side, and Castiel let go of the paperwork in his daze. “But my employer does.”

When he blinked his eyes open, he saw the nurse’s purely surprised expression before he saw the profiled face next to him, and he was sure that he made about the same expression that she did, because when he looked over, he was met with the most disconcerting gaze he’d ever encountered. It was studying Dean’s admission papers with an air of haughty concentration, like the man it belonged to meant to set them ablaze just looking at them. He flicked between one page and another, brow furrowed and lips pursed.

“Yes, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem,” he said. “Where’s his daddy? I’d like to get this all tidied up.” Castiel—blinked. Furrowed his brow. Looked around the crowded waiting room of the ER as if someone was going to jump out and tell him this was all some kind of massive joke. The seizure included. That Dean wasn’t really epileptic. “And I’d like to see him too.” He checked the first page of Dean’s admission document again, like he was searching for the name. “Dean.”

“And you are?” the nurse asked suspiciously, slowly extending her hand.

“Forgive me,” he said. “Az Masters.  I work for Luke Shurley.”  He flicked his eyes up from the paperwork for the first time, and Castiel noticed a few things about him all at once. The fluorescent lights of the hospital waiting room made the room bright, distressingly so, but this man seemed cast in shadows regardless, a sinkhole of light. His eyes seemed to be the only bright thing about him, such a light brown they were almost yellow.

“I’m Missouri Moseley,” the nurse said in return, fingers twitching a little. When he took her hand, she looked like she wanted to recoil. Castiel didn’t blame her. Masters had a voice filled with expectation, warm and gritty. It made Castiel feel singed around the edges, made him want to curl in on himself like a dry leaf that was burning in from the outside, away from the licking flame.

Nurse Moseley continued, “I’m the head nurse in these parts. If you’d like to see our patient, we’re gonna need some special permission from his father.” They shook hands for longer than was friendly, longer than was cordial. It was assessing. Masters was confident. Missouri was apprehensive. Castiel himself had breezed past anyone who might’ve barred him from looking for Dean, but no one had actually really tried. Missouri hadn’t even tried to bar his access when she’d seen him making an ass of himself, harassing the triage nurse. But Masters’ very presence seemed to grate on her nerves, and it made Castiel want to be suspicious too, because she’d known what Cas was about from the very start. Maybe she had a sixth sense for these sorts of things. Maybe she had to, working in an emergency room.

Missouri sent someone to fetch John in light of this new development, but she stayed behind herself, hovering protectively at the entrance to the hallway where Dean was resting fitfully. When Castiel managed to catch a glimpse of Dean, he saw that his eyes were properly closed, and maybe he was actually asleep, now, but his muscles were too tight, and his face was still covered in blood. He looked horrible. He needed to be cleaned. He needed to get out of those bloody clothes. Castiel looked Masters up and down. His dark, dark suit was trim and immaculate.

John was walking straight when he came down the hallway, which was a new development. But it hadbeen about three hours since the parking lot, and he’d had some time to sober up in the financial advisor’s office. Hopefully they had gotten some coffee in him. A woman was walking beside him, presumably the financial representative, and Castiel thought he recognized her, though not from church, which was unusual. She was blonde and pretty, with a wideset face and big eyes, and from the way she delicately extended her hand to Luke Shurley’s lawyer, he would say that they knew each other. John had some recognition in his eyes too, and when he saw Masters he just ran a hand over his mouth and days-old beard, a gesture that Castiel recognized from Dean.

“Mr. Winchester,” Masters said warmly, oozing charisma and politics. “John.” He held out his hand again for a shake and John eyed it suspiciously before accepting with visible hesitance. Masters shook back as if he hadn’t noticed, clamping one hand on top of the handshake, smiling a superficial smile and tossing out wink. “It’s been too long, my friend.”

John’s top lip gave the barest of twitches, like a sneer he wouldn’t let loose. John had also noticed Dean parked like a piece of abandoned luggage a little ways down the hall apparently, and Castiel saw his eyes flicking to him every few minutes. It made Castiel want to do the same, but he had to turn to do so, and for some reason he was desperately afraid of missing something. He was aware that this whole debacle had turned him into the town gossip, gleaning everything he could about the Winchesters from any source he possibly could, but who could blame him, when asking for answers from the boys outright caused them so much pain?

The reason for John’s attention became apparent when Missouri grabbed his forearm and nodded toward Dean. Castiel turned away from the crackling tension to find that Dean was awake again, or maybe he’d never stopped. Dean was tugging at the IV in his arm, looking around on a wobbly neck, trying to send himself over the side of the gurney uncoordinatedly, and Nurse Moseley took off, hustling down the hallway after him. For a moment, Castiel was torn between the action here and Dean. But he was not John Winchester, and he had priorities.

Nurse Moseley was gently prying Dean’s fingers off of his IV line when Castiel reached her, simultaneously trying to keep him still long enough to get some little portable device she’d been carrying with her clamped over his middle finger. Dean couldn’t seem to stop yawning and fidgeting, and it took Missouri forever to finagle a reading out of him. Cas reached out to drag a few fingers through the short hair at Dean’s temple, and Missouri did a pretty effective job of looking like she wasn’t looking at what Cas was doing at all.

“Something don’t feel right about all this,” she said it to the white-tiled floor, to her sterile white loafers. Castiel glanced back over his shoulder to where the financial advisor was cooing at John as he sneered, drawn taut and trembling. Castiel couldn’t hear what was being said, but her body language could only be described as sensually saccharine, sort of oversweet as she touched on the both of them as much as she dared. She didn’t look intimidated by John’s imposing height, his broad shoulders, his thick hands, all of which he was exaggerating in an obvious effort to make himself look larger and scarier and less horribly strung out.  Indeed, she looked so supremely unintimidated that there was something childlike and naïve about her as she stroked tender, placating fingers painted a dangerous, poisonous pink down the tendons in his arm. “Forgive me if I’m not entirely convinced that this offer is entirely saintly. Never heard of Luke Shurley doing nothing out of the kindness of his little old heart.” When the little device beeped, Nurse Moseley looked at it, lips pursed. “Baby, you need some more oxygen, don’t you?” Dean groaned, huffed out a big breath like a dissatisfied dog, and resumed his panting breathing.

“Is this normal?” Castiel asked for the second time, hung up on the fact that Dean still couldn’t seem to open his eyes, recognize him, say anything. “Is it normal for him to be like this?”

Missouri was about to respond when Dean’s limbs stiffened alarmingly, and his hand was still in Dean’s hair when he started seizing again. The tremoring was different than it had been in the parking lot. It was twitches and taut muscles and facial spasms and pants and snorts and clenching muscles in his hands. Missouri patted his chest lightly, but Castiel felt desperately afraid to touch, and he pulled away like he was about to get pinched.

A few more nurses came over to check on him, but Nurse Moseley shooed them all away, and it seemed the general consensus was ho hum, just another seizure, like this wasn’t the world shaking on its foundations.

John, at least, seemed to share Castiel’s alarm. Once he noticed something was happening down the hallway, he jogged over with Masters and the financial consultant walking calmly on his heels. And then it was five people watching Dean at his most vulnerable, and Castiel felt oddly defensive, eyes flickering toward the new arrivals as Masters wrinkled his nose and murmured, “Doesn’t he just smell like a barrel of daisies,” and elbowed the woman in the side. When she smiled, it curled her whole face.

Castiel was expecting John to say something in Dean’s defense, anything. He surprised himself by baring his teeth, turning to show him what it meant to piss yourself out of fear instead, arm starting to raise, as if to throw a punch when—

John Winchester’s face stopped him. He looked utterly defeated. Dean stopped seizing, and Missouri stroked his forehead as he mumbled under his breath, confusedly asking for his dad, Castiel realized, with a discomfiting twinge in his gut. Missouri patted his arm and pointed to where John was looking unwaveringly at him a few feet away, and Dean’s glazed eyes bypassed Castiel completely as he struggled to find his father.

“Your employer just wants to give Dean this. This medical attention. No questions asked,” John said, ignoring his son’s efforts. Masters had backed away to the opposite wall and he had a smartphone in his hand, like he couldn’t be bothered with Dean’s seizure when there were emails that needed his attention.

“No questions asked,” the advisor said.

“No questions,” Masters agreed. “Though we may be inclined to call in a favor. Nothing so serious.”

“I—could ask his grandfather for help,” John said, like it was the most distasteful set of words he could conceive of coming out of his mouth. Masters looked at John like he knew exactly what he thought of that plan.

“Or you could accept ours. Do Luke Shurley a favor and let him sponsor the poor, underprivileged youth in campaign season, eh?”

“Could take out a loan. Accept a payment plan.”

Masters’ look said that they all knew what that meant—it would be Dean left paying the price, Dean stuck with hospital debt and more stress when Castiel was willing to bet that stress was at least a part of what had landed him here in the first place.

John looked at his son like the world was ending. Looked at his son like he wasn’t near drunk enough to be looking at all. Then he nodded.

“Yes?” Masters said, captivated suddenly as he fit his phone back into his pocket. John nodded again. “I need you to say yes, John. For the record.”

“For God’s sake,” John said. “Yes. Just help my boy.”

They were already racking up quite the bill for Luke Shurley by the time Castiel was forced to leave this hospital. Dean was admitted, got a little bracelet, conked out hard and stayed unconscious as they cleaned him up, drew blood, administered more IV fluids, and put him on oxygen, all in a flurry of single-minded attention. It was a far cry from being stashed away like an afterthought in a corner of the ER while the administration deliberated exactly which seizure was going to be the life-threatening one, because now everyone seemed almost focused on him. The triage nurse that Castiel had harassed came by with a warm, damp rag after a doctor put eight stitches in his forehead to gently clean the blood from his face. John kept asking for the prices of procedures as they were doing them, and the nurses winced and withheld the information until John confronted the doctor that was putting in the stitches and learned that those alone would have cost him about 1500 dollars, nevermind the local anesthetic that they administered to place them, and definitely nevermind everything else.

They put him an open pediatric ward at first, partitioned off from a roomful of much younger patients crying to their parents, but then the financial advisor came back and told the doctor that Shurley was sparing no expense and he wanted for Dean to have his own room. Castiel thought that would make him feel better until he saw the room itself, which was in the pediatric wing as well and had wallpaper covered in rainbows and smiling suns and children holding hands. It made Castiel uncomfortable to remember that Dean had him down his throat just last night. Just being in this room did. He seemed impossibly young right now anyway, with his mannerisms and agency completely removed. It was easy to forget that he was aged beyond his years looking at his smooth, unconscious face, and Castiel didn’t need nurses in colorful, animal-covered scrubs to exacerbate the whole skeevy feeling.

It took until the room, when Dean was finally settled and comfortable and quiet-looking, for John to really take note of his presence, and he ran a hand through his hair and said, “And what the fuck are you doing here? Aren’t you a fucking English teacher?”

Castiel had been tailing them discreetly for the better part of three hours. He’d spent time waiting five chairs down from John in the waiting room, waiting outside the open ward, waiting outside the room. He’d been tailing John long enough now to know that John’s appearance was steadily declining, bags growing under his eyes, hands starting to shake like some alcohol-induced mockery of Dean’s own ailment. It didn’t take a heavy drinker to see he was feeling the effects of being away from his booze right about now. Who knew how long it had been since he’d been sober for this long and, well. Awake.

“Sam and Dean come to my house quite often,” Castiel said, voice small, cleverly deciding to leave out the part where he kissed John’s son in a projection booth on a semi-regular basis. “They help me with yard work. Dean makes me dinner on occasion.”

John’s mouth twitched up in the barest hint of a smile. “That sounds liked Dean.”

“I also took Sam home with me after, ah. After. He’s sleeping in my guestroom. I thought you’d like to know.”

“Christ,” John said. “Sam.” His face twisted into an expression so genuinely stricken that it really seemed as if he’d just remembered the existence of his second son. He stood abruptly, then looked down at Dean, still profoundly unconscious, and sat again. “Christ.”

Castiel was struck with the idea that the John he was looking at now was maybe a glimpse of what he must’ve looked like nine years ago, suddenly finding himself a widower and the sole caretaker of two little boys, one of whom had a disability that they hadn’t even begun to realize the extent of. What had it been like, he wondered perversely, back then in the hospital? Had John realized yet how profoundly alone he would be? Maybe that time around, there hadn’t been anyone to take little Sam off his hands, and Sam had no choice but to be with his father in the hospital, to watch his older brother struggle. He’d been five. Dean had been nine. How old had John been? Castiel felt ill-equipped to deal with most everything at age twenty-four, but he didn’t imagine any number of years could prepare you for that anyway.

“Can you bring him here?” John asked. “Dean’ll be asking after him in a little while anyway.”

Castiel thought, But if I bring Sam here, then I’ll have no reason to be here with Dean anymore.

“Sam didn’t seem to, um. Really want to come to the hospital. Maybe you could—”

“You tryin’ to tell me how to raise my kid?” John snapped. “You can’t keep him away from me. Bring him here.” Castiel scowled, and the sympathy train that had been steadily building steam derailed rather abruptly, but he decided it was probably better to listen to John at that point.

That was how he ended up dead on his feet on his front walk, considering the little yellow car parked on the curb outside his house. He recognized the car from somewhere, but he couldn’t fathom why it would be on his walk. It was dark out—Castiel had been surprised to discover as much when he left the hospital. He justified to himself that it was winter and it got dark out early, but when he’d first gotten into the car and looked at the clock embedded in his dash, he saw that it was almost eight o’clock. He’d left Sam a little before three. He rubbed his hair into ragged peaks on his head and didn’t at all know how that was possible. But the car was even more of an enigma. He looked around his street, trying to see if maybe they were parked here for a neighbor’s gathering, if the rest of the curbside parking was full. There was nothing.

Even still, he managed to be completely surprised when Anna assaulted him at the front door.

“You tried to have it both ways, didn’t you Castiel?” she said smartly. “You always do. You always have.” Castiel blinked. Blinked again. Looked behind Anna in the hallway toward the sitting room couch where he could see a sleepy-looking Sam sitting next to a tight-lipped Gabriel.

“Anna. Nice to see you,” he drawled. He dropped his trench coat in the front hallway, right next to Michael’s abandoned campaign sign.

Anna gave both items the barest of distasteful looks before she was off again. “I did this shit with you in high school, too, you fucking non-committal dickbag. You wanted to fuck me but you didn’t want to deal with all the shit that came along with it. You wanted to be friends with Dean, but you didn’t want to lose your job and your respect.”

“Anna,” he hissed. “You think I don’t know all this? I’ve just come from the hospital, you think I haven’t had hours of waiting to stew all this over?”

“I think you realized too late, and there’s a sick kid out there who deserved better!”

“I know!” he roared. She backed away a little bit, barely managing to rein in her surprise at Castiel’s raised voice.  She had probably never heard him shout before. He settled. “I know. It’s not like you were some shining example.”

She nodded hard and rubbed at her own willowy arms, gulping down air visibly. “I know. That’s what I’m here to speak with you about.”


“Come—sit down.”

He did. He followed her into the sitting room dumbly like he was the guest in his own house. Sam’s face was the first thing he saw. It was red like he’d been crying again.

“You have to know,” Anna said as she sat in an armchair across from Gabriel, “that I wouldn’t have done it if I had known he was in the hospital. I would’ve waited. I know it’s going to bring him a lot of attention he doesn’t want. I’m sorry.”

“What in the world are you talking about?”

“How’s Dean?” Sam busted out, arms hugging around his middle. “How’s—did he ask for me?”

Castiel lingered for a moment on Anna before he could even think about responding to Sam, trying to parse her meaning. It seemed so out of nowhere.

“Uh, he’s,” Castiel licked his lips, shook his head, focused on Sam. As Castiel watched, he cupped his hands and used the both of them to clear away the lingering wet from underneath his eyes. “He’s resting.”

