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Surgeon General's Warning

Chapter Text

 

Act I

 

“A warning:
That you never should force
Mechanical things
They are not meant for hardship
They’ll snap.”

 

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Part I

John Winchester looks a lot better after five months away from Dean. If asked, that’s not how Dean would actually describe it. He’d probably describe it to someone as John Winchester looks a lot better after five months of rehabilitation and therapy because if he were speaking from an objective standpoint, that would be true. But if he were speaking honestly, he’d say it was because he was away from Dean.

He’s thankful though, and so proud of his dad, and the sun is shining bright down on them as he sees his father for the first time in almost half a year. That’s why they’re calling it a graduation, because it’s a celebration of strife and struggle and the start of a new chapter in life. (When he tells Sam this, his younger brother just rolls his eyes and scuffs. For someone who tries to see the good in everyone, Sam sure does think nothing but the worst of their father.)

“Boys,” John Winchester says, a smile splitting his clean-shaven face. He looks a bit thinner than he did going in, eyes a bit brighter, and his skin has more color to it. Good color, dark olive, like he’s been out in the sun, and less rosacea red in his cheeks. It’s kind of weird to see him like this, because Dean can’t remember a time when his dad didn’t have gin blossoms. He looks different, but he looks good and so much healthier and Dean can’t hold back a smile in return as he clasps John’s hand in both of his.

“Dad,” he grins, and after a moment of them staring at each other John draws him into a hug, relieved laughter the background music to Dean’s surprised shock. It takes him a second, but he wraps his arms around his dad and clings as close as he can without feeling like a loser. “I’m so glad you’re back,” he sighs, and his voice is honest even if he doesn’t cry like he probably could if he let himself.

John pulls away but doesn’t stop smiling at him. “Me too.” Then he turns to Sam and his face falls for a brief moment before lighting back up again, though more hesitantly than before. “Sammy,” he says with careful happiness. Sam swallows audibly. Ten seconds pass where Dean prepares himself for the worst before his brother lets out a long breath and then voluntarily embraces his father.

“I’m proud of you, Dad,” Sam mumbles into their dad’s hair, because he’s just that much taller, and John takes a deep breath and because they’re Winchesters nobody comments on the one fat tear that he wipes away as he pulls back.

And from there it’s greeting John’s sponsor and his therapists and being handed pamphlets and being surreptitiously dragged away by the aforementioned therapists and quietly informed of practices that should be adhered to and situations to be avoided and how to better think about what you’re saying before you say it. It’s some serious Bambi “if you don’t got nothin’ nice to say then don’t say nothin’ at all” shit.

A woman who’d introduced herself as Pamela Barnes looks Dean in the eyes and tells him earnestly, “Recovery is different for every individual, and it ain’t an easy road to walk. Your father’s already gotten through the hardest part, but you and your brother have to help him through the rest of it, okay?” Then she tempers the severity of the statement with a light pat on his ass and a wink, and when she walks away Dean pulls out a business card with her phone number on it from his back pocket.

Dean grins down at it. Yeah, still got it.

They walk away from the center, which is basically a large resort-type place in the middle of fucking nowhere about three hours from their place in Lawrence, and when John sees the Impala he damn near starts crying again. He places a big hand on the grill and closes his eyes, sighs under his breath. They stand there for almost a minute, Sam and Dean fidgeting awkwardly, before John finally smiles and pats the hood of the car affectionately. He turns to Dean and says with an ease that surprises all of them, “You took good care of her, boy.”

Even with all the positive change that’s happened in John in the last few months, it’s still just a bit too hard for him to say I’m proud, Dean. But Dean hears it anyway.

There’s a hesitant moment where the three of them shuffle around the doors, none of them quite sure who goes where, before John finally takes it upon himself to open the back driver’s side door, and taking that as a prompt Sam sidles into the passenger seat. Dean’s about to slide in behind the wheel when a voice, deep and gravelly, cuts through their comfortable silence.

“Winchester! Hey, Win!”

All three men turn their heads towards the voice, and Sam leans over the console to blink at the two guys walking up to them on Dean’s side of the car. John immediately shuts the door he’d been about to sit behind and goes to greet them. Dean blinks through the sun.

They’re identical twins, but it’s obvious which of the two went through rehab. Both of them are maybe three inches shorter than Dean, both have messy black hair, and both have bright blue eyes, but beyond that and the facial structure the two manage to look wildly different.

“Boys,” John says to Sam and Dean, though Dean is the only one addressed directly since Sam is still in the car, “this is Castiel Novak, we roomed together during the program.” He gestures at the more disheveled of the two brothers.

Castiel Novak has a square face, clean-shaven just like their dad’s, and what seventeen-year-old Dean used to affectionately refer to as a ‘butt chin’. He’s wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt that has a faded motif of Mickey Mouse on it, and the track mark scars on his arms stand out, pearly-white on his already pale skin. His face is gaunt and the underside of his chin is pockmarked with scars of blisters, the dark heavy bags under his eyes make him look closer to John’s age than Dean’s, and his arms and stomach are made up of loose skin that probably used to be muscle.

All in all, he looks like a complete foil to his brother, who stands a bit straighter beside him in a suit, with darker healthy-looking skin and stubble and an easy smile that makes his face look youthful and bright as he extends a hand to John. “Jimmy Novak,” he says, his voice much softer compared to Castiel’s. Of course, that’s not a difficult feat. Castiel had coughed out their surname like he was gargling razorblades and washing them down with bourbon.

If Castiel used to look just like Jimmy before the drugs, he would have looked like what can only be described as a sexy version of the Droopy Dog from Looney Toons.

Dean glances them both over subtly. He dismisses Castiel immediately just on the basis of drug addict, and he briefly entertains the thought of Jimmy before catching sight of the wedding ring on his finger. Damn.

As John shakes Jimmy’s hand, Dean sends Castiel a friendly, nonthreatening look. Castiel just silently tilts his head to the side.

“I’m glad that we could meet up before we left,” John says easily, but Dean doesn’t really believe him. He hadn’t mentioned a roommate in any of his letters, and he hadn’t looked around for anyone when they’d been talking to other patients and doctors. Then again, Dean doesn’t really blame his dad for not wanting to be reminded of anyone who saw him at his worst firsthand. Jimmy smiles, bright and sunny and obviously taking John at his word, but Castiel steps forward and takes both of John’s hands in his, staring into his eyes solemnly.

“John Winchester,” he says, once again surprising Dean with the sheer amount of dirty in his voice. (And he doesn’t mean dirty like sexy. He means dirty like an abandoned back alley behind a motel, littered with syringes and used condoms.) Dean wonders if the guy sounded like this before smack, or if it was a result of the drugs. “I am honored to have shared this harrowing experience with you.” John just sighs like he’s used to statements like this, while Jimmy looks like he’s swallowed a frog. “And I would be honored again if you and your children would come with my brother and I for lunch.”

John blinks, Dean blanches, and Jimmy’s formerly easy smile slides off his face. Sam, not privy to the facial expressions, pipes up from the passenger’s seat, “...I am kind of hungry…”

Jimmy’s faltering expression picks back up. “Of course! This is a celebration, isn’t it? Let’s go get something to eat, my treat.”

John and Dean immediately start protesting, but Jimmy waves them into silence, “No, no, I insist! You guys pick a place, and we’ll follow you in my car.” Without giving them another chance to refuse, Jimmy turns and walks off, and Castiel follows him placidly, sending a backwards glance to John over his shoulder.

John huffs out a breath and gets into the car without saying anything, and Dean hesitates before slipping into the driver’s seat. “That was… weird,” he says carefully.

“You get used to him,” John shrugs, not as irritated as Dean expects him to be. The engine roars to life and he takes a moment to close his eyes and just listen to the sound. Dean does the same. “He’s a bit of a kook, but Cas is a pretty cool guy, all things considered.”

“And you roomed with him for five months?” Sam asks, curious enough to enquire something for the first time since coming here today. He’s been stubbornly quiet up until this point, and Dean glances at him sideways.

“Two,” John corrects, fiddling with his clothes, like he’s not used to wearing jeans anymore. And maybe he’s not, for all Dean knows the patients might have had to wear scrubs the entire time. “I never got the full story, but apparently he had a fight with his first roommate and they switched him over to me. My first roomy was this guy named Gordon.” He considers his words for a long moment, then shrugs again. “It was a good decision over-all. I didn’t get along with Gordon, either.”

Sam grunts in acknowledgement then falls silent again.

“So should we be worried about going to lunch with an ex-druggie?” Dean asks, voice tilted up in jest, but the weight behind it makes it clear his only half-joking. He’s expecting a smirk, a flippant remark, but in the rearview mirror John’s face darkens as he looks out the window.

“No more so than going to lunch with an ex-alcoholic,” he says tightly, and Dean carefully doesn’t flinch.

Maybe he needs to brush up on his Bambi.

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Part II

 

Castiel becomes a lot less like Castiel-the-druggie and more like Castiel-the-social-retard-with-good-intentions after they meet up at a diner and Dean watches the Novak brothers split a piece of pie, Jimmy quietly fussing at Castiel for using his fingers instead of a fork and Castiel casually remarking, “Utensils are a social construct.” It makes Dean give a genuine laugh, which causes both John and Sam to look at him in genuine surprise. Jimmy gives him the eye, like he’s not sure if Dean is laughing at what Castiel said or at Castiel himself, but after a moment he slips seamlessly back into his friendly grin. Castiel just blinks at him owlishly.

After a few minutes of conversation, it’s astonishingly easy to ignore the scars and the sallow skin. There are few things more humanizing than watching a man who hasn’t had a cheeseburger in half a year wolf one down.

“My god,” Castiel moans around a massive bite, “if I’d known how good burgers really were I’d have been shooting these instead of heroin.” Jimmy’s smile freezes in place and he tenses like he doesn’t know what to say to that, and John carefully ignores the statement and takes a sip of his water. Dean says nothing and stares at his plate, because he doesn’t really know what you’re supposed to say in this kind of situation. Surely there’s a joke that goes like this somewhere. An alcoholic, his kids, a druggie, and his twin walk into a bar… Then again, alcoholics and bars aren’t really joke material.

Sam, who up until now has said little and asked only half-interested questions, bites his lip, brows drawn in. “Why did you start using?” he asks Castiel point-blank.

“Sam!” John hisses while Jimmy’s frozen smile falls completely off his face, leaving him wide-eyed. It makes him look even more youthful than his bright smile does, pain stripping him of his years until he looks like a child. Dean stares at his plate harder. Castiel just looks at Sam, tilting his head to the side again, squinting slightly as if looking at him through a bright light, like he’d only noticed Sam was there for the first time. He sets his burger down on his plate and puts his hand on his chin.

“I was a tortured artist in school and I wanted a way to express the darkness in my soul from my girlfriend leaving me,” he says, matter-of-fact. There’s a beat of silence, then, “Also, my daddy never loved me.”

There’s a simultaneous scoff from Jimmy, snort from Dean, and outright guffaw from John. Sam just frowns at him.

“I’ve never heard the real story,” John tells his sons with a tilt to his lips. “Every day in group the counselor would ask Cas that, and every day Cas would say something different. It basically became a game.”

“My favorite was that one about the bees,” Castiel says, a dreamy-looking smile on his face. “It took me an hour to think that one up.”

“I’m glad that you found it amusing,” Jimmy intones. He’s smiling down at his hands, but the smile looks more like a grimace now and he’s carefully folding and unfolding a napkin between his fingers.

Castiel glances at him, then shrugs and mumbles, “Had to entertain myself somehow.”

Another awkward moment of silence, then John asks, “So what are you going to do now, Cas? Go back to school?”

Castiel makes a face, just a slight downward turn of his mouth, and he stirs his drink distractedly. For the first time since Dean’s met him, Castiel looks... uncomfortable. “I’m not sure,” he says finally. “It’s been a while since I tried the whole. Education thing.”

“What’d you study?” Sam says, actually interested now because he’s a fucking nerd, and at the same time as Jimmy’s, “Yes, he’s going back to school.”

Castiel blinks at his brother and leans over slowly to give his lemonade a loud slurp. His eyes are still on Jimmy but his response is directed at Sam when he answers, “I was a theology major. I wanted to be a professor.” He leans back in his seat and crosses his arms, still staring at Jimmy. “Why am I going back to school?”

Jimmy just shakes his head, careful smile back in place. Dean decides that while Jimmy might be more the more socially acceptable brother, he likes Castiel more. Excepting the drug thing, to this point Castiel has been honest and forthright, even if it’s a little inappropriate; Dean can appreciate that. “We’ll talk about it later, little brother,” Jimmy says, voice gentle but firm.

It answers the unasked question of who was the older of the two, and despite his dislike of the way the guy’s handling things, Dean sympathizes with Jimmy a bit more. He might be passive-aggressive about his approach, but Dean understands more than most the stress and responsibility of watching out for a younger sibling.

Sam frowns at Jimmy, and it’s like a double-edged sword. Dean can relate to Jimmy, and Sam can relate to Cas.

