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Everytown, USA

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Like so many things in Dean’s life, it starts with a door banging open.

                His dad’s shouting behind him, but the wind in his ears is snatching the words away. He tumbles down the stairs, jogs breathlessly to the Impala. Slings his duffel bag into the passenger seat.

                “—Don’t you dare take the car!”

                Dean finally allows himself to smile, and guns the engine. The tires squeal as he shoots backward, executes a three point turn, and shoots off down the road—

                But that wasn’t quite where it started, either. It had started half an hour earlier, what already seems like a lifetime ago.

                The whole scene was so familiar—his dad, slamming the door open and stumbling in, reeking of alcohol, even though it’s barely into the evening. His eyes traveling the room, looking for something worth his anger. Dean doesn’t even need to be in the room to see it; he just knows. It’s the same way Dad acted after Mary’s funeral, after Sam left—let’s try, every fuckin’ week, a scene like this.

                In his bedroom, he tries to angle his phone away from the noise, going closer to the opposite wall.

                “What was that?” Sam asks, but he already has a suspicions-confirmed tone.

                “Nothing,” Dean says quickly, right as Dad bellows his name from the front room. Dean winces, just because of course John has to do that now, when he’s on the phone with Sam, trying to play it off like everything’s peachy at the Winchester house. They can go for weeks barely talking to each other, barely seeing each other, but tonight he has to start something.

                “That’s Dad, right?” Sam says. His voice is rising, condemning. “It’s not even—Jesus, is it even eight o’ clock there?”

                “Early bird gets the tequila worm,” Dean mumbles, looking around the corner of his doorway. He can’t see his dad, but he can hear the heavy tread of his footsteps, traveling to the refrigerator and back. Probably grabbing himself another beer, getting ready for an all-night TV marathon.

                “That’s bullshit, Dean. That’s seriously—that’s—”

                Dean listens to Sam sputter for words worthy of his anger. He feels hollow, tired. Sam, thousands of miles away at Stanford, can work himself up about their good-as-absentee father, his drinking habits, how Dean should just leave him. Dean deserves more. Dean can do better things in his life, at 24, then stick around to pay the bills his father can’t, or lift his head out of the toilet.

                And while Dean agrees, there’s not much else he can do. He’s glad one of them got out; he’s glad Sam’s graduating next year and can kick ass at whatever firm he goes to. But there’s also cold hard facts, too. Those say that one of them can escape from the confines of this family, and the other needs to stick around—because, no matter how vindicating it is to say otherwise, someone does need to keep a roof over Dad’s head, and food in the fridge, and pick him up from bars at two in the morning so he doesn’t try to walk the highway back.                

                Guess which one Dean is.

                There’s a sudden sound of glass cracking, a loud crashing thump.

                “Dean!

                He winces again. “Dad’s calling me,” he says. “Tell me more about the internship later, okay? That’s really great.”

                “Okay,” Sam says. He sounds upset. “You’ll be okay?”

                “Yeah,” Dean says. “Bye, Sam.”

                He waits a second more, looking down at the blinking, ended call, before he tucks it into his pocket and leaves his bedroom.  The hallway is narrow and dark—the light bulb stopped working earlier this year, and Dean stuck a post-it there that said BURNT OUT LIKE OZZY, because there was nothing else to be found humorous in how little Dean could afford beyond the absolute necessities.

                If the light were on, Dean knows what he would see. Peeling wallpaper, old carpeting. Mary and John hadn’t bought the house new, but the pictures show that they put a lot of elbow grease in refurbishing it. Over the years, though, the house has slowly been unmaking itself again. No womanly touch from Mary, no interest from the other owner on the lease. Having no money pretty much put a kibosh on interior decorating plans.

                Dean stops at the end of the hallway. The light from the kitchen is bare, bright, artificial, and it stops almost right on the threshold, where fake linoleum turns to carpet. It’s as good a place to draw a dividing line as any.

                “What?” He says.

                John’s head swivels around. It could be funny, in another situation, how his nostrils seem to flare—predator, sensing prey. He’s holding his foot up slightly off the floor, and Dean can see the steady drip of blood down onto the tile.

                “Why was there a bottle on the floor?” John demands.

                There are plenty of reasons there could be a bottle on the floor, none having anything to do with Dean, but he knows better than to be a smartass.  

                “Couldn’t say,” Dean says.

                “I’ll you tell you why,” John says, face red. He’s been waiting for a reason to chew him out, Dean can tell. Maybe even weeks, looking for an opportunity. “Because it’s just been sitting there waiting for someone to trip on it. And you—you’ve been sleeping the day away.”

                Dean bristles. Of course he sleeps all day—his job is being a night watchman at the Sandover complex a few miles down the road. Sometimes he doesn’t even roll back into the driveway until the sun’s just coming up.

                It’s a good job, too. It’s easy. He’s supposed to patrol the ground every half hour. In between, he sits in the gatehouse and reads everything he can get his hands on—right now, he’s working his way through Vonnegut. For some reason, though, the job has raised his dad’s ire. Something about Dean putting up black trash bags—his version of black-out curtains—and sleeping while the sun shines makes John get pissed off.

                “Why don’t you pick it up, Dean,” John says, patronizing, gesturing to the cracked glass on the floor. When Dean doesn’t  move right away, his dad points down at his bleeding foot. “I’m not gonna do it!”

                Dean enters the kitchen and leans down, slowly picking up shards of the bottle. He’s tense, feeling his dad’s glare on the back of his bent neck. Right now, he’s so unprotected, out in the open. It’s a familiar feeling, too, even though it doesn’t have a basis. John’s never raised a hand to him, not really. He lashes out in other ways. Even so, it makes him uncomfortable, having all of Dad’s attention on him. It’s like being under Sauron’s Eye.                

                The glass clinks together as Dean settles it in his palm, walking over carefully to the trashcan and dumping it in.

                He turns back to John.

                “Is that all?”

                John gives him a look, like he’s being impertinent, and doesn’t reply. He limps out of the room, one hand still curled around his beer, and leaves a line of smeared red footprints behind him.

                It’s not until Dean hears the squeak of him settling onto the couch that he relaxes.

                Dean used to try to remind himself, not to mention Sam, that John was a good father for the longest time. Anger issues, sure. Fond of drink, even then. But Mary complemented that, soothed it away, and memories of that time are warm and bright in a way that this house never is, even if they did have all the burnt out lightbulbs replaced.

                Sam can’t remember as well, being younger, but Dean can. John humming while he tinkered under the sink, or calling Dean to the couch with him so he could explain the finer points of baseball. For fourteen years, he was a good man in the most basic sense of the word. Blue collar man, husband, father. These were roles that John could adequately fulfill.

                So Dean tried to remind them both that John could be understood, maybe, in the context of the hands he’d been dealt. Mary’s death, of course, was the big reason. John wasn’t prepared to lose the wife he loved, or nor was he equipped to be a single father to two young sons. He grew depressed, understandably, but never got himself together like people expected him too. Instead, he sank deeper. Got caught with a flask in the breakroom one day and fired, just like that.

                For a while, people were still sympathetic. They could understand his grief—would visit and bring meals he could freeze, casseroles, condolences. And it wasn’t always bad, either. John would stay away from drink a while, embarrassed, binge, repent again. Weeks, months, would go by, and Dean would start easing up, sure that they were going to return to normal again. But John kept on making it hard to feel bad for him. Leaving his sons at home late at night, getting arrested for starting fights in the bar. Selling off the furniture to furnish his love of drink. Dean and Sam, outgrowing their old clothes, and their father too poor to afford new ones—they got looks of pity on the streets. No more free casseroles.

                Dean started mowing lawns at fourteen, counteracting John’s drift. The cash could cover school lunches for him and Sam, and John still worked the occasional odd job.

                Dean, supermarket grocer at sixteen, while John joined AA,  Dad watching with an inscrutable expression as Sam joyfully started pouring drink down the drain.  John, out of unemployment wages and not able to look him in the eye, asks if he can borrow money from Dean, or else water will be cut off.

                Dean, eighteen and buying the junkyard parts to keep his father’s Impala running, because they couldn’t afford trips to the mechanic, and John succeeds in kicking his AA mentor off the wagon with him.

                Dean, 22, watching John crack a beer inside while Sam loaded a taxi to take him to the airport. Dean giving Sam what savings he’s able to scrape together, willing himself not to cry as he pushes his head into Sam’s shoulder. 

                “Dean!”

                Dean, 24, out of excuses years ago but still stuck.

                He looks warily into the front room, John waiting expectantly on the couch. He waves his empty bottle.

                “Get me another.”

                Those three little words John has loved to say to him since middle childhood. But, at the fridge, there’s nothing more there.

                “They’re all gone,” he shouts back.

                There’s the sound of Dad shuffling to the doorway. “Gone?” He repeats. He starts shifting through the mail on the table, going through the pockets of a jacket hanging over the kitchen chair. Whatever he’s looking for, he can’t seem to find.

                “Give me the keys,” he says, not looking at Dean.

                Dean lets out a disbelieving sound. “No,” he says. “There’s no way you’re driving.”

                John gives him a narrow glare. “Not asking, son,” he says. He holds out his hand. “Give me the keys.”

                Things don’t often come to a head like this. Mostly they’re just two uneasy roommates, staying out of each other’s way. It’s lonely, sure, but there’s too much resentment for them to really want each other’s companionship. John is normally smart enough to request rides from drinking buddies, or even walk. But, when they do, the turn-out is never pretty. John will hold it all over him—duty to family, a roof over Dean’s head, who the car belongs to. Listen to your father. Respect your elder. Let you lay around here all day for 24 years, this is how you repay me. Stuff like that.

                It’s worth saying that in 24 years, Dean has never let his anger out on his father. How many times he’s wanted to push him to the floor, felt his fists clench up hard enough for his fingernails to dig into skin. But he’s never let one swing. There’s some instinctual fear there, of what would happen after, the ugly crumple of their razed barn of a relationship. It seems like taking that kind of action would lead to a very certain kind of finality, one that can’t be recovered.

                And sometimes, in those rare, wonderful weeks when Dad decides to sober up, wants to play a game of poker, or wakes up early, whistling, to mow the grass, Dean thinks that something’s recoverable. Stupid, he knows.

                “No,” Dean says. He takes a step back, feeling the minimal weight of the car keys in his jeans, determined not to let on. “You’re skunked. There’s no way.”

                And then John says something he hasn’t said, not once, in the years since this shit started.

                “If you’re not gonna do what I say, then I suggest you get out of my house,” he says, each word a dead weight.

                There’s a long beat of silence. “What?” Dean can’t keep the bewilderment out of his voice.

                John warms up to the idea. “You heard me—out! My house, my rules. Go anywhere in the US, I don’t give a shit—Ungrateful—judgmental—telling me what to do—”

                Dean’s struck by the strangest sensation, an interesting looseness. Like a bunch of bands around his chest just broke open, like a balloon cut free.  

There’s a term for that—lightbulb moment. Everything is illuminated. John’s voice falls away, as inscrutable as Charlie Brown’s teacher. He wheels around, walks back to his room. His movements seem like they’re being done by another person, a person who knows exactly what to do.

                Slinging the old duffel on his bed, filling it with socks and underwear and jeans and a few shirts. The picture of Mom. Prying up the loose floorboard, underneath is all the savings he’s been hiding. Puts that in there, too. All the while feeling like a door opened somewhere, a small sliver of light growing bigger and bigger, like an unyielding foot is slowly edging the gap wider.

                His dad is still ranting in the kitchen, shouting at his back, when Dean takes one last look around his room. Empty, spare, depersonalized. A long time ago, it had been filled with childhood toys and games. Bunk beds, too, when Sam and him were younger. There’s nothing in here to miss.

                The loose feeling grows as he steps back into the hall. John stops, mid-speech, staring at Dean’s duffel over his shoulder.

                “You’re leaving, then?” Belligerent.

                “Yeah,” Dean says. He sounds a little dazed. His Dad reaches out, maybe to stop him, but Dean just glides effortlessly by him, barely noticing. His Dad’s hand touches briefly on his chest, pressing him back, and then falls away like it was weightless.

                Dean opens the door—it slams against the kitchen wall. The night yawns open and so full. He takes a deep breath, booted feet pounding down the cement steps.

                “Dean, come back here!” John shouts behind him. “Don’t you dare take the car!”

                He smiles as he guns the engine. He thinks to look back as he turns the corner, he can see the one white square of light coming from the kitchen window. Now that the door’s open, he can see how small it is— that dark place he was trapped in.

**

                Dean takes stock as he drives.

                He’s basically bought the car back from his dad these past years, what with buying all the parts for it. John probably doesn’t even know where to start as far as finding anything to show proof of ownership, let alone know what the license plate is. He doesn’t think there will be any follow-up about taking the car.

                The car’s pretty much all he has now, he thinks. One duffel bag, filled with clothes. Six hundred dollars, maybe a little more in his bank account. One-handed, he feels around in the glove box. An old, creased atlas. Add that to the list of things Dean owns.

                It’s strange, he only left home about three hours ago. Already, his shoulders feel lighter, his chest feels looser. A smile has been pulling on the corner of his mouth all day, disbelieving. Is that what he’s been waiting for, all these years? A demand to go? It had felt more like a choice. He could have licked Dad’s boot, handed the keys over and looked the other way. He could have gone for a beer run himself. Instead, he’s flying down the highway with the windows cranked down.

                He considers calling Sam, but puts it off a while longer. There’s something so freeing about this moment, not to be shared. He’s not sure Sam would quite understand it—he knows that when Sam pulled away in a taxi four years ago, that happiness was marred with worries for Dean. It wasn’t the same.

                Right now—he can do anything he wants. Drive anywhere he wants. No responsibilities, no attachments. No more being Dad’s pack horse, his wet nurse, his cellmate. All those possibilities available to him right now—he’s free as a bird. Howl at the moon. Call of the wild. Fuck it, who knows, he’s too happy to care.

                He’s used to being up all night, and this is no exception. He drives until the sky is tinged with pink, and the Impala’s needle is ticking towards E. Dean finds some cheap roadside motel and carefully extracts a few twenties for the motel clerk, who he gives a big smile to.

                He luxuriates in his anonymous room, the one he’ll be leaving within hours, unattached.

                Fuck, he thinks. Freedom is like a drug.

**

                Dad had told him—go anywhere in the US, he doesn’t give a shit.

                Well, Dean takes him on his word on that one.

                He cuts a swathe through Missouri, Illinois, Indiana. He leaves the highway at random, following signs that advertise local attractions. Dean goes to his first fair since he was eight years old, and eats blue cotton candy. He visits caves that may or may not have some gold—pays ten dollars to pan for gold in the streambed. He visits the childhood home of a president.  Shucks corn at a farm and gets to keep it. Sleeps  a few nights at truck stops, covered in a sleeping bag, and sleeps well, too.

                He knows that his money isn’t going to last him forever. He’s having the equivalent of a college freshman’s wild experimentation with freedom. But he wants to keep the good times going while he can. Hanging at the edges of his thoughts, like thunderclouds,  are the cold hard facts that Dean’s used to. He needs to be making his own money somehow, pick up some temporary job that he could work until he has the means to move on again. Lodging would probably be pretty pricy if there aren’t any cheap motels around, but it’s not like he could spend all his nights in the Impala—he’d need a real bed, a shower.  

                He’s putting that off as long as he can. Now, when he drives by a long, neat row of suburbs, he doesn’t feel the envy he used to. Those people think they’re living the American Dream, but they’re not. They’ve chained themselves to one place, they’ve put their blinders on. Well, Dean knows as well as anyone what happens behind closed doors—he’s sure their lives aren’t as perfectly kept as their lawns or their immaculate white picket fences. They probably grow restless and tired and hollow, like Dean always did. They probably think there’s got to be something more to life—more places, more people, more things to do, but they won’t do them. Their identities have been branded into them, now, by the people they’re with or the place they live. But Dean can be whatever he wants.

 Dean’s different now. He can drift through these places, see what there is that’s good about them, and keep on passing through. He doesn’t have to stick around to experience the bad—poverty or bad weather or boredom. Just skims the good stuff, the novelties, off the top and keeps on going. Dean has spent 24 years in Lawrence, Kansas, and he’s looking to make up for lost time, hungering for all those places he’s never been.

                In Ohio, he stands in line with a bunch of giggling teenagers at Cedar Point, and screams with them as the rollercoaster dashes down the first big hill.

**

                Of course, all good things must end.

                He’s somewhere in Michigan, slowing as he approaches a stop light, and he’s craning his neck to look at the storefronts. With a deceptively soft bump, his wheels climb up over someone’s bumper.

                “Fuck.”

                Cars start beeping behind them as the light turns green, but eventually the lane behind them clears out as drivers recognize the accident. Cursing, Dean puts his car in reverse, wincing at the metallic screech of his wheels reversing off the other person’s car.

                “Fuckfuckfuck,” Dean says, leaning over on one hip so he can pull his wallet out of his back pocket. The car in front of him has its hazards on now, and he watches as the door slowly opens, a suited leg pushed out onto the pavement.

                Dean cracks his door open, feeling his stomach drop. Some business man. He’s probably going to sue him for wrecking the car, for emotional distress, for severe neck injuries, why not—

                “HI,” the guy says mildly. Dean realizes he’s rounded the car, standing by his mangled back bumper.

                Dean gets out himself. “Hi, man. Sir. I’m so sorry. I was looking somewhere else—I, fuck. Please don’t sue me.”

                “Okay,” the man says. He sticks out his hand. “I’m Jimmy. Are you alright?”

                “Dean. And yeah, I’m fine,” Dean breathes. He takes his hand, shaking it. The man’s a little bit shorter than him, neatly combed hair, flipped-around tie. Mostly, Dean’s struck by his complete unflappability.

                “Good,” Jimmy says. He withdraws his hand and looks the back of his car. His bumper is sagging off, and there are two identical dents on top of the trunk where the Impala pretty much mounted up. The back window is cracked, too.

                The Impala doesn’t have a scratch. Dean glares at it.

                “Well,” Jimmy says. “There are worse things. Guess we should file a report, huh?”

                “Wait,” Dean blurts out. The other man turns back to him. “Look, I’m gonna be upfront. I don’t have insurance. I don’t have diddly. I know that doesn’t sound good—here, you can write down my license plate. I’m not trying to screw you or anything, but if he could keep the cops out of it—”

                “Okay,” Jimmy says. “We could do that.”

                Dean looks at him, surprised, and Jimmy shrugs. Dean does a double-take, because his lips are really nice and plush, and the color of his eyes is—oh, red alert. That’s a wedding ring on his hand.

                “Okay,” Dean says. “Is there, like, a local auto shop you could take that too? Not one of those national chains—they’ll screw you over. I’ll pay towing, and you can get an estimate, and I’ll pay you that. I, um—”

                He flips open his wallet, showing Jimmy the contents. “I have, um, one hundred dollars. A little more in my bank account. I can pay you that up-front—and—”

                “Dean, it’s okay,” Jimmy says. He looks a little amused. “First accident, huh?”

                Dean shrugs, and nods. To be honest, he’s surprised the other man seems so easy-going about all of this. Dean’s freaking out, and this guy just had his BMW mounted to hell and back and he couldn’t give less of a shit.

                “You’re tight on money right now?” Jimmy says. “We can work something out. You seem like a trustworthy person.”

                “I don’t have a job right now, either,” Dean blurts out, because he’s just that fucking dumb.

                Jimmy nods. He seems to look Dean completely up and down and through,  like he can read Dean’s past based on the worn work boots, the faded flannel he’s wearing. There’s something soft and understanding in his expression. “Okay. We’ll figure it out. But I do need to get to work.”

                He starts digging for something in his pocket.

                “Why are you doing this for me?” Dean says.

                “Ever heard of give unto others?” Jimmy says, and retrieves a business card from his pocket.

                Dean looks down at it—JAMES NOVAK, CPA— and then back to Jimmy. So he’s one of those God types. They’ve been a bit hit or miss for Dean in the past, but Jimmy doesn’t seem like a repent or burn in Hell type. He seems more kind, understanding. What if God were one of us, that’s his type.

                What was the saying? Thank God for small favors.

                Jimmy gets out a pen, takes the card back, and flips it over.

                “I’m writing down my home address,” he says. “Why don’t you get your bearings, get your bank account squared away, and come see me after. Don’t worry about towing costs, Dean. I have a friend at the local auto shop.”

                “Okay,” Dean says. He still feels like he’s three steps behind. “Sure. When will you be home tonight?” He’s done enough to the poor guy today, he doesn’t want to be hanging out on the guy’s front lawn the second he pulls into the driveway.

                “Not until five or so, it’s hard to say,” Jimmy says. “But my brother will be there, so you’ll have someone to let you in. His name’s Cas.” He gives the business card back, and pauses. “Ring the doorbell, don’t knock.”

                “Okay,” Dean says, not really knowing what to make of that. “Thanks, Jimmy. Really.”

                Jimmy gives him another understanding look. “No problem. I’m gonna call a taxi now, and I’ll see you tonight. Drive safe, Dean. Or, at least, safer.” He smiles at his joke.

                Dean gets himself situated in the car, tucking the card with the address in his pocket. He’ll  have to find a place to spend the night, he’ll have to figure out how abysmally little he has in his bank account—

                It occurs to him that, really, he could just drive away and keep driving. Jimmy didn’t even take down his license plate number—he had that much naïve faith in a complete stranger. But Dean knows he couldn’t do that. Not after all the kindnesses the man’s shown in the past ten minutes alone. That moment of reckoning, when Dean has to have responsibilities again? That time is starting now.

                Jimmy’s talking on the phone when Dean pulls up next to him, rolling down the passenger window.

                “Last thing,” Dean calls. “Where the fuck am I, anyway?”

                “Traverse City, Michigan!” Jimmy says, waving before turning back to the phone.

                Well there’s a word for that—irony, maybe? That the would-be drifter is ground to a halt in Traverse City, of all places.

Chapter Text

                $452.31.

                Four hundred and some odd dollars, thirty stinkin’ one cents, that’s what Dean has, all told, after his trip to the bank. It had seemed more like a million, just hours ago, when he was cruising state highways and had not a care in the world. Then, adult responsibilities kicked back in.

                He needs at least fifty, covering food and gas for the rest of the week while he looks for a job. And, unless he’s planning on sleeping in the Impala every night, he’d need enough money for an inexpensive motel—and already all of Dean’s money is flowing out of him like water through a skein.

                It’s embarrassing as fuck, but Jimmy said he’d work with him. Dean can lay out his money, explain his financial necessities, and hopefully Jimmy will continue to cooperate with him as a down-on-his luck drifter. Hopefully he won’t change his mind once he sees that Dean wasn’t lying about being a tight spot. Here’s hoping, anyways.

                Dean drives the streets of Traverse City, just to pass the time until he can go to Jimmy’s house. It’s a cute town, stereotypical Midwest charm. Since it’s getting into late September, he’s guessing it will be harder to find jobs, seeing as a lot of the touristy attractions and seasonal summer positions are long by now. He’s not wrong—he doesn’t see a single HIRING sign.

                He’s trying to keep optimistic when he finally sets off for Jimmy’s house around 4:45. It’s a nice neighborhood, and an even nicer house—a big gray house with a wide front porch, neatly manicured lawn. Dean feels out of place just walking up their sidewalk, gawping around at how well-kept everything is. He can even see, just by its corner, another structure in their side yard. It’s probably another garage. Jimmy probably owns so many BMWs that he needs two garages. Fuck, to be rich.

                Dean reminds himself that Jimmy’s probably secretly very unhappy, and it does make him feel a little better.

                He rings the doorbell, as instructed, but it doesn’t seem to matter, because Jimmy answers the door.

                “Oh, hey,” Dean says, surprised. “You’re home early.”

                “I am?” Jimmy says, cocking his head. His voice is a lot deeper than Dean remembered.

                “Yeah,” Dean says, gesturing to him. “You’ve even had time to ditch the suit.”

                Jimmy definitely looks a lot different when he’s not all dressed up for work. He’s wearing a large, worn T-shirt, and whatever was originally screened across the front has faded away. He’s also sporting a pair of black cotton sweatpants, and Dean’s trying really hard to not make it look like he’s checking out a married man.

                “Hmm,” Jimmy says. Then he opens the door wider. “You’re Dean, aren’t you?”

                He turns and starts walking down the hallway, and Dean’s left staring at him in a confusing mixture of worry and attraction. How the fuck does Jimmy not remember him from just this morning? That does not bode well for dealing with this guy—Dean should have known it was too good to be true.

                It’s also completely unfair, watching that cotton-clad ass strut off down the hallway.

                “Jimmy said to expect you,” the man says, as the hallway opens into an airy, stainless steel kitchen.  Dean does a double-take, and then everything finally slots together.

                “Oh,” he says. “Oh. Okay. You’re Jimmy’s live-in twin brother.”

                He can see the subtle differences, now, beyond just the change in clothes. Jimmy’s twin’s hair is longer, disordered, that kind of effortless sex hair that Dean had tried and failed to achieve in middle school with the use of stolen bottles of hair gel. He carries himself in a different way, too—easier, looser,  a loping kind of grace. And, half-hidden in the fringe of his hair, Dean can see the silvery starburst of a scar. If the twin wasn’t wavering in Dean’s space right now, he probably wouldn’t have even noticed it.

                And that fucking voice, too.

                “Close,” Jimmy’s twin says, leaning in. “I’m the live-in mother-in-law.”

                Then he turns to the fridge to grab a bottle of water.

                “Um, okay,” Dean says.

                There’s a sound behind him, and he turns to see a young teenage girl jumping down the last few steps of the staircase. She has long, pale blonde hair and is rolling her eyes at them.

                “Uncle Cas lives in the mother-in-law suite,” she says loudly. “His idea of a joke.”

                “It’s not a joke if you ruin the punchline right away,” the twin—Cas—says, as he twists the cap off.

                The blonde teenager starts past Dean, so he takes an unconscious step backwards to make room and almost trips over something behind him.

                “What the—” He flails around, and sees some sort of black lab standing behind him, panting placidly and looking up at him with curious brown eyes .

                “That’s my dog,” Cas says, coming to stand next to him. Dean doesn’t especially like dogs, so he just nods, watching as Cas strokes a gentle hand over its head. The dog, who’s weirdly and creepily still, thumps its tail once, but doesn’t look away from Dean.

                “Sure,” Dean says. “Uh, what’s its name?”

                “Cornelius Rex,” the other man says. He’s standing close enough to Dean that his bare foot is nudging Dean’s, that Dean can feel the warmth coming from his arm. He practically swallows his tongue.

                “Oh,” he says. He looks over at the teenage girl, who’s spreading a backpack of papers over the table, but she does nothing to correct her uncle this time. “That’s, uh, interesting.”

                Cas cocks his head closer to Dean. “That’s one way to put it. We got him a few years ago, and Claire and I each chose a name. You can’t blame her; she was only eleven then.”

                The teenager, Claire, snorts from where she’s working at the table.

                Dean, grateful to deflect from the unerring attention of both man and dog, turns to her.

                “You chose Cornelius?”

                “No, she chose Rex,” Cas says. He lingers a moment longer, smiling at Dean like they have some sort of inside joke between them, and then takes a long, intense, sinful swallow from his water bottle. Eyes closed, head tip backed, throat working—everything. That has to be on fucking purpose, right? No one’s that sexy unintentionally. Dean stares at where his lips are closed around the mouth of the bottle, and looks away, clearing his throat.

                How about you don’t pop a boner in front of the teenage girl sitting in the kitchen with you, over the guy who looks just like her dad. How about no, Dean-o.

                Cas finishes, wipes his wet mouth on his tanned arm, and gives Dean a polite smile.

                “Nice meeting you, Dean.” He jerks his head at Cornelius Rex, who obediently pads up to him at the subtle command and follows him from the room. He hears the door open and shut softly, and then there’s silence.

                Leaving Dean alone in the kitchen with the teenage girl, still wondering if Cas was flirting or just fucking with him. He honestly can’t decide.

                “So,” Dean says, while Claire scratches some writing into her notebook. “Should I be—waiting somewhere? I can wait outside?”

                “It’s fine,” Claire says. She puts her pencil down and smiles at him. “My dad will be home soon. Want to sit down?”

                Even though she’s probably been trained up to be formal and polite to adults, it still comes across as pretty genuine. All the same, Dean moves warily to take a seat across from her. If anything, Jimmy probably wanted Dean to be left alone with his brother, not his teenage daughter. At least Claire is acting like it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

                “You’re, uh, eighth grade?” Dean guesses. “Ninth?”

                Claire gives him an exasperated look. “Junior,” she says, like it’s obvious.

                “Oh, sorry,” he says. “Yeah, a junior. That’s a good year, right? Prom and driver’s ed and looking at colleges and shit.”

                Dean personally wouldn’t know. He had gotten his GED and gotten the hell out of Dodge, because pretty much everything he just named wouldn’t have applied to him.

                “It’s a busy year,” Claire says, tossing her hair over one shoulder. “I’m in a few clubs. I play on the JV for basketball. And I’m trying to beat last year’s SAT score. But you need to be the best to get into college now, so even that might not cut it.”

                “Ouch,” Dean says. “You should be too young to be so jaded.”

                “My parents encourage me to have realistic world view,” Claire says, shrugging. “It’s best to be honest about yourself and other people, even when it’s not stuff you want to hear. But Uncle Cas says I would make a perfect DMV clerk, because apparently those are people who thrive on crushing others’ impractical hopes and dreams.”

                She repeats this last bit in an attempted parody of Cas’s deep, sardonic voice.  Dean can already tell enough of their relationship to understand how Cas must tease her for being so grown-up beyond her years. She flushes when Dean laughs, smiling down at her pencil.

                “Does your Uncle Cas have a problem with the DMV?”

                “Oh, he goes there every year, trying to take a driving test,” Claire says. “But he’s not allowed to drive, so they always make him leave. He says they’re ruthless.”

                Dean finds himself wondering about Cas. Living with his brother, apparently with no job since he’s home this early, not allowed to drive. He finds himself thinking of his dad, and then wishes he didn’t. There could be plenty of reasons why Cas fits these criteria. He can’t think of anything right now, but still. He could ask Claire, but that would be delving into family issues that are none of his concern, and maybe he doesn’t want the straightforward, no-holds-barred truth, after all. He doesn’t want Cas to be that kind of guy.

                The front door opens somewhere behind him, and Dean looks over his shoulder to see Jimmy—he double checks: tie, wedding ring, tamed hair—shrugging out of his suit jacket, hanging it on a coat rack.

                “Dean!” Jimmy says. “Glad you found it. Claire keeping you company?”

                “Yeah, she’s been great,” Dean says. He stands, maybe to awkwardly shake Jimmy’s hand, but Jimmy’s already past him, kissing Claire on the head and looking down at her homework.

                Dean looks away, trying to look deeply interested in the dark wood paneling of the cabinets while Claire and Jimmy talk about their days. Finally, Jimmy stands up and beckons Dean into their family room.

                “I met your brother,” Dean says as he sits down across from the other man. “You could have mentioned you have a twin, man.”

                Jimmy stares for a long moment, and then laughs. “I’m sorry, Dean! I’m so used to everyone already knowing—a small town affliction, everyone knowing everyone else’s business. I hope he eventually clued you in?”

                “Yeah, it was fine,” Dean says. “He’s, uh, interesting.”

                That’s one way to put it. Dean doesn’t even know if he likes Cas—he seems to treat everything like it’s one big joke, and Dean couldn’t tell if that was in a good-humored way. But Jimmy’s face looks fond at Dean’s comment, so Cas couldn’t be that insufferable, really, if Jimmy has such love for his twin. 

                “Believe it or not, he used to be the ‘normal’ twin, for one shining year. It’s something he’ll never let me forget—sophomore year of high school: he was an all-A student, darling of the theater department, and I was a sixteen-year-old father.”

                Dean hadn’t even thought of that, and Jimmy smiles at his surprised look. “You’re—?”