Sam’s mouth twisted. “That’s what nurses always tell you when they want you to shut up and leave them alone. That’s what doctors say when they can’t doanything more. That’s what dad would always say after Dean had a seizure and got—confused.” The gruff John voice resurfaced, and Castiel was beginning to think that Sam actually sounded more and more like him with each passing day. “He’s resting, Sam. Don’t bug your brother Sam, he’s resting. That’s a bullshit answer. Don’t bullshit me, Cas.”

He’s completely insensate, Castiel wanted bite back. He’s half-gone, is that what you want to hear?  “He was having some trouble coming back to himself. The nurses confirmed he had a, uh, status seizure, but he wasn’t getting proper medical care for a while regardless. He had a second seizure before they admitted him.”

Sam gaped. “Why wouldn’t they just admit him? They gave him a full work-up the last time we took him into the emergency room and that wasn’t even a status seizure.”

“Was he still on Mr. Singer’s insurance then?”

Sam’s eyebrows jumped, then furrowed. “I. Yeah. He hasn’t had a seizure in a long time. I think the last time he was. Um. I was twelve, I think, so he must’ve been sixteen? That’s the only reason he’s clear to drive. In this state, you have to have a year between seizures to get your license if you’re epileptic. We thought we’d finally found the right drug combination. It was working.”

Castiel nodded. “Whatever happened then, he doesn’t have insurance now. They wouldn’t treat him without it. They said he wasn’t critical.” Sam’s face took on a precise mirror of how Castiel’s must have looked when he heard the same news hours ago.

“They wouldn’t? He wasn’t? They are now? What changed? Is he critical now?”

“No, no. Sam. Someone offered to pay the medical bills.” The sitting room fell into silence.

“What?” Sam said blankly, like the idea that someone might help their family in that way didn’t even register. Like Castiel hadn’t spoken untruthfully or dishonestly, but like he hadn’t spoken clearly at all.

“Someone offered to pay the medical bills,” he repeated, slower.


“Well. That’s the thing. It’s a bit—unusual.”

“It was one of my brothers, wasn’t it?” Gabriel cut in, bittersweet little smile twisting at his mouth. “Who made it there first, Michael or Lucifer?”

Castiel was about to answer when the second name hit him. “Lucifer?” he asked.

Gabriel snrrked half-heartedly. “Our dad is a weird dude. That’s Luke’s full name. I’m sure he doesn’t want that one getting out for campaign season.”

Castiel nodded absently. “It was uh.  Neither. Well, it was an employee of Lucifer’s.”

Gabriel nodded knowingly in return. “Thought so. God, what a mess.” He pushed a hand back through his hair, letting it flop messily over his forehead.

“So you just…took Luke’s help?” Anna asked. “Just like that? You didn’t stop to think, huh, maybe this asshole who’s bent on world domination has some kind of ulterior motive, here?”

Castiel threw his hands in the air, affronted with the familiar feeling of Anna worming her way under his skin. It was strange to be back in his house with her. The last time she’d been here, he’d been eighteen and horny and getting a guilt-ridden handjob from her in his bedroom. “It’s not like I had any say in the matter. It was his father’s choice.”

“And Dad accepted the help?” Sam said incredulously. “That’s—that’s hard to believe.”

“They seemed to know one another. And he seemed to indicate that it was just some kind of a positive publicity move for Luke Shurley. That’s what he seemed to be saying.” Castiel knew this was wistful thinking just based on Masters’ generally prickly, malevolent aura. Anna knew as much, too; she was already shaking her head before he’d even finished.

“Why do you think I’m here, Castiel? I know the reason he offered the help, and I wish it were that altruistic, I really do.” She wrung her hands in tight knots. Gabriel didn’t do anything to alleviate her tension, still sitting stonily next to Sam. It occurred to Castiel for the first time that evening that Gabriel didn’t look especially pleased with Anna right now. He hadn’t even looked this upset back at the diner when Anna was announcing her teenaged trysts to the dining population at large. “I’ve told all the major news outlets in the area what the church did to Dean. What kind of an influence it’s had on the community and the schools and his—and Sam’s—lives. I didn’t before because I didn’t want it getting out. I mean. Mostly about—me and him. The—the rumors. In a moment of insanity, I wanted what you want.” She shook her head. “Not anymore. Look how it hurt him.”

It wasn’t what Castiel had been expecting. Anna admitting that she was wrong? It was unprecedented. Anna’s utter conviction that the path she was taking was the correct one hadn’t changed in the slightest, though—just the trajectory of it had.

“I warned her that it’s just gonna bring a whole world of hurt down on everyone’s head,” Gabriel said, sounding more resigned than Castiel had ever heard him. His voice sounded so empty without its usual echoes of humor, like he was never meant to be this serious. Even when he was frightening, there was usually some trace of humor in him. “Both of my brothers are the midst of this weird campaign furor, and they’re doing anything they can to cover their asses. That monetary assistance Lucifer gave that poor fuckin’ kid today? That’s probably gonna come back at you guys in a big, big way.” Gabriel cut his hand through the air, eyes on Sam. “If Michael had made it first, I guarantee he’d be trying to get in Dean’s good graces so he won’t make a public case out of all the shit he’s put your family through. His campaign can’t afford it right now. He may have this city won over, but if this kind of evil bullshit gets out to the rest of the state? He might as well be fried.” Gabriel rubbed his chin dramatically. “Lucifer, though. I’m not exactly sure what his game is. He could only benefit from all this getting out.”

“Well political or not, they weren’t about to admit Dean without his help. I understand why John Winchester made the choice he did.”

“Them not admitting Dean—that was probably Lucifer, too,” Anna said, looking at the ground between her feet. “When I was looking into this you’d just—Michael has his fingers in so many pies, all over the city. He can control things you wouldn’t even think about. And Lucifer…”

Gabriel chuckled sourly, “I’d argue that Lucifer’s underground connections are even more solid. If a little more sordid than Michael’s church buddies.”

Castiel tilted his head to the side. “Are you saying they had infiltrated the hospital staff? But the nurses were—personable. They wanted—”

“The administration, probably. Christ, Cas, don’t you know anything about greasing palms? Why would you start with the little guys?” Gabriel rubbed his thumb against his middle and index finger, a gentle chafing sound in the quiet sitting room. “Big guys are the ones who get things done.”

“Why?” Everyone turned toward Sam. He looked like he’d been crying, yes, but it didn’t stop him looking deadly serious, that same scrutinizing expression that he’d used to read Castiel just yesterday furrowing his brow. “I don’t get it. Why do they hate us so much?”

Anna looked at him with melting chocolate eyes. “Oh, Sam. Honey.”

“Don’t take it so personal, kid. That’s politics for ya.”

Sam’s eyes flared like he was going to argue with the condescending endearments.  “But they. You said—they did. They singled out Dean. When he was expelled.”

“Like I said, champ. Nothing personal. They don’t hate you and your brother so much as they hate the offspring of the angry drunk that killed the poor little pastor’s daughter.”

Anna barked, “Gabriel!” She reached across the distance between the couch and her chair to swat at Gabriel’s knee. “Those are his parents you’re talking about!”

Anna and Gabriel devolved into a juvenile little spat between just the two of them, so they didn’t notice Sam looking down toward his hands, picking more at the burst knuckles, mouthing the word angry to himself over and over like he was testing the way it felt coming out of his mouth. It reminded him of Dean, practicing to himself in the quiet of the projection booth. When he actually spoke, it was to say, “Someone told me that before. When I was younger. That my dad killed my mom. That if he just wasn’t so angry—” his voice cracked. “But my dad loved my mom. Like, I have no love lost for him, Cas knows that. But he loved my mom.” He said it with baffled honesty, like it as the only North Star he had in a landscape that was constantly shifting. Anna and Gabriel looked at each other. The arguing stopped.

“Is it true that Michael was intended to marry their mother first?” Castiel directed at Gabriel, because it was easy to forget that Gabriel was actually a font of knowledge for these things, that he’d grown up with the three of them.

Gabriel blew a raspberry and hacked out a laugh. “Listen, I was the youngest brother and Michael was almost ten years older than me when all this went down, but I think that between the two of them, the only one who thought he was getting married to Mary Campbell was Michael. I’m pretty sure that Mary was seeing John under everyone’s noses all the way through high school anyway. No matter what anyone said. Seems to me those two were just,” he batted his eyelashes, and his voice went saccharine and sweet, “meant to be.”

“That’s really the…the only reason they kicked Dean out of school? I always knew that it was bullshit. About the, the rumor. That he uh. With you, Miss Milton.” Sam went red when he nodded toward Anna. “You didn’t, did you? Sleep with him?” Anna shook her head gravely. “No. I didn’t think so.” Sam rubbed his big puppy hands over his forearms, and Castiel could see that his knuckles were sluggishly weeping red where he’d been mucking with them. “He really liked you, Ms. Milton.”

Anna seemed at a bit of a loss for words. It was another first for Castiel. “I really liked him, too.”

“He didn’t understand at first, after you left him. I always thought he had a bit of a crush on you.” He smiled. Castiel’s chest felt uncomfortable and tight. “And it was just so sweet that I never believed there could be anything weird about it. He just liked you. And then you left, and he was sad, but then he started saying he understood. Started talking less. It never made sense. And then Cas—”

Castiel stood abruptly, took several frantically paced steps into the kitchen. “I should. Lemonade,” he said eloquently, then he went to the kitchen and promptly began preparing hot chocolate. The hot chocolate would take longer, and it was winter anyway. He was just used to distracting Sam from important issues with lemonade.

He put a kettle on the stove and then thumped his own fist against his forehead before he even had a chance to turn the burner on. Stupid, stupid, how was this always his first instinct? Saving face? Running away? He couldn’t go back empty-handed now without looking even sillier than he already did. He took his time pulling cinnamon and chocolate powder from his cabinets, stroking tenderly at what were certainly Dean’s fingerprints dusted in red on the spice canister. He didn’t notice that the murmuring from the living room had stopped, and that was how Anna found him, pathetic and half a thought from tears.

“There’s no water in your kettle, Cas,” she said. He jerked, startled. “This is a funny way to make lemonade.” She moved toward him like he might bolt, but then she just picked up the kettle from the burner and filled it in the sink. He watched her, bemused. It would have never occurred to him to fill the kettle if he’d stared at the stupid empty thing over the top of the cinnamon container for the next twenty minutes. “You’re freaked out,” she said. She put the kettle on the hot stove.

He nodded miserably. “But Sam.”

Anna shrugged. “Gabriel’s explaining to him more about his shitty brothers and their shitty politics. You’ve got a minute.”

“I’m supposed to be taking him back to his dad at the hospital right now.” Anna looked at the glowing green time on microwave clock.

“But it’s almost nine. Shouldn’t you two just get a good night’s sleep and worry about Dean tomorrow?”

He nodded. “I think that would be a bad environment for Sam right now, anyway. I think everyone’s already forgotten that Sam was in a fight today.”

“A fight?”

“He broke another boy’s arm. He’s been suspended from school.”

Anna’s eyes went wide. “Jesus. You’re right. I think he needs the night to simmer down, Castiel. He’s looking a little frayed.”

Castiel nodded again, then turned to look out the picture window just over the kitchen sink that looked out into the backyard. Somehow, he was expecting to find the fresh green sod that Sam had lain a few short months ago, but instead he was met with a very, very fine skiff of snow that hadn’t been there when he’d come up his walk. More white was piling on, though. It would probably be a decent snowfall by morning.

“You’re right, you know. I tried to have it both ways,” he said. Anna came up behind him, startling him away from the tranquil image of the falling snow with a hand on his forearm.

“We shouldn’t have to choose, Castiel. But we do.” Castiel bit his lip, clutched hard at the cinnamon container in one closed fist. Anna observed him in the reflection of the window, moved her other hand to the tense, hard set of his shoulders. “God, Cas. You’re really worked up about this, huh?” He inhaled sharply, still uncomfortably close to somewhere he hadn’t been in a long time, throat all stopped up with almost-tears. “Oh my god. Are you going to cry?”

“Shut up, Anna,” he ground out.

“No, no, I’m not trying to be an asshole about it, but I don’t think I’ve ever…” she spun him gently using the hand on his forearm. He avoided looking into her eyes until he felt a bit more in control of himself, and it worked. When he looked into her eyes, he wasn’t crying. Maybe he was imagining it, but she looked a little bit relieved. “Christ. You really like him, don’t you?” He colored. “Oh my god. You really like him? Like, really-really—”

“Jesus.” It felt strange out loud. Strange and satisfying. “We’re not in high school anymore, Anna.”

“Joanna and I joked about it before, but I never thought… I mean, and Sam was saying that you two had been close and that you were fucking around with his head, but he didn’t really go into any detail. Oh my god. I thought you were just, like, avoiding your friend on the streets or something.”


“Did you sleep with him?” He colored a deeper red, just thinking about one short night ago, Dean on his knees in the hallway. It wasn’t a happy thought; it wasn’t a good place. It fit into his general trend of confusing, unhappy sex. The blush was mostly embarrassment that he had let things get as far as they had when Dean was so clearly not okay.

“You did!”

“Anna!” he growled, serious now. It echoed off the pots above the stove. “Enough.”

Her face lost a lot of its teenage girl glee, taking on a more serious cast. “So you’re gay?”

That seemed like a silly question given the circumstances, given how much he had to be thinking about. Was he gay? He’d never given it any thought. He’d certainly gotten off easily enough with Anna, but he’d generally liked sex with Balthazar as well. It had been important before, something he’d asked himself a lot when Balthazar was asleep beside him and he tried to imagine concocting some sort of coming out speech that wouldn’t make his mother want to disown him or, failing that level of enthusiasm, just never talk to him again. He could see why it might be significant to Anna, his first ever sexual partner, but in light of the fact that Dean had suffered a major neurological trauma earlier in the day, it seemed a little bit inconsequential.

He sighed. “I don’t know, Anna.”

“Right, right. I mean, if it was just Dean, I can see the appeal, he’s a cutie. Full disclosure, if it hadn’t been totally unethical, I might’ve done exactly what the administration accused me of doing.”

Castiel groaned. “Please don’t call it unethical. Please. I’m already having a crisis about this. They put him in the pediatric ward at the hospital.” He didn’t expect Anna to laugh at that. She nearly busted a gut.

“He’s been legal since before you met him, you giant prude.”

“I haven’t actually slept with him,” Castiel muttered. “And I’m not a prude. A lot of things have changed since St. Charles, you know.”

She gave him an appraising look. “I can see that.” She spun in a little circle, hands out wide in an all-encompassing gesture. “Even your mom’s house feels different.”

“It’s not my mother’s house anymore,” he said sharply. Anna raised an eyebrow. “Do you remember her study? Where we uh—the one time. In the leather desk chair.”

She sucked in a hard breath, let it out as a laugh. “Yeah?”

“I put my foot through the heirloom globe in there. I destroyed it.”

“What? When? Why?”

“Today.” He shrugged again. “It’s my house now.”

“…You’re really fucked up about this.”

He wanted to say, yes, well, have you ever seen someone have a seizure? Have you ever seen someone lose control over themselves like that? Do you even understand how important it is to have autonomy over your own body when literally everything else is outside of your control? Do you know how much we take it for granted?

Dean had another seizure at the hospital, and it hadn’t been quite the same nightmarish shaking, but it was almost worse, because there was something exhausted and resigned about it. He couldn’t get the mental picture out of his head. And to make matters worse, he kept coming back to little Sam, little Dean. Five and nine. The first time Sam witnessed a seizure. The first time Dean had one. Five and nine. Nine and five.

The tea kettle whistled, and Castiel nearly jumped out of his shoes. He fumbled with the potholder and the handle. Anna went directly to the cabinet where the cups were still kept and pulled four pristine white mugs from the top shelf. When his hands shook pouring the hot liquid, Anna settled her hands over his and held him steady.

“You’ve really grown up, Castiel.” He laughed unevenly.  “Even from a few months ago.  At St. Charles.”