Castiel stares at his brother balefully and slurps a little bit harder.

“What’s theology?” Dean asks, because he’s heard the term before but never cared enough to look up a definition. Jimmy is the one who answers.

“The study of religion,” he says, raising his chin proudly, and his tone of voice tells Dean everything. Suddenly he can see Jimmy sitting at the head of a table with a beautiful wife and two-point-five kids, holding hands and praying over Sunday brunch and paying tithe and talking about how everyone else is a godless heathen. (Dean’s view on religion may be a little bit skewed.)

Dean snorts again and looks over Castiel critically. The guy doesn’t really fit into his view of religious, but you never know. Westboro is religious. “Bible-thumping addict? Talk about irony.”

Castiel frowns over at him, leaning back and crossing his arms across his chest. “An interest in theology doesn’t automatically equate to Bible-thumping, Dean.” His name sounds weird in that gravel-tar voice and he’s not sure if he likes it or not. “And neither does being Christian. Theology is the study of religion, not necessarily the practice of it.”

“And do you practice it?” Dean presses, not really sure why he cares so much. He’s never been a very religious person. Maybe because it’s hard to believe that someone can be God-fearing and also a drug addict.

“Yes,” Jimmy says emphatically while John hisses, “Dean.” Castiel shrugs one shoulder gracefully.

“I appreciate religion as a concept, though I’ve found that my experiences with the organized portion of it have been sorely lacking.”

Jimmy stands abruptly and leaves the table, and the four men left behind watch him stalk through the diner and out the front door. Castiel watches him go with an expression that’s just on this side of sad before looking thoughtfully over to the counter. “I wonder if they have milkshakes.”

John ends up buying Castiel a milkshake because Jimmy has his wallet. Castiel looks at the three Winchesters vapidly over his straw and tells them seriously, “It may surprise you to learn that between my brother and I, our parents considered me the disappointment.”

It surprises no one, but likewise no one comments on it.

“In answer to your previous question, John,” he continues, as if the last five minutes haven’t happened, “I will probably return to school eventually, if only because Jimmy is using that as his stipulation for my staying with his family.” He talks like the fanciest fucking drug addict Dean’s ever heard. Sorry, ex-drug addict. John’s brows dip down in thought.

“You’re living with Jimmy? I thought you had a place to crash with a friend.”

Castiel shrugs and sighs a very put-upon sigh, raising his hands in defeat. “Jimmy was fine with my previous arrangements until I admitted that the friend I was staying with was formerly my dealer. He determined that that would probably not be a wise decision.”

Sam and John both stare at him while Dean chokes on his water and tries not to let it come out of his nose. The fact that this is the first thing that Cas has said that’s visibly shocked John isn’t helping him contain his laughter.

“Yeah, probably not,” John says, tapping his fingers against the tabletop. He glances to the door several times over the next half minute, and it’s obvious to everyone present that he’s ready to leave.

Dean can’t really blame him; he’s spent the last two months with this Cas dude, and he’s understandably ready to go home. Sam goes back to his quiet brooding, both hands clasped around his drink as he glares at the ice inside like it’s personally wronged him. Dean doesn’t know what the fuck his problem is. Castiel seems oblivious to the awkward silence, chin back in one hand as he lifts a finger from his straw and then plugs it again, watching the milkshake slowly do a stop-and-start slide back into his glass.

It’s probably only a minute or so, but it feels closer to an hour before Jimmy reappears, aiming an apologetic look at the Winchesters. Castiel raises his eyebrows at his twin, and Jimmy’s mouth thins down into a line. “I’m sorry to cut lunch short,” he says finally, “but we’ve got a long drive ahead of us, and I’ve got work in the morning.” He sticks his hand out and John, Sam, and Dean take turns shaking it dutifully. Jimmy looks more contrite over his brother’s behavior than actually leaving.

“Where’re you guys headed?” Dean asks curiously as the five of them make their way out of the diner and towards the parking lot. The Impala gleans in the sunlight like a beacon of sanity and Dean can’t wait to jump in and just drive. It’s been way too long since the three of them rode together for an extended period of time, and he’s so damn happy, even if he is a little apprehensive about Dad being in the car with Sam while he’s in one of his moods.

From Jimmy, “Pontiac, Illinois.”

From Cas, “Something resembling purgatory.”

Dean laughs until he sees Jimmy’s slight grimace and realises that he was being serious.

Castiel steps forward until he’s standing in front of John, and reaches out to clasp him on the shoulder. “John,” he says in his wrecked-muffler voice, “you are more than the sum of your mistakes. Take care to not repeat them.” The oldest Winchester’s eyes go a little glassy and he gives a slight nod in acknowledgement. Cas surprises them by turning to Sam and puts a hand on each of his shoulders, looking up into his eyes seriously. Sam sends his brother a slightly panicked look and Dean shrugs.

“Sam,” Cas continues, “your sideburns are finely manicured. You should be proud.”

Sam’s eyebrows shoot up as his jaw drops and Dean bites his lip to keep himself from outright laughing. Until Cas turns to him and forgoes his shoulders completely to take ahold of his hands, patting his knuckles in a way that would be comforting if it didn’t make him feel so uncomfortable. “Dean,” his name comes out in a rumble that almost makes him shiver, though he’s not too keen on analyzing the reasons why, “the responsibilities of other people are not your own.”

It hits him like a punch in the gut and he jerks his hands away as politely, but quickly, as he can, wide-eyed. Castiel stares back at him impassively, as if he didn’t say something that just cut Dean down to the core.

Jimmy’s smile is all teeth and no humor when he takes Castiel by the elbow and starts pulling him away. “It was nice to meet you,” he tells Dean and his family, but it’s obvious that the need to keep Cas from embarrassing himself is overriding his instinctive politeness.

“Keep in touch, Cas!” John calls as Jimmy plants himself behind the steering wheel of his Bonneville and Cas meanders around to the passenger seat. Cas tilts his head for like the fifth fucking time since Dean’s met him, blinking at John curiously.

“Of course,” he states, like he’s taken the suggestion to heart instead of accepting it as the polite dismissive platitude that John surely means for it to be. He climbs into the car and shuts the door behind him, and the window rolls down as Jimmy drives away. Castiel sticks one hand out as they pass by on their way to the highway and waves lazily.

“I think he thought you were being serious.” Dean sticks his hands in his pockets as Sam jumps into the shotgun seat. “...were you being serious?”

“I’m not sure myself,” John says, sounding just a little confused. Then he turns and grins at Dean, a real, honest grin, and Dean feels the breath leave his lungs. It’s been too goddamn long since his dad has been really, honestly happy.

He’s really, really fucking missed his dad.

“Gimme the keys, boy.” John holds out a hand and wiggles his fingers, and Dean tosses the keyring at him without a thought, an immediate reaction to anything John says. He's not even sure if John's licence has been reinstated, and he's equally not sure if he gives a shit. “You’re ridin’ bitch.”

Dean can’t even gripe as he shuts the driver’s side backseat door, just inhales deeply and takes everything in.

Dad’s back.

Dad’s fucking back.

And for a brief moment he doesn’t think about rehab or alcohol or how Sammy’s lips pull down warningly when he sees who he’s sitting beside. He’s here, now, with his family, and for a single, brief, glorious moment, everything is perfect.

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Part III

 

About three months pass before shit hits the fan.

Surprisingly, it’s not their shit. Somehow, despite all odds, Sam has managed keep the lid on his obviously rising resentment towards their father, John has managed to keep at least a mile of distance between himself and the local liquor store, and Dean has managed to keep them all from killing each other as they get back into the swing of being a family of three very stubborn, opinionated bastards.

It’s Novak’s shit, and the three Winchesters just happened to be standing under the fan.

Dean wakes up sometime around two in the morning to the sound of knocking on the front door. He groans into his pillow and burrows his face in deeper before forcing himself to get up.

He and Sam have been switching off who gets the bed and who has to sleep on the fold-out couch since the house is only a two bedroom and John called dibs on the master (not that the boys would have taken it even if he hadn’t), so he only has to stumble about four feet, but in the time it takes for him to stumble those four feet and waste a second or two pulling on sweatpants the person on the other side starts knocking harder, almost frantically.

“Mother fuck, what?” he spits, wrenching the door open and flicking on the porch light.

Bright blue eyes blink blearily at him.

Dean stares at the man standing outside his door, his tired mind working at half-speed to try and remember where he’s seen the guy, and once he remembers that it struggles to place his name. Finally the lightbulb goes off in his brain and he says hesitantly, “...Castiel…?”

“Hello, Dean,” Castiel Novak says, his deep voice earnest, and shit Dean forgot how rough this guy sounds. “May I come in?”

Dean gapes for a long moment before catching himself and tripping over, “Yeah, yeah of course, come in.” As Cas passes him to step into the living room, Dean glances around outside, but there’s no massive boat of a Bonneville in their driveway, just the massive boat of an Impala. Castiel clears his throat behind him, and Dean startles and jerks around to shut the door. It closes harder than he’d meant and he holds his breath for a few seconds to determine if he’s woken anyone up.

After deciding that he’s safe, he finally returns his attention to Castiel, who’s made himself at home on the couch that doubles as Dean’s bed. Cas stares up at him, and he’s not really sure how, but the creepy ex-druggie has managed to make himself look timid.

“You, uh. You want some coffee?” Dean asks, instead of saying what he really wants to say, which is Why are you here and how the fuck did you find out where I live, because he doesn’t think that will go over very well. Dad has mentioned Castiel Novak maybe twice in the last few months since he’s been out of rehab, and even then only in passing comments. Fact is, Dean doesn’t know Cas from Adam’s asshole, and for all he knows the ex-druggie could be an ex-ex-druggie and he’s come to kill them all.

But for all of his trepidation, he can’t deny that there’s something very lost about the man sitting on his couch, something incredibly innocent and little-boy about the way he kneads at Dean’s blankets like a nervous cat. Those big blue eyes dart up to meet his and then back down at his lap every few seconds. In this moment he looks so very different from the flippant Castiel that Dean ate an awkward lunch with in a diner a few months ago.

Cas shakes his head to Dean’s question and moves from picking at the blankets to scratching at his arm, which Dean now sees is red and irritated. Alarm shoots through him when he realizes that Cas is scratching obsessively at the tiny brown-red-white scars of his track marks. He swallows nervously and takes a tiny step backwards towards the door, where the umbrella stand houses a baseball bat instead of an actual umbrella. Castiel sees the movement and seems to notice what he’s doing, because he stops scratching immediately and sets his hands in his lap, staring down at him. When Cas finally speaks, his voice is tiny and meek, once again contrasting sharply with the (admittedly limited) experience Dean has with him.

“Could I speak to John?”

For a moment Dean is confused by the request before he remembers that, oh yeah this was his dad’s roommate in rehab. Cas is clearly upset, and uncomfortable that Dean is witnessing it. Dean supposes it’s only natural for the guy to want to talk to Dad instead of him.

“Oh, uh. Yeah. I’ll just, uh, go wake him up.” He rubs the back of his neck nervously, what little sleepiness he has left sliding out of him as Castiel gives a short nod, still staring down at his hands. He hesitates briefly, then turns and makes his way towards John’s room, taking care to be as quiet as possible as he moves part the door to the room where Sam’s sleeping.

He knocks on John’s door, then opens it a crack. The television over the dresser is still on, playing a TV Land marathon of The Golden Girls (which Dean doesn’t know because he absolutely wasn’t watching it earlier before bed, no siree bob), casting a dull blue light over the room and illuminating his father, who’s laying slapdash across the bed, sheets half kicked off and one foot hanging over the mattress. John snores like a water buffalo with a sinus infection and Dean hurries to step into the room and shut the door behind him.

He makes his way over to the bed and shakes his dad gently on the shoulder. When John doesn’t move, he shakes harder. A few seconds of this pass with no reaction, and Dean resorts to grabbing a hold of John’s exposed foot and pulling on his toes until they pop. After the third toe John snorts and strikes out with his foot, and Dean has to jump back before he gets kicked in the stomach.

“What. Do you. Want.”

Each word is punctuated by another tiny kick and afterwards John apparently loses the energy for even that because his leg goes slack and slides even further off the bed. Dean goes back to shaking his shoulder and is greeted with a sleepy, one-eyed glare.

“You bunk buddy’s here,” Dean tells him, poking him in the cheek when he closes his eyes again. John blinks heavily before making a questioning grunt noise. “Castiel,” Dean clarifies, and John looses a loud, annoyed groan, smashing his face into his pillow.

“Why,” he grumbles, voice muffled.

“How the hell should I know? But he’s super twitchy and he wants to talk to you.” Dean steps back when John finally lifts himself up and throws back the sheets, then rewards himself by dropping his face into his hands, elbows resting on his knees. Dean chews his words carefully and glances over his shoulder even though he knows the door is closed. Truthfully, he doesn’t feel secure in leaving a drug addict in the living room with free reign of the house, especially with Sammy asleep only a few feet away. “I think he might be tweeking.”