                “Yeah, Amelia and I had Claire when we were still in high school. It was definitely the small-town scandal. But we worked hard on parenthood, and on being good for each other, and we’re still here fifteen years later.” Jimmy pauses, smiling to himself in a way that makes Dean feel like he’s intruding on something. “You’ll meet Amelia later, I’m sure—she works long hours at her restaurant, but she might be home soon.”

                “Yeah, I’d like that,” Dean says, when Jimmy pauses.

                “Good. Well, Dean, I was by Singer’s Auto Shop after work—”

                “Oh,  yeah,” Dean says. “Does he know how much repairs are going to be?”

                Jimmy shakes his head. “Not yet, he’s a bit behind. That’s what I was going to talk to you about. Do you know anything about cars? Two of his mechanics have given their two weeks notice, and he’s pretty short-handed. Some of the stuff you said this morning—stuff about national chains, you seemed to know a bit. Do you have any experience?”

                Dean smiles. “I basically rebuilt my car from the wheels up. Self-taught.  I’ve never had actual work experience, though.”

                “You should give it a try, Dean. Bobby’s pretty desperate, and I’m sure you’ll be a good asset. Once you get situated, and have some money coming in, we can talk about paying me back in installments. There’s no rush.”

                Jimmy gives Dean the mechanic’s business card, gives him directions to a motel near the edge of town. He even invites Dean to spend the night in their guest bedroom, but Dean declines. He feels like Jimmy’s done enough charitable things for him in one day.

                Dean makes sure to say goodbye to Claire when he leaves—she’s still in the same spot at the kitchen table, focused on homework. Outside, the sun’s set. On the way down the sidewalk, Dean stops for a second and turns around. There, around the corner, he can see the small building he thought was a garage. The mother-in-law suite has a cheery red door with windows on either side; one of the windows has a lit lamp. He’s tempted, for a moment, to go knock on the door and talk to Cas again. He’s so different from Jimmy, who’s been so helpful and easygoing, but not necessarily in a bad way. There’s something challenging and lively about Cas that he likes, even if it does keep him on his toes.

                He doesn’t go to the door, after all. He had a reason to visit Jimmy, but there really isn’t a good one to use on his twin. Dean’s outgoing and friendly enough that he normally wouldn’t mind, would march up and strike up a conversation if he wanted to, but he feels like Cas would see right through that, would laugh and tease him.

                He reminds himself, as he leaves, that it doesn’t matter anyway. He’ll only be here a few weeks, pay Jimmy back, and be gone. He’d never see him again, anyways.

**

                Singer’s Auto Shop is a small concrete building, with a bay in the back and a neon light that flickers and buzzes OPEN.

                The front office is locked, but when Dean walks around to the back, he can hear the metallic sounds of tools being rummaged through and dropped, gruff cursing. He walks through the open door and sees the bottom half of a man, his belly and legs sticking out beneath a car.

                He clears his throat, but the man doesn’t seem to hear him. Dean shifts on his feet, feeling pretty awkward, until the man’s hand shoots out and starts feeling around for the wrench. He feels kind of bad, watching the man jab around aimlessly for it, so he stoops down and hands it to him.

                “Balls!” The man says, his hand recoiling. A second later he shoots out from under the car. “Who do you think you are, boy, the ghost of Christmas Past? You can’t just spook people like that.”

                “Sorry,” Dean says. “I—”

                And he needs this job, it’s the best he’s heard of all day, and he knows he can be good at it. The man looks pretty pissed, too, and is probably expecting a thorough apology. Dean can’t help but start laughing, though, because the man has oil stains in his beard, his shirt’s rucked up around his ribcage, and he’s lying at Dean’s feet, scowling up at him like roadkill.

                The line between the man’s eyebrows deepens as Dean continues to laugh, but as Dean tries to apologize between helpless, nervous bursts of snorting it softens and smoothes away. The man grunts and heaves himself up, holding a hand out to Dean.

                “Bobby Singer, I’m the owner,” he says. “You’re probably Dean, right? Jimmy said it was an out-of-towner who bent up his BMW.”

                “Yeah,” Dean says, finally quieting down. “Sorry. Dean Winchester. Jimmy also said you’re looking for help?”

                Bobby looks at him for a long moment, assessing. “I’m short-staffed, yeah, but not desperate. I’m not going to hire just anyone off the streets. You have a resumé?”

            “No, sir,” Dean says.

            “Got anyone I can call who can put in a good word for you?”

            “Never worked as a mechanic,” Dean says.

            “Well, it wouldn’t have mattered anyways,” Bobby says dismissively. “There’s only one way to see if you know what you’re doing.” He slaps the wrench in Dean’s hand.

            “I’m giving you twenty minutes,” he says. He jerks his head to the break room at the back of the bay. “Come and get me when you think you’ve got it all figured out.”

**

            His phone rings a little later, as he’s walking to the car. Dean has to stop a second, deliberating, before he brings it up to his ear.

            “Heya, Sammy,” he says.

            “Dean?” Sam’s voice is loud, rushed. “Are you okay? Where are you?  Why didn’t you call me—”

            “Hey, I’m fine. I didn’t mean to freak you out. Did, uh, did Dad call you?”

            Sam snorts. “Of course not. Sandover called; you haven’t shown up to work for a straight week, and I’m your emergency contact. What’s going on?”

            Dean feels a sour twist in his stomach. Of course John wouldn’t call Sam, wouldn’t care about where Dean was now or if he was okay. That would just be expecting too much.

            “Dad kicked me out,” Dean says lightly. “But I wanted to go, so it’s fine. I meant to call you, I was just—caught up.”

            “Caught up,” Sam repeats, flat. He sounds confused, and also a little hurt. For years Sammy’s been pestering him to leave Dad, even to pack up and come live with him while he gets his feet under him. He probably thought Dean was halfway to California now, even though Dean drove in the opposite direction.

            “I was going to call you soon,” Dean says. “I knew you’d understand. I was finally out of there, away from Dad, you know. Just—free.”

            Sam’s silent on the other end. “You’re okay?”

            “Yeah, I’m okay. I’m, well, I’m actually in Michigan. I just got a job. Mechanic, believe it or not.”

            “Michigan? Why Michigan?”

            “I didn’t want to,” Dean says quickly. “I got in a car accident—I’m fine—and I needed some extra cash to pay the other guy back.”

            “Do you need anything?” Sam says. “I could wire you some money.”

            “If you said that just a few hours ago, I’d probably take you up on that,” Dean says. “But, surprisingly, I’m good. I’ll only be here for a few weeks, and then I can hit the road again. Who knows, I might even make it to California.”

            “You’d  know,” Sam points out.

            “Yeah,” Dean says. Maybe Sam doesn’t understand, so maybe it can’t be explained. Sam had left, but only because he had another place in mind. He had gone to be safe, responsible, secure. But Dean doesn’t want to go places because he has to, anymore. He doesn’t want to go to California because he’s supposed to, he doesn’t want it to become his new Lawrence, Kansas. There are so many places he hasn’t seen, yet, and no reason to settle down now.

            “Well, can you call me next time?” Sam says. “It’s good to know you’re finally out of there, really, but I wish I had known sooner.”

            “Sure, Sammy,” Dean says. “I can do that for you.”

            He folds himself into the car, phone cradled in his ear. All around him, fireflies are coming out in the dusk, glowing and fading away. Dean watches them through the windshield as his brother asks him what had happened, why Dad had kicked him out. The reasons already don’t seem to matter anymore, but Dean dutifully recites the fight, Dad’s ultimatum.

            “Wow,” Sam says. He sounds upset for him. “And then you just left?”

            “Yep,” Dean says, still watching the pulsing lights. “Now I’m never going back.” There and then gone.

Chapter Text

He finds a cheap motel on the outskirts of town. It’s nice enough, if a little dingy, and it’s right across the street from a coffee shop. He gets a little kick out of waking up a little early every day, and getting two coffees—black as tar for Bobby—before going to work. There’s still a novelty of it, since he won’t be sticking around long enough for it to become routine.

            Bobby’s a good boss, tough but fair. He doesn’t mince words if he sees Dean doing something wrong, and he likes to grumble a lot about no one having common sense anymore. Dean witnessed Bobby cursing out some affronted business man for never once getting an under-body car wash in five years.  He made some unfortunate comparisons to under-body car washes being as underused and misunderstood as bidets, and any other French after that was a creative combination of swear words.

            “We’ve all got to be passionate about something,” Andy, the only other mechanic had said, before shaking his head, amused, and sloping away.

            Dean finds he likes the job. He likes the people, the smell of grease and oil, the challenging gamut of ways that a vehicle can go wrong. Under Bobby’s tutorship, he spends a week with his head under hoods and tires , or in instruction manuals, being quizzed about what he knows. Bobby is, more often than not, baffled. Dean might not have the credentials, might not have known the vernacular for the tools he’s used all his life—can size them up by eye, but was initially confused  by Bobby’s demand for a “cape” or a “cold” chisel—but he doesn’t feel out of his depth. If anything, he’s happily learning what he can, can fiddle around inside in engine with the sureness of a surgeon. When Bobby sniffed and said it was damn shame Dean was leaving so soon, Dean knew he was doing well.

            It’ll take a few weeks to make enough to pay for food, lodging, and Jimmy’s repairs. The good news is that he’s fixing Jimmy’s car himself—the poor BMW, immobilized, up on blocks—so he doesn’t have to pay for the labor, too. In the meantime, he buys himself a pair of steel-tipped boots. He’s loaned one of the old mechanics’ blue jumpsuits—worn, black-smeared, but fitting nicely across his shoulders. Bobby starts to make him a name tag, misplaces the label maker, and declares the finished product good enough. DEAN WINCH says the white laminate across his breast pocket.

            Dean feels a little antsy, time to time, but it isn’t overwhelming. He’s keeping busy with his job, and in his time off he amuses himself with driving in and out of town. The town seems a little more sleepy, slow, now that it’s in its tourist off-season, but there’s still plenty to do. He hikes a little, taking pictures of the fall leaves that don’t show up very well, and sends them to Sam.  Andy takes him to the bay one weekend, fishing for trout, and afterwards fries it up for him. It’s the best damn meal he’s had in years.

            Jimmy stops in sometime in the second week, just to say hi and check on the progress. He’s perfectly nice, friendly—he even asks if Dean wants to come to Amelia’s restaurant sometime, have a meal on the house. Even so, Dean sees it as a warning. He can’t get comfy here, fishing with Andy or buying coffee for Bobby. His job is to fix Jimmy’s car and leave.

            He’s on lunch break one day, looking to grab himself a sandwich from the corner shop and eat it on the low brick wall outside the auto shop, when he hears someone calling his name.

            He has to turn around a few times, hand up to his eyes, searching along the street. Finally, he sees one of the twins sitting outdoors, a patio at a restaurant, waving over to him. Dean goes over, but self-consciously. He’ stripped his jumpsuit to the waist, and he’s aware of his grungy wife-beater, the dangling sleeves of his uniform, the heavy clunk of his workboots. He hopes it’s Jimmy.

            As he’s approaching, he sees the dark head of that stupidly-named dog pop up from under one of the chairs, swiveling around to look at him. Not Jimmy, then.

            Dean stops on the other side of the patio fence, trying for a polite smile.

            “Hey, Cas,” he says. “Uh, how have you been?”

            “I haven’t forgotten about you,” Cas says, randomly. “I’m just eating lunch. Have you had yours yet?”

            “Me? Naw, I’m on my way to get mine… right—now—” He abruptly cuts off at Cas’s significant look. “Uh, would you like some company?”

            Cas beams, pleased. “That would be great, Dean. Only if you have the time, though.”

            “Yeah, sure,” Dean says. He awkwardly puts his hand on the patio fence, takes them  away, and then puts them back, using them as leverage as he quickly straddles it and jumps over. He sees Cas smiling again, and only then does he look down along the fence and see the gate about ten feet away. He can feel his face flush, and also feels a wave of irritation he can’t quite explain—why does he feel so nervous, so scrutinized, when he’s in this man’s presence?

            “Don’t be embarrassed,” Cas says. “I like a man who can cut corners.”

            “Er, yeah,” Dean says, but he does feel a bit better as he sits down across from Cas.

            They smile at each other again, but Cas doesn’t say anything to break the silence right away. It gives time for Dean to reflect on the fact that he doesn’t know Cas at all, that he’d barely brushed into the guy before the man had wandered away. It hadn’t been more than five minutes tops, their first meeting, but Cas obviously remembers him, and Dean does too, even if he can’t quite explain why. Maybe it was the way Cas had stood close to him, looked him right in the eye like they’d known each other for years.

            “You don’t mind Rexy sitting over here, do you?” Cas asks. “He’ll sit behind my chair if he bothers you.”

            “He’s good,” Dean says. From this vantage point, all he can see is the tip of the dog’s tail beneath the table. That’s good enough, there. “It’s not that I mind him, I’m just—not much of a dog person.”

            “No,” Cas says sagely. “Some might even argue that, based on physical appearances, you’re a human person.”

            Dean snorts, and then pauses, not sure how he’s supposed to respond. But Cas seems pleased by the reaction.

            “So, you’re working over at Bobby Singer’s place,” Cas says. “How do you like it?”

            “It’s good. I do like it, I mean.” Cas seem genuinely interested, and out in the sunshine, their knees bumping beneath the table, Dean can see the smile is genuine, too. It makes him think that maybe Cas isn’t mocking him, like his first impression. His strange humor and irreverence might make his niceness seem fake, but Dean can see it’s just as real and present as Jimmy’s. So he adds, “As a temporary job, it’s good.” Just to remind them both.

            “And you—you’re just out to lunch?” Dean asks politely.

            Cas cocks his head, a gesture that Dean knows could become familiar, based on how often he’s already seen him do it. “Oh, no, I’m on a lunch break, too. I guess I thought Jimmy would have told you—I’m a librarian. The children’s librarian, over at East Bay.”

            “Oh,” Dean says. He feels bad, now, for assuming Cas had no job. “Children’s librarian, huh? I have to admit, I wouldn’t have guessed that.”

            “No?” Cas says. “I like children. They’re adults without the prejudices and fixed opinions and cynicism disguised as logic. If they’re curious about something, they ask. If they want to learn something, they do. It’s only later that we impose roadblocks on ourselves.”

            “Wow,” Dean says. “You’ve put a lot of thought into that.”

            Cas shrugs. “More thought than you’d probably care to know. If you really want to get me going, ask me about ALA’s Banned Books list.”

            “Maybe next time,” Dean says. Cas gives him a raised eyebrow—a silent reminder that Dean had brought up a next time—and Dean flushes.

            Before he can say anything, though, the waitress bustles by their table, armed with two glasses and a pitcher of water.

            “Hey, Castiel,” she says. “Is it the usual for you, today?”

            “Please,” Cas says, and inclines his head towards Dean. “And my friend would like something as well.”

            Dean quickly picks up the menu, which he hasn’t even bothered to look at yet, and stammers out the first thing he sees on there. He waits until after the woman has filled their glasses and walked away before looking back at the man opposite him.

            “Castiel?”

            Cas, who’s taking a sip, rolls his eyes. “My parents opted to each choose a name. My mother wanted to name one of us after her dad, James, and my father, a theologian, wanted a Biblical name. You can see who I got stuck with.”

            “I like it,” Dean says.

            Cas lifts his glass, toasting him. “Well, as long as you like it—”

            Dean rolls his eyes. He must look like a teenager doing it—he must look like Claire does, when Cas is mercilessly teasing her—but it isn’t a rude gesture. It feels lighthearted, easy, like they’ve shared this kind of banter over too many lunches to count. It makes everything seem better—the sun warming them, the breeze that plays over his bare arms, the hum of people talking around them. He’s surprised to find that he’s glad it was Cas sitting here on this outdoor patio, and not Jimmy. He’s enjoying himself far more than he thought he would.

            It’s when he looks back at Cas that he first notices the people at the other table looking their way. They just got seated at the table right next to them, so it’s not like it’s out of Cas’s seated at the table right next to them, so it’s not like it’s out of Cas’s eyesight, either, but the other man does nothing to let on. So Dean alone is first self-conscious, thinking these people are judging him for his grimy jumpsuit, maybe the grease in black lines beneath his nails, but then he  looks closer and sees that he’s not the person they’re interested in. They’re looking at Cas—not with hostility, or judgment, but with recognition and curiosity. Almost like he’s some sort of small-town celebrity.

            And Cas, for his part, is either completely unaware or acting like it. Maybe he’s used to it. Dean continues to look sidelong at the other table, watching how they stare under the table at Cornelius Rex, watch Cas with something like fascination.

            Dean almost brings it up, but thinks better of it. That also means that he’s run out of things to say, so he smiles awkwardly over at Cas, wipes some of the condensation of his glass, and looks out to the street. This almost feels like a date—he can’t remember the last time he had one. They were hard to get, when you slept through most of the day due to your night job, and when you refused to go to bars on general principle, and you would rather walk across a landfill barefoot than bring a romantic interest within ten feet of your house.

            The point is moot, though. It’s not a date. It’s the guy who looks identical to the guy who Dean owes money to, eating lunch simultaneously to Dean eating lunch. Nothing romantic about it.

            When he looks over at Cas again, the man has his glass of water tipped off the side of the table. Dean can see a long pink tongue lapping from it, and he can’t help but make a disgusted face. He doesn’t doubt that Cas is probably still gonna use that glass afterwards.

            Cas is turned away, smiling down at Cornelius Rex, so that’s when Dean sees the strange, fleshy-toned thing in his ear. He double-takes, looks closer, and realizes it’s a hearing aid. Cas unexpectedly looks up, and Dean flushes, caught at looking.

            Cas doesn’t seem to care. “I swear I’m only 31,” he says. “The hearing aid ages me, so I’m told.”

            “I, uh,” Dean says smoothly. “I just didn’t know you had one.”

            “I don’t wear it at home, for the same reason a lot of other eighty year old geriatrics don’t wear theirs,” he says. Dean must look nonplussed, because he adds, “It’s uncomfortable and annoying. But that also renders me half-deaf in that ear, not wearing it, which is also uncomfortable and annoying.” He shrugs.

            Dean’s staring, thinking back to the first time they met. He feels something like a drop in his stomach, which is stupid, but he can’t help it. Cas standing close enough to touch, his arm brushing Dean’s, his head cocked close—Dean had thought that was because Cas was flirting, that Cas was attracted to him. Now he can see that the invasion of personal space, or the endearing tilt of the head, was really just Cas trying to hear what the fuck he was saying.

            “Oh,” Dean says. He has to admit, he doesn’t know much about deafness. But a few things he’d overlooked are sliding into place—namely, the fact that Cas is on lunch break from the library, but has Cornelius Rex with him. “Is that why your dog is with you?”

            Cas freezes, looking at him a little strangely. “What?”

            “Your dog—Cornelius Rex.” He feels stupid just saying the name. “Is he, like, a service dog, since he comes to the library with you?”

            “Sure,” Cas says. “He’s a hearing-ear dog.”

            “Shut up,” Dean says flatly. Of course Cas has to make a joke out of a legitimate question. “That’s not a real thing.”

            Cas tilts an eyebrow up elegantly. “It’s not?”

            “I mean, I don’t think it is,” Dean says. There’s a few seconds of tense staring. “Okay, maybe there’s such a thing,” he says, still not fully convinced.

            “Rexy is a service dog,” Cas says offhandedly, looking down as he pets the dog’s head slowly. “I got him almost four years ago, now. After my accident happened.”

            Dean looks up quickly. “Your—?”

            “Another thing I thought Jimmy would have told you,” Cas says. He’s still looking away. “A ‘moderate TBI—” he folds his fingers into quotation marks for Dean’s benefit, “—also known as a traumatic brain injury. I wasn’t living here then, but I had to relearn a lot of things, and—and I couldn’t live by myself for that. I’ve still done better than I could have, all things considered. Some people never regain the ability to walk or speak or do a single thing for themselves, ever again.”

            His hand pauses in his petting. “It’s better now. I mean, I lost the hearing in this ear. And there’s the problems in concentration and memory and impulsivity and  the headaches, and apparently I have a case of moodiness that can rival Claire’s sometimes—” His voice lightens, jocular, and Dean can see that Cas is leaving no room in the conversation for him to say anything. “Did you know Abraham Lincoln had a brain injury, too? George Clooney. Um…Gary Busey—although I guess he isn’t the best example.”

            He smiles over at Dean.“People can get on with their lives just fine.”

            “Yeah, Cas,” Dean says. He feels the need to be careful here, treading softly. “I can see that.”

            The other man snorts. “Good. Tell that to Jimmy sometime, would you?”

            The waitress arrives then, sliding plates in front of each of them. Cas immediately digs into his burger with enthusiasm. As Dean watches, Cas rips off a piece of the hamburger and dips his hand under the table. Dean can hear the sounds of Cornelius Rex chewing.

            “Anyways,” Cas says, wiping his fingers on a napkin. “Enough about me. What brings you to Traverse City, Dean?” His grin is bright—wide, forced, and almost blinding. Dean’s almost thrown by his enthusiasm, but knows Cas is probably eager to switch to a different topic. He flounders a second, wanting to keep up with the abrupt shift to himself, to please Cas’s desire to talk of a less discomfiting subject.

            Dean wants to keep up with Cas, and thinks maybe this is yet another of the small challenges Cas gives to others.

            “I was just sight-seeing,” Dean says quickly. “I wouldn’t have stayed if I hadn’t destroyed your brother’s back end—Jesus, the back end of his car.”

            Cas is laughing. It’s a real laugh, the kind that makes him hold his belly like he’s afraid it might it might spill over. It’s attracting more stares to  him, but Dean doesn’t care. Dean’s flushing, thinking to himself,  pleaseGod I hope he’s flirting with me.

 “Right,” Cas says, once he gets control of himself. “So, post-college road trip? Mid-life crisis?”

            “Too old for one, and too young for the other,” Dean says. “I—”

            He stops. Cas’s gaze is bright, direct. It’s not accusing, but it does challenge him. For once, he finds himself not evading the truth.

            “My dad,” he says. “Rotten alcoholic, among other things. I was his babysitter for years. And then, a few weeks ago, he told me to leave. So I did.”

            “Good,” Cas says. He sounds like he means it.

            “I don’t ever want to be stuck like that again,” Dean says. “Once I’ve paid back your brother, I’m back to me and my car and the open road. That’s my idea of freedom.”

            “Sounds like the American Dream,” Cas says .

            “Well, it’s mine.”

            There isn’t another moment of awkward, stilted silences again. Dean talks about his genius brother off at Stanford, his internship with the ACLU in San Diego. He talks about Mom dying two weeks after his birthday, and the time when he and Sam stole their dad’s liquer to make Molotov cocktails. These were gifts they made to throw at Gordon Walker’s car, because he had told them at school that he’d heard Dad’s second wife was a toilet, considering the number of times he went down on one. Needless to say, their homemade weapons fizzled out, but they did succeed in breaking a few car windows.

            It was a strange mix, their conversation. But it never faltered or stopped to dwell on ugly pasts. Cas told him about the mother who died, the father who walked out as soon as he and Jimmy were 18. But he also talked about the scholarship to MSU and how strange it was to become an uncle before he was even an adult. Sometimes he stops, fumbling a little, to remember a date—but those moments smooth by soon enough, and neither he nor Cas pay too much attention to them.

            Their plates clear; the waitress brings the checks. Cas needs to return to the library and an afternoon visit from a preschool class. Dean’s break has runneth over, and he’s sure Bobby will give him a half-assed grumble about it.

            Cas tries to swipe Dean’s check from him, but Dean refuses to hand it over.

            “I can pay for myself,” he insists. “This wasn’t—a date or anything.” He can feel himself blushing and hates it.

            “The more money you save, the faster you can fix Jimmy’s car,” Cas says. “Remember the American Dream?”

            Dean rolls his eyes, counts out a tip, and stands up with Cas. Cornelius Rex stands up from under the table, waiting for a command. Dean can now see the tall-tale harness, snugly fitted to the dog’s torso, that he hadn’t seen the first time. Like Cas’s hearing aid, the dog must not wear the unnecessary when he’s at home.

            They part ways at the gate.

            “Don’t forget; I tried to be a gentleman,” Cas reminds him.

            “I doubt a twenty dollar lunch is going to set me back that much,” Dean says. “Maybe it will keep me in town one more day, max.”

            “God, I hope so,” Cas says, and then he’s waving a goodbye and walking away, the black dog close at his heels.

Chapter Text

Dean didn’t plan to start having lunches with Cas every week, but that’s just what ended up happening. A few days after that first time, he had been out to lunch again and seen Cas approaching from the opposite end of the road, Rexy pacing beside him. Out of some silent, mutual agreement Dean finds himself turning and walking along with Cas in the same direction, pausing by the familiar restaurant, its gated patio.

            “Want some company today?” Dean says, smiling tentatively.

            “Always,” Cas says, and there’s something shy about his smile before he turns away to sit down.

            So there’s that, now. Not every day, or anything. Cas’s lunches through the library are more militant in their scheduling, but Bobby’s garage is different. Dean’s lunches can be earlier or later depending on what he’s working on. Even so, he normally makes it out of the shop in time to meet Cas once or twice a week (it’s not like he schedules it that way on purpose, or anything. It just so happens that way.).

            It’s strange to Dean sometimes, having told this man all his intimate background in the space of their last meeting. He wasn’t quite sure why he did that, why he felt the need to be so open. He thinks it was maybe because he thought their companionship would be brief, just that one day, and there would be some intimacy with a stranger here before he hit the road again. It leaves him in some gray middle ground, torn between the desire to share more and the just-as-strong desire to pretend he never mentioned the dirty laundry that he’s left behind.

            They both seem to be toeing that edge. Cas doesn’t bring up his injury again, or the strange conflict he has with Jimmy over it. He seamlessly talks about high school antics—like trying to take baby Claire to prom—and the love he has for his job, but Dean notices the gaps in between, the passage of years that he deliberately leaves a blank void.

            The only time Dean sees even the smallest hint behind Cas’s carefully obstructive curtain is on yet another lunch, when Cas arrives late and a little breathless, slinging the satchel that he, alone, can pull off onto the table. There’s the telltale rattle of pills from within, and Cas blandly informs Dean’s raised eyebrows that they’re his birth control before he launches into a description of the kindergarten brats from hell who he caught tearing pages from library copies of The Rainbow Fish.

            “Kleptomaniacs for anything shiny, I swear—completely missing the point of the story, too—”

            It’s not until later that Dean recognizes the quick diversion, and wonders about it.

            There’s plenty of other things to talk about, besides, what with trying to one-up each other concerning childhood antics with their brothers, or jobs, or hobbies. And it’s something Dean wanted, anyhow, to not get too drawn to people and their lives, lest he be tempted to stay. That’s something he was counting on—idle chatter, surface relations.

            Another thing he can count on is the way all those lunches end, without fail.

            “Maybe I’ll catch you for lunch again,” Cas will say, too carelessly.

            And Dean will shrug. “We’ll see. My time here’s almost up.”

            And then they’ll find each other for lunch again, the next day or one of the days after, sitting across from each other like it was preordained, planned all along. No need to make a fuss out of it.

            Meanwhile, Bobby’s ordered the parts for Jimmy’s car wholesale and they arrived right on time. He replaces the back windshield, hammer and dollies out the more minor dents. Replaces the crumpled-accordion bumper. Bobby supervises and assists in some of the other bodywork he’s never done, and then Dean is just doing the minor stuff. Making sure the tire’s are aligned, giving the car an oil change. Jimmy gets his BMW back within three weeks.

            And through all of this Dean’s setting aside a large portion of each paycheck to go towards paying Jimmy back. What with working for Bobby, getting the parts cheap, and repairing the car himself, it’s not as bad as it could be. Paying for the motel room sucks up a good chunk each week, and there are extra expenditures, like going out to lunch three times a week, that start adding up. Finally, though, the numbers in his account start inching towards a more gratifying amount. Enough to pay Jimmy back and live comfortably on the road until he has to stop at some other nondescript town, work a little more, save up enough to move on.

            In September, on a Friday, Dean writes out a hefty check. He’s not leaving right away, not yet, but will be soon enough. (He promised Andy that he’d work for him over the weekend. Andy seems to have a dearth of grandparents dying in his family, and the funeral always occur over the weekend, and Andy always comes back smelling of patchouli and Cheetos and seems way too chipper, but Dean finds that he doesn’t mind.)

            Anyways, it’s a Friday. Dean was well aware of the time, too—lunchtime just ended. He’s been tracking in his mind what must be happening at the outdoor patio in town—Cas, ordering a water, maybe looking around up and down the sidewalk; he doesn’t know what happens after. Dean doesn’t always join Cas for lunch, so he can’t fill in what happens when he isn’t there. An educated guess would suggest that Cas is doing whatever he’s been doing for however many years before Dean stopped in town, though. People watching, or reading a book, and it’s nothing he should be concerned about.

            He feels maybe a little guilty, because after this weekend he’s planning on handing the jumpsuit back to Bobby and resigning, and maybe it isn’t fair to give Bobby the prior warning and not Cas. So he feels a little guilty, but the only thing worse than that would be feeling guilty while seeing Cas for one last lunch and explaining that, no,  maybe Cas won’t catch him for lunch again. He doesn’t know how Cas would react—with disappointment, probably. But it’s also Cas, who’s unpredictable and hard to understand sometimes, so maybe Cas would react with shrugged shoulders and a smile and not really seem to care, after all, because he always knew their lunches were just something casual and short term.

            He ends up driving the long route around Traverse City, circling at an oblique angle towards Jimmy’s office. When he finally reaches the accounting firm, a quick glance through the parking lot shows Jimmy’s newly-renovated BMW.

            The receptionist takes him to Jimmy’s office, which is suitably outfitted in framed degrees and pictures of Amelia, Claire, and Cas. Jimmy stands up, smiling, when he sees Dean in the doorway.

            “Hi, Dean!” He says.  “Nice to see you again. I’ve been meaning to tell you—wonderful work fixing up the car. Drives like a dream now. I’m almost glad you hit me, to be honest.”

            Dean sits down in the seat Jimmy’s ushering him to, feeling himself turn a little red. “You don’t mean that,” he mumbles. “I’m not even a real mechanic.”

            “Well my car got fixed by some real mechanic,” Jimmy says. When he rolls his eyes, he looks just like Cas. Dean looks away and fumbles the crumpled check out of his pocket.

            “Look, I got the money all together,” he says. “The amount should match the number on the invoice, but you can doublecheck it before you leave, just in case. Told you I was good for it.”

            Jimmy takes the check but doesn’t seem particularly interested in it. “Leaving already? I was hoping the city would be growing on you. Cas mentioned you’d been getting together for a few lunches over the week.”

            “Did he?” Dean says, affecting a casual pose in his chair. He feels like a high schooler. Cas mentioned me? So, uh, what did he say?

            “Sure,” Jimmy says. If there’s anything more that Cas said, or Jimmy thought, about their encounters, Jimmy’s affable chatter doesn’t give it away. “I’m sure he was appreciating the other-than-canine companionship. Anyways, where to for you next, Dean? Anyplace special?”

            “I might be heading west again,” Dean says. “I have a brother on the coast that I haven’t seen in a while.”

            “Sounds fun,” Jimmy says. “But please tell me you’re in town for a little while longer? It’s a travesty that we haven’t gotten you in at Amelia's restaurant yet, and if we're lucky, she might be back in town by this weekend—”

            Jimmy somehow manages to politely strongarm him into eating at the restaurant on Sunday. A last hurrah, a chance to meet his wife, a happy family dinner before he leaves. Dean agrees, shakes Jimmy’s hand, and tells himself that he can cancel later, if he wants. He’s coughed up the check, paid his dues. Now there’s really no reason to stick around. Work a partial day on Sunday and then he’s free to rumble off into the wide blue yonder.

