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one million fires burning

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~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The sound of his door unlocking never foretells anything good.

From his position straddling his chair at the front of the room, Dean can hear the rasp of a key turning and the small click of his lock. He plasters a huge, fake smile on his face at the same time that the kids in front row straighten up in their seats. They’re seniors and they know as well as him: Doors unlocking means administration, which means that everyone needs to be on their best behavior.

Dean’s heart sinks further when he sees who it is. Vice-Principal Zachariah Adler steps into his room. Of all the admin, it has to be the least appealing. The fluorescent lights bounce off his gleaming, bald head and Dean fights the impulse to shield his eyes. One day, when he doesn’t feel like being employed anymore, he’ll ask Adler if he oils his head or if it’s just naturally that greasy.

When the kids see who it is, there’s a renewed burst of activity as their pencils move furiously across their papers. These are his AP kids, each of them with their college applications already completed. A negative word from Adler could sink all of their hopes and dreams. Adler would do it too. He’s the kind of person who went into education because the position of ‘Professional Sadist/Asshole’ wasn’t available anywhere else.

Adler crosses his arms over his paunchy middle and surveys the room. A used car salesman would be ashamed of his smile. Reluctantly, Dean gets up from his chair and goes to stand next to him.

“What brings you here today?” he asks, trying to keep his voice neutral. It’s not really a secret that he and Adler despise each other but he tries to keep it civil for the kids’ sake. Besides, even though he’s well-loved by students and parents alike, Lawrence High doesn’t have any kind of tenure system and Dean really does enjoy his job. He's not about to give a prick like Adler the satisfaction of firing him.

“Well, I thought I’d like to have a brief word with you, Mr. Winchester.”

Dean’s smile twitches. “Love to, but maybe later. As you can see, I have a class at the moment.” Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Claire’s head lift, her eyebrows creeping up in interest. Dean catches her eyes and shakes his head in warning.

There’s no kindness in Adler’s smile. “It will just take a moment.” He motions towards the door and Dean steps outside. As the door closes, he can hear the predictable sounds of fifteen teenagers all whispering furiously.

Dean leans up against the wall, not bothering to hide his hostile body language now that there’s no kids to see him. “So what’s so important that you interrupt my class?”

Adler rocks back and forth on his heels, clasping his hands behind his back. His cheap suit crinkles under the treatment. Dean waits, counting off the seconds in his head and silently curses the man. Every second he wastes here is another minute he’ll spend trying to get his class back under control.

“Winchester, it’s come to our attention that you’re not pulling your weight.”

Dean bites back the automatic response, which is a strongly worded Fuck you. He teaches three classes a day, tutors after-school, and chairs the English Department. He points this out to Adler, fairly politely he feels, since the man’s just accused him of slacking. Dean’s been accused of many things in his life, but not working hard? That’s never made the list.

“Yes, but if you’d bothered to read the handbook for this year, you would have seen that all general education teachers are also required to sponsor an after-school activity, such as a team or a club. It helps foster a sense of community.”

Adler bares his teeth in an approximation of a smile. The only community that this man has ever been a part of is quite possibly the ‘Miserable Bastards’ community. Maybe the Nazi party, if Dean’s suspicions are correct.

“Well, I’d love to help but I think that all teams are sponsored.” Dean knows for damn sure that all the teams are sponsored.

“Our Scholastic Bowl team has been doing well these past four years. They’ve been gaining attention on a regional level. If they win enough tournaments then they could get attention on a state level. It would be wonderful press for Lawrence High. Go Raiders.” Adler's little fist pump isn't fooling anyone.

“Good for them. Obviously they don’t need any additional help.” By this point Dean knows that he’s fighting a losing battle but damned if he won’t go down swinging all the way.

“Always the jokester.” Zachariah reaches out and carefully tugs on Dean’s tie. Dean tries not to vomit all over him although, in retrospect, maybe that would be a good method of self-defense. Didn’t he read an article about some kind of bird that pukes when threatened? The best defense is a good projectile vomit.

“You’ll be helping out with the Scholastic Bowl team, mentoring our best and brightest students. Their practices are on Mondays and Wednesdays, so that should leave you plenty of time for the rest of your duties.”

Dean’s lip curls. He might bitch and moan but in the end, if he wants to keep his job, he’s essentially powerless. Adler says ‘Jump’ and Dean has no choice but to say ‘How high?’

“Just so happens that today is a Wednesday.” Adler’s smile creeps across his face in acknowledgement. “So, Warden, where should I report this afternoon?”

He can’t remember the sponsor for Scholastic Bowl, even though he has a nagging sensation that he should know this information. Maybe he blocked it out for his own sanity.

When Adler says, “Milton, room 118,” Dean knows that’s exactly what he did.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

His kids, nosy little bastards that they are, grill him about the visitor the second he comes back into the room.

“Are you fired?” Claire immediately asks. She even deigns to take out an earbud to hear his response.

“Much as it would please you, sorry to disappoint. I remain employed.” Claire frowns and Dean squints at her. He’s not entirely convinced that she’s not rooting for him to be fired. Not because she dislikes him but more because she’d enjoy the entertainment.

“Well then why were you hauled out into the hallway?” Kevin blinks innocently at him.

“Because they’ve just elected me to Supreme Dictator.”

Claire mutters something that is in no way flattering. He thinks the words 'Supreme Dick' might come up. When Dean narrows his eyes at her, she has the audacity to smile and wave at him.

“Come on, tell the truth,” Kevin wheedles. “What’s up?”

Dean rolls his eyes. Much as he hates giving out information to these weasels, in the long run it’s simpler. They might leave him alone at that point.

“Turns out that they need some help with the Scholastic Bowl and they’ve elected me to help in that regard. So luckily for the nerds, they’ll get to have my expert guidance.”

This news is not greeted with either the cheers that he would have expected.

“They want...you,” Kevin says. Dean watches him and he can see that genius brain rearranging information.

“The tone in your voice implies that I should be offended.” Dean’s tone is warning enough to the kids who have had him earlier in their careers but Claire either doesn’t know or, more likely, doesn’t care.

“It’s just weird that they would pick you.” Dean stares at her and she finally seems to realize her mistake. “I mean, you just...you’re so busy.” She smiles insincerely before putting her earbuds back in, in violation of about six school policies.

“Well that’s great,” Patience, one of his kinder students, says. “I mean, I’m sure that Mr. Milton could use the extra help.”

Dean grits his teeth and tries to pass it off as a smile. “And that’s what I’m here for.” That’s what the whole damn school seems to be here for, to help Mr. Milton, to kiss Mr. Milton's ass.

Krissy, who seems to be in an unofficial contest with Claire for snarkiest student, smiles angelically at him. “See you this afternoon.”

Dean matches her insincere smile with one of his own. “Can’t hardly wait.”

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

The final bell rings and Dean looks up to the cardboard tile of his ceiling for comfort. He can’t ever remember a day when he dreaded hearing the 3:30 bell. Normally, that signals the end of the day and, if not a trip home, then at least a few hours without interruptions where he can put on the radio and grade in peace. Today, it signals his need to go to where he does not want to go.

He drags his feet for as long as possible but the kids were adamant: practice begins at 3:45 and Mr. Milton doesn’t appreciate it when anyone is late. Woe betide him who makes the saintly Mr. Milton upset, so Dean actually plans to be on time. At the very least, in theory, his being on time will give Milton one less reason to talk to him.

Of course, his plans are shot to hell the second he exits his room. Any other day he would be delighted to see Charlie, the school’s IT guru, walking down the hall towards him. Today, he’s just trying to figure out a way to successfully extract himself from a lengthy conversation.

“‘Sup Winchester?” She throws him a flippant Vulcan salute before stopping to take a closer look at him. “Whoa, who pissed in your Cheerios?”

“Is it that obvious?” Dean checks his door to make sure that it’s locked, double checks to make sure that he has his key. Not that he couldn’t pick the lock on his room if he really needed to but sometimes it’s best not to let his friends and superiors know of his dubious skills.

“Yeah, you’re going around at 3:30 looking like someone just kicked your puppy and I know for a fact that you have your planning last period. So what gives?”

Dean gives up on the idea that he’s going to make it downstairs and across the building in five minutes and settles in to brief Charlie about his day. She grimaces in all the appropriate places, having the same opinion of Adler that Dean does, except double the ability to speak her mind. Charlie is a legit genius, could work in the private sector and make infinitely more money doing so. The fact that the school system has her is a feather in their cap and they’re willing to ignore a lot from her. Which is why Dean’s dressed up in khakis, a button down and tie, and Charlie gets to wear cargo pants and novelty tees.

“It could be worse,” Charlie says, once Dean finishes his tale of woe. He scoffs and she pushes him. “No really, just think. At least you got Scholastic Bowl, which is populated mostly with students that you already like. You could have gotten something awful, like Drama.” She shudders in mock revulsion. “Can you imagine watching teenagers try to put on Oklahoma!?”

“I do hate musical theater,” Dean muses. “Still. This means two afternoons a week that I’ll have to spend with Milton.” The words taste sour in his mouth.

Charlie pushes him again. “I have no idea why you hate him so much. He hasn’t done anything to you.”

“Well, he hasn’t pushed me down and stolen my lunch money, no, but trust me. He’s done plenty.”

“So you’ve told me, repeatedly throughout the years whenever his name is brought up, and yet you won’t tell me what this cardinal sin of his is.”

Dean shrugs and looks away from Charlie’s shrewd look. “It’s a secret.”

Charlie rolls her eyes. “Whatever man. Personally, I just think that you’re upset because he’s your only real male competition for Hottest Teacher.”

Dean cocks his head curiously. “Is that a thing now? Like officially? And also, if it was a thing, there’s no way that I would lose.”

Charlie sucks her teeth. “The man does have a fine ass.”

Dean gags. “Gross. Gross. I need about fifteen gallons of brain bleach so that I can forget that you ever mentioned that. Ugh. I hate you.”

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

“Yeah, whatever nerd. Go back to your devil machines and leave my Bard alone.”

“Who’s the nerd now?” Charlie calls as he starts down the hallway. “You’d better hurry up! Milton doesn’t like it when people are late!”

“So I’ve been told,” Dean mutters, rolling his eyes.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

By the time he reaches 118, it’s 3:52. Dean hangs out for a second outside the door, steeling himself to enter. He really, really, doesn’t want to do this.

By the time that he realizes he’s acting like a child, it’s 3:53. Dean rolls his eyes and raps on the locked door. From inside the room he hears the sudden, unnatural hush of voices. The door creaks open, slowly, like something out of a horror movie. When Claire pokes her head through the tiny gap, Dean understands why the intro was so dramatic.

She grins, delighted, and Dean knows that it’s not because she’s happy to see him. “Come on in,” she invites, opening the door wider. To the rest of the classroom she announces, “Our savior has arrived!”

Dean steps fully into Milton’s room. He’s never been here before and he takes a second to look around. Of course, Milton’s room is enormous, with pristine tables set up at right angles. At the front sits a podium covered with notes, as well as a copy of the Constitution, and a tall stool. Large windows at the back of the room provide plenty of natural light, unlike Dean’s room, whose lighting could best be described as prison-like. Milton’s room is large enough to even house a large bookshelf at the back, as well as an easy chair. Dean struggles to fit twenty-seven desks in his room.

Once he restrains his envy over the room, Dean takes stock of the students present. Charlie was right: most of them he recognizes from class. There’s Claire, of course, and Kevin, no surprise there, with his super-freaky smart brain. Patience is there, also with her super-freaky smart brain. Krissy, which is a surprise, mostly because she tries so hard not to care about anything. Alex, who might be there because her case worker demanded that she join some kind of extracurricular. Alfie and Inias, who are both entirely too sweet to be surrounded by these vultures. There are a few other students and Dean will probably learn their names at a later date.

“Mr. Winchester.”

Dean fights the instinctive flinch that comes from hearing his name spoken by that low, gravely voice. He turns around to face the desk at the back of the room.

Castiel Milton sits behind his desk, looking like he's in a board meeting instead of a history classroom. He looks remarkably put together in a crisp button down, bright red tie, and tailored waistcoat. Who gets that dressed up for high school? Milton tilts his head like Dean’s a particularly interesting specimen up for examination. One judgmental eyebrow raises and tries to meet the hairline of what is some artfully tousled hair.

“Thank you for joining us. Finally.” Dean narrows his eyes at the emphasis put on the last word but oh no, Milton isn’t done yet. “I’m sure that the students told you but practice begins at 3:45. I don’t appreciate tardiness, especially not when it comes from a colleague.”

Dean bites the inside of his lip so that he can keep his curse words on the inside of his mouth where they belong. “I’ll attempt to do better.” If he were gritting his teeth any harder they would shatter. Dean has a sudden, visceral urge to punch someone in the face: Adler or Milton, he’s not picky which, just as long as his fist bruises flesh.

Milton shuffles several papers around on his desk before he looks up at Dean. There's a hint of surprise in Milton's face, almost like he'd forgotten Dean was standing in front of him. “See that you do.” He blinks and tilts his head in consideration. “I’m positive that this will be an enlightening experience for us both.”

Dean nods, wanting it to be February already. “Enlightening. Great. Can’t wait.”

Milton stares for a moment too long, until Dean’s skin crawls underneath his gaze. He’s noticed it in passing before but God, does the man wear colored contacts? He must because no one’s eyes could possibly be that blue. He adds ‘Pretentious About Eye Color’ to the long list of Milton’s faults. “Interesting,” Milton murmurs, before his eyes slide past Dean. “Ah, are we forgetting anything?”

Behind Dean, there’s a large amount of shuffling as the students pretend like they haven’t been watching this exchange like an episode of reality TV. Krissy moves herself to the front of the room and picks up a packet. She clears her throat and starts to read.

“According to Plutarch, this man died in prison after he was accused of embezzling gold for one of his projects. This man was once commissioned to sculpt a group of heroes from the Battle of Marathon, including an image of Miltiades. One of his works was Aphrodite of Elis and he also created a work which has a relief of the birth of Pandora on its pedestal. Another of his works shows a figure holding a small statue of Nike in one hand and an eagle on a scepter in the other. For ten points, name this sculptor of Athena Parthenos and Zeus at Olympia.”

What in the fucking what?

Several buzzers light up, including Kevin’s but Dean focuses on Milton, who makes a small mark on one of his papers and mutters, to himself, “Phidias.”

Krissy tsks at another incorrect answer before she says, “No, the correct answer would be Phidias! Next question!”

Dean fights the urge to groan and slam his head into the wall. It’s going to be a long damn year.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Chapter Text

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

At 3:44, Monday afternoon, Dean walks into Milton’s room. There’s no fanfare to announce his presence, just a bunch of nerds scurrying around, setting up an old, complicated buzzer system. Dean thinks about offering his help but decides against it. Instead, he walks back to Milton’s desk, all the while knowing that he'll probably soon regret his choice.

Milton doesn’t look up from grading papers but Dean knows that his presence has been noted. Something about the way Milton's shoulders tense or the suddenly vicious scrawl of his pen across a paper. Dean does his best to loom over him and interrupt his work.

“So Adler was pretty vague on what you actually needed from me,” Dean says, tucking his hands in his pockets and rocking back and forth on his heels.

Milton hums without bothering to look up from his grading. Dean waits for another moment before he realizes, no, that was Milton conversing with him. Normally this is about where Dean would throw in the towel but something about Milton brings out the masochist in him, so he continues. “So what do you actually need from me?”

This at least garners him Milton's full attention, though Dean inwardly shrinks as he's subjected to the stare from those too big, too blue eyes. Milton's head does that stupid tilt again, like an android that only partially successfully downloaded regular human behavior. “Need? Well, nothing.”

Dean blinks. Then, because his irritation is such that if he opens his mouth he’ll end up saying something that he’ll undoubtedly regret, he blinks again. “Excuse me?” he finally asks, proud when his voice lands somewhere within the ‘socially acceptable polite’ range.

Milton’s face remains an impassive mask. “I don’t really need anything from you. I’m more than capable of running this team; I’ve been doing so for the past four years. It’s a bureaucratic requirement that you’re here.” At Dean’s incredulous look, Milton sighs, rests his elbows on his desk. “Rules state that once a team reaches over fifteen members, more than one faculty member needs to be supervising. The team now has sixteen members, hence,” he waves a dismissive hand at Dean, “your presence. It was in the handbook,” Milton mentions, and that is really the last straw. Dean can swallow a lot but what he cannot tolerate is being screwed around.

Black rage boils hot in his gut and Dean clenches his fists as he tries to keep hold of his temper. He reminds himself that there are students in the room, students that he teaches every day. He can’t afford to give voice to his thoughts but goddamn, does he want to, especially with Milton blinking at him like he can’t possibly understand why Dean would be upset.

"I would have thought that you would be pleased. After all, this isn't really in your repertoire so--"

“All right,” Dean interrupts, his voice low and pleasant. He leans in close enough to smell the sharp spice of the other man's cologne. “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to go back my room and pretend that this whole thing never happened. And you, you’re going to take this whole experience and your handbook too, and you’re going to shove them both up your sanctimonious ass. And the next time that you ever dream of asking me for help, well, you can shove that up your ass too, if there’s room, what with the stick you’ve got buried up there.”

Dean’s never been able to quit while he’s ahead, has always had a tenuous grasp on his temper when it really counted. It’s only after the words are out there, damning and irretrievable, that the grim horror starts to sink in.

Fuck. Fuck. Not only has he shown outright hostility to a coworker, something that he swore he wouldn’t do, what he said could, at best, be taken as borderline sexual harassment. And why was he so obsessed all of a sudden with Milton’s ass?

“Christ,” Dean mutters, knees going weak from the realization of just how deep he’s managed to step in it. Steel eyes glare through Dean as Milton sucks in several short, angry breaths.

“Mr. Winchester,” and that voice threatens divine retribution, “may I speak to you outside for a moment?” In a much more pleasant voice, Milton addresses the team. “We need to step outside for a moment to talk about how we’re running practice. Carry on as normal and please don’t murder each other.”

Sixteen pairs of eyes follow them as they leave the room but Dean can’t care, not when his brain is gleefully replaying the past thirty seconds in Technicolor, HD wonder. Fuck, he’s never done something this monumentally stupid. Once the classroom door closes behind them Milton never pauses. Dean silently follows him and his misery is such that he can’t even make a crack when Milton ducks into the nearest boy’s restroom.

Milton doesn’t even check to make sure that they’re alone before he whirls on Dean, eyes blazing, lip curled up in a sneer. “Have you lost your mind?” he asks, voice low and deadly. Dean would have preferred it if he’d shouted.

“I mean it,” Milton repeats when Dean does nothing more than stare at him stupidly. “Have you lost what little mind you have?”

“Look, Milton, Cas, I’m sorry,” Dean tries. He knows that the words are empty but Milton’s derisive laugh serves to punctuate that fact.

“Dean. Can I call you Dean? I feel like we’re so close now.” Milton’s voice retains that low steel of thrumming rage and even though Dean’s the taller of the two of them, Milton somehow manages to tower over him. A muscle ticks in the corner of his jaw, keeping time with his pulse like a metronome of rage.

Milton takes a step back and in a rare show of emotion, rakes a hand through his hair. He inhales once through the nose before releasing the breath in a slow hiss through his teeth. When he looks back at Dean the anger is still present in his eyes, though Dean does feel a little less like he’s going to get punched in the face.

“A more vindictive man would have your job. A pettier man would hold this incident over you for whatever paltry benefits they could reap from threatening you.” Dean swallows as Milton clearly outlines the worst case scenarios.

Another slow inhale and exhale. Milton runs his fingers through his hair one more time, turning the already messy strands into birds’ nest. His shoulders slump and slowly, the anger bleeds out of him until all that’s left is just Milton as Dean has come to know him, from afar: stiff, unyielding, untouchable.

“I’m not either of those things Dean. I’m not out for your job and I’m certainly not a blackmailer. And, much as you may think otherwise, I did not create the rules for this school. But I do need to follow them, the same as you.” Milton steps closer, completely ignoring the concept of personal space. “Now, for the next six months we’ll be spending time together and that time can be as awful or as pleasant as we choose to make it. I would prefer spending time with someone who didn’t actively show their contempt for me and the work that I do.”

The rage might have disappeared but Milton’s jaw remains firm, like it was chiseled out of marble. Dean takes a second to ponder his words.

“I never showed contempt for--” Milton’s left eyebrow ticks up, the warning clear, and Dean did tell him to shove several things up his ass today, which is most circles is a textbook definition of contempt. It also occurs to Dean what Milton just said: he’s not going to get him fired or hold this over his head, which is damned decent of him, all things considered. For a brief moment, Dean actually feels guilty for thinking the worst of Milton.

“Cas, look, I’m really sorry about earlier. It’s just...my temper got the best of me and I promise it won’t happen again--” Milton holds his hand up in an abortive gesture and Dean falls silent.

“It’s fine Winchester. It’s…” For a moment, Milton looks soft--his eyebrows pushed together in thought, mouth turned into a contemplative frown, eyes questioning. If it were anyone else in front of him, Dean would describe the expression on his face as that of hurt. But then, Milton shakes his head, an infinitesimal movement, and the marble statue returns. “It’s fine. It happens to the best of us.” But not to me, his tone seems to imply.

“Yeah. I, uh…” What apology do you make to the guy who you just told to shove a handbook up his ass? “Sorry, again, Cas.” Cas? The hell?

Milton blinks, clear confusion marring his features before he starts towards the bathroom door. “Put it from your mind Winchester. I’m sure that it won’t happen again.” He reaches the door and turns around, his face unreadable. “And it’s Milton. Or Castiel.” He nods once, for punctuation.

Dean glares at his retreating back, though he’s not sure who he’s more irritated with: the asshole who won’t accept a simple nickname, or himself, for unconsciously giving the asshole a nickname.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

Sam always knows that something’s wrong.

“What’s wrong?” he asks the moment he steps into Dean’s apartment.

Dean glares suspiciously at Sam, wondering if his little brother is psychic or if he’s just that easy to read. “Everything’s fine. Stop standing there like an idiot.”

Sam squints at Dean and gives him Bitchface #5 (irritated but well within the realms of content overall with life). For a minute, he and Dean have a little staring match, which Dean breaks first, mostly because the burgers are on the grill out back and he doesn’t want them to burn. “At least you brought the beer,” he says, taking the 6 pack out of Sam’s hands. He twists the lid and takes a sip. The beer’s a little warm from the ride over in Sam’s car, but it’s still beer and the ritual is more important than the taste anyway.

Sam steps outside and sits down on one of Dean’s flimsy patio chairs. He looks ridiculous there, all long legs and arms sitting akimbo but Dean loves it. Loves that he and Sam can sit outside of Dean’s townhouse, kick back and just talk like real people. There was a time, about eight years ago, when all of this would have seemed impossible to Dean.

Sam might be thinking that or he might just be thinking about Jessica, Dean’s not really sure what the sappy look on his face means. He flips the burgers back and forth, glancing at Sam over his shoulder while he pokes and prods at the meat.

The late afternoon sun is just starting the reach the rooftops of the buildings opposite him when Dean finishes grilling. It’s a brilliant September evening, close enough to summer to still be muggy but hedging on the side of autumn so that there’s a subtle nip in the air. In his flannel and jeans, Dean feels perfect. His bare feet move across the concrete of the patio as he sets the burgers on a plate.

“Fries should be done in just a second, condiments are inside.” He and Sam move easily around each other as they shift from outside, to inside, back to outside at the table. They should move easily; these nights have become a staple of their lives.

He looks forward to Monday nights, when Sam comes over without Jessica, and he and Dean have a night to just be themselves. Most of the time they don’t talk about much of anything, but there’s a sense of peace when Dean’s with someone that he doesn’t have to explain anything to. Besides, he and Sam have been through so much that between them, a tilt of the head says more than an entire paragraph would between others.

It seems however, that tonight, Sam wants to break their unofficial agreement to Not Talk About Anything Upsetting.

Sam waits until he’s halfway through his second burger and third beer before he strikes. “So,” he says, putting his beer down on the patio table. He crosses his legs and raises an eyebrow which skirts on the wrong side of smug. “Do you want to tell me what you’re so pissed about?”

Jesus. Is this what it’s like to sit across from Sam at the negotiating table? Dean has a momentary pang of sympathy for asshole oil execs who just want to drill into nature preserves.

Sam coughs delicately. Dean tries to outlast him with his stare but Sam must have taken ‘Judgmental Staring 101’ at Stanford because goddamn, does that boy ever need to blink?

With ill humor, Dean gives up. “It’s fucking Adler. He’s on some kind of weird power trip and he’s got me helping coach the stupid Scholastic Bowl, which is just a bunch of freaky smart kids--”

“I did Scholastic Bowl,” Sam says, a pleased smile flitting around his face.

“Well good, you can come and give a pep talk. Or better yet, why don’t you take over coaching and I’ll go back to doing, you know, my fucking job.”

Sam looks closely at him. “You’re not pissed about the gig. What else is going on?”

Dean sputters on his next sip of beer. There’s being a lawyer and then there’s being some kind of weird psychic. They play the same game again, except this time Dean gives up quicker because he’s already seen how it ends.

“It’s...Milton’s the other coach of the team.”

Sam immediately hums in understanding. While Dean hasn’t told him everything about Milton, he’s told him enough. “So you have to spend time with Milton. It’s not the end of the world.”

“No,” Dean says, feeling oddly petulant. “I just…” And then, before he can stop himself, the whole afternoon comes pouring out of him--Milton’s curt dismissal and jibe at his intelligence, Dean’s disastrous response, and then the weird conversation in the bathroom.

Sam says nothing throughout the tale, though he does widen his eyes when Dean admits to telling Milton to shove numerous things up his ass. His face turns pensive when Dean relates the rest of their conversation, as close to verbatim as he can put it. When he finishes, Sam sits back in his chair.

“Jesus Dean,” he finally says. “You realize that Milton could bring a complaint against you for that, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Dean says, irritably dismissing Sam with a short wave of his hand. “But he said that he wouldn’t.”

Sam’s eyebrow ticks up in disbelief. “And you trust him?”

Dean stares dumbfounded at Sam. It had never occurred to him to not trust Milton. “He wouldn’t…” he begins, before he trails off. He’s not like that, he wants to say but the words stick in his throat. “What’s in it for him, in the long run?” he finally settles for saying. “He puts a complaint in and it gets dragged through the School Board and yeah, maybe I get reprimanded, maybe even fired, but he ends up looking like a big baby who couldn’t take a joke.”

Sam doesn’t look wholly convinced with Dean’s reasoning but he does leave it alone, which is good enough for Dean. “So, getting to spend time with your nemesis. Maybe you can start thinking of ways to defeat him.”

Dean rolls his eyes. “You can’t defeat a robot Sam. You just need to wait for them to power down.”

Sam laughs as he rolls the empty beer bottle between his hands. “I don’t know Dean. From what you’ve said, it doesn’t sound like he wants to fight. Maybe he wants to be friends?”

Dean laughs, a mite unkindly. Sam has always tried to see the best in people, with one glaring exception. But Dean won’t think about that, not when he has to convince Sam that Milton is secretly an android sent to ruin his life. “You can’t be friends with a statue Sam. I swear, you’d get more emotion out of David than out of him.”

Sam’s features go through some interesting aerobics. “Why...why would you pick that example? Out of every statue you could pick, why would you pick the giant man famous for being built and having his dick out?”

Dean’s flush has nothing to do with the muggy night. “Shut up,” he mutters. He drinks down the rest of his beer so quickly that some of it dribbles out the side of his mouth and drips onto the collar of his shirt. He hates Sam sometimes, with his smug little smile and leer.

“You know, there’s a trend here,” Sam points out, gesturing with his bottle. “You telling him to shove something up his ass, you comparing him to the David…” He waggles his eyebrows at Dean and Dean contemplates pushing him out of his chair.

Because yeah, he’s noticed that Milton is more than conventionally attractive. He’s got those big blue eyes, trim, muscular body, and hair that looks like someone spent all night running their fingers through it. He’d have to be blind not to notice.

He’d seen it from a football field away. It had been his first annual faculty cookout, just after he'd gotten the job at Lawrence High School. Dean had been giddy with life in general: his diploma, his license, the fact that he finally had a job that he could term a career. He hadn’t been able to wrap his head around the idea of not having to pull any more twelve hour shifts at the bar, drenching himself in sweat and booze just to make crappy tips.

As he’d walked through the mass of milling people at the cookout, Dean’s head had spun, not from the beer going flat in the Solo cup, but more from the dizzying array of faces and names which were being shoved at him. He’d smiled and shaken hands and the second that his back was turned, promptly forgotten everything. He knew Jo of course, and Ellen, but almost everyone else had remained a nameless, faceless blur.

Until he’d seen him. Standing across the soccer field, close to the buffet tables, had been one of the most gorgeous men Dean had ever had the pleasure of laying eyes on. Despite the warmth of the day, he was dressed in a button down shirt and a pair of black jeans which, Dean noticed with a surge of glee, clung tightly to his hips and thighs. His thick, dark hair was fighting valiantly to stay in wild spikes, but the heat of the day had it wilting. As Dean watched, the man leaned to a woman next to him, his face hidden by her long, dark hair. She laughed and Dean’s feet had taken him towards the pair before he could think to stop himself.

He walked up to the table under the pretense of getting some more food. As he approached, the conversation between the man and woman ceased, always a troubling sign. Dean pressed onward, undaunted. “Hi,” he said, turning to them like they weren’t the whole reason he’d walked over here in the first place.

From this close he could see the man’s features and, whoa, he hadn’t been aware that eyes could be that blue outside of movies. Stubble dotted his jaw, like he couldn’t be bothered to shave all the way. Dean wondered what it would feel like underneath his tongue.

“Hello,” the woman drawled, after a pause that lasted just a little too long to be comfortable. The man just stared at him. Dean tried not to feel like he was a specimen underneath a microscope. “And who might you be?”

Dean shifted his plate to leave his right hand free. “Dean Winchester. I’m new here.”

She shook his hand with the same intensity shown by MMA fighters before a match. “I figured,” she said, a sardonic smile dancing across her mouth. “I know that I would have noticed something like you wandering around the halls.” She pumped Dean’s hand once more, squeezing extra hard for emphasis. “Meg Masters. I teach World Religions and Psychology.” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “And that’s Castiel Milton. He teaches AP US History and DE Government.”

“Nice to meet you,” Dean said, reaching out. So far, Blue Eyes seemed to be the strong but silent type. Weird, but Dean could work around that. “I’m English 11 and 12. So we’ll have some the same kids, probably.”

A faint smile crossed Castiel’s face. Dean had never seen anything like it--it happened mostly in the eyes, but his lips still moved. It was intriguing and he wanted to know what it would take to make the man smile all the way. “Indeed,” Castiel said, and holy hell that was a deep voice. “Perhaps we could work together on several projects, seeing as our classes usually tend to align so closely.”

Dean might have been out of the game for a minute, but he wasn’t so far gone that he couldn’t recognize flirting when he saw it. He smiled, broad and honestly happy, as he murmured, voice heavy with insinuation, “I’d like to work with you on that and, ah, any other projects you could come up with.”

Castiel’s flush was a thing of beauty as it crept around the tips of his ears.

“Hey Dean, I’ve been looking for you everywhere!”

Lisa bounced up to them, sundress swaying in the slight breeze. She beamed at all of them before hooking her arm in Dean’s. “Sorry about that, I’ve just been wandering.” He turned back to Castiel and Meg. “Lisa, this is Castiel and Meg. They teach at the school too." The two of them nodded in unison, Meg going so far as to offer up a sarcastic wave.. Dean inclined his head towards them and then back to the woman at his side. "This is Lisa.”

Handshakes were distributed all around. Lisa looked at both Castiel and Meg with her customary friendliness, while Meg’s smile turned more calculating, her eyes flicking back and forth between Dean and Lisa like she’d been given two puzzle pieces that somehow didn’t coalesce. Castiel bared his teeth in a parody of a smile, miles away from the small, precious expression he'd seen not two minutes prior.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Lisa said to the two others before she looked back at Dean. “Just wanted to make sure that you were doing all right, but you seem fine.” She subtly inclined her head towards Castiel and shot Dean an urgent look that he interpreted as Jump on that like five minutes ago! “Anyway, I promised Jo that I would catch up with her before she left, so I’ll catch you later!” She patted Dean’s arm before she left as quickly as she’d arrived.

Dean turned back to Meg and Castiel. It could have been his imagination but he could swear that the temperature had dropped at least twenty degrees in eight seconds. “Interesting,” Meg murmured, before she turned to Castiel. “Clarence, I need to see a man about a unicorn. I’ll be around after.” She patted Castiel’s cheek and Dean wondered at her presumption. Wondered more at how Castiel almost seemed to lean into her touch.

When he looked back at Dean, Castiel’s eyes were icy and impersonal, nothing like he’d been just minutes before. Dean laughed uncomfortably, wishing like hell that Lisa had just waited ten more minutes before coming over. Then he could have carefully dropped into the conversation that no, he hadn’t come alone, he’d just come with his good friend Lisa, just so he wouldn’t be at a function where he only knew two people.

He and Castiel were on the precipice of a massive misunderstanding but before Dean could even begin to backpedal, Castiel spoke. “So, Coach Winchester, I wish you luck with your season this year.”

Dean blinked. “Coach?”

Castiel’s voice was cool and condescending. “I assume that you were hired to fulfill a coaching position of some sort or another. Basketball? Baseball?”

All right, this whole conversation had gone sideways, but there might still be hope to get things back on track. “No, no, I was hired to fulfill an English position.”

Castiel’s lips pursed, cold amusement in his eyes. “Interesting. I wouldn’t have assumed that.”

His words reached deep into Dean, scraped at something raw and vulnerable. Dad’s voice, thick and slurred as Dean told him that he was leaving, going back to school--It’s a pipe dream Dean-o, you know that you weren’t meant for school, not a bruiser like you. You’ll only come back in a few years begging for help--

Those words had echoed throughout his time at school, had pounded his skull every time he’d filled out a job application and waited in vain for a return call. The look in Castiel’s eyes echoed the same voice which Dean heard in his head every time he dared to relax. You’ll never be smart enough to count, you’ll never be good enough to matter--

“Yeah well. You know what they say about assuming. It makes you an ass.”

Castiel blinks, which is probably his version of letting his jaw hang open in astonishment, and Dean smirks. Even the stupid guy could get one over on the smart guy every now and again. It didn’t take Castiel long to recover, however. “Yes, well. I was hired solely on my merits and not who I know.” Dean gaped at him and Castiel’s face twisted in an ugly look of satisfaction. “Word travels around fast here.”

And yeah, maybe Dean had an advantage over other applicants because he’d had both Bobby and Ellen advocating for him. When the head of the Career Academy and a twenty-five year veteran teacher both write a recommendation letter for you, it did tend to boost your chances. And if Bobby and Ellen were both close family friends? So the fuck what? He’d worked his ass off in college, had the grades and the teaching license to help prove it.

And who the fuck is this asshole, to insinuate that Dean didn’t deserve his job?

His previous goodwill entirely vanished, Dean smiled, a nasty little thing. “Well, this has been utterly thrilling but I need to go home, and you know…” He let his voice trail off as he sought out Lisa in the crowd. He caught her eye and she waved at him. Dean nodded at her before turning back, catching Castiel’s eye as he winked salaciously. “Prepare for class.”

Lisa would kick his ass if she knew that he was using her this way, especially since she’d practically thrown him at Castiel. But Dean didn’t regret it, not when there was a faint flicker of emotion on Castiel’s face. Just a moment, blink and you miss it, but it was there. Then Castiel’s face changed into a smooth mask and he inclined his head towards Dean.

“Good luck with your school year.”

With that, Castiel turned his back to Dean, who had to fight not to crush the flimsy Solo cup in his hand. He walked away on unsteady legs, smiling at anyone who made eye contact with him. He had to work with these people in less than a week and he didn’t want anyone else assuming that he didn’t deserve his place with them. He found Lisa talking with Jo, and tugged her away with a quick apology.

“Can we go?” he murmured, low and urgent.

“Dean, I thought--” Whatever Lisa was about to say died on her lips as she looked at his face. “Yeah. Of course. Just let me tell Jo what’s going on.”

Dean shook his head. “Just tell her that I’m not feeling well.” It was close enough to the truth.

Lisa smiled at him and patted his cheek. “Yeah, of course. I’ll catch up.”

Dean took the out that she gave him and fled to the Impala. Stale air swept over him as he cranked the radio up to as loud as he could stand it. Later, he and Lisa will sit on the couch and she’ll shove a tub of ice-cream at him, which is undoubtedly better for him than the whisky he was thinking about downing. She’ll put on old episodes of Monty Python and Dean will laugh and they’ll reminisce about how terrible they were as a couple but how good they are at friends.

Dean will tell Sam about the encounter, but he won’t tell Sam the whole story. He’ll just tell Sam that he ran into an asshole who teaches at the school, who thinks that he’s better than everyone else. He’ll tell Sam the bit about Castiel assuming that he was a coach and about his snotty remarks about Bobby and Ellen snagging the job for him. What he won’t tell Sam is his initial impression of Castiel: an unfairly good looking man who has a voice made for phone sex, who flirts like a monster but still blushes when someone flirts back. No. That, and the uncomfortable, raw place inside of him get shoved to the very back of his mind and Dean is more than happy to keep it there. He only thinks about it when he’s had too much whisky and done too much thinking. Then he’ll bring those memories out, dust them off, and hold them close to his chest, just to feel them cut into him.

In Dean’s way of thinking, it’s honestly not a bad life.

But he doesn’t tell Sam any of this. Instead he looks at his baby brother sitting on the patio, Dean’s patio, looking like a million bucks with the security and sense of accomplishment that his environmental lawyer job gives him. After this, Sam will go home to Jessica, his fiancee. In April, he’ll marry her and Dean will stand next to him as his best man. Tomorrow, Dean will go to work, in a job which he finds fulfillment, and then he’ll get to come home and relax.

Castiel Milton doesn’t fit anywhere into any of that, so Dean just rolls his eyes and pushes his memories back down into the corner of his mind where they belong.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Despite all of his hangups and issues, and Dean is aware that he has plenty of both, his life is honestly good. And that’s even objectively good, not comparatively good. Though, Dean is more than aware, the life which he leads now looks like a paradise when stacked against the life he came from. It makes him proud, to look at his life and Sam’s, see how far they’ve come, how much they’ve managed to break good.

He has a job which he not only enjoys but also gives him a steady paycheck and benefits. He has friends at this job and enjoys a decent social life. He rents a townhouse in the good part of town and spends his weekends grilling and cleaning the place, when he’s not actively enjoying his social life. His furniture is second-hand but in good shape and there’s always food in his fridge. He even manages to have a spare room which he bills as an office but which functions more as a junk room. He has enough money and spare time to keep the Impala running and in pristine condition.

He’s close to his family: Sam and Jessica live just twenty minutes away and Dean spends almost as much time at Sam’s suburban paradise as he does at his own townhouse. Bobby and Ellen live close by and Dean visits their house weekly, sometimes for dinner, sometimes to indulge himself and help Bobby on a fiddly restoration project.

No, there’s plenty in Dean’s life which sparks joy, and that is why he’s not going to allow himself to linger on the problem of Castiel Milton. Especially not when he’s trying to come up with projects to keep his students busy and engaged. God love his kids but sometimes they’re just too smart for their own good.

Like today, when they keep on bugging him instead of focusing on their novels. Claire seems to be at the forefront of this movement, though Kevin is a short ways behind her.

“How are you liking Scholastic Bowl so far, Mr. Win?” Winchester isn’t really that long of a name. There’s no need for her to shorten it.

“It’s great. Read your book.”

Somehow Claire manages to turn a page so loudly that Dean hears it from halfway across the room. He looks at her through narrowed eyes and she smiles angelically back at him.

“Mr. Milton looked pissed yesterday.”

“Don’t you have more important things to worry about than Milton’s facial expressions?”

Claire hums as she makes the turning of another page into a Broadway worthy production. “Not really.”

That’s it, Dean definitely needs to create a harder course of study. He’ll make these kids so busy that they don’t have the time to pee, let alone make themselves obnoxious.

Of course, this is the time when Kevin decides to join in. “Any time you want to spill the teacher tea, we’re more than happy to listen.”

“Tran, you are venturing dangerously close to earning your class a pop quiz.”

Kevin doesn’t even have the good grace to appear cowed. “Collective punishment has historically failed and caused the downfall of many a dictator.”

Dean stares at Kevin until he obediently returns to his book. “Until they bring a guillotine in here, I’ll take my chances. Now just, read your books.”

Thankfully, silence descends on his room for the rest of the period.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

Whenever Dean needs a good bitching session, he always goes to one particular room.

Charlie is generally too good-natured to truly indulge him in a good rant. Ellen has no tolerance for people who waste her time and that includes whiners. As the school psychologist, Garth’s day is already filled with meetings, not to mention, the one time that Dean tried to rant to him, he pulled out the sock puppet that he uses with the kids. Mr. Fizzles didn’t go over so well with a 30 year old man, any better than Dean would imagine that it goes over with 15 year old kids. Jo holds the same opinion of whiners as her mother, except she has access to a gym and Dean’s not convinced that she wouldn’t have him out running laps for wasting her time.

No, when Dean needs to bitch, he goes to the one person who will listen and who conveniently has the same planning period as him.

“My penance comes once more this afternoon,” he says as he walks into the culinary arts classroom, which still smells faintly of burnt food. Dean wrinkles his nose. Coming in here is always a shot in the dark: sometimes he’ll be able to eat delicious leftover eclair cake and sometimes it smells like the Kitchen Nightmares version of Hannibal Lecter has been unleashed in the classroom.

Benny Lafitte rolls his eyes and stops scrubbing at the counter top. “You ever think about just accepting this like a man?”

“No,” Dean says. Just for that smartass remark, he sits down in Benny’s chair.

Benny came to Lawrence High in Dean’s second year. In the days before he started, there were plenty of rumors and whispers, mostly about the correlation of his appearance and chosen subject material. His hiring caused quite a stir among faculty and students alike. Dean can’t blame them. The first time he saw Benny, his eyebrows rose as well. But Benny runs the kitchens with an iron fist and spits on your traditional gender roles. The man is over six feet tall and built like a linebacker, so he can wear whatever apron he wants to. Not to mention that he’s a good teacher, a good cook, and an all around decent person.

Except when Dean wants to bitch. And then he becomes an asshole. Because that’s just how Dean’s life goes at this point.

“Look Dean, I don’t know exactly what you have against this whole thing. I mean it sucks having two of your afternoons yanked away but strangely enough, you haven’t once bitched about losing your time. Only one thing, well,” Benny’s face twists in contemplation, “person, you’ve complained about.”

Dean glares at Benny. When the other teacher had been new to the school Dean had been able to tell him that Milton was a stuck up prick and didn’t deserve the time of day. However, Benny is starting his third year at the school and is therefore able to make his own opinions. Unfortunately for Dean, Benny’s opinions on Milton don’t quite sync with his.

Most people’s opinions on Milton don’t sync with Dean’s. Which is fine, really. Because on paper, even Dean is hard pressed to not have a crush on the guy.

Castiel Milton, who is an off-shoot of the wildly powerful, insanely wealthy Milton family. His eldest cousin Michael was elected Lawrence’s youngest mayor about sixteen years ago and has been running the city with an iron will ever since. Dean knows that another cousin, Gabriel, is some high-powered advertising executive who spends his time jet-setting around the world. For Dean, the family history begs the question of why Castiel teaches in a public high school and doesn’t just leech off of the family money. Maybe it’s just his childhood speaking, but the thought of having an unlimited amount of resources sparks something distinctly Scrooge McDuck in him.

Saint Castiel didn’t choose to go into business, or law, or politics. He chose the route of academia, pursuing his Bachelor’s, Master’s, and finally his Doctorate in American History and Government. Dean knows this, because he read the man’s blurb on the school’s website, where teachers are required to list their degrees and certifications. He also read the article on Milton in the Lawrence Journal-World, and no he isn’t obsessed, it’s just a good idea to know your enemy.

Dr. Castiel Milton (not that he makes anyone call him a doctor because he’s such a regular guy), upon finishing his academic career, did not choose to teach at one of the many universities vying for him. Instead, he chose to teach at Lawrence High School, where the highest honor he would accept was the chairmanship of the Social Studies Department. And that is where he has remained for six years, seemingly happy to keep on keeping on. A good little soldier for the education system.

Dean smells a rat. No one is that good of a person, to give up wealth and power for the public education system. Despite his enjoyment of his job, it’s an overall thankless career with low pay and students who, at best, regard him as a nuisance and at worst see him as the enemy. No one would choose this if they had a lofty university teaching career available. That person would have to be a literal angel and Dean stopped believing in those around the time his mom died.

Plus, Milton’s behavior and general assholishness show that he’s no angel.

So Dean sits, and he bitches, and he eats the leftover peanut butter cookies from Benny’s first class because he’s always willing to take one for the team. “I’m just saying that it sucks,” he mumbles around his mouthful. Benny shoots him a disgusted look when he sprays crumbs over his desk and Dean smiles obnoxiously. Serves him right.

“It’s a room full of kids who know weird shit that no normal human being should have in their heads and leading them is Dr. Robot, who knows more weird shit than ten of them put together. Add that to the fact that Dr. Robot actively hates me and thinks that I’m stupid and also has no problem insinuating to me that he thinks I’m stupid…” Dean shoves another cookie in his mouth to stop himself from rambling.

“Look Dean. You know that I love you right?” Benny situates himself on the table across from Dean. His normally laughing eyes are serious and Dean eats another cookie, ignoring the fact that his mouth is dry and his stomach is starting to complain from the immense amount of sugar he is continuing to cram down his throat.

“We’ve already talked about this, it would never work between us.”

Benny smiles but he still looks uncharacteristically serious. “If it weren’t for your help during my first year I don’t think that I’d be here right now. Seriously brother, you were a lifesaver.” Dean looks down at the desk as his stomach squirms. “You don’t give yourself enough credit.”

“I just do my job,” Dean starts but Benny cuts him off with an impatient scoff.

“Lots of teachers here just do their jobs. You do more than just your job. You care about your kids. Don’t try to tell me that you don’t because I’ve seen you with them. And the kids pick up on that. They love you. Even the ones that are smartasses. They’d walk through fire for you if you asked them.”

Dean’s cheeks are hot and he really wishes that Benny would shut up but no, he just keeps going. “And you help the other teachers here. You helped me, when I was trying to find my feet here. I’ve seen you stick up for Garth at least a dozen times against Adler. You even helped that idiot Roche in the Art department when he needed it.” Benny coughs and scratches at his chin. “And I know you ain’t told me nothing about what it was like for you growing up, but I’ve met Sam several times and he’s let slip some of what you had to do.”

Dean really, really, wants Benny to shut up now but he just keeps going. “That kid doesn’t know the half of what you really did for him, does he?”

Dean pushes away from the desk. His chest feels too tight, like his lungs have shrunk and even though he tries to breathe the oxygen isn’t quite getting through. Benny is awful, staring at him with understanding. “I didn’t mean to upset you brother but I wanted you to know. You’ve done a lot of good here. You don’t have anything that you need to be ashamed about.”

Benny thinks he knows but he doesn’t, he couldn’t possibly. He doesn’t know about nights spent in low-rent motels where the walls were so thin that a single push would send them toppling. He doesn’t know about the fear of watching John leave, not knowing if he would come back from whatever job he’d taken on. He doesn’t know about the shameful curl in Dean’s stomach when he thought that maybe it would be better for him and Sam if John didn’t come back. He doesn’t know about the clench of hunger in his stomach, the way that the other kids in the school of the week would look at him because he only had enough clothes to fit into a duffel. Benny can’t know any of this because Dean would rather die than tell anyone.

It would be so much easier if he could just punch Benny. But Benny is his friend and probably the closest person to him other than Sam and he’s at the point of his life where he can’t just punch his problems away.

“I ever tell you that you’re an annoying son of a bitch?” Dean finally asks, taking a swig from his water bottle.

Benny cracks a smile and rasps out a laugh. “I take pride in it, no doubt.” Benny has a face that was made for smiling, all broad, honest lines and good intentions. “I know what you’re worth and your brother knows what you’re worth. Maybe one day, even you’ll know what you’re worth. So really, who cares about some pretty-boy doctor?”

Dean smiles and relaxes back into his seat. To be told that he’s worth something? Uncomfortable and highly suspect. To know that Benny’s in his corner against Milton? Priceless.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

So it’s with a renewed spirit of cooperation that Dean enters Milton’s room on Wednesday. The kids look up from where they’re setting up their buzzers and Patience even greets him. Dean waves and the kids go back to ignoring him. Dean steels himself and walks back to Milton’s desk.

In a fantastic repeat of last week Milton is grading another stack of papers and doesn’t look up to acknowledge him as he drags a chair over and sits down. That’s fine. Dean was expecting that and he came prepared, with his own stack of essays to grade. Two can play this game and Dean has more practice at it than most. He, Sam, and Jo spent the majority of their teenage years in various tiffs with each other and Sam perfected the silent treatment to an art form.

Now that he’s been here three times, Dean can see that practice follows the same routine: the students get their system set up and select, at random, a packet of trivia questions. One elected member of the team reads questions while the rest try to answer. The more Dean observes the team, the more he can see that each have their own particular niche. Kevin excels at complicated math problems, while Claire can somehow pull out authors’ names that even Dean has forgotten. Patience comes into her own at physics and chemistry, while Alfie and Inias both nail any history questions. Krissy and Alex round everyone out with a surprisingly wide array of knowledge encompassing a little bit of everything.

They’re all freaking nerds but at least Dean is starting to understand the rules of this game a little better.

And he understands the rules of the game between him and Milton because, ten minutes into their detente, Milton finally speaks. “Have a good day, Mr. Winchester?”

Dean hides his smirk behind his papers. Milton’s game is weak. Sam once lasted three days before Jo finally hit him until he deigned to talk to them.

“The usual.” Dean’s tempted to leave it at that but he also wants to see how far he can take this. “I did have a student tell me today that her fantasy trio was Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron, and herself.”

The low chuckle is unexpected. Startled, he glances over to Milton and sees that the other man is actually smiling. It’s a good smile, one that makes his eyes crinkle at the corners and dimples appear in his cheeks. Dean’s caught up in it, and for a blessed moment wants nothing more than to see that smile again. It takes him longer than he would expect to remind himself that he doesn’t care about Milton’s laugh.

“That...that’s quite a wish,” Milton says. His smile takes a long time to fade and even after his face returns to its normal seriousness, Dean can still see it lurking in the faint lines around his eyes. Those are his smile lines, Dean realizes with a strange lurch in his stomach. How much does Milton smile, to have those lines permanently traced onto his face?

More importantly, why hasn’t Dean seen him smile for four years?

“Yeah,” Dean says, aware that he needs to say something. “I, ah...What a thing to drop in the middle of class.” A new thought occurs to him. “God, if word gets back to Adler…”

Milton finally looks at him, his eyebrows set close together in thought. “I wouldn’t worry about it. Your kids love you.”

That’s the second time in as many days that someone’s told him that. Dean’s confusion must show on his face because Milton’s face twitches into a faint memory of his smile. “They talk about you, during practice. They enjoy your class but more importantly, they enjoy you.”

Heat creeps up the back of his neck to the tips of his ears and across his face. Milton’s eyes are an actual weight on him and Dean thinks that his spine just might shatter underneath them. “That’s…” He rubs at the back of his neck. “I’m sarcastic and I let them say ‘Hell’ and ‘Slut’ in class as long as it’s context of literature.”

“No Dean, it’s more than that. You treat them like humans. You care about their problems and they feel like they can trust you.” Dean chances a look at Castiel and immediately wishes that he hadn’t. For years he’s been accustomed to the marble face, the robot coolness, the ice-blue eyes glaring at him. Now, the warmth and sincerity on Castiel’s face threaten to shatter him. “You’d be surprised at how much that matters to them, being treated like they matter.”

Dean coughs and shifts in his chair. When he wanted a conversation he didn’t want this. He wanted something light and breezy, about as interesting as the evening weather forecast. He didn’t want Castiel to reach into his skull and root around.

The silence they fall into isn’t the razor edged one of before. Instead, it’s almost comfortable. If it weren’t for the buzzers and the shouting then Dean could almost get lost in the constant scratch of Castiel’s pen across his papers.

The questions continue and Dean remains mystified by them, the answers, as well as the students who do the answering. Most of the questions ask about things that he’s fairly certain he was never taught. But what Dean finds the most interesting is that while the kids seem to have their specialized areas of knowledge, Castiel seems to know almost everything.

He notices it almost by accident. Castiel’s not loud, in fact the buzzers and students drown him out, which is why it takes Dean so long to notice. It’s only in a rare moment of quiet, when the whole team is stumped that Dean hears him murmur, “Thomas Robert Malthus.”

“And that’s time,” Inias says from the podium. “The correct answer is Malthus.”

There’s a course of groans and Krissy says, “Yes, of course, he was my second guess,” but Dean ignores them in favor of staring at Castiel.

“Why would someone have that information in their brain?”

Castiel looks genuinely confused. “My interests are varied.”

Dean snorts. “I have varied interests too and I wouldn’t know Malthus if he passed me by on the street.”

Castiel tilts his head but this time it looks a little less Terminator and a little more confused adult male. “He died in 1834; no doubt you would at least take notice if he passed you on the street.”

Dean stares at him in astonishment before a laugh bursts out of him. “Did you just…” He lowers his voice, aware that he’s managed to catch the team’s attention. “Jesus Christ, Castiel Milton just made a joke. I think that I might have to call down administration. Won’t they fire you for this?”

Castiel’s face twists in displeasure but he can’t quite hide the sly tilt of his eyes or the faint, pleased set of his shoulders. “I do have a sense of humor Dean. I’m not dead.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Dean turns back to his papers but now that he knows what he’s listening for, he hears it: at almost every question Castiel whispers out an answer. Not showing off, not gloating, just...taking pleasure in knowledge. Ninety percent of the time he’s right. If it were forty-five minutes earlier, Dean would say that the other man is showing off, except he’s almost certain that Castiel doesn’t want him to hear. But Dean has better hearing than most and so he catches almost all of it. On the rare occasions that Castiel is stumped Dean wants to gloat but something restrains him. Maybe it’s just his common decency. Maybe it’s the memory of Castiel’s laugh, low and throaty.

Dean listens to the next clue. Despite his initial misgivings, and the fact that he still is stumped by over half of the clues, there’s a certain thrill in listening to these. When he gets one right he has to hide his face behind his papers, lest everyone in the room see his triumphant grin.

Inias reads, “This character's clock is frozen around 11, making it always snack time. This character once ate his friend’s birthday present, but covered up for it by giving that friend ‘a useful pot to put things in’. This character invents a game in which objects are dropped into a river and whoever’s appears downstream first, wins. In one story, this character disguises himself as a black raincloud by rolling around in some mud and using a balloon to hover, while in another story he sings a lullaby to make a colony of bees go to sleep so that he can eat their honey. For ten points, name this ‘willy nilly silly old bear’, the best friend of Christopher Robin.”

Several hands push frantically on the buttons of the buzzers but Dean is more interested in Castiel. The other man sits at his desk, a puzzled look on his face as he taps his chin twice. Dean gapes because, really?

“Winnie the Pooh man,” he says, a second before Inias calls on Alex for the answer. Castiel turns to him, lips pursed in contemplation. Dean honestly cannot believe that he has to explain this but he does anyway. “Winnie the Pooh? Pooh Bear? Hundred Acre Woods?” Castiel’s face is as blank as it was the first time Dean spoke. “Man, are you honestly telling me that you don’t know who freaking Winnie the Pooh is?”

Castiel frowns. “Judging from the nonsensical nature of the name and the anecdotes offered in the clue, I would assume that it’s a character from some folk tale or children’s story. No doubt one which has been widely televised, as shown by your response and the team’s willingness to answer.”

Dean must look stupid, with his jaw hanging open but he can’t stop himself. “What the...all right that’s it. Excuse me.” Before he knows what he’s doing, he reaches over Castiel and grabs his laptop. He pulls up Google and types, before turning the screen back to Castiel. “That. That is Winnie the Pooh.”

Dozens of images of the iconic bear fill the screen. Dean sees at least three of these images each day, on clothing and various merchandise but Castiel studies the images like they’re clues from The DaVinci Code. It’s weird and if Dean didn’t hate him, he would say that it’s almost endearing.

“I’ve seen this bear before,” Castiel finally offers.

“You’ve seen this...of course you’ve seen the bear before! It’s on every preteen girl’s bookbag!”

“I did wonder at their fondness for an obese stuffed bear.” Castiel reads the brief caption underneath the photo. “Ah. The story was picked up and widely distributed by Disney. No wonder there’s so much merchandise.”

“How can you not know freaking Pooh. I can’t even…”

“There were not many opportunities for me to watch cartoons.”

And there, that one sentence tells Dean more about Castiel than a hundred observations or newspaper articles ever could. What must a person’s childhood be like that they never even watched an episode of Winnie the Pooh? Dean never intentionally watched it but when he was flipping through the channels at motels it always seemed like there was an episode of Pooh playing somewhere. He always switched it to Scooby-Doo because, let’s face it, Daphne, but still. For Castiel to not know...

“Yeah well, you weren’t missing much.” Dean has no idea whether or not that’s true but there’d been something empty in Castiel’s voice before.

Castiel huffs a faint sound of laughter and turns towards Dean. It’s not until he glances up that Dean realizes how close they’re standing to each other. This close, Dean can smell Castiel’s cologne, can see the faint lines in his forehead. If he really wanted to, Dean could count each one of Castiel’s ridiculously long eyelashes.

He sits back in his chair so fast that his ass stings from impact. If Castiel notices anything unusual then he at least has the good grace not to say anything. It’s something else decent from him and Dean has to repeat, like a mantra, You hate this man, he’s an asshole, he’s a smug, uptight, prick and you hate him. Maybe if he repeats it enough he can believe it with the same vitriol that he did three weeks ago.

When practice ends the team packs the buzzers away into a box and puts the box back in a small cabinet at the rear of Castiel’s room. Patience and Alfie both wish them a good night and Claire even bestows a quick peace sign upon them before leaving. Dean watches them go with a smile on his face.

“You know,” he says, not sure why he’s telling Castiel this, “they like you too.”

A small, startled noise rumbles in Castiel’s throat. Dean doesn’t dare look at him, too afraid that underneath that intense stare he’ll lose his nerve. “The students I mean. They talk about you too, mention how much you love what you teach. Other teachers like you too.” He thinks about Charlie’s repeated assertions that Castiel, while technologically clueless, is always willing to listen to new ideas, Benny’s urging that Dean really should try to bury the hatchet and just talk, and Garth’s counseling of ‘You never understand what someone is going through until you walk a mile in their shoes!’.

The click of Castiel’s swallow is deafening in the silent room. Dean stares pointedly at the board at the front of the room as he listens to Castiel breathe. “But not you, right?”

At the bleak humor in Castiel’s voice, Dean has to face him. Upon looking at the other man’s face Dean makes a mental note that personal likes and dislikes aside, he has got to bring the man to game night. Man has a poker face to rival Keanu Reeves. Still, there’s something lurking at the corners of his eyes, something that Dean doesn’t want to examine too quickly.

“Nope,” Dean says, but the word sounds brittle and false, even to his ears. “Not even a little bit.”

Even as he says the words, he knows that he’s lying.

“Well.” That something still lingers on Castiel’s face and Dean wants it to vanish. However, he has no idea how to do that without doing something incredibly stupid, so he just grabs his bag and hoists the strap over his shoulder.

“Have a good night Castiel.”

“You as well, Dean.”

It’s only when he’s sliding into the front seat of Baby and feeling the rumble of the engine through the seat that he replays the afternoon. His brain comes to a screeching halt.

Since when is Milton ‘Castiel’?

And since when does Castiel call him ‘Dean’?

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The last Sunday of September finds Dean bent at the waist underneath the hood of a ‘69 Mustang. She’s bright red and while she’ll never be as beautiful as his baby, she’s still a fine looking lady. Still, every lady needs a tune-up, which is why Dean is checking the lines and belts while the sun beats down on the back of his neck with a vengeance.

Dean’s back pops as he straightens. He winces at the sound. Much as he’d like otherwise, he’s getting older every year. His back is the enemy more often than not these days, and his knee, hurt when he was a teenager, is a fiddly thing during the winter. Still, Dean thinks, as he twists his head to try and pop his neck, out of all the problems that he could have, stiff joints are a small price to pay.

“You done yet? Or you planning on asking her to prom?”

Dean smiles at the gruff voice as he gently closes the hood. Once everything is back where it should be, he gently pats the hood. “You know that I’m not the unfaithful type.” He leans back against the hood and accepts the beer Bobby offers.

Bobby leans against one of the rust bucket cars in his yard and sips his own drink. Neither of them speaks as they drink, indulging in a years long ritual. John might have taught Dean most of what he knew about cars but Bobby had given him a purpose, a reason to use that knowledge.

Bobby had given Dean a hell of a lot more than that, but acknowledging that was a minefield that Dean was never going to navigate.

“Ellen’s in the living room talking with the rest of them about wedding plans.”

Dean peered at Bobby over his bottle. “She living vicariously through Sammy and Jess?”

Bobby grimaced. “She doesn’t want a wedding, not really. Besides. Could you ever see her coming down the aisle in some poofy dress?”

Dean considers. In almost twelve years he had yet to see Ellen dressed in anything other than jeans and a comfortable shirt. She broke her dress code for the sake of her job at the school but that was the most she would capitulate. The thought of her wearing some of the monstrosities which Jess had found was laughable. Dean grinned at the thought.

“Maybe she’ll want you to wear the poofy dress.” Bobby growled a warning. “No, I’m sure she’ll find something that highlights your figure.”

“Boy if you don’t stop.” Bobby might threaten but Dean’s never been afraid of him, never for a second. “And I’d wipe that smile off your face if I were you. You haven’t seen what Sam’s been trying to put you in.”

“Ah, I know that I’m already going to have to wear some kind of monkey suit. Flower in the lapel, the whole nine yards.”

“Oh, you hope it’s just that. Last I heard, Jess was leaning towards lavender suits. Pastel pink for the shirts.”

Dean squints at the older man. Bobby has to be fucking with him. Yeah, Jess has been a little weird about some of this wedding stuff but, taste in men aside, Dean’s always trusted her judgement. There’s no way that she would ever consider something that hideous.

Unless she had Jo Harvelle, actual demon of hell, perched on her shoulder, coaching her through her most vulnerable moments.

Dean’s heart sinks. Jo couldn’t be that cruel. She’s awful but there are depths to which no man, or woman, will sink to and surely this has to be one of them. Plus, he thinks with renewed hope, Jo is part of the wedding party. She would never suggest something which would make her look bad. No, Bobby is just fucking with him, which makes him a dick, but it also means that Dean has to murder four less family members.

Bobby is smiling when Dean looks back at him, broad and genuinely happy. Dean knows how he feels. It’s a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, he’s sitting on a beauty of a car, and he can smell the pot roast cooking from the open kitchen window. Best of all, he’d spied the makings for one truly epic apple pie in the kitchen.

“It’s funny ain’t it,” Bobby says before he flings his empty bottle somewhere into the snarl of dead and decaying cars in his yard. If Sam were here, no doubt he would bitch at Bobby for desecrating the environment with his litter, but it’s Dean here with him, and Dean figures, what the hell, if Bobby wants to ruin his own yard, then that’s his business.

“Sammy getting married? It’s funny that the hypnosis has lasted this long. Don't know when Jess is going to break free and realize that he's hideous.”

“Real cute. Naw,” Bobby coughs, lifts his hat to let some of his sweat-damp hair resettle on his head. “It’s just funny to think about you boys the first time you came here. You told me then that you’d be all respectable and teaching those brats at the school and I’d have an actual family in my living room planning a damn wedding…” Bobby laughs, rueful and amazed. “I’d have pumped you full of few rounds because you’d have to be lying to me.”

The very first time Dean came to Bobby’s house, he was eight and Sam was four and John had just about grown sick of both of them. Bobby was described to them as simply ‘a friend’. John had many friends, strewn throughout the country, none of whom were willing to say just quite how they knew John.

Bobby was a drunk, and a mean one at that. Not violent, not like Dean had seen John become, but surly. The first time Dean had come downstairs while Bobby was halfway through a bottle of shine, the man had just glared at him before snarling “The hell you looking at boy?”

Dean, unintimidated even as a child, had folded his arms across his chest and stared, his upper lip curling as he looked at the person who was supposed to be taking care of them. “Some old drunk who doesn’t care enough about anything to be any use.”

If he’d spoken to John like that, then he would have caught the back of his hand. If he’d spoken to any of his dad’s other “friends” like that, he would have caught worse. But Bobby just stared at him, like Dean had just given him a revelation, before setting his glass down on the table. Dean stared back, ready for the blow, for the explosion of temper and fury. For the glass to be thrown, probably at him, for Bobby to call John and tell him to come and get his shitty kids.

But Bobby had just kept on staring at him, and eventually Dean had become uncomfortable. If the man was going to do something then he should have done it by now. But Bobby just sat there. He looked older than Dean had first thought, his hat more worn, beard more streaked with grey.

“Get the hell back to bed boy. You’ve got school in the morning.” That had been all that Bobby had told him and Dean, happy to be out of there, gladly scampered back up the stairs and into the room that he was sharing with Sam. He tucked himself back into bed, underneath musty, threadbare sheets, and tried to sleep.

He’d managed a few, restless hours and in the morning, had come downstairs unsure of what he would find. Bobby had been there, with a plate of lukewarm, soggy eggs for their breakfast, the same as it had been the entire time they’d been there. What had been missing, however, was the ever present bottle by his side, and the sharp, acrid smell of alcohol wafting up from his coffee.

The next morning, the eggs had been hot and firm, and there had been bacon to go along with them. The morning after that, the dirty dishes had magically disappeared from the sink and it looked like the kitchen floor had even been swept. By the time John had returned for them, a week and a half later, Bobby had graduated to making chili for them in the evening and watching movies with them at night.

The next time they’d visited, Bobby had a job at the Career Academy, teaching Auto Shop, and his house had just been cluttered, not filthy. The time after that, he had Ellen dropping by to help cook and, Dean suspected, from the looks they gave each other as he was going up the stairs to bed, other activities not involved with typical housewifery.

Going to Bobby’s house had become like going to summer camp, albeit a camp where the counselor insisted that he and Sam do their homework and their chores, and then go to bed on time. Dean loved every second of it: helping Bobby with restoration projects in the evening, learning how to cook from Ellen, sniping back and forth with Jo. Loved it so much in fact, that twelve years ago, when he and Sam were desperate and scared, his brain and feet had automatically taken them to Bobby’s house. Bobby just opened the door, saw their faces peering up at him, and opened the door.

Dean’s never forgotten that, how Bobby took two kids who were less than worthless, and turned them into citizens. How Bobby turned his life around, partly for himself, also partly for them. It’s a debt that Dean’s never going to be able to repay, despite Bobby’s repeated assertions that there is no debt.

“You and me both,” is all Dean can think of to say. How can he explain how he’s been blessed? Why does he get a second chance when so many other kids in his situation were lost? Maybe God gave him a shitty past life, or he did some great service to the world and this is his reward. Maybe he’s just lucky.

“You hear from him lately?”

There’s no need to ask who Bobby is referring to. There’s only one person who gets that particular tone of anger, regret, worry, and fear from Bobby.

Dean still hasn’t asked how Bobby and his dad knew each other. As far as he’s concerned, it will go down in history as one of the great unsolved mysteries, like Bigfoot, or the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. All he knows is that John Winchester can get a reaction out of Bobby unlike few other people can. John Winchester has that effect on people.

“Nope,” Dean says, pushing off the hood of the Mustang. Desperate for something to do with his hands, he checks the doors, the paint job, hell, anything to avoid looking at Bobby. “Last I heard from him was last Christmas. Well, he called around January eighth and said that it was his Christmas phone call. Forgot our birthdays.”

Dean’s not sure what hurts more: the fact that his father consistently misses important events in his life or the fact that Sam doesn’t even ask for his father anymore. What might hurt the worst is the fact that Dean’s stopped looking for his father to even remember that he has two children.

Bobby’s face twists in sympathy, though to the uninitiated, it looks like anger. “You can’t blame yourself for what your Daddy does,” like he knows that is exactly what Dean was planning on doing. “He’s a grown man and he made his choices.”

“Yeah,” Dean says, resisting the urge to slam his fist onto the trunk of the Mustang. “I know that, Bobby.”

Obviously sensing the danger, Bobby holds his hands up in classic ‘Don’t Shoot’ behavior. “Ellen had the fixings for some kind of pie. Don’t know if you want to come in and help her with or not.”

Dean smiles faintly, glad for the transparent change of subject. “You saying that I know how to make a pie better than Ellen?”

Bobby scoffs. “I’d never say that you know how to do anything better than her. But you do get more emotionally invested in the process than her.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Dean starts towards the house, sniffing the roast all the way. “Love me some pie.”

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_

The end of the month means that it’s time for the leadership meeting. All the department chairs, gather in one place so that they can be lectured about everything that they’re failing to do and hopefully, receive enlightenment for how to fix their wrongdoings. If anyone were to ask Dean’s opinion, which he notes that they do not, he would tell them that the leadership meeting is a supreme waste of time, like most meetings. But their principal, Naomi Goddard, is a stickler for doing things the proper way, so every month they gather for their scolding.

Dean and Charlie arrive together. As chair of the English Department, Dean is required to be there and Charlie, while not heading up any particular department, will no doubt be asked to comment on something due to her status as the IT coordinator. The head of the science department, the deeply unsettling Mr. Crowley, is already present, as is the also upsetting head of the Math Department, Uriel Heywood. The two of them give Adler a run for his money in the ‘Most Despised Faculty Member’ category.

Castiel sits near them, face impassive as usual. Dean catches his eye as he walks into the room and Castiel acknowledges him by a slight inclination of his head. Dean nods back at him and squashes down the little bit of warmth curling in his stomach at the almost imperceptible smile which graces Castiel’s face. Stop that, he tells his brain, though, like the bad brain that it is, it immediately fucks off and starts analyzing that small quirk of Castiel’s lips.

Dean puts Castiel from his mind for the moment, and grabs a seat as far removed from the action as he can possibly remain. He’s here in these meetings because he is required to be, not because he wants to contribute. When he first started attending he offered a few ideas, all of which were immediately shot down, so now Dean just keeps his head down and struggles through the torture as best he can.

The chair of the Fine Arts Department, Balthazar Roche, strolls in right at 3:45, face split into a wide, smarmy smile, like they should applaud in his presence. Dean could almost like Roche, if it weren’t for the fact that the man has an ego the size of the Superdome. Also, no man’s V-neck should reach quite that low on the chest. This is a school for god’s sake, not a European opium den.

Balthazar sits next to Castiel and immediately drags Castiel’s attention to something on his phone. From his vantage point, Dean can see an actual smile on Castiel’s face as he nods and murmurs something to Balthazar. Whatever Castiel says must be unfairly hilarious, judging by the way Balthazar throws his head back in laughter. Dean scowls. He’s heard Castiel’s attempt a joke. He’s not that funny.

Dean’s brain, still happily fucking up his life, decides to analyze how closely Balthazar and Castiel sit together and the comfortable way that their knuckles bump together when Castiel reaches for Balthazar’s phone. Dean wonders if he can possibly get an upgrade, or a newer model brain. One that isn’t so focused on completely irrelevant shit.

Jo shows up late, just after Goddard has welcomed them and slides into the seat which Dean has saved for her. She always shows up late, like she’s daring Goddard to say something to her. Goddard still has yet to rise to the bait, even after a year, and by now Dean is interested to see whose iron will breaks first.

Halfway through the meeting, Dean fights back a yawn. So far nothing has been said which directly impacts him and it’s a constant struggle to not continuously check his phone for the time. Next to him, Jo is actively falling asleep, her eyelids fluttering closed, only to snap open ten seconds later. Dean repeatedly elbows her and Charlie takes to running her water bottle across the back of Jo’s neck, for all the good it does. If Jo wants to fall asleep, she will.

Dean only perks up when he hears a disturbance in the force. “...which is why we’ve decided to let the AP and DE instructors for seniors collaborate for their senior projects. It’s important to us that we teach our students cross-curricular skills in order to better prepare them for collegiate careers.”

This will negatively affect Dean in some way, shape, or form. He just hasn’t figured out how yet. He hesitates to ask for Goddard to repeat herself, seeing as how everyone else is listening intently. Castiel even has his elbows on the table and is nodding along intently to what Goddard says. That, right there, is why Dean spent the majority of these meetings silently hating him. Who actually shows enthusiasm for these meetings?

“Instructors, I’ll let you decide who you would like to collaborate with on this project. I would like the proposals emailed to me by no later than Thanksgiving break. You’ll have to give your students plenty of time to work on them. We intend to showcase these projects to the Department of Education at their end of year visit.”

And that...That is just great. This is probably why Dean should pay attention during these meetings. He chances a look at Charlie. From her expression he can tell that she at least was being a good professional and listening. He’ll get the notes from her after the meeting.

Perhaps in mockery of Dean’s renewed attention, Naomi refuses to say anything of importance for the rest of the meeting. Fucking typical. She wraps up twenty minutes later, after a long-winded rant about student behavior, which ultimately boils down to ‘You’re not doing your jobs and you’re letting these children run roughshod all over you. You must discipline them better’. Not a sentiment which Dean agrees with but from the nods of Crowley and Uriel, he can tell that Goddard’s protests have not fallen entirely on deaf ears.

Castiel looks more troubled than supportive and Dean tries not to be pleased by that fact.

The meeting adjourns and Charlie grabs Dean by the elbow and hustles Dean out of the conference room. He’s doesn’t understand the haste of her exit but if it gets him away from the office faster, he’s not complaining. Already the other teachers are starting to talk behind them.

“You need to go to Milton’s room ASAP,” Charlie tells him.

“What was Goddard talking about? I got the gist of it but I wasn’t paying attention all the way.”

Charlie rolls her eyes. “Would it kill you to pay attention during one of these things?”

“Honestly, probably.”

This time when Charlie rolls her eyes a low growl of frustration escapes her. “Forget killing you, you’re killing me! I know that I’m not the model of responsibility but at least I don’t have any classes to teach!” She walks backwards down the hall so that she can be face to face with him while still scolding him. “Goddard wants to change the way we do our AP senior projects. Instead of having the seniors focus on just one area of curriculum, she wants to combine areas of study.”

“So you could combine Physics and Math, come up with a new project that combines elements of both of those classes.” Charlie throws her hands up in the air like she’s witnessed a miracle, which is just really too sarcastic.

“And that’s why you need to go to Milton’s room right now,” she urges, and it’s only then that Dean realizes where she’s been leading him. “You need to snag him before anyone else does.”

“Good grief Charlie, it’s not like he’s the last jug of milk at the grocery store.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure Winchester. You were too out of it to notice but Crowley, Heywood, and Roche were all eyeing him. You can bet that they’re going to try to work with him.”

“AP Art and DE Government? How could you even put those two together?”

Charlie shrugs. “I don’t know how and you don’t know how but I bet for damn sure that if you gave Milton that problem he could probably figure out a proposal in about an hour. Have it typed and ready in two.”

“Still. There are easier connections to make. Doesn’t explain why they’d all go for Milton.”

“Are you kidding?” Charlie laughs, not unkindly. “Maybe you’ve just been spending too much time hating him to realize but Milton is like, genius levels smart. You know he’s been published in the time that he’s been working at Lawrence High?” Dean hadn’t and he spares a second to worry for his stalking skills. “Roche probably just wants to work with him because they’re friendly and it beats having to combine AP Art and AP Spanish but Crowley and Heywood? They don’t want to spend the rest of their careers here at Lawrence High and if they can add a project co-designed by Milton to their C.V., then they’re both one step closer to writing their ticket out of here.”

Dean slows down as he considers. If he had his choice of teachers to co-design a project with, he would obviously choose Ellen: she teaches in his content area and she’s experienced enough to navigate any unforeseen pitfalls with ease. But Ellen isn’t one of his choices and Dean has to admit that working with Castiel certainly sounds less painful than working with Crowley or Uriel. At least he can pretend to get along with Castiel.

For reasons that he can’t really explain, it also bothers him to think about Crowley and Uriel using Castiel just to advance their own careers. There’s something slimy and dirty about that, especially when he considers Castiel’s honest interest in his students. At least if Castiel works with him then they’ll be doing this project for the good of the students and not just to pad a resume.

Charlie smiles when Dean starts to walk again. “That’s definitely your decisive walk,” she says, matching his pace. “Glad that you saw things from my way of thinking.”

“You made some good points,” Dean says, unwilling to acknowledge the fact that Charlie was right. The sly smile on her face says that he doesn’t have to say it out loud; that she already knows that she’s always right.

Charlie peels off to go back to her lair and leaves Dean to walk the last hallway by himself. Castiel’s door is open when Dean approaches and from inside the room, he hears voices. As he pops his head inside he sees that Charlie was right: Balthazar sits on a desk, swinging his legs in no discernible rhythm. He’s gesturing animatedly and only stops when he catches sight of Dean in the doorway.

“Something that we can help you with, Winchester?” Dean knows that there are students and not a few faculty members, who are enamored of the art teacher’s accent and smile, not to mention his very Eurotrash way of dressing. Dean has never counted himself one of them. In fact, if he could wipe that smug little smirk off of Roche’s face then he would do so.

“I need to talk to Castiel.”

Balthazar's eyes light up with something unkind but Dean turns to Castiel. On the surface, Castiel looks bored but after a few weeks with him Dean is learning how to read his microexpressions. If Dean is right, then what he’s seeing in Castiel’s eyes is interest and curiosity.

“Well, talk away; don’t mind little old me.” Dean wasn’t aware that anyone could lounge on the rickety desks but damned if Balthazar doesn’t manage to do just that.

“We can finish this conversation later,” Castiel says. There’s a strange moment that passes between Castiel and Balthazar. Though neither one of them speaks or even really changes their expressions, Dean has the impression that an entire conversation takes place between the two. He’s able to do the same thing with Sam, but he never figured that he would be on the outside looking in.

Whatever happens between them, Balthazar smiles and unfolds himself from the desk. “Well, good luck with whatever the two of you are planning. Cassie, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Dean moves back against the doorframe as Balthazar passes him. The smug little jerk almost looks likes he’s going to reach up and pat him but thinks twice of it.

Castiel moves around the room, packing various papers into his bag. “What’s on your mind?”

Dean has just one thing on his mind at the moment. “Cassie?” You wouldn’t let me call you Cas but you’ll take Cassie from Eurovision?

A faint pink tinge appears along Castiel’s cheekbones. “Balthazar can be...irreverent.” Dean quirks an eyebrow. To his credit, Castiel doesn’t look away from him as he says, “We also have a long-standing friendship.”

The verbal slap is light but it’s still present: Balthazar is a friend and you are not. Therefore, Balthazar is afforded certain liberties which you are not. And yeah, Dean already knew that but there’s a difference between knowing something in theory and seeing cold hard proof.

But then Dean reminds himself that he doesn’t really want to be friends with Castiel. He wants to design a project that isn’t going to make either his life or his students’ lives miserable. He chose Castiel because Castiel is the only other AP teacher that he doesn’t want to punch in the face.

“So about the senior project,” Dean starts, and he used to consider himself suave, but right now he’s stammering like a bad prom date.

Castiel hums as he zips up his bag. “I wasn’t sure whether or not you heard that part of the meeting. You seemed to be rather...indisposed.” The shadow of a smile flits across his face, and Dean’s surprised to find that the shape of it is not cruel, but amused.

It restrains his first impulse, which was to bristle and snap at a perceived slight. But goddamn, Castiel just keeps on trying to shatter any perception that Dean had of himself as a good judge of character. “Charlie told me,” Dean says, situating himself on a desk. He sits on the desk, like a goddamn adult. He doesn’t treat it like a throne. “And I thought...I thought that Government and English would be the easiest links.”

Castiel walks past Dean to erase his whiteboard. “You are the fourth person to proposition me within the last ten minutes.”

Dean blinks as his cheeks heat. Does he...he didn’t just...Castiel is a smart guy so he has to know the connotations of the word he just used. “I’m not...don’t make it sound like that, man!” Castiel turns around and looks questioningly at Dean. “Proposition makes it sound like I’m trying to pick up a $20 hooker.”

“I would hope that I would be worth more than twenty dollars.” Dean’s gaze snaps towards Castiel, and judging from the tense set of his shoulders, Castiel is just as surprised by his words as Dean. There’s no way that either of them can pretend they didn’t hear Castiel saying something flirtatious, not when the silence drags on this long. Castiel covers with a strangled cough but the image is in Dean’s mind forever: Castiel on the side of a road, his eyes huge in the streetlights, leaning in through the Impala’s passenger window. Maybe he’d pout those lips at him, run his tongue along his lower lip. Look at him through his eyelashes. Ask Dean to open the door for him in that voice that sounds like the best kind of honeyed whisky. Slide into the car, the leather upholstery creaking under him as he moves closer...

What the FUCK? What the fucking fuck?

Dean’s eyes fly towards Castiel, sure that his thoughts are smeared across his face. Thankfully, Castiel is focused on writing the next day’s agenda on his board and can’t see the guilty shine of Dean’s eyes. Though the current view of Castiel isn’t helping Dean clear his mind, not when he can see just how the material of Castiel’s dark pants stretches across his hips and ass--

Charlie had said that the man had a fine ass. Now that he’s actually looking, Dean can’t disagree.

Oh God, he’s going to need about fifty drinks to wash the last ten minutes from his mind. Jesus. He might not even come in tomorrow. Does his insurance policy even cover the immense amounts of counseling that he’s going to need to get these images out of his brain?

“Winchester. Dean. Are you listening?” Oh fuck, he’s been caught. Oh no. Oh, Castiel might not have reported him for sexual harassment last week but it’s one thing to say something in a moment of anger and it’s another to be undressing your colleague in the middle of his room.

“Sorry. Had a lot of...stuff on my mind.” Dean’s smile is on the wrong side of manic but maybe Castiel really is an android because he doesn’t seem to notice.

“Well, I told Crowley, Uriel, and Balthazar that I would let them know because I was hoping…” Castiel looks down at his feet and addresses the floor as he says, “I was hoping that we could design the project together.”

Dean can’t stop the happy little jump of his heart. He tells himself that the only reason he’s happy is because now his job is a little easier. He knows that’s not the only reason.

“Of course, if you don’t want to, I’d more than understand,” Castiel says, after Dean doesn’t say anything. His robot voice is back in full force as he tells Dean, “I just thought that since our subjects veer so closely together, it might make sense to make use of that. But if you’d rather work with someone else I’d more than understand--”

“No!” Dean says, his voice sharper than he originally intended. “God no. I can’t stand to be in the room with Crowley for longer than five minutes. Spending almost the rest of the year with him…” His shudder of disgust is not entirely an act.

Castiel’s smile is inscrutable. “Do you hate all the faculty at this school?”

Dean blinks, not understanding the question at first. “I don’t...I don’t hate anyone here.” It’s not a lie. Dean learned long ago that spending his energy in hatred was just an endless cycle that ultimately resulted in nothing.

Then the unspoken truth behind Castiel’s words sinks in and Dean blanches. “I don’t...I don’t hate you.” The upwards quirk of Castiel’s eyebrow lacks its usual sardonic punch. “Seriously.” Castiel still looks skeptical and before he gives his mouth permission to speak, Dean is vomiting out the truth which, what the hell brain?

“I don’t hate you.” He doesn’t. He acknowledged that the second he'd heard Castiel laugh. Maybe even before that. Maybe when Castiel had every reason to get him fired and didn’t, just because it wasn’t the right thing to do. “I mean, sometimes you can be stuck-up and you’re a know-it-all, and I’m not sure if you have any actual emotions that weren’t programmed into you by the manufacturer but…”

Dean trails off, his mouth dry. By now, Castiel has given up all pretense of writing on the board and instead stares at him, arms lax by his side. His eyes are huge, wide in surprise, and his mouth is open in shock. Dean’s never seen him look so unguarded before and the sight sends strange little squiggles of emotion through him.