John heaves an explosive sigh and forces himself out of the bed. “Do us a favor and go make some coffee. I have a feeling we’ll need it.”

“Yes sir,” Dean says automatically, but he only leaves the room after he’s sure that Dad isn’t gonna flop back into bed the second he’s gone. He shuts the door behind him to the sight of John bending down to pick some sweatpants up off the floor and scratching his ass.

Castiel is still sitting on the couch and staring at his hands, and as Dean passes him on his way to the kitchen he says, “Dad’ll be out in a minute, but try to keep it down. It’s a school night and Sammy needs to sleep.”

“Of course,” Cas’s voice floats through the kitchen quietly as Dean goes through the motions of coaxing their ancient coffee machine into working. By the time it starts grinding and chugging, there are two soft voices coming from the direction of the living room, and Dean idles near the counter, feeling awkward and unsure of what to do. He has a feeling that this is a private conversation that he has no business listening to, but he also doesn’t have anywhere else to go. They’ve commandeered his bed for an early morning therapy session.

When the pot is finally ready Dean gets too mugs and pours them both a cup, despite Cas’s earlier dismissal of the drink. Like John said, he has a feeling they’ll need it. He tries not to feel like a butler when he pokes his head into the living room and asks, “Cream or sugar?”

There’s a beat of silence, then, “...just cream, please.”

Dean prepares their coffee (just cream for Castiel, and enough sugar to send a rhino into a coma for John, because he used to take it black and Irish and he says if he puts enough sugar into it he can ignore the lack of whiskey) and forgoes making himself a cup because he’s clinging to the vain hope that he can catch a couple more hours of sleep before having to get up to see Sammy out the door.

He catches snippets of voices, muffled words and broken sentences whenever he ventures too close to the living room side of the house. He hears a lot of “Jimmy”s and once or twice a “Clair” and something about a doctor. He’s not trying to listen, but he’s also not trying to not listen, and by the time he’s finished with the coffee the voices have petered out into soft mumbles.

He wastes a minute or two puttering around the kitchen, obstinately to look for some sort of snack to go with their coffee, but he knows it’s actually because he’s reluctant to join them. He doesn’t know what’s going on with Castiel, and he doesn’t really want to know. It’s not his business. He’s a little curious because the guy lives like six hours away and he showed up at their doorstep at two in the morning, but not curious enough to face the awkward conversation that his dad is surely having right now.

A moment or two is wasted loitering just inside the doorway, a cup in each hand, and he tells himself that he’s not nervous and at the same time knows that he’s lying. The voices are clearer this close, and he accidentally-on-purpose listens in briefly.

“--but if you’re using,” comes John’s rumbling, sleep-addled voice.

“I’m not.” Castiel’s voice is subdued, but also sharp. “I’m not. I just.”

There’s a heavy sigh that shakes on the exhale. Dean swallows as Castiel whispers raggedly, “It’s hard, Win.”

He bustles into the living room, carefully keeping his face blank and pretending that he didn’t hear anything. He hands Cas his mug of coffee and tries not to pay too close attention to how goddamn broken the guy looks, hunched over on the couch with his shoulders high and his head down. Cas murmurs a thanks to him without looking him in the eye and John nods as he accepts his own cup.

Dean deliberates for a moment between staying or making himself scarce, but the half-humiliated, defeated look that Castiel is directing into his coffee makes the decision for him. “I’m, uh, gonna go bunk with Sam,” he says finally. Castiel nods silently, eyes not leaving his cup, but John looks up at him gratefully and he knows that the best thing he can do for the situation is to leave them at it. As Dean passes them on the couch on his way to the hallway, he briefly and nervously rests his hand on Cas’s shoulder in what he hopes is a comforting touch.

Castiel startles slightly, as if he wasn’t expecting any sort of familiarity here, but Dean can feel some of the tension leave his muscles as he exhales a tired breath and takes his first sip of the coffee. Cas tilts a tiny fragile smile up at him, and it gives his heartstrings a solid yank. Dean wonders how much affection Cas gets on a regular basis if this is how he reacts to the simplest gesture. He swallows again, then continues on his way to the second bedroom.

Sam stirs briefly when the door opens, and again when Dean nudges him closer to the side of the bed that’s pushed up against the wall. It’s been a while since he and Sam have shared a bed, it not having been a necessity in months, and as he carefully pushes his brother’s legs away he contemplates buying an air mattress.

“Dean?” Sam’s voice is rough with sleep and he groggily pats Dean’s face as he tries to understand what’s going on.

“Shh, little brother,” Dean hums, laying himself as gently as possible on top of the covers to avoid jarring Sam. “Got company. It’s okay. Go back to sleep.”

“...kay,” and Sam does, turning his back to Dean and easily falling back into his dreams, which are probably about applying to colleges or winning the spelling bee or something because he’s a huge freaking loser.

Dean can still hear the distant, muted mutter of voices coming from the living room, even if he can’t understand what they’re saying. He lays on his back and stares up at the ceiling, wide awake, and wishes that sleep could come so easily for him, too.

-----------

 

Part IV

 

Castiel is still there when they wake up in the morning. Both Sam and Dean get up at six thirty, because Sam has to get ready for school and Dean is like four inches away from Sam’s alarm clock. Dean slaps at it until he’s positive that it’s broken before letting Sam roll him out of bed. His top half hits the floor and he stays there, sleepy and disoriented, as Sam blinks down at him blearily.

“Why you here?” he asks astutely, nose crinkling as his hair flops down to tickle his face.

For a moment, Dean is genuinely wondering the same thing. But then he remembers, oh yeah, Cas was here.

“Dad’s druggie buddy came by last night,” he says, punctuating it with a wide yawn. Sam stumbles out of bed and kicks at him half-heartedly when Dean swipes at his feet.

“Is he still here?”

Dean’s lower half tumbles to the floor as well when he shrugs. “How should I know?”

“Because you’re a nosy fucker,” Sam informs him matter-of-factly. (Dean remembers once when he was like five or six and Sam was a jiggling mass of chub and hair and poop and he’d puked on Dean’s legos, and Dean had marched up to their mother and demanded that Sam be taken back to the baby store because he was defective. Dean thinks that little-him had the right idea.)

As Sam picks out his outfit for the day and collects his homework off of the small desk in the corner, Dean’s muscles relax and he sinks into the floor, blinking his eyes slowly and sleepily.  He twists to watch Sam pick a hoodie up off the top of the dresser, sniff it, then throw it on the bed with the rest of his clothes. “Disgusting,” Dean tells him cheerfully.

Sam’s nose wrinkles up as he stops in front of Dean and glares down at him. “You’re one to talk. When was the last time you took a shower?”

“Hmm, good question. What day is it today?”

“Tuesday.”

Dean brings his arms up and pillows his face in them, smiling against the skin. “Tuesday, huh? Then I guess the last time I took a shower was shut up. Shut up is when I showered last.”

Sam aims a kick at him but checks it at the last second and instead just pokes him with a toe. “If I shower, is dad’s creepy friend going to Norman Bates me with a steak knife?”

“I don’t know, maybe.”

There’s an annoyed huff, and then the sound of the door opening and closing. Dean listens as he walks the four feet to the bathroom and waits until he hears the sound of the shower knob creak as it’s turned and the pipes start groaning in protest before he hauls himself up and slowly makes his way into the living room.

Castiel is sound asleep on the couch, half on his side and half on his stomach with his knees curled inwards and his feet tucked into each other. He’s not a small man by any stretch of the imagination, and he’s definitely picked up weight since leaving rehab, but he looks rough and worn and Dean feels a stab of sympathy for him when he twitches minutely in his sleep.

Dad’s doing better, but right now Cas reminds Dean of the first few weeks John had been home; awkward and out of place and on edge and itching for something. And while things might be difficult for John sometimes, between having too much free time to think and Sam’s constant vigilant watching for him to mess up, they’ve been trying to be as supportive as possible and make things easy for him.

Dean thinks back to the night before, when Castiel had seemed to take such contentment from a simple hand on his shoulder, and again wonders how much support this guy gets at home. His brother had seemed genuinely caring, if a little overbearing, and certainly not outright hostile.

 

He stands in the doorway for a moment, just looking and thinking, before he slides past the couch as quietly as possible and into the kitchen. Normally he makes a big breakfast for all three of them, usually bacon and eggs and pancakes, but dad probably won’t be up for a few hours and he doesn’t want to make too much noise. Since Sam is the only one eating this morning Dean just throws a Poptart into the toaster and starts putting together a sandwich for him to take for lunch because he constantly complains about how unhealthy the school lunches are. (Sam doesn’t know what he’s missing. Those smiley tatertots that Dean used to get were ambrosia.)

He turns and nearly jumps out of his skin when he sees Castiel standing in the doorway, blinking at him with tired eyes under heavy eyelids and a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. Frankly, the guy looks like shit, like he hasn’t slept in a week and spent the last night drinking.

They stare at each other for a few seconds before Castiel says calmly, “Good morning.” Like the guy didn’t show up at two in the morning to a house he’s never been to, to crash with people he doesn’t know.

Dean’s mouth opens and closes a few times before he manages, “Morning.” He turns away, then turns back, then towards the fridge, then once more faces Cas. “You, uh. You want breakfast?”

On cue the toaster gives a jolt as the Poptarts finish and Cas’s eyes follow them. He swallows. “I’ve intruded on you enough,” he says quietly. Dean can’t help chuckling, and it comes out a little louder when Cas blinks at him owlishly.

“Your mouth says no, but your eyes say please get in me,” he grins, and deposits the Poptarts on a paper plate, blowing on his burnt fingers right as Sam waltzes in, his shaggy hair damp and pants unzipped and low on his waist.

“Blueberry,” he sings jubilantly, so focused on breakfast that he doesn’t notice Cas, and he reaches for the plate only to get his hand smacked away. He pouts like a puppy who’s just been told that leather shoes aren’t chew toys, but when he finally clues in that they aren’t alone he jumps, startled, and hurries to finish fixing up his clothes.

Dean shoves the plate towards Cas, who takes it, confused. “What, were you raised in a barn? Guests first, jackass.”

“I don’t,” Cas starts, but Dean levels a Big Brother stare at him and he falls silent.

Breakfast is a quiet affair after that. Sam makes himself his own Poptart and Dean just sips at his coffee, trying to pretend that there’s nothing out of the ordinary happening even though this is really only the second time they’ve ever met Castiel. John is nowhere to be seen, and considering the late night it’ll be a surprise if he makes an appearance before noon.

Which doesn’t seem like much of a problem, until Sam’s been put on the bus and is off to school and Dean and Cas are alone.

Cas seems content to just sit silently, picking at his breakfast, eating the crusty part first. However, now that it’s just them, Dean can really feel the weight of the quiet that’s pressing down on him. He could probably go back to sleep if he tried, but to be honest he’s still a little suspicious. Cas might look harmless, but Dean wouldn’t want to leave the guy alone in the house with so many things he could pocket and run off with.

He manages to last about ten minutes, counting them on the oven clock, before he stands, carefully casual. “Be right back,” he says, and Cas just nods over the cup of coffee he’s nursing, looking at the chucks of Poptart intently like he’s wondering what they’d taste like if he dunked them in.

Dean-- well, flees isn’t the word he wants to use, but it’s definitely the most accurate one, back to the bedroom. He fishes his phone out of the bedside table and dials, his fingers flying over the keys to tap out a number he knows by heart.

“Singer,” comes the gruff, no-nonsense voice, and Dean breathes a sigh of relief that he answered this early.

“Bobby,” he greets, “please tell me you have extra work today. I miss your beautiful face.”

There’s silence on the other end, then, “...I’m sorry, what?

Dean gives an annoyed huff into the phone. “I need to pick up a shift, moron. One of dad’s rehab buddies is here and he’s kinda fucked up right now and I don’t think either of us is gonna be comfortable without a buffer until dad wakes up, so it would be absolutely awesome if you could just pull something out of your ass for me to do today.”

“Listen Dean,” Bobby says, and Dean can tell by his tone of voice that things are not going to go his way today. “I can’t just pull something out of my ass. You weren’t scheduled today, and I have more than enough people on shift already.” Dean sighs heavily and when Bobby continues talking, he at least sounds apologetic. “I don’t got enough payroll as it is, kid.”

“Yeah, okay,” Dean mumbles, pinching the bridge of his nose and resigning himself to a horrible, uncomfortable day.

“Think of it this way, your dad will appreciate you showing a more active interest in his recovery than just hiding all of your booze at my place instead of yours.”

They say their goodbyes before hanging up and Dean digs his fingers into his temples. He gives himself another minute of peace, then makes his way back into the kitchen, where Cas has finished his Poptarts and coffee, leaving not even a crumb behind. In fact, the plate looks licked clean, and he’s staring down at it intently like it’ll magically fill back up if he concentrates hard enough.