            It’s only four by the time Dean leaves, and he has nothing to do besides go back to his motel. It’s a shame that Grandma Number Six apparently died in some creative fashion, or else maybe Andy would want to go fishing again.

            Dean’s driving down the main road, killing time, when he sees the East Bay Library up on the corner. His immediate thought is to gun right past it, but he gets stuck at the stoplight and then finds himself thinking about his long weekend covering for Andy. Right now there’s only two cars in the shop, both for routine maintenance. Bobby’s gonna be at the front office maybe for a few hours, but besides that Dean will be on his lonesome.

            So, maybe, it would be nice to have something to pass the time. Something,  like a book or two, wouldn’t hurt.

            Dean decides it’s the only rational thing to do. He’ll just pop in, grab the first Vonnegut he sees, and then leave. That’s all. Just passing through for some intellectual stimulation, that’s Dean Winchester for you.

            He’s all but whistling casually as he enters the East Bay library. It’s cool and half-lit in there, and the light coming in through the windows gives the tall stacks long shadows. It’s almost closing time, and besides a few people checking out their books near the front, it’s mostly unpopulated.

            He finds the Fiction section easily enough, and is somewhat dismayed to find he’s read all of the Vonnegut books there but one—Welcome to the Monkey House. It’s a pretty slim volume, so he feels justified in patrolling through other stacks, trying to find at least one more book. Hey, work will be slow.

            So that’s how he ends up loading up on some Chuck Palahnuik, and then he looks further down the P’s and finds Annie Proulx, and why not because he’s heard good things, and then he lingers for a while in the true crime section and picks up Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and now that he’s in a library for the first time in forever, he remembers that he never did get past the second Harry Potter book, because all his spending money immediately went towards Sam and—

            He’s halfway into the children’s section, looking for the series, when he hears the familiar voice.

            “You’re going to have to get more specific. We have lots of animal adventures I’m sure you’d like, I’m just not sure which one you’re—”       

            “No, I already told you everything I know. There’s a mouse,” says a frustrated older woman’s voice. “And a sword. And some stupid badger with major anger issues—I don’t know. Dewey read half of it at a friend’s house last weekend and hasn’t shut up about it since.”

            “Um,” Cas says. He sounds frustrated, too, or maybe just put on the spot. Dean’s never heard him sound like that before. “I’m not sure—but it sounds familiar. I have to know it. Um...oh! We have The Tale of Despereaux, could that be it? The protagonist is a mouse, who goes on a quest to save a princess, and—”

            “No,” the woman says abruptly. “There wasn’t any weirdo French names.”

            There’s a long silence, and Dean peers around a shelf to see Cas, in his button-up that probably should have a few more buttons up, because seriously, that collarbone. He’s holding a book out towards the woman speaking, stopped in mid-speech, and his brow is creased. Cas beings the book back slowly, tucking it beneath his arm.

            “Oh,” Cas says. He rubs a hand over the back of his neck, faltering. “Okay. I’m sorry, I normally am pretty up-to-date…I’m not sure. I can ask someone for you, if you have a moment?”

            “Sure,” the woman says, but she looks impatient, and Dean ducks back out of the way when he sees Cas turning to go. The whole exchange would have easily slipped his mind, if it wasn’t for how distressed Cas looked that he couldn’t remember what random-ass mouse book that woman had been talking about. It was such a small slip, but for Cas it was bigger than that.

            He turns around another corner, and almost trips over someone’s legs spread out across the aisle.

            “Shit,” Dean says, almost toppling his pile of books, and once he makes sure they’re not all about to avalanche from his grip, he looks down and sees Claire .

            “Shit, hey,” he says. “Sorry. I don’t know if you remember, I’m Dean.”

            “I remember,” she says, pulling her knees up out of the way. “Sorry for almost killing you, by the way. Normally no one’s ever in the periodicals near closing time. What’s up?”

            “Just getting some books,” Dean says, going for a casual shrug. “And you?”

            “I was late at the school with a few clubs, so I figured I’d come here,” Claire says. “It’s fun to watch him do read-alouds with the kids. But that’s over now, and surprisingly the children’s section of the library isn’t really filled with that much peace and quiet. It was a war zone when I left.”

            “Just waiting for Cas to get off?”

            “Yeah, we walk back together sometimes,” Claire says. She looks at her phone. “Actually, we normally walk back together, like, right now. Come on, he can check out your books and then we can all go.”

            “Oh,” Dean says feebly. “That’s all right, he doesn’t have to—”

            “It’s his job,” Claire says, swinging her backpack onto her shoulder. “Come on, it’ll be fast.”

            With her shooing him down the aisle in front of her, back towards the children’s section, Dean’s stuck. He rounds the corner just in time to see Cas standing alone by his desk, rubbing his temples.

            “Redwall!” He suddenly groans aloud, and pushes his fingers into his forehead, tapping them there, as if in chastisement.

            “Hey, Uncle Cas,” Claire says from behind him. “Look who I found!”

            Cas straightens up, looks over quickly, and Dean has a front row seat to the transformation. His hands drop away from his hairline, his mouth immediately draws wide with a smile, and his shoulders pull up, confident. It seems to be all done with a practiced ease, Cas’s way of smoothing over any feelings of frustration or derailment when his mind isn’t working as fast as he wants it to.

            Dean thinks it must be exhausting, pretending to be on top of everything all the time.

He gives him a quick quirk of a smile. “Uh, hey, Cas. How you doing?”

            “Oh, you know me,” Cas says lightly. “You’re stacked, Dean.”

            Dean double-takes, blushes, and then realizes Cas is talking about the nine or so books he’s carrying. Okay, sure. That’s fine.

            Cas gestures over to his desk, stepping behind it and over Rex, who is curled up on a small bed there. Dean spreads his finds across the surface,  pushing them over to Cas.

            “Nice taste,” he comments. He leans closer to Dean to look over the titles, so that their heads are tilted next to each others’. “Wouldn’t have pegged you for Annie Proulx.”

            Dean reminds himself that Cas gets so close, invades his personal space, because he has hearing problems. The use of the word pegged was probably entirely accidental.

            But then, as he stammers out something stupid, he looks over and sees the hearing aid in Cas’s ear, although by the sound of it he so doesn’t need it in the children’s section of the library. Cas can hear him just fine; has no reason to cock his head so close that Dean can practically see straight down his shirt.

            “Okay, well you’ll just need to fill out this form for a library card,” Cas says. “Permanent address and everything.” Cas is still smiling at him, maybe overdoing it in his eagerness to show just how fine and dandy he is, but Dean thinks the smile seems more genuine now.

            Which is why he’s so stupendously dumb to say, “Permanent address? I’m leaving in two days.”

            “Oh,” Cas says. His smile falters, and then, with effort, returns at maximum wattage, like nothing can faze him.  “Your two-days-permanent address, then.”

            “I didn’t know you were leaving,” Claire says. To be honest, Dean had kind of forgotten about her. “Where are you going, Dean?”      

            “Oh, I don’t know,” Dean says, which sounds worse than how bad it sounded in his head. “You know, around. I just wanted to see…everything that could be seen, I guess.”

            “The modern-day Jack Kerouac,” Cas says, but Dean can tell he isn’t mocking him. Any sting is taken away by the warm look he gives Dean, who remembers that he did tell Cas his backstory that first time at lunch. He thinks it's a compliment, after everything he told Cas about his dad and his upbringing. 

            This turns into Claire telling them about how she’s reading On the Road for her AP English class, but Dean can’t complain about how that takes up the rest of the conversation because he didn’t come here to talk to Cas, anyways.

            “Well,” Cas says, pushing the books over to Dean. “You’re really leaving, then?”

            So Dean forces himself to man up, the way he didn’t around lunchtime a few hours ago. “Yeah,” he says. “Back to it no later than Sunday afternoon, once I get done at Bobby’s. And not a minute longer than that.  Been here too long, already, and I’m not ready to settle down yet. ”

            “Of course,” Cas says. Dean can’t understand why he looks so amused now, and it bothers him more than it should. It’s not like he expected Cas to cry, or anything. But what’s so goddamn funny about Dean leaving the state forever?

            “Oh, and Dean,” Cas says, as Dean turns to leave the library. “Make sure that you return your library books before you go.”

            So Dean leaves looking like an ass, with the nine books he needs to finish in a day and a half before he leaves the state forever.

**

            Bobby’s at the front office the next day when Dean clocks in for work. He’s pulling at his beard and mumbling something as he checks over some graph with a pencil, occasionally erasing furiously and brushing eraser bits off the desk with an impatient noise.  

            “Hey, Bobby,” he says awkwardly. “I guess I’m stopping in to tell you the news that you probably already know.”

            “What’s that?” Bobby grunts.

            “Tomorrow’s gonna be my last day,” Dean says. “Uh, sorry. But I paid Jimmy back today, so there’s nothing else to really keep  me here.”

            “That’s a shame,” Bobby says, leaning back in his chair. “You’ve been doing really well here.”

            “Yeah…” Dean says. “It’s just time, I guess.”

            “Sure,” Bobby says. “And nothing to really keep you here, I get that. Still a shame, though.  I had some big things planned for you.”

            “You—you did?”

            “Oh, yeah. Gotta have someone inherit the place when I kick it, and there ain’t so Singer Juniors running around, either. When I look at you, kid, I see so much of myself. I see all the potential for the future.”

            “Bobby…really?”

            Dean stares at him, stunned, and Bobby stares back, until the man starts laughing through his nose.

            “Knock that fool flabbergasted look off your face. No, I’m not passing on the shop to you. Known you for all of four weeks, Christ—”

            “Yeah, okay,” Dean says. “That was stupid of me.”

            “Anyways,” Bobby says. “I wasn’t completely pulling your leg. I need someone smarter than me filling out all the new backlog forms and distribution bullshit, and Andy and his seven dead grandmothers isn’t gonna cut it.”

            “Yeah,” Dean says. “That’s, uh, if I were sticking around, I’d love to take you up on that.”

            Bobby shrugs. “No, I get it. I’m just an old man complaining about how he’s gonna be short-staffed again. I mean, I was also gonna tell you that you’ve shown your stripes, now, and I’m looking for a chief mechanic, who gets paid more, too. But there’s no point in wasting my breath.”

            “No, no point,” Dean says, after a moment. “I’m, uh, just gonna--”

            He gestures out to the garage, and beats a retreat.

            About forty five minutes later, his face smeared with grease, Dean pauses on the engine he’s working on.

            The point stands. Right? He doesn’t want to get tied down, or stick around long enough to see beneath the polite Midwestern charm. He’s stayed in one place for far too longer, let his life he dictated by other people. He’s free as a bird, he can go anywhere he wants, so why stick in some stupid Michigan town at some dingy auto repair shop?

            It is more money.

No, that doesn’t matter. Money is money is money, and Dean only needs it to from one place to another. Nothing fancy.

 And it would make sense to build up his saving again, after blowing it all on paying back Jimmy, so that when he hits the road again he won’t be stopping again any time soon.

But he doesn’t want to stay too longer. Next thing he knows, it’ll be winter and he’s heard winter in Michigan is not pretty. Hard to get himself out of that, and then he’ll be stuck.

 Not a permanent stay, of course. It could be semi-permanent. Another month or so, building up the coffers. Out by winter. Gives him time to complete some other odds and ends, like the eight and a half books he hasn’t finished reading yet.

He finds himself back in Bobby’s office, surprising the man as he throws the door open.

“Tell me about this chief mechanic job,” he says.

**

Sunday afternoon, as soon as work’s done, he zips back to the motel and takes a shower. Tries as hard as he can to get the engine grease out from under his nails. Then it’s the darkest jeans he owns, the newest flannel. Looking in the mirror, he’d say he doesn’t look half bad.

            Amelia’s restaurant is in a remodeled two-story house, with a wide front porch on the top and bottom levels, connected by a spiral staircase. The rails are lined by flower boxes, and the sweet smell is almost overpowering as he climbs up the curving stairway to the balcony above.

            Jimmy’s trying to tuck a flower in Claire’s hair, and there’s another dark head that’s turned away from Dean, shaking his head.

            “Children,” he’s saying. “Please behave.” He’s petting Rexy’s head, his posture loose and relaxed.

            “Hey,” Dean says. He stops at the top of the stairs. “Want some company today?”

            Cas, when he turns in his chair, looks pleased, but not surprised.

            “Hello, Dean,” he says. He pulls out the chair next to him, as invitation, with a smile.

Chapter Text

It’s not like it’s that big a deal, Dean assures Sam. He’s the chief mechanic at some podunk shop that only employs two mechanics total. In the battle between Andy’s Cheeto-dusted fingers compared with Dean’s relative responsibility, he just happened to come out on top. Bobby’s in a real bind, so much so that he doesn’t care that Dean can bring little to the table, might be packing up and leaving within the next month or so. Nothing’s really changed, beyond the new title.

            “Still,” Sam says. “That’s really impressive for only being in town there a month. Who knows what else might happen if you stick around?”

            “That’s not gonna happen,” Dean says. “Temporary layover, remember? I’m just sticking around long enough to build up my savings again, that’s all.”

            “Well, if you’re liking it there—”

            “And Bobby’s probably using me as a filler, anyway, while he finds a real mechanic,” Dean says. “Everything here is absolutely temporary.”

            Sam  makes a frustrated huff from his end; it makes a crackling sound over the receiver. “I’m just saying, I don’t know what the big rush is. If you like your job and the people there, why not settle in for a while?”

            “Thought you wanted me to come live with you for a while,” Dean says accusingly.

            “I do,” Sam says, with a patient, martyred voice. “Of course I do. But I also think if you’ve found someplace you like, you should do what’s best for you. If it’s Michigan, then there are things like plane tickets, you know. Just because you’re finally out of Dad’s house—”

            “You’re really set on the idea of me settling down, aren’t you?” Dean says quickly.

            “I’m really set on the idea of you having friends and a job you like and a home I can visit you at, yeah—”

            “No can do, Sammy,” Dean says. Just to be annoying, he starts belting out, “Tramps like us, we were booooorn to ru—shit, Bobby’s here, gotta go—” He fumbles his cell phone shut over Sam’s protests, and quickly shoves it into the breast pocket of his jumpsuit.

            He tries to look very involved in tinkering with the transmitter of a Chevy when Bobby rounds the corner, but Bobby is looking down at some forms when he walks into the garage, which is a relief.

            “What are you doing here?” Bobby says, without even looking up. “It’s five thirty on a Friday. You should have been gone hours ago.”

            “Just finishing up some things,” Dean says casually. He’s technically off the clock, but he was close to finishing repairs and couldn’t figure out the stupid Chevy’s transmitter. He decided he wasn’t going to leave until he figured it out himself—he didn’t want to hand it off to Bobby or Andy.

            “Leave that for later,” Bobby says. “Your friend’s waiting outside for you, you know.”

            Dean looks up quickly, almost braining himself on the popped-up hood. “Wait, what time is it?”

            “Five thirty,” Bobby says, looking up from his paperwork with a raised eyebrow.

            “Fuck,” Dean says. He slams the hood down and starts stripping out of his jumpsuit, kicking it off to the side. He must’ve lost track of time—he had agreed to pick Cas up from the library at five. Cas would’ve walked here, then…Dean wonders if he’s pissed.

            In the dingy mirror over the sink in the break room, he can see the line of engine oil down the side of his face, and his hair is stuck up in dirty spikes. He pulls a t-shirt over his head quickly, tries to flatten his hair down, and rubs at the smudge on his face. Good enough , he guesses.

            Outside, he can hear Cas making polite conversation with Bobby.

            “—worth the trip, since Dean’s never seen it,” he’s saying, when Dean rounds the corner. “Hey, Dean.” He’s smiling, and it’s a genuine smile, which is a relief. But Dean can’t focus on that for long when he sees that Cas has changed—long running shorts that show off his tanned calves, and a green MSU Spartan t-shirt. It’s a good look, Dean assures himself in an objectively friend-like fashion. Someone might even call it attractive.

            “Hey,” Dean says, running his hand over his greasy hair one more time, self-consciously. “Sorry, I know I said I’d pick you up—”

            “I’m used to walking,” Cas shrugs. “Are you ready to go, now?”

            Dean nods and grabs his keys and wallet from the cubby on the wall.

            “See you tomorrow, Bobby,” he says, walking out behind Cas.

            “Catch you later, Springsteen,” Bobby says, and smirks as Dean gapes and almost runs into Cas.

            “So,” Cas says, oblivious. “Where’s this famous BMW-destroyer I’ve heard so much about?”

            Dean leads him over to the Impala and preens while Cas admiringly touches the finish, walking around it take in the view. It’s all well and good until Cas goes to open the back door.

            “You can sit in the passenger seat,” Dean says, confused.

            “I know. But Rexy won’t fit.”

            “…Rexy,” Dean says.

            Cas straightens up. “Rexy goes everywhere I go,” he says. His voice is mild, but there leaves no room for argument. “Will that be a problem?”

            Dean looks over at the black dog, who’s standing close at Cas’s side, as always, and is looking at Cas placidly. All that fur shedding, collecting in the creases and corners of his back seat—he shudders to think of. And the claws on Rexy! He’s never noticed them before, but he thinks about how easily they could slice through a seam, or scuff up his precious leather seats.

            Dean realizes Cas is looking at him closely, so he tries to pull himself together and look like he’s not internally wailing.

            “No…problem,” he says slowly.

            Cas laughs and shakes his head. “You’re such a bad liar,” he says. “Wait here.”

            Dean’s pretty sure Cas is talking to him, although both Rexy and him stay there obediently while Cas walks back into Bobby’s shop. Dean glares over at the black dog, who opens his mouth and starts panting, his tongue lolling out.

            Cas comes back out with a large blue swathe of material—Dean recognizes it as the tarp they’ll put over a car that’s out in the yard waiting for inspection. Dean watches, bemused, as Cas lays it out on the ground, beckons Rexy into the middle of it, and Cas starts folding the corners in.

            By the time he’s done, Rexy looks like E.T., nothing but his face showing , the rest of his body swaddled in material. Cas hoists the whole package up and, after Dean opens the door, deposits Rexy in the back seat.

            Dean slides into the driver’s seat, and Cas opens the passenger door and stows a bag at his feet, and Rexy sits in the back, looking completely unfazed by his circumstances.

            Well, that’s one way to make sure the dog won’t shed all over his back seat.

            Cas smiles over at Dean. “Ready?”

            Since Dean decided to stay, he and Cas have been hanging out more often. Lunches have become more regular, and Dean’s been to the library a few times to return books and happened to catch Cas read out loud to the visiting school kids. Cas asked, recently, how long Dean’s planning on staying this time, and Dean had honestly responded that he doesn’t know. Before, he had the constraints of fixing Jimmy’s car. Now, it’s some obscure figure in his bank account,  when he’ll feel like he’s set enough to resume traveling. But well before winter, of course. He’s not gonna get comfy.

            Cas had taken Dean’s meandering answer in stride and then invited Dean on a day trip to see Sleeping Bear Dunes after work one day—probably just to, you know, show Dean some of the tourist traps, expand his horizons. Nothing to read into, there. Dean had stammered out some suave answer about checking his schedule and now here they were, blazing down the highway while Cas shouts out directions over the wind.

            It’s a fun drive down. It’s nice to take the Impala out for a long drive, with the radio turned up loud and someone to talk to in the passenger seat. He rolls down the back window for the dog, and they both laugh at the reactions of the people in cars they pass, their befuddled reactions to Rexy’s shrouded head hanging out.

            When they reach the National Park, they quiet down a little. Cas takes on his patented librarian voice, telling Dean about the Manitou Islands and ancient glaciers and the park being named The Most Beautiful Place in America.

            And it is. Beautiful, that is. They pass overlooks that look out over miles of forests, and bright blue glimpses of the surf of Lake Michigan, and rolling hills of dunes that are impossible to see over. Here, everything seems so fresh and blue and ancient and it feels like he and Cas aren’t even in Michigan. Like they’ve gone on some vacation together in some new, unexplored place that’s just for the two of them.

            Cas makes him pull over a wide overlook. He busies himself unwinding Rexy while Dean takes in the view of the lake, the sand whipping against his legs, and wind that carries a slight spray of water.

            “You ready?” Cas says. He looks excited. “Jimmy and I used to race each other.”

            “Ready for what?”

            Cas gestures to a sign which says DUNE OVERLOOK, which also has about fifteen warnings posted under it. “We’re gonna go down to the shore.”

            It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal until they walk closer to the overlook, which is rippled with deep trenches made from footprints. It’s then that Dean realizes the dune runs down, almost straight down, to the shore. The beach down there looks as small as a ribbon.

            “Whoa,” Dean says. “How do people even—”

            “Gravity takes  care of getting down there,” Cas says. His eyes are gleaming conspiratorially, and Dean’s caught up by it even though he’s still trying to take in the sheer angle down to the beach. It’s a long way down.

            “Rexy’s a little afraid of heights,” Cas says, going to stand behind the dog. “But he’ll go with a little incentive.”

            He draws a tennis ball from his pocket, waves it enticingly in front of the dog’s eyes, and throws it out into the void. As Dean watches, Rexy barrels after it and immediately disappears. Cas laughs, coming to stand beside Dean. They dog is running full tilt down the hill, kicking up tufts of sand that hang in the air behind him.

            “All right, us  next,” Cas says bracingly. “You ready?”

            Dean glances down at Rexy’s rapidly diminishing form, and then back at Cas. He doesn’t want to ruin Cas’s plans for the trip, but he could have been warned about potentially killing himself, too—

            “Are you afraid of heights, too?” Cas says. He sounds delighted.

            “No!” Dean says quickly. “I’m just, you know, preparing myself. Mentally. I might need to do some stretches first, too.”       

            “No need, Dean. Sometimes, to get us going, we just need a little push—”

            Dean lets out the most unmanly scream, snatched away by the wind, as he starts flailing down the dune. He can hear Cas’s breathless laughing behind him, but he’s too busy windmilling down the slope to pay much attention. Cas is right—gravity does take care of it. The beach is rapidly approaching and Dean is moving too fast to stop his legs.

            Dean crashes into the surf like a plane coming in for an emergency landing. The water’s up to his knees before he’s finally slowed to a stop, clutching a stitch in his side and cursing up a storm as soon as he finds his breath again.

            He feels a warm hand on his shoulder. “How are you doing, Dean?”

            “Fucking goddamn asshole.” He bends down to put his hands on his knees. Rexy sloshes into the surf in front of him and spits out the ball at his feet, looking up at him imploringly as it bobs in the surf.

            For some reason, that’s what does it for Dean. He starts laughing, hard enough to start wheezing, hard enough to bring tears to his eyes. He turns to Cas and grabs his arm, pulling him out further into the water. Their clothes get soaked, but Dean doesn’t care—he’s too busy trying to soak Cas in retaliation, spluttering on water and laughter as Cas grapples with him, pushing him down, to care.

            “Wait,” Cas says suddenly, while Dean’s trying to give him the Lake Michigan-equivalent of a toilet swirlie. It’s a bit of a ridiculous sight, Cas trying to be serious with the water up to his chin and Dean’s fingers wrapped in the wet curls of his hair, trying to push him under.

            “What?”

            “We should probably try to save our energy,” Cas says. He nods over to the dune in explanation.

            It’s only then, as Dean looks up and up and up, that Dean realizes that’s the only way back to the car.

            “Fucking goddamn asshole,” he says, and shoves Cas under the water.

**

            Dean feels like he scaled a mountain by the time he pulls himself to the top. They had had to stop four times on the way up, to catch their breaths and huff sand out of their mouths. Cas, damn him, was in better shape and didn’t seem to hate his life nearly as much.

            “This is hell,” Dean had gasped out at one point.       

            “This is cardio,” Cas had corrected, and started climbing off on all fours.

            So now he flops to the top like a landed fish, and he rolls over onto his back and feels the sun beating down on his still-wet clothes. Cas walks off to the car and pulls out two bottles of water and a plastic bowl from the bag he brought. Dean can hear Cas pouring water into the bowl for Rex, and the sounds of the dog lapping it up.Then he slumps down into the sand next to Dean.

            “Did you like it?” He asks. He sounds a little tentative.

            Dean nods but he’s too busy chugging water to really give Cas the book report he probably wanted in reply.

            “I like it,” Cas says. He pulls his knees up to his chest, looking out over the lake. “The way down is the best part. I feel like I’m flying. I’m always surprised that I run into the water, and not right over it. That feeling is worth the climb back up, for me.”

            Dean sits up on his elbows. “I liked it too,” he says. “It was a bit of a surprise to me, of course—”

            Cas laughs and pushes him. Dean, sprawled on his back in the warm sand, looks up at Cas, whose face turns serious. He looks thoughtfully down at Dean,  and Dean can see the moment where Cas turns from thoughtful to intent, because that’s when he starts leaning forward, that’s when Dean feels the curl of attraction deep in his belly.

            Cas plants a hand in the shifting sand by Dean’s head and is so close, then, his breath ghosting over Dean’s face—

            “Sand,” Dean blurts out. He sits up so fast he almost whacks his head into Cas’s. “Sand in my shorts.”

            He quickly stands up and makes a show of shaking out legs, dusting himself off. When he looks over at Cas, the man is still sitting there, smiling as usual, this time carelessly, like nothing bothers him.

            “Sorry,’’ Dean says. “It’s not like I—sorry.”

            He holds out a hand to help Cas out and Cas takes it. The clasp of their fingers lasts a little longer than they need to, unnecessary, as is the way Cas slides his body against Dean’s as he walks past him to the car.

**

            It’s not like Dean’s upset to find that Cas is attracted to him, after all. It was a bit of a question mark there for a while, what with his teasing and his perpetual smiling about Dean’s evacuation date. But yes, now he knows, Cas totally has a thing for him.

            That should make him happy that Cas returns his feelings—and it does, a little. But mostly Dean’s left cold by the harsh facts he’s used to.

            Like the fact that he pretty much, without fail, has only had one night stands in recent history. He dated a little as a teenager, but as his house became an increasing grab bag of alcoholic behavior he decided that he didn’t want to introduce his potential romantic interests to the garbage heap that was his life. Better to keep it casual, fleeting, and with no strings attached.

            That wouldn’t work with Cas, who he already knows and has become friends with. He sees the guy four or times a week now—not to mention that he’s also friends with Cas’s twin brother, too. There’s no room for error, or to make things awkward. Dean’s still leaving soon, still wanting to keep everything here casual, fleeting, and that wouldn’t work if Cas and Dean tried to become whatever-they-are. He doesn’t want to subject his friend, Cas, to the raised stakes of transitioning from friends to something more, doesn’t want to let him into Dean’s garbage heap life and then skip town.       

            It’s not fair to Cas, and it’s not fair to Dean, either, but those are just the facts he’s used to. The only thing he knows for sure is that he told himself that he wouldn’t let himself get tied down again. That’s true for everyone, that’s still true for Cas.

            A few days later Jimmy calls him and invites him over for dinner. A nice family affair—his wife, his daughter, his twin brother that Dean thinks about when he’s in the shower, and Dean.

            And the dog, probably.

            When Dean gets to the Novak’s house the first thing he notices is the mouthwatering smell wafting across the lawn. It’s an unfamiliar woman who opens the door when he knocks—young, slim, with a welcoming smile.

            “You must be Dean,” she says. “I’m Amelia—I’ve heard so much about you, come in—”

            She leads Dean down the hallway and into the kitchen, where Jimmy and Cas are standing on opposite sides of the counter, chopping vegetables. It’s the first time Dean’s seen both of them together and he’s struck by small discrepancies in their identical looks—Jimmy’s tamed hair, Cas’s tanner skin, the scar on his temple, the easy posture—

            Dean realizes he’s staring at Cas and hastily looks away.

            “Need any help?”

            They don’t. In fact, it seems to be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, with Amelia bossing the other two around while she sips a glass of wine and occasionally stirs a saucepan on the stir.

            “Jimmy’s not a bad cook, but I’m used to running my own kitchen now,” she tells Dean. “So I guess I need everything prepared exactly how I like it.”

            “She made me cry once,” Jimmy says cheerfully.

            “The Minced Garlic Debate,” Cas says. “I thought we agreed not to talk about that anymore.”

            “Don’t even start,” Jimmy says, pointing his knife at Cas. “You can’t even make yourself Ramen noodles.”

            Dean, leaning on the counter with a glass of water—he had refused the wine Amelia offered him—feels a twinge of jealousy. This seems just like how a family should be—chattering, laughing, doing things together. It would almost be like nostalgia, this feeling, if he had anything to feel nostalgia about. He and Sam were best friends growing up, they were each others’ lifelines, but their home had never felt like this—safe, or easy, or loving. Their moments when they did have fun always felt more like a temporary reprieve, being in the eye of the storm, than anything resembling normalcy.

            “—After Jimmy took his CPA exam, I was able to go to culinary school. That was fun; the both of us either studying or watching Claire for a straight year. Then I had the opportunity to work in France for four months to study under a James Beard chef. We decided that the opportunity was worth it, so Cas helped watch Claire while he was on summer break from college, and I went to Paris,” Amelia says. She pauses to taste the sauce. “We got married two weeks after I got back. It’s still crazy, looking back and knowing all that happened. And I still get crap for not being here during Claire’s terrible twos.”

            Cas shoots Dean a wide-eyed look; an affirmation that Claire was indeed a monster during that time. It makes Dean smile down into his water.

            “France must’ve been nice,” Dean says. “I would love to travel to other countries.”

            “You’ve never been out of the country?” Jimmy asks in interest, looking up from tipping his vegetables in the saucepan.

            “We never really went anywhere,” Dean shrugs. “Growing up, I guess I was really…”

            “Closeted,” Cas says.

            “—Sheltered,” Dean finishes. Cas holds his gaze, smirking a challenge, before turning away.

            So maybe Cas is holding the almost-kiss against him, just a little.

            The front door opens and closes then, and Claire walks in, breaking the tension. She was at a friend’s house, she explains, as she doles out hugs for Jimmy, Amelia, and Cas. Between her idle chatter about school, and helping her to set the table, it seems like dinner is being served in no time.

            “Wow,” Dean says, as he tries his first bite. “My compliments to the chefs.”

            “Compliment noted,” Amelia says. She inclines her glass towards Dean. “Thanks for coming tonight, Dean. Claire, Cas, Jimmy—they all have great things to say about you.”

            Dean can feel his ears turning red, and changes the subject.

            Claire talks a little about running for her class’s vice president position. They have fun trying to think of slogans to put on signs for her. Amelia likes to tell stories about awful customers—the ones who send back their food because they didn’t understand what they ordered in the first place, the ones who sneak in raw fish or other disgusting things to plant in food so they can demand a refund.

            It’s all so Brady Bunch, and a little surreal, that Dean doesn’t even notice anything amiss right away when Amelia starts talking about her mother, who’s coming in from Texas to stay for a few weeks, and where they should put her when she comes.

            “That guest room is packed to the ceiling with catering supplies,” Amelia says. “I’m not sure I can get that all cleared out in time.”

            Cas, very casually, says, “Well, there’s this little place called a mother-in-law suite on your property.”

            “Where you live,” Jimmy says. He sounds amused. “Do you want to bunk up with her?”     

            “No,” Cas says. “I was thinking I could move out by the time she’s in town. I’ve been looking at apartments, anyways.”

            “Cas, you didn’t,” his brother says flatly. “How many times—seriously—”

            “We don’t have to talk about that right now,” Amelia says quickly. Dean’s sure that it’s because he’s there. “Come on, maybe if you two help me clean up the guest room—”

            “It’s a shorter walk to the library,” Cas interrupts. “So close that when it’s raining, you wouldn’t have to drive me anymore. It’s affordable, and God knows I’ve lived long enough rent-free. I’ve lived in the mother-in-law suite for seven years, now. I think it’s time that I get a place of my own.”

            “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Jimmy says. “No one cares about driving you anywhere, or whether you pay rent.”