In for a penny, in for a pound, Ellen always says, plus now that he’s started, Dean can’t stop the truth vomit. “And yeah, I mean...You’re grumpy and you call me stupid at least once a week but I’ve never seen you be rude or hateful to your students. And Charlie likes you and even Benny likes you and he’s a grumpy son of a bitch so…” Too late, Dean realizes that he’s rambling and with an effort, he shuts his mouth. “Look, what I’m trying to say is that you might not be my favorite person here but I don’t hate you. You’re a damn sight better than Crowley at least.”

Castiel’s eyes crinkle at the corners. It’s an honest look, honest and sad. “That’s not a high threshold, to be considered better than Crowley, but I’ll take it.”

“Yeah,” Dean says, edging towards the door. There’s something dangerous in this classroom, lurking just at the corners of Dean’s vision. He doesn’t dare to face this thing head on because turning and looking at it would mean acknowledging it. Somehow Dean knows that to acknowledge this unspoken thing would be disastrous.

So he backs towards the door. “I’m glad that we got that cleared up.” He lifts his hand in a wave. “I’ll uh, I’ll work on some ideas and get them over to you later in the week. I’ll see you at practice tomorrow!”

He’s already halfway out the door but he can still hear Castiel’s “Good night Dean,” as clear as though the man were standing right next to him.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

With little fanfare, September slips into October. The dog days, with their long, humid nights, pass and give way to the crisp, sharp feel of autumn. Leaves start to fall and blanket the ground and Dean breathes easier. He loves summer, if for no other reason than the thought of zero responsibilities ahead of him, but after the heat, he craves the relief of fall.

Of course, his opinion of fall changes when the heavens decide to open up and unleash a downpour on them. Unlike summer rains, fall rains in Lawrence are miserable and vindictive, pelting bodies with drops that easily soak through clothes to skin. Dean shivers just looking out the window.

Of course he hadn’t brought an umbrella. Why would he? It was clear this morning and weather reports are for the weak.

Taking a deep breath, Dean flips the collar of his jacket and exits from the school into the pelting rain. It’s just as cold as he feared and within seconds, his jacket is soaked through to his skin and dripping water from the hems. It’s a long walk to his car and while he could run, what’s the point? He’s already soaked through to the skin.

Dean spares a moment to think uncharitably of Scholastic Bowl and Castiel. If it hadn’t been for stupid practice then he would have been home long before the rain started. But no, Castiel wanted to hold practice half an hour longer than usual because their first competition was next week. Dean hadn’t seen the point and had said so to Castiel but, in true Castiel fashion, he had ignored Dean’s complaining and chosen to do exactly what he wanted.

“The team needs the extra practice Dean,” he repeated, dropping his voice to a lower pitch. “They’re not operating at the full cohesiveness of which they’re capable. I know you believe it’s unnecessary but I think that this time could help them learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

A fat drop hits the back of Dean’s neck and leisurely winds its way down his spine. Dean rolls his eyes and shivers as he turns the corner into teacher’s parking.

The Impala sits in the parking lot, in all of her glory. Dean loves parking her there in the mornings, setting her in the midst of SUVs and hatchbacks like a lion among gazelles. This late in the day, most of the other cars have cleared out, which just means that he has better sight lines for his Baby.

There’s one other car in the parking lot, a small blue Fiesta hatchback. Typical teacher car. Dean’s eyes flick over the car, just out of curiosity. When he sees that the hood is raised he becomes a little more curious. When he sees the figure beside the car he becomes a lot more curious, enough to walk over to the Fiesta, after he throws his bag in the Impala.

“You just checking out the scenery, or what?”

When Castiel turns to him, Dean has to bite his lip to smother a laugh. The other man looks like a drowned cat. His dark hair is plastered to his forehead, flat for once underneath the force of the rain. Dean thinks that Castiel’s trenchcoat might have been beige at once time but it’s turned a dark shade of brown, saturated with water. Dean would be willing to bet that whenever Castiel moves, his waterlogged shoes squelch unpleasantly. It’s not funny, not in the slightest, but since it’s Castiel, who is normally so perfectly and unflappable, it’s kind of funny.

“I’m not standing out here for my health,” Castiel says, his voice tight with irritation. “It’s...the damn thing won’t start.” He gestures at the tangle of belts and pistons underneath the hood like they've personally insulted him.

Dean pauses, surprised that he heard a curse word fall from Castiel’s lips. “Do you mind?” He gestures towards the car. Castiel relinquishes his place, hands in the air as if to wash them clean. Dean hums as he leans underneath the hood. No belts slipped, nothing appears to be broken…

“There is gas in the tank, right?” he asks. He doesn’t need to see Castiel to imagine the look on the other man’s face. The stony silence speaks volumes. “All right, all right.” Castiel’s clothes aren’t the only ones soaked through--each drop of rain feels like it has a personal vendetta against him as it soaks through his coat and shirt to chill his skin.

“Do me a favor and try to start it.” Both John and Bobby taught him to listen as well as look. Sometimes eyes are the worst thing in this business: they lie all the time.

“It won’t start.”

Dean grits his teeth at Castiel’s peevish tone. “I’m not expecting it to. But if I can hear what it’s doing I might be able to tell you what’s wrong.” Through the rain, Dean catches a small twitch at the corner of Castiel’s right eye, like it’s taking everything that he has to not roll his eyes.

Still, Castiel slides into the driver’s seat, though he turns the keys with a little more force than is necessary. Dean watches and listens. The sound is key. The engine tries. It sputters, an old man coughing in the morning, and catches for a moment before dying out with a low whine. “One more time,” Dean calls, pitching his voice so that he can be heard above the rain. He’s almost sure that he knows what’s wrong but it won’t hurt to double check.

There’s a pause, during which Dean would be willing to put money down on the fact that Castiel rolls his eyes. The same sound occurs--the cough, the rumble, and then the whimper. This time Dean is sure.

He shuts the hood and wipes his hands on his pants. They need to be washed anyway, there’s no harm in getting a little dirt on them. “So I’ve got good news and bad news.”

Castiel gets out of the car, his face already set in a pissy expression. “Dean, I’m too miserable to play coy. What’s wrong?”

“Your spark plugs are bad.” Castiel looks more clueless than someone with his IQ has a right to. “They start the car? They literally create the spark to light up the engine? You might have noticed that you've been idling rough, your acceleration hasn't been easy?” Castiel’s dark look answers that question. Though it’s hard, Dean avoids giving him the lecture about taking your car in for proper tune-ups.

“I’m guessing that this is not a problem which can be solved at six o’clock in the evening in a parking lot.” The dryness of Castiel’s voice could give the Sahara Desert a run for its money.

Dean nods. Sticking his hands in his pockets won’t keep them warm or dry by any means, but it stops his useless fidgeting. He knows what he wants to offer, but he doesn’t know whether Castiel will accept or not. For some reason, the thought of Castiel rebuffing him hurts a little more than it should.

The hell with it. Dean’s never won anything by waiting.

“Look, do you trust me?”

Maybe it’s the fact that it’s late and Castiel’s tired. Maybe it’s the fact that his fringe is practically dripping into his eyes and his clothes look like he’s just taken a dip in the swimming pool. Or maybe he really does trust him. Whatever the reason, Castiel only thinks for a second before jerking his head in a swift nod.

Dean hides his smile by reaching for his phone, thankfully water-resistant. “I need to make a call.”

Bobby’s voice is gruff when he answers. Of course, it's always gruff but now there’s an edge to it, which says that he’s pissed because he was probably just sitting down to dinner when Dean had the temerity to call him.

“Hi Bobby,” Dean says, trying to cut off the rant before it starts. “Look, I know that you’re going to be pissed but I need a favor.” A long, pointed silence at the other end of the phone. “Look, I’m at the school and I’m going to need a tow.”

Bobby scoffs at that. “As much as you pamper that car, I can't believe that something slipped past you.”

Dean rotates slowly, casting his eyes down to the ground to avoid Castiel’s judgmental look. “It’s not for me, all right!”

This time the silence manages to be incredulous, which is not wholly unreasonable on Bobby's part. Dean would like to consider himself a nice guy but the number of people that he would bother Bobby for at after six in the evening is small. And most of them already live inside Bobby’s house.

Bobby finally sighs, resigned even though the tinny quality of the phone. “Boy, if you’re pulling this just to impress--”

“No!” Dean’s voice is sharp and startled. He casts a look at Castiel, who looks more and more pissed by the second. “Jesus, Bobby.” He rolls his eyes and rakes his fingers through his sopping wet hair. He glances at Castiel, who’s glaring like he wants to cut a hole through Dean’s soul. He turns away from that stare and lowers his voice. “It’s Milton’s car. The sparkplugs are bad and he could use a tow.”

“Give me twenty minutes and I’ll be there.” Dean’s glad that Bobby doesn’t press him anymore because he doesn’t have an answer. If it were anyone else then he would have written down the number for a tow company, maybe stayed to keep them company. He certainly wouldn’t call Bobby.

Dean hangs up the phone and shoves it back in his wet pocket. “Bobby should be here in twenty minutes.”

Castiel tilts his head. “Robert Singer?” Dean must look confused because a brief smile crosses Castiel’s face. “He retired after my first year at Lawrence. We didn’t have occasion to speak to each other much but he made quite the impression.”

“He tends to do that.” Dean glances back at the Impala. “Look, I’m going to get out of the rain. You’re more than welcome.” He gestures at the Impala.

Castiel’s eyes flick towards the Impala before he looks back at his car. “Thanks, but I think I’ll just…” He frowns slightly as he looks back towards the Impala, the indecision writ plain on his face.

“I’ve got a towel. And heat.” And with that, Castiel starts towards the Impala. Dean smiles in triumph, though he’s not sure why he’s celebrating. He should be leaving, secure in the knowledge of his good deed. Better yet, he should have pushed the number to a tow company into Castiel’s hand and driven away ten minutes ago. Instead of those options however, he’s opening the door and leaning across the front seat to unlock the passenger door, while reaching into the backseat for his car towel.

Castiel looks suspiciously at the bench seat like he’s searching for landmines. When he comes up empty he slides into the car, tucking his coat neatly in before he closes the door. Dean stops his inspection of the other man long enough to roughly towel off his hair and face. His clothes, drenched and cold, are hopeless. Dean sniffs at the towel as it passes over his face and winces. It might have spent too much of its life neglected in his backseat but any port in a storm, right?

Thankfully, Castiel doesn’t comment on the towel’s olfactory qualities when Dean hands it to him. Instead, he murmurs a quiet thanks and briskly wipes his face before toweling his hair. His merciless movements leave his hair wilder than usual. The sight brings a smile to Dean’s face.

Castiel is obviously more hopeful than Dean as he tries to pat his coat dry. It’s ineffective but there’s something endearing about watching him try. Dean twists the key to accessory and sighs in relief as the Impala’s heaters crank to life. Castiel pauses in his quest to dry his coat and stares at the dash.

“It’s not supposed to make that noise, is it?”

Dean chuckles as he pats the dash. “No big deal. My brother and I got bored one afternoon when we were waiting for Dad to finish up a job. Shoved a few Legos into the heater, just because we could, and we never did figure out how to get them out.”

Castiel makes a small noise of acknowledgement before returning to his Sisyphean task. Neither of them speaks as their breaths begin to fog up the windshield, and the silence becomes a palpable presence in the car alongside them. Out of the corner of his eye, Dean chances a glance at Castiel. He’s just sitting there, staring out the window at the empty parking lot. He’s at least stopped trying to dry his coat. Instead, he twists the fabric of the towel in his hands, an empty gesture meant to occupy the hands while the mind is busy elsewhere.

Dean’s never done well with silence. Silence meant that he was alone, without his Dad or Sam to talk to, silence meant that Dad was too pissed to even talk to him. Even today, when he’s at home alone, he either has the TV or music blaring. The quiet between him and Castiel is a living, breathing thing and it makes Dean’s skin crawl.

He punches the tape player and the soothing tones of Tangerine wind through the car. His fingers know the beat and he absently drums it against the steering wheel, humming underneath his breath. This time when he chances a look at Castiel, he’s turned away from the parking lot and has instead fixed his stare on the tape deck.

Dean chuckles. “Not a Zeppelin fan?”

Castiel’s eyes are wide, almost guilty, when he looks at Dean. “I’ve never listened to...” He shrugs. “It’s not my normal taste, but it’s not unpleasant.”

“Not unpleasant. From you, that’s a ringing endorsement.”

Castiel’s lips lift in agreement. The last chord fades away into nothing, to be replaced with soft acoustic guitar. Normally Dean skips through this song; it’s too mellow for his particular style, but today it somehow seems right, the fall of rain mixing with the melody. Dean closes his eyes and smiles, still keeping the beat with a single finger tapping on his leg.

“I always wondered about this car.”

Castiel’s voice is low enough that if Dean wanted to, he could pretend that he’d never heard it. But there’s something in the tone, something curious and precarious, like Castiel is peeling back a layer of armor and allowing Dean to see the soft flesh underneath.

“What about it? It’s a ‘67 Impala.” Almost unconsciously, Dean’s fingers seek out the stitching of the steering wheel, running his nails over the bumps.

“It just...it fits you.” Castiel’s hand falls from his lap to his side, and his fingers stroke over the leather seat. His eyes are soft as he looks over the dash and heat blooms in Dean which has nothing to do with the heat blasting out of the vents. “Something this old, this well taken care of...there has to be a story.”

Dean’s throat tightens and his fist clenches around the wheel. There are so many stories burned into the leather and metal of Baby. His and Sam’s initials, etched into the door, the toy soldiers shoved into the pocket, his father sitting behind the wheel, humming along with Black Dog as he glanced into the backseat and smiled at Dean. Him and Sam, stretched out in the backseat while Dad slept in the front. John’s voice, slurred and hopeless, while Dean clutched Bobby’s phone to his ear.

“Yeah,” Dean chokes out through gritted teeth. There are thousands of stories held within this small space, all of them threatening to claw their way out of him. He has to remind himself that Castiel has earned the right to absolutely none of them. Just because he’s not quite as terrible as Dean originally thought doesn’t mean that he’s earned the right to dig into Dean’s life.

Castiel blinks and settles back into the seat. “Right.” After a moment he adds, “Sorry.”

The rain beats a steady rhythm on the roof. By now, the windshield has completely fogged over. Dean can only see the faintest of images. It’s almost like his world has been reduced to the confines of the Impala. The echo of rain against her body, the rich scent of leather, the creak of the seats as they shift, the plaintive chords winding their way around and through him.

“We grew up in this car, my brother and me,” Dean says. It’s almost involuntary, the words drawn out of him like fish on a line, but there’s something clean about it all. Castiel looks at him, lower lip falling open in faint surprise, but he says nothing, perhaps acknowledging the fragility of the moment. “My dad, he uh, he traveled a lot. And there wasn’t anyone to watch us, so we came with him. And…” Dean runs his hands over the steering wheel. His fingers fit into the worn-out grooves and it’s settling, the thought that there’s always one place in the world where he belongs. “This car, it ended up being--”

The blare of a car horn startles Dean so badly that he jumps and bashes his knee into the dash. The small, contained world, where it’s just him and Castiel, and they’re both safe, rips away, leaving Dean wild-eyed with his heart racing. He can’t help but mourn for that world as headlights scrape through the windshield. It had felt like a protected space of peace, something precious with all the potential in the world.

“Mr. Singer appears to have arrived,” Castiel says, unnecessarily.

Maybe he’s reading into things but Dean thinks that he might hear regret in Castiel’s voice. He unfolds himself from the car before he can think too much on that.

After the warmth of the car, the cold of the rain is doubly brutal. Dean bites back his unhappy moan as he clutches his damp jacket close around him. It provides no comfort, not that he was expecting it to.

Bobby jumps down from his truck, his movements impatient as he circles around Castiel’s car. He’s dressed in his usual: jeans, flannel, and ratty trucker’s hat, but something about him suggests a man who was torn from the comforts of home. Castiel, obviously not sensing the surliness clinging to Bobby like a miasma, moves closer, his hand already extended. “Mr. Singer? I don’t know if you remember me, but you were here my first year? I’d like to thank you for coming out this late at night. I don’t know how much you charge but you can bill it to me.”

Bobby’s mouth disappears into his beard as he regards Castiel. After a moment’s contemplation, he takes Castiel’s hand and shakes it, once. “I remember you. Milton. Everyone made quite the stir about you.”

Bobby thankfully doesn’t mention the other reason he knows Castiel’s name: Dean’s snide bitching and passive-aggressive comments about Milton’s superiority in the school. Dean is suddenly, viciously, grateful of Bobby’s tact.

“Don’t worry about it,” Bobby waves off another attempt by Castiel to thank him and offer him payment. “I’ve owed Dean a favor here for a while; you can pay me by getting him to stop bitching about it.”

Dean blinks in surprise. This is the first he’s heard about a favor. As he walks by him to attach the chains to the undercarriage of Castiel’s car, Bobby catches his eye and...Is that a wink? Dean takes a step back, unsure in this new world where everything seems just a little left of center.

Bobby attaches the chains, checks to make sure that they’re secure, before walking back to his truck and starting the crank. The whole process is smooth and takes no more than ten minutes total. Once the car is on the back of the truck Bobby wedges the blocks underneath the rear tires and steps back. He surveys his job and the surliness falls away, in light of a job well done.

“If it’s alright with you, I’m going to take this back home. Should have it done by the time school finishes tomorrow.” Bobby shoves a business card into Castiel’s hand. “Call that number.”

Castiel blinks owlishly at the card and then at Bobby. “I really don’t know how to thank you for this. It’s...thank you.” He shakes Bobby’s hand once more, and a pleased warmth curls in Dean’s chest.

“Oh, you’re going to be paying for that,” Bobby promises, something cheery in his step as he swings himself back into the truck. Caught in the moment, Dean can only muzzily wonder why Bobby’s demeanor turned a 180. “Call tomorrow; can’t promise anything but I should be done around 3:30.” He waves before starting the truck and rumbling away.

Castiel shoves his hands into his pockets, suddenly reticent. His jaw is tense as he looks around the parking lot, shoulders hunched in protectively. Dean wonders why, until he asks, softer than usual, “I know that it’s a little far out of your way, but it appears that I don’t have a way to get home. Do you mind…?”

It clicks, Bobby’s weird happiness, as well as his sudden departure, when normally he would offer the client a ride to either their home or the garage. Dean spares a moment to curse him, before he turns back to Castiel. “It’s no problem,” he shrugs.

They get back into the car and the engine purrs to life. The car fills with music once more, but the previous peace eludes them. Dean grasps for it, that soft, hazy feel, where words seemed to flow from him with the ease of water falling, but it’s gone. Instead, the mood is jagged, off-kilter, like coming out of the warmth back into the cold.

Throughout the drive, Castiel doesn’t speak, other than to give Dean directions. Dean vaguely recognizes where he’s headed. The neighborhood is outside of Lawrence proper, suburban. It’s similar to where Sam lives, albeit on the opposite end of town. Castiel guides him down several streets until he tells Dean to pull into the driveway of a trim, brick A-frame.

Dean tries for subtle, but fails miserably, as he checks out the exterior of the house. The exterior is well-maintained, neatly clipped green grass edging up on a sidewalk. Several tasteful bushes ring the house, and non-descript flowers are scattered throughout. Dark shutters frame the windows of the house. Everything appears neat, tidy, and utterly cookie-cutter. Dean is a little disappointed. He halfway expected Castiel to live in something resembling Dracula’s mansion, or a spaceship. Something different than suburban hell.

Castiel sits in the car just a second longer than Dean would expect, enough that Dean spares at look over at him. He notices the fidget in Castiel’s fingers, the way that he strokes the strap of his bag, the slight jiggle of his leg. The moment stretches on, into the point of awkwardness, and Dean grows impatient because he’d like to go home at some point tonight.

Castiel cough, sniffs, and bites his lip. His facial muscles perform a series of gymnastics before he meets Dean’s eyes. “Would you...would you like to come in?”

Dean thanks his years in the education system for his ability to keep a poker face. Of everything he could have anticipated, this scenario didn’t even rank in his top twenty. Still, the offer has been made, and all that remains is for Dean to stretch out his hand and take it.

He takes too long to answer, and Castiel smiles, huge and false. He grabs his bag and fumbles for the door handle. “Thanks for the ride, I suppose that I’ll see you--”

“Hey, no.” Dean reaches out on instinct, grabs the sleeve of Castiel’s coat. Castiel glances down at Dean’s presumptuous grip, then up at Dean. His eyes are wide and surprised, but Dean doesn’t dare let go of his coat. “I don’t have any plans for tonight.” Castiel’s eyes soften. This time when he smiles, it’s tiny and a thousand times more genuine.

“All right. All right.”

Wordlessly, they get out of the car. Dean shoves his hands into his pockets, falling into step behind Castiel as he walks towards the side door. He’s jittery and strangely nervous as Castiel fumbles in his pocket for his keys. He can’t shake the feeling of the end of a first-date, which is ridiculous for several, valid reasons. Still, when Castiel spares him half a glance over his shoulder as his key slides home, the feeling intensifies.

Castiel flicks the lights on as Dean steps into the house. Once more, Dean tries to drink in every small detail without revealing his inherent nosiness. The interior of the house perfectly mirrors the tidiness of the exterior. The kitchen looks like it could have come out of a shoot from Better Homes and Gardens, complete with spectacular organization and shiny gadgets. There’s even a breakfast nook, complete with a tall table that has a centerpiece. Dean wasn’t aware that actual people used centerpieces outside of yuppie holidays.

Dean glances past the kitchen to the open-plan living space. It reminds him of nothing more than a staged home, something that an ambitious realtor would set up for potential clients. Everything is too clean and perfect. Dean thinks about his own home. His couch is littered with books, blankets, and some spare lesson plans. Dean has left his mark on every inch of his house; every room has his imprint pressed carefully into it. But Castiel’s house, with its pristine arrangements, and flawless furniture presentation...Castiel could disappear from the earth and his house would already be ready for the auction block. It strikes Dean as suddenly, horrifically, sad.

“Make yourself comfortable,” Castiel says, gesturing vaguely around the room. “I think that there’s a beer in the fridge.” Without warning, he disappears down the hallway, leaving Dean alone in the living room.

The first-date feel intensifies, crawling underneath Dean’s skin. He doesn’t know what to do with it. If he were with anyone else, he’d make a joke, address the awkwardness head-on, or spread himself out on their couch as an invitation. But Castiel is an unknown element, a gem which continually shows him new facets after he thought he’d catalogued everything.

The thought hits Dean, so suddenly that it must have marinating in his head all evening: He doesn’t want to wreck whatever this thing is.

Just as Dean is getting ready to start investigating Castiel’s living room, the man himself pokes his head back into the room, interrupting him. In his hands, he holds a thick sweatshirt. “I didn’t know...” Nervousness sits ill on Castiel, twisting his features into something foreign. “Do you want me to throw your shirt and jacket into the dryer?”

Dean swallows, dry throat clicking. He won’t deny that his clothes long since passed the point of uncomfortable, the clammy fabric clinging to his skin in a way that promises future illness. Still, the offer seems like too much, on the heels of an evening that’s already been too much.

A cold drop of water slinking down his back to the waistband of his pants decides him. “God yes, that’d be awesome,” Dean says, as he peels out of his jacket. The denim doesn’t want to cooperate, stubbornly clinging to his arms, and Dean’s face flushes as he struggles his way out. His button down comes off easier, buttons sliding open underneath his shaking fingers. He can’t meet Castiel’s eyes, and he focuses on the buttons as if they’re the most interesting puzzle he’ll ever solve.

Dean’s not ashamed of his body by any means. He knows, objectively, that he’s good-looking, and even if he didn’t, he’s had enough come-ons at bars that the fact would have sunk in sooner or later. But the thought of baring his body to Castiel, Castiel whose sneer could topple cities, Castiel whose eyes are so icy they could give the Arctic a run for its money--Dean hopes that Castiel doesn’t catch the tremble of his fingers as he slides the shirt off his cool shoulders.

He needn’t have worried. When Dean looks up at Castiel, an involuntary smile hits him, because Castiel, infuriating, weird, inscrutable man, isn’t even looking at him. Castiel thrusts the sweatshirt towards him with one hand, the rest of his body angled away from him. Castiel’s eyes are firmly planted on the floor and if Dean squints he thinks that he can see a faint blush dusting his cheeks.

Just because he can, Dean steps closer to Castiel, close enough that he can see the twitch of his jaw. A wild abandon floods through his blood, spurred on by the close darkness of the house, the chill air prickling along his skin, the thrill of crawling underneath Castiel’s mask and making a home for himself. He reaches out. Dean’s fingers slide over the sweatshirt, until he finds skin, warm and smooth. Castiel’s face never moves, but he can’t hide the twitch of his fingers underneath Dean’s.

“Thanks Cas,” Dean murmurs, and though he didn’t intend for his voice to drop several octaves, he’d be lying if he didn’t love the way that Castiel’s fingers move in reaction. It’s intoxicating, to be able to finally, after all these years, see the seams holding him together.

Castiel’s eyelashes flutter on his cheek when he blinks. “I’m going to change and put these in the dryer. Please. Help yourself.” He snatches Dean’s shirt and jacket out of his arms and disappears.

Once Castiel’s not in front of him anymore, the recklessness vanishes from Dean’s veins, almost like it was never there to begin with. Its absence leaves Dean exhausted and vaguely nauseous, like the worst kind of crash. Why did he think it was a good idea to do...any of what he just did? He and Castiel had just been starting to have a tentative...maybe not friendship, but not pure hatred, and then he had to go and fuck it up by trying to dick around with him.

He turns the sweatshirt over in his hands. It’s simple and grey, with a purple ‘Northwestern University’ emblazoned across the front.The fabric is the kind of soft that comes from repeated wearing and washings, the inner lining worn smooth from years of use. After his little stunt, Dean doesn’t even want to put it on but the alternative is to be standing shirtless in Castiel’s living room, so he shrugs into the shirt. It’s just as comfortable as he’d imagined and as he slides his head through the top, he inhales deeply. He shouldn’t like the scent of someone else’s fabric softener that much, especially not when it’s like Castiel manufactures his own. Still, it’s almost intoxicating, and if there were anyone to see him sniffing at the sleeve of Castiel’s sweatshirt then Dean would have to drown himself from the embarrassment.

After his little moment with the sweatshirt, Dean knows that he’s in too deep. Maybe he’s sick from the rain and he’s hallucinating. That would certainly explain a lot. Dean runs his hands through his mostly dry hair. Whatever this thing is, he needs to get a grip on himself. Unfortunately, that’s difficult to do when he’s in a room surrounded by the man’s possessions.

He wanders over to the shelf above the fireplace in the corner of the room, drawn to the artfully arranged photographs. For a second Dean wonders if, like the rest of the house, they’re just stock photos, meant to create a particular type of image, but no, they’re of real people. Dean even recognizes most of them. Mayor Michael is in one, sitting in a large chair and surrounded by what must be his whole extended family. Far in the back of the crowd, Dean can see Castiel, staring dead at the camera, face set in its normal I wish I was anywhere but here expression. There are a few photos of a woman with vibrant red hair and large, sad eyes, whose smile looks like it’s mourning something. Dean traces over her face before moving his attention elsewhere.

Dean looks at the other pictures. He pulls down one particular picture, scowling when he gets a closer look at its occupants. It’s Castiel and Meg Masters and they’re on some beach with impossibly white sand and water so blue that Dean can’t believe that it hasn’t been Photoshopped. It’s still nothing compared to the blue of Castiel’s eyes as he smiles into the camera, teeth showing in a wide smile. Meg even has a smile on her face instead of her normal smirk. She’s standing behind Castiel, her head leaned into his, and her arms thrown around his neck. Dean searches the image for something hidden, but. They just look happy.

Another picture shows Castiel and Balthazar. They’re standing someplace unmistakably European, maybe Madrid, maybe Paris, maybe Berlin. Wherever it is, they look like they fit right in, both of them dressed in tight fitting pants, Balthazar with his customary V-neck, and Castiel in a dark button-down. A pair of sunglasses perched on top of his head catches the sunlight and throws it back towards the camera. Their arms are slung around each other, hips pressed too close together to be purely casual. They look like there’s no other place they’d rather be, no other person they’d rather be with.

The gem turns, another facet comes to light. This time, it’s not a piece that Dean thinks that he wanted. His eyes flick to Castiel’s fridge. He needs a beer.

He opens Castiel’s refrigerator, looks inside, and closes the door. Opens the door again.

He forgets all about the fact that he’s an asshole, forgets about the pictures on Castiel’s mantle, forgets that in five minutes Dean demolished a relationship that took him over a month to build. He can’t get over the contents, or lack thereof, in Castiel’s refrigerator. Five beers, ketchup, a half-empty quart of skim milk, a jar of bread and butter pickles, and grape jelly is all that stands between Castiel and starvation. Dean always assumed that Castiel’s trim figure was due to some kind of exercise regime, but maybe the truth is simpler. Maybe he just doesn’t eat.

Dean’s ears, relentlessly trained by his father, pick up the sound of feet treading on the carpet. “Cas,” he calls, forgetting everything else except his horror over the lack of food, “are you aware that you don’t have any food in your house?”

Silence greets his question and that’s when the rest of reality crashes into him. The borrowed sweatshirt shifts against his skin as Dean faces Castiel.

If he’d stopped to think about it, then Dean would have just automatically assumed that Castiel lived in his waistcoats, suits, and ties. He’d never seen the man without at least a button-down Oxford on. But the Castiel across from him is a new beast, one dressed in a sweater and a pair of faded jeans. His feet are bare. Dean’s never thought himself a connoisseur of feet, but Castiel...Castiel’s got some nice feet.

Dean’s mouth goes dry as Castiel continues to stare at him. He has no idea what Castiel finds on his face but he can’t find anything on Castiel’s.

“Look, Cas,” too late he remembers himself, “Castiel, I’m sorry about earlier, I guess I was just screwing around--”

“I don’t know what you want from me,” Castiel interrupts. His low voice is as serious as Dean’s ever heard it. “You say, repeatedly, that you don’t like me, but then you go out of your way to help me, and then…” Castiel’s jaw clenches, his eyes are gimlet. “I don’t play games Dean.”

“I’m not--I didn’t mean to,” is all that Dean can think to say.

Castiel never blinks and he remains at the other end of the room. “Maybe not.” His lower lip disappears for a second between even white teeth before it reappears. Dean’s eyes follow the journey before he looks back up to Castiel’s steel eyes. “You should know Dean.” His eyes are hypnotic and even if Dean wanted to, he couldn’t look away. “I don’t do relationships.” Something strange swoops in Dean’s stomach, a weird little stone of disappointment that Dean didn’t know he could carry until he found it in his pocket. “And I don’t screw around with people that I work with.” Castiel’s eyes hold no challenge, no coy invitation for Dean to try and change his mind. It’s just the truth.

Then what about those pictures? You can’t tell me that you weren’t screwing Meg and Balthazar both. Something wild and vicious wants to spit those words right in Castiel’s face, but Dean just nods. Because fuck, a relationship, that’s not anything close to what he wanted from Castiel, not a relationship, not when he only just got used to the idea that maybe he doesn’t hate Castiel, maybe he actually kind of likes him. I don’t know what you want from me, Castiel had said, and then I don’t do relationships and fuck, Dean hadn’t known that was an option until all of a sudden, it wasn’t.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Dean says, harsher than he intends. Castiel’s mouth hardens and Dean immediately tries to backpedal. “I didn’t...shit.”

He’s bought himself about ten seconds and he uses them to think of how he can save this situation. This night’s turned unpredictable, not that it’s been normal from the start but he’s walking on virgin ground here. A relationship? He doesn’t want a relationship with Castiel, not really. What he wants...He wants to be like they were this evening, tucked away together in the Impala, safe from the rest of the world, in a little bubble all their own. He wants to be able to drop little nuggets of truth and have someone accept them for what they are, instead of trying to use those nuggets to fix the broken parts of him. What he wants--

“I just want this, between us, to be all right,” he says, shrugging helplessly. “I don’t...I don’t want to go back to before.” He hopes to god that Castiel knows what he means, because he sure as hell can’t put it into words. All he knows is that the thought of going back to a month ago, when they were like two cats circling each other, spitting and hissing at the slightest provocation...the thought makes his stomach want to crawl out of his throat.

“Dean,” Cas says, blinking slowly. While his face doesn’t show much emotion, Dean’s starting to suspect that it’s not because Cas doesn’t feel them. He thinks that maybe it’s the opposite: maybe he feels too much, so much that his face can’t possibly hope to express them all. “I…” Castiel trails off, looking all the world like he wants someone to rescue him.

More than anything, Dean wants to be that guy, to be able to say the right thing to make everyone’s problems disappear. “You don’t have any food in your fridge,” is what comes out of his mouth instead, but maybe that’s the right thing to say after all. Castiel’s face loses its harsh edges and becomes soft with confusion. Dean presses the advantage. “You’ve got condiments, and skim milk, and fuck that’s just depressing, Cas.”

Cas blinks, before he walks closer, peering over the edge of the door into his fridge. “There’s jelly. I can make sandwiches for lunch.” Dean meets his eyes, a disbelieving smile starting to tug at the corners of his mouth.

“Cas, you might have more degrees than me, but you are godawful stupid sometimes.” Dean pulls out his phone and thumbs open his pizza app. “What’s your address? I’m getting you some goddamn food.”

Castiel puts up a token protest, but Dean smugly notices that he also peers over his shoulder to offer his opinion on various foods. Castiel’s opinion doesn’t come in verbal form, nothing as mundane as that, but Dean swiftly learns to interpret the different hums of approval and disapproval as he clicks through the menu. He orders more food than two men will ever be able to eat in one sitting, and something pleased flows through him when he realizes Castiel will have plenty of food to take for lunch tomorrow.

While they’re waiting for the pizza, he and Cas talk about stupid crap, like potential topics for the senior projects, lineups for the upcoming match next week. Harmless, non-threatening topics. It’s easy, easier than it has a right to be. I don’t want a relationship, Castiel had said, but this, this isn’t anywhere near a relationship. This is just easy.

Afterwards, when the half-empty pizza box is packed away into the fridge and Dean’s stomach is full, he stretches out on Cas’ couch, shoes toed off and his hands partially buried within the sleeves of Cas’ sweatshirt. He finds the remote for Cas’ TV, an obscenely large flat-screen mounted on the wall.

“The hell can you afford something like this?” Dean asks, forgetting for a moment that Castiel’s family earns more money in a week than Dean’s father ever earned in his entire life.

Castiel shrugs, looking uncomfortable for the first time in a long while. “It was a gift,” he finally mutters. “My cousin, Gabriel, received it as thanks for an ad deal, and he didn’t need it, so he gave it to me. I think he meant for me to become more pop-culture savvy.”

“Mission failed,” Dean snorts, and instead of bristling or snapping, Cas just smiles ruefully, sinking back into an easy-chair. Dean hides the brightest part of his grin behind Cas’ sweatshirt and flips through the channels before he finds something that he likes. It’s a cop procedural, something that Dean’s seen a thousand times before, despite the fact that he’s never seen this episode. Like before, in the Impala, everything feels soft, like someone’s taken all of their hard edges and gently sanded them so that they can’t hurt each other.

The dryer buzzes, jerking Cas upright. “Your clothes,” he says, disappearing before Dean can react. He tries not to blink, wanting to hold this moment in close to him. He doesn’t know if he can ever come back to here again, where everything seems indestructible and vulnerable, all at once.

Cas returns, Dean’s folded clothes in hand. Dean takes them, relishing the warmth still clinging to the fabric. He holds back from sniffing them, but he can somehow tell that they smell the same as the sweatshirt that he’s wearing. Speaking of. “Give me a second to change.” Dean starts towards the bathroom but Castiel’s shrug stops him.

“Just...give it back whenever. It’s fine.”

Dean shrugs and turns to hide his smile. “I’ll have it back to you by the end of the week. How fond are you of it? I do accept ransoms.”

Cas rolls his eyes and ushers him towards the door.

Dean turns around, so abruptly that Cas almost runs into his chest. "Hey, you don't have a car," he says, and such is his goodwill towards the rest of the world, that the roll of Cas' eyes comes off as fond. "No, I mean, are you going to need a ride tomorrow?"

Castiel blinks, his mouth turning down in a faint frown. "I was planning...Meg lives nearby, I was planning on asking her to give me a ride into work tomorrow."

Dean immediately feels stupid, and then irritated for feeling stupid. "Yeah, no of course, that makes sense. Right."

He's turned around, half out the door, when Cas' voice stops him. "Dean." Once again, the simple sound of his name has the power to stop everything in Dean's world. He stops, but he can't turn around to face Cas, not right now, when he doesn't know what is plastered all over his face. "Thanks for everything. For tonight."

Dean has to turn around. Castiel does a good job at mimicking unaffected: his arms are folded across his chest and his posture is easy and set. There's something, however, in his eyes that tells Dean that maybe, Cas is just as scared of screwing this up as he is. So he shrugs, self-deprecating, and grins. "It's no problem. Gives you something else other than freaking pickles to eat for lunch." Cas smiles and scuffs the floor with his foot.

"I'll see you later this week." And that's not entirely a promise that this will happen again, but it's not a promise that it won't either. Dean can live with that. Cas opens the door for Dean, shivers as the night invades the coziness of the house. "Good night Dean."

“Night Cas,” Dean calls, walking back out into the night. Though there’s a chill in the air, the relentlessly cold rain has long since passed, leaving the world smelling clean and fresh in its wake. He slides into the front seat of the Impala, watching Castiel turn back inside and the outside light flick off. He watches the house for a moment, smiling, before he cranks the key and starts the drive home.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

Dean’s whole world has become nothing more than slick, wet, heat.

God, he hasn’t felt something this good in...in...it’s not fucking important, because it feels like his goddamn soul is being sucked out through his cock and it’s fucking awesome, is what it is. Dean pants, fists twisting the sheets and his back arches as he’s swallowed down again, back of his cock hitting the soft resistance of a throat.

“Fuck,” Dean groans, hips trying to push up. A helpless moan escapes his lips as strong hands cup his hips, push them down and pin them. He tries, he really does try, to push up into that welcoming heat, but those hands don’t allow any movement. He’s forced to just lay there and take it, deep sucks, and teasing licks. He actually fucking whimpers as cool air hits his cock, the sensation tantalizing and teasing.

“C’mon, c’mon, please, please--” Dean’s hand gropes down, fingers winding through thick, sweat-damp hair. He cups the curve of a skull in his hand, not pushing or pulling, just present, occasionally twisting his fingers in dark hair, just to feel the moan shudder through the throat wrapped around his cock.

He whines as cool air surrounds his cock, looking down the length of his body to meet coolly amused blue eyes. “You need to learn a little more patience,” Cas says, his already low voice hoarse and totally fucking wrecked. Dean’s cock twitches because he did that, he made Cas sound like that, smug and yet so desperate.

Dean’s hands push on the back of Cas’s head as he shifts his hips, trying to get Cas’s attention back to where he wants it. Cas obliges him, but he’s an asshole about it, teasing little licks to the head, too much and not enough. Dean pulls Cas’ hair, blood lighting up as Cas moans. He retaliates by deliberately licking at the slit of Dean’s cock, tracing the thick vein all the way down to the base.

“Fuck, Cas, Cas, oh God, need this, need you, need you so bad--” Cas returns to his job, sucking him down all the way to the root like it’s his fucking job, spit dribbling out of the corner of his lips as he bobs up and down, damp eyelashes fanned out on his cheek and no one’s ever gone down on him before like this, like there was nothing else they’d rather be doing, like all they’d ever wanted from life was Dean’s cock in their mouth--

“God, Cas, I”m gonna, Cas, Cas please--” Cas’s eyes finally flick up to him, glassy and electric and Dean’s whole body stiffens--

With a gasp, Dean bolts upright. His heart pounds uncomfortably in his chest, hands twisting in the sweat-damp sheets underneath him. He’s aware of his skin in a way that he normally isn’t, all of it prickling and humming with awareness and thwarted desire. Desire from…

Dean remembers his dream, in excruciating detail. His cock twitches against his thigh, more than half hard and happily on its way to full mast. “Stop that,” he hisses, not that his dick takes any notice. It’s still blissfully ensconced in remembering the feel of dream-Cas’s mouth, the wicked little grin, the way that his eyes gleamed as he looked up at Dean, his dark head bobbing up and down…

“Goddamnit,” Dean hisses, wrapping his hand around his cock. He thinks of anything, of tits, legs, burying himself in slick, wet, heat--Cas’s eyes, fixing on his, his cock still in Cas’s mouth, the way that Cas closed his eyes before diving back down, Cas’s hands holding him down--

With a low groan, Dean comes, remembering just how Castiel smiled at him--not in the dream, but tonight, with pizza grease smeared over his mouth, not half an hour after Dean had assured him that he wasn’t interested in a relationship.

He doesn’t want a relationship. Relationships are messy, time-consuming, and ultimately end in tragedy and hurt feelings. What he wants are more nights like tonight, easy and comfortable. Effortless.

But that dream…

“Fuck,” Dean whispers, flopping back on his bed.

He is so screwed.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Chapter Text

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

The first Scholastic Bowl competition of the season comes along and Dean is surprised to find himself nervous. He’ll deny it to his dying day, but it gets so bad that Charlie calls him out in the middle of lunch.

“Big night tonight,” she says, talking around her giant mouthful of sandwich.

They’re in the teacher’s lounge, a truly depressing room which smells of stale coffee, printer toner, and countless microwaved meals. Every piece of furniture is a hold-over from the 1970’s: the table, the office chairs, and the truly distressing orange and brown couch, complete with odd stains, sitting in the corner. Dean wouldn’t sit on it for a whole month’s salary. Teachers flow in and out through the room all during lunch but thankfully, Charlie’s chosen to spring this conversation bomb on him towards the end half of lunch, when the traffic slows down.

When he doesn’t immediately answer, Charlie waggles her eyebrows in an absurd dance. Dean, of course, knows exactly what she’s talking about, but tries to play it off anyway. “Don’t know what you mean. Dr. Sexy doesn’t air on Mondays.”

Charlie rolls her eyes and doesn’t bother to dignify his remark with a response. “Alfie is part of my tech squad. He told me that your first competition is tonight.”

Dean shrugs, wiping a spare bit of sauce from his chin. “Yeah, so instead of getting home at six tonight, I’ll get home at nine. Awesome.”

Charlie rolls her eyes. “Dude, you can cut the tough guy act with me, all right? You’re not fooling anyone.”

Dean cocks his head and narrows his eyes. “Wasn’t aware that I was trying to.” Charlie over exaggerates the roll of her eyes, to the point where it might be classified as exercise.

Dean hunches over his food, feeling oddly chastised. It’s not often that Charlie feels the need to call him on his crap; most of the time she’ll just wait for him to figure his own shit out, but when she makes the effort it never ceases make him feel about two inches tall. “I might be a little more invested in the outcome tonight than I originally anticipated,” he finally allows.

Charlie rolls her eyes again, with infinitely more compassion. “You play tough Winchester, but you’re a big softy. Come on.”

Dean sighs and drops his head down to the table, ignoring for a moment the years of accumulated filth. “Fine, damn it. I’m worried, because I don’t know how this whole thing is going to play out, and the kids are so excited about it and I don’t want to see them disappointed, and Cas has been worried about playing De Soto High--”

“Cas?”

Charlie’s voice acts like a bucket of ice-water dumped over him. Despite the fact that it makes him look guiltier, he sits bolt upright and smiles weakly. “Um, Milton?” It doesn’t fool her, not that he was expecting it to.

Charlie, however, is a being made of infinite empathy and kindness. She lets it lie, just smiling secretively between sips from her soda. Dean waits, for the rest of lunch, for her to strike, but she never does. If Charlie were the type for cheap shots, then Dean would worry for his future, but if Charlie were the type for cheap shots then Dean wouldn’t be friends with her.

The bell rings, ending the lunch and sending Dean back to his room. He stands up, but before he can leave, Charlie’s arms wrap around his waist. “Good luck tonight,” she says, squeezing his middle so tightly that Dean worries for the lunch he just ingested.

“Thanks,” Dean wheezes, patting the top of her head. Charlie releases him and grins, an actual sunbeam in the middle of the dingy lounge, and leaves the room.

Dean walks back to his room, smiling to himself all the while.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

Thirty seconds after walking into Cas’ room, Dean ponders whether or not he should fetch Charlie and see if she can bestow some of her serenity on him as well.

He’s seen Cas pissed, he’s seen him content, he’s even seen him flustered, but he’s never seen him stressed. He’s trying to hold it together for the team’s sake but Dean can see the faint spiderwebs of concern radiating from the corners of his eyes. There’s a manic energy to the way that Cas moves around the room and even though the kids might not know everything, they’re still picking up on his mood. Claire and Kevin are snapping at each other and even Patience seems on edge.

“Ca--Milton, can we talk?” Dean catches the slip of his tongue just in time. He returns Cas’ narrow-eyed glare with a disarming smile of his own. “It won’t take but a second.”

Castiel gives him a Look, like he might consider ripping Dean’s throat out with his fingernails, but he acquiesces with good enough grace. That mood lasts until they reach the hallway and the door closes behind them. Then, Cas wheels around, his trademark scowl already settled firmly on his features.

“Whatever you want to talk about, I promise we don’t have time for it. Krissy somehow managed to talk Alfie into going to the gas station to get food with her. They’re not back yet and if they don’t make it back before the bus leaves then I’ll completely have to rethink all of our lineups. Claire forgot her team shirt, so she’ll need to borrow someone else’s every time she goes in a lineup. Kevin looks tired--”

“Cas, you’ve got to take five.” Years of living with Sam have given Dean the ability to recognize a neurotic breakdown from a mile away, and Cas is showing all the signs. Irritability, obsessive behavior, pacing, the list goes on and on. “Go out and take a walk, get a drink from the machine, I don’t know. But you’re taking this way too seriously.” Dean catches the quick spark of anger in Cas’ eyes and raises his hands in what he hopes is a non-threatening gesture. “The competition is serious. But Claire not having the right shirt? Not serious.”

Cas’ upper lip lifts in a snarl as his eyes narrow in an icy glare, but Dean holds his ground. Again, he learned with Sam, that any retreat is weakness. Once you've chosen a position, you need to stick to it with everything you have.

Abruptly, Castiel’s shoulders slump. His head lolls back on his shoulders and Dean winces in sympathy at the sharp pop of Cas’ vertebrae. When he drags his head back up to face Dean, there’s still something defiant in the twist of his mouth, but he looks calmer than he did just thirty seconds prior. He squints at Dean, suspiciously, like Dean can’t quite be trusted. “I’ll be back in five minutes. Don’t let anyone leave.”

He’s gone before Dean can reply. And yeah, Cas is a rude little shit, but Dean can’t help but be pleased at the fact that Cas’ shoulders loosen with every step he takes. And sure enough, four minutes and fifty eight seconds later, Cas returns to the room, bottle of iced coffee in his hand, looking like he’s shed about twenty pounds of worry. He doesn’t thank Dean, or even verbally acknowledge him, but on his way back to his desk, Cas deliberately jostles Dean’s shoulder with his. The brief contact sends a jolt through Dean and for a few minutes he swears that his skin tingles with the memory of the touch.

After a forty-five minute bus ride on the world’s most uncomfortable school bus, Dean picks up the stress ball once more, as he’s shoved into a coaches’ meeting with a dozen of the most pretentious human beings he’s ever had the misfortune to meet. Dean's always hated being in unfamiliar territory and here he’s been plopped behind enemy lines with no ally other than Castiel. De Soto High seems too polished, too squeaky clean. It's a far cry from Lawrence High’s dusty and tired hallways. The rest of the coaches are pristine and suave, with creases in their blazers sharp enough to cut flesh. Dressed in a polo shirt and slacks, Dean feels like the redneck cousin who accidentally wandered into the boardroom.

Castiel flows from person to person, shaking hands and flashing a smile at anyone who looks at him. Caught in his wake, Dean follows him and resents every second of it. He’s about three seconds from turning around and heading back to the bus when Castiel turns and catches sight of him.

Cas’ eyebrows furrow as his smile drops, to be replaced with a small frown of confusion. Then, he smiles, not the huge glad-handing monstrosity offered out to the rest of the coaches, but something tiny and private. Effortlessly, Cas melts back to Dean’s side. When the next coach greets him, Cas shakes his hand and in the same breath says, “And let me introduce my co-coach, Dean Winchester.”

Startled out of his spiel, the other coach stutters, but he recovers quickly and offers his hand to Dean. Dean takes it, smiling insincerely and hating the stupid, garish bowtie settled at the base of the coach's fleshy throat. “Wasn’t aware that you needed a co-coach Milton, the way that your team performed last year.” The coach addresses Cas over Dean’s shoulder and Dean allows himself to hate him a little more.

Cas laughs, but Dean knows his real laugh, something rich, rumbling, and deep. This one is brittle and bright, and it scrapes across Dean’s nerves, still raw from Coach Douchebag’s words. But then Cas’ shoulder hits his, except this time, instead of moving away it stays, bleeding warm through Dean’s bicep.

“Dean’s brought a whole new perspective to the team, one which was sorely needed. Last year’s team was solid, but I’d expect wonderful things from this year’s team.”

Cas’ shoulder never leaves. In fact, it presses harder, the sharp bone digging into the meat of Dean’s arm. Dean’s eyes slant over to look at Cas’ face and he takes in the sharp smile and challenging tilt of his head. It’s an entirely different experience to not be on the receiving end of it, and for the first time, Dean thinks that he can understand why so many people were willing to bend over backwards for Cas. There’s something uniquely powerful in being the reason behind that look.

Bolstered on that moment, and the memory of Cas’ shoulder against his, the rest of the coaches’ meeting passes in a haze for Dean. The tournament organizer goes over the rules, his delivery tired and dry, but Dean listens intently. The last thing he wants to is to make a fool out of himself. He learns that there are three rounds to any match: the first round is fifteen toss-up questions and anyone from either team is able to answer them, as long as they buzz in first with the correct answer. The second round questions are directed to a specific team, who are then allowed to confer for the answer, though the other team can steal the answer if the first team doesn’t come up with a correct answer. The third and last round is identical to the first round. It all seems simple enough.

He and Cas return to the small huddle of their team. Cas’ previous stress has vanished like it never existed. All that remains are the echoes of his assured steps on the overly waxed tile floor. Even Dean finds himself looking towards Cas, caught in the riptide of his inexorable confidence.

“We’ll be playing Mill Valley first, then De Soto, and finally Belmont. You saw them all last year, so there shouldn’t be any major surprises as far as their ability levels.”

“Which team had the bow ties?” Dean murmurs.

Cas shoots him a look which could be amused or irritated, depending on the lighting. “That would be Belmont.”

Dean nods. “Beat them. Definitely beat them.”

It might not be the most professional thing to say but it’s the right thing to say. Kevin’s face cracks into a smile, Claire returns to her usual slouch, and Patience’s face loses its hunted look. Even Cas huffs a soft laugh.

“All right, first up, I want Kevin, Patience, Claire, and Alfie. You know what to do.”

Dean watches the four of them go up and sit at the table and wonders if this is what mothers felt like when sending their sons to war. They each grab the button for their buzzer, thumbs poised and ready. Cas settles in the seat next to him, scoresheet and pen ready. “They’ll be fine,” he whispers to Dean, just as the first question is read.

Over the past weeks, Dean has become accustomed to Cas’ behavior during practice. There, Cas is in his element, loose and relaxed. Most of the time, he grades papers and only spares his attention to answer questions to which no human should have answers.

Cas during a match is another beast altogether. He doesn’t even whisper the answer, though Dean can tell whenever he has the answer, because he’ll tap out the beats of syllables with the tip of his pen. He stares at the players with the intensity shown by hawks, almost to the point that Dean’s surprised that his eyes haven’t bored holes through Kevin’s forehead. Caught for something to do with his hands, Dean doodles on a spare sheet of paper, scratching out abstract designs throughout the questions.

At question ten, the sharp corner of a piece of paper pushes underneath the nail of Dean’s index finger. Dean glances at Cas, and then back at the paper. Four names are written in small, neat script: Kevin, Inias, Krissy, and Patience. Over top of them, is written simply, Round Two lineup? Dean blinks, reads it again just to be sure that he’s not hallucinating, and then looks at Cas.

If it were anyone else, then Dean would assume that they’re patronizing him, but there’s no hint in Cas’ profile. All of his attention is focused on the four sitting up front, without even a look to spare for Dean. Cas taps the pen against his lower lip, grimacing as the team takes a moment too long to answer a question.

Dean scrawls out a sure why not? on the paper and pushes it back towards Cas. He has to push the edge of the paper against Cas’ fingers a few times before he looks down and sees it. Cas spares it half a look before he nods in satisfaction. He has yet to look at Dean, and surprisingly, it doesn’t bother Dean nearly half as much as it should.

The first round ends and substitutions for both teams are made. Dean watches it all, with a growing sense of serenity. Somehow, he knows, everything is going to be fine.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

Everything is most certainly not fine.

Belmont High School, they of the infamous bowties, is their last opponent, so of course, they’re the one opponent that looks like they might actually win. Over the course of one and a half rounds, Dean has developed a personal dislike of both the coach and the team, and the thought of losing to the coach's smarmy grin is unthinkable. If he thought that it would help, Dean would put himself up at the table. He could still pass for a senior.

Cas’ leg jiggles underneath the table, the only hint to his mood. Throughout the night he’s been Mr. Robot, barely cracking a smile at their first two victories, because he knew that the real test would come at the third match. The third match which, barring a miracle, it looks like they will lose.

The paper slides across the table towards him once more. Castiel’s writing becomes smaller and thicker when he’s under pressure and it takes Dean a moment longer to decipher it. He makes out the names Patience, Kevin, Alfie, and Inias, for the second round. Dean studies the names and frowns in thought. All four of those players are strong, but something about the lineup seems wrong to him.

He’s noticed that the directed rounds tend to have to more math and physics based questions than the tossup rounds. This makes Patience and Kevin natural choices, but Inias and Aflie’s strengths lie in history and government. To the best of his recollection, there have only been three history questions in the directed round all night.

Krissy’s knowledge is wide, but she’s shown a remarkable aptitude for engineering questions. Dean hasn’t gone against Cas’ wishes all night, but for the first time he takes his pencil and crosses out Inias’ name, replacing it instead with Krissy. He slides the paper back to Cas, biting his lips as Cas takes it in hand.

Dean can see the exact moment when Cas reaches his correction. One thin eyebrow rises and Cas’ lips purse--in thought? In disdain? In anger? Dean watches him, restraining the thumping of his leg only through supreme force of will.

It’s still impossible to read Cas. As the first round ends, Dean still has no idea what he’s going to do, even as the reader asks for substitutions. Cas shoves his fingers into his eyes, squeezes his temples, and sighs. “Patience, Kevin, Alfie, and Krissy.”

Dean’s heart beats a hard thump-thump against the restraints of his sternum. He turns to look at Krissy, whose eyes are wide and terrified, and gives her what he hopes is an encouraging smile. It feels a little more like some sadist is grabbing the edges of his lips and twisting them in obscene directions, but it must look all right because Krissy takes her seat at the front of the room.

“This had better work,” Cas mutters, the end of his pen tapping viciously against his teeth, to the point where Dean worries for his enamel.

“It’ll work,” Dean returns, trying to convince Cas with the force of his conviction. He turns his attention to Krissy, who looks ready to bolt, and tries to beam the thought into her head: Don’t screw up, don’t screw up, don’t screw up.

The first questions fly by. 1A goes to Lawrence, while 1B goes to Belmont. Neither team drops the ball until 3B, when the captain of Belmont’s team freezes. Time runs out for Belmont and the judge turns to Kevin, who is acting as captain for Lawrence.

“Do you have an answer?”

Kevin looks up from his paper. Deer caught in the headlights of oncoming sixteen-wheelers have looked more at ease than Kevin Tran looks right now. If Lawrence comes up with the correct answer, it could be their chance to pull ahead, but from the blatant panic blaring from both Kevin and Patience, Dean can tell that they don’t have the answer.

Krissy whispers, her words lost but her tone urgent and sharp, as she shoves a paper towards Kevin. Kevin seizes it and blindly scans over it. The judge speaks again, her voice less patient. “Lawrence High, do you have an answer?”

“Nine over twenty-five?” Kevin’s voice comes out in a thin, reedy squeak. To his left, Krissy looks like she might vomit.

The judge scans through the answer, while Dean’s stomach roils mercilessly. Across the table, Castiel freezes, his pen cap clutched between his teeth. “Yes,” she says. All the air goes out of Dean’s lungs like he’s been punched. “Ten points to Lawrence.”

If possible, Krissy looks even more like she might vomit. Dean can sympathize.

Cas only smiles around his pen, hums softly in satisfaction.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

After that, it becomes a rout. Belmont, shaken by the theft of their question, starts to fall apart. The directed round ends with Lawrence having stolen at least four more of Belmont’s questions. Dean finally understands what Cas was talking about when he mentioned the team playing as a cohesive whole. All four heads bend towards each other and Kevin looks at each team member for assurance before giving an answer.

In the third round, Belmont falls apart. Lawrence’s buzzers ring almost constantly, and the answers fall confidently from the team.

Dean rides high on the wave of victory, all through the third round, and on the bus ride home. He sits at the front and leans his head back against the seat. The team’s excited chatter threatens to overwhelm him but he can’t find it in himself to be annoyed at their high-pitched laughter.

He only looks up when the seat next to him depresses and warmth presses against his side. It’s hard, to fit two full grown men side by side on a school bus seat, and Cas ends up pressing him into the cool metal of the window. Dean fights the instinctive flinch away from Cas and then fights the urge to press further into Cas’ body.

“That was a good call on your part,” Cas says, his voice almost too low to be heard over the shrieks of the team.

Dean shrugs, unsure of what Cas is looking for. “It just seemed right. You were right about every other lineup.”

Cas’ head nods in time to the bus’ lurching and bumping as he hums again. Dean’s beginning to catalogue that sound as both agreement and dismissal, the sign that Cas’ mind has moved onto other matters. Dean kind of hates the fact that he’s interested to see what those other matters are.

“We normally go out to dinner after a match,” Cas finally says, slanting his head over to look at Dean. “If you’re interested in joining us.”

Dean smiles, knocks his elbow into Cas’ side. “You know that I’m always ready for something to eat.”

Cas smiles at that, his teeth and eyes gleaming in the flashes of streetlights thrown through the windows. “Excellent,” he says, and Dean can wholeheartedly believe that Cas actually wants him around.

When Cas moves back to his own seat, Dean’s side is cold and his skin aches with the memory of Cas’ body pressed against his.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

In Lawrence, Kansas, Friday nights mean one thing: high school football.

Despite being the sixth largest city in Kansas, Lawrence still holds a slavish devotion of high school football usually only found in the most rural of schools, and the weekly game is less of a pastime than it is a religion. The whole community gathers in the football stadium, crushed so tightly together that even when the temperature drops later in the season, there’s no worry of spectators growing cold.

Dean always attends these games, partly out of a sense of obligation, partly out of sheer entertainment. He loves the roar of the crowd, the thrill of the game, and he always feels a proprietary sense of pride when he recognizes one of his students on the field. Sam, Jess, Benny, and Jo always join him on these outings--Sam, out of a weird sense of obligation to his alma mater, Benny, for the halftime show, and Jess and Jo, out of a bloodthirsty love of competition.

“Now you’re going to call holding?” Jess bellows in the direction of the referee, standing up and cupping her hands around her mouth. “What does it take to get a call to go against you?”

“Come on ref, let’s see the check they cut you!” Jo echoes, a petite vision of wrath.

Sam tugs at Jess’ wrist, his neck and ears vibrant red. Dean doesn’t know why he bothers. The five of them have been playing this game for two years now, and Jess and Jo have never bothered to try and hide their natures. Any competition gets Jess’ blood pumping: she’s been known to shout at the TV during dog shows. It’s what makes her such a good lawyer and what makes her absolutely unbearable to sit near during football games. And Jo just thrives on violence and chaos, like a tiny pixie of destruction.

Dean loves both women, he really does, but by halftime he needs some space. The ringing in his ears will thank him as well. “I’m going to get something to drink,” he shouts to Benny. “Do you want anything?”

Benny waves him off, eyes fixed on the band. Dean rolls his eyes. As much as Jess and Jo love football, is how much Benny loves the marching band. Dean’s never known him to leave his seat during halftime, not even when a drunk senior vomited almost directly on top of him. That kind of devotion Dean has never known, nor does he particularly want to.

“Get me a water!” Jess shouts, her eyes bright with the fury of sport. “I’m thirsty!”

Sam shoots Dean the grateful look of the long-suffering. Dean can’t help but smile. He’s glad that his little brother finally gets to experience high school football in all its glory. While Sam was a student here, he was always too busy studying to enjoy the finer points of secondary education. Not that Dean could enjoy the games either. He was always working Friday nights, too eager for the money that weekend shifts brought to take a night off for anything as mundane as a sporting event.

At the concession stand, Dean pays for three bottles of water and says hi to some of his students. It’s a little stroke to his ego, to have his students willingly seek him out for conversation or even just a greeting. It’s one of his favorite parts of his job, to interact with his students outside of the narrow confines of the school walls, and Dean’s smiling when he walks back up to the stadium.

His smile grows when he looks down towards the end of the bleachers and sees the figure standing at the end of the walkway. He can’t see their face but he only knows one person with that ramrod straight posture and eternally mussed hair. He shoves the water bottles he’s juggling into the pocket of his sweatshirt and runs his damp hands through his hair before he realizes that he’s being ridiculous.

“I didn’t think that this was quite your scene.” If this were a movie then the words would be low and purring, soft enough that he’d have to lean in close to the waiting recipient, close enough that his breath would do half the work of the seduction for him. But this is Dean’s life and he ends up shouting to be heard over the noise of the crowd. Changing the delivery method makes him a little less Casanova and a little more pathetic loser, but if Castiel minds then he doesn’t say anything.

“Really?” Somehow, Cas doesn’t have to shout, almost like the crowd respects him enough to lower their volume. “And what would you imagine is my scene?”

Dean rocks back onto his heels, considering. Dressed in a dark peacoat and black jeans, Castiel would look perfectly at home in a variety of settings: art gallery, opera performance, dimly lit bar, nightclub… “I don’t know,” Dean finally admits, smiling in spite of himself. “Not this though.”

He gestures to the crowd, including himself, dressed in muddy boots, comfy jeans, and a Lawrence High sweatshirt chosen at random from one of his drawers. Castiel’s eyes flick up and down his body and Dean tries not to squirm underneath his gaze.

“I like to support my school as much as the next person,” Castiel says, turning his attention back to the field where the cheerleaders are performing their routine. Dean comes to stand beside him, ignoring how the water bottles he has shoved into the pocket of his hoodie make him look vaguely pregnant. Castiel slides his eyes over, his lips quirking in the sly smile that makes something uncomfortable wriggle in Dean’s stomach. “But tonight’s my game duty. I’m required to be here and,” he gestures to the crowd behind him, “supervise.”

Dean hums. Game duty is something that all the teachers in school are required to perform. They show up to football, volleyball, and basketball games, taking tickets or ‘supervising’, whatever that’s supposed to mean. “I’d like to see you break up a fight,” comes out of Dean’s mouth before he can even think to stop it.

The smile on Castiel’s mouth widens, giving Dean a tantalizing glimpse of teeth and gums. “Really?” he asks, the slightest hint of a drawl to the words. It’s playful, in a way that Dean never expected from Cas.

“Yeah,” he smiles back, heart racing as he tries to walk backwards out of this conversation. Friendship is fine, even an occasional flirty remark now and again, but this, this kind of conversation in Dean’s world always leads to Like to grab a drink later which leads to You know my place is only a few blocks from here which leads to Hey it was fun but I have to be up early in the morning so

Dean knows, with a solid punch to his gut, that he doesn’t want any of that from Cas.

Cas, whose smile is losing the 1000 wattage of before, and somehow that’s even worse than the thought that he was accidentally flirting with Cas. “Love to watch you stop someone’s fist with the power of your snark.”

Cas actually laughs at that, a short bubble brighter than the floodlights above them. “You don’t think that I could wrestle them down?”

Dean’s seen the way that Cas’ biceps strain against the fabric of his shirts; he’s willing to bet on there being strength in that wiry frame. But acknowledging that will resurrect everything that Dean’s trying to bury, so he just curls his lips in a shit-eating grin guaranteed to make Sam squint in disapproval. “I’d trust to the power of your sarcasm every time. And if that doesn’t work you could always glare them to death.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Cas says, in the tone of voice which says that he knows exactly what Dean’s talking about.

The cheerleaders finish their routine, and both sidelines start moving again, ready for the second half to begin. The water bottles in his hoodie have sweat through the fabric to his skin and he can’t spend that much more time away without someone coming to look for him.

“Hey, come sit with us,” Dean says, mouth once again moving without his permission.

Cas’ smile remains, but it looks stupid now, when it’s paired with his stupidly large eyes blinking in confusion. Dean is now presented with a choice: he could laugh off his offer, say that he’ll see Cas on Monday, and go back to his seat. Or, he could do the stupid, stupid thing and repeat his offer.

Dean’s stupidity knows no bounds, because not only does he pick option two, he even tugs on Cas’ elbow, forcing him to take a step in his direction. “You’ll have my sister-in-law and sister screaming in your ear, it’ll be great,” he says.

Cas finally blinks, his face losing its gobsmacked look. “I can’t...I have duty,” he says, eyes flicking from the crowd, to the field, to Dean.

Dean jerks his head towards the stands. “You can supervise great from the stands. Better than you could down here.” He can sense Cas wavering and he ruthlessly presses his advantage. “Come on Cas, it’s not like anything’s going to happen anyway. Even if it does, there are, count em, one, two, three, four whole deputies who are actually getting paid to supervise. Play hooky.”

Cas’ eyes perform the same journey through the stands once more before coming back to land on Dean. “If this comes up in my performance evaluation, then I’m going to say that you kidnapped me.”

“Awesome,” Dean blurts out. In a million years, he hadn’t thought that he would be able make Cas turn his back on his duty. “You can say that I threatened you, hit you over the head, whatever.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” Cas actually has to shout now, as they climb up towards the seats. “Maybe make you sign some sort of paperwork attesting to that fact.”

“Sam’s a lawyer,” Dean shouts, pointing along to where his brother sits, in all of his hippie glory. “He could whip something official up.”

There are several things which Dean had not anticipated. One is the fact that adding another person to their row creates a seating crisis that is only solved when Jess moves herself to Sam’s lap and Jo ends up halfway in Benny’s. Dean figures that they’ll be fine; the two of them barely sit down during the game anyway.

The other difficulty comes when everyone realizes not only that Dean came back with another person, but who exactly, that person is. Benny at least, schools his expression into friendly recognition. He tips his cabbie’s hat to Cas and Cas nods at him, and that’s the end of that. Jo, however, openly gapes for a moment before someone (Dean bets Benny) pinches her. Her smile is honest when she greets Cas but her eyes promise Dean that they’ll have a conversation about this, and soon.

“Cas, this is my brother, Sam, and his fiance Jess. Sam, Jess, this is Cas Milton. He works at the school too.” Over Cas’ shoulder, Dean can see Jo mouthing Cas? at him, her mouth wide and over exaggerated.

Someone schooled in the Winchester method of non-verbal communication could read the book printed in the tilt of Sam’s head, the widening of his eyes, and the purse of his lips. All of these promise yet another conversation in Dean’s future. Luckily, Sam has always been an impeccable gentleman, and after only a moment’s shock, he holds his hand out. Cas shakes it, smiles, maybe says something nice. Dean’s too busy dodging an elbow from Jo to really hear them.

“I thought you hated him!” Jo hisses. Her knuckles finally find their way into Dean’s arm, digging into the cluster of nerves just above his elbow.

“Maybe, ow, maybe I don’t!” Dean hisses back. When Cas comes to sit down he has to break away from Jo in a way that can’t help but look suspicious.

The third problem comes back to seating. Even though Jo and Jess are standing up, Dean, Sam, Benny, and Cas are all shoved together. Being shoved against Benny is nothing new for Dean; quite a few of his Saturday nights have ended this way. Being shoved against Cas, from shoulder to hip to thigh however...That’s something new.

Every time Cas so much as shifts his weight, the motion is telegraphed to Dean. It gets worse when he leans over to speak to Sam and the reverberations of his voice travel through to Dean. It becomes apocalyptic when Cas shifts closer to Dean, near enough that Dean can see the minuscule nick on Cas’ jaw where he must have cut himself shaving that morning.

“Your sister is very...enthusiastic,” Cas observes, indicating Jo with a nod of his head.

Enthusiastic would be putting it mildly. Berserker Viking warriors would look placid next to her. Jo’s ponytail has started to escape its confines, and she dances from foot to foot, her eyes fixed on the field with a focus usually reserved for snipers and stalkers.

At some point Dean is going to have to clarify his tangled family ties to Cas, but for the moment it all works. “I’ve got some sedatives for her somewhere.” He leans in close enough that his jaw brushes Cas’ shoulder as he speaks. “Since this is your first game with us, you get to do the honors.”

The look Cas gives him is skeptical, but just questioning enough to make Dean put on his best innocent face. “First game?” Cas asks instead, flooring Dean.

He hadn’t noticed his words, but he isn’t willing to take them back. “You think that the three of us are enough for them?” Dean gestures to Jo and Jess, who are both waving their arms in an attempt to distract the field goal kicker at the opposite end of the field, facing away from them. “We need all the help we can get.”

“Of course,” Cas says, something gentle in his voice and expression. “Always here to help.”

It’s supposed to be a manly pat on the knee, something that Dean’s done to Sam millions of times. Instead, Dean’s hand lands on Cas’ knee and it stays there for a second too long. Long enough for Dean to confirm that yes, those thighs are entirely muscle, no fat there, nope. Cas’ knee shifts underneath his hand.

Dean’s hand shifts, reluctant to leave its new home on Cas’ leg. Every instinct he possesses screams at him to do something because this is not what friends do and goddammit, he and Cas have both made it perfectly clear that friendship is all they want from each other. But then his eyes meet Cas’ and his hand doesn’t move.

Jo takes the option out of his hands when she whirls around in glee and the back of her hand connects squarely with Dean’s nose.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

In the end, it’s just a bloody nose, but Dean is going to milk it for all that it’s worth.

“Could have been broken,” he says, exaggerating the thickness of his voice as he presses a tissue to his nose. He shows Jo the bright red against the white and does his best to look close to death. “Could have shoved my cartilage into my brain and then what would have happened?”

“Shut up,” Jo mutters, shoving another tissue at him. “I’ll buy you a drink later, happy?”

“Two drinks,” Dean immediately replies. Jo nods and Dean presses his luck. “And first choice on the juke.” Jo narrows her eyes and Dean waves the bloody tissue at her like the worst kind of battle flag.

“You’ll come with us?” Sam directs the question towards Cas. Within the space of nineteen minutes, he’s decided that Cas is the best thing since sliced bread. Somehow, he and Cas have managed to hold a conversation through Jess’ raging and Dean’s injury. Dean would feel a little neglected, if it weren’t for the pleased warmth in his chest whenever he sees Cas nodding at something Sam said.

“Come with you?” Cas’ eyes flit to Dean before he turns back to Sam.

“We usually go out and get a drink after the game. Just a way to wind down, remind ourselves that we’re really adults.” Sam’s smile could light whole cities and Cas isn’t immune. Dean can feel the agreement in the loosening of Cas’ body against his.

“If you’re sure.” Cas’ eyes flick back to Dean, almost like he’s asking his permission, before he looks back at Sam. “I don’t have any other plans for the evening.”

“Awesome,” Dean says, shoving his shoulder into Cas’, pretending like he doesn’t see the pleased smile dashing across Cas’ face.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

The Roadhouse doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it will always remain one of Dean’s favorite places.

The Roadhouse used to be Ellen’s, before she got tired of having two jobs and sold it to Ash. Dean remembers many nights spent in one of the back booths, trying to sneak beers underneath Ellen’s watchful eye. It became a game between them, one that Ellen always won, without much effort on her part. Dean’s not sure what he would have done if he’d actually gotten a beer. That wasn’t the point of the game. The point of the game was trying to outsmart Ellen, and Dean has yet to do that.

Since his amicable takeover, Ash hasn’t changed much. He updated the upholstery on several of the booths, redid the bathrooms, and improved the sound system. But the atmosphere remains the same--just on the right side of trashy, slightly ratty around the edges, but cozy somehow in spite of all that.

It doesn’t occur to Dean to be worried about Cas’ reaction until they’re inside. With their sweatshirts, ragged jeans, and boots, the rest of them blend into the background of the bar. Cas, with his coat that probably cost more than Dean’s monthly grocery allowance, looks out of place against the worn wood grain of the walls.

Dean needn’t have worried. Cas follows them to the back and slides himself into the booth, in between Dean and Jess, and orders a beer, “Whatever comes in a bottle”, and Dean relaxes into the cheap plastic.

“Jo’s paying for mine,” he makes sure to tell Ash, when he arrives, in all of his mulleted glory, with their drinks.

“Right on brother,” Ash says, flipping his hair over his shoulder as he heads back to the bar. Dean has to smile as Cas actually cranes his head to get a better look of Ash as he jumps over the bar. His boots scuff across the bar and that can’t be sanitary. Cas tilts his head, looking all the world like an anthropologist cataloging a new species.

Jo follows Cas’ gaze. “Ash is a genius!” Jo tells Cas. She must still be stuck in football mode, as the decibel level of her voice makes Jess, sitting next to her, wince. For his part, Cas just nods and takes a long pull from his bottle. Dean can’t help but watch how his lips wrap around the rim of the bottle, how Cas’ throat bobs as he swallows.

Friendship. Goddammit.

He glances around for something, anything, to take his mind off of how Cas sighs when he comes up for air, a short, crisp, Ah, and he lights on the jukebox in the corner. “First play!” he says, downing the rest of his whiskey in one pull, and shoving Benny in the side until he moves to let Dean out of the booth.

Dean chooses his songs without much deliberation and smiles as the intro to Hell’s Bells tolls through the Roadhouse. Back at the booth, everyone groans, except for Cas. “Not this crap again!” Jo shouts. Now that she’s gotten a drink in her, the volume has increased to deafening levels.

“Dean always chooses the same three songs,” Jess explains to Cas, evidently taking pity on his confused look.

“And are they...bad songs?”

“No!” Dean shouts, over the rest of the table’s resounding Yeses. Cultural swine, the lot of them, and he tells them that, while dodging a straw wrapper thrown by his very mature brother.

“It doesn’t seem that awful,” Cas says tentatively, as Dean slides back into place next to him.

Dean beams at him. “See Cas, that’s why you’re my favorite.” He slings an arm around Cas’ shoulders, shaking him slightly. Cas’ dark head tips precariously towards Dean’s shoulder before he rights himself. “This is my favorite,” he announces to the table.

“I thought I was your favorite!” Jess protests, which sparks a long round of debate as to who is whose favorite. Dean smiles, content in chaos of his manufacturing, savoring another glass of whiskey delivered by the ever-dependable Ash. He likes the way that his arm feels around Cas’ shoulders, likes it so much that he doesn’t move it until Cas leans back in his seat.

The next of Dean’s songs plays and he beats out the percussion on the table. By now he’s two whiskeys in and his fingertips are tingling. He knows that he’s edging on giddy but he can’t quite reign it in: his family is here, they’re all happy, and even Cas is laughing as Jess leans close to him. How could he not be happy?

The energy at the table propels them all out into the Roadhouse. Dean’s giddiness must be catching, because he can’t remember the last time Jo laughed that hard, her head thrown back against Benny’s shoulder at something Sam says. Jess alternately cajoles and bullies Sam until they’re standing in an unoccupied section of the floor, swaying back and forth to a song never intended for dancing. As for Dean, the pool table in the corner calls his name.

“Do you play?” Cas jerks slightly, eyes blinking back into focus. He had been staring into the expanse of the bar, a tiny smile threatening to quirk his mouth. Dean almost feels guilty interrupting his thoughts, but he can’t leave the guy alone. “Do you play?” Dean repeats, jerking his thumb at the table.

“Never really had occasion.”

“No time like the present. Come on, I’ll teach you.” Dean stands over Cas and doesn’t move until Cas inches closer to the edge of the booth. He grins once Cas is out and leads him back to the table, drinks in hand.

He loves the elegance of the pool table, the way that the soft green felt seems to glow underneath the soft lights. The stick is solid in his hands as he chalks the end. He doesn’t play for money anymore, unless it’s a friendly game between him and Sam. Back in the day, when he never knew where his and Sam’s next meal was coming from, he remembers hustling. Having to fake ignorance just to con some barfly into taking advantage of the brash kid, only to earn a quick hundred bucks. He’d earned himself quite a few shiners back in those days, but Sam had always eaten, so Dean’s willing to count it as a win.

He pushes those memories away as he hands a stick to Cas. Cas’ eyes follow his every move and he chalks the end of his stick. “You know the basics, right?” Dean asks, racking up the balls. He shakes the triangle, before lifting.

“I know the premise behind the game,” Cas says, and who the hell talks like that? Obviously, he hasn’t had enough to drink. “But I’ll let you go first. Model for me.” The last part is said with the tiniest of smirks, like the little shit doesn’t know exactly what speaking in pedagogical terms does to Dean.

“If I break then you’re not going to get a chance to play,” Dean warns, not cocky exactly, but with just that little touch of arrogance that’s gotten him kissed or punched more times than he can count.

Cas’ left eyebrow performs a slow creep up his forehead. “Break then,” he says, and goddamn, Dean wasn’t aware that voice could get any lower. He paces for a moment before placing the cue ball carefully on the table.

“Watch and learn Cas,” he says, before he strikes.

It’s a clean break and Dean smiles as the balls scatter across the table. “Stripes,” he says, noting how the ball falls into the pocket.

“So I’m to guess that the object of the game is to hit the balls into the holes,” Cas says. He leans over the table and his shadow glances across Dean.

“Astute observation,” Dean grunts as he lines up his next shot. He glances over to Cas and immediately wishes that he hadn’t. Cas is sat up on the edge of the table, one thigh carelessly resting on the edge. As Dean looks on, Cas takes another pull from his bottle before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Friendship, friendship, friendship, Dean chants in his head, before he takes another shot.

Another of his balls ends up in the pocket but it’s not as clean a shot as he could hope. Dean frowns and tries to ignore Cas’ hand on the felt, balancing him as he leans over the table. Either Cas is the most oblivious person in the world or he’s the most infuriating.

His next shot goes wide. Dean can only blink in astonishment. His shots never go wide, not when he doesn’t want them to. Cas slides off the table and scans the table. “So my goal is to hit the solid balls into the holes.” He sounds like he’s discussing heart surgery, rather than a barroom game.

“Pretty much,” Dean agrees, putting aside his shock in order to instruct. “Except for the 8-ball.” He points at the innocuous looking black ball. “You save that for the very end.”

Cas hums, and Dean knows that the cogs in his mind are already whirring miles away. “Need any help?” Dean asks. “With, uh, your stick?” And there must be a way to say that that’s not blatantly sexual but damned if Dean can find it.

Cas doesn’t quite do an impersonation of a shocked Victorian lady but he comes damn close. “I think I’m good, thanks.” And yeah, he looks good, leaning over the table to examine his shot. Dean very carefully does not look at how his jeans hug his hips and thighs, but that means that he’s subjected to watching Cas’ hands. He examines the capable curve of Cas’ fingers cradling the stick, and wonders how he got so weak.

Was it always this hard to be friends with someone? The last real friend Dean made was Charlie and that was almost easier than breathing. Charlie is just someone that you can’t help but love. They were introduced and within thirty minutes they were chatting about whether the prequels of Star Wars provided an accurate look into Jedi culture, and by the end of the day Dean was fairly convinced that he’d always known Charlie.

Benny was almost as easy. Dean had stopped by the culinary arts room, just to introduce himself, and been lured inside by the scent of cinnamon wafting from the ovens. He’d been met by a man in an apron, holding a pie dish between his oven-mitted hands, and if that wasn’t one of his wet dreams, then he didn’t know what was. Within a single conversation, Benny had moved himself out of ‘Potential Husband’ territory into ‘Beloved Procurer of Delicious Treats’, which was fine with Dean, seeing as he values treats over weddings.

But the point was, that Dean makes friends easily. Cas...Cas has not been easy. From the beginning, this friendship has been a struggle. Dean’s had to fight Cas, had to fight his own brain, but even with that...There’s still something so easy about Cas, like when Dean’s with him, some little piece that he didn’t know he was missing just slots into place. Dean makes friends easily but it’s usually superficial. Cas, however, fits into Dean’s life like he belongs, like he should have been there all along.

So Dean can shove those thoughts about Cas’ hands, and his thighs, and his voice, and his hair, all to the back of his mind. If that’s the price he has to pay to keep this, then that’s a price he’s more than willing to pay.

Of course, this resolution becomes more difficult to keep when Cas, six feet of muscle and concentrated intent, takes his shot. For a wild moment, Dean envies the cue ball for being the recipient of all that focus. Then, he can only watch in disbelief, as Cas’ ball whirls into the pocket. That shot is swiftly followed by another, and then another, all technically perfect. Cas stands up. He’s too much of a gentleman to gloat, but there’s some victorious about his stance nonetheless.

Dean frowns. “You said that you’d never played.”

“I said that I’d never had occasion. It’s all math, really, when you think about it,” and god, Dean should hate anyone who sounds that calm and smug but he can’t quite manage to drum up the feeling.

“It’s about skill,” Dean says, a challenge lurking in his voice and expression. Cas’ smile is an enigma, lurking somewhere in his eyes and the shadows of his cheeks and Dean would like to chase that smile out into the sun. He’s deciding how to do just that, until he hears the song drifting out of the jukebox.

“Jo!” he bellows, his voice loud enough to make Cas flinch. “We had a deal!”

“We never shook!” Jo shouts back, and Ash should have cut her off at least two drinks ago. Her cheeks are flushed and her ponytail has finally lost its battle against gravity, causing her blonde hair to cascade around her shoulders. “Now sing Winchester! You know you want to!”

“I’d rather swallow crushed glass!” Dean shouts back. Luckily, most of the weekend crowd’s disappeared, leaving the regulars behind. These battle-hardened soldiers barely waste half a blink on Jo and Dean’s antics, not when there’s drinking to be done.

“Sing Dean,” Cas tells him, a wicked little grin darting across his face. “It would be rude to refuse a lady.”

“Cas, if you think that Jo’s a lady then you’ve got a lot to learn about women,” Dean says, but he can’t stop the bubble of happiness from rising in his chest, to the point where he throws his head back and bellows, “And even as I wander, I’m keeping you in sight, you’re a candle in the window, on a cold, dark winter’s night, and I’m getting closer than I ever thought I might…” He warbles the last word obnoxiously long, his voice breaking halfway through, but it doesn’t matter, not when Jo’s voice is high enough to crack glass, not when Cas’ laugh shakes through him, from his scalp down to his toes.

And I can’t fight this feeling anymore! I’ve forgotten what I started fighting for! It’s time to bring this ship into the shore, and throw away the oars, forever!”

“Beautiful,” Cas tells him, eyes dancing in the dim light, and yeah, friendship, but something settles in Dean, familiar and comfortable. And maybe REO Speedwagon is the thing of pop dreams, but sometimes they get things right in the end.

Baby, I can’t fight this feeling anymore...

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The rest of October passes by in a glorious blur. The bite in the air gets progressively sharper as the leaves fall in droves from the trees. Dean pulls out his leather jacket and appreciates its warmth on the chilly mornings. Jack o’lanterns and black cats abound from every street corner as Halloween approaches and Charlie is beside herself in glee.