“You still hungry?” Dean takes perverse pleasure in the way Cas jumps, surprised, before nodding slowly. Dean can do this. He can make a real breakfast and small talk with the crazy drug addict and hopefully he can be loud enough that he wakes up dad without being too obvious about it.

“I--” Cas starts, and then stops. For the first time this morning Dean realizes that he might not be the only one who’s uncomfortable.

Dean clears his throat, an instinct born from a lifetime of taking care of Sammy and his father playing mediator between the two of them and being the peacekeeper rising up and settling firmly in his chest. He’s being unfair. If dad didn’t want him here then he would have kicked him out, which means that he’s dad’s friend, which means he’s Dean’s friend. “I’ll fix us something. Don’t worry about it.”

He easily slips into his breakfast routine, cracking open some eggs into a bowl and dropping bacon into a pan. Dean’s not the best chef by any stretch of the imagination, but breakfast is something that he can do. Dad can only occasionally work a microwave, and Sam has burnt water (several times), so when it comes to food in the Winchester house, it’s either Dean’s or Papa John’s.

It takes about three minutes before Cas lets out a hard breath through his nose. “I’m,” he tries, then sighs. “I’m not usually this morose.” He glances up at Dean sheepishly and Dean smiles as reassuringly as he can. “It’s been a hard few months.”

Dean dumps bacon and eggs in front of him before starting on his own batch. He sits on his words for a moment before saying delicately, “Do you want to talk about it?”

It’s quiet for a long minute and Dean is fairly sure that Castiel is gonna go selectively deaf, but finally he sighs, “My brother is having… sensitivity issues.” Dean glances over his shoulder to where Cas is watching him warily. “He seems to be under the impression that pretending that the last several years didn’t happen will make them go away.”

Dean stares down at the pan of eggs, gently stirring them with the spatula. It’s probably not what Cas wants to hear, but he… well, he kind of sympathizes with Jimmy on that. “He’s under a lot of pressure not to say or do the wrong thing,” he says cautiously.

There’s a low sound not unlike a growl behind him and he turns to see that Cas is gripping his fork tightly and glaring heatedly at his plate. His breath catches in surprise as Cas turns those eyes, cold and blue and angry, at him and he says, “I’m under a lot of pressure too.”

(Dean thinks about John, how sweet he makes his coffee, how sometimes he stares into his water with a frown, how he’ll open the empty liquor cabinet when Sam isn’t around and just breathe in the smell. In the back of his head, Dean hears what Cas said last night. “It’s hard, Win.”)

“You’re right,” he admits finally, which is the closest he can get to sorry. Thankfully, Castiel’s time as John’s bunkmate seems to have made him at least semi-fluent in Winchester, because he takes it as the apology that it is with a short nod.

Another awkward silence, then Cas starts back up. “They told us, you know, that everyone would, uh. They’d go through the recovery process at different paces. The center really just helps us with the groundwork, you know?” He pauses to spear a piece of egg, probably cold at this point, and chew on it thoughtfully. “Dried us out and made us talk about everything. But it’s a different atmosphere there and I’m… having trouble adjusting. Now that I’m out. Jimmy thought, and I believe still thinks, that rehabilitation was a magical cure-all. He wants me to go back to school and return to life as normal, but...”

He scratches at his arm, where the scars from the needles are, before realising what he’s doing and he folds his hands back in his lap, eyes downcast. “...I just don’t think that I’m ready for that.”

Dean joins him at the table. He tries to remind himself that Cas is in the same boat as John, and he that means he might need kid gloves. “Not everyone needs to go to school,” he shrugs, because he honestly believes that they don’t. Dean got a GED after Sam heckled him into it, and while he’s not exactly rolling in it, between him and John working they’ve always made due. It’s only recently with John being out of work and no licence that they’ve had to seriously reduce their spending.

“My brother would not agree with you,” Castiel says, lips quirking up in a tiny smile. “And he’s adamant about my returning to the world of academia next semester. He’s already planning out my course schedule. It’s…” He gestures vaguely with the fork, a constipated look on his face.

“Shitty?” Dean tries helpfully. It pulls a laugh out of Cas.

“Overwhelming,” he corrects, smile a bit wider. His grin lasts a few more seconds before slipping off again. “Unfortunately, he’s set on the idea, and has convinced himself that my reluctance is because of laziness instead of a fear that the pressure will make me turn to using again.” He swallows and goes back to staring down at his plate. “He says that I can only stay under his roof if I’m in school.”

Dean frowns heavily. “Jesus, what an asshole,” he grunts. For a second he’s half-afraid that Cas will get angry with him, but he only nods in agreement, moving to place one elbow on the table and rest his chin in his hand as he pushes his food around listlessly. “What’s your sponsor say about it?”

John’s sponsor is this monster of a guy named Benny, who Dean sometimes likes and sometimes doesn’t. He’s Cajun French, calls everyone brother, and likes to bring them cookies whenever he visits. Dean likes him because he’s friendly and awesome, in a really gruff bear bear bear way, and he doesn’t like him because sometimes it makes him feel a little inadequate, that some stranger can help dad way more than he can. But he also appreciates it in a way; even if it sucks that John will call Benny for help before he calls Dean, it’s nice to know that his dad has someone who’s equipt to handle his problems.

Castiel, however, immediately clams up. His hands ball into fists and he bites his lip. “I tried to call him a few days ago.” He swallows, then shakily finishes, “It was his first time trying to sponsor someone and, well. Apparently he wasn’t actually ready for it, or I reminded him of it too much, because he relapsed and OD’d.”

And suddenly, Dean understands exactly how hopeless Cas must feel. His brother forcing him to make decisions he’s not ready for, and now his mentor, the guy who’s supposed to help him through recovery, turns tail and goes back to drugs. What kind of message must that send? Shit, no wonder the guy appeared out of nowhere, all sorts of fucked up and desperate for some kind of sympathetic company.

“That’s not your fault, Cas,” he says, trying to put as much conviction into it as he can. Castiel shrugs miserably, picking at his fingernails. “I mean it. That’s not on you.”

Cas shrugs again, a weak lift and drop of his shoulders. “I’m sorry that I woke you up last night.” His voice is small and tired, like there’s a tangible weight pressing down on him. “I know it’s strange, but this was the first place I could think to go.” Their eyes meet again and Cas tries to smile but it’s a poor attempt. “Your father was always good at defusing my moods.”

“Speak of the devil,” John says with a sleepy grunt, causing them both to jolt in surprise. He shuffles over to the table and sits heavily beside Dean, yawning before swiping a piece of bacon off Castiel’s plate. He crunches into it and closes his eyes, a blissed-out look dawning on his face as he groans. Then he squints at them. “Where’s the coffee?”

Cas and Dean share a long look before both of them laugh, Cas’s a short huff-puff and Dean’s a snorting bark. “You’re useless in the morning,” Dean chuckles, getting up to prepare another plate and more coffee. They’re almost out of eggs, and he’ll have to go to the store later.

“Once, he fell back asleep during morning group,” Cas says, a sly grin crossing his face and his voice quiet, like he’s imparting some great secret. “And one of the other guys started crying because he thought John was bored.”

Dean laughs again, louder this time, and John flips them off. The somber mood from before hasn’t entirely lifted, but it feels a little bit lighter now, and Cas and Dean trade embarrassing stories about John that makes the older man glare and grumble and the tension slides out of Cas’s shoulders until he’s loose and smiling. Somewhere between the first Poptart and the third cup of coffee, Cas stops being the wary intruder and becomes a guy that Dean could really get along with, if he let himself.

Cas laughs at a joke at John’s expense, eyes bright and shining for the first time since they’ve met, and Dean tries to feel like he hasn’t just adopted the world’s biggest manic-depressive puppy.

 

-----------

 

Part V

 

Dean comes home from work to find Sam and John sitting on the couch in stony silence. He takes a deep breath, fully prepared to get in the middle of an argument, but as soon as he steps forward they both whip around to stare at him. He pauses, because when they argue they never pay attention to him, much less willingly acknowledge his presence. Not them, then.

“What’s wrong?” he asks gruffly, sighing as he flops down in the loveseat and bends to untie his boots.

“It’s Cas,” Sam says, at the time as John sighs, “Jimmy Novak called.”

Dean blinks at them in confusion and checks his phone. Since Cas had showed up at their doorstep unexpectedly around two months ago the two of them had been chatting on and off. Dean doesn’t have enough fingers or toes to count how many times he’s been woken up in the middle of the night to some sort of message, be it a picture file of Castiel and his niece, Claire, or a text asking if John preferred strawberries or blueberries.

He has no new messages, no missed calls, and no voicemails.

“What’s wrong…?” he repeats, more cautious now.

John and Sam glance at each other again, before John lifts a hand and starts rubbing his face, looking exhausted. “Jimmy says they got in a fight, apparently a bad one, and Cas took off. He looked at their online bank statement and from there found out that he hopped on a bus headed for Springfield.”

Dean glances between the two of them, not understanding. “Okay? So the guy went for a daytrip to blow off some steam?”

John and Sam share another look. Dean is starting to find that really annoying.

“Cas lived in Springfield before he went into rehab,” Sam says slowly, like maybe if he doesn’t talk so fast Dean will magically understand. “He went to school there.”

Dean throws his hands up in frustration and leans back in the chair, crossing his arms. “So? I’m still not seeing the problem here? And how do you even know that?”

Sam’s eyebrows raise and his lip curls up like something up and died under his nose. The overall effect makes him look like he’s trying to pinch one off. “You’re not the only one that he likes to talk to, Special K.”

Dean’s got a witty insult on the tip of his tongue (“Nuh uh, you’re Special K”) but John rolls his eyes and takes the wheel, interrupting the budding retort. “Jimmy thinks that’s where his dealer is and he’s gone back.”

Dean’s mouth snaps shut, then opens again. His works his jaw a couple times before managing, “Do you think he’d pick it back up?”

John sighs and puts his face in his hands. “If I got in a bad enough fight with one of you boys, I’d probably be trying to find a swimming pool of vodka to drown in.”

There’s a long moment of silence as they all contemplate that. Sam looks incredibly uncomfortable and suddenly Dean’s thumbnail is the most fascinating thing in the room.

“So we assuming Cas is off the wagon?” Dean continues after clearing his throat. “Why did Jimmy call us then?”

“Because,” John says tiredly, as if carrying a heavy burden, “Castiel won’t answer any of Jimmy’s calls.”

“But when I texted him,” Sam picks up, “he sent me an address that Jimmy says is his old apartment.”

Dean stares at the two of them, eyes shifting back and forth, still not really understanding what the issue is. “So… now Jimmy knows where he is. Problem solved, right?”

Sam and John share another goddamn look like they’re suddenly fucking mind readers or something and seriously Dean is happy that they’re not fighting but he’s not prepared for them to actually get along. “Jimmy is… afraid that if he tries to get Cas, he might, uh. Provoke him.”

The tumblers start to click into place and Dean stares at them disbelievingly. “Are you saying that he wants us to go pick Cas up? How bad was the damn fight?”

John frowns down at his phone and twists it between his hands. “I didn’t get any real details, but I figure it was pretty bad.”

Dean looks down at his watch. “You realize that Springfield is like, shit… five hours away? Six?” If they left right now, they’d get there around eleven at night; way too late to be back in time for Sam to go to school in the morning. And Dean knows that it’s crunch time with midterms coming up, and Sam’s a senior, he can’t really afford to miss school.

Groaning irritably, he bends down to tie his laces back up. “I guess we’d better hit the road then, dad. Sammy, you good on your own tonight?”

He stands up and moves to retrieve his jacket, but stops short when he realizes that John is still sitting on the couch, an apologetic look on his face. “Dean,” he tries, then wets his lips. “I have work in the morning.”

Oh. Yeah. Of course. Dean knew he had work, of course, and had just assumed that he would call out, but… Bobby had had to pull strings to get dad a job at the adjoining scrap yard, and even then it was mostly because Rufus owed him a favor. A recovering alcoholic calling out in the middle of the week on short notice would definitely be suspicious.

Dean takes a deep breath as he realizes that he’s at this alone.

“No, right. Of course. You go to work. I guess, just.” He scratches his head before looking at John imploringly. “You think he’s just gonna come with me? I’m basically a stranger. Why the hell is this even our responsibility?”

“He’s heard about you from me, and he’s met you a couple times.” John stands up and claps him on the shoulder reassuringly. He looks genuinely sorry that Dean has to go out of his way, which is probably the only reason why Dean’s doing it. He’s always been so eager for dad’s approval. “And he’s my friend, Dean. My friend who’s going through some tough shit.” John glances over his shoulder at Sam. “He doesn’t have the support that I do.”

And that’s how Dean Winchester gets roped into getting back in his car and driving six hours away to drop in on a drug addict that he’s only met twice.

Honestly, it’s not a difficult drive. Once he hits US-36 it’s basically a straight shot to Springfield. He stops at a gas station to fuel up and grab some Cheetos, then again about an hour later to take a piss. The sun has been down for almost two hours by the time he pulls up into the parking lot of the apartment complex Mapquest has lead him to. It’s fifteen minutes to twelve, but the city is alive and sprawling around him, horns honking and people chattering making up the background noise to the ticking and clacking of the Impala as the metal begins to cool.

