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Turn on the Stars

Chapter Text

THEN

They weren’t on the highway anymore; Dean could tell before he even opened his eyes. He felt his stomach shift as the Impala careened around each bend in the road, going a little too fast. Dean blinked slowly as the rest of his senses came back to him. There was the soft hum of music leaking from the radio. The cool glass of the passenger side window against his forehead. Tilting his head slightly to look out, Dean was surprised by how dark it had gotten—almost pitch black—but he could just make out the shadowy outlines of wide tree trunks resolving in and out of focus. Fog clung to everything like a sheen: the ground, the road, the dim glow of their headlights. They must still be near the coast.

Something was digging into Dean’s stomach. It was Adam’s elbow. The kid was sprawled out and fast asleep in Dean’s lap. His head lolled to one side against the pillow they’d wedged between him and the door and his little socked feet dangled over Dean’s knees. As Dean shifted his brother gently (which was difficult with his busted-up wrist), he noticed that someone had laid a jacket over his shoulders. Must have been Dad—it was the fleece one he’d been using the whole drive to wipe condensation from the windshield.         

Something moved in the backseat and Dean turned. Sam was awake too. He had his chin in his hand and a book with a cracked spine flopped open in his lap. Dean couldn’t help but roll his eyes, even as he grinned. Sam looked up and raised an eyebrow.

Go to sleep, nerd”, Dean mouthed. Now it was Sam’s turn to roll his eyes. Then, he went right back to his book. The kid never listened.

Finally, straightening up a little, Dean looked over at the driver’s seat. He could tell immediately that Dad was tired. One hand held the wheel while the other rested slack on the gear shift. He was looking straight forward in a way that made Dean feel like he wasn’t entirely in the car with them. His dad was a large man—he felt like he was twice Dean’s size, usually—but he looked especially huge in this confined space.

Dean cleared his throat. “Dad? Um, how are we on gas?”            

It took Dad a second to come back to himself. Then, he lifted his hand slightly so he could see past the steering wheel to the fuel gauge. “Half.”           

Dean nodded slowly. He looked out again at the trees pressing in on them. “Where are we?”     

Dad tipped his head toward the wide trunks at the side of the road in answer. “Redwood forest.”

The response from the backseat was immediate. “No way!” Sam dropped his book onto the duffel at his feet and had his nose practically flattened against the window, craning to see the treetops before they disappeared into the dark sky. Dean had also read about these mammoth, ancient trees, thank you very much. He tried to remember where they were… California? Yeah, northern California.

“Did you know some of these trees are almost as wide as a school bus?” said Sam excitedly.

Dad glanced at Sam in the rearview mirror. “Don’t wake Adam,” he warned, but Dean thought he saw a small smile as he turned back to the wheel.

Dean reached down and absentmindedly ran his hand through his little brother’s tangled hair. “Where are we stopping, Dad?”

Instead of answering, Dad reached into the cup holder on his door, sifted through wrappers from salt water taffy they’d picked up 200 miles ago, and produced a small, folded piece of paper. Dean took it in his uninjured hand and held it against the window to read.

 

1827 Meadowlark Ln

Angel’s Footprint, Oregon 97135

 

Dean groaned. “Is this place going to be full of religious nuts?”

“It’s a good situation. Bobby found it for us.”

Good. Bobby’s placements were almost always for at least a few months.

Dad continued, “Sam, put that book away. You should both go to sleep. It’s another six hours north.”

Sam grumbled but did as he was told. Dean watched his dad for another moment. He fiddled with the corner of Adam’s pillow.  “Are you okay to drive?”

“Don’t know what you think the alternative is.”

“If you’re tired, we can pull over somewhere. Or… um, I could drive.”

Dad threw him a sharp look. “I don’t need cops on my ass because I let you drive without a license.”

Dean flushed. “I’m almost old enough.”

“I’m tired of telling you ‘no’ about this. Go to sleep, Dean.”

“Yes, sir.”

Dean looked out at the dark forest for just a moment longer, then pulled up a corner of Adam’s pillow to put between him and the window, readjusted the jacket around his shoulders, and settled back into sleep.

Chapter Text

NOW

“You in trouble, Dean?”

Dean tucked the phone against his shoulder as he crouched down to peer into the fridge, hoping that it had somehow become deeper and fuller overnight. “I wish you wouldn’t answer the phone like that.”

He heard Bobby laugh softly and imagined him leaning back in the armchair in his study. “Well, I know you’re not callin’ just to chat.”

“Maybe I am.”

“Fine. How are Sam and Adam?”

Dean grabbed the milk jug and started pulling bowls from the cabinet. “They’re fine. We’re all, um… fine.” He paused. “Have you heard from my dad recently?”

Bobby was quiet for a moment. When he spoke again, his voice was hard. “Can’t say I have.”

Dean tapped his fingers on the counter. “Okay, no worries—”

But Bobby wasn’t about to just let him drop it. “Where were they fishing out of last you heard from him?”

“Sitka. Making their way toward Juneau.”

“And that was?”

“Last week.”

“How long you boys been alone?”

Dean gripped the edge of the counter and rocked back on his heels. “Er, about a month. But he calls every few days. Mostly. I mean, the reception’s bad up there… But every time they dock in a real town, he calls.”

Bobby huffed. “Well ain’t he father of the year.” Dean’s grip tightened on the counter, but when Bobby continued his voice was kinder. “I’m sure he’s fine, Dean. If anything had happened to the boat, someone would have contacted you.”

There was a pause and it sounded like Bobby was shuffling papers. “Now, if you boys are still in that Oregon town where I set you up, I can be there in two days—”

“No.” Dean stopped him. “No, Bobby. It’s okay. We really have everything we need, I was just—worried.”

Bobby huffed again. “You in school?”

“It’s summer.”

“Are you eating?”

It was at that moment that Sam shuffled into the kitchen, looking grumpy and disheveled. Dean pushed a bowl of cereal toward him. “Sam’s eating right now. You want a picture?”

“No, Dean. Are you eating?”

Yes.”

“Alright, well… Promise you’ll call if that changes. Before you start watering down the milk.”

Dean grimaced. “Will do. Bye.” He ended the call before Bobby could change his mind. Dean set the phone down and looked across at his little brother. Sam’s hair was a true mess, flopping in all directions like he’d just pulled off a ski cap.

“You need a haircut. Bad.”

Sam looked up to glower at him, but then his eyes slid past Dean to stare out the small kitchen window. “Is that Castiel?” He jumped up. “I’ll get it!”

Dean turned to look out the window too and, sure enough, there was Cas making his way up their driveway. Cas lived next door. He was two years older than Dean, a senior at the high school Dean would start at in the fall.

From the Winchester’s living room, you could see into Cas’s family’s backyard and Sam had creepily started watching him pretty much as soon as they moved in. Dean had to admit, the guy was interesting. He was always out there building something, like some kind of mad inventor. When the Winchesters first moved in, it was a chicken coop. Then he hacked that to pieces and reused the wood to make a beautiful sculpture of a tree. As Cas was shaping the last branches, Sam cautiously stepped out their back door. Dean watched from the living room while Sam clung to the fence posts and peeked his head over to tell Cas how cool it looked.

Since then, Cas had been inviting Sam over to help him. Together, they’d made a trebuchet to launch rocks over the fence and, last week, Sam had come home with a jetpack they’d welded out of scrap metal in Cas’s garage that shot out real steam. Needless to say, Sam thought Cas was a god.

Sam yanked open the front door before Cas even made it all the way there. “Hey! Did you get the springs for our trampoline?”

Dean groaned and tipped his head back. No way in hell was Sam jumping on a homemade trampoline. He almost missed what Cas said in reply.

“Actually I’m here to talk to your brother.”

Dean hesitated. He felt about as confused as Sam looked, but he stepped around so that he could see Cas framed in the doorway. The guy was wearing a Navy sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows and worn jeans with no shoes.

“Hey.” Cas smiled at him and it made Dean realize that he’d never stood this close to Cas before. One of his front teeth was a little crooked.

“You here to return Sammy?”

Cas’s brow furrowed. “No. He’s been a huge help.”

“Oh.” His tone was so earnest it drew Dean up short. “Well, what can I help you with?” He wished he didn’t sound so much like he was welcoming Cas to a store.

Luckily, Cas was also being weird. One of his hands wandered up to play with the strings on his hoodie. “I’m here, ‘cause my dad.”

“Your dad?”

“Er, no. Well, he suggested it... We’re having a bonfire on Friday and—and you guys should come.”

“Oh,” said Dean again. He twisted the kitchen towel in his hands and looked at Cas with a mixture of confusion and interest. “Is it the whole neighborhood?”

“Just your family and mine.”

“Okay.”

“It would be for dinner.”

“Okay.”

Sam turned on Dean. “We can go, right?” he demanded.

Dean threw him a meaningful look and answered quietly, “We’ll have to ask Dad.”

Sam frowned, but Cas seemed unbothered.

“Okay. Just let me know. You know where I am.” Then, he turned and practically jumped down the porch stairs, back to his own house.

 

As soon as Dean shut the front door, Sam was at his elbow. “Do we really have to ask Dad?”

Dean pushed him toward the counter. “No, but I want to think about it. Eat your breakfast.”

Chapter Text

The store was always slow on early weekday mornings, and today was no exception. From his place at the register, Benny watched their only customers move through the aisles: three boys, obviously brothers from the way the older two bickered over brands and tried to steer the cart into each other. The youngest—just a little kid—looked like he was still half asleep. He kept tripping over the hem of his Spider-Man pajama pants and had two fingers hooked into his eldest brother’s belt loops so that he could be towed along wherever they went.

As they passed in front of Benny’s counter, he heard the oldest boy quietly chastise the little one. “You’re pulling my pants down, Adam. Here.” The teen passed the cart off to his middle brother and reached down to pick him up. Adam immediately tucked his head into the boy’s neck and Benny felt a little rush of nostalgia for when his own son was small enough to do that.

The boys turned the corner into the produce section and for a few minutes, Benny couldn’t see them. He strained to hear their conversation but it was no use over the rattling breath of the air conditioning. When they reappeared, Adam still had his skinny legs wrapped tightly around his brother’s waist but he seemed more awake. He was whispering fast into the boy’s ear and his brother looked like he was trying to suppress a smile as he nodded seriously.

They approached Benny. The older two gave him tight, perfunctory smiles and the one carrying Adam set him back on his feet so that he could unload their groceries onto the belt. Adam tried to climb back up into his arms, but the teen shrugged him off. He crouched to pull a large bag of rice from the bottom level of the cart.

“I’m going to take a guess here that your name is Dean.”

Dean almost dropped the bag. He swiveled on his heels to look up at Benny. “Do I know you?”

“We’re neighbors. I’m Castiel’s dad, Benny.”

“Oh.” Dean blinked, still crouching on the floor.

The middle brother offered Benny a warm smile that he returned. “Hi Mr. Lafitte!”

“Are you Sam, then?”

Sam nodded.

“Cas tells me you two have been doing a lot of work together.”

“Yeah, it’s great! Did you see the jetpack we made?”

While Sam launched into his monologue about what they’d used to make it and how he’d singed a hole in his only good shirt but it was worth it, Dean continued to unload silently. With both of his brothers ignoring him, Adam ran his hands over the knickknacks that lined the checkout counter shelves. He flicked the corner of a magazine pensively. Then, Benny watched him glance at Dean—see that he was occupied—and drop a handful of lollipops onto the belt behind their groceries. Then a roll of Hubba Bubba bubble tape.

It took Dean all of two seconds to realize what was going on. He paused, a bag of frozen peas suspended in his hand, then rolled his eyes.

“Stop, Adam.”

Dean pushed his brother back with a hand on his chest and carefully replaced the candy.

Then, his face changed like he’d just remembered something and he looked up to meet Benny’s eyes for the first time. “Oh hey. We forgot something.” Dean reached to cover Adam’s ears. The kid bucked against him, but Dean held firm. “Do you guys sell those little plastic stars you can stick on the ceiling? They glow in the dark.”

Benny laughed. “Yeah, in the craft section. Right over there.”

Dean’s eyes lit up. “Sam?”

He was already walking off to get them. Dean uncovered Adam’s ears and the kid scowled.

“What did you say about me?” he demanded.

“That we’re going to have to throw you in grocery store jail if you keep trying to add random shit to our cart.”

Adam shrank back. “That’s not real.” He whipped his head around to find Sam. “Sam, that’s not real?”

Sam just shrugged. “If anyone’s going to find out, it’s you,” he called over his shoulder as he disappeared into the aisle.

He was still grinning when he returned a few minutes later and slipped the little bundle of stars to Benny, who added it to their bag without scanning it.

When Benny read them their total, he was surprised that Sam was the one to pull a wad of cash from his back jeans pocket. The boy carefully thumbed out two bills and handed them over.

For a moment, Benny looked at their expectant faces watching him. Then he took a breath, tore off their receipt, and held it out.

Dean took it. “Have a good one.” He reached for their bag, but Benny stopped him with a hand.

“Wait... Just, think about it on Friday, okay? Cas doesn’t invite over a lot of people.”

Dean gave him a long scrutinizing look. Then nodded.

“And we’ll have lots of food.”

Chapter Text

Friday evening brought three nervous Winchesters to the Lafitte’s front porch. When Benny pulled the front door open, all three boys took a step back and Adam wrapped his arms around Dean’s leg. But Dean smiled at Benny.

“Thanks for inviting us.”

“Of course! Come on in.” Benny stepped aside to make room and Dean unhooked Adam from him. They all filed in. In the kitchen right off the entryway, Cas was leaning against the counter talking to a woman, probably his mom, while she stirred something on the stove. He pushed off the counter when he saw the Winchesters and the woman turned too. She smiled at Sam first.

“You must be the famous Sam. Cas says you have a beautiful mind for inventing.”

“I didn’t say ‘beautiful mind’, Mom,” Cas groaned.

Sam’s ears turned pink. He scuffed the toe of one sneaker against the floor and Dean felt a little surge of affection for his little brother.

“He does. Sam used to make these crazy colorful skyscrapers out of Legos when we were little.”

The woman’s smile deepened. She extended her hand for Dean. “I’m Andrea.”

“Dean. And that’s Adam.”

Benny clapped his hands together. “Now that we all know each other, let’s eat before it gets cold.”

He led the Winchesters to a small room behind the kitchen. The table in there was already set for seven people—and covered in twice as much food as the Winchesters had in their entire fridge. Pork chops. Rice. Scalloped potatoes. Both corn and cornbread. Dean could see both of his brothers gawking at it out of the corner of his eye.

“Make yourselves comfortable.”

Benny quietly gathered up one of the place settings and took it back to the kitchen, leaving Dean briefly alone with Sam and Adam. He grabbed both of their arms. “Let’s act like we’ve been here before, okay?”

“But we haven’t,” said Adam innocently.

“It’s an expression. I just mean act like you’ve seen food before. They’re going to think I don’t feed you.” Dean couldn’t help the voice in his head that whispered You don’t. Not like this. but he rearranged his expression as Cas came back in with his parents, and yet another bowl.

“So, Dean,” began Benny once they were all sitting down, “Cas told me you boys live with your dad. What does he do?”

Dean’s stomach flipped uncomfortably as he realized who the extra setting had been for. “He’s a fisherman. Um, commercial fishing in Alaska.”

Benny whistled through his teeth. “That is one sweet gig. We sell Alaskan halibut at the store for thirty-five bucks a pound.”

Sam grinned. “Yeah! On a good year, he only has to work during the summer. Can I have more potatoes?” Dean shot him a glare and Sam pulled back the hand that was already reaching for them.

Andrea looked between the two boys curiously. “Of course.”

Cas picked up the platter and handed it to Sam, who also spooned more onto Adam’s plate.

The rest of dinner was largely fine, if not a little awkward. Benny did most of the talking. He told them about the fishing store he’d worked at way out on the edge of town before he got a job closer in, the high school Dean and Cas would go to in September, how well Cas was doing there, and how surely he could recommend good teachers to Dean because hadn’t there been an English teacher that was just awful? Then the Winchesters told them about some of their favorite towns they’d lived in before Angel’s Footprint and staying at Bobby’s house. Cas asked a lot of questions.

When everyone was almost full, Benny suggested that Cas show the Winchesters their new firepit.

“You can all make s’mores. I think we have everything above the fridge.”

Dean had honestly forgotten that this was supposed to be a bonfire, but Sam and Adam both turned such hopeful and expectant eyes on him that he found himself saying ‘yes’ before he’d even thought about it. So that’s how they ended up sitting in a little semi-circle in the corner of Cas’s backyard, a bag of marshmallows, chocolate bars, and unfolded wire hangers at their feet, the sun setting behind them.

Adam had tried to smuggle out two slices of cornbread in either hand, so Dean was now sitting on his knees, holding three pieces of cornbread while he watched Cas build the fire. And it was kind of cool to watch. Cas was obviously putting more thought into it than Dean thought necessary: shoving crinkled newspaper in the crevices between logs, lighting it, crouching at different angles to blow the sparks into life.

“Some people use fire starters,” he told Dean. “But those people are lazy.”

Dean laughed. It was easier to talk to Cas out here, where everything didn’t feel so close and unfamiliar. Where Andrea wasn’t looking at him like she’d give him the warmest, softest hug if he just asked. She probably hugged Cas like that every goddamn day and he probably didn’t even appreciate it.

Feeling suddenly lonely, Dean reached out for Sam and pulled him into his chest with one arm around the kid’s skinny shoulders. Sam didn’t resist; maybe he was also feeling a bit like the only unmatched sock.

Dean straightened up.

“Hey Cas. Do you know where you’ll work once you graduate?”

“Actually. Um, I want to go to college.” He said it like he thought Dean might laugh, but Dean actually felt really happy for him.

He smiled. “That’s incredible! I bet you could do it too.”

The corner of Cas’s mouth twitched. “My guidance counselor thinks I have a good shot.”

Sam had perked up too. He was looking at Cas with a new intensity. “How do you go to college? Do you have to tell your teacher you want to?”

Cas started to tell Sam about the tests and essays for his application and how he’d driven down to California last spring to tour a few campuses that had good engineering programs. But to someone watching Sam’s face—as Dean was—Cas could have just as easily been telling the kid about how he was going to spend his lottery winnings.

“Is that what you want to do, then?” Dean asked, leaning forward to pull a charred sliver of wood from the edge of the fire. He twirled it in his hands and it left black soot on his fingertips. “Engineering?”

Cas nodded. “I like making things.”

Dean laughed. “So I’ve noticed. This yard is like a graveyard for half-finished projects.” He gave Cas a sideways look. “Just try not to kill my brother with anything, okay?”

Sam sat up, indignant. “I’m not going to die. Once you change your mind about the trampoline, we’ll build it and it’ll be so awesome.” He nudged Adam with his foot. “I’ll put you in the middle, Adam, and I’ll jump and you’ll go flying up in the air.”

Dean got a horrible image of Adam missing the trampoline on his way down. “Don’t hold your breath.” Then Dean got an idea. “Sam, c’mere. You’ve got something on your face.”

Sam turned to him obediently and before he realized what was going on, Dean drew a dark line of soot all down the length of his nose. Sam spluttered, shocked, and Cas laughed loudly.

“Uh oh, Adam. You too.” Dean turned on his littlest brother, but Adam squealed and backed quickly away. He pressed himself into Cas’s side and Cas put out a protective hand to block Dean.

“I look ridiculous!” huffed Sam.

“You don’t even know what you look like,” said Cas at the same time that Dean said, “Come here, I’ll fix it.”

For the next little while, as the fire sunk low into its embers and darkness gathered more closely around them, Sam knelt in front of Dean while his brother drew little patterns on his face and arms. Adam had somehow wormed his way entirely into Cas’s lap (which Dean was trying hard not to care about).

Finally, Adam let Dean smudge two black lines under his eyes like war paint, but he only liked it for about two seconds. Then he turned his face up to Cas. “Can you get it off?” Obligingly, Cas rubbed the little boy's face with his sweater sleeve.

“It won’t all come off,” he told Dean.

“Yeah… Do you have bathroom where they could wash up? Sam might need a little help too.” Dean looked down at his own blackened hands. “And me.”

They poured water on the hissing fire, gathered their marshmallow skewers and then Cas led them through the house. It was nice house. Dean had been too overwhelmed earlier to pay it much attention, but he noticed now that it was much cleaner than theirs. Benny and Andrea were sitting together on the couch, her head against his shoulder as they watched TV.

Benny looked up when they walked in. “You put the fire out? Woah, Sam, did you fall in?”

“No, Dean drew on me.”

Dean held his soot-covered palms up as proof and Cas tugged him toward the hallway door. “Bathroom’s this way. Ignore the plants in the tub. My mom’s worried it’s too cold for them outside.”

“Pick any flowers you like!” called Andrea from the living room.

***

When the Winchesters got home, they were still high on sugar. Adam flung himself down on his bed backward, so his feet where up on his pillow and his head brushed the footboard. “I’m not laying in my bed right!” he declared.

Dean rolled his eyes. “I don’t really care as long as you go to sleep.”

That was the wrong thing to say. Adam started kicking his legs and chanting “I. Don’t. Want. To. Sleep.”

“Alright, that’s it.” Dean jumped on him and started tickling him until he shrieked and tapped out. Then Dean shifted to sit on his legs and pin them down. He looked over at Sam, who wasn’t watching them. He was laying on his back, hands laced behind his head, a serene expression on his face.

“Did you have fun tonight, Sammy?”

Sam nodded, still looking at the ceiling. “Yeah, that was great. Do you think…” He paused. “Do you think it’s like that every night in other families?”

Dean swallowed. Then Sam seemed to realize what he’d said. He rolled up quickly onto his elbow and stared at Dean. “I didn’t mean—like, it’s not that I don’t think you—”

Dean raised a hand to stop him. He was feeling embarrassed and suddenly like he wanted to cry. “I know. I get what you mean.” And he did. It was almost painful to see the way Benny looked at Cas. The way he talked about how well he was doing in school and all the things he was going to accomplish. Dean thought about what it would mean to someone like Sam, to have a Dad like that. Dean couldn’t even imagine it. He couldn’t imagine Dad knowing the name of one of Sam’s teachers.

Dean felt Adam’s legs shift underneath him and he looked down at his little brother who was watching him guiltily. In a small voice, Adam said, “At least we make better s’mores than they do.”

Dean let himself laugh. “For real. I mean seriously, how was Cas so bad at that?” He tipped his head back against the wall. “I think every one of his caught on fire.”

“Well, he didn’t have a brother to teach him,” piped up Sam and Dean knew he was still feeling guilty, so he took one of Adam’s pillows and threw it at him.

“You dweebs need to go to bed.” Dean stifled a yawn himself. “So that I can go to bed.”

“Will you sleep in here?” asked Adam.

Dean picked Adam up to flip him around and pulled the blanket over his shoulders. “I’ll be right outside.”

Sam tossed Adam’s pillow back to Dean and started arranging his own. “You could sleep in Dad’s room. He’s not using it.”

“I’m happy in the living room.” Dean stood up.

When he was almost at the door, Adam called out to him. “Dean, don’t forget to turn on the stars!”

“You’re right.” He had almost forgotten. “Shut your eyes. You too, Sam.”

When Sam didn’t, Dean leaned over to clamp a hand over his face before flicking off the lights. The constellations of plastic stars Dean had nailed to the ceiling lit up. For a long moment, Dean stared up at them, missing something that he couldn’t quite remember, then he shut the door.

Chapter Text

A week later, Sam was in bed again, laying on his side. He was having a hard time falling asleep because it sounded like there was a whole fleet of mid-July crickets right outside his window. Sam heard the door handle turn and looked toward it. He watched the gap between the door and its frame slowly widen as honey-colored light spilled onto the floor. Dean’s shadow slipped in and the door swung shut again, taking all the light with it.

Dean checked on Adam first, then quiet footsteps brought him to Sam’s bedside. “I’m heading out,” he whispered.

“What?” Sam sat up on his elbows. Sure enough, Dean was dressed to go out: button-down shirt, jeans, carrying the coat he’d gotten from their last school. “You’re leaving?”

“Just for a bit.”

“Why?”

“I’ll be back before you wake up. It’s not a big deal. Just—if Dad makes a surprise appearance, call me, okay?”

Dean started to move away but paused when Sam didn’t say anything. “What?"

Sam looked up at Dean’s shadowed face and was glad that his brother couldn’t see the embarrassing tears pooling in his eyes. “You promised you wouldn’t hustle anymore.”

Dean looked anguished. “C’mon, Sam. Don’t do that.”

Sam shook his head, mostly so he wouldn’t cry.

“Hey. Hey. Sammy, c’mon.” Dean sank down to sit on the floor by Sam’s bed. His voice was surprisingly tender. “I remember what I promised you. I’m not doing that. Dad yelled at me through two states, remember? And you wouldn’t talk to me for a week. I got the message.”

Sam’s voice was small. “We were scared. It looked like you were dead.”

Dean shuddered. “I don’t want to think about that.”

Sam didn’t either. It had been horrible. Dad came home at exactly the wrong time: three weeks after the money ran out and on a night when Sam was alone with Adam. What the fuck does he think he’s doing? What the fuck. What the fuck, Dad had chanted like a mantra while they sped around town, eyes wildly sweeping the streets for Dean’s jean jacket.

They found him behind a Chinese restaurant. Sam watched from the mouth of the alley, too scared to take another step, while Dad approached what they both thought might be Dean’s body. His eyes were closed. Dried blood from his nose covered his face and had dripped down his chin. The collar of his shirt was stretched obscenely loose as if someone had grabbed him by it. Dad dropped to his knees and reached out, so gently, to take Dean’s wrist and feel his pulse.

Dean’s eyes fluttered at the touch. And Sam felt like he might faint with relief when Dean turned his hand over to clutch the end of Dad’s sleeve.

“Dad?” He didn’t seem like he knew where he was. He seemed like a little kid. “Dad, it hurts.”

The Dean sitting in front of Sam now seemed to know exactly what he was picturing. Dean squeezed his arm. “Don’t go cryin’ on me. I’m right here.”

Sam nodded. He picked up the corner of his blanket to dry his eyes. “At least tell me where you’re going.”

“I’m…” Dean sighed wearily. “Fine, I’m meeting Cas.”

Sam’s mouth dropped open. “Oh. Oh, so it’s a date!” He looked Dean up and down with fresh eyes. “Is that why you brushed your hair? And—look, you rolled your sleeves up!” Sam accused in the tone of someone laying down irrefutable evidence.

Dean shoved his shoulder. “I rolled them ‘cause they’re too short, you gigantic dork. You can have this shirt after tonight.” Dean looked down at himself for a moment. “Does it look okay?”

Sam wanted to say something about how Dean looked like he’d been working on the railroad, but his brother was fiddling with the top button of his shirt and he looked so genuinely unsure that Sam just nodded.

“I could tell he likes you. He kept looking at you at dinner.”

***

“I don’t know what that is.”

“Squidding is a quintessential Oregon coast activity. You can’t live here without doing it at least once.”

“Really? Because Benny called it ‘your weird hobby’.” Dean leaned forward to adjust his heating vent. Cas looked over at him from the driver’s seat, loose curls tumbling over his forehead.

“You’re going to like it.”

It was odd to be in a car that wasn’t the Impala. Cas had a really old Honda and it was heavy and rusted-out, but it also felt like it could survive getting hit by a semi-truck. Inside, there were signs of Cas everywhere. Cough drops in the cup holders. Running shoes thrown on the back seat. A muddy tie down in Dean’s footwell that Cas probably didn’t know was there. He wondered what Cas had worn it to. Did he go to prom? Had he yanked it off, uncomfortable, the second he had the chance? Had someone else?

Cas signaled and turned off onto an unlit side street. “Okay, brief history: Angel’s Footprint got its name because someone was looking down on it from the mountains and noticed that it looks just like a foot—”

“Oh yeah, I’ve seen it on a map. Looks like Bigfoot came stomping right through here.”

“So then you also saw that The Heel backs right up to the ocean. We’re going to Pacific Sound tonight. It’s pretty sheltered, so the water won’t be rough and it’s teeming with squid.”

“Wait. We’re not getting in the water, are we?”

Cas laughed. “No, we’ll stand on the dock. It’s like fishing.” He paused. “You’ve been fishing before, right?”

“Yeah.” Or at least he knew the theory of it.

A few minutes later, they pulled up to a raised dock that stretched out over the black water of Pacific Sound. There was no one else there, so Cas parked right in front of it. While Dean got out and took off his jacket, Cas went around to the trunk. When he reappeared, he was carrying a small black case, a plastic bucket, and a large electric lantern.

“You look like you’re about to go spelunking or something.”

Cas threw the bucket at him and he caught it. “You’ll like it. Trust me.”

Dean followed Cas onto the dock; he could barely see his feet in front of him. When they were near the end, Cas sat down, clicked open the black case, and started pulling out disconnected pieces of a fishing pole. Dean looked at the wet wood slats for a moment, then thought fuck it and sat too. Cas worked quickly, deft hands twisting the pieces together and locking them into place. Once the shaft of the pole was done, he started to attach the handle and thread line through the reel.

While Cas worked, Dean leaned to look over the side of the dock through the metal railing. He couldn’t see anything moving in the swirling, dark water. But the pillars supporting them were covered in shiny barnacles that looked like pieces of obsidian. When Dean turned back, Cas was holding a completed fishing pole.

“Hold this.” Cas thrust a weird plastic piece into Dean’s hand. It looked like a pink octopus with upturned hooks instead of tentacles. Cas must have seen the confusion on Dean’s face, because he said, “That’s your lure.”

Cas ran his hand back down the pole to where he was adjusting the reel. “I’ll attach it in a minute.”

“I can do it.” Dean caught the line and pulled it toward him. He started to tie the lure on, then glanced up and caught Cas watching him. “What? I used to be in Boy Scouts once upon a time—and before you laugh, a lot of that shit is useful! It’s saved our asses more than once to know how to tie a good knot.”

Cas raised his hands defensively. “I didn’t say anything.” But he was grinning as he turned back to the reel.

“So how do we do this?”

“It’s easy.” Cas handed Dean the pole when he was done. “Squid swim toward the moon. So that—” he pointed toward the lantern “—is our fake moon. Once we turn it on, all you have to do is drop the lure down and pull ‘em up when they bite. We’ll get a lot. We could catch even more in the winter, but it’s way too fucking cold.”

Cas stood up and held out a hand to pull Dean to his feet. Once they were standing at the edge of the railing and Cas had switched on the lantern, Dean had to admit that he didn’t know how to cast. Cas didn’t laugh at him, he just showed him how to do it and, together, they watched the lure skitter across the water and sink in a trail of bubbles.

“It’ll take them a minute to figure out the light.” Cas leaned back on the top bar of the railing. With the lantern buzzing next to them, Dean could see the smile lines around Cas’s mouth and the brilliant blue of his eyes for the first time that night. He looked away.

“So why’d you quit Boy Scouts?”

Dean shrugged. “Didn’t seem important anymore.” He readjusted his grip on the pole. “It was fun though. Sam and I used to do the pinewood derby—that little race where you make your own cars.”

“I actually knew that already.”

“What?”

“Sam told me.” Then, Cas grinned. “He said you used to get really flustered.”

Dean frowned. “Hey, you try whittling a car out of a headboard. It was the hardest fucking wood, you wouldn’t believe. And Sam was no help. I really trained him up for you—I don’t think you appreciate that.”

“He’s very helpful now,” offered Cas. “Sam pretty much only talks about you.”

Cas had said that to make Dean smile, but it just seemed to make him more agitated. Dean ran a hand backwards through the short hair at the base of his neck. “Yeah… I wish… I don’t know why he doesn’t have more friends.”

“I’m a friend.”

Dean kicked the railing with the toe of his shoe, but he started smiling. “You don’t count, you’re super old.”

“We’re basically the same age!”

“No, you’re super old.”

Cas rolled his eyes. “When’s your birthday?”

“January 24.”

“So then…” Cas was quickly calculating. “I’m barely a year and a half older than you.” Then Cas reached out and corrected Dean’s grip on the fishing pole. “You’re not bobbing. You need to bob it up and down so it looks like a living thing.” Dean did and they were quiet for a moment, then Cas said, “I do have friends my own age, by the way.”

Dean bit his lip to keep from laughing. It was so easy to rile Cas up. “That’s good, I thought you beamed down right when we moved in,” said Dean. Then, “Tell me about them.”

Cas’s two best friends were Charlie and Kevin. They’d been friends since seventh grade and—as Cas put it—they were ‘the only two other non-idiots or assholes in the whole school’. They hadn’t been around to Cas’s house recently because Kevin spent the summers with his grandma in Tucson and Charlie was off at some super nerdy computer camp for eight weeks. When Dean asked if they were also going to college, Cas looked sad.

“They want to. But they’re taking time off to work and save money. So it’s just me.”

“Are you excited?”

“For college?”

Dean nodded. Cas chewed his nail. “Yeah.” But when Dean didn’t stop staring at him, he sighed. “And nervous, I guess. It’s complicated.”

“Why complicated?”

“Because… I’ve wanted to go for so long but whenever I think about it… um, I just get this huge feeling of panic. Everything’s so different during the school year. It’s like I can never get enough sleep and… I think I’m going to fail every test. And then I imagine what being in college will actually be like, and I’m not even the smartest person at my school. I don’t know if I can do it.”

For a moment, there was just the sound of the water gently lapping the pillars below them. Dean wished he could hug Cas or something so that he’d stop looking so miserable. But Cas continued, “Last year, during AP tests, I would wake up every morning and throw up before school. Like, that’s not normal right?” He was looking up through his bangs at Dean as if he really didn’t know. “My dad doesn’t do that before work—”

While Cas was talking, the fishing pole started to dip, so subtly that Dean almost didn’t do anything, but Cas gripped his arm. “That’s one! Pull up!”

Dean started reeling quickly and, sure enough, when the lure reappeared at the surface there was a little shimmery shape dangling from it. The squid was still spitting water when Cas tipped it into the bucket. Faces a foot apart, Dean and Cas leaned over to peer at it.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” breathed Cas. And it was. The squid was iridescent, like glittery tissue paper, and Dean could see currents of dark purple ink running under its skin. But he was distracted.

“Cas. I’m sorry. You were talking about something important.”

Cas looked at him. “It’s all good. Just nice to talk about it.”

“You’re going to be fine in college. And people are going to like you.”

“Thanks. I hope so.” A smile broke over Cas’s face and he looked younger. “Let’s get back to it!”

Now that the squid had found them, they started pulling them out of the water almost as quickly as they could dip their pole back in. Pretty soon, the bucket was almost full.

“Should we stop?” asked Dean. “I’m starting to feel a little bad about how easy this is.”

Cas sat down against the railing and pulled the bucket between his knees. “Yeah, we have a ton.” He looked up at Dean and his eyes were startlingly blue. “But I don’t want to leave yet.”

Dean tried hard not to smile. “I guess… we don’t have to.”                                                                                                    

Dean looked down at his shoes for a second, then took a deep breath and sat down next to Cas, so close that they were touching from shoulder to thigh. Cas glanced at him, surprised, and Dean almost lost his nerve but then Cas dropped his hand down between them and intertwined his pinky with Dean’s. Dean felt an immediate rush of warmth. Thank god.

Dean let his eyes close. It made him feel even more vulnerable, but he tried to focus on the warm weight of Cas against him.

“You know,” whispered Cas, “I wanted to meet you from the day you moved in.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

Why?

“I thought…” Dean felt Cas shifting beside him. He must have been sliding the bucket away from them—Dean could hear it scraping across the wood slats—then he turned back. Cas’s voice was so quiet and so close when he spoke again, it sounded like he was whispering right into Dean’s ear. “I thought it was cute that you were wearing pajama pants at four in the afternoon.” With the hand that wasn’t already holding Dean’s, Cas reached up to touch Dean’s face softly—a question. Dean leaned into it. “And… when you were bringing bags in from the car, you just looked so sleepy and still kind of disoriented.” Cas’s thumb brushed Dean’s lips. “It was really cute and I wanted to talk to you.”

Dean smiled into Cas’s palm. “Wow, you were watching me watching me.”

“Hey, you watched me too,” Cas teased. Then, his warm hand slid down Dean’s neck and met the collar of his shirt. Dean squeezed his eyes tighter shut, trying to hide the pathetic, needy way that he wanted more of Cas, more touch, more warmth, more words. Cas fumbled with the top button of Dean’s shirt and it fell open. He slid his hand in, flat over Dean’s heart.

“I can feel your heart. Are you nervous?”

“A little,” whispered Dean honestly. But then, he decided not to be. He wanted this so badly. And Cas was right here. Dean opened his eyes. Cas’s face was even closer than he’d expected, his soft gaze traveling over Dean’s face. He smiled sweetly when he realized Dean was looking back at him. “Hi,” he murmured.

Dean leaned forward so that his nose was touching Cas’s. “Hi.”

And then they were kissing. Kissing like someone might try to pull them apart at any second. Their hands running over each other’s arms and chest, Dean’s fingers winding in Cas’s hair, Cas kissing Dean’s neck and chin and cheek, pulling him into his lap. Dean leaned his head on Cas’s shoulder, taking a moment to breathe, and Cas’s hand found his shirt again. He started to undo the second button, but the younger boy pulled back slightly.

“Is this okay?” Cas asked over the top of Dean’s head.

 Dean shut his eyes. “I’m sorry, can we…”

“It’s okay.”

Cas put a hand on the back of Dean’s neck and he shivered. “Can I keep kissing you?”

Dean nodded, smiling against Cas's shoulder. “Yes, please.”

Chapter Text

Dean to Dad: Are you docking somewhere? Can you call me? It’s not an emergency. It’s just that everything is weirdly expensive here and money’s a little tight so it’d be great if you’re planning to come home soon.

***

Benny fried up the squid they'd caught as calamari and invited the Winchesters back over to try it. Adam thought it was the grossest thing he’d ever seen and Sam cited ‘moral objections’, but Dean happily ate two plates full. By late July, they were having dinner at Cas’s house almost every day—and it was a good thing too, because Dean wasn’t exactly flush with cash for food. In fact, he was up most nights with a stomachache: worrying both that Dad would come busting through the door at any moment, and that he never would.

Sam and Adam, for their part, were starting to get grumpy. They always did when food was scarce. Dean had stopped taking Adam into town because whenever he did, the kid would grab Dean’s sleeve and try to drag him into the nearest restaurant, making a big scene by begging and throwing his whole body into it. Sam, on the other hand, had started coming into the kitchen and opening cupboards just to slam them shut, which was somehow worse.

One morning Dean snapped at him, “Jesus. Just drink some water. Water—”

—makes you feel full,” Sam recited meanly. “No, it doesn’t. Or… maybe it does but only for like a second!” He shook his head in frustration and stomped back to his room.

Luckily, Cas was still awesome. He had a quiet, gentle way of getting Sam to realize when he was being a brat. And, sometimes, the promise of building with Cas was the only thing that got Sam out of his room. At night though, Cas was all Dean’s. They spent most of their time wandering aimlessly through the streets of their neighborhood. And it was starting to feel like Dean’s neighborhood: he recognized most of the families that lived around them and one day he realized that he’d learned the bus schedule by heart.

Cas liked to walk one-foot-in-front-of-the-other along the thin lip of the curb while Dean strolled beside him in the street. Something about the quietness and the fresh air made it feel like the whole world was theirs and they could say anything they wanted to. When they grew tired of walking, they’d stop at the high school so that Cas could scale the goal post on the football field and hang from it by his knees. One time, he missed on his jump up and did a weird pirouette through the air; Dean laughed so hard he had to sit down. On some nights, Cas skipped the goal post routine and joined Dean on the turf instead. They would lay there, breathing the same air, until they found a way to start doing something else… Cas seemed to have figured out on his own that he could kiss Dean all he wanted, but he hadn’t tried to take off his shirt again.

Dean also liked the smaller intimacies he was finding with Cas. The way he braced his hand behind Dean’s seat as he reversed out of the driveway. Nights spent reading on Dean’s couch, feet tangled together, and the way Cas smiled over at him when his foot accidentally nudged him in the ribs.

Cas even slept over once. They hadn’t meant for it to happen, but he’d shown up one night, knocking on their kitchen window as he usually did, with a laptop and a quart of vanilla ice cream.

“I brought a movie!” he said before he was even fully in the front door. “It’s kid-appropriate if your brothers want to watch.”

Dean took the ice cream from Cas. “Oh, hell yes. Sam! Adam! Get out here; we’ve got dessert.”

“Great. Is it another plain tortilla?” grumbled Sam as he came around the corner. He stopped abruptly when he saw Cas. Then looked at Dean. “Sorry.”

Dean grimaced, but turned around to open the ice cream. Adam came skidding into the room in his socks a moment later. He clung to the edge of the counter as he peered over it. “Yes! Ice cream! I want so much!”

Cas grabbed Adam by his waist and threw him over his shoulder. “You only get some if you watch a movie with us.”

“Which movie?”

“It’s the new Spider-Man one.”

Dean snorted. “Suck-up.”

But neither of them heard him. Adam was already telling Cas about all of Spider-Man’s cool flips, then he demanded to be put down so he could go change into his Spider-Man pajamas for the occasion.