“You are coming, right?”

Dean glances up from his computer. Charlie perches on one of his desks and bounces her knees with impatience. Her shirt is a garish Halloween nightmare, with a black cat leering at him from underneath the brim of a witch’s hat. Caught off guard by the question, Dean motions to her, Go on, and tries to look anywhere else other than the cat’s limpid yellow eyes. They look a little too self-aware for his peace of mind.

“Halloween party, my house, the event of the season.” Charlie rolls her eyes. “The one that I have every year and yet the one that you forget about every year?”

“Oh that.” Charlie’s annual Halloween parties are the things of legends, where kegs are drunk, mistakes are made, tables are broken, and neighbors are scandalized. Dean wouldn’t miss it for the world. “Yeah, of course.” He stretches his legs underneath his desk and folds his arms behind his head.

Charlie’s expression takes on a sudden shrewdness. She's known him long enough to recognize when he's about to ask her for a favor. No doubt she'll enjoy holding this over him. Dean's face twists in a rictus grin, but he keeps his posture and face casual, super casual, look at us, just two pals having a good time, talking about friend things. “I was thinking,” he begins.

Charlie purses her lips as her eyebrows creep towards each other. “Just ask for whatever you want, Winchester.”

The phrases ‘Winchester’ and ‘ask for what you want’ should never be uttered in the same sentence, but Dean doesn’t bother to correct her. Besides, he actually does want something from her.

“Thought I might ask Cas to come along.” Casual, casual, super chill, because there’s nothing weird here, just a friend, asking a friend, to bring another friend to a party. He did this all throughout college. Why would this time be any different?

Because Charlie is evil and her one mission in life is to ruin his life.

Charlie all but sniffs the air, a predator scenting its quarry. Like a good little rabbit, Dean remains stationary. He can’t seem to wipe the stupid grin off his face, though now it’s undoubtedly slipped into something similar to a grimace.

“Thought that you’d ask Cas.” Charlie repeats what he said, though Dean’s almost positive that he didn’t put that much of an inflection on Cas’ name. “Mr. Dreamy of the History Department?”

“Mr. Socially Inept of Lawrence High. I thought that I’d bring him out of cold storage and force him to interact with real humans. Maybe he'll pick up some more data to add to his hard drive.”

The dubious expression on Charlie’s face lets him know that she doesn’t, for a minute, believe what he’s saying. That’s fine, because Dean doesn’t either.

Cas is perfectly able to follow the niceties of human interaction, when he chooses. That’s the caveat that Dean has to keep in mind, because, it turns out, most of the time Cas doesn’t have the patience to follow the norms of human behavior. Cas, he’s discovered, is a surly bastard who is quickly irritated with the foibles of mundane humans. This irritation presents itself as rudeness and Cas doesn’t do much to blunt that impression. Castiel has a temper which he doesn't often bother to hide, and he can snap quickly and explosively.

But Cas is also one of the most gentle people that Dean’s ever met. He’s just so...soft, sometimes, the way that he’ll stop dead in the parking lot and watch the soft pinks and oranges light up the evening sky. The way that he’ll stop a student in the hallway, just to ask if they’re all right.The satisfied smile after he correctly guesses an answer in practice. The quiet, surprised hum as Dean presents him with dinner.

Charlie hums in thought as she strokes her chin like a Bond villain. The cat on her shirt judges him. “And you’re inviting him out of the goodness of your heart?”

“Call it my service to the school.” If it’s possible, the cat purses its lips in disapproval. Underneath Charlie’s silence, Dean breaks like a cheap glass. “Look Charlie, say yes or say no, it’s not really going to ruin my day one way or the other, but can you stop busting my balls? Please?”

Charlie’s eyes gleam wickedly. “It’s just funny, isn’t it? A month and a half ago, you were foaming at the mouth whenever anyone mentioned his name. And now you two are attached at the hip.”

Dean shrugs, helplessly. She’s not wrong, but he thinks that there’s more to it than just that. He’d rather chew off his own tongue than tell Charlie that, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. “Does that mean that you don’t want me to bring him?”

Charlie jumps off the student desk and instead perches herself on his desk, sending the careful pile of his papers cascading across the surface. “Frack, no. I think it’s good, you learning how to make friends. Mr. Rogers would be proud.”

“I’m the bestest neighbor of them all.”

Charlie smiles, but her eyes are far away. When she speaks, Dean understands why. “I guess that Sam won’t be coming?”

Dean breathes past the hitch of pain in his chest. He’s accustomed to the sharp little twist, a long-ago war wound that never healed properly. He can almost forget it, most days, but around this time of year, the scars flare more easily.

“He and Jess are staying in.”

Charlie’s eyes hold a wealth of knowledge. Dean knows that he’s not fooling her, but she’s kind enough to leave it alone. In fact, to show her compassion, her foot darts out and strikes his knee. “Bring Castiel. Just let me know when I can start the wedding bells, all right?”

Dean’s scoff comes automatically. Charlie spies a relationship behind every instance of eye contact, but she’s reaching if she’s pinning her hopes on him and Cas. Cas, who can yammer on for hours with Jess about the latest project in her firm, but has yet to raise his voice at a football game? Cas, who knows any music, as long as it was written before 1854, but remains befuddled by Black Sabbath and Metallica?

But then Dean thinks of Cas’ hands, the way that he twirls a pen through his fingers, or how his hair falls into his eyes after a long day. The small wrinkle between his eyes as he concentrates. The way that Dean once asked Cas to help him cut an onion and Cas almost ended up short one fingertip. Or how he can still remember his dream, the slick, raw look of Cas’ lips, the shine in dream-Cas’ eyes as he gazed down at Dean.

Cas’ voice, flat and unyielding as he says, “I don’t do relationships.” Like relationships were hazelnuts or escargot, something from which one could voluntarily abstain.

“Don’t worry,” Dean tells Charlie, stretching his smile until it threatens to split his face. “If I think he’s trying to turn me into a Pod Person I’ll make sure that he gets you first.”

“Dream on. You know that I’m one of kind.”

Dean snatches her ankle before her foot has a chance to hit him again, wraps his fingers around the slender bone. He shakes her leg once, relishing in her narrowed eyes. “You’d both better come in costume,” she warns, shaking loose from his grip and kicking him once more in the shin. “If you don’t then…” She lets her voice trail off threateningly and does her best to look menacing. The cat on her sweater sneers at him.

“You’ve got it,” Dean calls as she leaves his room, waving his hand in a lazy salute.

It’s only after she leaves that he realizes that he hasn’t yet asked Cas if he’d want to come to Charlie’s party.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

Charlie hadn’t been entirely wrong when she said that he and Cas had been attached at the hip for the past few weeks. Between Scholastic Bowl, their senior project proposal, and football games, Cas has become omnipresent in Dean’s life. Dean doesn’t realize just how much so until he’s shoving a tupperware of leftovers into Cas’ hands. Cas protests, with characteristic ill-humor, and Dean insists, bullying in the Winchester way of friendliness and oblique threats.

“Just take the damn food,” he finally snaps, insistent enough to shut Cas up. “I know that you don’t have anything in your fridge.” He’s not bluffing: the last time he was at Cas’ house he peeked inside his pantry and fridge to find the same depressing assortment of condiments and odd produce. Over the past few weeks, Dean’s discovered that if it can’t be delivered or made in a microwave, it’s highly unlikely that Cas eats it. It’s amazing to him, that someone that intelligent ignores their kitchen to the point of having a useless room in their house.

The next afternoon he leaves his room to run several copies for the next day. When he comes back, the tupperware, pristinely washed, sits on his desk. An accompanying note would be superfluous; Dean knows who it's from. As he stares at the innocuous plastic, he realizes that he might be in over his head.

Not that he'll let that thought stop him. Cas can actually make him laugh, though sometimes Cas isn’t quite sure of the joke. Sometimes it’s like Cas is a transplant from another world, or another time. Every time one of Dean’s references goes over his head, Cas squints at him like Dean’s playing an elaborate prank. Dean waits for the caustic bite of Cas’ anger, but it never comes, so he doesn’t bother changing.

On paper, the time they spend together is devoted to planning the senior project. The first night they set aside for planning, Dean invited Cas out to his favorite 24 hour diner, citing the excuse that if he had to spend another hour underneath the fluorescent lighting of the school, then his eyes would explode. Cas had agreed, albeit with suspicion, which was completely unwarranted.

Forty-five minutes had been devoted to the project. The rest of the hour and a half had been spent arguing about everything from the cultural relevance of Jane Austen to whether manual or automatic transmissions were preferable.

“Look Cas,” Dean said, speaking around his mouthful of fries, “all I’m saying is that if you don’t know how to drive a manual then you don’t know how to drive.”

“Is that all you’re saying?” Cas asked. His face was twisted into an immature expression, which was quite unflattering. Dean pointed this out to him, which only caused Cas’ face to screw up more, much to Dean’s delight.

After that night, it had seemed easier to just go to each other’s houses, as well as more monetarily responsible. And if they were going to houses, then Dean’s townhouse was the obvious choice. Of the two of them, he was the one who had reliable food sources in his kitchen. Also, not that he would ever say it to Cas, Dean is always more comfortable when he’s playing on his hometurf.

Unlike Cas’ showhome, Dean’s house has all the earmarks of a lived in space. His furniture is squashy and comfortable, chosen mostly for its sleepability. Dean refused to buy a couch that he couldn’t stretch out on, and even his loveseat lets him fall asleep with ease. However, on nights like these, Dean snatches the couch for himself and leaves the loveseat for Cas. Cas is shorter, it makes sense.

After a hard hour’s work, they sprawl on their respective pieces of furniture, papers scattered around them. Cas flips through several lesson plans, but most of his energy seems concentrated on not falling into a doze. Dean’s given up even the flimsy pretense of work and instead flips through channels in hopes of finding something to suit both of them.

“Here,” Dean says with satisfaction, deciding on reruns of House Hunters. “How’d you like to watch people with too much money search for beautiful residences that they don’t deserve?”

Cas grunts, his attention more taken by a stray sheet of paper. He squints at the type, before he holds the paper an arm's length away from his face. Dean wonders if anyone’s ever told the man that he desperately needs reading glasses.

An advertisement for Reese’s screams into the quiet of the living room, which reminds Dean of the important question. Before he can lose his nerve, Dean blurts out, “Next Friday,” which gets him a distracted hum from Castiel.

When nothing else is forthcoming from Dean, Cas rolls over to look at him. Cas' expression could be described as vaguely annoyed, no surprise there. “What about it?”

“Charlie throws a Halloween party every year, and it’s always pretty awesome. Plenty of booze, lots of bad costumes, tons of candy.” Dean knows that he’s coming dangerously close to babbling and he tries to reign it in, to no avail. “And I don’t know, I figured that you might be communing with the mothership, but just in case you’re spending the evening with the earthlings, I thought that you might be interested in coming. With me. Not like with me, but you know. Whatever.”

Smooth Winchester, smooth.

Cas’ left eyebrow has a love affair with his hairline. Even now, it’s trying desperately to reach its lost lover. “You do know that I’ve been to many parties throughout my life,” Cas dryly says.

“Don’t doubt it.”

Cas' eyes narrow. “Many parties Dean. I was a college student for double the time that you were. Which gave me double the time to attend parties.”

Now it’s Dean’s turn to be suspicious. “If you tell me that you wasted time going to parties while you were working on your doctorate, then I swear, I’ll eat this paper.”

Cas shifts guiltily and Dean smiles in triumph. “All right then, Animal House, you still haven’t answered my question. Would you like an additional opportunity to study the human race close up, or do you need to maintain your distance for maximum objectivity?”

“Eventually you’re going to run out of alien jokes,” Cas remarks, turning his attention back towards his papers. Which is not really an answer, and Dean is about to point that out to him, when Cas asks, too casually, “Will costumes be required?”

Dean shrugs against the couch. “It’s a Halloween party Cas. You do the math.”

If he weren’t watching Cas, then he would have missed the sudden tenseness of his posture, the awkward shuffle of papers on his lap. But Dean is watching, now with hawk-like intensity, as Cas coughs and shifts. “Cas,” Dean says, pushing himself up on his elbows, so as to better observe his subject’s reactions, “you do have a Halloween costume, right?”

Cas’ attention retains its laser-focus on his lap. “It’s just never come up.”

Dean gapes at him. “How do you not have a Halloween costume? Are you allergic to fun?” It’s only after the question is out in the open that Dean considers that is a distinct possibility.

Now that Dean’s bothered to sit up properly, he can see the tick of Cas’ jaw, and the way his fingers tighten on those poor, wrinkled papers. “Halloween was not a high priority while I was growing up.”

Neither of them have spoken much about their childhoods. For Dean, it’s nothing new: as far as he’s concerned, the less spoken about those years, the better. He’s never pushed Cas’ reticence, but if he had hazarded a guess, he would have assumed that Cas’ childhood would have been all silver spoons and trips to Aspen. But Cas avoids the topic like an open sewer and Dean’s never poked at it. Until now.

“But college,” Dean presses, ignoring the tiny voice in the back of his mind telling him to back off. “Everyone goes to Halloween parties in college.” Dean vaguely remembers undergrad Halloween parties, remembers attending one dressed in a corset and fishnets, and not much else. Thankfully, those pictures never survived to plague him in his professional life. He shudders at the thought of Naomi finding them.

“Well, you were correct in your assumptions,” Cas says, his voice too carefully even to be natural. “I wasn’t that concerned with spending time at parties. I had other concerns.”

He sounds so bitter and miserable that Dean blurts out the first bit of comfort his brain can come up with. “Sam doesn’t like Halloween either.”

After the words are out in the open, Dean’s stomach sinks. His thoughts on the racism inherent in Victorian literature are one thing, but Sam’s trauma is very much not up for discussion. He wishes that he could take the words back, but it’s too late for that now. Besides, he and Cas were bound to have this talk sooner or later, and it might be better to get it over at the beginning, to shove aside all the empty platitudes and meaningless apologies that make Dean want to vomit as he sees the pity in the other person’s eyes.

The silence stretches on too long. Cas pushes himself upright and leans forward, turning all of that focus onto Dean. Whatever he sees on Dean’s face keeps him from asking outright, but Dean can see the questions bouncing around in Cas’ eyes.

Halloween is always hard. The scars always ache a little bit more, the nights always seem a little bit darker. He might not eschew it entirely like Sam, but it doesn’t mean that it’s easy for him, by any stretch of the imagination.

“Our mom,” he begins, speaking carefully around the lump rising in his throat. This isn’t a story that he trots out often. The last time he mentioned it is hazy: he knows that it involved Benny, too much tequila, and eventually vomit. He hasn’t voluntarily given this story sober in years.

Cas doesn’t push, and somehow, that makes it easier. “Our mom died in a house fire near Halloween. November second.” Said like that, it sounds impersonal, inevitable: everyone’s mom dies in the end, right?

“The fire department eventually chalked it up to faulty wiring. Not that it mattered.” The laugh claws its way out of his throat, dry and bitter. “It started in Sam’s nursery. She heard something on the baby monitor and went in to look...Dad was downstairs, asleep. He woke up when he heard…” Dean’s voice wobbles. The gory details have always remained vague, cobbled together from his father’s drunken ramblings and Bobby’s careful revisionist history.

“He heard them both screaming,” Dean says, staring at the ceiling in hopes of chasing away the burning sensation at the back of his eyes. “By then, I was awake and I went to see what the problem was…”

Even now, he’ll still wake up with smoke thick in his throat, acid heat singeing his skin. For a moment, he’ll flail in his sheets, convinced that the fire is creeping up his bed frame, thinking that if he just makes it out of bed a little bit faster this time then maybe he’ll be able to save her. Then reality will set in and he’ll fall back into his sweat-soaked sheets, shaking with horror and regret.

“Dad gave Sam to me.” His hoarse whisper echoes through the room. On the loveseat, Cas is as tense and motionless as a deer caught in the sights of a predator. “Mom managed to get Sam out of his crib. He was only six months old. Dad gave him to me…” Dean’s voice thickens, catches. His lungs scream, with the need to breathe, to scream, to cry. “I ran,” he finally confesses. He clenches his fist so tightly that his knuckles crack under the pressure.

Cas’ touch ghosts across his hand. Dean flinches, but Cas’ fingers remain, tracing the veins on the back of his hand until Dean’s fist relaxes. “Dean,” Cas says, his voice soft and so very gentle. Dean’s gaze flicks to Cas, just for a moment, before he stares at his lap. He can’t handle the emotion welling in those eyes, not when he’s threatening to burst at the seams.

“Dean, you were a child. You did the best that you could. You saved your brother.”

Cas’ voice reaches inside him, right where something wild and vicious is trying to claw its way out. The story should be old by now: he’s told it to therapists, teachers, girlfriends, boyfriends, friends...At least once a month, he relives it in his dreams. He’s seen, heard, and god, even smelled his mother dying countless times.

So why does it always feel like he’s four years old, standing at the doorway, staggering underneath the weight of his baby brother?

“It’s not your fault,” Cas repeats. Dean closes his eyes, forces down the instinctual, animal urge to flee. Instead, he focuses his attention onto the soft stroke of Cas’ thumb over his knuckles. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“I know,” Dean says automatically, his voice rough and wrecked. He blinks hard and rolls his eyes upwards towards the ceiling, until he thinks he can control the moisture threatening to spill from his eyes. “I know.” His laugh sounds like a choked rattle. He rubs the heel of his hand against his eyes, sniffing once. “Christ. This fucking blows.”

“Dean,” Cas says. Without warning he moves to the couch, his whole side pressing against Dean. One arm wraps around Dean’s shoulders and his thumb never leaves its place on Dean’s knuckles. Dean hones in on the points of contact, his whole world narrowing to the heat of Cas’ body against his. “Shut up.”

And it’s so brusque, so Cas, that Dean can’t help but laugh. It’s a sad little burble, but it’s real, and so much more than he was expecting. Cas’ hand tightens on his shoulder, five points of comfort bleeding through Dean’s shirt.

“You’ll have to help me with the costume. Otherwise I’ll just show up as a disgruntled high school history teacher.”

“That’s a disguise,” Dean says. His voice still sounds thick, but he hasn’t screamed or punched anything, and he’s restraining the urge to go grab the half empty bottle of Jack, so he’s chalking this up as a win. “If you showed up as a robot then everyone would be pissed since you hadn't bothered to find a costume.”

“Clever. Tell me, do you write all your jokes down in hopes of using them one day?”

“Nope. It’s all improv.”

Cas hums. The ragged edge of his nail catches against the skin of Dean’s knuckles. “Impressive talent.” His thumb traces the back of Dean’s hand one last time before he gently sets Dean’s hand back on his knee. His arm leaves next, but not before pulling Dean closer in a strange sort of hug.

Without Cas to act as a brace, Dean slumps into the couch, a puppet whose strings have been cut. “Shut up and watch the greedy people.” He pulls at Cas’ shirt and it’s a mark of how much Cas is affected that he doesn’t put up even a token protest. Instead, he follows Dean’s silent urging and allows himself to sink back into the cushions.

Dean falls into a doze, lulled by watching the awful people look at beautiful homes. At some point, his head drops onto Cas’ shoulder, and Dean, empty and raw, doesn’t have the strength to move. Cas never shifts except to drop his shoulder. Dean's head settles into the empty space left behind and he sighs contentedly. They watch half a show this way, and Dean could fall asleep like this, could fall asleep like this every night in fact, except for a stray thought that captures his fancy.

“Cas,” he asks, sitting up so that he can catch the whole array of expressions crossing Cas’ face, “how do you feel about trick or treaters?”

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

As it turns out, Cas is mostly perplexed by trick or treaters.

“I’m not dense Dean, I do understand the concept,” he says, fluttering around as Dean turns his house from an HGTV special to a Halloween masterpiece. “But I’ve never understood why I should be obligated to spend money to reward children for walking across the street.”

“Jesus Cas, were you born 80 years old?” The words come out garbled, seeing as Dean has several Command strips clenched between his lips. It’s probably a good thing, as Cas has his I’m pissed at your willingness to bend to human conventions look settled onto his features. Nothing good ever happens once that look comes out to play.

“I just don’t understand why you’re going to all this trouble to put up decorations for an event that will be over in three hours.” There’s a pause, during which Dean can hear the gears of Cas’ brain turning. “Of course, you don’t intend to help me take them down.”

Dean, who actually did intend to help Cas take the decorations down, nonetheless smiles obnoxiously wide. “It’ll build character.”

Cas maturely rolls his eyes. “I just don’t see why it has to be my house.”

He’s coming dangerously close to whining and Dean tells him so, ignoring the pissy set of Cas’ jaw. “Besides,” he says, stretching a spider web across Cas’ door frame, “I don’t have many kids where I live. You, on the other hand, live in suburban, nuclear family heaven. I expect that your doorbell will fall off from all the grubby hands pressing at it.”

Cas’ distressed look is a thing of beauty, one that Dean unfortunately cannot take much time to appreciate. Instead, he steps back and surveys his work with pride. Far from looking immaculate, Cas’ house now looks like a beautiful mess. Cheap decorations all crowd against each other, orange and black clashing in a glorious mess of tackiness. Dean pulls his phone out to get a picture, making sure to get Cas against a particularly gleeful ghost. “Smile,” he orders, and is only slightly surprised when Cas flips him the middle finger, with extreme prejudice.

Halloween fell on a Wednesday this year, which meant that, for his plans to work, Dean had to text Cas in the middle of fourth block. Texting Cas during school hours was always a bold move, but for his plans to work, Dean had to risk it. Cas’ reply was predictably terse, but he’d agreed to Dean coming over that night, so really, Dean thinks, as he goes to the Impala and pulls out his next project, he really has no one to blame but himself.

Cas’ eyes widen when he sees Dean’s burden. “No. Absolutely not.” His words are strong, but his tone is defeatist, like he realizes he lost the fight the second that he let Dean across the threshold.

Dean grins as he sets the pumpkins down on the counter. “Oh yes.” He snatches the butcher knife out of the block and twirls it around his fingers. “It’s carving time.”

“Make sure that you don’t slice your fingers off,” Cas mutters, sounding as though he would love nothing more than for Dean to slice his fingers off.

Dean’s artistic skills leave something to be desired and, truth be told, he’s never been that fond of scooping out pumpkin guts, so carving pumpkins has never been high on his list of favorite Halloween traditions
. But it’s worth the stickiness and goop on his own hands to see Cas’ faintly horrified look as he reaches inside a pumpkin. His long fingers and thin wrists emerge coated with seeds and strings, and Dean smothers a laugh behind his own, pumpkin encrusted hand. “Why,” comes out Cas’ mouth. It’s not a question.

“When you’re carving, try to think of the scariest thing you can,” Dean instructs. He already knows what he’s going to carve, having seen his inspiration online several days ago.

He’s prepared for Cas’ artistic skills to be lacking. What he’s not expecting is Cas’ esoteric sense of humor.

“Fifty-seven,” he says, squinting at Cas’ pumpkin. The numbers are as precise as possible on the uneven surface, but Dean can’t quite grasp the terror behind them. “I don’t understand. Are you afraid of your approaching middle age?”

“It’s a five and a seven,” Cas says, patiently. “They’re prime numbers, and many people find prime numbers intimidating.” He smiles beatifically at Dean.

If Cas is waiting for him to get the joke, then he’s going to be waiting a long time. “God, you’re weird,” Dean breathes, shaking his head as he turns back to his masterpiece. “I said scary, not intimidating. And who...grade-schoolers find prime numbers intimidating.”

“Well, that is the age-range that this holiday is aimed at, is it not?” Cas asks. He has a point there, and Dean would be more than willing to admit it, but there’s something so godawful smug about Cas' voice that he doesn’t even acknowledge him.

“See, this is more like it,” Dean says triumphantly as he stabs the final piece of pumpkin flesh. He carefully replaces the top and spins his masterpiece around for Cas to see.

Carved out in careful block lettering are the words ‘Student Loans'. Yeah, he’s stealing from some other, infinitely more creative person, but he’s banking on Cas and most of Cas’ neighbors to not know that.

Cas purses his lips, in the constipated way that he does when he’s trying not to laugh. It’s quite frankly a ridiculous expression, one that gives Dean a sneak peek as to what Cas will look like when he’s 80 and his diet consists of prunes and soft foods. It’s absolutely unattractive. It kind of makes Dean want to reach across the table and wipe his fingers, still sticky with the remnants of pumpkin, across Cas’ face.

Cas’ disgusted croak is everything that Dean dreamed of.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

Cas spends five minutes cleaning himself up and twenty minutes giving Dean the silent treatment. All of Dean’s attempts at conversation are met with pointed silence, before Cas sighs and looks away, like some kind of martyred saint. It’s childish and immature and no one likes a pouter. Dean tells him all of this, before he shoves a candy bar in Cas’ face and says, “Jesus wept, I’m sorry, now eat this, you big baby.”

Cas accepts his offering and his eyes smile at Dean. “If you keep on eating those, you’ll ruin the whole point of tonight,” he says, angling his eyes to the empty candy wrappers next to Dean. “Not to mention you’ll make yourself sick.”

“Mind your business,” Dean says, around a large mouthful of nougat. This is Halloween, the one night a year that he gets to indulge. He’ll be damned if something like common sense ruins that for him.

Cas sighs. Dean wonders if he should tell him that he sounds like a schoolmarm when he puts on that particular flavor of sanctimonious, but decides against it. No doubt, Castiel already knows.

The doorbell starts ringing twenty minutes later. Cas gives his door a startled look, before he moves to answer it. When called upon to move, Dean’s stomach rumbles threateningly. He presses a warning hand to his abdomen, ignoring Cas’ tiny mm-hmm. Dean decides then that if he pukes, he’s one hundred percent going to puke on Cas.

The door opens, revealing a tiny toddler dressed in mountains of poofy pink tulle. A tiny tiara sits lopsided on her wispy blonde hair and she clutches a star-topped wand in one pudgy the hand. The other hand holds a small bucket, also pink, which she thrusts out towards Cas. “Trickartreet,” she says in a mangling of consonants.

Dean holds back. For all of his ribbing about Cas observing the human race, he’s dying to watch the robot interact with the younger members of the species. Will he eat the children? Or simply dismiss them as unnecessary for his inevitable bid at world domination?

Cas disappoints all of his hopes as he squats down to eye level with the girl. “And what are you supposed to be?” he asks, his gravel voice serious.

The girl, obviously not expecting to be interrogated, pauses to consider her answer. “A fairy princess,” is the final decision, and she pushes her bucket towards Cas.

Cas drops candy into the bucket, but not before asking, “So if you’re a fairy princess, you could grant wishes, right?”

The girl nods, more interested with examining the candy. A slight jostle from her mother returns her attention to Cas. “Yeah,” she drawls, waving her wand around in a way that’s sure to knock someone’s head off, “I can do that.” The star makes a sharp descent towards Cas’ head and makes contact with his forehead. “I wish for you to be happy!” Her job done, she scampers off Cas’ porch. Her mother follows, with an apologetic look and a quickly muttered thanks.

Dean steps forward, biting back his smile. He can’t speak for a moment, too afraid that he’ll puke out rainbows and all sorts of weird shit. He’s never denied that he likes kids, thinks they’re great, but this...That was something fragile and precious, like spun sugar. Expose it to the real world and it dissolves, leaving nothing more than the faintest hint of a memory.

“That was....that was something else,” he finally says, when the wild heat in his chest dulls to a warm glow.

Cas finally stands up from his crouch. “Dean, you’ll need to get the next one,” he says, turning around so that Dean can see the angry, red mark on his right eye. “She got me right in the eye, I need to put some ice on it.”

Dean can’t even try to hold back his wild laughter as he helps Cas to the kitchen.

 

 

After the first injury, the night passes quickly. Cas’ doorbell gets a workout as dozens of groups of children lean on it with their grubby little fingers. The best of the groups greet them with brilliant, gap-toothed smiles, holding out buckets and pillowcases towards them, with a chorus of “Trick or Treat!” The worst give them a sullen look, and a mumbled garble of words before they listlessly wave their bag in their direction.

Regardless of their levels of enthusiasm, Dean and Cas dutifully drop candy in all their bags. They have enough for every child, Dean notes with satisfaction, though by eight, the level in the bowl has dropped dramatically, something that Dean refuses to chalk up to his participation. His stomach roils unhappily in direct contradiction.

Most of the time the groups are too close together for Cas to hold any sort of meaningful conversation, but when a child comes alone, they’re always questioned. Cas might ask for clarification on their costume, or why they chose that particular superhero. One shy child, dressed as a dog, hides his face in his father’s leg until Cas coaxes him out with a tale of his childhood pet, a tale which Dean is almost certain is completely fabricated. It doesn’t matter to the kid, who gifts Cas with a wide smile and an enthusiastic high-five that almost misses and gives Cas his second injury of the night.

If he had to guess, then Dean would have thought that Cas would be rubbish with kids. Cas’ unyielding personality doesn’t leave room for silliness or frivolity, two staples of children. But Cas is a natural: he gives each child his full attention, like the fate of the world rests on their conversations. It’s enough to make Dean’s teeth itch from the sweetness. It kind of makes Dean wish that he had some more pumpkin guts to smear over Cas’ face, if only to make him a little less perfect.

At eight-thirty, Cas turns his porchlight off. He slides the deadbolt home and leans against the door. Dean watches as exhaustion stakes its claim, Cas’ shoulders slumping like he doesn’t have enough strength to hold them up anymore. Dean tosses one of the last remaining bars towards him and Cas snatches it out of the air, unwrapping it and taking an enormous bite. Cas has a bit of a sweet tooth, Dean is delighted to discover, and he plans on utilizing this knowledge in the worst way possible. Idly, he wonders if Cas likes pie, and if he does, his favorite flavor.

“How was baby’s first Halloween?” Dean asks, from his sprawl on Cas’ couch. The cushions are nowhere near as comfortable as his couch, and he’s always worried that he’s going to shift wrong and be tumbled to the ground, but it’s been a long day. Any port in a storm.

Cas sits on a chair opposite him and props his feet on the coffee table. “I didn’t even do anything,” he mumbles, letting his head fall back against the back of the chair. His fringe falls over his closed eyes. “How am I this tired?”

“Eat some sugar and gear up,” Dean tells him, and even though he has no intent on following through with this suggestion, it’ll still be fun to watch the moment when Cas’ soul leaves his body. “We’ve got to get all of these decorations down.”

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

Friday morning dawns and, for a brief moment, Dean thinks about calling in sick.

He doesn’t, obviously, but the temptation is still there, all throughout his morning shower and coffee, and even in the car on the way to school. His body protests the restless night before, muscles aching from tossing and turning, and his brain exhausted from chasing itself around in circles. He never quite managed to drop off into sleep and every time he came close he was awakened by the feeling of heat on his skin, the scent of smoke in his nose. At around five he gave up, and contented himself with reaching for one his well-thumbed paperbacks, letting the familiar words wash over him.

At school, the kids seem calmer than normal, which is probably just his imagination. Charlie’s quick squeeze of his hand isn’t his imagination though, nor is the warm cup of coffee, courtesy of Ellen. From Jo, he gets a brusque pat on the back which is as good as a warm embrace from anyone else. Bobby texts him halfway through first period, with an inane question about a car in the shop, just so that Dean will be forced to answer him. By the time Benny drops by with a warm muffin, Dean’s feeling smothered but he bites back his irritation. They’re only trying to help.

Even the bottom feeders like Crowley, Meg, and Balthazar give him a wide berth today. Dean doesn’t know how they figured out the significance of this day, but this is one of the rare times that he’ll milk his personal tragedy for all that it’s worth. If it means that Crowley backs off the copier and lets Dean have first dibs, then all the previous discomfort is worth it.

In fact, the one person Dean doesn’t see or hear from is Cas, who remains conspicuously absent. Dean finds his surprise surprising. After the events of this week, Cas has pretty much proven Dean’s long-held robot theory incorrect, so he would have assumed that Cas would be lining up to show off his shiny new human empathy. But Cas stays away, until the last bell rings and he pops his head inside Dean’s room.

“You’ll have to come by early this evening,” he says in lieu of a greeting. “You’ve informed me that this party requires costumes and we’ve discussed my lack thereof.”

“Hell of a time to mention this,” Dean replies, as his brain struggles to catch up to Cas. “You know that we can’t go to a store to buy a costume. They've been out of stock for days.”

Cas tilts his head, like a dog attempting to decipher a particularly difficult trick. “Why on earth would I spend money on something I plan to wear once? I thought that you could just look through my closet and put something together.”

“What am I supposed to be, some kind of makeover show?” Dean runs his hand through his hair, already figuring out a timeline in his mind. “Look, I just have to get a few things squared away here, before I go home. I can be at yours at around six.”

Cas nods gravely, like they just finished plans for an invasion, rather than a ransacking of his closet. “See you then.” With that he’s gone, leaving Dean to go through his admittedly limited knowledge of Cas’ wardrobe.

It’s only when he’s at home, still pondering what in the hell he can dress Cas in that Dean realizes what a sneaky little bastard Cas really is. All the time after school, instead of being alone with his thoughts, he’s been turning this problem over in his head. He hasn’t had a second to think about his own little personal misery, he’s been so focused on Cas. This is Cas’ way of taking care of him: manipulative and effective.

“Touche,” Dean mutters, throwing his costume in a duffel bag. “This round goes to you.”

He hopes that Cas has something truly awful in his closet, just so Dean can force him into it. Revenge doesn’t always have to be served cold.

 

---

On the way to Cas’ house, Dean makes a call.

He doesn't want to talk to Sam, not today at least. Sam will resent the hell out of Dean’s calling, and more importantly, they won’t say anything important. Dean will have to fabricate a reason for his call, which Sam will see through in a second, and then Sam will have to pretend that he’s pissed about something unrelated, and not the fact that Dean called to check up on him.

So Dean calls Jess.

She answers on the second ring, like she’s been expecting his call. For all Dean knows, she has. It’s not like she doesn’t know what this day is, or what it means.

“Hey,” Dean says, realizing suddenly that he has no idea what he wants to say.

“Hi Dean,” Jess replies. “How are you doing today?”

And she asks like she really wants to know. If Dean hadn’t already loved her from the very beginning, based on the way Sam melted around her, he would love her for this, the careful consideration she gives the people around her. It almost reminds him of Cas, the way that he listens to Dean when he speaks, like Dean’s opinion is something worth listening to.

“Um, you know.” Dean laughs in a blurt of discomfort. “About as well as can be expected, I guess. How are you?”

“I’m good,” Jess answers, and because she already knows what he really cares about she says, “and Sam’s fine too. He’s quiet, you know. But he’s all right.”

Dean hadn’t realized how worried he was until he didn’t have to be. “Good.” He wipes his mouth, scratches idly at the stubble creeping over his jaw. “That’s good. Any plans for tonight?”

“Not much. Order in a pizza, catch a movie, fall asleep halfway through. Boring married people stuff. You?”

“Picking up Cas and we’re headed to Charlie’s party. We'll do a keg stand, maybe go streaking. You know, boring, single people things.”

Jess laughs and Dean smiles in response to the sound. “Well, if you do anything interesting, just make sure that someone gets it on camera. I’m tired of only hearing about these things.”

“Yeah, I got it. Pics or it didn’t happen.” Dean turns on to Cas’ street and parks in his driveway. “Listen, don’t tell Sam that I called, all right? He’ll just get pissed if he thinks that I was checking up on him.”

“I don’t think that he would, but all right. He’ll probably call you tomorrow. He worries about you too, you know.”

“Doesn’t have to,” Dean answers automatically, a lifetime of hearing his father’s voice saying Take care of Sammy forcing the words out of him.

“Doesn’t mean that he doesn’t,” Jess says, the rebuke gentle.

“I’m at Cas’; I’ve got to go.” All his life, he’s tried to be the rock, the one that other people rely on. Sam shouldn’t have to worry about him; that’s Dean’s job. He’s the one who worries, who stays up at night, who hustles money so that they can eat and wash their clothes in the latest dingy laundromat. Take care of Sammy.

“All right. He’ll call you tomorrow.” Jess pauses, then says in a rush, “I think it’s good that you’re spending more time with Cas. I know that Sam likes him.”

“Well yeah,” Dean laughs, shrugging away the slight discomfort of Jess’ words. “He and Sam are like nerd soulmates.”

“Yeah, it’s not just that. Anyway, talk to you later!” Jess hangs up and Dean glares at his phone. He loves his future sister-in-law, but that doesn’t mean that he understands her.

 

--

 

Cas doesn’t have anything awful in his closet.

It’s a problem.

It’s a problem, because all Cas has in his closet are depressingly sensible clothes, like suits, khakis, slacks, and button downs. There’s no depressing throwbacks to the nineties, not even many splashes of colors. Dean could have already guessed, but Cas favors black, navy, and white, with occasional splashes of light blue thrown in for contrast. His collection of ties, hung over the back of his bedroom door, provides a little color, but a tie does not a costume make.

Unless all he was wearing was the tie, an insidious voice, which sounds a lot like Dean’s, comments. Dean shakes his head and focuses on the problem at hand, and definitely not on the appealing mental image which his traitorous brain gifts to him.

“We might have to go with disgruntled history teacher,” Dean admits, taking a step back from the closet. From his perch on his bed, Cas sighs.

“Well, there’s nothing else for it,” he says, something a little too resigned in his voice. Dean peers at Cas, with new suspicion.

“You’re not getting out of this that easily,” he warns. He freezes Cas in place with nothing more than the judicious application of his index finger, before he turns back to the disaster of a closet. Maybe not a disgruntled history teacher. Maybe a disgruntled office worker? If Cas had a few more skinny ties then he could maybe pull off a Ben Wyatt from Parks and Rec. But Dean has no intention of putting on a blonde wig and becoming Leslie Knope, so the whole focus of the costume would be ruined.

Just for once, why can’t Cas be a normal person and have something horrible in his closet?

Dean racks his brain once more, searching for the most horrible piece of clothing that Castiel owns. His mind flickers back to the trenchcoat Cas was wearing the night his car broke down. The coat itself is a monstrosity, something that flies in the face of Cas’ otherwise impeccable taste, but Dean doesn't know what kind of costume can be made out of a trenchcoat.

Flasher! The nasty little voice chimes in with another unhelpful suggestion. Dean squashes the urge to roll his eyes: he would have to explain why he was rolling his eyes to Castiel, and he’s not sure if he would make it out alive from that conversation.

Trenchcoat. Cas owns a trenchcoat and a shit-ton of suits. A vague memory nags at the back of Dean’s mind, comics and a weird movie experience...Dean grabs a few clothes, and chooses a tie from the rack. He holds them out to Castiel, who looks dubiously at them, and then at Dean.

Dean grins and loves the discomfort it brings to Cas’ face. “I’ve got it.”

 

---

 

“Stop fiddling with it!” Without taking his eyes off the road, Dean reaches out and slaps at Cas’ hand. Cas drops his hand back to his lap, but not without a rebellious sigh.

“It’s backwards,” he says, plaintively.

“It’s supposed to be that way. I showed you the pictures.”

Cas hadn’t seen the resemblance, but that’s because he’s a philistine intent on ruining fun. It was plain enough for Dean, and since he watched the Keanu Reeves movie with Charlie, he knows that she’ll get it. Anyone else, well...it’s mostly Charlie’s LARPer friends, so they’ll be sure to recognize Cas.

“I still don’t understand your costume,” Cas adds, his eyes flicking up and down Dean’s frame. “I’ve met plenty of archaeologists, and I assure you, they never dressed in that manner.”

Dean shifts underneath Cas’ look, as he pushes his hat up to scratch at his scalp. “Well, obviously, you just didn’t meet the sexy ones.” The words fall flat into the car and there’s no saving them. Dean cranks up the music louder in retaliation, until he can feel the bass thumping through the seat.

And yeah, it might be cheesy but Dean’s not going to apologize. Raiders of the Lost Ark was part of his sexual awakening, when he realized that maybe he enjoyed a sweaty, shirtless Harrison Ford more than he was supposed to. After that, was Star Wars and the realization that maybe he just liked Harrison Ford. And after that was the realization that maybe he just liked the male form.

He never had a ‘coming out’. Sam seemed to know, like Sam seems to know everything, the weird little nerd. There were a few pointed comments from him, some waggling of eyebrows, but for the most part, Sam left it alone. Ellen and Bobby seem to know everything, though they’re not nearly so emotional as Sam.

Dean never told Dad. Which, in itself, is unsurprising, since he talks to John about twice a year. But even if he and John spoke regularly, he doubts whether the topic would ever come up in conversation. Even though he never heard a slur pass his father’s lips, he still doesn’t doubt that his sexuality would go with John like a turd in a punch bowl.

“Dean.” From the bite in Cas’ voice, Dean can guess that he’s tried to get his attention already, to no avail. “The light’s green.”

“Right.” Dean moves forward, but he can still feel Cas’ eyes on him. Several times, Cas inhales like he’s going to say something, but each time he stops himself, settling back into the passenger seat.

It’s in silence, then, that they make their way to Charlie’s house, where silence seems to have been eliminated. Even from the street, Dean can hear the music from inside, and he spares a moment’s pity for the neighbors. Charlie must have some sort of unholy pact with her neighbors, seeing as Dean has been coming to these parties for years, and has yet to see the cops called for several flagrant noise violations.

Cas steps outside the car and surveys the house with trepidation. “I think, that one day," he says as he cants his eyes towards Dean, "I will ask you for a favor. And that you will have to grant it to me. And when you ask why, I will remind you about tonight.”

“Jesus Cas, it’s a party.” Dean shoves his shoulder and smacks his hand away from his backwards tie. Dean's bullwhip is on his belt, his hat is cocked at what he thinks is a rakish angle on his head, and his shirt is attractively flared open at his collar. “It’s going to be awesome.”

 

---

 

For the most part, it is awesome. Charlie throws parties like she’s still in college, with her music too loud, too many bodies in her house, and decorations thrown around like confetti. All of her valuables have been locked safely away, leaving the guests free to crash into walls and shelves alike, with no fear of breaking anything. Red Solo cups are smashed all throughout the house, leaving a breadcrumb-like trail to the backyard, where party-goers take advantage of the last vestiges of warmth.

He and Cas slide through the bodies and dodge splashes of punch and flying elbows. Several people call out to them, not with their names, but instead their costumes. “Nice one, Constantine!” Cas tugs at his tie for the hundredth time and Dean contemplates strangling him with it. He discards the idea. Too much paperwork and too many witnesses.

They find Charlie holding court in the backyard. It’s not an exaggeration. Charlie, dressed like a medieval knight, is literally holding court. Several people in honest to god armor surround her and even look threateningly at Dean as he shoulders them aside. “Fear not, gentle knights,” Charlie says, holding her hands out for peace. “These are friends of the court.”

“Moondor?” Dean asks, tipping his hat towards her.

“These are several members of the queen’s council, who are here tonight to protect the festivities.” Charlie indicates the knights surrounding her, like Dean might be confused about who’s LARPing. “If they give challenge, answer them truthfully and no harm shall come to you.”

“Mhmm,” Dean says doubtfully. He purposefully strokes his bullwhip. “We’ll see about that.”

Charlie blinks at him. “Seriously dude, don’t beat these guys up,” she mumbles. “These guys couldn’t go up against a kitten and win.”

“Yeah well. Don’t start none, won’t be none,” Dean replies, leaning in close and placing a loud, smacking kiss against Charlie’s forehead. “See you around kiddo.”

After that, events become a little foggy in Dean’s mind. He knows that there’s a game of Jenga that he manages to wreck, as well as karaoke, which he also wrecks. He and Cas make short work of the skimpy food available, and help themselves to the not so skimpy drinks available. Afterwards, he commandeers the music from the scrawny kid playing DJ. These events exist separately from each other, untethered to a timeline. He supposes that’s the fault of the copious amounts of punch which he consumes within thirty minutes of arriving, but how was he supposed to know that Charlie spikes her punch like a fratboy?

His nerves are still jingly, from the previous night, from the talk with Jess, from being shoved around a lot of unfamiliar faces. He realizes, with an unpleasant jolt, that he’s managed to lose Cas.

Oh god, he’s inflicted Cas on the unsuspecting masses. What if Cas’ programming gets tweaked and he goes Terminator on them? Or, more likely, what if Cas has himself sequestered in some dark corner, the prospect of socializing too much for him?

When thirty seconds of searching doesn’t provide any answers as to Cas’ whereabouts, it’s time for a new approach. Dean flops onto the couch and pulls his phone out from his back pocket. wher r you im on couch com find me

Satisfied, he tucks his phone back into his pants. Cas will undoubtedly get that and come running. Dean leans his head against the couch and puts his hat over his face.

The feel of the couch shifting next to him rouses Dean. He pulls his hat down and looks over, grin already on his face, expecting to see Cas. Instead, he’s greeted with a stranger. His smile fades but hers doesn’t.

“Hi,” she says, too loud and bubbly to be completely sober. “That’s a really sweet costume, Dr. Jones.” She’s dressed in an outfit that Dean doesn’t have a hope of recognizing--short shirt and uniform top. Probably from some anime that he’s never bothered to watch.

“Thanks. Um, yours too.” He hopes that he’s not going to be called upon to name her costume. He sits upright, only to immediately regret his decision. The world spins treacherously, and he wants, suddenly and viciously, to go home.

“Thanks. I’m Fiona, I don’t think that I’ve seen you around before?”

“Um yeah. I work with Charlie. At the school? There’s a lot of people here that I don’t know.” And don’t wish to, he hopes his tone says, but evidently it doesn’t. Either that, or Fiona doesn’t take the hint.

“There was someone else here who worked with Charlie,” she says. “Had a really weird name.”

“Cas,” Dean blurts out, too loudly, judging from Fiona’s expression. “That’s Cas. I came here with him. Where is he?”

Fiona shrugs, settling herself back into the couch with the air of someone content not to move for a while. Dean, who is not content to stay put, tries to get up, only to sink back when the world tilts on its axis. What the hell was even in that punch? He hasn’t been this drunk in a while...not since the last Halloween party. Damn it, you’d think that he would have learned by now.

“Don’t know,” she says, with a deliberate smack of her lips. “Looked like he was fine the last time I saw him.”

“That’s not right,” Dean mumbles, because there’s no possible way that Cas would be fine, not when he was pushed into the seething masses.

“Whatever man, believe what you want. He looked perfectly happy to me.”

Now Dean knows that she’s full of shit, because if there’s one expression that doesn’t come naturally to Cas’ face, it’s happiness. Irritation, exasperation, confusion, yeah, but happiness? Happiness sits on Cas’ shoulders like a rented tux: it looks amazing, sure, but there’s always the sense that it doesn’t belong to him, that he’s going to have to turn it back in at the end of the night. He needs to go get Cas, right now.

He forces his wobbly legs to hold him and he takes a halting step forward. Faintly, he remembers that he told Cas that he would be on the couch, but Cas obviously didn’t get the message, or else he would be here by now. God, what if something happened to him?

In the back of his much more sober, rational mind, Dean knows that he’s being ridiculous. Cas is a full-grown man, not some little lost puppy and he’s more than capable of taking care of himself. If he was that unhappy, then he would either leave, or, more likely, find Dean and demand to go home. He’s not a damsel and he doesn’t need rescuing.

None of that matters to Dean as he staggers forward. He takes care with how he steps, walking with the exaggerated care of the truly inebriated. “Um, I think that you should really stay put,” he hears Fiona tell him. She sounds like she’s shouting in a tunnel and that makes her easy to ignore. He’s got this. He’s Dean fucking Winchester and yeah, he drank a lot of punch, but he’s also put away a hell of a lot of whiskey in his day, so this doesn’t mean shit. He’s Dean Indiana Jones Winchester, and he’s going to go and get his man.

The hell?

The unexpected turn of his thoughts gives Dean pause, which turns out to be his undoing. Half of his brain ponders why Cas has suddenly become ‘his man’, which only leaves half of his brain supervising the task of keeping his upright and moving. Half of his brain isn’t enough. His toe catches on the edge of a rug and gravity takes charge, ready to introduce Dean's face to the floor.

His meeting with the ground is interrupted by the feel of steel hands on his shoulders. “Whoa,” Dean mumbles. He waits for his feet to receive the message from his brain: get underneath him and support his body. His feet eventually get with the program and settle underneath him, though they threaten to go back on strike at any moment.

His eyes travel over sensible shoes, nice dark blue pants, a sensible leather belt, backwards tie, and the brightest pair of blue eyes that he’s ever had the pleasure to see. “Cas,” Dean breathes, as a smile stretches out his mouth. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“Yeah,” Cas says, and damn, who would have guessed that Castiel’s wrists were apparently made of titanium? “I got your text. Dean, you need to go home.”

“Yeah,” Dean agrees, dropping his head forward to rest on Cas’ shoulder. It feels good, like his head should have always had a place here. Like maybe he should embroider his name into Cas’ skin to reserve his spot. Fuck, that’s weird. “Yeah, it’s time to go.”

His hand fumbles for his keys, only to be seized by Cas’ fingers of death. “Absolutely not,” Cas says, in a voice which brooks no arguments. Dean has a second to shiver at the sound of that voice, because fuck, there’s always been a part of him that loves being put in his place, and then Cas’ fingers are in his pocket and Dean has a whole new list of reasons to shiver.

Cas is a gentleman, doesn’t spend any more time than he needs to in Dean’s pocket, which, in Dean’s opinion, is really a crying shame. When he withdraws his fingers, the Impala’s keys hang from his fingers. They jingle softly as Cas shifts his grip to wrap around Dean’s shoulders.

“Charlie,” Dean mumbles into the fabric of Cas’ coat. “We should say bye to Charlie.”

“I’ll text her later tonight,” Cas says. His voice is clipped as they make their way towards the door, but the music is so loud that Dean thinks he might have misheard. “You need to go home.”

“You’re a good friend Cas,” Dean says, nosing further into the crook of Cas’ neck. “You’re, you’re just...a real good friend.” From this angle he can smell a whiff of Cas’ fabric softener, as well as the hint of cologne that Cas uses.

“Dean,” Cas says, stopping dead in his tracks. Dean stops burrowing further into Cas’ neck, curious as to why Cas’ voice sounds so strange. “You are not making this easy.”

“Yeah?” There’s no way that Cas could possibly see the leer swimming on his face, but his voice is thick with insinuation. “Am I making it hard?”

Cas’ fingers dig into Dean’s upper arm, hard enough that he expects to find five circular bruises there tomorrow. Dean’s nerves sing from the contact, because he never learned how to have something nice without ruining it in some way. He could never possess something without breaking it apart first, to see how it worked.

“Let’s go home,” Cas finally says, his voice carefully even. Dean slides his eyes upwards but all he sees is the hard cut of Cas’ jaw, the shadow of stubble, the subtle shift as Cas swallows. The imperceptible movement of his throat as he breathes. Dean wants to thank Cas’ trachea for doing such a good job for the past thirty two years, maybe press his lips to it to judge for himself. Fuck, that’s weird.

The cool air hits him like a slap as they exit the house. Out here, without the rest of the house pressing in around him, Dean’s chest finally loosens. His mind clears, enough that he walks to the Impala mostly under his own power. Cas’ arm remains around his shoulders, offering stability and strength and Dean could no easier move from that touch than he could stop the earth from orbiting the sun.

Cas settles himself behind the wheel of Baby like he belongs there. Dean waits for the flash of rage that rises whenever someone else other than him sits in the driver’s seat, and it’s there, but muted. Maybe that’s because the whole world seems muted, soft around the edges, like a watercolor painting. The colors all bleed together, the streetlights, and traffic lights, and the only sharp thing in the world is Cas.

The window’s cracked open and Dean breathes in the cool night air. His hair flutters in the breeze and the cool glass is a balm against his overheated forehead. Like this, he can close his eyes and pretend like he’s flying. It’s almost like he’s a child again, dozing in the backseat as the Impala eats up the miles, except instead of his father in the driver’s seat, incomprehensible and unknowable, it’s just Cas. Cas, Dean suspects, would take a lifetime to properly unravel, but the difference lies in the fact that Cas wants to be known.

Dean’s left hand gropes across the seat until he catches the tails of Cas’ coat. He pulls until the shadows in the Impala shift and Cas glances at him. “I’m sorry,” Dean says, putting effort into not slurring his words. He leans away from the glass and though he misses the cool temperature, this is almost as good, watching the way that the shadows and light play over the angles of Cas’ face. The way that Cas’ fingers play over the steering wheel of the Impala, how the tendons in his wrists tighten and relax as he makes a turn.

“For what?” Cas asks, gentler now that it’s just the two of them, enclosed in the safety of the Impala.

Dean twists his fingers in the tan fabric. “Was a dick, before.” He meets Cas’ eyes, willing him to understand. “Never gave you a chance.”

A sad, sweet smile flits across Cas’ face. “It’s fine,” Cas says, and Dean bristles, because it’s not fine. “It’s fine,” Cas repeats, his gaze directed to the deserted roads. “Don’t worry about it.”

Dean almost scoffs, because has Cas ever met him? Worrying is pretty much in his job description, but there’s something quietly desperate in Cas’ voice that begs Dean to let it lie. Dean isn’t much for subtleties, but he can recognize this, so he stops, and listens to the tires churning against wet pavement.

Cas maneuvers the Impala neatly into a parking space, which is something to be impressed by, when you consider that, at the end of the day, she’s a boat. Dean fumbles for the door handle but somehow, can’t figure out the witchery involved in opening the door. He squawks when Cas opens the door from the outside, and only quick reflexes on Castiel’s part save him from crashing to the ground.

“Come on,” Cas says, slotting his shoulder underneath Dean’s arm, and Dean never lets himself rely on anyone, but if it feels like this, then he might have to start. Cas is solid against him, sturdy enough to hold a foundation, steady enough to withstand a siege.

“Did I tell you you’re a good friend?” Dean asks, as Cas unlocks his door. He never leaves Dean's side, not when they stumble through the front door, not when they start up the stairs, ungainly and awkward. Dean slaps at a lightswitch as they reach the top. Dim yellow illuminates the rest of their way, their shadows arching wildly across the walls.

“You’ve mentioned it once or twice,” Cas replies. He steers Dean into his bedroom and carefully places him on the edge of his bed. The memory foam mattress happily sinks underneath his weight, welcoming his ass back to where it should be, but Dean’s attention is more focused on Cas as he...Oh Christ, Dean might not be plastered, but he’s not sober enough for this, Cas dropping to his knees at his feet.

Dean’s fingers clench in the bedspread as he looks down at the top of Cas’ head. He can't see Cas' face, just a glimpse of a sharp nose and the solid line of his forehead. One of Dean’s boots hits the floor and he wriggles his socked toes. Christ. What did he ever do to deserve this?

Now that he knows what to watch for, he sees Cas’ deft fingers working over his laces. The pressure around his ankle and foot loosens and releases as Cas steadily pulls his boot off his foot. Without warning, Dean is warm, to the point of melting. He’s horrifically afraid that he might cry, because no one’s ever...Not in twenty-four years, not since Mom, has anyone cared enough to make sure his shoes are off before he falls into bed.

Dean's hand shakes, maybe from the booze, probably from the hot welling of emotion threatening to claw its way out of him. He reaches out, Icarus drawn to the sun, even through the warning of hot wax melting down his shoulders. His body is too small to hold all of it in, he’s bursting at the seams. The world is still fuzzy at the edges, everything spinning and nothing makes sense, except for this, his hand cupping Cas’ face, the blazing heat of Cas’ skin against his.

Cas’ stubble prickles against his palm, and his humid breath puffs against the soft skin of Dean’s wrist. Dean’s thumb strokes over Cas’ cheekbone. The skin feels impossibly delicate, and Dean holds his breath, afraid that the slightest breath will shatter this moment. Cas exhales, ragged and deafening, in the sepulchral silence of the room, and his eyes flick up to meet Dean’s. Even in the dim light, they glow electric. Dean thinks that he might fall inside them, wonders at the worlds hiding behind them.

“You’re so fucking gorgeous.” The words, reverent, breathless, and entirely too honest, tumble out of Dean’s mouth before he can stop himself, before he remembers Cas saying I don’t do relationships.

Dean doesn’t know how to have beautiful things, doesn’t know how to hold something fragile without shattering it with his love.

Cas doesn’t move, not even to blink, and if he could, Dean would take the words back. He can't. They hang there, like a blade poised above both their necks, a glove thrown down in challenge. They can take it up or ignore it, but they can never make it disappear.

The world doesn’t end, and Cas doesn’t move, the heat of his cheek bleeding into Dean’s hand. His thumb brushes against the fragile skin just underneath Cas’ eye. Cas finally blinks, his eyelashes brushing against the tip of Dean’s thumb. “Cas, you’re…” Dean starts and trails off, because what would he say?

Your eyes are so fucking blue that I can’t believe that they’re not contacts. Your hair looks like someone spent all night running their hands through it. I’d like to spend all night running my hands through your hair. Your thighs look like they could crush me. Your ass is a thing of beauty. Your fucking mouth...The way that you smile, sometimes, when you think that no one’s looking. The way that you listen.

Cas moves. Dean’s hand falls to his side, limp, empty, and cold. He shivers, bereft of any warmth. “Go to sleep Dean,” Cas murmurs, pushing gently on his shoulder. Dean falls back onto his mattress, groaning as the world swirls around him. “It’ll be alright. Just go to sleep.”

Somehow, Dean manages to yank the comforter up around his body. His eyes flutter shut, exhaustion, booze, and stress finally taking their toll. The mattress cradles him, and Dean sinks down, unable to resist its siren call.

“‘m sorry Cas,” he mumbles, turning his face into the pillow. He knows that tomorrow shame will roar through him, but for now, all he can remember is the look on Cas’ face when Dean said gorgeous. It was like he’d been handed a gift, but Cas wasn’t sure what to do with it now that he had it. Like Cas was afraid.

“It’s fine Dean.” Cas’ voice is still close and Dean blindly reaches out. His fingers brush the now-familiar fabric of Cas’ coat and grip it tight. Like this, he could almost believe that he could keep Cas from leaving.

“Don’t...Cas, I’m sorry.” Sleep encroaches, but Dean doesn’t want to fall asleep yet, not when Cas is still so close to him.

“You’re fine Dean. Go to sleep.”

Dean slips into the hazy place between wakefulness and slumber, and he’s too far gone to say anything else, or even react, when a warm hand rests on his forehead and gentle fingers stroke through his hair. He thinks he might even feel the impression of lips against his forehead, the brush of contact there and then gone, before Dean has a chance to react. Like maybe it was just a dream.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

Dean wakes the next morning with a headache and a pit of regret sitting in his stomach.

Fuck. How could he have been so stupid?

He lies in bed, fully intent on indulging himself in some good old-fashioned misery, before he rolls over and looks at his bedside table. He squints at the glass of water and note placed beside it. He reaches out, fumbling the water as he tries to force his sluggish limbs to obey.

His gummy eyes take forever to bring the neat handwriting into focus.

Take these when you wake up. Would have tried to make you something but didn’t want to poison you.

-Castiel

PS--Your hat is at Charlie’s. Apparently, as a history teacher, I am obligated to know about the adventures of Dr. Jones. Please advise.

The soft huff of laughter threatens to split Dean’s head in two, but it’s worth it. Maybe he didn’t wreck everything last night. Maybe he can blame the booze. Maybe he and Cas can laugh about this. Maybe Dean can pretend like he’s never thought about Cas’ eyes or Cas’ hands. Maybe he can pretend like Cas isn’t damn near the best looking thing he’s ever laid eyes on.

His phone buzzes next to him. Dean groans, and brings it up to his face. When he sees who is on the other end, he has to answer.

“Sammy! Listen, you’re not going to believe this, but Cas has never seen any of the Indiana Jones movies.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Chapter Text

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

Dean spends the rest of his weekend in alternating paroxysms of dread and anticipation. After he talks to Sam (a long and awkward conversation in which neither of them says Are you ok while desperately wanting to assure themselves that they’re ok), he sends a swift text to Cas.

not dead just hungover. thanks for the meds

Afterwards, his phone sits silent for several hours, which is not unusual. Cas is a sporadic texter, as likely to answer a message twenty seconds after receiving it as he is to answer a day later. It’s worse on the weekends because Cas usually throws himself into his projects over the weekends. Dean’s pleased to discover that his suspicions are correct: Cas is a runner and often spends temperate weekends sprinting through Lawrence’s parks and trails. If he’s not there, then he’s at home, nose tucked into one of his plethora of books.

So Dean forces himself to ignore the silence of his phone. He pushes past the insistent headache of his hangover and takes a long, hot shower, sluicing away the previous night. When his skin is pink and shiny, he wraps himself up in a robe and wanders downstairs. Normally he tries his hand at omelettes on Saturday mornings, but between the hangover and the gnawing pit of anxiety in his stomach, Dean craves the solid comfort of carbohydrates and fried meat. Pancakes and bacon it is.

After the grease, pancakes, and coffee settle in his stomach, Dean settles onto his couch. He has lesson plans to complete, but that’s a Sunday task. Today, he’ll allow himself to indulge in laziness. He picks something at random on Netflix and plucks Cat’s Cradle off of his bookshelf. The edges of the paperback are worn thin and rounded with use. Dean doesn’t mind. During his senior year at university, he fell asleep reading this book almost every night, an adult’s version of a security blanket. He never quite gave up the habit. In times of distress or trouble, he finds his fingers seeking the soothing blue cover, his eyes skimming over the beloved words.

It’s already mid-afternoon by the time that Dean emerges from his book-induced stupor. He stretches and walks into the kitchen, finding some old Chinese food to munch on for lunch. It tastes a little strange, but not enough to stop him from eating it. After he goes back upstairs and sorts out his laundry, he finally allows himself to look at his phone.

One new message from Cas Milton.

If Dean had any shame, then he would feel it then at how quickly he punches his passcode into his phone. But shame was one of those things that he lost at around age fifteen, so he doesn’t even pause.

Good to hear. Please drink plenty of electrolytes throughout the day.

Dean blinks at his phone, reading and rereading the message. The perfect punctuation and capitalization he expects, but the tone sounds more like his General Practitioner texting him about better health practices than Cas texting him.

Rolling his eyes, Dean fires off a swift reply.

you betcha promise not to die of dehydration

After that, he puts away his phone and resolves to Not Think About It.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

The rest of the weekend passes quickly, with plans and chores taking up the majority of Dean’s Sunday. While he finds vacuuming and laundry so mundane as to be stifling at times, he also relishes the fact that he has a permanent home to keep clean. He’d done his best to tidy up and keep everything clean when he and Sam were moving from hotel to hotel, but there was always a sense of futility in the gesture, when Dean knew that they would be moving on within a week. So, even as he rolls his eyes at separating out his darks and lights, there’s still a piece of Dean that delights in the mind-numbing task.

He doesn’t text Cas for the rest of the weekend, except for short little innocuous things. He replies to Cas’ reminder that they have a competition on Monday, asks if the bus is stopping anywhere on the way back so that the kids can get something to eat. Cas asks him if he got his email with assessment ideas for the project, Dean replies back in the affirmative.

Neither of them mentions Friday night, or how Cas’ skin felt against his hand. How Cas’ mouth fell open, just the smallest bit, when those damnable words fell like grenades from Dean’s mouth. How Dean didn’t remember pulling the comforter snugly around his body, but how he still woke up covered and warm. About how Dean regrets what he said, but not for the right reasons.

He doesn’t want to lose Cas’ friendship, the easy companionship between them. For that, he’ll apologize.

But he wasn’t wrong.

Dean’s man enough to admit it. He has a full-fledged crush on Castiel Milton.

Looking back, he’s amazed at the amount of misdirection and sheer willpower which he must have indulged in to convince himself otherwise in the first place. It must have required some Olympic-level gymnastics on the part of his brain, and Dean would be impressed, if the outcome weren’t so depressing.

From Cas’ words and behavior, he’s made it obvious that he doesn’t feel the same way about Dean. And while Dean’s never been averse to a challenge, he’ll be damned if that’s what he makes Cas. Cas made his wishes perfectly clear and if Dean were to ignore that, then he would be an utter ass. Not to mention, he’d end up losing Cas in every way possible, which hurts more than the possibility of Cas not returning his feelings.

It’s not the worst thing to have ever happened to Dean, not by a long shot. He’s not a melodramatic sap or, god forbid, a teenager, to spend the weekend sighing and moaning over his lot in life. He’s a goddamn adult, and he’ll keep on the same way that he always had.

Just maybe with a few more uncomfortable moments.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

The first moment that Dean sees Cas, it’s obvious that they are Not Going to Talk About It.

Dean doesn’t really mind--Not Talking About It is a coping mechanism practically patented by the Winchesters, and one which he employs on a regular basis. Not Talking About It is always easier in the short run. The philosophy of Ignoring Your Problems has provided him with many fun-filled hours throughout the years. It’s not like Talking About What Happened or Communicating Our Separate Wants and Desires would actually get Dean what he wants, so it’s no burden to adhere to the policy of Not Talking About It.

But he hates the strange tension between the two of them, simply because it’s so unknown to him. It’s not the crackling snap of temper and pique, nor is it the easy familiarity that they’ve fallen into through the past weeks. Instead, it’s an uncomfortable push and pull, a hyper-awareness of where the other is, and bouncing out of their orbit before ever coming close. It reminds Dean of the last weeks with Lisa, when they both knew that their relationship was over, but neither one of them could bear to strike the death-blow.

It sets Dean’s teeth on edge and the mood seeps into the team as they wait for the bus to take them to the next competition. Cas tries to affect indifference, but a muscle in his jaw ticks like a metronome, and the corners of his eyes are tight with tension.

Dean wants to say something to break the atmosphere, but for once, his sparkling wit leaves him high and dry. Not to mention, he can feel the team’s eyes charting his every move, following him as he moves around the room, only to snap back to their phones when he turns around. Claire frowns at him, but even she remains quiet.

The bus arrives and the team claims their respective seats, as far to the back as they can get while still remaining on the bus. This leaves Dean and Cas at the front, which suits him fine. They take the front seat on opposite sides, neither of them speaking as the bus lurches forward.

They’ve faced all three teams before, so there’s no need to talk about strategy. He and Cas already worked out the lineups last week, so even that small point of communication has been taken from them. Instead of talking, Dean jounces on the seat and scowls at his phone. At this point, any conversation would sound awkward and forced. But this silence isn’t much better, when he thinks back on the fact that last week, he and Cas were leaning across the aisle, his head almost on Cas’ shoulder as he watched a video on the other’s phone.

A shoe nudges at his kneecap. Before he realizes the implications, Dean grumbles and kicks at the offending foot. His head jerks up as his brain finally puts two and two together and comes up with four. He looks across the aisle, to find Cas staring at him. His large eyes look sad, even though there’s a half-smile on his face.

“I don’t like this,” he says. The bus’ roar almost eclipses his voice.

“Me either.”

Throwing caution to the wind, Dean slides out of his seat and into Cas’. He bullies Cas over to the window, shattering any lingering awkwardness with brattiness. His gamble works: all the tension somehow disappears in the blink of an eye, as his knee pushes into Cas’ thigh. Cas grunts, swatting unhappily at him.

“Do you put razors on your joints?” he asks, shoving at the elbow in his side. Prior experience says they both can fit into a bus seat, albeit uncomfortably, but, caught in the thrill of it, Dean makes himself as obnoxious as possible, which means inconveniencing Cas in any way possible.

Each time any part of his body grazes Cas’, little electric sparks jolt through his body, until he’s almost humming with the feel of it. Cas’ small smile, the low rumble of his laugh...Dean’s chest twists with a delicious curl of pleasure-pain until he’s light-headed. For a wild, dizzying moment, he wonders what would really happen if he just leaned forward, pressed his lips to Cas’ cheek, right where his smile creases into a dimple.

Then he blinks and the world crashes back into normalcy. Dean should know better by now. Cas is the unattainable, the gold standard by which all others are judged. He doesn’t get to have the top-shelf. And that’s fine, that really is. He’ll settle for this, the comfortable knock of Cas’ knee against his, the rasp of Cas’ chuckle as Dean shoves his phone underneath his nose.

It’s enough to get by on.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

The competition goes swimmingly. Afterward, the dinner is raucous, the team’s spirits high. They’re comparing notes: Lawrence High is first in the district, and second in the region. Dean hears whispers of ‘State’ passed around the table, and feels a glow of pride in his chest. No matter that he was forced into this position, he’s come to care for this team, more than he thought was possible.

It doesn’t hurt that Cas, across the table from him, is quietly triumphant. There’s something smug in the tilt of his head, the way that his lips curl every time the muffled whisper of State winds its way around the table. Amazing to think that he’d once hated the cockiness of the man, and thought it arrogance. Dean’s lived long enough to recognize the difference between confidence and arrogance and Castiel...It’s only vanity if you’re not capable of performing your boasts.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Cas asks.

Dean laughs and takes a bite of his burger to cover up his sudden nerves. “I’m not that cheap,” he answers, around his mouthful. “You’d need a whole dollar for those.”

“A price worth paying,” Cas murmurs, before turning his attention to his fries. Dean watches him pick one up, dip it in ketchup, and take a bite. His tongue appears, swiftly darting out to delicately lap a bit of salt off his thumb. Dean’s mouth goes dry.

This is an untenable situation.

He manages to put it from his mind for the rest of the night, enough so that he can make it home without embarrassing himself. He forces himself to go through the appearance of routine once he’s home: washes the dishes, tidies up the couch, packs his lunch for the next day.

He lasts until he steps into his shower. Normally this is his quiet time, his time to unwind from the stress of the day and lose himself in the really excellent water pressure and heat. His phone, resting on the top of the toilet, pipes in tinny music that bounces off the walls and settles along his skin. Instead of relaxing him, it makes him jittery, his heart trying to pulse in beat to the percussion and not quite managing the frenetic rhythm.

Here, alone, he lets his mind wander, and predictably, it takes him back to the moment when he was poised on the knife’s edge. Cas’ face was so close to his, close enough that he could have brushed his lips against his cheek and blown it off as an accident. Except Dean doesn’t want it to be an accident, something lopsided and easily swept under the rug. He wants it to be devastating, wants to sweep through Cas’ life with gale-force winds and leave everything in a shambles. He wants to leave his fingerprints all over Cas, to ruin him, as assuredly as Cas has ruined him, wants to stand in his wreckage, and kiss his fingertips before piecing him back together.

His fingers wrap around his half-hard dick, massaging the base and working up to the tip. The water makes everything slick, but not quite slick enough. The friction burns, just on the right side of too much, and it leaves his nerves screaming for more. Dean’s toes curl into the tile of the tub as he replays Cas’ laugh, the flutter of his eyelashes on his cheek, the flicker of his tongue on his plush bottom lip.

How would Cas kiss?

Harsh and demanding, fingers twisting in his hair? Sweet and gentle, each touch a soft reassurance? With the intensity of a surgeon and the artistry of a sculptor? Dean’s free hand winds its way up his chest, to his throat, then to his hair, before he tugs at the short, wet strands. Cas’ hands would hold him steady, trace his long fingers over every dip and curve of his face. Dean’s teeth sink into his bottom lip as he imagines the pressure of Cas’ thumb there, maybe even pushing in past his lips and teeth, pressing down on his tongue.

Dean’s breaths stutter, harsh and quick, as his hand quickens its pace on his fully hard cock. The shower wall is cool against his heated flesh as he leans against it for support, wobbly knees too weak to support him.

Those hands...Dean traces down his chest, closing his eyes as his imagination cranks into overdrive. He brushes against a nipple, almost by accident, and gasps as the sensation rockets through him. His hand moves faster as he conjures up more images: Cas on his knees, Cas running his hands from Dean’s knees, to his thighs, and up to his hips. Dean wants Cas’ hands everywhere on him, wants Cas to map each of his freckles, like Galileo charting out the constellations.

And he wants to learn Cas as well, wants to feel the taste of him explode on his tongue, wants to learn the sound of his pleasure. Wants to trace the line knobs of his spine with his fingers and tongue and search out the soft, hidden spaces of him.

Wants to drop to his knees and trace the line of his hips. Wants to bury his face in Cas’ skin, feel the muscles jump and twitch underneath his lips. He wants Cas to fill him up until he can’t breathe, can’t see, can’t feel anything else other than Cas, Cas…

Fuck, Cas,” Dean groans, twisting his hand one last time. He comes on the last hitch of Cas’ name, the sibilant ‘s’ hissing through his clenched teeth. He shakes as he works himself through the aftershocks, imagining tracing the line of Cas’ jaw with his lips, working his way up to his lips. Kissing him long and slow, kissing him until his mouth goes slack and pleased, kissing him until they fall asleep.

“Fuck,” Dean whispers, once his touch becomes more torture than tease. The water, lukewarm now, threatens to turn cold, and he finishes up quickly, wiping the cloth over himself once more before stepping out of the shower. He towels himself off, shivering in the cool air, before stumbling into his bed.

This is an untenable situation.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

His mood doesn’t improve with the morning. In fact, he wakes up with a grudge against the world, and he carries that attitude throughout the rest of the day. He sets his classes to independent reading, well aware that the less he interacts with humans, the better. His temper is a powderkeg, eagerly waiting a spark. Dean wants to avoid the explosion for as long as possible.

The day plods along, and Dean avoids any confrontations, even going as far as to take lunch alone in his room instead of seeking out Charlie or Benny. Everything goes well until he ventures into the copy room during his planning period. He doesn’t expect to run into anyone as he runs off copies for the next day, but, like a nightmare, a sultry, sugary sweet voice interrupts him just as he’s getting ready to curse at the machine for jamming once more.

“Not having a good time, Dean-o?”

The hair at Dean’s nape stands on end at the voice. Masters always sounds like she’s ready to slide a knife into his kidneys, and Dean knows that for all his foreboding, he’d never see it coming. In a past life, no doubt she made her living as an assassin.

“Astute observation,” he bites out. Partly from his desire to get along with his co-workers, and partly from his vague belief that she is not only capable but also willing, to murder him, Dean keeps his voice pleasant and non-threatening. “Interested in helping?”

“Mmm, no. Perseverance always pays off in the long run.”

“You get that from a fortune cookie?” Dean grunts as he examines the guts of the copier. He tugs the jam out, hissing in pain as his knuckles brush the overheated metal.

Meg doesn’t bother to answer him, and that’s what Dean finds the most off-setting about her. No one is that unnaturally calm. Even Castiel, when you scratch the surface, burns hot. But Meg is as impenetrable as a glacier, and just about as cuddly. While Dean can’t deny that she’s brilliant in her subject, she’s also about as suited for high school teaching as Basic Instinct Sharon Stone.

“Rumor has it that the team might make it all the way to the state final this year,” she finally says.

Though John Winchester’s idea of fatherhood was making sure that Dean learned how to cook on a camp stove in the latest fleabag of the week, he did manage to instill a finely tuned ability to sense danger from a mile away. That ability kicks into high gear whenever Meg is around and, now that she’s revealed at least part of her agenda, the hair on his arms rises with the acknowledgement of Danger Dean Winchester, Danger Danger!

“Must be a slow news day, if that’s the hot rumor of the day.”

Meg grins. Thrust and parry, it’s all a game, except that it’s not. “You and Castiel have done well,” she says, insinuation laying heavy on her words.

The conversation has turned into a tar pit, and Dean remembers reading vivid picture books about fossils, when they talked about the poor dinosaurs who got caught in the tar pits. The illustrators always put human expressions of agony on the faces of the trapped animals. Dean knows exactly how they felt, mired in something that they couldn't escape.

“The team’s done well,” he bites out. And no matter how hard they struggled, the trapped animals could not free themselves. In fact, in trying, they only tired themselves and made their fate inevitable.

“And the two bestest buddies haven’t helped one little bit? Figured you for a lot of things Winchester, but humble was never among them.”

Dean remembers the photo, how could he not, of Meg and Cas, obviously a couple, on a beach. He doesn’t think that there’s anything there between them now (surely he would have seen, surely Cas would have told him) but he can’t deny that Cas relaxes around Meg in a way that he doesn’t around Dean.

Dean’s never been a jealous guy, never really had the occasion to be, but he’s finding that he doesn’t much care for the emotion. Not that he has any reason to be jealous--Cas is just a guy, just his friend. Dean doesn’t have any claim on him. If Benny or Charlie got a girlfriend, he’d be over the moon for them. If Cas and Meg want to bump uglies every day that ends in ‘y’, it’s no business of his.

If Cas and Meg are anything else other than exes who are weirdly close, then Dean might actually carve out his own eyes.

“I’m a complicated guy,” he says, turning to watch her.

There’s something of a feline in Meg, present in her graceful, slinky movements and the innate self-assuredness of her every action and word. She reminds him of one of a cat he once saw in an alley. It was hunting, but the cat treated it more like play: one paw would come down over the hapless mouse’s body, claws sinking in as the mouse squeaked in agony. After a few moments of this, the cat would release the mouse and the game would start all over again. Sam had cried and demanded that Dean do something, and Dean had chased the cat away, too late. The mouse had gasped out its last breaths, going stiff and still as Dean watched.

Between the allergies and that incident, Dean kind of hates cats.

“I don’t think that you are,” Meg purrs, a warning in her movements and her words. “I think that you’re devastatingly simple.”

Dean automatically bristles at the insult but doesn’t move as Meg takes one, slow circle around him. She looks for a moment like she wants to say something, but then changes her mind. Instead, she taps her chin with one impeccably manicured fingernail. “Be seeing you around, Dean-o,” she drawls, eyes glinting with dark pleasure.

She waltzes out of the copy room and in a fit of pique, Dean aims a kick at the corner of the soda machine. The machine rattles ominously on its base and Dean swears at the bolt of pain rattling through his foot.

Fucking Meg. Fucking, fucking Meg Masters, who likes to toy with people for no other reason than the sheer enjoyment of it. What had Cas ever seen in her? Sure, she’s smart, and coldly analytical, and maybe that would appeal to Cas, but there’s no warmth in her, nothing of the sweet, gentle core, which Cas has shown on multiple occasions. Meg isn’t sweet. She’s the kind of person that chews up sweet and spits it out, before scrubbing the lingering taste from her mouth.

Dean wants, with a miserable, urgent need, to see Cas. He’s on his way to his classroom before he has to force himself to turn around. Cas has Government last period, and would be livid if Dean were to interrupt his class. More importantly, he’s not a girl that goes running to her boyfriend the instant that someone upsets her.

So he calls Sam and spends the rest of his planning period bitching to him. Sam listens, even punctuating the pauses with distracted “uh-huhs” and “yeahs”, which lets Dean know that his baby brother is multitasking on some project or another. If he weren’t so irritated at Meg, then he might be angry at Sam’s lack of sympathy, but fortunately for his baby brother, he can only handle one injustice at a time.

Dean’s tirade comes to an end and Sam speaks, sounding for the first time like he’s giving Dean his full attention. “By the way, Jess and Ellen want to go over the Thanksgiving menu with you and make sure that the shopping all gets done. We don’t want another disaster.”

The Great Thanksgiving Disaster of ‘16 occurred when communication lines broke down between Ellen, Dean, and Jess. Each of them thought that the other had bought fresh broccoli for the broccoli onion casserole, ending up with none of them buying fresh broccoli. Upon discovering this fact on Thanksgiving Day, Dean ventured into the deepest recesses of Bobby’s freezer, ultimately coming up with a frozen package of brussel sprouts. His theory was that one green thing could be substituted for another green thing: in the end, they were all kind of gross, so it didn’t really matter.

Spoiler alert: it mattered.

Ever since then, he, Ellen, and Jess have always gotten together and coordinated the menu, as well as the shopping list, with the same attention to detail given the invasion of Normandy. Thanksgiving isn’t just a day, it’s the high holy day of cooking and baking, the one day out of the year where gluttony isn’t merely tolerated, but celebrated.

And yeah, Dean’s actually pretty grateful for his whole damn life, so there’s that too.

“We’ll organize over the weekend,” Dean assures Sam, who, his task completed, is back to distracted platitudes.

“Hey Sam?” Dean says before hanging up, and there must be something in his voice, because all background noise ceases and Dean senses that he has his brother’s full attention. “Thanks, you know. For listening.” It’s a weird moment, one that comes dangerously close to breaking the Winchester motto of ‘Conceal, don’t feel’. Trademark your heart out, Elsa. “Bitch,” Dean adds, in case anyone accuses him of being transplanted into a chick flick.

Sam huffs out a laugh, comfortable now that the world’s righted itself. “Whatever jerk. See you on the weekend.”

Dean hangs up the phone, feeling not necessarily happy, but certainly more settled. Fuck Meg Masters and her weird little mind games. Not for the first time, Dean thinks darkly of anyone who would ever study psychology.

If there were anything between her and Cas, then he would definitely know.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

One week later, Dean is supposed to be working on finalizing the project proposal, but is instead finalizing his grocery list. He has the paper tucked into his copy of ‘1984’ and the plan would be fool-proof, except Castiel always thinks the worst of him, as evidenced by his slim fingers plucking the book out of Dean’s grasp.

“Hey, I was working,” Dean protests, willing to go down with the ship of lies. Cas sighs and snaps the book shut before tossing it back at Dean, with more force than is absolutely necessary.

“We have a week and a half to finish this proposal. It would be nice if you were working on this as well.” Cas’ exasperation and frustration are to be expected, but he finds himself unprepared for the disappointment. It hits him like a sledgehammer, especially when he remembers his disdain for Uriel and Crowley, who would be willing to let Castiel do all the work so that they could reap the reward.

“I really have been working, look,” Dean says, by way of apologizing, and slides his laptop over to Cas. The proposal sits, perfectly formatted, in his documents, complete with lesson plans, assessments, as well as presentation ideas. Cas reads through the document, occasionally checking Dean’s notes against his own, pecking at his keyboard to add additional notes.

After a few minutes of silence, Cas has deflated enough that Dean can try to defend himself. “It’s just that Thanksgiving is in less than two weeks.”

Cas looks up from the laptop, his eyebrows crinkled in confusion. “Thanksgiving,” Dean repeats, clearly enunciating each syllable, just in case Castiel’s internal processor is malfunctioning. “National holiday? The reason that we’re out of school for five straight days? Pilgrims?”

Cas shrugs, returning his attention to the laptop, and really, that’s too much. Dean can accept Cas snatching his grocery list, but he can’t accept the fact that Castiel treats the word ‘Thanksgiving’ like a slang word long since deleted from the lexicon. He pushes his laptop shut, only narrowing missing crushing the tips of Cas’ fingers.

“Thanksgiving, man!” There might be a slight maniac tinge to his words, but come on. Everyone celebrates Thanksgiving.

“You seem to be under the impression that repeating that word will eventually elicit an emotional response.”

“Turkey,” Dean tries, then thinks about the relative taste of turkey. Not the best selling point of the holiday. “Green bean casserole? Sweet potatoes with marshmallows? Mashed potatoes and gravy? Cranberry sauce? Deviled eggs? Sweet rolls? Pie?” None of the foods manage to change Castiel’s dubious expression, not even the mention of the holiest of holies.

“Pie, Cas, come on. I know that too much food gums up the mainframe, but you have to have had pie at least once in your life.”

“Of course. I just don’t understand its importance in what is essentially, a useless holiday.”

Dean gapes. He’d been aware that Cas was a robot, but really, even robots could be programmed to respond to basic human emotions.

“Thanksgiving is a monument to American greed and sloth, not to mention its history of genocide against the Native population. Its main attraction has become a commercialized, over-televised spectacle, more devoted to selling shows and products, than celebrating any sense of gratitude.”

“Good god,” Dean groans, burying his face in his hands. “Just when I start to think that there’s hope for you. How can you like Halloween, the point of which is to get free candy, by the way, and hate Thanksgiving?”

“Halloween comes from a long pagan tradition, co-opted by Christians to assimilate their religion. Also, in its current iteration, Halloween is geared towards children, who are encouraged to emulate their favorite heroes for a night. Children are expected to adhere to a series of set norms in order to receive a reward. Creativity is also celebrated during this holiday, which can only foster appreciation for the arts and unconventional thinkers.”