Castiel’s apartment is just outside the heart of the city, but Dean can’t tell which one is his from here. He pulls his phone out of his pocket and taps out a text.

TO: CAS
if i were outside your building rn would you freak out

He sips his coffee, some tepid ass-flavored brew he’d picked up outside New Berlin. It only takes a minute for Cas to respond.

FR: CAS
Are you outside my building?

TO: CAS
you tweaked?

FR: CAS
No.

TO: CAS
you wanna talk?

FR: CAS
No.

TO: CAS
would you let me in anyway?

The next response takes a while to come in, and Dean reclines back in the seat, easing his body into a different position. Six hours in a car have made his hips ache. He closes his eyes for a few minutes until he gets a reply.

FR: CAS
The door’s open.

He gets out quickly, locks the car up, and makes his way to the front of the building. It’s a relatively cheap place, understandable considering Cas got it as a student, and he doesn’t have to get buzzed in or anything he just heads straight to the elevator. Cas is on floor three of five, and Dean’s standing in front of his apartment door before he’s actually ready to be there. He takes a moment to compose himself before rapping his knuckles against the frame, one hand grasping the switchblade he’s brought with him.

Just in case. Cas behaves unpredictably when he’s sober, and Dean doesn’t want to take a chance on him being strung out.

“It’s open,” Castiel’s deep voice shouts from the other side, and Dean nudges the door open with his boot, looking around warily. He inhales and immediately chokes because shit Cas got ahold of some seriously dank marijuana. He hasn’t smelled something this ripe since high school. He coughs his way through the sad excuse of a foyer until he finally sees Cas laying on the floor in what he thinks is the living room.

There’s no furniture. Well, there’s the shredded remains of a pleather armchair, but Dean doesn’t really count that, and apparently neither does Cas. He’s laying on his back in the middle of the room, staring at the ceiling with a blunt between his lips. His phone is resting on his chest and he rolls his head languidly to look at Dean.

“Hello,” he greets casually, like Dean’s here to discuss the weather instead of driving six hours because everyone’s worried about him relapsing.

“You clean?” Dean snaps instead of responding in kind. Cas waves his hand towards the corner of the room, where a vent grate in the wall has been removed. Scattered around outside of the vent are a couple syringes and a spoon, and Dean swears and stomps towards it. He doesn’t touch any of it, but crouches down and takes inventory.

The needles look shiny and clean and there’s no lighter around, but obviously Cas used something to light his joint so Dean doesn’t feel too optimistic. His heart jumps into his throat when he sees two tiny innocuous baggies rolled up tight and filled with what he doesn’t doubt is white powder. “Cas,” he sighs, disappointment sinking into his chest.

“I didn’t shoot,” Cas says earnestly, barely moving to look at him. “I could have, but I didn’t. See?” He holds up his arms, one at a time, and the movement seems to rob him of his energy. But other than the shiny scars scattered around the juncture of his elbow, there are no marks on either arm.

“What about your toes?”

Cas wiggles his bare feet, a curious expression crossing his otherwise slack face. “I have toes,” he breathes out thoughtfully, as if their existence just occurred to him. “Cool.” He rolls on his side, phone sliding to the ground, so that he can fully stare at Dean. “I could have,” he repeats gravely, “but I didn’t.”

Dean moves back towards him and stands over him, pity making his heart sink from his throat and bypass his chest to settle into his stomach. He swallows and looks away. “Where’s the bedroom?”

Cas jerks one shoulder and the movement causes him to flop back into a supine position. “Don’t wanna go to bed,” he groans, laboriously lifting a hand to cover his eyes. He inhales deeply around the joint and exhales through his nose. Dean gives himself a tour of the apartment, taking note of how bare it is. The bedroom has only a mattress on the floor and a fitted sheet.

He grunts when he lifts Cas up off the ground, carrying all of his weight and forcing him to hold himself upright. “All your furniture at Jimmy’s?”

Cas whines low in his throat at the movement and loses his blunt. Dean makes sure to grind it under his boot and into the hardwood floor. Better a small burnt spot than a whole damn fire. “Pawned it,” he mumbles, letting Dean drag him through the apartment. “Before rehab.”

For smack, he doesn’t say, but Dean hears it anyway.

Dean drops him on the mattress and takes a deep breath. Shit, he needs to start going back to the gym or something if he’s winded just from that. Cas bounces on the mattress for a moment before his entire body goes limp and he sinks into it with a sigh. Taking out his phone, Dean sits down against the wall and taps out another text.

TO: DAD
im here. cas isnt dead.

FR: DAD
hi?

TO: DAD
not from heroin i think but the whole apartment smells like the inside of a bong

FR: DAD
ok thnks

TO: DAD
im staying here tonight and packing him up to jimmys when he comes down

FR: DAD
b careful

“Cas,” he says with a sad sigh, then stops and shakes his head. He starts in surprise when a hand lands on his knee, Cas leaning over the side of the mattress and staring at him with one hazy blue eye.

“Don’t be angry,” he says plaintively, fragile and thin as glass. “It’s just pot.”

Dean doesn’t give a flying shit about the pot, he’s probably smoked whole plants. Hell, when he was fifteen he rolled one with his dad and they spent the entire day talking about baseball and laughing. “I don’t care about that,” he snarls, voice harsh. Cas flinches on the bed, eyes going just a little watery, and he forces himself to calm down. “I care about the heroin, you moron.”

“I didn’t.” The hand on his knee squeezes briefly and Cas’s expression is intense, like his entire world is banking on Dean believing him. “I could have, but I didn’t.”

Dean searches his face for any deception, but Castiel is guileless, staring back at him as if in challenge. “Okay,” he says finally, and Cas relaxes, a smile fluttering across his lips. “Okay, I believe you.”

A few minutes pass in silence and Dean almost thinks that Cas has fallen asleep until he starts talking.

“Me ‘n Jimmy fought,” he says matter-of-factly, eyes back up at the ceiling. “Him ‘n ‘melia enrolled me in classes but I’m not ready.” His face tightens and quirks a sarcastic smile, telling Dean that he’s probably not as high as he’d like to be. “Obviously.” He sighs, long and hard, and melts further into the bed. “He told me to step up or step out. So I stepped out.”

Dean’s quiet and just lets him talk. He has a feeling that anything he says right now is going to be ignored anyway.

“I can’t stay with him,” Cas whispers sadly, as if suddenly coming to a realization. “He wants things that I can’t do and it’s not fair. He wants them faster than I can do them. But I can’t do it alone, either.”

He rolls onto his side, putting his back to Dean, and falls quiet. Enough time passes in silence that Dean is sure he’s fallen asleep, and he’s not far from exhaustion himself. He doesn’t realize that his eyes are shut until Cas starts talking again.

“Are we friends, Dean?” The question is weak and pitiful, like he’s afraid of the answer. A pause, then softly, “I’m not good at friends.” Dean believes him.

He’s not really sure how to respond. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. From what he’s seen of the guy, Cas could definitely be someone he could see himself being close to, if circumstances were better.

“I’m here aren’t I?” he grunts instead of a yes or no, because it’s as neutral as he can get without feeling like he’s going to upset him.

“Yeah,” Cas murmurs tiredly, his voice almost reverent. “You are.”

They’re quiet after that and Dean manages to fall asleep for a few hours, on and off. He’s still not entirely sure he trusts Cas, but so far he hasn’t tried anything and Dean is fucking tired. By the time morning rolls around and the sun is shining through the window, his entire body feels like its just going to fall apart at the seams, abused from work and sitting in a car and sleeping on the floor.

He gets up and stretches, careful not to wake Cas, who’s dead to the world, and makes his way back through the apartment.

The kitchen is just as empty as the living room. There’s little in the drawers or cabinets, no microwave or coffee pot, and nothing in the fridge. It’s like everything that wasn’t bolted down is missing. He sighs and runs a hand through his hair before heading out the door.

It takes him ten or so minutes of walking before he finds a food joint open this early and he ends up at a twenty-four hour Thai place. He takes the order to-go and carries it back to the apartment, ideas of how to send Cas back home without a fight running through his head. The city invigorates him, in a way, with its busy streets and tall buildings, but he’s a small town kinda guy and he doubts he could live in an environment like this for long before going crazy.

The door is still unlocked when he gets back to the apartment and he sets the food down on the counter before going to open every window he can find, determined to get the smell of pot out. Frankly, he doesn’t know what kind of neighborhood they’re in and he doesn’t want someone walking outside to take a deep whiff and call the cops. After that he takes one of the napkins from the Thai place and very carefully picks up the syringes, spoon, and baggies off the floor without touching any of them. He hesitates, not really sure what to do with them, before dropping everything into one of the brown paper bags the food came in and tying it off.

He’s about halfway through his pad Thai when Cas comes stumbling in, clothes rumpled and hair all sorts of fucked. Cas blinks at the food and Dean points to his container of rice and chicken with his chopsticks. “Didn’t know what you like, so I stuck to the basics.”

Castiel nods slowly, eyes still on him like he’s a bomb about to explode. Dean raises his eyebrows and stares until Cas joins him to stand at the counter. They eat in silence, Cas mostly picking at his food while Dean wolfs his down. Damn, but they need a good Thai place in Lawrence.

“I wanted it,” Cas says finally. Dean follows the line of his eyes to see that he’s looking at the open vent that housed his drugs.

“You could have, but you didn’t,” Dean reminds him cautiously. “Right?”

Cas bares his arms again and pats down his thighs, face not even twitching. “I didn’t. But I wanted to.” Dean nods at him slowly.

“My dad can’t drink Mountain Dew because it makes him want vodka.”

“I know.”

Dean hesitates, going through the mental scripts he’d given himself on the walk back before throwing them out the window. He turns to look at Cas fully. It takes a moment for their eyes to meet but Dean won’t back down. “You didn’t use. That’s good. It’s okay to have a weak moment, Cas.”

Castiel lets out a bark of laughter and throws down his chopsticks, pushing his food away. “My entire life is a weak moment, Dean. I feel like shit all the time and everyone’s telling me that I should be better by now and I’m not.” His breath comes out in a shaky sigh and Dean puts a hand on his shoulder, remembering how it had helped when he did the last time he saw Cas and trying to push as much comfort into the gesture as he can.

“You wanted to, and you could have, but you didn’t.” Dean waits until Cas meets his eyes before saying firmly, “I’m proud of you.”

Dean has discovered that nothing else he can do or say can calm John down faster than that. When he and Sammy were kids, those were the magic words, the goal to strive for; recognition and praise, so rarely handed out. Even after all the time that’s passed, pride is special and treasured, because when it comes from a Winchester, it has to be earned.

Cas swallows and turns away, uncomfortable with the intensity of the moment. He fiddles with his chopsticks and then steals a noodle from Dean’s plate. The tension defuses somewhat and Dean snorts, retaliating by swiping a piece of Cas’s chicken. They eat in half-comfortable peace and when they finish breakfast Cas shows him where the trashcan is.

“The pot helps,” Cas says finally, tapping his fingers against the counter. “When I want to use, I get anxious and jittery. So I smoke, and it calms me down.”

“That was some potent shit there, dude,” Dean tells him lightly, trying to convey without words that he doesn’t care about this particular vice. “Somebody takes good care of their plants.”

Cas smiles and tips his chin into his hands, looking out the open window to the yellow-blue of the morning sky over the city. “I have a friend who knows his stuff.” His eyes slide over to where the blunt from last night is crumbled up on the floor in the hallway and his face closes off a bit. “Jimmy and I fought because they signed me up for classes. I panicked, needed to level out, and he caught me smoking and thought I was on a slippery slope.” He levels a long look at Dean, eyes grim and serious. “Did you know that pot is a gateway drug? Jimmy knows that pot is a gateway drug.”

Dean can’t help the startled laugh that draws out of him, and after a moment Cas joins in with a deep, gravelly chuckle.

“He has good intentions,” Cas continues after a few minutes. “I know he does. I know that he loves me and he thinks that this is what’s best for me.” His eyes are tired and pleading when they meet Dean’s, but also lost, like he’s not really sure what he’s pleading for. “But this pressure isn’t good for me. Maybe this works on other people, but I can’t handle it. Not right now.”

“You can stay with us,” Dean offers hesitantly, because he doesn’t actually know if Cas can stay with them. They barely have room for the three men who live there now, and he’s not really sure if they can handle two recovering addicts under the same roof. Brief visits, yeah, but an extended stay might bring more stress than good.

Cas seems to recognize that, because he shakes his head. “No. Thank you, but no. I’ve caused enough trouble for John.” He hesitates, then looks up at Dean from under his eyelashes. The motion makes him look younger, like a puppy waiting to be scolded. “And for you. I recognize that every time we meet I’m having some sort of crisis, and acknowledge how awkward this must be for you.  I really appreciate you coming all this way just to check on me. ”

Something sort of slides into place in Dean’s chest at the open vulnerability in Cas’s eyes. He realizes with a tiny jolt that shit he actually kind of cares about this guy. Care that goes beyond stranger-who-needs-help, beyond friend-of-dad. Dean actually fucking likes him.