Sam stood behind Dean while he scooping the ice cream. “Sorry I said that,” he whispered when Cas was distracted. “I’m being mean. I’m just hungry. I can’t concentrate on anything else.”

Dean didn’t feel like being mad at him. He turned around and held a bowl out to Sam. “Put Adam to sleep tonight and we’re even.”

They all huddled together on the couch around Cas’s laptop. The movie was funny, but Dean found himself watching Cas more than the screen. Soon, it was dark in the house and they were all starting to get droopy-eyed. Despite Adam’s best efforts, he fell asleep before the final battle with his head propped up in his hands.

“I almost don’t want to move him. It’s so cute,” said Sam as he gathered the little boy into his arms. “Goodnight.”

As soon as they were alone, Cas yawned and leaned over to rest his head in Dean’s lap. “Can I stay until the movie’s over?”

Dean turned the volume down on the laptop. “Of course.”

“Hey Dean?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you guys okay?”

Dean lifted a hand and ran it through Cas’s hair. Cas snuggled into him the same way Adam did and it made Dean’s heart ache. “Of course we are.”

“Okay… Just know that if you need anything, my parents can… they want to help. Oh, and my dad bought you school supplies. I hope that’s not weird.”

Dean chewed his lip. “That’s really… nice. Thanks.” So many good people love you, Cas.

They must have fallen asleep like that, warm and wrapped up in each other, because the next thing Dean knew, he was blinking awake to early morning sun. He stirred and reached out for Cas, but he wasn’t there.

Dean looked around. There was Cas, across the room holding his laptop.

“What happened?” croaked Dean.

Cas glanced over at him; he seemed agitated. “We fell asleep. Shit. I have to go; my mom’s pissed. I only woke up because she called. Twice.”

Dean pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, trying to understand. “You slept here? Oh crap. Oh my god. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize—”

Cas cut him off. “It’s okay. She’ll just be mad, but it’s okay.” He started to leave, but then swiveled and hurried back over to the couch. He leaned down and kissed Dean’s forehead right at the hairline. “It was nice.” He smiled. “You have a really fantastic case of bedhead.”

Then he left.

***

Dad’s reply had come in three days later, while Dean was sleeping.

Dad to Dean: I left you with enough.

Dad to Dean: You always worry too much.

Chapter Text

Two weeks before school was set to start, the Winchester boys finally came home to the Impala parked in the driveway. They had spent the morning swimming at a lake just outside town and all three of them were feeling that heavy, loose-limbed tiredness that comes from hours in the sun. Adam had started drooping a mile from home, so he was now on Dean's back, his arms wrapped around his big brother's neck. As they rounded the corner, Dean was trying to pull down the hem of his still-damp t-shirt, so he didn’t see the car right away. Sam did.

“Oh my god.”

They stopped dead. Sam and Dean looked at each other for a moment, then Dean practically dropped Adam on the sidewalk and they all ran toward the house. They burst through the front door, tumbling over each other. And there he was. Dad was standing in front of the fridge with his jacket still on and two open coolers at his feet. Adam and Sam collided with him, making him stumble back, and Dean skidded to a stop just a few feet away so as not to knock him over entirely.

“My boys.” Dad picked them both up in a hug, burying his face in Adam's hair. “I missed you.” He set them back on their feet and beckoned to Dean. “You get over here too.”

Dean closed the space between them and let Dad pull him into a tight hug. He slumped into his chest and breathed in; Dad smelled so achingly familiar: salty and earthy, a bit like an aquarium, with the faintest hint of leather from his old jacket. Dad was warm and strong and solid; he was going to fix everything.

Once Dad let go, Dean stepped back and took a good look at him for the first time. His hair was long and matted from days in the car, it curled behind his ears. His shirt was wrinkled and untucked under his jacket. He looked like he'd just wandered out of the woods, but at least he was healthy. There was color in his cheeks and his eyes seemed alert as he checked his sons up and down.

Then, Dean's gaze fell on the coolers Dad had been unloading.

“Is this for us?” breathed Sam from behind him.

Dean couldn’t take his eyes off it either. It was almost a comical amount of food. He saw plastic ziploc bags stuffed full of shrimp, crab frozen in milk to keep it fresh, large vacuum-sealed slabs of fish: pink, white, and red. The door to the freezer probably wouldn’t even shut when he was done.

“Jesus, you’re all watering at the mouths,” Dad said. “Didn’t you feed them, Dean?”

Dean felt his face burning, but Sam stepped to his defense quickly. “Of course he did, Dad! We’ve been eating really well. Dean has done a lot!”

“Calm down, I’m only joking.” Dad rested a large hand on Dean’s shoulder and Dean felt like it was pushing him into the floor. “Dean knows I’m joking.”

“Yes, sir,” Dean answered, avoiding Sam’s eye contact. He curled his fingers around the hem of his shirt. “Did you have a good year?”

“Best we’ve had in a long time. Kubrick recruited some new young guys and they were a huge help. We caught more in one day off of Skagway than we usually get in a week. Cold’s a real bitch up there though.” Dad rubbed his hands together. “I couldn’t feel my toes until halfway through Canada.”

He scrubbed his face with his hands. “I need a shower. You boys finish up here. Then pick a restaurant and we’ll all go out for dinner to celebrate.”

“But it’s two o’clock,” said Sam, who could never just let a good thing happen.

“Then it’ll be a late lunch.”

As soon as Dad was gone, Dean and Sam sent Adam off to change into dry clothes and get his shoes on—an affair that usually takes half an hour. Dean started on the coolers while Sam unloaded the dishwasher.

“He’s been back for two minutes and he’s already making you feel bad,” said Sam quietly.

“He’s been back for two minutes and you’re already attacking him,” countered Dean. “Cut him some slack. He just drove for forty hours.”

Sam pulled out the top rack of the dishwasher. “I just don’t like the way he talks to you.”

Dean and Sam decided to let Adam pick the restaurant. Predictably, he wanted to go to the little old Italian place on Sixth Street that he’d tried to drag Dean into a hundred times. But Dad said it was a waste of money (“They make you pay for a fucking napkin at fancy joints like that”), so instead they circled around the small downtown until Dad spotted a sports bar he liked. It was a little after three by the time they sat down, so the place was nearly empty. The waitress arrived with a tray of waters.

“What can I get you all for lunch?” she smiled sweetly, tucking the empty tray under her arm.

Dad didn’t look up from his menu. “I’ll take the cheeseburger and a Speedway Stout.” Sam and Dean glanced at each other over the tops of their menus, but said nothing. They both got burgers and sodas, and Adam ordered chicken strips with a side of mashed potatoes.

When the waitress came back with their drinks, Dad’s beer was so dark it looked almost black. Dad took a long sip and set it down; it hit the wood with a familiar clunk that made Dean’s chest tighten.

“That was a long drive.”

They all nodded mutely.

“Sure is nice to be back in civilization. It gets real old working on a dry boat. But Kubrick will never lighten up,” said Dad, as if they were all going to commiserate with him. Dean pressed the tip of his tongue into the back of his front teeth.

Dad continued. “We saw some damn beautiful northern lights up there. You know what that is, Sam?”

“Yes,” answered Sam woodenly.

Dad didn’t seem to notice. “Beautiful thing. Nothing like it.”

They sat in awkward silence for a while, until help arrived in the form of their waitress carrying two steaming plates of food. She set a burger down in front of both Sam and Dad, then returned a few moments later with plates for Dean and Adam. Dean almost didn’t want to eat it, his burger looked so perfect. He took his first bite and… oh my god, he’d forgotten what real restaurant food tasted like. Even sports bar restaurant food.

Dean was halfway through his burger before Dad spoke again. “So, you boys like it here? Should I give Bobby the thumbs up?”

“Yeah.” Dean stopped to take a drink and swirled the straw between his fingers. “Sam even made a friend. He, um, lives next door to us.”

John turned to look at Sam. “Nice kid?”

Sam grinned for the first time since they'd sat down and looked right at Dean when he said, “Yeah. He definitely likes me best, but I guess he’s friends with all of us now.”

Dean narrowed his eyes at him and they all ate in silence for a few minutes. Then Dean tried again. “Tell him about one of your projects, Sam.”

“Well… We’ve done a lot...” started Sam slowly. “I guess my favorite was the trebuchet. Adam let us launch one of his action figures on the football field and it flew thirty seven yards. Cas has been teaching me about levers. He’s really smart about that kind of thing.”

“Hmm.” Dad’s eyes slid over their shoulders to the game on the TV behind them.

“And what about the grappling hook you were working on yesterday?” encouraged Dean when it became clear Dad wasn’t going to.

 Sam looked down at his plate and started playing with a fry.  “It’s okay. I guess this stuff is kind of hard to explain.”

And Dean wanted to bash his Dad’s head in. He took a steadying breath. Dean looked at Adam to his right and noticed that the kid had his chin in his hand, looking years older than he was. Feeling defeated, Dean turned back to his plate.

When Dad's beer was almost empty, he refocused on Dean. “What day is today? Monday?”

“I think so?”

“You have school tomorrow?”

“No, Dad, school hasn’t started yet.” Dean could almost hear Sam rolling his eyes.

“Oh.” Dad shifted his attention back to the game. “But you’re registered?”

“Yeah, all three of us are. There was some kind of, um, problem getting our school records from Arizona but I think they’ve—”

“Good. That’s good.” Dad raised a hand to signal to the waitress. Then he turned back to his sons. “Why don’t you three take the rest of your food home? I’m going to stay a while and see if their top shelf is any good.”

Sam looked at Dad’s bottle, then his eyes flitted to Dean. “You want us to walk?” he said incredulously.

Dad ignored him. And while he got boxes from the waitress, Dean leaned over and whispered, “Let’s just go.

As soon as they were outside and out of sight of the restaurant, Sam squeezed the top of his Styrofoam container so hard that it cracked. “God, he’s even worse than usual!”

Dean took the container from him and stacked it on top of his own. “Calm down, Hulk. It’s just different. We’ll get used to having him around again.”

***

Dean waited on the couch for a long time that night for his dad to come home. He watched the minutes tick by as little green numbers on his watch. Then, at 2am, he ripped it off and threw it under the couch. He punched his pillow into a different shape and shut his eyes tightly, daring sleep to take him, but his stupid brain wouldn’t shut up. His first day. He can keep it together for fucking Kubrick but not for us.

Chapter Text

Cas had been following Dean uphill for the better part of an hour.

“Are you sure you know where we’re going?” he panted.

Dean looked back at him over his shoulder. He brushed the sweaty hair off his forehead and Cas was relieved to see that his cheeks were also rosy. Cas could see the freckles under his eyes even from here. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re not very patient?”

Cas frowned at him. They were picking their way through the woods just outside town. The forest felt like a living thing out here, like they were walking through the vascular system of an ancient fallen being. Shrubs spilled onto them from every direction and moss dangled like lace from the tree canopy overhead. Blackberry brambles kept reaching into the path to snag on Cas’s shorts and sleeves. He stopped yet again to pick one off his back.

“I’m worried you’re taking me out here to murder me.”

Without braking pace, Dean turned all the way around in the path, just to make a show of rolling his eyes. Cas sped up and pushed past him, giving him a little shove with his shoulder. He had missed Dean’s bashful smile whenever Cas touched him, as if he was always surprised that Cas was picking him. This was the first time Cas had seen Dean all week. But they weren’t mentioning it. Just like they weren’t mentioning the shiny black car that sat like a beetle in the Winchester’s driveway.

Finally, they rounded the crest of the last hill and Cas figured out what they were doing as the path deposited them on the wide sandy bank of a lake.

“I can’t believe you’ve never been here before,” said Dean, pulling up beside him. “Sam found it on Google Earth at the library. I hope it’s not actually private property…”

Cas surveyed the clear, glassy water and the earth that sloped to meet it. The mountains were lower here than on the other side of town; they looked like soft shoulders and balled hands rising out of the lake.

“It’s beautiful. But…” Cas looked down at his outfit. “Why didn’t you tell me we were going swimming? I would have changed into a swim suit.”

Dean shrugged. “Basketball shorts are basically the same thing.”

Dean reached behind his head to tug his sweatshirt off. He pulled his phone from his pocket, wrapped it in his sweatshirt, and tucked the whole bundle into the shady overhang of a large rock. Cas took off his baseball cap and set it on top of Dean’s clothes.

Cas gestured to Dean’s shirt, which read Random Acts Presents The No-Nonsense Run to End Alzheimer’s. “You and Sam run a lot of 5Ks.”

Dean looked down at it and laughed. “No. We just shop at a lot of thrift stores and people mostly donate free shirts they got from stuff like this. That, or their grandfather’s clothes that didn’t make the cut for the estate sale but I don’t look good in beige.”

Dean started wading into the water with his shirt still on, so Cas decided not to take his off either. He paused to at least roll up his long sleeves, and by the time he got to the lake’s edge, Dean was already in up to his waist. Cas dipped his foot in the water.

 “Oh my god, is this glacial runoff? How are you not cold?”

“I’m a little cold,” said Dean, sinking down so the water reached his chest. He spun his arms around under the surface, making little tornadoes. “It’s easier if you go all the way in at once.”

“Not going to happen,” said Cas stubbornly.

“Alright, your funeral.” Dean pushed off the bottom so that he was floating on his back and started to drift even farther away from Cas.

Cas worked his way toward Dean by inches. When the water started to hit the waistband of his shorts, he went up on his tiptoes in a useless attempt to avoid it. For a long time, Dean watched him with a bemused smile, before finally taking pity on him.

“Come over here, Cas,” Dean offered, putting his feet down to stand. “There’s a warm patch.”

Dean held out a hand to guide him. But as soon as Cas took it, Dean pulled with surprising strength so that Cas stumbled and fell face-first into the water.

The water was so cold it felt like someone had slapped him. He straightened up with a strangled, gasping sound. Desperately, he plucked at his wet shirt, trying to get it away from his body, and shook out his hair. It sent droplets of water skittering across the now-broken surface of the lake.

Cas glared at Dean, but from the way Dean was smiling he probably looked about as intimidating as a wet cat. “You are so. very. dead.

Cas lunged, but Dean was already ten feet away. He danced just out of Cas’s reach several times, laughing so hard he clutched at his side. When Dean finally let himself be caught, Cas fully picked him up and threw him. Dean landed in the shallows in a cascade of water that soaked Cas too.

The younger boy rolled over and sat where he’d landed with his knees poking out of the water. The wet fabric of his shirt clung to Dean and Cas was distracted for a moment watching his chest move as he breathed.

Dean looked up at Cas and cocked his head to squint against the sun.

“I knew you’d like it here.”

Cas sat down too, a few feet away from Dean; he sank into the silt on the lake bottom.

“I love being in the water,” said Dean. He propped himself up on his elbows and dropped his head back to catch the sun. Cas studied his face.

“Dean?”

“Hmm.”

“Am I allowed to ask about your dad?”

“I wish you wouldn’t,” said Dean without moving,

“Just one question?”

Dean cracked one eye open to look at him. “Fine.”

Cas took a breath, looking down into the water. He pulled a weed from the lake bottom and started shredding its leaves under the surface. “Does your dad know you’re… Does he know about me?”

Dean stuck his tongue between his teeth and thought for a moment. “Um… ‘no’ is the short answer. But… he doesn’t know much about me, period. It’s nothing personal. I just know he’d probably have a problem with it and I never wanted to get into it with him.” He bit his lip and caught Cas’s eye. “I’m sorry.”

The weed drifted out of Cas’s open palm. “I guess I can understand,” he said finally. Then, “Can we still hang out?”

“Of course. Maybe just… not at my house.” Dean winced.

But Cas nodded. “That’s okay. I’m… sorry it’s like that.”

Dean stared back at him seriously. “Do I get a question now?”

“I guess that’s only fair.”

Dean paused. “Are you going to talk to me at school?”

Cas furrowed his brow, but Dean was watching him so intently he must be serious. “Why would you even ask that?”

Dean shrugged and it sent ripples out around his shoulders. “I don’t know. You’re a senior and… I just didn’t know. I would understand if…”

Cas scooted a little closer to Dean, swirling up the silt. “I wish you wouldn’t doubt yourself so much. I like you a lot.” Then he splashed him in the face. “That’s for soaking me.”

Dean wiped the water from his face with both hands, grinning. “I deserved that.”

Cas started kicking his legs just under the surface, making little tremors in the water. “So where’s your dad today?”

Dean gave Cas a sideways look. “That’s a second question.”

“Last one. I promise.”

“Running errands. I think he wanted to get the oil changed in the Impala and open a bank account. He took Adam with him. And Sam had homework, so I’m a free man all day.”

“Must be nice to have someone else helping with Adam.”

“Adam’s not so bad. He used to be a real pain in the ass, but he’s settled down a lot.”

Cas pictured Adam’s innocent face staring up at him as he sat on Cas’s lap at the bonfire. “I can’t imagine that.”

Dean snorted. “You should have met him a year ago. He went through this phase where whenever I wasn’t right next to him—and I mean, within a foot—he would just take off running. He was like one of those indoor cats that you always have to block from darting out when you open the door. And he’d do it in public too, which was awkward, because Sam or I would pounce on him and he’d start screaming bloody murder and I think—I mean, people probably thought we were kidnapping him or something. I bet both of us have permanent damage to our eardrums because of it.”

Dean started laughing. “One time… One time we were in this tiny little cow-town in Pennsylvania and he ran out our back door while I was in the shower. We only found him because the little idiot tried to climb through our neighbor’s fence and got his head stuck.”

“Oh my god.” Cas laughed and looked down at his hands. “I can’t believe you had to deal with that all by yourself.”

“No, my—” Dean swallowed, the last of his smile fading from his face. “No, my dad was around a bit more then.” He looked at Cas. “I don’t want to talk about him. I just want to be happy right now, you know?”

Cas frowned. “Yeah, but… I guess I just don’t understand.”

“Understand what?”

“I don’t understand a Dad who abandons you here all summer and then comes back like that’s not a big deal.”

Hey.” Dean’s voice was sharp. “He didn’t abandon us here. He checked on us every day—and we have people we could call if we needed to.”

Under the water, Cas dug his fingernail into the soft tissue behind his thumb. “That’s not enough.” He took a breath. “You can’t seriously think that that’s enough.”

Dean had crossed his arms tightly over his chest and he wouldn’t look at Cas. When he spoke, each word was slow and deliberate. “If that’s what he needs to do to be here the rest of the year, then we’ll live with it.”

“Fine.” Cas could feel his heart beating. “I still think that’s fucked up but we can drop it.”

Dean stood up out of the water. “Good. I’m going swimming.”

After a few steps, he stopped and turned, looking a little sheepish. “Will you please come?”

Cas sighed. “I’ll come out a bit.”

Dean turned out to be a powerful swimmer, and Cas couldn’t quite keep up. So while Dean cut wide circles around him, Cas floated on his back and listened to his heart rate coming down. He liked the way his wet shirt felt against his skin: when he moved his arms, the fabric dragged behind them like wings.

After a while Dean tired himself out. He swam back to the edge of the lake and crawled onshore.

“Hey,” he called after a second. “How pissy will you be if I get your hat wet?”

“Um. Mildly?”

“Okay, I’m going to use it to catch crawdads.”

Cas couldn’t help but smile. “Whatever.”

He closed his eyes and let the water rock him gently. He could almost fall asleep here with the sun on his face. Cas stayed like that for a long time, feeling weightless and directionless, as he listened to Dean splashing around in the distance. One week. One more week of days like this—where there was nothing but time and sunshine and Dean—before school started. Cas hated that feeling: that something precious was sliding through his fingers and he couldn’t quite catch it.

When Cas finally opened his eyes again, he realized that he had drifted halfway across the lake. His arms felt heavy as he swam back to shore. When he got there, Dean extended a hand out to him. “I promise. No tricks,” he said, so Cas let him pull him up and out of the water. Dean’s skin was sun-warmed and smooth, the tips of his hair were already starting to dry.

Once they were both standing, Cas wrapped his arms around Dean and laid his cheek on the top of Dean’s head. “You ready to go?”

Dean’s hair tickled Cas’s nose as he nodded.

They started to get dressed. “You know, if you told me we’d be swimming, I could have brought a towel too,” Cas pointed out.

Dean shook his hair out like a dog and pulled his sweatshirt back on. “I think you’ll survive.”

Just then, a phone started ringing and it took Cas several moments to realize that it must be Dean’s. Dean fished it out of his sweatshirt pocket and stared at the screen.

“It’s the house.” He looked at Cas. “I should answer, sorry… Hello?”

After a second, Dean’s shoulders dropped. “Oh hey, what’s up, Sammy?”

Cas relaxed too and started drying his feet to put on his shoes. He listened to Dean’s end of the conversation: “Slow down and say that again… Oh yeah. I forgot, but I’m coming… I’m running back right now… Yes, running… Yes…”

Dean jerked his head toward the path to indicate that they should start moving. Cas wiped his hands on his legs and reached out to take Dean’s hand while they walked.

 “I’m not panting because I’m so freaking in shape,” said Dean into the phone. There was a pause. “Well, that’s just rude. Aren’t you the one asking for help?” Dean laughed. “Okay, see you soon. I’m hurrying.” Then he hung up.

“Sam?” asked Cas.

Dean rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. “Yeah. I told him I’d look over his summer essay and he’s getting impatient. Sorry.”

Cas squeezed Dean’s hand. “No problem. Just promise you won’t disappear for another week.”

***

When Dean got home, the Impala was still gone but he cracked open the front door and listened just in case. Nothing. He stepped inside. Quickly, he stripped off his wet clothes and fished clean ones out of his duffel by the couch.

Then he went looking for Sam, but the kid was nowhere to be found. The kitchen was empty, as was the bathroom and his bedroom. On his second pass-through, Dean looked around the little room: both beds unmade and unoccupied, Sam’s galaxy poster on the wall by his dresser. Adam’s stuffed dog had slipped down into the crack between his bedframe and the wall; Dean pulled it out and set it on the kid’s comforter. He briefly considered crouching down to look under the beds. But then his eyes landed on the closet.

Dean walked over to it. He crouched down, sitting on his heels, and rapped on the door with his knuckles.

Sam’s small voice came through the wood. “Dean?”

“Yeah. Will you open up?”

The door slid open. And there was his little brother, looking tiny among a crowd of pillows and schoolbooks. He had a portable reading light clipped to the shoulder seam of his polo shirt and Dean kind of wanted to laugh about that until he realized that Sam’s eyes were a little red.

“Are you okay?”

Sam sniffed. “Yeah.”

Dean pushed the closet door open a little more and rested a hand on the wall. “Come on, spill.”

“Dad got mad at me.” Sam shut the book he was reading and threw it down to his feet. “He was in a bad mood when they were leaving and wanted Adam to hurry up. So he started barking orders at him and then got all mad when Adam wasn’t tying his shoes and I—I was just trying to tell him that Adam is five and he doesn’t know how to tie his shoes, but then Dad started yelling at me and then yelling at Adam and—”

Dean put up a hand. “Okay, okay.” Dean pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “He ended up taking Adam?”

“Yeah.” Sam sniffed again and dragged a hand under his nose. “And now I’m way behind because I’ve barely been able to concentrate.”

Dean looked at the books by Sam’s feet and tried to remember what the essay was supposed to be about. He didn’t recognize any of the titles. “It’s okay, we’ll figure it out, Sam. Are you coming out or am I coming in?”

When Sam just blinked up at him, Dean nodded. He pulled off his shoes and threw them toward the door. “Alright, then make some room.”

Chapter Text

The night before school started, Dean sat on the floor of the dim living room to look through his clothes. He dumped his whole duffel out on the carpet. One by one, he crumpled up the rejects and tossed them back into the bag until he was left with just a black t-shirt and his favorite washed-out jeans.

Still feeling jittery, Dean paced the kitchen running over a mental checklist. Backpacks—three, mostly empty, piled by the front door; Adam’s had a little tag looped through the strap with their address in case he forgot. Lunches—identical, in the fridge. Forms and registration and past transcripts had all been sent over at the beginning of the summer. Dean had checked twice.

He didn’t know why this felt different than starting at any other school. He never knew what to expect the day before. But this was the first time that Cas would be there, and watching him, and—and what if people noticed that Dean wore the exact same pair of shoes every day? Or that he changed in the bathroom before gym class and could barely pass his math and science classes? He didn’t want Cas, and Cas’s friends, to think he was embarrassing.

Dean chewed his nail.

Everything was going to be fine, right? He couldn’t actually picture Cas laughing at him.

But it wasn’t until the next morning—when Dean stepped out his front door and Cas gave him this huge dopey wave from where he was waiting at the foot of the driveway—that Dean relaxed.

Cas was practically bouncing as they walked to the bus stop. “So, are you excited, nervous, what? Does it get easier to start at a new school when it’s your hundredth time?”

Dean cut his eyes sideways to Cas. “I don’t think I’m as excited as you.”

“I just can’t wait to see Charlie and Kevin! And for you to meet them.”

Dean kicked a stone out of his path.

“But, listen: if you need anything today, just find me okay? If you get lost or you didn’t bring a lunch,” said Cas pointedly, “or you just hate it and need to ditch—”

Cas. I’m pretty sure I just had this same talk with Sam.”

Cas put his hands up defensively, but nothing could dampen his mood. “Fine. Don’t come crying to me when you’re wandering around the haunted basement of the science wing.”

Dean stuffed his hands into his pockets. “I brought a lunch. I know that’s what you were really asking.”

When they got to school, the building was nicer than Dean was used to; smaller and humbler than the last place in Arizona. There was no cop at the front door and the vice principal was a balding, jolly dude who told everyone to “Make it a great one!” Cas hovered around until Dean got his locker open (as if he couldn’t be trusted to do it on his own), but then Cas was off to his own class and Dean went to America and the Contemporary World in Room A67.

It wasn’t so bad. The morning was mostly syllabi and going-around-the-room-to-say-a-fun-fact. Dean only started watching the clock around lunchtime. The senior commons, where Cas had told Dean to meet him, had large paneled windows that looked onto the football field. Dean waited a few extra minutes before heading over so he wouldn’t have to stand there alone with his lunch.

They were already sitting when he walked up: Cas was sprawled out on the floor, looking lanky and rumpled, while he talked to a red-headed girl and an Asian guy. The girl—Charlie—sat with her back against the large windows, but she jumped up when she saw Dean. Before Dean could say hi, she was hugging him.

Charlie pulled back. “I’m so glad you’re here! I feel like I’m meeting a celebrity. Cas hasn’t shut up about you all summer.”

Dean felt his face going red. He looked down at Cas, and Kevin—who raised a hand in greeting.

“Sorry, I’d get up too, but—” He gestured to the open math book in his lap. “And I don’t hug as much as Charlie.”

Cas was smirking; he looked happy to see Dean. “No one hugs as much as Charlie.”

Dean figured out pretty quickly why Cas liked Charlie and Kevin so much. Charlie was a fast talker; she spent most of lunch asking Dean so many questions that he barely had time to eat anything. When Kevin jabbed her in the ribs and pointed this out, she clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh no! I’m sorry! I’m just so excited to talk to people again. Don’t get me wrong, this summer was awesome.” She beamed at the three of them. “But I missed you guys.”

Dean was looking behind her. He’d just noticed her backpack and it was covered in a hundred different buttons and iron-on patches: Don’t let the muggles get you down, Princess Leia in her slave bikini, Ted’s Excellent Computer Repair. “I don’t get that one,” said Dean, pointing to the last one, and Charlie’s smile turned mischievous.

“That’s where she works,” Cas volunteered. “They don’t usually hire high school students but, well… when they turned her down, she hacked into the owner’s email and sent him a message from his own account telling him to make an exception.”

“She signed it ‘God’,” added Kevin. “And yet, when I wanted her to do the same thing to my mom so I could quit cello, it’s suddenly ‘unethical’.”

With ten minutes left before the next period, Cas and Kevin pulled out their math homework and put their heads together, checking answers.

Charlie rolled her eyes. “They’ll do this every day.” Then she leaned over conspiratorially, “Want to see old pictures of Cas? I have a billion on my phone.”

Dean laughed. Charlie’s collection did not disappoint. She showed Dean: Cas when he was just a little older than Sam sticking his candy-colored tongue out at the camera; Cas in a rumpled baseball uniform holding the bat limply by his side and looking like he would rather be anywhere else; the three of them squished together on the couch with popcorn and long, terrible blond wigs because they “used to be psycho-crazy fans of Lord of the Rings”; Cas in his dark kitchen with a cake tray balanced on his head, caught mid-laugh. At first Dean wanted to see as many pictures as Charlie could show him, but then his chest started to tighten. Here was snapshot after snapshot of proof that Cas had a life here before Dean—and that his life would go on after.

***

That night, after school and after everything, that was what Dean was thinking about before he fell asleep: the after. What did his after look like, and when would it come? It was going to hurt like hell… But he would survive it. Objectively, he’d survived worse, and say what you will about Dad but at least he made them adaptable.

And yet…

Cas’s face from that night on the dock floated up in Dean’s mind, his lips soft and partly open, his eyes earnest and curious and warm. This was going to hurt like hell. Dean hadn’t realized how much he liked being folded into Cas’s world until he thought about slipping out of it. For the first time since Mom’s death, it felt like there were people here who wanted good things for them.

Dean didn’t remember when his restless turning softened into sleep. But it must have, because next thing he knew he was waking up to footsteps. Someone was padding down the hall, and then they were in the living room with him and reaching toward the light switch. Dean’s heart was immediately hammering, but he quickly realized that the figure was too small, the footsteps too light. Dean groaned and pulled his pillow over his face.

“You turn on that light and somebody dies.”

“Sorry,” said Sam, already doing it.

Even through the pillow, it felt like someone was holding the sun right in front of Dean’s eyes. “What are you doing?” he grumbled. “What time is it?”

Sam paused. “It’s super late. I’m sorry, Dean. I’m sorry. I just didn’t know what to do. And I think I need you.”

Dean slid the pillow off onto the floor. Shit. He sat up. “What’s going on, Sam?”

Sam was standing in the dark doorway, wringing his hands. “Adam’s sick. I think; he’s not making much sense. But he keeps rubbing his ear and he’s crying. And I tried to give him some water, but he spilled it all over his bed and his dog.”

Dean was already standing. He threw his pillow back onto the couch, then put a hand on Sam’s back and swept him down the hall. “Show me.”

Adam was a mess. How had he slept through this? Dean could hear him wailing through the door from five feet down the hall. When Sam pushed the door open, Adam was on his bed swamped in blankets; it looked like a parachute had just landed around him. He saw Dean and reached for him, desperate and red-faced through his tears.

“Oh, Adam.”

Dean hurried to pick him up. He placed the back of his hand on the kid’s forehead. It was hot. Fucking burning. Damn it.

Dean pushed past Sam to get to the bathroom. He tucked a hand behind Adam’s head to steady him as he bent down to look in the cabinet under the sink. Dean rummaged around for a moment until he found the collection of little orange pill bottles he was looking for. He grabbed three at random and threw them to Sam.

“Sam. Figure out which of these is an antibiotic.”

While Sam studied the labels, Dean peeled Adam off of him—which caused a fresh wave of hysteria—and set him on the closed lid of the toilet. Dean sat on his heels in front of him and began the futile task of trying to reason with a distraught five-year-old. “Okay, Adam. I know it hurts. I know it does. And you can cry. But you’ve got to be quieter about it.”

Dean put a hand on Adam’s cheek. “Is it your ear?” He tried to turn his head to get a better look, but the kid started screaming again. The skin around his ear was red, but that could just as well be because he wouldn’t quit pulling at it. Dean wanted to shove a sock in Adam’s mouth so that he could think, but instead he took a deep breath. “Not to rush you, Sam. But the sooner the better.”

“These ones.” Sam threw the bottle and it landed in Dean’s lap. Sam scampered back to their bedroom and returned a second later holding the glass of water with both hands. He looked pale.

“He’s not going to like this,” Dean sighed. Adam had never taken a pill easily in his life.

“I know,” said Sam with a wince. He set down the glass on the edge of the sink and turned on Adam. “We’re sorry about this.”

Then Sam grabbed the little boy’s head tightly and held him still while Dean pried his jaw open and shoved two pills into the back of his throat; it was like they were force-feeding a wild animal. Dean held his hand over Adam’s mouth until the kid swallowed, but had to look away when Adam gave him a teary, wide-eyed look of betrayal.

“I’m so sorry, buddy. I’m so sorry. It’ll help.” He held out his free hand to Sam. “Water.

When Dean removed his hand and held the cup up to Adam’s lips, he took a few small sips through hiccupping sobs. Dean pulled Adam forward gently, off the toilet, so he could curl up on Dean’s lap on the floor. Sam took the empty glass back and Dean hugged Adam tightly to him, one hand stroking the back of his head until the kid’s sobs subsided.

Sam was hovering in the doorway and Dean looked up at him.

“Thanks, Sammy,” he said, trying to smile. “You go back to sleep. Can you shut the door on your way out? We’ll barricade ourselves in here.”

Sam hesitated. “I can stay—”

“It’s okay. We’ll be alright, won’t we Adam?”

Adam whimpered and twisted his little fists in Dean’s shirt. Dean started rubbing small circles on his back. “We’ll be good, I promise. Go.”

Sam still looked unsure but he nodded and stepped out, pulling the door shut behind him with a soft click. Dean looked back at Adam, who was watching him warily.

Dean offered him a small smile. “You’re a trooper.” He brushed Adam’s sweaty hair away from his eyes. Adam leaned his hot cheek against Dean’s shoulder. “If I promise not to touch it, will you tell me where it hurts? Is it your ear?”

Adam nodded, his nose scrunching up against Dean’s shirt.

“Just the one side?”

“It hurts inside,” Adam mumbled.

“Okay. I bet you have an ear infection. Sam and I used to get them all the time, so you can blame Dad for bad ears. We’re going to get you into a nice warm shower. The steam will help get rid of all that yuckiness in your head.” Dean bounced his knee. “So can you stand up for me?”

Adam struggled to his feet. Dean told him to reach his arms up, and he pulled Adam’s shirt off over his head and threw it in the corner by the door. He untied the strings of Adam’s pajama pants and had him step out of those too, so he was just in his little white underwear. Then, he picked Adam up and set him down in the corner of the tub. “Give me one minute.”

Working quickly, Dean grabbed his towel from where it was hanging on the shower curtain rod, rolled it, and wedged it into the crack under the door. He stripped down to just his boxers so his own clothes wouldn’t get wet and stepped into the tub. He played with the knobs and let the water run until it was warm.

“Okay, here it comes,” he warned Adam and he heard the kid draw his legs up on the other side of the tub. Dean pulled up the stopper and water rained down on them from above.

“It’s too hot!” Adam shrieked.

“It’s got to be hot or you won’t cough,” said Dean, but he turned it down a little. He crawled back over to Adam and scooped him up. They sat under the pounding water until the room filled with a sweaty fog of steam. Water dripped in beads down Dean’s temples and he couldn’t tell if it was sweat or condensation; he felt like his skin was covered in dew.

After a while, Adam started coughing: wet rattling coughs that came from deep in his chest. Dean wanted to press his palms into his ears like a little kid so he wouldn’t have to listen, but he forced himself to sit through it. Shhh it’s okay, it’s okay, he kept whispering and he didn’t know if he was talking to Adam or himself.

 “I think that’s enough,” decided Dean when Adam started to grow heavy and quieter on his chest. Dean slid Adam to the side and leaned to turn the water off. The silence was a relief.

“C’mere, little man.” Dean pulled Adam to his feet and towel-dried his hair as gently as he could, carefully avoiding his ear. Then he grabbed his own shirt from the floor and pulled it down over Adam’s head. “Here, you can have this. You already got snot all over it.” Adam looked like someone had dropped him into a blanket, but it would have to do.

Dean tugged on his pajama pants and kicked everything else behind the toilet to deal with later. He checked the lock on the door, then pulled all the remaining dry towels down to make a little nest on the floor. He leaned back into it and opened his arms for Adam. Adam slid his hands behind Dean’s neck and melted into his bare chest the way he did when Dean was carrying him. Dean reached up to flick off the light, then rested his hands on Adam’s back and closed his eyes. Adam’s breathing was hot on his throat, but it sounded clearer; he listened to it slow as they both began to drift…

Chapter Text

No.

No.

No, no, no.

Whatever was beeping right now was about to get broken. Dean opened his eyes and blinked blearily into the darkness. Why were his arms so cold? And was that a toilet?

It took several moments for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. That was a toilet, and he had Adam on his chest; Dean could see the fluffy top of his head. As Dean looked around the bathroom, the last several hours came stumbling back to him. They must have slept the whole night here. And, oh my god—that sound must be his watch, waking him up for school.

Dean crawled his fingers across the tile, following the noise, until he found their damp wad of clothes. His watch was underneath it. Dean clicked the side button and—when it finally shut up—he dropped it unceremoniously back on the floor.

Dean patted Adam’s cheek. “Hey. Hey, wake up.”

Adam didn’t move. Dean listened to his breathing for a moment: still heavy and congested, but not as labored as last night.

“Adam. Come on,” Dean tried again.

Adam groaned like a zombie and tightened his grip around Dean’s neck.

“Fine,” resigned Dean. “I would love to carry you.”

With Adam on his hip and one hand braced against the wall for support, Dean pushed himself awkwardly to his feet. The hallway was shadowed (they must be the first ones awake) and Adam barely stirred until Dean set him on his back in bed. Even then, the kid didn’t open his eyes—just gave Dean a little smile and nuzzled into his blankets.

Dean went to the living room next. He snagged a sweater he’d thrown over the arm of the couch and pulled it over his head as he shuffled into the kitchen. He paused for a moment to flatten his hair, then flicked on the light. Oh god, this was not going to be an easy day…

Dean shielded his eyes. Maybe he should get himself some water before he started making breakfast. There was already an empty cup in the sink and Dean started to wash it out—but it was like holding an eel; Dean lost his grip and reached reflexively to catch it but only succeeded in soaking his sleeve up to the elbow.

The clatter must have woken Dad up, because Dean could hear lumbering footsteps coming down the hall a few minutes later. When he entered the kitchen, Dean barely looked up; he was busy spreading butter on toast for Adam.

“Morning.”

Dean nodded. It sure was. He still felt like his mind was working slowly and all the lights in the kitchen seemed blurry and soft, like he was looking at them through a pane of frosted glass.

Dad laughed. “Why do you look like you just got dragged out of hell?”

Dean grit his teeth. He tried to focus on dragging the knife across the bread. “I was up all night.”

“Homework already?”

“No, Adam. He’s sick, something with his ear.”

Dad stopped halfway to the fridge. “Why didn’t you wake me up?”

Dean paused too. What a stupid, confusing question. He didn’t know how to answer that, so he said nothing.

“Why didn’t you wake me, Dean?” Dad repeated. “That could have been serious.”

“And what would you have done? Yelling doesn’t help with ear infections.”

What did you say?” Dad’s voice was dangerous.

Dean’s eyes widened. Was that out loud? “I—”

Dean didn’t even have time to turn fully around before Dad was in his face. He planted two wide hands on Dean’s chest and curled his fingers into the fabric of his sweater: a threat. “You want to try that again?”

Yes. Dean wanted to say something—anything—different, but his mind was stuttering. He couldn’t focus beyond his Dad’s hands touching him and the panic jumping in his stomach. “D-Dad—”

Dad shook his head, minutely, and shoved him backward. Dean’s hip slammed into the counter and he dropped the butter knife; it bounced across the floor with a metallic clang.

“Ow,” said Dean stupidly, pressing the heel of his palm into the stinging hollow of his hip bone when he really should have been protecting his face. Because then Dad was at his throat. He placed one hand on Dean’s collarbone, pressing hard like he was trying to send his hand clear through Dean’s chest. Dean wanted to back up but he was already crowded against the sink and his elbows bumped the counter edge. He felt his frantic heart beating in his throat.

“I’m sorry,” he tried.

“I’m so damn sick of you, Dean. Do you have any idea how much shit I do to make your life easy? And none of you three show me any respect.” His thumb was pressing a vivid purple spot into the soft part of Dean’s neck just above his sternum. Dean fought the urge to try to pull his hand off.

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re ungrateful is what you are.”

“Yes.”

Dad was gaining momentum. He pressed his chest into Dean’s and Dean could feel his breath raising goosebumps on his arms and the back of his neck. He turned his face away.

“Do you think this is free?” Dad growled. “You think we get to live here for free? Answer me.”

“No,” said Dean miserably. He blinked at spots in his vision.

“What about the clothes you’re wearing? Were those free?”

“No.”

“And all the goddamn food you eat, that sure as hell isn’t free.”

“Trust me, I know.”

What did you say?

Dean pressed his palms flat against the door of the cabinet behind him. “I said, I know it’s not free, okay? I go and buy it, so I fucking know it’s not free.”

That did it. He’d never seen Dad’s face go so cold so fast; it was like a wall had dropped behind his eyes. Dad surveyed Dean with cold dispassion, trying to decide what to do to him. Then without a word, Dad wrapped his hand in the collar of Dean’s shirt and something ripped in the fabric as he yanked him forward and down. Dean stumbled, falling to his knees. He had to throw his hands out to stop his face from slamming into the wall on the opposite side of the small kitchen.