            “I care,” Cas says. “And the only reason I haven’t moved  is because you’re always so dead-set against it. I’ll have Rexy, I’ll be fine—”

            “You need to be around other people,”  Jimmy says loudly. He looks upset. “He’s supposed to alert other people, Cas. He’s not supposed to be your last line of defense when you have a seizure.”

            Dean looks between Cas’s suddenly pale face and Jimmy’s distressed one.

            “What?”

            “Nothing,” Cas says. He turns back to his plate. “Nothing. I had a stupid idea.”

            “It’s not nothing,” Jimmy says.

            “I thought—” Dean says. He turns to look at Cas, trying to put the pieces together. “I thought you said Rexy was a—a hearing ear dog.” Across the table, Claire drops her fork to her plate and rolls her eyes.

            “Just my idea of a joke,” Cas says lightly, still looking at his plate. “Not entirely a lie, though.”

            “See? It’s this kind of ---if Dean’s gonna be around, then he needs to know this kind of stuff,” Jimmy says. “Rexy’s a seizure alert dog. Cas has had him since he started have epileptic episodes after the assault. And, Cas, I know you value your independence, I do, but it’s important that you live with people who know how to properly respond—”

            “Okay, dad,” Cas says. “Thanks for the lecture.”

            He pushes his chair back and picks up his plate, walking out of the room.

            **

            The rest of the dinner passes quietly, awkwardly. Dean can tell these arguments don’t happen often because of how shaken Jimmy looks, how Amelia wordlessly rubs her husband’s arm. Still, it’s there. This family, like any family, is not the perfect family that Dean saw when they were happily preparing dinner together.

            Dean doesn’t know whether that comforts him, because he wasn’t missing out, or just saddens him.

            Amelia and Jimmy are perfectly nice with their goodbyes—in fact, they invite him over for next week, too—but Dean can tell they want to be alone. He’s fine with that; he has a lot to think of.

            Which is why he nearly jumps out of his shoes when he sees a dark figure lurking on the lawn.

            “Jesus—”

            “Hey,” Cas says. “I just wanted to—would you like to step into my humble mother-in-law suite?”

            Dean watches his shadowed hand gesture across the lawn.

            “That was a pick-up line,” Cas says. “A bad one. Look, there are some things I think we should--”

            “Don’t you think that’s something you should have told me?” Dean says. “I mean, I wouldn’t know the first thing to do. If it happened at lunch, or what—what if it happened when we were out at the dunes the other day, with no people for miles? When were you gonna tell me that I was responsible for—”

            “Because you’re not,” Cas snaps.  “You wouldn’t have to do anything. Except maybe call 911. I didn’t tell you because it’s not a big deal—”

            “Maybe call 911? Not a big deal?” Dean’s voice is rising in anger.

            “A precautionary measure, Dean,” Cas says, his voice rising, too. “Just like having to live off my brother’s charity is precautionary, or not driving, or taking pills every day— just like having Rexy in the first place is precautionary. It’s not like—it’s not like it happens all the time. I haven’t had a seizure in a long time.”

            “How long?”

            “A really long time,” Cas says in a stony voice. Then he sighs. “Do you not want to talk to me? If this is something you can’t deal with, I think you should just go.”

            It’s a clear dismissal, if Dean wanted one. And he’d told himself that he didn’t want to get involved, get to know too much. But at Cas’s challenge, he finds himself once again rising to meet it.

            “Fine,” he says. “Let’s talk.”

            So he and Cas and Rexy walk off towards the dark building, not saying anything to each other.

            When they get inside, Cas switches on the hall light, walking into the living room and switching on a light there, too. Dean looks around quickly, taking in shelves and shelves of books, before he turns to see Cas sitting down on the couch.

            Dean sits down, too, and watches Cas toy with his fingers for a few minutes.

            “It’s called post-traumatic epilepsy,” Cas finally says. “It happened after—” he gestures vaguely to his head.

            “Your traumatic brain injury,” Dean says, forcefully, because he’s sick of creeping around the edges of this.

            “Yeah,” Cas says. “Anyways, it can sometimes take a while to show up. For me, I’d been out of the hospital for almost two years before I had my first seizure. I hoped it was just a one-time thing…but not so lucky, apparently. Finally we got in touch with a service dog organization that was able to give me Rexy, because I still wanted to have a job and not have Jimmy breathing down my neck—”

            “Why have you been keeping this all a secret?” Dean says.

            Cas gives him an unimpressed look. “Because I didn’t think you’d be staying long enough to find out,” he says. “Because I thought if you did, you’d want to distance yourself from something that extreme. And also, with you, I just wanted to be normal.”

            There are a lot of things to process there, maybe most of all the things Cas has done from the very beginning to—to appeal to Dean, to get closer to him. But the first thing Dean thinks to say is,

            “Dude, Cas. When have you ever been normal?”

            Cas snorts out a laugh. “I don’t know. It’s not like I can hide most of it, you know. I told you some stuff. But as for the rest of it—” He shrugs. “I get it. Me and Rexy and potential seizures. I didn’t want to bring it up because then I’d be making it your responsibility, too. I know you’re not here for that.”

            “I mean, I’m not,” Dean says. “Cas, I’m still planning on—”

            “I know,” Cas says, aggravated. “This hasn’t been some big scheme to make you stay. It’s just been a bit of a cover up to not be—to not be this.” He points, now, to himself. “I don’t really get your reasons why, Dean, but I understand how it feels. To be trapped. Because I feel trapped inside a body that doesn’t work right half the time, and it sucks. If I could run or drive or fly away from my problems I would have already, okay, but they’re stuck right in here with me.”

            He looks back up at Dean, his eyes bright as he makes his point, and Dean finds he can’t be mad for keeping his problems to himself. He crosses the room and comes to sit on the couch next to Cas.

            “You’re fine the way you are, Cas,” he says, awkwardly.

            “Okay,” Cas says.

            “I’m here regardless,” Dean says. “For now, I’m here. And you don’t have to—”

            “Dean,” Cas interrupts. He puts a hand on Dean’s thigh. “You should come to my bedroom with me.”

            Dean goggles between the hand on his thigh and Cas’s face. “Wha—”

            “I appreciate the you-are-not-your-limitations sentiment, but I really don’t feel like doing that tonight.”

            “Fine,” Dean says. “I guess it’s pretty clear what you feel like, uh, doing tonight.”

            Cas rolls his eyes and gets to his feet, pulling Dean up with him.

            “Whoa,” Dean says. “Okay, one second. Cas, there’s something I want to say—”

            “Sure,” Cas says, and then his head tilts to the side as he sucks a kiss on the underside of Dean’s chin.

            “I normally only do one night stands,” Dean says. “It’s better to—no strings attached. Especially since I’m not planning on staying.”

            “Good idea,” Cas says. His tongue trips along his pulse, wet, and Dean feels a hand on ass where there distinctly wasn’t a hand before.

            “But I’ve known you for a month now,” Dean gasps out. “So—so I just wanted to make sure we’re on the same page.”

            The hand dips into his pants. “Of course.”

            “The page where—I’m leaving, butwecandothisnow. Oh, fuck.”

            Dean gets manhandled out of the room, down the hallway, and into wall, while Cas fumbles for the handle of his bedroom door.

            “Is—is Rexy gonna watch?” He manages to gasp out. “’Cause that would be kinda weird—”

            Cas gets the door open, pushes Dean inside, and closes the door in the dog’s face. When he turns on the light, Dean can see Cas looks flushed and wild and just—just very fucking hot.

            “Nice room,” Dean babbles out, looking around it. There’s another wall of shelves and a rolled-up yoga mat pushed into the corner. He goes over to the bed, sitting down on it. “I can see you’re very into—books.”

            Cas starts stripping off his clothes with preamble. “I’ll quote you things, if you like.”

            “And—and yoga.”     

            Cas smiles at him as he straddles Dean’s legs. “You’ll find that I’m very flexible,” he says.

            “Oh, yeah?” Dean says. His brain isn’t exactly running on top form right now, it’s actually devolved into a stream-of-consciousness thing, which is why he hears himself say, “I dated—I dated a girl in high school who did yoga. Very—bendy.”

            Cas pulls away, and his eyes narrow down in competition. “How bendy?”

            Dean smiles and pulls Cas into a kiss.

Chapter Text

One day, Bobby smacks Dean in the head with a piece of rubber tubing and demands to know what he’s “mooning into the distance” about today.

            There are quite a few answers to that question, these days.

            After that night with Cas, he wore such a goofy, dopey expression to work the next day that Andy had pulled him aside and offered him forty dollars for an eighth of whatever he was on.

            He’s since managed to tone down the expressions a little, but apparently they’re still noticeable. He can’t help it, though—he has a job that he loves, where he feels confident that he’s good at what he does. He likes the places he’s found where he feels comfortable—fishing at the bay, or the restaurant with the fenced patio near work. Dean also likes the new places he’s found, too, as the season turns—pumpkin patches and warm cider, like when Cas took him and Claire to a haunted hayride at a farm outside of town. The scary sights were pretty stupid—the “hanged man” was really a teenager wearing a Detroit Red Wings jersey, and the  man chasing behind the truck with a blade-less chain saw had tripped over a root and not managed to catch up again. Cas was still able to scandalize Claire, though, because he had grabbed up handfuls of hay from the scratchy bales they sat on and started to shove them down Dean’s pants—

            So, yeah, Cas has something to do with Dean’s mooning expressions lately. It makes sense, rationally, statistically, Dean reasons, because he spends a lot of time with Cas now. Every lunch during the work week. At least one dinner over at Jimmy’s house. And then there’s the increasingly frequent number of night he spends in the mother in law suite, nights that are close and warm and pretty fuckin’ bendy, so he doesn’t even care that he has to wake up earlier than usual to stop by the motel for a change of clothes and a shower.

            The unwanted burden of liking Cas but knowing if it was reciprocated, the stress of being attracted but also knowing how soon he’d be leaving, has been lifted away now. On that first morning, when Dean woke languid and sticky and naked next to Cas, he had brought it up just one last time, to be fair, to be on the same page.

            “You’re like the Catholic school girls who appear on Girls Gone Wild after they graduate,” Cas had said, stretching and rolling his eyes. “So desperate not to miss out on anything.”

            Dean hadn’t said anything, because it was already hard enough to explain as is—the fear of staying in one place for too long. But Cas had suddenly turned over and given him an apologetic grimace. “You don’t need to look out for my honor, Dean. You leave whenever you want to, and I’ll be happy for whatever we have in the meantime.”

            And then he had draped himself over Dean and fallen asleep again.

            They haven’t talked about it since. It’s there, under the surface, in the way that Dean tracks his bank account and Cas brings Dean books—famous national parks, guides to the attractions in all fifty states, the top-rated restaurants for each region of America. It’s there in the way they try to cram in as many good things together as they can, operating under some unseen time frame.

            It’s been such a good time with Cas that Dean half-forgot that people who date, who are around each other almost constantly, have their down times, too. Bobby has long since given up on addressing Dean’s pleased looks after a night at Cas’s, but apparently today he looks different enough that Bobby feels the need to talk about it.

            “I’m not mooning,” Dean says, and hunches  back into the engine he’s working on.

            Bobby comes to stand next to him, crouching under the hood too. “You’re pining, then,” he says. “What going on—lovers’ quarrel?”

            Dean huffs out a sound, but doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t know what it is, to be honest. Yesterday, he had gone to the Novaks after work and seen Cas out in the lawn, raking leaves with his signature wild hair and a faded t-shirt.

            Cas hadn’t heard his car but turned as Dean waded through the leaves, leaning forward for a kiss—

            “No,” Cas had said simply. He’d even held out a hand and put it on Dean’s chest, keeping him frozen, absurd, in the act of reaching forward. That’s when a few things had lined up—the lack of Rexy, the face that had no scar at its temple.

            “Uh, hey, Jimmy,” Dean had croaked, and wished it was possible to be struck by lightning on the spot.

            “Wow, it’s easy to make you turn red,” Jimmy says. He leans on his rake. “It’s not a big deal, Dean. It’s easy to get us mixed up when we’re, you know, identical.”

            “Yeah,” Dean coughs. He can see, now, how Jimmy must’ve just thrown on some old t-shirt while he did some yardwork, how the exercise might have mussed his carefully combed hair. An easy mistake, sure, but it’s still really fucking embarrassing.

            “I’m gonna just, uh, go see—” Dean says, feebly gesturing to the mother-in-law suite, but he’s surprised when Jimmy shakes his head.

            “Not a good idea today,” Jimmy says. “I’m sorry, Dean. When he gets in moods like this, it’s best to just leave him alone.”

            “Moods?” Dean repeats. “I don’t—I just saw him at lunch, he was fine.”

            Jimmy shrugs. “I’m just telling you what I know. When he wants to talk, he’ll come to you. I promise.”

            Dean looks over at the resolutely closed door to the mother-in-law suite. It would be rude, he knows, to walk over and knock over Jimmy just told him to leave Cas alone. All the same, he’s confused and a little worried . He’s pretty adept at telling when Cas is being genuine and when he’s faking his happiness, and Cas had seemed perfectly fine when they separated after lunch. Or so he had thought.  Had he missed something? Had he said or done something to piss Cas off?

            He looks up to find Jimmy watching him seriously.

            “Why don’t you come inside for a minute,” Jimmy says. “Have a drink. There’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.”

            Dean follows, but this time with a feeling of dread. He likes Jimmy, but he now knows that Jimmy’s older by about a minute and a half. He wonders if he’s about to get one of those, ‘if you hurt my brother, so help me…’ speeches.

            Jimmy detours to the kitchen to get Dean the promised drink, and they both sip sweet tea in the family room for a few minutes before Jimmy puts his glass down decisively. Dean does, too, and only then notices that Jimmy looks like he’s filled with nervousness,  not hellfire and brimstone.

            “Cas tends to hold people at arm’s length,” Jimmy says slowly. “But I think it’s safe to say the two of you are pretty close.”

            Dean has to smile at that. He’d initially been unsure whether Jimmy and Amelia were the kind of Christians who would accept the relationship between their brother and him. He shouldn’t have worried. That first morning afterwards Amelia had come over with a breakfast tray and  left it on Cas’s kitchen counter,  and crept out again without ever disturbing them. When they did finally stumble out bleary and ravenous, they found poached eggs and blueberry crepes and a note saying she was sure they’d be famished after being up all night.

            Dean’s made a concentrated effort to be less loud ever since.

            “Has he—has he said anything else to you about wanting to move?” Jimmy says.  This is definitely not the line of questioning Dean had expected.

            “No, he hasn’t said anything,” Dean says honestly. “Seriously. Not since that dinner.”

            Jimmy sighs, and leans forward. “He used to have his own apartment when he lived in East Lansing. He’s used to his independence. And even though I’ve tried to give him his space, and a separate place to live in, he’s made it clear that it’s still not what he wants.”

            “I’m sure he appreciates what you’ve done for him,” Dean says awkwardly. “He just, you know, wants to be on equal ground with you.”

            Jimmy blows out a breath. “I don’t know what to say to him. He really does need to live with someone besides Rexy. And not a complete stranger, some random roommate, who wouldn’t know what to do when he’s—” He gestures out the window, towards the suite where Cas is so suddenly and mysteriously upset, and Dean suddenly feels very inadequate. It’s not like he knows what to do, either.

            “—Should’ve seen him blow a gasket after I suggested we put baby monitors in the suite for a little while. But his seizures were new to all of us, then, after the assault, and we were so worried—”

            “Assault?” Dean parrots.

            Jimmy head twists quickly as he looks over at Dean, and he levels Dean with a confused look.

            “Yes,” he qualifies. “His assault. What of it?”

            Dean fish-mouths for a second, and then says nothing as he thinks quickly over his conversations with Cas.

            Cas, who has been remarkably more forthcoming lately. He showed Dean the AEDs he has to take daily, and he told Dean about the long process of finding a seizure alert dog in the first place, and how in the aftermath Rexy was also trained to assist with his hearing deficits, too—like barking when someone knocked on the door. But Dean can remember back to even before Cas had broken his silence about his post-traumatic epilepsy, back to their first lunch together.

            Cas had called it an “accident,” he remembers that. He remembers not even thinking to ask, just assuming it must have been some pile-up on the freeway, a bad skid on an icy road. If Jimmy or Amelia or Claire had referenced it, had called it for what it was, maybe he hadn’t been paying attention. He doesn’t know, but feels again the unfairness of being left out in the dark when it came to Cas.

            Jimmy studies his face for a long moment. “Maybe that’s something you should talk to Cas about,” he said, but that of course meant that Cas would have to seek him out, would have to come to him, and who knew when that would happen—

            In the present, with Bobby, he finally pulls his oil-stained fingers from the rusty belt he’s trying to remove and goes for a minimalist shrug.    

            “Maybe something like a lovers’ quarrel,” he says. He hears how small his voice sound and he hates it, tries to speak like he doesn’t care. “Who knows. Doesn’t matter. I have work to do.”

            Bobby regards him for a long moment, and then turns away to put his clipboard and pen down.

            “Shove over,” he says.

            “Wha—”

            “Make some room for me, would ya?”

            Dean obligingly moves over, but he doesn’t like the way that Bobby looks at him, with something like sympathy. Since when has Bobby felt the need to help out with the cars he’s working on? Not since Dean become chief mechanic, and proved that he knew how to do his job. He feels like his pride is on the line, that there’s something to defend.

            “I can figure out how to do it,” he says. “I don’t need your help.”

            “No one said you couldn’t,” Bobby says. When Dean raises an eyebrow, he says, “Helping someone isn’t always because they can’t do it without you. It’s just about doing something together.”

            “You want to start doing something together?” Dean says suggestively, a weak attempt at a joke, and Bobby folds his hand over the back of Dean’s neck and yanks him so close to the engine that his nose almost touches.

            “All right, boy, listen up,” Bobby says. “This is how you remove a rusted belt—”

            So Dean stands close beside him, soaking up information like a sponge, while Bobby patiently talks him through the procedure, his gruff voice echoing in the otherwise empty garage.

**

            Cas calls two days after the unexpected freeze out.

            “I should be standing outside your window in the rain, holding a bouquet of flowers,” he says. “But it would take me almost an hour to walk there. We’ll improv at my place, okay?”

            So Dean dutifully pulls up in the Impala about twenty minutes later, and Cas is waiting outside, with Rexy as always, and he waves when Dean comes out of the car.

            “So,” Dean says, as he comes closer. “Just to clarify, do I have anything to apologize for?”

            “Not today,” Cas says, and throws the door of his suite open. “It’s a record.”

            It’s not until they’re in the bedroom, until Dean’s that close, that he sees the wavering smile on Cas’s face, the dark shadows beneath his eyes.

            “What’s going on?’ Dean asks, sitting on the bed next to him. “Talk to me, man.”

            Cas looks up at the ceiling, blinks a long moment, and then looks back. He has this look on his face, a strange mix—sheepish, defensive, nervous. It doesn’t make sense to Dean.

            “Remember how I said I didn’t want to lay too much on you?” He says. He plows on before Dean can reply. “Well, sometimes that’s not in my control. Sometimes I just can’t help it.”

            “Cas,” Dean says, when nothing else is forthcoming. “You have to do better than that.”

            Cas pinches the bridge of his nose. “It didn’t use to be like this,” he says. “And then, after the accident, I started having these terrible mood swings. And I don’t—I don’t want to be on this rollercoaster, where the smallest things can make me so angry, and something can make me so sad that I just can’t get out of bed in the morning. But that’s just the way it is now.”

            “Hey,” Dean says. He puts his hand on Cas’s shoulder.

            “It’s always going to be this way,” Cas says. He sits, rigid, under Dean’s hand. “And there are going to be times when nothing’s going to help. Jimmy and Amelia, Claire, you—you’re not going to be able to change anything. I’m always going to feel too much of—everything, and no one’s gonna fix that for me.”

            “Cas,” Dean says. “That’s okay.”

            “Is it?” Cas says. He rolls his shoulder under Dean’s grip. “I try to put on a good face, I really do. I try to be happy. I try to be happy even when I’m not. But sometimes I won’t be, and I won’t want to be here. Is that something you really want to deal with?”

            Dean turns on the bed, pulling his knees up onto the mattress. Leaning down, he pulls Cas’s legs up, too, spreading them across his lap. Cas doesn’t move away as Dean undoes the knots of his shoes.

            Flatly, though, he says, “I don’t really feel like it tonight. Not in the right—mood,” and gives a short, unhappy laugh.

            “I know,” Dean says. He thinks that Cas forgets—forgets that Dean can tell now when he’s trying.

            Dean clicks the lamp off and they lay together, Dean’s arm tight around Cas’s waist, breathing against the knob of his neck. Hums a song in his ear, the only Bob Marley song he knows, because he knows Cas likes it.

            Cas blows out a breath eventually, his hand coming down to pet over Dean’s.

            “It wasn’t an accident,” he says. “Not entirely. It was some strange cosmic mistake, some coincidence, that I was in town that particular weekend, walking down that particular street on that particular night. And the same for them. Az and Al and Raphael.” He sing-songs their names.

            “It was winter break at Michigan State, so my boyfriend Balthazar and I were here visiting my brother. I don’t remember why we were out. I just remember rounding a corner, and it was like they were waiting for us. And we were gift-wrapped just for them, just in time for the holidays.”

            Dean just breathes, listening.

            “I missed most of their trials. I was still in the hospital. Balthazar missed  them, too. He was better—he was able to get away, to get help-- but it really shook him up. He went back to the UK as soon as he could. But Jimmy went, and he told me how it went. Guilty, every way you can slice it. There was no question that they were drunk, had been up to stuff all night. Broken into some stores. Stolen a woman’s purse. We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they went after us. A coups de grace.”

            “The trial was fine,” Cas says heavily. “But I didn’t know that I’d be put on trial, afterwards. Their parents, after the verdict, came after us. It was all over the news. You know, if we’d been girls, that night, the question would’ve been, well, what were you wearing. But they wanted to know—what were Balth and I doing. How did we provoke them. Because maybe if we’d been some gross nasty gay thing, that would explain why their sons did it. It would excuse beating the shit out of us, cracking my head open. They wanted any reason, any at all, to make it not their sons’ fault.”

            He turns in Dean’s arms, so that his head is tipped against Dean’s shoulders. “That was years and years ago, now. But it was a big controversy here for a while. Jimmy was even thinking of moving, because I couldn’t live on my own but it got so vicious. People’s true colors coming out—it was like, everything I did was suddenly suspect. Walking down the street was rubbing it in, going to work was flaunting it. Apparently I was only a real victim if I acted the part. But I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to get better, and live with my friends and family, and work a job I love—I shouldn’t have to go just because I make some people uncomfortable.”

            Dean gathers him closer, running a hand down Cas’s warm spine. It makes sense, the stares he attracts, the fascination he’s used to ignoring now. They wonder how Cas can be so happy, but they’re not looking close enough to really see.

            “I try not to think about it,” Cas says, and stops to clear his throat. “Sometimes it’s easier to get on with my life, if I just think it was an accident. It was never supposed to happen, but it did. It works most of the time.”

            “Most of the time?” Dean says, eventually. For all the times he’s been in bed with Cas, this is the first time they’ve just laid here, gathering comfort in between their arms. It’s nice. He thinks it’s nice because he’s doing it with Cas.

            “There were some parents at the library a few days ago. They were trying to get me fired,” Cas says.

            “Are you—”

            “They didn’t succeed,” Cas says. “Which probably will only make them more determined. They’re already threatening all kinds of things—the only one I remember is trying to shut down school field trips to the library.”

            “What are they so mad about?” Dean asks, amazed, in a dark awe. He can’t believe anyone would go out of their way to try to get Cas—who loves his job so much, who tries so hard—to be fired.

            “Word got back that I read the children And Tango Makes Three at the last school trip,” Cas says. “It’s—it’s a book about two male penguins raising a baby.” Unbelievably, he starts laughing. “They see it as a same-sex marriage allegory. They want me to be fired for trying to influence young minds with the gay agenda. You know, that one that teaches young children about love and compassion for everyone. They’re going to hold protests outside the library, and appeal to the school board, because apparently I haven’t dealt with this kind of shit enough.”

            “Cas—”

            “I try to think the best of people,” he gasps out. Cas is still laughing, but it doesn’t sound very happy. “I really do. But sometimes people make it so, so hard.”

            Dean throws his leg over Cas’s, crushing him closer. Cas is making a damp patch on his shirt, but he doesn’t mind. He just buries his head in Cas’s shoulder and holds on.

            Cas’s breaths eventually even out, becoming deep and slow against his chest. Dean thinks that he’s fallen asleep, so he’s surprised when Cas raises his head to press a kiss to the underside of his chin.

            “Thank you,” he says.

            “For what?”

            “For still being here,” Cas whispers.

            Dean has become used to going to sleep in Cas’s bed in a certain way—languid and sticky and naked. Tonight they do nothing. Tonight they lay side by side, limbs splayed over each other, snoring.

            It’s the best damn sleep Dean’s gotten in ages.

Chapter Text

It reaches a point where Dean decides he has to do something. He’s just not sure what.

            Some really determined parents (who apparently have nothing better to do during the day, Dean has snidely remarked) have started showing up at the library every day. They sit in during Cas’s read-alouds, which most parents don’t do, and question the values of the books he’s reading. Technically, they’re allowed to, because they’re with their kids and they just want to make sure they’re learning good Christian values, of course. Never mind that it’s a public library. They all but heckle him, sitting in a ring of chairs around Cas in the children’s section, wondering aloud at his book choices.

            Cas has been trying to act calm and unaffected by it, but Dean can tell it’s wearing on him. Every day at lunch, or at Jimmy’s dinner table, he’ll try to joke about the most recent complaint—that he recommended a book of magic and evil (Harry Potter) to a second grader, or that another parent complained that he gave an anti-Christian and sex-filled book to his preteen (Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian).

            Dean had thought the fervor would die down after a few days, but if anything these parents have come to see it’s the quantity, not the quality, of the complaints they lodge that matter. It all seems to stem back to when Cas read And Tango Makes Three two weeks before—it has these parents determined to oust him. But what about the children. That seems to be their theme. All he and Cas’s family can do is to keep repeating themselves—that Cas has worked there for years, the library’s not going to fire him over a few worked-up parents, it will blow over. It would be ridiculous to think otherwise. Beyond that, Dean doesn’t know what else he could do to help.

            “It’s awful,” Claire says to Dean in an undertone one night, as they’re washing dishes at the sink together. “I went to the library yesterday and kind of hung back, watching. Uncle Cas is just trying to entertain these kids during Read-Aloud Hour and has these parents whispering about him, or finding stupid reasons to pick apart the book. He was just wearing this awful smile the whole time, you know—”

            “Yeah, I know the one,” Dean says, limp-wristed in the soapy water.

            “Yeah. Just smiling and pretending he’s having the time of his life. You know what they’re doing, right? If all their complaints aren’t working, they’re trying to pressure Uncle Cas to quit. It’s infuriating.”

            It is. What’s even more infuriating, though, is seeing it starting to work. It’s the reason why Dean can’t bring himself to go to the library himself, because he’s not sure he could handle seeing Cas struggling to keep a smile on his face, stammering out his welcomes to the children he knows while their parents talk loudly about his ineptitude. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy—the more they complain about his shortcomings, the more Cas is diminished by them.

            One dinner, he says, blithely, “Someone from the library’s trustee board is coming to see me at work tomorrow.”

            This doesn’t really mean anything to Dean, but Jimmy looks just about murderous.

            “Yeah,” Cas says, lumping his mashed potatoes with his spoon. “Normally complaints and employee reviews are handled in-house. But apparently the startling breadth of criticisms against me has caught the board’s attention.”

            Amelia makes a disgusted noise. “I swear, Christians like them give us a bad name almost every day of the week.”

            “Even on Sundays,” Cas says, and stands up. “I’m going to bed.”

            “Cas—”

            “Gotta prepare for my big day,” he says.  After he leaves, they all give each other similar, helpless looks. A visit from a trustee definitely doesn’t bode well for Cas, especially when he has been under-performing at his job, with all these hateful parents intimidating him daily.

            Later that night, in bed, Dean can’t stand the silence. He rolls over and looks at Cas’s stiff back.

            “Want to role play?” He says. “Not the kinky kind, this time. I’ll pretend to be a douche parent, and we can figure out how you can—”

            “How I can what?” Cas says. “Pretend they don’t bother me?”

            “Well, yeah,” Dean says. “You can’t—we can’t, just, you know, roll over and take it. They’re trying to intimidate you. Make you look off-balance to your superiors.”

            “Yeah, I’ve noticed.”

            “Well, maybe, tomorrow, you can—I don’t know. Read Chronicles of Narnia. The Declaration of Independence. They can’t criticize some fundamental American values—”

            Cas twists over, giving Dean a flat look. “That’s not it, Dean .At all. It doesn’t matter if I read nothing but Jesus’s parables. They’re not attacking my stories, they’re attacking me. They’re trying to  teach the kids I dedicate my life to that I’m some sort of freak. “

            “Cas,” Dean says.

            “And no, I can’t help it. It’s not the fact that they don’t like their children reading a book about gay penguins, it’s the fact that me, a gay man, read that book to their children. And they’re so uncomfortable with that, they’ll try to report me and lodge complaints and bully the library over this until they’re satisfied.  And I’m basically helping them. I’m a mess.”

            Dean wriggles his head closer on the pillow, putting a hand gently on the side of Cas’s face.

            “Wait. Cas. You—you’re gay?”

            “Shut up.”

            “I seriously had no idea—”

            It’s nice to hear Cas laugh again, for him to kiss Dean without distraction.

            The next morning, though, Dean watches from under the covers as Cas slowly gets dressed. He’s going all-out, full library regalia. A light blue tie, a black, tight waistcoat, and he’s squinting in the dim light at the mirror, trying to intimidate his hair into something more orderly.

            When Dean drops Cas off at the library, Cas gives him a quick kiss. He seems anxious, withdrawn, and Dean watches him march off through the front doors with his shoulders held taut, like a soldier off to war. Dean feels the strangest ache in his chest, watching.

            On the way over to Singer’s Auto Shop, he opens his phone and hits speed dial.

            “Dean!” Sam says. “That’s so weird, I was just about to call you.”

            “Oh?” Dean says. “Why—is everything okay?”

            “Well, yeah. Mostly. It’s fine now, at least.”

            “Uh huh.”

            “It’s about Dad,” Sam says, in a rush, like saying it faster will make it less unpleasant. “I got a call from Rufus today—do you remember him?”

            “Dad’s old coworker, yeah,” Dean says. He pulls the car over to the verge. “What’s going on?”

            “I guess he stopped in to see Dad. He’s moving—Dad is, I mean. Selling the house, downgrading to some trailer park, or something. It’s all kind of vague.”

            “Oh,” Dean says.

            “It’s weird to think of, right? I mean, I never planned on going back. But that was, like, him and Mom’s honeymoon house. Our childhood. I kinda thought it would always be in the family.”

            Dean thinks back to the slowly rotting porch floorboards, the perpetually burned-out lightbulbs. He knows that, for years, he was the one keeping them from going under. Not Dad, with his sporadic work history. No. He, Dean, kept them there, with that particular roof over their heads, until he left. And without his help, Dad couldn’t afford to live there.

            “Weird,” he says.

            “Yeah. Anyways, Dad’s apparently found himself some construction job. At least, he has one for  now. We both know how that goes. But when Rufus called me, I thought he was gonna say Dad was homeless or something. Arrested again. In the hospital getting his stomach pumped.”

            Dean tries to focus, very hard, on dismissing the small bead of guilt growing in his stomach. These are all things that have happened before, that he’s been there to handle. Keeping a roof over Dad’s head. Paying bail, taking him home from the hospital. He’s not John Winchester’s cell mate anymore. He’s not his wet nurse or his pack horse or his caretaker. He’s just his son, and his estranged son, at that. It’s not his responsibility if John Winchester couldn’t afford to keep a roof over his head.