“Well hey,” he says gruffly, uncomfortable with the sudden epiphany. “That’s what friends are for.”

Castiel’s smile could probably light up the whole damn sky.

They manage to put it off for another hour, just relaxing as Cas tells Dean about the city and where he went to college and Dean tells Cas about his job and what it’s like to work for a guy who practically raised him.

(“John has a lot of respect for Bobby,” Cas says thoughtfully as he sweeps up the crushed remains of the joint. Dean still doesn’t know where he got a broom from. “He talked about him frequently, and warmly, in group.”

“Yeah,” Dean smiles fondly, “Bobby’s an old coot, but he’s our old coot.”

Cas cuts his eyes towards him and dumps the wrinkled paper and bits of leaves out the open window before Dean can protest. “He talked about you in group, too. Mostly good things. I knew you and I would get along before I even met you.”

Dean scratches his throat and pretends that his cheeks aren’t heating up.)

Finally, though, Dean gives in and sighs, “We need to call Jimmy and get you back.”

“Yes,” Cas agrees hollowly. Neither of them move.

“I’ll handle it,” Dean says gently, and Cas looks at him like he’s hung the moon.

He steps outside the apartment to give Cas some space and pulls up an unfamiliar number that he saved into his phone yesterday evening before leaving. It only rings twice before Jimmy’s voice, not as deep as Castiel’s, is urgent in his ear. “Dean?”

“Yeah, hey.” He clears his throat. “Dad get in touch last night?”

There’s an exhale on the other end of the phone. “Yes. Cas is... he’s clean?” Dean makes an affirmative sound and Jimmy lets out a noise of relief. “And he wants to come back?”

“No,” Dean says, voice dry, “but he is anyway.”

Jimmy says nothing for a moment, as if taking that in, before rattling off his address, tone subdued and compliant.

“We’ll be there soon,” Dean grunts, then ends the call.

Cas is mostly quiet for the two hours it takes for them to get to Pontiac. He stares out the window while Dean taps his fingers against the wheel to Led Zeppelin, music just a bit too loud to be healthy, but neither of them comment on it. It makes up for the lack of conversation.

Dean feels like he should be more uncomfortable than he actually is, but Cas is calm and composed, a steady source of ease in the passenger seat. The realization that he’s friends with Cas was an unexpected one, but not altogether unwelcome. Dean’s never had many friends; acquaintances, sure, but never anyone he felt close enough to to willingly spend more time than necessary with.

Growing up, he had Sam, and that had always been enough for him. But despite barely knowing the guy beyond the basics, Castiel has already firmly planted himself on Dean’s people-I-care-about list. Maybe it’s because he’s always had a strong paternal instinct and an inborn desire to mother hen everyone around him, coupled with Cas’s emotional instability and need for a grounding presence.

Dean doesn’t know, he’s not a fucking psychologist. He just likes the damn guy.

He follows Cas’s directions as they navigate through the suburbs, the rumbling of the Impala’s engine echoing loudly through the sleepy neighborhood. They pass house after identical-looking house and Dean feels a big mystified. During his childhood and early teens he’d spent hours in the wilderness that surrounded Bobby’s house and the scrapyard, and while his own home is closer to the town than Bobby’s is, it still very much has a rural feel to it. He might have been born in a suburb and had lived in one until the fire, but nowadays he can’t imagine having to live so close to so many other people.

He can’t really see Cas living here, either.

Jimmy’s waiting for them on the front steps of his house, sitting with his elbows on his knees. Paired with the faded blue jeans and gray t-shirt, it humanizes him, making him look entirely different than the suited man Dean had met several months ago. Beside him is a young girl, maybe nine, ten at the oldest, kicking her legs against the brick steps. When the Impala rolls to a halt to the side of the driveway, she leaps up and bounces on her heels excitedly.

Cas takes a deep breath and exhales through his nose, and his mouth is set in a grim line when he turns to look at Dean. It’s the only obvious sign of nerves that Dean’s seen since getting in the car. “You don’t have to come in,” he says. Dean’s tempted to take the out and just drive straight back to Kansas, but he shakes his head.

“I want to talk to your brother.”

Castiel’s chapped lips thin out and he stares at Dean appraisingly before giving a jerky nod and opening the door without another word. Dean takes a moment to steel himself before following suit, and even before he’s closed the door behind him the girl has launched herself at Cas, arms circling his thin torso and dragging herself closer

“Cas, where were you? I was really worried!” She glares up at him, completely ignoring Dean, and also ignoring the hands that Castiel holds up in surrender as she smacks weakly at his arms.

“Claire,” he grunts out at a particularly hard whack, “calm yourself.”

Claire, who Dean can only assume is Cas’s niece, sniffs through her nose loudly. Her face crumples before she buries it into Cas’s stomach. “We were s’posed to watch a movie,” she says, muffled voice close to a whine.

Castiel turns a helpless look to Dean and then to Jimmy, who only watches from his seat on the steps, eyes appraising. Finally he pats the girl’s back and mumbles awkwardly, “There, there…”

“I was really worried,” Claire repeats, but the anger has gone out of the words and left only hurt in its wake.

“Yes, Castiel,” Jimmy pipes up, finally rising to his feet. His hands slide into his front pockets and he looks them over, Cas and Dean both, before raising an eyebrow. “We were all worried.”

There’s a silent staring match between the two brothers that makes Dean feel conflicted and out of place. On the one hand, he understands that Cas is simply emotionally unequipped to handle the pressure of being forced back into his old life before he’s ready. On the other hand, he also understands Jimmy’s selfish desire to have his brother back to normal as soon possible. In the end, though, he knows who he’d side with in an argument, so he steps a bit closer to Castiel, standing slightly to the behind and to the side of him, chin tilted up.

It’s not an aggressive pose, but a calculated one. Jimmy draws himself up a bit higher in response, the other eyebrow joining the first.

Claire is obviously not oblivious to the sudden tension, because she pulls away with a look of confused apprehension, finally taking notice of Dean and eyeing him warily.

“Jimmy,” Dean says, keeping his voice casual and nonthreatening because he really does just want to talk. Given Jimmy’s strict adherence to social graces during their last meeting, he figures that being as polite and mannerly as he can manage would go a long way towards defusing the situation. “Good to see you again.”

Obviously manners were the correct choice. Jimmy deflates slightly and scratches the back of his neck. It’s a motion that mimics one he’s seen Cas do several times and it serves to relax Dean a bit. “And you.” He gestures towards Claire, who’s got her hands around one of Cas’s arms. “My daughter, Claire. Claire, this is our friend, Dean.”

Claire surprises him by brightening. “Oh, the guy Cas talks to! Hi.” She smiles at him, still not entirely at ease with everything but loosening up, before turning her attention back to Cas. “Can we go watch the movie now? You promised.”

“Oh.” Castiel’s eyes dart between his brother and Dean, a small frown pulling at his face, but Claire’s puppy eyes could give Sam’s a run for their money and he folds quickly. “Yes, of course.” He lets her pull him across the front lawn, sparing another glance at Dean. “Which movie are we watching?”

“Frozen!” comes the immediate, emphatic reply.

Dean can’t see Cas’s face anymore, but there’s obvious distaste in his voice as he says, “Ah. Of course. Frozen... Again.”

Suddenly, Dean and Jimmy are alone, with Dean still standing by the Impala. They stare openly now, measuring each other up for a minute. Jimmy looks vaguely annoyed, and exasperated, like he’s at the end of his rope, and… tired.

Jimmy looks really, really tired.

“That’s enough posturing, I think,” he sighs finally, lifting a hand to rub at his eyes. Involuntarily, Dean feels another jolt of sympathy for this man who obviously has no clue how to handle the problems that have been thrust on him. “Would you like to come inside? I have beer. Or water or tea, if you prefer, what with your father and all.”

Forcing himself to relax, Dean aims a (hopefully disarming) smile. “You had me at beer.”

The house is clean, but not overly so, which surprises Dean; from what he’s seen of the guy, he was expecting Jimmy’s house to be immaculate. He leads them through the hallway to the kitchen, and nods towards some stools at the bar-style counter. “Thank you for… looking out for Cas, I guess,” he says, opening the fridge. He tosses Dean a beer bottle, then gets himself one before taking a seat on the stool beside his.

Dean isn’t really good at exchanging pleasantries, and Jimmy doesn’t appear to be up for it right now, so they just sit in silence and sip at their drinks. In the background, several rooms away, there’s the buzz of a television and the low muffled rumble of Castiel’s voice.

Jimmy sighs and bows his head, carding a hand through his hair. “Claire adores him, you know. He’s good at humoring her.”

“Seems like a good kid,” Dean says out of courtesy.

“When he stormed out yesterday, she almost went into hysterics.” He looks back up, eyes exhausted but serious. “I don’t know how to handle this, Dean. I don’t know what to do with him.” He bites his lip before taking a long drag from his beer that ends with a sigh. “To be honest, I don’t know much about him at all.”

“But he’s your brother,” Dean says slowly, uncomprehending. He can’t imagine not knowing all of Sam’s shit. There’s very little that’s not shared between the two of them, and though Sam bitches about it regularly, they both know that there isn’t anything Dean wouldn’t do for him.

Jimmy laughs, but it’s not how Cas laughs. Cas laughs like he doesn’t do it often, like it’s genuine, like he only knows how to do it when it’s punched out of him unexpectedly. Right now Jimmy laughs like Dean’s just said something funny, but not ha-ha funny. More like you-poor-thing funny.

He turns a humorless smile at Dean, the quirk of his lips almost mocking. “You know, twins, in books or on tv and stuff, they can read each other’s minds? Or they finish each other’s sentences? They share clothes and prank their friends and pretend to be each other. They’re, what? Two halves of the same soul?” He shakes his head, like it’s just so fucking funny. “Castiel and I were never like that. Ever. We didn’t hate each other, but, I don’t know. We weren’t close.”

He shakes his head, that empty grin stretching just a little wider. “Before I got the call that he’d overdosed and was in the hospital, I hadn’t seen him in years. Not since Claire was born. I didn’t know he was using.  Hell, I didn’t even know I was still his emergency contact.” His eyes are a bit wild as they catch Dean’s, desperate and pained. “I don’t know how to help him because I don’t know him, Dean. He’s my brother, but he’s a stranger.”

Abruptly he buries his face into his hands, elbows on the counter and shoulders high and tense. “I don’t know what to do.”

Dean stares down at his beer bottle, mind reeling from the overload of information that was just shoved into it. A few minutes pass as he tries to formulate a response, and in the background there’s the shrill singing of Elsa YOLO-ing on a mountain. (He’s seen the movie once. Okay, maybe twice.)

“Okay,” he says finally, picking his words very, very carefully, “here’s what you do. You leave him alone for a day. Give the both of you time to cool off. Then you apologize to him, and you do your damnedest to mean it. Then you get in touch with whoever you need to get in touch with to get him another sponsor, because he can’t do this alone and there are things that he needs that you don’t have the knowledge to provide.”

“What’s wrong with his current sponsor?” Jimmy asks, brows furrowed. Dean stares at him.

“...he overdosed, like, three or four days ago, dude.”

Jimmy looks like he just got punched in the stomach and he drags a hand down his face. Dean sighs and shakes his head. “Look, man, I’m not a professional or anything. I don’t want to give advice because I don’t know if it’ll be good or not. But I’m not totally unfamiliar with this, because I’m living with a recovering addict too, and I know that the best thing that you can do for him right now is talk like he’s a normal damn human being and not a fragile piece of glass. And if he talks to you, you listen.” Jimmy opens his mouth, but Dean holds up a hand and stares at him hard. “No, you listen to what he tells you. When he says that he’s not ready for something, you trust him and you listen. I’ll admit that I don’t know the guy very well, but anyone who has a conversation with him can tell that he’s intelligent and he’s not denial about what’s happening. He knows he had a problem and he’s trying to fix it and you need to let him do that at his own pace and support him where you can.”

Chastised, Jimmy stares down at his lap. Dean runs a hand through his hair, drained after his outburst, and finishes off the last few gulps of his beer. “Find him a sponsor,” he says finally, “and go from there. And if he doesn’t think he can do something, you don’t make him do it.”

He slaps a hand against the counter, ending the conversation. “Cas?” Jimmy points, subdued, down a hall, and Dean follows the direction until he hears the soft sound of the movie playing out of a cracked door. He pokes his head into the room and is assaulted by the sheer amount of pink. Pink walls, pink bed, pink carpet, pink furniture, and in the middle of it is Cas, reclined on a pink bean-bag chair with Claire asleep in his lap, watching the television mounted on the wall with a pained expression. Dean knocks lightly against the doorway and Cas turns to blink at him, glancing down at the sleeping girl sprawled out over his legs.