Dad was close behind him. “Kneel,” he ordered, voice dark. “Kneel like you have any goddamn respect for yourself.” He kicked Dean’s foot roughly into place and Dean straightened. He tried to make his back as straight as the wall, his nose just inches from it, but all of his muscles were spasming and he felt like he might throw up.

Dad gripped Dean’s elbow and twisted his arm behind his back at a violent angle. Dean gasped as pain shot through his shoulder. The spots popped in his vision.

“Dad, you’re hurting me!”

Dad pulled farther and Dean cried out. He bent forward, face in the wall. Dad was really going to rip his arm off.

Dad,” he pleaded desperately. “Please don’t. Please.”

Dad leaned down. “Does that hurt?”

“Yes,” Dean gasped.

Dad hissed in his ear: “Good. You’re going to stay here until you learn not to mouth off.”

Then, mercifully, he let go and stepped back. Dean gripped his shoulder, panting, but he didn’t dare move more than that.

Dad had turned toward the still-dark hallway. “Sam!” he barked.

Out of the corner of his eye, Dean could see Sam peek around the corner, clinging to the doorframe as if worried that the tsunami might slam into him too. He’d probably been sitting right there listening.

“Go to school,” Dad commanded. “Dean’s not coming today.”

Sam’s eyes darted from Dean to Dad to the abandoned toast on the counter and back to Dean.

“Okay,” he squeaked. He stood up quickly, fingers bouncing nervously at his side, and skirted around Dad to get to the front door. He was gone in a second, without his backpack.

So Dean was alone. He blinked—and was horrified to realize there were tears in his eyes. He hurriedly tried to hide his face in his shoulder before Dad saw.

Dean felt Dad everywhere around him: grabbing his keys, sliding his leather coat off the chairback, pushing the chair in.

“I’m leaving,” said Dad’s voice at the door. “You move a fucking inch and you’ll be outside for a week, understood?”

Dean squeezed his eyes shut and nodded.

Then the front door slammed with such force that the papers on the kitchen table fluttered. In the sudden stillness that followed, Dean felt the tentative relief of having just survived something. His whole body thrummed with energy, like a bell that had just been struck. He lifted a shaking hand to his shoulder. How could he have been so freaking stupid? If he’d just taken one second—one—to pay attention, this whole mess could have been avoided.

He thought of the throbbing spot on his neck and the way his arm still felt barely attached. And he thought of Sam: Sam who was at school right now, having to pretend like he’d had a normal morning. Sam who’d heard everything, heard Dean begging, and probably thought he was just as spineless and unlovable as Dad did. Dean felt another stupid tear run down his cheek and drip off his chin. And Adam. Adam was still in his room, hurting and alone, and what the hell was Dean supposed to do about that now?

Then Dean had another horrible thought: Was Cas outside? How long would he wait for Dean at the edge of the driveway? What if he came to the door?

“Oh my god,” Dean whined. He slumped back, just the tiniest bit, and started to cry in earnest. It was all so stupid and unfair. Why couldn’t he have just one nice thing?

Soon Dean was crying harder than he had in a long time: loud, indulgent sobs that were ripped from somewhere deep in his chest—that made him feel like he might crack in two. And when his tears ran out, Dean just sat there gasping at air, trying to pull it in around him like a blanket. As if that would help. As if any of this could be fucking fixed.

Then Dean remembered Adam. Adam was still here, and he shouldn’t hear this. Dean threw a hand over his own mouth. Adam shouldn’t hear him like this; he needed to pull himself together. Dean was taking deep, intentional breaths, trying to make his chest rise and fall evenly, when the front door handle turned.

Dean snapped to attention. Shit, he should have dried his face—But would it be worse to move now? He didn’t even have time—

“It’s just me,” came Sam’s soft voice. Dean reached up quickly to wipe the sleeve of his sweater across his face, but there was no hiding it.

Sam came to stand next to Dean, just a few inches farther away than he usually would. On his knees, Dean’s head barely reached Sam’s shoulder. He couldn’t look at him.

Sam reached out, timidly, and touched Dean’s cheekbone just under his eye with two fingers. “Are you okay, De?” he breathed.

Dean took a shaky breath. Everything felt a little shaky right now. “I’m okay. Sorry, Sam. I should have known when to shut up.”

Sam pulled his fingers back. “Do you need help getting up?”

Dean shook his head. “No, I… He said not to move. I can’t.”

Sam’s mouth fell open in a soft oh. “For how long?”

“I don’t know. Until he tells me otherwise.”

“But that could be all day.”

“Maybe.”

“What’s he going to do when he comes back?”

“I don’t know.” Dean sighed and shifted his shoulders. “He didn’t exactly share his thought process with me.”

“You can’t just wait for him like this.”

Dean gave him a hard look, his it’s-not-a-discussion look, and Sam twisted his mouth into a pouty frown. He crossed his arms over his chest.

“Well, I sent Cas away. And he’ll tell your school, so they both think you’re the one with the ear infection.”

Dean sagged in relief. “Thanks, dude.”

Sam continued, “And I’m not going either, so I can stay with Adam.”

Dean felt a flood of gratitude. “Thank you. We don’t deserve you, Sam.”

“Don’t say stuff like that,” Sam snapped. Dean looked at him, surprised. Sam’s eyes softened under Dean’s gaze.

“Please don’t stay here all day,” he pleaded. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Dean bit his lip. “It’s not a choice, Sammy.”

Sam looked like he wanted to argue, looked like he wanted to say a thousand things, but he didn’t. He just gave a little half stomp of his foot and said, “Fine.”

Then he stood there like he was waiting for directions, so Dean tried to sort out his priorities.

“Um, can you get breakfast for Adam? Just give him a yogurt or something easy. And, uh… you’re going to hate this, but he needs more pills.”

“I can do it,” said Sam and he started digging for a spoon in their disorganized silverware drawer by the sink. Sam spotted the butter knife on the floor and dropped it into the dishwasher.

“Do you want something too?”

Dean hesitated. “I probably… shouldn’t. Thanks though.”

It was so odd to have Sam’s eyes boring into him from above. It made Dean think about how Sam was going to grow up and become an adult, and then he could level Dean like this all the time. Dean just hoped he would still be the tallest.

Sam gathered what he needed—opening a few cupboards and the fridge—then shuffled back to the bedroom, throwing “I’ll keep Adam out of here” over his shoulder.

Dean sighed. He really didn’t deserve Sam. And Sam didn’t deserve any of this shit. Sam was so freaky-smart, and so kind. He’d seen a lot of bad shit, but he still thought there was something he could do about it. Dean smiled despite himself. He was thinking about that one Halloween when Sam wanted to collect for UNICEF. It was pre-Adam, just the two of them, and Dean had trailed Sam all over the neighborhood to get coins. They both had these silly, flimsy lightsabers they’d made out of paper towel rolls. And at the end of the night, Sam was so proud to clunk his full UNICEF box down on the table. They had less than $10 between them, and here was Sam: excited to give money away. The thought probably hadn’t even occurred to him to keep it.

Sam wanted to make something happen to this world and fuck Dad for not caring about that.

Fuck dad for a lot of things, Dean thought wryly.

He reached up to pick at a little spot on the wall where the paint was coming off. True to his word, Sam was doing a good job at keeping Adam occupied, leaving Dean undisturbed to slowly drive himself crazy. There was just nothing to do, which was of course the point.

Dean unraveled half of the cuff of his sweater by pulling at a loose string. He wished he’d changed out of this shirt when he had the chance: the other sleeve was still soaked. He also really wished he hadn’t had that cup of water…

Dean stretched, or at least stretched as much as he could without really moving: flexing his fingers, turning to crack his back. It was really amazing how quickly his back started to ache. Probably sleeping-on-the-bathroom-floor and kneeling-for-several-hours wasn’t a great back-to-back combo.

And what did ‘Don’t move’ really mean anyway? Obviously he couldn’t get up and walk around, but could he sit back on his heels? Or stretch his arms out? Finally, Dean leaned forward—with his knees still firmly planted on the floor—so he could sag against the wall. He had his cheek pressed against the paint and could hear a dim buzzing coming from underneath. Dean looked up and saw that he was kneeling under the light switch for the living room. He flicked it on and off a few times, just to do something, but then imagined Dad returning and thinking he was playing around. He stopped.

Cas would probably be in English class right now. Over the summer, they’d laid on their backs on the football field, fingers tangled together, while Cas told Dean about his summer reading for that class and what an apathetic asshole the main character was. Dean found himself wondering what Cas would do if he was here with Dean instead. Maybe he’d make some joke about finally getting Dean on his knees.

But no, of course he wouldn’t. Cas would be concerned about him; he would probably make Dean stand up. Don’t accept this, Cas would say. You don’t deserve to be humiliated like this.

Dean frowned. He pressed his forehead harder into the cool wall. Maybe thinking about Cas right now wasn’t helpful.

Finally, Sam wandered back into the kitchen to make lunch (which meant it had only been, what, a few hours?).

“Heya Sammy!” said Dean, a little too desperate to get out of his own thoughts.

Sam looked him up and down appraisingly. “Are you okay still?”

“Golden.” Dean smiled widely, but Sam rolled his eyes.

“You don’t have to do that.”

Sam walked over to the sink and turned on the faucet. He looked around for a cup, but there were no clean ones on the counter and Sam never liked to use anyone else’s. He started to rummage in one of the drawers with the water still on.

“Hey, dude.” Dean fidgeted uncomfortably. “You think you could hurry up? I really have to piss.”

Sam halted. “Are you serious?”

“Dead.”

Sam walked back over to the faucet and turned it off. “Then go,” he told Dean slowly.

“Huh?”

“Go to the bathroom, Dean.”

Dean’s brow knitted. “That’s not really an option at the moment.”

“Are you serious? It will take you two seconds. Just go.”

Dean grimaced. “Sam. Stop.”

“No, you stop.” Sam had started to shake and Dean stared at him wide-eyed; his little brother didn’t talk like this. “Stop letting him be mean to you. He can’t tell you that you can’t eat! Or that you can’t pee when you have to pee!”

“Sam, it’s—”

“Do you think Benny would ever treat Cas like this?”

That hurt. Of course Benny wouldn’t do this to Cas; Cas was different: smart, self-assured, easier on the people around him. Dean knew this, but to hear it from Sam hurt.

Dean blinked rapidly. “Look, I know it’s messed up sometimes. I know that things aren’t always—” he made a frustrated little huff “—that things aren’t always the way I want but… but I don’t know what to do about it, okay! I’m…” scared, but he couldn’t say that to Sam. The word stalled in his throat. “I’m sorry,” he finished lamely.

Sam was biting his lip and looking straight up at the ceiling.

“I’m sorry,” said Dean again. He spread both hands out on the wall and pressed into them until it was painful. “I’m doing a shitty job here.”

Sam shook his head. “You’re not,” he whispered. He slumped back against the counter. “You’re not. You’re better than him. Why can’t it just be you?”

Sam,” Dean moaned.

“Okay,” muttered Sam, as if he’d expected Dean to respond that way. Then he pushed off the counter and walked out of the room.

A moment later, he came back and he was holding something that Dean couldn’t get a good look at. Sam flicked on the sink briefly, but then it was off again. He walked up behind Dean and touched his shoulder.

Dean glanced at his little brother’s face, then looked at what he was offering: a damp washcloth.

“Adam’s sleeping. I’ll read my book out here and be a lookout. I thought you could put this over your eyes and then you can at least sit down and try to sleep a little.”

Dean’s heart seized. He smiled weakly at Sam. “Will you get mad if I say I don’t deserve you again?”

Yes.” Sam playfully smacked Dean’s shoulder with the washcloth and he wasn’t quite smiling, but it wasn’t not a smile either.

Dean accepted the peace offering and, while Sam was still close, he wrapped an arm around his brother’s waist and towed him into a hug. Sam tolerated it for about two seconds, then started pushing on Dean’s head. “Stop, I’m too old. It’s embarrassing.”

“You absolutely aren’t.”

When Sam pulled away, Dean had made a decision. “Okay. I’m going to…” He steeled himself. “I’m going to get up and go to the bathroom.”

Sam watched, dubious, as Dean glanced to the driveway. But then he was doing it: he pulled himself up, brushed off his pant legs, and then took off for the bathroom. And yeah, he was basically running and he barely washed his hands, but he fucking did it.

Sam was pretending to read at the table when Dean got back. Dean kicked his chair as he passed, and Sam smirked.

“Tell me about the nerd stuff you’re reading,” Dean requested as he settled back against the wall, hands dropped between his knees.

Sam glanced at him. “It’s Magic Treehouse.” He turned the page. “This is the Greek one where they go back in time to see the first Olympics. Only right now, they’re learning about philosophy from—”

“Yeah,” Dean smiled, “that sounds like it will put me to sleep. Keep going.”

In the end, they didn’t need a lookout. Dean fell asleep like sinking into warm water and Sam said he barely moved the whole time he was out. But he still woke up long before Dad came home. By the time the Impala rumbled into the driveway, the trees outside were casting long shadows on the floor of the dim kitchen. Sam was holed up with Adam in their room and Dean was stick-straight, nose touching the paint.

Dean heard Dad’s shoes drop one by one just inside the door. His keys clattered on the counter.

“Stand up, Dean.”

Hesitantly, he pushed himself up by his knee, but stayed facing the wall.

“You can turn around.”

Dean pivoted slowly on his heel. First he checked Dad’s hands—which were empty, thank god. In fact, Dad looked more weary than angry. There were deep lines around his eyes. His shirt was wrinkled and looked like it had been through the dryer a thousand times. His jacket had half-slipped off one of his shoulders; he noticed Dean looking and tugged it back into place. Dean fiddled with the side seam of his pajama pants while Dad’s eyes swept over him too.

“You okay, son?”

“Uh-huh.”

Dean held his breath when Dad stepped forward to straighten the shirt on his shoulders. Looking at the floor, Dean noticed how small his Dad’s feet looked in just his socks, and it made him pause.

“Um, Dad?”

“Hm.”

“I want to say something.”

This was uncharted territory and they both knew it. When Dad didn’t give him any kind of cue to continue, Dean just started talking.

“I, um… I know how hard you work for us and I appreciate everything. Really. But I don’t think you realize how hard we have it when you’re gone, and you don’t answer.”

Dean paused to take a shallow breath. “I’m not going to watch Sam and Adam starve again. It’s just about the worst thing I can imagine, and I won’t do it again.”

For a long time, neither of them made a sound. Dean imagined the kitchen filling up with viscous, heavy silence.

Finally, Dad huffed. He drew his jacket closed and crossed his arms over his broad chest. “Dean, you would never starve. When the food’s low, you call Bobby—that’s what he’s there for.”

Dean tried to hide his disappointment. That was so not the point.

“Okay?”

Dean nodded.

“And I expect you to watch the way you talk to me.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Go take a shower.”

Dean didn’t need to be told twice. He was out of the room before Dad could change his mind. He only stopped to grab random clean clothes and his phone from the living room, before locking himself in the bathroom. He turned on the shower, but didn’t get in. Instead, Dean sat on the floor in the same spot where he’d held Adam just last night, and looked through his messages. There was one from Bobby.

Bobby: I’m tired of worrying about you boys. You keep ignoring my messages and I’ll come over there myself, you hear? I know the address.

And several from Cas.

Cas: Sorry about your ear. Sam said you have a gross infection (his words), but he seemed spooked.

Cas: Are you okay?

A few hours later, he had sent a picture of Van Gogh.

Cas: If they have to amputate it, I know your next Halloween costume.

Dean dropped his phone into his lap and rested his head in his hands. He stared at the tiles and dirty grout, not really seeing either. He just felt—empty.

After a while, Dean forced himself to stand. He gripped the sides of the sink, white-knuckled, and raised his face to the mirror. He looked like a shipwreck survivor: battered and pale. His hair was damaged and unruly from months of using dish soap as shampoo. Dean tugged down the collar of his shirt to look at Dad’s thumbprint on his neck. He knew he’d also have bruises on his knees tomorrow. Dean was tired of this. Tired of feeling like he had to be ready to duck whenever he heard footsteps behind him. He thought about the scars on his back, and Adam’s cough, and Sam’s tired resignation, and the way they all had trouble sleeping when Dad was out. And one conclusion kept coming back to him over and over.

This can’t go on.

Chapter Text

Cas flexed his toes over the heating vent under his desk. He could feel the warm air billowing up like someone was holding a hairdryer to his socks. They rarely ran the heating this early in September, but his mom must have turned it on after she poked her head in and saw he still had his fleece jacket on. Not for the first time recently, Cas was grateful to have his parents.

It was just after 10pm. Cas knew he should be getting ready for bed, but instead he was clicking through the website for Nature. He was supposed to bring in an interesting article from a scientific journal for next week’s Bio class. Cas scrolled through the table of contents: something about child-rearing behavior in Asian elephants, something about mapping the neurons in the ear, something with a whole lot of words he didn’t understand. Then, “A first for flight: mini-plane takes off with no moving parts.” Cas clicked it open: scientists at MIT had built a silent plane that flew by using electric fields to ionize the air molecules around it. Sam was going to have an aneurysm. Cas made a mental note to tell him tomorrow—and then, just in case, made an actual note.

He could tell Dean too, if he’d heard anything from him all day. Cas tipped back in his chair, hoping to get a look into Dean’s living room over the fence, but the whole house was dark. He chewed on his zipper pull (it was already covered in teeth marks—just like his pen caps and the ends of his reading glasses). Kevin had once accused Cas of having an oral fixation. And that was probably true. All kinds of fixations at the moment.

When Cas got home from school earlier, the light was on in the Winchester’s kitchen but then it went off while Cas was eating dinner. So maybe Dean was asleep. Or just too sick to check his phone; but that thought also made Cas’s skin itch. It was frustrating—stupid, really—to be so close but unable to talk to him. Cas wanted to go over there. And maybe he would have if Dean’s dad didn’t look like he spent his free time punching walls (the man had nothing but free time).

Cas sighed and rested his elbows on the desk. He set his chin in his palm. There was another article about cloning macaque monkeys; maybe he should use that instead. While he skimmed it, Cas’s fingers worked their way up into his hair. It had gotten too long (it always felt too long) and had curled erratically after his last shower. He teased out one curl and pulled it taut. It stretched below his eye, and that was going to annoy him all night if he didn’t take care of it.

Cas fished around in his top drawer and came out with an old pair of elementary school scissors. He held the blades up to the curl and tried to find the right spot to trim in his reflection on the computer screen. Then, his phone blared—and a little spiral of brown hair dropped into his lap. Well, shit.

Cas sat forward and checked his phone screen. Then he checked it again.

“Hey! I was just thinking about you.”

There was a pause before Dean’s voice came through on the other end. “Sorry I’m calling late.”

“I’m just glad you’re not dead.”

Something was wrong with their connection: it sounded like someone was rubbing Styrofoam over the speaker. Cas had to concentrate to understand Dean. “Are you doing homework?”

Cas realized he was still holding the scissors up and set them on the desk. “Er, sort of. Nothing important. Hey, are you okay?”

“I’m fine. I just… Can you sneak out?”

Cas adjusted his grip on the phone and leaned forward. “Huh?”

“Can you sneak out?” Dean asked again, enunciating each word carefully like Cas was new to English. “Come pick me up and we’ll—we’ll go somewhere.”

“Go where?”

“I don’t care. Canada.”

“Dean, what?” This wasn’t making any sense. Cas rubbed two fingers across his forehead and glanced back at Dean’s house. “You’re sick; you missed school today. You need to sleep and, like, eat soup—not sneak out.”

“Please,” Dean pleaded. And there was something urgent in his voice that made Cas pay attention.

Cas looked down at the open notebook in front of him. He thought about his parents sleeping in the next room over. “Why don’t you come here and we’ll talk, okay? You don’t even have to see my parents—I’ll open the window,” Cas offered, already standing to do it.

“Can’t. Not home.”

Cas paused, half-risen out of his chair. “What?”

Dean didn’t say anything.

“Where are you?”

There was a long beat of silence. “Outside. I got a little lost but I think I can see your dad’s store.” Dean’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Look, I know it’s a school night and—and you probably have a million other things you’d rather do, but I just… something’s going wrong with me and I don’t want to be alone.”

Cas looked around at the scattered papers and uncapped pens on his desk. Where the hell were his keys? “Dean, I’m coming. Find somewhere safe to sit; I’m on my way.”

***

Cas never found his own keys and it didn’t matter. He lifted his dad’s from the hook by the front door, then locked his room and climbed out the window. He sped without headlights toward the store. In the silvery moonlight, Cas could see the first line of trees standing guard along the road like sentinels—but no Dean. He wasn’t on the railroad tracks either or on the empty benches encircling the park. But then—he saw him. In the pool of light under the storefront where the smokers usually stood, Dean was folded over with his hands on his knees.

Cas jerked the car into a parking spot. He threw his door open and ran up to him, practically stepping out of the shoes he hadn’t bothered to tie properly.

“Are you okay?”

Dean reached out for him wildly and Cas gripped his forearms to steady him. He pulled in a sharp breath as Dean’s long fingers brushed against the inside of his arm. “Why are you freezing?

“I’m good. Just. Need a minute.” Dean was wheezing; he sounded like his lungs were made from a punctured accordion. Cas held tightly to him, his fingers making little indents in the soft skin by the bend of Dean’s elbow. After a while, Dean started to straighten, climbing up Cas’s arm, and once Cas was sure he could stay up on his own, he let go and took a half-step back.

“What the hell happened to you?”

Dean dug a fist into his stomach like he had a stitch. “I was, uh, running.”

Cas stepped back to see Dean more fully. He did look like he’d either been exercising or hanging out in a wind tunnel. His hair was wet; it stuck up around his face as if he’d rubbed his head vigorously with a towel. His cheeks were pale and wind-burned, but his nose was pink. So were his ears. Cas noticed a smudge at the base of Dean’s neck: mud, or maybe a bruise? And he was wearing running clothes. Sort of. The shirt was one Cas had seen him wear to bed, but he had athletic shorts on and there were little flecks of mud all over his shoes and ankles.

Cas squinted at him. “Was someone chasing you?”

“No.” Dean looked up, confused.

“Then, why?

“Oh.” Dean’s breath was starting to level. He let go of his side. “Had to. Couldn’t think inside.”

When Cas just gawked at him, Dean gestured vaguely toward his house and added, “I was showering,” as if that explained anything.

“Most people do that after they run,” Cas told him.

Dean let out a frustrated huff and shuffled his feet. “No. I was showering and then, I don’t know what happened. It was like the bathroom started shrinking around me and the water was burning my face and the faucet, it was too shiny—”

“Too… shiny?” Cas muttered, but Dean ignored him.

“I felt like I was in that scene from Alice in Wonderland where she grows out of control and hits her head on the ceiling, you know?” Dean mimed it, ratcheting a hand above his head. “I was going to get hurt if I stayed there.”

“Okay…”

“And then, then I started thinking about how this is my life.” Dean spread out his hands and looked down at them like he was holding some heavy, invisible bowl that Cas couldn’t see. “This is it. And if I don’t do anything, it’ll be like this forever.”

Cas tilted his head. “Is this life so bad?”

“Some parts.” Dean dropped his hands.

Cas tugged at his earlobe, struggling to understand whatever Dean wasn’t saying.

“Sorry,” said Dean. His eyes darted down the street. “I know I sound fucking crazed right now. I didn’t think this through.”

“No, I’m glad. I mean, it was good to call me.” Cas tried to catch Dean’s eye. “So, what now? Are we going to keep running?”

Dean was rocking from his heels to his toes, but he halted, lurching forward a little. “We?”

Cas shrugged, palms up. “Can’t have you out there alone.”

Dean scrutinized him for a moment, then the corner of his mouth slowly lifted into a crooked grin. “Thanks. But, turns out I’m super out of shape. Christ, I was panting before I even lost sight of my house. And then I got to the forest—and it was way creepier than I imagined.”

Cas stuck his tongue in his cheek. He felt like something had loosened inside of him now that Dean was smiling. “I could have told you that.”

“I freaked myself out. Sorry. It’s late, I know.”

“Don’t worry.” Cas scuffed the toe of his shoe against the sidewalk, then slid a little closer to Dean. “I was going to have trouble sleeping anyway.”

“Why?”

“Worried about you.” Cas knocked Dean’s chest gently with the back of his hand. “Even before I knew you were holding your own personal audition for Survivor.”

Dean huffed and shook his head good-naturedly, but then he glanced over Cas’s shoulder like he was still worried that something might jump out at them.

“You’re shivering,” Cas observed.

“Yeah. It’s colder than I thought it would be.”

Cas looked down at Dean’s outfit. “Why didn’t you put on long pants?”

“Again. I really cannot emphasize how little I thought this through.” Dean crossed his arms and started rubbing his hands up and down.

Finally, Cas took pity on him. “Come here.” Cas unzipped his jacket and held it open for Dean. Dean was just staring at him, so Cas wrapped a hand around his wrist and tugged him forward. Dean stepped into the space Cas had created for him, and Cas caged him in with a firm arm around his shoulders, crushing Dean’s folded arms between their chests.

“Hey Dean?” Cas said, his nose in Dean’s hair.

“Yeah?” Dean’s voice was muffled against Cas’s collarbone. When he dipped his head, his cold nose touched the hollow of Cas’s neck and it made him shiver.

“Why do you smell like a hospital?”

Dean laughed and Cas could feel his breath ghost across his throat. “Damn it. That’s soap. I guess I didn’t wash it all off.”

Dean buried his nose in Cas’s neck. He already felt warmer. With Cas’s arm braced around Dean’s shoulders, he could feel the muscles in his upper back shift as Dean repositioned to awkwardly unfold his arms. He let them hang loosely at his sides for a moment, but then Cas felt Dean’s hands at his waist, fingers skimming the top of his jeans, and then moving—tentatively, carefully—around to his back. Cas tried not to tense up. He didn’t let himself think about how nice it was to have Dean this close, holding onto him. Instead, Cas put a hand on the back of Dean’s head the way he would cradle a baby and rubbed small circles with his thumb behind Dean’s ear.

“I don’t feel like I fully understand what happened to you tonight,” Cas whispered, his lips brushing the top of Dean’s ear.

Dean breathed out through his nose and it sent waves rippling down Cas’s shirt. Cas was really glad Dean couldn’t hear what he was thinking.

“My dad yelled at me,” Dean said quietly after a moment. “We got in a fight and… it’s just been the longest day.”

“I’m sorry. I hate fighting with my parents.”

Dean tightened his arms around Cas’s waist. “Can I just stay here a second?”

“Of course.”

They stood there together, swaying gently on the spot like two boats moored together. Cas smoothed the back of Dean’s hair with his palm and wondered what the hell his dad had done to make Dean cling to him like this.

“I’m guessing you don’t want me to take you home,” he said eventually.

“Not yet.”

Cas looked up and down the street. The book store and the coffee shop were both dark. There wasn’t a light on anywhere on this block. “Okay, but you need to get warm.”

“M’okay,” mumbled Dean, but Cas shook his head.

“Let’s go into my dad’s store. I can take you through the back—but only because you have high level security clearance.”

“Okay,” was all Dean said and Cas frowned at him.

“It’s quiet,” he offered, more sincerely. “I think it will help. Take my hand, sweetheart.”

He hadn’t really meant to say that. He’d never said that to another person before, and he’d only ever been called ‘sweetheart’ by his mom when he was sick. Cas half-expected Dean to gag. But he didn’t. Dean must have been truly exhausted, because he just held up his hand and Cas laced their fingers together. He led Dean around to the back of the building, pulling him like a heavy sled.

“One second,” Cas told him. He fumbled with his dad’s keys in the lock for a moment before it finally popped open. This back door was so flimsy, they could probably have broken it down just as easily.

Cas stepped inside first, with Dean right on his heels. He reached to turn on the lights, but then thought better of it in case someone from the street thought they were breaking in (which they technically were, but no one needed to call his dad about it). In the dark, the store didn’t feel quite as comfortable as Cas had hoped. The metal shelving looked skeletal and sharp in the blue-tint of night. If you squinted and looked out across the store, the aisles might look like abandoned skyscrapers in a post-disaster cityscape.

“What’s that buzzing?” Dean asked nervously. He had stopped just inside the door, right in the middle of the foot mat like a dog that had been told to ‘stay’.

“We have to keep the cold section on overnight.” Dean was watching Cas’s hands as he slid the keys back into his pocket. Cas scratched his head. “It’s kind of eerie in here, isn’t it? Like being in school after hours.”

“I’ve never been in school after hours.”

“Are you hungry?” Cas asked, because it was something he was always thinking about with Dean.

Dean looked down and rubbed his shoes on the mat, trying to clean them. “No.”

“Here,” Cas grabbed a granola bar from one of the shelves and tossed it to Dean, who almost dropped it. “Just have it. You’ve been running. And, um, let’s go somewhere else.”

Cas held out his hand again and pulled Dean along behind the aisles. They stepped over inventory boxes, past the bathroom and shift calendar—into Dad’s office. The door clicked shut behind them and Cas turned the light on. He took a deep breath and let his shoulders slump. This room smelled like his dad: coffee grounds, ink, shaving cream. Something about being in here always made Cas feel hidden and secure; it was like curling up in your favorite hiding spot during hide and go seek. He looked at Dean and wondered if he could feel it too.

“You can sit down,” Cas told him. He cleared off a few papers from the couch. “Just take off your shoes.”

Obediently, Dean tugged at the knot on his dirty converse and slipped them off. He lined them up by the door, then walked around Cas to get to the couch. He sat there stiffly, ankles and knees together, while Cas busied himself turning on the hot plate and adding water to the carafe. When Cas turned his back on Dean to grab a packet of hot chocolate mix from the desk, he heard the couch creak and the crinkle of a wrapper. Quickly, Cas checked his watch and sighed: even if he fell asleep in the next minute, he wouldn’t get enough sleep.

Dean spoke up then. “I don’t need hot chocolate. I’m warm.”

Cas shot him a skeptical look over his shoulder and dumped the mix into the bottom of a paper cup. Once the water boiled, he poured that in too and watched it kick up clouds of powder. Cas swirled the cup and brought it over to Dean.

“Anything you don’t drink gets poured on your head.”

“You would never,” Dean challenged. But he accepted the cup and held it close to his face in both hands. Cas kicked off his own shoes and knelt on the cushion beside him to reach behind the couch. He knew Dad kept a blanket here and—yes, there it was.

“Arms up.” Cas shook out the old wool blanket and unfurled it over Dean’s lap. “Your socks don’t match,” he told him as he tucked the edge around his feet.

Dean snorted. “Sorry I didn’t dress up for my midnight panic run.”

“They’re not even the same color.”

Dean smiled at him.

“Are you comfy?”

“Yeah. Thanks, Cas.” Dean took a sip, then angled the cup toward Cas. “You want some?”

Cas pushed it back. “No re-gifting. It’s yours.” He tucked his hand under his armpit and curled up against the other armrest. Dean pulled his legs up onto the couch too, facing him.

“I’m glad my dad still keeps that stuff around,” Cas said. “In elementary school, I always had to hang out in here until his shift was over. He tried to trick me into thinking it was exciting by stocking this room with hot chocolate and Harry Potter books.”

“That would have worked on me too.”

Dean took a sip and looked around the small office. Cas watched his eyes linger on the grooves Dad’s chair had worn into the carpet and the note from his old boss that he’d tacked up by his computer (Sad to see you go, but you were always going to do bigger things than work for me. Call whenever you want to grab a bite or a beer). Dean cleared his throat. “Wow, I can’t believe this room has been the same since you were a little kid—that you’ve lived here that long.”

Cas picked at a piece of lint on his jacket. “Yeah.”

“Same house too?”

Cas nodded. He rolled the end of his sleeve between his thumb and forefinger. “I guess… it’s been really different for you.”

“A little.” Dean pushed his tongue between his teeth. “But it’s okay. Sometimes I think it’s cool that we get to see so many different places.”

Cas narrowed his eyes at him and Dean crinkled his nose. “Okay, fine. It would be nice to stay in one house. And… I wish I had a bedroom door.” He nudged Cas with his foot. “Would make hanging out with you easier, for one.”

God, that smile. Cas could feel himself blushing, but Dean was too.

Dean sighed and let his head drop heavily against the cushion. “We used to have a real house. I wish you could have seen it.”

“Tell me about it.”

“My room was so cool, Cas.” Dean shifted and his toes bumped against Cas’s knee. “It was crazy colorful. We painted the walls two different shades of blue, but I also had these green and yellow-striped curtains. I got to pick everything out.”

Cas furrowed his brow. “That sounds like it would clash.”

Dean laughed. “You are zero fun.” He kicked Cas’s thigh and Cas pushed back against his shins. Dean grinned, then he leaned forward and lifted a curl from Cas’s forehead. “Alright then, Judgy. Tell me why there’s a chunk missing out of your hair.”

“Oh.” This blush was never going to go away. Cas touched the curl self-consciously. “I cut it accidentally.”

He’d never seen Dean look so smug. “Amazing. You know, Adam did that once so I taped his hands together. I can do the same for you if you can’t control yourself.”

Shut up.” Cas lunged at him, but Dean put up a foot in defense and planted it on Cas’s sternum. He pushed him back easily with his heel.

“Calm down,” Dean laughed. He was sitting up now, leaning forward, and he touched the curl again, bouncing it. “It looks good. Makes you look interesting, like you have stories.”

Dean slid his hand up into the front of Cas’s hair and made a loose fist. Cas could feel the little pricks in his scalp where Dean was pulling gently, not hurting him. His eyelids fluttered. He wished Dean would run his hand all the way through, over the top of Cas’s head, around his temples, down the back of his neck. Cas would let him, if he wanted to. When he opened his eyes, Dean was grinning at him curiously.

“You’re an ass!” Cas shoved him, a little harder than he meant to, and Dean rolled off.

“Don’t be mad. How was I supposed to know you were going to have a spiritual moment?”

Shut up,” Cas growled. “Just talk about something else. You were talking about something—”

“My house,” Dean reminded him.

“Yeah, okay. That.”

Dean still looked awfully self-satisfied, but he inched his foot toward Cas and nudged him until Cas relented and let his legs fall open to make room. Dean crossed his feet in Cas’s lap.

“I didn’t even tell you the best part.”

Cas pulled the blanket out so it covered Dean’s feet again. He was still happy not to make eye contact. “So tell me then.”

“The best part,” said Dean like it was a really great secret, “was that my room was right at the top of the stairs. When Mom wasn’t home, Dad would let me take the mattress off my bed and we’d slide down them.”

Cas had been playing with the hem of Dean’s sock, flipping it inside out then back again, but he paused. For some reason, he simply could not picture that. Also, ‘Mom.

“And,” Dean continued, “we had the softest carpet in our living room. So soft I liked to press my face into it and rub it around. I was a little weird as a kid.” Dean slid his hand absent-mindedly across the blanket. “They used to joke that they’d get me a square of it for Christmas.”

Under the blanket, Cas ran his hand along Dean’s shin. He could feel his bone. “So why’d you move?”

“Oh. We didn’t.” Dean frowned. “The whole thing burned down.”

Cas’s hand slipped off of Dean’s leg. “What?” he gasped. And then (because that was such a stupid way to respond), he added quickly, “I’m so sorry.”

Dean rubbed his eyes. “It’s okay. Happened so long ago, I’m not shocked about it anymore.” But there was a crease between his eyebrows that Cas wanted to reach over and smooth out.

“I can't believe that. I thought that only happened in movies,” whispered Cas, mostly to himself. “How did it start?”

“Our stove.” Dean was flicking the edge of his lid with his nail. “The wiring wasn’t up to code and it short-circuited. I guess the whole house lit up really quick.” He swallowed. “Before, um, before my mom could get out.”

Cas’s hand tightened reflexively and his knuckles knocked against Dean’s ankle. Dean flinched.

I had no idea.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m so sorry.”

Dean raised his shoulders an inch, just to drop them again. There was a long moment of expanding silence.

“Dean, can I hold your hand?” Cas choked out.

Robotically, Dean set his cup on the ground. He held his hand out and Cas found it, gripping it tightly. Dean’s hand was warm and he had rough ridges on his palm underneath his fingers. This time he didn’t hold Cas’s hand back.

“I don’t know much about what happened,” Dean said slowly. He turned his face into the couch cushion. “Just that she was probably scared in her last few minutes.” He grimaced and Cas squeezed his fingers. “It rips my dad apart to think about that. And walking through the house afterward was fucking terrible. I don’t know why we did that. Everything was ruined; all her jewelry melted together and my stuffed animals disintegrated. Dad wanted to save this pair of diamond earrings he got for her when they married, but even they cracked in the heat.” Dean sniffed. His parted lips brushed against the raised seam of the cushion. “Actually I think he did keep them.”

Cas’s breath was coming fast and shallow. He held onto Dean’s hand with both of his own like it could somehow anchor him. Dean was sitting right here, he was okay, but still Cas’s chest ached in a deep, demanding way. He had guessed Dean’s mom was dead, but he’d never before pictured it. Never imagined Dean growing up in a house where everything had been blown back by fire. The last unstruck match.

How do you ever light a candle after that, or turn on the stove, or—oh my god. The first thing Cas did with Dean was make a bonfire right in front of him. He really was an extra-special breed of idiot.

Finally, Cas swallowed and asked Dean, “How did you get out?”

Dean shook his head slightly. His hair was now just damp and it floated off of his forehead.

“Wasn’t there; I was at school. I had no idea until my dad came to pick me up. And I just thought he’d gone crazy: he came busting into the classroom like there was a bomb going off behind him—all agitated and smelling like smoke. I asked him what he was doing there, but he wouldn’t say it. He just kept running his hands over my shoulders. I think he wanted to check that I was real.”

Dean’s voice trailed off again. Cas risked a glance over at him and saw that Dean had squeezed his eyes shut. His lips were pulled back tightly, baring his teeth like he was in physical pain. Cas noticed tear-tracks running down his cheeks, and then Dean’s whole face crumpled. Cas reached out for him, grabbing at the fabric of his shirt, his thumb catching on Dean’s sleeve. Cas found Dean’s chest and spread his hand over his heart, pressing into him as if that alone might be enough to quell whatever was rising up in him. Cas could feel the bumps of Dean’s ribs under his fingers and he felt the rumble of his voice before he heard what Dean said next.

“He used to love me back then.”

Chapter Text

When Dean was younger and got a moment alone, he would stand out on the patchy grass lawn of whatever house they were renting at the time. Throwing his arms out, Dean would spin in tight circles—slowly then faster—going around and around and around until the center-point of his vision came unpinned, the telephone wires waving like jump ropes and the ground kicking up underneath him to knock him over.

That’s what it felt like now.

The whole world was careening sideways.

And Cas was here to see it.

Cas.

Dean pitched forward, breaking away from him. For a wild moment Dean thought that he might actually vomit over the side of the couch. Was it possible to make yourself sick just by thinking something? That would be some real weak shit; he was absolutely not going to do that.

He used to love me.

The thought was irrepressible; it kept bobbing up in Dean’s mind like a moldy buoy. He groaned and dropped his head between his legs.

I can’t even get my own dad to care about me.

Dean could tell that Cas was trying to talk to him, but the sound came like voices on the radio in another room: muffled and removed. Bracing for impact, Dean laced his fingers behind the back of his head and tried to concentrate.

“What the hell is happening?”

This time, it broke through. Dean could hear how panicked Cas was. He felt the couch dip as Cas sat up and Dean tipped toward him, which didn’t help his swirling mind. He put up a hand to hold Cas off.

“Give me a minute,” he moaned.

“Dean?”

“Just—one second, Cas. Please.”

Dean pressed his knees into his temples as hard as he could. He needed a few breaths to settle the world back down on its axis. But then Cas started touching him. And Dean could focus on nothing else. Cas’s hot hands were like irons on the back of his neck, his upper back—Cas was touching his fucking back. Dean felt a flare of anger strike in his chest.

“Why did you say that?” Cas asked.

“Stop touching me,” Dean hissed into his knees.

“What?”

But Dean couldn’t wait around for him to figure it out. He bucked his shoulder to knock Cas’s hand away and jumped up from the couch. Then immediately regretted it. When he turned back, Cas still had his hands raised in the silhouette of where Dean had been. Cas looked down at them, twitching his fingers—then up at Dean, as if surprised to find him in a different spot.

Dean exhaled. “Sorry.”

Cas let his hands fall, and he slid them over his knees. Dean didn’t know where to look. Finally, he bowed his head forward into his hands and pressed his fingertips into the bony ridges under his eyebrows.

Cas was quiet. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Dean dragged his hands down his face. His palms pulled the corners of his eyes and lips down, his face wet clay. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Then why did you?”

Dean raised and dropped his shoulders. He breathed into his hands like he was trying to warm them up.

Cas watched him with a curious look on his face. Then, he said softly, “You can’t actually believe he doesn’t love you.”

“Oh yeah?” Dean huffed into his palms and looked at the ceiling. “Why not?”