“That is…” Dean pauses while Cas preens, ever so slightly, secure in his intelligence. “The most soulless way of describing a holiday that I’ve ever heard,” he finishes, pleased to see the scowl settle on Cas’ face. “Seriously though, why all the hate against Thanksgiving?”

He only recognizes the minefield after he’s asked the question. Thanksgiving is, at its heart, a holiday about family, and Dean’s thoughts about family are crystal clear. He’s never hidden his family, quite the opposite. He flaunts them, walking down the hall with his arm around Ellen’s shoulder, dropping affectionate kisses to Jo’s forehead without warning, displaying Sam and Jess’ pictures on his desk with obsessive pride.

Cas mentions his family with the same reticence usually given to an embarrassing illness. He makes references to his cousin Gabriel, usually with a delicate wince that says more than his words. Michael the Mayor rarely receives a mention, and Dean only knows that Cas has two other cousins, Lucas and Raphael, from a newspaper picture, which mentions that they are not pictured.

“It’s not hate, just indifference.” Cas opens the laptop again, and when he speaks, his eyes are carefully looking at the screen instead of at Dean. “As far as the media is concerned, Thanksgiving is an opportunity for Michael. He’ll spend his evening at the shelters, but not before informing every news station within thirty miles. The rest of the family isn’t encouraged to attend; we might get in the way of his interview.” Cas’ voice is low and Dean blinks in surprise at the bitterness coating his words and expression. “We have brunch in the morning, of course, because the news also loves watching him sit down for a meal with his family. A pro-family mayor who’s willing to eschew his personal time for community service? One of the reporters almost proposed to him one year. If it hadn’t been for Hester, then I think she would have.” Cas finally looks up. He catches the question in Dean’s eyes and deliberately or not, misinterprets its source. “Hester is Michael’s wife.”

“So don’t go,” Dean suggests stupidly. He can’t think of anything else to say. John might not have been Father of the Year material, but, Dean never doubted his rare loving moments. He knows what it’s like to grow up feeling like a burden. He can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up feeling like a commodity. A wild impulse seizes him and he says, without thinking, “Come to Bobby’s. We always have more food than we know what to do with.”

Cas smiles, not unkindly. “Thank you for the invitation,” and Dean can recognize a rejection from at least a quarter of a mile away, “but I usually just spend Thanksgiving in quiet contemplation.”

“What are you, the Buddha?”

“Achieving Enlightenment would not be an unreasonable use of my time, but no, as far as I know, I am not.”

“You can be a real smartass, you know that?”

“You’ve reminded me, several times.”

“Well, obviously it hasn’t done any good, because here you are. Seriously man, let yourself have something nice. Come to Bobby’s. We have dinner around three in the afternoon, so you can still get brunch in with the rest of the robots.”

Cas deliberately sets the laptop aside. He meets Dean’s eyes, expression thoughtful. “You’re serious?”

Stung, Dean snaps, “I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t.”

Ignoring his tone, Cas purses his lips and nods. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll certainly think about it.”

“Good. Good.” Dean settles back into the couch and tries to ignore the happy little jump of his stomach when he thinks about Cas at Bobby’s for Thanksgiving, about having his family all gathered around him, close enough to hold, for one afternoon, safe and happy under the same roof, like they might stretch a day into an eternity.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

Dean drops the news that weekend, over the last bit of dinner. “I invited Cas over for Thanksgiving dinner,” he says, slurping the last noodle off of his fork. “His family doesn’t do dinner, and we have enough leftovers to feed the army of Denmark, so I thought I might as well.”

Silence greets his announcement. Sam is actually frozen, fork halfway to his mouth, and even Ellen’s face shows a crack of emotion. Jo’s mouth hangs open in startled delight as her eyes flit between Dean and the other inhabitants of the table. Jess looks surprisingly unconcerned, while Bobby looks pissed (but that’s his default expression, so Dean’s honestly not that worried).

“And?” Ellen asks, breaking the silence.

“Don’t know. He said that he’d think about it.” Dean shrugs, now uncomfortable with the attention. He’d expected Sam to have some sort of reaction, god knows that butterfly didn’t land on the back porch without Sam having some sort of reaction, but he’s confused by the rest of them. He’s brought people over for dinner before. Lisa was a regular at weekend dinners, and in high school Cassie was known to stop by every now and again. Hell, he even brought Aaron by once or twice, and that had only been a fling.

Oh. Now that he thinks about it, there’s always been something in common between the people that he’s brought over for dinner.

Time to close that can of worms.

“He was going to be sitting at home ‘in quiet contemplation’. Tell me that doesn’t just make you want to blow your brains out.”

“Yeah.” Sam has to choke down a whole gallon of water before he can offer his opinion. “Yeah, that sounds bad.”

“Well it’s going to make us an odd number, which means that I’ll have to bring someone over,” Jo comments, twisting noodles around on her fork.

“Who?” Dean comments, maybe a little unkindly. “Benny and Charlie are both out of town for Thanksgiving.”

A splash of red sweeps across Jo’s cheeks and she glares in a way which promises retribution. Dean makes a note to check his trunk. The last time Jo was pissed at him, she put a dead fish in Baby’s wheel well and the stench lingered for weeks.

“Well Dean, you’d better make sure that he brings some kind of food. We’re not running a charity here.”

Ellen’s words seem to settle it, though Sam is oddly quiet for the rest of dinner. Jess remains placid as she lays her hand over Sam’s in a way that, to the uninitiated would appear consoling, but to Dean appears like a warning. Bobby is also quiet, though his silence comes with a lot more glaring.

Dean finds out why after dinner, when Bobby tells him to come out to the garage. “Just for a second, there’s something going on with this Dodge that I can’t figure out.”

Dean smells a trap, but goes anyway. There actually is a Dodge in the garage, but Bobby doesn’t even let Dean get close before he purposefully clears his throat. “Big step, Thanksgiving dinner.”

No one ever accused Dean at being quick on the uptake. “What?” It’s only when he notices the red at the tips of Bobby’s ears and the way that he’s trying to disappear behind his beard, that Dean figures out what he’s talking about. “No!” he says, ignoring the small dip of disappointment. “No Bobby, it’s not...God, it’s not that. Seriously,” he says at Bobby’s disbelieving look. “I meant it: his plans sounded depressing as all hell and I felt sorry for him, so I thought that I’d at least give him the chance to have a real Thanksgiving.”

“I wouldn’t tell him that you felt sorry for him,” Bobby says, as he runs his hand over the Dodge’s frame. “His first year was the year I retired,” Bobby answers the unspoken question, “and from the impression I got off of him, he’d take to pity just about as well as you.”

“It’s not...it’s not pity.” Dean can’t say what it is, because he doesn’t know himself, but he knows that he’d rather smash his fingers in a car door before he’d pity Cas. “It’s just Thanksgiving, Bobby. It’s family and from what he’s said, Cas doesn’t really have one. He has photo opportunities, and cousins that function like acquaintances.”

Bobby is quiet for a long minute, long enough that Dean wonders if he’s forgotten the original point of the conversation. When he speaks, his voice is oddly husky. “Well, if anyone’s going to teach him what a real family acts like, it’ll be you.”

Dean grimaces at the unexpected prickling behind his eyes. Must be the chemicals, or maybe a last little burst of pollen. Weird to have allergens this late in the season.

“Yeah, he can watch you and Ellen bitch all through dinner and Jo be a little brat and Sam cry into his cranberries, and then Jess can terrify him after dinner, and I’ll disgust him when I try to shove three pies in my mouth at once--”

“Shut up, you idgit.” The words, said without heat, still have the same effect on Dean as they did when he was fourteen. The idgit shuts up. “If you ain’t realized by now, you made this family, you and Sam. Ellen wouldn’t have looked twice at an old drunk, and who changed that?”

“Pretty sure you did, with the power of positive--” A particularly ill-natured glower has Dean shutting up once more.

“You ain’t stupid, so stop pretending to be. Ellen, Jo, hell, probably even Jess...if it weren’t for you being such a stubborn little brat, then none of them would be sitting in that house, and you damn well know it. So, when I say that if anyone can show Milton what it means to have a family, it’s you, just shut up and take the damn compliment.”

“Yes sir,” Dean mutters. Like always, compliments crawl underneath his skin, make him want to look around for the nearest hole to hide in. He looks around, but no convenient holes appear for his use. Instead, he’s forced to scratch the back of his neck endure the uncomfortable itch which sounds a lot like his father: This is what you’re supposed to do, this is all you’ll ever be good for, this is all that you’ll ever deserve…

Yeah, Dean has a lot to be thankful for.

“Look Bobby, I’m going to go back into the house…”

“No you ain’t, you think that I was just calling you out here so that we could braid each other’s hair? I need help with this damn thing.”

 

 

--

 

Working on the car settles him and when Dean walks back in the house, he feels better than when he left it. Despite how much he loves his job, and he loves his job a lot, part of him only feels calm when his fingernails are caked with grease and dirt. What that says about him, he doesn’t know and doesn’t care.

Ellen hands him a glass of whiskey, which he gladly accepts. He takes his glass into the living room, but he pauses halfway there, ducking behind the sliding door. Bobby entered after him and he’s still in the kitchen. Ellen pours him a glass of whiskey, but instead of handing it directly to him, she playfully yanks it back, holding it close to her chest.

He’s too far away to hear the low conversation between the two of them, a fact that he’s happy for as Bobby leans in close and brushes his lips along Ellen’s jaw. He also takes the opportunity to snatch the glass out of her hand, drinking triumphantly when he pulls away. Dean does manage to Ellen’s exclamation of “Bobby Singer, you tricky son of a bitch,” but she sounds pleased instead of angry.

Dean leaves when she puts her hands on Bobby’s chest and leans in closely--there are some things that even his stomach can’t handle. Ellen and Bobby making out over the dirty dishes is definitely one of them.

He joins Sam, Jess, and Jo in the living room. Sam has the night’s game on, but thankfully the two blonde demons are busy with other tasks: Jess is preoccupied with reading one of Bobby’s paperbacks, and Jo is busily sleeping in the window seat. Dean sits down in the armchair closest to Sam.

“So Samantha,” he begins, because Sam’s face during dinner had promised that they were going to have the Winchester version of A Talk. These involve a lot of aborted sentences, many Looks, and usually Sam storming off in a huff.

Sam holds up his right hand. His left, Dean is interested to find, is suddenly clutched in Jess’, in a grip that looks punishing in its strength. “You don’t need to explain yourself,” Sam says, like each word causes him physical pain. “You’re doing a nice thing for a friend, who happens to be our friend, and we’ll support your decision.”

Dean taps his chin before shooting a glance to Jess. “Did he manage to get the script right?”

Jess never looks up from her book. “He did miss a little bit about how you’re brothers, which means that you’ll always have each other’s back no matter what, but yeah, he got the important parts.”

Sam looks constipated. “Are the two of you done?” He doesn’t dare descend into bitchiness, not with Jess sitting next to him and still holding his hand like she’s trying to crush it back to normal people size, but it’s damn close.

“Go write about it in your diary Sammy,” Dean grunts, settling back into the chair.

Sam purses his lips, which just makes it look like he’s been eating prunes. Probably to get that constipated look off his face. Oh yeah, Dean’s managed to piss off two siblings today and he’ll have to watch his back, but isn’t that what family is all about?

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

The week before Thanksgiving break passes in a flash. There’s grading to be finished, not to mention their project proposals are due. Dean and Cas spend a night at Cas’ house (“Because my house is more conducive to completing work Dean”), in which hardly any talking happens. It’s worth it: once their proposal is finalized, it’s truly a melding of their two disciplines. More than that, he thinks that their students will actually be able to sink their teeth into this project, and horror of horrors, they might actually learn something from it.

“Congratulations, Mr. Winchester,” Cas says, leaning back in his office chair, after pushing ‘send’ on the email to Naomi. “I think that we’ve done rather well.”

Dean ducks his head into his collar, trying to hide his smile. He’s pleased, not only with the fact that this is one thing off his back, but also with the satisfaction of a job well done.

“Thought any more about Thanksgiving?” Dean asks, turning to the really important question.

Cas’ smile dims and Dean hates himself for making that happen. “I told you that I would think about it,” he says.

“I know, I know,” Dean says. He changes the subject, obviously and awkwardly, but Cas doesn’t mention it.

Dean can’t stop thinking about it, however, and has to keep biting his tongue for the rest of the night. He can’t understand why Cas wouldn’t immediately jump at the opportunity to not be alone, to not be miserable on a holiday. Unless, maybe he’s happier sitting at home alone? Dean dismisses that thought. Introverted though Cas might be, he knows that the other man is happy with company. He’s looked over at him on Friday nights, his cheeks flushed pink with the cold, and seen Cas’ face split in a grin, watched Cas lose himself in conversation with Jess and Sam, and even watched him fabulously lose a game of darts to Benny. Cas likes spending time with Dean’s friends, and most importantly, with Dean himself. Why wouldn’t he like spending time with Dean over Thanksgiving?

The question plagues Dean all through the rest of the week. He wakes up on Wednesday and stretches luxuriously in his bed, loving the chance to sleep in. He has work to do today: prepping the casseroles and making the deviled eggs, but for now he can enjoy a few more minutes in bed.

Eventually he gets out of bed and he spends the rest of Wednesday getting ready for tomorrow. It’s enjoyable for him, to lose himself in the minutiae of cooking, of combining ingredients, and creation. He puts on the radio and sings along to Immigrant Song, narrowly missing taking off the tips of his fingers with a wild stroke of his knife.

He’ll suffer for his art.

 

----

 

Thanksgiving morning dawns, chilly and bright. Dean packs up the food he prepared the prior day before heading to Bobby’s. He walks in on Ellen sliding the turkey into the oven and slides out of her way, while trying to find room in the refrigerator for his food. Bobby hovers over the range, poking at several pots simmering while grimacing at all of them.

“Jo not up yet?” Dean asks, wandering over to the counter. If he’s not mistaken, the ingredients there look like they could be combined to make a smashing apple pie.

“Of course not.” Ellen rolls her eyes. “Even if she was, do you think that we would let her into the kitchen?” She has a point: Jo is awful in the kitchen, even worse than Cas. To the best of his knowledge, Cas has never managed to actually set something on fire. Jo has so many kitchen fires to her name that if Dean were a more suspicious man, he would think that Jo was an aspiring arsonist. As it is, Jo is simply banned from every kitchen. The woman put tin foil in a microwave for God’s sake.

“Sam and Jess should be here any minute and Dean Winchester, you stop fooling around with that!” Ellen’s voice is a bark that frightened twelve year old Dean and still sends a shiver of trepidation down twenty-eight year old Dean’s spine. “Out of the kitchen! Get out!” She brandishes a wooden spoon at him. Dean knows from experience the sharp pain of having that spoon applied to the back of his hand and he retreats accordingly.

He finds Jo, still in her pajamas, loitering in the living room. “Lazy,” Dean accuses, flopping down next to her. She grumbles and he stretches out his legs on top of her, grunting in satisfaction.

“Perks of being the only family member who can’t cook,” she says, clutching her blanket tighter around her chin. “Turns out if you burn enough ovens, no one asks you to wake up early and help.”

“I knew that no one could be as hopeless in the kitchen as you.” Dean reaches over and easily snatches the remote from her grasp.

“Don’t turn it on the parade,” Jo begs, though it’s not important enough for her to emerge from her cocoon.

Dean flips through the limited channels on the television. He does stop on the parade, just long to enough to make Jo wail in discontent, but the persistently cheerful pop music is too much for him and he swiftly finds another channel. He lands on the local news station and he’s ready to move on, except for the familiar face which catches his attention.

“Is that Castiel?” Sam looms over the back of the couch, with Jess beside him. Their attention is focused on the screen, where, as an overly chirpy reporter informs them, they’re stopping in with Mayor Michael Milton, a man in love with alliteration, as his name will attest to.

All right, Dean made up the last bit, but Mayor Michael looks like the worst kind of tool. Handsome, in a bland way, with dark hair and a Clark Kent cleft chin. His expensive suit hangs perfectly off of his trainer-toned frame. The camera pans lovingly over his face, close enough so that Dean can see that his eyes are blue, like Cas’, but also not. Michael’s hold more iceberg than summer-sky.

Dean was prepared to hate Mayor Michael and he’s not disappointed. He turns the volume up, in time to hear Michael say, “Yes, while I would love a traditional dinner with my family,” the camera breaks off its love affair with his face to pan around the room. Various family members mill around a dining room disguised as a banquet hall, but Dean spies the only figure he cares about. Cas, dressed in what Dean knows is his best suit, sits alone at the furthest corner, and stares at his clasped hands on the table. He looks small, somehow, defeat pushing his shoulders into a slump.

“What’s wrong with Cas?” Jo asks, shoving at Dean’s feet so she can sit up straight.

Dean waves at hand in her face to shush her, his eyes intent upon the screen. The camera returns to Michael’s face, just in time for him to say, “But I realize that the more unfortunate members of our community need me, this day more than any other day.” No one should say those words while wearing a smile, and yet, Michael manages it. There’s even an honest to god twinkle in his eyes. It reminds Dean of a Bond villain.

Sam begins. “He’s kind of…”

“Creepy?” Jess and Jo finish in unison.

Dean ignores them, for the most part, as he stares at the screen. He hopes for another glimpse of Cas, but the camera man seems more intent with tracing each and every contour of Michael’s male-model face. It makes Dean wonder when the money-shot is coming, pardon the pun. The camera finally pans away, but it’s just for one last, lingering sweep of the mansion, before it lands on the reporter standing next to Mayor Michael.

“This is Traci Jones, reporting from the house of Mayor Milton. We hope that you’ll all take a page from Mr. Milton’s book and consider the less fortunate on this day.” Mayor Michael puts his arm around the reporter’s shoulders and Dean thinks that she might cry from sheer bliss. “For our parts, we’re thankful to be with a man who cares enough about his community to give back to it, this and every day. From all of us here at Channel Four News, have a Happy Thanksgiving.”

It’s lucky Dean doesn’t have anything in his stomach, or else it would be on the floor by now. Next to him, Jo fake-gags, and even Sam looks vaguely nauseous.

Dean changes the channel, unable to stomach any other human interest stories. He settles on some dog show. Boring as all hell, but it has the benefit of not making him want to hurl across Bobby’s furniture.

He’d thought that Cas was exaggerating. God help him, but he’d really thought that there was something of sour grapes in Cas’ complaints. But after seeing that...Dean’s never trusted politicians to begin with, but there’s something particularly unsavory about Mayor Michael.

“I’m glad that I didn’t vote for him,” Jess offers, perching on the arm of the couch. “He has a huge amount of support in the city, though. Pamela thinks that he might run for Congress when his term as mayor is up. She thinks that he’s a shoe-in for the job.”

“Gross.” Jo burrows back into her blankets until just her nose and forehead are visible.

“Cas still hasn’t answered you about this afternoon?” Sam’s voice is a little too kind and patient for Dean’s liking, but he’s trying, which is the important part.

Dean shrugs and tries to look nonchalant. “No. I guess he had to weigh his other offers, see which one was the most appealing.” He can feel Sam’s Concerned Face without ever having to look. “Look Sammy,” Dean turns, and yep, it’s Sam’s puppy-dog face, “if he shows, he shows. If he doesn’t, then oh well. At least we tried.”

Sam thankfully lets it lie and sits next to Jess on the window seat, where he becomes more absorbed in a dog show than anyone really should become. At the point when he starts to harangue the judges about the conformation of a Golden Retriever, Dean slips out back into the kitchen. At least this version of insanity makes a little bit of sense to him.

Inside the kitchen is madness, but it’s a predictable madness. Ellen and Bobby constantly manage to get in each other’s way and snipe at each other the whole time, but it’s no different than any other Thanksgiving Dean can remember.

“If you’re going to stand there boy, make yourself useful,” Bobby snaps, turning his ire on the nearest victim. He tosses a peeler at Dean, who snatches it out of the air. “You want your pies, get to peeling.”

Dean can get behind that logic and he sets to peeling with a good will. Behind him, Ellen and Bobby continue to bicker, but it’s comforting. “Move your ass, Singer,” Ellen snaps, to be answered by Bobby’s, “If you weren’t in my way, then I wouldn’t need to move.” He’s not sure if this is how other families behave, but it’s his family.

When his hand starts to cramp and the tips of his fingers prune from the juice, he sets his burden aside. A pile of freshly peeled apples sits, ready to be spiced and folded into one of Ellen’s masterpieces. He wipes his hands on his jeans and takes the opportunity to take out his phone.

He debates whether or not he should, but he eventually caves. He taps out a quick message and sends it before he can have second thoughts.

hey cas, just wanted to let you know that the invitation still stands if you’re interested. you’ll have to watch a dog show, and listen to ellen and bobby bitch. but i just finished peeling apples for an awesome pie.

Dean waits, his fingers tapping against the screen, before he thinks to hell with it, and sends out another message.

no pressure or anything but itd be cool if you came

With that said, Dean puts his phone in his pocket. He’s done all that he can do and he can’t spend the whole of Thanksgiving worrying about whether or not Cas will take the lifeline.

He steps between Bobby and Ellen when their back and forth threatens to become a little too heated, and mixes together the pastry for the apple pie. He sneaks little slivers off of the turkey when it comes out of the oven, dodging stabs from the carving fork every time. Jess ventures in to help and between the four of them, Thanksgiving dinner comes together.

Dean explains the senior project to Ellen, who listens as she sips from a glass of whiskey. It might only be noon, but hell, it’s a holiday. She nods and compliments their ideas, and Dean’s so caught up in the conversation that he almost misses it when his phone buzzes in his pocket.

It buzzes again, and Dean’s nerves jump in sympathy. He digs in his pocket and reads over the message. It’s succinct and perfectly punctuated, pure Cas.

I’m on my way.

 

--

 

Bobby’s shop sits at the end of a long driveway, far away from the sounds of the road, so the sound of tires crunching gravel travels easily into the house. Dean restrains the impulse to peer out the window and instead waits until he hears the sharp rap on the door.

“Honey, can you grab the door, please?” Now that the food preparation is complete, and she’s two tumblers of whiskey deep, Ellen’s temper has smoothed into sweet molasses.

“Yeah.” Dean makes his way to the door, taking a deep breath before he opens it. It’s just Cas. He’s seen Cas hundreds of times, had at least two dozen meals with the man.

But this is Thanksgiving, and this is his family, and this is Cas.

He opens the door just as Cas raises his hand to knock again. Cas blinks at him, before a bashful smile pulls at his lips. He’s changed from the morning, dressed just in a sweater and jeans. In his hands is a familiar looking box.

“Did you bring pie?” Dean cranes his head to see inside the box. “Pecan pie? Cas man, I love you.”

The words slip out before he can stop them and he freezes. Cold curls around his heart and he stares helplessly at Cas, before laughing, with only a hint of hysteria. Cas smiles back, though he looks like he’s still waiting for Dean to explain the joke.

“I’m told that it’s customary to bring an offering of either food or alcohol to a gathering.” Cas indicates the box in his hands. “I thought that you would appreciate this more than a bottle of wine.”

“Definitely. We’re more of a whiskey family anyway.”

A moment passes, and Dean becomes aware that he’s blocking Cas’ entry into the house. “Hey, come on in.” Cas steps into the foyer and gazes around at the carefully cultivated clutter of Bobby’s house. For the first time, he looks hesitant.

The memory of Cas earlier that morning hits Dean. Cas looks like he can’t quite believe his good luck, like at any point he expects someone to jump in front of him and shove him back out into the cold. It’s wrong, and he should know that someone in the world wants him.

With his brain on hold, Dean steps forward. He takes the pie from Cas’ hands and sets it on the entry table before he reaches out and pulls Cas into a hug.

It’s so easy, the way that his arms wrap around Cas’ frame, the way that his chin rests naturally on Cas’ shoulder. The soft tickle of Cas’ hair against his temple, the way that Dean can feel each rise and fall of Cas’ chest against his. From this close, he can hear the soft rasp of Cas’ breathing, the stutter that escapes him when Dean squeezes. “I’m really glad that you made it,” he says, breath puffing against Cas’ neck.

A second stretches into hours before Cas’ arms tentatively rise. Dean curves into Cas, as the warm weight of his hand comes to rest between his shoulder blades. Cas’ fingers curl in the fabric of his shirt and Dean represses a shiver as the blunt pressure of Cas’ nails press into his skin through the fabric of the shirt. Cas’ grip is strong, strong enough for Dean to relax into. “Yeah,” Cas says, dropping his forehead to Dean’s shoulder, his breath warm against his shirt. “Yeah, me too.”

 

--

Dean carries the memory of the hug for the rest of the day. It’s the most delicious sort of secret, the kind that he never got to hold as a teenager: illicit and thrilling. It doesn’t feel like he should be allowed to have this, like this is a moment stolen from someone else’s life. Whenever he starts to wonder if maybe he hallucinated the whole thing, he just sneaks a look at Cas and then he remembers: the way that Cas’ hands felt as they pulled him closer, the feel of Cas’ nose pressing into the turn of his clavicle.

And it’s stupid, to feel this elated over a simple hug. Dean knows that. But he also knows, in the vague academic way of educational psych classes, that he’s simultaneously a tactile person and a touch-starved person. He makes do by cannibalizing his own touches: fingers pushing at his scalp, palms scrubbing over his cheeks, but at the end of the day, it’s someone else’s heat, someone else’s energy that he really wants.

But, for various reasons, Dean can’t spend the rest of the afternoon mooning over the way that his skin still prickles with the memory of Cas’ hands. So he leads Cas to the kitchen, where he shares a handshake with both a gimlet eyed Bobby and a newly re-sharpened Ellen. Bobby seems content with pumping Cas’ hand once, but Ellen holds on, for so long that Dean halfway suspects that she’s trying to break his hand. To his credit, Cas doesn’t whimper or beg for mercy, though there is a tightness to his genial smile.

“I very much appreciate you having me over for dinner,” Cas says, once Ellen’s established her dominance and released him. “I hope that my presence here isn’t much of an imposition.”

Dean is reminded that Cas is actually a polite son of a bitch when he chooses to be.

Ellen smiles, and Dean shudders. “Nonsense. Any friend of Dean’s.” She lets her voice trail off as, like a magician, she produces a tumbler of whiskey from some unknown location.

“Oh no,” Dean begins, the steely jaws of the trap springing closed. Cas takes the glass in his elegant fingers, face impassive. “Ellen, this isn’t a good idea…”

“This is hospitality,” she answers, without ever taking her eyes off of Cas. Dean had been a fool to think that she would rest with a simple handshake.

Ellen’s vicious protective streak got Dean out of quite a few scrapes when he was younger, but he’s almost thirty now and doesn't need protecting. This is just posturing.

Cas sniffs delicately at the glass. Worry bubbles up in Dean. He’s never seen Cas drink anything harder than hipster beers, some local brewery crap, and even then, never more than two. This situation not only has the potential, but the promise, to turn nasty.

“Cas, you know Ellen, she’s just…” The glint in Ellen’s eyes warns Dean that if he finishes that sentence, then he’ll regret it.

Cas cocks his heads towards Dean. “It’s fine Dean,” he murmurs, his gaze still locked on Ellen’s face. He only breaks contact to toss the two fingers of whiskey back in one smooth movement. His upper lip lifts in a grimace as his throat works. Dean watches the bob of his Adam’s apple with a sick fascination, his stomach swooping with its rise and fall. Cas politely hands the glass back to Ellen.

She grins, tosses back her own whiskey, acquired from the same mysterious liminal space as the first glass, and claps Castiel on the shoulder.

“Welcome to the family, Cas,” she says, before refilling both glasses.

 

--

 

Dean learns two things over Thanksgiving dinner.

One, Cas possesses the ability to drink all of them, with maybe the exception of Ellen, under the table.

Two, Cas gets along strangely well with the rest of the family.

It was no shock to Dean that Cas and Sam got along like a house on fire: they're both freaky smart, with the kind of brains which devour knowledge. He knows from football nights that Cas and Jess can while away the hours while she explains the latest project of her child advocacy firm. Jo seems more bemused by Cas than anything else, but she’s food drunk enough to where even that’s tempered into fondness.

The real surprises are Ellen and Bobby. They took to Lisa and Cassie with a resigned affection, but there was always the slight catch between their personalities that assured that Cassie and Lisa were going to be on the outside, looking in. While Bobby doesn’t offer to take Cas outside and have a game of catch with him, and Ellen doesn’t offer to knit him socks for the winter, there’s none of the abrasiveness that Dean was expecting. Cas just...settles. Almost like he was always there.

If the food and the pie weren’t enough to make him happy, that would do it.

Halfway through dinner, Dean’s knee knocks against Cas’. It’s not surprising: There’s seven of them crowded around a table meant to seat five at most, so elbows are slamming into each other with alarming regularity. Dean’s left arm goes numb beneath the elbow after a particularly savage jab from Jo’s stabby elbows.

What is unusual is that neither of them moves. Dean’s knee pushes against Cas’ and instead of jerking back, Cas pushes forward. Dean slides his eyes across the table and grins at Cas. Cas smiles back at him, knocks his knee against Dean’s, and leaves it there for the remainder of the meal.

Dean’s stomach swoops again, a bird wheeling through the sky. Once again, he tries to remind himself that this, this stupid little crush, is something that he needs to squash down, but that voice gets drowned out by the larger part of him, the one thrumming with happiness as Cas’ foot presses against his.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, but somehow he can’t stop.

 

--

After dinner is over, and the dishes are cleaned off enough to pass Ellen’s inspection, everyone winds their way to Bobby’s living room. Bobby and Ellen sink down into their armchairs, leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. Sam and Jess curl up on the window seat, which leaves Dean, Jo, and Cas to squash themselves on the couch. Dean winds up in the middle, a fact for which he will not complain, as it shoves Cas against his side.

Snuggled up in one room like, it’s almost too perfect for Dean. He’s never been one of those people to think that he would get the apple-pie, white picket fence kind of life: his whole legacy kind of shot that idea from age four on. But this...Bobby, already falling asleep in his chair, feet propped up on ratty ottoman, with his hand outstretched towards Ellen’s chair, Ellen, sipping from a tumbler of whiskey, her eyes on the evening paper as her pinky brushes against Bobby’s hand...Sam and Jess, curled up on the window seat as the dim lamplight glints off of Jess’ engagement ring, Jo, back in her blankets and already falling asleep, her head tilting down towards the arm of the couch as she puts her feet on Dean’s lap. And then there’s Cas, Cas who kept on meeting Dean’s eyes all through dinner and giving him that secret, half-smile. Cas, whose hand is perilously close to Dean’s.

Dean’s heart expands, to the point where he thinks that his ribcage might crack under the pressure. If he moved his pinky just a millimeter, he could hook it around Cas’ pinky. An unspeakably foolish idea, considering what happened the night of Charlie’s party, but it’s bubbling up again, the wild, reckless urge that only seems to rise whenever he’s close to Cas.

The discordant tones of Smoke on the Water shatter any illusion of peace.

Sam's head jerks up, a hound sensing danger. His eyes are sharp and suspicious. Barricaded between his long legs, Jess grabs at his wrist, her face tight with tension. Jo’s eyes slice over to Dean, her lower lip disappearing between her teeth. Bobby glowers, all semblance of sleep vanished. Ellen is a quiet storm, green skies portending a tornado waiting to touch down on the prairie.

Cas would have to be an idiot not to catch the tension of the room. It rockets through his frame as he stiffens and pulls away from Dean. Dean would mourn his loss, but he can’t think about that, not when his phone vibrates disaster against his leg.

His hand shaking, Dean inches his phone out of his pocket. The screen scorches his eyes in the dim light. The name on the screen reaches inside him, twists his guts until Dean bites his lip from the hurt of it. Amazing that he would even remember to call today, but stranger things have happened.

“Dean.” Sam’s voice is the same kind of desperate urgent that it was all throughout Dean’s youth, and it kicks at something instinctual in him, Take care of Sammy. How many times had he heard that voice, that tone, said to him in motel rooms illuminated by headlights and road signs, with walls so paper-thin that they could hear their neighbors’ conversations and...other activities. Dean would turn up the TV, but he couldn’t erase the sound of the road, nor he could erase the sound of a fist banging against the door, and he can’t erase the sound of his phone breaking his dream of, just for once, having a normal life.

“Dean,” Sam says again, plaintive, “Dean, don’t answer. Please, don't answer.”

Take care of Sammy, and Dean would, Dean does, except he can’t do what Sam wants, not now. Not with John’s voice echoing in his head, I’m your father Dean, and you owe me some damn respect!

Dean swallows and presses viciously at the green ‘answer’ icon.

“Hi Dad.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

When Dean was ten, John tried to give them a Thanksgiving.

He went to the grocery store on Thursday afternoon, just before they closed for the evening, and pilfered through their battered cans and leftover turkeys. Even discounted, the turkeys were too much for Dad’s depleted wallet, and so he’d innovated with some turkey deli meat. He brought the food back to the motel room and dumped it out on one of the beds, a pauper displaying his meager treasure. The cans clanked against each other as they tumbled across the musty bedspread.

“What’s this?” Sam asked, clambering up and inspecting a can of green beans which was bent almost in half.

“Thanksgiving,” John answered. From his tone, Dean already knew that this was going to end in disaster, but it was like a nightmare: he could see the monster, but couldn’t run, couldn’t wake up, couldn’t fathom any escape.

“Mandy says that her grandmother makes mashed potatoes from scratch for Thanksgiving,” Sam said, tossing the can back onto the bed, nose wrinkled in distaste. “And that they have so much leftover turkey that they eat it for a whole month after.”

“And where do you want us to put all that turkey, huh?” John’s voice dipped dangerously low, but Sam wasn’t old enough yet to sense the danger. Dean, wiser in the ways of the world, glared a hole in the back of his brother’s head, silently begging for him to shut up.

“I dunno,” Sam mumbled, finally sensing the danger, too late.

“Yeah, that’s right,” John snapped. “You want to shove the cooler full of it, so that we can’t have anything else?”

“No.” Sam’s lower lip wobbled.

“Why don’t you tell your friend Mandy to come over so that she can show us how to cook Thanksgiving. Better yet, why don’t you go over to her house, since she’s better than your own damn family!”

Sam’s eyes filled with tears. Dean darted forward, putting himself between John and his brother.

“Hey Dad, it’s fine,” he said, smiling. He wanted to reach out but knew instinctively that doing so would spark a fire he could not contain. “Come on, we’ll cook dinner and it’ll be fine.”

“Have Sam cook it, if it matters that much to him,” John snapped, and before Dean could try anything else to keep him, he was gone, slamming the door so hard that a thin crack splintered the doorframe.

Dean perched by the door and waited. Foolish to hope that John would be back, but it was a child’s hope and he was a child. Ten minutes passed, and then he had to conclude that his Dad was gone.

“Dean,” Sam said, tentatively. He walked up next to Dean, already cringing. “Dean, I’m sorry, I just don’t know why we don’t...Why can’t we have turkey for Thanksgiving? Why can’t we go to Uncle Bobby’s?”

“Because we can’t!” Dean snapped, and instantly regretted it when two fat tears rolled down Sam’s red cheeks.

That Thanksgiving ended with Dean heating a can of green beans on the camp stove and Sam fumbling with the strips of deli meat with his clumsy fingers. John hadn’t returned until two in the morning, when he managed to kick one boot off before collapsing into bed. The remaining cans rolled around him, not that he seemed to mind.

Dean sneaked out from underneath Sam’s arm and crept to where his father was sleeping. With practiced fingers, he untied the laces of his other boot and slid it off John’s foot. He put them neatly by the door before he crawled back into bed. Still deep in his sleep, Sam grumbled and rolled away from him. Dean lay in the uncomfortable bed, sweltering under the itchy sheets, and waited for morning.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

“Dean, please don’t answer.”

His brother’s plea is muffled, faint, brushing up against him out of a fog. Dean hears him, the same way that he can a train whistle in the distance, but he can’t obey. Something still tugs at him, You’ll always listen, right Dean? You wouldn’t let your old man down? Despite the fact that he did let his old man down, numerous times.

Cas blinks, eyebrows knitting together in concern, and Dean scrubs his mind clear of that, of everything, as he pushes the green icon.

“Hi Dad.”

Static crackles on the other end of the line before he hears, “Hi Dean.”

Dean sucks in a harsh breath through his nose. It stings. “How...how are you doing?”

Everyone’s eyes rest on him, boring holes through him. He feels so hollow and scraped clean, that Dean’s surprised he’s still visible. His free hand clenches and opens on his knee, scraping at the rough denim of his jeans.

John’s laugh scrapes through the speakers. “I’m doing all right son. How’s your brother?”

Nausea scrapes up Dean’s esophagus. In the window seat, Sam is stiff, his jaw clenched. Dean’s eyes flick away from him, unable to bear the accusation he sees carved into his brother’s face.

“He’s fine,” Dean says softly, but not soft enough to escape the attention of the room.

The house presses in around him, Bobby’s books and papers and tools crushing him with the weight of the family he built. Meanwhile, on the phone, the family he abandoned laughs.

He can’t breathe. He inhales but somewhere along the way, the message gets lost and no oxygen makes it to his lungs. He’s suffocating, always, and he can’t take it, Ellen’s worry, Bobby’s anger, Sam’s quiet hate, even Cas’ well-meaning concern--He hates it, because he doesn’t deserve it.

What kind of son abandons his father?

Dean pushes up off the couch, Jo’s legs flying as he stumbles out the door. The chill November air lances through him and it burns his throat as he sucks in a deep breath.

John rambles on, unknowing or unconcerned of what’s happening on Dean’s end of the line. Here, away from distractions, Dean catches the slur on the end of his words, the elongated drawl which can only mean one thing.

“That girl of his, what’s her name? Jen? Jackie?”

“Jess, Dad. Her name is Jess.”

“Jess. That’s right.”

Dean knows that the next time John calls, he’ll have to remind him of Jess’ name again. He does every time.

“What about you Dean? You got anybody? What was her name? Lindsey?”

Dean’s throat constricts. “Lisa and I broke up Dad. Five years ago. You know that.”

Sometimes, he’s not sure whether his father’s memory is going or whether he truly is just that oblivious. He doesn’t know which scenario would be worse. Either one is painful enough to make him catch his breath with the agony of it all.

“Oh. I knew that.” His father stutters out an uncomfortable laugh. “Well come on, there must be someone.”

A ridiculous urge comes over Dean--what if he were to tell his father the truth? Well Dad, there is someone. Too bad that I’m never going to be able to be in a relationship with them. His name is Castiel and I thought that he was an asshole, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Well, actually, he is an asshole, but he’s also the kindest person that I know. And he’s funny, and smart, and gorgeous, and I bet you didn’t know that you raised a queer son, but here we are.

“No Dad. There’s no one. I’m really busy with work. I just don’t have time for that.”

“Right.” John’s drawl turns lazy, which is to say, it turns dangerous. The part of Dean that never quite managed to grow up cringes, because it knows what comes next. “Your job.”

John Winchester can’t remember the name of his future daughter-in-law, can’t remember that Dean hasn’t been with Lisa in over five years, but the indignity of Dean’s job never escapes his mind.

“We’ve been over this,” Dean says, placating. Ten years old, and standing between his dad and Sam, it’s fine, it’s fine, fourteen years old and telling Sam that they had to move, because Dad has a job, thirteen years old and washing the bloodstains out of John’s clothes in the chipped sink of a gas station bathroom, sixteen years old and still between John and Sam, except now Sam is twelve and he doesn’t cower behind Dean anymore, he pushes him aside. John’s hand, snapping out…

“I chose my life. This is what I wanted.”

“You turned your back on your father,’ John spits. “I needed you, I asked you to be there, and you turned around and ran.”

Dean clenches his fingers around the phone with such force that he’s amazed the screen doesn’t crack. “I wasn’t going to do that kind of work.” Bruised and bloody knuckles, tonguing open a split lip… “Neither Sam or I was going to do that.”

“And you get to make that decision, huh? You get to disobey your father?”

Dean pulls the phone away from his ear, though his father’s words follow him. He looks up at the sky, the stars blazing above him. You can always see the night sky so well out at Bobby’s, where there’s hardly any artificial light to block the way…

“Why did you call Dad?” Dean finally asks, lifting the phone back up to his ear. “I know it wasn’t just to yell at me, so why did you bother to call?”

“You speak to your father with a little more respect.”

The ten year old in Dean cowers, but he’s not ten anymore. He’s twenty-eight and he has a job which he loves and a family that loves him. He knows that he’ll never smooth over the scars, he’ll never truly be happy, because happiness isn't in the cards for someone like him. But he can be content, so he asks again, “Why’d you call Dad?”

“Hard as it may be for you to believe, sometimes I just want to know how you’re doing. It’s not like you let me know.”

Dean closes his eyes, squeezes the muscles until bright lights burst behind his eyelids. It’s cold out here, the kind of cold that seeps into your bones and never leaves. For a moment, he lets himself believe the fantasy. Lets himself think that his father honestly cares about Sam’s life, lets himself think that his father genuinely misses them. That if they mailed a wedding invitation, John would show up. That if Dean told the truth, said, I met someone who’s not like anyone else in the world, that his father would care. Lets himself believe that maybe, he, John, and Sam could sit down for a meal, just like millions of fathers and sons across the nation.

“But look, I’m in a little bit of a bind...I’ve got an address for you, and I just need about three hundred bucks. It’s just a setback, I’ll get the money back in a few weeks, it’s just things are tight right now…”

Dean closes his jaw on a wild howl of laughter. He shoves his knuckle between his teeth, bites down until the copper tang of blood bursts on his tongue. Of all the pathetic, cliche reasons for his father to call him, he needs money?

“I can’t,” Dean bites out, fast and fierce, before he has a chance to change his mind. “I can’t...You’re my father and I’ll always respect you, but I’m not your bank.”

“Dean, don’t--”

“Sam’s getting married in April,” Dean says. “He’s going to stand up there, with the love of his life, and I’m going to be his only blood relative there because we can’t trust that you...that you’ll...” His voice fades away into the crackle of the phone line, pain smothering it until it peters into nothingness.

When it comes, his father’s voice is pained. “Dean…”

“And I met someone, someone that I really like, and I wish to God that you could meet him, but that’s not going to happen. And yeah, some of that is my fault, but it’s your fault too.”

“Dean, listen here, don’t you just cut me out! I’m still your father--”

Dean manages to get out, “Bye Dad,” without choking outright on the words. He punches blindly at his phone, his father’s voice still echoing through the speaker as his sweaty thumb slides over the screen. It takes him three attempts to end the call. His phone drops to the gravel and Dean doesn’t even bother to try and pick it up.

He wheezes, trying to force more oxygen to his spinning brain. It doesn’t work--the world keeps whirling around him and the cold air slices through his lungs. His whole chest burns, and it has to be the fact that it’s freezing outside, there’s no other explanation for why it feels like he’s splitting apart at the seams.

“Fuck,” he whispers, bending over. His forehead presses into the unyielding bone of his knee, but not even that stops the rushing and pounding in his head, the relentless scream of anger and betrayal scraping at his skull. He bolts upright, vision whiting out for a moment, before it returns, slamming into him with colors too bright. The stars gleam ruthlessly above him.

“Fuck!” he shouts, reaching down and flinging a rock into the tangled jungle of rusty car carcasses. Far away, he hears the sound of glass breaking. Dean pants, every instinct in his body scrabbling at him and telling him to run run run, but he doesn’t have anywhere to run to.

“Dean?”

Dean freezes, sliding away from the glow of the pole light. Maybe, if he’s lucky, then he can remain hidden…

“Dean?”

His luck’s never been that good.

Gravel crunches underneath Castiel’s shoes as he walks forward. He has Dean’s jacket slung over one arm and a full bottle of whiskey in his hands. He looks only vaguely curious, like he happened to run across Dean in the front office

“Not a good time Cas,” Dean says through clenched teeth. He pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, like maybe he can make Cas disappear with the power of mind over matter.

The same instinct that sends dying dogs to abandoned sheds and decaying porches seizes Dean--the last wish of an animal to keep its dying private. He can’t have Cas see him like this, falling apart, weak and pathetic. This is the part of him that’s still sixteen years old, the piece of him that never managed to check out of that last motel.

“Seriously Cas, get out.”

Cas’ eyes are huge and incomprehensible in the splash of light provided by the pole light. He tilts his head, considering, and for the first time in a long while, real anger sparks in Dean.

“Sorry that we couldn’t manage to be the perfect family for you.” Dean drops his voice, puts all the gruffness and disdain into it that he can. “I know that’s what you were gunning for, right?”

It’s a low blow, deliberately vicious and Dean wants to kick himself at the same time that he wants to push Cas away. He wants to bury his face in Cas’ chest and let himself have one moment where he doesn’t have to carry the weight of the world on him. Mostly, he just wants to rewind the night to thirty minutes ago, when everything was so soft that it might as well have been a dream.

Cas doesn’t crumple under the assault, nor does he snap and snarl with fury. He steps forward, slowly, like he’s approaching a wounded animal. Later, Dean will realize that’s exactly what he was doing.

He doesn’t realize just how cold he is until Cas drapes his jacket over his shoulders. Each movement is slow and purposeful and Dean realizes that Cas is giving him plenty of time to back away, to say No.

The word never comes. Cas arranges the jacket over Dean’s shoulders, pulling it closed across his chest. The bottle is heavy in Dean’s hands and he unscrews the lid. He brings the bottle to his mouth and relishes the ache as the whiskey burns a path down his throat. Maybe there’s something to be found in this, oblivion in the bottom of a bottle. Maybe Dad was onto something for all those years.

That thought stops him cold and rips away whatever solace he could find in the comfortable numbness of a buzz.

He realizes that Cas is still fiddling with his jacket and he pushes weakly at him. “Cas, leave it. Come on, just leave me alone.”

Cas catches Dean’s hand in his own. The heat of his skin is enough to scorch and Dean trembles as bright sparks skitter along his hand. “Stop,” Cas says, not a command but not a request either.

Dean fights him, because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. “Just go back inside. I’ll be back in a minute.” He attempts a smile. It hurts.

Cas blinks slowly, studying Dean. He seems to come to a decision, as, uncaring of his jeans, he hoists himself up to sit on the hood of a car that’s more rust than metal. After another moment, Cas moves closer to him.

Dean can handle that, can handle this weird Zen mood that Cas is in. He could handle Cas’ hands fondling all over his jacket, a strange mixture of busybody and caring.

What he can’t handle is Cas’ arm winding around his shoulder, pulling him onto the hood and flush against his side. “Cas, please just leave it,” Dean says, his voice thick and choked. He hasn’t cried in front of someone in years and he’s not trying to break that record tonight, but damn it all if Cas doesn’t just lift his head up so that his chin rests atop Dean’s head.

“Dean,” he says, just his name. Like it’s actually important.

It’s too much, all of it, and hey, it’s not like he chose this, right, so there’s no shame in it if he closes his eyes and relaxes against Cas’ chest. No shame if he syncs his breathing with the solid thud of Cas’ heartbeat. No shame if he breathes in the scent of Cas, all detergent, cologne, and soap.

Cas’ chin moves against Dean’s skull when he speaks. It’s not as uncomfortable as Dean would have thought.

“They told me that my mother left just a few years after I was born.” Cas’ voice is even but Dean can hear the increase in his heartbeat, feel the sudden pressure of Cas’ fingertips against his shoulder. “She didn’t leave any way for the family to reach her; she was just...gone.”

“Cas,” Dean breathes, but Cas continues like he didn’t hear Dean. He’s so far gone that it’s possible he didn’t.

“My father…” Cas’ pulse races wildly and Dean’s free arm sneaks around his waist, pulling him closer. “My father was...unwell. I suppose he did the best he could, with my sister and I to raise, but he was never…” Cas’ chest hitches, convulsive and sudden. “My sister, Anna. She’s three years older than me, and she took over the house. She learned how to forge his signature for permission slips, made his doctor’s appointments…” Cas swallows and the motion travels through Dean.

“We thought that he was getting better. There was about six months, where he was taking all of his medications, he was going to his doctor, he even went to one of Anna’s art exhibitions. We thought...we thought that maybe it was all over. That maybe…”

Cas’ voice trails off as he rests his chin atop Dean’s head once more. He doesn’t let go of Dean and Dean doesn’t make to pull away. Maybe this started as Castiel offering comfort to Dean, but somewhere along the way, the tempo of the dance shifted and Cas is taking just as much solace from Dean as Dean is from him.

“Then one day he was just...He was supposed to be going to a doctor’s appointment. After he was three hours late coming home, Anna called the office. He’d never showed up.”

Dean listens, his fingers rubbing at Cas’ side. “We waited for as long as we could but eventually...After a week, Anna finally broke down and called Uncle Charles. Michael’s father.” Cas inhales, deep enough that his chest shifts underneath Dean’s cheek. “She was fifteen.”

Dean’s brain does the math--Twelve, Cas was twelve. Christ.

“After that, it’s all...Uncle Charles told the police and they looked for Dad. Never could find him, just like they never could find Mom. After two years, Dad was presumed dead. Lucky for us, his will had guardianship of us going to Uncle Charles anyway, so at least we got that part right.”

“Cas,” Dean says, this time loud enough for Cas to hear him. “Cas, you were just a kid. It’s not...it’s not your fault.”

How many therapists have said to him? Why is it so easy for him to absolve Cas, when he can’t give the same courtesy to himself?

Cas twitches his shoulder in a tiny shrug. “Uncle Charles was already an old man. He passed when I was fifteen and Anna was eighteen. Michael took over the family, and Anna…” His fingers tighten convulsively on Dean’s shoulder. When he speaks, his voice is rougher. “Well, a few years later, Anna made it a hat trick for the Milton family.”

Dean's told enough half-truths to know that's not the whole story, but he doesn't push. If Cas wanted him to know the whole story, then he would have said it. For right now, Dean will take what he's given and hold it close to his chest. And Cas has given him a hell of a lot.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Dean says. He's not speaking from a position of power, with his face half-buried in Cas' chest, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Not when Cas’ fingers have traveled from Dean’s shoulder, to the middle of his back, creeping over the collar of his jacket to drift over the nape of his neck. “Cas, it wasn’t your fault.”

Cas shifts his head so that his cheek rests on Dean’s head. His breath ruffles Dean’s hair when he speaks.

“We don’t get to choose the family we’re born into. But this...Dean, you built a family out of nothing, and that’s...That’s truly remarkable.”

Cas’ heartbeat has returned to a steady pace underneath Dean’s ear. He listens to it, the reassuring ba-dum ba-dum, breathes in deep. “Sam tell you to come out here?” he finally asks.

Cas’ fingers drift over the short hairs at the nape of his neck. “Bobby did. He seemed to think that you might not want his or Sam’s company.”

Bobby always was an intuitive son of a bitch. “They tell you why?”

“I didn’t need to know.”

Cas’ blunt nails move over the goose-pimpled skin of Dean’s neck. Dean shivers, hopes he can pass it off as being from the cold. Cas waits, his arm around Dean, and doesn’t demand answer or reasons.

Maybe that’s why Dean offers them.

“After mom died…” Dean begins, and has to stop. He doesn’t have the words to tell this story. After a Sam-mandated therapy session, he knows how to talk about Mom, but about Dad...He tried telling Lisa, once. But it wasn’t in the spirit of Let Me Open Myself Up and Be Vulnerable With You Since We are In a Relationship And This Is What Responsible Adults Do. It was much more in the vein of I Have Been a Giant Dick and This is a Half-Assed Excuse For My Behavior.

He is Dean Winchester and he is over six feet of inadequacy and bullshit.

Cas’ hand rubs at his shoulder, then, without warning, he leans back, until he’s reclining on the hood of the car. Cas’ hand on his shoulder urges him to do the same and, without protesting overmuch, Dean goes along with it. The metal is freezing against the unsubstantial barrier of his jeans, and he’s fairly certain that at least one of them is going to come away with tetanus from this endeavor, but all worries fade away, in lieu of the feel of Cas' body next to his. Dean ignores how his body automatically curls into Cas’ side, easy and natural as a compass finding north. His right arm lays haphazardly over Cas’ waist. Cas’ left leg is propped against the front bumper and it’s easy, so easy to throw his right leg over Cas’, to pull his body flush against Cas’ side. His cheek rests on Cas’ shoulder and he tells himself that he’s so close because it’s cold and the heat is comforting, but he can taste the lie without it ever having to pass his lips.

Cas’ arm curls underneath Dean’s shoulders, his hand resting easily on Dean’s head. His other hand lies soft on Dean’s arm, fingers idly rubbing over the leather of Dean’s jacket. His chin rests on Dean’s forehead, gentle pressure.

Here, like this, Dean can speak into the secrecy of Cas’ chest, his fingers plucking restlessly at the fabric of Cas’ sweater. The words come haltingly, but the longer he speaks, the easier they come, like a wound being cleaned.

“When mom died, Dad went a little...He was obsessed. He couldn’t get it out of his mind that someone must have wanted her dead.” Dean laughs, a miserable, bitter sound. “There was no reason why he would think that. She was a stay-at-home mom who volunteered at the local library. There was nothing in her history, nothing...But he was convinced. Went to the police station every day until one of the detectives finally told him that if he showed up again, he’d be arrested as a nuisance.”

“I can only remember bits and pieces from back then; Sam wasn’t even walking yet. But after getting the brush-off from the cops, and after the insurance payment and settlement money came in, Dad just took off. Put everything that we had in the Impala and drove off. He was determined, you see, that he was going to find the person who killed Mom.”

Cas’ fingers rub at his scalp and Dean’s weak, he’s so fucking weak for this man. He relaxes into the touch, exhales against Cas’ shoulder. “He never stopped believing. He stopped talking about it, but if I called him back and asked him right now...He’d tell me about another lead he was chasing, twenty-four years later.

“When we got older, Sam and I realized that it was a dead end, that, that sometimes shit just happens.” Cas’ fingers press hard on Dean’s elbow. “But we were kids, you know? Dad told us that someone had killed Mom and we were going to find who did it.”

Cas’ nose brushes against Dean’s hairline, so softly that Dean thinks that it must have been an accident. “So we kept on crisscrossing the country, searching out leads. Dad would take odd jobs here and there, just enough to keep gas in the Impala. We’d spend a month in one town, a week in another. At first I thought it was fun, you know? Seeing the world? But then...he started to disappear and leave us at the hotel. At first he was gone for hours. And then it was days.”

Dean swallows, licks lips gone chapped and dry. “When I was ten...He left us for a week and a half. The food ran out...I finally went to the desk clerk and called Bobby. Bobby came that night, took me and Sam here. He called Dad, told him what he’d done.” Dean sighs, breathes in the scent of Cas. “Dad didn’t show up for another two weeks.”

Cas’ arms tighten, pulling Dean closer. Dean, limp with memory, doesn’t bother to protest. “Oh Dean,” he murmurs, low voice dripping over Dean like treacle, like a down blanket. “Oh Dean.” This time, when his nose brushes against Dean’s skin, it’s no accident.

“I knew, was the thing,” Dean says, tracing patterns in Cas’ sweater. “I knew that there was nothing, no one, who killed Mom, knew that Dad was chasing leads was futile. But I couldn’t...It was the only thing keeping him going. How could I take that away from him? At least when he was hunting, he was sober. When he lost the trail…”

Dean clamps down on the rest of it, the part which is too painful, too close, even now. The nights John would stumble into the room, red-rimmed eyes searching for an enemy and, when they found none, lighting on his sons. The broken lamps, holes in cheap drywall. Sneaking out of hotel rooms in the middle of the night, unpaid bills following them like wolves snapping at their heels. Learning how to fill out credit card applications so that they wouldn’t get thrown out of the latest roach motel. Learning how to play pool and bluffing his way into bars so that he could hustle some cash to put food on the table. Making sure that Sam was always enrolled in school, shoving books underneath his shirt to take home to him.

Some day, he thinks to himself, he’ll tell Cas. One day, he’ll shed five skins and be able to communicate like a normal person. But for now, he can do this. It feels like a victory.

“I was so angry,” Dean confesses into Cas’ chest, his voice muffled. “But he was my dad and I wanted to make him happy. I thought, maybe, if he could just be happy then he would stop. He would just stop and we could be a family again…” Dean’s nose prickles, not from the cold. “It was stupid.”

“No, no it wasn’t. Dean, it wasn’t stupid. He was your father.”

Dean laughs, unkindly. “No, the stupidest part is that I still think that. Like maybe, if I just do enough, he’ll finally be happy. He’ll finally be proud.” The words taste bitter in his mouth, tainted with impossibility. “When I was sixteen,” his voice falters, remembering that night, the blood and shouting, “I took Sam and I went to Bobby’s. Called Dad and told him that we weren’t coming back until he sobered up.” He’s left a few crucial parts out of the story, John’s hand shooting out, Sam stumbling backwards, Dean’s fury, John’s disdain...Those parts of the story are his and Sam’s, and Dean will guard those to his deathbed.

He isn’t aware of the desperation in his hold until Castiel traces down Dean’s arm, to where his fingers clutch at the fabric of Cas’ sweater. Without realizing it, Dean tangles his fingers with Cas’, pulls their hands into the narrow space between their bodies.

“I thought that would make an impression. I thought that maybe, I could finally get through to him. That maybe he would realize that he was about to lose the last family he had.” Dean curls around Cas, like he could crawl inside him if he only tried a little harder. “He just told me that he’d be better off without us. Less dead weight.”

“Dean.” Cas’ voice is a low husk, whispered into his hair. His fingers push against the back of Dean’s hand, pull it close to his chest. “Dean, you’re not...My god Dean, no one deserves that, but you...You’re extraordinary.”

Fuck, doesn’t Cas know that people don’t say shit like that to each other? Doesn’t Castiel know that underneath it all, Dean’s just a stupid kid, one who fucked over his dad, who couldn’t get his act together enough to help his brother, who doesn’t deserve half of what he’s managed to lie, cheat, and steal his way into? “Shut up,” Dean murmurs. He pushes his face into Cas’ chest, takes refuge in the solidity of the flesh underneath him. “I’m just a fucking idiot with daddy issues.”

“So am I,” Cas says, without bitterness, “but I never raised a brother and sent him to college.”

Though it’s against his nature, Dean lets it lie. He knows Cas well enough to know when to expect him to dig his heels, and this isn’t just a dig in your heels moment, this is Cas planting himself like a tree. So Dean moves on, says something that he’s only thought to himself and never voiced, not even to Sam.

“The last decent thing Dad ever did,” he says, flicking his eyes up so that the outline of Cas’ jaw is in his sight, “was give me the Impala.”

Cas’ hand, which had been running through his hair, pauses. Dean absolutely does not push into his hand to regain his touch. He absolutely does not do that. “He called me one day, after I’d just graduated high school. I invited him, for all the good it did. But uh, he gave me coordinates, told me that the Impala was there.

“I thought...” Dean swallows around the bright, bitter pain of it. “I thought that he was giving me a graduation present. Can you believe that?” Cas’ fingers run through his hair, down to the nape of his neck, five points of comfort. “I got on the bus, went to where he told me. Found the Impala.” Dean huffs out a sour laugh. “It was wrecked all to hell, front bashed in, sides crumpled. No idea how he managed to bust it up that bad and come out the other side, but that’s my old man for you. I had to call Bobby, get him to come with the truck and pick us up. Spent my whole summer fixing that car.”

Cas pushes at the muscles at the base of Dean’s neck, his fingertips warm against the chilled skin. “Even after all of that...It was still the nicest thing that my dad ever did for me.”

Cas doesn’t have anything to say to that, so the two of them just lie on the hood of a rusted junker, letting the cold descend around them, until Dean can’t remember a time when he could feel his fingertips. Above them, the stars glitter, tiny little ice chips poked into the blackness.

“We should go inside,” Cas finally murmurs. When he speaks, his face is angled downwards, so that his lips brush against Dean’s forehead. The shiver which runs through Dean’s body has everything to do with that contact and nothing to do with the frigid temperature. “It’s cold.”

“Yeah,” Dean says, reluctantly. Once they leave this place, once they go back to the house, where rules and reality await, he won’t be able to do this anymore. Won’t be able to cling to Cas like he’s drowning and Cas is the last lifeboat going. Won’t be able to fool himself into thinking that he can actually have this.

“Dean,” Castiel says, sharply, and it’s only then that Dean realizes that he’s shaking, little minute tremors rolling through his body like tiny electric shocks. “Dean, come on.”

He sits up, pulling Dean with him. His frozen muscles screech in protest, and Dean bites back the groan which rises to his lips. He stumbles off the car, resents how lightly Cas seems to land on his feet.

“Come on,” Cas repeats, his arm around Dean’s shoulders still. Dean lurches forward, as the prospect of warmth lures him into movement.

“When we get inside,” Dean says, leaning into Cas’ side as they move through the maze of cars towards Bobby’s house, “you’re going to heat me up a slice of pie.”

“Am I?” Cas asks, a thread of amusement running through his voice.

“Yeah,” Dean says, his muscles loosening as he walks forward. “And you’re going to put ice-cream on it.”

“A wise choice, seeing as your core temperature has dropped by several degrees.”

“And then,” Dean says, for his coup de grace, “you’re going to sit down and marathon Dr. Sexy with me.”

“I draw the line there. Isn’t there some saccharine holiday special that we can watch instead?”

“Dr. Sexy has a holiday episode.”

“Ah, the worst of both worlds. This truly is the darkest timeline.”

Dean pauses, mostly because, for once in his life, Cas pulled off a pop culture reference. But then he gets caught up in looking at Cas, the way that the starlight hits his eyes and lances back, the white puffs of his breath escaping his mouth, the soft curl of his lips into a bemused smile.

“No,” Dean murmurs, throwing his arm around Cas’ shoulders as they walk up the porch steps. “No it’s not.”

 

--

 

Ellen and Bobby have already gone to bed, or at least vacated the living room, when Dean and Cas return. Jo stirs in her nest on the couch, murmuring sleepily as Dean rearranges the blanket over her shoulders. Sam and Jess, deep in conversation, look up as Dean drops into Bobby’s armchair.

“Everything all right?” Sam finally asks.

Dean considers for a moment. He’s still raw and hurting, and his scars haven’t vanished by any stretch of the imagination. But he’s not three sheets to the wind, isn’t screaming and cursing at Dad or Sam, isn’t calling every single ex still in his phone and demanding to know where they went wrong. Plus, he can hear the distant ding of the microwave.

“This doesn’t have ice-cream,” he says, when Cas hands him a reheated slice of pecan pie.

“There was no ice-cream. Eat your pie and be quiet.”

Sam and Jess watch this exchange with identical amused expressions on their faces (really, they’re the worst kind of old married couple and they’re not even married yet), before Jess lets loose an earth-shattering yawn.

“We’re going to head home, all right? See you later this weekend?” Sam’s eyes flick to Cas and within a moment, he comes to a decision. “Cas, you’re welcome too, if you’re interested.”

Cas blinks in surprise, his mouth falling open before he rearranges his expression. “Thank you for the invitation Sam, but I wouldn’t want to intrude.”

Sam shrugs, then reaches out and claps Cas on the shoulder. To his credit, Cas only wobbles a little bit. Impressive. Sometimes getting hit the by Samsquatch is like getting hit by an eighteen-wheeler. “You wouldn’t be,” Sam says, ostensibly to Cas, but he looks more like he’s addressing Dean. His eyebrows waggle meaningfully.

If he’s speaking in code, then Dean isn’t party to the cipher. “We’ll talk about it later,” Dean says, with his own significant look, because he’s not averse to the idea of Cas joining them for family dinner time, but he’s not sure why Sam feels the need to send Morse Code via eyebrows at him when he drops this idea. “Drive safe.”

“You too,” Jess mumbles around another yawn. She waves at them before lurching to the door. She slams into one of Bobby’s pile of books, but it doesn't seem to phase her, even as she almost tumbles to the ground. Miraculously, she makes her way out of the house without breaking her neck. From a distance, the car door opens, and then closes.

“She’s not driving, is she?” Cas asks, and the concern in his voice is so achingly genuine, that Dean has to laugh.

 

--

 

Sam texts him when he gets home and Dean stifles a yawn from where he’s stretched out on the couch, Jo having gone to bed an hour ago. It’s ten o’clock, and by all accounts he should be long gone from Bobby’s house, but he’s still splayed out on Bobby’s couch. Part of that is exhaustion--he’s been going strong since about eight this morning and he deserves a break damn it. The other part of it is Cas next to him, kindly acting as a pillow.

This isn’t real, Dean has to keep reminding himself. None of it: the conversation in the lot earlier, the way that Cas can’t seem to stop touching him, his head resting on Cas’ thigh...None of this means anything.

He wonders, sometimes, if Cas was telling the truth. I don’t do relationships. He thinks that he meant it ; Cas doesn’t seem the lying type. But there’s the niggling doubt in the back of his mind. Sometimes Cas will look at him, like he did earlier tonight, and his eyes will shine and his lips will part in a tiny, private smile that seems like it was manufactured just for him, and Dean will wonder. Because this--cuddling on top of car hoods, letting someone fall asleep on your lap, Cas’ hand moving from a casual resting spot on his shoulder to gently carding through Dean’s hair...None of these things are friendship things. He doesn’t do them with Charlie and he sure as hell wouldn’t do them with Benny.

He wants to ask, if Cas meant it, and if he meant it, why. Why no relationships? He thinks that tonight, Cas would answer him.

Dean doesn’t ask. Partly out of courtesy--if Cas hasn’t told him yet then it’s obviously for a reason--and also partly from self-preservation. Because, if the truth is that Cas does do relationships, he just doesn’t do relationships with Dean...Dean doesn’t think that he could survive that kind of knowledge.

So he sits, and soaks up the illicit touch of Cas’ hand on his head, and lives someone else’s life. He doesn’t go home, doesn’t suggest that he and Cas stop watching what is really an excellent marathon of Great British Baking Show, because he doesn’t want this to end. Not yet.

The repetitive motion of Cas’ hand through his hair, the soothing accents on the television, and the fullness of his stomach send Dean into a light doze. He dreams of Dad, the way that he was on good days, when he was all laughs and Come here Dean, it’s time that you learned how to shoot a gun like a real man. Here Dean, you want to sit behind the wheel? See what it’s going to be like in a couple of years when you go to drive her around? Those were the good days, when John rose up out of his misery enough to remember that he had two sons.

Dean smiles in his sleep, rolls over into something soft. His eyes flutter open and for a second he can’t remember where he is. Panic lurches through him, until he recognizes the upholstery of Bobby’s couch. He relaxes, only to freeze when he realizes that he’s not alone on the couch.

Cas lays beside him. His body is contorted strangely, in a position that Dean knows is going to ache in the morning, but for the moment, he looks content. His arm is still slung around Dean, though it’s dropped from his head to his torso. Dean takes a second to just stare at him. In slumber, the severe lines of his face are softened and his mouth is slack and open. Dark eyelashes fan out on his cheek and as Dean watches, Cas snuffles in his sleep, mouth twitching before he relaxes again.

In a minute, he’ll wake Cas up, maybe fix him a cup of coffee, so that they can both drive home. In a minute, Dean will slide away from the warmth of Cas’ body, lift off the weight of his arm around his torso. In a minute, Dean will tear his eyes away, content that he’s imprinted the memory of sleeping Cas to his brain. In a minute, Dean will step back into his life.

But for now, just for this moment, Dean pretends that this could be his life, that he could have this, if only he were to reach out his hand and ask for it.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Chapter Text

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

After Thanksgiving, the holidays attack with a vengeance and a determination to take no prisoners. Dean wholeheartedly throws himself into the rush and bustle of the Christmas season. There’s a rush in the streams of lights and people, a thrill not found any other time of the year and he can’t help but get lost in the flow. It also helps to try and lose himself amid the brightness, to take away from everything else in his life.

Ever since Thanksgiving, things have been...weird. Not bad weird, just...weird weird.

Weird, like Cas joining him, Sam, and Jess for dinner on Sunday evening, like this was a normal thing. Weird, like Cas dropping down next to him on the couch, instead of into the loveseat, as is his wont. Weird, like the touches Cas keeps bestowing on him. A brush against his shoulder, Cas’ leg pressing against his, Cas’ shoulder bumping into him. Dean could justify them as accidents if they didn’t happen so frequently.

Dean’s not complaining, but he does wish that he had some kind of instruction manual for what comes next. He’s flying blind and he can’t shake the feeling that there’s a mountain lurking behind the fog bank of Castiel’s actions.

Cas himself offers no help, which is pretty par for the course, as far as Dean’s life goes. He initiates the touch--his ankle hooked around Dean’s, his knee pressed into Dean’s leg underneath the table--but he won’t give an explanation. Dean has to accept that Cas has full control of this dance, has had full control since the moment that he let Cas into the Impala that one night back in October.

One Saturday afternoon, he packs Charlie into the car, over her vociferous protests, and takes her Christmas shopping. They fight soccer moms, disgruntled fathers, and snotty teenagers at Lawrence’s mall, while Dean ticks off his shopping list.

“You do understand that there are online retailers, right?” Charlie asks, panting as she shoves her way through a crowd of grim old ladies. “That you could be doing all this shopping in your pajamas? Naked, if you wanted? While eating ice-cream?”

Dean pauses to look over his shoulder at her, and nearly gets steamrollered by a determined group of women, all of them sporting ‘Need to Speak to a Manager’ haircuts. “That’s a...weirdly specific picture you’ve painted. Spend a lot of time thinking about that?”

“It’s my nightmare, after I have too much tequila,” Charlie snarks back at him, which, ouch. “I’m just saying, there are easier ways of shopping than fighting the hoards of other idiots who were too stubborn to do their shopping online.”

“Quit whining,” Dean orders, ducking inside a preppy little shop. The chinos alone make him want to shrivel up and die on the inside, but it’s perfect for finding some of those damn polos that Sam’s so fond of these days. Next thing you know, Sam’s going to be spending his weekends at the country club, rather than the shooting range, and at that point, Dean’s definitely going to have to stage an intervention.

“Whining would be me complaining without reason and I most definitely have a valid reason.” Exhausted, Charlie flops on a pile of poorly folded shirts. “The technology is our friend Dean. It’s here to make your life better, promise.”

“Yeah, I know. But look, I just like...I like being able to see things. Touch them. I like to know what I’m getting, all right? I don’t like being surprised.”

Charlie manages to be sympathetic for a whole thirty seconds, before her face fractures into hysterical laughter. “You are so...old!” she finally gasps out, muffling her snorts behind her hand. “Like, really, really old!”

“Shut up,” Dean mutters. The back of his neck burns, probably from the righteous glares that he’s getting from the J.Crew models browsing the shelves. “I just like doing things a certain way, is all.”

Charlie curbs her laughter and manages to get herself back in some semblance of order. “Yeah, all right.” She takes a bag from him, and Dean wonders at her kindness, until she says, “Don’t want you to hurt your back, grandpa.”

“Shut up,” Dean growls. He snatches some polos that look like they’ll stretch to fit over Jolly Green Giant shoulders and heads to the cash register.

Later, he and Charlie sit in the food court, having wrestled the table away from a pair of surly teenagers. Dean pulls his list out of his pocket and endures the renewal of Charlie’s teasing (A list? Senility creeping in so much that you have to have a list?) He’s gotten most of Sam’s stuff, he’s picked up Ellen’s gifts earlier, and he needs to stop by the liquor store to pick up Bobby’s Laphroaig. Charlie’s gift he did order online, much as it pained him, and he’s going in with Sam to get Jess the new office chair that she’s been ogling for weeks. For Benny, he got a new knife set, already at his house. He needs to stop by the sporting goods store to pick up the compound bow which Jo too casually mentioned several weeks ago.

Yeah, Dean spoils the people in his life, but that’s what happens when you combine a decent salary with the inability to say ‘I love you’.

Only one person remains on his list, their name followed by a series of question marks. Charlie dangles a piece of hibachi steak from her chopsticks and, once her mouth is full, Dean decides to ask.

“Hey Charlie, if you were getting a present for Cas, what would you get him?”

Charlie pauses mid-chew. She blinks at him, before swallowing. “Um. Not that I don’t love being your go-to person, but why are you asking me? I’m not the person that spends every night with him.”

“Not every night,” Dean hurries to correct. “It’s only....” He lets that thought die an ignominious death, as he realizes that he might not see Cas every night, but it’s pretty damn close. “Anyway. I don’t know. What do you get a guy who likes everything?”

Because that’s really the problem--Dean could go into Barnes and Noble and pick out any random book, and Cas would like it. He could go into any department store, pick out a shirt or sweater, and Cas would like it. He could pick out a damn engraved pocket-watch and Cas would probably like it. The problem isn’t getting something that Cas would enjoy, the problem comes from getting Cas something that shows that Dean knows him well enough to make him happy.

Charlie shrugs, because she is absolutely no help at all. “Gift card, maybe?” At Dean’s scowl, she raises her hands in surrender. “Look, I don’t know! I like the guy, sure, but I’m not qualified to be his personal shopper!”

Dean sighs and moves his now soggy rice around the Styrofoam container. “Me either. I thought that maybe I could come with an idea while we were here, but so far, no dice.” He sighs and slurps his drink up through the straw. “Maybe I can get him the newest software upgrades so that he’ll be able to download the newest slang.”

Charlie props her chin on her hand. The look on her face could best be described as a leer. “You realize that you only call him a robot when you’re uncomfortable?”

Dean has in fact, not realized this. Having it brought to his attention is unpleasant. “Not true.” The denial is more a reflex action than a conscious protest. “Maybe this conversation makes me uncomfortable, ever think about that?”

Charlie hums. Amazing how she gets that much doubt in one sound. “I think that you’re uncomfortable with any hint that you care as much as you do.”

“And I think that if I wanted to visit a shrink then I would have paid for the privilege,” Dean grumbles, shoveling a heaping forkful of rice into his mouth. Guilt hits him almost immediately after: snapping at Charlie isn’t like snapping at Jo or Sam--it’s like kicking a snarky puppy, or a particularly determined sunbeam. There’s just something wrong about it.

Thankfully, Charlie’s been friends with him for long enough that his tantrums don’t phase her. She thoughtfully chews her steak, and then speaks. “I don’t know Dean, I guess you just have to think about how well you know him, and decide from there.”

“Thanks for all the help,” Dean mutters, still feeling petulant. “He likes everything.”

He might be exaggerating, but only by a little. Cas, it turns out, loves every period of history, from Ancient Greece to the Russian Revolution. Dean knows, he snuck a look at Cas’ bookshelf the other night, just to see if he could gather gift ideas. Cas also appreciates music, though nothing good--he favors Beethoven and Chopin, and Dean wouldn’t have the faintest clue of where to start with that. Cas even has a weird thing about bees--Dean caught him planning out a backyard garden, complete with flowers meant to attract honeybees. He’d only been able to talk Cas out of building a hive by reminding him of zoning ordinances.

The hell kind of Christmas gift can you get someone like that?

Certainly nothing that can be found at Westridge Shopping Center. After another few hours, and another run-in with a determined granny, and Dean’s had enough. He and Charlie leave the shopping mall and head to their last stop.

The Christmas tree lot is crowded with families. He and Charlie have to dodge small children around every turn, and the late afternoon chill is starting to bite. Dean loves every second of it. He takes a deep breath, lets his lungs fill with the scent of evergreen.

Since the first Christmas he spent in his townhouse, Dean’s always gotten a real tree. There was something about the ownership of a real tree, the domesticity of it. He loves the way that his whole house eventually smells of pine, the feel of needles as he decorates. Sam, with his soulless, pre-lit, plastic monstrosity, mocks him mercilessly, but Dean refuses to change.

“Hey Dean,” Charlie says, tucking her hands into her pockets as she and Dean pace the lot, looking for that one, perfect, tree. “If I asked you a question, you’d answer it, right?”

“Just did,” Dean answers, the big brother instinct still strong after all these years.

“Ha ha. No, but seriously.”

Dean shifts, uncomfortable with the direction this seems to be taking. “Wouldn’t lie to you,” he finally decides, giving himself a comfortable, safe escape route.

Charlie nods, inhales, and turns to face him. “You’d tell me, if there was anything going on between you and Castiel, right?”

The words act like a slap, and it must show on Dean’s face. Charlie looks regretful, but she doesn’t apologize. “It’s just, you two have been hanging out so much recently, and I, I’ve seen the way that you look at him…”

Dean swallows. Even though he knew it was coming, he is still pathetically unprepared to have this conversation. Ever since Thanksgiving, he’s been prepared for the ambush from Sam. He never would have suspected Charlie.

Maybe that was the point.

“If there was anything going on,” he begins, and then has to laugh softly. “He,” Dean puts finger quotes around the words, “‘doesn’t want a relationship’.” It hurts, more than he thought it would, to say it aloud.

Charlie purses her lips. “Doesn’t want a relationship, like he wants to be friends with benefits? Or doesn’t want a relationship, like, he just wants to be friends? Or doesn’t want a relationship like, he was hurt badly before and now he doesn’t dare to ever love anyone again?”

Dean shakes his head, overwhelmed for a moment. Friends with benefits? Doesn’t dare to ever love? He’s a simple man, takes things at face value. He’s not made for intricacies and half-truths. “Doesn’t want a relationship, like he doesn’t want to date someone. And,” Dean remembers, a hot twist of regret curling in his gut, “he did say that he doesn’t screw around with people that he works with.”

Charlie barks out a laugh, before she catches Dean’s expression and stops herself. She offers a rueful smile at him, apologetic. “Well, you know that’s a lie.”

Dean looks at her sharply. Charlie deflates under his scrutiny, but only for a minute. “Come on dude, you’ve been there longer than I have. Don’t tell me that you didn’t think that there was something going on between him and Masters.”

Dean doesn’t have verbal confirmation, but he’s seen the pictures, seen the way that Cas and Meg interact. More than that, he remembers the whispers that followed the two, back when first started working at Lawrence High. There’s no place like a high school teacher’s lounge to foster rumors, and Cas and Meg had started more than their fair share.

“Not to mention that he and Roche have always been a little too close, if you catch my drift,” Charlie adds, slanting her eyes over at Dean to see his reaction.

There’s pictures of that too.

“Why the sudden interest?” Dean asks. He’s learned a few things from Sam’s lawyering: when in doubt, deflect with a question.

Charlie, however, isn’t easily dissuaded. “I just think, that if you really want to, you should go for it.”

Dean scoffs. The idea of ‘going for it’ has never been big with him. He’s not the Winchester that gets what he wants. That would be Sam, he of the perfect house, perfect fiancee, and soon to be perfect life. Not that Dean resents it, far from it. He spent most of his life ensuring Sam’s happiness, but it does mean that most times, he comes up holding the short end of the stick. Normally he doesn’t mind, but this time, this time stings.

“I’m not going to ‘go for it’,” he says, again with the finger quotes. Charlie opens her mouth, ready with another question, and Dean loves her, he really does, but he can’t deal with it. “He’s my best friend,” he says, stunned by the rightness of the sentiment. Until he’d said it aloud, he hadn’t known that it was the truth. “I don’t want to fuck that up. Not for anything.”

He should be prepared for the hug, but it still catches him by surprise, the strength of Charlie’s arms as she squeezes his middle. “He’ll come around,” she says into his chest, and more than anything, Dean wishes that were true. He doesn’t say it, doesn’t want to kill her optimism, because God knows there’s little enough of it left in the world, but what she says next knocks him back on his heels.

Charlie looks up at him, her sharp chin digging into his sternum, even through his jacket. “Don’t worry,” she says, smiling like she knows the best kind of secret, “he looks at you too.”

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

Monday comes along and Dean is no closer to a solution for any of his problems than he was on Saturday. The good news is that at least his tree is up and partially decorated. He takes a deep whiff of evergreen as he walks past it in the mornings, and the scent seems to cling to his shirt all the way through lunch.

“So,” Dean says, plunking himself down at one of Benny’s tables, “answer me this.” Benny looks suspicious. Good move for him, but he hasn’t left the room, which is a bad move for him. “If you were going to get a gift for Castiel, what would you get him?”

“A new coat,” Benny says automatically, which, even though it is a good suggestion, doesn’t actually help Dean. He says so, and Benny rolls his eyes. “Well then brother, why bother asking if you’re not going to take my advice?”

“Because your advice is lame,” Dean says, snatching a spare cookie from Benny’s desk. He thinks that maybe these are from Benny’s students, and as such, need to be graded, but surely Benny won’t miss one.

The eagle-eyed glare sent in his direction says otherwise, but Dean just smiles (close-lipped, so as to not give away the evidence). “I already asked Charlie, and she just told me to think about what he likes.”

“Good advice,” Benny says. He taps the tips of his index fingers together. “Shame that you didn’t take it.”

“You’ve talked to Cas,” Dean says, finger pointing in accusation. “What doesn’t he like?”

Benny shrugs. “Hypocrisy. Rudeness. Avocadoes. Corona.”

Dean rolls his eyes. “Knew all of that already. Also, try finding someone who will admit to liking hypocrisy, and then you’ve got something interesting.” He takes another cookie, boldly this time. “I want to get him something that no one else would think to get him.”

Benny smiles, eyes twinkling wickedly. “Why not a big kiss? Can’t be that many people offering one of those.”

Dean glares, though he can’t deny he came here in part to talk about just this. “You been talking to Charlie?”

Benny shrugs, turning his attention to some of the dishes left out by lazy students. “Your names might have come up in several conversations.”

“Impossible to believe that you two don’t have anything more interesting to talk about.”

“Well, you want to be off the table for gossip, I suggest that you stop eye-fucking your co-worker.”

“The hell?” Shame and anger floods through Dean. The sugar in his mouth turns bitter. “The hell man?” Benny shrugs, choosing instead of stare at Dean. The man can really hold a stare when he feels like it, to the point that Dean deflates. He’s left empty and can only offer, “Benny, you know that gossiping is really beneath you.

“Brother,” Benny says with a low laugh, “you know that ain’t true.”

Benny is the worst kind of gossip, with an almost supernatural ability to root out the truth of a rumor. If there was a secret escape hatch somewhere in the school, then Dean has no doubt that Benny would learn of it long before anyone else even had the inclination to look. “Whole school’s buzzing about the two of you,” Benny adds nonchalantly.

For all that he wishes it weren’t true, Dean isn’t surprised. High school teachers have little to do other than teach their students, grade papers, plan lessons, and talk about anything and everything under the sun. “Knew it was getting bad when Masters stopped me in the copy room,” Dean mentions. He doesn’t miss the sudden sharpening of Benny’s interest.

“Now that is intriguing.” He taps his lips with a single finger. “Very, very interesting.”

“They used to be a thing, right?” Dean knows that he isn’t fooling anyone, least of all Benny, but thankfully, Benny’s love of gossip is stronger than his love of mocking Dean.

“Rumor on the street says that it’s so.” Benny’s too clever eyes scrape over Dean. “Real question is, why are you asking me this, instead of our Mr. Milton?”

“Cas seem like the real forthcoming type to you?” Dean demands.

“I guess, the better question is, why do you care whose bed Castiel’s boots have been under?”

Benny always was a smart son of a bitch, even if he does happen to quote the worst kind of country songs. Dean’s lip curls upwards in a snarl, but Benny ignores him and waits patiently. He’s good like that.

“Guy can’t wonder that about his friends?”

Benny’s tongue clicks against his teeth as his breath whistles out in a long, disappointed sigh. “You ever wondered that about me?”

“No.” Dean’s face automatically twists in vague horror. “No offense, but I try not to imagine you full-frontal.”

It’s a small comfort that Benny looks just as discomfited as Dean. “My point exactly,” Benny says. “And don’t take this the wrong way, but this conversation aside, I don’t spend that much time wondering who you’re bumping uglies with. So, why are you so interested in Castiel’s patchwork history?”

Dean doesn’t bother to bluff or bluster. Benny knows him too well for that to work, and he won’t insult him by pretending otherwise. “You know why,” he says instead, contenting himself with digging his fingernail into an imperfection of the table.