“How can you say that? I’m shaking. I can’t pull it together. I don’t know what I’m doing.” As if to prove the point, the lid to his hot cocoa mix came off in a puff of chocolate brown powder, and Castiel sneezed.

“I know,” Anna said. “And just the fact that you said that. Even that.” He eyes glowed. “I’m so glad you put your foot through your mother’s globe.” Castiel began with generous scoops of cocoa powder, hearty spoonfuls of cinnamon. Outside the window, the grass was getting harder and harder to see through the white of the snow.

“I destroyed the crystal clock she got for her academic writing on the Gospel of Judas, too. And the trophy for the National Bible Bee.”

“She still had that?”

“I still have mine.”

“Of course you do, you giant dork.” Castiel put the cocoa on a tray and started back into the living room. Sam was asleep on the sofa beside Gabriel, and Gabriel was looking into the empty fireplace. Castiel couldn’t see his hands from the kitchen, but when he got closer to the back of the couch, he could see where Gabriel was patting absently at Sam’s knee.

“I can’t believe he took that money,” Gabriel said in a loud whisper, eyes blank.

Anna gave Castiel a knowing look. She said, “I can. If there was no other way he was going to be treated? I can.”

“Everything is fucked up now,” Gabriel said. Sam’s breathing hitched. They all held a collective breath, waiting for him to wake up, but he settled back into easy, even breathing.

“We’ll fight them,” Anna said. “Just like we always did before.”

Gabriel rubbed at the bridge of his nose with his free hand, squinting hard. “Sweetheart, there’s a big difference between starting a prank war and declaring open warfare on the assholes who hold all the power in the local government. I don’t think you realize just how powerful my brothers are. And just how determined they each are to beat the other one outta the running.”

“We’ll fight them,” she repeated firmly.

“Don’t you think sometimes it’s smarter to just—give up? Run away? When everything is stacked against you like this?” Gabriel asked lightly. Anna shook her head vehemently, but Castiel could see the value in something like that. It wasn’t romantic, but it was safe. Sam and Dean had been five and nine, and maybe they deserved something safe in their lives.

Gabriel drank three hot chocolates—his, Sam’s, Anna’s. Castiel and Anna split the fourth. Then Castiel sent them home. As they walked hand in hand out the door, he wondered if that was how he looked at Dean, with that same beautiful besotted expression that Anna wore when Gabriel let her lean all over him on their way through the flurries, down the walk, into the little yellow car.

He slept by Sam on the couch. Just in case Sam had a nightmare, of course.

Chapter Text

Castiel dreamed a winter-bright memory, Vaseline-covered, but clear and precise in its recollection.

“Do I have a father?” Castiel asked. It wasn’t accusing or angry or upset. It was just a practical question, a genuine scientific curiosity. As if he had asked why polar bears lived in the arctic or why giraffes had black tongues.

His mother answered with the same pragmatic sensibility. “Of course you do. Everyone has a father. You wouldn’t exist without a biological male parent, Castiel. You know that.” She didn’t really stop studying to answer, shuffling about with her papers, frowning a frustrated frown at her work that told him the other scholars weren’t playing nice with her today. That’s what she always said.

“Oh,” Castiel said simply. She was working in the kitchen today, which meant it was okay to talk to her. If she had been in her study or in the library or in her office at the university, he wouldn’t have been allowed. He still didn’t want to push his luck, though, so he waited for a moment before he asked his next question. “Can you tell me who he is?” She looked over the edge of a photocopied page at him, cat-eyed glasses shadowing her eyes. She always told him that he should address her with the same respect he gave teachers and pastors, so asking for family secrets was probably toeing a line he shouldn’t be toeing. He added a hasty, “Ma’am.”

She took off the glasses, and her eyes became clear and wide and blue. Castiel had blue eyes too, but hers weren’t the same as the ones he saw in the mirror every morning. Her eyes were the ocean. Castiel’s were the sky. Sometimes the women in church cooed at him, asked him where he’d gotten such a pretty shade. Castiel never had an answer.

“No. I can’t,” she said simply. He nodded. That was always the end with his mother, and he was prepared for that to be the final word in the conversation. He’d never asked about his father before, but that was the way his mother ended conversations about eating his vegetables, or staying up for another half hour to read, or not going to church on Sunday. No. The end. But the conversation continued. “Why do you ask now, Castiel?”

Castiel shrugged. “Some boys at school were talking.”

His mother gave him her full attention for the first time in the conversation, eyes bright and interest piqued, the face she sometimes made when she was reading one of her research papers. It also had a bit of the furrowed-brow-line-between-her-eyebrows serious expression, a look that Castiel had undoubtedly inherited from her. “What were they talking about, Castiel? What were they saying?”

“Samandriel said that his mom said that the church ladies said,” Castiel gasped in a couple big breathes, because that had been a lot to remember and repeat, “that my father was dead. They said he’d been dead since before I was born. And Samandriel asked if that made me sad. I didn’t know that my father was dead, so I said I didn’t know. Samandriel said that was weird, because his father was dead, and he definitely knew about it.”

His mother nodded like she was pleased. “But you didn’t tell him that your father wasn’t dead, did you?”

What a weird question. Castiel crinkled his nose. “’Course not. I dunno who he even is.”

His mother rapped her pen three times in quick succession on the edge of the kitchen table. “Is that how a young Christian gentleman should talk?” Castiel shook his head. His hair was perpetually messy no matter how much his mother tried to comb it into submission in the mornings, and it flopped haphazardly over his forehead.

“No ma’am.”

“I’m sure Samandriel wouldn’t talk to his mother that way.”

Castiel tried to imagine Samandriel getting the words out steadily. He couldn’t. “Samandriel talks funny anyway. He can’t even say his own name in class it’s so long.”

His mother asked, “How does he talk funny, Castiel?” in a vaguely affronted voice, like it might be catching.

“He sort of gets caught up in words and runs them out long. Like they get tangled up in his mouth. Like that time I got caught up in Ms. Robertson’s yarn and had to bounce on one foot. ‘Cept with his mouth.”

“Except,” his mother corrected automatically, enunciating carefully. “Do you mean he has a stutter?”

That sounded right. Like something Samandriel had told him the very first day he’d introduced himself as Alfie, because he didn’t get caught up on the letter “a.” Castiel nodded. His mother clucked her tongue and shook her head a little sadly.

“Poor boy,” she said. “No father and a speech impediment like that? You were very kind to be his friend, Castiel. You know you don’t have to if the other kids make fun of you for it.” Castiel didn’t say anything to that, because it didn’t make much sense either. He liked Samandriel. He was always nice, and Castiel liked his toys and his pet dog and he liked how his mother gave him snacks that his own mother never would.

“No. It’s alright.” His mother smiled.

“Well the next time Samandriel asks if your father died, you can just tell him he has. That’s what mother does when the ladies at church ask her.”

That was even more confusing. “I don’t understand. Is he dead?”

His mother pursed her lips tight. “You know I’ll never lie to you, don’t you Castiel?”

“Yes, mother.”

“But that doesn’t mean that I have to tell you everything.”


“So. You can just tell people what mother tells them. My…husband—your father—died a long time ago. And you don’t want to talk about the circumstances.”

He nodded.

“Good boy. Good boy. I think you’ve earned a little something special. Would you like to go see a film for playing along so well?”

Castiel remembered now the strangeness of the wording, but at the time he had been too excited by the prospect of a film. He remembered now what the film had been; he hadn’t before with Dean. Tarzan. His mother had thought Disney would be wholesome, but she was perhaps a bit scandalized by the strange messages of acceptance. It was probably why they hadn’t ever gone back. But Castiel remembered that he had spent the next year at least telling all the boys at school that his father had been eaten by Sabor.

Castiel woke to Sam shaking him at seven in the morning. He let out an airy whuff of surprise, cast about momentarily for the source of the shaking, and found anxious hazel eyes looking back at him from the gloom of his sitting room. He scrambled for a moment, a panicked oh-no-am-I-late-for-school thrum coursing through him. But no. He should call the school, ensure they had his substitute up to speed, but his head was fuzzy and Zachariah had all but thrown them out yesterday, and Castiel really couldn’t be bothered.

Sam bit his lip. “Listen, sorry to wake you, but will you please take me to the hospital now?”

Castiel smacked his lips, thumbed the sleep out of his eyes, and rechecked his watch. Yes. It was still seven am.

“Are you sure you want to go to the hospital, Sam? Yesterday you seemed quite opposed to the idea.”

“If we don’t go now,” he said, slinging his feet from their resting place on the couch cushions to the old carpet on the floor, “he’ll wake up alone.”

“I left your father there last night,” Castiel said, a little guilty. John Winchester had been right—Castiel was not Sam’s father, and last night hadn’t really been his choice to make.

“Well, yeah, but they would’ve kicked him out by now for sure.” He stood and stretched his spine with an audible pop. “Hospitals have restricted visiting hours,” he said conversationally, like he’d been in and out of hospitals for a good long while. “And he’s drunk, now. Or sleeping it off. There’s no way he went the whole night without finding a bar.” That was also conversational, commonplace. The things that were normal for the Winchester boys scared him sometimes.

“We did leave him stranded last night, though,” Castiel said earnestly.

“Eh, he probably called a cab.” Sam was more concerned with where he’d left his shoes than where he’d left his father.

Castiel put a stop to the rushing around once he was in full possession of his wit, though. He couldn’t stop thinking of what Dean would do in the same situation, and he bullied Sam into showering, eating breakfast, and bandaging his raw knuckles, which looked even more picked over than they had last night. Sam grumbled the whole time, about how he was just going to be changing into dirty clothes again, about how he wasn’t hungry anyway, about how it wasn’t as if they were going to get infected.

“You need to stop picking at your hands, regardless,” Castiel said as he gently soothed disinfectant over the skin there. Sam rolled his eyes. He got the feeling that Sam was really only being halfway civil because Castiel was his only ally here. He was moody, upset, and, honestly, a bit of a jerk. Castiel had never been on the receiving end of Sam’s brattiness before. It wasn’t really a pleasant place to be, and he felt a distant twinge of sympathy for Hael.

After a silent, treacherously slick drive to the hospital and a visit with a whole new set of problematic nurses that they hadn’t encountered the night before, they made it to Dean’s room. It seemed that they needn’t have worried about him waking up alone. It was a very busy place for nine o’clock in the morning, bustling with nurses, doctors, and two people who looked as if they didn’t belong there at all. The first was the man from last night—Masters, his eyes looking even more disturbingly yellow in the crisp white light that the snow had brought along with it, cascading in through the window in overbright streams.

The second was an alarmingly thin man with a sock on his hand. He was sitting at Dean’s bedside, leaning over the bedside railing in a way that was a bit too friendly for a sleepy and disgruntled-looking Dean, who perked visibly when Castiel and Sam came into the room. The recognition on his face hit Castiel like blissful wave of pure relief. He had known that his fears were unfounded, that Dean wouldn’t lose himself to this, but all night, he’d been so afraid that he would never have this again.

Dean shifted on the bed slowly, a discreet little wince passing over his face before he settled again. There was a notepad and a ballpoint pen on the rolling tray in front of him. Castiel was secretly a little relieved that John wasn’t anywhere to be seen. He wouldn’t have had an excuse to stay if John had been there. As far as John knew, Dean was just the boy who fixed his car and sometimes made him dinner.

Castiel had a hard time concentrating on anyone else with Dean awake halfway across the room, but Sam stopped just past the doorway, giving Dean only the barest of glances before he said, “Mr. Masters?”

“Samuel, m’boy,” the man in the suit said in recognition, tipping his head. Sam walked toward him.

“Cas, Mr. Masters is—,” Sam said.

“I know very well who he is. He was Luke Shurley’s representative last night,” Castiel cut in, forcing himself to pay attention to something that wasn’t the one-sided conversation apparently occurring between Dean and a sock puppet.

Sam looked genuinely baffled. “Oh.  You didn’t tell me it was Mr. Masters!  He’s Ruby’s uncle. He’s nice, Cas.”

“How did you even get in here again?” Castiel said immediately, mind going to the way that Missouri had so faithfully defended her charge the night before. He squinted. She wouldn’t have let him in if she thought he was going to do something unsavory, right? But it was a whole new set of nurses, and after what Gabriel had told him, he wasn’t sure he could have confidence in anyone here. “You’re not his family.”

Masters looked him up and down, face filled with a flippant humor and a half-cocked smirk. “Well. I could ask you the same question,” he said, shifting his weight confidently to lean forward.

Castiel sneered, puffing his chest out. Sam still looked nonplussed by the behavior, and he moved between the two of them to put his hands on Castiel’s chest. “Whoa, Cas, since when are you all meat-headed alpha male?” Castiel looked over his shoulder toward Dean’s bed. They had the attention of the people in that corner now—even, ridiculously enough, the sock puppet, whose little face was turned toward Castiel, Masters, and Sam on the thin man’s swiveled wrist. “I’ll bet Mr. Masters is here to help, aren’t you Mr. Masters?” Masters visibly perked up, showing his teeth.

“Right-you-are, Sammy m’boy. I came to speak with Dean about some things, but it doesn’t seem like your brother here is much of a talker.” He nodded toward Dean in the bed, drawing attention to his hard stare, his pursed lips, and the draw of his brow despite the line of angry stitches in his forehead. The thin man looked between Masters and Dean, and moving the puppet with his own bobbling head must’ve been instinctual, because he did it without pause, observing in tandem, real eyes and little buttons.

“He’s talking just fine if you’re listening well enough,” the thin man said with a bit of a warm southern drawl. He tipped his head toward Dean’s heart rate monitor, which was, in fact, going far too quickly, though Castiel only had the slow-slow calm of his heart in the projection booth to compare it to. Sam responded to the heartbeat as if it were words.

“Listen, Dean,” he said. “I’m so glad you’re awake and you’re okay, but there are some things happening that you don’t understand.” He was met with stony silence. Whether it was Dean’s steadfast promise, still inked in red on his wall at home, or something that most recent seizures had brought on him, Masters was right. Dean really wasn’t talking. “I’m going to take care of all this.” It wasn’t something he’d ever seen Sam do to Dean, though the condescension toward Dean in general was nothing new. But even worse than the holier-than-thou attitude itself was the fact that he hadn’t prompted Dean to speak at all since they’d arrived. Sam was in business mode. Sam was Taking Care of It.  And he didn’t seem to have the patience for his brother’s faltering speech.

It wasn’t until Masters suggested that they talk about it elsewhere that Dean started gearing up to object, shifting again with another little wince and opening-closing-opening his mouth. Sam suggested they get coffee, face composed, voice adult, sounding more like John Winchester than Castiel had ever heard him, even when he’d been actually trying to before. When Sam really, actually seemed to be leaving with him, Dean made a wordless noise of denial that had both Castiel and the thin man at his bedside at attention, and then, when Sam had paused and the room was quiet, Dean said, “Suh-Suh-Suh-Sammy.” It was a long and painful stutter, made even more painful by the empty silence of the room.

Castiel knew what Sam sounded like when he was on the verge of tears, and he was there now. He said, “I’ll be right back, Dean. Okay?” And then he hustled out the door, Masters walking just casually at his heels.  Castiel half expected Dean to be up and after him, ripping out his IV and screaming after him down the hallway.  But when he turned back to Dean’s bed, he looked exhausted and resigned.