“Because…” Cas sounded about as miserable as Dean felt. He pulled his legs up onto the couch and hugged them to his chest. “He’s your dad.”

God.

Dean looked around the room, anywhere but at Cas, and he spotted his half-empty hot chocolate cup on the floor. He leaned down to grab it, then slammed it into the trash can under the desk. It landed with a dull thump, rustling the plastic liner.

“I think we should go home.”

Cas lifted his head. “What?”

“Will you drive me?”

“No, I—” Cas raised his hands and dropped them; they bounced against the cushions, falling on either side of his thighs. “I don’t want to go home. Why won’t you talk to me?”

Dean set his jaw. “You seriously won’t take me?”

Cas stood up then and his movement was so quick that Dean stumbled back without thinking. He tripped around the corner of the desk and barely caught himself with a hand on the door. The untreated wood scratched at the underside of his fingers.

“Did he actually tell you that he doesn’t love you?” Cas demanded, advancing on him.

Dean could feel his pulse pounding in his wrist. You can’t move like that around me, he wanted to say. Instead, Dean brushed his sweaty bangs off his forehead—they stood straight up right where he left them.

“Of course not.” Dean’s hand glanced against the door knob as it fell to his side. Cas was just a few feet away now. “Can we not fucking talk about this? It doesn’t help.”

“Well, it’s fucking important!” Cas declared. He was still coming closer and Dean backed deeper into the corner. As Cas stepped around the desk, Dean swallowed. His back bumped the wall and he let out a little half-growl. This felt fucking familiar.

Cas was looking at him like he was some injured wild animal and Dean wanted to shove him, hard. He wanted to send Cas reeling backward onto the couch so he could get this fucking door open and never have to talk about this—ever.

“Maybe he just doesn’t know how to show it,” Cas said then.

And that was it. Something sticky and black bubbled up inside Dean like tar; it burned his throat and the back of his nose—and then, because this was all going to shit anyway—Dean finally just said it: “Oh, you think? Is that why he choked me this morning—because he doesn’t know how to show it?”

Cas stopped so abruptly it looked like he’d bumped into a glass wall. He blinked and stepped back.

But Dean felt too deranged to care. The crestfallen look on Cas’s face barely registered as Dean hooked a finger into his shirt and tugged the collar roughly down. “Here I was thinking that he left this because he hates me, but I guess I’m just so stupid that I’ve been misinterpreting his affection all this time!”

Cas didn’t respond. His eyes were zeroed in on the base of Dean’s neck as if it was glowing. The bruise there was wine-colored and spotted with popped blood vessels; Dean probably could have played it off as a hickey if he’d wanted to.

“That’s from him?” Cas whispered. He said it in the breathless, private way you would tell a secret in class, like they both might get in trouble if someone else heard. And Dean felt immediate, icy shame roll down his back.

“Yeah.”

Slowly, Cas reached out toward the bruise. He hesitated an inch away, then ran his thumb over it gently as if he thought he might be able to rub it off. Dean wanted to shift back on his heels, but he forced himself not to move.

“He did that on purpose?”

Dean nodded mutely. He couldn't stand the way Cas was looking at him; it was mercy when he finally dropped his eyes.

Cas’s long fingers brushed Dean’s collarbone, then he pulled his shirt down again, a little too far. The seam cut a sharp, red line into the back of Dean’s neck. “Hey, um, that kind of hurts.”

Cas let go immediately.

“I didn’t know,” he said.

“Yeah, well…”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

Dean ran his tongue quickly along the edge of his top teeth. His eyes darted away from Cas and back. “I told you we got in a fight.”

Cas glared at him. “That’s bullshit. You know I didn’t realize.”

He reached out again, maybe to lift Dean’s shirt or to pull it down, but Dean pinned the fabric to his chest with his thumb. “Cas,” he warned. Then, “I’m sorry.”

You have nothing to be sorry about. Are you hurt anywhere else?”

Dean thought about his shoulder. And he thought about the cold, dead-in-the-eyes look on his Dad’s face as he shoved him into the wall. “No. The bruise isn't even that big of a deal.”

Cas’s eyes sparked. “I disagree.”

“Okay, Cas.” Dean slumped against the door. Sometime while they were talking, all the energy had drained away from him. He probably should have kept all this to himself. Dean had never told anyone before, and this wasn’t exactly the way he’d pictured telling Cas. But it was more than that. Some stupid, childish part of Dean still thought that once he said it aloud, things would be different. That there’d be some superhero solution. But Cas had no power here either. Nothing was different. Dean would still have to put his shoes on and go back to his house and sleep on his couch—and wake up to his dad in the morning.

In fact, Cas was already grabbing their shoes. Dean sank down the wall like he was sitting in a chair, then further until he touched the floor. It was all over. Dean cradled his head in his arms. He listened to Cas moving around as he folded the blanket up and threw it over the back of the couch. Then his footsteps came closer. Dean wrapped his arms more tightly around his head.

Cas put a hand on the top of Dean’s head. “Come with me.”

“Are you driving me home?” Dean asked his toes.

“Not yet,” Cas answered gently. “I want to do something with you.”

Dean raised his head. Cas was crouching in front of him so their eyes were level and he offered Dean a small, sad smile.

“Let’s do something stupid.”

***

Cas’s idea of ‘something stupid’ apparently involved leaving Dean alone in the alley while he ran back into the store. At least the air was better out here. When they’d come this way earlier, Dean had barely been paying attention. But now he noticed more: there was a comb with chipped teeth dropped at the foot of the back stairs and large muddy footprints that tracked back and forth between the parking lot and the door. Dean wondered if they belonged to Cas’s dad. He stepped into one of the footprints and it engulfed his shoe; definitely an adult.

Dean shivered. He had already zipped Cas’s fleece jacket up as far as it would go, so he tucked his chin into the collar. In his experience, nothing good happened in alleyways. Especially at this time of night.

Cas wasn’t going to come back with drugs, right?

Dean stuffed his fists deep into the jacket pockets, straining the inside seams. Cas didn’t seem like the type, but maybe he thought Dean was. People made that mistake sometimes—thought hey, you’re John Winchester’s boy, it’s in your blood. Truth was that just about any substance scared Dean half to death. Even RedBull. Something about the smell of alcohol had ruined a lot of fun for him.

Dean was staring at the back door, eyes unfocused, when it flung open. He flinched. Cas (or at least someone that Dean really hoped was Cas) materialized as a dark silhouette in the doorway. When he stepped forward onto the steps, the moonlight caught his face, and then the rest of him. Cas… did not look like he had drugs on him.

He looked like he was on his way to his thirteenth birthday party. There was a plastic grocery bag swinging from the crook of his elbow and a couple of two-liter soda bottles hugged to his chest.

Dean cocked his head. “Um, what?”

Cas looked a little breathless. “Don’t worry, I paid for it; I can check myself out.”

He jumped down the last two steps and landed right in front of Dean.

“That’s not what I was worried about.”

Cas dropped the plastic bag by the wall; something metal clinked as it hit the ground. Next to it, he propped one of the sodas—a Coke—then turned on Dean. “Hold this.”

Dean accepted the Sprite. It was heavier than he expected, heavy enough to bend his wrist, and Dean tilted it in both hands to read the nutrition label. “I don’t know if giving myself a massive headache will make me feel better,” he said.

“No. But breaking some shit might.” Cas stared at him expectantly and when it was clear that Dean wasn’t getting it, he gestured at the wall. “So shake it up—stomp on it—throw it—whatever you want.”

“Are you serious?”

“It’ll be cathartic.”

Cas was beaming at him like this was the best idea ever, but Dean dropped his eyes. He considered the bottle for a moment with his hands around it. “Yeah, I’m not doing that.”

He threw it to Cas—and Cas tossed it right back. Dean barely caught it, cradling it against his stomach; he could feel the soda sloshing around.

“Can you just cooperate?” Cas frowned.

Dean tilted his head up at him, one eyebrow raised. “You’re still serious?”

Cas nodded emphatically.

“Fine,” Dean sighed. “We can pass for a while.”

Dean hefted the bottle up and cocked his elbow behind his ear. Then, he threw it like a football to Cas (okay, maybe a little bit at him). Cas groaned as the ridges on the bottom sank into his stomach but he managed not to drop it. He stared at Dean for a second, swung the bottle in a pendulum at his side, then tossed it in a high cartwheeling arch. Dean had to jog backward a few steps to snag it before it hit the ground.

“I see what you’re trying to do here,” Dean informed him. “It’s nice and all, but I don’t need your off-brand therapy.”

Cas grit his teeth. Dean’s shirt had hung open loosely when leaned to catch the bottle and even from here, Dean could tell that Cas was looking at the base of his neck again. “Has it occurred to you that maybe I want to throw something?”

Dean chucked the soda back, not bothering to do anything fancy.

“He’s your dad,” said Cas. Because he was relentless. “He should be protecting you, not—”

“Look, you don’t have to explain the idea of fathers and sons to me. It’s not my first day on the planet.” Dean rolled up onto his tiptoes then slammed his heels down. “You’re being awfully dramatic about all of this. I’m pretty sure you’ve never even talked to him.”

“I know enough,” said Cas darkly and Dean rolled his eyes.

“Whatever.”

They passed the bottle between them a few times in silence. A churning block of bubbles started to form at the top and it sloshed back, fizzing like angry insects, each time Dean threw it.

“Will you just admit that it’s at least complicated?” Dean said finally. “I mean, yes, he can be kind of… rough, or whatever you want to call it—"

“I want to call it something else,” Cas started to mutter, but Dean raised his voice and powered through.

“—But he’s also the only person that’s been with me for my entire life. And sometimes he really comes through for us.

“Like last winter,” Dean continued, jumping a little as he remembered it. “I was complaining about how early it got dark because I had to walk all the way across town. There were no streetlights in that neighborhood—and one night a car almost hit me. So I tell him about it, and the very next day he shows up with this bright white cap for me to wear while I’m walking. Brand new too.”

Cas had the bottle now. Pensively, he flipped it on its head and swished it like a baseball bat a few times before he spoke. “That was last winter?”

“Yeah.”

“So almost a year ago.”

Dean swallowed and flexed his fingers. “Okay. Fair point.”

Cas slung the bottle back and Dean stepped into it. He didn’t even have to hold it up to his ear to hear the pressure now. Dean fiddled with the cap, considering it, but he didn’t dare give it a real turn.

“He’s doing his best,” Dean said. But was that even true? ‘His best’ was different for Kubrick in Alaska. Up there he was sober and employable.

‘His best’ was even different for Sam and Adam than it was for Dean, if he was being honest with himself.

Dean rolled his neck in a circle to crack it. He looked down at this stupid soda bottle and pressed his thumbs into the side; there was barely any give.

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand.” Dean sounded a little hysterical even to himself. “Sam doesn’t even. He thinks that Dad has always been like this, but I remember him before. I want him back like that.

Dean sent the Sprite hurtling back to Cas and for a moment he felt a rush, relief, but as his arms came down, they felt weirdly empty. Cas held onto the bottle and looked at him, so Dean fidgeted. He grabbed the hair at the back of his head and pulled his head to the side. Then he looked at the sky. “I feel like—all this time—I’ve been waiting for him. I thought that if I just made things easier, looked after Sam and Adam, he could get his head right and then he’d come back to us and he’d be so sorry about everything that’s happened.”

Dean swallowed. The stars were so far away, Dean wasn’t sure if he was really seeing them or just blinking at pinpricks in his vision. “Maybe that’s stupid.”

“I would have done the same thing.”

Cas took a step forward and Dean thought he might be coming to hug him, but instead Cas extended the bottle. Dean bit the inside of his cheek and took it. He tossed it up in the air one more time to reignite the riot of bubbles that was pushing just under the cap.

“Hey,” Dean called to Cas, “this thing feels like it’s two seconds away from exploding on its own.”

Cas took several more steps back. He swept his hand in front of him in a take-the-stage gesture. “Let it off then.”

“Here?”

“We can wash down the wall before we leave.”

“Okay, then.” Dean shrugged. “Here goes nothing.”

He gave the bottle one last vigorous shake, then held it away from him and popped the cap off. The soda hissed, and then—not one second later—frothy foam shot up in an arch, cascading in waves onto the cement. It poured out over his hand, droplets hitting his forearms and face.

Then, Dean had an idea. He slid his thumb partially over the mouth of the bottle like he was spraying champagne and the stream instantly jumped higher. It was something he’d only seen in movies, but it worked like a charm and he felt fucking cool doing it.

Cas was flapping around at Dean’s side. “Woah, look! You’re hitting the gutter!”

Dean glanced at Cas, already smiling, and Cas tried to step toward him but then one foot landed on his other untied shoelace and he tripped spectacularly. Dean shot out a hand to grab the back of his shirt, just barely saving him from a faceplant.

“You’re a mess,” Dean laughed. But he did feel like the rubber band that had been tightening around his chest all day had finally been cut. “Sorry if that choked you.”

“All good,” Cas assured him, straightening himself. Then he smirked. “Say you’re having fun.”

Dean cast a bemused look over at him and Cas’s eyes glinted in the dark like a cat’s. “Fun might be a stretch. But it’s not torturous.”

“You never trust me.”

“Just tie your shoe, genius.”

The cap to the Sprite bottle got lost somewhere early in the excitement, so Dean didn’t bother getting on his hands and knees to look for it. But he did invert the bottle to drain out the last of the soda. Once it was almost empty, he swung it around absent-mindedly and watched the specks land, then fade on the ground.

“Hey, Dean.”

Dean glanced over his shoulder. Cas was crouched over his shoe a few feet away, doing as he was told, hair falling into his eyes. Dean tried to find the curl he’d been playing with earlier, but he couldn’t pick it out from this distance.

Without looking up, Cas said, “Listen, I understand wanting to take love where you can get it. Really I do.” He pulled his laces taut and Dean held his breath. “But it’s his fault he’s not being a real dad to you. Don’t misinterpret his problem as something wrong with you.”

Cas looked up at Dean then, and Dean looked away quickly. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“Oh.” Dean had no idea what to say to that. He set the now empty Sprite bottle down and gave it a gentle kick. It bounced away like a rogue balloon, finally bumping to a stop against the wall. Dean could feel himself blushing; Cas could probably even see the flush on the back of his neck. He crossed his arms. “Nothing, huh? I thought you didn’t like my socks.”

Cas let out a put-upon sigh. “You’re a flippant little shit sometimes,” he replied and Dean could hear the laugh in his voice, “but even your socks are fine.”

Dean turned around then, because he suddenly wanted to see Cas’s face—see if he really meant it. And Cas, like always, smiled when he realized Dean was looking back at him.

“Here.” Dean walked up to Cas and held out a hand to pull him to his feet. It wasn’t quite like asking him to hold hands, but Dean did get to feel his warm pulse under his fingers.

“You can break the next bottle,” Dean told him.

They’d left the Coke on the ground by the back door. Cas bent over to pick it up and, as he did so, his shirt rode up, exposing a few inches of smooth bare skin on his lower back. Dean had to look away. Jesus.

When Dean finally brought his eyes back down from the dark sky, Cas had set the Coke bottle on its head like a teed-up football. He grinned at Dean, then took a running start and kicked it as hard as he could into the wall. Dean thought for sure the impact would burst it, but the bottle didn’t even seem all that damaged as it dropped and rolled halfway back to Cas’s feet.

“That does feel good,” Cas gushed.

Dean grinned. He nudged the bubbling Coke back to him and Cas kicked it around in a slow circle. Then he stepped up onto the side and put out his hands: one in front, one behind.

“Look, I’m surfing.”

Dean busted out laughing. This was really the adorable dork that he wanted to spend all of his time with. “I would bet money that you’ve never touched a surfboard.”

Then he held out his hands, palms up, for Cas to steady himself (he clearly needed the help). Cas’s shoes squeaked against the plastic of the bottle as he leaned into Dean.

“You’re doing a crappy job at destroying this, by the way,” Dean observed.

“Am not,” Cas jumped off and let go of Dean’s arms; Dean was immediately cold in all the places Cas’s hands had been touching. “Show me then, if you’re such an expert.”

“Fine.” Dean snagged the bottle from the ground and tossed it between his palms, feeling the shifting weight. “Think I can break this against the wall?”

“No.”

Dean frowned. “Watch me.”

He set it up the way Cas had: standing on its head. Then Dean reeled back and kicked it so hard that it made the top of his foot sting. The bottle went flying and smacked the wall with a wet thud that sounded like someone slapping a kickboard on the surface of a pool.

But it didn’t break. Cas sent it rolling back.

“Again.”

Dean kicked the bottle upright. There were new dents now: twin depressions from Cas’s feet, a crumpled neck from Dean. This time Dean took a deep breath as he backed up. He stretched his fingers as wide-apart as they would go, then relaxed them. As Dean did his wind-up, he let his body go loose and full-force, and the bottle crunched as he connected with it. It sailed into the wall and Dean held his breath—but, nothing.

It dropped again. Disfigured and gurgling, but unbroken.

Fuck.

“Just do it again.”

Dean already was. He grabbed the bottle, throttling it, and threw it to his feet. He was going to kick the shit out of this so thoroughly that it would leave dents in the wall. Dean launched it again, and the plastic buckled slightly; he could feel it curving around his foot. But it didn’t go quite as high or as hard that time. Or the next. Or the next. Or the next.

Dean didn’t realize how close he had gotten to the concrete wall until he almost slammed his big toe into it. He hopped back, saving himself just in time. Dean was panting; the top of his foot ached like he’d just dropped a heavy box on it. And the bottle. The bottle was laying there, right in the crook between the wall and the ground like it had just lost a bar fight.

Fuck, Cas.”

“What?”

“I don’t know what to do about any of this.”

Dean spread his hands out on the wall and dropped his head. His heart was clanging in his chest, but his voice came out very quiet: “I know something has to change. I don’t want to admit that, but I know it.”

“That’s okay, Dean,” said Cas from over his shoulder. “You can make it change.”

Can I?

Dean twisted to look at Cas under his arm. The older boy was sitting on his heels with one knee popped up, his hands hanging limply between his legs.

“You can,” he repeated imploringly.

Dean looked again at the patch of ground framed between his outstretched arms. He lifted one foot. Slowly, he pressed the heel of his shoe into the side of the Coke bottle, making the plastic groan. Dean hated these shoes, had from the moment he saw them. In typical Dad-fashion, he’d left them in a plastic bag on Dean’s bed—three pairs, one for each kid, each so ratty that Dean would have already considered throwing them out. And the pair for Adam was so big that every morning one of them had to remember to stuff the toes with toilet paper.

“You know, it wouldn’t be that hard for him to take care of us. If he wanted to.”

“Probably not.”

“I just mean… He could get a job. He works while he’s in Alaska. It wouldn’t be that hard to get a job here, any job. Everyone else’s parents do it.” Dean dug his heel in and dropped his voice.  “But no, he just wants to torment us.”

Dean pushed off the wall and faced Cas because he suddenly remembered something that made his blood buzz in his veins. “You know what he said to me on the last day of summer?” Dean dropped his voice in imitation: “‘Christ, Dean. I can put you to work if you’re going to sit on your lazy ass all day.’ Like, where the hell does he get off calling me lazy? Adam helps with more shit than he does!”

“You do a lot for your family. He should be grateful to you.”

“Damn right,” said Dean, swinging his leg out wildly. “He’s the grown man that doesn’t know how to operate a washing machine, not me.”

Cas snorted. He was still crouching on the ground, but he cocked his head up at Dean. “Really?”

“I’m dead serious,” Dean shook his hair out, trying to shake off the laugh. “The fucker just leaves his clothes in the general vicinity of the laundry room and then goes, ‘Can you take care of that?’”

But now Dean really wasn’t laughing. Because it wasn’t funny; it was kind of pathetic. He rolled his foot underneath the bottle and popped it up slightly so he could pick it up. He straightened.

“I’m tired of being collateral damage in his wreck of a life,” Dean said and he felt resolute for the first time all day. Dean lifted the bottle. He tapped the butt of it against the wall, once, to mark his spot. “He doesn’t get to be violent just because he has a shitty life. The rest of us are coping.”

And then Dean swung the bottle over his head and brought it down on his mark like a hammer. It cracked against the wall and the damaged side finally split wide open. Dean dropped it. Dark, bubbling soda poured out onto the ground, staining the wall. And Dean stood there watching it happen, feeling suddenly like he’d hurt something he hadn’t meant to. Dean wiped the back of his hand under his nose and Cas’s sleeve came away wet.

“Cas,” Dean said. He didn’t look away from the bottle, but he fumbled behind him for Cas’s hand. And right away, it was there. Dean could tell from the little tug that followed that Cas was pulling himself to his feet.

“Cas, am I going to be okay?” Dean’s voice hitched in his throat and he took a stumbling step back. Before he could fully break down, Cas caught him. He belted one arm around Dean’s waist and folded the other—the one still holding Dean’s hand—in around his chest. Their clasped hands knocked against Dean’s heart. Dean sank into him.

“Of course.”

“I don’t know,” Dean admitted.

“You’re going to be okay, and better,” Cas murmured, his voice coming in small waves. “There’s so much happiness waiting for you; the three of you. Just look how much you’ve already survived.”

Cas was doing more to hold him up than Dean was, but Dean gripped Cas’s hand like it was his only buoy.

“Don’t forget who you are,” Cas whispered to him. “You’re strong.”

Dean bit back a sob and closed his eyes. He took a breath.

“I don’t feel particularly strong at the moment.”

Cas surprised him by laughing softly. Then he squeezed Dean’s hip. “Well, you’re tired. But you just thrashed that Coke bottle to death.”

Dean looked down at the twisted plastic. “I guess I did.”

Cas rubbed his nose affectionately in Dean’s hair; Dean wrinkled his nose. He pushed gently against Cas’s hold on him and Cas loosened his arms so quickly that Dean fell forward a little.

“Don’t let go. I just want to turn around.”

Still fit snugly in his arms, Dean faced him. “Did you mean all that?”

“Yeah.”

Dean extricated an arm and hooked it around Cas’s neck to pull his mouth down to Dean’s level. It was a soft, mostly-chaste kiss. A thank you.  But then Cas reeled him back in for a real one. He’d clearly done this before: real kissing. Cas was doing something nice with his chin, pushing Dean, nudging his head to the side, opening him up. And before Dean noticed he had moved, Cas spread his hands on Dean’s hips, fingers digging into his skin.

Dean was practically stepping on Cas’s feet trying to get closer. Something about Cas was making Dean feel sloppy and urgent and never-close-enough. If Dean had seen someone else kissing this way, he would probably think it was embarrassing. But he had never wanted like this before.

Then Dean remembered the look of revelation on Cas’s face from earlier and he worked his hands up into Cas’s hair. He lifted his curls and let them slip through his fingers. They were softer than he’d even imagined, and Dean smiled when Cas’s mouth slipped off of his own for just a second.

The second Cas was back, they were moving. Cas’s chest bumped against Dean’s as he walked him blindly toward the wall, never breaking the kiss. They both fumbled behind them until Dean’s fingers made contact and he pulled Cas by his shirt in the right direction.

Cas’s jacket bunched up around Dean’s shoulders and the small of his back as Cas pressed him into the concrete. Their whole bodies were touching, flush from chest to pelvis; it was unlike anything Dean had felt before. All at once choking and warm and heavy. Cas braced both hands on the wall beside Dean’s ears and Dean hung onto his wrists. A small part of his mind was spinning out again, but this time he was almost sure that it was good.

Dean looked down then, paying attention to the fly of Cas’s jeans.

“Hey,” he gasped at Cas’s throat. “Do you want to go back into the store?”

Cas actually moaned. He dropped down to his elbows against the wall and it made his whole body slide down Dean’s; they really were touching everywhere. But then Cas said—his breath hot against Dean’s forehead—

“We can’t.”

“Oh,” Dean panted. “I’m sorry.”

Cas peeked up at him, one eye cracked open, and the embarrassment must have shown on his face, because Cas sighed. He slapped the wall with his open palm.

“No, Dean...” Cas grabbed Dean’s hand and guided it gently to the crotch of his pants where Dean could feel his growing erection. “I want to. It’s not about that.”

Dean wasn’t breathing. He couldn’t believe he was touching Cas. Yes, it was through two layers of clothes that weren’t coming off, but still.

“What is it about then?” he asked finally, choking on the words.

“You’ve already had such a big day.”

Dean almost laughed. “Are you serious? I’m fine!”

Cas shrugged and pulled away, adjusting himself. “Good. Let’s not do anything to mess that up.”

Dean frowned. “You don’t have to be so gentle with me.”

“I want to.” Cas’s shoulders were still hunched over Dean, so he barely had to move to leave a quick kiss on his cheek. It was stupid intimate, but Dean couldn’t help smiling.

“Tomorrow,” Cas said, staring at Dean’s lips. “If you still want—when you’re rested—just, um, let me know.”

“Fine,” Dean sighed resignedly. Then he licked his lips just to fuck with Cas. “But I want you to know you’re being a real grandma.”

Cas leaned in close and Dean was already letting his eyes close for another kiss, but Cas stopped millimeters away. He grinned mischievously. “Just trying to protect you, sweetheart.”

Dean grabbed his chin and shoved his face away. “Watch it,” he warned.

Cas tilted his head, feigning innocence. “You didn’t mind that before?”

“I only put up with that shit because I was emotionally compromised,” Dean grouched. He tried to shove Cas again, but Cas caught his wrists and twisted him into some weird hold. They wrestled in place for a moment until Dean managed to drop his shoulder and slip out. “Are you sure you don’t want to go in?”

“Yes. And besides—we have more to talk about.”

Dean stared at him, confused.

Cas clarified: “If I’m taking you home, we need a plan.”

Dean dropped his head against Cas’s shoulder. “Ugh, can we please have a less pointless conversation?”

“No, and I’m serious. You need to get out of your house,” Cas said earnestly.

Dean turned his head and bit gently at Cas’s shoulder. He felt him tense up. “Stop trying to distract me.”

Dean sighed. When he lifted his head, it felt like it weighed twenty pounds. “This is stupid to talk about. Where would we go, Cas?”

“Anywhere.”

“Not exactly.” Dean backed his heels into the wall. “Let’s think about what we have to work with:”—he held up his fingers to count on—“No money; no other family; no helpful criminal experience.”

“You’re so negative,” Cas laughed. He batted Dean’s hand down to count on his own.  “You have: me; my parents; brothers who would follow you anywhere; and you’re smart and resourceful. We’ll come up with something.”

Dean wanted to smile too, but he could already feel it fading from his face. He touched Cas’s hand and Cas let his fingers fall open loosely so their palms could slide together. “I just feel like I’ve run through every scenario and nothing works.”

“Well, you’ve never had me before.”

“That’s true,” Dean grinned shyly. “Put your fancy college brain to work.”

Cas ran his fingertip along the blunt edge of Dean’s thumbnail. “Well... My first thought is that you and I could Bonnie-and-Clyde it: just get in the car and figure out a plan later.”

“Again with the drama, dude.”

But then Cas stepped forward with a sudden idea. “Okay, real thought: let’s call my dad. He’ll know what to do and he won’t mind us waking him up; in fact, he might be mad if we don’t.”

Dean groaned. “Your ideas are getting worse.”

“Why?”

“Because,” Dean started, but then he realized he didn’t know how to finish the sentence. He let his fingers slip through Cas’s, trailing down his wrist, and toyed with the frayed band of his watch. “Because this is really personal. And embarrassing. And I barely know him.”

“Embarrassing?”

Dean ignored him. “Swear you won’t tell him.”

Cas really paused to think about it, but finally he promised. Then, he persisted: “Is there anyone else you could tell?”

Dean dropped his hips back against the wall and looked at the underside of the gutter. “Not really. I mean, we do have an uncle. He would definitely care, even though we're not really blood. But if I even hinted that Dad was hurting any of us, Bobby would drive over here and literally kill him. I don’t want that blood on my hands.” Dean glanced at Cas’s face, paused, then backtracked. “Hey. I can tell you’re freaking out, but there’s time to think about this.”

Cas bounced the toe of his shoe against the wall and that was when Dean realized they were standing by the back door. The plastic grocery bag was slumped right next to them, so Dean nudged it with his foot. Something rolled around inside.

“What’s in here anyway?”

“Oh, I forgot.” Cas picked up the bag by one handle and pulled out a can of shaving cream. It was the old-fashioned kind in a metal container with red and white barbershop stripes printed on it. “I thought we could draw on the walls with it.”

Dean stuck his tongue between his teeth to keep from laughing. “Wow, you’re like the most PG graffiti artist ever.”

“You don’t know what I was going to draw,” Cas winked at him, then shook the can and sprayed a tiny dollop on Dean’s nose.

Dean shouted in surprise and smacked the can away. He rubbed at his nose with both hands to get it off, then looked down at the foam in his palm. “I really want to wipe this on you, but I guess I owe you for staying out so late with me.”

“Glad I did.” Cas yawned and stretched his arms behind his back. Then he sprayed a line of shaving cream above Dean’s head like he was marking his height on the wall. “School’s going to be hell tomorrow.”

Dean studied Cas and the way his jaw was set as he concentrated on making the line straight and even. “Seriously, thanks,” said Dean. “In other towns, I never had anyone to talk to when I felt like this. Unless you count Sam, and sometimes Sam doesn’t count.”

Cas cut his eyes down to Dean and Dean gave him a quick, tamped-down smile.

“So anyway, it’s nice. A lot of things about you are nice.”

When Cas smiled fondly at Dean, his eyes looked especially luminous against the backdrop of deep night. But then—abruptly—his smile dropped. Cas turned his head sharply to the mouth of the alley.

“What’s wrong?” Dean asked, but he didn’t really need an answer. Because then he saw them too: headlights, sweeping the wall like a police searchlight. The car screeched to a stop right in front of the store and Dean’s first thought was: It’s the Impala; this is how we die.

But then Cas swallowed and stepped in front of Dean as he said the second worst thing: “That’s my mom’s car.”

Chapter Text

The next few things happened too quickly for Dean to respond: with a squeal of rubber, the car’s tires stopped spinning and the growl of the engine cut off. The headlights flashed brightly in their eyes, then burned out, plunging them into much deeper darkness than they’d been in a moment ago.

Cas stepped back—right onto the top of Dean’s foot—and Dean yelped.

“Sorry, sorry,” Cas spluttered. He fumbled behind him; Dean clutched at his foot. “I can’t see anything.”

“It’s okay.”

Cas’s flailing hand accidentally clipped Dean’s jaw.

“Oh, crap. Sorry.”

“Still okay,” Dean grunted, although damn, that was a solid right hook. Dean rubbed his jaw as he tried to blink away the flash from the headlights; it was still burned on the back of his eyes. A moment ago, he could have made out the spiderweb of cracks along the bottom of the concrete wall and the textured metal of the gutter, but now the alley was just a huddle of dark shapes. Even right in front of him, Cas’s profile looked like a blue Picasso painting.

Dean heard a car door open, then a second one. His head snapped up and he could make out movement on either side of the car. Both parents.

“We’re so fucked,” Cas moaned. But Dean didn’t have time to care about that. He only had seconds to make sure that Cas wasn’t going to blow up his life.

Dean grabbed Cas by the shoulders and spun him around, almost toppling them both. “Hey, you promised me, remember?” he whispered harshly, still blinking to get his vision back. “You cannot tell them.”

“But—” Cas started to turn away, distracted, as they heard one door slam then the other. But Dean grabbed him again roughly.

“You swore to me, Cas. That security clearance thing: it goes both ways, but they’re not included.”

“They’re my parents; we can trust—”

“I don’t—”

And then they both had to shut up, because they weren’t alone anymore. Dean let go of Cas and stepped away from him. He’d been right: both parents were here. Once they got close enough for Dean to see their faces, he looked to Benny first. But Benny—like his wife—was focused solely on Cas. They rushed to him. Andrea was clutching her car keys to her chest; she’d thrown a sweatshirt on over her pajamas and her hair was in a loose braid, with little pieces escaping out the sides. And her eyes—she’d been crying. Dean had made Cas’s mom cry.

Cas must have seen it too because he hurried to meet her. “Oh, Mom. I’m so sorry.” Cas caught her in a hug and tucked his head on top of hers. “I’m so sorry. We were just messing around and—and we must have… I didn’t realize how late it was…,” Cas babbled.

Benny put his hand on the small of Andrea’s back and his arm across Cas’s shoulders, leaving Dean alone on the outside of the circle. He shuffled his feet. It felt intrusive to watch this.

After a small eternity, Andrea pulled back and looked at Cas’s face. Tenderly, she touched his cheeks and chin. Then his shoulders. She ran her hands down his arms.

“You’re okay?”

“Yeah, Mom. I’m fine.” Cas looked uncomfortably from her face to his dad’s. “Sorry. We were just having fun.”

Andrea exhaled through her nose. “Fun,” she repeated to herself. Then again, “Fun.”

Dean stared at his feet. He thought about what this must look like to Cas’s parents: twisted plastic carcasses on the ground, soda everywhere, shaving cream on the wall. Suddenly, it all seemed so reckless and inconsiderate.

Benny was looking around at the mess too, grim-faced, but he didn’t say anything.

When Andrea sighed, her shoulders dropped and the little loose hairs from her braid drifted around her face. She looked at Dean. “Are you alright?”

Dean buried his hands deep in his pockets, wishing he could bury himself in the ground. “Yeah, I'm okay.”

“Let’s go home then,” Andrea said.

Cas grimaced. He stepped forward, but Dean grabbed his sleeve and glanced meaningfully at the wall.

“Oh, right, yeah,” Cas said. “We’ll just clean up and then—it’ll take two seconds. Promise. Sorry. We’re idiots.”

Andrea waved her hand in acknowledgement; she was already walking away. Benny stayed to help and, between the three of them, clean-up only took about five minutes. It was a quiet, sober affair. None of them looked at each other. Cas hauled the hose around the corner to spray down the wall and, silently, Dean gathered the empty bottles from the ground. He accepted the plastic bag and shaving cream can from Benny, then took everything around to the dumpster behind the store. Right before he chucked the second bottle over the rim, Dean paused. He unscrewed the cap and tucked it into his jacket pocket.

Cas was almost done with the wall when Dean came back around. There was a dark, foaming trickle of runoff making its way toward the trees behind them; Dean stepped over it. He glanced at Benny—only to find that Benny was already watching him with a curious expression. Only then did Dean remember that this jacket was Cas’s. He brushed his hands down the fleece self-consciously, then pulled his hands up into the sleeves.

When Cas had worked his way down to the end of the alley, he leaned around the corner and turned the hose off.

“Keys,” Benny demanded, holding his palm out.

The back of Cas’s neck turned pink and he dropped his head to dig around in his pockets. Finally, he found the keys and handed them over with the little clinks of metal-hitting-metal. Benny closed his hand, then he looked at Cas for a long moment.

“You and I will talk tomorrow,” he said with finality. “Get in the car with your mom; you too Dean.”

 Cas crossed his arms over his stomach. “Okay, Dad.”

Dean followed Cas as he trudged toward the car. Cas gave him a quick, apologetic look before sliding into the front seat beside his mom. Benny stood back and watched them, spinning the keys in his hand, until they were both inside.

Once they all had their seatbelts on, Andrea backed out and the shadow from Cas’s seat fell across Dean’s lap; he couldn’t see his knees in front of him.

She flicked on her turn signal to pull onto the main street. “I don’t know what to say to you, Cas.”

Cas looked over at her but didn’t say anything. They drove the next short stretch in silence. Dean could see Cas’s profile in the yellow glow of the streetlights as they passed under them; he was sagging in his seat. Dean tightened and untightened his fist on the door handle.

As they turned into their neighborhood, Cas cleared his throat. “Mom?”

She didn’t look away from the road.

“Um,” he started again bravely, “I know you’re not in the mood to do any favors, but can you turn your headlights off?”

Dean’s stomach shifted as they took another turn, Andrea’s hands crisscrossing on the wheel.

“You’ll wake up Dean’s family,” Cas explained.

Andrea huffed. “They’ll be awake in a few minutes anyway. If they’re not already.”

Dean stiffened. He felt like he’d just stepped off a curb only to discover that the ground was three feet below him: his stomach plummeted through the floor. Of course. It had been too much to expect. Nobody’s parents—even Cas’s nice, I-bought-you-school-supplies, how-are-your-classes-going parents—would be willing to keep this secret.

Cas was slower to get there. “What?” Then, he sat straight up too. “Wait. You’re not thinking about waking Dean’s dad up, are you?”

“I’m not thinking about it. It’s decided,” Andrea said. Cas started to protest, but she cut him off. “—You are in no position to be arguing with me right now.”

Cas glanced desperately at Dean, then back to his mom. “But Mom, you really can’t—”

Her braid whipped the window as she turned on him. “Castiel! Do you have any idea what kind of night we’ve had? Do you see the time?” She tapped the clock on the console with her fingernail. “I don’t want to be awake at 3:30. I didn’t want to be awake at 2:30 either, but I woke up with a bad feeling. I just wanted to check on you, Cas, and you weren’t even there.”

Both Cas and Dean had shrunk back against their seats. She squeezed the steering wheel. Already, Dean could see his house through the windshield. Fast approaching.

“Your door was locked. Car gone. Not even a text message from you! Your dad and I have been looking everywhere. Do you know how scary that is? To think that you might have been kidnapped or murdered?”

Murdered? Mom, no one’s been murdered here in—maybe, ever,” said Cas and even Dean knew that was the wrong stance to take.

Andrea cut her hand through the air. “That’s enough. No more talking.”

They all tipped to the left as the car turned into Cas’s driveway. By now, Dean had broken into a full sweat; he felt like he had a high, delirious fever. His throat was closing. Maybe he’d die before he even had to face his dad.

Before Dean fully realized they’d stopped, Andrea was out of the car. Cas paused only to say, “I’ll convince her, don’t worry,” before throwing his door open as well. He practically fell out onto the ground in his haste to reach her.

So Dean was alone. He watched Cas run to his mom through the window, but he knew it was no use. Dean wiped his clammy hands on his pants. In his pocket, he found the bottle cap and turned it between his fingers a few times.

Then, there was nothing else to do but get out of the car.

As Dean’s feet touched the asphalt, another car—Benny—pulled up next to him. Benny got out quickly and both he and Dean shut their doors at the same time. Near the hood of Andrea’s car, Cas and his mom were still arguing. They all met there.

“—If Dean’s dad had been the one to find you, I would want him to tell us,” Andrea was saying. Cas gawked at her, looking rabid. He pulled at his hair with both hands.

“Mom, it’s not the same. Dean’s dad will be really mad—”

“Enough.” Benny stepped between them. He placed a hand on Cas’s chest at the same time that Dean grabbed one of his belt loops and dragged him a step back.

Benny looked at Dean over Cas’s shoulder as he said, “I’ll go with Dean to talk to his dad. You and your mother go inside.”

Dad.” Cas put his hand over Benny’s.

“I’ll take care of it,” Benny said. Then he let go of Cas and jerked his head toward their front door. “I’m not requesting.”

Cas looked absolutely destroyed, like there was nothing holding him up except shock. Benny had to shove him to get him to move toward the door and even as he walked, Cas kept looking back at Dean.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Dean assured him, smiling weakly. He looked at Andrea and added, “I’m so sorry about all of this.”

She nodded to him as she opened the front door—and then they both disappeared behind it. Dean stared at the wood of the closed door for a second too long. His hands were starting to shake, so he wrapped his arms around himself.

“Ready to go?” Benny asked.

No. Please don’t make me.

But Benny was already cutting across the lawn toward Dean’s house. Without his permission, Dean’s legs moved to follow him. This was probably how it felt to realize you’re about to slam the door on your own hand. Time moved at half-speed. Dean tried to pay attention to his heart, his lungs, the feel of the grass crunching under his feet. It took forever for them to cross the lawn, a slow march toward whatever hell was waiting for him in his own house.

The Impala was still glistening in the driveway, so Dad was home. And hopefully sober enough to talk to Benny. Although, all things considered, maybe blacked out and passed out would be better.

Dean would see Cas tomorrow; he was determined. He would just have to jump out a window or something as soon as Benny left. There were plenty of places he could sleep outside. For the rest of his life…

Dean wished he could give some kind of signal to Sam and Adam.

When Benny stopped abruptly ten feet from the front door, Dean almost ran into his back. He pulled up short just in time and they stood there awkwardly.

Dean took a small step forward—maybe he was supposed to break the news to Dad alone—but Benny stopped him.

“I want to talk to you a minute,” he said.

Dean retreated. “Okay.”

Benny looked Dean up and down. He was playing with his hands and Dean watched them move: one in a loose fist, his other palm sliding over the hills and valleys of his knuckles. Dean had an odd feeling that Benny was about to sentence him to something.

“I don’t know what happened tonight,” he said after a long moment. “We trust Castiel. We want to trust you too, Dean.”

“Yes, sir.” Dean squirmed. “I feel really bad about…”

Benny was staring at him, unblinking, and it made Dean want to cover his face. He had the same scrutinizing expression as Cas; Dean remembered it from the night they went squidding. He’d studied the way Cas’s brow furrowed in just the same way while he was going over homework with Kevin.

Benny looked at the door, then back to Dean. “Will I regret it if I let you go in there alone?”