Benny stares back at Dean, face uncommonly serious. “It’s your life, you do what you want to. But it ain’t like you, to dance to someone else’s beat.”

Benny says it like he’s disappointed in Dean. He might not be wrong. Dean already accepted the fact that Castiel holds all the cards--hell, Castiel manufactured the damn deck. And yeah, normally that would bother him, but there’s something liberating about, for once, not knowing the steps or what comes next.

When Dean leads, it all ends, depressingly, unceasingly, the same. He smiles, he flirts, they fall. A good time is had by all, up until the point that a bad time is had by all. Dean’s a sprinter who falters when it comes to endurance. He’s a gymnast who can make it through the routine, but he can’t quite stick the landing. Not to mix too many metaphors, but, just for once, he thinks that maybe, he’d like to stick around to the closing credits, see what happens the morning after the morning after.

Of course, what with Cas’ proclamation, none of that is going to happen, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if?

Dean voices exactly none of these thoughts to Benny. Instead, he snorts and leans back in his chair. His boots land on top of the table, in violation of about ten health codes.

“Speaking of boots and beds, how’s Andrea?”

The vivid crimson blush splashing over Benny’s cheeks is truly a thing of beauty.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

Dean truly can’t believe it.

In retrospect, he shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s been a long day and he’s weak. So when he walks into Cas’ house on the afternoon of December 16th and finds nary a Christmas decoration, he can’t help but exclaim, “Cas, you Grinch.”

Cas blinks at him, but Dean isn’t buying his Just a robot, nothing to see here ma’am act--The Grinch is a literary reference, not a pop culture reference. Cas knows full and well the point that Dean is trying to make.

“Dean, I assure you, I do not want to have this talk about holiday traditions.”

And now that Dean’s gotten over his shock, he realizes that duh, if Thanksgiving is a touchy topic, then Christmas is bound to be about twenty times more so. Thanksgiving is only a day. Christmas is a whole goddamn month of love and family shoved down your throat.

“All right, all right,” Dean says, shouldering past Cas to set his bag down on the table. “Don’t get your panties in a twist.”

It’s one of those things that comes out automatically, something that he’d say to Sam without thinking twice. When he says it to Cas, however, it comes out heavily laden with innuendo. Dean swallows, licking at dry lips as he carefully avoids meeting Cas’ eyes.

“I’m just saying,” he continues, acting like he didn’t catch the sudden jerk of Cas’ hands, or hear the sharp stutter of his breath, “it wouldn’t kill you to put up some lights or something.”

“It very well might,” Cas argues, sounding relieved to find refuge in their bickering. “Last year my next door neighbor fell off his ladder trying to put lights on his roof. Broke his arm.”

“But didn’t die,” Dean says, pushing past Cas and opening up his fridge. Cas only stocks weird beers from local microbreweries and Dean shuffles around the bottles until he finds one that he thinks he’ll like.

“Could have.” Cas leans over him, reaching over Dean’s shoulder to grab his own beer. Dean freezes at the feeling, wills the flutter of delight in his stomach to disappear. Cas pulls away. Dean is relieved. Dean is heartbroken. “Few inches here, few inches there.” With a flourish, Cas twists the lid off his beer. Dean does not follow the line of his throat as he swallows, does not mark how his eyelashes fall on his cheek as he closes his eyes in bliss. Cas opens his eyes, smiles hesitantly when he sees Dean watching him.

Cas’ smile always sneaks across his face. Half the time, Dean would swear that it takes Cas by surprise, like now, when half of Cas’ face pulls upward in a smile that on anyone else, would look awkward and forced. On Cas, it just manages to look endearing.

Good God, he’s got it bad.

“Anyway, I learned my lesson. Christmas decorations are to be feared.”

Dean blinks, takes a sip of his beer. Miscalculates and ends up dribbling half of it down his chin. “Maybe it’s just because you’re a baby,” he retorts, wiping at his chin. Cas’ forehead furrows in the frown which means he’s not sure whether or not Dean’s mocking him. Dean holds his face as steady as possible, as he says, “Baby in a trenchcoat.”

Cas’ mouth drops open in affronted shock, and Dean would be worried, but there’s a glimmer of wickedness in Cas’ eyes. Dean finds out the reason why, as Cas flicks the condensation from his bottle straight into his face. Dean flinches as the water hits him and oh it is on.

It would look stupid to anyone else, and it is stupid, two grown men chasing each other around the kitchen, flicking water at each other from their fingertips. Cas’ hand shoots out, quick as a viper, and pinches Dean’s arm, not enough to hurt, but enough to taunt.

“Oh, you little son of a bitch,” Dean breathes, but he’s grinning, because this is awesome, like messing with Sammy, except Cas’ face doesn’t get that pinched, disapproving look like Sam does. Cas is grinning, smile wide and gummy, as he dodges Dean’s outstretched hand. He’s fast, but Dean has all the experience of an older brother on his side.

He anticipates Cas’ dodge and grabs his sleeve. Cas is laughing, even as Dean digs his knuckle into his scalp. Cas’ hair is soft against his hand. His hands bat at Dean. Cas twists away, but Dean steps forward to block any escape.

His chest brushes against Cas. It hits Dean then, just how close he and Cas are to each other. He’s close enough to see the faint pink flush to Cas’ cheeks, to hear his breath even out from happy little pants, to something that’s deeper, raspier. This close up, Cas’ eyes are so blue as to be unreal, and they’re staring at Dean.

This close, it would be so easy, so damn easy, for Dean to lean down. Cas’ lips are still parted, still smiling, though he seems frozen. It would be so damn easy. Dean’s heart thuds wildly in his chest, in elation or warning. Cas’ eyes flick down and, in a Pavlovian reaction, Dean’s tongue swipes over his lower lip.

Cas breaks away. Dean mourns the loss and heat of him, but he notices that Cas’ mask isn’t as flawless as it usually is. There’s cracks there, effort where there used to be none. Dean wants to sink his fingernails into those cracks and pull, but some deeper instinct in him warns Not Yet.

He lets Cas step away. The moment between them lasts for another second, before it fades away, a wisp in the wind.

--

 

The bright jingle of Parks and Rec plays in Cas’ living room and Dean glances over at Cas. Despite his original snobbery, Cas is enamored with the show, and each time he hears Cas’ low chuckle, heat simmers in the pit of Dean’s stomach.

“So Cas.” Cas’ head lolls to the side, lazy and comfortable. “Any plans for Christmas?”

Almost immediately, Cas’ posture changes, becomes stiff. His jaw sets and his eyes change into hard little chips. Even though he knows it’s not directed at him, Dean still winces.

“The family’s gathering at Michael’s house.” Castiel’s eyes are fixed on a point straight ahead, though Dean doubts that he can see anything. His jaw is tight with tension and Dean aches to press his fingers into the bolt, to soothe away the anger, brush his lips over the clench of his jaw.

He does none of these things. Instead, he sits at the opposite end of the couch and watches Cas implode. It’s a quiet, private thing, with all the agony of a star dying. “He expects everyone to put in an appearance. There’ll be a dinner.”

Buoyed up by nothing more than bravado, Dean shifts so that he’s facing Cas. “Radical idea I’m about to throw out, but why don’t you just...not go?”

Cas blinks, features twisting in confusion, before he turns to look at Dean. Dean senses danger, but he’s in too deep to back out now, so he continues. “I mean, you had fun over Thanksgiving, right?” The memory of Thanksgiving is emblazoned upon every atom of Dean’s memory: Cas’ body pressed against his, Dean curled up into him like Cas was his last comfort. Cas’ face, gone slack and easy with sleep, the vivid lines from the couch pressed into the side of his face. The house had been dark then, too dim to see reliably, but Dean had thought that there was a hint of regret on Cas’ face as he folded himself back up into a seated position. “So…” Cas still hasn’t said anything, and it makes the next part awkward as hell to get out, but Dean isn’t a quitter, so he finishes, “Why don’t you come to Christmas too?”

The invitation is out there and it can’t be taken back, and for Dean, it’s a big fucking deal. Lisa never came to Christmas--she always visited her parents over the holiday and Dean never once made the offer.

Which is why, when Castiel swallows once, licks at his lips and then says, “No, thank you,” Dean feels like he’s been sucker punched.

“Yeah, all right,” he says, curling back into himself, retreating back to his side of the couch. “No problem.”

“Dean,” Cas says, and it’s a little too late for him to act concerned, so Dean ignores the plea in his voice. “It’s not that I don’t want…”

“It’s fine Cas. Don’t worry about it.” That tone is usually enough to make Sam drop the subject, but Cas hasn’t had twenty-four years to read the swirls and eddies of Dean’s moods, so he presses on.

“I have an obligation--”

“You don’t owe them shit!” Dean’s temper, never the most sedate of beasts, snaps its lead. He whirls on Cas, the gentle sounds of the television lost in his irritation. “Seriously, you’d rather spend your Christmas, with them? Miserable?”

“Just because I would rather spend my day elsewhere doesn’t mean that I don’t need to fulfill my responsibilities!”

Dean sneers. Stupid, to start a fight over this, but he remembers watching Cas on the news, shoulders hunched, hands clasped in front of him like he was at church. Even though it was just a blip on the screen, Dean had felt, acutely, the depths of misery in his posture. He knows that he hadn’t been imagining Cas’ happiness over Thanksgiving, there was no way that Cas could fake that. So why, in God’s name, would Cas prefer to spend time with his family?

Cas seems caught between rage and pleading, the two expressions chasing themselves across his face. His lip curls in disdain as his fingers curl against the upholstery of the couch. Dean wants to break those fingers. He wants to wrap those fingers in his hands, kiss them, and promise to never let go.

Sam’s voice echoes in Dean’s head: You’re not being fair Dean, listen to his side, and Dean makes an effort to wipe the contempt from his voice. “Look, Cas, I understand feeling like you owe your family something, god knows, I understand that. But you have to look out for yourself too, you know?”

Normally, the four year age gap between the two of them doesn’t even register to Dean, but sometimes, like now, Cas looks damn near ancient. It’s in the set of his shoulders, the sadness of his eyes.

“I can’t,’ Cas says, voice heavy with defeat, and Dean wants to be understanding, he really does, but God, this is Cas. Castiel, who takes no shit, who almost threw hands with the Belmont coach when he disrespected Dean. For him to sound like he lost the battle without ever firing a shot? It makes Dean’s skin crawl.

“Why the fuck not?” Dean asks. His temper drowns the annoying Sam-voice of Dean, you’re not being fair. Dean revels in it. “I mean, what, do you owe them money or something?”

Dean meant it as an improbable joke, but his worldview shifts once he catches the stricken look on Cas’ face. “Holy shit,” Dean breathes, blinking in astonishment. “Do you really owe them money?”

Cas draws back, his face shuttering. “It’s not quite as uncomplicated as that,” he says stiffly. His fingers lace together over his knees.

Dean’s temper fizzles, leaving him feeling stupid and hollow. Castiel is as far away from him on the couch as it’s possible to be, and Dean’s chest aches like it was miles instead of inches.

“Cas,” he says, voice rough, because hell, he didn’t want this. Cas distant and cold, his shoulders curling into his chest like he’s protecting himself from the blows of an unseen foe. Except, in this case, the foe isn’t unknown: Dean sits less than a foot away from him on the couch. “Cas,” he says again, like that could solve anything.

Without thinking, he reaches out. His hand lands on the back of Castiel’s neck. Dean’s thumb strokes over the wispy hair at the base of Cas’ skull, his fingertips pressing into the tense muscles of his neck. A faint tremor runs through Cas, discernible only through touch. It takes one second, maybe two, and then Cas deflates, slowly, until his forehead rests on his clasped knuckles.

Cas sighs and Dean’s thumb continues its back and forth motion over his neck. He wants more, with the helpless craving of an addict, but that door is closed to him.

“I owe Michael everything.” Cas speaks into his hands and Dean has to strain to hear his muffled voice. “After dad left...Uncle Charles’ name was on the papers, but he was old, and it was Michael who took care of us, who made sure that we had a home. It was Michael who gave me the money to go to school.”

Cas’ gaze remains fixed on the floor. His knuckles are pressed so forcefully into his forehead that Dean would be surprised if there weren’t dents in the bone. Despite the soul-baring, Dean knows: there’s something else. First Anna, now Michael--There’s a whole minefield which Cas navigates through whenever he mentions his family.

“All right,” Dean says, thinking back--What would Sam do? How would Sam handle this? With an effort, he keeps his voice soft and non-confrontational. “A lot of families give their kids money to go to college. It doesn’t mean that the kids owe the family the rest of their lives.”

Cas laughs, bitter and brittle. “I never had to work a job the entire time I was in school. My school, my apartment, my food--Michael took care of everything.” Dean allows himself a vicious spark of envy. Memories of falling asleep in class, exhausted from the previous night’s shift at the Roadhouse, return to haunt him with a vengeance, and with effort, Dean puts them aside. It’s not Cas’ fault that his family has money, especially if, as Dean suspects, the money comes with enough attached strings to field a section in the orchestra.

“All he asked was that I take a Business major, so that I could look after the company.” Dean blinks and somehow, Castiel must be able to read the question in the press of his fingers, because he says without prompting, “Milton Enterprises. Michael runs it now, in between his political career, but the intention was always to let someone else take over the daily minutiae so that he could focus on his aspirations.”

Dean’s heard the name Milton Enterprises before, in passing. He thinks there might be a building downtown with that name plastered across the roof.

“And I lied to him.” Cas finally looks up from the ground to meet Dean’s eyes. Dean’s hand tightens around Cas’ neck, an involuntary response to the bleak, devastating landscape of his eyes. “Dean, I lied to him and told him that I had every intention of pursuing an M.B.A. and overseeing the company. It wasn’t until,” Cas’ breath hitches, “it wasn’t until my graduation that he found out the truth.”

“Fuck Cas.” Dean has to chuckle, his thumb digging into the soft spot at the base of Castiel’s skull. “That’s ballsy as hell.”

For the first time since Dean raised his voice at him, Castiel’s face loses its beaten look. Instead, he returns to his default expression when dealing with Dean. A furrow of confusion knits between his brows as his eyes go from wide to squinted. Like he’s half convinced that he can’t trust them.

“I lied to the person who had taken me in and supported me through my teenage years. I essentially committed fraud, just because I wanted to pursue my own, selfish interests.”

“I hear you,” Dean says, and he can’t stop the quick grin from dashing across his face, because hell, who would have thought that Castiel Milton was a rebel at heart? “And I ain’t saying that it’s right, but fuck Cas, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit proud.”

“You shouldn’t be,” Cas says flatly. “It was a reprehensible thing to do. I rebelled, and even after all that, Michael didn’t cut me off. He still paid for me to go get my Master’s, and then my Doctorate. And then, even after everything, when I told him that I had no intention of teaching at the collegiate level, that I just wanted to be as close to normal as I could be...He never turned me away. All he asks is that I join the family functions. After everything that I did...I owe so much more than I can ever repay.”

Responses flood Dean’s tongue, so many that he can’t think of what to say first. That Mayor Michael Milton doesn’t look like the type of man to cancel a debt for the sake of familial bonds. That nothing in this life is ever free and that eventually, every deal comes due. That Cas isn’t a selfish person for wanting to live his own life. That he can tell there’s still something Cas is holding back, something too close to the heart to say aloud.

But none of that will help Castiel.

Instead, Dean pulls, gentle but insistent pressure on the back of Castiel’s neck. Cas resists, of course he does, because he’s a stubborn son of a bitch, but here, Dean can match him. He keeps it from a demand, asking, not telling, what would Sam do, and eventually, Cas follows.

“Dean, don’t, this is...this is ridiculous…” Even though he protests, Cas doesn’t fight him as Dean pulls, his hands soft on Cas’ shoulders, until his best friend lays curled up on his side. He doesn’t lose his stiff posture or the pinched look on his face, but Dean figures baby steps.

He runs a soothing hand over Cas’s shoulders, ignoring the guilty twist in his stomach that asks him how much of this is for Cas and how much of this is for his own benefit. Dean pushes it away, focuses on keeping his touch light and well within the bounds of propriety. He falls into old habits, remembering how he used to lull Sam to sleep after a nightmare.

“I’m not a child.” Cas’ voice is sour, though Dean notes that he doesn’t try and move.

His thumb brushes its way across the bolt of Castiel’s jaw. Dean jerks his hand away, the whorls of his fingertips still tingling with the memory of the stray bit of stubble Cas missed this morning. “I never said you were.” If Cas catches the wobble in Dean’s voice then he’s kind enough to not mention it. “Now shut up.”

An unhappy noise rumbles somewhere from the vicinity of Cas’s chest. “I thank you for your concern, but it’s unnecessary--” Dean yanks on Cas’ hair, hard enough that Cas hisses and shoots him an offended glare. “What the hell--”

“You’re being dumb,” Dean says. His voice is calm, a glorious deception. He feels like magma boiling just beneath the earth’s surface, waiting for an eruption. Cas props himself up on his elbow, looking more than a little pissed off, and Dean rushes to explain.

“You’re not the only one who feels like they let their family down.” Dean stares straight ahead at the weird, abstract painting that Cas thought would look good over the television. “All right? I know that it blows and lying is a pretty shitty thing but…”

Dean’s stomach trips, gets back up again, only to hurtle down once more. His teeth punish his lower lip, long past the point of pain.

“But?” Cas asks, twisting so that he can look Dean in the eyes.

If Dean said ‘But nothing’, then Cas would accept it. He would shrug, probably sit up straight, and rattle off a fact about the migratory habits of albatrosses, just to break the tension. If Dean rolled his eyes and said something snarky, then Cas would respond likewise, and they’d part the night on slightly uneasy terms, but nothing would change. But Cas looks at him like he really wants to know what Dean has to say, like what comes out of Dean’s mouth actually matters.

“But you’re a good person,” comes out in a rush, like the words were competing to be the first out of Dean’s mouth. “No, shut up, damn it,” because a spark has been relit in Cas’ eyes, one that bodes no good for Dean, “don’t be an ass. You’re a good person and yeah, all right, you lied your way into a Doctorate, which is still badass, I don’t care what you say and…” Dean shrugs. “I guess, from my way of thinking, if you lied then you must have had a good reason to do it.” Dean swallows, his father’s words echoing in his skull. “Look, we all let down our families at some point yeah? You just managed to do it impressively.”

For the first time since Dean brought up Christmas, Cas’ posture relaxes. He slips back into the nerdy, curious, asshole, putting away the cold, guilty stranger. Much as he’s glad for it, Dean can’t let himself relax--forget playing his cards close to his chest, Dean just showed Cas his whole hand and let him call the play.

“Dean,” Cas says, rolling over onto his back. The couch is too short for him; his legs dangle off the arm. The hilarity of that is lost when Cas’ eyes travel over Dean’s face, like he’s trying to memorize every flaw, every eyelash. Cas smiles, going cross-eyed from viewing the world upside-down. That smile sends Dean’s world spiraling into a place that he’s not sure he’ll recover from.

“You really are extraordinary,” Cas says, like a revelation, like an epiphany, like watching the sun rise after staying up all night.

Heat prickles across the back of Dean’s neck, over to his cheeks. There’s a revolution brewing underneath his skin, his synapses getting all sorts of ideas of their own. They want to reach out, run through Cas’ hair, down to his face like a river. They want to pool in the dip just underneath his lower lip, rest in the hollow of his clavicle. Dean draws in a shaky breath, sucking in oxygen like a defense.

“Shut up,” Dean mutters, fist clenching. There’s nothing to fight here, nothing except for his own stupidity and weakness.

Cas’ face is soft in confusion, the lines blurring until Dean isn’t sure what he’s seeing. “All right,” Cas finally says, lingering on the last syllable.

Silence descends upon the living room like a living, breathing, entity. Neither of them moves, even though Dean’s skin urges him to go, to touch, to caress. It should be illegal, Cas laid out the couch, his head inches away from being in Dean’s lap. Like this, it’s too easy to pretend they’re people who cuddle up on the couch every evening and marathon their favorite shows. Part of Dean is empty, a place he never knew existed aching.

“I truly wish that I could spend the day with you,” Cas mutters. Dean dares to look at him. Cas’ eyes are closed. Dean would say that he looks peaceful, but for the faint lines creasing his forehead and the corners of his eyes. “I...there’s no joy to be had with my family Dean, only obligations and guilt. I…” Cas opens his eyes and inhales. “After everything, I know that it’s no more than I deserve, but I can’t help but wishing that it wasn’t so.”

Dean’s fingers brush against the tips of Cas’ hair, soft enough to go unnoticed. He hates that this is what his life has become, stolen touches to stave off the starvation. It’s an awful way to live, but it’s better than the alternatives.

“Well, if you need a place to run away to, you know where I’ll be.”

He means the words to be light-hearted, but they come out with a sense of finality.

Cas sits up, twisting so that he faces Dean. The space between them is thick with words unsaid. In the liquid depths of Cas’ eyes exists a book, written in a language that Dean can’t hope to understand. He’s drowning, has been drowning since October. The only thing that could save him--Dean’s hand moves, slowly, through the water and words smothering him. Cas’ eyes flick to his hand and Dean’s hand freezes, before falling, defeated by the inevitability of gravity and his own personality.

Castiel blinks, twice, gets up from the couch and walks into the kitchen. Cold in his absence, Dean watches him leave, and says nothing.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

Sam strikes over the weekend.

Cas hasn’t come to this dinner, claiming that his final isn’t ready yet. Dean accepts the excuse and doesn’t push. His stomach twists when he thinks about Cas, like having a bad burrito and Christmas morning, all wrapped up into one horrible, exhilarating emotion. Demonstrating his psychic ability, Sam doesn’t push.

Sam might be a mind-reader, but Dean isn’t a slouch in the department either. He knows that Sam has something on his mind, knows that it’s most likely something that he doesn’t want to hear. He does his best to avoid being alone with Sam, clinging to Jess like a particularly desperate leech. She sends him perplexed, bordering on annoyed, looks, but doesn’t say anything aloud. Eventually, however, she manages to give Dean the slip, and that’s when Sam strikes.

It’s ridiculous to watch a 6’4” man try and sneak into his own kitchen, but that’s the farce that Dean has to put up with, as he leans against the counter. He takes a sip of his beer, weighing the desire to run away from this Talk against the desire to mock Sam.

“All right there, Lady Godiva, stop beating around the bush.” Dean’s an older brother and that will always win out in the end. “You’ve had this look on you all night. Now, did you want to talk, or did you need me to run to the store and get you some more tampons?”

Sam’s expression sets itself into one of his best bitchfaces, which is much better than the funereal face he was previously sporting. Dean is intimately acquainted with bitchface, feels safer around that than awkward compassion.

“Come on Sam,” Dean snaps, when Sam still hangs at the opposite side of the kitchen. “Growing old here--”

“Are you and Cas together?”

The only reason that Dean doesn’t spit his beer across the kitchen is because he’s more sophisticated than that. Also, he’d already swallowed. As it is, a strange, ack ack ack noise originates in his throat, only to become strangled halfway between his nose and mouth. Must be the lawyer in Sam, this unerring instinct to go straight to the heart of any matter.

“We’re friends, Sammy. You had them in Stanford, I know you did. Can’t just rely on your diary to hear all of your thoughts, can you?”

Sam purses his lips, like an less attractive version of Dean’s ‘Blue Steel’. He doesn’t say cut the bullshit Dean, mostly because he doesn’t have to. It’s written all over his disapproving Sam face. Dean drops his eyes, and flicks his thumbnail over the fraying label of the beer, gone soggy with condensation. He forces a smile wide enough to make his cheeks hurt.

Sam looks unconvinced, which makes sense, seeing as Dean is unconvincing. “It’s fine, all right?” Dean mutters, ripping the label off the bottle in jagged scraps. “He and I...we’re fine.”

Sam’s lips are still pursed, but this time there’s something distressingly like pity in his eyes. Dean focuses his attention on the bottle in his hands, his nail scratching at the glue. Sam’s only trying to help, he’s asking because he cares.

“All right,” Sam finally says, “now, just say that like you mean it.”

Dean’s resolve to not be an asshole starts to crumble, the soggy paper tearing apart in his hands. “What do you want me to say?” Dean bites down on his lower lip, teeth sinking into the already inflamed flesh.

Pity or compassion? The line between the two is so thin and Dean isn’t well-versed enough in the nuances of emotion to always tell the difference. “I just...these past few weeks, you’ve been happier, but also…” Sam has the Winchester curse, and, in critical moments, words fail him just as they do Dean. He shrugs, helplessly. “And I know that it’s because of Cas.”

Dean shrugs, wincing as his ragged nail catches on the edge of the glass. “Doesn’t matter,” he says, dropping the damp paper onto the counter. Sam opens his mouth and Dean speaks first, louder, stopping any protest that Sam could make. “Look, what Cas and I are or aren’t...it’s fine. Don’t worry about it, please.”

Sam closes his mouth, considers, then speaks because he never did know when to stop. “You act different around him,” he says, carefully, like this is explosive news.

Dean scoffs. “Thanks for the big reveal.”

Sam rolls his eyes. “Stop being a jerk. I mean, you act different around Cas than you did Lisa.” Despite himself, Dean’s interest sharpens and Sam, the rat bastard, notices. “With Lisa, you always acted like....like she was visiting. You know, like you never expected her to stick around. It’s...it’s different with Cas. You act like he’s always been here.”

The unsaid You act like you want him to stay hangs heavy in the air, a sword poised over Dean’s head. When it falls it’ll split him in half.

“Profound,” Dean finally snarks. He leans against the counter and puts his hands to either side of him. Like this, he looks cool, calm, controlled. Like this, he can pretend that he’s not about to crack apart.

“Look,” Sam snaps, losing his Herculean grip on his temper, “listen or don’t, but that’s what I see. And, for what it’s worth--” He pauses, his bravado faltering for a moment before he soldiers on, “if you wanted to, with Cas I mean...You deserve someone who’s going to make you happy. You’ve earned that.” Sam’s eyes flick to the wall. Dean understands the gesture because behind that wall is Jess.

Dean doesn’t allow himself to feel jealousy for Sam. It’s not Sam’s fault that he met the love of his life sophomore year of college, not Sam’s fault that things just seem to slot magically in place for him. Dean doesn’t envy him, he really, truly doesn’t.

But just for a moment, he lets himself wish that he was able to look at a wall and know that the person on the other side was wholly and completely his.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

The first morning of Christmas break, Dean awakes earlier than usual, giddy with the prospect of two weeks off. By the afternoon, his house is spotless and all presents are wrapped. Content with his burst of productivity, Dean slumps into his couch and decides to rot his brain out with mindless reality television.

He spends the week up until Christmas finishing up last minute shopping, taking time out to spend time with Ellen and Bobby. He goes out to lunch once with Sam, where both of them carefully avoid even mentioning the last conversation. Ellen does ask, over baking Christmas cookies, if Cas will be joining them for Christmas dinner. Dean answers in the negative.

Ellen frowns as she rolls out the dough. “Stuck with that family of his?” It’s not really a question, so Dean doesn’t bother to answer. The small ‘mm-hmm’ is more damning than dozens of hurled curses. “Well, you let him know that if he changes his mind, he’s welcome to come back.” Dean nods, wordlessly, and the subject is thankfully, dropped.

Neither Bobby or Ellen are religious, which means that there’s a lack of manger scenes or infants in their houses. Instead, Dean crowds his house with lights and the most obnoxious reindeer he can find. Jess prefers cherubic, rosy-cheeked Santas, and Ellen favors snowmen. Charlie breaks out her Christmas-themed Enterprise crew, and Bobby just rolls his eyes and tries not to break anything.

Sam and Jess leave four days before Christmas, to go spend a few days with Jess’ family in California. Dean drives them to the airport, accepts their hugs. He pretends that the strength of his embrace has everything to do with how much he’ll miss them, opposed to the low whine of airplane engines surrounding him.

He even sticks around to watch their plane take off, sitting on the hood of the Impala and watching until it becomes little more than a speck in the sky. He drives back home, idly tapping his fingers on the steering wheel.

Put into the category of Things Never Said, is Sam’s unexpected return to Lawrence, Kansas. Sam never explained why he moved back to the homestead, just called Dean a week before his graduation, and told him that he’d accepted a position with a firm in Lawrence, and that Jess had been able to find work with another firm as well. Unable to support himself on his unexpectedly wobbly knees, Dean collapsed into a chair and choked back the gratitude clogging his throat. “That’s good Sam,” he finally got out, for once thankful for the half country of phone lines between the two of them. “That’s really good. I know that Bobby and Ellen will be happy to see the two of you.”

Neither of them had been fooled by the pretense, but it hadn’t been necessary to call attention to the lie. It was enough, for Dean, to know that his brother was less than thirty minutes away, that if anything ever went wrong then he could be there. Take care of Sammy.

Call him weak, call him clingy, call him co-dependent--Dean sleeps better when he and his brother are in the same postal code.

He drives back to his house, secure in the knowledge that Sam and Jess will be flying back into town on Christmas Eve. Another act of kindness, unacknowledged, for Sam to ensure that he spends all major holidays with Dean. Maybe one day, Dean will be able to look at someone else and feel the pulse of familybloodfamily in his veins. Maybe one day, Dean will be able to let his little brother have a life without him. But until that day, he’ll hold on, as tight as he can, for as long as he can.

He puts on Boston when he gets home, something that will clear his mind and fill the house with noise. He glances at his phone, then away, then at his phone again. It makes him feel more than pathetic, but he can’t deny the swift surge of pleasure he gets when Cas texts him back, tells him that he’ll be at Dean’s house in fifteen minutes.

When he arrives, Cas takes in the plethora of decorations carefully arranged throughout the house. Garlands adorn every doorway, offset by bright red velvet bows, and twinkling lights wrap around the bannister of his staircase. His refrigerator is laden with enough magnets to threaten the balance of the machine, while various potholders and oven mitts hang from any available surface. The tree has a particular place of honor in Dean’s living room, rising tall in the room. The scent of pine is omnipresent, while the pile of gifts underneath the tree has been carefully arranged to ensure that the light catches the shiny paper and bows.

Cas, wisely, says nothing. He sits on the couch, opposite from Dean. Dean doesn’t bring up Christmas, too aware of still tender wounds. Like everything else, Christmas is in Cas’ hands.

The night passes, like most of their nights. Dean insists that Cas watch an episode of Dr. Sexy with him (“You need to keep caught up man, otherwise you’ll forget everything that’s happened!”), and then he starts teaching Cas the rudiments of Texas Hold ‘Em. Cas, for all his knowledge, is woefully ignorant of card games, which Dean simply can’t abide. Besides, Cas has such a good poker face already, it would be a shame if he never got a chance to exploit that for monetary value.

It’s easy between the two of them, if a little stilted. The memory of their last conversation hangs over them and Dean doesn’t think he’s imagining the weariness in Cas’ eyes, the heaviness in the downturn of his mouth. He slouches, when he thinks Dean’s not looking, and on his way back from the kitchen, Dean catches him running his fingers through his hair, leaving the dark strands in disarray.

It’s not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s what they have, and Dean tries to be content with that.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

Come Christmas morning, and Dean greets the day with the enthusiasm of an over-caffeinated six year old. He packs the Impala full of cookies, breads, and presents, and speeds his way over to Bobby’s. He takes pleasure in banging on the door of the guest room, grinning when Jo’s high pitched curses echo through the thin material of the door.

“Dean?” Ellen calls from downstairs. “You ain’t Santa Claus, much as you want to be, so I suggest that you leave her alone, for all our sakes.” Dean rolls his eyes, but submits to the request. He goes downstairs, where his heart beats a happy thud of recognition: Sam and Jess crowd the kitchen. Sam licks remnants of a sticky bun off his fingers, while Jess leans against the table, cradling a cup of coffee in her hands.

Family. A sense of belonging. The knowledge that no matter what he does or did, and he’s pulled some shit in his day, these people will have his back. Even Jo, who stumbles downstairs forty-five minutes later, snarling until she gets coffee in her, even Jo would move mountains and valleys for him.

It’s such a simple thing and Dean didn’t think that he took it for granted, but he realizes that he did. The simple comfort from annoying Bobby, from stealing a pecan out from underneath Ellen’s nose, even the sharp dig of Jo’s elbow into his side when she tells him to move over on the couch. These facets all help form a part of the human called Dean Winchester, and he aches to think of what he would have become if he didn’t have these things to fall back upon.

So Dean laughs with his family, and opens gifts, and preens when his offerings are accepted with delight and glee, and spares a moment for Castiel, stuck with blood, but not with family.

--

After Christmas lunch, Dean retires to the living room. He and Jo sprawl out on the couch together, their legs tangling as they fall into a stupor. Stray bits of wrapping paper and bows still litter the ground, like shrapnel on a battlefield. If Dean was a better person, then he would offer to help clean up. But Dean is a lazy, lazy person, and so he lays on the couch, waiting for the time that his stomach stops complaining so he can shove more pie into his face.

“Hey Dean?” Jo’s voice is soft and lazy, almost asleep.

Dean mumbles a reply, his own eyelids heavy.

“Why didn’t Castiel come over today?”

A bolt travels through Dean, enough to jolt him out of his dazed state. He sits up and looks at Jo, still lolling on the opposite end of the couch. “He does have his own family,” he says, wincing at his sharp tone.

“Not really,” Jo murmurs, pulling down a throw from the couch. “Remember Thanksgiving?”

How could Dean forget? Falling asleep next to Cas, right here on this very couch, the gentle puffs of his breath against the tender skin of Dean’s ear. The subtle press of fingertips into his side, the misplaced, proprietary pleasure when Dean sat up and Cas, still asleep, grumbled in discontent.

“He came here to get away from his family.” Jo’s going, her voice thick and slurred with sleep. “‘S Christmas. Why isn’t he here?”

She falls asleep, which is a gift. Dean doesn’t have an answer. But her question does send him into his pocket for his phone.

He flips through the mass texts from people he never talks to, all wishing him ‘Merry Christmas!’, with the necessary emojis. Cas, he notes, is not among those wishing a good day to him, and he doesn’t know whether to be pleased or disappointed about that.

His fingers tap out a quick message, which he sends before he can second-guess himself into rewording it.

hope your day is going alright so far just send up a signal if you need to be rescued

He doesn’t expect a response, so it’s a surprise when his phone buzzes not half a minute later. Dean glances at the screen. The corner of his mouth lifts in a half-smile.

Day is going about as well as expected, at least so far. Be watching the skies for my signal.

Dean types out a reply and he spends a good half hour texting back and forth with Castiel. He doesn’t get a straight answer about what’s actually happening at Michael’s house, but he’s already getting more than he expected, by the sheer fact that Cas is actually talking to him.

Dean rides the waves of benevolence as long as they keep rolling into the shore. However, it ends with Cas’ last text.

I have to go. Dinner is getting ready to start and I wouldn’t be caught dead with my phone. Good night Dean.

Dean swallows and reluctantly slides his phone back into his pocket. There’s no mistaking the intent of that text: obviously, Cas is through for the day. Dean swallows the sting, tells himself that it doesn’t matter. It tastes like a lie, even in the recesses of his brain, but Dean pushes that aside.

Ellen and Bobby stay in the kitchen, leaving Sam, Jess, Dean, and a half-conscious Jo to their own devices. By virtue of being oldest, Dean chooses the movie (Die Hard, like there was any other choice), over the whining of Sam, who wanted something stupid like It’s a Wonderful Life. Not to drag the classics, but it’s thirty minutes of a movie stretched out into two and a half hours. Sam is a nerd.

Die Hard is a tradition, so much so that Dean doesn’t really need to pay attention to the screen. By this moment in his life, he could turn the movie into a one man play, if needed. Even the explosions are soothing because they occur exactly when they’re supposed to. Everything in its place.

“Dean.” Sam’s voice is soft, due to the fact that Jess is asleep on his chest.

“Yeah Sammy?”

“What are you still doing here?”

Dean twists in his seat to look at Sam. “You think that I have other plans for tonight?”

“I know that you do.”

Dean fights the urge to roll his eyes. “What are you, my marriage counselor?”

“I’ve no doubt that one day, I’ll be just that. But for right now--You’re my brother, and I love you, but you’re being stupid about this. Just...Just go, for God’s sake.”

The words sting, even though that’s not the intent. Sam, telling him to go...But Sam is smiling, his eyes understanding. “Seriously Dean, it’s fine. It’s Christmas. He shouldn’t be alone.”

Dean thinks back to Cas’ house: pristine, impersonal. Cold. Thinks about how it would feel to come home to that, after being scraped raw and left bleeding. Thinks about Cas curling up on his couch, alone, because the stupid bastard would rather choke on his pride than ask for help.

“Sam,” Dean says, a wicked, awful, plan coming to mind, like he’s the reverse Grinch. Sam perks up, interest lighting up his eyes. “I’m going to need some help.”

-------

How many times has Dean told Cas that the fake rock beside his front door isn’t fooling anyone? Dean lets himself into Cas’ house, with the spare key found in the fake rock, and sets up his plan. Then, he settles down to wait.

It doesn’t take long, maybe forty-five minutes. Headlights arc across the living room windows and Dean freezes, somehow convinced that Cas will be able to see him. Nothing happens, and Dean waits, his pulse ratcheting up with the passing of every second. His ears catch the sound of tires on the asphalt of the driveway. The light illuminating the living room disappears, followed by the sound of a car door opening and closing. The hollow noise echoes through the house and Dean holds his breath in anticipation.

The sound of the key scraping in the lock is louder than it has any right to be. Dean’s heart skips a one-two beat, as he re-thinks every decision which led him to hide in his best friend’s living room, in the dark. This isn’t what normal people do, this is what creepy stalkers do, and Cas never gave any indication at all that he actually enjoys Christmas...

It doesn’t take someone three tries to open their back door.

The key rasps a final time, this time accompanied by the quiet click of the deadbolt releasing. Dean holds his breath as the door slowly creaks open. A sliver of light falls on Cas’ face. Dean’s heart dips into a barrel roll before free-falling in a plummet to earth.

This is Castiel Milton when he thinks he’s alone. This is what Cas looks like when he doesn’t have anyone to perform for.

Mostly, he looks tired. The hard set to his shoulders is softened, the unyielding set of his jaw relaxed. The door shuts, taking away Dean’s source of light. Still, Cas waits to turn on a light. Instead, a sigh wafts through the air, the sound amplified in the absence of any other senses. Dean waits, caught in indecision. If he wants to cement the surprise then he needs to act now. On the other hand--It’s pathetic and cowardly, but when else will Dean get this opportunity, to see Cas without the masks and facades?

Another sigh escapes, this one louder and harsher. It’s followed by a "Fuck', breathed quiet into the room. Dean swallows. This is a private moment, something that he's never supposed to see. This is the emperor without his clothes, the wizard behind the screen. This is the most secret part, the piece of themselves only revealed in chance glances caught in mirrors unaware. This is not for him. Shame prickles over the back of his neck and Dean scrambles to act.

He fumbles with the plug, but eventually he manages to slide it into the electrical socket. Light flares through the living room. It’s just Christmas lights, but against the pitch black of the rest of the house, they’re blindingly brilliant.

Dean, knowing what was coming, closed his eyes. Cas, who had no such warning, did not, and now he stumbles against the counter, hand thrown up to protect his eyes. “What the fuck,” he yelps, voice breaking on the last high syllable. There’s something delightful about that. He laughs, and Cas relaxes once he recognizes the sound.

“Dean?” he asks, blinking owlishly as his eyes adjust. “Dean, what the, what the hell are you doing?”

Dean stands in the midst of his splendor and throws his arms wide across his domain. It’s not a lot, but he made do with what he could cannibalize from Bobby’s house. It’s certainly more than there was before. He’s hung lights from Cas’ ceiling, draped them over doorframes and fans, so that the whole living room is bathed in soft, twinkling light. He even found a small tree, one step away from Charlie Brown’s in terms of appearance, but it’s better than nothing. Under it, he put Cas’ gift.

As far as a winter wonderland goes, it’s pathetic. But, as Cas takes a step forward, lights reflected in his wide eyes, Dean thinks that it’s utterly perfect.

“Merry Christmas,” Dean says, his grin faltering when Cas remains at the divide between kitchen and living room. “Cas, is...is everything all right?” He’d thought that Cas was fine with this, but maybe he was wrong…

To Dean’s alarm, he sees that Cas’ eyes are shiny. He wants to tear his eyes away, but they remain stubbornly fixed on Cas’ stunned expression. Awe is written over every part of Cas, in the way that his eyes drink in the sights, how his fingers brush over the plastic needles of the tiny tree.

“Dean,” Cas says, like there’s a universe held within the syllables. Like the sound of Dean’s name is enough to encompass an entire conversation. “Dean, you…”

Though Cas isn’t the chattiest of people, it’s rare that he’s at a loss for words. Dean witnesses it now, Cas’ mouth opening and shutting several times, before he settles for staring at Dean.

“Come on Cas,” Dean finally says, uncomfortable with the scrutiny. He looks at you too, Charlie had said, but Dean doesn’t think that she meant this. This...This is how he looks at pie, how other people look at artwork or the Grand Canyon. Like what they’re seeing in front of them is too good to be true, like there has to be a catch somewhere.

Dean’s just a guy. A pretty shitty guy, if all things are taken into account. He doesn’t deserve this, Cas looking at him like he’s some kind of marvel. “Blink or something, would you?”

Cas’ eyes don’t lose their glint but something happens to his mouth, a decision taking place. Dean doesn’t have time to prepare before Castiel is moving forward, his grim mouth at odds with the wonderment in his eyes. Dean has just enough time to think Oh No mingled with Yes Please, as Cas roughly grabs the lapel of his overshirt. This is it, yes please, yes please--

Cas’ body slamming into his isn’t entirely what he was preparing himself for--Dean expected a more facial-centric collision, but this is awesome too, Cas’ arms wrapping tightly around his torso, fingers digging in hard into the skin of Dean’s neck. Dean shivers as Cas’ humid breath hits the vulnerable skin of Dean’s throat, his nose pressing into the soft skin just at Dean’s hairline.

It’s nothing like the hug of a month ago, tentative, unsure, both of them touching the other like they were spun glass. Cas holds onto him with the desperation of a drowning man, his arms merciless around Dean’s chest. Dean clutches him close, this one solid thing in a sea of insecurities.

Eons pass in seconds, and eventually Cas pulls away. A faint pink tinge rests on his cheeks and he looks away from Dean as he takes a step back. “I never would have...Dean, thank you.” Cas’ voice is rougher than usual and Dean has to believe that the screech of earlier wrecked his vocal chords.

“Cas, it was--” Dean was about to say It’s nothing, but that’s not the whole truth. Yeah, the actual effort was minimal at best, but the thought behind it? Definitely not nothing.

Dean’s knees wobble as the truth slams into him with the delicacy of a runaway train. It’s like being sucker-punched, it’s like the back of his father’s hand across his mouth, like missing the final step on the way down. It’s like the first bite of pie, almost too hot but so right, the sweet burn of a thirty year old whiskey. It’s falling, except Dean knows that it’s not, because he was already falling for a long time. This is brace for impact, this is the theory of gravity proven, this is hitting the ground at a thousand miles an hour.

He’s in love with Cas.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Chapter Text

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

Dean remembers being in love with Lisa, if you can call it that. He remembers performing love: kisses on her cheek, pancakes in the morning, car doors opened. As if love were something you do and not something that you are. As if, now, every one of his feeble electrons does not whisper love love love every day until his whole body vibrates with the resonance of it.

His blood pumps a dizzying repetition of joy joy joy, to the point where he feels bubbling, full to the brim with it. His 6-plus foot frame can’t contain it; he wants to get on the phone and call his whole contact list with the news. Wants to tell random strangers. The pizza delivery boy. The postman. The checkout clerk. Wants to spill over and say: I am in love. Isn’t it wonderful.

Isn’t it terrible.

Dean’s in love with Cas.

He’s in love with every part of him: his weird eyes that don’t need to blink with the same frequency as other people’s, the permanently fucked up hair that refuses to lay flat, his stupid, pouty lips, his six foot tall frame that’s made up of muscle, sarcasm, and stubbornness.

More than that. He’s in love with Cas’ whip-crack intelligence, the way that he chomps on his lower lip when he’s trying to figure out a problem. He’s in love with Cas’ temper, the short fuse that sends him snapping and snarling. The grumpiness always lurking a heartbeat below the surface. The gentleness, the kindness. The curiosity. The genuine wonder in Cas’ eyes as he peers at the world. And yes, if Dean allows himself to be selfish, the way that Cas says his name, like Dean is the journey and destination all at once.

He’s in love with Cas.

It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to him, and he couldn’t be more thrilled.

Christmas night passes in a blur. When Dean looks back on it the next day, it’s like a video he watched while he was drunk. Like the whole thing happened to someone else. Snippets of the night come back to him through the cloud, like Polaroid images come to life.

Cas’ delight when he opened his present. Dean had gotten him sachets of seeds, all guaranteed to bring swarms of honeybees to gardens. He’d also capitulated to his sense of humor and gotten Cas a mug with a smiling bee printed on one side, and the word ‘Bee-lieve’ on the other side. Cas hates puns and that’s what makes it all worthwhile.

Another snapshot, this time of Cas telling him Wait here, pointing a cautionary finger at him, a dazed smile still lingering on his face, like he forgot it was there. Dean had sat on his couch, head still tingling with discovery. He wondered if Galileo felt like this when he watched the shifting clouds on Venus, like there were cosmos lurking at his fingertips.

It’s brilliant, Cas’ gift for him. Of course it is, because Cas has never done anything half-assed in his whole life. Somehow, Cas tracked down two original Led Zeppelin tour posters, one from ‘73 tour the other from ‘69. Cas sits on the edge of the chair as Dean runs his fingers over the small tears and rips in the paper, the sharp corners rounded out by time and use.

“Cas,” he says, his eyes lingering on the poster. He can’t bear to look at Cas right now. If he does, then he thinks that his skin will split, a supernova leaking out of him.

Dean is in love.

Love is such a paltry word. Every rom-com spits out the concept at least once. It seems stupid to use the same word to describe how he feels about a good pizza to describe what he feels towards Cas.

Dean spends an afternoon looking up synonyms for love, in all of its iterations.

Fondness. He’s fond of many things: Jess’ love of sparkling water, Jo’s habit of working out close to midnight, Bobby’s closeted Tori Spelling addiction. Hell, he’s fond of crunchy peanut butter.

Infatuation. Lisa. Cassie. Dean had submerged himself into them, like if he swam hard and deep enough then he could leave the worst parts of himself behind. It hadn’t worked; all he’d done was just leave the dark and sticky parts of himself in the places where they would cause the most damage when they were discovered. And when the shiny newness faded, when Dean discovered that even when he was lost within another person, he was still the same fuck-up he’d always been...Well, in the words of The Boss, he was born to run.

Brotherliness. He’s not touching this one with a ten-foot pole.

Weakness. His father had told him that often enough. The reason that Dean struggled so much was because he was weak, he wasn’t going to be able to protect Sam if he was weak. He needed to toughen up, be a man. He thinks about his father, reduced to a shell, because the woman that he loved died. Is his father weak, or just flawed? Did love create the crevice or did it just expose it?

Dearest. Dean’s chest constricts around the word, aching like it was written on his ribs.

Desire. The hum and pulse of it runs through his veins, strengthens whenever he thinks about the knob of Cas’ knee digging into the meat of his thigh. Cas’ hands and the way that they treat delicate things. The solidity of him, the strength of his arms. The cut of his hip. The faint, chapped lines in his lips. Dean wants to taste him, the bitter salt tang. Dean understands desire, understands the sparks trailing from his fingers as he runs his hands over his throat, his chest, his stomach, down to his groin.

Friendliness. Dean doesn’t make friends easily; the ones he has had to work for the privilege. He tries to be a good friend, to put the needs of others above his own. Most of the time he thinks that it works. He’s tried to be a good friend to Cas, tried to put his needs first. Tries to respect what he wants. Knows that if he were to lose Cas’ friendship then there would be a gaping hole scooped out of him, edges left shredded and bleeding.

Adoration. Dean wants to fall to his knees and experience Cas like other people experience being born-again. Wants to find his religion in the dips of his spine, the stutter of his heart. Wants to set up his world in the cradle of Cas’ hips. Wants to write odes to him. If he could, then he would create paintings of him, slap his face across chapel walls.

Dean is in love with Cas.

He doesn’t know exactly what that means; the thesaurus leaves him high and dry. He knows what it isn’t and what he wants it to be. He knows the soaring bliss, the glee, the satisfied secret sliding through his veins.

He is in love.

Isn’t it terrible. Isn’t it wonderful.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

The week after Christmas is a slippery, liminal space that slides and flops. Without any place to be or any obligations to keep, Dean loses track of the days. He fulfills basic obligations: he meets up once with Jo for lunch, he eats dinner with Bobby and Ellen, he even hits the after-Christmas sales with Jess. While shoving aside yuppie Moms, he learns from her that Cas and Sam had lunch together the previous day. The knowledge sends a squiggle through Dean’s stomach.

He’d be lying if he said that it didn’t delight him, how easily Cas seems to fit in with the rest of his friends and family. He wasn’t surprised by Cas and Sam getting along: the two of them can nerd-gasm for hours about the intricacies of Article I in the the Constitution, so of course they were going to be friends. Jess too, is no surprise. She has the rare ability of being affable to almost everyone she meets and Dean has yet to meet the person who truly dislikes her. Charlie makes friends as easy as breathing, and she accepted Cas almost as naturally.

Bobby, Ellen, and Jo were a bit of a surprise. Bobby makes it a point to hate everyone, while Ellen and Jo consider it a point of pride to remain unimpressed by anyone less than Chuck Norris. That they accept Cas so readily is unexpected. Dean knows that it has something to do with his blatant affection towards Cas, but there had been genuine regret when he told them that Cas wouldn’t be joining the family for Christmas.

It brings Dean’s mind back to the conversation he had with Sam, when he could comfortably pretend that all that was between him and Cas was just a stupid little crush. You act like he’s always been here. You act like you want him to stay. Dean wants Cas to slot into his life as easily as a puzzle piece, to where their individual edges get blurred with age until they’re indistinguishable. Cas’ easiness with his family cements the idea that maybe, this is something that he could be allowed, maybe, just maybe, Cas could end up staying.

It’s a dangerous train of thought, and one that Dean tries to squash, but it lingers at the back of his mind, rearing its ugly head at inopportune moments. He’ll be making breakfast and find himself making more than one person could reasonably eat. Or he’ll read something funny on his phone and immediately turn, ready to show it just so he can hear the laugh. He’ll be half asleep and roll over, his hand groping at cold sheets, seeking the warmth of a non-existent body.

When his foggy brain catches up enough to realize what his hand is searching for, Dean will bolt upright, his heart dipping down to say hello to his stomach before lodging somewhere in the vicinity of his throat. He lays back down in a bed too big for his solitary body, tossing and turning in a futile search for comfort. He can’t stop torturing himself with the What-ifs or the Maybes, and by December 28th, Dean thinks that he might legitimately go insane.

It’s either beneficial or disastrous that Cas comes over the next night.

It’s their first time being together since Christmas. Cas acts like nothing’s changed, because for him, nothing has. In Cas’ eyes, he’s still Dean: a little bit of an asshole, a lot of a grump, maybe a nerd, definitely still the coolest person that Cas has ever met. Dean’s assuming that’s Cas’ opinion of him at least.

Dean can’t stop noticing the tiny details about Cas: how his left eyebrow is always the designated brow for upward mobility, how Cas’ shirt pulls at his shoulders when he sits down. The interest in Cas’ eyes as Dean talks about the deals that he and Jess scored the previous day at the sales. His stomach does happy little flips, while Dean’s brain futilely attempts to pump the brakes.

If being around random strangers was bad, then being around Cas is catastrophic. Apocalyptic. Dean’s amazed that Cas can’t simply look at him and tell the truth. It’s written in every look, in every laugh, every touch. The air escaping Dean’s mouth whispers love love love in hopes that it’ll find its way, second-hand, into Cas’ lungs. Every piece of him squirms beneath his skin, in a wild attempt to release Dean’s greatest secret. Sitting next to Cas is an act of self-denial that the Buddha would be proud of.

Tonight, he’s decided to indulge himself. Once he and Cas are settled, he flicks off the harsher lights, leaving only the soft lamp in the corner of the room. The TV snaps on and the sound of John William’s iconic score fills the room. Cas glances at the television and Dean sees the moment when his gaze sharpens with interest.

“This was your Halloween costume,” Cas remarks, tilting his head in consideration.

A happy glow fills Dean. Stupid to feel this happy that Cas remembered something so trivial. God, he’s so fucking weak for this man.

“I promised Charlie and Sam that I was going to educate you. Now shut up and watch how a real history professor should act.” An image comes to Dean, unbidden, about shoving Cas into a loose, white shirt, tight brown pants, and a fedora. Maybe a whip on his hip? Dean shuts down that train of thought and, just in case, pulls a blanket over his lap.

Dean can always judge Cas’ opinions of movies based on how much he talks during them. And the little sonofabitch can ramble, when he has a mind to, say for instance, during required viewings of Dr. Sexy. Cas gives his opinion on everything from the sexist nature of the women’s roles, to the inaccuracies in medical procedure (like Cas fucking knows anything about how hospitals are run), to how uncomfortable it would be to wear cowboy boots all day long. If his commentaries weren’t almost as interesting as the show itself, then Dean would have killed him a long time ago and tried to pass it off as an unfortunate accident.

As long as Dr. Jones is on the screen, Cas remains fixated on the screen. He laughs in all the right places and halfway through the movie, Dean realizes that he’s watching Cas more than the movie. A bemused fondness runs through him: apparently Castiel Milton trumps young Harrison Ford. Who would have thought (so fucking gone)?

They make their way through the original trilogy (“I thought that there was a fourth movie?” Cas asks in his blissful ignorance, and bless him, he looks befuddled when Dean retches and says “We don’t speak of the fourth movie Cas, now give me that popcorn and shut up”), and by the time that the credits roll on The Last Crusade, they’ve become little more than boneless lumps on the couch.

Dean stretches out on his side, his shoulder and arm pressed into Cas’ side. Cas leans towards him, close enough that Dean can smell his shampoo. If Dean tilted his head and reached up, he would be close enough to press a kiss to the curve of Castiel’s jaw. He shifts, thankful again for the blanket covering his groin.

“Dean.” Cas’ lazy voice breaks the silence, but the hard edge buried underneath the indolence has Dean sitting up straight. “I was wondering what your plans were for the New Year.”

“The whole thing or the celebration?” Dean asks, being deliberately obtuse. His heart picks up a wild tapdance against his lungs. It sounds almost like Cas wants to spend….but that’s stupid.

Cas rolls his eyes and Dean relents. “Hadn’t decided anything yet. Sam has a thing with the people at his firm and that’s not really my scene, so I was probably going to go over to Benny’s or Charlie’s.”

Castiel exhales a soft Ah, and his lips purse. Intrigued, Dean pulls away to get a better look at his face. “Why? You have a better plan?”

Cas flinches, a tiny, almost imperceptible movement. If Dean weren’t hyper-fixated on every last facet of Cas, then he probably would have missed the movement altogether. Cas plasters a smile across his face, mouth too wide, eyes too hard. Dean’s teeth grit together at the falsehood in the expression, and only the thought that this must be something very bad indeed, to put that look on Cas’ face, stays Dean’s irritation.

“No, no.” Cas shakes his head, like that’s fooling anyone. “That sounds like fun. If her Halloween party is anything to judge by, I’m sure that Charlie’s New Year’s party will be cataclysmic.”

The evasion is so clumsy as to be laughable. Normally, Dean would let it slide and allow Cas to lead him away, but his interest is piqued. “So, while I’m at Charlie’s, what will you be doing?”

Cas’ jaw, the one weakness in his impeccable poker face, ticks. “Michael holds a gathering every New Year’s Eve.”

The scoff comes out before Dean has a chance to restrain himself. “Cas, you can’t tell me--”

“It’s an important networking opportunity,” Cas interrupts him, eyes fixed on the middle distance. Dean hates how the mention of his family sends Cas tail spinning into places that Dean can’t possibly hope to follow. He’d thought, after Christmas, that maybe they’d laid these ghosts to rest, at least for a year, but true to form, nothing in Dean’s life is ever that easy.

“It’s New Year’s Eve. It’s an important drinking opportunity.”

“Associates from Milton Enterprises, as well as political contacts will be there. The family is expected to put in an appearance.”

“So what, you’re held hostage so that Michael can have a few photo ops?”

“Dean.”

If there had been animosity in Cas’ voice, then Dean would have railed against it. If Cas had been combative, then Dean would have thrown himself into the fight without a second thought. It’s the weariness that catches his attention and douses the flames of his temper before they have a chance to spark. It’s only been three days since Christmas, since he heard the same quiet, defeated tone coming from Cas. The only difference is, the last time Dean heard it, he wasn’t meant to.

Dean sighs and looks up at his ceiling like it might have some inspiration. Unsurprisingly, the whorls in the plaster offer little in the way of advice, so he’s left with his intuition. Not the best companion, but Dean’s made do with worse. “Sorry,” comes out of his mouth and it’s not necessarily what he wanted to say, but judging from the softening of Cas’ eyes, it’s not the worst thing he could have come out with.

“The catering is usually quite good,” Cas offers, like he’s trying to make amends. “Not to mention that Michael is very generous with the open bar.”

“What else would you expect for a New Year’s party?’

A faint smile ghosts across Cas’ face. “As far as photo ops go, it’s much more preferable than either Thanksgiving or Christmas. Plus, the number of guests means that it’s possible to slip underneath the radar, for the most part. Come in, sign the guestbook, have a few drinks, and leave.”

“Good,” Dean says. The idea that Cas could leave early has him perking up with interest. “Maybe you could make it over to Charlie’s in time for the countdown.”

Fantasies dance around Dean’s head--Fireworks reflected in Cas’ eyes, a new year bursting into existence around them, the slow seduction--He’d have to be standing close to Cas, right as the ball dropped, and then turn to him and say it’s for luck. Maybe Cas would understand, or maybe he wouldn’t--maybe Dean would have enough time to catch that furrow of confusion on his face, just before he leaned down and brushed his lips softly, so softly, across Cas’. Enough to make him gasp. Enough to make him crave more.

Dean’s so caught up in his own head that he doesn’t notice the disappointed frown on Cas’ face until the other man says, “I’m sorry. The guests always take a picture right after midnight. Michael’s way of showing that we’re united in the upcoming year.”

Dean doesn’t fight the urge to roll his eyes. “You know Cas, you keep on telling me how much better this party is than the others, but so far, I’m not seeing it. It sounds like the same old torture and honestly--don’t look at me like that, you have to have thought the same thing! I don’t see why you keep on putting yourself through this. God knows, you couldn’t pay me to go to something like that.”

Cas’ face crumples, eyebrows swooping down to meet at the bridge of his nose, his lips thinning into an invisible line, his eyes suddenly too wide for his face. “Ah,” he breathes. Usually when Cas makes that noise it’s in realization or satisfaction, but this time it sounds like someone reached into his chest and cracked every one of his ribs. “Of course you wouldn’t. How foolish.” An indecipherable loon passes over his face, swift as a blink, and when it disappears, Cas’ face is a smooth, marble mask.

“Cas,” Dean begins. He can recognize when something’s gone terribly wrong, even if he doesn’t yet know why. He pushes himself upright, not wanting to have this conversation while he’s flat on his back. “Look, whatever I said, I’m sorry. I know that you think that you’ve got to do this and I’m sorry to give you such a hard time about it.” Dean swallows, before offering up, “Fuck knows that I’m the last one to talk about family obligations. You do what you think you’ve got to do. And if you do manage to sneak out early, you know where I’ll be.”

“That’s not the point.” Cas’ voice is low, measured, but it wobbles at the end, like all that careful control is splintering away.

“Really?” Dean’s voice holds a snap, because hell, he’d just bared a little bit of his soul, given Cas the validation that he was so obviously looking for, and even offered yet another invitation for him to join the real folks and spend non-obligatory, guilt-free fun times with them. What more does he want?

Dean says as much to Cas, and witnesses, first-hand, the unleashing of all that control.

One time, when he was younger, Dad was hunting down what he promised was ‘A good lead Dean, a damn good lead!’. It had them crossing the Oklahoma prairie late in July, right in peak tornado season. Dean remembers leaning out the back window of the Impala and watching the thunderclouds stack on each other, lightning striking deep in the depths. The air was moist and almost cool, and the sky took on a faint green tinge. Everything was still, to the point where the roar of Baby’s engine was all that could be heard.

And then the funnel cloud touched down and Dean watched debris scatter in its wake.

Watching Cas lose his cool is kind of like that. His shoulders roll, jaw clenches and juts forward, and his knuckles crack with the pressure of how tightly his fists are clenched. Dean holds his breath, waiting for the explosion, but it never comes. Instead, Cas takes a long inhale, nostrils flaring as his lungs expand, before he glances up at the ceiling. When he looks back at Dean, his face is as impassive as Dean’s ever seen it.

“I should go,” he says.

Dean’s chest constricts at the finality in his words. From the distant look in Cas’ eyes, the impersonal delivery of the words...He can’t believe that Cas doesn’t mean to walk away forever.

“Cas, come on,” Dean tries. He rises, intent on reaching out to Cas, but the other man freezes him in place with a look. It leaves Dean hunched over like some modern-day Quasimodo, a position which, no doubt, will play hell on his lower back. “Look, I’m an asshole, just...come on.”

He’s not sure what he’s pleading for, only that he doesn’t get it. Cas glances towards the door, then back at Dean, and Dean knows that he’s been dismissed. Unimportant, unworthy. Cas conveys all of that with a look, scraping at still festering wounds.

“Have a good New Year’s,” Cas tells him, voice icy. “Goodbye Dean.”

He turns and walks out, closing the door deliberately, carefully, behind him. Dean watches him go.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

He sleeps in the next day, lounging in bed until early afternoon. He has no reason to be up early and every reason to feel sorry for himself, so he spends his time rolling over from one side to the other, playing games on his phone and fitfully reading a pulp paperback Benny loaned him. He ignores the Cas shaped lump of regret in his brain and doesn’t move until his stomach and bladder band together and force him upright.

The scent of freshly brewed coffee perks him up but it doesn’t lighten his mood. He’s so busy feeling miserable that he almost ignores Charlie’s call when it flashes across his screen. Only the knowledge that she’ll keep calling and texting him until he runs out of memory have him punching the green button on his screen.

“What’s up Winchester?”

“Not much.” It’s an effort to pull enthusiasm into his voice, one that falls flat, if Charlie’s sudden silence is anything to go by. “What happened that I rated a call?” Charlie is a good little millennial and never calls if she can help it.

“Invitations should always be done over the phone and not through texts.”

There’s no possible way that Charlie could know that New Year’s was a touchy topic but Dean spares a moment to hate her for a second anyway. He pulls himself together, reminds himself that his pre-New Year’s resolution is to not be a self-centered asshole, and fakes happiness.

“Thought you’d forgotten all about me kiddo! Anything special going on this year? Fireworks, clowns, trapeze artists?”

“Just the usual--copious amounts of alcohol and tons of bad decisions. Hey, speaking of bad decisions, you should bring Cas along.”

Dean’s breath stutters in his chest, before he pushes a laugh through the phone lines. “Been practicing that segue for long?”

“Maybe,” Charlie answers. “Stop avoiding the question. Bring dreamboat.”

“He’s ah, he’s got someplace else to be that night.”

Charlie’s voice is sympathetic, even though the fizz of the phone. “Family again?”

And even though Dean knows that Cas would hate him for airing his dirty laundry, before he can stop himself, the whole story comes pouring out of his mouth: his invitation, Cas’ refusal, Cas’ adherence to the idea that this party wasn’t going to be so bad, his swift anger at Dean, his shut down and departure.

It takes him about five minutes to recount everything, from start to finish. It feels like it should be more, like the encounter should span a novel’s worth of words. But Dean’s left some pieces on the cutting room floor. Unsaid is the fear that Goodbye Dean is a permanent state of affairs, that Castiel can cut Dean out of his life the same way that other people cut carbs. Underneath that is the terror of losing Cas, right when Dean feels like he’s just found him. And underneath even that is still the beat of love love love, helpless and frail.

After he finishes speaking, Charlie is quiet for a long minute. When she speaks, it has the same effect as an ice bucket dumped over his head.

“You know that you’re an idiot, right?” Dean sputters and Charlie steamrollers on past him. “Like a genuine, bonafide, village idiot?”

“You going to explain why or are you just going to keep on insulting me?”

“I can’t do both?” But Charlie relents. A sharp sigh hits Dean’s ear. “When Cas was going on about the open bar and the catering and when he was telling you how much better the New Year’s party was than the Christmas get-together...Did you not realize that he was trying to ask you to come with him?”

It takes a moment before the words sink in. Dean has to rearrange the syllables and translate them individually before repackaging them into something that makes sense. Cas. Ask him. To his family’s New Year’s party. It takes Dean a long moment to finally comprehend.

“Why didn’t he just ask me?” is all Dean can think of to say.

Charlie makes a frustrated noise into the phone. “Because he thought you’d do exactly what you did, which was to dig in your heels and talk about how much you didn’t want to go? Because he doesn’t want to ask for favors? Or because, present company excluded, he’s the most emotionally constipated person in the world?”

“Hey.” Dean doesn't know whether he’s protesting the insult to Cas or himself. “I have feelings.”

“Yeah, and if you processed them correctly and acted on them then you would be snuggled up with Castiel right now and not on the phone whining to me about how he’s mad at you.”

Charlie falls silent immediately after that. When she speaks again, it’s subdued, guilty. “Dean,” she murmurs. “That was…”

“Too far Charlie.” Dean’s voice comes out gruffer than usual, hurt scraping at it until it’s almost as rough as Cas’.

“I’m sorry,” she says, and the thing about Charlie is that she doesn’t apologize for everything, just the stuff that she actually does wrong. So Dean knows that she means it, and damn it all, but he can’t hold a grudge against her.

He doesn’t say that it’s ok, because it’s not, but she seems to read the changing of his mood. She’s still conciliatory, but her voice has recovered a little of its usual pep. “I’m hanging up the phone now. The first thing that you’re going to do is to call Cas and apologize--a real apology, not your usual Winchester bullcrap. Then you’re going to tell him that you’re going with him to his family’s thing--no trying to slide around it, or make him uninvite you. Whatever he tells you to do, you’re going to do. If he says rent a tux, you make like it’s your Prom night and get the best one there.”

Dean is liking this plan less and less, but Charlie isn’t done yet. “And last, when you’re at his family’s party, you’re going to be your wonderful, charming self. You try to hide it, but you’re very sweet when you want to be, so be that. And then, at midnight, you are going to take that boy and you are going to kiss him until his brains dribble out around his ankles.”

Dean inhales once, thinks about the kind of kiss that it would take to bring up that imagery, and inhales again. When he thinks that he can finally control his voice, he says, “Been thinking of that one a long time too?”

He can hear the shrug over the phone. “It’s Christmas break. I have a lot of time on my hands.”

“Sure. Well, I’m going hang up now--”

“Dean, I swear to god, if you show up at my house on New Year’s Eve, I’m going to put my foot so far up your butt…”

“Come on Charlie, you and I both know that you’re not going to do that.”

“Fine, you’re right.” Charlie pauses for a half-second and lets Dean think that he’s won. “But I’ll get Jo to do it, and you know that she’s not half as nice as me.” The threat isn’t an idle one. Charlie and Jo seem to have an unholy alliance when it comes to torturing Dean. The little sisters that he never asked for.

“I’ll call him,” Dean says, wanting to keep expectations low. “But Charlie, you didn’t hear him last night. If I call him, then there’s a good chance that he’ll reach through the phone and punch me on basic principle.”

“Well then you take that chance, but I think that you’re overreacting just a little.” Dean rolls his eyes but he still lets his heart do a happy skip-jump when Charlie says, “He looks at you like you’re the One Ring. He’s not planning on throwing you into Mount Doom anytime soon.”

Dean laughs, and this time when he changes the topic, Charlie allows it. They spend a few more minutes on the phone, chatting about various topics: Charlie’s latest visit to her LARPer friends, the upcoming State competition for Scholastic Bowl, whether or not Benny is ever going to man up and ask Andrea to marry him. Safe, trivial things, things that definitely cannot ruin his day.

Charlie hangs up the phone, with a pointed “Call him!” as her last words to him. Dean stares at his phone after she hangs up. The battery is at 62%. Surely that’s too low to make a call? It’s nearing 3 pm. What if Cas has gone for a run? Then he won’t be able to answer his phone.

Dean finally selects Cas’ number and calls it, because he’s being a pussy, and Dean Winchester might be a lot of things, but a coward he is not.

The phone rings once, then twice, then three times. Dean’s started to give up hope and is resigning himself to the indignity of the voicemail when, with a tiny click, his call is answered. “Dean.” He ends there, and Dean knows that Cas could make an entire conversation out of that one word.

Dean closes his eyes as he rolls his eyes heavenward. He should have known that Cas wasn’t going to make this easy for him. “Hey Cas. What’s up?”

“I’m just getting ready to start planning lessons for next semester.” The implication is, of course, that Castiel is a busy, busy man, and that Dean should either get to the point or get off the phone. Dean winces. He hadn’t expected Cas to be jolly and happy, but he’d hoped that the time apart had softened Cas’ resolve. Foolish thing to hope for.

“Cas.” I love you. Please don’t be mad at me. “Can we…”

A real apology, not your usual Winchester bullcrap.

“Cas, I’m sorry.”

He can hear the soft sound of Cas breathing on the other end of the line. The steady whisper rhythm gives Dean enough resolve to continue. “Look, I know that I fucked up, all right? You were trying to ask me something and I didn’t let you.”

“It wasn’t important.”

“Yeah it was. You don’t ask me for shit Cas, and the one time that you did, I made it all about me.”

“Dean, you don’t have to--”

“No Cas, let me--Let me say this. You were going to ask me to come with you to Michael’s for New Year’s.”

“It was…” Dean can imagine the expression on Cas’ face--the way that his eyes flutter closed, how his teeth catch at his lower lip, the pained lines on his forehead. “It was a foolish idea.”

Dean clenches the phone tight in his fist. “No Cas. No it wasn’t.” There are so many other things that he wants to say--Please let me come with you, let me stay with you, take me home at the end of the night, wrap me up and never let me go--but Dean settles for the barest approximation of truth. “It was a good idea.”

Cas’ sigh has the weariness of a man twice his age. “You’re going to be miserable, and my family is going to be awful, and you’re not going to be able to spend the night with your friends--”

“Cas!” Dean has to raise his voice, but only because he can sense Cas spiraling down. “It’ll be fine. I’ll be with you.”

The unintended truth catches in his throat, burns for a moment, but it’s a clean burn, one that leaves him feeling better afterward. “Cas. Let’s go to your family’s New Year’s party.”

The sound of Cas’ breath disappears. Dean can imagine him pulling the phone away from his face, holding it to his chest. When Cas speaks again, his voice has dipped down into unholy regions, and Dean doesn’t think that he’s imagining the wobble to his words. “You just invited me to my own family’s party.”

Despite everything, Dean smiles. “Well, you were taking too long. If you want something done right…”

“Ask a Winchester to do it.”

“I guess I”ll have to wear a suit?”

“A nice one,” Cas confirms. “Preferably one that’s extra uncomfortable.”

“Anyone ever tell you that you’re a real dick?”

Cas huffs out a soft laugh and Dean’s heart squirms to hear it. He imagines the faint lines at the corners of Cas’ eyes crinkling as he squints, his lips pulling upwards in a smile. “You do Dean. Frequently.”

“Yeah well. Guess I must be right then.”

Cas pauses, and the tone in his voice when he speaks lets Dean know that the conversation has ventured back into the realm of the serious once more. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Shut up, all right?” Dean says. “It’s not something that you thank me for. It’s...it’s what you do for your friends.”

I would do anything for you, I would walk through fire if you asked me to, I never want to leave you and I would go through a hundred, a thousand parties if it meant that you would be able to stay.

“Well, thank you, all the same. I’ll be picking you up at around eight-thirty, if that’s fine.”

“Oh no.” Dean might be willing to bend over backward for Cas, but there’s one thing that he’s not willing to compromise on. “No way that we’re going to your family’s shindig in your little shoebox of a car. It’s an occasion for a lady.”

And wouldn’t it be a sight to see, Baby roaring her way through the Mercedes, Lexuses and BMWs?

“Oh, I hope that they’re ready for you, Dean Winchester,” Cas laughs.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

Dean hasn’t taken so much care with his appearance since he was seventeen and going to Prom with Cindy Robinson. He finds his best suit and checks the fit of it--it’s a bit snug around the middle but he can still do the top button without much trouble, so it’ll be fine. He picks out a light blue shirt to go with the dark blue of the suit and even ventures into a department store to pick out a pocket square. What the hell has his life even come to that he’s now the kind of guy that buys pocket squares?

He even asks Sam to borrow his ironing board so that he can put creases into his pants. Sam relinquishes the equipment, though not without a few pointed comments. Dean has to clamp his jaw shut so that his words hit his teeth and ricochet backwards down his throat.

Sam, I’m in love. I thought that I was in love before, but I’ve never felt anything like this, like being on fire every single second. How do you stand feeling like this all the time, how do you not shatter underneath the joy of it all. How do you live your life, knowing that you’re capable of feeling like this.

Instead, Dean says “Happy New Year bitch,” and plants a sloppy wet kiss on Sam’s cheek, just to be a jerk. He gives Jess a much more sedate kiss, though he does pick her up and spin her around the room, just to prove that Sam’s not the only brother with muscles. She laughs with delight, says “Maybe I picked the wrong brother,” like she always does when Dean does something sweet.

Dean makes his exit, aware that Sam and Jess have their own party to attend. Once home, he starts working on his look for the evening. He irons his pants until the crease is sharp enough to cut flesh. His suit jacket he leaves to hang up, after tugging at the sleeves to get rid of an lingering wrinkles. Dean runs the electric razor over his cheeks, leaving a five o’clock shadow with stubble that’s just the right side of scratchy.

When he finds himself running the comb through his hair for the fifteenth time, he has to admit that it’s time to back away from the mirror. “It’s just a damn party,” he mumbles to himself, tugging at his collar for the last time.

Right. Just a party, with Cas’ super wealthy, super powerful, super judgmental family, and Dean, practically tripping over himself every time that he makes eye contact with Cas. If he was watching this story in a movie, then he would know exactly what to expect: a large dose of second-hand embarrassment, a tearful confession, a tender kiss at midnight. But this is real-life and all Dean can hope for is that he doesn’t puke on Mayor Michael’s shoes tonight.

Once it’s reached eight o’clock, Dean can’t stall anymore. He gives himself one last glance in the mirror. It’s not in his nature to be overly vain of his physical appearance but he has to admit: He looks damn good.

God, he hopes Cas thinks the same.

The rumble and purr of Baby’s engine settles him, same as it always does. Dean travels the familiar backroads to Cas’ house and allows his brain to go comfortably fuzzy. He doesn’t know whether he’s building tonight up and making it into something that it’s not: sometimes a tree is just a tree. It’s entirely possible that this is just a family gathering that Cas doesn’t want to face on his own and he asked Dean because he and Dean are friends. Both logic and past experience tell Dean that he shouldn’t expect anything from tonight.

But then he pays attention to the butterflies currently holding a rave in his gut and thinks: maybe not. For weeks, he’s felt like he and Cas are circling towards an unknown destination. He’s not sure what happens once they get there, but he’s excited to find out.

For weeks now, he and Cas have been at the point with each other where they walk into each other’s houses without warning, but tonight, Dean knocks at the front door. The Prom date feeling comes back, stronger than ever, as he shifts his weight from one foot to another on the front stoop. Belatedly, he wonders if he should have bought flowers, but he swiftly dismisses that. This isn’t a date.

Is it?

What seems like hours later, the door creaks open and Dean experiences what he’s fairly sure is a mild heart attack.

He’s seen Cas in button downs with ties; he’s well aware of the other man’s waistcoat obsession, and he’s even seen him in a suit. While he appreciates all of those looks, he’s never once been so utterly devastated by a single outfit. It’s just a dark blue pinstripe suit but the way that it clings to Cas’ body--Dean’s mouth goes dry.

“You clean up all right,” is the best thing that Dean can think of to say because Jesus fuck please marry me might not go over all that well.

Cas pauses at the door, those stupid huge eyes flicking up and down over Dean’s frame. He fights the urge to squirm or fire off a zippy one-liner and instead appreciates the slow drag of Cas’ eyes. Take a picture, it’ll last longer, almost comes out of his mouth, but the words die an ignominious death when he sees the look in Cas’ eyes.

It’s fire and ice blended together, interest sharp as the crease on Dean’s pants. It’s not Cas, his weird, goofy friend in front of him anymore--This is a man that Dean’s only gotten glimpses of, incandescent in his rage and enthralling in his captivation. The butterflies in his stomach are no longer raving, they’re going fucking insane.

“If we don’t get going soon, then we’re going to be late,” Dean finally says, speaking around the mountains of sand in his mouth.

Cas blinks and the stranger disappears. Suddenly it’s just Cas in front of him: disgruntled, impatient, predictable. The only difference between this Cas and regular Cas is that this Cas takes a little more care when he sits in the Impala.

The feeling intensifies, and Dean knows: he and Cas have been driving for so long but tonight, their exit is in sight.

--

 

For years, Dean’s driven past the drive into Michael Milton’s house without ever knowing what lurks beyond the immaculately scraped gravel. The yard is all tasteful landscaping, with elegant evergreens lining the drive and obscuring any view of the house. The lawns are smooth and rolling, illuminated by impeccably placed iron-wrought lamps.

If the grounds are beautiful, then the house is stunning. The white brick gleams in the combination of lamplight and moonlight. Each of the windows gleams smugly at Dean, even the ones on the third floor. Dean feels their weight from his lowly place on the ground and his shoulders prickle with the singular thought: He doesn’t belong here.

With an effort, Dean keeps his face steady, even as he guides the Impala to a parking spot between the shining BMWs, Mercedes, and Audis. He runs his hand over her dash. He meant it as reassurance for her, We’re fine, they can’t judge us, but he finds himself taking comfort from the familiar smooth leather of her interior.

“Dean.” Cas interrupts his moment with a gentle hand on his knee. “You don’t have to do this.”

The sympathy and understanding in his eyes is enough to send Dean’s world spinning off its axis. He knows, in the wrinkle of Cas’ forehead and the gentle pressure of his hand on his knee--if Dean changed his mind right now, said that he couldn’t do this, and threw gravel on his way out the driveway, Cas wouldn’t be angry at him. He wouldn’t hold it against him, wouldn’t think any less of him at all. It’s that knowledge that has Dean jerking his chin defiantly upward and groping for the door handle.

“It’s time to shine Cas, come on.” He spares a second to flash a smile at Cas, a dazzling Dean Winchester special, and then he’s out of the car and his twice-shined shoes are crunching against the smooth white gravel of the drive.

Cas gets out the car, slower than Dean, and there’s still a hint of trepidation in his eyes as he carefully watches Dean. To assuage his doubt, Dean puts a little extra strut in his step--it’s his patented I’m Dean Winchester, don’t fuck with me stride, and if it just happens to make his ass shake a little extra, then that’s his business. And if Cas just happens to be behind him and therefore in perfect position to view his little shimmy, well then. That’s just Cas’ good luck.

They approach the main entrance together, feet falling in synchronicity upon the smooth white steps leading up to the double doors of the mansion. The ornate detail in the glass acts as the rest of the house does, and chants silently at Dean not your place not your place not your place, but Cas is a solid presence beside him, akin to the Great Wall in terms of permanence.

“Still time to turn back,” Cas murmurs. His voice is serious but the crinkles at the corner of his eyes let Dean in on the joke.

“Not a chance,” Dean says. It’s still a struggle to force the confidence through, though it’s not so much of a hardship with Cas next to him. “Now come on. Let’s get this show on the road.”

From this close, he can feel the effort that Cas puts in to not rolling his eyes. Dean ducks his head to hide his smile in his shoulder, standing up straight as Cas reaches out and pushes the doorbell. Deep inside the house, the chimes ring and Dean’s hand, acting of its own accord, reaches out. His fingers brush against Cas’ before they make contact and interlock.

Cas’ sharp intake of breath doesn’t go unnoticed, nor does his instinctive jerk, but Dean tightens his fingers and refuses to let go. He glances off to the side and watches the bob of Cas’ Adam’s apple. He feels the moment when Cas relaxes and despite everything, Dean grins--a real one this time. His fingers squeeze around Cas’ hand, once, and his heart patters a thrilled thump-thump as Cas squeezes back.

The door opens and Dean Winchester smiles, ready to devastate the world.

--

After thirty minutes, Dean decides that he really doesn’t care for rich people.

It’s the worst kind of reverse snobbery, but honestly, who the hell has actual butlers milling around the party? Or if they’re not butlers, then they’re the best trained waiters that Dean has ever seen: dressed in black tails, they sweep through the rooms bearing shiny silver trays with tiny drinks and concoctions of shrimp and crab. They’re there and gone again before their presence ever registers in Dean’s mind and they all look weirdly identical to him.

The waiters aren’t really the worst part. The house is as awful as Dean thought it would be: cold and impersonal, every step echoing along the chilly marble floor. Marble. Like it’s a goddamn church. A chandelier overhead throws glistening light through the cavernous entryway, framed by a curving double staircase. It looks like something out of a movie--it looks like the castle in Beauty and the Beast. Minus the Beast.

No, instead of the Beast, it’s Mayor Michael gliding through the house, always with a half full glass of champagne in hand and a politician’s smile on his face: wide, beautiful, insincere. He spoke to Dean and Cas when they entered, shook Dean’s hand. It was a strong handshake, delivered with a cool palm and a practiced one-two pump. John always said that you could trust a man based on his handshake, but Dean doesn’t believe that. John had a good handshake too.

Cas’ eyes go hard when Michael greets him and his spine stiffens when Michael pulls him into a hug that has all the warmth of the tundra. Dean watches, his own hackles rising at Cas’ obvious discomfort. Right then, he knows, with the same instincts that let him know that the Impala’s feeling poorly screaming at him, he knows that it’s going to be a bad night.

For the first hour and a half it’s innocuous enough. He and Cas mill around the foyer and the two rooms on either side. Dean grabs a glass of champagne from a passing waiter’s tray, more for comfort than anything else. Several of Cas’ family members find him and speak to him. Dean tries to remember their names: an older blonde woman named Rachel, a younger cousin named Hael, and the infamous Gabriel, he of the large-screen TV. Dean smiles, nods, shakes some hands, and tries to ignore the swift, assessing glances that flay him from top to bottom.

“Are you all right?” Cas asks, between a lull of family members. They’re in a quiet corner of the hall, hidden in the intricate paneling of the room. Soft, easy jazz flows through the rooms, though Dean has yet to find either the band or the sound system. The crooning of the saxophone masks the low murmur of their conversation.

“I’m fine,” Dean answers, automatically brushing off the question. He’s not quite fine, but he’s not the frail thing that Cas seems to think he is. “How are you?” he asks, because out of the two of them, Cas is the one that looks close to falling apart.

“Fine.” Cas’ voice is clipped, his eyes darting around the room. He looks like a hunted animal. There’s something distrustful and frantic in his posture, the nervous way that his hands skitter over the stem of his glass. “Just…” Cas sighs and meets Dean’s eyes. “Looking forward to this being over.”

“You want to grab some real food after this?” Dean grins. “Find the closest diner, get some pancakes?”

Cas examines him, a faint smile lurking in the shadows of his eyes, the soft spaces beside his mouth. “Make it burgers and you’ve got a deal.” The bubbles in the champagne aren’t the only things floating: Dean thinks that he could go all the way to the 20 foot ceiling if he weren’t tethered down by the weight of Cas’ eyes. It happens in the ducking of Cas’ head, the barely audible chuckle, the way that his hair’s started to come loose from its carefully gelled coiffere.