“I get the feeling I’m missin’ a whole heckuva lot,” the thin man said, smiling warmly as he looked between them. “Where’s my manners?” He stood up, thrusting his right hand out over where Dean’s legs were resting on the bed. Unfortunately, it was also the hand still covered in the sock puppet, but Castiel took it anyway, his fingernails clacking briefly up against the little button eyes. “My name’s Garth.” He shook vigorously, but the shaking didn’t have a whole lot of strength behind it. It was more like an over-excited puppy with a rag. When Castiel was able to escape the shaking, Garth held up the sock puppet again and said, “And I’m Mr. Fizzles!” in a high-pitched falsetto. Dean looked plainly miserable, and when Castiel looked down at Dean’s notepad, presumably for writing his thoughts in the apparent absence of his spoken words, Castiel could see that the only thing written was fuck off. Castiel couldn’t help it. He smiled. He looked into Dean’s eyes, and he smiled. He wanted to touch Dean’s face. He wanted to pet his hair. You’re alive. This is you. You’re here. Dean didn’t smile back. “We’re the pediatric speech-language pathology consultants for this hospital. We got word that Dean here needed some special attention and we came right on down.”

Just as he had with Hael, he couldn’t help liking Garth just by virtue of the fact that he was being genuinely kind to a Winchester, even when it was clear Dean was having none of it. So Castiel said politely, “It’s very nice to meet you.”

He smiled. “I think we expected Dean to be a little bit younger when we came. But Dean’s been a little slow to open the ole claptrap, and sometimes Mr. Fizzles gets even the most Grumpy Gusses to speak up, huh?” The smile faded a little bit as he stripped the well-worn sock from his hand. “That’s alright, Dean. Sometimes we just don’t feel like talkin’. But you gotta know that I can’t do anything for you if I don’t know how bad things have gotten, huh?” He put a light hand on Dean’s thigh, and Dean shuffled away.

“Is—is it worse, Dean?” Castiel asked. Dean shrugged. “Are you alright?” Dean shrugged again and toyed with the crisp edge of the little notepad.

“You don’t even want to talk to your buddy, uh—sorry, friend, I didn’t catch your name?”

“Cas,” Castiel responded quickly, automatically. Garth grinned.

“Cas! What if you talked to Cas instead, and I just sat and watched, huh?” Dean tapped his forefinger impatiently on the fuck off already written in his notepad. Garth just laughed. His ears wiggled a little bit when he did.

“Okay, Dean. Okay. I’m going to come back to see you later today, though, alright?” The tapping resumed, faster. Garth laughed like it was funniest joke he’d ever heard and shook his head with good humor. “I’ll see you soon, man.” He slouched out the door. The last thing Castiel saw was the limp sock sticking half out of his pocket.

Almost the moment the door clicked shut, he gave in to the temptation to touch Dean, his hand going immediately to the soft fringe of hair over his forehead, just over the new seam in his skin. It didn’t occur to him that Dean would shy away, but he did, ducking the touch, going for the notepad on the table. Castiel drew back, wringing his hands, afraid Dean was going to tap on his pre-written message, just like he had for Garth. But instead, Dean flipped the page on his little notepad and wrote shortly, dad? suit guy said looking for dad. Castiel settled for craning in close to Dean to see what he’d written, trying to get close enough to feel his heat. When he saw it, it was Castiel’s turn to shrug.

“He was with you when I left last night.”

gone home?

“I’m uncertain.  Sam said that he probably took a cab?”

not w/ Sammy?

“No. Sam was very high strung last night. He stayed with me.” Castiel very pointedly did not mention that he had not visited Dean. Dean didn’t seem to remember, and he didn’t really need to.

Dean nodded.

bar, he wrote in sad, wilting letters. 

“Possibly,” he said tentatively, unsure of how much that answer would hurt him. Castiel was reminded of Dean, insensate on a stretcher and reaching for his dad.

whose suit guy?

Castiel puzzled at the words for a moment before he figured out what Dean was trying to say. His hands itched to take the pen and fix Dean’s grammar, because there was apparently more English teacher in him than he ever would’ve imagined. Once he figured it out, he lied through his teeth. He wasn’t entirely comfortable describing who exactly suit man was, because there was a whole political debacle behind it that Dean didn’t really need to know while he was sitting in a hospital bed. Honestly, the look in Dean’s eye told him that all Dean needed to hear was your father fixed it. It’s being taken care of. You don’t have to worry about it. Please don’t be concerned.

“I not sure, but Sam knows him. He’ll be fine.”

When Dean went to write another note, Castiel couldn’t help rolling his eyes, huffing a breath out his nose. He clenched his jaw as he plucked the pen from between Dean’s fingers. 

“Dean, this is silly. Just speak with me. No one else is here. You know I won’t judge you. I’m concerned by this quiet. Is this about—about the other night? Or has it gotten worse?”

Dean glared up at him, silent. His eyes were as green as they ever were. It was comforting.  When Castiel reached for his face this time, inexorably drawn despite whatever new distance had lodged its way between them, Dean didn’t draw away. He let Cas trace his thumb over the raised skin and the line of stitches, even though it had to be paining him, even though he couldn’t be anything but sore. He shook his head into Cas’s hand, then reached up a shaking hand to tangle in Cas’s sleeve.

“Wuh-uh.  Uh, uh.  Um, um, um.”  Tic, tic, tic. A moment empty of sound. Dean’s head jerked back with every unformed syllable, eyelids fluttering rapidly and spiny stitches pressing into the meat of his palm. “Wuh-uh-uh-uh-orse.”

“Oh Dean,” he said, untangling Dean’s hand from his sleeve and gently replacing the pen, both of their fingers curling around it for a moment. When he had the pen in his own hand again, he wrote, not like u wanna hear me talk anymore.

Castiel furrowed his brow.  “What? What on earth are you talking about?”  Dean tapped the pen a few times on the paper, leaving smudged little dabs of ink.

ashamed, he wrote shortly.

“You’re ashamed?”

He shook his head and added a little, of me, to the end of his last note.


get it

“Dean, of course we’re not ashamed of you. How could you think that? Sam and I suggested speech therapy out of a growing concern for your physical and emotional wellbeing—”

hail, Dean wrote. Castiel automatically looked up and out the window. It was sunny and snowy-bright.


hail hail hail, he wrote in increasingly messy lettering.  wouldnt u rather be w/ hail

Realization struck him. “Hael?” Dean rolled his eyes and tapped the paper. “Oh. It’s spelled H-A-E-L, Dean.” Dean gave him the most withering and dismissive glare Castiel had ever been privy to. “I know we never talked about it because neither of us wanted to talk about it and you are insufferably silent about all this—”

Dean gave him a look of blatant disbelief, eyes wide enough that the green seemed exceedingly light in the white of winter. He had a nasal cannula under his nose, Castiel could see where it was rubbing raw at his cheeks when he raised his brow.

“I don’t mean that to be offensive. You know I don’t. I’ve been quiet as well.” He reached forward to rub at the raw patches with his thumbs. “I haven’t spoken up either, and I have absolutely no excuse. Hael is my friend, Dean. Just my friend. I’ve acted poorly toward you. You’ve put up with more than you ever deserved. I’m not ashamed.”

Not anymore, at least.

u and Sammy, he wrote, turning his face down. did u and him send the moron w/ the sock hand in here?

“Of course not. It’s exactly as he said himself. The hospital sent him. Presumably because you’re unable or unwilling to talk to anyone and they believe a speech pathologist could only benefit your condition,” he said severely. Dean scowled. “Are they wrong?” Dean scowled harder, using the end of the pen to itch at the intravenous line feeding into his left hand. Castiel grabbed at his wrist.  “Stop that. Are they wrong?”

cant afford speech therapy, he scrawled with Castiel’s hand still looped loosely around his wrist.

Castiel blanched. “That’s not a concern.”

cant afford to stay here

“Do you even understand what happened to you? From what I understand, you’ve had a very serious seizure, Dean.”

Dean underlined his last line in violent sweeps of his pen that made thick, dark lines underneath cant afford in particular.

“Your father has taken care of it.” Dean’s head jerked on his neck so fast that Castiel had to draw back from where he’d been leaning in close to read the notes over Dean’s shoulder.

“Duh-dah-duh-duh-duh—” he grated out, shaking hard.

“Yes,” Castiel said.


“He was here, Dean. He stayed with you until he was forced to leave last night. He rode with you in the ambulance.”

Dean retreated to the safety of the paper. ambulnce?! he wrote first. And then, more tentatively, took care of it? There was something frighteningly tender about the way he held the pen then, to the point where it felt like writing the words might be gouging at an open wound. Castiel squirmed in discomfort, not really prepared to confront this, when a slight nurse in dark purple scrubs entered the room.

“How’s my favorite little mute today?” she said silkily, and if it hadn’t been for the employee badge on her chest, Castiel might’ve thought she’d found her way here from the mental ward. What right did she have—? “Oh, and you’ve got your boyfriend here.”

It was clearly meant to be a joke. It sounded as if it was meant to be a joke. Maybe they were both feeling a little delicate, though, because they both turned beet red like schoolboys caught macking in the janitor’s closet. Dean’s tells might’ve been even worse than Castiel’s, if only for the fact that his pale, bloodless complexion made the brush of pink on his cheeks stand out ten times more than it would’ve otherwise. Between the blush, their familiar body language, Castiel’s miraculously fusing spine, and the way Dean crumpled the pages of the notebook he’d been writing on when the nurse drew close, they probably couldn’t have projected we make out with each other in a projection booth! any more strongly.

The nurse noticed. Her lips curled up into a smug, secret smile, and she said, toward Dean, “Well. What’s your angelface’s name, Boo Radley?” Castiel drew himself up, spitting fury as the nurse picked up Dean’s chart and began noting his vitals. He grabbed Dean’s shoulder protectively, and Dean had the presence of mind to look over his shoulder, and his eyes read, very simply, what the fuck, man?  The nurse’s eyes flicked to Castiel inbetween the readings she was taking, and a smirk curled at the corner of her mouth. “Easy there, Atticus. Won’t leave any gifts in your Boo’s knothole if he doesn’t want ‘em. Though he is overdue for a little bit of this.”

She filled a syringe at a station in the corner and moved toward his IV, clearly en route to inject more medications. Dean made a frantic grab for his notepad, smoothed open a new page, and scrawled something. He ripped it from the notepad and held it out frantically to the nurse. Castiel couldn’t read what he’d written until the nurse cracked a smile and held it, words out, for Castiel to see.

It simply read, AMA in big, frantic letters that seemed all set to run each other off the page.

“I think your boyfriend wants to check himself out, Atticus. I don’t think he gets that this trip is all-expenses-paid.”

Dean looked over his shoulders at Castiel, puzzled. Castiel shrugged. “It’s nothing I haven’t told you myself, Dean. Your father took care of it.”

Dean didn’t seem to know what it meant to say that his father had taken care of it. It was the same reaction that Sam had when Castiel had told him initially that someone had offered to pay their medical bills. He didn’t look incredulous, like Castiel had spoken untruthfully. He just looked blank, as if the words just didn’t register. As if he’d never spoken any sentence at all. He took that paper back and studiously outlined the big AMA, making it bolder.

The nurse quirked an eyebrow, hip jutted out to the side and syringe held aloft. “Yeah, listen up, Boo.” Her voice went high and condescending, and she waggled the syringe a little bit in the air between them. “I’m going to go ahead and give you a dose of anticonvulsant before you have another one of your pretty little fits, and then you can talk to the doctor about tossing yourself out on your ass, how’s that sound?” She looked up at Castiel. “As long as it’s alright with the overbearing husband, of course.” Both Dean and Castiel said nothing, but both were seething by the time she injected the syringe. She just said, “Good choice, boys.”

She was jotting a few more things down on Dean’s chart when Sam re-entered, dragging his feet and looking down at the ground. Dean’s nostrils flared, and he cleared his throat until Sam tossed his head up sharply to look him in the eye. Dean still wasn’t talking, but he and Sam seemed to exchange a very meaningful conversation with just their eyebrows until the nurse interrupted with, “Oh goody, and now Scout’s here, too. Who wants to be the Christmas ham?” She clearly thought she was hilarious. Everyone in the room just looked at her blankly. “Gee, whiz. You’d think someone was in the hospital or something. Tell you what, I’m gonna track down your doctor so he can tell you what’s goin’ on in that damaged noggin of yours before you go gallivanting out of here, mmkay?” She patted the shoulder that Castiel wasn’t full out, white-knuckle clutching and then walked out the door. Dean shook his shoulder, and Castiel let go.

“What was that all about, Sam?” Castiel asked immediately, channeling exactly what he knew Dean was thinking. Dean didn’t even have to look at him, didn’t have to start any words. Cas was getting better.

Sam said, “Nothing,” and kicked at the ground. His eyes popped up to Castiel once, twice, again and again. There was guilt there, deep behind Sam’s eyes, and he hid it very poorly. Castiel didn’t really know what that could mean.

Dean turned to a new page and wrote WHO? so violently he tore into the next one. Sam huffed and crossed his arms, turning away. Turning away from Dean when he was this silent was a fairly powerful gesture, because if Sam wasn’t paying attention to his body language, he just wasn’t paying attention to him. Dean was clearly hurt by it, huffing out a breath and slamming his open palm on the shaky tray table.

“Sam. Perhaps there isn’t be any harm in telling your brother the means through which your father attained the money for Dean’s medical bills.”

Dean wrote YEAH, ripped it from the notebook, and crinkled the paper obnoxiously until Sam turned away from the opposite wall to glare at him. He completely ignored the contents in favor of the note itself. “Geez, Dean, you know I don’t respond to all that note bull. I know you can talk.”

Castiel had never really seen the brothers fight before, but this was clearly a well-worn argument. Dean kept writing notes and Sam kept ignoring them, until eventually Dean was crumpling up every note he wrote to pelt Sam in the side of the head. Sam had his arms stubbornly crossed, looking out the window now and pointedly ignoring him. Castiel watched as Dean wrote each note. It started with questions, and eventually it just devolved into him scrawling the word BITCH, tearing out the page, and throwing it as hard as he could from the hospital bed.

It wasn’t very hard. He looked more and more exhausted by every throw.

Dean had run out of pages and Sam had amassed a small mountain of notebook paper at his feet when John staggered in looking haggard and unshaven, though not necessarily hungover. He smelled like death warmed over, but if he were truly hungover, the light from the window probably would have grated.

The look on his face when he saw Dean was unexpected. Nothing short of enlightened. Angelic. Like nothing Castiel had ever seen before.

“Dean,” he said on a breath. Castiel shrank back into the corner, aware that Dean only had eyes for his father. “How you feeling, Ace?”

Dean didn’t answer, couldn’t answer, but he looked at his dad like he had hung the stars.

“Where have you been?” Sam cut in.

John shut his eyes and breathed in hard through his nose before turning toward his youngest. “Could ask you the same question, Sam.”

“Ah, I can answer that question,” Castiel intervened. John jumped like he hadn’t noticed Castiel in the room before.

Christ,” he barked, “The English teacher is still here.”

“I should have brought Sam back last night. I apologize.”

“You’re damn right you should’ve.”

“Don’t take it out on Cas, Dad, it’s not his fault.”

“I do apologize. It was out of line.”

“You’re damn right it was.”


“Sam, I really don’t have it in me to get into this with you today.”

“But you have the energy to get into it with Cas?”

“I’m not trying to get into anything with anyone. I told him to bring you here! He kept you. Didn’t tell me shit about where you were gonna be. Basically kidnapped my boy.”

Kidnapped? I’m fourteen years old! You’re gone about three quarters of the time and you’re drunk the other quarter. You never know what I’m doing then, what makes this any different?!”

“I dunno if you noticed with your head up your ass, Sam, but your brother had a several grand mal seizures yesterday in your school parking lot after your goddamn fool fight and—”

Dean was silent for the whole exchange, and Castiel didn’t manage to look at where Dean stood in this whole argument until a tiny little gurgling whimper came from the bed. When Castiel looked over, Dean’s muscles were tight and rigid, and by the time John and Sam had noticed him looking, Dean was properly seizing. They weren’t the big, terrifying convulsions of the seizure in the parking lot. More like the strange little tics of the night before, when the nice night nurse had patted him comfortingly on the chest. Some alarms were already going haywire, though, and purple scrubs nurse and a tall, thin doctor shoved their way through the little crowd of people watching Dean seize. Again.