Dean’s breath caught. Something took flight in his chest. “Really?”

“Will I regret it?”

“No! No, sir.” Then Dean remembered where they were. How thick were these walls? He dropped his voice: “And we won’t—nothing like this will happen again.”

Benny nodded, once. “Alright, then.” He paused and Dean wasn’t sure what he was waiting for. Then he said, “Do you have a phone?”

“Yes.”

“Let's see it.”

Dean hesitated for just a second. He patted down his pockets, feeling for the bottle cap and then the brick of his phone, which he pulled out and handed over. Benny started to press a bunch of buttons, but Dean couldn’t see the screen.

“I put my cell number in,” Benny told him when he was done. “Text me tomorrow morning, okay?”

“About what?”

Benny stared at him over the top of the phone. “Just check in.”

There was an uncomfortable, ferrety feeling burrowing in Dean’s gut. “Okay.”

Benny dropped the phone into Dean’s open palm. Then he held out his other hand for Dean to shake. Benny’s palm was cooler than Cas’s and chapped from his work; he squeezed Dean’s hand before letting him go.

“So then,” said Dean tentatively, “I guess I’ll go in, if…”

“Go ahead.”

Benny took a few steps down the walk, then turned and crossed back into his own yard. Dean watched his retreating back; he still almost couldn’t believe it. Did Benny know what he’d just given Dean?

Dean’s hands shook as he leaned against the wall to pull off his shoes. Careful not to rustle the branches, he stowed them underneath a scrubby bush so he could retrieve them in the morning. Dean turned the handle on their unlocked front door feeling like a freshly-minted person.

Inside the kitchen, the world was still and quiet. Dean clung to the doorknob for a few moments even after he’d shut it. He let his shoulders curl around him and his breathing steady; he was really going to be alright.

When Dean did move—finally—it was practiced and careful: he knew how to get around an old house without detection. Gripping the rim of the countertop, Dean walked close to the edge of the cabinets where the floor was more settled. He stepped gingerly, one foot sliding in front of the other, so he didn’t land on anything unexpected in the dark.

At the entry to the living room, Dean halted. There was someone on his couch. Someone small, but not Adam-small. He saw a tumble of long brown hair peeking out over the top of his blanket. With a sigh of relief, Dean came around the couch and touched Sam’s shoulder.

“Hey.”

He must not have really been asleep because he sat up immediately, rubbing a fist into his eyes.

Dean,” Sam breathed, then he lunged at him. He flung his arms around Dean’s neck and Dean barely caught him.

“Woah, hi.” Dean quickly planted a hand on the pillow to hold them up—and it was wet. He picked up his hand, looked at it, then felt the pillow again.

“Wait, are you crying?”

Sam sniffed and locked his arms around Dean’s neck. “No.”

“Sammy. You’re terrible at that.” Dean slid Sam back onto the couch and moved the blanket to sit next to him. “Why are you crying?”

Sam slouched down. He sniffed again; he always got so teary when he was upset. “I came out to make sure you were okay after Dad,” Sam admitted, “but you weren’t here.”

“Oh.” Dean winced. “Sorry. I—went out with Cas.”

Sam let out all his breath at once. He turned away from Dean, giving him his shoulder. “That was a lame thing to do,” he said bitterly. “I thought you left for good.”

“What?” Dean pulled on Sam’s shoulder to see his face. “No, you didn’t.”

Sam glared at him. “Don’t be mean now too.”

“I wasn’t…” Dean was at a loss for words. His eyes darted around Sam’s face, looking between his messy hair, his wet eyelashes, the crease between his eyebrows that all three of them had. “Sam, you know I would never do anything without you, right?”

Sam didn’t answer right away so Dean tugged at his elbow and was relieved when his little brother fell into him, huddling against Dean’s side. He draped his arm around Sam’s skinny shoulders.

“I would never,” Dean repeated. “Even if he kicked me out and ran off with you guys to Alaska or Siberia or the moon, I’d come find you.”

Sam shifted closer. “Promise?”

“I swear.”

“I have nightmares about that sometimes,” Sam whispered into the crook of Dean’s arm and he felt little hairs raise on his skin.

Me too.

“Do you hear my heartbeat, Sammy?” Dean asked him. “Focus on that. I’ll always be close to you.”

They sat together in the sagging middle of the couch for a long time, until Sam’s breathing started to grow heavy and rhythmic. Like the slow collapse of a building, Dean’s head fell back against the top of the couch, his shoulder slipped down the cushion, and then he was laying all the way down—Sam tucked into the bend by his knees. Dean’s eyelids dropped closed and he couldn’t open them again.

“You can sleep here tonight,” Dean mumbled with the last bit of his energy.

“There’s no space.”

“There is.” Dean felt around on the floor to hand Sam the pillow. “You’re tiny,” he whispered.

“I’m normal size,” said Sam, and Dean could tell he was drifting too.

Dean worked a hand underneath his head. He didn’t think he’d ever been so ready for sleep.

“Goodnight, Dean.”

“Goodnight, dork.”

Chapter Text

Cas had fallen asleep in his clothes last night on top of his blankets, so he woke up shivering. He bumped into the walls on his way to the kitchen. Dad was already in there. He was asleep at the breakfast table with his arms crinkling the newspaper, phone by his elbow. When Mom came in, fully dressed, she looked just as tired (and maybe a little more pissed off), so Cas made some coffee to build good will. They all drank it standing silently around the stove.

“I’ll drive you to school,” Mom told him. If she had asked, Cas would have said that he’d rather walk with Dean. But she didn’t ask. She was yawning and it was his fault, so he just got in the car. Cas couldn’t stop thinking about Dean though—hadn’t stopped thinking about him since the front door shut between them last night.

Dad promised everything was alright.

But could he really say that?

They pulled up in front of the flagpole and the car stopped; Cas put his hand on the door. Mom cleared her throat. “Have a good day,” she said.

He tugged on the strap of his backpack. “You too.”

As soon as she pulled away, Cas shook out his headphones and plugged them in. His parents had confiscated his phone, so he was stuck with an ancient iPod from elementary school. It was filled with angsty Linkin Park songs and almost nothing else, but any noise was better than nothing right now. Cas shuffled his old music and turned the volume all the way up as he cut across the parking lot.

The problem was that Cas couldn’t stop picturing it: rough hands on Dean’s throat. He remembered the way Dean hid his face when he talked about it, the way his voice cracked around the word ‘Mom’. Cas hated Dean’s dad. Hated him. How dare he come anywhere near Dean? How dare he make him feel so insecure about what he deserved? And what the fuck was this song anyway?

Cas skipped it and shoved the iPod back into his pocket. He wished Mom would come back to pick him up. More than anything, he wanted her to wrap him in a warm hug and tell him that she knew how to fix all of this.

Cas dragged a thumb under his eye. You baby, it’s not even happening to you.

Cas startled and almost fell over when Charlie tackle-hugged him in front of the gym.

Finally. I’ve been calling your name like an idiot across the whole… wait, what’s wrong?”

“Sorry.” Cas yanked his headphones out of his ears and started to coil them around the iPod. “Nothing’s wrong, just tired.”

Charlie looked suspiciously from his hands to his face, then her expression softened. “Okay. Well… I’m going to hug you anyway, because I don’t believe you.”

“Charlie, you don’t have to—” but then his voice was cut off as she squeezed all the air out of him. Charlie always gave the best, tightest hugs that made him feel like he was being wrapped in a straight-jacket. Today it was exactly what Cas wanted. Even though the whole school was walking by, Cas closed his eyes and leaned into her.

“Are you sure nothing happened?” she asked.

“Nothing I want to talk about.”

“Okay.” Charlie patted his arm as she pulled away. “I’m here when you want to.”

There was still time before class, so Cas followed Charlie inside and waited for her by her locker.

“How come you didn’t walk today?” she asked, pulling a stuffed folder out of her backpack and shoving it sideways on top of the mountain of crap that was already in there. Cas rolled his eyes.

“Mom drove me.”

“That was nice.”

“It was strategic.” Cas stood on his tiptoes to see down the crowded hall. “Have you seen Dean?”

“No. I mean, I just got here too.”

“Right.”

Charlie flipped her hair over her shoulder and looked at him closely. “But we can go find him?”

Cas bounced nervously on the balls of his feet. There were too many people at this school; the hall was packed with indistinguishable sweatshirt hoods and backpacks. “I don’t know where he’d—”

But just then—like Cas had summoned him—Dean came hurrying around the corner. Kevin was right on his heels; they both scanned the crowd. When Dean’s eyes found Cas, he skidded to a stop.

Cas,” he sighed, relief evident on his face, and Cas thought he’d never get used to hearing Dean say his name like that.

Cas looked him up and down: Dean seemed fine—tired, but fine. He was wearing his blue flannel and obviously had not even touched his hair, but Cas kind of liked it disheveled anyway. He grabbed Dean’s sleeve and pulled his arms away so he could see all of him. He patted down his chest.

“You’re okay?”

Dean grinned. He grabbed Cas’s hand and moved it off him. “Yes, you don’t have to frisk me.”

Kevin waved his hand in front of Cas’s face. “Hi. I’m here too.” He looked at Charlie. “What’s going on with them?”

She shrugged. They all stepped into a huddle on the side of the hallway where they wouldn’t get swept away in the current of students making their way to class. Kevin flicked his bangs out of his face and shifted the weight of his backpack on his shoulders. “Okay, well, I need a ride on Saturday. Can you drive me, Cas?”

“Drive you where?” Cas asked, eyes still on Dean.

“The concert.”

Oh. Cas made a little temple with his hands over his mouth. Shit. Charlie was not going to be happy with him. “About that… I can’t go. I’m grounded through the weekend.”

Charlie and Kevin gaped at him; Dean grimaced and looked away.

“What do you mean grounded?” Charlie demanded. When he didn’t answer, she asked again, “Are you serious?”

Cas hassled his curls. “Sorry. I was looking forward to it.”

“Yeah, me too!” Charlie crossed her arms, frowning. “This sucks. I can’t believe you got in trouble the one weekend we have cool plans.”

“We could FaceTime you in,” Kevin suggested.

“Can’t.” Cas winced. “They, uh, took my phone too.”

Charlie and Kevin exchanged a look. Cas could feel Dean’s discomfort radiating off him, but Dean looked up when Kevin turned to him. “Are you grounded too?”

Dean shook his head.

“Then you can take his ticket!” Charlie exclaimed. She stepped toward him. “Are you free Saturday?”

“It’s a cover band at City in Lights,” Kevin explained. “Should be alright.”

“Oh.” Dean’s eyes were wide. He looked to Cas for help, but Cas just shrugged. Someone should take the ticket. “I don’t know if—”

“Please? It’ll be fun,” said Charlie.

Dean bit the tip of his tongue. “I’ll have to tell you later. Need to ask my dad.”

His dad.

With those words, everything from the last twenty-four hours rose up and crashed down on Cas again. He was suddenly desperate to be alone with Dean—to really talk to him—but the bell was about to ring, the hallway was already clearing out, and Dean backed away toward his history class.

“I’ll let you know, Charlie,” he said with a wave and then was gone.

“And I’ll come no matter what,” Kevin assured her with a pat on the shoulder before taking off too. Charlie and Cas had the same first period, so Cas leaned back against the wall of lockers while she finished getting her stuff. She knocked over a stack of notebooks when she pulled out her textbook, but slammed the door shut instead of dealing with it.

“Hey, I’m really sorry,” Cas said. “I wanted to go.”

Charlie had a hair in her mouth and she blew it away. “I know,” she sighed. She looked at Cas and bit her lip. “Just don’t replace us as your favorite people, okay?”

“What?” Cas rolled up onto his shoulder to look at her more directly. “Don’t be silly, Char. I would never.”

“Good.” She shook her backpack to get her binder to fit, then zipped it. “For the record, you can have as many ‘favorite people’ as you want. Just don’t replace us.”

Cas smirked. He gave her a little salute he knew she would hate. “Yes, ma’am. Thanks for the permission.”

Charlie swung her backpack at his head as she turned around; he ducked quickly out of the way. She was already ten feet ahead of him when he straightened.

“Come on, you lovesick idiot,” she called over her shoulder. “We still have class.”

 

The day dragged on and on and on. As soon as Cas sat down, exhaustion settled heavy in his bones. Each blink was a conscious effort and he felt like his arms were made of sandbags (which significantly complicated his ability to take good notes). It probably wasn’t even worth coming to school today; he remembered nothing.  

Cas didn’t get to talk to Dean alone until they were walking home. He found him with his forehead pressed against the door of his closed locker.

“Are you as dead as I am?” Dean asked as Cas walked up.

“Let’s go home,” Cas replied softly, hand on the back of Dean's neck. His backpack was on the floor by his feet, so Cas grabbed it for him and held it up. They went out the back door—the long way around—just in case Cas’s mom had any ideas about picking him up.

Cas held onto the handrail as they shuffled down the back steps. “I’m really super glad you’re okay.”

“Yeah.” Dean’s head hung low. “Your dad is a goddamn hero.” He paused. “Do you think they’ll forgive me?”

“It wasn’t your idea; I told them that.”

Dean peeked at him sideways. “Sorry about your concert.”

“Don’t be. I only paid like eight dollars; they’re not that good.” Their shoulders bumped together as they turned onto the track and Cas let the back of his hand brush against Dean’s. He wished they could be alone again, somewhere private. “But, listen, you should go.”

“Why? Because they’re not that good?”

Cas elbowed him gently. “You’ll have fun. And Charlie wants you to. She’s worried you think she only invited you out of obligation, when really she’s been plotting to get to know you for months.”

“Huh.” Dean put his hands behind his back to hold up his backpack.

“What’s the hesitation?” Cas asked.

“Honestly, I’m so tired the thought of doing anything sounds terrible,” Dean laughed and shook his head. “But also. I don’t know… I try not to seek out drunk people.”

“But there won’t be? It’s at City in Lights.” Cas hopped forward. “Oh—I keep forgetting that doesn’t mean anything to you. So it is a bar, but they shut it down for dry concerts once a month. It’s mostly high schoolers; you’ll probably even recognize some people.”

Dean paused for a moment to think about it. As they turned onto a side street, he glanced behind them, then slid his hand into Cas’s and Cas closed his fingers.

“Still a bar,” Dean said finally. “But if you insist on corrupting me, I’ll consider it.”

***

Dean didn’t mention the concert until Saturday morning, and only then because Dad wasn’t around. He was cooking barefoot in the kitchen while Sam and Adam did work. Sam had covered the whole table in papers while Adam laid on the floor to color; he liked to fill in the cartoons from the free newspaper.

Dean picked up the spatula and stirred their eggs. He was making a scramble (which is what Sam called it when Dean tried to make an omelet but fucked up flipping it). Music was playing softly from Dean’s phone on the counter, and he nudged it out of the way so he could set the spatula down.

“You’re humming,” Sam said.

“No, I’m not.” Dean wrapped a dishtowel around the handle of the pan and picked it up. He slid over to the table on his socks, holding the steaming pan high. “Make space.”

Both Sam and Adam looked up at him blankly.

“C’mon,” Dean repeated; his hand was starting to burn.

“You seem different,” said Sam suspiciously. He neatly stacked two piles of papers together and Dean dropped the pan with a clatter. Adam pushed off the floor and scrambled up onto his chair.

“Where’s Dad?” he asked.

Dean and Sam shared a glance over Adam’s head before Dean turned around to find the salt and pepper. “Still sleeping I think.”

Dean tucked his phone under his arm as he carried the shakers and plates to the table.

Sam watched him approach. “But… you’re playing music?”

“Yeah. So?”

Sam stared at him, mouth open, for a moment. Then a wide smile broke over his face. “Okay.” He sat up on his knees to lean over the pan, still grinning like a maniac. “This smells good.”

Dean stood back and watched Sam load up plates for all three of them, trying to gather his courage. “Speaking of music actually… Um… How’s the ear today, Adam?”

Dean sighed and rested his elbows on the back of the chair. Adam started to answer—even though all three of them knew his ear was fine now—but Sam cut him off.

“That’s not ‘speaking of music’. You were going to say something else.”

“Yeah.” Dean curled his fingers around the top of the chair. “Okay, so here’s the thing: some friends invited me to go to a concert tonight. And I want to. But obviously I won’t if it’ll make you nervous. I don’t know where it is—I don’t even know the band, actually—so I’m not that attached…”

“Friends who aren’t Cas?” asked Sam at the same time that Adam asked, “What’s a concert?”

“It’s kind of like a party with a band. And friends of Cas,” Dean answered them.

Sam was already eating, but he pushed the food into his cheek to talk. “You should go.”

“Can you not be disgusting?”

“I’m just saying”—Sam was still chewing—“that you finally have friends, so you should enjoy it.”

“Yeah!” piped up Adam.

“Okay, rude.” Dean pulled out his chair and sat next to his brothers. “But really? You’re sure?”

Sam nodded. “You used to leave us alone all the time.”

Dean swallowed and looked down at his fork. “Not to go to a concert.” And not with Dad home.

Sam—like always—could read Dean’s mind. “He won’t bother us, barely talks to us when you’re not here.” Then, he leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, “Maybe I should just lock him out when he tries to come home.”

“Or maybe you should hang out quietly in your room until I get home, so we don’t all get killed,” Dean suggested. He picked up his fork. “But up to you.”

 

That night, Charlie picked Dean up from the high school parking lot. Kevin was already in the passenger seat when she rolled up in a rusty van that Dad would have hated (“Some people just don’t know how to treat a car right. Don’t be one of those people, Dean”).

“Welcome to The Limo,” Charlie greeted him brightly as Dean threw the heavy side door open. “Sorry Kevin beat you out for shotgun. He lives closer.”

“I don’t mind.”

Dean climbed in and crawled across the bench to sit in the middle where he could see them both. He looked around: the interior was crushed nylon and there were crumbs and trash in the cup holders.

“Hey. Where’s, uh, the—”

“Seatbelt?” Kevin twisted around to help him. They eventually found it dangling from the ceiling behind his headrest, and Dean pulled it down across his chest to click into the buckle by his hip.

“Did you find it?” Charlie glanced back at them nervously. “Sorry everything’s broken in here. I hate this van, but it fits my mom’s wheelchair.”

“We’re all good.” Dean gave her a thumbs up. “Thanks for picking me up.”

“Thanks for coming.” She turned back to the wheel and threw the van into reverse. “Kev, will you be my rearview mirror?”

“I’m on it.” He leaned forward to grab something that was sitting on the dashboard and—as he held it up—Dean realized that it was quite literally her rearview mirror, detached from the roof of the car. Kevin held it in place while Charlie reversed out of the parking lot and then dropped it back on the dashboard.

“You seriously need to let me fix that.”

“Why do you always say that? You’re never going to fix it.”

“Yes, I am!”

“Then do it.”

“What, just show up at your house uninvited?”

Charlie gave him an exasperated sideways look. “This is your formal invitation.”

“No, I want a set time.”

They drove over a pothole and Dean gripped the underside of his seat. Looking at the back of Charlie and Kevin’s heads, he felt a bit like a kid being driven to school.

“Tomorrow?” Charlie suggested.

“Tomorrow’s no good. I’m tutoring all day, then I need to do my own homework.”

Charlie leveled him with a look. Kevin crossed his feet. “Okay, fine,” he said. “I’ll come Tuesday after dinner.”

“Great.” Charlie pulled onto a wider, four-lane road and Dean felt the car speed up; trees whirled past the windows. She merged into a new lane, then glanced at the backseat. “You’re witness to this, Dean. If Kevin doesn’t show up, he’s officially the worst and I get to hit him.”

Dean smiled. “Okay. I’ll, uh, keep him honest.”

“Good.”

Charlie focused back on the road and Kevin was trying to tune into a radio station that wasn’t staticky, so Dean looked out the window. They were quickly approaching the limits of Dean’s familiarity with the town. Houses along the road dropped from mostly two-stories to one, then grew further and further apart as the neighborhood flattened out into farming fields.

“How far out is this place?” Dean asked, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“Not far.” Kevin turned his shoulder into the seat again to talk to him. “Have you been to Kelso yet?”

“Is that the town? No.”

“That’s fine; probably for the best. There’s nothing to do there except go to City in Lights—but City in Lights is fantastic, you’ll love it. Worth having the whole crap town just to get a decent concert venue within fifty miles.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s…”—Dean search around for the right word—“important.” That wasn’t it.

Kevin stared at him like he was expecting Dean to say something else, then nodded. “Definitely,” he agreed and turned back around.

God, why was his brain not producing anything but stupid? Dean knocked his head against his headrest.

Outside the window, the countryside was turning back into a town—Kelso, Dean assumed. As someone who had lived in more than his fair share of crap towns, Dean didn’t think it looked all that bad. Sure, there were some low industrial buildings that could use repairs and the people looked a little hassled, but there was also definite small-town charm. Dean noticed a little park with swings and a slide, a sign in the café window advertising their support for the local tee-ball team, and—at the end of the central strip—City in Lights.

It was the most elegant building on the block. It looked like the kind of place where old-fashioned Hollywood stars would hang out in their mink coats and three-piece suits: dark wood panels framed the door and there was a large, glittering sign that announced its name from three blocks away.

Charlie parallel parked in a spot just around the corner. They all climbed out, and she skipped down the sidewalk ahead of Kevin and Dean. “Easy parking and—look—no line at the door! Don’t I keep telling you, Kevin, that I have the best luck?”

Lucky wasn’t exactly what Dean was feeling as they approached the bar. He stuffed his hands into his pockets.

It turned out that there was no line because the show had already started. The tough-looking bouncer who scanned their tickets told them so.

“And any flasks we see will be confiscated, so don’t bother,” he added, without looking at any of their faces. Then he lifted a velvet rope and ushered them into the dark, cave-like entryway.

It swallowed them whole. The only lights ran along the ceiling to direct them toward a metal door at the end of the hall. On the walls, there were dozens of old pictures (bands that Dean didn’t recognize) in beat-up frames. Dean leaned in to look more closely at one and noticed that the frame was vibrating slightly; the whole wall was vibrating. From behind the door, they could hear the muted din of music and it only got louder as they made their way toward it.

Dean followed close behind Charlie as the three of them approached. When Kevin pulled the door open with a creak, music swelled out around them like heat from an oven: heavy guitar, drums, a hundred feet moving on the dance floor at once.

Although, it wasn’t quite music, Dean realized with embarrassment once they got far enough inside to see the stage. Across the room—underneath a cage of spotlights—the musicians were just tuning their instruments between songs. But in his defense, it still sounded cool.

Dean looked around the space: smaller than he'd anticipated, but really crowded. Almost immediately, they bumped into a wall of people’s backs. Everyone was packed together tightly, waiting eagerly for the band to play.

As the lead singer moved to the microphone, the spotlights above his head cast out across the crowd; it was so hazy in the room that the red light fell like rain down on their heads.

“So cool,” said Charlie.

“Let’s get in closer.” Kevin held out his hands to both Dean and Charlie, and they all linked up. Charlie took the lead: she dragged them bravely into the center of the room, shouldering between two guys who looked way too old to be there. The crowd folded in around and behind them as they moved; there were people everywhere—holding paper water cups, calling to their friends, jostling toward the stage.

The singer raised the microphone stand. “That song,” he said, voice hoarse, “we wrote on our very first tour.” He paused for a second. “Actually, I wrote it alone because Davey, our drummer,”—he pointed to him—“ditched me to go clubbing with a girl. But all’s forgiven, because they’re married now.”

The drummer grinned and waved to the crowd, drumsticks still in hand. All around Dean, people stomped their feet and clapped for him; someone wolf-whistled right in Dean’s ear and it made him flinch.

“That’s all the original music we’ll play for you tonight,” the singer continued. “Our EP is for sale where you came in. Show it some love on your way out.” He ran his hand up the neck of his guitar. “And now… because we all know why you’re really here, how about a little Springsteen?”

A bunch of people hollered and clapped enthusiastically. The singer turned around, smiling, to briefly conference with his bandmates.

Then, with his back still to the audience, he started to play.

It was nothing like Dean expected. He realized that he hadn’t even asked Charlie what genre this band played, but this was freaking rock and roll. When the first chord struck, it hooked Dean somewhere deep in his gut. The second chord, he felt in his feet.

“Is the ground moving?” he asked.

“That’s the bass!” Kevin shouted back.

Awesome. Dean curled his toes inside his shoes. So awesome.

Sound was filling up the whole room; it pressed out on the walls, blew the hair back from Dean’s forehead. Underneath the rising peal of the guitar, the drummer started up a steady rhythm and it felt like Dean’s own heartbeat. He stood, transfixed. Now this was music: weighted, powerful, palpable in the air.

Dean watched the singer spin on his heels in front of the drums, then dip his guitar like a dance partner. He was singing too but far from the microphone, so Dean just let the chaotic energy of it wash over him.

He knew the chorus was coming because the sound of the drums dropped and the singer stepped back up to the stand. His voice was warm and gravelly, and—when he tipped his head back to catch the spotlights—Dean thought he might just be the coolest person he’d ever seen:

You can’t start a fire

You can’t start a fire without a spark

This gun’s for hire

Even if we’re just dancing in the dark

Charlie glanced over her shoulder to smile at Dean, which made him remember that they were surrounded by a sea of people. Was everyone else holding their breath too?

Under these lights, everything feel distorted and dream-like, so Dean could only catch glimpses of faces in the crowd. On his left, an older girl gripped her friend’s arm and a boy behind her had his eyes closed, swaying and mouthing the words. In front of Dean, two girls ducked their heads together to whisper something, then glanced back at him. He looked away quickly.

Dean realized that the music was fading out—now just the distant thunder of trailing drums—and then the singer was at the microphone again. He wiped sweat from his brow.

“Are you all feeling it yet?” he called to them, sweeping his hands above their heads like a preacher.

The crowd roared; Dean stomped his feet. Kevin and Charlie clapped and whooped on either side of him.

“Alright, then.” The singer beamed. “Our next song, many of you will know. Only one of the most popular tunes of all time: Mr. Brightside by The Killers.”

The room erupted in cheers; everyone was acting like their team had just won the Superbowl.

“Hell yes,” said Charlie. She gave Dean a high five.

The singer turned around. “What do you think, Davey?” he said with mock uncertainty. “They don’t seem that into it. Should we still play it?”

“Hell yes!” Charlie said again, hands cupped around her mouth—and she wasn’t the only one.

One of the two girls in front of Dean turned around and gave Charlie an appraising glance. “What she said!” the girl shouted, then winked.

So maybe Dean misread that.

He looked at Charlie and saw that she was smiling, eyes travelling down the girl’s back. When Charlie noticed Dean and Kevin watching her, she threw her arms over both of their shoulders and pulled them into a huddle.

“Five bucks says I can get everyone in here to do the wave,” she challenged.

Dean laughed, thinking it was a joke, but Kevin lifted his head to scan the crowd.

“I’ll take that action,” he said. “You’ll never get that guy.”

Kevin pointed to a middle-aged man standing stiffly on the side of the room. Dean could see his bright green ear plugs even from here.

“He’s probably here with his kid,” Dean guessed.

Charlie stared at the man shrewdly for a second, then turned back to Kevin. “You underestimate me.”

Dean couldn’t help but smile; Charlie reminded him so much of Sam. Kevin and Charlie shook hands quickly, because the next song was already beginning. The crowd started to move to the beat of the drums; Dean could feel tremors in the floor before the singer even grabbed the microphone.

Coming out of my cage

And I’ve been doing just fine

Gotta gotta be down

Because I want it all

The singer’s voice was husky, and it drifted out to them over a hundred other voices. Everyone seemed to know the lyrics: they were shouting them back to the stage and stomping their feet.

It started out with a kiss

How did it end up like this?

It was only a kiss, it was only a kiss

As the drums built into a crescendo, everyone lost their minds. The energy bounced off the walls; it was contagious. Charlie’s long red hair flipped around her face like living fire. She bounced between Dean and Kevin, grabbed both of their hands, and raised them in the air above their heads. Dean cheered.

Now I’m falling asleep

And she’s calling a cab

While he’s having a smoke

And she’s taking a drag

The room was a self-contained earthquake—they were going to make new fault lines. Dean let himself get swept up in it. He must have looked like an absolute idiot jumping around like that and shouting, but he didn’t care. He wanted to be a part of this beating heart.

Charlie, Kevin, and Dean danced through the end of the song. And the next. And the next. Dean felt like he was in another world: some weird, glorious fish tank where light was red and everything moved in stop-motion. Some songs Dean recognized, most he didn’t, but he tried to keep as many names and fragments of lyrics in his head as he could.

After Dean had long lost count of song number and his legs were starting to get sore, Charlie finally made her move. She nudged the dark-haired girl, who turned curiously.

“Will you help me get the wave started?” Charlie asked loudly.

The girl’s eyes glinted. “Of course.”

“Okay! On my signal!”

Charlie waited until the music reached a crest, swelling up to the ceiling, and—just when Dean thought Charlie was going to miss it—she yelled, “Now!”

All of them, even the girl’s friend, threw their hands up and back in unison. The singer spotted them and Dean saw him break character for just a fraction of a second to laugh. Someone behind them shouted, What are they doing up there?

“Again!” commanded the dark-haired girl. Dean obeyed, and this time so did a smattering of strangers around them.

“Come on, people!” Charlie yelled in encouragement.

Then, there was a riotous cheer from the front of the room and Dean looked to the stage: the lead singer had slung his guitar around his side and freed his hands. Grinning right at their little group, he lifted his arms over his head and flung them forward, pushing a wave out into the audience. And damn did they respond.

It rippled through the crowd like a gale force wind; Dean had to scramble to catch it in time. He was buffeted forward as people’s shoulders hit him from all sides and, even though they were strangers, it felt like a victory.

Yes!” Charlie grabbed the dark-haired girl’s hands and jumped around excitedly. “We did it!”

The girl was looking at Charlie like she was the sun. “You’re fun,” she said. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Charlie.”

“Dorothy.”

They looked at each other for a moment, both beaming, then Charlie turned back to Dean and Kevin. “Dorothy and I will be dancing if you need us.”

Kevin rolled his eyes.

“See you,” said Dean.

As Dorothy took Charlie’s hand and pulled her away, Kevin nudged Dean. He nodded toward the back of the room. “Want to get some air?”

“Sure.” Dean realized again how shaky his legs felt. “I could really use some water too.”

Dean and Kevin struggled upstream through the crowd, back toward the door. They found a water dispenser along the way and Dean stopped to fill a paper cup, then downed it in one gulp. Kevin held open the metal door and they stepped out into the entryway. As soon as the door shut, the sound died immediately like someone had yanked the cord out of a speaker. Only then did Dean realize that his ears were ringing. He panted, feeling both sweatier and happier than he had in a long time.

“It’s way too hot in there,” said Kevin, hands on his knees.

Dean slumped against the wall. There were a few other people milling around the hall, some waiting for the bathroom, and a folding card table to sell the EP.

Kevin followed Dean’s gaze. “I think I’ll get one,” he said.

“Really? Didn’t know you liked them that much.”

“I don’t,” Kevin whispered, approaching the table. “Just don’t want them to feel bad. How much?”

The woman manning the table told him it was five dollars, so Kevin pulled a thin fold of cash from his pocket. Dean spotted some pens lying on the table by the CDs and had a brilliant idea.

“Can I use this?” he asked the woman. She nodded, counting Kevin’s money. Dean uncapped the pen and started to scribble on the back of his hand: Bon Jovy, The Killers, ‘brother let me be your shelter’, Fortunate Son, ‘this gun’s for hire’… anything he could remember.

 “If you’re planning to get that tattooed, you should know it’s Jovi with an ‘i’,” Kevin interrupted.

“Just want to remember it,” Dean admitted. He scratched out the ‘y’.

“Guess you liked the show then.”

“Yeah,” Dean grinned up at him. “That was so freaking fun.”

Kevin chuckled and clapped him on the shoulder. “Cas was right about you,” he said. “I’m glad he met you.”

Dean’s face broke into a wide smile. He was already soaring, but the thought of Cas sent him all the way into the stratosphere. Dean started to ask Kevin what exactly Cas had said—but just then, Charlie burst through the door, red-faced and holding a crinkled water cup. She spotted them and hurried over. “You guys had the right idea. I’m having the time of my life in there, but it’s way too hot.”

“Where’s your girl?” Kevin asked, looking toward the door like he expected it to open again.

“Dorothy? I told her I’d call her.”

“You just like that she thinks you’re fun.”

Charlie smirked and drank the rest of her water. “So… Are we going back inside?”

Dean smiled again; they were going to make his cheeks hurt. “Hell yes.”

 

Walking home much later, Dean felt like a fucking god. He was practically spinning in circles, not in any particular rush to get home, and when he reached the edge of the sidewalk—he jumped off it, just to feel the familiar jolt in his knees. Tonight, he was a different person. Normal Dean would never have danced in front of anyone or argued so passionately with Kevin and Charlie about who won the bet that he almost toppled into the front seats. Normal Dean didn’t laugh until his stomach hurt.

But something about that music—that supremely cool music—had gotten into Dean’s veins. He felt exhilarated, invincible, like he’d just gotten off the highest roller coaster in the world. Dean was a thousand feet tall. Nothing could take him on.

He pulled out his phone to text Cas.

Dean: Wow. I know you won’t see this, but… wow.

Dean: This feeling.

Dean: I understand why people pay for this feeling.

Chapter Text

The first letter arrived a week later.

It was an unseasonably warm day for September—although maybe Dean was just sweating. This was one heavy-ass bike. And one steep-ass hill. Dean stood up on the pedals and leaned forward over the handlebars. Still, it was slow progress. Every twenty feet or so, he had to turn back and make a wide circle on the empty road.

The music in his headphones was the only thing that kept him going:

I’m a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride

I’m wanted dead or alive.

This was Dean’s favorite song today. It made him feel like he had just robbed a bank, like he was a bandit in the Wild West. And a bandit definitely wouldn’t take the long way home just to avoid this hill.

This awful,

endless,

sunbaked hill.

Dean veered left to carve another wide arc out of the asphalt, and his phone chimed. He bounced over the gravel, pulling off onto the shoulder, and set his foot down as a kickstand underneath a crop of trees. The leaves were already changing here: half-spun shades of red, gold, and brown. Dean had slung his grocery bags over the handlebars and they swayed perilously as he stopped; he pushed them back to center.

Cas: The first letter’s here!! This is not a drill. Operation Your Dad Can Go Fuck Himself is a go!

Dean snorted through his nose. While he was still reading, another text came through:

Cas: Why aren’t you already at my house??

Dean thumbed a quick response.

Dean: Chill, I’m on my way. Coming up the hill by the cemetery now. I could be a lot faster if you hadn’t loaned me a bike made of solid lead.

Dean put his foot on the pedal and was about to push off, but Cas texted back immediately.

Cas: Hey, that bike is perfect! Don’t be ungrateful.

The phone slipped; Dean caught it by the cord of his headphones. He gripped the edges of the screen and stared. Ungrateful.

Cas didn’t mean it. He didn’t know the way that word echoed in Dean’s head.

Dean pulled in a breath, then let it go in one burst, rolling his shoulders back. He fluffed the damp hair on his forehead with loose fingers and dropped his phone into one of the grocery bags, then steered back onto the road.

This was good; Dean needed to stop by the Lafittes’ anyway. Benny had been pressuring him for days to check in. And if he went over now—with groceries—he could prove they were getting enough to eat.

Cas, unfortunately, had a different idea. As soon as Dean rounded the corner onto their street, he saw Cas at the edge of his lawn, waving the white envelope above his head like a flag.

Jesus. The guy had no common sense.

Dean sent up a spray of pebbles as he skidded to a stop in front of him. The wheel of the bike almost slammed into Cas’s knee.

“Would you put that away?” Dean hissed.

Cas glanced behind him at the Winchester’s empty driveway. “Why?”

“My dad can smell guilt.” Dean yanked Cas’s arm down. Wheeling the bike with one hand, he marched Cas around to the side of the house where they were sheltered from the view of the street. “Someone gave him a ride home last night,” he explained.

“Oh.” Cas paled. “My bad.”

Dean shook his head; he eyed the envelope. “You sure this is it?”

“Has your name on it.”

Cas held it up as proof. Sure enough: there was Dean’s name, followed by Cas’s address. Hesitantly, Dean took the letter from him. He ran his thumb over the rough edges of the stamp.

“Open it,” said Cas, bumping him with his shoulder, but Dean wasn’t quite ready. He stalled. He turned toward the sun and held the envelope up, studying it—until Cas hit his arm.

“Alright, alright,” Dean relented. He slid his thumb under the seal and tore it open. Angling the envelope away from Cas, Dean peered inside.

It was cash.

Just like Bobby promised.

Carefully, Dean pulled out the bills, handling them like they might disappear at his touch. They looked fresh from the bank: each corner sharp and clean, no worn spots from thumbs or folding. Dean counted quickly: one, two, three, four, five twenties. Wow.

Dean passed the empty envelope off to Cas, head still bent over his new riches. “Can you throw that away at your house?”

“I’ll recycle it.”

“Whatever.”

“You are so not from Oregon.”

Dean looked up then, because he could tell Cas was smiling. He kicked Cas’s foot and stuck his tongue out, but in truth Dean didn’t mind the teasing. He didn’t mind anything, because here he was holding one hundred dollars. One phone call, one hundred dollars—just like that. And Bobby didn’t expect anything in exchange.

“Wait, you missed this,” Cas interrupted Dean’s internal touchdown dance to hand him a small piece of blue paper. “I think it’s a note from your uncle.”

Dean read: Hope this gets to you, kid. More to come. I’ve got a feeling this isn’t just grocery money, so don’t be too proud to call.

Dean squirmed. That was Bobby alright—always seeing right through Dean’s bullshit. He handed the note back to Cas. “Recycle that too.”

Cas folded it with the envelope in neat creases and slid them both into his back pocket. He was smiling so wide Dean could see his crooked tooth. “Want to come over and celebrate?”

Dean felt the corners of his mouth lift automatically, the way they often did around Cas. “Let me just”—he gestured with the money—“put this somewhere.” Dean started to turn, but then remembered something else. “Oh, and Sam wants to show you something. He’s been working all day.” Dean tried not to grind his teeth. “I want you to see it too, because it’s your fault.”

“I’m intrigued,” Cas laughed.

Dean didn’t know what to do with the money; he hadn’t been expecting it so quickly. For now, he tucked it into the elastic of his shorts as he led Cas around to the back of the house. Dean noticed Cas watching him, noticed the way his eyes lingered on Dean’s waist, and it made him wish he could take a shower. At least fix his sweaty hair.

They approached Sam and Adam’s window. Dean cupped his hands around his eyes to peer through the cloudy glass. Sam was exactly where Dean had left him two hours ago: flopped on the floor in the middle of an explosion of papers. Adam buzzed closely around him. As Dean watched, Adam crouched down and tried to pull the marker from Sam’s hand. Sam shoved him away (much harder than he needed to) and sent the kid sprawling backward on his butt.

“Hey!” Dean rapped on the glass sharply.

They both whipped around. Sam scrambled to his feet and ran over to throw the window open. He stuck his head out.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Dean demanded.

Sam stared at him, open-mouthed. “Me? Did you see him take my marker?”

The top of Adam’s head bobbed just above the windowsill. Dean couldn’t see his face, but he heard him shuffling around and guessed that he was trying to climb up on something. His little hands appeared in the corner, pushing at Sam, trying to squeeze through. “I’m helping,” came Adam’s muffled voice through the wall.

“You are not helping,” Sam insisted. He body-checked Adam into the wall; the whole window frame creaked.

Sam!” Dean jumped up on his toes to grab ahold of his brother’s shirt through the window. “Are you kidding me?”

Sam reeled back. He had a smear of color smudged across his forehead that looked like the tail of a comet. It shifted when he pouted. “He’s being annoying,” said Sam evasively.

“You’re annoying too. Do I treat you like that?”

Sam looked at the floor. “I’m sorry, Adam,” he said finally. And Dean decided that was good enough, so he let go of his shirt. Sam smoothed the fabric with the flat of his hand and kicked something gently to adjust it underneath the window. A second later, Adam’s face appeared.

“I’m standing on a box,” he said proudly.

Cas waved to him. He stepped closer in behind Dean and craned his neck to see the papers on the floor. “What are you two drawing?”

Sam pulled at his lip. He looked to Dean for permission; Dean rolled his eyes and gestured for him to go ahead.

“Blueprints!” Sam ran over to gather the papers into a stack. He shoved them through the window into Cas’s arms. “For a zipline that goes from our roof to yours. So it’ll be easier to go back and forth when we’re building together.”

“And I’m helping!” said Adam.

Sam looked for a moment like he wanted to shove him again, but instead he addressed Dean. “Will you please just look at his hands?” he begged. “They’re covered in chocolate.”

“Fine.” Dean rested his elbow on the sill and pointed his fingers at Adam like a gun: “Put ’em up.”

Adam giggled. He raised his palms in surrender—and Dean had to admit that Sam had a point: the kid probably had more chocolate on his hands than he even got in his mouth.