Text me, Dean mouths at him, miming a phone with one hand against his ear. Cas nods slowly and mouths back, Thank you. Dean lifts a hand in reply and backs away again.

“Sponsor,” he repeats firmly at Jimmy as he passes back through the kitchen. Jimmy is bent over in his seat, face back in his hands.

“Sponsor,” comes the muffled, weary agreement, and Dean shows himself out the door.

 

-----------

 

Part VI

 

FR: CAS
What the fuck is a chihuahua?

TO: CAS
what

TO: CAS
cas?

TO: CAS
it’s 3 in the goddamn morning

TO: CAS
what are you talking about  

FR: CAS
I’m watching animal planet and there’s a Chihuahua. It looks like a demon. I can see Satan in its horrible bug eyes.

FR: CAS
Chihuahua. Chihuahua. Chihuahua.

FR: CAS
No matter how many ways I misspell it my phone autocorrects it to chihuahua.

FR: CAS
I think my phone is sentient. I think that it’s laughing at me.  

TO: CAS
are you high

FR: CAS
I’m not sure.

TO: CAS
are you smoking pot

FR: CAS
Hold on, I’ll check.

FR: CAS
Yes.

TO: CAS
then youre high

FR: CAS
Are you doing anything important?

TO: CAS
well i was sleeping but i already know that that doesn’t rank high on your list of importance. so no

FR: CAS
Can I call?

TO: CAS
is everything okay?

FR: CAS
Yeah I guess. I’m just bored. We haven’t talked in a while.

FR: CAS
Nevermind. Go back to sleep. I’m sorry I woke you.

TO: CAS
dude just call me you loser don’t be such a girl about it

 FR: CAS
:D 

Dean’s just making his way out the back door when the opening riffs of Smoke on the Water blare out from the speakers of his cheap track phone. He waits a moment to make sure no lights have turned on inside the house, signaling that he’d woken someone up, before he accepts the call and lifts the phone up to his ear.

“Heya, Cas.”

“Hello, Dean,” comes the raspy voice on the other end of the line, and Dean breathes a sigh of relief. He sounds normal, if a bit slurred and dopey. Certainly not upset. “How’ve you been?”

He snorts into the phone and wipes the sleep out of his eyes. “Good. You?”

“I met my new sponsor today,” Cas says casually. Oh, okay. Now Dean knows what’s going on. “She is a little… intense, I suppose.”

Dean flops down on one of the stumps that surround their tiny fire pit and scratches at his bare legs, thankful for the heat of the late spring night. Days in Kansas in May can be hot and humid and often leave his shirt sticking to his shoulder blades even in the shade of the auto shop, but at night it cools down significantly. They’re far enough away from the city that Dean can see the stars twinkling in the sky above without them being obscured by the light pollution.

Damn, he needs to stop hanging out with Sam so much, if he’s thinking about shit like light pollution.

“Tell me about her,” he prompts. Cas has been keeping the Winchesters up to date with the process of finding a new sponsor, and in return they’ve been giving him helpful suggestions courtesy of Benny. It’s been a few weeks since the two of them have really had an opportunity to talk, though, because Sammy has finals soon and Dean’s been spending his free time helping him study.

“Her name is Meg. She used for over a decade but stopped when her father died. She’s… incredibly open with her personal life, and she speaks freely with little regard to social conventions. Jimmy hates her, of course.”

“So obviously you love her,” Dean grins into the phone, his eyes closed. He’s… well, shit. He’s actually happy that Cas called him at asscrack in the morning. He actually really kind of likes the guy. Dean would say that, over the last few months, Cas has even become his best friend, or something. If he had more than one friend that wasn’t Sam it’d be more of an accomplishment, probably. “Is she hot?”

“Dean,” Cas admonishes bashfully, but there’s a smile in his voice. There’s a lull in the conversation, a peaceful calm as Dean listens to the soft mmm-pfffff of Cas taking a puff on his joint, the quiet noise he makes as he exhales. Then, “Yes, she is hot.”

“Yeah dude!” Dean crows, then checks himself before he can get too loud. “You should hit that.”

“It’s unethical,” Cas assures him seriously. “Besides, she’s kind of scary. The meeting left me feeling a little overwhelmed and anxious.”

“That explains the pot,” he snorts, and Cas gives an agreeable hum.

Another comfortable silence falls that lasts for several minutes. Dean should be pissed that Cas woke him up in the middle of the night to talk but now won’t say anything, but… he’s not. He’s content.

“You don’t have to stay awake, Dean. I’m sorry I bothered you.” Cas sounds tired on the other end of the line, but not tired enough to go to sleep. Dean knows that he’ll be awake for another few hours, winding down from the stress of meeting a stranger. “Jimmy has been trying to do better, but sometimes it’s nice to talk to someone whose first response to learning that I’m upset isn’t to check my arms. You were the first person who came to mind.”

A little bubble of warmth builds up in Dean’s chest, and though he tries to stomp it down it still leaves him with a slightly giddy feeling with the knowledge that Cas picked him over John. John, who he knew first and spent months essentially living with. John, the fellow recovering addict. John, who apparently isn’t as nice to talk to as Dean.

“Dude,” Dean says, interrupted by a wide yawn. Cas is still chuckling over it in amusement as he finishes, “You’re fine. Talk to me. Nothin’ else I’d rather be doing.”

He tells himself he’s not going to overthink the implications of the fact that he’s telling the truth, and instead he sets his chin in his palm, closes his eyes, and tries not to fall asleep to Castiel’s low, rough voice in his ear.

 

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Part VII

 

When Sam graduates, it’s just Dean and John in the bleachers. They’re in the high school’s auditorium, which is hot and stifling and can barely fit the hundred and fifty students, plus all their families. Bobby had wanted to come but had to duck out at the last minute due to Rufus falling sick, Benny had been politely invited but had likewise politely declined, and Jo’s graduation was only two days after Sam’s and they’d all agreed that the ten-hour drive one way was too far to warrant them coming to visit for only a few hours.

Cas was supposed to come, and apparently Jimmy too since the older twin refused to let the younger one any farther out of his reach than Springfield, but according to the phone call Dean had gotten ten minutes before the ceremony started they’d gotten caught in traffic.

When they call Sam’s name, the Winchesters scream as loud as they can, but nobody could beat the parents of Jenny Baucom, who had smuggled in an air horn.

Still, Sam crosses the stage proudly, takes his diploma with a grin, and lifts his eyes in their direction when John puts his fingers to his lips and whistles shrilly. Dean feels like he’s floating on a cloud through the rest of the ceremony, which is thankfully short, and screams himself hoarse along with everyone else when the graduates flip their tassels. Sam is one of those losers who won’t throw his mortarboard cap, just grips to it tightly with both hands and laughs. Probably because he wants to keep his original one and frame it or something like a huge nerd.

Everything else after goes by quickly. None of the Winchester men are fond of photography, but Dean still makes an innocent bystander take their picture, John and Dean on either side with Sam in the middle, standing a few inches above them both and smiling like a loon.

“I’m proud of you, son,” John tells Sam, clapping a hand on his shoulder, and Dean is surprised by how little jealousy he feels. He’s proud too.

The drive back home is filled with easy conversation, but Dean can tell that Sam is distracted the entire time. “What’s up?” he asks quietly after they all pile out of the Impala and John trundles into the backyard to fire up the grill for celebratory hot dogs.

“It’s nothing. I’ll tell you later,” Sam says with an unconvincing smile, and hurries into the house before Dean can pry any further. He frowns after his brother, but decides to let the matter rest for now. After all, Cas and Jimmy will be there soon, and there’s still food to cook. They may not have enough people for an honest-to-goodness party, but Dean knows there are few things less terrifying than the horror of not having enough food for five fully grown men.

He takes his place beside the grill, ready with the uncooked hot dogs and raw hamburger meat on a plate, as John fiddles with the settings and swears under his breath. “Sam seems pretty out of it,” he says conversationally. John grunts and kicks at the leg of the grill irritably.

“He just graduated from high school, Dean,” he sighs finally, putting his hands on his hips and glaring at the grill. “When was the last time we used this damn thing?”

He has to take a moment to think about it before he shrugs. “I don’t think we ever have. I think Bobby just dropped it off here one day.”

“Ah.” They stare down at it before John turns, takes the plate from Dean, and marches back towards the house. “Microwave it is, then.”

The Novak’s ugly-ass Bonneville is chugging into the driveway and coasting to a stop beside the Impala right as the microwave beeps. Dean yells out a greeting from the stove where he’s frying up the hamburger patties and in a few seconds Cas bursts into the kitchen.

“Why does it smell like smoke in here?” he asks, concerned, coming to a stop right behind Dean. When he turns to look over his shoulder, Cas’s face is like three inches from his, and he startles away from those stupidly blue eyes in surprise.

“Jesus fuck, Cas, personal space!” Cas just blinks and cocks his head. “Also, because dad burnt the first two hamburgers and I got stuck on stove duty.” Behind them, Jimmy bustles in with a plate of muffins in his hands, and the microwave beeps insistently. “Get those out, will you?”

“We brought muffins,” Jimmy says uselessly. “They’re homemade.”

“They’re not homemade,” Cas whispers to Dean as he pulls the hot dogs out. “We forgot to bring something and stopped at Walmart like fifteen minutes ago.”

“I’m sure they’re delicious,” Dean tells them both, attention back on the pan as he flips a patty. Sam appears from where he’d been hiding in his room for the last half hour and Cas and Jimmy both greet him enthusiastically. He smiles and hugs them both, all happy teeth and floppy hair like the world’s biggest, proudest puppy. “I need a plate,” Dean tells the room at large, and doesn’t look up when a hand appears to the side with one.

“Make yourselves at home,” Sam tells the Novak brothers after they all exchange pleasantries. Cas flits around beside him briefly to collect dishes and glasses from the cupboard, and the plastic plates clatter as he sets the table. “We’ve got water and Coke and beer, if you guys want some?”

Dean’s not watching them, but he can hear the skepticism in Jimmy’s voice when he says, “Beer? Is that a good idea, with your father?”

“I can keep myself clean, thanks,” John shouts from his spot on the couch, where Dean was pretty sure he’d fallen asleep.

“Soup’s on!” Dean yells brightly before it can get too awkward, and from there it’s a veritable free-for-all as they all scramble to get as much food on their plates as possible. Somebody knocks over the bottle of ketchup and Dean ends up cleaning it up, because it’s Sam’s big day, Cas and Jimmy are guests, and John is faster than him at nose-goes.

After the obligatory groans of appreciation and thankful sighs, they settle into a cheerful not-silence of chewing and clattering. After everyone’s had at least one burger or dog, Sam leans forward in his chair and places both his hands on the table dramatically. Everyone looks up at him in curiosity, Dean with his beer poised on his lips and John with his mouth stretched grotesquely full. Sam swallows, then says, “I have an announcement to make.” His eyes shoot to Cas, who nods at him encouragingly, and Dean squints at them suspiciously. When Sam pulls a letter, crisp and lovingly folded, out of the pocket of his henley, Dean’s eyebrows shoot up. Sam takes a deep breath, then--

“I got accepted to Stanford.”

There’s a collective inhale, and all of them swing around to look at John. The oldest Winchester frowns at Sam, but it’s not an angry frown. It’s more like an I-don’t-know-what-face-to-make frown. He sets his elbow on the table and waves a hand for Sam to continue. He does, after floundering for a few seconds.

“I only got a partial scholarship, so I’d have to take out loans, but it’s my top choice and I really want to go and I can do it, Dad, I know I can.”

Dean stares back and forth between the two of them, feeling like he’s just been punched in the gut. Yeah, he’d helped Sam fill out his applications, had even spotted him some of the fees, and he’d known that he was applying to Stanford, but to believe that he’d actually made it in

Everyone holds their breath as John sets his hamburger down and folds his hands together, staring down at the table thoughtfully. The only one of them who doesn’t look panicked is Cas, who has his hands in his lap as he surveys them serenely. A good long minute passes before John looks back up at Sam, the very edges of his lips tilted up, and Dean’s heart, previously somewhere near his knees, soars up to his throat in relief. “I know you can too,” he says finally, and Sam laughs like he doesn’t know what else to do, like he’s so ecstatic that all he can do is laugh, and leans back in his chair.

Jimmy looks happy but uncomfortable, too unfamiliar with them to really appreciate the situation, but Cas looks pleased as punch as he goes back to eating his hot dog with a beatific smile on his face. Dean is… Well.

Dean is torn.

On the one hand, he’s so fucking happy that his little brother is a goddamn smarty pants who’s going to go off and make the world a better place at the school of his dreams. Sam’s been talking about Stanford for years. (Like, since he was fourteen and in eighth grade, whispering about maybes and somedays and hiding with Dean under a blanket fort that they were both way too old for as John drank and raged in the next room.)