First thing, the nurse rolled him gently onto his side as John had the day before, and the gurgling stopped as he drooled down the side of his face, emptying his mouth. Unfortunately for his own sanity, she turned him toward where Castiel was standing on the side of the bed, and from this angle, Castiel could see where just the whites of his eyes were visible, the pretty green disappearing up, up, up into his skull.

Sam turned away. John put his hands over his face. Castiel wondered, mind blank, how many times he could be expected to endure this before he absolutely lost his mind.

“I’m sorry,” said the nurse, one hand on her hip as the other patted absently at Dean’s back. The doctor had done something fussy with Dean’s IV, and it was only a few more minutes before the twitching slowed down and stopped altogether. “Did we just step headfirst into a crazy topsy turvy town where I it’s a-ok to dangerously elevate an epilepsy patient’s blood pressure? Because I sure don’t remember it.” She pointed toward his monitors. “None of you recognized the signs? Seriously? That shit was beeping all over the place.”

Castiel shrunk into himself, curling into his trench coat. Dean made a few more mumbled sounds before he closed his eyes and seemed to fall asleep. Castiel’s mind went hazy with guilt. He was thinking it, and he knew the others were thinking it, but it was impossible to deny, watching Dean start to seize the moment they started shouting.

Things went a little hazy. The doctor kicked him out of the room at John’s insistence, and Sam didn’t even manage to look at him as he walked out the door. Castiel debated with himself about going home and going to bed and hiding under the covers until the perfect storm of problems confronting him from every direction just stopped.

Instead, he took a seat in little nook in the pediatric ward and he waited, because leaving felt like abandonment, and that wasn’t something he was doing anymore. He’d broken those habits with his mother’s crystal clock.

He watched a little boy toddle by hand in hand with a nurse, and he wondered if Dean knew that he was in the pediatric ward. He smiled, thinking about it his reaction. What was it he would always say to Sam? Not a buh-uh-baby. He thought back to him lying in that bed, listening to a sock puppet, rainbows on the wall, teddy bears on his sheets, multicolored dabs like confetti on his hospital gown. He leaned over his lap and laughed, just softly, to himself.

“Pretty sure laughing at yourself like that is a sign of insanity, Atticus.” He looked up. The nurse in the purple scrubs was there, holding a steaming paper cup out to him. He took it gratefully. “And you can trust me. I’m a nurse.” She tilted her head. She had big, loose curls of silky brown hair on either side of her face. “My name is Meg.”

“Oh.” Castiel dragged the hand that wasn’t full of coffee over his face. “Why aren’t you in there helping? I thought Dean needed you.”

“Look, a little seizure isn’t that big of a deal. Not in an epileptic patient. Seizures happen. I mean, obviously they’re not much fun, and we kinda freak out when they come all lined up in a big, pretty, non-stop row like your boyfriend’s did yesterday, but what you saw in there was cake.” Castiel flinched. This was just like the nurses yesterday informing him that Dean’s continued presence in the ER wasn’t necessary because he wasn’t critical. How could putting someone through something like that, an episode in which they completely lost themselves, ever be considered easy? “Hey, you with me? This is the part where you say, ‘my name is So and So and I’m bangin’ Pretty Boy in there. Thanks for making sure he didn’t aspirate on his own saliva.’” Castiel did his best to look thoroughly unimpressed. “Listen, I’m about to do you a huge favor. The least you could do is throw me a bone, here.”

“Favor?” Castiel asked.

“Yeah, see, I don’t know how you two saps managed to hide your goo goo eyes from anyone in a ten mile radius, but I’d hazard a guess that daddy in there doesn’t know about the upcoming nuptials.” She quirked an eyebrow in question. No? Castiel shook his head. “Right. But you should know that they’re gonna release him soon, because the reason for the status seizure was pretty goddamn straightforward and easily treatable if you’re not a complete asshat. I’d also hazard a guess that you’re around him as much as anyone, and you need to be able to see the same signs if this ever starts again. The idiot brought this upon himself.”

Castiel flushed red. “How dare—”

She put up a hand to stop oncoming the tirade. “Literally. He literally could not have brought this down harder. He stopped taking his medications. Maybe it was gradual, I don’t know. Maybe he thought he could wean himself away from having post-traumatic epilepsy or something.” She shrugged spastically. “All I know is, there’s no trace of it in his system.”

Castiel blinked. “He would’ve been exhibiting symptoms before?” 

“If he stopped taking it gradually, probably. And he probably did. He was on a bunch of meds, and some of them were bound to have run out first.  The symptoms would’ve developed over time. The stutter would’ve gotten worse. The tremors. He would’ve been tired and cranky and just not feeling very good. Oh, and then he would’ve had an assload of seizures all in a row. And hey, you all caught that part at least. One out of six ain’t bad.”

“This could’ve been prevented.”

Dean’s door down the hallway slammed open, and Sam rushed by Cas and Meg, a hand to his mouth like maybe he thought he was going to vomit. He had undoubtedly just received the same news Castiel had.

Meg’s eyes tracked his progress down the hallway until he disappeared behind the swinging double-doored entryway. “You guys had to know something was going awry. This seriously wouldn’t have just popped up overnight.”


“Yeah, well, next time you ‘suspect’ shit, you cart his ass to the hospital.”

“I can’t be blamed for this,” Castiel fumed, feeling immeasurably guilty, dread pooling in his chest and solidifying like a hard, lead weight. He said can’t but he meant should. “I didn’t know he was taking medication, didn’t know he even had epilepsy until last night.”

John left the room next, far slower than Sam. Castiel went to hide his face, not wanting him to know he was still skulking about his son’s hospital room even now, but his eyes were glazed, his face stark and resolute as he plodded slowly after his second son.

“You really weren’t paying very close attention to the love of your life, huh?” she said, completely perky.

This was the way all three of them reacted to learning that they had, ultimately, twofold, threefold, been the cause of Dean’s heartbreaking meltdown.

“No,” he said. “I was paying attention. I just never—did anything. About it.”

The problem was the same problem he’d had since he moved here, since before. It was all Castiel’s overwhelming passivity, his abject willingness to eat whatever anyone was feeding him just so he didn’t have to disrupt the comfortable status quo.

“Well,” said Meg, “now you know the consequences of that shit, right?”

Castiel clenched his fist, filled with steely resolve.

“Right,” he said.

Chapter Text

Dean spent a couple more nights in the hospital while they messed with his meds and got his head sorted out. And after John and Sam left in the afternoons, Castiel stayed and watched Dean sleep. He would’ve stayed right up until visiting hours were over, but at a quarter to five, his phone rang loud and obnoxious in his pocket, and Castiel had to excuse himself from the ward when he received a stink-eye from every nurse in earshot. The caller ID said that it was the school’s number, and he figured it was probably important enough to excuse himself over. He let it ring itself out, kissed Dean on the forehead, and then tromped out to the setting sun and the smell of fresh air to make a call. He sat on a smoker’s bench just outside the door, eyeing the discarded cigarette butts and chewing his lip while he dialed his phone.

The number turned out to be Zachariah’s personal extension, and when he called it back, his secretary patched him right through like she was expecting him.

“Novak,” Zachariah grunted down the line.

Castiel flinched automatically just to hear him speak, and there was an underlying growl in his throat when he answered, “Principal Adler.”

Both of them spent the short phone call discreetly attempting to intimidate one another. Zachariah made barbed little jabs at him, at the quality of his students in his absence, at his classroom, at the fact that he hadn’t been to church in a few weeks, at the way he dressed, even, as if they were catty teenaged girls.

Castiel just waited him out silently, and when his tirade seemed to be over, he said, “Are you done, sir?”

He could almost hear Zachariah fuming on the other end of the line. “Listen, Novak. We need you back until the end of the semester, at least. Our budget can’t handle another long-term sub right now.”

“Always good to know I’m valued, sir.” There was just another two weeks until Christmas break, and they would have been suspending Castiel’s pay in the meantime. It didn’t make sense to say they couldn’t afford a substitute. That wasn’t how the school system worked. He suspected there was something else at play here, but that wasn’t surprising. He was beginning to understand that there were about a hundred thousand things he couldn’t hope to understand happening in this ridiculous town. “But what if I said I didn’t want to come back?”

There was a moment of silence while Zachariah seemed to consider, and Castiel could hear the vague sounds of fidgeting on the other end of the line. Clattering pens. Tapped nails that came through as staticky feedback.

“Then I’d be forced to offer you some kind of compensation,” he mumbled.

Castiel blinked. That wasn’t what he’d been expecting. “Excuse me?” he said.

“What, you fishing for a bonus now?” Zachariah snarked. “You’ve got it. Come back for at least the next two weeks, we’ll give you a bonus. More vacation days, some chunk of change, another planning hour next semester. Hell, the keys to the administrator bathroom. Whatever you want. But we need you back in the classroom by Monday.”

“Yesterday you were ready to call the police on me,” said Castiel. “Today you’re offering a bonus to have me back?”

Zachariah paused again, thinking so hard the gears in his head were practically audible through the phone line. “I don’t want you back,” he hissed. “Shurley does.”

Castiel felt his grip go slack on the cell phone in his hand, feeling suddenly like the world was too big, like it had expanded past the reaches of his understanding, like there were things going on that really weren’t within his power to change and no amount of his newfound awareness could change that.

“Oh,” he said on a breath. “Alright.”

“So. You’ll come?”

Castiel nodded at the phone before he’d even realized what he was doing. When it hit him, he cleared his throat and said, “You have to let Sam back into school.”

It was obvious that the growl was Adler’s first instinct, a harsh, “No,” that clawed out of the back of his throat like a car down a gravel road and buzzed with static over the phone line. He got control of himself. “No. Actually—actually anything but that. Shurley only wants you. There’s no way he’d okay that.”

It had been worth a shot.

“Then I suppose a bonus will do,” Castiel said flippantly, the prospect of maybe being able to offer Dean a some substantial amount of financial help more tantalizing than he would like to let on.

Zachariah sighed like it pained him, but then gritted out, “Agreed,” regardless. “We’ll negotiate the terms in my office on Monday.”

Castiel didn’t really stick around to make pleasantries, because just then he saw a familiar walking beanpole bouncing jauntily out the door, whistling something tuneless. He ended the call, sprang to his feet, and rushed after the speech therapist, slipping a little on the ice and accidentally activating the big, automatic emergency room door.

“Uh,” Castiel mumbled, grasping onto the speech therapist’s sleeve to get his attention once he’d gotten close enough. He turned on him with a dopey smile that made his ears wiggle.

“Well howdy, friend. I recognize you. You’re friends with Dean Winchester, aren’t you?” Castiel nodded.

“Garth, right?” Castiel said, awkwardly dropping the sleeve that he didn’t realize he was still holding onto. He cleared his throat and stumbled backward, trying to regain some sense of authority and shrug off just how unsettled he was over the fact that he’d just been given his job back. “Your name is Garth?”

“That’s right. At your service.” He gave a gangly, long-limbed salute and winked a knowing wink that wasn’t really a wink at all because he closed both his eyes in the process. The intent was there.

“Listen—I. You’re a speech therapist, and you seem very capable.” He did. He seemed a bit like a raving lunatic, but professionally, at least, he seemed to know what he was talking about.

“Shucks,” Garth said.

“Well,” Cas continued haltingly, “Well I was just. You see. Dean’s. Dean.”

“Deep breaths,” Garth said, flattening his palm against his diaphragm and breathing in enough that the intrinsic hunch in his shoulders disappeared, his back straightened, and his already nonexistent belly curved inward. He waved his other arm at Cas in a tight little rolling motion, urging him to do the same.

Cas did. He put both his hands against his stomach and breathed in hard from deep in his belly. He sucked in a quiet breath through his nose and breathed out easy through his mouth and it did a great deal to steady him, honestly—more than he would have thought. He felt firmer on his feet in the aftermath, and Garth could obviously tell. He smiled his ear-wiggling smile.

“Okay. Now. Go on.”

Cas nodded. “Alright. Apologies, I’m usually more composed.” Garth smiled wider, the very picture of the active listener. Castiel half-wondered if he was about to fish his ridiculous sock puppet out of his pocket coax the words out. He restrained a shudder at the thought and plowed on instead. “Dean is very special to me.”

“I got that vibe.” Garth tapped the end of his nose like he had sniffed it out. “I’m real good at readin’ folks.”

Cas reddened. Wondered again if every member of the hospital staff could tell just how much he cared about Dean.

“And, well. He didn’t speak to you, but he has a very pronounced disfluency in his speech. A—stutter. Presumably from neurological origins. I’m not sure if you’ve read his case history. But—he does. Need help, that is. He does.”

Garth’s expression went sad. As sad as Garth’s expressions seemed to get, anyway, which meant his eyebrows caved a little and his eyes got darker, but he kept smiling.

“I got that vibe, too,” he said. “Not much of a talker, is he?”

It was the same thing Masters had said just a few short hours ago, but it felt different coming out of Garth’s mouth. Not like an insult. Garth seemed to know that talking wasn’t everything. Garth knew that not being a talker didn’t mean being less of a human being.

“No,” Castiel said. “His brother and I have been trying to help him, to get him help, but he’s exceptionally resistant and very stubborn. And I suppose I wanted to know if you had any advice for me. To help him. In the meantime.”

The sadness was gone in an instant, and he reached out to nudge Castiel in the shoulder with a curled up fist. Cas looked down at his shoulder, baffled, half expecting to find some kind of a stain there, before he looked back up again.

“Well I’d say the first step is having someone like you in his life,” he said, which actually did great deal to warm Cas up from the inside out, steadying him in a way that even the deep breath hadn’t managed to. He looked out from the cover of the medical bay, into the icy parking lot, if only to avoid looking at Garth while the blush he could feel was still creeping across his face.

It was snowing again, or maybe still. It had been spitting snow all morning, and he could tell which vehicles had been at the hospital the longest based solely on the depth of the snow cover on their hoods. He hoped those people were alright. Hoped their families were alright. Surprised himself in hoping so. But just looking at the inches of untouched snow reminded him of Dean and the helpless feeling of sitting at someone’s bedside for too long, hoping that they would come out themselves on the other side of their sickness. He wouldn’t wish that on anyone, really.

The personal quality of it made everything seem quiet, despite the hustle of the people in and out of the bay, the pronounced slide of the big doors opening and closing, the rushing warmth seeping out from inside the hospital lobby. Across the parking lot, there was a man helping a woman balanced precariously on crutches to maneuver her careful way across the ice.

“I haven’t been enough so far,” he said, air fogging around his face. “I have to do better.”

“Well. I reckon you’re taking some good first steps.”

Castiel looked back to Garth, but he was looking away now, eyes focused on the same couple Castiel had been fixated on moments ago.

“I was a preemie. Born real early. It meant I had bad hearing when I was young, so I didn’t learn how to talk so well ‘til I got some hearing aids and could actually hear the words comin’ out of my mouth. And by then the damage was done, y’know, developmentally speaking, so I caught a lot of flak, just ‘cause of the way I talked. But I couldn’t do anything about it. I was just a kid. I couldn’t magically fix the way I talked. It just happened to me.” The couple from across the lot reached the sheltered overhang at last and, shaking the snow from their shoulders, made their slow way in through the sliding doors. Garth went silent, but he nodded at them, low and utterly genial, when they looked his way. The woman nodded back. The man looked tired. When they had disappeared inside, Garth continued. “I think it’s real important for people with disfluencies to feel like they got some sense of control over their own situations, y’know? Because here’s this big part of themselves that they can’t do a thing about, and they hafta see the rest of the world going on without ‘em. Like they’re outside looking in.” He shrugs, big and exaggerated. “Least, that’s how I felt. So I guess until he decides it’s time to get help—and it’s gotta be his decision, that’s important.” He waggled an emphatic finger. “Until then, you just gotta give him some, ah,” he paused, put a finger to his jawline, clearly trying to recall something. He snapped his fingers. “Personal autonomy.”