“Dude, you’re filthy,” Dean groaned. “Go wash your hands. When you come back, you can ask Sam nicely if he wants your help. These papers are important to him.”

Adam licked one of his fingers, considering the offer. Then he jumped down from the box and ran off down the hall. Dean heard the bathroom door shut.

“Can you at least give him some blank paper so he feels included?” Dean asked Sam.

Sam looked around behind him. “I don’t have a lot of extra…”

Oh my god. Dean turned his back on Sam to make an I’m-going-to-kill-him face at Cas, but he didn’t quite get the sympathy he was hoping for. Cas looked like he found the whole thing hilarious. Stifling a laugh behind the blueprints that Sam had given him, Cas stepped to the window, rotating in.

“How are you tying the harness on?” he asked.

“Oh.” Sam hung halfway out the window to leaf through the papers. He pulled one from the back of the pile. “Like this.”

When Adam came barreling back into the room a second later, Sam made a big show of creating space for him on the windowsill. Cas didn’t look up; he was focusing on Sam’s diagram like someone was going to quiz him later. He rotated the page to read something Sam had scribbled in the corner, then frowned.

“Hm,” Cas said. “That’s not the best knot. It won’t hold your body weight; you’ll rip right through.” Cas glanced up—noticed the look on Sam’s face—and quickly corrected. “But there are others—easy ones. I can teach you the bowline knot. I have a knot-tying kit.”

Of course you do. Dean smiled at Cas even though he wasn’t looking. In the sunlight, Cas’s hair reminded Dean of the fall trees he’d seen earlier: it was every different shade of bark, even a little red around his temples.

While Sam was distracted, Adam managed to squeeze past his elbow and reach his arms out the window. “Dean, spin me.”

Dean bent down with his hands on his knees so Adam could loop his arms around his neck. He pulled him up and out, then carried him back into the grass a few steps so they wouldn’t hit Cas. Dean flipped Adam upside down so he could hook his knees over Dean’s shoulders. His shirt fell by his ears, exposing the curve of his little rounded belly.

“You and I don’t have to talk about boring knots,” Dean told him.

Adam giggled. His face was already turning red. “I can tie my shoes!”

Dean laughed. “Really? You’re damn good at pretending you can’t. Ready?”

Adam nodded. Holding onto Adam’s ankles, Dean twirled around as fast as he could until Adam was flying at a forty-five degree angle. His arms flopped around his head like one of those blow-up dolls outside car dealerships. Adam lost his mind laughing—then he lost his breath and started coughing, so Dean stopped.

“You good?”

Adam’s cheeks and forehead were bright red. Dean pulled him up with one hand and sat him on his shoulders. It was so easy to fling Adam around; he weighed nothing. Sometimes Dean thought that if he threw Adam too high in the air, he’d just keep rising and rising like a helium balloon. Were five-year-olds supposed to be this small?

Sam and Cas were still crowded together by the window, having some kind of animated debate about carabiners.

“Wrap it up, nerds,” Dean called to them. “Cas and I have homework.”

He told Adam to hold on and the little weirdo grabbed onto Dean’s ears, pulling them out like Dumbo. Cas glowered at Dean as they walked up. “Us engineers are busy consulting over here. Please don’t interrupt.”

“Don’t forget that this is all theoretical,” Dean warned. “You’re not allowed to actually break your neck, Sammy.”

Sam was beaming—probably because Cas called him an engineer—and he ignored Dean to ask Cas: “Will you help me build a prototype?”

“Yeah! Monday after school?” Cas must have caught the expression on Dean’s face because he quickly added, “Just a prototype though. Theoretical…”

“You’re the worst, Cas. Come on.” Dean balanced Adam with one hand clamped around his ankle and dragged Cas away by his sleeve. Once they reached the bike, Dean slid the plastic bags up to his elbows. Cas watched him, leaning against the handlebars.

“Are you still coming over?”

“Yeah.” Dean tapped Adam’s legs. “Let me just throw this one inside and I’ll meet you.” Dean was already turning toward the front walk when he remembered his other obligation for the day. “Oh, is your dad home?”

Cas cocked his head. “My dad? No. He drove all the way out to Tillamook to scout a new vendor for the store. Why?”

Dean shrugged; Adam pulled his ears painfully as he swayed on Dean’s shoulders.

Cas dropped his eyes. He picked at one of the worn rubber grips on his bike. “I don’t think either of my parents are… um… Dad’s definitely not there and Mom was planning to leave.”

“Oh.” All the blood in Dean’s body made a mad-dash to his cheeks. “I’ll just—drop Adam off then.”

Dean walked backwards up the path. He waved goodbye, feeling awkward and lopsided as the bags swung around him, knocking against his thighs. It took him too long to get the front door open, and Dean had to duck low to fit both him and Adam under the kitchen ceiling.

“I want to come too,” said Adam.

“You’re not invited,” Dean answered, whispering now because he could see Dad’s foot still hanging over the end of the couch. “Stay here and make sure Sam doesn’t start construction, okay? That’s your mission.”

Dean carefully set the groceries on the kitchen table. He carried Adam down the hall to where their bedroom door was standing open; Sam glanced up from the floor. He had traded in his marker for a pencil and was scribbling so furiously that Dean worried he’d etch the words into the wood below.

Adam climbed down Dean’s back and—once his feet were on the floor—Dean patted his waistband to make sure the little bundle of money was still there. There was a blank piece of paper by Dean’s shoe, so he snagged it before Sam could stop him and handed it to Adam.

“I want a masterpiece when I get home.”

Adam crinkled the paper as he took it. He jumped on his bed, feet dangling a foot above the ground, and threw back his comforter to reveal a little stash of uncapped markers. “What should I draw?” he asked brightly.

“Um…” Dean knocked his hand against the bedframe, thinking. “Draw me a monster that Spider-Man couldn’t kill.”

Adam stared at him like he was stupid. “Dean. Spider-Man could kill anything,” he deadpanned.

“Oh, right. Of course.” Dean bit his tongue so Adam wouldn’t see him smiling. He leaned over to fix the flipped collar on his shirt. “Then draw me the most mutated mutant you can possibly imagine.”

That suggestion got Adam’s approval. While he selected his marker, Dean looked around at Sam’s work: there were papers all over the floor and some taped haphazardly to the walls. Dean lifted the corner of one to read it. It was filled with equations and diagrams that meant nothing to Dean, Sam’s cramped handwriting marching around the perimeter of the page. Sam had even taken a cord from the window shade and tied it for practice.

“Wow, this is elaborate,” Dean said. Then, because he realized that as often as he thought it, he may have never told Sam: “You’re freaky smart.”

Sam turned his face up to Dean, eyes-wide. The pencil dangled loosely in his hand. Dean bent down, licked his thumb, and wiped the streak of marker residue from Sam’s forehead.

“I’ll be back for dinner.” His knees cracked as he stood up (ever since the kneeling-incident, Dean had the joints of an old man). He paused with one hand on the doorjamb. “Can one of you unpack the groceries? I’m anxious to get over there.”

“Sure,” said Sam. He wiped his cheek with the back of his hand, leaving behind a new smudge of graphite. God, Dean loved that kid.

Dean headed into the kitchen with his palm flat over the money at his hip. He spun slowly on his heel, eyes sweeping high and low for a good hiding spot. There was no shortage of dusty corners to stash something in this shitty, old house. Dean considered putting the money in an expired cereal box on the top shelf of the pantry or taping it to the back of the toilet—but then he saw the laundry room.

Dean tiptoed up to the washing machine and tucked himself into the shadow of the wall. The money, when Dean pulled it out, was warm from being pressed against his skin. He counted it again. Holding it up, he breathed in the clean, linen scent of it. He counted it one more time. How much would they need? Four hundred? Five?

Dean knew you could rent a motel room for $8 a day. Surely, an apartment would be similar. For a small place, nothing fancy. Right?

More to come, Bobby had promised.

Dean folded the bills over on themselves and tucked them into the detergent slot on the washing machine. Back in the kitchen, he put away the milk and eggs and left the rest for Sam to unpack. There was a chocolate handprint on the handle of the fridge that made Dean smile, and an open box of Life cereal that had tipped over on the counter. Dean picked it up. He hugged it to his chest like a stuffed animal as he walked over to get a better view into the living room.

Dad was still dead asleep, looking like he’d just been thrown off the back of a horse. One arm dangled above his head, the other crushed awkwardly against his side. He still had one of his boots on. And he was drooling on Dean’s pillow.

Dean kind of wanted to kick him awake.

But he didn’t.

Walking back into the kitchen, Dean took a handful of dry cereal and set the box down. He found his backpack slumped under a chair and hooked his two fingers into the top strap. On another day, Dean might have woken Dad up gently, from a safe distance. Maybe even left out a plate of food in tinfoil and a bottle of Tylenol.

But recently—ever since he made the call to Bobby—Dean felt like he’d done enough. It was a small shift. But at the same time, world-bending.

Dean put his hand on the doorknob and patted his pockets to make sure he still had his house key. Then he wanted to rinse his mouth, so he ducked his head briefly under the sink faucet. But even after he spit, his teeth tasted gross.

Cas was waiting for him. In an empty house.

Dean should brush his teeth properly.

He skidded into the bathroom and wet his toothbrush, still thinking about Cas. The guy was fucking distracting. Him and his stupid lips. Stupid curls. Stupid hands and tanned forearms resting on the windowsill. What was he playing at inviting Dean over when his parents weren’t home? Was he trying to kill him?

When Dean finally threw his front door open and stepped out, squinting into the sunlight, Cas was waiting for him. Dean grinned; he couldn’t stop grinning. He tried to jump down the porch step but ended up overshooting it and knocking Cas back.

“Well, hi,” said Cas, steadying him. He tugged playfully at Dean’s backpack. “You look ready to study.”

“Yeah,” said Dean. “Maybe.”

Chapter Text

They were standing in Cas’s empty kitchen, and Dean didn’t know what to do with his hands. He fussed with the wrinkled hem of his t-shirt, trying to straighten it, but gave up when he realized that the stitching along the bottom was starting to come out. He’d have to ask Sam to sew it.

Cas dropped his keys with a clatter on the table and did a quick lap of the hallway.

“Mom? Dad?”

No answer.

Cas’s house was so silent it felt almost eerie. It was the same feeling Dean got when he was walking through a mall right before it closed: the heavy, quiet weight of being the only heartbeat in an abandoned space. Dean’s own house never felt like this—no matter where they were living: his brothers provided almost constant noise.

Cas strolled back into the kitchen, hands in his pockets, and stopped across the table from Dean. “So, uh, what do you feel like doing?”

“Whatever you want.”

“That’s helpful.” Cas knocked his fists together, chewing his bottom lip, and looked around the kitchen. He started to open cabinets. “I could make popcorn,” he suggested. Stretching onto his tiptoes, Cas pulled a plastic-wrapped sleeve of microwaveable popcorn from the top shelf above the sink. “Interested?”

“Sure.” Dean wouldn’t admit it, but he had kind of been hoping that Cas would suggest something else. “Just try not to scorch it; I’ve seen the way you treat marshmallows.”

Cas rolled his eyes and turned to the microwave. “Oh please, have a little faith.”

Without taking his eyes off Cas’s back, Dean shrugged out of his backpack. He kicked a chair out from the table, but then decided against sitting down, so he just dropped his backpack onto the seat. While Cas was still busy punching buttons, Dean walked up behind him. He was starting to close all the cabinets that Cas had left open when he noticed a folded piece of paper taped to the fridge. Cas’s name was scribbled on the front.

Dean tapped him on the shoulder. “You’ve been served,” he said as he handed it over.

Cas smiled and read the note quickly. He was leaning back on his forearms against the counter, the long sleeves of his shirt bunching around his elbows. The warm light from the microwave illuminated one half of his face and for a moment, Dean was struck by how special it was to see Cas like this, soft and comfortable in his own space.

Dean wished he felt like that in his own kitchen.

“Shit,” said Cas, tossing the note onto the counter behind him. “Dad’s car broke down. He’s fine,” Cas added quickly, seeing the look on Dean’s face. “Just stalled out in the middle of an intersection, happens like once a week.” The popcorn bag started to swell and hiss behind Cas; he turned to watch it. “Mom’s on her way out to Tillamook to pick him up.”

Dean rolled his knuckles along the edge of the countertop. “Do you… um, you think she’s still mad at me about that night?”

“What?” Cas’s eyebrows pulled together. “No, of course not. Look—” He picked up the note again and pointed to the last line: There’s more chicken marinating in the fridge if Dean and his brothers want to come for dinner. Ask them, okay?

“Wow.” Dean sagged against the fridge, staring at Andrea’s handwriting as he took the note from Cas. “Did she really make extra for us just in case?”

Cas wrapped his hand around Dean’s wrist and Dean realized that the thin paper was trembling in his grip. “My dad does too. You have a standing dinner invite,” Cas assured him. The microwave dinged and he let go.

Cas opened the microwave door; the whole kitchen already smelled like popcorn. He pulled the top two corners of the bag sharply apart and reeled back as the steam hit his face. “Want some?”

“Someone has to judge if you did a good job.” Dean held out his palm, grinning, but Cas completely upturned the bag and didn’t stop pouring until Dean had both hands cupped together, trying to catch it all. A good quarter of their popcorn ended up on the ground anyway.

“You have to pull your weight, Winchester,” Cas said.

Dean looked incredulously down at the mountain of popcorn he was barely holding, then up at Cas’s face. “How am I supposed to eat this without hands?”

“Oh.” Cas scrunched his nose, considering the situation. “Honestly, I didn’t think of that, so fine you can put it back, if you promise not to eat everything while I sweep.”

Cas opened the bag toward him, and Dean tipped as much back in as he could, making a somewhat-ineffective funnel with his hands. The second he was done, Dean snatched the bag from Cas and pushed himself up by his elbows to sit on the counter. “Get to work, Cinderella.”

Cas glowered, but obediently started to kick the loose popcorn into a pile on the floor. Popped kernels crunched under his shoes, making an even bigger mess, and Dean resisted the urge to tell him that there was a reason to use a real broom.

“By the way, it’s rude to waste food in front of me,” Dean said, mostly joking. He took a large handful and bounced the rubber back of his shoe against the door of the cabinet he was sitting on. Cas watched.

“I’ll be happy when you don’t have to worry about food anymore,” he said finally.

“Me too.” Although, secretly, Dean worried that day was farther off than Cas realized. There was a big difference between budgeting for him and his brothers during the summer—and being responsible for every meal on their table year-round. When Dean thought of it that way, moving out didn’t seem like quite the same dream.

Cas swept his hands together as he finished up. “Want to go study in my room?” he asked, already half-turned toward the mouth of the hallway.

Dean looked up at him—but Cas’s expression was impassive. He was still eating his popcorn. Maybe he didn’t care that they were alone? Maybe this was a normal thing for him, and Dean was the only one reading way too much into it?

Dean flicked the stiff paper corner of the popcorn bag in his lap.Okay.”

He slid off the counter, feet hitting the floor harder than he thought they would, and grabbed his backpack from the chair. He fell into step beside Cas down the narrow hallway. Dean knew he was walking too close, hoping his knuckles might brush against the back of Cas’s hand; it was stupid and middle school, but he couldn’t help himself.

Cas didn’t try to hold his hand. He was too busy talking.

“Have you considered moving to Portland?”

“You’re just asking that because you want a short commute,” Dean teased.

“Yes. And because it’s a big city—easy to be anonymous in.” Cas held his bedroom door open; he ushered Dean inside and left it ajar behind them. “Portland probably has a bunch of public high schools, and I know for a fact that there are good colleges there because I toured a few.”

“Only you would think about colleges right now.”

Instead of turning on the overhead light, Cas reached across his desk to open the blinds. September sunlight streamed in, falling in long rectangles across the carpet; the edge of one cut across the tips of Dean’s shoes.

“Isn’t Portland expensive?” asked Dean. He dropped his backpack against the wall and sat on the edge of Cas’s mattress, hugging the popcorn to his chest with one arm. “I was thinking somewhere more like Nowhere, Kansas. That’s pretty damn anonymous too.”

“As someone who grew up in a small town, I can tell you that you will not be anonymous.” Cas grimaced, then shook out his shoulders. Looking down, he caught sight of how Dean was sitting—and frowned. “Get your shoes off my bed, you animal. Who raised you?”

Dean laughed. “Was a bit of a Do-It-Yourself project.” He yanked his converse off by the heel and dropped them on the floor. “You’re lucky I turned out so charming. Happy?”

“Happier,” Cas grumbled. He came over and fished around at the bottom of the popcorn bag for a small handful among the unpopped kernels. “I’m just saying think about it. My tour guide at University of Portland told me you can get studios for just $750 a month.”

Dean gaped at him. Was he joking?

Just $750? That was insane. That was more money than Dad gave them for a whole summer, more money than Dean had ever seen together at one time. Seven hundred and fifty dollars. For one stupid freaking month. At that rate, even with Bobby sending as much as he could each week, it would take Dean months to save up for the first payment alone.

He sank back against Cas’s pillows; everything inside of him was sinking. Cas, meanwhile, picked at a kernel stuck in his back tooth.

“What’s a studio?” Dean asked weakly, because he didn’t want Cas to notice that he was internally combusting.

“It’s everything in one room.” Cas waved his hand around: “So your kitchen is also your living room, is also your bedroom. Not ideal, but not the worst thing either…”

Dean wasn’t listening. Because an even more sickening thought had just occurred to him: what if they made the first payment, and even the second, but not the next? They could lose the apartment; they could be homeless.

Dean tried to picture Adam homeless: curling up to sleep on a park bench in his ratty winter coat, or waiting in line at a shelter—and then he tried really hard not to picture it, because the thought alone made him want to throw up. Were there even shelters that would accept two little kids and their delinquent brother? Probably not ones that wouldn’t call Child Services.

“Dean? You look pale.” Cas’s voice cut into his consciousness.

Dean shook his head.

“Are you feeling sick?”

“Not really.” Dean pressed down on his thumbnail, watching the top half of it turn white. “Can we just not talk about apartments?” he asked quietly. “Please.”

Cas seemed to understand then. Without a word, he crawled onto the bed next to Dean, pushing his closed laptop out of the way to make space. He settled back against the pillows, slouching down so he and Dean were the same height. Cas looked at Dean; Dean looked at the baseboard of the wall.

“Are they too expensive?”

Dean picked at his cuticle. “A little.”

Maybe they could rent a single room in someone else’s apartment. Would that be cheaper?

But what if the person turned out to be a creep, or started asking questions about why they were living alone… Maybe Dean hadn’t really thought this through.

Cas took the empty popcorn bag from Dean, crumpled it, and set it on the floor. “You know, you could always stay here,” he said. “Until you get on your feet.”

Dean almost laughed. As if it was that simple. “Oh yeah? Where exactly?”

The bed shifted and Dean fell a little closer to Cas’s shoulder as Cas sat forward to look around; he was obviously sizing up the available floorspace.

“We’d make it work,” Cas said with a shrug. “There’s also the living room.”

Dean did laugh then. He pushed his shoulder against Cas’s. “Or, here’s an idea: I’ll sleep in the bathtub and Sam and Adam can squeeze into the kitchen cabinets.”

“You’re such a jerk,” said Cas. He knocked his hand against Dean’s arm, then let it fall between their thighs. “That was a real offer.”

“I know, but it was a stupid offer.”

“You’re a stupid offer.”

Dean gave him an exasperated look. “Good one, Cas.”

Cas frowned. He flicked Dean’s arm and when Dean looked into his eyes, his expression was so earnest it made Dean feel almost bad for him. “Why was that stupid?”

“Because…” Dean looked at his lap. He pulled at a snag on his exercise shorts. “Think about it. What are we going to do? Wave to my dad through the kitchen window? He can’t know where we are—and being neighbors isn’t exactly hiding.”

“Oh.” Cas rested his warm hand gently on top of Dean’s and squeezed his fingers. “I get it, okay? We’ll find you somewhere safe to live.”

Dean tucked his chin against his chest. “Yeah, I hope so,” he said, but the words tumbled down his shirt and got lost there.

Cas nudged him with his shoulder, but Dean didn’t feel like talking about this anymore. He curled up against Cas’s side, letting his head fall against the older boy’s broad chest. Cas put a hand on the side of Dean’s head to hold him close.

Cas started to stroke Dean’s hair: working his hands in behind his temples, dragging his palms down the back of his neck and over his shoulders. Dean felt like a cat being pet, but it wasn’t the worst feeling in the world. Cas leaned down and kissed the top of Dean’s head so lightly that Dean wasn’t even sure it had really happened. “So, um…” Cas hesitated. “Tillamook is an hour away.”

“It is?” Dean picked his head up slightly, but Cas’s arm was still secure around him. He swallowed. “I’ve never been.”

“I’ll take you sometime,” said Cas casually. His fingers trailed around the base of Dean’s neck before coming back up to brush his hair behind his ear. “When we go though, we should plan to be gone for the whole afternoon. Because, um, it’s an hour there and then another hour back, so the whole thing takes a while. And that’s if I’m driving fast.”

“Hmm.” Dean was finding it hard to concentrate with the blunt edges of Cas’s nails bumping against his scalp. His eyelids fluttered—and he wondered why he was fighting this. “I bet your mom doesn’t drive as fast as you,” Dean mused sleepily. “She seems safety-conscious.”

“She is,” said Cas, voice still casual. But then, when he bent his head to whisper to Dean, he sounded shy, almost timid: “We probably have two hours minimum… if we want them.”

Dean’s hand tightened around Cas’s wrist. He took a deep breath, playing with the long sleeve of Cas’s shirt, sliding his fingers under the hem and over the stitching. Dean looked up at Cas—and realized that Cas was looking at him too, waiting; he was going to let Dean decide.

“Um, I’m happy to hang out here for a while,” Dean tried. And then, because maybe that wasn’t clear, he laid his palm on Cas’s cheek. He let his thumb brush just briefly over his lips, then slid his hand down to fit against the side of his face; Cas’s jaw was smooth and solid under Dean’s palm, like a sun-warmed rock.

Dean kissed him there, at the corner of his jaw, right above the tips of Dean’s own fingers. Cas closed his eyes and dropped his head back to give Dean better access. Dean kissed along the long stretch of his throat, the underside of his chin, the corner of his mouth, the edge of his nose. He was almost sitting on Cas, one leg slung over him, and Cas had his hands on Dean’s thighs.

Cas rested two fingers under Dean’s chin. “Will you look at me?” he asked, and Dean realized that his eyes were closed. He blinked slowly, already starting to smile; he was untethered, weightless. When Cas came into focus, he looked so soft and safe and familiar that Dean almost said something he shouldn’t.

“I like you,” he said instead. “A lot.”

Cas rubbed the tip of his nose against Dean’s, his smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. “You’re not too bad yourself.”

Then, he wrapped his arm around Dean’s hips and flipped him onto his back.

“Woah,” Dean huffed as he hit the pillows. Cas started to crawl on top of him, grinning, and Dean shimmied down the bed a little so their faces could be level. When Cas’s mouth found his again, it was both softer and more urgent, Cas’s head hanging low between his shoulders, supporting himself on his elbows above Dean. Their hips bumped together as they both fumbled to close what little space was left between them. Dean’s socked foot hit the hard plastic edge of something.

“Wait, your computer.” He stopped Cas with a hand on his chest. Reaching around Cas, Dean grabbed the laptop by its corner and carefully placed it on the carpet. “We should get the door too,” he panted.

Cas glanced over his shoulder, saw that it was wide open, and walked backward on his knees to kick it closed. The door slammed, rattling against its frame, and Dean was reminded of how quiet this whole house was. How empty.

And here he was, laying on Cas’s bed.

Had Cas done anything like this before? How much was he expecting from Dean?

Dean inhaled, feeling like his ribs were shaking, and before he could let it out—Cas was back. He reached out for Dean’s hand, hooking their pinkies together. Cas leaned his head against the pillow a few inches from Dean.

“Are you okay?”

Dean nodded.

“You know, just because the door is closed, doesn’t mean… anything.” Cas laid his other hand on Dean’s hip; he started to trace small circles with his thumb over Dean’s skin. Dean tried to focus on the soft, rhythmic tide of Cas’s breathing as they leaned their foreheads together.

“It’s okay. I like this,” said Dean. Cas skated his palms over Dean’s hipbones, sliding them just under the hem of his shirt. Cas pressed his hand flat just below Dean’s belly button, the heel of his palm laying over the top of his shorts, and Dean’s heartbeat picked up; he could feel his pulse in his throat as he swallowed. But this was Cas. Cas was safe.

And then Cas surprised him: instead of moving down, he slid his hands up over Dean’s stomach. He spread his hands to the side, walking his fingers along Dean’s ribs. Cas paused and rolled his fingertip over the ridge of one, not-so-subtly checking for injuries.

“I’m fine,” Dean whispered, kissing Cas’s shoulder. And he was. Dean wound his free hand into the back of Cas’s hair; he pulled on him gently until Cas got the hint and shifted on top of Dean again. Both smiling, their teeth knocked gently together as they kissed. Cas’s hands were still warm under Dean’s shirt. Dean pressed himself against him, wanting to feel the hard planes of his chest and hips.

Dean,” Cas sighed, and it sounded almost reverent. How was this happening? How did someone like Cas end up caring about someone like Dean?

Cas’s hands started to travel down—and Dean paused, his knees tense around Cas’s ribs. Without opening his eyes, Cas brushed his thumb over the raised hem of Dean’s shorts, snapping it against his skin. “Is this okay?” he asked quietly.

Was it?

He wanted it. The thought was immediate; he could already feel himself getting hard just imagining Cas’s touch.

Dean nodded—and then, because Cas had his eyes closed, he said aloud, “Of course,” and was surprised by how husky his voice sounded.

“You sure?”

“Mostly.”

Cas tilted his eyes up at him. “Dean.

Dean clenched his fists in Cas’s hair. “I’m sure. Please. I—please, I want you to—”

“Okay.” Dean felt Cas’s mouth curve into a smile, then he kissed him in a long, deep, drowning way that left them both a little breathless. Before Dean could recover, Cas lifted the elastic hem of Dean’s shorts and slid his hand in slowly to touch him through his underwear.

The first thought that flashed across Dean’s mind was about what kind of underwear he was wearing. He hoped it was nothing too old or embarrassing. But, a second later, he didn’t care because, holy hell, this was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Dean was vaguely aware of the weight of Cas on his chest, the heat of him everywhere, but everything beyond the gentle motion of Cas’s hand seemed out-of-focus and irrelevant.

“Oh my god.”

Cas started to twist his hand more purposefully and it made heat pool low in Dean’s abdomen. He arched his back against the pillows, impatient hands tugging at Cas’s shoulders, the belt loops of his jeans, trying to pull him down. Dean had never felt this close to another person, but still it wasn’t enough.

“Wow, that feels so good. Oh my god. I can’t believe you’re touching me.” Dean sounded like an idiot—he knew that somewhere in the back of his mind—but it made Cas laugh softly against his mouth and that made Dean feel good. Even better than he already was.

Dean bit at the pulse point on Cas’s throat, and he noticed Cas tilt his hips so he could press the flat of his palm over his own erection. Was Cas enjoying this? Dean felt a hot flush creep up the back of his neck. He was being selfish. Of course Cas was annoyed, Dean wasn’t doing anything for him.

Dean reached toward the fastening of Cas’s jeans, trying to reciprocate, but his stupid shaking fingers knocked against the buttons like a child.

Cas caught Dean’s wrist and moved his hand away. “Just relax,” he said.

“But—don’t you want—”

“Stop worrying.” Cas kissed the bridge of his nose. “This is supposed to be relaxing. Does it feel good?”

Dean nodded mutely.

“Then let it feel good,” said Cas. “You can just lay back.” He pushed Dean back against the pillows and Dean wondered again how often Cas had done this. He seemed so sure of himself.

Much more sure than Dean felt.

Cas started to stroke him again, his body shifting on top of Dean’s. He was moving his hand in the same steady, tender way, but it didn’t feel the same. Dean was being pressed into the mattress by something much heavier than Cas. He felt the drag of Cas’s hard-on against his leg and it made the inside of his nose hot. Cas is so nice to you. You want this. You want this.

But.

Cas pulled the neck of Dean’s t-shirt to the side to kiss the top of his exposed shoulder. Dean tensed. As Cas’s lips touched him, Dean had to turn his head away, sudden tears stinging at the corners of his eyes.

“Dean?” Cas looked up. “Oh my god.”

Cas’s hand was out of Dean’s pants in a second. He pushed up onto his elbows and started to roll off to the other side of the bed.

“No,” Dean pleaded. He tried to grab at Cas’s sleeve; he didn’t fully know what he was asking for, but he definitely didn’t want to be alone. What the fuck was wrong with him?

Cas seemed to be thinking the same thing. “What’s wrong?”

Dean could taste salty tears; all of his sinuses felt hot and prickly. What was he thinking coming over here and letting Cas kiss him like that, when he knew they couldn’t do anything real. “I’m so sorry. Fuck.”

“Don’t be sorry. I’m sorry.” Cas’s eyes were wide. He moved closer, just barely, and held his palm up a few inches from Dean’s face. “Can I?”

Dean took a shallow, trembling breath before nodding. Cas didn’t even want to touch him now. Why did Dean have to ruin everything good?

Ever so gently, Cas dried Dean’s cheeks. He ran the back of his hand under Dean’s eyes and down the sides of his face. Dean had to blink at the ceiling as it started to swim again.

“Was this too much?” Cas asked softly.

Dean shook his head, sending new tears to fall from the corners of his eyes. Cas rubbed those out too and brushed his thumb over Dean’s cheek.

“It’s not you,” said Dean.

“What do you mean?”

Dean didn’t want to answer. Cas’s hands were large and warm, splayed protectively at the base of Dean’s neck. He wouldn’t understand this. He didn’t know what it was like to be small around Dean’s dad.

“Dean?”

Dean hesitated. He exhaled heavily, trying to push off the weight that was sitting on his chest, and then finally, he said, “I can’t take my shirt off.”

Chapter Text

“I can’t take my shirt off.” Dean’s voice sounded small even inside his own head. Why did he say that? That wasn’t what he meant. Well, he did mean it; but it wasn’t what he was trying to say now.

I can’t take my shirt off. I don’t take it off—ever.

But I trust you.

One of Cas’s fingers twitched against Dean’s collarbone. “Your shirt?”

“Yeah, I just—feel weird about my back.”

“Your…? Huh.” Cas sat up a little, resting a knuckle against his temple. “Weird how? You don’t like the way it looks?”

And you won’t either. Dean let his eyes fall to the pillow they were sharing; it had tiny gold diamonds patterned on it. He could see the tip of his nose. “Can I tell you something?”

Cas’s brow furrowed. “I kind of thought we were past having to ask.”

“I’ve never taken my shirt off in front of anyone who’s not Sam or Adam. I—” Dean faltered. He took a deep breath. Was this really a conversation he wanted to start? “My back is almost entirely covered in scars. Not from him”—Dean waved away Cas’s concern—“from an accident when I was younger: I was trying to make pasta, but I accidentally pulled the pot of boiling water down on myself. I just—I don’t know, grabbed it wrong and it slipped out of my hand.”

“Oh my god.” Cas put a hand to his mouth (actually put a hand to his mouth like an old lady). Maybe this was a very reckless, very stupid idea.

“It looks like something out of a horror movie,” said Dean; he flicked the end of one thumbnail against his other. “I was scared you would see it and freak out.”

“You could have told me.”

“Do you… do you think you would freak out?” Dean didn’t dare look up at him.

Cas shifted beside him; he laid his hand over the crest of Dean’s hip, on top of his shirt this time, but Dean could still feel the heat of his palm through the fabric. “I’m usually pretty level-headed,” said Cas.

The corner of Dean’s mouth lifted; he scooted toward Cas, his nose a few inches from his across the pillow. “Maybe I can show you. If you want.”

Cas’s expression softened. He leaned in and kissed Dean gently at his hairline, lips slightly parted; it was something Cas did often, but every time it made Dean’s chest ache.

“I bet it’s not as bad as you think,” said Cas.

“Wait ‘til you see it.” Before Dean could think too much about what he was planning to do, he pushed off the mattress and rolled into a sit-up. He settled cross-legged in front of Cas, who grinned up at him from his nest amongst the pillows.

“Oh, you’re going to strip right now?”

“Will you do yours too?” said Dean, surprised by the volume of his own voice. More quietly, he added, “Just so we’re even.”

Cas looked bemused, but he grabbed the top of the headboard and pulled himself up to Dean’s height. “Should I go first?”

“Yes, please.”

And then Cas was doing it—no hesitation, no self-consciousness—he just started to unbutton. Dean twisted his fingers together as he watched; he didn’t want to stare like some kind of creep, but something about the turning of Cas’s fingers as he moved down his chest was mesmerizing. He was getting naked, sort of, for Dean.

In quiet moments alone, when Dean had let himself imagine it, he’d thought that he knew what Cas’s body would look like. But as Cas shrugged out of his shirt, wadded it up, and threw it vaguely at the hamper across the room, Dean felt breathless.

Cas’s skin was smooth and sun-kissed; summer hadn’t faded off of him yet. There was more of a bronze to his arms than the rest of him—probably from hours working on his inventions in the yard—and he had actual, defined biceps that Dean could see from where he was sitting (even though Dean was pretty sure he wasn’t flexing). Cas looked like someone who could work in a forge: made of spark and strength, shaped from the clay of a riverbed. No way Dean was taking off his shirt now.

When Dean finally dragged his eyes away from Cas’s chest, he noticed that Cas was watching him apprehensively.

“What’s wrong?” Dean asked.

“Nothing.” Cas shook his head quickly. “Shirts-off is just not my favorite either.”

“It should be! You look like a freaking god.” Dean tried to touch Cas’s pecs, but Cas smacked his hand away. Dean reached out again and again Cas blocked him, but Dean had accomplished what he meant to: Cas was smiling. “Please?” Dean asked. “I’ll be nice.”

Reluctantly, Cas lowered his arms to his lap. Dean raised his own more slowly; he placed his hands flat on either side of Cas’s chest. Cas’s skin burned. Dean could feel the rise and fall of his breath, the steady drum of his heart underneath Dean’s right palm.

Cas squirmed. “Okay, your turn.”

Fat chance. Dean dragged his fingertips down Cas’s chest, stalling, but Cas made a weird sound and jerked his arms in protectively.

“Wait, are you ticklish?” Dean laughed.

“Don’t try to distract me. It’s your turn.”

“So that’s a yes.”

“C’mon.” Cas plucked at the fabric of Dean’s shirt where it hung loosely over his stomach. “It won’t be that bad.”

Dean raised his shoulders and dropped them; he shook out his arms like he was preparing to jump off a high dive. “Okay.” This was never going to get easier, might as well do it now. And Cas was safe. Cas cared about him, at least a little. He would be kind.

Cas wound his fingers into the hem of Dean’s shirt and helped him get it up over his head, carefully steering clear of his back. Dean gathered the fabric into his hands and hesitated for only a moment before dropping it on the floor.

“I feel really naked,” he said, fidgeting with the blanket. “Like, way more naked than when I actually am.”

“Look at you,” Cas breathed.

Dean glanced obediently down at his stomach, then realized that he was an idiot and Cas didn’t mean it literally. It was too late though; Dean had seen himself. There were no scars on his front, but he was disappointingly skinny and pale. Cas could probably wrap his hand around Dean’s upper arm with room to spare. He averted his eyes, picking up the comforter by a seam, then dropping it as the silence dragged on. Say something, Cas.

“You have freckles on your arms too,” he said.

Dean crossed his arms self-consciously over his chest. “That’s usually how it works.”

Cas pulled on Dean’s forearms until he relaxed; he picked up Dean’s arm and turned it, studying the constellations of his freckles like he was going to draw a map. Then, he said, “So… can I see?”

Dean blew air out of the side of his mouth, fluttering his bangs. Cas started to lean forward—probably just to touch his knee or something—but Dean’s heart lurched and he tasted bile.

“Wait!” He clamped his hand over Cas’s eyes and Cas froze, one hand slightly-raised off the mattress. “Wait,” said Dean again, chest heaving. “Have you ever seen a burn before? A bad one?”

Dean felt Cas blink behind the blinds of his fingers, so he lifted his hand a little. Cas thought about it, looking at the ceiling, but that was answer enough.

Fuck.”

“Hey, trust me, okay?” said Cas. He rested his hands on either side of Dean’s neck. “You say the word and we’ll stop. But you don’t need to be this nervous.”

Dean bit down on the inside of his cheek, but all he said was, “Okay. You can look.”

“You need to turn around, then.” Cas smiled at him sadly.

“Right.” Dean exhaled. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he added, then shut his eyes. With a little help from Cas’s hands at his waist, Dean turned awkwardly in place to face the door. The cool air on his unprotected back made Dean’s skin prickle; he felt like a little kid all over again. He wrapped his arms around his legs and pulled them tightly into his chest.

It was all out in the open now.

Dean tried to imagine how it must look to Cas, seeing it for the first time: patches of rough, puckered skin splashed along Dean’s spine, licking at his shoulders; waxy scars stretched and hardened from his growth. The first time Dean looked in the mirror after it happened, he devolved into a full-on, hysterical panic attack bent over the cracked toilet of their motel room. He hoped Cas handled it better.

They were both quiet for a long time. At least Cas didn’t try to touch Dean right away; for that, he was thankful.

When Cas finally spoke, his voice was hoarse. “Does it hurt?”

“No.” Dean dragged a hand across his forehead, bouncing his leg. “Itches sometimes, feels like I’m wearing a wool sweater when I’m not.”

“Huh.”

Dean heard Cas shifting behind him on the bed. The next moment, he felt the warm press of Cas’s palm between his shoulder blades, his fingers spreading apart over burned and unburned skin. Dean shivered.

“Did it hurt at the time?” Cas asked, then paused. “What a stupid question; of course it hurt.”

“Actually”—Dean looked up at the ceiling, resting his chin on his knees. He gripped his ankles with both hands—“Not so bad.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. My nerves got burned too so I, uh, couldn’t feel anything until they grew back.” Dean tried to imagine his chest expanding as he took a deep breath. “The growing-back part was… unpleasant, though.”

He remembered the sound of the water falling on him, slapping against the tile floor. The cloud of hissing steam, the smell, Sam screaming. But not pain—just shock.

Dean dug his chin sharply into the space between his knees. He stared harder at the ceiling; it was white and painted with that spackled texture that looked like it would feel weird to rub your hand over. Dean let his eyes focus softly and imagined that it was made up of clouds drifting into and out of each other.

He hated reliving all this crap, hated lying to Cas about it. But what was he supposed to say: Oh that? That’s just where my dad poured boiling water on me because I wanted to go to a hockey game. It’s not a big deal, let’s talk about something else.

Dean blinked up at the texture of the ceiling, trying to find his clouds again. He needed to pull himself together. That was a long time ago; he was fine.

He sniffed and dragged the back of his hand under his nose. Dean stole a look over his shoulder to try to read Cas’s expression, but Cas wasn’t looking up. His gaze was focused low on Dean’s back, just above the waistband of his shorts, where there was a wide scar in the shape of an upturned half-moon—smoother than the others. Cas raised a finger to trace it. “So this semicircle?” he asked.

“The pot rim, yeah.”

Cas hadn’t noticed Dean looking; he closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against Dean’s left shoulder blade. He looked like he might cry. Dean turned away.

“Listen, we can just pretend this didn’t happen…”

Cas didn’t say anything right away.

“It’s okay if you think it’s gross. Hell, I think it’s gross.”

“Dean.”

“I know Sam loves me, and even he couldn’t look at it for a good year. So really, I understand…”

Cas rolled his forehead against Dean’s shoulder, shaking his head without lifting it. “Shh,” he said. He snaked his hands under Dean’s arms, around his waist, and interlocked his fingers over Dean’s stomach. “Be quiet and just let me hug you.”

It took Dean a moment to soften into him, but then he was tucking his head into the crook of Cas’s neck and watching his clasped hands bob up and down with his breath. Dean slid his palm down the inside of Cas’s arm, over the fade of his tan, and started to play with the leather strap of his watch, untucking it from the loop that held it in place against Cas’s wrist.

Cas put his chin on top of Dean’s head and locked his arms around his waist. “I’m sorry that happened to you,” he said. “It’s not fair.”

Dean shifted; he didn’t know what to say to that.

“And not that it matters,” Cas continued, “but I think your back looks pretty. Kind of reminds me of an abstract painting.”

Dean barely stopped himself from saying Oh, sure. He peeked up at Cas to see if he was being insincere. “I don’t see that at all.”

Cas smiled down at him. “Very abstract,” he clarified, and nipped at the top of Dean’s ear.

A painting. Huh.

Cas tugged on Dean’s arm and Dean settled back against his chest, Cas’s hands running lazily down his shoulder. Fitted there in the V of Cas’s legs, Dean felt warm and relaxed, almost like he was in a hot tub. He closed his eyes; it would be so nice to sit in a hot tub with Cas.

This was nice too, and Dean was damn proud to be sitting here: not only was he shirtless in front of another person, but he was actually letting his unclothed back press against Cas’s chest. And he felt okay about it. If only Dean from four months ago could see him now.