Love, love, love--It beats in his heart, through his blood, into his fingertips and lips. It’s amazing that he isn’t glowing with the force of it all. “The greasier the better,” Dean agrees, breathless under Cas’ regard.

“You’ll give yourself indigestion,” Cas says, eyes twinkling with humor and mischief, and even in the midst of the milling family, Dean laughs.

That was several hours ago. It’s approaching midnight now, just past eleven-fifteen. The general atmosphere of the party has sharpened. There’s an edge here now that wasn’t present an hour ago, the music taking on a hard quality. Cas is gone, snatched away twenty minutes ago by Hester, Michael’s wife. She’s impeccably put together, almost unreal in her flawless skin, shimmering dress, and dangerous heels. Dean can only watch them go and shiver, his comfort ripped away with the absence of Cas.

He wanders through the foyer, eyes cast deliberately downward. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone without the security of Cas next to him. He listens to the music, now a dolorous beat, poignant piano chords echoing through the rooms until it sinks into his skin. He listens to the plaintive refrain and tries not to wonder at the sudden empty ache in his chest.

This year’s love had better last--Heaven knows it's high time--

“Hey...Dean right?”

Dean startles, the youthful voice shaking him out of his own black thoughts. He turns around to find one of Cas’ cousins--Hael? smiling tentatively at him.

“Yeah,” he says. His fingers tighten and he becomes aware of the champagne glass in his hand. He downs the liquid in one gulp, hacks as the bitter taste hits his stomach and burbles back up. He turns his wince into a smile. Not an impressive showing for Dean Winchester.

“I just wanted to say hi.” She’s young, barely older than his kids at school. She can’t have graduated college yet. “It’s just...Normally Castiel brings, ah, what’s her name--”

“Meg?” Dean asks, his stomach swooping and gurgling in a way that has nothing to do with the champagne and everything to do with the thought of Meg, wicked, petite, sharp Meg, on Cas’ arm. She’d be perfect at one of these gatherings, with her capability of molding herself to fit any occasion.

“That’s her,” Hael confirms, happily missing Dean’s minor crisis. “She’s pretty but she’s, I don’t know, kind of scary too? But you seem nice.”

You don’t know me kid, Dean thinks, wearier than he has a right to be. “Thanks,” he says, contradicting any idea that Hael had about him being ‘nice’. “It’s ah, it’s good to be here.” The words feel like crushed glass tearing his throat on their way out of his mouth.

“Yeah?” Hael smiles, guilelessly. She’s so young, her midnight-blue dress accentuating her dark hair and pale skin. There’s no mistaking the familial resemblance to Cas. “It’s good to see Castiel. He doesn’t come around hardly at all.”

“Well you know,” Dean begins, not wanting to crush the naive smile spreading across her face, “he’s just busy with his job and all…”

“Teaching?” Hael’s nose wrinkles in polite distaste. “He has three months off a year. Should be enough time to see his family. It’s not like it’s a real job.”

Dean’s eyes widen and maybe it is the champagne talking this time when he says, “Now look here kid--”

“Dean-o!”

The voice breaks through the red haze building in Dean’s vision. He blinks and sees Hael standing in front of him--just a college kid. Pampered, spoiled. No doubt regurgitating whatever her parents have told her about Cas. Doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t get called out on it.

“For the record,” Dean says, ignoring the insistent presence of Gabriel Milton at his elbow, “Cas works harder than any twenty people that I’ve ever met. He’s one of the kindest, most dedicated teachers that I’ve ever seen. And speaking as someone else in the schools, if you don’t think that teaching is a real job, then I suggest that you try it.”

Hael gapes at him, her eyes gone fishbowl wide, before she turns on her heel and stalks away. Beside him, Gabriel chuckles, a little unkindly. “Already warming up to the in-laws?”

Dean glares, wishing for another glass of champagne. “It’s not like that, you know that.”

Gabriel shrugs, glancing around the room. Dean looks him over. Expensive, designer suit, shoes that are polished to mirror-like perfection, hair artfully tousled in a way that had to take hours to perfect. The man always seems to have a smile plastered across his face, which means that he can’t be trusted. It’s impossible to think of Cas, careful, considerate Cas, growing up in the same house that raised this man.

“Maybe not,” Gabriel muses, eyes glinting with wicked mirth. “Doesn’t mean that you’re not trying to make your last name Milton-Winchester. A hint? Probably not best to start your integration into the family by beating up on the younger members of the clan.”

Dean flushes. He’s not equipped for this, the swift verbal jabs and vicious cuts disguised as friendliness. “What do you want?”

“The same thing that everyone wants.” With a grace born of years of practice, Gabriel snags a flute of champagne from a passing waiter. Dean isn’t fast enough and can only watch the shining tray disappear into the crowd. “World peace, a million dollars, the happiness of our family.”

Dean’s jaw aches from clenching it so hard. He rakes his gaze over Gabriel once more, decides, fuck it. He’s probably never going to see this man again, might as well leave everything on the table.

“If you want Cas to be happy, then you could stop forcing him to come to these shindigs. You know that he’s miserable here.”

Gabriel takes a delicate sip from his flute. “No can do Dean. I’m not the pater familias. That would be your great and glorious mayor. As far as the Milton name is concerned, whatever he says, goes.”

Dean laughs, bitter and disbelieving. “And you expect me to believe that you all just dance to his tune? I’ve met the man, he doesn’t look like that good of a puppet-master.”

“Believe what you want.” Gabriel’s voice goes hard. When his hazel eyes snap with temper, for the first time, Dean can believe that this man is related to Castiel. “I got lucky—got a good enough job that I don’t have to dance unless I like the beat. The rest of them?” Gabriel gestures to the milling crowd of overdressed, attractive socialites. “Michael controls the money, so he controls the family.”

“Cas doesn’t need money.” The reply comes so fast that Dean would feel naive, if he weren’t so sure that he was right. What does Cas need money for? He has his job, and his degrees assure that his paycheck is significantly more than Dean’s.

“Oh.” The single sound is mocking and yet pitying. “Oh, he hasn’t told you yet.”

A tendril of doubt slithers down Dean’s spine. He hates the look in Gabriel’s eyes, the one that so plainly says I know something you don’t know. Every part of him rebels at being in someone else’s debt, of having to ask for help. “Told me what?”

An expression shifts across Gabriel’s face, a shadow underneath the water, and maybe he’s going to tell Dean the truth, maybe he’s going to tell him to take a hike, but none of that matters anymore, not when Castiel’s voice, thunderous in its anger, reverberates through the foyer.

Dean forgets about Gabriel, forgets about Hael, and the rest of the Milton family. He pushes his way past a woman in a cocktail dress. He might cause her to spill her drink; an indignant shriek follows him as he makes his way through the foyer and the rooms on either side, where the guests all wear polite, identical expressions of shocked distaste. He thinks he can also hear the sound of Gabriel’s laughter, sharp and cutting, but he’s too busy tracking down the dying echoes of Cas’ voice.

He finds it soon enough when a door flies open, so hard that it hits the opposite wall and bounces back. Unburdened by the barrier of the doorway, voices echo through the narrow hallway leading away from the entryway.

“--no right to do this, you know that she can’t help it--”

“Castiel.” Michael’s voice, while raised, still has the pretense of sounding soothing. If Dean weren’t determined to hate the man then he might even believe the honeyed promise of it. “Castiel, you have to understand--”

“I understand fine.” Dean’s close enough that he can peek into the room. It’s small, intimate: a room where work is done, rather than visitors received. Pictures of Michael and his wife line the walls, along with commendations from various charities and news outlets. Gleaming book spines proclaim knowledge, while the huge oak paneled desk proclaims power. All in all, it’s a monument to narcissism.

In the middle of it all stands Cas, his spine soldier straight and fists clenched at his side. If Dean weren’t sure of Cas’ stance on violence (unacceptable in most circumstances, excepting self-defense and Nazis), then Dean would think that Cas is ready to take a swing at his cousin. “This is it, isn’t it?”

Michael’s face contorts in sympathy. The man is a masterful actor because Dean can almost believe him when he reaches out and lays a gentle hand on Cas’ shoulder. “Castiel, I’m not sure what you mean. It’s just with the downsizing of the company, we’ve had to make certain, regrettable, changes--”

“That’s bullshit, you know it!” Dean wants to cheer when Cas slaps away Michael’s hand. Off to the side, Hester makes a small noise of surprise and covers her mouth with her hands. It’s all so false that Dean wants to vomit. “This is your version of revenge, this is your way of trying to get back at me--”

“You overestimate your importance.” When Michael’s voice takes on the cold, steel tone, Dean can see why a newspaper once called him ruthless. “I don’t have time to take on petty personal vendettas, or ‘revenge’ as you want to call it. Perhaps, if you’d quit this ridiculous impersonation, then I would have more time to spend on my personal affairs. As it is, I don’t have enough time to oversee the running of the city as well as the company, so we’ve had to downsize, which, as I’ve just told you, requires change.”

“You,” Cas hisses. Even from his vantage point, Dean can see that he’s almost vibrating with fury. “You soulless bastard, you’re willing to hurt…” Cas’ throat bobs as he makes an effort to compose himself. “She worshiped the ground that you walked on and you’re willing to hurt her, just to get back at me?”

Cas’ rage drains as he speaks, leaving him smaller, more vulnerable. Like this, Dean can almost imagine what he was like as a child, shuffled to this house, with Michael playing lord of the manor. Defenseless. Dependent. It’s enough to send Dean into the room.

Cas jerks in surprise when Dean’s fingers wrap around his wrist. His grip is probably too punishing, but Dean doesn’t spare him an apologetic look. His eyes remain focused on Michael's face. Mayor Michael looks at him consideringly, like he just watched a lizard stand up on its legs and start reciting poetry.

“Excuse us,” Dean says, his voice dripping with false politeness. He tugs once on Cas’ wrist. “Cas, come on.” Cas remains rooted to the spot, glancing between Michael and Dean. Dean pulls again, hard enough to knock Cas off his balance. “Cas, come on. Let’s get out of here.”

Michael’s face remains in the simulation of caring but something sly lurks in the corners of his smile and eyes. “Castiel. I ask you--Was any of it doing any good? Was any of it making a difference?”

Cas rolls his shoulders back, shaking off Dean’s hand. He looks righteous, he looks stunning. “You can go to hell,” he says, quietly, simply. He whirls on his heel and storms out of the room.

It’s like he took all the oxygen with him. From her position on the sidelines, Hester makes a strangled squeaking noise, one that ends abruptly when Michael cuts a glance to her. He turns his attention back to Dean, eyes flicking over him.

“What he said,” Dean says, jerking a thumb at Cas’ disappearing figure. He turns and walks away, only to pause at the door. “Oh, and by the way?” He takes in Michael’s posture, the smug surety of it, the arrogant cock of his head. “I’m not voting for you come November.”

He grins, wide and insolent, before he walks out into the hallway. While he can’t find Cas, it’s easy enough to follow his trail: all he has to do is listen to the quiet pockets of whispers which Cas left in his wake. He follows them through the great room, with its leather couches, vaulted ceilings, and marble fireplace, to the wide glass doors opening to the balcony. No one takes advantage of the space, too afraid of the Kansas winter bite to appreciate the views.

No one except one person.

The wind snaps at Dean the moment he opens the door and steps outside. He shivers in the flimsy protection of his suit but he pushes that discomfort to the back of his mind. Right now, he has more important problems to deal with.

Cas stands with his back towards Dean, overlooking the lawn. The lights from inside wash over the landscaping and send macabre shadows spiking across the grass. Cas’ face is shrouded in darkness. The only hint of his mood is in the tight curl of his fists, resting against the railing of the balcony.

“Cas?” His voice falls tentative in the dark night. Cas never budges from his position. “Cas, it’s freezing, why don’t you come inside?” Dean’s eyes catch the shuddering movement of Cas’ shoulders, while his ears pick up the shaky breaths. “Or we can go? I still owe you some burgers, right?”

When Cas doesn’t respond, Dean creeps closer, close enough to splay his hand across the expanse of Cas’ back. Underneath his hand, he can feel the jump of Cas’ breath, the attempts at deep breathing broken up by short, angry exhalations. “Cas?” Dean asks, his thumb moving in ineffective strokes over the smooth fabric of Cas’ suit jacket.

He’s unprepared for Cas to whirl around, face contorted into a rictus of anger and confusion. He actually takes half a step backwards before his brain kicks in, screaming at him to comfort love give give love--

“I just, I hate this, so much, this family and the goddamned hypocrisy--” Cas is babbling, in a way that Dean’s never seen before, desperate in a way that Dean hoped he would never see. “I just don’t see how people could be so hateful, so cruel--”

“Cas,” Dean says, helpless, fingers curling around the heat of Cas’ bicep. “Cas, I’m sorry--”

“And is it so wrong for me to have free will? To do what I want to do?” Cas’ eyes are wide, asking a question that Dean can’t possibly answer. “To be happy?” Cas’ chest heaves with emotion. Dean’s chest rises and falls in tandem. He’s trapped within the depths of Cas’ eyes, drowning. He’s been drowning for weeks, he never wants air again.

Cas blinks, like he’s waking up from a dream, like he’s moving underwater. He looks at Dean like no one else ever has--like Dean is the answer to every question, like Dean is more than just the sum of his parts. Cas’ voice is soft, wondering, as his eyes search Dean’s face.

“Is it so wrong for me to want to be happy?”

For a single, blissful moment, the world stops and fades, and all that remains is Dean and Castiel.

Far away, in the neighboring suburb, fireworks start to explode, illuminating the night with shades of red, yellow, and green. From inside, comes the chant of “Nine, eight, seven--” Stars blaze in the inky Kansas sky. They’re reflected in the dark depths of Cas’ pupils, fireworks bursting. Dean could ignite from the sparks.

Love love love beats in his heart, in his hands, in his eyes. Is it so wrong for me to want to be happy? The question, raw and flayed, beats alongside his heart. Dean’s hand slides down from Cas’ bicep, down to his elbow, his forearm, and finally to his hand. Fingertips numb from the cold, he strokes the back of Cas’ hand until it uncurls. Dean’s fingers find the soft webbing between Cas’ long, capable fingers, wrap tightly around his hand until their calms are pressed together.

“Dean,” Cas whispers, his breath escaping his mouth in a puff of white air. “Dean, I--”

Without releasing Cas’ hand, Dean moves closer until he can feel the heat from Cas’ chest against his own. From a distance, he hears the cheers that herald a new year, new beginnings. He remembers his plan like it belonged to someone else--the slow, night-long seduction, culminating in a cheeky kiss, one that could be brushed off as a joke. Enough to keep Dean’s traitorous heart appeased.

Dean’s free hand finds its way to Cas’ face, fingers curling around the back of his neck and tangling in the soft hairs, while his thumb strokes along the line of Cas’ cheekbone. Love love love-- “Cas,” he whispers, the hope and promise of a new year held in the syllable.

Cas’ lips are soft underneath his, chapped places catching lightly as Dean tilts his head to the side. His heart races, beating for freedom against his ribs. Cas’ lips are the only thing keeping him aloft, the slick push and pull. He pulls Cas closer, takes his lower lip between his. Runs a hint of teeth against the plump flesh. A soft, wounded noise travels from Cas to him.

With a soft smack, they separate. Cas stares at him with wide eyes, his thumb running wonderingly over his bottom lip. That lip was just in my mouth, Dean thinks, giddy. They’re still holding hands.

“Cas, I know--” Repercussions start to fall around him, but Cas silences his protests with a single finger on Dean’s lips. Without his permission, Dean’s tongue flicks out to lick at the pad. He thrills at the way Cas’ eyes darken, the tiny shiver which travels through his body.

“Not...Please, can we just…” Cas’ hand curls around the back of Dean’s neck, pulling him down. Their foreheads rest together. The tip of Cas’ nose is cold where it brushes against Dean’s cheek. “Please.”

Dean understands the plea and even as the last rasp leaves Cas’ mouth, he’s there to swallow it, his lips insistent against Cas’. Cas groans and Dean swallows the sound. Their hands are everywhere--Cas’ elbow, a strong hand cupping the back of Dean’s head, at the small of Dean’s back, pulling him closer. A hint of tongue.

He kisses Cas until his lips are slick and raw, until his knees are weak. He kisses Cas like he’s wanted to for weeks, kisses Cas like he wants to keep him. When they part, Dean brushes feather-soft kisses to the corners of Cas’ eyes, the bow of his upper lip, the soft skin of his temple. He brushes kisses over Cas’ lips like healing, like a benediction. Cas’ fingers drift over his jawline, down to his neck and shoulders, like he’s reassuring himself that Dean is real. That’s he’s here. That he’s not leaving.

Tomorrow, Dean knows, will be filled with over-thinking, and maybe regrets. Maybe something wonderful. It’s a mystery to him, as unfathomable as the pinpricks of light above them. What is real is this, Cas warm against his chest, teeth pulling at his lower lip, tongue brushing playfully against his.

Dean pulls Cas close to him, brushes his lips over the stubble on Cas’ cheek, before returning to his rightful spot at Cas’ mouth. All the while, between the soft smack of their lips, the pleased hums rumbling through their chests, the words of that stupid song keep repeating in Dean’s head, like a promise, like a prayer.

This year’s love had better last….


end Part I.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

intermezzo i

 

After four and a half sleepless hours of tossing and turning, Castiel is no closer to a solution than he was when Dean dropped him off at his house.

He glares at his ceiling like it let him down. They had no prior arrangement, but still. It’s been almost five hours at this point. Something should have come to him.

Against his will, his lips rub together. They’re still tender from a few hours before, chapped and swollen. It hurts to press them together, so he does so, relishing the faint twinge of pain. His thumb makes a leisurely journey over the territory of his bottom lip as he replays the previous night.

The feel of Dean’s lips on his, the catch and burn of stubble on his chin. And the sounds...Christ, the sounds that he’d made--soft, and surprised, and pleased. Tiny little grunts when Castiel’s hands tugged at the short strands of hair at the base of his neck, a soft moan when Cas’ mouth opened easily underneath his, a strangled whimper when he’d nipped at Dean’s bottom lip.

Last night, Dean had dropped him off, and Castiel had stumbled to his bedroom. He’d fallen into bed, aroused and conflicted, and helplessly fucked his hand into a breathless orgasm. It broke another piece of protocol he’d set up. Just another failure in a long, long night of failures.

But fuck, it’d been good, replaying those sounds, fingers running over his lips and dipping into his mouth. He’d thought about what other activities could pull those sounds out of Dean’s throat--what if he’d followed his instincts and mapped a path down Dean’s throat? What if he’d slipped Dean’s shirt from his shoulders, and discovered if those freckles were really all over? What if he’d fallen to his knees, pushed a place for himself between those bowlegs--

Castiel groans as his dick gives a distinct jerk of interest. Ridiculous. He’s not in his twenties anymore; this sort of thing shouldn’t even be possible. But that’s Dean Winchester for you: always turning impossibilities into unlikely probabilities.

“Stop it,” he growls at his groin. His dick remains resolutely half-hard but doesn’t venture any further beyond those borders. Fuck Dean Winchester anyway (he steadfastly ignores the small voice screaming in his head Yes please fuck Dean Winchester). Fuck him, and his kindness, and his impulsiveness, and his goddamn perfect lips.

He’d been doing so well, and that's what makes him angry. For months now, he’s sat beside Dean, felt the warmth of his body next to his, and never made the slightest indication that he’d like nothing more than the straddle the man next to him. He'd cuddled up next to Dean, felt the solidity of his body. Experienced the strength of his arms, the surety of his grip. Everything about Dean reminds Castiel of bedrock, of granite. Of something unshakable in its foundations.

And then, just because he’d been stupid and angry, he chose to drive a bulldozer straight into that foundation.

Castiel rubs his hands over his face, relishing the bright spark of pain as the heels of his hands dig into his eyes. Tiny spots dance at the corners of his vision, but even when he releases the pressure, he still has no real solution.

Damn Michael as well. Damn him, with his sanctimonious sympathy, words dripping with unctuous concern. Even now, it sets his blood to boil, to think of Michael’s arm on his shoulder. The weight of it had been a reminder: You’re part of this family. You can never get out.

He’s put off dealing with what Michael said, losing himself instead in the whirlwind of Dean, but here, in the grey, early-morning light, he can’t run from it anymore.

We have to change the insurance policies of the company, Michael had said, from behind his ostentatious desk, Hester hovering over his shoulder like some ineffective angel. We don’t have the resources to keep the current plan. Castiel pays attention to stocks the same as anyone else, and he could tell any interested observer than Milton Enterprises is doing fine. It’s not a lack of resources funding this change. No, this is spite.

Change the insurance policies. Michael will no longer have Anna on his cushy policy. No more facilities or homes which were tailored specifically to her needs. She’s not getting the full benefit of those programs, Michael had continued, not so much brutally honest as needlessly cruel. At this point, we’re just throwing good money after bad.

Those clinics and homes were all that stood between his sister and homelessness for so long. Between her and who knew what kind of fate. And now…

Castiel’s stomach twists as he ponders his next move. He’ll have to go to Human Resources first thing after the holiday, and see if there’s any exception to their enrollment policy. He’ll have to add Anna as a dependent to his insurance. His rates are going to skyrocket, but that’s fine. He spent a good portion of his working years setting aside a rainy day fund. If need be, he can sell the house and downsize into an apartment.

Of course, the easiest solution would be for Anna to stay with him, but that’s a pipe-dream. She hasn’t stayed in the same place for longer than six months since she turned eighteen. He remembers being a gangly teenager, pulling at her thin wrist and screaming at her to Stay, please, please, don't go, don't leave me alone--. She'd smiled, patted his cheek, and slipped out of his grip like she'd never been more tangible than mist. And Castiel was left watching her disappear into the gaping maw of a cab, her red hair the only spark of color that his eyes could pick out. She'd left him to finish the last years of high school alone, never knowing where she was, or whether she was dead on the side of some dirt road. He'd sat captive at dinners and listened to the subtle digs at her and his father, their unreliable natures, and how the Milton family should have been canonized for taking on the immense burden of supporting Castiel.

He twists the bedsheets around his fingers. Stupid, to still care about something that was over ten years ago, but those scars still twinge and pull. More so now than ever. He wishes, selfishly and helplessly, that Anna was normal, that the biggest problem his sister posed was dropping into family reunions with a weird boyfriend, or a kid with a yuppie name.

What an awful thing to wish. Castiel hates himself, but at the same time, tucks the urge right into the dark, cruel places of his heart.

I wish things could be different. If only there were someone at the company, who could take a firmer handle on matters, then maybe we wouldn’t have to make these changes…

Damn him. Damn Michael and his blackmail and his extortion and his petty, vicious revenge. Castiel knows his cousin. Ever since he went against Michael’s wishes, he always expected some form of revenge. For a while, he was foolish enough to think that obligatory attendance at holiday gatherings was Michael’s way of making him miserable. Now he understands that those gatherings were nothing more than a diversion, a way for Michael to amuse himself while he figured out how to twist the knife so that it would hurt the most.

Michael is a connoisseur of pain and Castiel has been left bleeding. He knows what is expected of him--He is supposed to quit his job and come limping back to the warm bosom of the family. The rebel, the prodigal son, fallen from grace, back to beg forgiveness. And of course, Michael would be waiting with open arms, ready to grant it--as long, of course, as Castiel did what was expected. The family’s perfect soldier, ready to do whatever is necessary for a group of people who never gave more than half a damn about him.

Fuck that.

Of course, his attitude doesn't come with any real solutions. His only plan will most likely bankrupt him within a year: his current insurance plan does well enough for him alone, but adding another person with copious needs will drain his bank account faster than a leaky sieve. But there’s nothing else that he can do.

He made a promise. After Dick, after the wounds, the hurt, and the pain that still managed to wake up him in the middle of the night, even now, he promised himself that he’d never have anything to do with Milton Enterprises. Castiel would never be involved with the cutthroat world that would gladly leave another person shattered and wounded, just for the satisfaction of closing another deal. That world, capricious and greedy, belongs to Michael and Dick. Castiel’s world, the one that he tried to build for himself, is a kinder, gentler world.

Dean fits into that world.

No matter how he tries to hide or deny it, Dean is soft. He’s seen the way that Dean talks to his family, heard intimated what he gave up for Sam. He sees how Dean treats his friends, his students. Unconsciously, Castiel’s fingers find his lips once more.

The thing is, it would be so easy, to be with Dean. It would be so goddamn easy, and that’s what’s terrifying. Castiel’s seen easy before--April was easy, Dick was easy. He knows, he knows dammit, that Dean isn’t near the same, but that doesn’t solve anything. Stupid, to let the past dictate what he does, but how can it not? What’s to guarantee that Dean won’t suddenly change his mind, become tired of the baggage which follows Castiel like a curse? Castiel hides his failings, desperately and obsessively, but if he let Dean get that close, there’s no way that he wouldn’t find them, no way that he wouldn’t reject him out of sight. It would be easier to just cut contact, try to go back to the way they were in September: cautious colleagues and nothing more.

But he can’t.

Dean crawled into those empty places and made a home for himself. Castiel can no sooner cast him out than he could cast away his own left hand. Even the thought sends a sharp pain rocketing through him.

If he were in the habit of asking for help, he would be on the phone with Meg. He could call Balthazar, but other than being several time zones away, Balthazar is always supremely unhelpful in matters of his sex life (Forget them, come over and let me blow you was the usual brand of advice he received, despite the fact that they hadn’t been an item for at least five years). Meg would be the better choice, but she steadfastly refuses to give any kind of advice (Just because I teach Psychology doesn’t mean that I’m going to be your freebie therapist was her oft-repeated refrain). Besides, Castiel already knows her opinions on Dean Winchester.

It was several weeks ago, after Thanksgiving, when Castiel couldn’t seem to let more than a few days pass without seeing Dean. After knowing how Dean’s body felt pressed against his, it had been impossible for Castiel to not touch him, not feel the heat of his skin, the subtle twitch of his muscles. This night, however, he was with Meg, nursing a relationship that had been too long neglected.

Dean had still appeared in the form of a text message flashing on his phone’s screen. Castiel had swiftly pushed the lock button on his phone, but Meg always seemed to have a supernatural sense of things that would embarrass him. “Dean Winchester, huh?” she drawled, one eyebrow performing a slow climb up her forehead. “You two have been linked at the, uh, everything lately.”

“We co-coach Scholastic Bowl and we co-designed our Senior Capstone projects,” Castiel mutters, tossing back his shot. The liquor burns down his throat, but it’s a good, clean burn. “Of course we’re going to be spending time together.”

“Mhmm.” Meg’s dark eyes squint suspiciously at him over the rim of her glass. She takes a deceptively delicate sip, which doesn’t fool him in the slightest. “Thank you, by the way, for sticking me with Bal for that project. You know how much I love European douchebags.”

Castiel murmurs all the necessary apologies, but they’re meaningless platitudes. As much as he loves Meg, he doesn’t regret choosing Dean, not when it’s led to so many nights at his house, curled into the couch that smells faintly of his cologne. “I just never thought that you liked them dumb and pretty,” Meg says, nonchalantly, but in the way that’s looking for a reaction.

“Dean isn’t stupid,” Castiel says hotly, which, he realizes a second too late, was Meg’s whole purpose. She smiles, shark-like, and takes a triumphant gulp of her drink. “Which of course, you knew.”

“Just admit it Clarence,” she coos, leaning close enough that her hair winds its way onto his shoulder, “you’ve got it bad for a pair of pretty eyes.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he says shortly. No use lying to Meg, not when she knows him inside and out. “You know.”

Meg rolls her eyes. She’d been able to accept his rule of ‘no relationships’ easily enough, enjoying the physical aspects of their friendship to the fullest extent, but, for whatever reason, she wants to see him settled. If Castiel didn’t know any better, he’d think that she took on a bet to have him married off by age thirty-five. “Clarence,” she says, her tone a red flag of warning. “You do know that not everyone in the world is out to screw you over, right?”

“I haven’t seen empirical data of that, so your conclusion is unfounded.” Castiel waves two fingers at the bartender, nodding in thanks when their glasses are refilled.

“Swear to god,” Meg growls, real irritation creeping into her tone. “Look, I know that Crazypants fucked you up, and I know all about Appropriately Named Dick but you also know that Dean isn’t either one of them.”

Castiel rolls his glass between his fingers and fumes. He is, in fact, aware that Dean doesn’t resemble April or Dick in the slightest--he doubts that Dean would ever make an attempt on his life the morning after they slept together--but the scared undergrad in him still shrinks back in terror from the thought of anything resembling a relationship.

“Look,” Meg finally says, tossing her hair back over her shoulder, “take my advice, don’t take my advice, but the boy looks at you like you hung the damn moon. He’s too pretty for his own good, but at least he’ll look good in the wedding photos.”

When even Meg doesn’t object to someone, you have to take notice.

But still...Castiel sighs and rolls over in his bed. It’s still too early to text Dean, though his fingers itch with the desire to do so. He needs to put a stop to this thing and do it quickly. He learned long ago that relationships mean shackles, mean vulnerability, mean pain. No matter what, someone will want something from him that he’s either unable or unwilling to give.

No one’s ever going to know you like I know you...No one’s ever going to be able to see all the parts of you like I do...You know that without me you’re worthless.

Now, in hindsight, he can recognize Dick’s words for what they were. But, eight years ago, when he was too young to know the difference, he sank into their sweet poison, and believed the promises of love, even when he saw that there were razorblades attached to the words. Castiel cut himself to ribbons on those words, and in the end, lost almost everything.

Dean isn’t that. He knows that. He knows that. And yet.

He won’t pretend that it makes any sense; he knows that it doesn’t. He can’t be in a relationship with Dean: he’s too damaged, too broken, too wrong to ever be good for another person. He can’t date Dean, but neither can he let him go.

Groaning, Castiel rolls over in bed and waits for time to pass so that he can talk to Dean.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

For Dean, January 1st is traditionally a day involving sleeping in, light meals, and the downing of various over the counter drugs to stave off the pounding headache. He’s woken up on couches, in bathtubs, and, on one memorable occasion, on someone’s stairs. This New Year’s Day is different from others: he’s not hungover for starters, and he wakes up in his own bed.

The sinking feeling of regret is still the same.

He kissed Cas. Not a friend kiss that could have been easily laughed away, but a real kiss. It was a curl your toes in your shoes, feel the electricity rocketing through your body, turn your knees weak and your fingertips numb, oxygen not a priority, run my fingers through your hair, moan into your mouth, touch your tongues, touch the stars, lose your mind kind of kiss. It was the kind of kiss that sends people to an early grave, the kind of kiss that you don’t recover from.

Dean’s not sure he wants to recover.

It’s late morning by the time he drags himself out of bed and into the shower. He lets the hot water beat down on his shoulders, relishing the heat and the water pressure on his tender skin. While in the shower, his cock moves from half-hard to fully stiff, reliving the memories of last night. Fuck, but Cas’ mouth--The way they’d fit together, desperate, and warm, and effortless. Cas’ chest against his, the feel of Cas’ hand on his neck, on his hip, pulling him closer. The way that Cas’ tongue traced his lower lip, flicking deliberately against the plump flesh until Dean opened his mouth.

His hand wraps around his dick and it doesn’t take long before he’s panting, remembering the insistent pull of Cas’ fingers against his hair. How easily control ebbed and flowed between the two of them, like a shifting, fluid dance. How the moans fell from Cas’ lips, the soft, wounded noise he made when Dean’s fingers yanked on his hair. The soft inhalation as Dean’s thumb swept over the vulnerable skin of his throat.

He groans through his release, his free hand slapping against the tile so that he doesn’t keel over. Ridiculous, he thinks, as he finishes his shower, that he can come from a kiss. Not even a kiss, the memory of a kiss. But it’s not just a kiss, it’s a kiss from Castiel and that makes all the difference in the world.

Wrapped up in his robe, Dean winds his way downstairs. He eats cereal and contemplates his next move. His phone is suspiciously empty of messages, other than the customary mass-texts wishing him a Happy New Year. He would have thought that maybe there would be something from Cas, but maybe it’s too early for him.

Maybe Cas doesn’t want to talk to him.

Dean’s fairly certain that last night violates any of the careful, unspoken rules that they’ve created between each other. He doesn’t think that Cas would completely cut contact with him, but maybe. Cas is a weird guy and even now, Dean can’t predict how he will react to something.

After breakfast, Dean wanders around the house. He half-heartedly cleans some of the post-holiday mess, and even ventures to look at his lesson plans before he gives it up as a lost cause. School starts again in two days; he needs to look at his plans, but today he can’t be bothered.

Finally, at one in the afternoon, his phone buzzes with a message.

Dean are you awake?

Dean taps out a quick answer in the affirmative and his phone lights up with a reply almost immediately afterwards, like Cas was waiting for him to respond.

I’ll be over in a few minutes.

--

It takes more than a few minutes; Cas’ house is on the other side of town. The commute time gives Dean just enough time to run through every possible consequence. Cas could come in and punch him in the face. Cas might attack him with his lips. Cas might suddenly decide that he only communicates in Latin. Who knows, as mentioned previously, Cas is a weird dude.

What happens is none of those things. What happens is, there’s a timid little rap on his storm door, one that rattles Dean enough to shout “Coming” like some 1950’s housewife. He opens the door to reveal Cas leaning against the frame.

He’s looked better. His hair is less ‘artfully disheveled’ and more ‘rat’s nest’. His clothes are rumpled, and the bags under his eyes look vaguely threatening in the afternoon light. It makes Dean feel a little better, to know that there’s an outward presentation of the turmoil currently playing hell with his digestive system.

“Come on,” Dean says, after a painfully awkward moment. Cas steps in, unsure as a stray cat. His hands are shoved deep into the pockets of his jeans, but there’s a nervous, jittery energy about him that sets Dean’s nerves on edge. Dean ventures into his living room, but Cas stays poised at the edge of the kitchen, closer to the door. He looks like he’s ready to bolt at a moment’s notice.

Neither one of them makes the first move to speak, and the silence becomes a palpable presence between them, bloated and awful. It’s almost enough to have Dean retreating back upstairs and closing the door behind him. God, if he knew it was going to be this bad, then he never would have gone outside for Cas last night, never would have put his lips on him…

“This is awkward,” Cas finally says, and despite everything, Dean chokes back a laugh. Trust Cas to cut right to the quick.

“You want anything to drink?” Dean asks, and even though Cas says no, his eyes lose their flat, glazed hue and return to the shade that Dean’s become familiar with. Silence falls between them again, but it lacks the hard, jagged edges of before. Now it’s merely uncomfortable.

Dean sits on his couch and Cas hesitantly follows him into the room. He perches on the edge of the loveseat, his hands clasped between his knees, like a supplicant at prayer. Dean tries not to stare but it’s almost impossible. Cas’ leg twitches, shaking his arms up and down.

“Look I’m sorry--”

“Man, this really sucks--” Dean pauses, looking at Cas. “What do you mean you’re sorry?” Fear seizes him and it manifests as anger. “The hell do you mean that you’re sorry?”

It’s his worst fears coming true--Cas never wanted him, it was nothing more than a stupid lark to him, and now Cas is coming to him with his damned pity?

“That was the wrong thing to say,” Cas says, quietly. Dean almost misses the words as his anger steamrollers on.

“You’re damn right it was the wrong thing to say!” Dean’s fingers rake through his hair and he gets up off the couch. His feet start wearing a path through the carpet in the living room. “Look, you might be able to pretend like last night never happened--”

“Is that what you think I’m doing?” Cas asks, a hint of heat in his voice.

“Isn’t it?”

“No, Dean, it isn’t.” Cas stands up, eyes narrowed. He advances towards Dean, who takes an unconscious step back. “I wish that I could--”

“Way to make a guy feel appreciated Cas, you’re a real prince--”

“Because maybe it would be the better choice, for both of us, to forget that it ever happened, but I can’t! I don’t want to!”

Cas’ voice raises on the last words, his fists clenching at his sides. He looks startled, and little guilty, and Dean realizes that he never meant to say the last part aloud.

Dean acts first, thinks later, and sometimes it gets him in trouble, and maybe that day will be today. But he still can’t regret it, not when his thumbs scrape over the lingering stubble on Cas’ neck. Cas tastes different, in the light of day--the lingering bitterness of champagne replaced by the minty hint of toothpaste--but he still kisses the same. Dean’s hands cup either side of Cas’ face, keeping him there, though Cas doesn’t seem in any hurry to move.

“You stupid sumabitch,” Dean whispers against Cas’ lips. Cas’ fingers wrap around Dean’s wrists, more anchor than warning. “Didn’t you say that you deserve to be happy?” His tongue sweeps over Cas’ lower lip and Cas groans. It’s more of an answer than Dean thought he would get. “Let me make you happy,” Dean says, only half aware of what he’s saying. “Cas, Cas,” he groans as lips travel over his cheek to the cut of his jaw. “C’mon Cas, let me make you happy--”

“Dean. Dean.” Cas’ warm breath ghosts over Dean’s ear, sending delightful shivers skittering down his spine. “Dean.” His voice takes on a hint of urgency and he steps back from Dean. He looks wrecked, destroyed, and Dean’s the one responsible.

“It doesn’t have to be a mistake.” Cas warily surveys him. Dean licks his lips. For someone whose job it is to teach the English language, he has a shortage of words to express the tumult of emotion battering at his innards. “If you don’t want it to be.” Dean takes a step forward and this time it’s Castiel who takes a half-step backwards. “You wanted to be happy,” Dean whispers, his voice thick in his throat.

Let me make you happy.

Castiel’s throat bobs as he swallows. It looks painful. “What if,” he rasps, before he shakes his head. He tries again. “What if I told you that I didn’t deserve to be happy?”

Dean rocks back on his heels. He’s stunned, shattered. “You...everyone deserves to be happy Cas. It’s not some Philosophy 101 question.”

Cas keeps his eyes fixed on Dean’s, even as his head jerks minutely. “I don’t...Dean. I can’t pursue...There’s many reasons why…” A pained look crosses Cas’ face. “I can’t be what you want Dean. I can’t give you a relationship.”

Dean learned long ago not to expect anything from this life. Any time you start thinking that the world owes you something, you get beat down and broken ten ways from Sunday. He knows this, has lived the truth of it every day of his life, but still. It hurts to hear Cas say that.

“I’m sorry Dean,” and the damnedest thing is, Dean believes him. Cas’ eyes shine in the late afternoon sunlight glancing through the windows and Dean thinks back to what he asked before--What if I told you that I didn’t deserve to be happy?

“It doesn’t have to be like that,” Dean says. He knows that it’s a bad idea, but he can’t stop himself. He already knows that his sleep is going to be haunted by the heavy, disappointment-laden words of don’t deserve to be happy.

“I don’t know what you’re trying to say but--”

“What if I didn’t want a relationship either?”

It’s the boldest lie that Dean’s ever told. He’s had plenty of time to think about it and he knows that there’s nothing more he would want than to be able to look at Cas and think, with no reservations, He’s mine. To be able to curl up next to him at the end of the night, share lazy mornings in bed, hell, even go to the goddamn Farmer’s Market like they’re a couple of hippies. He wants to take Cas out to dinner. He wants to sit next to Cas at Sam’s wedding.

Cas’ squint is a cold, suspicious thing. “I don’t understand.”

“You know that I’m not relationship material either.” This is not entirely a lie. Dean’s never had a relationship which lasted longer than a year. According to Sam, this is because he is an asshole who self-sabotages and has no idea of commitment. According to Dean, it’s because he just hasn’t found what he was looking for. Problem solved: he found what he was looking for. It’s just that what he was looking for wasn’t necessarily looking for him.

Cas’ shoulders turn in, making him look smaller and vulnerable. “What are you trying to say?” If Dean didn’t know better, then he would say that Cas looks disappointed, but that doesn’t make any sense. From Day One, Cas has been insisting that he doesn’t want a relationship. Why would Dean agreeing with him suddenly be a bone of contention?

“I’m trying to say that it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing kind of deal.” Bad idea, bad idea, god, this is such a bad idea, but his mouth is a runaway train and he’s doomed to sit on the sidelines and watch it mow down any chance of happiness. “We don’t have to be in a relationship to do...this.” He waves his hand vaguely between himself and Cas.

A sardonic smile flirts with Cas’ face. “If you can’t say it, then you shouldn’t be doing it.”

“Friends with benefits. Friends who occasionally make out.” The tips of Dean’s ears burn. The idea of fuck buddies sounds so very undergrad, but it’s the best he can come up with on short notice. “Whatever you want to call it.”

Nothing in Cas’ posture has changed, but he seems different. Sharper somehow. He meets Dean’s eyes with the typical bluntness Dean’s come to expect from him. “I don’t want to ruin this,” he says, a bare type of honesty on his face. “Your friendship…” Cas coughs and looks away like he’s embarrassed. “It means a great deal to me.”

“Any time that one of us says stop, we stop.” Dean knows, even as he’s making the promise, that it’s going to be an impossible one to keep, but let that be Future Dean’s problem. Besides, if this whole half-assed thing goes right, then maybe he can win Cas over to his way of thinking. Lazy Sunday mornings, breakfast cooked in bare feet, falling asleep halfway through a queued up Netflix marathon…

He’s so gone for this man that he hardly recognizes himself.

“You deserve a little bit of happiness,” Dean finally says, stepping close enough to touch. Let me make you happy.

He can’t stop himself. His hand reaches up and Cas sucks in a shaky breath as his fingers find the sharp cut of his cheekbone. Cas’ stubble, like the rest of him, has veered a little more towards unkempt than tousled, and it’s rough against the pads of his fingers as they drift down towards the strong line of his jaw. He can feel Cas’ swallow underneath his touch and Dean’s throat bobs in sympathy.

“The second that one of us says we stop--”

“We stop,” Dean says, putting as much conviction as he can into the words. He sends a plea to whatever might be lurking in the sky above: Please never say stop.

Cas’ smiles start in his eyes and that’s where this one stays, but, as he angles his face up to meet Dean’s, it’s enough.

It’s enough.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Chapter Text

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Friends Who Occasionally Make Out.

It’s as good of a description as anything to say what he and Cas are these days.

Nothing’s really changed except now, when Cas’ jaw is angled just right, Dean doesn’t have to tear his eyes away from the long expanse of his throat anymore. Now he can lean down and scrape his teeth right over that skin and Cas doesn’t do anything except maybe hum, or, if he’s in a mood, shove him a little.

It had been a surprise the first time he’d felt Cas’ lips on the side of his neck when he was slicing peppers for dinner. He’d jumped and almost sliced his fingers with the knife before he got control over himself. Craning his head back, he’d glared at the little bit of Cas he could see--dark hair and the hint of forehead. “You want to watch it with that while I’ve got a blade in my hands?”

“Mmm, no,” Cas had hummed, apparently unconcerned with the snarl in Dean’s voice. “You have control.” And then he’d moved his mouth back to the tender skin just above the collar of Dean’s t-shirt, while his hands settled on Dean’s hips, and done his level best to remove any semblance of self-control.

So yeah, his life has changed maybe a little.

It’s difficult now, to sit next to Cas at practices and matches and watch him chew on the end of his pens, all the while knowing how those teeth feel as they worry at the skin of his throat. It’s worse to sit next to him on the bus rides, when the heat of Cas’ body presses against his and Dean can’t even react. It’s not that he necessarily cares about what people think about him, though Lawrence isn’t known for being the most progressive of cities. It would be unprofessional, not to mention inappropriate, for him to tongue-fuck Cas in front of all the kids.

Not that they haven’t noticed something different about the two of them since they came back from break. Claire in particular seems to follow them around with knowing eyes best seen on creepy old portraits in haunted mansions. Dean walked into his room one morning to find Claire whispering heatedly to Kevin and Patience. When she noticed him, she grinned in a way that made it feel like spiders were crawling down his back.

He hasn’t said anything to Charlie or Benny, but, informed by the same grapevine that Claire is, they too seem to notice something different in how he relates to Cas. Nothing is ever said, but Dean notices Charlie’s elbow digging into Jo’s side when he mentions Cas’ name, and he can feel the disbelief coming off of Benny in waves as Dean assures him that no, nothing weird happened over New Year’s.

“It was just a party, filled with a bunch of rich assholes. The champagne wasn’t even good.” Benny wears a look that says he’s insulted that Dean would go to so little effort to fool him.

He doesn’t even tell Sam. The omission weighs on him and every time he’s with his brother he can feel it pressing against the soft places behind his ribs. Still, he holds his tongue. Partly because this thing, whatever it is, between him and Cas is no one’s business but their own. Partly because he can only imagine the look which would cross Sam’s face when he learns of the truly awful decisions his older brother is capable of making.

“So Jess invited Cas to the wedding,” Sam says, too casually, one afternoon. Lured by the promise of cake samples, Dean had left school early. His mouth waters as Sam sets out the slices of cake along the table. “Stop drooling Dean, gross,” Sam snaps a moment later, moving one of the plates further away from Dean’s wandering hand. “You always said that you didn’t even like cake.”

“Maybe I was lying,” Dean answers, resolutely ignoring Sam’s earlier statement. Of course, some of these concoctions aren’t actually cake (banana cake with peanut butter filling and cream cheese icing? Kill him now, please), but there’s a chocolate ganache that’s screaming his name.

Dean’s just about completed Operation Steal Ganache when Sam ‘Buzzkill’ Winchester makes his move. It’s a dual attack: he snatches the plate away from Dean’s wandering hand and informs him, “Cas didn’t check a Plus One either.”

Dean ruthlessly stamps down the hot surge of unpleasantness which curdles in his stomach from the thought of someone else getting to experiences those hands and lips, and glares at Sam. “All right, well I’ll inform Match.com and tell them to start looking for someone who likes Replicants.”

“Don’t be an ass,” Sam scolds, his voice a mild reprimand as he finishes laying out the last of the samples (chocolate cinnamon with salted chocolate ganache with almonds and a chocolate cinnamon buttercream frosting--seriously who even comes up with these things?), and fetches two forks. “You get one bite,” he warns before handing the utensil to Dean. “Jess is caught up finishing a case and she was very...adamant that she be allowed to taste each of them.”

“Got a Bridezilla on your hands?” Dean asks, knowing all the while that’s not the case at all. Jess, laid-back and the quintessential Cali-girl, is as far from being one of the overly primped women on TV as it’s possible to be.

She just really likes cake.

“See, what we were thinking,” Sam says around a bite of red velvet, “is that Cas didn’t fill out the column because his Plus One was already attending the wedding.”

“Well, Benny’s taken and I’m pretty sure that Grandma Moore isn’t his type.” It’s hard to be pissy with chocolate and salted caramel in his mouth, but Dean’s an overachiever. Sam rolls his eyes, but Dean’s been looking forward to this cake tasting all day, and now Sam’s going to ruin it by poking at uncomfortable topics? “You and Jess seriously spend your time talking about who Cas is taking to your wedding? You don’t have more important things to think about?”

“It was also about you,” Sam says, serious in the way that he hardly ever is, “so yeah, it was important.”

Heat rushes across Dean’s cheeks and his ears burn with it. He gulps down water, choking slightly as it combines with the cake already travelling down his throat to create a paste. “You gotta save all the sappy stuff for Jess,” he finally gets out, turning the plate in careful 90 degree increments so that he can avoid looking at Sam. “Otherwise you’ll be shit when you’re up there saying your vows.”

“Don’t dodge the subject.” Sam’s voice is pure courtroom drama, snappy and commanding, and when did his little brother start giving the orders around here? When did whiny Sammy become Sam, Adult Extraordinaire?

“What subject? There’s nothing to talk about.” Dean fights to keep his hands on the table. His thumb itches to go to his neck, press against the tender skin just above his shirt collar (Goddamnit you can’t leave any marks!). It’s a sure tell and one that Sherlock Winchester would undoubtedly catch.

Dean smiles, wide and guilelessly. “Sorry to disappoint, but sometimes, a tree is just a tree. If you think that Jess has any hot bridesmaids, then by all means, start talking me up around them.”

Sam purses his lips in Bitchface #7, but says nothing. Dean continues, determined to put this whole conversation in the grave, coffin lid nailed shut, buried six feet under, the whole she-bang. “Especially mention that my baby’s backseat is big enough to fit two comfortably--”

“Gross dude.” Sam wrinkles his nose, even as he reaches for a piece of carrot cake. He’s got that one all to himself--vegetables and cake should never meet, in Dean’s opinion. “You’re a real catch, you know that right?”

Dean hums and, just because Sam was sticking his nose in other people’s business, smiled obnoxiously wide around a half-chewed bite of cake. The disgusted nausea wrinkling Sam’s nose almost made up for everything else.

--

 

Of course, because Dean likes to ruin everything, the subject comes up later.

The pizza that he and Cas ordered an hour ago has gone lukewarm but it doesn’t stop Dean from shoving another piece in his mouth. In the kitchen, Cas loads his dishwasher, humming a snatch of song that Dean isn’t familiar with. A stack of papers lies on the coffee table, ready for him to begin grading.

The whole thing is so disgustingly domestic that it makes Dean want to jump up from the couch and kiss Cas senseless.

He restrains the impulse--too much of a good thing and all that. He doesn’t want kissing Cas to lose its allure. More to the point, he doesn’t want to push the tenuous label of ‘Friends who Occasionally Make Out’ past the breaking point. It’s why he waits for Cas to make the first move, why, even though he can’t take his eyes off of Cas doing mundane household chores, he’s not getting up and putting his hands all over him.

For the most part, Cas has adapted to the change in their status with customary aplomb. If he senses any lingering awkwardness, he keeps it to himself. And he certainly doesn’t kiss Dean like he finds it weird to be kissing his best friend.

Sometimes, when Dean is brave and his fingers venture to the skin just beneath Cas’ shirt, the gravity of what he’s doing will hit him and he’ll gasp helplessly against Cas’ mouth. He’s kissing Castiel Milton. He finally gets to see what Cas looks like when he’s kiss-drunk, hair mangled, lips swollen, eyes wild. He gets to hear the symphony of sighs, grunts, and moans when his lips travel in a path down Cas’ neck (and who would have thought that Cas would end up being one of the mouthiest fuckers Dean’s ever had the privilege to hear?).

It feels too good to be true, like someone’s going to come along with a contract and point out that he’s in violation of Sub-Clause 3(a)--You thought that you got to make out with you stupidly hot and intelligent best friend with no repercussions, but the joke’s on you Dean Winchester! Now you have to watch him renounce everything about you and then marry your worst enemy!

So yeah, Dean waits for Cas to initiate. It’s also why, despite many frustrating boners and a case of blue balls that he’s almost certain will eventually become fatal, he hasn’t pushed for anything more. They’ve indulged in several hot and heavy makeout sessions, tongues gone akimbo and teeth nipping at jugulars, but their kisses have never gone below their shirt collars. Their hands have occasionally been adventurous, but Dean’s only felt the ripple of Cas’ back against his hands, curved his hands around the blades of Cas’ shoulders and held on like they were handles. Cas has mapped the area around his waist, his fingers trailing softly over the skin until Dean was twitchy and jumpy under his touch, but even he hadn’t been bold enough to venture any further north.

It makes for some damned up awkward times, when Dean has contort himself like he’s trying out for Cirque du Soleil just to keep from poking Cas in the thigh with his dick. At some point in the near future, he thinks that his dick might just take matters into its own...whatever and he doesn’t want to see what exactly that entails.

“So you’re going to go see the world’s grossest couple tie the knot,” Dean says by way of making conversation. He’s watching Cas, so he can see the moment when Cas’ movements stutter, before resuming their easy grace.

“Yes, Jess asked me last week if I would be willing to attend. I have to admit, weddings aren’t my favorite social engagements, but I am pleased for her and Sam.” He looks it too, the sap. His lips are curved upwards in a soft smile, one that Dean isn’t entirely sure Cas is aware of.

“Yeah, they’re real cute,” Dean mutters. Cas stretches up to put a cup away into the cabinet. “I was thinking,” he begins, the words coming out in a tumble before he can lose his nerve, “maybe you could come with me.”

A thin line etches itself between Cas’ eyebrows. “I don’t think that’s the best course of action,” he says. He dries off a mug with a dish cloth. Mesmerized, Dean watches his fingers twist and pull the cloth. “You’re the best man, which means that you’ll have to get there exceedingly early. If we traveled together then I would be there hours before I needed to be.”

Dean blinks. He has to be joking. There’s no way that a person could be that oblivious. “I meant,” he says, “maybe you could come with me.” His hand does the stupid little wave thing again.

The line deepens. Cas’ lower lip disappears into his mouth and Dean spares the moment to envy it before Cas sets down the mug with a small clink onto the counter. He strides towards the couch. Mouth dry, Dean watches him drop to first one knee, then the other, on the plush material.

It’s not their third kiss, not even their fourth or fifth, but there’s still something so wonderfully new about it all. Cas’ eyes go smokey and the tip of his tongue flits out to tap against his lower lip. The placement of his hand on Dean’s knee is the best kind of tease, better even than when his lips ghost over Dean’s. A small, disappointed noise escapes Dean’s throat, to be answered by a chuckle from Cas.

Dean’s blood heats as Cas’ lips finally push against his. Sharp teeth capture his lower lip and a thin, strangled noise escapes Dean’s mouth. Every place Cas’ fingers touch on his body relaxes--his neck, his shoulder, down his arm to his hand. Dean pushes into Cas and Cas takes, and he takes, mouth opening in a clear invitation, which Dean accepts without thinking twice.

“The wedding isn’t until April,” Cas murmurs against his lips. Dean’s fogged brain takes a few seconds to catch up to the words. “Plenty of time until then.” A series of quick, brutal kisses take his breath away, enough that when Cas says, “Let’s just make it up as we go along, huh?” and presses a final, deliberate kiss to his lips, Dean agrees without thinking.

He’ll look back later and realize, that was a big red flag, waving at him with the fury of a possessed matador.

Now, he just accepts it, as he surges forward and pulls Cas closer to him.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

The preparations for the State competition finally come together.

It’s a round robin tournament, double elimination, to be held on the campus of Wichita State University. It’ll necessitate the team staying overnight, and arrangements are made. Vice-Principal Adler even stops by one practice to congratulate the team for making it so far. He oozes self-righteousness, and Dean’s skin crawls to look at his smarmy smile. He’s glad of Cas’ presence close by his elbow, even when Adler’s eyes linger a little too long on the press of their hips. Dean’s throat bobs, but he doesn’t move, just folds his arms in a mirror of Cas and stares at Adler through the duration of his presentation. If Adler wants this fight, he can go for it. Dean has tenure, and he’s well aware that Naomi loved their project proposal.

The students suffer through Adler’s talk, squirming in their seats. From their postures, Dean can tell that Claire, Alex, and Krissy are dying to let their mouths run away with them. He’s thankful that they restrain themselves, though it would have been an interesting exercise to see what Adler valued more: his vanity or the chance of taking home a state championship. He’s almost regretful they won’t have the chance to find out.

A sigh of relief floods the room once he leaves. Claire immediately puts her talents at mimicry to good use, and replays Adler’s blustering speech to Kevin and Alfie. Both try and fail to keep their laughter contained. A smile even pulls at Dean’s mouth. He knows that as a responsible teacher, he should put a stop to their mockery, but hell. It’s not like Adler doesn’t set himself up for it. Maybe if he wasn’t such an asshole then the kids wouldn’t be assholes back.

“I wasn’t aware that he even noticed,” Cas murmurs.

“Oh trust me, he’s been wanting this State championship so badly he’s gagging for it.” Dean hesitates, because he doesn’t like to be reminded of times past, when Cas and he were at each other’s throats. “He made special mention of it when he told me that I would be co-coaching.”

Cas glances over at him, eyebrow raised. “Did he now?” He hums in vague interest. “Did you know that we’re going to be gone January 22 and 23?”

The rapid change of subject is enough to have Dean’s hand spinning. “Yeah,” he says, unsure of where this conversation is headed.

“That’s a day before your birthday,” Cas says with satisfaction, pitching his vow so that he won’t be overheard. At the other side of the room, the students set up the buzzer systems, still chortling over Adler.

“Is it?” Dean asks noncommittally. Cas’ eyebrow ticks up in surprise at his tone.

Dean’s never put much stock in birthdays. As a kid, he never stayed in one place long enough to have any friends who could remember the day. It was always just him, Sam, and his father. Sam remembered with a child’s sense of reliability, which was to say sometimes Dean got a gift the day of his birthday and sometimes he got a shamefaced apology from Sam five days later. Either way, it was more than he got from John. John, who had fathered two boys, who had presumably been there when they were brought into the world, but couldn’t seem to remember what day his boys entered the world.

Dean said that it didn’t matter. He said it so much that eventually, it didn’t.

When he moved in with Bobby, things changed a little. Bobby always remembered the day, and Dean woke up every January 24 to fresh waffles, and an awkward, one-armed hug. There wasn’t always enough money to get him gifts, but the recognition was what he’d been craving all along.

When he settled into his adult life, complete with family and friends, they’d done their best to never let the day pass without some kind of recognition. Charlie, he thinks, would willingly die before she let his birthday pass without some kind of obnoxious neon balloon fuckery. Sam and Jess are usually a little more reasonable and settle for a nice dinner out. Cas’ interest in the day, Dean has to admit, is unexpected, though he doesn’t know why it would be.

“I thought you might want to,” Cas pauses, eyes flicking anywhere except for Dean, “do something while we were in Wichita. The big city.” A demeaning smile crosses his face.

“Wow Cas,” Dean drawls, nudging him with his shoulder, “you really do know how to treat a boy right.” A faint blush crosses over Cas’ cheeks.

“It was just a thought,” he mutters, chin lifting towards the ceiling. “If you don’t want to, that’s fine. I’m sure that everyone has something planned for you once we’re home.”

“No, that’s…” Dean nudges him again. He wants nothing more than to put his lips to the soft skin just behind Cas’ ear, but he’s painfully aware of the students crowding the room. “I just don’t expect shit for my birthday, you know? It’s...weird. In a good way,” he hastens to say.

Dean dares to glance sidelong at Cas. Warmth winds its way through his chest when he recognizes the look spread across Cas’ face. It’s the soft, sentimental smile that Dean’s come, selfishly, to classify as his. He might not have everything he wants from Cas, he might not be able to hold hands with him in a restaurant and fall asleep next to him at night, but that smile...That smile is meant solely for him.

“Leave it to me,” Cas murmurs, and in a fit of bravery, he strokes his thumb across the back of Dean’s hand. “Let me take care of you.”

God, but Dean wants to let him.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

It’s not a long bus ride to Wichita, just a little under three hours, but it’s made in a school bus not designed for long trips. By the end of the drive, Dean’s ass aches and he’s grateful for the opportunity to scramble off the bus and stretch. His duffel clangs against his lower back as he looks at the cheap motel. If it were Sam and his Dad standing next to him, he’d feel fourteen again.

Instead, he gets Cas beside him and the kids behind him and it’s so much better.

“We’ll go ahead and get checked in and get something to eat before we head over to the event,” Cas tells him. Dean nods, more than happy to leave all technical arrangements in Cas’ hands. He rounds up the kids and passes out key cards until all the students have theirs.

“No funny business!” Dean shouts after their retreating backs. Not that he thinks the nerd squad will immediately try to impregnate each other--Alfie and Inias both look horrified at the mere mention of it--but there’s something about the wicked smirks on Claire and Alex’s faces that he doesn’t trust.

“Here.” Cas presses the card into Dean’s hand as he stifles a yawn. If Dean had to guess then he would say that Cas spent most of last night stressing and little of it sleeping. He wishes that there were time for more than a short catnap. He wishes that there were time for a hell of a lot more than that, but as it is, they’re pushing it.

Their room looks a lot like all impersonal hotel rooms: two double beds, a desk that’s not meant for actual work, and a single armchair that’s meant as a torture device instead of a seating arrangement. It looks like every room from his childhood. The reminder isn’t necessarily pleasant.

Cas pushes past him and claims the bed closest to the window by flopping face-first into the mattress. “Don’t get too comfortable,” Dean warns, finding his toothbrush and toothpaste and putting them on the bathroom counter. “We need to be getting the kids lunch in twenty minutes.”

“Go on without me,” Cas mumbles, his words almost lost in the mattress. “I’m not hungry.”

“If you don’t eat now, then you’ll be an ass later on.” Dean knows this from personal experience: a hungry Castiel is a Castiel that snaps and snarls like a rabid alligator.

“Won’t.” Dean rolls his eyes before he takes a critical look at Cas’ form. He doesn’t allow his eyes to linger for an unseemly amount of time on the swell of Cas’ butt, though it does look uncommonly good in his dark jeans. His phone buzzes with a question from Kevin: We’re getting hungry, any word on when we’re leaving for food? Dean taps out a quick reply and takes another, more assessing glance, at Cas.

Time for drastic action.

“Cas, the kids are hungry.” Cas groans and Dean puts a knee on the bed. He can’t bring himself to straddle Cas’ form (they’d never leave then) but it’s become apparent that something needs to be done. He leans over Cas, close enough to bury his nose in dark hair. “We need to go get them something to eat before they’re breaking down the door.”

“You take them. I’m going to nap and then go over lineups.”

“No, you’re going to come with us because food is a source of energy.” If anything, Cas burrows his face deeper into the bedspread. Right then. Well, if that’s how he wants to play this.

Dean digs his nose deep into Cas’ hair, until it brushes against his scalp. Cas smells good--like something fruity. He travels down, to the wispy hair at the nape of his neck. He brushes a kiss, feather-light, to the downy hair. Cas grunts, but makes no other move. Dean moves, puts another kiss just behind Cas’ ear. For revenge, because Cas is being a child, he nips at the shell of his ear.

He isn’t expecting the low groan rumbling up from Cas’ chest, and so Dean does what any good scientist would do: he experiments. He mouths at Cas’ ear, all the way down to the lobe, which he takes into his mouth. From far away, the sound of Cas’ breathy sighs reaches Dean’s ears. He becomes conscious of other things: Cas’ fists crumpling the sheets, the fact that Cas turned his head for easier access. His oft-neglected dick stirs in interest.

“We have to go,” Dean murmurs against Cas’ ear, and maybe he’s not playing fair, but neither is Cas. Especially when he rolls over and pulls Dean in closer with a hand on the back of his neck.

“They can wait for a minute.” Cas’ mouth is insistent, tongue already swiping at Dean’s lips. Even with all of their obligations pressing at him, Dean can’t help but surrender to this, the pull of Cas’ hand, the needy sigh escaping out of Cas’ mouth, the knee pressing against his side.

Sneaky bastard. While he was busy not paying attention, Cas managed to pull Dean over so that he’s poised half over him. It’s closer than they’ve been before. All it would take would be a shift of Dean’s weight and he’d be straddling him.

Dean freezes. There’s nothing, god there’s nothing he’d love more than to throw his leg over Cas’ waist and kiss him until he can’t breathe, kiss him until he’s coming in his jeans like a teenager. But the kids are already whining for food, and immediately after that they’ve got to get to the campus to check in for the tournament. They don’t have time to waste while Dean doesn’t get his rocks off with Cas.

Since when did he become the responsible one?

“Cas.” Dean pulls away, ignoring Cas’ unhappy whine. “We have to go.” He presses another, final kiss, to Cas’ lips. Cas tries to follow him up and props himself on his elbows as Dean steps away.

“We still have a few more minutes.” Cas has to be aware of the picture he makes, sprawled out on the bed with his legs akimbo and spit-slick lips.

“Yeah, but now I need to go make it look like you didn’t just have your tongue down my throat.” Dean scrubs at his hair, not that it’ll help anything. “Seriously man, get ready. Swear to god, you’re like a teenager.”

“I’d consider that your fault.” Cas sounds grumpy, but at least he gets up off the bed and pulls his shirt straight. Dean watches him out the corner of his eye, but Cas doesn’t look like he’s getting ready to jump his bones. He’s simultaneously disappointed and relieved.

It’s never been like this before. With Cassie, with Lisa...He’s a physical guy, yeah, and he likes sex as much as the next red-blooded American man, but he’s never been so focused on a single person. He’s never felt the overwhelming need to touch, to hold, pounding through him.

Maybe he is just a horny teenager at heart.

Or maybe Cas is different, means more.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

The team falls on their food like a pack of ravenous wolves, while Dean and Cas watch from a safe distance. Dean knows that he’s disgusting when he eats but...yikes. From the restaurant, they walk to campus and sign into the competition. Immediately, it becomes apparent that this is not going to be like the rest of their competitions.

Other than the dreaded Bow-Tie Belmont school, their competitors were fairly easy-going. Matches were mostly casual affairs where the coaches asked about wives and careers. Dean had hated the meet and greet, but to be fair, he hates almost any large gathering of people who he hasn’t known for two plus years.

This is radically different.

Each coach looks at each other with suspicion bordering on animosity, to say nothing of the teams. Dean’s never seen a nerd fight, but if tensions rise any further in Fergus Hall, then he just might get to cross that off his bucket list. Dean looks as one team passes them in lockstep and whistles softly. He’d thought that the bowties were bad: that team is dressed in matching suits which have pressed to army standards. Next to them, Lawrence’s matching polos look almost shabby.

“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” Dean nudges Cas’ side, waggling his eyebrows at the joke. Cas, exhibiting his excellent sense of humor, rolls his eyes, and turns his attention back to the schedule.

“All right, we’re in room 119 for the first competition, and depending on the outcome of that we’re either in room 213 or 112 for the second.” He glances around at the various teams, and even though Cas is doing his best to keep it together, Dean can sense the stress coming off of him in waves. It’s bad enough to where the team’s going to pick up on it soon.

His new, preferred method of Cas distracting is obviously not going to work: he thinks that the team would notice if he mashed his face into Cas’. But he’s got to do something, and fast, before Cas snaps and starts writing out lineups and strategies Beautiful Mind-style.

He takes his chance once the team reaches the classroom. “Guys, go in and set up, all right? I just need to ask a quick question.” Patience looks concerned, while Claire looks like she’s doing her best not to smirk, but they both do as he asks.

Cas casts a curious glance at him before he attempts to follow the team. Dean stops him with a firm hand on his chest. “You and I need to talk.” With the hand on Cas’ chest, he steers him backward, into an empty classroom on the opposite side of the hall.

“Whatever you’re planning, I sincerely doubt that we have the time for it.” Cas’ eyes make an obvious trip over Dean’s body.

Heat spreads over Dean’s cheeks. “Get your mind out of the gutter.” Cas purses his lips. “Seriously, I cannot believe that I am the one telling you this, but you have to tone it down.” Cas has the good grace to look moderately ashamed, before he cranes his head to look past Dean to the door.

“Well, while I appreciate the pep talk, I’ll remind you that our team is competing in less than fifteen minutes.”

“Yeah, and unless you manage to calm down the crazy, you’re just going to stress them out more than they already are.”

Cas’ eyes flick to his, expression hard and cold. “I’m not crazy.”

Dean falters, his talk vanished in light of this development. “I...never said that you were. God, you’re probably the sanest person that I know. But you’re a stress ball. You can’t go into that room looking like you’re two steps away from tearing everyone a new one.”

“This is the State Competition. It’s immensely important. So you’ll forgive me if I’m, as you say, a ‘stress ball’.” The finger quotes shouldn’t be endearing. They really shouldn’t be.

“I’m not saying that it’s not important. And it’ll be awesome if we pull a win out of this. But it’s not the end of the world if we don’t.” Cas glares at Dean like he’s just spoken the worst blasphemy possible. “I mean it Cas, what’s going to happen to us if we lose? Are we going to get fired?”

“The team’s worked so hard to be here--”

“Yeah, and they’ll be disappointed as hell if they go out in the first two rounds, but I don’t think that’s going to happen, do you?” Cas’ silence is answer enough. “And they made it this far. That’s something to be proud of, right?”

“I just…” Cas’ fist clenches and he looks at a place over Dean’s right shoulder. “I need to come away from this with a win.” He bites his lip and meet’s Dean’s eyes. “I just need something to go right.”

It takes Dean a moment to place the look in Cas’ eyes, but when he does, he could kick himself. It’s the same look that he had on New Year’s, the same desperation. It’s quiet, buried so deep that Cas is probably able to push it away, ignore it so much that he forgets it’s there. That’s why when it finally rears its ugly head, it’s twice as bad.

“I get that Cas, I do. Trust me, I know all about it. But you’re not going to get anywhere if you’re running around in circles. You’ve got to breathe.”

Despite his resolve, Dean reaches out and wraps his fingers around Cas’ wrist. The contact settles something in him and he watches in satisfaction as the tense set of Cas’ shoulders relaxes. His thumb runs over the pulse point and he feels it slow.

“We’ve had this talk before,” Cas finally murmurs. He looks at Dean through his eyelashes, and if they don’t get out of this room soon then those desks are going to be put to a use not recommended in the curriculum.

“Yeah well, it’s just such a nice chat.” Cas smiles, the corners of his eyes crinkling, and goddamnit, when did he get so weak? He tugs and Cas comes easily. With every molecule in his body screaming kiss him, it’s hard to do otherwise, but they’ve got a team waiting for them and they can’t afford to be distracted.

Still, Dean’s never claimed to be a saint.

His lips brush over Cas’ forehead, pressing into his hairline and over the gossamer thin lines of his forehead. Grumpy bastard spends too much of his time frowning.

Dean doesn’t know how many times he’s kissed Cas at this point, but they’re well into double digits. He’s mapped out the roof of his mouth, felt his moans doubled and given back to him. Cas’ fingers have slipped underneath his shirt and spanned his waist. He’s tasted the salt of Cas’ sweat, breathed in the scent of him.

But this, his lips pressed against the cool skin of Cas’ forehead, feels more intimate than all of those moments.

Dean savors the contact, draws as much comfort from it as he can. He drags it out for two, maybe three heartbeats, before he pulls away. “We need to get back.”

Cas’ eyes open--when did they close? He looks gobsmacked, like he ran into a wall face first and he’s still recovering. Dean’s heart does a loop de loop as he meets Cas’ eyes. He’s seen that look on Bobby’s face when he catches Ellen in the midst of shooting cans and Sam’s right after Jess reads him one of her closing arguments. He doesn’t know what adjectives to attach to that look. All of them seem too close for comfort.

He coughs and takes a step backwards. “Come on, we don’t want them to come looking for us.”

Friends Who Occasionally Make Out with Each Other.

God, he wants to change that title and soon.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

Four games later and Dean is feeling pretty good. Next to him, Cas has unclenched and even appears to be having a good time. They lost the third game, which puts them in a slightly precarious position, but overall, they’re one of the top seeds and they’ve managed to knock out some of the lesser competition. The team’s riding high on their victory, and a news crew even stops to ask a few questions.

Cas manages to disappear into nothingness, almost like the little bastard has wings, so Dean’s left to answer questions from the overly perky reporter. He bites back the urge to remind her that she’s third string on the team and that no one should be that happy about being forced to cover a convention of nerds, but he somehow doesn’t have it in him. Instead, he forces politeness, and maybe even a smile. He hopes it comes out looking a little less constipated than he feels.

He also hopes that Sam skips watching the evening news.

At the fifth game, things get tight. Flop sweat spreads out from the armpits and collar of Kevin’s polo, turning the navy blue black. Patience’s fingernails are chewed down almost to the quick and Claire can’t stop twisting her hair around her fingers. Next to him, Cas ruthlessly gnaws on the end of his pen. If he’s not careful then he’ll have chomped it all down by the end of the night.

They squeak through the fifth game, mostly due to the other team’s incompetence: they won’t stop buzzing in early on questions and their incorrect answers lose them as many points as they gain. Lawrence holds on by the skin of their teeth and wins a place in the semifinals.

Logically, Dean knows that it’s an honor to make it this far. Out of all the teams in the state, they made it to the top four. It’s an accomplishment to be proud of. His rational brain recognizes all of this. The part of him that’s still hung up on Cas thinks that if they don’t make it to the championship game, then he’s going to overturn a table.

Cas sits beside him, so tense that it’s a miracle he doesn’t shatter. Dean’s careful when he pushes his thigh against Cas’, sure that the slightest bit of pressure will cause him to shatter. When not even his foot pressing against Cas’ ankle makes a difference Dean takes a chance and slides his right hand underneath the table.

Cas’ thigh twitches when he squeezes, but it never relaxes. It takes Dean’s fingers tracing small patterns around the edges of his kneecap for Cas to finally loosen. “It’ll be all right,” Dean mutters, soft enough that Cas is the only one to hear.

“I know,” Cas says back, sounding equal parts annoyed and anxious. After a minute he releases the pen and turns to Dean. “I’m sorry.”

The apology is unexpected enough for Dean to jerk his hand back. “For what?” he asks, returning to his former occupation. Knees are weird. Knees are weird, and knobbly, and they should definitely not feel this good to trace.

Cas looks towards the front of the room. The moderator is checking over her questions, and from her stance it’s obvious that she would like to get started soon. The tension returns to Cas’ muscle and this time it won’t disappear, no matter how much Dean squeezes. “You shouldn’t have to…” Cas ducks his head down towards to the table and his pen becomes a prisoner of his teeth once more. “You shouldn’t have take care of me. It’s not your job.”

And that is.

That is so far beyond the scope of what is all right, that Dean can’t even dignify it with a response at first.

“You’re damn right it’s not my job,” he hisses. The words come out fast now, as the teams take their places. Kevin looks petrified, while Patience looks like she’s moved beyond the regular plane of human emotion. “I don’t get paid for looking after you, I’m not a babysitter.” Cas’ thigh twitches, like he’s trying to remove Dean’s hand by nothing more than the power of suggestion. “It’s not a chore, all right?” His fingers clench, harder than he means to. “I want to. It’s part of what being a (boyfriend) friend is.”

Cas sucks in a shaky breath and sits back in his seat as the moderator has the teams introduce themselves. “It’s a good thing that you don’t want to be paid,” he says, and there’s the final release of tension which Dean has been looking for all this time. “There’s no way that I could ever afford you.”

“You’d find some way to pay me.” Dean lasciviously winks at Cas, letting the innuendo hang heavy between them.

Cas smiles, quick and bright, before ducking his head. When he looks back up again, his face has returned to its regular impassivity. Still, there’s a hint of mischief as he murmurs, “I did promise you a night out on the town tonight.”

The words are innocent enough by themselves, but there’s something heavy about the way that Cas says them that sends Dean’s blood pumping hard through his veins. His thigh pushes against Cas’, suddenly heavy in its implication.

He swallows, equal parts thrilled and terrified of whatever the night will bring.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

Dean signals the bartender again, flashing two fingers at her. She casts a dubious look at the shot glasses littering the table in front of him, but ultimately decides that since he’s capable of remaining upright, it’s really not her problem. She sets another shot in front of him and, with a moment’s hesitation, another shot in front of Cas. The lime on the rim of his glass is obnoxiously bright.

Cas is a tequila man. Who knew.

Dean swirls the dark amber liquid in the glass before running his finger over the rim. It’ll be his fourth shot--not necessarily a record-breaker, but it’s shaping up to be one of those nights if he’s trying to keep up with Cas. Cas, who seems determined to hit double digits in shots, and who’s looking at the bartender with a glassy-eyed focus.

“Hey Bukowski.” Dean nudges Cas with his elbow and watches in alarm as Cas lists to one side. He rights him, like a Weeble, but there’s a limpness to him that Dean doesn’t care for. “How about you finish what’s in front of you before you go looking for seconds?”

Cas turns his gaze on Dean. His eyes seem to want to slide to the left and down, but it’s still Cas. Even distracted and drunk, he has a better grip on things than most. “I was going to get you something.” Holy hell, how has his voice dropped even lower? It’s reaching subterranean levels now. “This is supposed to be your birthday celebration.”

If Dean were being 100% honest, then he would say that he’d been hoping that the birthday celebration would occur in the bedroom and with significantly less clothing. As is, it’s looking like he’s going to have to peel Cas off the floor from his birthday celebration.

He loves the man, but he and Cas are going to have stern words when he’s sober enough to remember them.

“It’s all right,” Dean says, taking a small sip of his shot. Cas, encouraged by this, takes his shot in hand. And then Dean discovers why Cas being a tequila man is such a bad thing for his heart.

At the first glimpse of Cas’ tongue, his heart stutters. It only gets worse when he laps at the salt-encrusted rim of the shot like he’s trying to fellate it. Once he’s done getting to third and a half base with the glass, he tosses the shot back, throat working obscenely as he swallows. The lime is the next victim, Cas’ teeth flashing white as he bites into the tender flesh.

The whole affair deserves to have its own Redtube channel. Subscriber: Dean Winchester.

Dean slaps Cas’ hand down before he can signal the bartender again. “That’s enough for you big guy.” He does in fact signal her, but only to tell her that they’re tabbing out. She returns Cas’ card, complete with a hefty balance. Dean, feeling perhaps a little spiteful, writes out a larger tip than is necessary, and shoves the paper over at Cas.

“Sign here.” Cas blinks owlishly at him but scrawls something akin to his signature on the dotted line. Dean shoves everything back towards the bartender and flashes her one of his most winning smiles. In another lifetime, when he didn’t have the man that he’s in love with dangling off his arm, maybe. As it stands however…

“Come on champ, let’s go to the room.” Castiel is capable of walking, but he seems more than content to list into Dean’s personal space. Dean rolls his eyes but he props Cas up under his arm. Together they make their way towards the elevator, stumbling like some toddlers in a three-legged race.

The elevator doors open with a soft whoosh and Dean pours Cas into the enclosed space. The doors close with a ding and then--Cas’ facade of calm vanishes like it never was and he’s on him, hands grabbing at the collar of Dean’s shirt and pushing him against the chrome railing. Dean flails and hits a button. He hopes it was the right floor.

“Cas,” he chokes out, wheezing as Cas nips along his jawline. He knew that Cas’ arms weren’t just for show, but he sometimes forgets that Cas is actually Crouching Nerd Hidden Badass. “Cas, come on. Save it for the room man.”

“It’s your birthday.” Cas’ voice comes out in a harsh growl and he punctuates the words with a bite to Dean’s neck that’s on the wrong side of pain.

The elevator doors open and Dean summons up his remaining strength to push Cas off of him. Cas resists, a low whine escaping through his teeth. “Room,” Dean snaps, trapping Cas underneath his arm as he makes his way towards their room.

He’s not sure where the clinginess of the past few days is coming from, and while he’s not complaining about the fact that Cas is on him like a terrier with a bone, he can’t say that it sits easy with him either. This, the groping and fevered kisses, the single-minded focus--it’s not like the Castiel that he’s come to know over the past months.

And Dean would ask Cas about it, he really would, except for Two Facts.

1) Talking about Things is not the Winchester Way and Dean has no idea what would happen if he tried to violate that rule. His head would explode, probably.
2) While Cas isn’t three sheets to the wind, blackout drunk, he’s certainly beyond the realm of sobriety and is therefore not capable of having a Serious Conversation.

Dean manages to get them into their room without any accusations of public indecency. Getting through the narrow passageway and to the beds proves a little more difficult since he has Cas hanging onto him like a limpet. It becomes exponentially harder when Cas’ hot mouth drags over his cheek to his ear.

“Dean,” he murmurs, hands pushing at Dean’s flannel overshirt. “Come on Dean…”

God, he’s an idiot. He has Cas panting in his ear, practically begging for it, and he’s going to turn him down. Whatever corner of hell is reserved for idiots, that’s his.

“We need to talk,” he finally gets out, his voice strangled and high as Cas licks over the exposed dip of his clavicle. “Cas,” he tries again, fighting off wandering hands. “Cas, is this about what happened earlier?”

It’s like he dumped a bucket of ice-cold water over Cas. If he could, then Dean would bottle this and sell it to every drugstore in America: Instant Sobriety. He’d be pleased, if Cas weren’t glaring at him with such viciousness.

“Indeed it’s not,” Cas says, his tone just a few shades above Arctic. “Besides, I thought that you wanted this.”

Dean laughs, which is the wrong move, because Cas’ already impassive face becomes marble. He turns and walks stiff-legged towards his bed and this is so not how they’re going to play this tonight. Dean might be allergic to talking about things, but he’ll fight through.

“Cas.” Dean catches Cas’ wrist and turns him around. Cas, maturely, chooses to look anywhere except at him. “They made it to the championship game. Number two in the whole state--that ain’t nothing to sneeze at.”

“Yes, I’m well aware.” Cas’ jaw clenches. “I heard you telling the camera crews that very line.”

“Because you hightailed it out of there like your ass was on fire!” Dean really doesn’t mean to snap, god knows he doesn’t want to make Cas feel any crappier about this, but the whole hot and cold act really isn’t working for him. “They lost a game, it’s not the end of the world! Even Kevin was happy and you know that his neurotic ass is never happy with anything less than first place!”

Cas finally meets his gaze, not that it makes Dean feel any better. There’s no warmth in those eyes. “Well, I’m glad that everyone else is fine with this. Forgive me if I’m not.”

Dean tightens his grip when Cas tries to pull away. “Cas. Please.”

Something in his voice causes Cas to soften. His shoulders droop and eyes lose their defiant gleam. “I wanted a win so badly. After…” Cas swallows, bites his lower lip. “After everything, I just needed to be able to bring home a win.”

Dean is almost positive that’s not entirely what Cas meant to say, but he’s not going to mention it. They have bigger problems to worry about. Cas can keep his secrets for the time being. What’s important now is that the horny bastard is gone, as is the ice-queen, and all that’s left in their wake is just--Cas. Hurt, yes, but still Cas, the man that he’s helplessly, desperately in love with.

“I’m sorry,” Dean says, because what else can he say? He’s said it all before--Second place in the whole state really isn’t bad, he’s halfway convinced that the kids on that team were robots who were slightly less assimilated to mimic human customs than Cas, their kids made an honest effort to win. Came damn close too. There’s no shame in being beaten by a better team.

He said it all before. To news crews, as Cas so kindly pointed out. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to make Cas feel any better. Hell, the guy looks like he just saw his puppy get curbstomped.

“Thanks,” Cas says, no hint of sarcasm in his voice. He just sounds...tired.

“Damn it Cas,” Dean says, no heat in his voice. “Just...come here, would you?”

When Cas remains still, Dean makes the move towards him. Cas’ body is stiff at first, arms at his side, but that doesn’t stop Dean. He wraps his arms around Cas’ shoulders, squeezes until he hears a small ‘oof’ escape the other man. He even rocks back and forth. He can remember Ellen hugging him like this, when he was a shitty teenager and angry at the world.

For whatever reason, it works on Cas, the same way that it worked on fifteen year old Dean. Cas relaxes into his grip, arms winding around his waist. His forehead rests on Dean’s shoulder and Dean’s shirt goes damp from Cas’ breath. He rests his head on top of Cas’ and doesn’t recognize that he’s humming until Cas starts to match his breathing to the song.

“What do you want?” Dean asks. He’s fighting the urge to nuzzle into Cas’ hair because this--this is not what Friends Who Occasionally Make Out do. They make out. They give each other hickies. Maybe, and Dean’s blood thrills at this, they give each other handjobs. But hug? Breathe in the scent of the other’s shampoo like it’s the best drug? No, that’s sappy shit that other people, people who are in relationships do.

But if Cas isn’t going to stop him, then who is Dean to put limitations upon himself?

Cas groans, deep in his throat, and Dean stops swaying long enough to pull back and look at Cas. “Cas, babe, what do you want?”

Cas flashes a tired little grin. “It’s your birthday, you tell me what you want.”

Dean rolls his eyes. With the slightest push, Cas topples backward, landing on the mattress and bouncing once. “How about you sleep it off?”

“Not a great birthday present.” Cas is trying, but his voice is already slurring from exhaustion.

“Yeah, you can make it up to me. With interest.” Dean goes down on one knee and starts working at the laces of Cas’ shoes.

“Not exactly how I pictured you going down on your knees for me.” At that, Dean has to look up.

Fuck, if Cas weren’t still kind of drunk and emotionally vulnerable--He’s a goddamn picture, looking down the length of his body at Dean, eyes wide and mouth curled in a smug little grin. “Yeah well,” Dean says once enough blood’s returned to his brain to resume normal functions, “this isn’t the way that I pictured getting into your pants, if it makes you feel better.”