            He can’t explain why he feels that way, then, and not just guilty. Angry, too, that John would find a job and a new place to live once Dean’s out of the picture. If Dad could do just fine by himself, apparently, what had Dean been wasting his life doing for the past decade? It’s not enough that John couldn’t get by without him, back in the day, now he had to do just fine, and put those years to waste.

            “Dean?” Sam says. “You’re being really quiet. Are you upset about the house? I know that’s where Mom—”

            “No,” Dean says. “No, I’m not. I brought a picture of Mom with me. I don’t give two shits about that house. Or Dad.”

            “Yeah,” Sammy says. “Good. You shouldn’t have had those responsibilities, Dean. Or been taken advantage of like that.”

            Dean grinds his phone closer to his ear, trying to focus on something else. It never puts him in a good mood, thinking how much of his life he gave up, catering to his dad’s alcoholism. A burden he took on from love, taking care of his father, that eventually turned bitter and hateful. No one should be chained down by that, not even for love. No one should have to give up their life and happiness.

            But that’s what here and now’s all about, Dean remembers. He’s not tied down by his responsibilities anymore. He’s free for the first time in his life, and he can do whatever he wants. Which reminds him of why he called Sam in the first place.

            “Hey, look,” Dean says. “I had a question for you. I thought you were the right person to ask.”

            “Okay,” Sam says. “Shoot.”

            Dean explains the whole situation to Sam—Sam, who knows the whole cast of characters now, from frequent talks with Dean. So it’s easy to tell him about Cas and the penguin book and how these parents have taken it upon themselves, as a personal quest, to get him fired.

            “It’s fucking ridiculous,” Dean rages. “I mean, the only thing that should matter is how good he is at his job. That’s it. And this stupid vendetta they have against him, just because of his orientation—”

            “Yeah,” Sam says. “Believe me, I know. I intern at the ACLU, remember? The stupid thing is that they’re not going after the book—and the ACLU has had to fight to keep And Tango Makes Three on the shelves before—they’re going after the person who introduced the book. They’re being, well, awful, and trying to suggest Cas isn’t fit for his job. Anyways, there’s not much Cas can do right now. If he were to get let go, he could probably sue for discrimination. But, technically, for now,  the parents are within their rights to voice their displeasure with his reading choices. Freedom of speech,  and all that.”

            “So, there’s nothing we can do but wait for Cas to get fired,” Dean says. “That’s such sunny news, Sam.”

            “Well, hold on a second. You have to remember that these fundamentalist Christian parents are technically a minority. A very vocal minority. Most parents would either support, or be indifferent to, what reading material the children’s librarian chooses.”

            “Okay…”

            “So, right now the library is receiving a lot of complaints and parental involvement from a few dissenting parents. Like, thirty people maximum, right? But what’s skewing their perceptions is the fact that the majority, who don’t care what Cas reads, haven’t done anything just as vocal to support him.”

            “Oh,” Dean says. “Oh.”

            “I see it all the time,” Sam says. “Small groups of protesters make a lot of noise. It makes their cause seem a lot bigger than it really is. So most people are staying at home right now, not speaking out, because they have no problem with Cas. It’s just common sense, right? Those parents complaining are just crazy. But it’s their silence that’s making these parents’ complaints seem like that much bigger of a deal.”

            “Sam, you’re a fuckin’ genius,” Dean says. “Call you later.”

            When he walks into Bobby’s shop, he doesn’t even bother to clock in. He marches right up to Bobby.

            “You know who Cas is, right?”

            Bobby straightens his baseball cap. “That’s your boyfriend, right?”

            “So you know who Cas is. Look, he needs help. Some real assholes are trying to get him fired because he read their kids a book about gay penguins. They get might get their way, today, if we don’t go and give Cas a show of support.”

            “Yeah, I can do that,” Bobby says. His face suddenly brightens. “Do you think I’ll have time to make a protest sign?”

            When Dean turns around, Andy is standing there.

            “I’ll always support the rights of gay penguins to marry,” Andy says solemnly. “Count me in.”

            Bobby lets Dean use his office, and he uses the landline there to call Jimmy, who’s ecstatic, and wished they thought of this sooner. He calls Amelia at the restaurant, who promises to bring any of her employees who want to come. She ends their conversation  to call some of the mothers she knows who have kids that frequent the library, who love Cas for his work in the children’s section.

            He texts Claire. Call me if you have a chance. How badass are you feeling today?   

            His phone rings about five minutes later. “I’m at peak badass,” she says. “What’s up?”

            So Dean outlines the plan for her, but reminds her that it’ll require cutting class.

            “I’m sending a mass text to everyone else in the Gay-Straight Alliance Club,” she interrupts. “We can be there in about half an hour, okay?”

            When Dean leaves the auto shop, it’s with Bobby and Andy in tow. They’re all wearing their grimy jumpsuits, and Bobby has a sign that says DON’T BE AN ASS TO CAS.

            “It’s the best I could come up with on short notice,” Bobby says.

            Walking to the library, Dean makes a detour to the restaurant with the outdoor patio he and Cas would sit at during warmer weather. The waitress who always serves them is there, and she a few others happily clock out and join them.

            Outside the library, Jimmy’s waiting with four or five mild-mannered accountants, some of whom are blinking owlishly like they’re not quite sure what they’re doing out of their cubicles. He nods to Dean, and then gestures over to the parking lot, where a few cars are pulling in.

            “Amelia closed the restaurant down,” he says. “Everyone wanted to come. We’re just waiting for the carpool.”

            Dean waits, trembling in energy, next to Jimmy. A few vans pull into the parking lot, a mom or two that Amelia called coming to swell the ranks. He can hear them exchanging pleasantries with Jimmy while he checks his phone.

            A few minutes later, Claire rounds the corner, with about fifteen kids flanking her.

            “Oh, hey, Dad,” she says to Jimmy brightly. “I’m skipping school.”

            “Why not,” Jimmy says.

            Finally, Amelia comes, wait staff in tow, and still wearing her double-breasted chef’s jacket. She breezes right the group gathered outside the library doors.

            “Let’s kick their asses,” she says, throwing the doors open.

            The gang moves forward, crowding past the front desk librarians, who gape and seem unsure of what to do. They wend through the shelves until they find themselves in the children’s section, with its rug of Alice in Wonderland characters, and the inspirational posters behind Cas’s desk that feature Maya Angelou and LeVar Burton and J.K. Rowling. And, in the middle of all that, is Cas, sitting hunched, uneasy, and  cross-legged amongst a small group of children.

            There are other people in the small area, too—a group of adults crowded in front of the bookshelves, looking completely normal with their purses and suburban dad haircuts, although Dean thinks they look a little smug, a little self-righteous. There’s a small man in a suit standing to the side of them, the trustee, and they seem excited by his presence there.

            Dean doesn’t pay any attention to the other people. He meets Cas’s eye from across the room, even as the people accompanying him start spilling over into the space, shouldering the unwelcome parents aside. Cas’s look of shock is perfect.

            “What—” He says, half-standing up. There’s a burble of displeasure from the parents who were already there, Rexy raises his head from behind Cas’s desk, an ear cocked inquisitively, and Bobby wedges himself into a little plush armchair meant for a child.

            It’s suddenly very quiet, Dean realizes, and he feels like he’s standing farther into the room than anyone else. Bobby prods Dean with his sign.

            “Go on, boy,” he whispers. “Give your speech.”

            Dean’s mouth feels very dry. He was the mastermind behind all of this, wasn’t he? So he’s the one who’s supposed to explain their presence there. But Cas is staring at him, his eyes wide, and Dean suddenly finds his tongue.

            “Hey,” he says casually. “Did we make it time for Read-Aloud Hour?”

            “You’re just in time,” Cas says. He’s slowly sinking back to the floor, goggle-eyed.

            “Good,” Dean says. “We have something to say about that. See, we’ve heard that some people here have been giving Cas a hard time about what he’s choosing to read to the children. We heard that you guys are trying to get Cas fired because he read a book about two male penguins.”

            Someone, not part of Dean’s group, pushes his way to the front. “Hey, hold up there. It ‘s not just about penguins,” he says. “It’s about the fact that those two penguins are supposed to symbolize—” He glances at the children and lowers his voice dramatically, “—homosexuality.

            “Shut up right now, I’m talking,” Dean says. “And they’re not symbolizing anything. They’re literally two gay penguins. And it shouldn’t matter if they’re two zebras, or two pandas, or two people. Cas is a children’s librarian who read a children’s book to a bunch of kids, and you’re ridiculous if you think he should be fired for that.”

            He turns to look at Cas, whose face is upturned in the midst of all the kids he’s with on the floor. “If you have a problem with a librarian teaching kids about love without judgment, and kindness, and open-mindedness, then that’s your own problem. If you have a problem with a librarian just doing his job, that’s on you.  And if the librarian here isn’t teaching the old-fashioned and—and intolerant views you want your children to learn, I suggest you go to a different library. Because the librarian here is good and kind and wonderful at what he does, and he doesn’t deserve all this sneaky, nasty shit you people have been saying and doing to bully him from his job.”

            Dean feels, then, like he could be standing in the middle of a rock concert, or the center of a stadium. It still doesn’t distract him from Cas’s smiling at him through his fingers, his hand cupping his chin.

            “So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to make a suggestion. Cas here is going to read And Tango Makes Three for his read-aloud because it’s a good book, okay? And he can read it as much as he likes, whenever he likes, without a problem. And because this a public freaking library, if any of us who like Cas and support him want to borrow it, we can all do that, too.”

            “We only have two copies,” Cas says mildly.

            “If any of us  like Cas and want to borrow it, we can get on the wait list like civilized people,” Dean says. “Because everyone here, and so many people in this town, we like the way Cas is running things here just fine.”

            “What do you say, Cas?” Jimmy says. He’s red-faced and beaming. “Would you read it to us?”

            There’s a small exodus; some parents coming forward to reclaim their children and leaving. No one pays them any attention. They’re swarming into the new spaces provided, settling in for a story.

            “—A victory for gay penguins everywhere,” Andy is saying, as he settles down onto the rug.

            Someone presses the book into Cas’s hand. When he looks up at all the people crammed together around him, the children on the rug, and Bobby stuck in the tiny armchair, and his family and friends standing shoulder to shoulder in any available space, his face is shining.

            “And Tango Makes Three,” he reads aloud, and opens the book.

**

            Later, after they cleared out of the library and the sun is setting, Dean waits outside for Cas to get done talking to the board trustee.  

            When Cas finally comes to the door, he’s uncharacteristically shy when he greets Dean, edging in to hold his hand.

            “Wanna come in for a minute?” He says.

            The library is near close, with only a few librarians up near the front, talking quietly and smiling over as they pass. A few lights click off overhead, reminding any remaining patrons to start moving for the door.

            Cas leads Dean past some empty carrels, down some dim aisles, before he looks around and tells Rexy to stay. Rexy obediently sits down and watches while they walk down another aisle, deeper into the library.

            “What are we doing?” Dean asks.

            “You’ll see,” Cas says.

            Finally, he deems some random, empty aisle worthy. It’s only then that he turns to Dean and pulls him closer by the collar of his jumpsuit. Dean’s surprised, but not complaining, when Cas seals their lips together for a kiss.

            “How—how’d it go with the trustee?” Dean asks between kisses.

            Cas hums a pleased sound. “He said he didn’t realize it was just a few parents that were making all the complaints. He said  it’s clear I have the support of the community behind me.”

            He sucks on Dean’s lip, pushing into back into a row of shelves. Dean feels him slowly pulling the zipper of his jumpsuit down.

            “—Cas?”

            “I brought stuff,” Cas says breathlessly. When he rubs up against Dean in that way, Dean can tell where this is headed. “Do you want to?”

            “Dude, your coworkers are still here,” Dean says, although he doesn’t move away. “What if they—”

            “We’re in the reference section,” Cas says. “No one’s ever over here. Do you want to, Dean?”

            Dean pushes Cas back against a shelf, pull his head to the side by his hair, and goes to town on neck.

            A few minutes later, Dean’s jumpsuit has been pulled off of him and tossed to the side, and Dean is bracing his hands on a shelf, his forehead against the cool metal bar of another one, while Cas prepares him from behind.

            “Yeah, Cas, that feels so—” He gasps out. Fuck, it’s good, with Cas’s breath hot on his shoulder, the cold, smooth buttons of his waistcoat rubbing along his back. He can feel the stretch of each of Cas’s fingers, crooking just right, and he can hear his moans echoing in the silent aisle. There’s such illicit pleasure here, just him and Cas,  fucking in a public library. He takes one of his hands off the shelf to grab the base of his cock.

            “Come on, Cas,” he says. He’s so turned on he can’t see straight, which is probably why he follows that up with a nonsensical stream of, “Naughty librarian. In the stacks. Yeah, all right. Yeah, I like that.”

            “Dean,” Cas says in an affectionate voice, removing his fingers, and he can feel the blunt, warm press of Cas’s cock taking their place. “Are you ready?”

            Dean pushes his hips back in response, taking him in.

            It’s slower, and sweeter, and a lot less bendy than he’s used to. Cas frames Dean’s hips in his wide hands, thumb meeting in the small of Dean’s back, and uses this leverage to rock them together, in long smooth strokes that leave Dean gasping. The slap of their skin, in the wide, quiet space, seems more indecent than anything else about this.

            “You’re so good to me,” Cas pants in his ear. “Today—and every day I’ve had with you. Fuck, Dean—don’t even know how much—oh, oh—”

            Cas takes one hand off Dean’s hip to reach around and stroke him, his hips insistent, pounding faster. Dean, cross-eyed, blurry in pleasure, presses his forehead harder against the shelf and tries to will off his orgasm.

            “Not yet,” Dean moans. There’s a textbook right in front of him, its words embossed in gold. Dean tries to focus on that, his head jerking forward with each thrust. “Introduction—to—Quantum Mechanics—second—ediiiiahhhfuck—”

            Cas goes still, hips weakly pulsing, as he gasps against Dean’s neck.

            Everything’s still kind of hazy for Dean there, but somehow he finds himself turned around, and tucked back into his jumpsuit, and Cas is holding his face between warm hands and kissing a line down the side of cheek.

            “You’re wonderful,” Cas says.

            “For fulfilling your public sex fetish?” Dean asks. He wonders if it was possible that he reached some threshold of brilliance, his brain thrown open from sheer sensation, because he suddenly feels like he could do anything. Climb up the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Fight a tiger. Maybe he learned quantum mechanics via osmosis. He can demonstrate this to Cas, later, after a long nap.

            “You know why,” Cas says. He looks pleased and shy again, and way too endearing for someone who just pounded Dean into a state of jellied bliss.

            They hold hands as they leave the library, Rexy at their heels. Dean has the red imprint of a bookshelf across his forehead, and Cas’s hair is in a frenzy, and they both wave vaguely to the remaining librarians as they walk back to Cas’s place in the twilight.

Chapter Text

This particular morning when Dean wakes up, he’s used to the small room and the gray light filtering through the blinds. He’s used to the warm line of Cas’s body pressed up against his side. What he’s not used to is the miserable snuffling sound of Cas trying to blow his nose without waking Dean up.

            He blinks open his eyes and rolls over, putting a hand on Cas’s back.

            “Morning,” Cas grinds out.

            “Have a cold?”

            “Something like that,” Cas says. “Barely slept.”

            Dean rubs Cas’s warm back under his t-shirt, and they lay there in silence for a while until Cas leans over the bed to throw his wadded-up tissue into the trashcan nearby.

            “Ugh,” Cas says, flopping over onto his back. “I can’t decide whether to call off entirely or wait a few hours and see if I feel better.”

            “You’d go in sick?”

            “Please,” Cas says. “Kids are a cesspool of germs. They got me sick, not the other way—”

            He cuts off, cocking his head towards the door. Dean listens too, and hears the sound of Rexy snuffling along the bottom of the door. It’s then that Cas turns to Dean and gives him the full-effect puppy-dog stare—even more pathetic because of his glazed eyes and red nose.

            “Dean,” he begins. “You’re a wonderful man with the most wonderful heart.”

            “What.”

            “Would you take Rexy for a short walk? If I don’t end up going to work today, I might not even get out of bed, and I’d hate for Rexy to not get out of the house. Even if only for twenty minutes—please?”

            It’s chilly enough in the morning now that Dean, already predisposed to not want to walk the goddamn dog around the neighborhood,  has absolutely no wish to. Gloves, hat, coat, the whole nine yards—just so Rexy can sniff some dog shit on the verge of the road.

            But Cas is giving him that entreating look, so Dean gusts out a huge sigh and smothers him with his pillow a little and then gets out of bed, because he works in an hour and he might as well get this out of the way.

            Suits up. Puts a leash on Rexy. Walks down the driveway.

            “What Cas doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” Dean tells Rexy, and then he climbs into the Impala (pushes the dog away, because there is no way he’s allowing a dog in his car), rolls down the window, and feeds the leash through it. Rexy, outside the car, cocks an ear at him.

            So that’s why Dean finds himself cruising the quiet streets of Jimmy’s neighborhood at six in the morning, blasting the heat while he holds the leash out through the window. Every once in a while he checks the rearview and sees Rexy jogging along next to the car, looking perfectly content.

            He only sees one only person, a woman in a jogging suit, and he awkwardly lifts his hand in a wave when she gives a double-take with a scandalized expression. Overall, he considers the walk a success.

            When he pulls back into Jimmy’s driveway, he even gives Rexy a brief scratch behind the ears for his cooperation.

            “How was the walk?” Cas croaks from the bedroom when Dean returns.

            “Yeah, great,” Dean says as he comes in. He starts stripping off his clothes, pulls on his jumpsuit—he had brought it here last night, using Cas’s washer—and quickly pulls it on. “Are you gonna go to—”

            Cas sits up and pulls him closer. “Dean Winch,” he says, reading aloud Dean’s shortened name tag. “Sounds like a sandwich. Something I’d like to eat.” He smoothes his hands down Dean’s arms and smiles up at him loopily.

            “You sure you’re okay?” Dean says. “You seem pretty out of it.”

            Cas rapidly schools his expression. “I’m fine,” he says. “Seriously. Just being silly.”

            “Cas, if you don’t feel—”

            “I’m fine,” Cas insists, getting out of the bed in a flurry of covers. “Look, I’ll take a shower and have some honey tea and I’ll go in a few hours late. Don’t worry about it, okay?”

            “All right,” Dean says. With a quick kiss on Cas’s stubbly cheek, he’s gone, climbing into the Impala again and heading towards Singer’s Auto Shop. Maybe, if had time after work and before Cas got off, he’d pick up some chicken noodle soup. It didn’t hurt to plan a little ahead.

**

            To say it took him by surprise would be an understatement.

            Bobby had summoned Dean into his office, but Dean hadn’t thought anything of it. Now that he was chief mechanic, it wasn’t uncommon for Bobby to keep him informed of potential repairs or revising the order. When he steps into Bobby’s office, though, his boss doesn’t have any paperwork that’s recognizable to Dean on his otherwise cluttered desk. He’s not sure what to make of that.

            “Hey, Bobby,” he says. “What’s up?”

            Bobby looks up and nods at Dean. “Don’t worry, boy, this isn’t a business chat. Just had a question.”

            “Sure,” he says, relieved, and leans against the door frame.

            “I know you probably had plans to go to Amelia’s restaurant, but some my buddies and I, since we don’t have family for the big day, normally get together for some pie and cards. Andy normally stops by, too.” Bobby shrugs. “So I’m extending the invitation to you, if you have time.”

            “Plans at Amelia’s restaurant?” Dean repeats. “What are you talking about?”

            Bobby pins him with an unimpressed look. “The Novaks always have a big Thanksgiving dinner for their friends and family at Amelia’s restaurant,” he says. “I’m just saying, if you have time afterwards, you’re more than welcome.”

            Dean has a feeling he’s blundering all over Bobby’s invitation,  which sucks, because he has a feeling Bobby put a lot of effort into making the invitation as casual and blasé as possible. But he has one serious inhibition holding him back.

            “That’s really nice of you,” he says, “seriously, Bobby. But Thanksgiving isn’t for weeks, and I already said I want to shove out of here before winter.”

            Bobby’s brows draw together into a line, and then he’s turning his creaking wheelie chair around and pointing with his pen to the Red Wings calendar he has on the bulletin board behind his desk.

            “I don’t know how to break the news to you, kid,” Bobby says. “But most Americans traditionally celebrate Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of the month.” His pen thwacks down against the date in question. “And most Americans try to cement their plans for the day in advance.” His pen comes down again, this time on the Monday preceding Thanksgiving. “And that’s  today’s date.”

            He creaks around again, giving Dean a look that’s almost concern. “Where’s your head at? Thanksgiving’s in three days.”

            Dean stares at Bobby, and then at the calendar, and then at Bobby again. Had he really let the days slip by that fast? When he had decided to stay a little bit longer, just to make some money, it had been September. Now it’s almost December and Dean’s still here, which would be fine if he had made a decision to stay here, but he hadn’t.

            But he had decided, Dean realizes. When he stopped showing interest in the atlases of America that Cas would bring him, when he stopped planning a cemented date to leave, when he stopped spending the nights at the motel and started spending them in bed, with Cas, and started to take his dog for walks and do his laundry there and eat dinner with the Novaks every Sunday.

            “I’m, uh,” Dean says. He’s still trying to process the surprise, while not freaking out in front of Bobby, which is why his phone ringing is a sudden and blessed relief. He scrambles into his pocket, fishing out the phone, and sees a number he doesn’t recognize with a Traverse City area code.

            Turning his back slightly on Bobby, he answers.

            “Hello?”

            “Is this Dean Winchester?”

            “Yeah, that’s me,” he says.

            “Hi, it’s Evie, from the library—I’m calling because you’re listed as one of Cas’s emergency contacts….”

            When he ends the call a few minutes later, he’s left staring at the phone in his hand, his mind still swimming. He’s so not ready to deal with this now, but he knows he has to.

            “Dean?” Bobby asks from behind him. “Is everything okay?”

            He turns to look at Bobby. “Cas had a seizure at the library today,” he says. “He—he’s okay, but they want him to go home, and—”

            And? He suddenly can’t remember anything else that Evie said.

            “Go on, then,” Bobby says. “Don’t worry about us here, okay? Andy and I can handle it. You just go be with Cas.”

            “Thanks,” Dean says. He wanders off through the garage, shucking off his jumpsuit without paying attention, and climbs into the Impala.

            Jimmy calls him on the drive over to the library.

            “Hey, Dean,” he says. He sounds normal, unworried. Why is that? “We’ve had a bit of a mix-up—Evie mentioned she called you, too. Listen, I’m at the library now with Cas and Rexy and I’m taking them home. Cas is pretty wiped out but I’m sure he’ll be able to see you tonight, okay?”

            “He’s okay?” Dean says.

            “Yeah, he’s okay,” Jimmy says. “Had a bit of a lecture from the medic on site—he really should know better than to push himself when he’s sick and didn’t sleep well. It’s more likely to trigger him.”

            “Oh,” Dean says. He feels like Jimmy’s much more equipped to handle this than him.

            He didn’t realize how long the silence had dragged on until Jimmy says, “Dean? He really is okay, I promise. I know this can take some getting used to, and it can seem scary, but there’s nothing to be worried about.”

            “Okay,” Dean says.

            He doesn’t have to pick up Cas anymore, but he doesn’t feel especially inclined to go back to work, either. Instead he drives around the town, looking at all the things he’s turned a willfully blind eye to. The almost-naked trees. The closed-up patio where he and Cas had eaten their meals in the fall. The frigid, gray waters of the Bay.

            He doesn’t know when it happened, when he tucked all his big plans aside to stay here, in Traverse City, certainly no better and no worse than any other place, but—

            Dean feels like he should have made a choice at some point. Some pivotal moment when he weighed the pros and cons and some to conclusion that had a weight of surety, finality, something unquestioned. Right now, he feels like he didn’t really make a choice. More like he was cheated, and those choices were taken away.

**

            Dean’s at the mother-in-law suite a little after seven. There’s a light on in the front room, which is a good sign, and he sees the flicker of someone pulling back a curtain, which means that Cas is up and about.

            Dean squares himself and then exits the Impala, pocketing his keys in a jangle as he walks up the drive. Normally, he’d just let himself in, but he knocks and waits the few seconds it takes for Cas to come and open the unlocked door.

            “Hey,” Cas says. He beckons Dean in. “I’ve got leftover pizza, I set it all up on the coffee table in here—”

            Dean follows him in. In the light of the front room, he can see Cas clearly. He doesn’t know what he was expecting, but Cas looks the same. Still a little under-the-weather, and he’s in his pajamas, and his eyes are pretty heavy-lidded, but he looks okay.

            “Dean?” Cas looks up at him from the couch. “Pizza?”

            “Yeah,” Dean says. He moves to sit down next to Cas, yet another familiar night in, and then he stops and straightens himself up again. “Cas, I need to talk to you about something.”

            Cas huffs a breath and puts his pizza down on his plate. “Is this about today?” He says. “Because it wasn’t—”

            “Let’s go somewhere,” Dean says. “Anywhere. What’s a place you’ve always wanted to go to? Let’s hit the road, and forget all our responsibilities, and just—”

            He’s babbling, he knows, but Cas has a slow grin spreading over his face. “Okay,” Cas says. “Spontaneity; I like it. Are we limiting our choices to the Midwest, or—”

            “Anywhere,” Dean says. He feels a thrill of anticipation, that it was so easy to make Cas say yes.  “Anywhere we can drive, that is. Just you and me and the open road.”

            “I have two weeks of vacation days,” Cas says, with matching excitement. “Now’s a perfect time—well, right after Thanksgiving, but before Christmas—a cabin in the mountains, maybe? Or do we want a green December? New Mexico, then, or maybe…” He trails off, looking closely at Dean. “Not New Mexico? What’s with the face?”

            “Not—vacation,” Dean says. He backtracks. “Cas, what’s so great about Traverse City? I mean, it’s cold, and the people here were jerks to you for the longest time, and just—what’s making us stay? We’re still young enough, and there’s still so much to see—let’s just do it. For once, let’s do whatever we want.”

            “And how would we afford that?” Cas says. He still has a small smile playing around his lips, like he’s humoring Dean.

            “I don’t know—like I have, getting odd jobs and then moving on.”

            “And Rexy?”

            “I don’t know, I’ll build a sidecar,” Dean says. Cas laughs, gives Dean a fond look, and pats the cushion next to him.

            “All right, Kerouac. But really, we should plan a va—”

            “I was serious,” Dean says. “About leaving. And about wanting you to come with me.”

            Cas cocks his head at Dean, his smile slipping a little lower. “And so was I. About vacation. Dean, I have a life here. I have a job I love, and Jimmy and Amelia and Claire, and friends—and you, of course, but I had everything else before you. Why would I just give that up for some whim?”

            Dean feels his mood deflate. For a moment, he thought he could have it all. It had been too good to be true, that Cas would go along with it. Stupid, stupid.

            “And,” Cas says, with a tone of understanding that Dean doesn’t like, “I’m going to still be me, wherever we would go. I’d still have seizures. I’d still need Rexy every day, every minute.” He stands up, putting his plate on the coffee table. “Is that what this is all about? Did today scare you?”

            “No, of course I’m not scared,” Dean says quickly. “I just—I, it’s Thanksgiving in three days, did you know that?”

            “Most people do,” Cas says, but he’s not smiling when he says it. “Dean, what’s going on with you?”

            Dean looks at Cas—his nose, still slightly red, and his mussed hair, and the dark shadows under his eyes. He doesn’t want to do this right now, but he thinks this might be the only time he can.

            “Cas,” he says helplessly. “I’m not trying to say it’s anyone’s fault but mine—I mean, it’s not like you’ve been hiding the calendars from me.” He pauses, like he expects Cas to make a quip, but Cas is just staring at him. “You know that I was never planning on staying,” Dean says quietly.

            “Oh,” Cas says quietly. His eyes move away, to the side, and then Dean’s saying, helplessly,

            “It’s not like I led you on. I told you that, right from the beginning, and—”

            “And you stopped talking about it, and got a job, and all but moved in with me,” Cas says. He straightens his shoulders, looking Dean right in the eye, pulling himself together to face his newest conflict head-on—and it hurts, that this time that show has to be put on because of Dean. “But never mind that; I was wrong. So, you’re leaving.”

            “Don’t—” Dean says. “I didn’t say that. Cas, you know I…” He trails off, throat working, because he can’t make those promises, either.

            “I just want to know what brought this on,” Cas says, like it’s purely out of scientific curiosity. “All these weeks, perfectly comfortable, and then today—why?”

            “I never meant to stay this long,” Dean says, miserably. “And suddenly, you’re having seizures at your job, and I’m your emergency contact—I’m  your emergency contact?—”

            “What about it?” Cas says, bringing his chin up.

            “Will you stop being so blasé about this?” Dean says. “Do you know how much that call today scared me?”

Cas stops, looking surprised. “I wasn’t trying to—”

“This whole time, you’ve downplayed all the important stuff, didn’t even tell me until Jimmy spilled the beans, and then  you said you’d been fine for a long time,” Dean continues. “I thought I had nothing to worry about.  And then today, coming here—fuck, I get a call at work that you had a seizure, and you answer the door and want pizza?”

Cas’s mouth parts, but he doesn’t say anything.

“Fuck, man, I know you’ve got to cope—but smile all you want, pretend it isn’t serious, but it’s serious to me, okay? It’s serious to me.”

“I’m sorry,” Cas says in a small voice. “You’re right, I should have been upfront with you about everything.”

“Well,” Dean says. “About fucking time. Relationships are commitments—I get that. And I’ve been nothing but honest with you, and I think I deserve the same.” Cas nods, looking a little lost. Dean continues on, “And you what? It isn’t fair for you to cherrypick what you’re going to tell me until the crisis comes. I think I should know about what responsibilities are getting put in my lap—”

There’s a pause. Cas is looking at him like he’s just seen Dean for the first time, and Dean freezes, the rest of his sentence dangling. But it’s already been said.

“Well,” Cas says, visibly struggling to keep his voice level. “You’ve only got through the tip of  iceberg, Dean. Rexy’s only a seizure alert dog, so I hold the people around me responsible for the correct response techniques. You’ll need to learn how to properly situate me on the ground. You’ll probably need to get CPR certification. And you should know that 911 shouldn’t be called unless a seizure last longer than five minutes, and—”

“Cas—”

“And that fatigue is a common symptom following a seizure, and I’m pretty fucking tired right now, Dean, but don’t worry. I’ll make sure to outline the full list of these burdensome responsibilities so you can see if it’s worth sticking around or not.”

“Cas,” Dean says. Now he’s feeling lost, miserable. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Don’t do that,” Cas snaps. “That was your motto, when you rolled into town. That you were Dean Winchester, living the life of the free and easy, no one to tie you down. I haven’t forgotten.”

For a long  moment, they stare at each other, across the coffee table. It seems like a distance of miles.

“There’s only one thing I can say,” Cas says finally, haltingly. “You’re so stuck on this notion of somewhere else, you’re not seeing what’s right in front of you. You’re going to live a lonely life, Dean, always just passing through, and every town you go to—they’ll all be the same. They’ll all have stupid cannons in the park, they’ll all  have diners open late and people who will drive like assholes and a local celebrity. And all the people you see, they’ll all always be strangers, and they’ll all be the same, because you’ll never  bother to let them be anything more than that.”

He looks up pleadingly at Dean. “So I’m gonna lay it on the line for you. Someday, you’re gonna choose a place, and it’s not gonna have everything you’ve ever wanted. It won’t be perfect. But you’re gonna stay for people, because somewhere in a crowd of strangers you found people that you’re never going to find anywhere else in the world. And you’re going to make a home in them, because all the shitty stuff that happens, it’s still going to happen. And sometimes your job will suck and the weather is shitty and sometimes, even the people you love will fuck up. But you’ll stay, because you love them anyways.”