On the other hand… Stanford is in California. On the other side of the country, California. That’s not a day-trip distance, or even a visit-on-the-weekends-for-dinner distance. That’s a plan-months-ahead-and-buy-plane-tickets distance. Considering the farthest he’s ever been from Sam was fucking Pontiac, it’s a little terrifying to think of his baby brother so far away.

Some of that trepidation must show on his face, because when Sam looks from John to him, his smile falls slightly. Dean swallows and forces himself to grin, tries to make himself feel the elation that he’s pretty sure he’s supposed to feel instead of the terror that’s actually there. Sam buys it, too excited to read into it much, but when Dean glances around to make sure that everyone else bought it too he sees that Cas is watching him with a tiny, barely-there frown. He raises his chin up, challenging Cas to say something, but his friend merely looks back down at his plate.

Dean manages to get through the rest of the dinner without breaking his act, and finally manages to slip away on his own after they’ve migrated to the living room and John hands Sam a beer, Jimmy a watchful presence to the side of them. Cas is nowhere to be seen, probably in the bathroom or something, and Dean sneaks out the back door while nobody is watching.

He makes it to the fire pit before he has to sit down, barely making it onto a stump as he realizes that his hands and legs are shaking violently. He puts his head between his knees as his breaths leave him in great gulping gasps because Sam is leaving, Sam graduated the way Dean couldn’t and he’s going to go off to college and he’s leaving them behind, and he’ll never have to see them again if he doesn’t want to, he’s an adult now and Dean’s not ready for this, he can’t handle it, it snuck up on him too fast and he knew but he didn’t really know and what is he supposed to do with his life when Sam doesn’t need him to wake him up and make him breakfast and help him with his homework, he can’t do this he can’t--

“Dean?”

Later, Dean will deny the scream he makes with his dying goddamn breath. He jerks around to see Cas standing a few feet away from him, blue eyes wide and surprised. He runs his hands through his hair and tugs lightly, trying to force his breathing back into a smooth rhythm, but his fingers feel numb and his teeth are tingling. He hasn’t had a panic attack in over a year, not since John’s accident, and he’s trying to remember how to handle them.

Cas approaches him slowly and cautiously, hands lows and palms open in front of him, like he’s walking towards a wild animal, and Dean lets out a hysterical laugh at the way the roles have reversed for them.

He looks away, trying to control the shivering of his limbs, and barely hears Cas sitting down on the ground beside him over the thumping of his blood in his ears. A minute or so passes where Cas says nothing, just fiddles with something in the pockets of his peacoat. Dean’s just starting to catch his breath, thankful for the silence, when a hand appears in front of his lowered face, holding a rolled joint. He swallows and meets Cas’s wide, earnest eyes, before plucking it from him and holding it up to his lips. There’s the flick of a lighter and the metallic scent of the lighter fluid under his nose as Cas lights him up.

The first puff sits thick and heady in his mouth, rolling smoke over his tongue and threatening to choke him before he exhales shakily through his lips. It’s been a while since he’s done this, too, but he holds the second hit in for longer and when he breathes out it’s smoother and less stuttery.

It’s not instantaneous, but Dean can feel the tense muscles in his arms loosen a bit as he hands the joint to Cas. Cas inhales and exhales like a pro, popping his mouth so the smoke comes out in a wobbly ring. They watch it float through the air before a light breeze blows it away. It’s starting to cool down now, the sun halfway through its descent and the first of the stars are beginning to peek out.

“Talk to me,” Cas finally says after Dean’s fifth hit, and he’s starting to feel less light-headed and more fuzzy-headed. Marijuana has never effected Dean much; he’s not a giggly high like Lisa had been, and he doesn’t get totally blissed-out like Cas does. Instead it just makes him feel looser, more relaxed. Softer, kinda.

He appreciates that Cas doesn’t ask if he’s okay. He doesn’t ask if Dean wants to talk about it, or what’s wrong, or what happened. He takes charge and lets Dean give away his control. His voice is strong and steady despite the obviously heavy shit they’re smoking.

Dean likes it.

“I’m not ready,” he says, then realizes that Cas probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “For Sam to leave.”

“Hmm,” is all Cas says in reply, but he takes the blunt when Dean offers it.

“He’s going to be so far away. He’s leaving me.”

“He’s leaving your father too,” Cas reminds him, but his voice is a bit more gentle now. Dean likes it when he sounds like this, too.

“Dad doesn’t need him. Dad’s doing so much better. He wouldn’t need me, either. He has Benny.” Cas passes it back to him and Dean pinches it between his fingers, staring down at it idly. “Neither of them need me. Nobody does.”

“I do,” Cas says.

Dean slides down to the ground next to him. It’s easier to hand him the joint this way.

“They do need you. Maybe just not in the way that they used to.” Cas reaches out and takes Dean’s hand, picking at his fingers. “And that’s okay. People change, Dean. That’s okay.”

Dean’s head lolls until it lands on Cas’s shoulder, but he can’t be assed to move it. They’re best friends, right? What’s a little shoulder pillowing between friends.

“What are you going to do when Sam leaves, Dean?”

He shrugs, more of a flop then actual coordinated movement. “Same as ever. Work.”

Cas purses his lips. “You know, a few days ago Jimmy told me that I didn’t have to go back to school. He told me to take my time and wait until I was ready, that I was sure that was what I wanted.” He turns to look at Dean, but since Dean’s head is on his shoulder he mostly just smushes their faces together. “You know what’s ironic? I woke up this morning and realized that I was going to Sam’s graduation, and that I never finished my Master’s. I got so fucking far, Dean. And I realized that I missed school. I want to go back.”

Dean laughs, loud, throwing his head back from Cas’s shoulder to rest against the stump they’re leaning against. “That’s fucking funny.”

“I’m moving back to Springfield,” Cas continues like he wasn’t interrupted. “You should come with me. You need someone to need you, and you make me want to do better.”

“That’s not healthy,” Dean tells him cheerfully, still smiling.

“No,” Cas agrees, “but maybe one day I’ll want to do better for me, and you won’t need someone to need you.”

Dean doesn’t have anything to say to that, so he just takes another hit. They sit out there until the sun has fully set and it’s dark out and Dean wonders why nobody has come out looking for him. Maybe he wasn’t as good at keeping his panic to himself as he thought. Cas finishes the blunt by himself while Dean comes down from his high, and when Cas is done they stand and stretch, neither of them mentioning how close they’d been.

“It sucks that you didn’t get to see Sammy get his diploma,” Dean says. “I mean, I dropped out so I didn’t walk, but I’m glad one of us did. It’s pretty cool, I guess.” Cas shrugs.

“I wouldn’t know. I didn’t get to go to my graduation.” He stubs the last of the joint out against the stump and tucks the remains back into his coat. A self-deprecating smile crosses his face. “I was in a car accident a few days before and busted my leg all to hell. A metal rod and some screws later and I was okay, but I’d missed the actual graduation.”

Dean hums sympathetically.

“You guys staying the night?” he asks after a long, comfortable silence. Cas shakes his head.

“Driving back. Jimmy wanted to get back home to take Claire to school tomorrow. It’s Career Day and all of the little children are excited to learn about selling ad space.”

Dean can’t tell if it’s sarcasm or not. For all he knows, selling ad space is actually an exciting, blood-pumping career.

He doubts it, though.

“Need to leave soon then.”

“I’ll drive so Jimmy can sleep.”

When they make their way back inside, they find John asleep on the couch, still sitting up but leaning heavily on the armrest. Jimmy and Sam are talking quietly, but most of Sam’s attention is on the letter in his hands, a soft smile on his face. When Cas clears his throat, they look up at them. If either of them notice their red eyes or the way their clothes smell, they don’t mention it.

“Ready whenever you are,” Cas tells Jimmy, then turns a smile at Sam. “We’re all proud of you, Sam. Congratulations. I told you that everything would work out okay.”

Dean can’t help the little jolt of resentment he feels over the fact that Castiel obviously knew about the Stanford thing and didn’t feel the need to warn him about it.

“Actually, if I could speak to Dean,” Jimmy interjects, surprising them all. “Just us,” he clarifies pointedly when Cas scoots a little closer to Dean’s side.

Castiel glances at Dean as if looking for confirmation, and Dean shrugs. He’s still relaxed enough from the pot that Jimmy could whip out a salsa dress and start dancing the cancan and he probably wouldn’t be fazed.

“I’ll get the car started,” Cas grunts, voice dark with warning, and the message is clear. You have until I get back and then you lay off the Winchester.

Jimmy gestures Dean back out into the back yard, and Dean feels like he’s just going in circles through a revolving door today.

Dean shoves his hands in his pockets and Jimmy pretends to be interested in the grill, but the silence isn’t comfortable like it is with Cas and thankfully it doesn’t last as long, either. “I wanted to thank you,” Jimmy says finally. “Castiel is… a handful. And I’m trying to understand him better, get to know him like you said. But honestly, I believe that ship has sailed.” His eyes are just as blue as Cas’s are, and in the porch light they’re pained and disappointed. “He and I are never going to be close. Not like you and Sam are.” (Dean snorts, because he and Sam are pretty codependent and probably not the best model to base a sibling relationship off of.) Jimmy sighs and shakes his head. “And not like he and you are.”

The twin thing has never been more obvious than now, when Jimmy stares at him earnestly just like Cas does, like he wants Dean to believe something with all of his might but is terrified that he won’t. “Dean, you’ve been a better brother and friend to Castiel in the last seven months than I’ve been in the last twenty-nine years.” He takes Dean’s hands in both of his, leaning forward, his voice raw and honest. “You’re good for him.”

The conversation from earlier floats through his hazy brain. “You should come with me.”

“Jimmy,” Cas says abruptly, seemingly appearing out of fucking nowhere, but more likely from around the side of the house. Jimmy drops Dean’s hands like they’re on fire. “We’ve got a long drive.” His eyes are on Dean, flicking up and down searchingly like he’s expecting to see open wounds or something. “I’ll call you,” he tells him finally, before marching back around to the driveway.

Jimmy stares after him, something tired and hurt in the set of his mouth, before he nods at Dean. “Thank you for your hospitality,” he murmurs, and follows after his brother.

Dean stays outside for a few more minutes, listening to the opening and slamming of car doors and then finally the engine turning over. Headlights cross the yard briefly as the Bonneville backs up and swings around back to the road, and then Cas and Jimmy are gone.

When he eventually goes back inside, John is awake and Sam is the one asleep on the couch. Sam’s hands are clutching at his precious acceptance letter. It doesn’t fill him with as much fear as it did an hour earlier. John’s watching him snore with such open, tender affection that it makes Dean’s throat clench. His father’s eyes finally slide over to him when he sits down gingerly in the armchair a foot or two away.

“He’s a good kid,” John says, trying to keep his voice low. “You did right by him.”

Dean’s throat clenches harder and it must be the pollen in the spring air because his sinuses feel a little thick, too. John quirks a smile at him.

 “You’re a good kid, too.” He sighs and shakes his head, fond and sad at the same time. “You both deserved so much better than what I gave you.” When Dean opens his mouth to argue, John lifts a hand to stop him. “No, you did. You still do. And look at him,” he turns back to Sammy, and if his eyes are wet then Dean sure as hell isn’t gonna say anything. “Figuring out what he wants and making his way towards it.” A tear rolls down his cheek as he looks back at Dean. “What about you, Dean? What do you want?”

Dean shrugs, an awkward smile tilting his lips. He doesn’t want to make this about him. It’s Sam’s big day. “I don’t know.”

John stares at him, then grins and shakes his head. “Damn boy,” he says, just loud enough to stir Sam but quiet enough to let him stay asleep, “maybe you should figure that out.”

(“You should come with me.”)

Dean leans back into his chair and closes his eyes.

 

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Part VII

 

The chatter of the airport is loud and grating and somebody bumps into Dean’s shoulder, but all of his attention is focused on Sammy, tall Sammy, smart Sammy, destined-for-great-things Sammy. Boarding-a-plane-to-California Sammy.

“Don’t miss me too much,” Sam grins, but his voice wavers and he swallows to keep from crying. Dad stayed in the lobby because he was about three seconds from bawling and clinging to Sam like a limpet, and Dean’s come as far as he can before they have to separate and he’s honestly not sure if he can restrain himself from doing the same.

They stare at each other for another few seconds before meeting in an explosive embrace. Later, neither of them will be able to say who moved for it first. Dean claps Sam on the back a few times, Sam dribbles snot into Dean’s hair, and they both rock and bounce around awkwardly as they try to convey their feelings in as manly a way as possible without talking.

Finally Dean pulls away with a sniff and stares up at his younger brother. “Call me as soon as you land,” he commands gruffly, and Sam pulls him in for one last quick hug before turning and practically sprinting towards his gate. He pauses to turn and wave at Dean, who lifts a hand in response and does not cry, dammit.

He turns and makes his way back to the lobby. He meets up with John and makes sure that he has his bus ticket back to Lawrence, texts Cas, and walks back through the parking lot to the Impala.

Then he gets in, starts the engine, and begins the long drive from Kansas City, Kansas, to Springfield, Illinois.