Cas laughs, a little sound of victory, before he lapses into a contemplative silence. When he speaks again, it takes Dean by surprise. “I’m sorry Dean.” Dean glances up to see Cas staring intently at the ceiling. “I know that I’ve been…” He scrubs his hands over his face and tries again. “Michael was...He was worse than usual this time. I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with that. I’ll get over it soon.”

Dean bites back the surge of hatefulness which springs to the foreground at the mere mention of Michael’s name. “Jesus Cas, you’re fine. You know I’m good.”

Cas’ eyes droop. “Yes you are,” he sighs, the words so soft that Dean’s not entirely sure that he meant to say them aloud at all.

Friends Who Occasionally Make Out do not pull the covers back from the bed, and they don’t tuck each other in. They sure as hell don’t kiss each other’s foreheads and whisper, “Sleep it off, all right sweetheart?” before flicking the bedside light off.

So what the fuck does that make Dean and Cas?

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

Dean startles out of a sound sleep, heart pounding against his ribs as his eyes tear through the unfamiliar room. Hotel, he recognizes, and with that comes the overwhelming fear--Where’s Sam? He looks at the opposite bed--the figure in the bed is too big to be Sam, hair too dark and spiky--

Cas. That’s Cas in the other bed. And that’s his cell phone ringing. That’s what woke him from a weird dream involving Charlie and the Rebel Army.

“Dean!” Cas’ voice apparently drops to the quality of ‘Pack a Day Smoker’ at--Jesus Christ, is it really 3:48 in the morning? “Will you get your phone please?” Cas’ eyes are open in narrow slits, gleaming in the faint glow of the streetlights filtered through the window. They look angry, like the tone of his voice wasn’t already a glaring indicator of his current mood.

Apparently Cas wakes up grumpy. He’s just learning all sorts of things today.

Dean gropes for his phone. His brain isn’t fully online yet, still valiantly clinging to the last vestiges of sleep, and it’s making his motor functions sticky and unreliable. After more clattering than is probably necessary, he finally grabs his phone and brings it up to his eyes, squinting at the unexpected brightness. “It’s probably a drunk dial, I can’t think of who--” Dean’s heart plummets all the way to his ankles before jumping up and out of his throat when he sees the name on the display. “I’ll be back.”

He ignores Cas’ questions, just throws on a t-shirt and snatches the keycard on the way out of the room.

Hotel hallways always look sickly, but moreso in the early morning hours. Dean squints as the unnatural yellow light assaults his pupils and he walks on bare feet to the elevator landing. He shades his eyes and looks down at the display on his phone.

Dad.

He can hear Sam’s voice, a world and a half away: You’re not obligated to answer the phone every time he calls. When was the last time that he called for something good? Or just to check up on you?

Dean knows that it’s a bad idea, he doesn’t need Sam, or Bobby, or Ellen telling him otherwise. But he also knows that he just...can’t. He can’t ignore him.

“Dad.”

“Dean.”

He takes in a deep breath. “Most people wait until the daylight hours until they call.”

He can hear his father’s disapproval through the phone. Take the man out of the Marines, but you can’t take the Marines out of the man. “I’m busy.”

“Yeah.” Dean knows well what keeps his father up late at night--it’s either his extracurricular activities, which means that John Winchester downed at least double what he did tonight, or it’s work, which is a whole other can of worms altogether.

The silence on the other end of the phone is only punctuated by his father’s heavy breaths. Dean’s stomach churns. It’s been ages since John called him this late. Now Dean doesn’t have to wonder whether or not his father’s been drinking, he only has to wonder just how much of a bar John downed before he decided that it was enough.

“Saw you on the TV tonight.”

Of all things he was expecting his father to say, that sentence wasn’t even in the Top Forty. He’d been afraid of Sam or maybe Charlie watching the evening news, because he knew he’d catch hell from them, but John Winchester? Watching the eleven o’clock news?

“Yeah?” Before he can think to stop himself, “Did I look fat?” tumbles out of his mouth.

Dean pauses his pacing, thrilled and horrified with his own daring. He can blame it on the early morning wake up call, or his own irritation at said call, but he thinks that the defiance came mostly from him. It feels better than he could have ever imagined.

Until of course, John pops his proverbial balloon.

“You looked soft.”

This argument again. It’s been the same, ever since he was sixteen and his father decided, for whatever reason, that he was old enough to come with him on one of his ‘jobs’.

Up until that point, Dean had been a child, willfully naive. He’d swallowed whatever explanations his dad had given him for all sorts of things: the bruised and bloody knuckles, the shiners, the permanent rust stains that seemed to have taken residence underneath his nails. Falling lumber. Dirt from the site. Got a little too excited with the sander. God, he’d been so dumb.

But one night, John had grabbed him, told him to get his coat on, he was going to help him with a job. Dean, still caught in the mantra of Look after Sammy, had cast a glance at his brother, peacefully sleeping the night away.

“Come on, we’re wasting time.” John Winchester had never been a particularly motivational parent, but that night he was operating on a whole other level of brusque. His fingers, as they pushed Dean out of the room, had been like five steel rods pressing into his skin. Dean, stupid little sap that he was, was actually excited. He’d thought that he was finally getting to connect with his dad. Like maybe, if he pulled this off, he, Dad, and Sam could be a family, and not play at being one.

He’d stayed quiet the whole drive in the car, clasping his hands together to keep from drumming his fingers on the dash. John had been silent and as readable as the far side of the moon. He never gave any indication what kind of job this was, or why he finally thought that Dean was ready to join him.

Fifteen minutes later, Dean found out exactly what kind of jobs his father worked after the sun went down and his boys were supposed to be in bed.

Two weeks later, he packed himself and Sam up and fled to Lawrence, Kansas.

He’d gotten himself and Sam halfway across the country. He’d made that call, told his baby brother that it would all be fine. He’d worked forty hours a week in high school to make sure that Sam had a college fund. He’d worked fifty hours a week once Bobby and Ellen kicked his ass into gear and made him realize that Sam wasn’t the only Winchester who could go to college. He’d put himself through school, got his job, held onto it, made a life for himself. He created a family from scratch, and even now he has the man of his dreams waiting in a hotel room for him.

Soft.

“Yeah well, it beats looking arrested. Or dead.”

Hello testicles. It’s nice to see you after twenty-eight years.

From the sound of him, John isn’t impressed by Dean’s newly found backbone. “Said that you lost.”

“Came in second. In the state.” Dean’s metaphorical balls start to shrivel. “That’s pretty damn impressive.”

“Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. If you ain’t winning, you’re losing.”

“Why did you call?” Dean tries to keep his voice down, aware that less than fifteen feet away people are sleeping, but his temper yearns to snap. “To heckle me? Are you that bitter?” Too much to hope for that his father remembered his birthday, so he doesn’t even mention it.

With difficulty, Dean reins in what he was going to say. It’s not going to change anything, and in the long run it’s not going to make him feel any better.

There’s a long pause on the other end of the line, so long that Dean contemplates hanging up. When his father’s voice returns, interspersed with the faint static hum of a bad connection, it’s hesitant.

“I didn’t want to ask you this but, you remember what we talked about on Thanksgiving?”

“Which part? The part where you insulted my job or the part where you were begging for money?”

“Dean. It’s a temporary situation--I just ran into a little trouble--”

“Goddammit Dad.” Dean pinches the bridge of his nose. “How bad is it?”

“Don’t worry about that.” For years, Dean obeyed that tone, without question. His nerves still hum with the need to snap to attention, but he’s older now. Exhausted. “Look, I just need a thousand--”

“What? A few months ago it was only three hundred. Dad, what the hell are you into?”

“I met a guy,” and his father’s voice is alight with the same obsession that governed Dean’s childhood. “He says he might have some information about the company who laid the electricity in the house.”

Dean’s fingers tighten around the phone. “It was twenty four years ago. Even if there was anything, the trail’s gone now.”

“So what, you think that we should just give up trying to find out who killed your mom? You really have gone soft, haven’t you?”

Dean’s temper finally snaps its frayed leash. “Nothing killed Mom! It was just--Bad things happen sometimes and it sucks when they do, but that’s life! There was no plan, no conspiracy--it was just shitty--”

“You shut your damn mouth.”

Twenty-eight years old he may be, but his father’s voice still has the power to send ice crawling down Dean’s back. He freezes, the fear of a child immobilizing his limbs.

“You just shut your mouth. After everything we went through--Do you even care?”

“Of course I care!” His voice is too loud. A thin strip of light appears underneath one of the doors and an irate voice tells him to keep it the hell down out there. Dean lowers his voice to a furious hiss. “She was my mother, of course I care! But it’s not--”

A lifetime of rebukes crowd into his throat. Dean chokes on them.

What to say to this father, who looked at his own sons as though they were strangers? What to say to the man who thought that instead of tossing a ball, he should teach his son how to throw a punch? The man who thought that hotel rooms were more appropriate for his sons than a house? How to explain the resentment, the fear, the need?

The silence stretches on. Dean lets it linger.

“This is the best shot that we’ve had in a long time. I can’t afford to let this go. You’d do the same if it were--You never told me her name. The girl that you talked about.”

Dean’s heart picks up the pace. For years he’s wondered what he would say to his dad if he were thrown into this exact situation. For years he’s come up empty.

Screw it. He’s always been more of an improv guy anyway.

“It’s not a girl that I’ve been seeing.” It’s a loose interpretation of the concept, but there are more important things to worry about. “His name’s Castiel Milton and he teaches history at the school. He’s one of the smartest people that I’ve ever met, and he’s funny, and he’s kind--” Dean pauses and sucks in a long breath through his nose. “He’s the best person that I know.”

Part of him wants to stop, but he can’t seem to put the brakes on his runaway mouth. “And I don’t know what I would do if something happened to him, I really don’t. But if I was lucky enough to have kids with him,” and where the hell did that thought come from, the surge of pleasure at the thought of him and Cas playing proud papas, “then I would do my best to raise them the way that I know he would have wanted. I wouldn’t drag them around the country trying to figure out what happened to him, and I sure as hell wouldn’t blame my kids for him being gone!”

The silence stretches on, long past the point of uncomfortable. If it weren’t for the rasp of his father’s breaths on the opposite end, Dean would think that the call was dropped.

When it becomes clear that his father isn’t going to say anything, Dean’s shoulders fall. “I can’t...Dad, I’m sorry. It’s always going to be another lead, another guy--This hunt took mine and Sam’s childhoods. I just can’t.”

He hangs up the phone and turns it off. Tiny tremors shake through his body and despite the previous humidity in the hallway, goosebumps prickle up and down his arms. His nose and eyes burn like he might start crying, but then his stomach lurches and suddenly all he wants to do is retch.

Somehow he makes his way back to the correct room. It takes him three tries before the lock chirps merrily at him. Dean stumbles into the room. His eyes land on Cas, sitting up in bed, with a book in his lap. He stares intently at the page, but his eyes never move and he never turns the page.

“Cas.” At the strangled sound of Dean’s voice, Cas snaps the book shut and looks at him. A myriad of emotions cross his face, but within a second, he has his expressions under control once more.

“Is everything all right?”

Dean chokes out a thick laugh. Everything is so far from all right, he doesn’t know where to begin.

His father’s words come back to him: What would you do if it were him?

To have Cas taken from him--To lose him--Dean swallows once, then swallows again. Then walks into the bathroom and vomits a stream of bile and liquor into the toilet.

The porcelain is cool against his forehead and cheek. Dean spits into the toilet and clumsily wipes the back of his hand across his mouth. He groans and accepts the flimsy plastic cup pressed into his hand. The water is tepid and flat but it helps to wash out the sour taste lingering in his mouth.

Castiel’s fingers are cool and dry as they comb through his damp hair and brush over his clammy forehead. “Come sit down,” he urges, and Dean obeys. He doesn’t have the strength to do anything else.

Once he’s perched on the edge of the bed, he starts to get his bearings back. At the very least, the room stops spinning. Cas sits opposite him, their knees almost, but not quite touching.

“Can you tell me what’s wrong?” Dean chances a look at Cas. His forehead wrinkles in concern but his eyes are so calm, so understanding. Cas doesn't push, Cas doesn't demand. Dean trusts Cas with almost anything.

But he can’t trust Cas with this.

“I…” Dean shakes his head, looking away from Cas and to the floor. “I just...It’s nothing to do with you, I promise--”

“Was it your father?”

Dean lurches back like Cas just reached out and slapped him. “Why would you--The hell Cas?” he finally settles on.

The lines in Cas’ forehead etch deeper into his features. “The only other time that I’ve seen you like this was over Thanksgiving when he called. I assumed…”

“Yeah, well maybe you shouldn’t.” The second that the words are out of his mouth, Dean wishes that he could take them back. He wishes that he could remove the whipcrack snap from his voice, because the second that it lashes across the room he can feel Cas withdraw from him.

Dean buries his face in his hands. He wants to be back asleep again. He wants to rewind this night to just before they went to the hotel bar--maybe he could talk Cas into coming upstairs, maybe they could take a long, hot shower to wash away the day--But he didn’t, and they didn’t, and now it’s four in the morning and Cas is pissed at him because Dean is an asshole who snaps at people who are only trying to help him.

“Look, I’m sorry,” Dean groans. “I just...Can we just sleep?”

Cas hesitates before answering, “Yeah. Let’s go to bed.” A soft touch ghosts across his knee, and then Cas pulls away. He slides underneath the comforter and rearranges the pillow underneath his head.

Dean prides himself on his independence. He took care of Sam since he was four years old, he put himself through school, he lives alone. Dean Winchester changes his own tires, fixes his own car. He helps other people. He doesn't ask for anything for himself.

Something in him is cracking and crumbling when he gets out in a small whimper--”Cas?”

Cas pauses and rolls over to look at Dean. He says nothing, but it’s a patient silence, one that could easily wait until Judgement Day without complaint.

Every sentence Dean tries to speak turns to ash in his mouth.

“Dean.” He doesn't notice that Cas has slid out of the bed until he's standing in front of him. Long fingers ghost through his hair and down his cheek. “What do you need?”

Dean keeps his eyes focused on the carpet. It’s the only way that he’ll survive this.

“Can I...can I stay with you?”

To his everlasting credit, Cas doesn’t play coy and say that Dean is already staying with him. His fingers pause for a moment, caught on the curve of his jaw, before stroking over his skin. “Whatever you need.”

Cas pulls away and Dean doesn’t whimper at the loss, he really doesn’t. He darts his eyes up to watch Cas getting back into his bed. Dean swallows and stands up. The space between beds is less than two feet, but it seems like miles.

Neither of them speaks as Dean rests his knee on the edge of the bed. His eyes remain fixed on Cas’ and maybe he should look somewhere else, but he can’t. He doesn’t look away as he lowers himself onto the mattress and it’s only when he goes to flick the light off that he even blinks. The air between them is silent and heavy with anticipation. If he wanted to, Dean could touch the tension thrumming between the two of them.

He flips the comforter over them both in a whisper of cloth and then they both lie there, motionless on their backs. It’s not the most awkward time that Dean’s ever spent in a bed, but it’s up there. His skin crawls, electric with the proximity to Cas, while the lump in his throat grows and his chest constricts. It's getting harder and harder for him to breathe, and the conversation with his father continues to press into the vulnerable places of his lungs.

This isn’t working.

Another brick in the carefully constructed wall of Dean Winchester falls away, as Dean rolls over so that he's facing Cas. Cas' head is already turned towards him. In the half-light of the room, their eyes easily meet.

“Can I...I just...Please.” He’s not making any sense, he knows that. His hand finds the curves of Cas' chest and shoulders in the dark, the tiny frayed edge of his t-shirt. At the first touch of Dean's hand, Cas involuntarily flinches, but he soon relaxes into Dean's soft, exploratory touches. “Cas, I just...I'm sorry, but--I just...I need…” Let me hold you. The words wither on the tip of his tongue, but he lets his hands push and guide. Cas acquiesces to Dean's guidance and rolls onto his side, his back to Dean's chest.

Dean curls in close behind Cas, slotting his knees underneath Cas’ and winding his arm underneath Cas’ head. “Whatever you need,” Cas murmurs, and Dean drapes his other arm over Cas’ waist. His hand rests flat against his chest, right over the gentle rhythm of Cas’ heart.

His forehead presses into the curve of Cas’ skull, lips ghosting over the back of his neck. He syncs his breathing to the rise and fall of Cas’ chest, letting the steady thump-thump of Cas’ heart underneath his hand guide him.

“Cas, I…” He trails off. It would be so easy, in that moment, to say it.

I love you.

He swallows it.

“Thank you,” he says instead, pushing a swift kiss to Cas’ neck.

“Whatever you need Dean,” Cas repeats, like it’s his refrain. His hand rests over Dean’s, for just a moment, but it’s enough to have Dean’s heart slamming against his ribcage.

Curled up like a pair of parentheses, Dean feels the night’s panic and angst start to fade away. He could spend every night like this, he would spend every night like this.

“Happy birthday Dean,” Cas whispers, his voice thick with sleep.

It’s the best ending to a birthday he’s ever had.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Chapter Text

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

January limps out and February roars in with a week of sub-zero temperatures and wind chills. Winter in Kansas is an unforgiving time. Dean’s least favorite part of the day swiftly becomes the morning trek from the parking lot to the school. At 7:45, the sun is weak and grey, incapable of generating any warmth, and the wind whips cruelly around him. The fabric of his clothes provides no shield for the knife cold slice, and every morning Dean worries that the tip of his nose might be a victim of frostbite.

He hates February. The days are short and freezing, the excitement of Christmas and his birthday is long gone, and the only holiday is stupid Valentine’s Day.

He and Cas seem to be on the same page for that particular wormhole, which is: Ignore, ignore, ignore. It’s safer this way. Dean’s always thought that the holiday was a gimmick anyway--Just an excuse for companies to sell overpriced chocolate and overly glittery cards. Cas offers no opinions on the matter one way or the other, but February 14th passes without any comment from either of them.

Ever since the night in the hotel, things have been...Well, things have been. Dean doesn’t know exactly what ‘normal’ entails, since this whole thing is so new to him. All he knows is that, while the frenzied edge has disappeared, there’s a new tension lurking between the two of them.

Dean can’t get rid of the feeling that he and Cas are playing a game of chicken, where neither one of them knows exactly what the goal is, or what happens if someone blinks first. He doesn’t even know what would be considered blinking. All he knows is that whenever he and Cas are together, he can feel the weight of Cas’ eyes on his shoulders when Cas thinks he's not looking. He knows that he can’t stop seeking Cas out in every room, and when he finds him, he can’t stop looking at him.

Dean’s not used to waking up next to another body. Even with Lisa he usually dragged himself out of her bed in the early hours of the morning, when the world was just turning from black to grey. It felt easier that way, like by sneaking out of her bed, he could leave all of his problems behind. Turned out, that wasn’t the best method of problem solving: the problems, sneaky little bastards that they were, just hitched a ride while he wasn’t looking. And while he was busy ignoring them, they multiplied, until they managed to shove him out of Lisa’s bed altogether.

Waking up next to Cas...well it doesn't suck.

Turns out that Cas is a furnace in his sleep, and Dean wakes up with sweat dampening the back of his neck, but that’s a small price to pay for Cas’ ankle hooked between his, or his fingers curled into the soft material of Cas’ shirt. The brush and tickle of Cas’ hair against his cheek, and the way that their bodies shifted during the night but remained connected. The comfort that comes from holding someone. The implication of trust which comes from letting yourself be held.

Carefully, so slowly and carefully, Dean pushes himself up on one elbow. Cas snuffles in his sleep, face wrinkling in discontent before it smooths out once more. Bathed in the dim, pre-dawn light, Dean soaks in the sight.

He’s seen Cas sleeping before, but never like this, when he can smell the sleep-stale scent of him, and feel the night’s heat radiating off his body. In sleep, Cas looks younger, the worry lines vanished. Occasionally, his face will twitch, slack mouth moving, before he settles. A few soft grunts escape his throat and Dean bites back a smile. For someone who practices the art of silence so much in his waking hours, Cas is a noisy little thing when he sleeps.

His heart feels like it’s expanding, like if he keeps on staring at Cas for too much longer then he’s going to crack every one of his ribs. He wasn’t meant for this kind of torture, this kind of languid heat pouring through him. He’s Dean Winchester. He’s not supposed to feel this way over someone who has morning breath and is currently drooling into his pillow.

Warring with the glow is the slithering realization that this is a moment, snatched out of the ether with good luck and good timing. This, the sound of Cas’ low breaths, the feel of him settling in against Dean—this is a fleeting, stolen second. There’s no guarantee that they’ll ever do this again. Falling asleep together, cuddling, much as Dean hates to use that word—that’s meant for people in relationships. Not for friends who enjoy making out.

Dean rolls into the last half of February confused, resentful, and nostalgic for something that he only got to hold for a heartbeat. Not to mention that he’s fairly certain he has a terminal case of blue balls. Every morning in the shower he fancies that his dick is looking resentfully at him, like it’s determining the best time to jump ship.

So when the forecast for the next week predicts over a foot of snow, Dean can’t help but be excited. Snow days are God’s gift to teachers, a welcome respite from the mundane drudgery. Also, Dean is secretly five and likes to play in the snow.

All day Friday, Dean plays hell trying to gain and retain his classes’ attention. The snow is due to start Sunday night, and it’s all anyone can talk about--whether they think the predictions are correct, what they’re going to do, how long they’ll be out of school. Dean plays the part of the stern teacher, repeatedly reminding his students to get back on task and please just complete the reading, or else you’ll spend the whole weekend doing the reading--

“But if we get the snow then we’ll have lots of time.” It’s bad when Kevin is the one being the smartass. Not even Dean’s patented ‘Teacher Look’ can cow him back in submission.

“Do your homework anyway. Don’t jinx yourself.”

When Patience asks if he has any plans for the snow day, Dean knows that it’s total anarchy in his room. He can only hope to make it through the rest of the day unscathed. When the final bell rings, the children burst out of the classrooms. Dean watches them go, only turning when Ellen comes to stand beside him.

“Are you going to be all right?” she asks without prelude.

“It’s Friday, I’m always all right on Friday.”

“Don’t get cute with me,” she orders, delivering a light swat to the back of his head. “They say that this snow might actually get serious. You have enough food? Batteries? Blankets?”

“Even enough soap to wash my filthy body.” Dean would roll his eyes but he’d be lying if he said that he wasn’t secretly thrilled by Ellen playing the mother hen.

“Need more to wash out that filthy mouth of yours.” Dean ducks his head and hides his grin in the collar of his button-down. “So, how are you planning on spending your mini-vacation?”

“Long as the power stays on, a whole lot of nothing.” That’s not entirely true--He has enough food in his townhouse to feed the army of Denmark. He’s planning on going on a cooking extravaganza and then settling in with a Netflix queue as long as his arm. “Might catch up on some of my grading.”

“Uh-huh.” Ellen sounds unconvinced. “Cas mentioned that he was going over to your place.”

“For...the hell? He’s coming over Saturday! It’s not like we’re planning a damn sleepover.”

Dean may, however, have other, nefarious plans. Namely, he’s going to sit Cas down on the couch, straddle him, and kiss the ever-loving shit out of him. And then, if he plays his cards right, they may just exchange handies like a couple of teenagers, give him something to put in the spank bank for the cold days ahead.

Ellen hums low in her throat, her posture screaming disbelief. “Look, sweetie, you know that I’ve got no problem with whoever you do whatever with--”

“Ellen, shut up--” Dean groans, not that it makes a damn bit of difference.

“But you’ve got to stop this damn run-around with Cas.” Ellen soldiers on, resolutely ignoring Dean. “Look anyone that’s been within twenty feet of you knows--for whatever reason, that boy thinks that the sun shines out of your ass, and you…” Ellen smiles, soft, and brushes her fingertips over Dean’s bangs. “Honey, I have been hoping for you to look at someone like that ever since you turned eighteen.”

Dean remembers the first time he met Ellen. Nine years old, and he was just coming to terms with the idea that perhaps every adult in the world wasn’t interested in making his life miserable. Dad dropped them off at Bobby’s without warning, and they’d made their way inside, already familiar with the routine. What wasn’t familiar was the woman standing in front of the stove, beer bottle in hand.

They’d both stared at each other, frozen in surprise. After a moment, Dean’s upper lip curled in an automatic response, while the woman’s eyes softened. A tiny smile curved across her face, and she said, “You must be Sam and Dean. My name’s Ellen.”

For Dean, who could barely remember his mother, and for Sam, who never knew her, meeting Ellen was a blessing. She’d effortlessly fit herself into the nooks and crannies of their lives, somehow knowing when to push Dean and when to leave him alone to stew. She’d weathered all of Sam’s teenage mood swings, all while dealing with Jo and her angst. He and Sam weren’t hers by blood, not even by marriage. Ellen had no obligation to either one of them. But she picked up two strays off the side of the road and made them family. Made them better.

So when she smiles at him, and tells him that she wants him to be happy...A harsh prickling sets in behind Dean’s eyes and he blinks to try and clear it away.

“So do us all a favor and get your thumb out of your ass.” Ellen’s sharp tone returns and the pat she gives his shoulder has enough force behind it to make Dean stumble. “And if that means that you have to invite that boy over for a sleepover then you’d better dust off your glitter nail polish and fix to painting toenails and braiding hair.”

Dean glares after her retreating figure and wonders why everyone can’t just leave him alone.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

Saturday afternoon is grey and cold, with a bite in the air that Dean can only associate with snow. If he hadn’t been religiously checking the weather forecast then he would think that the storm was going to start today.

Being stuck with Cas through the duration of a snow storm...The butterflies in his stomach are wearing tap shoes.

As it is, Cas sits at his kitchen table, flipping through a paperback as Dean pokes at the steaks sizzling on the grill. The rich scent of garlic and cooking meat curl through the kitchen, and Dean hums tunelessly under his breath. Meat cooking, the prospect of no school, and Cas? Everything’s coming up Dean.

“Leave mine on for longer please,” Cas says, not bothering to look up from his book.

Dean rolls his eyes while he’s transferring his own, medium, steak to a plate. “Don’t talk to me for the next ten minutes.” He pokes at Cas’ steak, watching as the temperature rises. “Well-done steak, are you kidding me.” He continues to mutter resentfully as smoke curls up from the steak. “Grossest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” He’s going to have to wait for Cas to at least have a mint before he kisses him.

“Excuse me if I don’t want to put partially raw meat in my mouth.” The argument is old, Cas’ tone bored.

“Coming from the guy who wanted me to try sushi the other day.” At that Cas does look up, a question in his raised eyebrows. “Raw fish. How is that not grosser than a nicely cooked steak?”

“I thought that it would be an interesting place to eat, I wasn’t aware that you had such an aversion to trying some culturally relevant foods--” Cas stops what looks like it’s shaping up to be a good rant as Dean steps in front of him. He knocks Cas’ knees apart and leans over him, hands bracketing either side of Cas' head.

The kiss is brief and hard. Cas sucks in a surprised breath through his nose but when his hands come up to grab at Dean’s forearms, Dean steps away. He smirks at the frustrated groan that Cas tries to smother.

“No one likes a tease.” The words sound threatening, but there’s a wobble in his voice.

Dean pulls Cas’ gross, burnt steak off the skillet and places it on a plate. He sets it in front of Cas with a wide, sweet smile. “No one likes their steak well-done either.” He drops a kiss to the top of Cas’ head and turns back to the stove before Cas has a chance to see the pink blazing across his cheeks.

All right, so his seduction plan isn’t going as well as it could be.

Thankfully, Cas doesn’t say anything about Dean’s attempt at 1950’s housewifery, so Dean can eat his (cool pink centered) steak in peace. He winces as Cas saws his knife through his steak, and outright complains when Cas dips the meat into a small pool of steak sauce on the side of the plate.

“For someone who would live off of diner food if it were feasible, you’re quite the snob.” Cas’ voice is prim and snotty, lips pursed up like an altar boy’s.

Dean wants to kiss that stupid expression right off his face.

The conversation remains easy throughout dinner. Dean was surprised, at first, when it turned out that he could talk to Cas as easily as he could Sam or Benny. He’d thought that it would be like talking to an encyclopedia. But, as it turns out, Cas actually does have a sense of humor. It’s just dry to the point of arid, and weird as shit. Lucky then that Dean appreciates sarcasm and is, in his own way, also weird as shit.

Talking to Cas, hanging with Cas, kissing Cas--everything about him is just so easy. Dean’s never been with someone where he felt like he didn’t have to try and sand off his rough edges, or hide the less than lustrous parts of himself. For three years Cas saw the worst of him, and yet here he is, in Dean’s kitchen, even now taking Dean’s bitching for liking his meat cooked a certain way.

Maybe Dean’s life sucks in an alternate universe, and this is just God’s way of making up for it.

He feels a little pity for that Dean--if the suckage is on the same ratio as the awesome, then that poor bastard must be having a hell of a time of it.

“What about you?” Dean asks, twisting the cap off of a beer bottle. “Any major plans for the snow?”

Cas shrugs. “I have to write some plans. Finish editing an article and submit it. Read a book. Clean my house.”

“Slow down the excitement train,” Dean huffs. “You’re going to give a guy a heart attack with all that fun you’re having.” He takes a sip and then looks at Cas. “Editing an article for who?”

Cas’ eyes slide to the side. “The American Historical Review.” He taps his fingers on the table. “I had a colleague from my doctorate program ask me to take a look at an article he was writing. He promised to give me peer-review credits.”

Dean ignores the little curl of anxiety in his chest. He remembers, faintly, Charlie telling him that Castiel wrote articles. This is nothing new. “That’s good, right?” he asks. He gulps down his beer and represses the automatic belch.

Cas shrugs, tracing an invisible line on the table. “If you’re more entrenched in the world of academia, sure. For a high school teacher?” He tilts his head, an unreadable look passing over his face. “It creates exponentially more work and helps me not at all.”

“Uh-huh.” Dean taps the edge of his bottle, his nail making a faint tinkling noise against the glass. “Do you...You ever think about getting into that kind of life?” Cas shoots a sharp look at him. “University stuff, I mean.”

Cas’ posture stiffens and his finger pauses in its journey. It’s been one of the mysteries about Castiel that plagued Dean even before he knew him. A man with Cas’ credentials should not be slumming it in the public school system. He should be lecturing at some university, have at least one book published with a stodgy author’s photo on the jacket cover. Cas even mentioned once, that Michael had wanted him to teach at the collegiate level.

Perhaps that’s why he’s happily put himself among the dregs.

“It’s not really my scene,” Castiel finally says. “Publish or perish? Plus, most professors don’t actually teach their classes. I think I’d miss having students.”

The tightness in Dean’s chest loosens. Not that he thinks he’d lose touch with Cas if, all of a sudden, Cas decided to turn in stale smelling classrooms for the glossy, musty smell of university but...There’s something comforting about having Cas in the same building and on the same schedule.

“It’s getting late,” Cas says, standing and stretching. “I’m calling it.”

A jolt of disappointment hits Dean. He’d hoped...All of his fantasies had this night ending with him pushing Cas into the couch, kissing him until he lost that smug self-possession, kissing him until he was panting, kissing him until the thread of self-control snapped. He’d imagined dipping his hand into Cas’ pants, wrapping his fingers around him, feeling Cas shudder…

This line of thought is leading nowhere fast, and Cas is still walking towards the door. “You have to hurry home for your geriatric fun already?” Dean asks. It might come out a little clingy, but this is his last chance to see Cas for probably days.

His dick gives a half-hearted stir. Dean reads it as a threat: Do not fuck this up for us.

“Well, you know,” Cas hums, enigmatic smile flitting across his face. Hell, he’s shrugging into his jacket, he’s not even hesitating. “Butter isn’t going to churn itself.”

Dean steps close, crowding Cas against the door. “I’ll...churn your butter.”

The second words come out, he winces. Even Cas looks mildly horrified.

He used to be so smooth. What the hell happened to him?

“On that note.” Cas smiles and presses a swift kiss to the corner of Dean’s mouth. “Have a lovely time slaving over a hot stove.” He twists out of Dean’s grasp and opens the door.

The blast of cold air hits Dean like a fist in the gut. So does the realization that there’s already at least four inches of snow on the ground.

“Oh,” Cas says, opening the door and stepping outside. Immediately, his dark hair is sprinkled by fat flakes. “Oh no.” He turns to look at Dean, snow clinging to his eyelashes. “This was not supposed to happen.”

Dean gapes. He looks up at the sky, to confirm for sure that yes, indeed, it is snowing, and no, there does not appear to be any end in sight.

“Well, this complicates the drive home.”

When he understands, Dean’s arm shoots out and his fingers wrap around Cas’ elbow. “You can’t...You’re kidding right?” Cas jerks his arm away with an irritated huff. “Your little matchbox isn’t going to handle this.” He senses Cas’ next question and immediately heads it off, “And I’ll be damned if I take Baby out in this crap.”

“I’ll be fine.” Cas looks at his Fiesta, already covered in snow. “It’s not that far of a drive.”

“Cas, don’t be stupid.” Did Dean think it was cold outside? It’s nothing compared to the ice in Cas’ eyes. “I’m not going to let you make that drive.”

“And since when,” Cas steps close to Dean, his voice gone dangerously low, “do you get to let me do anything?”

Dean swallows. Yeah, Cas is pissed, but at the same time, there’s something so deliciously hot about that tone of voice. If they were in a different situation, that tone would have Dean dropping to his knees so fast he’d bruise. As it is, he draws himself up, relying on his extra two inches to look down at Cas.

“I’ll swallow your keys.” It’s an empty bluff--that threat would land him in the emergency room before anything else--but a disbelieving smile crosses Cas’ face.

“I can’t…” Cas looks longingly towards his car, then back at Dean. “It would be a huge imposition.”

“Yeah, you’d have to stay at my house and eat my food, and oh yeah,” Dean ticks on his fingers, “you already do all of that!” Sensing the change in Cas’ attitude, he tugs at his jacket. “Come on. Now I can finally get you to watch all of the original Star Trek.”

He ignores the muttered, “Maybe I can just walk home,” as the door closes behind them.

--

 

It’s exactly as easy as Dean promised it would be. The only hiccup comes around eleven, when Dean changes into his sweatpants. Cas, still dressed in his jeans, shifts on the couch, until Dean tosses a spare pair in his face.

And he’d be lying if he said that the Neanderthal part of his brain didn’t get a thrill from seeing Cas stretched out on the couch in his clothes.

Dean makes his tenth trip to the window. Now that he knows it’s snowing, he’s drawn to it like a moth to light. The fourth time that he twitches the curtains aside, Cas sighs and kicks at him. “Would you stop that? I can promise you, you’re not going to school tomorrow!”

“We’re snowed in,” Dean says, excitement coloring his words. “There’s got to be at least a foot out there, maybe more. And it’s not stopping! This could break all kinds of records!”

Despite his seeming indifference, Cas joins Dean at the window. “I didn’t know that your interest in meteorology went so deep.”

Dean grins at him, nudging his side with an elbow. “Snow days man. How are you not thrilled?”

Cas looks up at the sky. “I don’t know. The day off is nice.” He catches Dean’s open mouth and shrugs. “There really was never anyone to enjoy the snow with. Anna wasn’t much for playing outside and everyone else...Michael and Lucas were too old to want to play in the snow, Raphael would be caught dead before he would be caught having fun, and Gabriel…” Cas’ nose wrinkles in disgust. “Beware the yellow snow,” he says, with a theatrical shudder.

“Tomorrow,” Dean says, throwing his arm around Cas’ shoulders, “you and I are going to have a snowball fight like the Lord intended.”

He ignores Cas’ remarks about how he’s read the Bible and he’s fairly certain that snowball fights don’t enter into any of the scriptures. Instead, he starts planning snow forts, and attack plans, and wondering just how much Cas will scream with a handful of snow dumped down the back of his shirt.

Everything goes well until a yawn cracks Dean’s jaw. Cas looks at him, suddenly furtive and guilty. “It’s getting late.”

“Yeah.” Dean stretches and stands. “Come on. You get the bed.” Cas’ jaw sets in what Dean knows well is his stubborn look. “Don’t argue with me. You’re the guest, you get the bed.” Bobby might not have been the best person to learn manners from, but he taught Dean this much: whenever you have a guest over, they get the best of everything, including the bed.

“And you’ll sleep where? The floor?”

“Jesus, don’t be dramatic. I have a couch and a futon in the spare bedroom, it’s not like you’re making me sleep on a bed of nails.”

“Or you could sleep in your bed, where you sleep every night.”

“And then what about you?”

Cas blinks, shy for the first time. “I wasn’t aware that the two could be mutually exclusive.”

Dean reels, because is Cas...is he? Teeth come out to nip at his lower lip, and he was. “Yeah,” he says, voice scraping out of his throat. “That’ll be fine.”

He flicks out the lights downstairs before ascending the stairs. He very carefully does not look at the ass in front of him, very carefully avoids thinking about sinking his teeth into that ass. It’s a lot harder than it looks.

Cas waits for him at the top of the stairs. Despite the hard set of his shoulders, there’s something soft about him. Dean ghosts his fingers across his chest, feeling the heat through the thin barrier of his t-shirt. Cas shivers in response, eyes darkening. “Dean,” he warns, though his raspy voice does nothing to calm the blood raging in Dean’s body.

“Let’s go to bed,” Dean says, realizing after that those words will do nothing to calm either one of them. “To sleep,” he clarifies. He doesn’t think that he’s imagining the faint frown of disappointment on Cas’ face. He’s disappointed in himself, though a little relieved. Hand-jobs were one thing, but sharing a bed...That has implications.

“You first.” Cas gestures towards the bed, and he sure as shit isn’t making this any easier for Dean.

He is glad, though, that he changed the sheets this morning.

It’s weird, both of them sliding into the bed together. Like a couple, Dean’s brain gleefully says, and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t shut that voice up. He suspects that it’s because part of him doesn’t want to.

They’re not small men, either one of them, and while Dean’s queen bed fits both of them it’s almost impossible to settle in without brushing against the other person. Elbows, knees, feet, shoulders--they all touch each other and each time a little jolt of electricity, of want surges through Dean.

You idiot, his dick bemoans. Couldn’t even do this right for us, could you.

“Goodnight Dean,” Cas mumbles, his profile visible against the white wall. Dean swallows, his throat dry.

“Night Cas.”

He tries to sleep, he really does, but something about Cas being next to him turns every single one of his nerves into a firework. The sound of Cas’ breath, the small sounds of skin shifting against sheets, the faint scent of Cas permeating his sheets and pillows--all of them are like a continuous shot of caffeine to his brain and there’s no possible way that he could sleep.

“Dean.”

The sound of Cas’ voice startles Dean out of a restless doze. He jerks his gaze over to see Cas rolled over on his side. Moonlight through the blinds catches his eyes and skin, turning them both luminous.

“I can’t sleep with your squirming.”

“Well, what the hell do you want--” Dean’s protests die in his throat as Cas tugs him closer. He goes pliant, despite every instinct screaming at him to pull away--He doesn’t cuddle, and he sure as shit doesn’t let himself be maneuvered like a personal body pillow. However, that’s exactly what he lets Cas do, until he’s on his back, with Cas’ leg thrown over his shins, one hand resting on his chest.

“Go to sleep,” Cas orders.

Dean exhales, long and shaky. “Cas, don’t you think that we need to--”

“I think that we need to go to sleep.” Cas’ tone brooks no argument, while his fingernails press soft crescent warnings into his chest.

“Cas, you know I ain’t one for talking--”

His words are stopped by Cas leaning over him, pressing a gentle kiss to his mouth. Dean sighs into the contact, whimpering softly when Cas pulls away. “Then don’t,” he says. Dean opens his mouth and Cas sighs. There’s frustration in the sound, as well as something that sounds a little like desperation. “It’s almost one the morning. Please, let’s just sleep.”

Cas’ fingers trace feather-light circles on his chest, as soothing as they are maddening. Dean relaxes into his touch. His chest rises and falls in tandem with Cas’, each exhale stirring dark hair. He knows that he should keep pushing. He knows, rationally, that every relationship, romantic, familial or otherwise, cracks and breaks without communication to plaster the holes. He’s old enough to know that whatever he and Cas are doing isn’t sustainable. He should push. He should keep on pushing until he has a definite answer, one way or the other. But he can’t forget the plea in Cas’ voice, not to mention, if he pushed, then he’s certain he’d get an answer that he doesn’t want.

So he closes his eyes and drifts off to sleep, dreaming of what the morning will bring.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

Dean shuffles back into the realm of consciousness with the acute awareness of the body next to him.

His breath catches in his throat, adrenaline pumping through his veins as his sluggish brain tries to catch up. His mouth isn’t sour with the lingering remnants of drunkenness, so the chances of a drunken tryst are slim to none--

The body next to him groans softly before shifting closer. Soft, dark hair brushes against Dean’s nose and oh, that’s right. Cas. Cas and the snow. Cas and the snow and now he’s in Dean’s bed.

Sharing a motel bed was one thing. Dean spent his childhood splitting crappy motel mattresses with Sam. He’s passed out on futons with Jo after a night out, he’s spent nights curled around Benny and Charlie after one of their parties. On occasion, he would spent the full night with Lisa and wake up with the scent of her shampoo in his nostrils.

But to wake up in his own bed with Cas…

Possessiveness, the like which he’s never experienced before, squeezes hot and tight around his chest. Here, he can believe that Cas is his to keep, to hold.

Cas is in his bed, curled up underneath his sheets like he belongs there, and all Dean can think is that he does belong there.

Heat flows through his body and pools in his groin. Their positioning doesn’t help. Sometime in the middle of the night they shifted so that they’re on their sides, facing each other. Cas’ ankle is still hooked around Dean’s. Their knees brush.

Morning wood is something that Dean’s come to live with, like stubbed toes and sinus infections. He’s never felt the potential of it before, the flesh between his legs hardening as his eyes travel over the plumpness of Cas’ bottom lip, the shadow of his collarbone almost hidden by the neck of his t-shirt.

Cas shifts in his sleep, closer to Dean. Dean clenches his fingers in the comforter in a futile attempt to stop himself from rutting forward. He wants, god Christ, does he want, his blood boiling out a fever of it. He might pass out from the combination of his heart rate and the fact that his blood flow is directed below his waist.

His hips jerk forward, and that’s in, Dean rolls out of bed, suddenly uncaring if he wakes Cas or not. All he knows is that he has to get out of there before he does something that he’s going to regret, like molest his best friend while he’s still asleep.

He snatches at a pair of boxers thrown over the chair, hopes they’re clean, and snatches a band shirt from his laundry basket full of clean, unfolded clothes. Behind him, he hears an unhappy groan, but he ignores it in favor of shutting himself in the bathroom.

Cold or hot shower, Dean contemplates for a brief moment before he decides to hell with it, and turns the knob to the left. When steam starts billowing through the small bathroom, he steps into the shower. His cock, flushed red and angry, bobs resentfully against his stomach.

It takes only a few pulls and then he’s coming all over the tile wall. Dean sighs and shoves his forehead underneath the showerhead. When his wobbly knees threaten to give out, he slaps his hands against the wall, bracing himself.

He showers quicker than his wont. He’s terrified that Cas might try to come in while he’s in the shower, or worse yet, while he’s trying to get out of the shower. With that thought racing through his mind, he towels off quickly, leaving his hair in damp little spikes. His t-shirt clings to the wet places on his back and shoulders, and his boxers want to ride up his crack, but at least he’s not greeting the world naked.

Steam billows out of the bathroom when he opens the door and Dean gingerly creeps back into his room. This is the worst kind of reverse one-night stand he can think of: normally he’s tiptoeing around a stranger’s house, gathering clothes like breadcrumbs from the night before, and sneaking out, all with the care of a burglar. Now he’s sliding through his room, careful not to step on the creaky parts of the floor, as he snatches a pair of sweatpants. All the while, his eyes remain fixed on the lump in his bed. Cas is either asleep or damn good at faking it, because he never stirs.

Once Dean’s downstairs and in the kitchen, he can breathe a little easier. He can forget all about Cas being in his bed and focus on the rituals of the morning. He slides the blinds back on the sliding door to reveal--Wow. That’s...a lot of snow.

It’s at least eighteen inches, if not more, and Dean’s heart sinks as he realizes that he’s not getting out any time soon. The complex where he lives is usually good about scraping, but with snow this deep, it’s unlikely that the roads are going to be clear enough for anyone to even get to the parking lot. He and Cas are definitely going to be stuck here for another night.

It’s with a strange mix of jubilation and anxiety that he starts making breakfast.

Bacon and eggs. Bacon and eggs are simple, a man’s breakfast, except something shifts along the way because then he’s making pancakes as well. Not just sad, flat things either, no, these are fluffy buttermilk wonders, with edges so crisp and buttery that they practically melt in your mouth. Over years of caring for Sam, Dean’s become quite the pancake expert and he has yet to be outdone. Not that he’s biased or anything.

Even the soft pad of feet behind him can’t throw him off his rhythm. “That smells nice,” Cas says, voice still rough with sleep. Dean dares to turn around to find him knuckling at his eyes, hair gone from I just had sex to Rodents frequently use this as a base of operations. He’s barefoot, wearing the same sweats and shirt that he went to sleep in.

“Morning sunshine.” Cas glares, his eyes narrow slits underneath his fringe. “I made coffee for Mongo,” Dean says, ruthlessly repressing the urge to kiss the befuddled, morning-irritation off of Cas’ face.

Cas grunts, but accepts the mug Dean offers to him. He sips while lingering at Dean’s elbow, not in the way but not necessarily unobtrusive either. “You’re making pancakes,” he finally says, eyes losing some of their blurriness.

“Great observation Sherlock.”

Dean can feel the force of the snide eye-roll that Cas gives him.

“Move, would you? These are going to burn.” Dean easily bullies Cas out of the way, bumping his hips into Cas’ until he's forced to move. He slides eggs onto plates before putting the pan into the sink and flipping off the range. He turns to grab the pancakes to put on the table, only to find his way blocked. “All right, seriously man, you’re going to have to-”

He trails off as Cas runs a soft hand over his chest. It’s not seductive. Instead, the heat lighting in Dean’s body is a softer, steadier glow. Cas leans up, head already tilted to the side.

Cas’ mouth tastes like coffee, which is kind of gross, but Dean can’t mind. Cas’ right hand curves around his neck, pulling him down. Dean’s hands find a home on Cas’ hips, thumbs dipping underneath the hem of his shirt to rest in the hollows of his bones. Dean’s tongue sweeps leisurely over Cas’ lips, and smiles at the resultant hum. It’s the same satisfaction and happiness reflected back at him.

He’s never had this before. Breakfast, coffee, kisses that aren’t meant to entice or arouse...He’s sinking into all of this like a warm bath and he should be more scared that this is all so easy. That this, Cas sliding around him, warm hand trailing over his waist, that this could be something that he wants forever.

 

--

Turns out that Dean’s clothes fit Cas fine. For the most part.

Cas is a little beefier in the thigh department than Dean, so the fabric of his jeans clings like a second skin, like it was painted on and Dean has to remind himself to keep his gaze strictly above the waist. For reasons. That don’t have anything to do with how much he wants those thighs wrapped around his head.

Cas still looks dubious when Dean drags him outside. Moreso when his foot sinks knee-deep into the snow pushing up against Dean’s doorstep. Dean, invigorated by the cold, whoops and jumps. A spray of snow flies up in his wake, mingling with the snow still lethargically falling from the sky.

“We’re not going to school for weeks!” he whoops in exaltation.

“I’m not sure that I understand the point,” Cas remarks. He still has yet to venture out in the meager front yard, and that simply will not do. “There’s no point in shoveling, since it will just get covered up anyway, and I’m almost certain that my ancestors did not develop the concept of shelter so that their descendant could come outside during foul weather and argh!”

The exclamation comes courtesy of one (1) snowball thrown at his face. Dean might not be pitching for the majors but he can aim a snowball from ten feet away. Cas sputters and scrubs at his face, his eyes wide with shock. “The hell do you think you’re--Dean!” Cas dodges another snowball, but he’s not fast enough for all of them. “Dean!” His gravel rough voice rises in pitch the longer that he tries to dodge, until he looks up. Righteous wrath is written all over his face.

Dean might have bitten off more than he can chew. He loves it.

“Cas, come on, we’re friends right?” Dean holds out his hands, wide smirk on his face. “Cas, what’s a little snow in the face amongst friends. Come on, there’s no need to...Cas, what are you doing?”

It’s the last thing he gets out before Cas launches himself at Dean. Apparently, such mundane tactics as creating snowballs are beneath him. Instead, Cas opts for all out destruction. Two strong arms wrap around Dean’s torso and drag him down to the ground in a tackle.

The snow cushions his fall and all Dean can do is laugh as Cas sits on his waist. “Of all the immature, childish--” He grabs handfuls of snow and dumps them on Dean’s face and neck. Dean bites back a manly shout at the cold dribbling through his shirt. Cas doesn’t let up, and the sound of his laugh is almost warm enough to melt the snow around them.

He does however, leave himself vulnerable when he twists to get more snow. Dean makes his attack, heaving Cas off of his stomach and dumping him into the snow. Cas huffs out another laugh as Dean shovels snow on top of him.

“Can’t we talk about this, Dean, agh, that’s cold--”

They must look like a pair of idiots, rolling around in the snow, but it’s the most fun Dean’s had in months. His smile threatens to split his face in half and his laughter wheezes out of him in quick bursts.

For a wiry little guy, Cas is a lot stronger than he looks. He pushes at Dean until Dean’s flat on his back, squinting up at the sun through the clouds. They should probably go inside. Even through the fabric of his gloves, his fingertips are tingling with numbness and he’s long since passed the point of comfort in his legs. Melted snow seeps in through the fabric of his jeans and it should be desperately uncomfortable, but Cas sitting on his stomach can make up for a lot of wrongs.

The touch of damp fabric on his cheek brings Dean back to the present. Cas grins down at him, sweet and sunny. “I think that I understand the attraction now,” he says, as serious as if he were discussing a dissertation. That’s before Cas leans down and kisses him.

Uncaring of whoever might be watching, Dean winds his arms around Cas’ shoulders. Cas smiles against his lips, his own hands bracing his weight on Dean’s chest. Yeah, his ass might be numb, but Cas’ little moans more than make up for it.

Until the little son of a bitch shoves a handful of snow up his shirt.

A scream that is a little less than manly rips out of Dean’s throat as he jumps to his feet, dislodging Cas from his lap. Cas cackles at him, no doubt endlessly amused by how Dean stamps his feet, curses, and threatens wild retribution. “You asshole,” Dean hisses. He points his finger at Cas, whose shoulders still ripple with laughter. “You...complete and utter asshole.”

So yeah, his butt and toes are numb, his fingers prickle painfully every time he tries to wiggle them, and now melted snow is most definitely going to end up near his crotch but.

Watching Cas laugh makes it all more than worth it.

---

 

The shower becomes a larger obstacle than it should be.

Dean’s townhouse has one shower and two dripping wet, shivering men.

Dean clenches his jaw to stop the chattering of his teeth. “Take the damn shower man.”

Cas shakes his head. It’s akin to being trapped in a small room with a wet golden retriever. “It’s your house Dean. Please take the shower.”

Dean really doesn’t want to have this talk with someone who’s dripping water onto his carpet. It’s the bed debate all over again, except this time it’s a shower. You can wear sweatpants to bed, hell, if you really wanted to, you could wear a parka. You don’t have that option with a shower.

It lingers between the two of them--We could shower together.

Cas. Naked. And wet. Next to Dean. Also naked. Also wet.

He’s dizzy from the thought of it. But he’ll also be damned if he’s the first one to mention it.

Cas licks his lips, eyes shifting from Dean to the bathroom door and then back again. There’s something deliberate about the gesture. Dean’s breath runs ragged in his chest.

“I’ll go first!” he says, voice a little high. Cas blinks, mouth opening in confusion. Dean ignores him and pushes past Cas into the bathroom. He closes the door with a firm click and takes a moment to gather himself.

Even though shivers wrack his body, there’s a heat blossoming underneath his skin. It spreads like a wildfire until Dean thinks that he might burst into flame with it all. For the second time that day, he cranks the shower on, hot as it will go.

The day spins out before him, the hours coiling tighter and tighter around themselves, to the point of breaking. Dean can’t help but wonder what happens when the thread finally snaps.

---

 

The rest of the day passes easily enough. After their showers, Dean and Cas settle into the living room. Cas flips through his paperback from the night previous while Dean tries to beat the latest level of Tetris on his phone. At some point, Cas drags a blanket off the back of the couch and drapes it over the both of them. He leans into Dean and Dean automatically lifts his arm for Cas to slide underneath.

He realizes, when his free hand comes up to play with the tips of Cas’ hair, that they’re in too deep. This, right here, the cuddling, the breakfast, the comfortable silence...This is couple shit. He spent a year with Lisa, dragging in his heels and fighting against any hint of commitment, of any sign that they were really dating. Everything that she begged him for: family dinners, lazy weekends, quiet nights in...They’re all the things that he’s fallen into so effortlessly with Cas.

It’s his particular brand of Dean Winchester luck and karma that ensures that he wants to be in a relationship with the one person who’s said he doesn’t want one.

Dean swallows down the sour taste in the back of his throat. “Hey,” he says, punctuating his words with a soft tug on Cas’ hair. Cas hums and flips another page in his book. “Cas.”

With obvious reluctance, Cas marks his place and closes the book. He shifts his eyes to look up at Dean and the words almost come tumbling out.

I love you. I don’t think that I’ve ever loved anyone outside of family as much as I love you. Please be with me. Stay with me and let me take care of you and never leave me. You are absolutely everything to me.

Instead Dean forces a smile and says, “What do you want for dinner?”

--

It’s been a day.

It’s been a good day, which almost makes it worse. If it had been an awkward day, then Dean would at least know. He’d be able to go to bed knowing that yeah, he and Cas are good friends, and maybe there’s a bit of a spark between them, but at the end of the day, they’re just not compatible.

But no. It’s been amazing day. He’s laughed more today than he has in several weeks, and heard Cas’ low laugh rumbling through his house. His toes still curl at the memory of breakfast, when Cas’ sleep pliant body pushed against his. And after dinner, when they were both full and a little stupid with it, they curled back up underneath the blanket. Cas’ hand came to rest on Dean’s thigh, fingers stroking up and down. His dick, which had been in a state of high alert all day, came back online with a vengeance. Dean froze, while Castiel proceeded to drive him insane.

And then it was time for bed.

There’s none of the awkwardness of last night. No, this tension comes from a day’s worth of kisses, of showers, of Cas’ long fingers playing over his body like he’s nothing more than a nice piano. Dean meets Cas’ eyes as he flips back the sheets and comforter. The click of his swallow echoes through the room.

And then Cas, dressed in Dean’s shirt and Dean’s pajamas, is sliding into Dean’s bed and looking at Dean with heavy-lidded eyes. Dean’s mouth goes dry and he slides into bed beside Cas. His feet search out Cas’, tangling their ankles together. Cas’ head lolls to the side, his face in shadow from the soft light of the bedside lamp.

Dean’s tongue flicks out over his lower lip. “Cas.” His voice comes out as a low rumble. It’s a good thing that he’s lying down because he doesn’t think that his body could manage to remain standing on its own.

Cas’ fingers trace feather-light touches over his hairline, down his nose, over his cheeks. Dean’s breath hitches as Cas’ fingers move over his lips, tracing the curve of his upper lip, pulling on the jut of his lower lip. Dean whimpers at their loss, even as they move over the line of his jaw.

The hours and minutes wind tighter and tighter, pulling at Dean until he thinks that his chest might burst.

“Good night Dean,” Cas says, his voice low and wrecked. His fingers linger on Dean’s cheek for a second longer before he pulls away.

Tighter and tighter, the minutes coil around each other.

 

---

Dean’s sleep is not restful.

He tosses and turns, always conscious of the body next to him. No matter which way he turns, he can’t seem to find a position which brings him relief. His back aches, his arms are sore, his head buzzes, and every single motion from Cas acts like a bullhorn to the inside of his skull.

Dean startles awake from a fitful doze. He and Cas are in the same position as this morning, on their sides facing each other. He glances over Cas and Cas’ eyes stare back.

Neither blinks. Dean swallows and tries to get some moisture in his mouth but it disappears when Cas reaches out and places his hand flat against Dean’s chest.

“Can’t sleep?”

Dean’s throat clicks with his swallow. “No,” he rasps. He traces over Cas’ fingers, down his wrist, and bicep. He uncurls his fingers and places his hand on Cas’ chest, mirroring Cas. His fingers spread wide.

Dangerous territory, especially when his thumb finds the peak of a nipple underneath Cas’ shirt. He brushes against the nub and watches Cas’ eyes go wide with surprise. He brushes again, firmer, and Cas gasps, the sound harsh in the silence of the room.

“Dean,” he says, voice strangled. His chin lifts, in invitation, in challenge. “Dean, I…” Dean moves his thumb, but not far.

Cas’ fingers dig into his chest while his free hand finds Dean’s. Their fingers interlace.

“You’re shaking,” Cas whispers. His tone lands somewhere between pleased and awestruck.

“Yeah,” Dean agrees. He feels them, minute tremors shaking through his body, anticipation winding him tighter and tighter.

“Are you cold?”

A sarcastic denial is on the tip of Dean’s tongue before he realizes--this is Cas giving him a chance to say no, a final chance to gracefully bow out.

It’s the last thing that Dean wants.

“No.” Dean moves closer, legs tangled, knees brushing, chests touching. His nose pushes against Cas’. “No, I’m not cold.”

Days, hours, minutes--Now the seconds twist around each other. Tighter and tighter, Dean’s body shaking with need, with anticipation, with fear, with exhilaration...Tighter and tighter until it snaps.

Cas’ mouth is hot and insistent, his leg slinging over Dean’s hip and pulling him closer. Dean moans, the sound lost between his mouth and Cas’. His thumb, released from whatever obligation it had, brushes over the nub of Cas’ nipple. Cas gasps, throwing his head back. Dean nips down the expanse of throat, teeth scoring down day-old stubble.

“Cas, Cas, I gotta...Is this…”

Cas nods, pulling at Dean’s side, his hips. “Yes, yes,” he groans, and that’s all the permission Dean needs.

His hands fly to the bottom of Cas’ shirt and between the two of them, it disappears. Cas’ hands push at his shirt and Dean carelessly rips it off, letting it flutter to the ground. Hands push at Dean’s shoulders, urging him onto his back and he goes.

Cas moves with a fluid grace, shedding blankets to roll on top of him. Dean groans at the hot slide of skin on skin, his hands roaming over Cas’ back, his shoulders, up to grip his hair as Cas licks a hot stripe up the side of his neck. Cas moves down, nipping at his collarbone. Dean’s back arches, his hands landing on Cas’ hips to hold him steady.

“Ah, fuck,” Dean pants, helpless as Cas licks and sucks a path down his chest. A hot tongue scrapes over his nipple and Dean whines in his throat. His hips push up, into Cas’--

Cas’ cock brushes against his and even through four layers of clothes, the feeling is still electric. Dean groans with the sensation, head spinning with the realization--Cas is hard, just as hard as he is, Cas wants this, wants him. Above him, Cas freezes, pupils blown wide as he looks down at Dean. Then he grinds down and Dean throws his head back with a moan.

This is...This is beyond what they’ve ever done, what they discussed. They said that they were Friends Who Occasionally Make Out, not Friends Who Dry Hump, but Dean doesn’t want to change it, not now, when Cas’ fingers dance over his skin, mapping the ladders of his ribs.

Cas moves down his body, leaving a trail of fire in his wake. Dean’s legs spread, hips thrusting into nothing as Cas pulls away.

“Cas, come on man, please--” He doesn’t know what he’s begging for, but Cas’ fingers dancing along his waistband might be everything that he wanted.

“Can I?” Cas looks up at him, eyes huge and almost black in the dim light.

“Yeah.” Dean swallows, anticipation heavy in his gut. “Yeah, god, go for it.”

A flash of teeth in Cas’ grin and then those long fingers are at his hips, dancing over the waistband of his sweats. Dean arches up and in one fluid motion, Cas pulls both his sweats and his boxers off. He throws them over his shoulder without ever taking his eyes off of Dean.

Dean shifts under Cas’ eyes. His cock rests heavy and flushed on his stomach and underneath Cas’ gaze a blurt of precome bursts out to rest on his stomach. At any other time Dean would be embarrassed by the swiftly spreading dampness on his belly, but there’s no room for that, not when Cas’ eyes are wide and hungry on his.

Cas lowers his head and Dean’s muscles clench in anticipation. Warm breath washes over his cock, down to his balls. A hot tongue traces the line between thigh and groin and that is really just…

“Don’t fucking tease,” Dean groans, one hand finding the curve of Cas’ skull. He pushes, trying to get Cas’ mouth where he wants it, but Cas, ornery bastard that he is, resists.

“What do you want?” he asks, and Dean didn’t think that Cas’ voice could reach a new register of low, but there it is, scraping over his nerves.

“I want…” It’s impossible to think with Cas’ mouth that close to his dick and the bastard knows it too. The tip of his tongue flits out and ghosts over the head and Dean whines deep in his throat. “Oh god, your mouth, jesus Cas, please--”

His voice cuts out as Cas wraps his lips around his cock and Dean has to clench his fist and count backwards from twenty so he doesn’t come to that image alone. “Fuck,” Dean breathes out, low and needy. His fingers comb through the sweat-damp dark hair, palm resting against the curve of Cas’ skull.

Cas sucks and Dean’s hips lift in response. Several grunts escape from deep in Cas’ throat as he starts to bob his head up and down, tongue working over Dean. One final suck and Cas pulls off with an audible pop. He pants, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

The kiss is unexpected but not unwelcome. Dean licks into Cas’ mouth, the taste of himself heavy on the other man’s tongue. His hips push up into Cas’ in an unspoken plea.

“You are wearing too many clothes,” Dean murmurs. It’s all the warning he gives before he rolls, pinning Castiel underneath him.

A dazed, pleased smile floats across Cas’ face as his fingers drift over Dean’s shoulders and chest. “Then do something about it,” he urges, a smug curl to his lips. It disappears when Dean sneaks a hand down between them, cupping Cas through his sweats. Cas’ eyes roll back and his hips roll into Dean’s hand, craving more friction, more anything.

Dean nips down Cas’ chest, lavishing the golden skin with attention. He wants to memorize everything: the little hitches of breath as he lays an open-mouthed kiss to the skin above Cas’ heart, the symphony of sighs that accompanies his downward path. “Haa-ah,” he pants when Dean sucks a bruise into the sharp spur of his hip. “Ah, Dean, please.”

Dean rears back, looking at the picture in front of him. Cas looks utterly debauched--hair wild, eyes dark, lips spit-slick and swollen. His legs splay wide, with Dean in between them. Even as he watches, Cas lifts his hips in obvious invitation.

He’s dizzy with the sight. This is Castiel Milton, Cas. His best friend, laid out in front of him like a banquet. There’s the overwhelming potential for awkwardness, but somehow it’s not. It’s just right, the way that Cas arches up into his touch, the breathy exhalation when Dean’s fingers wrap around his fabric covered erection.

Cas groans, biting down on his lower lip. His hips move upwards in small, aborted thrusts, fingers clenching and groping in the sheets. “Now who’s ah god teasing?” Cas is trying so hard for confident, but his voice is thready, wrecked.

Dean grins. He pulls at Cas’ sweats, his smile spreading at how eagerly Cas lifts his hips. He works them down Cas’ legs, throwing them to the floor. Clad only in his boxers, Cas shifts underneath the heavy weight of Dean’s eyes.

Dean drinks in the sight, until a sharp heel to his kidneys knocks him out of his reviere. “If you’re not going to touch me, then I’ll take care of it myself.” Cas moves to palm at his erection, before Dean snatches his wrist.

“Don’t you dare,” he snarls. A smug grin spreads across Cas’ face, the manipulative son of a bitch. Just for that, he pins Cas’ wrist to the bed and lowers his head. This close, he can’t miss the damp spot spreading on the cloth, or the way that Cas squirms when his humid breath hits him.

He’s had this done to him before and he remembers it as the best kind of torture. Cas feels the same way, if the litany of moans and whimpers is anything to judge by. Dean licks at him through the fabric of his boxers, providing enough heat and friction to tease, but not nearly enough to get off.

Above him, Cas is moaning loud enough to put a porn star to shame, the top of his head resting against the pillow. His neck is bared in a long stretch, hands clasping at nothing on either side of him.

Yeah, sucking Cas off through his boxers isn’t going to cut it.

Dean pulls away, ignoring Cas’ unhappy whine. Somehow, in the push and tussle, Cas’ boxers are torn away, leaving them both blissfully bare.

The slide of skin on skin has Dean biting back a groan as he buries his face into the crook of Cas’ neck. He pants, tongue running over Cas’ skin as he rolls his hips forward, cock sliding wet into the crease of Cas’ hip.

He thinks he could come like this, Cas against his, the salt of his sweat on his tongue, fingers pressing into the skin of Cas’ shoulders, his sides. He ruts forward once again, Cas’ thighs tightening around his hips, a punched out groan escaping from his lungs.

Far away, he registers Cas shifting underneath him, hands pushing at him. It takes everything in his power to pull away, but he does, only to witness Cas rolling onto his stomach.

The implications are not lost on him.

“Cas, you, you sure?” Dean’s mouth is dry, arousal a raging fire pouring through his body until he’s gone with it. It will kill him right now if Cas says no.

Castiel turns his head to look at Dean over his shoulder. His eyes are dark, but so, so sure. “Get on with it,” he orders, raising his hips and fuck, he doesn’t have to ask twice.

Dean leans forward, cock sliding across Cas’ skin, as he fumbles in the drawer of his bedside table. He finds what he’s looking for easily enough and dumps the lube on the bed beside him.

The click of the cap sends a shudder through Cas and Dean runs his clean hand down his flank. “Fuck,” he breathes, skirting his knuckles over the swell of Cas’ buttocks. It looks just as good as he’d always imagined. “On your knees sweetheart, come on.”

Cas shifts easily, legs widening. Dean moves into position behind him, warming the lube up between his fingers. He has to rest his forehead on the small of Cas’ back as his fingers dip between the cleft of Cas’ cheeks.

He runs his finger around the rim, appreciating Cas’ quiet whine. “Stop teasing,” Cas urges, his voice like warm tar, sweet as sin.

From there, Dean works quickly. He goes slow enough that he’s not in danger of hurting Castiel, but there’s an urgency to his motions, only fueled by Cas’ exhortations.

He pauses for a moment, when he’s three fingers in. Cas’ legs are wide, small shivers wracking his body with every thrust of Dean’s fingers. His hands are clasped in front of him, almost like he’s in prayer, and his head hangs low on the bedspread. Every movement of Dean’s hand pulls more sounds out of him, and Dean’s drunk on them, on Cas.

“Ah, Dean, Dean,” Cas pants, pushing back against Dean’s fingers. “I’m ready, I’m ready--”

Dean presses on Cas’ prostate, dropping his head onto the sweat-tacky skin on Castiel’s back at the sound of Cas’ thin wail. “Fuck,” he curses, pressing kisses along Cas’ spine, the blades of his shoulder, the dip of his waist. “Fuck, all right, all right.”

He pulls his fingers out, dropping a kiss to the small of Castiel’s back. His fingers are too shaky and slippery to open the condom wrapper, so he rips it with his teeth. The touch of his hand on his cock is good, too good, and Dean sucks in a wobbly breath as he slicks himself up.

Cas looks at him over his shoulder. “You could hurry up,” he suggests, arching his back further.

Cas looks like every wet dream Dean’s ever had. Muscles rippling under tan skin, cock hanging heavy and hard between his legs, legs spread wide in readiness. Dean squeezes the base of his cock, a warning to himself.

“Dean,” Cas breathes, “Dean, come on.” The demanding note is swiftly fading, underneath the plea, and Dean can’t resist that. But this isn’t what he wants.

“Not like this,” he says, hand gentle on Cas’ hip. “Want you like this.”

Cas resists, for the barest of seconds. Tension seizes his muscles, before he relaxes and rolls.

If he’d thought that Cas was wrecked before, then he’s obliterated now. “God,” Dean breathes, pressing a hard kiss to Cas’ jaw, to his mouth. Cas twists his fingers in his hair, panting raggedly into Dean’s mouth.

“Come on,” he whispers, rolling his hips up against Dean’s. “I’m ready for you, I’m so ready--”

“Yeah, shit, just--” Dean grabs at a pillow, shoves it underneath Cas’ hips as he hooks Cas’ leg over his elbow.

He’s really going to do this. He’s really going to fuck Cas.

He’s dizzy, trembling, panting, but Cas’ hand is on his cheek, stroking over the bone, and his eyes are so soft, so kind, so trusting, and this is everything that Dean’s wanted, this is the man that he loves, pliant and ready beneath him--

Dean inhales, ragged and lost, as he begins the slow slide in.

Cas arches underneath him, hands grabbing at Dean’s wrist and shoulder. “Oh God, fuck sweetheart, you feel so good Cas, you’re so--” Dean groans, rolling his hips in small increments. He drops his head to Cas’ shoulder, shudders at the feel of Cas’ nails scraping over his scalp and down his neck. Cas thrusts up against him and Dean moans helplessly as he sinks all the way into him.

“Oh fuck,” Cas groans, and the sound of the curse falling from Cas’ lips has Dean’s hips grinding, rolling. “Oh god Dean, god, you feel…” He trails off, eyes rolling back in his head as Dean begins a slow rhythm.

Pleasure sparks down every inch of him--from Cas’ hands running over his back to grab his ass, Cas’ heels drumming against his sides, the taste of Cas’ sweat as Dean brushes a kiss over his sweat-damp hair.

“Cas,” he chokes out, letting his forehead fall onto Cas’ shoulder. “Cas, I don’t think that I’m going to--” Already he can feel the low curl of pleasure coiling in the pit of his stomach. He’s climbing, flying, and he can’t bring himself to hold back.

“Do it, do it, fuck Dean, need this, need you--”

Dean’s hips roll, each thrust pushing Cas further up on the bed. He pulls Cas’ leg up higher, searching, searching--He knows that he’s found the spot when Cas goes stiff, his back arching as a harsh cry tears from his throat.

“Oh fuck Dean, there, right there, don’t stop, god, Dean--”

Cas reaches down between them to wrap his hand around his cock, but Dean bats his hand away and takes him in hand.

“Want to see it, want to see you, god Cas baby, want you to come…”

He’s rough, probably too rough, as he jacks Cas in sloppy strokes, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Cas’ nails scrape over his back as his thighs tighten around Dean’s waist. There’s a flush on his chest and cheeks, and Dean wants to kiss every centimeter of flesh in front of him.

“Dean, I’m going to--fuck, I’m gonna, gonna--Dean…”

With a loud wail, Cas comes over Dean’s hand and his stomach. Dean works him until Cas is trembling and twitching, breath escaping him in short puffs.

“You’re so amazing, god Cas, fucking look at you, god you’re so hot, feel so fucking good baby--” Dean presses kisses to Cas’ forehead, his eyelids, cheeks, mouth, throat. “So fucking good to me…”

He makes to pull out, but Cas’ thighs tighten around his hips. “Want you to finish,” Cas murmurs, a loose smile on his face. His eyes are hazy as he looks up at Dean, tenderly tracing the line of Dean’s mouth. “Come on,” Cas says, as he clenches around Dean, and fuck, that’s just not fair.

“Fuck,” Dean breathes. He picks up an erratic rhythm, too close to the edge for finesse. Blindly, he seeks out Cas’ mouth, panting harshly into a kiss that’s little more than an exchange of breath. “Oh fuck, Cas, Cas babe, god, Cas--”

“Come for me Dean,” Cas says, hands tugging at the short strands of his hair while he clenches once more.

Dean comes in a white blaze, the circuits in his brain shorting out until all he can feel or think is Cas Cas Cas. He thinks he hears himself shout as he elbows give out and he falls forward.

The feel of Cas’ fingers carding through his hair brings him back to full awareness. Dean becomes aware that he’s lying on top of Cas, face pressed into his neck and arms wrapped around his torso. It must be uncomfortable, but Cas doesn’t complain, just presses a light kiss to Dean’s forehead. He’s tough, for a little nerdy dude.

Dean also becomes aware that they’re both naked, both sticky, and that his dick is still in Cas’ ass. He tries to control the sudden tension, but he must not do a good job. Cas’ fingers stop moving.

“Are you going to have a meltdown?” Cas asks.

“No,” Dean says, but it sounds like he’s trying to convince himself more than Cas.

“Please don’t.” Cas’ fingers trace abstract designs over the skin of Dean’s shoulders.

Dean kisses the bolt of Cas’ jaw, lips scraping over stubble. “I don’t…I don’t want to ruin this.”

“Then don’t,” Cas says, like it’s that simple.

Maybe it is.

Cas hisses in discomfort as Dean pulls out. He ties off the condom and tosses it in what he hopes is the direction of the trashcan. “I need to clean us up,” he says, pressing a kiss to the small wrinkle beginning to form between Cas’ eyebrows. “Don’t go anywhere.”

He walks to the bathroom on unsteady legs, smiling at Cas’ lazy “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

He looks at his reflection as he dampens a washcloth. His hair stands straight up in uneven spikes, his face and shoulders are flushed a vibrant pink, and lovebites are scattered like jewels over his chest and waist. I just had sex with Cas.

Correct that: he just had amazing sex with Cas.

Cas watches him with appreciative eyes as he walks back into the room. Dean flushes under the attention, which makes Cas’ smile widen. “Shut up,” he says, even though Cas hasn’t said anything. He wipes off Cas’ stomach, focusing all of his attention on his task, the cloth moving in long strokes long after the last of the mess is gone.

He presses an open-mouthed, lingering kiss to the damp skin of Cas’ stomach, smiling at Cas’ contented sigh. The washcloth ends up in the general direction of the laundry hamper, discarded as useless after Cas tugs at his shoulder.

“Come back to bed,” he says, low and inviting, and how can Dean say no to that?

He and Cas curl around each other, fingers tracing over skin and muscle, lazily trading kisses until they fall asleep.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Chapter Text

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

The snow keeps them out of school for a whole week.

It’s awesome.

The morning after, Dean wakes up to Cas placing feather light kisses over his shoulder. When he groans and reaches for him, Cas smiles impishly at him before sliding out of his grasp. “Shower?” he asks, the corner of his eyes crinkling with the invitation.

Dean’s befuddled brain finally catches up--Cas, naked in the morning, tilting his head to the side as starts towards the bathroom. Shower. Together.

Well, hell yeah.

Showering with Cas is just about everything that Dean could have hoped for. Cas’ hands, slippery with soap, stroke over his arms, his chest, his waist. Dean throws his hand against the wall as Cas drops to his knees and moves his hands over his thighs. Cas has nice hands, long fingers, and they curve around his thighs, smoothing over the wet hair, thumbs brushing over the soft skin close to his groin.

His dick, which had been taking an interest in the proceedings, decides to wholeheartedly join the party.

Cas has pretty lips, Dean decides, and they’re never prettier than when they’re wrapped around his cock. Dean stands with his back to the spray, his hands on either side of Cas’ head as he starts to move. “Ah Jesus,” he hisses. His toes curl against the floor of the tub when a hand comes to fondle his sac. “Fuck, Cas,” he groans, chancing a look down.

Wide blue eyes look up at him through a curtain of clumped eyelashes. Dean is transfixed, fixated, reverent. “Your fucking mouth,” he murmurs, stroking his thumb over the corner of Cas’ lips. “Fuck Cas, look at you.”

Cas redoubles his efforts, going further and further and does he not have a gag reflex? The muscles of his throat massage the head of Dean’s cock before he pulls off, only to move back down again.

“Gonna come,” Dean warns, hands smoothing over Cas’ hair. “Cas, Cas, I’m gonna--” He tries to pull Cas off, but Cas only digs his fingernails into Dean’s thighs and sucks, until, with a guttural shout, Dean comes. Cas swallows, lips and tongue working over Dean until he’s over-sensitive and trembling.

Cas seems perfectly content to stay on his knees, his forehead resting against Dean’s hip, but Dean’s still jittery. He needs to touch, needs to please. “Come here,” he mutters, hauling Cas up. It’s a chore--Cas is a solid guy and Dean’s still wobbly from orgasm, but his need outweighs the logistics.

He pushes Cas against the wall of the shower, mouth crashing down on Cas' in a hard, needy kiss. He can still taste himself and it should be gross, but there’s something unbearably hot about his tongue licking Cas clean.

One soap slick hand wraps around Cas’ cock. Dean moans into Cas' mouth, dizzy with a burst of renewed lust. Cas got this hard from sucking him off? Jesus Christ, what he wouldn’t do for this man.

Cas pulls away from his mouth to gasp out a breath. “Oh god,” he whines, hands grabbing at Dean’s biceps. “Dean.”

Cas really does sound like he’s trying out for a spot in the newest Casa Erotica, his moans and pants echoing off the bathroom tiles. Dean crowds him, nipping at his ear. “That mouth of yours,” he murmurs, tugging at the lobe with his teeth. “You sound so good Cas. You gonna come for me baby?” He moves his mouth to the juncture of Cas’ neck and shoulder, sucking a bruise into the flesh. A thin cry comes out from between Cas’ clenched teeth.

“Come on Cas,” Dean encourages, his wrist moving in a blur. “Want you to come; want to see it.”

Cas’ fingers press into Dean’s arms, ten pressure points of bright pain. He hopes he’ll bruise, wants a physical reminder of this moment, something that he can push against and remember--here. He and Cas were here. Dean twists his wrist and Cas spills with a choked cry.

Afterward, Dean wipes him off, tenderly. He soaps the vulnerable softness of the inside of Cas’ elbow, the flesh underneath his navel. Cas hums at his attention, his hands wandering over Dean’s flesh. They stay in the shower until the water threatens to move from tepid to cold, stumbling out and wrapping themselves in towels.

By Tuesday night, Cas is able to go home. Dean doesn’t want him to go, but between him and Cas raiding his closet everyday, he’s rapidly running out of clothes. He kisses Cas at the door, hand splaying possessively on the small of Cas’ back.

“I’ll see you soon,” he says, forcing himself to pull away. If not, then he might just drag Cas back upstairs and ruin yet another pair of underwear.

When school resumes, nothing changes. He and Cas continue the same as they always have, professional to the end. Dean thinks that they’re doing a fantastic job of keeping everything on the level. Charlie swiftly abuses him of that notion.

“I can’t believe you!” she hisses, sliding into his room after last period. Dean’s door shuts behind her, and he looks up, nonplussed, from grading his papers.

“I am rather wonderful, but a little explanation would be enlightening.”

Charlie’s next words knock the smartass out of him.

“You slept with Cas?”

Dean looks up from his papers, no longer amused. “What gave you that idea?” he asks. He’s trying to keep his voice even, because he doesn’t want to give himself away any more than he already has.

Charlie rolls her eyes. “Apart from the fact that you came in with an honest to god smile on your face, and that Cas actually asked me how my week off was?” Dean looks at her, uncomprehending. “Normally I get a grunt from him in the mornings, and that’s if I’m lucky. Also, I’m secretly psychic and you do not have a good poker face.”

Dean frowns. He’s great at poker. “Look, say that you are right and something did happen. You can’t…” He sighs and scrubs at the back of his neck. “You can’t say anything. It’s just...It’s just between friends. If anything happened.”

“Dean.” Charlie sits on a desk, her face uncharacteristically serious. “You’ve got to know that this is a bad idea, right?”

“I said if something happened. If something happened it would be a bad idea.”

Charlie throws her hands up in the air in surrender. “You know I’m here for you, whatever happens. I just don’t want you to get hurt.”

Dean laughs, something jagged scraping in his chest. “It’s never going to come to that.”

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

Dean is almost thirty. His libido should not be this out of control.

But something about Cas is like catnip--the way that his back arches, the curve of his throat. The feel of his fingers as they open Dean up, the soft murmurs as he slides in. The way that he moves, slow and assured. How he kisses afterward. How his eyes go soft and hazy. The way that he looks at Dean, like Dean might actually be worth something.

Dean doesn’t like to think about what Cas sees when he looks at Dean’s eyes.

By March, Dean has mapped out Cas’ body. He knows all the hot spots, the hidden places that are guaranteed to make him gasp and pant: the inside of his knee, the soft spot behind his ear, the dip of his clavicle. In return, Cas knows him: knows how Dean likes it a little rough sometimes, knows that Dean shivers when someone whispers filth in his ear, knows that Dean likes to be caressed and kissed afterward.

Every single door that Dean could think to slam shut, Cas opens, before Dean ever has a chance to realize that the door even exists.

He’d like to think that he’s slowly but surely chipping away at the wall surrounding Castiel. Sometimes, when they’re lying in bed, sticky and sated, Cas will look at him and there’s nothing in his eyes but honest affection.

He’ll let certain things slip sometimes--how he once traveled over five hours just to visit a gallery that had been displaying Anna’s paintings. Or he’ll recount his cousin Gabriel’s exploits, with equal parts humor and disdain. He’ll confide that Michael and his cousin Lucas couldn’t be in the same room for over ten minutes without fighting; how one time he saw Lucas throw a chair across the room in an attempt to hit Michael.

In return, Dean whispers secrets from his childhood into Cas’ skin--How Sam and his father could never get along, how Dean played the peacemaker and how his brother and father tore him apart. How he learned to cook to make sure that Sam would have a decent meal in front of him. How he would take his father’s bottles and empty them down the sink, risking his rage the next day, all because he just couldn’t take it anymore.

Truth falls like stones from his lips and it feels a little like an exorcism.

And then, there are the fun times.

Saturday mornings are the best. The whole weekend lies in front of him with a myriad of possibility and his muscles are the good kind of sore which comes from a long fuck and an orgasm that felt like it was sucked out of his spine. Dean stretches out in Cas’ bed. He’s alone, which, while disappointing, isn’t unexpected--it’s warm for early March and Cas, the weirdo, likes to run in the mornings. A note, written in Cas’ thick blocky handwriting, rests on the bedside table, informing Dean of his whereabouts.

Dean rolls out of bed, scratching at his stomach. He frowns when evidence of last night’s revelries flakes off underneath his fingernails. “Gross,” he mutters, rolling his neck and stepping into the en-suite.

After the shower, Dean wanders back into the bedroom. He paws through his overnight bag, huffing in frustration when he can’t find a spare pair of boxers. “Kidding me?” he asks, digging through the clothes one more time.

After he left Dad and moved in with Bobby, Dean thought that he was through lugging his life around in a duffel bag, but here they both are, packing up Friday mornings like teenagers preparing for a sleepover. He’s told Cas, several times, that he’s more than welcome to leave some of his stuff in a drawer, but Cas did his Cas thing, where he slid so neatly around the offer that Dean didn’t realize he’d been rejected until days later.

He hasn’t bothered to ask Cas if he can leave clothes over at his place.

So he keeps an overnight bag in the Impala’s trunk at all times, and sometimes he packs more hastily than is wise. Hence his current dilemma. He could go commando, but, apart from the obvious erotic value, the idea of his junk hanging free in his jeans doesn’t sit well with him. One option left.

“Cas buddy, I’m going to borrow a pair of briefs, all right?” Dean calls to the empty house. He smirks at the silence and goes to Cas’ dresser.

He finds the underwear drawer easily enough and fishes around without looking too carefully--it feels creepy, to look that closely at someone else’s boxers. He stops when his fingers brush against an unexpected texture. Putting his reservations aside, Dean peers in the drawer. His eyebrows shoot all the way into his hairline when he pulls out the small glass jar.

“Well, well, well,” he says, tapping his fingernail on the jar. “Mr. Milton, you’ve got some explaining to do.”

Cas comes back from his run thirty minutes later. His shirt is stained dark at the collar and pits, and his ass looks criminally good in his running shorts. Even from the other room Dean can hear the obnoxious pop music blaring from his earbuds.