And. Well. That—made a lot of sense for Dean, who did his very best to be entirely self-sufficient, the very picture of independence. Right up until his mouth and his body and his brain betrayed him.

In his off time in the past few days, whenever he had a second to try and shift his brain back into neutral, Castiel had been thinking of that moment in his front hallway, had been thinking on Dean crouched on his knees in front of him. Had been trying to fathom how on earth he had let something so wrong go so far. In hindsight, now, it wasn’t difficult to see that the red writing on his wall hadn’t been Dean’s ultimate gesture of surrender. The moment where he’d stopped fighting had been before that, when he had urged Castiel to use and abuse and take like it was all he was good for in the world. He could recall the floppy, ragdoll quality in the way he took Castiel in his mouth and in the way he’d tried to get Castiel to make him a passive bystander in a sexual assault at Castiel’s hands that he himself had orchestrated.

And more than anything, Castiel remembered that he’d almost done it, too. Even still, he remembered the exquisite feeling of take take take. Dean wasn’t exactly ideally positioned to be the hero of his own story. It was so effortless to take power from someone who couldn’t speak for himself.

“That won’t be easy,” Castiel said, all quiet guilt and heartache. “Not in this town.”

Garth shrugged. “Guess none of the best stuff is.”

Castiel couldn’t really argue with that.

Sam and John were nowhere to be found on the day of Dean’s release, and Castiel very strategically decided that he would not tell Dean that.

John hadn’t said anything to Castiel—indeed, he probably still didn’t know his name, he was probably just referring to Castiel as “the English teacher” as he unloaded his woes on some unsuspecting barkeep or whatever it was unsavory drunks did in their spare time. When they should be picking their children up from the hospital.

Sam had called on Dean’s cell phone to remind Castiel that he was the only one with transportation, but Sam himself was too busy to go with him for the journey. What sort of business made a fourteen-year-old too busy wasn’t really something he could conceive of, so he just puffed his trench coat out big and tried to look like enough when he walked in on Dean being lectured by the purple-scrubbed nurse on the importance of taking his meds and taking them correctly. Dean sat fully dressed on the edge of his bed, letting his legs swing agitatedly and looking plainly miserable.

“Would you look at that,” Meg said when Cas swept in the door. She got right up under Dean’s hanging face and he did his best to recoil from her reach, hands white-knuckling the edge of the bed to keep him from tipping backward. “Your ride is here! Now if only I could get verbal confirmation that you plan to take your meds when you get out of here, maybe we could get this show on the road.”

She dropped her hands to the handlebars of the wheelchair in front of her and her lips curled up, catlike. Castiel scowled.

“This hardly seems necessary.”

“Hospital policy, Atticus,” she purred, gleeful and silky.

“I’m almost certain that it’s not.”

“Well I’m not sure you’re in the best position to be questioning, hmmm?” she quirked an eyebrow.

“Please. He’s tired, and he wants to go home.”

Dean was wearing the clothing he’d come into the hospital with because clearly no one had thought to bring him another set. They’d been washed, presumably, because he couldn’t imagine that anyone could, in good conscience, allow him to wear a urine-soaked pair of pants again. However, he’d bled a substantial amount from his head, an amount that was still plainly noticeable in the smudges of dark brown that hadn’t washed out of his worn Henley. He also didn’t have a coat, which Castiel hadn’t really noticed before, but now that Cas could see the snowy landscape out the window behind his head, it made it quite clear that he wasn’t adequately dressed. Cas had an old red scarf of his mother’s wrapped around his neck and his old floppy trench coat draping off his shoulders. He fingered at the fringe at the end of the scarf and wondered if Dean would take them without a fight. Probably not.

“Yeah, well, me too. But I’m only three hours into a twelve-hour shift and I gotta get my kicks from somewhere.” She shrugged. Dean glared fiery death at her.

Meg was humiliating him, plain and simple, which was strange to Castiel, because the other day, she had seemed relatively benevolent compared to some of the other personalities at the hospital. Whether or not Dean gave her the satisfaction of a verbal confirmation he was almost sure to stumble over, Dean was going to have to sit down in a wheelchair to leave this place. And that was going to, as Dean would say, suck.

“Yuh-yuh-yuh—” Dean started, eyes closed, jaw tight, anguish set into every line of his face. Meg looked at Castiel over the top of Dean’s head, eyes full of purpose and simmering with intent, and Castiel didn’t know what exactly to make of it because suddenly she didn’t seem so malicious. Was she trying to prove that Dean still had a stutter? That he was still screwed up? That he still needed help? “Yuh-um. Um. Um um um.”

Castiel already knew that.

Dean managed to make it through a painstaking “yes” while Castiel was still trying to parse out the secret language of Meg’s impressively expressive eyebrow, but Meg hadn’t missed a beat.

“Alright. Good man. Now, Atticus, listen up. I’m droppin’ this egg straight in your basket even though Dean-o already got this lecture from the doctor. Dean’s got a nice prescription for some very strong anticonvulsants in his pocket, and seeing as Dean’s not gonna be driving for about the next thousand years, Dad’s a hopeless drunk, and little brother’s too young for a license—” Dean pursed his lips and furrowed his brow, looking at Meg in utter disbelief like she’d just exposed some deep, dark family secret. “What? What can I say Dean-o? I gleaned. I’m a people person. And your people happen to be very loud and argumentative.” Dean slouched and managed a silent sigh, like he was afraid the stutter was going to touch the exhale too. “Anyhoo, seein’ as all that and then some, I’m appointing you the chief of marching Dean down to a pharmacy and helping him get those shaky hands of his on the good drugs. And starting tomorrow, when all these nice, strong, anticonvulsants from our IV lines have worked their way out of his system, you are personally going to watch him swallow ‘em, which I’m sure you’re not altogether unfamiliar with.” She waggled her eyebrows. It took Castiel a moment to even get the innuendo, and by that time, Dean was already red to the roots of his hair. “And then someone’s gonna keep on watching him for more seizures, because as much as Dean’s the strong, silent, loner type, something tells me that isn’t gonna stop him from braining himself on a coffee table.”

Castiel furrowed his own brow. “There’s going to be more? Shouldn’t the drugs stop them?”

Dean hunched even smaller.

“Your beau Dean fucked his whole system pretty good when he decided to wean himself off the drugs and it’s gonna take him a hot minute to get back on track. In the meantime, yeah, he’s gonna have to break a few eggs to make that semi-functional omelet. Sorry, Atticus.” She patted Dean on the knee. He shifted away from her touch. She didn’t shy away from the topic, though. She kept right on with a breakdown of the different types of seizures and a comprehensive list of all the exact ways that Dean’s body didn’t work right when he stopped taking his meds. By the end of the argument, Castiel was horrified enough that he had to wonder what Dean had even been thinking.

Dean made the awkward transfer to the chair when Meg was done, clearly sore, clearly pissed to be treated like a piece of luggage. And more than anything, clearly horrified when Meg chose to bring up one last crucial piece of info while they were in the middle of a crowded elevator on their way to the hospital entrance.

“Oh, and he has another prescription you should know about, too.”

Dean tensed, instantly. The elevator dinged open nowhere near the bottom floor and nurses with patients shuffled in and out.

“Just in case Dean has another set of seizures that just won’t stop the party, he’s got a prescription for valium. Valium’ll help stop a status seizure in its tracks if you play your cards right.”

“Oh. That’s…comforting,” Cas said. And it was. The elevator dinged open and closed again, and Meg’s lips curled up like a cat.

“No, no, Atticus.” She nudged Castiel in the ribs without taking her hands off the wheelchair’s handlebars. “This is where you’re supposed to say, ‘But Meg,’” she said, speaking in a croaky, monotone imitation of Castiel. He scowled. “‘Why did Dean never mention this miracle drug to anyone?’” Dean buried his head in his shivery hands. “‘And how can he take medication when he’s seizing?’”

“Um,” he said, eyes flicking between Dean and Meg and Dean again. “Okay?”

“Never fear,” she announced. The door dinged open on the second floor. A muscular nurse with a gurney shuffled in and they all scooted to the left to accommodate him. “It’s a suppository. So you’re the most qualified to give it to him anyhow. You’ve got plenty of practice, right Atticus?” The muscular nurse side-eyed them. Dean was bright red.

“I. Oh. Alright,” Castiel agreed haltingly. Dean’s embarrassment over his condition was an ongoing source of confusion for Castiel. He could understand Dean’s hesitance to speak in front of people. His resistance to exposing himself to the whole town’s ire. That was reasonable. Dean’s refusal to disclose a potentially life-saving medication just because he found the means of administering it embarrassing, however—that was unacceptable. He didn’t bother to deny Meg’s innuendo. She wouldn’t believe him anyway. So he just glared at the back of Dean’s head.

“Make sure that one gets filled,” she said when the door finally opened into the lobby, winking at him just as the door opened on one.

Castiel agreed to that, too.

He took Dean to the pharmacy first, which was an exercise in depressing self-restraint, because he got to watch Dean juggle three credit cards, a debit card, and a small, crumpled wad of cash in an attempt to pay for them all. He tried to seem as if he was very carefully observing a display full of cough drops when Dean shot down his attempt to take on at least a little of the altogether staggering total. Dean shifted his body away like it was going to hide the trembling in his hands or the emptiness in his wallet, and while he was otherwise occupied with looking like he had more money than he did, Castiel flicked his eyes at the total displayed on the pharmacist’s register. Once. Again. A third time.

This was the amount Dean had to pay, at the very least, every couple of months. Just to keep his body working the way it should. Castiel had wondered why he was working three jobs just to stay afloat, but he could see now that all of the income from at least one of those jobs probably went—just toward his medications.

He thought of what Meg had said about Dean having stopped taking them, and—well—it was honestly no wonder, now. They were draining him. They were bankrupting him. Castiel kind of wanted to strangle something just imagining Dean trying to choose between feeding his family and keeping his brain chemistry evened out. It wasn’t a choice anyone should ever have to make.

They weaved up and down the aisles of a Walgreens while they waited for prescriptions to come through, Dean keeping on with the no-talking routine, obviously all set on it now, and Castiel half-heartedly trying to make him smile with giant novelty toys and the Christmas merchandise that was just starting to make its appearance.

He wasn’t any good at it. He tried to think of what Gabriel would do, because Gabriel was funny. Gabriel made Anna laugh often, in a way Castiel never could have and never did, 100% more appealing than Castiel was when he was a teenager. It made him pluck a set of felt reindeer antlers off the shelf and put them on his head, waiting for Dean to turn around from his inspection of a novelty sack of coal gumballs labeled “naughty.” It didn’t take long—his head jingled when he moved, each prong of the antlers tipped with a delicate bell—and when Dean did look, he let the left side of his mouth tick up a fragile, just-there smile. Castiel smiled too—with decidedly more enthusiasm. He wanted to hug Dean. He wanted to sweep him into his arms, because the novelty of him being alive and awake hadn’t quite worn off yet.

He took a tentative step forward, antlers still jingling merrily, and Dean just kept looking at him, a narrowed focus that made his pupils flare out wide when Castiel got so close he eclipsed the light and kissed him, alone in the Christmas aisle at the local Walgreens.

This was the most stable he had seen Dean in ages—there was still a tremor to his limbs and a tentativeness to the way he moved, but the drugs in the hospital had done him wonders. He didn’t necessarily want to think about what tomorrow would be like, didn’t want to think that he would go back to that frightening ghost of himself that he had been when he’d been weaning himself off his drugs one by one.

When Castiel backed up, Dean was looking at him with narrowed eyes. They looked very green today, like they had in the hospital, and Castiel knew it was just the lingering paleness bringing out the color in his face. He looked up and down the aisle, like he was expecting someone to jump from around the corner, and then he looked back at Castiel with a sort of critical squint Cas would half expect to find looking back at him in the mirror.

What the hell is your game? it said.

Castiel had never tried to kiss him in public before. He didn’t have the words to describe the depth of the personal revelation he’d had when he was scattering his mother’s personal belongings around her office like someone else might throw ashes into the ocean, so he kissed him on the cheekbone instead.

When he pulled back, Dean’s expression had softened, and he reached out to rub a thumb at the bag beneath one of Castiel’s eyes. He knew he probably looked tired—he was. The half-waking hours on his couch hadn’t done him all that much good, and there were too many things to be thinking about now, too many things to be worrying about. Too many things that were changing, within him and without.

There was a bandage over the line of stitches on Dean’s forehead, but it didn’t stop the scary blue-black of the bruising from his encounter with the truck from bleeding through. He brought a hand up too, mirroring Dean, thumb tracing the hurt just like he had in the hospital.

“Do you remember the hospital?” Castiel said. “The first night? At all.”

Dean shook his head and Castiel mirrored it subconsciously, his head jingling vaguely.

“You scared me,” Castiel said quietly. Dean’s eyes searched his, scanning up and down his face.

Dean mouthed sorry and leaned into his palm.

“Oh, Dean,” Castiel breathed on an exhale, and leaned forward to kiss him a third time, because he couldn’t stop himself. He could feel the chill of Dean’s lips against his own, even standing inside the pharmacy, and while they were still close to one another, leaning in and breathing the same air, Castiel transferred the old scarf wrapped around his neck to Dean’s, one slow, slithery inch at a time. Dean rolled his eyes but accepted it, until he was wrapped up from his chest to the bottom of his nose.

They called his name over the store’s loudspeaker, and Castiel put his antlers back on the rack before the both of them bustled back to the prescription counter. Castiel hung back far enough that he couldn’t really hear while the pharmacist gave Dean a long lecture on each pill bottle like Dean wasn’t intimately familiar with the effects of each. Dean, true to form, said nothing, but he nodded occasionally, taking every new side effect with a resigned, stoic grace. Castiel kept an ear open as he balanced on the balls of his feet and kept his hands behind his back, grasping at the edges of his coat sleeves anxiously.

When they were finally back in Castiel’s car, white prescription bags sitting innocuously in Dean’s lap like they hadn’t just costed him a small fortune, Castiel said, “Okay. My house?”

Dean crinkled his the bags between shaking fingers before he raised his right hand and clenched his fingers around an invisible pen to scribble in the air, a clear request.


Castiel tamped down his frustration. He reached over Dean’s knee to open the glove box, rooting around until he found a semi-functional ballpoint pen and an old receipt. He handed them to Dean, and Dean leaned over the dash to scribble one word.


Castiel squinted, unease churning in his gut. “Dean, you heard what Meg said as well as I did. You must remember that—that someone needs to be watching you.”

Dean scowled and scrawled, Sam.

And that was wrong on a couple levels. Because not only was Sam too “busy” to even come help pick Dean up from the hospital, but Castiel honestly couldn’t see Dean letting his little brother take care of him. Everything Sam did for Dean, he did behind his back, cloaked in nonchalance and secretiveness, because Dean wouldn’t let it happen at all otherwise. If it came right down to it and Sam tried to take control of the situation, Castiel got the very strong sense that Dean would resist him. And end up back at work by tomorrow. And maybe stop taking his medications by next week.

And bring them right back here, to Castiel clutching scared at his steering wheel and gritting his teeth.

Castiel shook his head with barely contained vehemence. “Sam can’t take care of you and neither can your father.”

Dean clutched at the pen until his fingers were bloodless, and Castiel could almost hear the things he wasn’t saying.

I can take care of myself or I don’t need any of you or maybe something that Castiel’s brain put there itself—how can you possibly expect to take care of me?

Castiel set his jaw and became immovable, trying to act like he knew best, even though it was clearer than ever that he didn’t. Perhaps that was what an adult was though. Making peace with the things you didn’t know and acknowledging that you had much to learn, yet. Being okay with the constant feeling of freefall. He wondered what that made Dean, though, given that Dean seemed to be constantly aware of his deficits and consistently determined to ignore them anyway.