“Dean,” he says, wretched. “I’m asking you to stay. I’m asking you why you keep on looking for what’s right in front you.  I’m asking you, why not here?”

Cas looks he could collapse, he’s so tired. His words are slurring a little. But his eyes don’t stray; they stay, hungry, on Dean’s face.

            “Cas,” he says finally, breaking the silence. Cas’s whole face falls. “It’s not…”

            He trails off.

            “I haven’t been fair to you, because I haven’t told you everything, either,” he says. “But it’s not that simple. Sometimes the people you love just don’t work out. They leave, and they leave you behind. And the people you love take advantage of your love, and they weigh you down with their shit until you can’t breathe, until it’s like you never did anything  but take care of them and get nothing in return. And it creeps up on you, before you know it, that you don’t even love them anymore, because they’ve saddled you with so much, and I don’t want that to happen to me anymore. Sometimes, the people you love make it so they can’t live without you. And then you find out you can live without them, and why would you ever go back to that?”

            He’s really asking. He wants to know for sure, foolproof, what reassurance Cas could give him to assure him that he’d never be like Dad.  

            “I don’t know, Dean,” Cas says dully. “Why would you?”

            “It’s not like I think you’re lying,” Dean says, helplessly. “I just don’t know how—”

“It comes down to the fact that you’re scared you’re going to get saddled with me,” Cas says. “And it doesn’t matter if I promise I wouldn’t do that to you, because someone already has. I can’t change the way you see me.”

“Cas,” he says. “I just don’t know what to do.”

“I can’t help you with that,” Cas says. Dean doesn’t think he’s ever seen Cas look like this—too miserable to even pretend, for his sake. To even paste on his fake smile and bulldoze through it.

“I’m going to bed,” Cas says. “You can stay on the couch, or leave—I don’t care. I can’t do this right now.”

            He takes the long way around the couch, avoiding Dean, and walks down the hallway. The door snaps shut.

            Dean waits, not sure what to do, in the room alone. The light’s still on, the pizza still on the table, and Rexy is curled up under the coffee table.

            Finally, he digs his keys out of his pocket and shuts off the lights on the way out to his car. In the car, he turns the volume up a little, drowning out his thoughts, as he reverses out of the driveway.

            At the fork in the road, he stops at the traffic light. Left, he knows, takes him along the familiar route to his motel. How many times has he taken that drive, rolling out of bed with Cas in the morning, running to the motel for a change of clothes, and off to Singer’s for the day?

            His phone buzzes in his pocket.

            I don’t want to fight. Can we talk at motel tomorrow?

            Dean stares at the text for a long moment, imagining Cas texting on his pillow,awash with light from the screen, his face drawn and upset. Dean had done that to him, pulled the rug out from under him. How many more times would Dean panic, and be talked down, and panic again?

            There’s nothing else to say. He tucks the phone in his pocket, and turns right.

Chapter Text

Dean remembers being sixteen, a little too gangly, a little too far behind in his classes. He remembers pedaling Sam to the library on his handlebars, because he could tell even then that Sam was a genius. And he knew that Dad was going round the bend again, and he tried to hide that from his younger brother as much as he could, for as long as he could.

            He remembers pedaling back home as fast as he could, thighs cramping, hands sweaty on the grips, thinking about what was waiting for him. John, surrounded by crumpled cans, or emptied bottles that would roll and clink under the couch when he was done with them. A mean drunk the people in town called him, not so quietly anymore, not now that John had started bar fights unprovoked, thrown punches without discretion. Dad wasn’t Dad when he was drunk.

            He remembers prying the kickstand down, and going into his dark house, and not even being surprised with what he found there. A strange sense of calm had come over him, seeing John passed out on the floor, facedown in his own vomit. Like he had expected to see Dad like this at some point, at the complete rock bottom.

            Dean still remembers the few seconds it took him to react—seconds, but it seemed like hours at the time. He saw the rest of his life pass before him—or, really, pass by him, while he stayed here, and stayed here, and stayed here. His dad wasn’t his dad anymore—he was a drunk. But Dean would stay here and take care of him regardless.

            After rolling his father over, and a cold shower, and the miserable experience of cleaning up his dad’s mess, Dean had gone back to check on Dad before going to the library to pick up Sam. John had pulled Dean close, patted his cheek clumsily with one hand.

            “Always have you,” he slurred. “Always have you, son.”

            It was strange, how something that could make Dean feel so helpless would be such a comfort to his father.

            Dean still remembers that feeling of freedom, of surety, of overwhelming excitement he felt when he had grabbed the Impala keys and gunned out of there months ago. He doesn’t feel that way right now—in fact, he feels pretty sick—but it’s too late to turn around now.

            Dean?

            He drives on.

**

            There are two ways of looking at it—not that either of them make him feel any better.

            The first he that distance will surely give him perspective, show him that he did the right thing. When he left Kansas, he had decided he needed to drift, to be independent and on his own. To remember there was value in himself, and he didn’t owe it to anyone else. Somewhere along the way those thoughts had changed, and he hadn’t even realized how much until now that he’s left—a job, friends, a family in the Novaks. Cas, he can’t forget Cas (couldn’t forget Cas). But the Dean of old, who made those rules to protect himself, that Dean was right. The people in Traverse City weren’t bad people, of course not, but they represented everything that Dean had been trying to avoid. Maybe these overwhelming feelings of guilt and unhappiness—maybe they  would go away as time went on, when he realized how deep he’d been.

            The other way of looking at it was that it was better for Cas this way. Dean leaving wasn’t entirely self-serving—it helped Cas, too. Cas deserved more than a wishy-washy boyfriend who would up and leave as soon as the wind didn’t blow right. If Cas was all in, he deserved someone  who was all in, too. And Dean had always had one foot out the door.

            Cream? Sugar? I’m grabbing coffee first.

            He never does quite regain the lighthearted feeling of adventure and abandon that he felt the first time around, leaving home. But he knows that’s just still his attachment, unwilling yet to break. Dean will move on, Cas will move on—it’s better this way. These things will recede into the distance, just like everything else.

**

            There’s a cannon in the park in the first town that Dean stops at for gas. It’s dusted with snow along the top, pointing out towards a barren playground. Dean has to tear his eyes away from it, from the reminder of Cas’s impassioned speech. He pumps his gas and gets out of there without a second look.

            I’m here.

            And also, Dean, please let me in.

            He tries not to think of Cas standing outside his abandoned  motel room, steaming coffees in his hands, nose red with cold, waiting for Dean to open up.

**

            Cas was right about the strangers. Dean had been in Traverse City long enough that he hadn’t remembered the feeling of passing through, of being overlooked, forgotten as soon as he left. Everywhere he went—every waitress at a diner, every gas station clerk, every motel employee---they were all strangers. And Dean was a stranger, too.

            He reminds himself that was what he wanted. There’s an ease and simplicity in seeing others as only part of a transaction—he pays the motel clerk, the motel clerk gives him the key card. There’s function and no emotion. There’s no power dynamic, just a mutual use in each other.

            He sits in his motel alone on Thanksgiving, and thinks of the motel room he left behind, the clothes and half-unpacked duffel that will be thrown out as soon as his prepaid week is up. He thinks of Bobby  shaking his head and removing Dean from the schedule, placing an ad in the local paper for a new mechanic. An empty seat at the Novak’s dining room table on Sunday evenings, a bare side of the bed in the mother-in-law suite. That’s what a new life without responsibilities entails, anyways. Temporary, no permanent address. Drifting.

            Ok, Dean. I understand.

**

            The change is gradual, but sooner or later the highways he drives aren’t choked with slush and snow. His coat is left in the passenger seat, and then downgraded to the trunk. One day he finds himself on a sunny highway in the afternoon, palm trees lining it, and Sam’s address scribbled on a scrap of paper, clutched in his fist.

            He finds himself at a modest townhouse off-campus, and after some searching he finds a spot big enough to back the Impala in. Maybe it’s a bit optimistic, but he even brings all his stuff with him—it isn’t much, just his wallet—the picture of Mom safely tucked inside—and the plastic take-out bag he’s been putting his clothes in.

            Walks up the concrete steps. Knocks on the door.

            There’s a pause from inside, and then the sound of someone approaching the door. Dean hears the distinct pause of someone looking at him through the peephole, and then the sound of a chain being drawn back quickly.

            “Dean!” The look of gratified surprised on Sam’s face is enough to make a relieved smile spread across Dean’s in return. “I had no idea—”

            It’s the first time in a week and a half, since waking up in bed next to Cas, that Dean’s felt someone else’s body pressed up against his. He sinks his head against Sam’s warm shoulder for a second.

            Sam claps him at the back and holds him at arm’s length.

            “What a great surprise!” He says. “Dude, you really got me. Last time we talked you didn’t even hint—”

            Sam stops and sees to survey Dean from head to foot, his plastic bag of belongings, the grin that now seems pasted on his face.

            “Are you okay?” He says.

            “Course I am,” Dean says. “It’s just been a while since I’ve seen the only baby brother I have.”

            Sam makes a face, but he doesn’t look quite convinced. “Did you really drive all the way here? Just to see me?”

            Dean shifts on the porch, his bag rustling in his hand. “Are you just gonna make me stand out here all day, or are you gonna invite me in?”

            Sam nods quickly, backing away and to the side so Dean can step through the door. He can see a long white hallway, frames mounted on the walls, slight cracks in the plaster up by the ceiling—but then he can’t see what else, because Sam’s empathetic face is taking up his whole vision.

            “You sure you’re okay? You look kind of tired.”

            Dean gets the feeling, suddenly,  of having all his miles of travel catch up with him. The house and the hallway and Sam seem to waver around him for a moment.

            “Sam, did you mean it?”

            “What? Mean what?”

            “That you’d have a couch for me if I ever needed it,” Dean says quietly.

            There’s a look of understanding in Sam’s eyes then that Dean wants to squirm away from, and then Sam is leading him up the creaky stairs, to a spare room that has a pull-out couch and an afghan he recognizes from home and little else. It’s enough.

            Dean wipes out on the couch almost as soon as he’s on it, thankful that Sam doesn’t mind that he popped up with no warning, that Sam’s okay with giving him this room and closing the door behind him and letting him sleep the day away.

**

            When Dean wakes up, his mouth is dry and his head is heavy. He lays there for a while, staring at the fan overhead, and pulls the afghan up over his face. The texture and feel and smell is all familiar, takes him back to a time when he and Sam could fit under it together, reading comics together with flashlights or playing with their model cars. God, that was years ago. Dean hadn’t even realized that Sam took the blanket with him until he had seen it here, and then all the memories started coming back. Despite all the bad things that had happened in that house, Sam had taken the afghan and the good memories that came with it all the way to California.

            Dean remembers that he hadn’t brought anything with him from Michigan. He quickly slings off the blanket and staggers out of the bedroom.

            It’s almost like a strange dream, thumping down the stairs in this unfamiliar house, rounding the corner and coming upon a scene of such domestic bliss. Sam’s sitting at a battered table, coffee and a newspaper in front of him, and there’s a blonde woman sitting across from him, smiling at Sam with affection over her cup.

            Dean wonders if he should turn around, not intrude, but Sam catches the movement and turns, smiling, to coax Dean into the kitchen. As Dean comes closer, he can smell something—cinnamon rolls, he thinks—from the oven, making his stomach rumble.

            “Hey, you,” he says. “Man, you zonked out—you must have slept fourteen hours.”

            “What time is it?”

            “7 AM,” Sam says matter-of-factly. Then his face changes, becomes proud and a little shy, as he turns his head over his shoulder to indicate the woman sitting with him. “Dean, this is Jess. She’s a friend of mine.”

            Dean comes forward, very aware of his bedhead and his bad breath, but even more aware of the importance of who Sam was introducing him to. “It’s nice to meet you, Jess,” he says, and shakes her hand. Sam pulls out a chair for him and sits down next to Dean, then immediately jumps up, promising to get him a cup of coffee.

            Dean turns to face Jess, who’s looking over his shoulder at Sam before she blushes and goes back to her coffee. He has the feeling that he just caught her checking out Sam’s ass.

            “Sam didn’t tell me he had a girlfriend,” he says. “It’s nice to meet you—”

            “Oh, she’s not my girlfriend,” Sam says, all but running back to the table.

            “We’re not—” Jess says at the same time, turning even more red.

            “Oh,” Dean says. “Right. Okay.”

            “Jess lives next door,” Sam explains hurriedly. “Her car’s on the fritz, so I’ve been driving her to work for the past month or so, since it’s on the way.”

            “Sure,” Dean says. “Do you always have breakfast and coffee over the morning newspaper, too?”

            Sam puts Dean’s cup of coffee down in front of him, a little forcefully, and turns back to grab the cinnamon rolls.

            “It’s become something of a tradition for us, yeah,” Jess says. She smiles at Dean.

            “Shit!” Sam says behind them. He blushes and mumbles something about not having oven mitts when their eyes lift to him.

            “Well, I’ve been working as a mechanic for the past three months,” Dean says. “While I’m here, I could take a look at your car.”

            Jess’s smile falters a little, and he hears Sam freeze at the stove behind him.

            “Oh,” Jess says. “Um, yeah. That would be great. So helpful.”

            Dean smiles at her and then lowers his head to sip his coffee. He knows why he already fell into baiting Sam—sibling relationships don’t change over time—but he feels bad if he already blundered all over their carefully manufactured reasons for carpooling in the mornings together. What Sam needs, he thinks, is for one of them to get the confidence to—

            He remembers Cas, inviting him to lunch every week without a shred of self-consciousness, and then wishes he hasn’t. He takes another big drink and almost scalds his tongue off.

            Over cinnamon rolls, he learns that Jess is a nurse. She recently moved to San Diego from Oregon, she says, and didn’t know a soul. Sam was nice enough to help when her cat ran away—found him up a tree, Sam says, had to climb up after him—and she didn’t have the money to fix her car, first off, and t hen didn’t know where to go for a good deal—it’s on his way, Sam imputs quckly, it’s really only five minutes out of his way to drop her off at the hospital—and since she doesn’t have family in California, and neither does Sam, they spent Thanksgiving together, and watched football and had turkey sandwiches, and they’re really enjoying this providential friendship.

            “Best friends,” Sam agrees, looking like he could throw himself across the table and kiss her stupid at any moment.

            Finally, breakfast wraps up and Dean wipes his gooey fingers off on a napkin before helping to clear the table.

            “I’ll be interning at the ACLU all day,” Sam says apologetically. “They’ve given me more of a workload lately.”

            “No worries,” Dean says bracingly. “I can putter around here, find something to do with myself.”

            Sam and Jess throw around some potential tourist traps he can seek out—the zoo, Balboa Park, La Jolla—and then they’re off. Sam picks up a ratty, banged-up suitcase by the door. Dean can hear Sam laughing at something Jess says as she closes the door behind them, and then Dean’s alone again.

            He washes dishes for a lot longer than he needs to, filling the sink with bubbles and then scrubbing at the plates with a sponge. He finds himself thinking about how many hours he has to fill before Sam’s back again, before he feels himself again, before he leave San Diego and moves on again. It seems like an awful lot of time to spend by himself.

**

            He ends up going to La Jolla, rolling the hem of his jeans up past his ankles so he can wade a little into the surf. There aren’t many people here—they probably think it’s cold. It probably is, at least for California in December. But it doesn’t bother Dean, who just came from somewhere much colder. Looking across the expanse of blue waves, he finds himself thinking of the frigid, iron waters of Lake Michigan, and then wishes he hadn’t. It’s still too fresh.

            Then he finds himself thinking of when Lake Michigan wasn’t rimmed with ice—he thinks about that perfect September day with Cas, running down the dunes with Cas at his heels, playing in the blue waves with him and Rexy—how Cas, wet and laughing, had slipped out of his grasp, slipped through his fingers—

            He turns and marches off the beach, pricking his toes on the edges of sea shells and not caring. He doesn’t need to be remembering Cas, who’s much better without him, who wanted a life with Dean that Dean didn’t want, that Dean couldn’t give him. Cas is moving on by now, surely, and so is Dean. Dean was right all along, wasn’t he? It only lasted a few months. Temporary.

            And whose fault is that?

            The roar of his radio is able to drown out the voice in his head.

            The money he made at Bobby’s Auto Shop has taken a ding from driving cross-country—food, gas, and motel costs hadn’t been cheap. Even so, he has a fair bit left over while he decides what to do next. He finds the local mall and cruises through a few stores, buying some new jeans and t-shirts from the clearance rack. There, now he even has a wardrobe that can last him through the whole week. Things are looking up.

            He ends up back at Sam’s house, out of the sun, by four o’clock. Sam had warned him that he might not be home until late, and there were leftovers in the fridge. He waits around for a while, but eventually caves and heats up some foil-wrapped chicken.

            Dean sits down on the couch, finds some ESPN highlights, and waits for Sam to come home.

**

            Two days later, when the weekend hits, Sam is eager to enjoy his time off with Dean. They haven’t seen much of each other, and a jobless Dean is also a Dean that doesn’t get up at seven AM to interrupt supposedly platonic breakfasts, either. Now, on a sunny Saturday, Sam is practically buoyant in his eagerness to take Dean to a hole-in-the-wall diner he found off-campus his junior year. He swears it’s something Dean will love.

            Sam isn’t wrong. Over burgers and onion rings, they eat in mutual appreciation, companionable silence, until Sam has to ruin it all by opening his mouth.

            “So,” he says, waiting for Dean to look up. His face is set and serious. “What happened back there?”

            “Back in ’Nam?” Dean says. “What’s with the face?”

            Sam rolls his eyes. “Dean, please, for two seconds. Why’d you leave?  I thought you were happy there.”

            “I was,” Dean says, and then picks up a handful of about seven onion rings to shove in his mouth, just so he won’t have to talk for a while.

            Unfortunately, Sam’s patient enough to wait the interruption out.

            “Last I heard, you had a job, and had made friends, and you were dating Cas,” Sam continues. He smacks another handful of onion rings out of Dean’s hands. “Don’t be a child. What happened? It sounded perfect.”

            Dean looks down at the table, swallowing. “Yeah, it was great,” he says. “But, you know, all good things have to come to an end.”

            “Why’s that?” Sam challenges.

            “Because they do,” Dean says, a note of warning in his voice.

“Why?” God, Sam can be such a little brother sometimes.

 “Because, Sam. Because life isn’t some fairytale where I find the guy of my dreams and a dog and a vegetable garden and we settle down in some peach pie Americana small town. Sometimes you cut your losses and you move on.”

“You’re not answering the question,” Sam says. “Why’d you leave?”

“Because it got serious, Sam, okay? Because Cas wanted more from me, and I—ever since Dad--"

“Dad. Of course.” Sam gives a bitter laugh. “Somehow I knew it would all come back to him.”

“What that supposed to mean?”

“You know Dad isn’t the paragon of a healthy relationship, right? He’s pretty much the poster child for emotional abuse.”

“Okay?” Dean signals for the waitress, ready for this conversation to be over. It’s a cop-out when he says, “So you know why I don’t want a repeat.”

The waitress comes over, and Sam thrusts his glass in her direction without looking at her. “A refill, please,” he says. Dean looks at him funny, because Sam is never rude to waitstaff—especially not since he had a job at the Denny’s in Kansas when he was seventeen—but Sam’s eyes are blazing and angry and directed at him.

“Don’t tell me you’d put Dad and Cas anywhere in the same category,” Sam says. “By the sounds of it, two people couldn’t be more different.”

“I never said Cas was—you know what, no offense, but I don’t really need you questioning my business,” Dean backtracks. “I think I might have just a little more experience with figuring these things out—I mean, I was the one who dealt with Dad’s shit for years and you—you left.”

“Yeah, I did leave,” Sam says, belligerent. “And I tried to make you leave, too, Dean. Because Dad didn’t love us after Mom died. He used us.” Sam pauses, and then says, “And now you’re acting just like him.”

“Excuse me?” Dean’s voice is low, venomous. “Don’t you fuckin’ dare—”

“Dad liked us as long as we were useful to him,” Sam talks over him. “Errand boys to get his beer. Really made us play the part, poor mourning motherless children, to justify his drinking problem. All we ever got in return was distance, and holding us at arm’s length, and controlling us. And what did he do when I left for Stanford three years ago? He cut me out, because I didn’t matter anymore.”

“—Nothing to do with me—”

“You say you want to be alone, but you don’t really. You just want to be left alone on your own terms. Admit it: you were lonely in Michigan, so you made friends. You found Cas. But you made sure to dictate that whole arrangement, because you didn’t want to be taken advantage of. Cas was a good diversion, wasn’t he?”

Dean is so mad he’s shaking. “That’ not true,” he says. “I didn’t treat him—Cas and I. Cas and I—”

Fuck. He puts his hand to his forehead for a moment, shielding his face from Sam while he tries to get it together.

It wasn’t like that with Cas. The beginning and the end aren’t in his favor, he can admit it. But his relationship with Cas—it wasn’t some cold business relationship. It wasn’t a diversion while he whiled away his time. Cas, warm and wild and all around him on the bed,  or Cas, smiling through his fingers while Dean talked down a group of bigoted parents—he’d gotten all muddled up in the middle. Stopped remembering that he wasn’t supposed to be staying, wasn’t supposed to be enjoying himself that much. Stopped remembering that he needed to constantly be on guard, to make sure that someone wasn’t taking from him something that Dean had only newly reclaimed.

When he looks up, Sam’s face is apologetic. “I shouldn’t have said that,” Sam says. “It’s obvious you still have feelings for him.”

Dean shrugs weakly.

“All I’m saying is that I spent a lot of time being angry with Dad. I couldn’t understand how a father could treat his children like that.” Sam stops, and looks at Dean for a long moment. “Take away the alcoholism and the relapses and the bar fights, and you see a broken man who didn’t want to be happy. He didn’t think it was possible, after Mom died, so he didn’t try. He didn’t think it was worth it.”

“Dean, pushing people away isn’t the answer,” Sam says. “Happiness isn’t a trap, okay?”

Dean must be staring at him strange, because Sam leans forward and repeats it another time, just to let it stick.

“Happiness isn’t a trap,” he says. He sounds sad. “You didn’t realize that, did you?”

**

Dean’s in California, but he’s not the type to be a beach bum. Unfortunately, he is the type with only a GED and a strange gap of four months since his job as a security guard at Sandover, and he isn’t a mechanic except for in the eyes of Singer Auto Shop—and he doubts Bobby would give him a good reference right now, not when he split without warning, so he doesn’t bother writing that in.

In a state filled with A-list wannabes, it appears quite a few of them are going after the same jobs Dean’s qualified for in the meantime.

For now, money’s not an issue. Sam has no problem letting him crash in the spare bedroom. But Dean’s getting that feeling again, the feeling that he should move on, and knows that San Diego never would have been a good permanent address, anyway. Too much traffic, too much bustle, too much people.

Sam works long days, but Jess doesn’t, so sometimes Dean will pick her up when she’s not volunteering at night shifts at the women’s shelter, and they’ll go together to the mall as they dive into Christmas shopping together. Jess has a list about a mile long—she has a big family up in Oregon—but Dean only has one person on his list, Sam. It shouldn’t be that hard to find a gift for just one person, and his affable brother would probably be happy with almost anything, but Dean feels he owes it to him. Mostly, he walks around behind Jess, holding bags for her, keeping up a conversation, surrounded by strangers.

They don’t mention him fixing her car.

They find themselves sitting on a bench in the mall, surrounded by bags, waiting for the courage to dive back into the fray again.

“So,” Dean says. “When are you planning on asking my brother out?”

Jess shoots him a sly sidelong look. “When is your brother planning on asking me out?”

“Believe it or not, he gets pretty intimidated around the people he likes,” Dean says. “You’ve probably got him scared out of his mind.”

“Yeah, well, Sam’s nice to everyone he meets,” Jess says. “Sometimes I really can’t tell if he’s interested in me or just being friendly.”

“He’s interested in you,” Dean assures her.

“Nice wingman abilities,” Jess says. She stands up, grabbing the handles to some of her bags. “I need to double back to Claire’s really fast for my niece, okay?”

At least Sam and Jess are both getting something they want for Christmas, now.

Dean, meanwhile, has been doing a lot of thinking.

It’s not easy trying to subvert years upon years of thinking like he has, that people in their lives are all either givers or takers.  They give, or they take—or they take themselves out of the game entirely, and they leave. For the longest time, that thinking was never refuted, and it served him well. Showed him his place in the hierarchy. Taught him how to maneuver his new relationships so he’d be the one who gave up the least of himself, fully within his own control.

What Sam and Jess have, some tentative beginning to a relationship—it’s not flawed. They share and they give without hesitance and it doesn’t make them any less. There is so resentment, no play on power.  Jimmy and Amelia, he’s sure, are like that too. He thinks he and Cas were like that once, genuinely, easily, before Dean had his chance to question the very foundations and fuck everything up.

So he’s been thinking. San Diego is not for him. Dean feels the itch to travel, to get on the road—but not for just anywhere. He finds himself thinking of a town that has jagged, skyscraper sand dunes, and a library that faces the bay, and a dingy auto shop that had a jumpsuit with his name on it. He’s thinking, more and more, of a wide bed and the heat of a sleeping man draped over him. Dean’s never felt the urge to sink in roots before—but he guesses that’s what happens when you do just the thing, and then viciously tear yourself away from it. You find yourself longing for home.

It’s all well and good to think about. But Dean’s two thousand miles too far and three weeks too late and five texts too long ignored before he came to that particular conclusion. Happiness isn’t a trap, but it isn’t something you wander into a second time by plan. If you were stupid enough to lose it, to leave it like trash, he wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not there the second time around.

**

Sam’s unusually chipper on the morning of Christmas Eve. Whistling while he decorates the runt of a tree he picked up cheap. When Dean asks, Sam mutters something about Jess wanting to spend the day with them—she’s going up to Oregon tomorrow, but she wanted to spend Christmas Eve with Sam.

Dean barely restrains himself from rolling his eyes. About time.

His smile drops a little, once he’s in the kitchen measuring out the eggnog—not that he’s unhappy about Sam and  Jess, but of course he had to ruin it by thinking about what he could be doing now. A Michigan winter, deep snow, and him and Cas and—fuck it—Rexy too, snowed in at the mother-in-law suite and not caring a bit.

            He doesn’t even try to stop this particular daydream. For someone who was sure he’d be over Cas eventually, he sure does find himself thinking about him every day, every opportunity. It’ll leave him miserable later but right now, just envisioning it, it gives him a split second of relief.

            He hears Sam clomp into the kitchen behind him, and quickly turns to give him the glass of eggnog. He even puts on a bright smile, like Cas would do in the same situation.

 “Merry Christmas,” he grins. “Sounds like it’s gonna be a good one for you, Sammy.”

            “Thanks,” Sam says. He takes a sip, and then gestures at Dean’s face with his glass. “Pining?”

            “What?”

            “Your face,” Sam says, like that’s explanation enough. When Dean gives him a nonplussed look, Sam says, “It’s not unusual to miss the people you love around the holidays. You seem sad.”

            “Just fine, thanks,” Dean mumbles. Stupid empathetic shrink brothers.

            Sam shrugs and they go out to the front room together, stringing a Walmart line of white lights around the stumpy little tree—there’s enough there to wrap it around another three times, so they do just that. Finally, while Sam’s attaching random shit onto hooks to make the tree look festive,  Dean goes up to his room and grabs the presents—two for Sam, and one for Jess. It’ll be the most presents at Christmas since Mom died.

            Sam smiles at him when Dean arranges his hand-wrapped gifts beneath the tree, and says, “oh, why the hell not,” and opens his hall closet and drags out a large box, a small wrapped package, and a fat envelope. He pushes those items in around Dean’s, vying for the limited room beneath the runt branches.

            “Perfect,” Sam says. He sounds delighted. It makes Dean remember that Sam probably hasn’t done much in the way of holidays since he came here—it’s not like he ever came home for the holidays after he left for school. Not that they did anything really, anyways, but surely there wasn’t much for a lonely college student to do here, either.

            They sit together on his little couch that sags towards the middle, sipping their eggnog and taking in their cheerful holiday decorations.

            “So,” Dean says. “You and Jess. May I say congratulations, or are you two still in negotiations?”

            Sam’s red, but that could be because of the alcohol in the eggnog. “Thanks,” he says. “And you can, I think. We’re—we’re pretty happy.”

            “I’m glad,” Dean says. And clarifies, “I’m glad that one of us got out of Kansas without a mile’s worth of trust issues. I can tell that it’s gonna work for you two.”

            Sam hums a sound, and finally says, “You know, if the two of us turned out differently, it’s because I had someone like you for all those years. I’m sorry that you didn’t.”

            “I didn’t have me?” Dean repeats. “Okay, time to lay off the eggnog—”

            Sam lifts his cup away, refusing to give it to him, and says, “Hey, listen a second. I’m being serious.” So he’s a little drunk, but his eyes are earnest and focused on Dean, so he lets up. “You know why I didn’t come out of there thinking people sucked? Because you were my big brother, and you could have gotten drunk right along with Dad—you had all the opportunity necessary, and he wouldn’t have cared. And you could have left me to fend for myself, because I couldn’t have done a thing to stop you. But you didn’t. You stepped up to the plate. You gave me a childhood when you should have had one yourself.”

            “I—thanks,” Dean says finally, softly. “It didn’t feel like I was doing very much right at the time.”

            “—Which is why I want to punch you because of how you treated the whole thing with Cas,” Sam continues.

            “Uh, okay.” Dean says.

            Sam sits up on the arm of the couch so he can turn and really stare Dean down.

“Look—you know who else took advantage of you when Dad was a drunk? Me. I was a kid. Which meant I was a leech. I took up all your time—I was a needy, whiny brat. Do you hate me for it?”

            “Sam, you weren’t—”

            “I was, a lot of the time. But the point is, you don’t remember that. Because I was there for you, too, just by being your brother, and facing down Gordon at school or going with you to pick Dad up from bars.  I was always there.”

“You were, of course you were,” Dean says. He’s starting to feel hot and kind of teary—he thinks it might be the alcohol on that account, too.

“You’re so scared that someone’s gonna demand things from you—that’s just how it’s gonna be, Dean,” Sam continues, voice rising. “The people you love aren’t gonna be no-strings-attached. So they might be me, or they be like Dad, and you’re never gonna have proof that people are going to love you the right way until you’re right there in the middle of it.”

“Sam—”

“You’re gonna have to go on faith, Dean,” Sam says, slightly too tipsy, and entirely too impassioned for his Christmas Eve inspirational speech. “That’s what I’m saying.”

“You just told the person with trust issues that they have to have faith,” Dean says. “Are you seeing the problem, here? Cas doesn’t deserve that—a flight-risk boyfriend. He deserves so much more than that.”

“Well, sounds like you’re both bringing something to the table,” Sam says. “You’ve got insecurities—so does Cas. What’s the problem?”

Yeah, what is the problem? Dean has to struggle for a moment to think. Oh, now he remembers.

“That I’m poor and stuck in California and I don’t exactly have the best track record with him right now,” Dean recalls.

Sam opens his mouth, then closes it, looking secretive, and before Dean can say anything, there’s a knock on the door. Jess sweeps in, kissing Sam quickly on the lips, her hands taken up by a big tray of cookies.

“Would you like something to drink?” Sam says, still flushed and  ruddy from his talk with Dean. “We have eggnog, or we have spiked eggnog.”

“I think I know which one you two had,” she says. After Sam takes the plate of cookies, she has a giftbag hanging from each wrist, and with some persistence manages to push her two presents under the tree with the others.

They all manage to get pleasantly drunk over honeyed ham and mashed potatoes and cookies. Afterwards, Dean makes sure to detour to the armchair so Sam and Jess can sit on the sagging couch together, with no choice but to steadily gravitate towards the middle. By the time Dean extricates some presents, they’re practically sitting in each other’s laps.