“Thought you would have had breakfast started--” Cas looks up and sees Dean. More importantly, he sees the small glass jar and pipe sitting in front of Dean.

“Whatcha got here Cas?” The grin tugs at the corner of Dean’s mouth and he tries to tamp it down.

“That’s the emergency stash,” Cas says, matter of fact, as he lifts up the hem of his shirt to wipe the sweat beading on his forehead. “Don’t know why you went rooting around through my unmentionables for it. Would have given you some if you’d just asked.”

Dean gapes, as his mind performs gymnastics to rearrange the pieces of Castiel Milton into something that makes sense. Dr. Castiel Milton, who edits journal articles in his spare time. Castiel Milton, who is allergic to fun and social gatherings. Castiel Milton, who has an emergency stash of weed tucked away in his underwear drawer.

“College was an...interesting time,” Cas remarks, standing in front of Dean. His knees knock against Dean’s, and Dean can’t help but think that he’s being deliberately confrontational. “You can’t tell me that you forsook all your habits from your college days?”

Forget college days--Dean was seventeen, splitting a joint with Jo while they lay out in the bed of junker pick-up, bitching about life, school, and everything else under the sun. He remembers how the stars blurred together into a ball of light and the edges of the world going soft and hazy.

Dean smiles. “Get your shower,” he orders, with a light slap to Castiel’s ass. “We’re going back to mine.”

“Why?”

Dean snatches the jar and pipe from the coffee table. “Because my place has the better sound system.”

Which is how they end up, Saturday afternoon, stoned and on the floor of Dean’s living room, while Led Zeppelin III spins on his turntable. Dean laces his fingers with Cas’ and squeezes, grinning at the plaster swirls in his ceiling. It’s a mellow high, one that leaves him floating and calm. For once, he’s at peace with the world.

Cas’ head lolls over. His smile could light up a city and it’s all directed at Dean. A small laugh burbles out of his chest and Dean grins wider in response. He lifts up a heavy hand, stroking over the permanent stubble on Cas’ cheek.

The only thing that could ruin the moment would be his phone buzzing in his back pocket.

“Don’t answer,” Cas says, like he knows what’s on the other end. Maybe he does. Psychic powers wouldn’t be the weirdest thing about him.

The name on the display shatters Dean’s high.

Dad.

“Don’t answer,” Cas urges, his hand resting on Dean’s stomach. “You don’t owe him anything.”

Sam’s voice, echoing back at him: Dean, please don’t answer. What do you owe him?

Maybe it’s the weed. Maybe it’s the years of disappointment and regret. Maybe, after so long, he’s finally decided to listen to someone else.

He pushes the dismiss button and tosses his phone across the room.

A weight lifts off his chest, like he threw away a few dozen sandbags instead of a tiny piece of metal and plastic. His lungs expand. The air tastes sweeter somehow. A world of possibilities stretches out before his fingertips. He’s dizzy with it.

Castiel sneaks his hand underneath Dean’s shirt, hand rubbing over his bare skin and Dean arches into the touch. “Here,” Cas says, moving with fluid grace to straddle Dean’s hips. The lighter flicks in his hands and a small flame illuminates his eyelashes as he takes a hit off the pipe. Cas inhales and looks down at Dean, red-rimmed eyes gleaming with mischief as he covers Dean’s mouth with his own. Dean’s mouth opens for Cas, and he inhales the thick smoke. His eyes water as he holds his breath, until a small cough wracks his frame.

“That’s it,” Cas murmurs, rucking Dean’s shirt up to beneath his armpits. “Take it so good.” A lazy smile drifts across his features, and Dean’s never seen him so loose, so untethered from the cares and concerns of the world. For the first time, he thinks he understands what freedom is.

He forgets about his phone, about his father, about the weight of his family pressing down on his shoulders like Atlas’ burden. He forgets about the crunch of concern in Charlie’s face, forgets about his own misgivings. All of his worries float away, like smoke drifting out of Cas’ mouth and Dean watches them dissipate in the air.

Hands drift and clothes are shed like regrets until Dean lays between Cas’ legs, lips wrapped around his cock. Cas’ fingers rake through Dean’s hair, thighs tensing around his ears. His back arches as Dean runs his tongue down the vein on the underside of his dick, nails scratching bright red marks down Dean’s neck.

Despite Cas’ urging, Dean takes his time. The soft strains of Tangerine float through the room and Dean smiles.

“This was playing in the car,” he tells Cas. He rests his chin on Cas’ thigh, meeting blue eyes as Cas props himself up on his elbows to look down the length of his body at him. “The first time you ever sat in Baby.” The memory floats back--rain beating on the roof of the car, Cas still a foreign entity but becoming more familiar with each passing second. “Should have kissed you then,” he blurts out.

“Oh Dean,” Cas sighs, elbows giving out as Dean returns to his task. “Oh, Dean, Dean, Dean…” Cas’ leg pulls up to rest over Dean's shoulder, the heel of his foot rubbing down Dean’s back. Dean works over him, tears springing to his eyes as he bobs up and down. He’s choking, gagging, spit dribbling out of his mouth and over his knuckles, wrapped around the base of Cas’ cock.

Cas shakes, hung on the precipice, until Dean scrapes the edge of his teeth against him, and then he’s coming, back curved in a graceful arch, thighs clamping around Dean’s head. He cries out, curses spilling like rainwater from his mouth. He’s so fucking gorgeous that Dean thinks his chest might crack in two.

Cas reaches for him with clumsy hands but Dean ignores him, crawling up his body to sit on his hips. His fingers wrap around his dick, and he groans in relief. It only takes him a few strokes and then he’s coming in hot stripes across Cas’ stomach.

He collapses afterward, soothed by the feel of long fingers running through his hair and over his back. Cas croons along with the music, humming a wordless lullaby. Languid in the aftermath, Dean lets himself give in, lets himself believe that finally, after everything, someone is going take care of him.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

John Winchester calls Dean three more times in the next two weeks.

Dean presses ‘Ignore’ on every one of them.

For the first time since he was four years old, he feels free.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

March passes in a blur of wedding preparations and orgasms. Thankfully not delivered in the same company.

Dean attends more fittings than he knew was actually possible, though it makes sense. Not that many tailors are equipped to handle giant bodies these days, figures that it would take extra fittings to get it right. What he doesn’t understand is why Sam insists on having his suit fitted to perfection.

“Because you’re going to be standing next to me through the ceremony and I want everyone focusing on how pretty Jess is and not how ugly you look,” Sam says. Normally Dean would think that he’s kidding, but there’s not a trace of sarcasm in his voice.

God help him, Sam Winchester’s turned into a Groom-zilla.

“I could be wearing a burlap sack, wouldn’t distract anyone from how ugly you look. Thank god Jess is there; she’ll at least keep the cameras from shattering when they try and get a picture of you.”

Sam rolls his eyes and straightens his tie in the mirror. Small pins hold his jacket in place and even though he’d rather die than admit it, when the final product is delivered, Sam’s going to look good.

Not as good as Dean of course, but not hideously ugly.

He also starts organizing the stag party--Sam insists that he doesn’t need one, but Dean will be damned if he doesn’t give his brother the best bachelor party known to man.

There’s going to be strippers.

Sam might complain, but Dean couldn’t live with himself if he organized a party without strippers. Sam needs to not be so selfish.

Between researching the best strip clubs within thirty miles of Lawrence (he loves being best man), helping his seniors with their projects, and having his brains fucked out on a regular basis, Dean’s life is full. It’s a good feeling, one that leaves him with the heavy feeling of satisfaction every night.

He’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It falls with a world-shattering thud early one Wednesday morning.

He’s startled out of a strange, shifting dream, one that slips through his fingers as soon as he tries to remember it. The phone rings insistently next to his head and Dean operates automatically, protective instincts crashing through their confines. “Sammy?” He asks, putting the phone to his ear. He struggles with the sheets tangled around his ankles, frustrated with the disobedience of his sleep numb body.

“Is this Mr. Winchester?”

At the sound of the unfamiliar voice, Dean freezes. Ice floods through his veins and he’s drowning, watching his life through a cloud. The surface falls away from him.

“Who are you?” He asks, fear turning his voice gruff. “How’d you get this number?”

“Mr. Winchester, my name is Deputy Lane—“

“Where’s my brother?” Dean asks, fumbling one-handed with his jeans. He can’t breathe. A dull roar settles in his ears and he can’t breathe.

“Sir, your brother is fine, but you’re on the emergency contact information for a John Winchester.”

The thin line holding Dean tethered to the world snaps. His chest moves in a vain attempt to bring him air, but his lungs are gone, broken. He thinks that the sensation crowding through his body might best be described as hurt.

“Sir? Are you there?”

“Yeah,” Dean croaks, as he remembers how to move his mouth, how to create sounds in his throat. “What...what happened?”

The too-long pause on the other end of the line tells him everything.

 

Dean sits shaking on the floor. He’s aware of the neck of the bottle clutched in his numb fingers, but his limbs are strange to him, like he’s piloting someone else’s body. He raises the bottle, drinks deep. The whiskey burns on its way down, it must, but he cannot feel it.

Sam. He needs to call Sam.

It takes him three tries to find Sam’s name in his contacts and another two to dial. He listens to the tinny sound of the phone and wonders if he’s always felt this cold.

After three rings Sam answers, his voice sharp with worry.

“Dean? What’s wrong?”

Dean’s mouth works, an ugly mess of syllables clawing out. Sam’s voice rises. In the background Dean hears Jess, stirring and questioning.

“Dean, you’re freaking me out, you have to tell me what’s wrong. Are you hurt? Where are you?”

Dean tries again, wheezing as he forces his larynx to form the words, “Sam, it’s Dad.”

Sam falls silent. Any other time it would be comical.

The world tilts and shifts around Dean as he says, “Sam, Dad’s dead.” He inhales. The oxygen feels like razorblades in his lungs.

When he speaks again, Sam sounds like the child he used to be, lost and afraid. “Are...are you sure? Maybe it’s a mistake--”

“It’s not a mistake Sammy.” Dean’s throat constricts around the words, trying to keep them in. “He’s gone.” A taste of bile in his mouth. There’s nothing left in his stomach; the remains of his supper already spattered the toilet.

“What--Dean, are you all right?”

“No Sam, I’m about twenty miles away from all right.”

When he was young, John brought them to an old farmhouse while he chased down what he thought was a lead--someone seen in their neighborhood two days before the fire. While he questioned the farmer, a grizzled man with a face like leather, Dean and Sam had wandered through the knick-knacks and discarded flotsam and jetsam accumulated through three-quarter’s century living. There had been an old wringer washer there. They’d been fascinated by it, the crank and the press. The twist and pull of clothes as they were pulled through.

Those clothes have nothing on how Dean feels.

“I can be there in fifteen minutes,” Sam says, and over the line, Dean hears the soft rustle of clothing, the soft thumps of feet falling along the floor. Jess’ low murmurs provide background noise and something in Dean wakes up from the stupor. Take care of Sammy.

“No Sam, don’t.” The rustles stop. “Look, just...stay with Jess all right?” Dean swallows, bright pain flaring through his chest, and he tries to control the warble in his voice. “It’ll be okay. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Dean, you’re insane if you think that I’m going to--”

“Sam.” Dean puts as much force behind his voice as he can but it still comes out sounding more like a plea. “Just stay put, all right? We...I’ll call you tomorrow.”

He hangs up and his phone falls from nerveless fingers. With the pulse of Take care of Sammy appeased, there’s nothing for him to do except try and go back to bed.

Dean looks at his bed, takes in the twisted sheets, the rumpled pillows. It looks like a warzone and his stomach twists in warning at the thought of returning there. “Fuck,” he whimpers, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes. Spots burst behind his eyes and he pushes harder, past the point of pain. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

Caught in a loop, his voice rises, hysteria and despair dragging bloody nails through him. He looks at his phone and remembers ignoring his father’s calls, remembers the giddy edge of disobedience that rushed through him. He’d thought it was freedom.

Freedom and cruelty feel similar without the filter of compassion.

A thousand thousand memories rush at him, a tidal wave of regret and resentment bowling him over until Dean’s choking under the weight of it. His father’s hands, correcting his posture as he teaches Dean to take potshots at old beer bottles, his father stumbling back into the hotel room, the antiseptic smell of alcohol mingling with the bright copper scent of blood. His father’s figure, bent underneath the hood of the Impala, hands sure as surgeon’s as he worked. His father’s smile, rare as a double rainbow and twice as coveted. Sam and John, turning hotel rooms into battlefields and Dean into their no-man’s land.

John calling and calling, looking for help. Dean ignoring him, playing the selfish asshole that his father always said he was.

His phone echoes with the sound of ringing and it takes Dean a long second to realize that he’s dialed a number. He blinks dumbly at the screen but his swimming eyes can’t make out the letters on the display. He clutches the thin plastic rectangle like a lifeline, listening to the echo of the ringing.

After four rings, the line picks up.

“Whaizzit?” Cas’ voice, roughened by sleep, slurs the words until they’re barely intelligible. “What do you want?”

Dean flinches at the sharp irritation in Cas’ voice. A thin whine fills the room and it’s only after a long silence on the other end of the line that Dean realizes it’s coming from him.

“Dean?” Cas’ voice is more contained, more focused. “Dean, what’s wrong?”

Dean inhales but his lungs come up empty. “It’s my dad,” he wheezes. Iron bands wrap around his chest, squeezing like the hand of judgement. Bad son, he’s a bad son, after everything that his father did for him… “He died last night.”

Cas’ sharp inhalation slides through the phone line. “Are you alone?”

Dean’s eyes move dully around the room, like someone might have snuck in while he wasn’t paying attention. “Yeah,” he mumbles. He tries to get up but only manages to flail and knock over the bottle. Dark amber liquid spills onto the carpet. Dean watches the stain spread before his numb fingers manage to close around the bottle and right it. “Sam...Sam’s with Jess. Told him to stay.”

“Dean.” Cas pauses. “I’m so sorry.”

The words sound empty, because they are empty. There’s a gaping maw spiraling inside Dean and in it, all vestiges of comfort are devoured. Cas’ words vanish there.

“I was kind of expecting it.” Until he says it, Dean wasn’t aware that the words were true. “I’ve been expecting it for years.”

Hasn’t that always been his fear whenever an unknown number flashes across his screen? That on the other end of the line is going to be a doctor or deputy telling him that this was it? That years of drinking had taken their toll and John Winchester’s liver had decided to abandon ship? That his father wrapped another car around a tree?

Dean had always known that this is where their story was going to end, but he’d known it in the same, ephemeral way that he knew that eventually he was going to retire and silver was going to wind its way into his hair. John Winchester dying was something that would happen to a Dean that was far away in the future. John Winchester doesn’t die when his son is twenty-eight, not on a mundane Wednesday morning, not when Dean’s clad in his neon-orange novelty boxers, not without an apocalypse to mark his passing.

“It doesn’t mean that it’s easy.” Cas’ voice echoes through the phone line and Dean inhales. His lungs inflate with vague surprise, like they’d forgotten their original purpose.

The sour taste of bile rises hot in his throat and Dean tries to swallow it down. His Adam’s apple bobs convulsively once, twice, before the acidic burn recedes. “Shit,” Dean breathes. He takes another pull from the whiskey bottle, alcohol scorching a path down his esophagus. “Cas, I can’t...Talk to me man.”

He can imagine Cas’ expression--the small startle of surprise, the curious tilt of his head. “You want me to talk to you? Now?”

Dean rubs a shaking hand over his eyes. “Look, my dad is...Yeah man. Talk to me. Tell me anything.” There’s a long silence on the other end, and then Cas begins to speak.

“When I was eight, Dad had a good spell. It lasted for about a month and he did all sorts of things...went to Anna’s recitals, took me to the library, decided that we were going to see the world. It was in the middle of summer and he just loaded Anna and me into the car and started driving. He barely gave us time to pack our bags before we left.” Cas huffs a small, mirthless chuckle. “We thought that he was getting better; that this was the cure we’d been hoping for. We didn’t realize yet that it was another symptom.”

Dean leans against his bedroom wall, elbows resting on his knees. One hand holds the phone to his ear, while the other holds the ever lightening weight of the bottle. He listens to the words, letting Cas’ voice drift over him, a blanket created from nothing more than syllables and intentions.

“He went north first. We were going to Yellowstone, he told us. He wanted us to see Old Faithful. And we made it to Wyoming, within thirty miles of the park. And after that, he just...stopped. It was like he just ran out of gas. He just lay in the hotel room, wouldn’t get out of bed. Anna and I had to grab cash out of his wallet and go across the street to the Waffle House just to get something to eat.”

Cas’ voice sounds off, his breath hitching at strange, uneven intervals in the middle of words. “I remember looking at him and hating him. He was so pathetic, just lying in the bed, watching daytime television. He wouldn’t even let the maids into the room. And Anna was trying her best, but she was a child, falling apart at the seams, trying to keep both of us safe…”

“You hated him,” Dean murmurs, the emptiness swirling inside him, eager for new memories, new experiences to swallow. Even that can’t quite erase the sinking pit of disappointment in himself. How many times had he fallen asleep staring at his father’s silhouette on the opposite bed, hating every rise and fall of his chest? How many times had he thought that his life would be better if his father were dead?

“Yes,” Cas answers, and it’s only because Dean’s listening for it that he hears the wobble in his calm voice. “But I look back and…” The hitch in his breath is audible and painful when he says, “He was trying, the best he could, in impossible circumstances, to be a father. To try and make memories for his children. It’s not his fault that he couldn’t make it all the way there.”

If this is a metaphor, then its meaning is lost on Dean.

A strange noise catches his attention. It’s a soft thud, coming from downstairs. Dean’s head jerks up as sluggish alarm tries to seize his body. “Cas, there’s something...Someone…”

“It’s fine Dean,” and why does Cas’ voice sound so close, so clear? Dean glares at his phone in confusion, even shakes it. “Dean, it’s going to be fine, I promise.”

A soft touch ghosts along his jaw and Dean instinctively jerks away. It’s not until the touch returns, firmer this time, that he recognizes the size and feel of those long fingers as they curve around his cheek, cradling his head.

“Cas?” he croaks, blinking in confusion. Cas’ face is blurred, but it’s him, eyes wide with compassion and worry as he kneels in front of him. “What’re you...How’d you?”

“I started driving as soon as you called,” Cas answers. “And I’m not the only one who can’t hide a spare key,” Cas tells him, stroking over Dean’s cheek with the backs of his fingers. “I’m here now. You’re going to be all right.”

Dean leans into Cas’ touch. For the first time since he answered the phone, he manages to take a full breath. His chest loosens and he inhales again, eyes blearily taking in the ruin of his bedroom.

He forgets, sometimes, Cas’ strength. When Cas puts his hands underneath his arms and lifts him to his feet, he’s reminded. Dean’s feet scramble underneath him, but a sturdy arm around his waist stops him from collapsing back onto the floor. “Come on,” Cas says, his voice a soothing rumble against Dean’s body. “Come on.”

He isn’t aware of much: the whiskey and seeping numbness have taken care of that. It’s only when he becomes aware of chill air on his bare skin that he protests. “The hell man?” He pushes weakly at Cas, who barely flinches underneath the assault. “I don’t want…”

“You need a shower.” Cas’ voice is calm, implacable. “Come on, you’ll feel better.”

Personally, Dean thinks that Cas is putting a little too much faith in the restorative powers of a shower, but he yields. What else is there for him to do? Cas’ hands are gentle as they work his pajamas off his hips, comforting, but somehow impersonal. One hand rests on his hip as Dean steps into the shower, compliant as a child.

He sputters underneath the hot spray, blinking away water and licking his lips. Blood long stagnant and sluggish moves and he flexes his fingers. He coughs and his shoulders sag. The constant, steady pressure of a hand between his shoulder blades keeps him upright. “It’s ok,” Cas says, voice barely audible over the hiss and spit of the showerhead. “You’re all right.”

Dean doesn’t believe him, not for a second, but he acquiesces to the unspoken requests of Cas’ hands--Turn here, Move here, Lean this way. It’s easy, to let himself go and follow orders. There’s freedom in this too, in the illusion of having no choice.

“Easy,” Cas says, and Dean sighs at the touch of the rough cloth moving over his skin. It spreads in widening circles and Dean drops his head further as Cas moves over his shoulders, down his back to his waist. Even here, Cas keeps his hands almost clinical, avoiding any lingering touches.

“Lean back.” Strong fingers move through his hair and scalp, creating suds in their wake. Dean whimpers, shuddering as sensation floods through a body that forgot how to feel. Cas ignores it, concentrating on his task. The yawning emptiness recedes, pulling back from his fingertips and extremities, leaving tingling warmth in its place. Compared to the nothingness of before, it’s almost indecently indulgent. “Turn around.”

Dean obeys, tilting his head back as soap and shampoo sluice their way down his back. He flinches at the first touch of cloth on his chest, but then relaxes into it. Castiel carefully avoids any of the spots which are guaranteed to make Dean moan and pant, and focuses instead on the curve of his shoulders and the ladder of his ribs. Dean slumps forward, his forehead resting on Cas’ shoulder.

“Just a little bit more,” Cas assures him, his hands cradling Dean’s head and holding him upright. “Just for a little while more, all right?” Dean nods, not entirely sure of what he’s agreeing to. He only knows how his hands curl around Cas’ shoulders, not why, not until Cas lowers himself to his knees. Dean’s fingers tighten, using his hold on Cas for support, as Cas moves the washcloth over his thighs and calves. “Lift up,” he says, and Dean obediently raises his foot. Cas swipes the cloth over the sole of his foot and between his toes, before gentle fingers replace his foot on the tub floor.

Once his task is complete, Cas stands. Dean’s hands fall away from his shoulders, fingers rubbing against his palms. Without Cas to hold onto, he can’t see the point in his hands anymore. “Last time. Turn around.” The last of the soap circles down the drain. Dean watches it swirl and only vaguely recognizes the sound of the shower curtain moving.

Without Cas at his back, he sways, lost. Abruptly, the shower turns off and he trembles at the loss of heat. He blinks out of his stupor, looking around blindly, only to be met by the sight of Cas holding out a towel. “Come here.”

Dean craves orders; the easier to understand the better. He followed orders for the first sixteen years of his life and he’d be lying if he said that sometimes he didn’t yearn for the simplicity of the life he left behind. The world drops out from underneath him when the enormity of the night hits him: his father is dead. He’ll never hear John Winchester’s voice again. He’ll never get a chance…

“Hey, it’s all right, I’ve got you.” Cas’ arms wrap around him, toweling off the clinging water droplets in brisk, warming motions. “You’re ok Dean. It’s all right.”

How could he know that? His life, everything that he’s tried so hard to build, is in shambles. What’s the point in any of it? Nausea grabs him, twists at his innards, and he stumbles forward. Cas holds him, his grip like steel around his biceps and Dean struggles for a moment before he surrenders.

“I don’t want…” He hates how weak his voice sounds, how pathetic. “I just wanna sleep. Please. I just want to sleep.” If he can sleep, then he can forget all of this, at least for a little while. Until the dreams come.

“Of course Dean. Wait here.” Dean whimpers when Cas steps away, his equilibrium vanished. His stomach churns and the edges of the world start to melt. His limbs turn heavy and frozen and it doesn’t change, not until Cas comes back, dressed in a pair of Dean’s boxers and one of his shirts. He holds out another pair of boxers. Dean takes them and turns the fabric over in his hands, thumbnail running over the tiny stitches. He looks dumbly at Cas. Logistically, he knows what should be done with these, but he can’t make his limbs follow his brain’s urging.

“All right Dean. Easy now.” Cas drops down to one knee, taking the boxers from Dean as he goes. A warm hand encircles his ankle, urging him to lift his foot. First one, then the other, then Cas stands, working the boxers up his legs and over his hips. He settles the elastic band around Dean’s waist and takes his hand. “Come to bed.”

Dean follows Cas out of the bathroom and into his bedroom. He only balks when he catches sight of his bed, the sheets twisted at the foot. Cas’ hands push him forward and Dean doesn’t have enough strength to resist. He falls forward into his mattress, the memory foam easily conforming to his body. He tenses until he feels the tell-tale dip behind him.

Later, he might feel ashamed of how easily he rolls over, his arms seeking Cas’ body. He might be embarrassed about how he clutches at Cas, face pressed so hard into Cas’ chest that when he inhales, the fabric of Cas’ shirt makes the journey into his mouth. A damp spot forms, but Dean doesn’t care, because Cas holds him tight, murmuring sweet nonsense words that wrap around his body and drift into the empty places of him.

“I don’t want...Cas I don’t want to go to sleep,” Dean confesses. He knows, without a doubt, that when he drifts off, the dreams will be waiting for him. He can’t face them. Not now, not ever.

“I’ll be here,” Cas tells him, and his voice has the same unshakable quality that composes bedrock and concrete. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”

Dean relaxes into his hold, soft whines of pleasure rasping in the back of his throat as Cas combs his fingers through Dean’s hair and down his neck. He doesn’t want to sleep. He doesn’t want to sleep. He doesn’t want to…

---

This dream always starts the same way: his father stands in the middle of the hotel room, dried blood crusting the lines of his hands like rust. Sam stands on one end of the room, Dean the other. Sam is furthest away from the door and Dean sees his eyes dart towards it every other second as his brain works on exit strategies.

Sam is twelve and scrawny, but his eyes are alight with intelligence that no pre-teen should possess. John is forty and his eyes gleam with anger that no father should possess.

Dean feels sick.

“No, what you’re going to do is you’re going to get in the damn car and do as you’re told.” John Winchester has the kind of voice that assumes obedience is something demanded instead of something earned, the kind of voice that was born to command. Dean’s feet twitch in the need to follow, to do as he’s told. Part of it is a desire to get his father away from Sam and part of it is the sick, twisted need to feel like he’s done something right, to see his father’s pride, if only for a second.

“Dean.” Sam’s voice is urgent, pleading. “Dean, don’t.”

The look John shoots at his youngest son is nothing short of poisonous. “You shut your mouth. Dean, get in the car.” He doesn’t even bother to look at Dean, so assured he is of his unthinking compliance.

Dean stays put. He’s seen what work his father does when he leaves the hotel rooms late at night and he wants no part of it. He can only think of the disappointment on Ellen’s face, the anger on Bobby’s, the fear on Jo’s. The slow realization on Sam’s face as he starts to add the pieces together. Dean feels sick, like a thousand cockroaches are crawling just underneath his skin.

John finally realizes that Dean hasn’t moved. “Dean.” The sound of his displeasure is like a whip cracked across his back. Dean flinches from the sound. “I said, get in the car. Now.”

“No.” The word comes out shattered and cracked, inaudible. Dean flicks his tongue across his dry lips and tries again. This time, the refusal comes out louder--still thin and brittle, but loud enough to make John’s head snap towards him.

“The hell did you say to me?” He advances and Dean retreats, his newfound bravery fled in the face of his father’s anger.

Dean shivers but forces his thin shoulders straight. “I’m not going with you. Not tonight, not ever.”

John takes another few steps forward, until Dean’s back is flat against the wall. “You’ll do as you’re told.” In his dark eyes, Dean sees all the words that he’s heard before--Ungrateful. Selfish. Waste of space. Dean feels those words like blows.

“I don’t…” Dean’s heart beats a wild rhythm behind his ribs, terror and bravado torturing the muscle beyond all limits of normal human endurance. “I don’t want to do that.”

John sneers, contempt pouring off of him in waves. “You don’t want to? Well, I’m sorry for not consulting the princess first. I forgot that we only ever have to do what we want when it comes to putting food on this table.”

Dean’s throat closes with shame and fear as his father looks him up and down. He fears the back of John’s hand, but worse is the casual dismissal in his eyes as he decides that Dean isn’t worthy.

“Get in the damn car.” John shakes his head, turning away from Dean. “If your mother could see you now, she’d be ashamed of you.”

The words sink deep into the vulnerable parts of Dean, tearing away little chunks of him. Maybe that’s why he pushes himself off the wall and takes a step forward, squaring his narrow teenaged shoulders as he says, “No, she’d be ashamed of you.”

This time when John whirls around, there’s hellfire and damnation in his eyes. His arm swings so fast that Dean doesn’t catch the movement until his head snaps to the side. A dull ringing starts in his ears as heat blooms on the side of his face. Seconds later, his head falls to the opposite side. The ringing intensifies. A final blow cracks across his mouth and the bright taste of copper blooms on Dean’s tongue.

Dean staggers back, hands groping for the wall. His lungs act like they’ve forgotten how to work and he gasps helplessly, unable to move as a thin cry of rage erupts from Sam’s chest. Dean’s frozen, paralyzed, as his little brother launches himself at John, pulling with all his weight at his father’s arm.

“Don’t you dare, you bastard!” Sam shouts, amiable face twisted in a snarl. His thin fingers can’t even close around John’s wrist but he puts all hundred and ten pounds behind it and manages to tug John off balance.

It happens in slow motion, John’s free hand curling into a fist and swinging in a graceful arc. Dean watches, horrified, his body shivering out of his control. He tries to choke out a warning, but the cry of Sammy dies on his lips. He can only watch as his father buries his fist into Sam’s unprotected stomach.

An awful choked sound erupts from Sam’s throat, pain and rage twisted into something that Dean doesn’t recognize as his brother. Still, Sam clings to John’s arm with the tenacity of a terrier, never loosening his grip. It’s only when John’s fist comes down on Sam’s face with a sickening crunch that Sam releases his hold. His little brother, Sammy, crumples to the ground with a dull thump and Dean can finally move.

He’s hysterical, calling Sam’s name, rolling him over, hands flying over his face. Sam is halfway lucid, blinking dazedly at Dean as Dean dabs at the blood leaking out of his nose. “You’re all right, you’re all right, Sam, Sam, please, tell me you’re ok…”

He doesn’t notice the door banging against its hinges, or the roar of the Impala as his father leaves. It’s only after Sam is able to sit up and Dean’s cleaned his face up that he notices that he and Sam are alone.

The knowledge of what he has to do sinks in Dean’s stomach like a stone. “Get your stuff Sam,” he orders, shoving dirty clothes into his duffel bag. Sam blinks at him, eyes widening in realization, before he hurries to obey.

Ten minutes later he and Sam leave the hotel room, having raided the secret stash of cash that John hides in the sole of his spare pair of boots. Twenty minutes later, Dean sits behind the wheel of a hot-wired car, roaring down the highway with only one destination in mind: Lawrence, Kansas, Singer’s Salvage Yard.

His neck aches with the urge to look back, but he never does.

---

Caught in between reality and dream, Dean thrashes, fists flying as he wrenches away from the hands trying to restrain him. Protect Sammy, that’s what he needs to do, that’s his whole purpose in life. Protect Sammy, get him away, keep him safe…

“Dean! Dean!”

Reality seeps in around the edges of his vision and Dean pauses. He recognizes the pictures on the nightstand, the yellowing paint in the corners of the room. His sheets twist around his body and the hands trying to push him down… “Cas?” he croaks. He sags back into the pillows and Cas releases his death-grip. “Fuck,” Dean groans.

“You were yelling,” Cas tells him, after a few long seconds pass. “You were calling for Sam.”

Dean sits up, sheets pooling around his waist. “Yeah. Well.” He buries his face in his hands, breathing deep. A cool glass nudges against his upper arm and Dean accepts it without thinking.

“Should I call him?”

Panic seizes Dean. He can’t let Sam see him, not like this. “Don’t you dare,” he snaps, only vaguely acknowledging Cas’ sharp inhalation. “I can’t,” he tries after a moment. “He doesn’t need to be the one trying to take care of me. That’s not how this works.”

“You’re not a machine,” Cas tells him. With subtle movements, he urges Dean to lay back down. “You’re allowed to have people care for you.” Long fingers card through his hair and stroke over his shoulders. “You’re allowed this.”

Dean bites back the automatic retorts and lets himself sink into Cas’ touch. Here, pillowed against Cas, he could almost let himself believe the words. He wants to believe, more than anything, wants to believe that maybe, he’s worthy of someone else’s love.

“Cas, I don’t think my dad was a good person.”

The words taste sour in his mouth and sound worse hanging in the air. He’s never said them aloud before because there was no need. Sam already knew everything and no one else ever got close enough for it to matter. But Cas...It’s important to Dean, that Cas knows. He’s hidden this away for so long, from everyone, but here, hidden away from the world, he thinks that it deserves to be said.

“He used to do these jobs, right? He would leave without telling us where he was going and when he came back he’d be...There would be bruises, or his knuckles would be split, or there would be…” Dean’s laugh sounds more like a groan. “He told us that it was rust underneath his nails and we believed it. How stupid do you have to be?”

Cas’ fingers twitch, but he says nothing. For that, Dean’s grateful. It’s easier to speak when he doesn’t have to go through the efforts of responding to another person.

“Then, when I turned sixteen, he decided for whatever reason, that it was time I started helping him. I thought it was going to be fine, you know? He’d already taken him on several of his other jobs--handyman stuff, or working in whatever garage would hire him under the table. I thought that it was going to be like that.”

Dean swallows, his body convulsing reflexively. “Instead, he takes me to this old warehouse and I’m in the car thinking ‘What the fuck’, right? I couldn’t understand why we came there of all places. And then, when we get in...There’s a guy tied to a chair. I thought that only happened in movies.”

Dean swallows. He tries to breathe in Cas’ scent, but all he can smell are remnants of his own laundry detergent. “He owed money. He owed money and my dad was working as a goon to get it out of him.” Dean’s finger clutch at Cas’ shirt. “My dad. All that time, I’d thought he was so brave, so selfless. He was still trying to figure out who killed Mom. But he...fuck Cas, the guy was crying. He had snot running down his face and my dad was hitting him and he kept on…” Dean’s voice catches and the next words taste like bile as he speaks, “And then he wanted me to go, told me that’s how a real man worked.”

From far away, he can feel Cas press kisses into his hair, against his temple, on his forehead. He hears the soft whisper of his name, pressed into his skin like a blessing, but part of him is still in that warehouse, with his father behind him and a bleeding stranger in front of him and his fingers curling into a fist. Part of him never left that warehouse.

Cas doesn’t ask him what he did there and Dean loves him all the more for his mercy.

“It wasn’t long after that that Sam and I left.” Maybe one day he’ll tell Cas everything, about the blood on Sam’s face, about the taste of blood in his mouth, about the cold, dead look in John’s eyes. Maybe one day. “I idolized him Cas. For sixteen years, I wanted to be him. Part of me still does--I wear the same clothes, drive the same car, I even listen to the same music. And I hate myself for it, for even wanting to be like him.”

Cas’ arms pull him in closer. “Maybe part of you is like him,” and that is so not what Dean wanted to hear, “because there were good parts of him as well. Your mother married him and loved him, and there was a reason for it. But if you’re like him, then it’s only the best parts, the worthiest parts.” Cas kisses his hairline and murmurs the last words there, like he’s afraid of what he’s saying. “Dean, you’re one of the kindest, bravest, best souls that I’ve ever seen. Your father’s rage, his neglect? None of that is in you. You’re not capable of it.”

Dean surges forward. Cas’ sentence trails off, lost in the slick slide of tongue and lips. Cas moans into Dean’s mouth, hands pulling him closer. Dean kisses Cas hard enough to forget, hard enough to leave behind his sixteen year old self. He’d kiss Castiel forever if he could, except that he pulls away.

“Dean,” he pants, hair and eyes wild in the dim lamplight. “Dean, we can’t. You’re not...this isn’t a good time. You’re hurting and not thinking clearly…”

“Shut up,” Dean orders, fisting his hand in the loose fabric of Cas’ shirt. “I need this. I need you.” He’s not exaggerating--his skin crawls with need, with the overwhelming urge to press against Cas, prove that he’s alive, prove that he’s more than what his father said he could be. He kisses Castiel’s slack mouth until Cas kisses him back. “Need you Cas, want you so bad.”

Cas groans, wrecked, into his mouth and Dean knows that he’s got him. Hands pull at the hem of his shirt and push at the waistband of his pants. Dean scrambles to remove them, his limbs tangling in the fabric until he wrestles his way free. Once he’s bare, he turns his attention to Cas until their overheated skin slides together.

“Dean, are you sure?” Cas asks. Dean can feel, from the hands he runs over Cas’ flanks, how hard he’s trying to hold back, his hips making tiny, aborted thrusts. “Please Dean, please, you have to be sure.”

Dean reaches up and fists a hand in Cas’ hair, hard enough to pull his head back to bare his throat. “If you ask me that one more time,” he growls. He sucks a bruising kiss right above the hollow of Cas’ throat, feeling the vibrations of Cas’ whine against his mouth.

“All right, all right,” Cas says, pulling against Dean’s hold. “I believe you.” Dean’s hand releases its hold on him and Cas’ hands move over his sides in long, greedy strokes. “But we’re doing this my way.”

Dean doesn’t argue with that, he can’t, not when Cas nips a line across his collarbone and shoulder. With soft touches, Cas urges him onto his stomach. Dean sighs as he stretches, hips rutting into the mattress. Cas moves to straddle his hips and Dean arches up, grinning at Cas’ low noise of pleasure.

Lurking in the back of his mind are all thoughts of responsibility and family, but Dean pushes them away, using the hot, heavy weight of Cas against his back as a buffer. It’s easy to forget everything with Cas’ teeth and tongue laying out a path along the nape of his neck and his shoulders. Dean groans as Cas’ hands stroke up and down his sides. Each touch ignites a fire underneath his skin and Dean rolls his hips down, seeking more friction against his hardening cock.

He whines when Cas’ hands seize his hips, stopping his motions. “Easy,” Cas urges, his voice dark as thirty year old malt liquor. “Let me take care of it.”

Dean relaxes, panting softly into the curve of his elbow as Cas shifts. He lays hot, open-mouthed kisses, seemingly at random, along the expanse of his back, down to the curve of his waist and the small of his back. Dean whimpers when Cas’ nips at the swell of his ass, soothing the bite with a long, lingering kiss. “Fuck,” he whines, fighting the urge to thrust up into Cas’ mouth or down into the mattress.

By now they’re both familiar with the contents of each other’s bedside tables. Cas grabs the lube and a condom. Dean follows his motions with half-lidded eyes. He cranes his head over his shoulder, accepting an awkward kiss as he feels the first press of Cas’ fingers.

Sometimes Dean thinks that Cas likes this more than the actual fucking, the slow slide of his fingers in and out of his body. Most everyone he’s been with, and himself if he’s being honest, treat prep as a necessary evil--the roadblock getting in the way of the main event. Cas treats it like a form of a worship, long fingers twisting and rubbing. Dean cries out as Cas finds his prostate, fingertips rubbing until Dean can’t help but push into the mattress.

“Cas, please,” he chokes out, reaching back for any part of Cas that he can touch. His fingers brush Cas’ arm, before Cas leans forehead, nose dragging through the fine sheen of sweat covering Dean’s shoulders.

A second, and then a third finger press inside him and Dean keens with the burn of it all. Cas bites down gently on the meat of Dean’s shoulder, teeth leaving a faint impression in his skin. “Can I?” he asks, his clean hand running up Dean’s neck and then over his hair.

“Yeah, fuck, please,” Dean whines, unable to keep the note of desperation out of his voice. Cas smothers his moan in Dean’s skin before he pulls back. Dean wants to roll over and see Cas’ face, watch his long fingers stroke over his flesh but Cas’ hand acts as an anchor on the back of his neck, keeping him still.

Cas’ thighs rest on either side of Dean’s hips, chest pressed against his back. The position leaves no room for Dean to move, hardly room for him to breathe as Cas pushes in. Dean’s breath rushes out in the long, slow slide, fingers grabbing the sheets underneath him. Cas doesn’t stop until he’s balls deep, leaving them both a shaking mess.

When he does start to move, it’s with short rolls of his hips that leave Dean no option of movement. All he can do is just take it, take everything that Cas gives him. He does and he’s dying with it, the stimulation so good and not near enough, cock rubbing against the sheets and Cas managing to angle himself to scrape against Dean’s prostate with every grind but it’s not near enough.

“Cas, I need more,” Dean finally groans, turning his head to look over his shoulder. Cas’ eyes meet his, electric blue almost swallowed by his pupils. “C’mon Cas, please, please--” His voice chokes off as Cas snaps his hips, harder than before, before returning to the same maddening grinds.

“Told you we were going to do this my way.” Cas moves his arms to curl underneath Dean’s, hands grabbing onto Dean’s shoulders for leverage. Cas’ knees shift on the mattress and now he’s thrusting with intent, each snap of his hips pushing the breath out of Dean.

It’s a punishing pace, and Dean wants to meet it, but he can’t. He’s kept pinned by Cas and he loves it, loves every second of it. His mouth hangs open, and a mindless string of praise and cries falls out. Cas’ hair brushes against his shoulders, his breath harsh and hot against Dean’s skin.

He’s close, he’s so damn close, but he needs just a little more, something to push him over the edge. “Cas,” he grunts, pushing back as much he can. “Cas, please, I wanna…”

Cas moves faster, knees sliding across the sheets. Dean’s eyes roll and he cries out in frustration, caught on the precipice between too much and not enough, and it’s enough to drive him crazy, every nerve ending in his body snapping with need, his brain shorting out, he’s on fire, and Cas is so perfect above him and all he can do is just take it--

“Come for me Dean,” Cas says, his voice scraped and raw, and his teeth sink into Dean’s shoulder and that is--

Dean comes in a white-hot blur, mouth open in a soundless cry, brain shorting out. He’s aware of Cas’ low curse, the feel of his hips snapping once, twice, before Cas stills above him, coming with a harsh cry. He rides it out, hips grinding down until Dean whimpers with over-stimulation.

Dean drifts back into his body, brought back with soft, soothing touches to his back. Cas whispers above him. The words are unintelligible, but his tone is reverent, awed. He rests against the mattress, body heavy post-orgasm, and takes a moment to just breathe.

In a moment, he’ll have to deal with the lingering events of the night. He’ll have to face reality: he’s got a funeral to plan, not to mention years worth of baggage to unpack. In a moment, he’ll have to leave Cas and the sanctuary of the bed. In a moment, Atlas picks his burden back up again.

But for now, he can rest.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Chapter Text

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

Dean wakes alone.

Half-awake, he gropes through the folds of sheets, only to find them empty and cold. Confused, he sits up and looks around the room, like he might find Cas lurking behind the closet door. A swift glance tells him that his room is empty and further listening tells him that his apartment is the same.

Dean swallows and clenches his fist in the sheets. He hadn’t been expecting breakfast in bed, but it still...A quick glance at his alarm clock tells him that it’s past 9 o’clock and adrenaline kicks into his body. Why hasn’t his phone--Why didn’t his alarm--?

There’s a note on his bedside table. Dean recognizes the all-caps handwriting and leans over to grab it.

Dean-
I already called in and told Becky that you had a death in the family. They won’t be expecting you at the school for the rest of the week. I turned your alarm off so you could get some sleep.
I’ll call you during planning.
-C

Dean flops back onto his pillows and closes his eyes. Beside him, his phone flashes with a notification of a missed call. Sam, he sees, and why wouldn’t it be? He called his brother in the middle of the night and told him that their father was dead. If their positions were switched, then Dean would have been calling every ten minutes. He can almost admire Sam's restraint.

He punches in Sam’s information and listens to the phone ring. After a few moments, it picks up. “Dean?” Jess’ voice, soft and soothing, comes through the line. "How are you doing?”

“Well as can be expected,” Dean answers. Much as he loves Jess, he really, really, really doesn't want to get into his feelings at the moment. “I need to...is Sam there?”

“He’s in the shower. Should be done any minute. We can be over at yours in about thirty minutes if you want so that we...we can decide what to do.” Jess’ voice loses some of her relentless optimism and Dean wants nothing more than to scoop her up and bundle her far away.

“Yeah I need…” Dean shakes his head, forgetting for a moment that Jess can’t see him. “I don’t know how to do any of this. I’ve never had to…”

“Have you called Bobby and Ellen yet?” Jess asks.

“Hell.” Dean’s heart sinks at the thought.

“I only asked because maybe they’d be able to help. I don’t...I don’t know what to do either,” she confesses.

“Look, we’ll get together and figure this out.” His shoulders ache with responsibility but it's his job. Take care of Sammy translates into Take care of everything and Jess falls underneath that category. “It’s all going to work out.”

He and Jess say some ultimately meaningless platitudes towards each other and Dean hangs up the phone. He can’t help but think, as he puts his phone down, that he wants something like what Sam has. Someone to answer the phone while he’s in the shower, a partner to stand by his side.

His eyes flick to Cas’ note. His chest aches with potential.

But potential is ultimately useless if there’s no will to act behind it. . Dean rolls his shoulders and ignores the lingering soreness of his muscles as he goes to get another shower.

---

Approximately forty minutes later, his door opens. “Just come on in why don’t you,” Dean mutters, his back to the door. He turns around, expecting to see his giant of a brother clogging up his kitchen, which is why the sight of Cas surprises him into immobility. He’s paler than when Dean last saw him but otherwise he looks much the same as he did about four hours ago.

“Playing hooky?’ is the first thing Dean can think of to ask.

Cas shrugs, seemingly unconcerned, but there’s something lurking in his eyes, something about the way that his arms curve carefully around his waist, that speaks of vulnerability. “Did you know that if you vomit during the school day, you're automatically sent home?”

“I was aware,” Dean says, trying to connect the puzzle pieces. “So what? You had a bad granola bar this morning?”

That same blend of nonchalance and anxiety appears in Cas’ shrug as he says, “Did you know that some people can make themselves vomit without any external stimulus?”

The puzzle pieces finally connect, and all Dean can do is laugh softly to himself for a moment. “You,” he says, shaking his head, “you threw up in school? On purpose?”

“During first block,” Cas confirms. “I made sure that plenty of people saw me.”

“And why,” Dean asks, stepping close to Cas, “would someone discover that they had the talent of vomiting on command?”

“Did I not mention that college was a very interesting time?” Cas’ shoulders loosen as Dean’s hand curves around his waist. After that, it’s a collapse in stages, Dean folding into Castiel, until his arms wrap around Cas’ waist and his forehead rests on Cas’ broad shoulder. “I just...I couldn’t stop thinking of you,” Cas confesses, his fingers pressing in on the tight muscles of Dean’s shoulders. "I couldn't get you out of my mind."

Sam and Jess arrive a few minutes later to find Dean and Cas in the kitchen. If Sam’s surprised by Cas’ presence, he hides it well. Dean meets Sam’s eyes, knowing that there’s no explaining this away, no way to say that Cas is just a friend. Benny is a friend. Charlie is a friend. Neither one of them are in Dean’s kitchen, debating over what to do with his father’s body.

It takes the four of them the rest of the afternoon to plan the arrangements. None of them suggest the obvious: washing their hands of the whole affair, resigning John Winchester to a pauper’s burial and an anonymous grave. It would certainly be simpler for all of them, but part of Dean rebels at the thought of his father resting in a random plot of earth. The man spent twenty four years of his life trying to find whatever killed his wife. The least Dean can do is let him rest beside her.

After the phone calls are placed, and the dates set, Sam orders a pizza. Slowly, the tension from the day bleeds away until it’s just the four of them sharing drinks and food. Jess recounts a story from hers and Sam’s Stanford days and Cas laughs, dimples on his cheeks pronounced as he smiles at her. Dean watches them interact, the three people that he loves most in the world. He wants to take this feeling in his chest, bottle it up, and save it for rainy days.

“So how are ballet lessons going?” Dean asks around a mouthful of his Meat Lover’s pizza. Sam sends a bitchy look his way, but unlike Dean, he’s not willing to talk around a full mouth to defend himself, so Dean gets to explain to Cas, “TwinkleToes here was worried that he wouldn’t look good during their 'first dance', so he and Jess have been spending their evenings learning how to pirouette.”

Sam finally swallows, already offended, as he looks plaintively at Cas. “It’s ballroom dancing, and forgive me if I don’t want to look like an idiot in front of everyone--”

Cas takes a delicate bite and rubs at the corner of his mouth with the pad of his thumb as he glances towards the ceiling, clearly deep in thought. “Well, that makes sense. Of course, you’ll want to move past the basic ballroom and into the Viennese waltz if you want to look like more than weekend dabblers. And no one’s ever gone wrong with a little foxtrot.”

Three pairs of eyes stare at him. Cas blinks back, politely befuddled. Jess finally breaks the ice. “Have you been holding out on us Cas?”

“Closet Dancing with the Stars fan?” Dean guesses.

Cas’ eyes flick between them. “No,” he says, in the tone which suggests that everyone around him is just deeply stupid, “Michael held a number of charity balls. We were all expected to acquit ourselves on the floor.”

If Cas was hoping to return them to normal, then his gambit failed. A smile that bodes no one any good slowly dawns on Jess' face.

“All right hotshot,” she says, pushing her chair away from the table. She grabs Cas’ wrists and tugs. “Show me what you’ve got.”

Cas tilts his head in confusion and looks at Dean, who bravely holds up his hands and shakes his head. “All you.” Maybe it’s not the nicest thing to do, but he can’t deny that he’s a little intrigued. He adds this up in the little drawer he keeps in the back of his mind, of What Cas Is. So far he’s got doctor, asshole, know-it-all, stoner, and now ballroom dancer.

“We’ve been taking lessons for weeks now and Sam, he tries, he really does, but the poor thing struggles--”

“Giant feet,” Dean interrupts, dodging Sam’s swift kick at his shins. “It’s hard for Sasquatch to keep a beat.”

Jess finds something jazzy on her phone and holds out her hand. After a moment’s thought, Cas takes it and moves into position, one hand resting lightly on her back. He leans in close and whispers into her ear, and on an unspoken signal, they’re off.

Dean knows jack about dancing, but he knows enough about humans to know that Cas and Jess look good. Poor Sam, but his over-sized body doesn’t allow for the kind of minute grace that dancing requires. Dean’s seen his brother’s piss-poor attempts at dancing, and no brotherly loyalty will make him deny that Cas puts Sam to shame. Cas’ sock-clad feet easily glide across the kitchen linoleum and Jess follows, her blonde hair swishing with every turn. The sheer wattage of her wide smile is matched only by Cas’ grin.

Dean makes the mistake of looking over at Sam. He’s terrified that he has the same sappy smile plastered over his face that Sam does, so he tries to wipe his expression clean when Sam glances across the table at him. “Don’t look at me; I'm not dancing with you,” he says, rubbing away the laugh lines at the corner of his lips in a futile attempt to hide his feelings. “I have to be able to move around at work tomorrow. Can’t have you squashing my feet with your clown shoes.”

It’s impossible for him to keep his eyes off of Cas and Jess for long. They look like something out of a movie, as they glide through his kitchen, and, like a moth to the light, Dean is caught in their glow. Cas spins Jess, and her clear laugh echoes through the kitchen. Dean’s skin hurts. It’s too small to contain everything that he is, everything that he feels. How do people live their lives, being in love? How do they get anything done? How can they waste their time with jobs and hobbies while they could be basking in the presence of their beloved?

The song ends and so does the dance. Cas’ hand rests on Jess’ back, supporting her as he bends her over in a low dip. She comes up smiling, arm thrown around Cas’ shoulders in an easy embrace. “That’s it,” she announces as she returns to the table and settles under Sam’s arm, “I’m leaving you. Cas is my new husband now.”

“Downsizing?” Dean grins at her. He bumps Cas’ shoulder. “I’ll warn you, he’s a bit of an asshole.” His peripheral vision provides him with an exquisite view of Castiel rolling his eyes.

“At least I won’t have to use the wide-angle lens in the wedding photos.” Jess stretches on her tiptoes to press a smacking kiss against Sam’s cheek. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just get him to stand in for you during the first dance.”

Dean flicks an errant strand of Cas' fringe as he grins at him. “You’ve got a month to grow your hair out. Put you on some stilts, no one could tell the difference between the two of you.” Cas rolls his eyes like he’s painting the ceiling with his irises, but a faint smile darts across his face.

The rest of the night passes in easy company. Dean and Cas never touch beyond the odd brush of knuckles, but throughout the night, Cas’ presence next to him is a tangible thing. He stays after Sam and Jess leave, stays until Dean is in his t-shirt and boxers, stretched out on his mattress.

“Are you going to be all right?” he asks. The backs of his knuckles run absently up and down Dean’s arm. Dean doesn’t know if Cas is even aware of the motion.

“I think I will be," Dean says, after a long moment's thought. He almost thinks that the words might be true. “Today was the hard part. Tomorrow’s just dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.” Dean rolls over onto his back and stares at the ceiling. The words he wants to say stick in his throat so he grabs the closest thing to them he can find.

“I don’t...It means a lot, you being here today. I just wanted to say--” I love you. Stay with me. No one’s ever done for me what you’ve done, no one except Sam, but you make it to where I don’t have to be strong anymore… Dean clears his throat. “Thanks man.”

He rolls his head over to the side to chance a look at Cas. Cas, who looks surprisingly disappointed for all of a second before his expression smooths. Then he just looks like Cas: eternally grumpy, usually perplexed, and always with that layer of something more.

“Of course Dean,” Cas answers, and then Dean might understand that flash of disappointment, because if Cas didn’t get everything that he was looking for from Dean, then Dean sure as hell didn’t get everything that he was looking for from Cas.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

Sam doesn’t mention it, at least not at first.

In fact, the only time that he brings up Cas is while they’re waiting for the director of the graveyard to come see them. He just looks over at Dean, a tiny, smug, pleased smile on his face. “So,” he says, in his patented, obnoxious little brother voice, “you and Cas, huh?”

Dean tucks his chin into the collar of his shirt and tries for his best glower. It’s lacking. Between the lingering grief and omnipresent anxiety, he can’t muster up the normal level of vitriol. All he can come up with is a weak “Shut up.”

He can’t tell Sam that it’s not like that, especially when he can’t explain what, exactly, it is like between him and Cas. He and Cas aren’t dating, but Cas made himself vomit just so he could spend the day with Dean. He and Cas aren’t official, but they spend every weekend together. Dean makes them breakfast for Christ’s sake. He and Cas aren’t in a relationship, but they’re fucking, and cuddling, and pillow-talking, exactly like they’re in a relationship. It’s enough to spin Dean’s head and make him question up from down. He doesn’t want to try explaining it to Sam, doesn’t want to see the confusion, or worse, the pity, on his brother’s face when Dean tells him the absolute mess he’s made of his personal life.

Sam’s smile widens, cementing Dean’s resolve. He can't do anything to destroy that expression, not right now. “No, I think it’s cute. Especially the part where six months ago, you would tell anyone who stood still long enough that you couldn’t stand him. Huge tip-off by the way, I think that there might have been a bet going on about how long it was going to take you to realize that you were way too obsessed with him--”

“Would you shut up already?” Dean growls. “Really don’t want to be talking about this with the dead person dude in the next room.”

Sam stops speaking but the shit-eating grin remains. “I just think that it’s a good thing, is all. I think that he’s good for you.” Sam lets it lie after that, which isn’t as much of a mercy as it would first appear. The dark places in Dean’s brain thrive on silence.

He’s thought about it before, whether or not he and Cas are good for each other. He knows his truth: Cas is so, so good for him, with his smile and his laugh, and his elegant fingers that reach so easily into Dean, scoop out the vulnerable parts, and hold them so gently up to the light.

He doesn’t know if he’s good for Cas. Past experiences would tend to say no.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

John Winchester’s ashes go into the ground on a drizzly, grey Saturday morning. At the graveside service, Dean stands in his raincoat, mist clinging to his eyelashes and listens to the anonymous minister rattle on about Heaven, the Life Eternal and about John going to his final resting place. He doesn’t believe, he can’t believe, but the words bring Sam comfort, so he shelves his own beliefs and listens to a stranger wax philosophical about his father.

Dean knew the man for twenty-eight years. What does this man, this preacher, think that he could discover?

After the funeral, Dean walks through the dwindling group of mourners in a daze. Bobby and Ellen stand at the edge of the cemetery, gently ushering the pitiful number of mourners away. Dean watches, numb to the rain falling on his forehead, numb to the creeping grief winding its way through him. He still can’t wrap his head around the idea that his father is gone. He half-expects his phone to ring once more, flashing the three damning letters across the screen. He thumbs over the edge of it in his pocket, resisting the impulse to pull it out and check.

Sam moves through the handful of people like a puppet with frayed strings. He seems diminished, smaller even than when he was fourteen and little more than gangly limbs and long hair. Watching him, Dean feels a faint spark of rage light in the midst of the yawning emptiness inside him. Sam fought constantly with Dad, hated the idea of living with him. He hadn’t even talked to Dad in the last four years. How dare he act like he lost something?

Then the guilt kicks in, a double-barrel of awfulness right in the soft parts of his gut. He looks at Sam, the way that he forces a thankful smile that looks like a rictus grin, and something in him shrivels. He thinks of his father, calling him, and the way that he threw his phone across the room. How he laughed afterward, the joy pulsing through his veins as he forsook some of the last family he had left.

The handful of mourners file away, their forms blurry in the sullen rain. Dean stands with Sam and Jess, foregoing the comfort of the umbrella Jess tries to put over his head. Dean stares at his mother’s headstone, something thick and hot trying to claw out of his throat. The bare patch of earth looks too small for something as large as his father. It feels obscene, like watching pornography in church.

“Dean.” From the sharp tone of Sam’s voice, Dean can tell it’s not the first time Sam’s tried to get his attention. “Come on, let’s go home.”

Dean swallows around the hard, sour lump working its way up past his gorge. “Yeah,” he says, not trusting himself to say anything else.

Even Baby doesn’t bring him the comfort that she usually does. All he can think of is his father’s hands on the steering wheel, the afternoons spent underneath her hood as John taught him how to fix her when she was hurting. He’d seemed freer in those times, the memories loosening their hold on him. He’d almost remembered how to be a father instead of a hunter.

“Are you sure you’re going to be ok?” Sam’s face has the lemon-sucking pinch of concern that Dean loathes. From the backseat, Jess reaches forward and squeezes his shoulder before she wisely makes her escape into the house, leaving Sam and Dean alone in the car. The silence between them quickly becomes an oppressive presence all its own. Dean taps his fingers against the steering wheel. A muscle ticks in his jaw as he stares straight ahead at Sam’s driveway. “Maybe you should call Cas.”

“I’m fine Sam,” Dean snaps. His hands wrap around the wheel so tightly that his knuckles creak. “Look, it’s been a long day and I just want to go home.”

Sam’s lips purse. Dean very carefully keeps his eyes focused straight ahead, but he can tell that his brother is almost vibrating with the need to say something. Thankfully, common sense wins out, and Sam deflates. “Call us if you need anything.”

Dean grunts out an answer. He doesn’t dare to blink until the passenger door slams, and then he’s peeling out of the driveway, turning the wheel like he’s wringing necks. He already knows that he’s not going to call Sam and he’s sure as hell not going to call Cas.

He can’t erase the memory of that afternoon, how easily he dismissed the ringing of the phone, the need of his father, how simple it seemed to lose himself in the easy curve of Cas’ lips, the heady scent and taste of the smoke. How good it had felt to throw away his rightful responsibility, the glee as he’d grabbed for Cas.

He doesn’t deserve that kind of happiness.

So he drives back to a house that gapes with emptiness and eats lukewarm, leftover pizza as he curls up on the couch. Dean drags a blanket over himself, trying to coccoon himself in any semblance of comfort. If Sam were here, then he’d say that Dean was being melodramatic, but he can’t stop. He can’t reach for the phone to grab even the smallest solace.

Just to stop temptation, he turns his phone off before he wanders into the kitchen. There’s at least half a handle of whiskey in the kitchen that’s calling his name.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

 

Sunday morning is not kind to him.

Dean wakes up sprawled over his couch, arms and legs twisted in awkward angles that might have been acceptable five years ago, but now leave him hissing in pain as he sits up. His head throbs in warning and his stomach lurches. He scrambles for the bathroom, skinning his knee on the carpet as he stumbles in his haste. He barely makes it to the toilet before last night’s meager supper splashes against the toilet water.

Dean waits for a moment, his eyes drawn to the gruesome mess in the bowl. The scent of bile turns his stomach. When he’s sure that nothing else is on its way up, he flushes the toilet. He twists his neck, spine creaking in protest, as he drinks tepid tapwater straight from the spout. It’s awful, but it does help to wash the sour taste out of his mouth.

His body still feels weak as he wanders into the kitchen. He winces at the clock. 8:48 and he’s up and mobile. Most Sunday mornings find him still asleep until ten, when he begrudgingly slides from the sheets and makes a brunch full of carbs and grease to make up from the indignity of awakening. Lately, the harsh reality of morning has been softened on Sunday mornings, because lately he’s been able to wake up to the comfort of a warm body pressed against his. Last night was the first Saturday night that he’s spent alone in months. Dean’s skin yearns for the press of skin, like a junkie craving a fix.

Dean grits his teeth and chokes down a burnt piece of toast, and tries to ignore it.

He moves on auto-pilot the rest of the day. His headache occupies most of his time and he loses hours in fitful naps on the couch. He should be going over his plans for tomorrow, but the thought is enough to turn his stomach. More than once he glances at his phone. His fingers itch with the urge to call Sam, Charlie, or Benny, but he keeps it to himself. He knows that Bobby and Ellen have probably decimated his voicemail and he suspects that it’s only a matter of time before Jo kicks down his door.

He wants Cas. He wants to be able to bury his face in the curve of Cas’ neck, the place that seems to fit his skull so perfectly. He wants to press up close to him, rest his hand over the steady beat of Cas’ heart. He wants to close his eyes and remove all his tethers to the world, save that one link.

But then he’ll think of his father, alone in some flea-trap motel, calling Dean and getting nothing but silence. His father, relying on Dean, Dean who let him down yet again.

The corners of his townhouse seem like unpredictable, unfriendly things. He was never supposed to have this. He ran away from his father, from his obligation. He lied and cheated his way into a life that he was never supposed to have.

Deep down, Dean knows that he never really left that warehouse, not in the ways that matter.

He can’t save his father. He can’t wind back the clock and make the decision that would save his life. But he can at least avoid spitting on his father’s memory.

So he keeps his phone off until late Sunday night, when he goes to set his alarm. Predictably, a flurry of texts, missed calls, and voicemails flash on the screen, tripping over themselves for his attention.

Charlie: dude would you call someone no one’s heard from you and they’re worried that you went to oz or something

Jess: just wanted to check and see how you were doing. dinner tonight? you can bring cas

Sam: Dean, please stop ignoring us. We’re not asking that you talk to us but just let us know that you’re all right.

Ellen: boy if you don’t get your head out of your ass and answer i’m minded to come over and kick your ass myself

Cas: Dean do you want me to come over?

And on and on the messages roll. There’s a creatively phrased threat from Jo that details several, anatomically impossible things that she’ll do to him if he continues to ignore them, along with three voicemails from Sam, each more terse than the last. Bobby even deigns to text him, which tells Dean that matters must have reached Defcon 4 in the Singer household.

Worse than Sam’s messages or Jo’s vitriol is Cas’ delicately voiced confusion and hurt.

Dean, you never answered me. Is everything all right?

Dean, Sam called me. He’s worried about you. Please call him back.

Please don’t ignore us.

Just let me know that you’re ok.

The lump in Dean’s throat goes down like a fist with razors attached to the knuckles. Everyone’s hitting him where it hurts: the guilt, the worry, the obvious care. He can’t tell these people that he doesn’t deserve it. The thought of the look on Ellen’s face if he tells her that he doesn’t deserve her compassion or her concern is enough to make his testicles want to crawl up inside his body and make a new home there.

But he can’t. He can’t pick up the phone and accept what they’re offering to him.

Dean sets the alarm on his phone and flees to the cold comfort of his bed.

 

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

Dean moves like a wraith through the building Monday morning, determined to escape any and all who would either attempt to comfort or question him. Escaping Charlie poses little problem. Her office is on the other side of the building and as much as she cares, it’s not like her to begin an expedition at eight in the morning. Benny is a little more difficult, but after three years of working together, Dean knows his routine well enough to slide past his suite of rooms. Ellen proves trickier. She actually manages to make determined eye contact with Dean, just before the morning bell rings. The look in her eyes promises swift and painful retribution and Dean decides to not spend any time in his room if he can help it.

During lunch, Dean slinks to the teacher’s cafeteria, simply for the reason that he knows no one will be there. It’s a miserable place full of the smell of day old, re-heated food, and the stains along the table and microwave are enough to turn even his stomach, but the solitude more than makes up for all the room’s faults.

Not that deep down, Dean knows that he’s being childish. He’s going to have to see his family sooner or later and the law of large numbers says that it’s going to be sooner. When he sees them, he’s going to have to explain his behavior which means that he’s going to end up getting hit at least three times, more if Benny and Bobby are in a mood. Dean’s been hit by Benny before and he doesn’t want to repeat the experience, so shouldn’t he just go to his room and explain himself now? Get out all the poison and regret like ripping off a band-aid?

If he were to get on the phone right now and call Sam, he knows that Sam would put aside everything and listen. There’s no guarantee that Sam wouldn’t call him a fucking dumbass for his behavior, but he would at least listen.

He could go to Cas and apologize. He’s not as sure on Castiel’s view on forgiveness as he is Sam’s, but he thinks that Cas wouldn’t even bat an eye. He might give Dean the steely-eyed look for a long minute, make him sweat a little, but Dean’s pretty sure that there’s no version of this story that doesn’t end with his face buried in Cas’ chest and Cas’ arms around him, low voice murmuring sympathetic nothings into his hair.

The problem is that Dean can’t bring himself to really want that. Not when dozens of voices chant in his head badsonbadsonbadsonbadson like a Greek chorus.

He should call Dr. Moseley. He hasn’t needed to talk to her in a few years, not since college, but it’s too noisy in his head right now. He has her number programmed into his phone; it wouldn’t be anything to punch it in and set up an appointment. He’s a longtime patient, no doubt she’d have him in to see her before the end of the week. His brain knows that it’s the right move to make. He should see her and, in the safety of her office that smells like apple pie and sage, lance this festering boil.

He doesn’t call.

Instead, he spends his planning period skulking around the school, finally ending up in the copy room. He sets his laptop up at the table there, idly flipping through websites as he figures out what he’s going to do the rest of the week. Only a few teachers wander in, thankfully none of whom really care about him. They mutter something nice like “sorry for your loss” and then they awkwardly turn back to the copiers, very obviously willing the papers to come out faster.

It’s sweet, what they’re doing, but goddamn does Dean wish that they would stop. Every platitude feels like a red-hot poker shoved into his kidneys and by the third “sorry about your father”, he feels like he might never recover.

His father was a bastard. His father was a man who didn’t think twice about bringing his son into his shady dealings. His father was a man who drank too much, missed his wife more than he loved his sons, and turned his rage outwards towards those same sons.

His father was the person who first taught him about cars, who spent hours underneath the hood of the Impala until Dean could take her apart in his sleep. His father was the man who would sometimes sing tunelessly along to the radio, beating time on the steering wheel. His father was the one who throw his old leather jacket over his and Sam’s sleeping figures in the backseat. Dean would wake up underneath the heavy weight, smelling motor oil and leather, and know that some part of his father was still alive, underneath the grief and bitterness.

Fuck, he really should call Missouri.

His attention is interrupted by Hell’s Most Wanted. Unlike the rest of the teachers, Meg’s face doesn’t automatically rearrange itself into horrified pity when she sees him. Instead, she smiles like a shark scenting chum in the water.

“Got damn near the whole school looking for you Dean-o. Reckon you should start talking to your fanclub.”

Dean sighs and glares at his laptop screen. “Seems you’ve been talking to them enough for the both of us.”

“Ah, they’re not really my kind of people.” Meg leans up against the table, her posture saying clearly that she could spend the rest of the day like this. Dean concentrates harder, like by sheer focus of will, he could wish her away. “But for whatever reason they do seem damn worried about you.”

“Their mistake.”

“And I don’t disagree, believe me,” Meg drawls. “But for whatever reason, you’ve pulled on their heartstrings. Plus, Harvelle Elder and Younger are both damn scary when they’ve got a mind to be, and I’d rather not have them on the warpath this early in the week.”

“What are you now, my therapist?” He really, really, doesn’t have the patience for this crap today.

Meg laughs. Under other circumstances, it might sound pleasant. “I don’t have near the amount of time that it would take to fix you. You’re twenty pounds of crazy in a ten pound bag Winchester, and I think you know it too.”

Dean bristles. It’s nothing that he hasn’t heard before, nothing that he hasn’t said to himself at least once a week, but hearing it from Meg scrapes against nerves that are already raw and hurting.

“Well, your attempt at caring has been beyond helpful, but if you’ll excuse me.” Dean slams the lid of his laptop down, uncaring of any damage that he might be doing to the screen, and tries to storm past her. It doesn’t work. For a petite woman, Meg can fill up a doorway when she wants.

“My point, in case you missed it Winchester, is that you’ve got a lot of good people who are worried about you, and you’re being an asshole.”

“Wow,” Dean snaps, doing his best to loom over her, “you know my dad just died, right?”

Meg shrugs. “Never met the man. Met Benny. Met Castiel. Care more about their feelings than yours, and they’ve been going up the walls because you couldn’t bother to pick up a phone and text them.”

Dean blinks as something sour and hot crawls up the back of his throat. It’s like Meg found every one of his soft spots and ruthlessly ripped them open with her claws. He’s bleeding, and the worst part is, she’s absolutely right.

Worthless. He’s always been that way, and now he’s just dragging down the people that he loves along with him.

He clenches his jaw so hard that he thinks it might crack, tension making his muscles stiff and immobile. “Are you done?” he asks, cold. He thinks of Cas when he’s pissed off, that particular level of condescending and impersonal and tries to emulate it. “I have work to do.”

Meg’s lip curls as her eyes flick up and down over Dean. Whatever she’s looking for, she finds him lacking in it. “Sure Dean-o.” Each syllable drips venom. “You do what you’ve got to do.” She nods, her gaze far off, like she’s confirming something to herself. “I told Castiel, right at the beginning, that you were nothing but a pretty face.”

The words twist in Dean’s chest. His steps stutter and he pauses long enough so that Meg can call after him, “By the way, sorry about your dad.”

--

After that, Dean wants nothing more than to flee home. He wants to curl up in his bed and not come out for a thousand years. At the ringing of the final bell, he grabs his bag and darts for the back doors, determined to make it out before anyone has a chance to notice his exit.

What he’s forgotten is that Charlie’s office is closer to his car than the back door is, and that sometimes she doesn’t play fairly.

Case in point: she’s waiting for him when he exits into the weak mid-March warmth of the afternoon, leaning up against Baby. The look on her face warns that she’s not going to be easily dislodged. Dean stumbles to a stop when he meets her eyes and wonders if it’s too late for him to go back inside. He chances a look over his shoulder only to find out that it is: Jo waits at the doors like an overzealous Doberman. Between Charlie and Jo, he’ll take Charlie. She’s much less likely to draw blood if she hits him.

“Your phone still working all right, Winchester?”

Dean licks his suddenly dry lips as he walks closer to the car. “Last I checked, yeah.” There’s no way that he makes it out of this, not with either his friendship or his sanity intact.

A look of faux-concern spreads across Charlie’s features. “Well then, there must be another reason why you weren’t answering all of our texts. Were your thumbs broken maybe? A sudden case of blindness? Photo-phobia?”

“All right, cut the cute crap,” Dean snaps. Charlie, used to his temper, barely blinks, though she does at least lose the Oscar-worthy dramatics.

“Seriously. The last anyone saw of you was the day of your father’s funeral,” Charlie puts extra emphasis on the words, like Dean might have forgotten, “and you spend the rest of the weekend ignoring us. I had to talk Cas and Benny down from breaking in your door, and you don’t want to know what Jo was going to do with the shotgun.” A conspicuous glance to his crotch gives Dean a pretty good idea of what Jo’s target would have been at least.

“You getting to a point anytime soon?”

He knows that he’s hit a low point when Charlie’s face twists in confusion. While his temper might have snapped once or twice, he’s never been deliberately mean, never let the rougher edges of his personality show underneath his exterior.

“Talk to us,” Charlie says, voice hesitant.

Dean wants to wrap her up in a hug, kiss the top of her head, and tell her that everything’s going to be okay. He wants to curl up on Sam’s couch and listen to him recount a horrifically boring story and eat some lame-ass kale salad. He wants to go to Bobby’s and have Ellen feed him until he can’t move and share a beer on the porch with Bobby. He wants to crawl into Cas’ arms and succumb to the urge to just let go, let someone else take care of him for a change.

Dean sneers and steps towards the car. Charlie moves away, reversing their positions. In the distance, Dean sees Jo leave her post at the door and start towards them, her steps fast and purposeful.

“You don’t want to talk to me Charlie, not right now at least.” He wrenches the door to the Impala open and throws his bag inside. He turns back to her, hating the sight of her tear-bright eyes. A tiny, dark part of him, the one that takes its cues from John Winchester, is the smallest bit delighted. “Do yourself a favor and leave me alone.”

He throws himself into the driver’s seat and starts the car with a violent twist of the key. Baby comes to life but her regular purr sounds startled, almost hurt. He ignores it, concentrates instead on the practicalities: namely, getting the hell out of there. He slams her into gear and punches his foot down on the gas pedal. He passes by Charlie, close enough that the wind ruffles her hair. In the rearview mirror, as he speeds away, he can see Jo arrive, see her arm wrap around Charlie’s shoulder.

At least she’s got someone.

--

He’s not surprised at the insistent knock at his door, but he can’t say that he’s pleased.

Dean’s upper lip lifts in a snarl as the sound echoes throughout the house. It rings against the inside of his skull, sending shooting pain through his body and down to his fingertips. It disrupts his pleasant state of before, where his world narrowed to himself and the bottle of Jack clutched in his fingers. Stupid as hell to drink like this on a school night; coming into work hungover is no damn joke, but with the comfortable cloak of numbness shrouding him, he can forget the sight of him tossing his phone away with his fathers’ name on the screen, he can forget the sight of the small lump of dirt at the foot of the headstone, he can forget the sight of Sam moving among the mourners. He doesn’t have to think about how he laughed when he ignored his father, how he had rejoiced to finally be free of him. He can ignore how Charlie’s eyes filled with tears, and he can forget Meg’s sneer. Told Castiel you were nothing more than a pretty face.

Well, he proved her right. He’s also an asshole.

The knocking doesn’t stop. In fact, it grows louder, to the point where Dean can’t even pretend to ignore it. He lurches to his feet, the world tilting around him before it straightens itself out. He stumbles to the door, wrenching it open.

He expects Sam. Maybe Ellen or Jo. He doesn’t expect Cas to shove his way inside before Dean can even think about slamming the door closed.

With Cas in his house, there’s little point in Dean standing in the door, staring stupidly out at the street. He closes the door, leaning against it for support, as he turns to look at Cas. Cas, who can’t stop pacing the length of his living room. His hair is a bigger wreck than usual, like he’s been running his fingers through it for several minutes.

“Any particular reason you’re here?” Dean asks, when the silence drags on for several seconds.

Cas’ eyes, when they meet Dean’s, snap and flare with anger and righteousness. The sight makes Dean want to drop to his knees and press his face into Cas’ belly in a plea for forgiveness.

The sight sparks the simmering rage in the bottom of Dean’s gut, bellowing it into a blazing inferno. Anger curls darkly through him, and all Dean wants to do is lash out, hurt someone else like he’s hurting.

“Cat got your tongue?” Dean pushes off the wall and walks unsteadily towards Cas. “I mean, you must have come here for a reason, right? You must have wanted to say something. So out with it.”

He steps close, too close. Normally it’s Cas who has the problem with personal space but today it’s Dean, stepping close enough to feel the heat coming off of Cas’ body. He uses the two inches he has on Cas to his advantage, making Cas lift his chin to look him in the eyes.

“You’re drunk,” Cas says quietly. “You should go to bed.”

Dean laughs, a bitter, mean, sound. “It’s a little late to start lecturing me now, isn’t it? Besides,” he takes a step back and sways, “you’re not my father.”

The words hit some kind of nerve in Cas. Dean watches his flinch with brutal satisfaction.

“No,” Cas says, and Dean has the impression that he’s picking his words with the same care that a bomb squad uses. “I’m your friend.” Dean scoffs, and Cas blinks in confusion, but valiantly continues. “I don’t think that this is a good idea. You need to be at work tomorrow.”

With Cas’ voice taking that superior tone, Dean's sneer comes easier. “Think you’re going to tell me what to do Cas? You want to give me a curfew next? Tell me to eat my vegetables?”

Cas takes in an even breath. “The last thing I want to do is tell you what to do. I’m here as your friend Dean.”

That word again. It scrapes at Dean, bothers him in a way that it never has before.

The rational, still sober, part of his brain pleads to stop this, to just give into what his body wants, which is to collapse into Cas and let him do the heavy lifting, like he always does. There’s such comfort to be found in that, and he knows that Cas is more than up to the challenge. But the larger part of him forces the hateful smirk back on his face, forces his spine to straighten and his mouth to spit out, “Are you my friend?”

For a second, Cas’ face loses its impassive mask. In that second, he looks like Dean reached out and slapped him. It’s only for a moment, and then the mask snaps back into place, but with an obvious crack.

“Of course I’m your friend. Dean, I don’t…” Cas swallows, looking unsure for the first time since he entered. “Please, let me take care of you. Let me help you.”

“Help me.” Dean’s fingers ache for the feel of the bottle. He spies it, forgotten, against the cushions of the couch. “Yeah, because you’re such a big help.” He moves towards the bottle. Cas, seeing where his attention snapped, moves first and faster, putting himself between Dean and the liquor, and that is just not a good place to be.

“Get out of the way Cas,” Dean says, his voice remarkably level. When Cas doesn’t move, Dean puts a hand on his shoulder and pushes him--not hard, not violently, but forceful enough that Cas takes a few involuntary steps backward.

Dean gulps, but the whiskey’s lost its appeal. All he can taste now is the faint whiff of regret. It’s the same feeling that overpowered the hotel rooms when his father would come crashing through the door, eyes red-rimmed and seemingly unconscious of his two sons. Dean’s fingers tighten around the neck of the bottle, so tight that he thinks he might crack the glass.

Is this really what he wants to be?

He spins away from the tentative touch on his shoulder, lips lifting in an automatic snarl. Behind him, Cas steps away, hands held up in the customary ‘Don’t shoot’ position. “Dean,” he says, quietly, soothingly, like Dean is some kind of skittish horse that needs to be calmed down. “Dean, please just listen to me. Everyone’s worried about you and we just want to make sure that you’re ok. I’m worried about you.”

Dean’s chest heaves up and down with the effort of breathing. It’s too much, Cas is too much. Cas is like a riptide: unseen, seemingly non-threatening and then, when you look back to shore, you’re miles away from where you started with no way to get back home.

A bolt of honesty, one of the few that he’s allowed himself since this whole thing started between him and Cas, shoots through Dean, turning his blood cold and his extremities numb.

Sometimes he wishes that he’d never kissed Cas at all.

Because now he has to live with the knowledge of what Cas sounds like when he’s pleased, those low hums and soft chuffs of almost laughter as Dean noses down his neck and tugs on his hair. He has to live with how Cas tastes, the sweet salt tang of his skin. He can’t forget how Cas feels, his fingernails digging into the soft skin of his nape, or the push of his body up into Dean’s. The look of him, head thrown back on the pillows, eyes closed in artless abandon, dazed smile drifting over his face after he comes. The way that his hands gather Dean to him, greedy, always greedy, for whatever Dean can give him. And Dean, fool that he is, gives and gives, until he’s sure that he’s empty, but then it turns out that Cas demands just that little bit more.

He can feel him now, close enough behind him to touch. The soft thump of his feet on the carpet. It’d be so easy, so goddamn easy, to give in. It’s what he wants.

“I know that you’re hurting, believe me, I know. But it’s not going to get any better if you hide yourself away.” This time when Cas’ fingers close around his shoulder, Dean doesn’t jerk away. Heat seeps through his shirt, his left arm singing with the contact from Cas’ hand. “Please, let me help you.”

A tiny, miserable laugh burbles out of Dean’s throat. “Yeah? And how would you do that?” Even though it brings him no joy, he takes another long drink. When he speaks again, his words slur together. If they were in a motel, then he would almost sound like his father. “You gonna fuck me again? Suck my dick? Puke so you can play hooky from work?” He turns around, and he’s a cyclone, a typhoon, uncaring of the devastation he leaves in his wake. “How exactly do you think you’re going to help me Cas, because you’re sure as hell not going to pretend to be my boyfriend and help me get through this!”

There are things, Dean knows, that can never be taken back once they’re said or done. His silence when Lisa asked him Do you even love me? John Winchester’s hand snapping out and striking Sam. These occurrences are cataclysmic, can shape the course of entire lives, like tectonic plates shifting across landscapes.

This isn’t one of those times, but it’s damn close.

Cas’ face goes pale and his bloodless lips press tightly together, like there’s a torrent of words fighting for escape. One arm is curled around his stomach, like he’s holding a wound, while the other arm hands limp at his side, save for his fingers curling into a fist. For a second, Dean wonders if Cas is going to hit him. He thinks that he might even let him.

Several long seconds tick away. Dean mouths empty words but no sound comes from his lips. What is there to say? He’s put his cards on the table: he wants a relationship, he wants to be able to look at Cas and think Mine, without any reservations or complications.

Cas….doesn’t. For whatever reason, he looked at Dean, and like almost everyone else in Dean’s life, made the decision that Dean wasn’t worth the effort it would take to keep him.

He’s surprised that he’s surprised.

After an eternity, Cas speaks, his voice soft and devoid of any emotion. “Dean, you’re drunk.”

No fucking shit, Dean wants to say. It’s not like he’s been hiding it. But then, for a mercy, the minuscule amount of common sense he still possesses stays his mouth from spewing more venom. His knees wobble with shame and gratitude as he realizes: Cas is giving him an out. Cas is giving Dean the mercy that Dean didn’t shown him, is offering a way out of this mess, if Dean will only extend his hand and take it.

Dean slumps--gradually at first, and then all at once, like his strings have been cut. By luck, he manages to fall on the couch, his head slamming uncomfortably into the arm. His vision blurs as the room performs slow spirals around him. From far away, he hears Cas’ voice, low and growly. He can’t make out any words.

“Asshole,” he gets out. Why is talking so much more difficult than it was a few minutes ago?

Because you’re drunk, comes the helpful answer.

“I know,” Cas says, his voice closer than it was before. “I’m so sorry.” Dean’s eyes close as long fingers stroke over his cheek and through his hair. “You have to believe me, I wish that I could be different.”

“Then just...be different.” Lulled by the whiskey and Cas’ fingers working through his hair, Dean’s eyes drift shut. “Just...fuck. Be...be you but better.”

Cas’ laugh is as mirthless as Dean’s. “I would if I could.”

They lapse into silence. Dean dozes, feeling at peace for the first time since Saturday. It’s not real, he knows that. Every single beat of his calmed heart is stolen, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t appreciate it.

“I’m sorry,” he finally mumbles, because it needs to be said. It won’t change anything, not now, but Dean hopes that it might lift the guilt crushing his chest. Maybe later. Certainly not right now when he’s choking on shame and regret and cheap whiskey, but maybe later. “Cas, Cas, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Cas tells him. Dean keeps his eyes closed because he can’t look. If Cas’ face is as devastated as his voice, then he can’t see the ruin of what he’s created. “You have every right to be angry.”

“I don’t…” Dean’s slow and clumsy, so when he manages to grab onto Cas’ hand he knows it’s because the other man let him. “I don’t want to lose this.” He squeezes Cas’ fingers so that there’s no confusion about what he means.

“Maybe you should. You’re not happy.”

If he had the energy, Dean would roll his eyes. “Not the point,” he says, with the determination of the drunk and exhausted. “I don’t get to be happy. But with you…” he trails off, not sure where he was going to take that sentence. He knows where he wanted it to end: The closest thing to happy that I’ve been is when I’m with you.

Coward that he is, Dean lets those words die.

He doesn’t say anything else to Cas for a week.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*