Eventually, after so much finagling that Dean ran out of room to write on the back of the receipt, they agreed to stop by Dean’s house first to pick up Sam and then spend the night at Castiel’s. When Castiel asked the address, Dean looked hesitant for a moment. Then he reached over and took Castiel’s hand in his, supporting it between his thighs as he wrote the address on Castiel’s palm. It tickled. Castiel squirmed.

Castiel knew the street, however vaguely, because he’d lived here long enough to know the whole town fairly well. And that was probably a good thing, because Dean didn’t offer any insight as they weaved through the city streets and toward the outskirts of the city. He looked at the snowy landscape and toyed with the end of his scarf. Castiel discreetly blasted the heat on him all the way over, subtly directing all the vents toward the passenger seat, and by the time they pulled up in front of a squat apartment complex on the outskirts of town, Dean was most of the way toward a peaceful doze.

Castiel took in his surroundings before he roused Dean, driving slowly up the street until he reached the right house number and allowing himself a moment to take in the place where Dean lived with open criticism on his face. He couldn’t stop the immediate curl of distaste in his lips. It was as ingrained in him as anything else his mother had ever done, and he couldn’t bring himself to fight this one instinct.

Dean deserved better.

In this area of town, a scant few hundred yards away from the train tracks that cut through the edge of the city, there were more campaign signs for Luke Shurley. He seemed more inclined to capture the lower income voters than Michael, whose campaign signs littered the green yards of the affluent city folk. Here, campaign signs for Luke Shurley were taped up in windows in front of blackout curtains or lined up five in a row in the empty, weedy lots. They were strung up on stair railings with zip ties and covered with leaves and filth in the uncleaned rain gutters.

Dean’s complex itself wasn’t really a complex so much as it was a series of identical buildings with four apartments apiece. Sam hadn’t been lying--there were no yards to be seen. Despite the steadily building piles of snow painting the whole world white, there were places where he could still see the brown of hard-packed, undeveloped dirt peeking through.

He got his face under control and then shook Dean after he confirmed the house number with the number on his hand. Dean didn’t wake suddenly, like Castiel expected. Instead, he surfaced like it was difficult, fluttering his eyelids again and again before he even seemed fully conscious. The hot air from the vents was still blasting on him, but he raised his hands to run up and down his arms like he was chilly.

“We’re here,” Castiel said superfluously, uselessly. “Would you like me to...come inside with you?”

Dean looked back and forth between Castiel and the building a couple times, still blinking sleepily, before he shook his head and climbed out of the car. Castiel watched him go, a little nudge of satisfaction buoying inside his chest when he saw him pull the red scarf tight around his neck. Dean disappeared into the upper right hand apartment after a slow slog up the stairs, and Castiel was left alone to wait.

He contented himself with just watching the snow and drumming his fingers absently on the steering wheel at first, but it wasn’t long until his attention strayed to the little white bags that Dean had left in the passenger seat. Castiel peered at Dean’s front door guiltily as his hand crept over the seats, fingers tiptoeing a walk toward the information pamphlets stapled to the front of the bags. It wasn’t as if Dean was going to tell him the side effects himself.

He started with the schedules of each drug, memorizing the tedious how manys and how muches for each pill carefully, and then he engrossed himself in the fine print for—too long. It was like getting caught up in a tornado where the winds whispered those warning rants that announcers made at the end of a pharmaceutical commercials—nausea, dizziness, vertigo, depression, suicidal thoughts. And there were contradictory things from bottle to bottle—weight loss and weight gain, difficulty sleeping and drowsiness. There were more devastating side effects that weren’t at all likely but put a deep sense of dread in his gut nonetheless. And then there were the warnings about what would happen if he stopped taking them abruptly, and they sent Castiel spiraling right back to the status seizure, the absence seizure, the trembling and the quiet and the sadness.

He pulled out of the fine print like he was surfacing for air, calming the thud of his heart with a few carefully measured breaths. It took him a second to focus. The world was too bright now that it was more than just the black and white on the page, a whole world of dark clouds and tall trees and sad, dilapidated apartments. The car was stuffy from the heat going at full blast. Castiel’s hands were sweating, and the moisture had saturated the prescription bags, made the fibers fray and pebble. He put them deliberately back in Dean’s seat and wiped his hands on his jeans, hoping it wasn’t too obvious that he’d been snooping. He swallowed hard.

One of Dean’s neighbors walked down the street attached to two massive black dogs that bounded through the snow piles and nipped at the flakes in the air. They met eyes through the driver’s side window, and Castiel waved, awkwardly, trying to look inoffensive. Like he wasn’t creeping on the people inside Dean’s building. The neighbor didn’t wave back. He watched them long enough that they faded into existence and then out of it again, just three dots in his rearview mirror and gone.

He squinted at Dean’s apartment, then down at the clock on his cellphone. It had been a half hour, closer to forty-five minutes now, and he wondered how long he was supposed to tolerate having been forgotten on the curb outside before he went in to investigate. He set an arbitrary time he would go to investigate—five minutes from now, when the clock hit an even half-hour—and then he only waited two minutes anyway, shutting down the car and following the footprints Dean had made only a short while ago, already filling with snow.

He made his careful way up the steps, neglected and covered in ice already, sparing half a thought for the melting salt he had leftover in the shed behind his house, and then he let himself inside.

If he was honest with himself, he wanted to go inside with Dean in the first place, because he was so, so curious as to what sort of place it was that could contain the Winchesters, who were all forces of nature in their own right. He had expected it to be cheap—poor, even, because he knew their financial situation. But he hadn’t expected that it would be—sad. Bland. Quiet and small and plain. Bone-chillingly cold. The carpet was bare and worn. The living room had a droopy couch and a small, old tube TV on a stand. It dated itself immediately with the divider wall that separated the living room and the kitchen, an old, ugly thing made up of geometric wooden shapes that were crooked with age. The years hadn’t served the wall well, clearly—hadn’t served the whole place well.

Maybe what was so sad about it was that it was so clean. Maybe what was saddest was that someone took enough pride in this tiny, barely furnished place to dust between the wood slats in the divider and mop the ugly, textured linoleum in the kitchen and clean the cobwebs from the corners of the rooms.

He had very little doubt that person was Dean.

His mother’s house—Castiel’s house—was beautiful through no effort of his own. Even letting the flowers and trees grow wild in the front of the house did little to downplay that. It was opulent and ostentatious and gorgeous, and Castiel had never done a goddamn thing to deserve that.

He stood uncertainly on the threshold of the living room, shuffling awkwardly from foot to foot.

“Dean,” he called softly.

And then again, louder. “Dean!”

There was a noise from down the hall, and Castiel followed it, carefully, hyperaware of the cheap carpet. The clean, bare walls. He dragged his fingertips along the wall in the hallway. He smelled bleach when he passed in front of a bathroom, and he bypassed a room with its door tightly closed in favor of the room with an open door at the end of the hallway.

This room, at least, was a little different. It was small, just like the rest of the house, and the furniture was droopy like the couch—there was just a little dresser and two slouching beds shoved haphazardly against opposite walls with a short, tired bookcase serving as a shared nightstand between them. But it was colorful. Covered wall to wall in posters—clearly things that Dean had gotten from his theater, mostly. Movie posters for everything from the vintage movies that they watched side by side from the booth, to the modern fantasy films that Dean tutted at him about not knowing. It was obvious which bed was Sam’s and which was Dean’s, because Sam’s was covered in schoolwork, some books that Castiel recognized from his own coursework. And Dean’s—

Dean was on the floor, back to his bed, knees pulled up to his face, red scarf still obscuring his chin. He had something that Castiel couldn’t quite discern clutched in his hands, and he was tapping it rhythmically to his forehead—and he had done it enough before Castiel got there that there was a dab of bright red just beneath the dangerous blue of his healing bruises. When Castiel said his name again, softer this time, to catch his attention, he jerked his head away from his knees, and Castiel could see what he’d been holding.

It was an old landline phone receiver.

He was also able to discern that Dean was crying.

It wasn’t difficult to figure out what he’d been trying to do.

Castiel went stiff, because somehow, even though this shouldn’t exactly be unusual for someone in Dean’s position, it was the last thing he ever expected.  He had half a mind to leave the room, come in again, see if he had been mistaken. If the room would reset itself on his behalf. He’d already seen Dean endure a great deal in the time they’d known one another—things much more difficult than making a phone call—and he’d never seen Dean in tears. He’d might’ve been close to them on the anniversary of his mother’s death, but he’d never him cry anything approaching these hard, inconsolable cries of the outraged and the thoroughly exhausted. He didn’t even look miserable so much as he looked like the overstimulated toddlers Castiel would see in the grocery store, melting down because they were tired and they didn’t get the right sugary cereal.

When he saw Castiel in the doorway, he let out a wordless sound, no stutter in it because it was too filled with sucking hurt and rage. And even though he knew that Dean would never—aim for him. He couldn’t help the startled duck he made when the phone receiver, propelled with more force than he had even thought Dean capable of right now, combusted into a dozen pieces roughly two feet to the left of his head, right on top of the Eye of Sauron in a movie poster for The Two Towers. Dean, no phone now to distract himself, clutched at his head, fingers running absently along the seam in his skin that Cas knew was there, just underneath his head of disheveled hair.

It reminded him a little bit of Sam, in his passenger seat, decimating the door of the car beside them. Maybe it was beyond the Winchesters to get sad without getting angry, first.

Castiel was able to cross the tiny room in just three long steps. Most of the space was taken up by the two beds. He had to step over Dean’s sprawled legs to have the room to sit down, and when he plunked down to the floor, a piece of plastic from the phone’s mechanism fell out of the folds of his trenchcoat. He hadn’t even felt it hit him. He shook his coat out and settled it closer around himself, then edged a bit into Dean’s space, as close as he dared, upset as Dean was.

He could hear Dean trying to keep himself quiet, swallowing down hurt at the edge of every breath and wiping hard at the tears that had already smudged his cheeks with the palms of his hands. He sniffed hard, and Castiel put a hand on his knee. He looked more composed visibly, but his breathing was still hard and erratic. Castiel was more surprised than anyone when he opened his mouth to speak.

“Cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh,” he stumbled, almost panting. Castiel squeezed his knee.

“Dean.” He took hold of the hand closest to him and brought it to his own chest, deliberately settling his breathing, taking slow breaths that he could feel working his lungs from deep in his belly. It was an awkward mirror of what Garth had done for him earlier in the day with nowhere near the same professional execution, but it was something he knew Dean could feel. Something he probably needed to feel. “It’s just me.” He hoped that meant something. That it was okay to be ‘just Castiel’ because Castiel was someone he could trust. He wasn’t sure he’d earned it, but it did seem to mean something to Dean.

Dean’s breathing was stubborn as he was. But eventually, it settled, too.

“Cuh-cuh-c-c-can’t,” he said, long and low, gesturing at the wreckage of the phone on the ground across the room. And then, more emphatically, “Cuh-cccccccan’t.”

“A phone call?”

Dean looked straight ahead. “Sssssssssam,” he said, trailing the ‘s’ like a snake, a hiss between half-clenched teeth. It occurred to Castiel that the last time he had seen Sam, he had Dean’s cell phone.

“Sam’s not home?”

Dean shook his head, gesturing snarkily around the room. Duh.

“You don’t know where he is?”

Dean shook his head again. Darker. More weighty.

“You need only ask me to use my phone. You can text him.”

Dean’s expression was pained. His hand was still clutched close to Castiel’s—lower, near his belly now.


“There’s nothing you should be able to do at this point, Dean. You were released from the hospital not four hours ago.”

“Shhhhhhould,” Dean said decisively. Castiel ran his thumb carefully over Dean’s knuckles, feeling the skin wrinkle under his fingertips. Keeping one hand on Dean, he dug the other into his coat pocket to fish out his cell phone and handed it over. Dean shifted to take it, but he clearly didn’t want to pull away, so he began the arduous task of sending a one-handed text to his brother.

“There. This is easy, see? No phone calls. Problem solved.”

Dean narrowed his eyes in a don’t-patronize-me glare. The tears still clinging to his lower lashes didn’t necessarily help his tough-guy case any.

“Do you feel better?” Dean sniffed hard and shrugged his shoulder high enough to wipe at the last of the tears on his cheek, which Castiel took as a yes. Castiel reached over to finish the job, swiping just under his eyes with his sleeves, catching the last fat drops from his lower lids. Dean pretended to be annoyed and nudged him out of the way, but he still didn’t pull his arm away.

Cas, satisfied and without anything to otherwise occupy himself, turned his attention to the nightstand. There was a lot of Dean here, and it made him smile. There were silly Happy Meal toys, a half-filled water glass with a dishwasher-faded Yellow Submarine logo on the side, scattered CDs without their cases, a blocky alarm clock covered in Star Wars stickers. And closest to Cas, perched on the very edge of the bookcase-cum-nightstand, was a familiar edition of a familiar book. Old, with crinkly, yellowing pages and a cover that said this was a copy he had likely gotten for a few cents at a garage sale, was Slaughterhouse-Five.

Castiel picked it up in one hand, kept right on stroking at Dean’s hand with the other. Dean spared him half a glance and turned back to his text. It was difficult to maneuver the book one-handed, but Castiel managed, holding it against his chest as he wedged his thumb under the front page. He was sure they looked ridiculous, both of them trying to complete what were decidedly two-handed tasks with only one, but Castiel was afraid that breaking contact would send Dean back somewhere he shouldn’t be, and his tears had only just dried. And he also just didn’t want to stop. Like this, he could feel Dean’s heartbeat in his hand.

Somehow, he wasn’t surprised to find that Dean’s copy of Slaughterhouse-Five was annotated. Even just the front page was loaded with messy, heavy-handed pencil notes in its margins, and Castiel ran his thumb over them wonderingly to the same rhythm he was stroking Dean’s hand with his other.

does this asshole even know what the fuck he’s talking about, Dean wrote next to the opening line, which Castiel guessed was his way of saying that Billy Pilgrim was an unreliable narrator. He’d circled the words bone meal and underlined the name of a soldier three times.

friend of kurt’s? He’d written.

Castiel brought his knees up and braced the book against them, discreetly flipping the pages while Dean started another text, this time to one of his three bosses by the looks of it. He kept reading. Almost every page had a note. Little notes, long notes. Astute observations, strings of swearwords. It occurred to Castiel, looking at this, that written in the margins of this Kurt Vonnegut book were probably more words from Dean than he’d ever heard him say in all the months that he’d known him.

Dean nudged Castiel’s knee with his, rocking him gently, and Castiel started up from the pages, looking around. He focused on Dean, who scowled right back at him.

“Are you done?” Castiel asked. Dean shook his head and held up two fingers. “Two more?” Dean nodded and went back to typing. He worked in the slow-going tap. Tap. Taps. Of someone writing something they didn’t really want to.

“I’ve been thinking of rereading this book,” Castiel said. Dean grunted, and the phone chimed out a little bell, another message sent. Castiel skimmed the margins with rapt attention when Dean started in on the third. “Would you mind if I borrowed your copy?” Dean grunted again, an affirmative this time. Castiel knew he had his own copy of the book somewhere, ferreted away at home. The same copy he’d read eons and eons ago that had his own stupid, pretentious high school opinions peppering the pages. But Castiel didn’t want to hear his stupid opinions any more than he wanted to hear his own stupid voice in his head. He didn’t trust the things he’d thought before. He wanted to hear Dean’s. This Dean’s. Unfettered.

He could hear the tone jumping out from the pages. Knew exactly what it would sound like in Dean’s deep baritone.

war is fuckin balls, he’d written simply next to a passage describing the carnage of the Dresden firebombing. jesus h christ

It made him feel a little bit warm inside.