If only eleven-year-old Dean could too.

***

He had already been having a bad day—before it turned into one of the worst of his life. His coach had pulled him aside after practice to tell him that he couldn’t play on Saturday if he didn’t have real cleats, so Dean was feeling bitter on top of being tired and hungry. He was on his way home, almost at the edge of the parking lot, when one of his friends caught up to him. His family was going to a hockey game that weekend and he wanted to know if Dean could join. Dean wanted to, badly. A hockey game meant dinner at the rink, cotton candy, stomping their feet on the metal bleachers until they tremored, and maybe even sleeping over afterwards in a quiet room where there was no crying baby. His friend’s parents could pick Dean up and drop him off; they already had the ticket.

There was no reason, no reason at all, for Dad to say ‘no’. Except he didn’t like the way Dean asked.

Dean should have waited until he was done cooking and Dad had eaten; that was a rookie mistake. But he just wanted a quick answer. He was anxious to get out of his dirty soccer clothes, the water was boiling over, and he was trying to talk to Sam at the same time, so Dean missed a few red flags.

He didn’t think Dad would snap the way he did. He tried to duck as soon as he realized what Dad was going for, but the terror made him slow and… his reflexes had never been that good.

***

Dean pressed his cheek against Cas’s smooth skin, squeezing his eyes shut. He could hear the underwater beat of his heart deep beneath his ribs: Thum thum. Thum thum. Slow, steady, reliable. As Dean listened, the enormity of what he had just shared with Cas settled heavy in his bones; he felt like he could sleep for a year.

After the accident, Dean had thought that any possibility of a day like this was gone; no one would ever smile at him the way Cas did. You’ll always look like this, Dean remembered thinking as he laid face down on his bed in the still hours of late-night becoming early-morning. When you graduate high school. If you get married… your back will be like this. You’ll never be a person that this didn’t happen to. It was the most permanent damage Dad had ever done, and Dean cried himself to sleep that year more nights than not.

Cas was right: it wasn’t fair. He was just a kid, barely eleven. Sam was almost the same age now and he still believed in the Easter Bunny for god’s sake. Sometimes when Dean picked up one of Sam’s shirts and it was half the size he expected it to be, or when he found a single shoe of his cast aside in the backyard, he thought he hated his dad.

“Where was your dad when you got burned?” asked Cas, interrupting Dean’s thoughts in the worst way. “Tell me he wasn’t in Alaska.”

Dean’s own heart mixed with the sound of Cas’s in his ears: Thum thum, thum. Thum thum. “Not home.” He could feel Cas tensing up underneath him.

“He should have been watching you,” said Cas severely. “Everyone knows you’re supposed to turn pot handles in when there are little kids around—or maybe, here’s a revolutionary idea—don’t let them make their own pasta.”

Dean swallowed, his throat against Cas’s skin. “Don’t know how he missed that in all the parenting books he read—wait, don’t get mad.” Cas’s hand was a fist, pressing a divot into the mattress beside them. Dean pulled at his wrist. “There was a lot going on; Adam had just come to live with us.”

“What do you mean? Why’d you say it like that?”

“Like what?”

“‘Came to live with us’ instead of ‘born’.”

“Oh,” said Dean. “Because he’s our half-brother; you knew that.”

“I definitely did not.”

“Really?” Dean rolled over to look at Cas, lacing his fingers together underneath his chin. “Weird. I’m surprised you couldn’t tell; we look nothing alike.”

“Dean, you have exactly the same face.”

“His eyes are blue.” Dean pushed on one of Cas’s ribs just to annoy him (although the embers of Cas’s anger were still lit, so maybe he should be careful). Cas just dropped back against the pillow though. He threw his forearm over his eyes.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever stop being angry with your dad,” he said, voice slightly muffled. “You know, until today, I thought your eyes were green.”

Dean blinked. “They are.”

“Yes, I know they are.” Dean could tell Cas was rolling his eyes. “But they’re not just green: you’ve got red and brown around your pupils too. It looks like your irises are rusting from the inside out.”

Dean picked up his head a little, which pressed his hands into Cas. “Okay, weirdo. I think I’m offended.”

Cas peeked out from underneath his arm; he was frowning. “I’m trying to tell you that I like your eyes, but if you’re going to be difficult, I might reconsider.”

“Too late; I know.” Dean gave Cas his best impish grin, but Cas must have known he didn’t mean it, because he lowered his arm to wrap around Dean’s waist.

Cas stopped a moment before touching him. “Wait, is your back still off-limits?”

“Not at the moment.” Not to you.

Slowly, Cas started to rub Dean’s back, moving in gentle circles up and down, and Dean thought that he would probably agree to anything Cas wanted if it meant he would keep smiling like that.

“I can’t believe it healed like this,” said Cas as he brushed the base of his hand over one of the larger splash marks above Dean’s hips. Dean wondered if that spot felt like Cas’s spackled ceiling—but the thought was gone quickly.

“Did you know Adam’s mom?” Cas asked.

“Nope. Not even her name.” Dean tucked up against Cas’s hip, dropping one arm over his chest. “I think she was probably nice though, and good to him, because he showed up with all these matching pajama sets and, like, hand-painted toy trains. Sam lost his shit over that: Why does he get good toys when he doesn’t even know how to hold a spoon?” Dean chuckled. “We were both pretty pissed, neither of us handled it gracefully.

“Actually, Sam”—Dean tilted his chin to look at Cas—“used to steal Adam’s trains and bury them in the salvage yard across the street from us. We cut through there on our way to school—that’s how we met Bobby. He chased us down one day with a shotgun, yellin’ about how if we wanted trouble, he could have the cops on our asses and all that… Softened up real quick once he saw where we were living though.”

“Where the fuck was your dad through all of this?”

“Uh, working. Trying to figure out if he really had to keep this kid; he was just as shocked as we were.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. Kind of messed up, right? How do you have a whole kid you don’t know about? And he was a real dick about it too, speaking of not handling things gracefully.” Dean curled his hand and dug the nail of his index finger sharply into the pad of his thumb. “Adam used to be up all night wailing, like babies do, and Dad would pretend not to hear it. It was like this weird game of chicken: I knew he was awake, he knew I was awake. But I didn’t want to deal with it either. I thought that if I got up—even once—and calmed Adam down, Dad would know that I would, and my life would be over.”

“Who broke first?”

“Take a wild guess.” The soft skin around Dean’s thumb was covered in crescent moon indents. “And I was right about what it meant, because that was the first year he went to Alaska.”

Cas’s arm jerked, making Dean flinch. “Are you serious? While you were still healing?

“Oh, I was mostly… He wasn’t that much help by the end anyway.”

Cas worked his jaw; the look on his face told Dean that he was imagining a variety of creative and violent deaths for Dean’s dad. So Dean didn’t say what he was thinking: I know I should have been mad, should still be mad. I wanted to scream at him and kick him out of my hospital room, to tell him that he didn’t get to hurt me like that and then act like it was some kind of horrible, unavoidable tragedy that I brought down upon myself.

But I didn’t. I had no pride. I let him feed me ice chips. And conference with the doctors about my medication. I let him ferry Sam and Adam between school and daycare and the hospital. I let him soothe me and whisper sweet things to me at night when it was so painful that it felt like stars were imploding on my skin. I let him, I let him, I let him. Because he was finally doing everything I had wanted all along.

And then I healed.

“That’s so fucked up,” said Cas. “I’m going to kill him.”

Dean glanced up at him and he looked so righteous that Dean almost laughed. “Okay, good plan.”

“I’m serious. He should go to jail for that.”

That made Dean pause. Maybe, but he would never tell anyone. He just didn’t want it to happen again; he wouldn’t let it happen again. But then Dean thought of the far-off apartments and their $750 price tag. Minimum. The soggy twenties hidden in the washing machine at home now seemed so inadequate, almost childish.

Dean wrapped his arms around his torso. “Can I put my shirt back on?” He was already leaning to grab it from the floor. He pulled it on too quickly and it caught on his nose; Cas tugged it down for him.

“Why’d you get all skittish?” he asked.

“I’m just thinking…” Dean sighed. “If we leave and end up miserable, it will be my fault.”

“You won’t be miserable.” Cas sat up too. He settled the collar of his shirt around Dean’s shoulders and patted his chest. “Instead of the worst-case scenario, imagine how good it could be. What would that look like?”

Dean sucked in one of his cheeks. “I guess we’d have an apartment. And we’d feel comfortable there.”

“Okay.” Cas pressed his lips together like he was trying not to smile. “You get an F for creativity, but the content’s there.”

Dean glared at him. “Sorry I can’t immediately imagine it! I’ve never lived on my own.”

“I haven’t either. But I can give it more thought than ‘I’d have an apartment’.”

“Fine,” said Dean. “If it’s so easy, then what’s your best-case scenario?”

“Mine?” Cas repeated, mulling it over. He straightened the pillow behind his back. “Okay, I don’t have it all figured out yet, so I’ll give you the teaser-trailer version: my homework is done”—Dean groaned, but Cas put up a hand to say stay with me—“I’m in college. It’s a Sunday morning and I just woke up without an alarm in a room that I furnished and that feels like my own. And, um,” Cas cast his eyes down shyly, “you’re in the kitchen making one of your weird what-can-I-throw-together-from-the-fridge breakfasts. Or you can be taking a shower or whatever you want to do… but you have to come back to bed when you’re done.”

Almost impulsively, Cas grabbed Dean’s hand and tangled their fingers together on top of the blanket. Dean couldn’t breathe for a moment; he felt like the sun was in his chest. “I’m really in your future?” he asked.

Cas nodded.

“Then I change my answer; I want that too.”

“Again, F for creativity.”

Dean laughed and Cas hooked an arm around his neck to pull him into sort of a headlock, sort of a hug. Dean tapped out and Cas relaxed his arm but still held Dean tight against his side.

“I miss you not wearing a shirt,” Cas pouted. “I feel weird now.”

Dean closed his eyes and dropped his head against Cas’s shoulder; he needed to go to dinner but he didn’t want to leave. “You realize I still have to finish high school, right? I can’t come live in an apartment with you to”—he lifted his hand vaguely—“make you breakfast and be arm candy.”

Dean peaked up at Cas and saw that he had closed his eyes too. He cracked one eye open to glare at Dean. “It’s a fantasy. You can keep your unwelcome reminders.”

“I also think that you’re probably a bad roommate.”

“Why?” Both of Cas’s eyes were open now.

“You’re messy.” Dean looked around the room. “You didn’t know where to find the broom, most of your clothes seem to be on the floor next to your laundry basket, and I’m pretty sure all the cups in your house are right here”—Dean pointed to the collection of half-empty water glasses crammed onto Cas’s nightstand.

Cas sighed. “That’s a fun list; you sure had that ready.” He leaned off the bed to grab a different shirt from a small, unfolded pile of clothes on the floor and started to shake it out.

“You know what you need—” Dean had a sudden idea. He turned and held his hands up like a photographer to frame the stretch of wall above Cas’s headboard, imagining it: “One of those dropper bottles they put in hamster cages. But human-size.”

Cas snorted; he dropped his head to laugh into the fabric of the shirt he was holding. “Your mind is a weird place.”

Dean smiled at him. “I’m sure Sam could make it for you.”

“I’m sure he could. Should he is the question.” Cas shook his head, still laughing, and slid on the new shirt, sitting at the edge of the mattress. “He should be careful with that zipline by the way. As it is now, it’ll tear your gutter off.”

Dean started looking around for his shoes. “I figured.”

“Designs are clever though,” said Cas. “Maybe if we found two sturdy trees—”

“Don’t you dare suggest that.” Dean jabbed an accusing finger at him. “I’m serious, I want that whole idea to die.”

“Wow, fine.” Cas held up his hands in mock defense. “Discourage innovation. Wait, where are you going?”

Dean was holding one of his shoes up by its laces; he spotted the other near the door. “Home. I’ve gotta do dinner.”

“Nooo,” Cas whined, collapsing back against the pillows. “If you go, I’ll have to actually study.”

Dean grinned at him as he tugged on his last shoe. “Bye.” He grabbed Cas’s face as he kissed him goodbye; Cas scrunched up his nose.

“Can I see you again before Monday?”

Dean didn’t even try to hide his smile. Like Cas said, they were past that. “I’ll text you. If I feel like it.”

Cas threw a pillow at him as he pulled the door shut. The hallway was quiet; Dean put his hands in his pockets and stopped on his way out to look at some pictures of Cas as a chubby baby in overalls that were hanging on the wall.

An abstract painting, Cas had said. Not black plague pockmarks.

Dean jumped down the porch steps two at a time.

Chapter Text

Dean lathered his hands underneath the warm running water until he was holding a foamy handful of bubbles. He worked them into the roots of Adam’s hair, drawing large soapy circles up the back of his head and over his ears. From the way Adam’s head was pillowed in his arms, his whole body drooped over the bathroom counter, Dean guessed that it must have felt pretty good.

“Okay, you’re done.” Dean nudged him. “And you don’t get to be tired; you’re the one that woke me up at the crack of dawn.”

“I tried to go back to sleep, I swear,” said Adam sheepishly. “I laid there for so long.” He drew out the ‘o’s in the last two words in a way that made Dean smile.

“Just wash the soap out and I’ll meet you in the kitchen.” Dean dried his hands on the dishtowel, then threw it over his shoulder like a fancy waiter. “Oh, and I gave you a mohawk.” He pointed to the mirror.

Adam balanced on his tippy-toes to see himself in the bottom edge of the dirty glass; he grinned. “Can you cut it like that too?”

“Nope.” Dean pushed Adam toward the door. “Get to it.”

Still in the bathroom, Dean toed open the lower cabinet and crouched in front of it, pushing aside half-empty plastic bottles (and a few not-so-empty glass ones that belonged to Dad) to find a comb, a fresh washcloth, and the haircutting scissors.

Sam appeared in the doorway as Dean was standing up.

“Did Adam jump on you too?”

“Like a wild animal,” Sam answered, mid-yawn. “I tried to save you but didn’t have the energy to physically restrain him.” He looked at Dean’s little bundle of supplies. “Haircuts already?”

“Yeah. And you’re next.” Dean snapped the scissors in his direction as he tried to think if there was anything else he needed.

“Nah, I already told you: I want to grow mine out.” Sam shouldered past him to stand in front of the mirror. He shook his shaggy hair out and fluffed it over the top of his head. He’d started doing things like this recently: fixing his hair before he left the house, asking to borrow Dean’s deodorant, trying to match colors when he picked out his outfits. Dean stood a little straighter as he watched him.

“It’s your choice,” he told Sam. “But if you start asking for conditioner and hair gel and shit—I’m cutting it all off in your sleep.”

“Don’t need it. Watch this.” Sam glanced at him like he knew that Dean was going to hate whatever he was about to do. Then he licked his palm and used his own wet spit to smooth down the short hairs around his face.

Dean gagged. “Don’t ever let a girl see you do that.”

By the time Dean arrived in the kitchen, Adam’s hair was clean and dripping. He was perched on a stool in the middle of the kitchen floor with newspaper already laid out underneath him.

“Good man,” said Dean, offering him a high five; Adam slapped his palm. “Can you do me one other favor? I have a test.” He held up his Chemistry textbook and Adam nodded, uncrossing his legs so Dean could prop it open on his lap.

“Thanks.” Dean knelt in front of him to flip to the right page. “Just these. I’m supposed to know names and structures, but—uh—structures are a little tricky, so for now just point to one and I’ll tell you what it’s called.”

“These are weird,” Adam said, turning the book to the side so he could squint at the chart of spindly amino acids. “What’s this one?” he asked and Dean glanced up.

Easy. “Tryptophan.”

“Really?”

Dean smiled. “I think so.”

He usually pretended to be grumpy when Adam woke him up before school, but the truth was he didn’t mind spending soft, slow mornings like this with him. He started to wring the water from Adam’s hair with the clean washcloth; it dripped down his wrist and left watercolor splotches on the newspaper comics.

Adam jabbed his finger at another amino acid.

“Tyrosine.” Dean teased out the knots at the back of Adam’s head, leaving behind intersecting tracks from the teeth of the comb that looked like little rivers.

Sam reappeared in the doorway just as Dean was arranging Adam’s bangs to start trimming them.

“I need a new shirt,” he announced on his way to the cabinet above the sink.

Dean clamped the scissors between his teeth. “What’s wrong with the one you’re wearing?” The words came out a little blocked, but Sam seemed to understand, because he held up his arms like a zombie to show Dean that the cuffs fell a good inch and a half above his wrists.

“I look like I stole Adam’s.”

Dean took the scissors out of his mouth. “Roll the sleeves or take one of mine until we can get enough cash together to go to the store.”

“I don’t want one of yours,” Sam grumbled. He plucked the cabinet door open an inch, just to drop it closed. “Dad has the money.”

“Would you quit it with that?” It was Sam’s new obsession: calculating the amount of money that Dad wasted. Dean wouldn’t be surprised if he had a spreadsheet going. Then he thought of Bobby’s envelopes. Dean had the money too. Technically.

“You know I’m right,” said Sam.

“Whatever.” Dean tapped Adam. “Ask me another.”

“This one?”

“That’s, um—it’s an acid.” Dean licked his lips self-consciously and glanced at Sam, but the kid wasn’t paying any attention. “Gi…giacomic acid or something?” Dean guessed, cobbling together random letters there at the end.

“That’s right!”

Dean snorted. “It’s not right.” He leaned over Adam’s shoulder and flipped to the back of the chapter to find the answer key. “Glutamic acid.”

“I like what you said better.”

“Thanks.” Dean tucked Adam’s freshly cut hair behind his ear.

Sam opened the cupboard again to pull out a box of cereal. He poured himself a heaping bowl and stood at the edge of the counter, watching tiny wet triangles of Adam’s hair fall to the newspaper as he ate. After his third bite, he asked, “Have you heard of the Wonder Emporium?”

“The Wonder…what?”

“Emporium. It’s a science toy store.”

“Of course it is.” Dean was trying to concentrate on Adam’s bangs, so he didn’t end up looking like Mario’s ugly cousin.

“Before you get all ‘we can’t afford that’, I don’t want to buy anything,” Sam assured him. “I just want to see this fake geyser they have that’s timed to go off every hour like Old Faithful. Remember? In Yellowstone?”

“Yes,” said Dean and Adam in unison.

“And I can get a free kaleidoscope,” continued Sam, “because this guy outside school gave me—”

Sam.” Dean’s head snapped up. “Don’t talk to random people outside school.”

“He’s not random. He’s the dad of someone in my class.” Sam took a small bite. “I think.”

“You’re doing a really crappy job at convincing me to let you go somewhere new by yourself.”

“Well, I thought maybe you could take me,” said Sam evasively. “Because, um, it’s a teeny tiny bit outside of town.” Sam held up two fingers half an inch apart, as if that would sell it.

Dean rolled his eyes. With his hand on Adam’s chin, he turned his head to the left and then the right to check the line of his bangs.

Adam smiled up at him, pliant in his hands. “I want to see the geyser too.”

Great. Dean looked down at the textbook in Adam’s lap, but it was all upside down and he felt like he recognized even less than he had ten minutes ago.

He sighed. “How long’s the bus ride?”

“Bus to where?”

All three of them jumped at the sound of Dad’s voice, even Adam. Dean almost dropped the scissors; they’d been dangling loosely from his right hand, but he tightened his grip on them as Dad shuffled out of the hallway.

“Nowhere,” said Sam—obviously trying to maintain his reputation as the world’s worst liar.

“Nowhere, huh?” Dad passed them on his way to the fridge, his work boots crinkling the newspaper. “Might be hard to find a bus to nowhere.”

The seal on the fridge popped as Dad yanked the door open. He stooped to look inside, already frowning. Dean clenched the scissors. Dad seemed bruised by the night before: bloodshot eyes and hair matted on one side like he hadn’t quite made it to his bed. As Dad’s shadow moved on the cheap vinyl floor, breaking up the rectangle of light from the fridge, Dean wondered where he had been and what he’d been doing.

Dad hooked his fingers into the handle of a mostly empty milk jug. He held it up to the light. When none of them said anything, Dad looked at Dean—and Dean realized that he was supposed to give a better explanation.

“Oh. Sam just wanted to go to a science exhibit today. But I can’t take him.”

“Why?” Dad laughed. “You got big plans?” He sloshed the milk down on the counter with a thump that made Dean flinch.

“No,” he said once he collected himself. “I just have this giant test tomorrow and I told Cas I would study with him.”

“Cas.” Dad paused like he was considering something. “Is that the weird kid who’s always loitering by our fence?”

Dean pressed his tongue to the back of his front teeth. Sometimes Dad got in a mood like this—where he wanted to poke at Dean and see what kind of reaction he could get out of him—but Dean had learned long ago that it was best not to engage. “He’s our neighbor, yeah,” was all he answered.

As Dad tried to find himself a glass, Dean felt a little tug at the bottom of his shirt and looked down at Adam. The kid was struggling to hold the weight of the textbook by his fingertips; it slipped and he scrambled to pull it back up. “Do you want more questions?” he whispered.

Dean gave him a small smile. “Maybe after school.” He set the scissors down behind him on the table and took the heavy book from Adam’s lap.

“Well, if not today,” said Dad, “you better do it soon. I need you on packing duty this weekend, Dean.”

Sam’s spoon clanked against the bottom of his bowl.

“Packing for what?” Dean said automatically. Then the words caught up to him, and he almost dropped the open textbook right on the top of his own foot. Because packing could only mean one thing.

“We’re leaving,” said Dad, as if he was saying we’re going to the grocery store. “I got us a new spot; better than this hellhole.”

Leaving. Of course. Why was Dean even surprised at this point? What had he been expecting, thirty days notice? Turning his back on his dad, Dean dropped the book on the table and closed it. He shut his eyes, digging the heels of his palms sharply into his eye sockets until he saw black spots. “Where?” Dean asked his wrists. “Where’s the new place?”

“Can’t remember the exact name… It’s right over the Illinois border into Indiana. I have it written down somewhere.”

So all the way across the fucking country, then. This was so typical of Dad. And he knew Dean hated Indiana; that’s probably why he picked it in the first place. All Dean’s memories of living there were dry; they had so little water that his tongue got scratchy and rough. Indiana was the worst. No breeze, no mountains, no coast. No Cas.

Dad was still talking: “I want us to get out of here by Sunday morning latest—it’s a long haul, so have everything done by Saturday night. And be careful with our kitchenware this time: don’t just throw everything in the same box. I don’t need you cracking all our plates again. Dean, are you listening?”

Dean swallowed a lump in his throat that felt like a marble. It took him a second to find his voice. “Yes.”

“Yes, what?”

“Yes, sir.” Dean curled his fingers around the cuff of his sweatshirt. He wanted to bang his head against a wall. Or maybe Dad’s.

Dean heard the fridge close and turned around. Dad was staring at all of them, his eyes flitting between their faces. “What’s the problem here?” he demanded. “All three of you look like I just suggested a murder.”

Dean had no idea what his face was showing, and he tried to school his expression into one that was more acceptable, but he was still grappling with the weight of it all. The idea of piling into the back of the Impala, boxes at their feet again as they drove east, made Dean feel like he was choking.

He had a life here. He had friends and favorite places—even tests that he should stick around for. And Cas… Dean couldn’t even begin to think about Cas right now.

Finally Dean was happy. And Dad wanted to rip all that up by the roots.

“We’re just… surprised,” said Sam finally. Dean tried to gauge if he was lying and, even though he couldn’t see Sam’s face, Dean noticed that he had hooked his pinkies together behind his back and was pulling them apart. So Sam didn’t want to leave either.

“I know, but this is good news,” said Dad. He pointed to the counter. “Clean up your dishes.”

“Yes, sir,” said Sam quietly, and that was when Dean knew that he was barely holding it together. Moving like he had just woken up from a deep sleep, Sam picked up his cereal bowl and set it in the sink.

They were leaving. The thought felt like Dean was collapsing in on himself, a black hole in his gut.

Dad started opening cabinets, picking things up just to set them down as he hunted for something to eat. For a few moments, Sam stood immobile in front of the sink—all of them listening to the drip of the faucet—then he turned it on full blast and the sound of water ricocheting around the ceramic bowl of the sink echoed around the kitchen.

Leaving. Leaving. Leaving.

Dean saw movement out of the corner of his eye: Adam was trying to crawl inside of his shirt, something he hadn’t done in years. Dean reached out for him, holding onto his little shoulder with an iron grip, and Adam lifted his head to look at Dean. His eyes shone with unshed tears. He sniffed.

Adam had cried enough. They all had.

“Hey, little dude,” Dean whispered, leaning down to him, “why don’t you hit the deck?”

Adam sniffed again. His eyes went a little wide but he nodded solemnly at the code, already slipping off the stool. His knees hit the floor, then he was crawling quickly under the table. He tucked himself into the corner where they kept their cleaning supplies, out of Dad’s sight.

Dean motioned for Sam to get down too but he refused, shaking his head as he took a small step back toward the laundry room. Fine, that would have to be good enough.

“Dad?” Dean asked, approaching him cautiously. He pulled the dishtowel from his shoulder and started to worry it between his fingers. “What if—what if you left us here?”

As soon as Dad’s eyes met his, Dean’s stomach flipped. This is how you get yourself murdered, idiot. Dad shut the cupboard he was standing in front of and faced Dean straight-on, his hand resting limply on the counter. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say something so stupid.”

A prickly feeling ran up Dean’s spine. He tried not to shrink under Dad’s glare, but it was difficult to resist the urge to curl up and hide next to the bleach bottles with Adam. He cleared his throat. “I’m serious.”

Dad stared him down for an uncomfortably long time; he drummed his fingers on the countertop. “If you want to have a discussion about it,” he said finally, voice low, “you and I can step outside.”

“I don’t want you guys to go outside.”

Sam’s voice was squeaky and timid, but it drew everyone’s attention; Dean thought he even heard scuffling from the corner. Sam’s fists were white as he gripped the sides of his pajama pants and he looked absolutely tiny, but he stood his ground. “You can talk right here, can’t you?” he asked.

Dad stopped him. “There’s no need for us to talk. Right, Dean?”

Dean twisted the dishtowel, staring down at it. It was so taut in his hands he thought it might snap. “I know you don’t like the idea,” he started, “but you haven’t given it any real thought. It would be good for you too; you’d be free to do whatever you want. And I have some money saved, so you don’t have to support us—”

“Alright, you had your chance,” Dad sighed. “Get down.” He grabbed a fistful of Dean’s sweatshirt and tugged him toward the floor—not hard enough to force him, just with the expectation that Dean would obey.

He didn’t.

Dean braced one hand on the counter and strained against Dad’s hold on him. “I’m not doing that anymore. I just want to talk about it.”

“You little fuck.” Dad tightened his fist and yanked on Dean’s sweatshirt again, making him bow forward. Dean’s sweaty hand slipped an inch on the counter. “Get by the wall right now, Dean. I’m not messing around.”

“Can’t you just talk to me?” Dean pleaded.

Dad’s frown deepened. He grabbed Dean by his shoulders and tried to force him down to his knees like he was pushing him underwater. But Dean bent at the waist.; he stumbled sideways away from him, barely catching himself on the sink. Before he could straighten up, Dad seized his upper arm.

“Wow, would you look who got tough overnight,” he said. “Good for you, Dean. Maybe you’re not so hopeless after all.”

He tried to drag Dean back toward the fridge, and Dean fumbled around at his side for something to grab onto. His fingers caught on one of the drawer handles but the whole thing just slid open, making the silverware inside it jump.

Dad pried his hand off easily. “Looks like we still need to work on that muscle tone.”

As Dad pulled him across the kitchen floor, Dean dug his heels in, his bare feet skidding. He bucked and jerked his arm, trying to throw Dad off—to no avail. “Let go of me!”

“Settle down, kid,” Dad laughed at him. He released Dean’s arm and shoved him forward. “You ready to be done with this nonsense?”

Dean glanced quickly at Sam, who was hanging onto the edge of the counter for dear life, half-crouched out of sight right next to them. Dean’s heart kicked violently against his ribs. “Let’s go outside,” he said to Dad.

Jesus.” Dad tried to swat at him, but Dean was ready for it. He ducked and Dad only managed to grab onto the back of his sweatshirt as he side-stepped, but it was enough to fling Dean back toward the laundry room. He lost his footing and tumbled, colliding into Sam. Chaotic limbs tangled together, they fell heavily against the front door—rattling the shade—and Dean felt a dull thud as his elbow slammed into one of the bones of Sam’s face. Sam whimpered.

Oh my god.

“Sam. Sam,” Dean gasped, unable to fully form the question. Sam blinked, gingerly touching his cheekbone under his eye—but before he could say anything, one of Dad’s hands closed around Dean’s wrist, the other grabbed the back of his pants. He pulled them apart and hauled Dean back into the middle of the floor as easily as if he weighed as little as Sam.

Dad dropped Dean without warning; the back of his head snapped back and cracked against the vinyl. “Ow, shit.”

Dean rolled over and laid there for a moment panting—hands splayed underneath him, stomach pressed against the cold floor.

“Leave me alone,” he said, swallowing.

“Let me be very clear.” The rounded toe of Dad’s boot appeared on the floor a foot in front of Dean’s face. Dad took another step forward, treading on the ends of Dean’s fingers and Dean tried not to gasp. He curled his fingers, but he was pinned. “You’re going to have the car ready on Sunday. Do you understand?”

“I’m not going to Indiana,” Dean spit at him. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”

Dad leaned into the toe of his boot and Dean cried out as the pressure on his fingers impossibly increased. His eyes started to water. “You’ll go wherever this family goes.”

“I don’t want to be anywhere near you!” said Dean. “Sam, Adam, and I are family; you’re just some asshole we have to put up with whenever you feel like sticking around.”

Be careful, Dean,” Sam begged from across the room, his voice wet with tears.

“How ‘bout this?” said Dad. He wrapped his fist in Dean’s hair and pulled his head up so sharply that Dean worried he was going to rip a chunk of hair right out of his scalp. “I’ll give you a choice: you can either spend the next two days in front of this wall”—Dad slapped the paint with his palm and Dean flinched despite himself—“or you can get up here and take a real swing at me.”

What?” Dean took a shallow breath. “You want me to hit you?”

“I want you to try.”

“No.” Dean’s eyes flitted around the room. “I’m not playing some little mind-fuck game with you.”

“Alright, then. Option three."

For a full heartbeat, Dean didn’t register what had happened.

The floor rushed toward him; he even had a second to pick out the individual crumbs littered across the vinyl. Then, there was a crack and pain exploded behind his nose. Dean’s arms entirely gave out underneath him, he dropped to his elbows, and the world blinked out like a light…

When it came back—slowly—the room was full of static. Inside his head and outside of it; he couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Dean grabbed onto the front of his face. It was so heavy, throbbing just underneath the surface; he felt like his nose and brow were made of concrete, dragging him down.

Dean coughed and it fucking hurt; little red droplets sprayed the floor, he could feel them on his lips. The room did a cartwheel. You’re okay, you’re okay, he chanted to himself. He wondered what his face looked like. Was it caved in, or did it just feel that way? Gingerly, Dean touched his tongue to each of his front teeth. All still there. You’re okay. You’ll be okay. It’s almost over.

“Let’s get you up,” said Dad.

Leave me alone.

Dean didn’t have the energy to fight as Dad grabbed him under his armpits and hauled him to his feet. He slung one of Dean’s arms over his shoulders, his other arm supporting Dean at his waist, and walked him toward the laundry room.

Dean limped along at his dad’s side, feeling like his teeth were rattling around inside his head. As they passed the front door, he accidentally made eye contact with Sam, who was still sitting on the floor: fist pressed against his mouth, face red. Christ, this was fucked up. Dean looked at his feet and cradled his injured hand.

Dad sat him down on the only chair in the laundry room: a rickety black folding one. Dean sank into it, his head lolling to the side, trying not to let his eyes roll.

“Do you need any water?”

The question was soft, said with a hand on the top of Dean’s head: not mean like before, not pulling his hair—but somehow worse.

Dean stared at Dad for a long moment until his eyes could focus on the details of his face: his dark, wide eyebrows. His stubble. The downturn of his lips. “I don’t need anything from you. Stop touching me.”

“Alright, then,” Dad sighed. He patted the top of Dean’s head once, before pulling the door shut behind him. Dean was enclosed in darkness.

He didn’t dare try to stand. But he was able to pull his legs into his chest and drop his head against them. His face felt like Dad had smashed him in the face with a brick (which wasn’t too far off from what had actually happened). Every time he breathed, the vibrations hurt his skull. Every time he opened his eyes, the ground started to come up toward him.

So Dean just sat in the dark. For a long time. He wrapped his arms over his head and held onto himself, imagining that someone else was soothing him as he rubbed his opposite forearms with his thumbs. You’re okay, it’s over. He knew the blood was drying on his face—and now on his pants—but he didn’t care.

A memory came swimming back to him of sitting in a closet, much smaller than this one but just as dark, with Sam. It was sometimes nice to be all tucked up in a secret place like this. They used to sit with Sam’s legs laying on top of Dean’s, playing rock-paper-scissors over and over again while they waited for a thunderstorm to pass. Or for a ‘Dad storm’ to pass, as they used to call it when it was something they could sort-of joke about.

After a while, Dean heard movement and the muffled swell of voices through the door. “Where are you going?” he asked his knees, but it was probably too quiet for anyone to hear. The front door opened and slammed, taking all the noise with it.

“Sammy?” Dean tried again sleepily. “Adam? Are you guys still here?”

No one answered him.

“Guys?”

Dean stood up—and was immediately slammed with a wave of dizziness. He steadied himself with a hand on top of the washing machine and grabbed the door handle, but it wouldn’t budge. He tried again, shoving his body weight into the door, but it only moved a millimeter before it hit something and stopped. When he tried a third time, the same thing happened.

“Hello?” Dean banged on the wood with his undamaged hand. Did Dad really block him in here? Why?

He yanked open the detergent slot on the washing machine and—thank god, his money was still there. Dean’s hand shook as he counted it out, folded it, and tucked it into his back pocket. His fingers bumped something else, something solid and rectangular. He still had his phone. He could call someone.

Who would help him?

Dean pulled the phone out so quickly that he almost dropped it. The screen was a spiderweb of cracks, so damaged that he might have been worried about cutting his fingers if they weren’t already bloodied and bruised. Dean took a deep breath that felt like a shiver—and made the call.

 

 

 

 

Benny answered on the third ring.

Chapter Text

SIOUX FALLS, SOUTH DAKOTA

DECEMBER 22nd

 

ONE YEAR LATER

 

Dean paced the empty parking lot, twirling his keys. The asphalt was covered in hundreds of his slushy, crisscrossing footprints. If he had his choice, he would wait in the truck—but from where he’d parked, you couldn’t see the bus stop through these stupid evergreens.

Finally, Dean decided to call.

“Can you hurry up? I’m dying here.”

“You are so dramatic,” Cas laughed. “I told you I don’t get in until 4:15, and it’s not even 4.”

Dean groaned, spinning in an exaggerated circle. “3:57 is basically 4; I was rounding up.”

“Why are you so impatient all of a sudden?”

“I don’t know,” Dean sighed. He tugged the sleeve of his coat over his hand and brushed the curb clean so he could sit down.

Cas paused. “You know I’m excited to see you too, right?”

Dean toyed with his shoelace. “Promise?”

Are you serious? That’s it: I’m going to have to tackle some sense into you as soon as I get off this bus.”

Dean fought down a smile. “Okay, okay. I just get nervous when it’s been a while.”

“You spend 90% of your life being nervous, so I’m not surprised. Can you hold on for another fifteen minutes?”

“If I have to.”

Dean hung up and tucked the phone into his pocket, brushing wet flecks of snow from the knees of his jeans. He crossed his feet at the ankle and leaned back. There was a gas station and strip mall across the street; Dean watched weather-worn people duck in and out of the squat buildings, shaking snow from their shoulders like birds. This stretch of Sioux Falls was just about as far as you could get from Bobby’s house.

Dean had only been here once. It was his first week in town—back when he felt like he might get sick every time he stood up too fast. Bobby said it was the concussion. But it wasn’t.

There were a million impatient thoughts elbowing each other for space in his mind. He couldn’t sit still anywhere—at the dining room table, on the couch, in the car. Every night, he thrashed in his bed, waking up with the blanket twisted around his knees, sweat on his pillow. He barely ate. He paced so many circles around the living room that he wore a ring into Bobby’s carpet.

That was the last straw. Bobby took one look at the carpet and pushed Dean out the front door with a hat and gloves. “Take a walk. You need to get out of your head.”

So Dean walked. He kicked up sludge around every quiet corner of Sioux Falls, staying out until the streets started to empty. As he moved, he paid attention to the feeling of his feet hitting the earth in rhythm, the metronome of his heart beating beneath his ribs. It reminded him that his body still worked.

When Dean reached this street, he stepped into the gas station just because it looked warm; inside, there was a sheen of condensation from the heater on the wide, glass windows. But as soon as Dean pulled off his gloves, he couldn’t stop staring at his crooked fingers. So fat and swollen he could barely bend them. Looking at the difference between his two hands, something surged up in Dean that he wished was anger, but felt a lot more like grief. Next to him, the bathroom door swung open as someone else came out and before he knew it, Dean was on his knees, puking into the porcelain bowl while it was still flushing.

You’re okay, he told himself for the hundredth time that week. He’s not here.

Once the chills passed, Dean cupped water from the sink to rinse his mouth out. He unlocked the door and stepped out. He made his way to the exit as quietly as he could, but the cashier still looked up over the top of his newspaper.

“Hey, you okay? You look like shit.”

Dean gripped the wire rack of snacks that stood between him and the checkout stand.

The guy’s brow furrowed. “You’re Bobby Singer’s kid, aren’t you?”

No, I’m no one’s kid.

“Want me to call him?”

Dean wiped his mouth with a trembling hand. He thought about it; he nodded. And not ten minutes later, Bobby showed up to bring him home.

That night, while he was on the phone with Cas, Dean asked if he did the right thing by leaving. He clutched the receiver to his ear, wanting desperately for Cas to reassure him, to forgive him, and then Cas’s voice came through, gravelly and warm: “Yes. One hundred times over.”

Talking to Cas was one of the only times Dean felt like he knew who he was. He spent most nights alone on the porch with the phone to his ear, fleece blanket wrapped around his shoulders, watching snow filter through the light of the streetlamps. Though it never got fully dark here and there were always people working and cars passing, it was peaceful in its own way.

Sometimes Cas read aloud.

“Um, are you sure?” he said, the first time Dean asked him to. “It’s just a short story for my Literature class; it’s not that interesting.”

“I don’t care.” Dean pulled the blanket tighter around his neck. “The only other thing I’m doing is sitting here.”

“Okay… It’s about a…”

“I’ll figure it out. Just go from where you are.”

“Okay,” said Cas again; there was a rustling of papers. He picked up where he was, in the middle of a scene about a defecting knight, and Dean tipped his head back against the top of the porch swing to look at the wide sky. The heavens felt so close here, like the stars had gathered around Bobby’s house to hear a secret. Dean closed his eyes and listened to the movement of Cas’s voice. Cas used slightly different tones for each character, so subtle that Dean wondered if he knew he was doing it. He was so smart; he knew so many different words…

***

When the light switched on in the kitchen, Dean was on the floor. The darkness had started to feel like a pillow over his face as he waited, so he’d wedged himself inch by inch into the gap between the washer and dryer. Something about having his hips and shoulder bones press into the cold metal walls made him feel secure, like he was in a tank.

Through the wood, Dean heard a grunt and something scraping across the kitchen floor. The footsteps stopped, the doorknob turned, and the kitchen slowly panned into view. Dean blinked against the sudden brightness. He saw his upended Chemistry textbook by the table, it’s curling pages lifting gently in the draft of the A/C. Dappled sunlight danced in patches across the vinyl.

It all seemed so wrong.

“Dean?”

“Here.” His voice was hoarse, barely a whisper.

Benny knelt in front of the gap and peered in at him. If he was surprised by the state of Dean, he didn’t show it. “Hey, kid,” he said kindly. “You look like your head hurts; does it?”

It took a moment for the words to filter in, longer for him to understand them. Dean nodded—and as he did, the colors on Benny’s shirt blurred together.

“Anywhere else?”

“Not really.”

“Okay. Can you crawl out of there so I can get you cleaned up?”

Another dragging nod. Dean reached up, stirring a cloud of lint into the air, and gripped the edge of the washing machine. Benny took him by the elbow and helped him to his feet.

“Good job, Dean. Just like that.” He led him out from between the machines, then pulled him firmly into a hug.

“Your shirt—” Dean tried to warn him, but it was too late; the side of his face was already pressed into the soft fabric of Benny’s shirt pocket.

Benny put a hand on his head, petting his hair; Dean kind of wanted Benny to pick him up. “I’m sorry,” Benny said, then paused. “I’m sorry I didn’t protect you earlier.”

“I’m okay.”

“Yeah. You are. And you helped yourself by calling me.” Benny put his hands on Dean’s shoulders to see him better. “Where does it hurt the most?”