Dean’s trips to the mall with Jess came in handy—he was able to double back and buy a pair of earrings he saw her admiring. For Sam, he goes with practicalities—oven mitts decorated with the Stanford Tree, so he won’t burn his hands off making breakfast for Jess, and a new briefcase, because he’s a genius and he’s interning at the goddamn ACLU and if a shiny briefcase is a measure of a lawyer’s worth, Sam deserves the Hope Diamond of briefcases.

Sam, still drunk, tries to show off by putting his oven mitts inside his briefcase, and then can’t remember how to unlock it.

Sam got Jess a Keurig coffeemaker, which doesn’t mean much to Dean, but it’s pretty big and Jess says something about how Sam will have to have breakfast at her place sometime, so he can try the coffee and Dean’s  mouth drops open a little—damn, his little brother has picked up some moves. He somehow bought the one present that guaranteed  a night over at Jess’s house. His brother is a bona fide genius.

Then, it’s Dean’s turn. The first present, to his surprise, is a framed picture. Sam had stolen the picture of Mom from his wallet and placed it inside.

“To decorate when you’re at home,” Sam promises him, while Dean swallows the lump in his throat.

The second, from Sam and Jess,  is a fat envelope of cash. He goggles at it.

“What the fuck?” He mumbles. There has to be at least six hundred in there.

“So half of that is what I was saving up for a plane ticket,” Sam explains. “I was going to come visit you  in Michigan as soon as airfare went down.”

“The other half is what I saved up to get my car fixed,” Jess says. She shares a look with Sam. “Right now, that isn’t a huge priority to me. I have other ways of getting around.”

Dean looks up. “Guys,” he says. “I can’t—I don’t understand—”

“We decided what you probably wanted more than anything for Christmas was to be in Traverse City again,” Sam explains simply. “So we’re gonna get you there.”

Dean stares down at the money.

“Sam, Jess,” he says slowly. Traverse City, they say, but it’s not so simple. “This is—it’s so nice of you. But I haven’t even talked to him since I left—I have no idea if he wants to see me or not. I could show up there, and he could not want anything to—”

“Look,” Jess interrupts. “You left, right? I don’t think there would be a gesture that would mean more than going back. Don’t get in your own way with this.”

Sam shrugs next to her. “If you don’t want to, Dean, don’t go. Use the money to travel a little more.” He gives Dean a significant look. “I just hope you use it towards whatever makes you the most happy.”

**

            On New Year’s Eve, Dean’s in the car. The radio futzes out at midnight, bringing in the sounds of Times Square, the crowd singing along to Auld Lang Syne.

            Dean’s heading East, cutting through Colorado, and even though there’s really no one on the snowy roads, and Sam’s spare bedroom was still available for him, he’s glad he’s on the move. For the first time in weeks, he’s giving into the pull. There’s a place for him—he hopes—and he’s not going to fight it this time.

            He’s never been one to make resolutions, but he makes one anyway up on the spot, heartsick and tired and with so many more miles to go. He wants, more than anything, for this year to be the one where he finally lets himself be happy.

 

Chapter Text

The trip is longer on the way there. Traffic is slow with holiday travelers returning home, and the weather gets worse the further east he goes.

            He has plenty of time to compose a text to Cas, one that would potentially find out if Cas had any interest in seeing him at all. It would save him a two thousand mile trip. But he doesn’t, even though he thinks about it, wishes that he would get some instantaneous, positive response. Maybe even a hesitant reply—one that would agree to meet up with Dean and let them talk. But he’s afraid, more than anything, of getting what he deserves. A short, cutting no, or—even worse—no reply at all. It’s been a month and Dean left under the worst conditions possible, and he knows that Cas is upset with him.  But Dean’s come so far, and not just in  miles, since he left that night. He feels like he’s finally come to terms with himself, that he’s somewhere good.

            But, as if in return for that step forward, there’s a part of Dean that’s turned selfish, afraid, at his new vulnerabilities. If Cas has anything negative to say—and Dean assumes Cas has plenty—he’s not ready to hear it. Not yet.

`           Finally, on a Sunday, he passes the large metal sign that welcomes him to Michigan. The sky is overcast, the ground is covered in feet of snow, and there’s a broken-down semi sunk in a ditch by the road. It’s the most beautiful sight he’s seen in weeks.

            Now that he’s almost there—only a few more hours—he finds the first stirrings of nervousness in his stomach. He’s come all this way for hardly a sure thing. The cruelest irony, hoping Cas won’t deride his insecurities, and leave him behind  in the same way that Dean did to him.

            He wonders, suddenly, if Cas has moved on. That hadn’t even occurred to him, but now Dean sees it, perfectly played out in his imagination, going to see Cas and there being another man who opens the door. Cas was never vindictive, but there might be something even worse, there—that Cas had just genuinely moved on, and was so happy in his new relationship that he wouldn’t care if Dean saw.

            “Oh,” Cas would say to his new lover, a little vaguely, as if trying to place Dean. “This is an old friend of mine. He passed through town a while ago. What brings you back, Dean?”

            It’s ridiculous, and not worth his imagination,  and he wishes it had never occurred to him. He wants Cas to be happy—of course. He’s hoping that  Cas has been happy without him. But he had never thought that Cas would find this happiness by replacing Dean—which he should, and probably will, at some point, given the chance.

            Even the familiar sight of Traverse City’s small skyline, as he rounds a bend in the road, doesn’t make him feel better. If anything, his stomach is twisting to the point of discomfort. Maybe he should have texted Cas, after all. He’s not sure he could handle that kind of surprise, and—

            As he starts driving through the town, taking in the familiar features, he calms down a little. There’s the motel that he paid for, and barely ever stayed at. The corner gas station where Cas probably bought them coffee. The shabby shop for watersports rentals, closed up for the winter. Dean had lived here for almost four months, and this place had been a home for him. He still wants it to be.

            When he drives up the Novak’s street, he’s a little calmer, but then he sees a car in their driveway and immediately shoots off, heart racing—it must someone visiting Cas, some suave businessman, since he has a BMW, and he probably has a six figure bank account and never has grease beneath his nails and he probably comes from money, the product of an Ivy League marriage—and it’s not until he’s at the stop sign, turning the corner, that he realizes why the BMW was so familiar. Intimately familiar, since the Impala had rear-ended it and then Dean had spent weeks slowly putting it to rights. It’s Jimmy’s car.

            Dean feels tremendously stupid just now, but he also doesn’t feel like he can turn around and go back right now. Instead, he follows a new plan. There’s someone else he’d like to see.

**

            There is no warm welcome at Singer’s Auto Shop.

            Instead, Bobby almost throws him out of his office.

            “Winchester, I’m short-staffed, I’m at the height of winter weather accidents, I have seven cars waiting in the bay that need to be turned out by tomorrow for simple oil changes, and I have no room for them right now. Just what do you think you’re doing here?”

            “Groveling for my job back,” Dean says. “Bobby, look—”

            “Bobby, look, nothing,” Bobby says. “I can’t deal with that wishy-washy stay-or-go crap anymore. I hired you, you gave your two weeks, you stayed, you leave without warning---that’s not gonna cut it. I need good people in here that I can depend on.”

            Bobby’s heaving himself out of his chair, pointing Dean out the door, but Dean goes and shuts it and turns around,  crossing his arms.

            “Just give me two minutes,” Dean says.

            “You’ve got some nerve,” Bobby fumes. “Dean, don’t start—”

            “One minute,” Dean says. He thinks he must look a lot more confident than he feels, because Bobby grumbles but he sits back down again.

            “I know I don’t have the best track record with you right now,” Dean says. “And that’s all on me. But that stuff’s all in the past, I swear. You know I was a good worker when I was here. You trusted me with all the stuff that Andy couldn’t do, and I did it well. You won’t regret it. I’ll work my ass off.”

            Bobby sighs, taking off his baseball cap and resettling it on his head. “We’re short-staffed Dean, I admit it. But it’s the principle of the thing. I was training you  up as chief mechanic and when you left, we didn’t have anyone close to filling in for you.”

            “So you need me,” Dean says.

            “So you can see why I’m really pissed off,” Bobby says flatly. “Dean, I own this business. I put my own blood and sweat and tears in here, and you might be able to up and leave on a lark but I can’t. When you left, you screwed me over, you screwed Andy over. We lost money. This shop—it’s all I have. It was my grandfather’s, and my dad’s, and now it’s mine—and I can’t trust people in here who won’t do their job. Not when it might put me out of mine.”

            Dean stands, frozen, at the door for a second.

            “Bobby, I’m sorry,” he finally says. He doesn’t know what to say, when he finds he was guilty of something that he never once had felt bad about. He’d thought Bobby would be annoyed, like he usually  is, but he had never thought that him leaving might make the shop go under. “I had no idea—”

            “Yeah, I know,” Bobby says. “Of course you didn’t. Jesus, boy, I was worried about you!”

            He abruptly stands up, coming over to put a finger in Dean’s chest.

            “You leave  because your boyfriend has a seizure and then you never come back. I thought Cas was in the hospital or something—I thought you must be a wreck. And finally, when you don’t show up for work for a few days, I call Jimmy Novak and he tells me you skipped town. I might have been your boss, Dean—and you should have told me you were bailing—but we got along good. I expected better from you.”

            Dean nods, his hands falling to his sides. Behind him, the door opens, and he twists to the side to find Andy poking his head in.

            “Hey, Dean,” he says cheerfully. “Long time, no see. Bobby—there’s a woman here saying her car’s drifting to the right again.”

            “I’ll take care of her,” Bobby says wearily. When Andy leaves, he turns back to Dean. “It’s not like I couldn’t use you here, but I need some proof you’re sticking around this time.”

            “I am,” Dean says quickly. “I mean it—”

            “Sorry, Dean,” Bobby says. “That just isn’t gonna cut it.”

            He claps Dean on the back and walks out, leaving Dean alone in his office.

**

            Dean sits in the Impala in the parking lot for a while, staring darkly out the windshield. Getting a job with Bobby again was never a sure thing, of course not, but he had thought he could swing it. He definitely had never thought that Bobby would be so upset with him, or the reasons why.

            Is that what Dean does? He thought this whole time he was drifting, but he was really trampling about like a herd of elephants, leaving a mess behind him. He knows what he did to Cas—he’s not that nearsighted—but he had never thought of Bobby and Andy, overwhelmed and understaffed and worried about his sudden, unexplained departure. He was so sure that he wasn’t going to make friendships here, but just because he thought of them as one-sided didn’t mean they were. There were feelings that could still be hurt.

            Normally he’d be inclined to sit there and hate himself, but after a few minutes he turns the key and pulls away. He can’t sit there and stare at Bobby’s shop all day like a heartsick teenager. He wants to be happy, but to do that he has to start making apologies. And there’s one person who deserves that more than anyone else.

            This time, pulling onto the Novak’s street, he’s feeling a little more grounded. This isn’t going to be fun, there aren’t going to be any happy reunions. He just needs to sit there, and take it, and apologize, and hope for the best. There’s no Plan B, not for when you made a mess on this scale.

            Coming up to the Novak’s house, it’s like the whole thing slows, stretches out like taffy,  holds and holds like that long moment before it breaks apart.

            Dean comes up to the house, and sees movement outside. He sees it before he even really understands what it is. And then he’s pulling into the driveway, because it’s a movement born of routine, and as he pulls in he sees Cas, standing outside the mother-in-law suite, bundled up in a parka and smiling down at Rexy.

            He hasn’t forgotten what Cas looks like in their month apart, but to see those features, real and familiar, that he’s traced hundreds of times with his mouth and his fingers—it makes his head swim. Fuck, he misses him so fucking much. It’s Cas, there. It’s Cas.

            Rexy is standing up to his shins in snow, and he’s trying to lift his paw out, dubiously, and set it down—except every time he does, he sinks down again. There’s Cas, smiling down at Rexy with affection, and there’s Dean, pulling into the driveway mindlessly, staring, and that’s when Cas’s head tilts, hearing the familiar roar of the Impala, and he lifts his head to follow the noise and sees the black car and freezes.

            They stare at each other through the windshield, Cas’s face shocked and still, with a cloud of breath seems to suspend itself in the air, and Dean’s head is silently buzzing, like a TV screen turned to fuzz, as he turns the car off and reaches for the handle—

            Cas’s face blanks out. Dean opens the door as Cas turns and disappears into the mother-in-law suite, Rexy dutifully following behind. He hasn’t even gotten out of the car by the time Cas shuts the door firmly behind him.

            Dean didn’t even realize he crossed the yard until he’s knocking, insistent but softly, calling Cas’s  name because he just saw him, only seconds ago, and now there’s a door closed in his face and that can’t be all there is to it—

            “Cas,” he says. “Please, I’m so sorry. Let’s just talk. Just for a minute—I, fuck, I messed up so bad. I didn’t mean to surprise you. I just wanted to see you, please open the door—”

            Somewhere in this awful, mindless babble, his panicked word-vomit, he hears someone behind him, crunching through the snow.

            “Hey!” The voice calls. “Whoever you are, you need to—”

            Dean turns, and Jimmy cuts off, looking surprised. Jimmy’s pink-cheeked with cold, wearing a tan trench coat, and over his shoulder Dean can see the BMW with its lights on, running, and the shape of a head in the passenger seat. He hadn’t even noticed the BMW when he had pulled in, had been too intent on Cas. He feels a miserable curl of humiliation that he must’ve had an audience this whole time.

            “Oh,” Jimmy says. He comes a few steps closer. “Hi, Dean. This is a surprise.”

            Jimmy looks nothing like his twin, Dean decides, but the similarities are close enough. It makes his stomach ache, because this isn’t the face he wants to see, not quite.

            “Yeah, I’m back,” Dean says heavily.

            “How are you, Dean?” Jimmy says. It’s a bit of a surprise that he’s being friendly. It’s not really welcoming—Jimmy makes no move to shake his hand, or invite him in—but it’s kindly. Like Jimmy’s been worried about him, too.

            “Okay,” Dean says. His hands are cold, because he’s not wearing gloves, and he shoves them underneath his arms. “I’ve been in California. And you?”

            “Pretty good,” Jimmy says. He mirrors Dean, putting his hands into the pockets of his trench coat. “You’re back ?”

            Dean nods. “I—I was planning on it,” he says. “No one seems to believe me.”

            Jimmy nods, and they stand in silence for a moment.

            “You’re back to see Cas?”

            Dean can’t do anything but nod.

            Jimmy sighs and steps closer. “Dean, look. I’m happy to see you’re doing okay. We’ve been hoping you got your feet beneath you. So I mean it when I say it’s good to see you.”

            Dean waits for the “but,” and Jimmy doesn’t disappoint.

            “But I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” he continues. “You hurt Cas. And I don’t think you should be here until I find out if Cas wants you here or not.”

            He says it firmly, but not cruelly—even so, Dean has to look away, blinking. You hurt Cas. It’s the simplicity of the statement that does him in. Like in the absence of enough words to explain, those words are enough. All-encompassing. He feels guilt him then like a sledgehammer.

            “Yeah, okay,” Dean says. He makes himself raise his head to meet Jimmy’s eyes head-on. “I understand.”

            Jimmy’s  mouth quirks into a tiny smile. “And also, you’re parked behind me, so I need you to move so we can go.”

            “Right,” Dean says. “I’m sorry. I, uh, wasn’t paying attention.” Jimmy nods his head, but doesn’t say anything. Like Dean couldn’t feel any worse, but he feels like he went about this in the most wrong way possible. Bulleting after Cas, wolf after a rabbit, after Cas had made it pretty clear. He’d shut the door,  locked it behind him—maybe it wasn’t a never, but it was definitely a not now.

            “See you around,” Jimmy says, and Dean walks off to his car, feeling Jimmy’s eyes on his back. He’s probably waiting for Dean to leave so he can go in and see Cas, assess the damage like he’s used to doing.

            As he climbs into the Impala, he hears a ding—the sound of a door opening while a car’s running.

            “Claire, you don’t have to—” He hears Jimmy say.

            “Don’t worry, I’ll deal with this,” is the muffled response, and then he hears the sound of someone running quickly towards his car. When he looks up, Claire’s face is at his window, fogging up the glass, as she motions for him to roll it down.

            “Hey,” Dean says. “Come to yell at me?”

            “No one’s too thrilled with you,” Claire starts, and then behind her Dean hears the sound of a door opening—they both look, seeing Jimmy stepping into the mother-in-law suite, although there’s no Cas in sight.

            Once the door closes, she turns back, lowering her voice. “Okay, do you mean it?”

            “Mean what?”

            “Are you coming back to apologize to Uncle Cas?” Claire says. “You want to get back together with him, right?”

            “Of course,” Dean says. “More than anything.”

            “All right, then I’m taking it upon myself to tell you that you’re dead in the water right now,” Claire says.

            Dean raises his eyebrows at her. “Excuse me—”

            “Come on, Dean. We don’t have much time. Where are you staying?”

            “I just got in,” Dean says. He’s a little bemused by Claire’s comments, but can’t see what she’s getting at. Dean really wouldn’t blame the Novak’s if they wanted nothing to do with him. “But I’ll probably stay at the motel again—”

            “No,” Claire says, shaking her head vehemently enough to make her hair swing across her shoulder. “Okay,  job? Are you back at the auto shop?”

            “No,” Dean says. “I swung out on that one."

            “You’re a piece of work, Dean Winchester,” Claire says. She turns to look over her shoulder at Cas’s closed door, and then turns back. “Look, one word. That’s all I’m giving you: Inglewild.”

            “What the fuck is an Inglewild?”

            “Geez, Dean. They’re on Fourth and Main, okay? Look, if you want Uncle Cas to believe you’re staying, you need something permanent. Get a job and a real place to live, to show you mean it.”

            Dean stares at Claire, hanging through his window with her fierce expression.

            “Why are you helping me?” He says.

            “I think we all know why,” Claire sniffs. “Okay, I better get back. We’re going to Mom’s restaurant—it’s the ten year anniversary of its opening today.”

            “Wait,” he says, and catches her sleeve. “How’s Cas?”

            Claire shakes her head, pulling away. For the first time, she looks a little upset. “How do you think? For the first week after you left, he was all smiles. It was like the circus was in town. He’s been doing a lot better over the last few weeks.”

            Until I got back, Dean thinks, and grimaces.

            “Has he said—”

            Right then, the door to the mother-in-law suite opens, and Jimmy steps out.

            “Gotta go,” Claire whispers. She stands up and says in a louder voice, “And don’t you think about coming back here again, Winchester!” She kicks his tire and flounces off.

            Dean sits in the Impala a moment more, then turns the key. Jimmy’s still waiting on Cas’s porch—he thinks they’ll continue to wait until he leaves. Only when he’s gone will Cas probably come out and join them, going to the party that Dean probably would’ve attended too, as his date, if he hadn’t fucked it all up.

            He puts the car in reverse to go.

            “He isn’t the enemy, you know,” he hears Jimmy say to Claire, mildly, as he goes.

**

            Inglewood is a neighborhood on a low hill near the outskirts of Traverse City. It’s high enough to have a good view of the bay, the townhouses and duplexes are all new and well-kept, and it’s even within walking distance of the auto shop—and thus, Dean thinks, also within walking distance of the library.

            He wonders if this is the same apartment complexes that Cas had mentioned months ago, at a dinner with the Novaks where it had first come to Dean’s attention that Cas had seizures. He doesn’t know how else Claire would know about them.

            There’s a sign outside the open house. It says, Let us be home.

            After a few minutes of thinking, he goes in.

**

            The deposit on the townhome makes him glad for six hundred dollars he got for Christmas. They also want three references, so Dean gives them the names of Sam, Jess, and—at a loss—Andy.

            His new place has all the amenities, he’s told. A built-in fireplace. A deck overlooking the bay. A car dock, lawncare, pool access. Eco friendly and pet friendly and life friendly, he’s told, because there’s a gym on the grounds. The truth is, he’s never lived somewhere nearly this nice in his whole life.

            A one-bedroom townhome is very cozy, he’s told. And affordable, too, for someone who only has his own bills to pay, who’s hoping to have a job soon. The nicest place he’s ever lived in, and he isn’t even overreaching to get it. He’s just never bothered to give himself something like that, not when he was drifting, not when motels did the job just as well. Now he sees the comfort that could come in a place you could call your own.

            The townhome is ready to move in, he’s told. He even has the shiny new key on his keyring.

            He doesn’t do that right away. Instead, he makes a copy of the lease and drives, for the second time that day, to Singer’s Auto Shop.

            It’s late, but Bobby’s still there. Dean knows it’s probably because of how much work he has right now—all those responsibilities that Dean shirked—but instead of feeling bad for himself he shoulders his way inside and hands a surprised Bobby the papers in his hand.

            “That’s a lease for the next year out,” he tells Bobby. “I signed it today. There’s no way around it, no one else on the lease; I’m stuck here good and solid. So if you want proof that I’m staying, here it is in writing.”

            Bobby’s beard twitches. “Can’t take no for an answer?” He says, snatching the lease out of Dean’s hand and flipping through it.

            “You tell me,” Dean says. His heart’s beating a little fast. “Is it a no this time, too?”

            Bobby looks down at the papers for a moment longer and hands them back to Dean.

            “I suppose you could come in tomorrow for a few hours and help me work on a stalled engine,” Bobby says. “If you still remember your stuff, I might reconsider hiring you.”

            Dean fails to suppress his smile. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll be here at seven sharp.”

            “You’ll be here at 6:45 and not a minute later,” Bobby says. He tosses Dean a key. “I’ll expect everything to be open and ready for me when I get here.”

            “Yes, sir,” Dean says, and pockets the key. Bobby turns away and tells him to get the hell out of his office and slams the door behind him. Dean doesn’t care. They key in his pocket is proof enough that, someday, Bobby will let him work his way into his good graces again.

**

            Two days later, in the afternoon, Dean goes walking out of the auto shop, keys swinging in his hand. It’s a cold day but it’s not snowing, and after a moment’s deliberation he decides to walk down the street and find a close place for take-out. He’s making progress with Bobby but he’s not above kissing up—that’s what had made him volunteer to pick them all up lunch in the first place.

            It’s also two days later and he spent his first night in the new townhome the night before—he had bought a bed and a mattress pad and enlisted Andy to help him bring it inside. It was a queen, felt like heaven, a bed so nice had never belonged to him. He wasn’t quite close enough for the water in the bay to soothe him to sleep, but overall the place is damn near perfect.

            Not related at all, but he hasn’t heard a thing from Cas in the past two days. His cell phone has been quiet, even though he checked to make sure it was at full battery. He’s been trying not to let it get him down.

            Walking down the familiar row of shops, he slows to a stop outside the restaurant with the patio out front. The patio is barren this time of year, but he can see the cheerful bustle of the lunch hour within. He checks the time on his phone—a little after one. The chances of running into Cas are slim. He knows this because they always had lunch almost an hour before this, finishing up around this time, lingering a little longer before going back to their respective jobs.

            Convincing himself that Cas probably won’t be in, he pushes his way inside, wipes off his boots, and walks over to the carry-out station. He’s barely paying attention as he order some meaty monstrosities for his coworkers—he feels his whole body straining in every direction, like he  might pick up a sign of Cas from his big toe, from the hair on the back of his head.

            He signs the receipt, turns to sit down, and it’s only when he’s facing the opposite direction that he sees the dining room, and the table that’s facing him, and the man who’s staring right at him, almost expectantly. It’s Cas.

            Dean takes a step forward, falters, and pauses. He’s learned his lesson after last time, and he’s not going to assume that Cas wants to talk to him. At all. Even if Dean wants to. To his surprise though, Cas tilts his head to the chair across from him, eyes not leaving Dean. He doesn’t say anything, or beckon him over, but that has to be enough.

            He approaches, a little cautiously. Finally a few feet away, stepping aside to let a waitress through, he finds his voice.

            “You—you’re okay with me sitting here with you?”

            Cas nods. He even gives Dean a small smile.

            “Hello, Dean.”

            At the sound of his voice, Dean collapses into the chair across from him.

            Cas looks about the same. He’s wearing a godawful patterned sweater, and his hair looks a little more disheveled than usual, but other than that, he’s about the same. Dean aches, just to be so close and know that the things he used to do without thought—reaching forward to grab his hand, or nudging his foot beneath the table—are off-limits now. Instead, he sits in the opposite chair and stares.

            Cas is the first to look away. “I’m just waiting for my check,” he says. “Then I’ll go.”

            “Okay,” Dean says.  He’s had two thousand miles and almost two weeks, since deciding he’d come back, to decide what to say. You were right about everything. If you’d like, I’d still like to make a home in you. All I want in the world is to be able to reach forward and grab your hand whenever I feel like it. I want you to want that too.

            He’s had a lot of time. He finds himself saying, “So, how have you been?”

            “I’ve been okay,” Cas says politely. He nods at Dean’s jumpsuit. “I see you’re back at Bobby’s.”

            “Had to convince him,” Dean says eagerly, quickly. “I got an apartment, too, if you ever want to see it. It’s called Ingle—”

            “Are you staying?” Cas says. “That’s all I really want to know.”

            Dean freezes, feeling his mouth go dry. That’s all Cas wants to know. It doesn’t bode well. In the face of Cas’s strange, smooth reaction to seeing him, his impersonal smiles, Dean sees what’s going on here.

            “ I want to,” Dean says. It’s almost like begging, when he says, “I’ve come to love it here. The town and the people and my job. I want to stay.”

            “What’s keeping you?” Cas says. He’s still in the seat across from Dean, erect, but he can see the slight tremor of his arm beneath the table where he must be pushing his fingers through Rexy’s fur.

            Dean makes himself meet Cas’s gaze. Speeches have fled his brain, maybe, but he can still make himself be honest. “Look, Cas, I don’t want to intrude. You’ve lived here for years, and I don’t want to be some—some obnoxious Robin Thicke, tracking you down and trying to win you back. If you don’t want me here, I’ll go. Simple as that. I mean it—I don’t want you to feel like you have to constantly be on guard in case you see me.”

            “Simple as that?” Cas says, his tone light.

            “Not so simple,” Dean says. “I’d hate it. I’d really fucking hate it, but I’d go if you want me to. I didn’t come back to make you miserable, Cas.”

            Cas looks up then, almost surprised, and all Dean can think is fuck, he’s beautiful. Beautiful and not something that Dean could claim as his anymore. It wasn’t ownership, but it had been a mutual connection. Cas’s Dean. Dean’s Cas. There couldn’t be such a thing anymore unless both parties were in agreement.

            “What do you want me to do, Cas?” Dean says quietly. “Would you give me a second chance?”

            “Don’t leave that decision up to me,” Cas says. It comes out harsh. “Every time you choose to go shouldn’t be on my account.”

            “I didn’t mean it like that,” Dean whispers. He wishes there weren’t people around to witness this, because it feels jagged and private and sad,  but it can’t be helped.  “I was wrong before, and I’m trying to make it right. I’m trying to do this with you.”

            “That’s funny,” Cas says, although he doesn’t laugh. His voice is careless, even, when he says, “It’s always seemed like whatever I asked, you’d do just the opposite. Why change now?”

            Dean opens his mouth, then closes it. A waitress comes by then, placing a receipt and a credit card on the table as she flies past.

            “I’m sorry,” he says. “I know that doesn’t even scratch the surface. I can’t even imagine how angry you are, and you should be, because I ruined a good thing. All I want to do—”

            “It’s always about what you want, Dean,” Cas says. He dips his head to sign his receipt with flourish, and then looks up. “Well, I’m sure you’ve heard that you can’t have it all. You wanted a job and friends and a home, and it sounds like you’ve found that here. So if you want to leave that again, then leave.”

            He stands up, and Rexy immediately unfolds from beneath the table to stand next to him. “If you want to stay,” Cas continues brutally, “Then welcome to Traverse City, Dean. I hope that you enjoy your time here. Goodbye.”

            “Cas—” Dean says, but Cas brushes by him without another glance. Dean twists in his seat to watch him go—Cas even stops to hold the door open for a small family, like he’s in no particular hurry. Like the conversation that just shattered Dean had no impact of importance for him.

            Dean wonders, dully, how you’re supposed to build a home in someone when that someone wants nothing more than to be strangers.

**

            Dean lies awake that night, listening for waves that he knows are too far to hear.

            Cas doesn’t want him here. Or, rather, Cas doesn’t want to be around him here. Cas would rather divide the town into two separate spaces—the Novak’s and the townhome, the auto shop and the library, with no possibility for an overlap.

            But Cas doesn’t want him to go. Maybe that’s what it hinges on, that Cas refuses to make a decision for Dean, refuses to take him away from his friends and his job and his new home. And he doesn’t think Cas wants him to stay and pursue him, to leave him notes and send him flowers and skulk around the children’s section of the library. Maybe Cas will someday just think it’s enough that he stays.

            The next day, Dean takes out a strip of paper and writes his name across it. Outside, at his mailbox, he feeds the strip in at the space allotted over the keyhole, but finds it’s too long. DEAN WINCH it says, because he’s written the letters too big. Fuck it, he’s almost late for work, and Bobby won’t be cutting him much slack. He rips off the tail end and pockets it, leaving the name as is.

            He turns to go but stops, studying it for a moment. In all his life, even though he lived at the same house for 24 years, he always felt stuck. Stuck, he decides, is different from settled. Seeing his permanent address, he allows himself a smile.

            Maybe, before anything else, Dean will first try to make a home for himself.

Chapter Text

His name is Dick Roman and he owns the singularly most beautiful auto shop this side of the Mississippi.

            Apparently construction had begun on his business when Dean was still in town before Thanksgiving, but no one had really known what it was going to be until it seemed to solidify overnight during December, with a great big sign that read Roman Repairs, outlined in chrome.

            Bobby’s got better mechanics, and better equipment, but Dick’s place is flashy and new and is completely price gouging Bobby’s rates. In January, their profit is the lowest it’s been in five years.

            Bobby seems to fall into a slump. He’s always in his office or pulling at his beard, looking over long spreadsheets like he’s hoping to turn up a better solution hidden in the numbers. They still have their regulars coming in, who have trusted Singer’s Auto Shop for years and will continue to do so, but some are swayed by Dick’s better deals, his waiting room that has flat-screened TVs and complimentary coffee. They can watch ESPN in HD while waiting on oil changes.

            Bobby’s waiting room, which is the size of a broom closet and has one People magazine that someone left there by accident in 2004, can’t compare.

            A turncoat customer comes crawling back within two weeks, saying they went to Roman’s for a transmission problem that is already acting up again. The customer says he thought Roman would take the car back and repair it again at no charge, since someone there must’ve screwed up the restoration before, but apparently that wasn’t their policy. They would fix the transmission again at full price, or not at all.

            Bobby chews the man out about his awful decisions and pops the hood right there in the parking lot. Finally, he looks up with a face like his worst fears were confirmed.

            “This transmission is from a junked car,” he says. “See that? It’s from a 1999 model. He’s probably getting used parts practically for free, and then jacking his prices up. And we can’t compete, because we’re barely making a profit as it is. Goddamn it!” He stalks off into his office, leaving the customer with his wonky transmission staring haplessly after him, Dean and Andy standing by awkwardly.

            Dean knocks on his office door and comes in a few hours later, seeing Bobby still hunched over his desk.

            “Look,” he says awkwardly. “Everyone will be hitting up Roman for a few more months, and then they’ll start realizing it’s all flash and no substance. They’ll come back here, just like the guy today, and realize that they’re paying more for actual repairs.”

            “You’re too naïve, kid,” Bobby says. It’s not rude, but it does come out pretty matter-of-fact. “We might not have a few more months. Roman probably knew this business was pretty small and barely getting by.” He shrugs. “All he has to do is wait to drive me out of business, and then he can hire you and Andy—two mechanics who do know their stuff—and he can crank his prices up to whatever he wants, because there’s no alternative once I'm gone. It’s just basic business sense.”