Dean sent off his last message with a final chime and set the phone down in front of them. It didn’t make much of a sound on the carpet. A cheap apartment meant that the floor was little more than a slab of cold concrete hidden underneath a thin piece of fabric disguising itself as carpet. Sitting on it was starting to make his tailbone ache. He hadn’t exactly had ideal sleeping arrangements in a few days, between the sofas and the hospital chairs, and he really didn’t feel his supposedly young age at the moment. He wondered how Dean felt about it. Wondered if it would be presumptuous to suggest they interrupt their silent vigil so they could sit on Dean’s unmade bed to wait instead.

“Are we waiting here for Sam?” Dean nodded. “Do you think he’ll be home soon?” Dean shrugged. Silence again. They both watched as his phone’s screen faded and went dark. Dean seemed content to continue sitting in silence until one of the four people he’d texted responded to him, but the minutes stretched on, and the phone stayed quiet. The pages of Slaughterhouse-Five brushed against his arm where they rested in his lap.

“You know, Dean.” Castiel said, cupping Dean’s hands with both his again. He looked at where their fingers were curled together. Dean still had a cotton ball taped to the inside of his arm from where they’d removed his IV. “You’re very smart.” Dean huffed out a soundless breath and rolled his eyes. “I’m serious. Have you thought about—oh.”

Dean shifted away from him and shook their fingers loose from their tight curl together, and Castiel had half a mind to feel hurt about it until Dean got to his feet and claimed his hand again, this time palm to palm so he could pull Castiel upward with his new leverage. He didn’t have a whole lot of strength behind it—it was more a gesture than anything else—but then he used his leverage to push Castiel back onto his bed, too, and his backside was too grateful for a soft surface to be especially argumentative about it.

Something underneath him crinkled when he fell on the messy sheets, and Castiel had time to pull a wrinkled Popular Mechanics magazine out from under him before Dean straddled his legs and buried his face against Castiel’s neck. Castiel froze. The hot breath on his neck was familiar, as was the aggressiveness of the wet, open-mouthed pressure against the sinews there that were tight with tension from his collarbone to his jaw. The red scarf and the bandages were new, though.


“Tuh-tuh-tah-tuh-tttalking.” Castiel felt the stutter against his neck, close to his ear, and he had to close his mouth, exhale through his nose, to avoid the sound that almost pulled from him. The way Dean’s full lips moved against his neck in hitching little twitches was more arousing than it probably should be, considering the reason for it. Dean moved his mouth up to Castiel’s ear, and the next word was little more than a few quick puffs of breath, “Uh-uh-uh-uh-overrrrated.” He nipped at Castiel’s earlobe and stroked his palms up and down Castiel’s chest.

And he felt good. In more ways than one, Dean felt good.

For one, it was clear he was feeling better today than he had in a long time, now that his head was back in the right place. Nonverbal-ness, exhaustion, and a little bit of shaking aside, Dean was in good shape. And Castiel could understand, maybe, a little urgency, because if the labels on the medicine bottles in the car were any indication, the good feelings were not going to last through tomorrow, when he took his first round of new medication.

And for two. Castiel exhaled a surprised groan when Dean started flexing his hips against his, just little pushes that brought the fronts of their jeans flush against one another. For two, he felt good. He felt warm. He felt solid and real. And as much as kissing him had lifted Castiel’s spirits and filled his chest, there was something about having his arms full of Dean, something about the smell of him in his nostrils, tainted as it might be by a sterile hospital scent, something about the smooth push and pull of his muscles working through the motions of sex, that made Castiel feel like Dean was really alive. The feel of Dean on top of him was good too, because it was so much different than—the last time—

Just the thought of last time—Castiel’s hallway, the feel of hands around his wrists like shackles—was enough to pull him out of his sex haze, grinding everything to a halt. A bucket full of cold water. The phantom sensation of Dean’s pliant, lazy muscles, gone ragdoll still and cold midcoitus, was enough to drag him out of it. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake again.

He pushed Dean back by his chest, away from where he’d been busily sucking a mark into his neck. He was cold to the air where Dean had left a swathe of his saliva on his skin. He didn’t feel it before, but from this vantage, he could see that Dean’s hands were toying with the button of Castiel’s jeans.

“You can’t stop all my important conversations this way.” Dean grinned lazily and shrugged. For the first time today, there was healthy color in his face, a splash of a high flush against a pale white canvas. “Do you remember. Before the hospital. My house. You tried to get me to—to—”

“Skuh-kuh-uh-uh-ll-ffffff—” Castiel shook his head fervently.

Take control of you,” he blurted out. “Use you.” Dean rolled his eyes. “No. Dean. I don’t. Do you know how that felt? To think that I might have taken advantage of you?”

Dean shook his head.

“‘No,’ you don’t know?”

Dean shook his head again.

“‘No,’ I didn’t take advantage of you?”

Dean nodded, and somewhere in Castiel’s gut, there was a wash of hot relief.

Thank god, he thought. Thank god.

Dean looked down and absently flipped Castiel’s zipper where it rode halfway down his fly. It pushed a straight line of hard metal teeth against the half an erection he hadn’t managed to shake. He hissed and pushed Dean back again.

“Dean this is something—I’d like to do with you.” Dean’s mouth quirked up in a half-smile. An I-fuckin-bet-you-would smile. “But you need to be here. And it needs to be something you’re doing. For yourself.”

Dean nodded and put a hand to Castiel’s fly again.

Castiel pushed him back again. “Are you sure you feel up this?”

Dean nodded. Went for the zipper. Castiel pushed him back again.

“You were just crying into a phone receiver twenty minutes ago.”

Dean drove a fist down into the bed so hard the feedback made his arm quake. He looked at Cas with furrowed brows and hard-set certainty.

Dean’s eyes flashed, Don’t.

“If you’re sure.”

Dean nodded a definitive, hard, nostril-flaring, jaw-clenching nod, and put his hand over Castiel’s zipper so hard that he jumped.

And Castiel gave in because—as stupid as it was for this to surface when he had one of the most beautiful people he’d ever known disheveled and half-hard on top of him, Castiel couldn’t help but think of Garth and what he’d said earlier in the day.  How everything, for Dean, came back to control, and all the little things he couldn’t.

This, Dean could. Castiel would make sure of it.

“Okay.” Castiel went limp and breathed heavy through his nose, settling in. He already had a flush that he could feel creeping down his neck, and his chest was already rising and falling far too quickly. He let his hands fall to the sides, twitching emptily with the urge to touch at the feel of fingers creeping along his denim-clad erection. He unzipped Castiel completely, unbuttoning the button on his jeans, eyes flicking up to meet Castiel’s all the while, but he didn’t take him out of his boxer shorts yet.

Dean stopped for a second to indelicately unwind the red scarf that was still around his neck, and Castiel could see a deeper pink in his cheeks and sweat at his temples where he’d gotten overwarm from the condensation of his own breath, despite however chilly the room was. He didn’t move to take off any more clothing. He didn’t seem willing to move off Castiel’s lap to take off his pants. But when he touched Castiel’s chest, a clear request, Castiel stripped off his own shirt in a militaristic instant, a very enthusiastic sign of good will. Dean was the one calling the shots here. Dean plucked at his own collar for a second before he took his own shirt off, and then they took a moment to just marvel at one another like complete idiots.

“You’re lovely, Dean,” Castiel said earnestly, eyes tracing his too-skinny frame. The graceful divot of his bellybutton. The flush of his skin.

Dean flopped forward, head to neck again, and made a noise—a long, low, “Nnnnnngh,” into Castiel’s ear. Castiel didn’t move except to stroke a careful hand through Dean’s hair, running his fingernails into the edge of the bandage on his forehead. He was altogether saintly. Not even an impressionable thrust of his own hips, despite the growing warmth he could feel under Dean’s skin and despite the powerful tension of Dean’s impossibly broad shoulders.

Dean pulled back and rose up higher on his knees a little bit, just enough to be able to push his own jeans and underwear a little ways down his hips and settle the elastic band of his boxer shorts underneath his balls with as little ceremony as possible. Dean was completely bare, then—unshaven and uncut, thick and gorgeous, and that part of him, at least, didn’t smell like the hospital. And he was clearly—eager. There wasn’t a question of his consent at least, because there was a definite spring when he came out of his shorts, a little happy-to-see-you flick upward.

Castiel breathed out a surprised moan and made his brain kick into gear enough to do what Dean had, now that he had explicit permission. He jostled Dean in his lap, feeling the crinkle of a movie poster behind him, one of the only noises in the quiet apartment. He wiggled a few awkward wiggles with his hips—wiggles made only more awkward because of Dean’s extra weight on him—to push his jeans and his underwear down just past the curve of his own hipbones, revealing the narrow vee of his hips and the base of his cock. And then he stopped to let Dean take the lead again.

Dean was acquainted with his dick, at least, so he probably wouldn’t fall victim the moment of dumbstruck, drooling silence that Castiel had when Dean bared himself. But he was still perhaps a bit eager to yank at the elastic of Castiel’s underwear and reveal where Cas was half hard, slumped heavily against his thigh. There was none of the uncontrolled fervency in the way he took Castiel’s cock in his hand this time, not like there had been when he’d gone to blow him in his hallway. Instead, there was a sort of quiet reverence in the way he took Castiel in his hand and ran his thumb along the slit.

There was also a little bit of inexperience in the way he moved his hand. Like he wasn’t used to having a cock in his hand that wasn’t his own. He couldn’t master the right tightness, couldn’t get the right pulling motion. He fell forward again, putting them chest to chest, and jerked Castiel in that fumbling way between them—no moisture in it, too much skin. He also clearly wasn’t used to jacking someone without a foreskin. Every few strokes, he caught the crown of his own cock with his thumb on a downstroke and groaned into Castiel’s ear. And that, just that, that husky and uninhibited sound in Dean’s voice, was enough for him to fatten in Dean’s palm, a sudden burst of precome spreading between them to make the friction a little bit more bearable.

Dean kept leaning forward and mouthed around his ear wildly, bracing himself against the wall with his right hand while he continued a frantic pace with his left. He concentrated on the head enough that it was starting to get good, but Castiel was still a little frustrated that he hadn’t brought his own dick into play.

Tentatively, Castiel picked up his hands from where they were resting on the bedspread. With just a few subtle nudges, he squared Dean’s hips with his own, put them in the right position to line up their cocks just right. Everything instantly fell into a better place. Castiel felt his stomach muscles jump where the heavy tip of Dean’s cock dragged along the skin there instead of more south where it had been, toward the seam of his pants. It left a trail of enthusiastic wet behind it, and it must have felt good for him, because Dean finally got his hips into the action again, rutting into Castiel’s stomach in an ill-aimed approximation of some kind of intercourse. He let out staccato little gasps with every thrust of his hips. And Castiel did appreciate his enthusiasm, bright and pleased and happy that Dean was doing exactly what he’d asked to take such an active role—but—

He had taken his hand off Castiel’s cock to get better leverage for thrusting—feast or famine, apparently. Every fifth thrust or so, the head of his cock caught the head of Cas’s, and the feeling was so overwhelmingly exquisite, it was like a pop of white behind his eyelids.

Well. Letting Dean take control could only go so far if Dean had no idea what he was doing.

“Dean,” Castiel breathed into Dean’s neck. Dean took it as a sign of enthusiasm. He pushed himself harder into Castiel’s space like an attention-starved dog, eager to put every inch of his naked chest in contact with Castiel’s. Sometime in his creep upward, Castiel’s dick had settled between Dean’s thighs instead of against his belly, so it was getting absolutely none of the sweet friction Dean was feeling from rubbing himself off against Castiel’s stomach.

“Dean,” he tried again, quieter this time. And Dean popped out of his daze to pull back, looking a little lust-drunk. There was a revelation in the way he honed in on Castiel’s lips instead of his eyes. Dean leaned forward to kiss him there like the thought of kissing him on the lips hadn’t even occurred to him, as fixated as he had been with his neck. And then, remiss, he kissed him like it was the only thing he could have done.

That was the right thing to do. It slowed him down—maybe Castiel fed enough oxygen into his brain via tonguefucking that he was able to figure out that he could take the both of their cocks in his big, calloused hand, side by side, and start the thrusting again.

That was the ticket.

Castiel couldn’t stop watching him now—the way his abdominals clenched and released, clenched and released with the rocking motion, the way his arm was all veins and hard muscles where it disappeared to brace behind Castiel’s head. He was beautiful and alive and perfect and Castiel never wanted to wrong him again.

And Castiel also wanted him to come.

He started thrusting in counterpoint to Dean because he couldn’t stand to be still any longer, and it was apparently an all-or-nothing venture, because he lifted his arms, too. Let them settle at Dean’s trim waist and feel where cool sweat had gathered in the shallow divots above his tailbone. He clenched his fingernails into Dean’s back at the feel of every exquisite drag, every textured pull of hot veins and sliding skin and wetness so thorough it was dripping from the both of them.

Dean came first.

He stopped altogether, and his face contorted so miraculously that Castiel couldn’t look away. But Castiel didn’t realize how thoroughly Dean had lost himself until he said, clear as day, completely uninhibited, a shouted yelp of pure pleasure, “Cas!

And then Cas came too, in frantic, jerking spurts all over Dean’s stomach, his own stomach, and Dean’s hand around the both of them, clenching jerkily with his orgasm. His own hands rubbed absently at the small of Dean’s back, smoothing the paths his fingernails had left in his skin.

They panted each other’s air for a moment, alone in the quiet of the apartment, the movie poster behind Castiel’s back no longer crinkling because it had probably been too saturated with his sweat. When Dean went boneless and slid off his lap, sitting himself at Castiel’s side with his cock softening on top of his underwear and a ridiculously self-satisfied smile on his face, Castiel smiled back.

“That was so good, Dean. Thank you.”

He wasn’t lying. It had been—good. Not perfect, especially not in terms of performance, but so—uncomplicated. In the way that spending time alone with Dean often was. Pure feeling.


Dean rolled his eyes and gave a thumbs up.

It was early yet and they both still needed to eat, but Cas suggested a nap, and they both shuffled out of their denim and packed themselves back into their underwear in silence. Dean produced a wad of clean tissues to mop the come from their stomachs from under Sam’s bed with a wink and a mimed yuck about fourteen-year-old boys and what they did with wads of tissues under their beds, regardless of the filth they had just gotten up to. Dean picked up the discarded cellphone from the floor, checked it fruitlessly for new messages twice before he set it face-up, full-volume on the nightstand. And then they settled into Dean’s bed, squished up close as they could be in the little twin, because even though the plan had been to return to Castiel’s house as soon as possible, they both seemed to be in silent agreement that neither of them had the energy. They settled a blanket over their hips and Castiel spared a thought, tiredly, to hope that he had locked his car. The last thing they needed was someone from this sleazy neighborhood ripping off Dean’s expensive supply of valium.

They stared for a moment at the ceiling together. He expected Dean to drop off immediately, tired from the whole ridiculous day, but there still seemed to be a tension in him he couldn’t shake. Castiel could feel it in every line of his body.

Balthazar liked to talk after sex, and so did Anna. Castiel always thought that mostly, they liked to hear the sound of their own voices. Balthazar would carry right on with the sex talk like neither of them had ever come, keeping up a steady stream of ribald ridiculousness until Castiel was half hard and squirming against his hip again. Anna liked to talk about her day. Her mom. Her shopping. Her schoolwork. Her schedule. Her friends. Her books.

He hadn’t figured Dean would be much of a pillow talker. But he clearly needed—something.

Cas caught sight of Slaughterhouse-Five on the floor, right where it must had dropped when Dean pulled him up onto the bed, and something that Sam had said when they first met came back to him. He’d used to read to him, he’d said—he likes it when people talk to him and he doesn’t have to talk back.

He scooped up the book from the ground, and without looking for Dean’s reaction, he cracked open the book to the first page. His arm was settled around Dean’s neck where Dean was pressed close to his side, so it was a bit of a challenge to hold the book and turn the pages without jostling Dean every time, but it seemed to be a struggle that was well-worth the challenge when he felt Dean’s tension melt away against his side.

“All this happened,” he read aloud, clearing the sex-husk from his voice. “More or less.”