“I think… my nose.” Dean touched gingerly around it; it was so swollen he felt congested.

“Okay.” Benny hitched up the sleeve of his thin jacket and used the fabric to wipe salty tracks from the corners of Dean’s eyes.

“I wasn’t crying,” he clarified, and Benny chuckled.

“Course not. I challenge anyone to get punched in the nose and not tear up.”

He didn’t punch me, Dean thought. He slammed my face into the floor.

“Sit here; I’ll grab what I need.” Benny pulled the folding chair out from the corner and lowered Dean into it with a hand heavy on his shoulder. Dean wrapped an arm protectively around his ribs.

“Benny?” He looked up. “I don’t know where my brothers are.”

Benny paused. He crossed his arms and stepped back to look into the Winchester’s driveway. “They with your dad?”

“I think so.”

“Okay.” Benny rubbed his brow, looked at his watch, and glanced back at the driveway. “Here’s what we’ll do: as soon as you’re in good shape, we’ll get in my car and go look for your dad’s Impala. It’s a small town; they couldn’t have gone far. But Dean—you are not getting out of the car under any circumstances. If we see him, I will talk to him. Do you understand?”

“Yeah.” Dean wasn’t about to jump out of the car for a heart-to-heart.

“Stay here,” said Benny again. He went back into the kitchen. Dean heard the tap turn on and Benny reappeared with a steaming washcloth. Dean recognized it as the one he planned to dry Adam’s hair with. He took it from Benny like it was his brother’s favorite stuffed animal, his eyes burning.

“We should go now,” Dean decided. “Sammy’s hurt.”

“As badly as this?”

“No. Or at least… at least…” Dean swallowed and looked at the ceiling, squeezing the washcloth into a ball so tight that it dripped onto his pants, “not when they left.”

Benny crouched in front of Dean to meet him at his height, his hand on the back of his chair. “We will not rest until we find them, okay? I promise.” Benny guided Dean’s hand holding the washcloth up to his nose. “Keep this on.”

Dean clutched it to his face like it was an oxygen mask. He felt the warm, wet air opening up his chest. As Dean started to move it gently, wiping the crusted blood from his upper lip and nostrils, Benny looked him up and down.

“How attached are you to that sweatshirt?” he asked.

Dean looked down at the dark stains over the logo on the front. He shrugged. “It’s ruined.”

“Good. I don’t want to pull it over your nose, but we’ll probably get arrested if I take you anywhere with it on.” Benny held up the haircutting scissors.

Dean eyed the sharp blades, understanding. “Go ahead.” He held his arms out to the side, so Benny could reach the collar. He slid one half of the scissors inside and cut a clean surgical line right down the middle. Dean pulled off each arm one at a time like it was a coat and shivered in his pajama shirt.

“Here.” Benny took off his own jacket and handed it to him.

“Thank you,” Dean said quietly, pulling it on with shaking fingers.

“You didn’t want to mention that?” asked Benny, suddenly sharp. Dean flinched, hand frozen mid-air, and saw that Benny was looking at where Dad had stepped on him. He pulled his fingers back into the oversized sleeve to hide them.

“That hand needs to be wrapped,” said Benny.

“Please,” Dean begged, “after?”

Benny gave him a hard look, but then he took a deep breath and his face softened. “Alright.” He took both jacket sleeves from Dean and folded the cuffs twice. “I don’t think you should look at the kitchen as we walk out,” Benny said. “Why don’t you close your eyes? I’ll guide you to the car.”

Instead of arguing, Dean shut his eyes and let Benny help him stand. Benny draped his arm around Dean’s shoulders and Dean curled into him, shamelessly reaching up to hold onto a fistful of his shirt.

Dean knew as soon as they were outside because his arms felt suddenly warm through Benny’s jacket. Vague shadows of red and brown passed in front of his eyelids; dry pine needles cracked under his feet. Dean’s fist bounced with every blind step, tugging at Benny’s shirt, but he just held on tighter.

Once they were in the car, Dean opened his eyes. He cleared his throat and wiped a hand over his cheek, careful not to mess up Benny’s sleeve. “I think we should start at the bus station, then maybe some of the restaurants and bars that Dad likes.”

“Which are those?”

“Um… I think it’s The Pilot Light most nights, or that one by your store with the blue door and a German girl on the sign.”

Benny growled as he turned on the engine. “We can pass that one on our way to the bus station.”

As they drove, Dean searched the side of the road for skid marks or matted patches of grass among the forest trees. He didn’t see any. No Impala either. He wondered if he should have grabbed any of his stuff.

They turned a corner, and Benny had to veer sharply to avoid an overhanging car in the other lane. Dean gripped his left wrist with his good hand, wishing they had brought the wrap. They should have brought the whole freaking first aid kit, because what if—what if—

Dean’s eyes caught a snatch of orange and a blur of blue in the trees on the other side of the road. “Stop the car!” He threw out his hand to point, and Benny yanked the car across the opposite lane onto the shoulder.

It was their shirts. Dean was sure of it.

He tumbled out of the car, barely standing, his foot catching on the seatbelt. “Adam? Sam?”

“Dean?”

Dean heard the chorus of their small voices and whipped around, almost giving himself a second concussion. They were right there: whole, unhurt, ten feet deep in the trees.

“Dean,” said Sam again. He said it like a drowning man, like it was his last gasp of air. He took Adam’s hand and charged through the bundle of reeds and knee-high grass that separated them. “We were coming back for you.”

Dean took a step toward his brothers and his knees slammed hard into the dirt. Sam and Adam reached him as he was pushing off the ground. Dean grabbed at their shoulders, suffocating them both against his chest. “Oh my god,” he whispered—thumbs fumbling over their ears, the back of their heads, the soft collars of their shirts. “I was so scared for you two.”

“For us?” said Sam, pulling back. There were twin flushed spots on his cheeks. Adam squeezed in between them and draped his head over Dean’s shoulder, his breath shaking the fabric of Dean’s shirt.

“How did you get here?”

“Ran,” Sam explained simply. He put his hand on Adam’s back too. “Dad was rough on him,” he whispered. “He took us to school—”

“What?”

“He’s lost his mind, Dean. He wanted us to go to school without backpacks or shoes. Without you. But Adam wouldn’t get out of the car, just froze up I think. Dad basically pulled him out by his ankles.”

“Bastard.” Dean buried his face in Adam’s hair. “Let’s get in the car, little dude. Benny’s here.”

Adam turned his head on Dean’s shoulder. “Will you carry me?”

“Um..” Dean tucked his injured hand behind his back. “Sam will.”

“I’ve got you, Adam,” said Sam, eyeing Dean’s hand. He hooked an arm low around Adam’s waist and hoisted him up to sit on his hip. “Where’s Benny taking us?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well…” Sam hesitated. “We’re running, aren’t we?”

Dean licked his lips. He glanced at Benny, who was still by the car. “Yeah, we are.”

 

 

It wasn’t quite that simple.

Benny drove them to the grocery store, unlocking the back door to let them directly into his office. Sam, Dean, and Adam sank onto the couch and Benny faced them in his desk chair—large hands splayed on his knees, feet a foot apart.

“So,” he scrutinized each of them individually, “saying ‘we’re running away’ is not enough of a plan. Let’s talk options.”

Dean didn’t particularly want to.

“Have you heard of DHS?” Benny asked.

“No.” Dean studied the floor underneath Benny’s desk, trying not to remember the last airless night he spent in here with Cas.

“Stands for Department of Human Services. They’re the Oregon branch of Child Protective Services—I take it you’re familiar with what they do.” Dean was shaking his head before he even finished the sentence, but Benny kept going. “Andrea works with minors. She’s filled out reports before—"

“No CPS,” said Dean, crossing his arms. He glanced at the other side of the couch: Adam had stuck his thumb in his mouth like he was two years old. Sam glanced at Adam too, and pulled his arm down.

“We could call Uncle Bobby,” Sam suggested, looking at Dean.

Dean shook his head again. He sat up an inch to reach into his back pocket. “We don’t need to. I have— I have—” He held out the rumpled fistful of twenties; Benny just stared at it. “It’s three hundred dollars.”

“Where did you get that?” Sam hissed.

Benny lowered Dean’s arm gently. “Why don’t you hold onto that… and tell me about this uncle.”

 

Dean ended up calling Bobby from the back stoop. The whole conversation was excruciating; there was a reason he didn’t say a lot of this stuff out loud, even to Sam. Even to Cas. Dean tried to cup his hand around the end of the phone so that Benny, who was sitting right next to him on the stairs, might not hear every detail. It probably didn’t work.

“Sorry to make this your problem,” Dean mumbled into the receiver, the heel of his palm pressed into his forehead.

Bobby was quiet for a long, long time. “When you…” he paused, and Dean shifted a little; Bobby wasn’t usually one to hesitate. “When you were here in February, I felt like you were trying to tell me something.”

Dean ground the toe of his shoe into the gravel. “Sorry,” he said again lamely.

“You trust this man who’s driving you?”

“Yeah.” Dean glanced at Benny under his hand; Benny was staring out above the tree line, not even squinting against the bright sunlight.

 “Well, I’ll want his name and phone number anyway before you leave.”

“This is his phone; mine broke.” Dean cleared his throat. “Benny Lafitte. L-a-f-i-t-t-e.”

There was a scratching sound of pencil on paper; Bobby was probably sitting at his wide oak desk. “Okay then,” he said finally. “I’ll get the bedrooms upstairs ready. They’ve always belonged to you boys in my head.”

Dean pressed into his hand; there would probably be a red splotch in the middle of his forehead when he hung up. “Thanks, Bobby.”

 

Afterward, when Dean returned Benny’s phone to him, he tried to hand him some cash too. Again, Benny waved it away.

“Please just take it,” Dean pleaded. “For gas. It would make me feel better.”

Benny smiled grimly, and closed Dean’s hand around the bills. “You don’t owe me nothin’.” He nudged Dean up a step. “Go make sure your little brother’s not coloring on my walls. I’ll tell Cas to get over here.”

Dean sighed and pushed through the door.

Inside Benny’s office, no one was coloring. Sam and Adam sat cross-legged on the floor, eating their microwave pizza lunches. Sam had a water bottle pressed against his purpling black eye like an ice pack, but he had the grace to lower it as soon as Dean opened the door.

“Does it hurt?” Dean asked.

“Did you talk to Uncle Bobby?”

Dean threw himself onto the couch. He accepted the flimsy paper plate that Sam handed him and hooked his foot around Adam’s waist to scoot him closer. “We leave tomorrow morning,” he told them. “Early. While it’s still dark.”

 Sam looked at Dean, then at Adam—who was sucking his thumb again. “Wow,” he said softly.

“Yeah,” Dean nodded. “I know.”

When Cas arrived—windswept and breathless, fifteen minutes after Benny called him—they all stood up. Sam and Adam let Dean get hugged first, and Dean didn’t even care that they were watching; he sagged into Cas’s arms. He’d barely been holding himself up all day.

Cas stayed all through the afternoon, the night, the early morning. When it got dark and windy, the four of them huddled together, none of them wanting to admit that they were shaking. Dean and Cas barricaded the door with their backs; Sam and Adam leaned against their sides like bookends. Adam sucked his thumb with such tenacity that he developed a little welt, and Dean stared a thousand yards out the small window so he wouldn’t have to think about ‘lasts’.

Somewhere near midnight, Adam started to slump against Cas’s shoulder. Sam dragged him up onto the couch and, before long, they were both breathing softly draped over the armrests.

Dean shifted to lean his head on Cas’s shoulder, trailing his good hand along the carpet. He reached Cas’s wrist and tangled his fingers into his sleeve, brushing along the soft skin at the inside of his wrist.

In Sioux Falls, he would be safe—but Cas wouldn’t be there. There would be no one to watch superhero movies with, no one to walk him to school. No one to bandage his hand in the same loving way that Cas had: twisting the gauze over the crux of his thumb, making sure it laid flat, pressing the ends of each of his fingers to watch the color come back. Missing Cas would be a phantom limb.

‘You won’t be alone,’ Dean told himself, trying to keep his fractured heart together. ‘At least you’ll have your brothers.’

He sat there until morning, with paper lungs and a heart that was still beating, despite.

***

The sound of an engine surprised Dean, his hand slipped off the curb and he looked up. Hell yes. The slowest freaking bus in the world had finally arrived. Dean jumped to his feet, smoothing the front of his shirt with his palms as the bus churned into the station. It rolled to a stop. The automatic doors hissed open and out stepped Cas—the only traveler making his way to Sioux Falls.

Dean’s first thought was that Cas looked different. He was dressed the same: in a worn blue sweater, stretched out at the neck from how often he’d yanked it over his head without looking. His hair was longer and tousled, but that wasn’t new either; the guy never looked in the mirror.

And yet, he was different. Cas stood straight and confident as he surveyed the parking lot, shoulders thrown back in the weak winter sunlight. He looked like an adult.

When his eyes found Dean’s, he smiled so wide Dean could see his back teeth, and suddenly, it was the same Cas after all.

Cas bounded toward him, his overstuffed duffel bag slapping against his hip, and Dean barely had time to get his arms up to catch him.

“Well, hello,” Dean huffed, all the breath knocked out of him.

“Hi!”

Dean laughed. He wrapped one arm low around Cas’s back, winding his other hand into the loose curls at the base of his neck. Cas sank into him and Dean was overwhelmed by the familiar weight and smell of him.

“Wow, I missed you every second.”

Dean smiled into the side of Cas’s hair. “Did you get shorter?” he asked.

Cas shoved him but didn’t pull away. His curls were scratching Dean’s nose, so Dean reached up to brush them away, but Cas caught his hand. He turned it over and inspected it, touching gently along the length of each of his fingers to feel the bumps of his bones. Dean exhaled; he forgot how nice Cas’s skin felt on his.

“They healed a long time ago,” he told him. “Good as new.” He wiggled his fingers to prove it.

“Good.” Cas laid his own hands on either side of Dean’s face, his palms warm and rough and so goddamn familiar Dean wanted to cry.

Dean didn’t know if he leaned in for the kiss first or if Cas did, but it didn’t matter. God, he missed this. Missed the feel of Cas under his hands, under his lips. The smell of his soap. The way he pressed into Dean like he couldn’t get enough of him either. They stood there, wrapped together in the parking lot, for long enough that Dean might have worried about making a scene if he cared about anything at all right now.

Dean rested his hands on the shelf of Cas’s leather belt, grabbing at his hips through his sweater. He nuzzled into Cas’s neck. “I just… you’re here,” he mumbled into his warm skin, “and… you smell like your soap.”

He felt the vibrations of Cas’s laugh in his throat. “As much as I love you, sweetheart,” Cas said, “those weren’t words.”

“Oh.” Dean kissed the knob of Cas’s collarbone. All this time, and still he blushes. “I’m just happy.”

“Me too.” Cas hitched his bag up on his shoulder, rubbing his arms. “Can we, um, get in the car though?”

“Oh, yeah, of course.” The cold air was probably ripping right through Cas’s cotton sweater. Dean took Cas’s hand and towed him toward the truck, which had slowly been collecting its own coat of snow as it sat idle. Together, they hoisted Cas’s duffel over the back flap of the truck bed, then Dean unlocked Cas’s door for him.

Cas hesitated, staring at the passenger side of the bench seat. “You swear you’re a good driver?”

“Bobby says I’m a natural,” Dean said, feeling a little swell in his chest. “And it doesn’t even matter because there are, like, two other cars on the road here.”

“Okay…” Cas popped the door handle. “Gas is right; brake is left.”

“I know.”

Dean slammed Cas’s door behind him, rolling his eyes. He jogged around the cab of the truck, taking a moment to swipe his hand through the snow clinging to the windshield glass, then jumped into the driver’s seat. “How was your flight?” he asked as he turned the key.

“Crowded. Long.” Cas rubbed his hands together in front of one of the vents. “The woman next to me tried to set me up with her daughter, which was kind of hilarious.”

Dean frowned. He put his hand behind Cas’s headrest as he backed cautiously out of the parking spot (he really was a good driver). “Did you tell her to mind her own damn business?”

“Not quite so politely.” Cas grinned.

Dean reached over to straighten Cas’s seatbelt where it was flipped. “You look happy,” he said. “I was worried about you during finals week.”

Cas huffed a laugh. “I was worried about me too. But I actually think I did well—and I’ll find out for sure soon because Gabriel texted me on the bus. Apparently, our history professor told him during office hours that he would post grades tomorrow, and that’s the only class I’m seriously worried about.”

“Gabriel who lives in your hall, right?” Dean quizzed himself. “From Florida?”

“Yeah. His roommate is Alfie. And our other good friend is—”

“Donna.”

“Wow, look at you.” Cas touched Dean’s knee, and Dean realized he’d been bouncing it. “You’ll love them when you meet them.”

“Hope so.”

“You will. Remember how I told you that Charlie and Kevin where the only cool people at our high school? College is not like that at all; it’s filled with Charlies and Kevins. Everyone is so passionate, and so different in ways that I didn’t know people could be different.”

“That’s awesome,” said Dean, secretly feeling that there was no such thing as another Charlie or another Kevin. “Different how?”

“Big and little ways. Right before the break, we took Donna to see the ocean for the first time; she grew up in Minnesota and had never—Wait, is this the place?” Cas looked up as they passed underneath the Singer Salvage Yard arch and rolled to a stop.

“Yeah, it is.” Dean swept his hand through the air like he was presenting it: “Welcome to the new Casa Winchester.”

“I love it!”

Dean stifled a laugh. Cas was being polite; there were dismantled car skeletons rusting all over the grounds and the top floor of Bobby’s house had faded to a slightly different color than the bottom one. But turning the handle on Bobby’s front door did always feel like being on-base, and that was a feeling Dean could get used to.

“Hello?” Dean called as he flicked on the entryway light, carrying Cas’s duffel. “Bobby? Anybody home?” He shrugged out of the heavy bag and kicked off his shoes; Cas did the same. “Everyone’s dying to see you, but they must still be at school. They get out later than me.”

Cas strolled into the living room, hands digging into his pockets. He whistled through his teeth as he took in the faded couches and jam-packed bookshelves. “Wow, this place is huge.”

“Right?” Dean bounced on his heels. “And guess who doesn’t have to sleep on the couch anymore.”

Cas laughed. He picked up one of the misshapen cushions and hugged it to his chest. “I don’t know… that couch did have a few good memories.”

“Few and far between. You have to sleep out here by the way,” Dean told him. “It was a no-go on ‘Operation Let Us Sleep in the Same Bed’—which is stupid because Bobby knows I’m staying in your dorm when I visit in March.”

“Can I see your room?” asked Cas.

“Sure.” Dean couldn’t wait to show him; he’d picked out everything with Cas in mind (starting with a queen size bed). Bobby told him that he could do whatever he wanted to the room, so Dean painted the walls light blue and covered them in posters: some of Oregon mountains, some of classic rock bands—even a few menus from his favorite restaurants in town. He’d tacked up the ticket stub from the concert with Charlie and Kevin by his bed, along with Cas’s college orientation photo.  Cas saw it and balked.

Please take that down. I look like such a dweeb.”

“You look like a hot professor.” Dean blocked him as he tried to tear it off the wall himself. “Did you see my stars?” He pointed to the ceiling and Cas looked up. It took Dean a moment to remember that he was supposed to turn off the light.

The stars glowed: there were three of them, clustered around each other like Orion’s belt. Originally Dean had bought them to go in Sam and Adam’s room after Adam asked him why Uncle Bobby didn’t have any stars inside. Dean told Bobby, and the next day they plastered the ceiling with so many glow-in-the-dark stickers that Sam had to politely tell them that it was too bright to sleep. As Dean sheepishly peeled off the spares, he saved a few for himself.

In the half-darkness, Cas spun slowly on his heel to admire Dean’s Oregon posters. “I’ve been there.” He pointed. “And there. Oh, I took you to Pacific Sound for squidding!”

“That’s why I bought that one.” Dean grinned. He had meticulously duct-taped the perimeter of each poster and, unintentionally, the effect somewhat mimicked that of a frame.

Cas brushed his thumb over one of the fraying strips. “What’s with the extra security?”

“Oh,” Dean grimaced. “You wouldn’t think, but when a poster falls down it makes this huge crash. One fell on me while I was sleeping and, um, I thought it was… I thought someone was in my room.”

Cas tucked a hand under his chin and glanced at Dean; they both knew who he thought might be attacking him in his sleep.

“Have you talked to him?”

Dean rolled his foot nervously to the side. “Not really.”

“Good.” Cas reached for his hand. “You know my opinion.”

“Yes, you’ve been very vocal,” Dean laughed. Cas thought that Dean’s dad should be drawn-and-quartered or dragged behind a train. At the very least, they should all get a court-ordered hour to kick the crap out of him.

Dean wasn’t interested in any of those options. He wasn’t even particularly interested in sending him to prison. Most days, he just didn’t want to think about him.

Since they fled, Dad had tried to call twice—once sober.

It didn’t take long for Dad to work out where they’d gone; Dean only had a handful of contacts in his phone and Dad knew it. When the phone rang the first time, Bobby answered while they were doing dishes. He listened for a moment, his frown deepening, then said, “When yer ready to talk to them civilly, I’ll ask if they want to talk to you,” before slamming the receiver into the cradle.

“Who was that?” Dean asked, already knowing.

“Nothing you need to worry about.”

Dean dug his thumbnail into the pad of his other hand underneath the soapy water. “Do you think he’s okay?”

Bobby sighed. He handed Dean a towel and a bowl to dry. “Your dad’s a grown man. He should have learned to take care of himself a long time ago; but he has time now.”

They were home alone the second time Dad called. Sam was teaching Adam how to do a handstand on the living room couch, and he kept one hand wrapped around the kid’s skinny ankle, stabilizing him, as he leaned to pick up the shrill receiver.

“Singer Salvage Yard. But Bobby’s not here.”

There was a pause.

“Oh,” Sam said, and hung up.

Dean looked up from where he was sitting at the table. He glanced at Adam, but the kid seemed just as confused. When the phone rang again one second later, Sam said, “Don’t answer it,” and beckoned for Adam to kick his feet up again.

So it had to be Dad. Dean hesitated, half-risen out of his chair. Then he picked up the phone and brought it to his ear.

“Dad?” he asked, his voice so stupidly small.

“Don’t hang up, Sam!”

“No, it’s…” Dean swallowed. “I’m Dean.”

“Oh. Hi Dean.”

Just hearing Dad say his name again made Dean feel like he’d materialized in the room with them. The phantom shock of their last encounter rocked through him, and he sank unsteadily into his chair. Sam and Adam both stared.

“Why are you calling us?”

That didn’t seem to be the question Dad expected. He fumbled around trying to answer it. “I just, uh… Well, I wanted to see how you were doing, I guess. All of you boys, but especially you. I haven’t heard anything; Bobby won’t talk to me.”

“We’re fine.”

“Is Bobby feeding you well? Keeping my boys healthy?”

Dean huffed; he rubbed his forehead with his knuckle. “What?”

“I want to know if Bobby’s feeding you.”

“That’s got to be a fucking joke. You don’t get to ask me about food.” Dean surprised himself by saying it out loud. There was silence on the other end of the line. His brothers shuffled in the living room and Dean looked up; Sam gave him a proud thumbs-up. Dean suppressed his smile, shaking his head.

“Listen, Dad, did you actually want to say anything? Because I’ve got to get back to—”

“Yes! I—I do.” There was static as Dad readjusted the phone. “I wanted to tell you… I’m doing alright too, even got myself a real place. Four permanent walls down in Indio.” That was a cheap shot: it was something Dean had begged for when he was about eight and they were living out of the car. Please, Dad. Please. Just four permanent walls. Anywhere, we don’t care.

“You’d like it here,” said Dad.

“Okay…”

His voice picked up urgency. “Why don’t you come down for a weekend? Just to see if you feel comfortable. No pressure; no expectations attached.”

Dean sighed. “I don’t want to do that.”

“You’re still mad,” said Dad, sounding more defeated than angry.

“Uh, yeah. I’m still mad.” Dean barely left out the duh.

“Dean,” Dad’s voice broke on the word. “I know we have our problems, but you should be here with me. Come home. Just come home; I promised things will be different. You have my word.”

Dean put his face in his hands, elbows on the table, pressing the phone hard into his ear. “Your word doesn’t mean anything to me.”

“What if—I could go to rehab! I would do that for you.”

“Do it for yourself. I think that’s a good idea.” Dean glanced up at Sam and Adam, who were playing again and laughing. Wearing clothes that fit them. “Don’t call us again.”

To Dad’s credit, he at least listened to that.

 

Cas came up behind Dean and wrapped his arms tightly around his lower abdomen. He jutted his chin forward to rest on Dean’s shoulder.

“Hey, I love you.”

“You said that already.”

“Maybe so. But I haven’t been able to say it much in person, so it bears repeating.”

Dean smiled, what a nerd, and reached up to scratch Cas’s chin with his thumb and forefinger. “Thanks.” When he closed his eyes and leaned his head against Cas’s, the stars still glowed on his retinas. They swayed gently as Cas rocked him.

There was the sound of a key in the front lock. “Here we go,” Dean sighed. I have to share you.

“Cas?!” Sam banged the front door open; Dean heard it rattle against the opposite wall.

“We’re in here,” he hollered, and Sam’s running footsteps pounded down the hallway toward them.

Dean opened the bedroom door, Cas stepped out—and as soon as he was over the threshold, Sam body-slammed him. Cas’s feet went out from under him and he slipped, falling against the doorjamb; Dean had to cushion the back of his head with his hand.

“Shit, watch his head, you maniac.” Dean pulled Cas to his feet, so he could give Sam a proper hug.

Sam turned the side of his face into Cas’s chest so he could look at Dean. “You’re not supposed to say ‘shit’ anymore.”

“Neither are you.”

“I didn’t!”

Dean raised his eyebrows at him.

“That’s not—you twisted—” Sam opened and closed his mouth a few times like a beached fish, then waved Dean away like it he’d decided it didn’t matter. “Anyway, Cas, I have so much to tell you!”

“I want to hear. Do you like living here?”

“Yeah, it’s good.” Sam shrugged. He took off his backpack and threw it into his room. “Did Dean send you a picture of my toga yet? If not—” Sam glared at Dean—“I can show you.”

“Why… do you have a toga?”

That was a long story. Dean gently pushed them toward the kitchen so he could at least get a snack. He was constantly hungry now; even when he was eating, he wanted to be eating more. Bobby said it was because he was growing, and he needed to eat right or else his arms would end up different lengths—but he only said that because Adam was in the room.

“That’s the cool thing about the Romans,” Sam was saying, “we know so much about them! Next Wednesday, everyone’s dressing up as a different famous person from the Roman Empire and I have this bedsheet I’m gonna use. I already dyed it red and Dean watched this video about how to tie it into a toga, so it should work. The whole day, when people talk to me, I’m supposed to pretend like I’m Marcus Attilius—”

“The gladiator?” asked Cas, and Dean made a show of rolling his eyes.

“Exactly! She assigned everybody somebody different, but I got the coolest one. No contest.”

Cas and Dean exchanged a bemused look over the top of Sam’s head, but he glanced up and caught it. He seemed to sink down a little. “Are you laughing at me?”

“No,” they both quickly replied. Cas, bless his heart, looked upset at the very suggestion.

“Oh.” Sam pulled out a stool at the counter and dropped into it. “I just thought… maybe you didn’t care as much since you only want to talk to Dean when you call.”

“What? No…”

Dean selected an orange from the basket by the coffee maker and handed it to Sam. “You and Cas talked two weeks ago, little liar.”

Sam put his chin in his palm, still glum. “Not for very long.”

“Sam,” said Cas, bumping him with his shoulder. “I just got stressed; it was nothing personal. What if we work on a project while I’m here? Would that make it up to you?”

“It would be a start.” Sam spun his orange. “I actually have an idea for that. Now that Dean’s not in charge anymore, I asked Bobby if we can get a trampoline and he said yes.”

“No, he didn’t,” chimed in Dean.

“He didn’t exactly say yes, but he’s going to ‘entertain the idea’.”

“That’s adult for no, dummy.” Dean dug his thumb into the soft spot at the base of his own orange and turned around to toss the peel into the compost under the sink. He thought he heard Cas whisper something to Sam, and Sam was grinning when he shut the cupboard.

Dean straightened to see headlights pulling into the gravel driveway.

Bobby climbed out of the front seat, zipping his jacket. He trotted over to Adam’s door and held it open for him. Adam leaped out, backpack and lunch bag swinging; he almost immediately ate shit on the icy path. Bobby caught his arm and righted him. Even though Dean couldn’t hear what they were saying, Bobby was almost definitely telling Adam off all the way to the front door.

Before Bobby even pulled the key out, Adam darted past his legs. He ran right up to Cas, who beamed and hefted him into the air (Dean tried not to laugh out loud at Cas’s obvious realization that Adam was much heavier now). “Hey, kiddo.”

Adam giggled and threw his head back, fingers clutching at Cas’s sweater, as Cas spun him around.

Bobby’s entrance was a bit more subdued. He shut the door and locked it, stomping his boots on the welcome mat. Pulling off his hat, he beat it against the doorframe to get the snow out, but some still clung to his beard and eyebrows, making him look like Santa Claus.

Bobby nodded to Sam and Adam as he crossed the kitchen. Dean wiped his sweaty hands on his jeans. Why was he nervous?

Stopping in front of him, Bobby extended his hand to Cas, who hurriedly shifted Adam so he could grasp it. “Good to meet you, son,” said Bobby. “Dean’s been smiling like an idjit all week waitin’ for ya.”

The smile on Cas’s face made everything loosen in Dean’s chest—and he knew that was why Bobby said it.

“Thanks for having me, sir,” said Cas. “You have a lovely home.”

“Glad you’re easily impressed,” Bobby chuckled and rubbed his beard.

Adam poked Cas in the cheek. “Did you bring me Legos?”

“Uh…” Cas’s smile faltered.

“You promised you would!”

“Did I?”

“Probably not,” Sam assured him before Dean could. He held his hands out and Cas handed Adam over. Sam carried him to the couch to help him take off his shoes (which was always a total nightmare now that Adam had discovered he could triple- or quadruple-knot his laces). Bobby settled onto the cushion next to them.

“Adam has taken up lying recently,” Dean explained. Over his shoulder, he called to the couch: “That’s a great new quality of yours, dude. We hope you keep that forever.”

“It’s a phase,” said Bobby. “You did it too.”

Dean slung his arm around Cas’s shoulder and leaned in so that only he could hear. “Want to go get food, then find somewhere more private? I can show you The Roadhouse.”

Cas nodded, ducking his head against Dean’s neck; Dean squeezed his shoulder.

“Let me grab something for you.” He ran back to his bedroom and pulled the comforter from his bed. Back in the kitchen, he threw it at Cas. “So you don’t freeze, Cali boy.” Cas looked affronted, but he also gathered it close into his chest. To the room at large, Dean announced, “Cas and I are going on a date. Don’t wait up.” He ushered Cas toward the front door, already pulling his key out. If they could just get out of here quickly maybe—

“Nice try, Romeo.” Bobby stopped him. “You remember your curfew?”

“Noooo, Bobby. Come on.” Dean folded himself dramatically over the back of the couch to plead with him. “Please, I’m begging. One extra hour—because it’s such a special occasion and I’m normally so good about my curfew.”

“That’s a stretch,” Bobby huffed; he crossed his arms over his considerable stomach. “One extra hour does not mean an hour and fifteen minutes. You understand?”

Dean clapped his hands together. “Yes, you’re the best!” He grabbed Cas’s sleeve at the elbow and tugged him toward the door.

“Make good decisions, Dean.”

“Clean sober fun, only,” he promised, giving Bobby a little salute as he pulled the door shut behind them; Bobby glowered.

“I never get an extra hour,” Dean told Cas. “He must like you.”

Cas grinned. When they got to the car, he pushed Dean up against the cool metal of the passenger side door and kissed him, the handle digging into Dean’s back, until the tips of Dean’s fingers started to go numb. They kissed again in their seats before Dean started the engine.

It was a short drive to the Roadhouse. The whole time, Cas had this goofy lovesick look on his face. He nestled into his comforter, angled toward Dean with his feet up on the bench.

Dean pushed Cas’s face away with his free hand. “Stop looking at me like that.”

“You’re distractingly handsome. Not my fault.”

“Oh, shut up,” Dean snorted as he looked over his shoulder to change lanes. The snow was really coming down now; each flake hit their windshield at such a steep angle that it was just a streak of white.

“Wow,” said Dean. “I’ve been spending too much time with you and Sam. I just had a Star Wars thought.”

Cas clapped his hands on his legs excitedly. “Was it that it looks like we’re in hyperspace? Because that’s what I was thinking!”

“Oh my god.” Dean dragged the back of his hand over his eye.

When they pulled into the Roadhouse parking lot, they were one of the only cars there.

“It’s bigger than I thought it would be,” mused Cas.

“Yeah, but I only work in the restaurant section, not the bar, so it’s only about half; you’ll see. But look at this first, Cas—” Dean leaned over Cas’s knees to pop the glove compartment. A dozen opened envelopes spilled out. “Cashed paychecks.”

“Wow.” Cas picked one of them up and turned it over to see the name. “All yours?”

“Yeah, I’m freaking loaded now. You see these shoes? I bought an identical pair in white, just because I could.”

Cas smirked. “I can see it’s really gone to your head.”

“And I’m about to use my new wealth to buy you dinner,” Dean reminded him, “so you better be nice to me.”

“I should buy you dinner. I have a job too.” Cas opened his door and Dean followed suit.

He caught up with Cas at the edge of the sidewalk, shaking his head to get the snow out. “Please, you have a six-hour-a-week teaching assistant job; I know you’re broke. Let me get this for you.”

“You don’t have to.”

Cas still didn’t seem to understand that Dean had never had money to share before. He wanted to.

“If you save your money,” Cas continued, “you could be a broke college student too.”

Not this again. Now that Dean was liking school better, Cas had started forwarding him all these articles about trade schools, college fairs, and government loan repayment programs. Dean turned Cas around and pushed him inside so he couldn’t start. Garth was working reception; he hopped easily over the bar and ambled up to meet them as they pushed through the double wind doors.

“You look awfully smiley today, Dean,” he said. “Which means you—” he pointed to Cas—“must be the famous Castiel.”

“Cas, usually.” He waved.

“Welcome to The Roadhouse. I saw you drive up and put in an order for two of your usual, but there’s time to change it if you want.” He jerked his thumb toward the kitchen like he would run off right now if Dean said the word.

Dean looked to Cas. “Do you feel like a cheeseburger? They’re really good here.”

“Sounds perfect.”

“Thanks then Garth.” Dean pulled his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans, but Garth snatched it right out of his hands.

“If I ever let you pay for food here, Ellen would have my head.” He set Dean’s wallet on the checkout counter, near where the receipt strip trailed from the register like a streamer.

Dean was still holding his hand up stupidly. “But… I’m not on shift. And it’s Cas’s food too.”

“So?” Garth gave him a toothy grin, then shifted his gaze to Cas. “How do you like Sioux Falls?”

“It’s really great, so far. I only just got here. But, um, this place looks cool.” Cas gestured to the pool table and dart boards in the other room. He wandered over to the collection of photographs stapled to the wall opposite the checkout counter. Before Dean could do anything to distract him, Cas noticed one in particular. Oh no.

“Uh, what’s going on here?” Cas laughed, lifting the corner. It was a picture Garth had taken, of course. Dean was standing in the middle of a gigantic puddle, absolutely drenched, with a life jacket fastened over his uniform; he was giving the camera (or Garth, actually) a resentful thumbs-down.

“Why are you wearing a life vest inside?” Cas asked again, squinting at the picture.

Garth laughed behind his hand. “Can I tell him?”

Dean groaned, but there was no way Cas would just drop this. “Fine. The short version.”

“Okay.” Garth leaned into his elbows on the counter. “This is our Wall of Fame. Dean made it up here in his third week. Nothing to be ashamed of; I’m on there too—” he tapped his fingernail against a picture of himself in his earlier-twenties, holding up two broken halves of an ornate plate—“and that was wedding catering, so it’s even worse. Three hundred people saw me trip.”

Cas glanced at Dean, eyebrows lifted. Dean crossed his arms.

“So anyway, our boy Dean here had a bit of a clumsy moment—”

“You’re not telling it right,” Dean interrupted, “I was set up for failure!”

“Not intentionally…”

“Here’s what happened.” Dean spread his hands on the counter. “We used to have these big tureens on the drinks table—” he demonstrated the height and width of them—"for people to fill up their water or orange juice or whatever. Ellen, the owner, was serving that afternoon and she came through with this big, unwieldy platter. I tried to give her space like a gentleman but I, uh… didn’t look where I was backing up and crashed into the table. Knocked the whole thing over. Drenched myself. Drenched a nice old lady. Had to go home and change. End of story.” Dean paused. “Actually, that’s not true. Before I could even go home, Garth made me pose for that stupid picture.”

Garth laced his hands over his mouth in a poor attempt to hide the fact that he was laughing. “Your safety is very important to us,” he choked out. “Can’t have you drowning at work.”

Cas was laughing too, slumped against the wall. He pulled out his phone and snapped a quick picture of the Wall of Fame. “Thanks for taking care of him,” he said to Garth.

“The both of you can go to hell.” Dean kept his voice low just in case Ellen was in the back. That just made them laugh harder.

Finally, Garth slapped his palm on the counter and stood up. “I’ll go get your food.”

As soon as he was gone, Dean glared at Cas. “Delete that picture,” he demanded. He also retrieved his wallet from where Garth had left it and slipped a few dollars into the jar labelled Tipping makes you incredibly attractive. It wasn’t really that generous, since he got a share of the tips too.

When Garth returned, he handed the steaming bag of food to Cas. “Enjoy your visit,” he said. “How long are you sticking around?”

“Just until Monday; I have to get back after Christmas to see my parents.”

“Come back and visit before you take off. And Dean, why don’t you work Tuesday so we can make sure you’re not wallowing in self-pity.”

“I can do that here.” Dean gave Cas a small smile, but his heart twisted at the thought. Four days. “Thanks for the food.” But now I want to be alone with my boyfriend.

They were both quieter on the way to the car, the precious scarcity of their time together heavy on their shoulders. Cas cradled the food to his stomach and reached out for Dean’s free hand as soon as they sat down in the front seats.

“Where do you want to go now?” he asked.

“Do you… want to just drive around a little? Maybe we can find somewhere pretty to eat.”

“That sounds nice.”

Dean pulled out, tires crunching over the fallen snow. The sun was starting to set. Cas placed the food at the his feet and pulled the blanket around him from the back seat. He pulled it up to his chin.

“You know, you’re always invited to visit me at my house too. I know it’s hard… bad memories and all. But don’t forget about the good memories too. We could go to City in Lights.” Dean smiled at the thought. “And my parents want to see you,” said Cas, more seriously. “I think my dad’s a little hurt you haven’t called.”

Dean swallowed. He missed Benny, a lot. But… Dean was such a mess the last time they saw each other. After you’d been on your knees like that in front of someone, it was hard to make small talk. Dean looked across at Cas earnestly. “Will you tell him I’m doing alright?”

“Sure.” Cas nodded, taking his charge seriously, and Dean gripped his hand. Don’t leave again.

They drove a while without a real destination. Dean thought about taking Cas to the mountain viewpoint beside the park, but there was frost building on the outside of the windows and the engine humming underneath Dean’s palms made him feel calm. The world was muted and warm here, like they were in a pillow fort. Also, Cas was tucked up in his comforter and he looked like he might nod off at any minute.

“You still with me?”

“Yeah.” Cas’s voice was soft; he sounded like Sam when he just woke up. “Just thinking.”

“What about?”

“About you.” Cas yawned. “And me, I guess. I’m just feeling… proud. And happy that you’re happy. Bobby is good for you.”

Dean flexed his hands on the steering wheel. “Yeah. It’s been…”

Bobby was more than good for him. Life with Dad was like living on a rope bridge; he didn’t know what it felt like to have his feet steady on the ground until now.

“He’s doing a good job with three kids he didn’t ask for.”

“We’re really making it, Dean. Do you realize that?”

Dean looked over at Cas and, to his surprise, Cas was wiping a hand under his eye.

“Hey, emotions are not allowed in this car,” Dean warned him. He leaned over to jab Cas’s ribs. “Unless that emotion is sexual,” he teased.

Cas laughed out loud. He propped an elbow up on the side door and rested a knuckle against his temple. “And there it is. You ruined it.” He grinned. “Sexual, FYI, is not an emotion. It’s important to me that you know that.”

“Noted.”

“Can we pull over for dinner soon?” He shifted in his seat, “I want to be alone with you.”

“We’re already alone.”

Cas smiled over at him shyly, chin sticking out of the comforter. He plucked at one of his curls and Dean tightened his hand on the steering wheel. Four days. “You know what I mean,” said Cas. “We can eat over the blanket if you’re worried about your seats.”

Dean didn’t say anything about his no-food-in-my-truck rule. He didn’t say that they’d get cold if he turned the engine off.

“Do you want to?” Cas asked.

Dean flicked on his turn signal. “Yes, please.”

 

THE END