            “It’s bullshit,” Dean says hotly. “And I would never work for that stupid, smiley dickbag—”

            God, he already hates Dick Roman’s face. He’s been putting it up on billboards all over town, this unnaturally white smile, wearing some nice suit and promising a free oil change on the first visit. Asshole.

            But Bobby just shrugs again. “You say that now, but you might be out of a job soon. When Roman comes by and offers you a better-paying position, what are you gonna do?”

            “I’m gonna stay here and work until the day you tell me to go home,” Dean says, so fiercely that Bobby looks up, surprised. “Dick Roman never did shit for me. I know for a fact he wouldn’t have hired me off the street, like you did, unless I had some fancy degree and a resumé to match. Dick Roman never taught me shit, he’s just some schmuck in a suit, and you’ve been as good as a –well.” He stops, suddenly. They’ve all had a bit of brothers-in-arms attitude once Roman’s business really took off, but he knows Bobby still held him responsible for leaving him in the lurch. It might be a little soon for emotional, heartfelt speeches.

            “All right, Dean,” Bobby says carefully, after a few moments. “Got any ideas on how we can be competitive?”

            Dean shoves his grimy hands in the deep pockets of his jumpsuit. “Maybe some good deals? We could do free oil changes too, maybe?”

            Bobby shakes his head. “I’ve been crunching the numbers,” he says. “No way we could afford that many give-aways.”

            “Okay,” Dean muses. “Well, he’s been papering the town over with advertisements, but you’ve never had to do that. What about—maybe a TV spot? You could shoot a commercial.”

            He imagines Bobby with his stained , tattered baseball cap, trying to appear chipper and wheelin’ and dealin’ as he invites the people of Traverse City to his modest shop. By Bobby’s terrified face, he doesn’t seem to like the idea much better. It would be a little amusing, under different circumstances, to see unruffled Bobby looking completely undone by the prospect of going before a camera.

            Andy passes by the door then, a junk towel thrown over his shoulder, and says, “What about you, Dean?”

Andy pauses then, looking off with the trance-like expression of an oracle, and says, “Sitting on the hood of your car, just the jumpsuit. Stripped to the waist. You beckon the camera closer and say you’re willing to get under anyone’s hood. Total package. Small-screen charisma. The x factor—”

            Dean closes the door in his face.

            He looks up at Bobby with a little bit of dread, because he wants to save the shop but he doesn’t want to do that, and he’s imagining everyone he’s ever known with that image of Dean burned into their retinas, and he’s also imagining Cas, who just wants to live his life unbothered, trying to watch TV with Dean’s charisma thrusting itself from every channel—

            “Sorry, Dean,” Bobby says. “It sounds like a good idea, but filming costs and putting it on-air would be at least a grand. I can’t afford that, either.”

            Inward sigh of relief.

            “We’ll think of something,” Dean says, trying to be confident for both their sakes. Bobby nods and goes back to his spreadsheets, promising he’ll lock up after them. He just has some more paperwork to do.

            When Andy and Dean walk out to their cars in the evening darkness, the first thing they see is the streetlight across the road, which is casting a warm glow over the bench beneath it, and the back of the bench is covered by a huge advertisement for Roman Repairs. Complete with Dick’s smiling face, his head blown up as large as a tire, stretched across the slats.

            Andy turns to look at Dean. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

            Dean has his keys out, already relishing what it will feel like to rip Dick Roman’s bloated, stupid head to shreds.

**

            Cas had made it clear that he and Dean were going to be fellow residents of Traverse City, Michigan, and that would be it. Turns out, it was easier said than done, because even though the town wasn’t that small, Dean ran into reminders of Cas all the time.

            He somehow ended up behind Amelia in line at the bank, and they had had a pleasant enough conversation about the party she threw for her restaurant’s anniversary, and although she mentioned a few anecdotes about some drunk friends, she never mentioned anyone from her family. He had the bad luck of pulling up next to a familiar BMW at a red light, and he and Jimmy had exchanged nods and smiles before the light had changed again. Dean wonders, again and again, how they can be so nice to him, even now when it’s clear Cas doesn’t want anything to do with him.

            So when Sam calls to check in, and asks if he’s seen Cas since that disastrous talk at the restaurant, the answer is technically a yes. He’s seen Cas and Rexy walking home from the library and changed directions before, quickly turning down a side street. He’s seen them exiting the restaurant they used to eat at with a brown paper bag of carry-out, because Cas probably didn’t want to risk running into him there. Better to eat at the library.

            “Still no change there,” Dean says, trying for positivity. “But at least he hasn’t ran me out of town, right?”

            “Yeah,” Sam says, but he sounds disappointed. Dean thinks that Sam’s probably become a huge romantic since he started dating Jess—being a seven foot cheerleader for love around the world, just so everyone could be as happy as him. It’s nauseating and he wouldn’t put it past him. “That sucks. How are you holding up?”

            “I’m good,” Dean says. “Really. I’ve been working a lot, and thrifting for my new place—yes, I just said thrifting—and hanging out with Andy and his friends when I have the time. Wish you could see it.”

            “Jess and I have plans to fly out when the weather gets better,” Sam hedges. “I guess we could hold off a little. I wanted to meet Cas, and conditions don’t seem too favorable.”

            “Well, I’m not sure if they’re going to change anytime soon,” Dean says. Or at all. “Better book a flight when you can. Sorry for the bad news.”

            There’s a short silence on the other end of the phone, and Sam finally says, “There’s something else. Heard from Rufus again today. He says Dad’s going to rehab. That he agreed to it.”

            “Oh,” he says. “Well, I think that’s a good  idea. I’m not gonna be holding my breath, though.”

            “Me either,” Sam says quickly. “I didn’t want to keep it to myself, or anything. I just also didn’t know if it would—you know. Make you angry.”

            Once upon a time, it would have. Dean probably would have sat and smoldered. He would have thought about the back-breaking weight that a fourteen year old took on for ten years, and how Dad chooses to think seriously about getting sober only after he leaves. As if to nullify all the sacrifices he made.

            But the Dean who would have done that is a different Dean  than now. This Dean has chosen freely who he loves and who he wants to make sacrifices for. A long time ago, Dean had lived in a position where he was his Dad’s son, but John Winchester never acted like his son’s dad. Dean’s still working out the kinks from this kind of relationship. He’s still learning what is asking of him and what is asking too much. It won’t always be fair. But Dean’s going to be optimistic enough to think that won’t happen to him too much; he hasn’t learned his lessons too late.

            “It’s okay,” Dean says. “Tell me if Rufus tells you anything else?”

            “Too much good news,” Sam says, laughing sharply. “Dad with a job? A trailer he pays for? And now rehab, too—there’s got to be an end of the line. Like clockwork.”

            “Probably,” Dean says. “But it doesn’t really change things for us either way, does it?”

            He knows there are people out there who would carry someone else’s burdens with them until the end. It starts out as love, but it ends up being a dull kind of obligation.  He also know the people like him, like he was only a few months ago, who wouldn’t even want one second’s worth of a responsibility. There’s probably a reason—those feelings don’t occur in a vacuum. But the consequences of it—how he treated the people here, that disastrous day before Thanksgiving—those didn’t happen in a vacuum, either.

            Maybe John Winchester would learn better. Maybe the next person who came into his life wouldn’t be made into a soldier, a nursemaid, the Atlas to his alcoholism. Who knows. Dean’s in Michigan, with Singer’s Auto Shop on the verge of closing, and Cas nowhere close to forgiving him, and he’s too busy right now, living in this strange new world where happiness isn’t a trap.

**

            Dean has friends now. Plural.

            There’s Garth, who invited Dean to a houseboat party after Dean fixed his monstrosity of a car, and Dean actually attended. The houseboat didn’t actually go anywhere, since the bay is iced over, but Garth decorated the whole boat with a garland of lights and had some soda for Dean to drink since he won’t do beer, and he enjoyed himself more than he thought he would.

            There’s Ellie, who was smart enough to see that Dick Roman was trying to put used car parts in her engine, and threatened to sue him if he didn’t install the new equipment right away. After berating the mechanics there, she’d come to Bobby’s to tell them about Roman’s shady business in case they didn’t know. She ended up staying an hour and Bobby nearly swooned when he found out that she owned her own trawler and could find her way around a boat engine with her eyes closed.

            “If my business wasn’t about to go belly-up, I’d hire you,” he said morosely.

            There isn’t much for trawler captains to do during the winter weather, which is why Ellie’s free for lunch one day and introduces Dean to Benny, who’s a fisherman from Ontario. He’s straightforward and indelicate and invites Dean to a leisure trip on his boat once the weather warms up again. He’s looking forward to teaching Dean how to fish and laughing at his ineptitude.

            So that’s why Dean finds himself at the grocery one evening, frantically buying up on snack food, because he’s chosen to have a little get-together with his new friends, plus Bobby and Andy, to break in his new townhome—and it had seemed like a good idea at the time, because he’s never had an opportunity to throw himself a housewarming party, but now he’s getting nervous and wondering if the mix of people is way too eclectic (is he supposed to be playing host? Is he supposed to pass around drinks and know topical conversations to begin, so that everyone can ease into it?)—

            He rounds a corner and his frantic thoughts suddenly slam to a halt. There, in the produce section, is a familiar messy head of hair, turned away. There’s the black dog standing at his feet, the one Dean’s almost missed, just because so much time has passed.

            It’s easier to be at peace with Cas’s absence in his life when he doesn’t see him. Now, seeing the worn jeans he’s wearing, frayed at the pockets, and the way he tilts his head so he can hear something over the grocery loudspeakers, and the way his shoulders slump, relaxed, Dean feels a swell of loss. He wants to be able to go right up next to him, their bodies brushing, sliding a hand into Cas’s torn back pocket. He wants Cas to turn and give him that look of complete happiness, of awe, that Dean was given that night in the library, when he kicked out those awful parents and they had sex against some abandoned bookshelves.

            Dean remembers Cas’s words, though. In their relationship, it’s always been about what he wants.

            He turns to go, but can’t tear himself away quite yet. He’s not sure when he’ll be this close again. Cas, thinking himself unobserved (at least unobserved by Dean, because there’s a woman shopping quite near him) holds out his two handfuls of vegetables for Rexy to tentatively sniff.

            “It has to be a perfect ratio of cauliflowers to sugar snap peas, or she’ll blow her top,” he tells Rexy. Dean smiles, he can’t help it, as he starts edging away. That’s also when he runs into a display of canned tomatoes and manages to knock off three of them, rolling off one after the other.

            Dean looks down at the cans lolling around his feet and then up, quickly, to see if Cas heard—unfortunately, he did. He’s staring at Dean, his face momentarily unguarded, his handfuls of vegetables hanging loosely from his hands.

            “Um, hi,” Dean says. “I didn’t—don’t worry, I’ll go somewhere else.” He whisks away around the display, feeling his ears burn, even as he sees Cas opening his mouth to say something. The last glimpse he gets is of Cas still staring after him, looking confused.

            Dean ducks into a nearby aisle and quickly walks down it, twitchy. It would be just plain sad to stick around now, because he has two baskets of snacks swinging from his arms and he’s not sure if he could stomach running into Cas by the ice cream, by the meat counter, in the detergent aisle. It would only remind him how, as much as he’s excited for his get-together tonight, he’d rather be spending a quiet night with Cas, carefully selecting sugar snap peas and imagining Amelia’s exasperation with how long it takes them.

            He sees a pair of feet come to stop in front of him, and he looks up to see Claire being closely tailed by a tall, gangly boy.

            “Hey,” Claire says. “Nice moves back there. Speedy Gonzalez. Two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”

            “Cute,” Dean says. “What are you doing here?”

            “I drove Uncle Cas here,” Claire says, aggressively showing off the keyring in her hand. “Passed my driver’s test last week. What are you doing here?”

            “Shopping,” Dean says.

            Claire turns to the boy behind her, gesturing towards Dean. “Cody, this is Uncle Cas’s ex,” she says. She narrows her eyes down at Dean when she says, “And this is my boyfriend.”

            Dean can only imagine the inventive ways he and Cas would have found to interrogate and terrorize her first boyfriend. But he’s on thin ice, and has nothing to do with their family, anyways, so he just nods at the boy.

            “Hey.”

            “Hey,” Cody says, slowly, like he’s still trying to reason out if he should be hostile towards Dean or not.

            “We don’t have much time,” Claire says. “So, job? Inglewild? Looks like you got those accomplished, right?”

            “Right,” Dean says.

            “Okay,” Claire says. “So now you’ve gotta do some things that will get his attention, you know? I was thinking you should probably get your CPR certification, because you’ll need it and it’ll look pretty badass. Also, you need to get a Facebook or a Twitter. Something on social media. Free advertising for you, and I’ll casually mention sometime that you have one now, and that will Uncle Cas the opportunity to see what you’re up to—”

            “Claire,” Dean says. “Look, I appreciate you trying to help me. I think you’re doing it for the right reasons. But I don’t really need a—a Facespace. Maybe that’s just a generational thing, or…”

            He trails off as Claire looks incredulously at him.

            “I thought you wanted to get back together with him,” she says. “Are you just giving up?”

            “I’m not giving up,” Dean says. “Look, I’m staying. For real. I just have…other plans, I guess.”

            “Okay,” Claire says after a moment. “Well, all right.”

            It’s a bit awkward, the three of them standing in the aisle there together. Dean shifts his basket so he can jiggle Claire’s elbow, catching her attention.

            “I miss Cas so much,” Dean says. “I know you know that, and I’m glad for your help. Really. It’s just a—”

            “Adult thing?” Claire says, bristling a little, as she stands besides Cody. But Dean shakes his head.

            “A Cas thing,” he says. “I’ve got to go, but I hope I see you soon, okay?”

            “All right,” Claire says, and looks past him. “Be careful on the roads tonight. There’s a good chance I’ll be driving.”

            Dean huffs out a laugh. “I’ll watch out for you.”

            When he turns, he follows Claire’s gaze and sees Cas standing at the end of the aisle, looking at them curiously. There’s something so young about his face, then, like he’s looking at Dean with a sense of possibility.

            Dean smiles and nods and raises his hand in a brief wave, because that’s what acquaintances do.

**

            That night, after cleaning up after his guests, Dean remembers something Claire says and finds an idea forming.

            The next day, he brings a recorder to work and plunks it in front of Bobby where he’s leaning his head on his fist, staring down at his memos and bills on his desk. It looks like he hasn’t even left.

            “Hey,” Dean says. “Quick question. How do you  know when your tires are out of alignment?”

            Bobby sits up quickly, looking affronted. “How do you—” He begins in disbelief. “Dean Winchester, this better be your idea of a prank. This business is sinking like the Titanic and you’re just now telling me you have no idea—”

            “Humor me,” Dean says. “Please.  I have an idea.”

            Bobby looks at him suspiciously, but then, with an air of weariness, he starts talking. “Well, first, you’ll notice when you’re driving on a straight road that, if you take your hands off the wheel, your car will start drifting to the side—”

            Dean asks him how to change a tire, how to jump a car. He asks how to tell if your car is having used parts installed in it. These are things a mechanic should know, but maybe not the average person.

            Later, after his shift, Dean has Andy help him set up a Facebook page. They dig up a picture of Bobby from twenty years ago, when he was a small feature in the local newspaper. Besides the color of his beard, he looks exactly the same.

            Social media. Free advertising. There's something that Claire would know way better than Dean, who's from the time of Walkman's and tin can telephone games. And also something that Bobby Singer can do that Dick Roman, with his business savvy but lack of car knowledge, would  never be able to do.

            They’re up late, because Andy’s looking up customer invoices so he can add those people to the page, and Dean’s trying to write up a history of the business, starting with Bobby’s grandfather. It’s gratifying, though, to find in the first hour a few regular customers have liked the page.

            Finally, Dean gets out the recorder and transcribes everything that Bobby says. On the page, there’s a little blurb called “Singer Says,” with a caricature of Bobby’s face and some advice given in the way only Bobby can give it—straightforward, blunt, and with a certain Bobby-like flavor (--and that’s how you can tell if your tires are out of alignment, you idjit). Dean and Andy write in that “Singer Says” will update daily with advice, and feel free to ask questions.

            When Dean finally gets home and crawls into bed, he has to get up in four hours. It’s amazing what four hours can do, though. He checks the next morning and is amazed to see over a hundred likes already, and a few questions already waiting on the page. It’s not enough to get out of the red, not yet. But it’s definitely something that Dick Roman couldn’t copy. First, Dean knows, because Dick Roman would never tell customers how to change a tire, or change their own oil in a pinch, because he only sees dollar signs where Bobby would be telling the truth. Bobby would tell it how it is, would be upfront about whether the car even needs to come into the shop or not, even if he’d make money by running some pointless diagnostic.

 But it’s not just that. Bobby has the expertise, and Dick Roman doesn’t,  and Dean thinks they might just have a chance to hang on, after all.

**

            Five days later, Singer’s Auto Shop has over eight hundred likes on Facebook, a wall filled with questions for “Singer Says,” and the local newspaper wants to write a little blurb about it.

            That would require them interviewing Bobby, who doesn’t even know about it, so Dean and Andy finally clue him in.

            Bobby lurks over the screen for ten minutes, scrolling up and down over comments, and finally looks up.

            “All these people,” he says. “They want my advice?”

            “You’re the local expert,” Dean says, trying for casual. “Guess you’ll just have to give the people what they want.”

            Looking gratified, Bobby claps Dean on the back and starts typing back to a question, telling someone that they’re dumb as a box of rocks for waiting four months to address a “check engine” light, and it sounds like there’s a problem with their carburetor. It’s a hell of a lot more useful than poring over spreadsheets all day, and some chastened Facebook user calls before the end of the day, asking when they can get his car in.

            When Dean gets home that night, he slings his jumpsuit into the laundry room, flops down on his couch, and thinks about whether he wants to watch TV tonight or not. He thinks about the party he had the night before, the way he had laughed deep from his belly. He thinks about Benny offering again to take him out on the boat come summer, him and whoever else wanted to come, and Dean had entertained a fantasy of him and Sam and Jess and Cas, blue water all around, the view of the dunes from the waves. How Cas would lounge barefoot next to him, hairy legs tanned brown, and laugh while Dean tried to fish. It should have brought him another pang of misery, but he just thought of it with a certain sense of nostalgia, like it happened once and could happen again. 

            Here’s the thing. Dean is happy. It happens like that, when you don’t try too hard for it, when you don’t hoard it like a miser. Dean Winchester is happy, even though his job might declare bankruptcy any day, even though he is thousands of miles away from his brother, and isn’t on speaking terms with his dad, and Cas and him might never be anything more to each other than two people who live in the same town.

            He doesn’t think Claire understood that. Not because she’s too young, or too romantic, but there’s a certain kind of thinking that goes—you must do penance, you must be sad, you must scratch out a life until love returns to you.

            Dean refuses. He’s been miserable for far too long to start that up again. All he knows is that he can live a life on his own, even though he wants Cas in it. He can live life without apologies, even though he wants to make good with Cas. He can be happy, even though he’d be happier with Cas.

            Dean knows what he wants, and he hopes that someday, Cas will want something the same. Until then, he can wait.

            So, for another night, he puts the coffee on, makes sure there’s cream and sugar, just in case—by some miracle, or chance—Cas wants to have that belated conversation, after all.

            And he leaves the porch light on, an invitation, in case Cas is curious to see him, to see how Dean has made himself a home. In case Cas wants a reassurance that Dean has stayed, Dean is here.

Chapter Text

            One Friday in February, Dean rolls out of bed, pads downstairs for coffee, and turns the weather channel on. Local meteorologists had been forecasting a big snowstorm today, and even though Dean is apparently mature enough to own his own home these days, he’s not, apparently, old enough to not wish for a snow day.

            His hopes end up being dashed, anyways. A warm front sweeping through by surprise, shooting tempatures—they’re expecting the snow to become sleet, maybe even rain. Bobby’s not going to shut down the shop on account of a little water.

            Dean smiles as he climbs into his car. Bobby not closing the shop for the day has more to do with them having more business than they know what to do with, as opposed to hoping to eke out a few sales on a nasty day. The local paper had started featuring Bobby’s best “Singer Says” answers in their home and garden section. Their page on Facebook had gotten so popular that Dick Roman had tried to emulate it—had even tried to top it, by putting a few car tips of his own on a billboard in the middle of town.

            Bobby had revealed the snarky teenager within him when his next “Singer Says” update was one pointing out all the erroneous information that could be found on Roman’s billboard. He walked around on a cloud of self-satisfaction for the next week after, tallying the likes his post had gotten on Facebook and leaving work early so he could take pictures of Roman’s billboard being taken back down in disgrace.

            Bobby being happy was definitely kind of strange, but Dean enjoyed it. A happy Bobby whistled while he worked on a car. A happy Bobby started giving Dean his old chief mechanic responsibilities back. Most of all, Dean was just glad that his and Andy’s last-ditch idea had panned out so well for all of them.

            When Dean reaches the garage, gearing up for a long day of working on cars, he’s surprised to see Andy isn’t smiling for once.

            “You’ve got a visitor,” he says, jerking his head to the small waiting room inside. He walks away before Dean can ask who that would be.

            For one brief moment, Dean entertains the idea that Cas is there, wedged into a seat with Rex on his lap, because there’s little to no room for a dog to find on the floor. Cas had come, had finally realized Dean was here to stay, wanted to talk with him—

            It’s not Cas. It’s Dick Roman, sitting in the only chair, the sleeves of his suit hovering over the arms of his chair, like he’s afraid to touch it. When he sees Dean, he smiles widely and jumps up.

            “Dean Winchester,” he says, coming forward with his hand outstretched. “Just the man I wanted to see. How are you, Dean?”

            Dick even looks like a sleazy businessman, Dean decides. Perfect teeth, perfect hair, a watch that probably cost more than Dean’s makes in a month. Dean shakes his hand tentatively.

            “Just fine,” he says. “How can I help you, Mr. Roman?”

            “Please, just Dick between friends,” the other man says, still clasping his hand.

            “Right,” Dean says, after an awkward silence.

            “Good, good. No worries—just a friendly conversation. No need for your boss to know,” Roman says, releasing his hand and schooling his expression—Dean can tell it’s his ‘getting down to business’ face. “I’ve got a dilemma, Dean, and one I think you can solve. I’m sure you know I own the new garage in town.”

            Dean nods.

            “My garage has everything it needs to succeed,” Dick continues, giving Dean a meaningful smile. “A beautiful new building, the newest in equipment, higher pay for all the employees. The only thing I’m missing, it seems, is a chief mechanic.”

            Dean can see where this is going, and he shakes his head. “Did you really come here to—”

            “Slow down there, son,” Dick says, placing a hand on his shoulder in a good-natured way. “I know you’re the one who started that—quaint Singer Says page on Facebook. I’ve also heard you are—or used to be—the chief mechanic here. You obviously have good business savvy, and know how to do your job.” He doubles down on Dean’s arm, pressing so Dean can know this is where the big sell is. “I need someone like you, Dean. Come to Roman Repairs, and I’ll match what you’re being paid here, plus a ten grand bonus. You can run your very own shop. You can even do your own Dean Says if you want to, huh?”

            Dean carefully extricates his arm. “No offense, Dick,” he says, “But your business screws over customers, has mechanics who don’t know how to do their job, and tried to bankrupt the job I have now. Why would I want to have anything to do with that?”

            Dick laughs without really moving his mouth—it’s kind of scary. “Oh, I see,” Dick says. “You have integrity, right? You like this backwater Bobby Singer so much that you want to take the moral high ground. Okay. Let me lay it out for you so you understand—Dick Roman gets what he wants. And Dick’s going to pound Singer’s Auto Shop into the ground.”

            “Okay,” Dean says, feeling his mouth twitch.

            “So you can take the job I’m offering you, or you’re going to find that you’re going down on a sinking ship. If you don’t jump now, there’s not going to be a job waiting for you when this place closes. It won’t be fun, will it, when Andy’s getting paid twice what you are now, and you’re on unemployment?”

            That does give Dean a second’s pause—would Andy really do that? Leave and go work for Roman Repairs? Dean had thought they were all working together to save Singer’s Auto Shop, and it would be horrible to find out Andy had been lining up a job with the competition on the side—

            Even so, it doesn’t change anything for Dean.

            “You might have business sense, Mr. Roman,” he says, “But you have the people skills of  a half-baked potato. You can’t bribe me work at your shop, and you can’t threaten me into it, either. Are we done? I’m actually pretty busy today.”

            “I’m going to take pleasure in stamping you out like a bug,” Dick says, straightening his sleeves. “Big mistake, Dean.”

            Dean rolls his eyes. “A mistake was you even coming here. You don’t think I know what you’re doing? You make a living out of scouting out failing businesses and driving up prices as soon as you’re done  taking all their customers. But if you were succeeding, you wouldn’t be here, trying to hire me.”

            “That’s ridiculous—”

            “So I think it’s safe to say that Singer’s Auto Shop isn’t the failing business, here,” Dean says, ushering Dick towards the door. “Good luck with all your business endeavors, Dick.”

            He shuts the door in Roman’s face.

            Later, out in the bay, Andy looks up at him warily.

            “So, when do you start the new job?”

            “When do you start the new job?” Dean returns. “Roman made it sound like he offered you a deal.”

            “Yeah, and I said no,” Andy says. “And then he said he had some unfinished business to talk over with you.”

            “He offered me a job,” Dean shrugs. “And I said no, too. Sounds like he was trying to scare-tactic us away from Bobby’s.”

            “Well, he didn’t do the greatest job,” Andy snorts. “Can you believe it? He offered me chief mechanic at his shop. Why the hell would I want a job that requires me to do more than the bare minimum?”

            Dean laughs. Everything suddenly seems a whole lot brighter—the dingy garage, the dark sky he can see over the parking lot. Dick Roman might not be out of business yet, but he had a feeling they just might be coming out on top.

            Bobby is humming as he comes out of his office. When he sees Andy and Dean standing together, laughing in relief, he cuts off.

            “What?” He says. “Did I miss something?”

**

            The sky opens up and starts pouring around three thirty. When Dean gets off at five, it’s showing no sign of slowing down.

            His windshield wipers are flying, the radio’s a soft fuzz, and the sound of his tires on wet pavement are lulling Dean into a sense of contentment. It was a good day, but he’s tired from being on his feet all day, bent over engines, and he’s looking forward to laying out on his couch at home, maybe ordering in Chinese, and channel-surfing.

            For whatever reason, he’s not alert to what he’s seeing on the side of the road until he’s almost passed by—then he cranes his neck and looks through the back window. Two dark shapes, features erased by the pouring rain, but Dean can make out the important bits. A man and a dog.

            The brakes squeal as he stops, and he only looks in the rearview for a second, to make sure there’s no cars behind him, before he reverses and pulls up alongside them.

            “Cas!” He says, rolling down the window. He has to shout it again to get Cas’s attention, seeing the way Cas’s head snaps up, startled, and how he makes no move towards Dean or Dean’s car.

            Dean leans across the passenger seat towards him. “Cas, come on,” he calls. “What are you doing?”

            After a moment’s deliberation, Cas comes over, leaning a little awkwardly into Dean’s window. His hair is soaking, flat against his head, his skin is wet and dripping, and his dark button-up has been made heavy and semi-sheer from the weight of water. He looks like he went swimming fully clothed.

            “I’m just walking home,” Cas says. Water drips from his chin as he says it.

            “Where’s Jimmy or Amelia?” Dean demands. “They should have picked you up.”

            “They’re on a couples’ cruise for the weekend,” Cas shrugs. Behind him, Rexy is standing placidly onto the rainfall, lowering his head now and then to sneeze out water. Both of them seem completely unperturbed, which for some reason just infuriates Dean.

            “Claire can drive now, can’t she?”     

            “Yes,” Cas says. “But I wasn’t going to bother her. She’s with Cody right now.”

            At Dean’s incredulous glance, Cas meets his gaze and looks away, resigned. “Tomorrow’s Valentine’s Day,” he says. “So the school’s Sweetheart Dance is tonight. I wasn’t going to pull her away from that.”

            “Jesus,” Dean says, rubbing a hand down his face. “Okay. Get in the car.”

            Cas’s eyes narrow. “No, thank you,” he says politely, and starts to stand up, pulling away.

            Dean catches his cold, wet wrist, and drags it into the car a little. Cas’s upper body and head reluctantly follow. “You shouldn’t be walking in this; you’ll get sick again,” Dean says. “And if everyone in your family’s too busy—well, I’m here. Don’t be stubborn about this.”

            “I’m not being stubborn,” Cas says, trying to reclaim his arm. “As usual, you’re failing to remember that I can’t go anywhere alone.” He tilts his head outside the car, to where Rexy is waiting in the rain. “And you won’t let dogs in your car, remember?”

            Dean grits his teeth. It’s not like he forgot—he’s fully aware that Rexy has claws that can rip restored leather interiors, and hair that can shed like a bitch, and his Impala would smell horribly like a wet dog for days to come.

            “I don’t care,” he says, and it’s gratifying to see Cas’s eyes momentarily widen in surprise. “Get him in the backseat. Please, for the love of God, get out of the rain, would you?”

            Cas stares at him a moment longer, faltering, and then stands up. Dean watches as he wipes the rainwater from his eyelashes. “Okay,” Cas says, his voice careful, like the situation is something to be handled in the same way a hostage situation, or defusing a bomb, might be. “Come here, Rexy.”

            Dean stares forward into the deluge as Cas opens the back door and boosts Rexy into the car. Then, the passenger door opens and he hears the squeak of Cas’s shoes, the squelch as he sits down next to him. He dares a look over and sees Cas already turned towards him, sitting halfway in the car like he thinks Dean might change his mind at any moment.

            Rexy chooses that moment to thrust his head between the two front seats, shaking his head rapidly to dry himself. Dean jumps a little as a spatter of water hits him across the face, his car seat, the dash. Cas’s mouth draws down, like he’s trying to restrain a smile, and he juts his chin at Dean in challenge.

            “Okay,” Dean says brightly, wiping his sleeve across his face. “Let’s go.”

            In the rearview, Rexy lowers his whole shoulder and head to the seat, scootching himself from one side of the car to the other like this, trying to rub the water off. Dean looks away, looks to Cas’s hands tucked between his legs, and leans forward to blast the heat.

            When they pull into the Novak’s driveway five minutes later, not a word has passed between them. Cas has been holding his hands in front of the heater, refusing to lift his gaze. But when Dean pulls to a stop, he looks up and hesitates.

            “Well,” Dean says. “Here you are.” He can’t bring himself to look over at Cas again, at the shirt drooping past his rain-slicked collarbone, or the dark dripping hair. Too much of a good thing, too close of confines. Tonight, when he’s back at home, he’ll remember what it was like to be sitting mere feet from Cas again, the car silent enough that he could hear Cas’s breaths.

            “Would you like to come in?” Cas says then, formally.

            “You don’t have to—” Dean says immediately, and then stops, because Cas gives him this disappointed look. “Really?”

            “Really,” Cas says, but he doesn’t add anything else. He quickly gets out a moment later, like he doesn’t want to be there for Dean’s decision, and then  Rexy is being let out the back. Dean doesn’t take any longer to think it over. He pulls the keys from the ignition and follows, running breathlessly after Cas through the downpour.

            At the mother-in-law suite’s porch, Cas fumbles for key in his pocket, and Dean ducks under the porch overhang, crowding Cas in as tries to get out of the wet, and for a brief moment they’re pressed together and then Cas’s key twists in the lock and the door opens—

            Cas mumbles something about getting a towel and disappears down the hallway. The suite looks almost exactly the same as when Dean last saw it, except for the fact that the pizza boxes on the coffee table are long gone. It’s also completely silent, almost eerily so, like Dean has walked into a museum of Cas’s life. The lights are off, casting long shadows, and Rexy breaks the silence by running over to his dog bed and rapturously rolling his wet body all over it.

            The light flicks on, and Dean looks over to see Cas standing in the hallway, one hand on the light switch, the other toweling off his hair. He’s still in his drenched clothes, dripping onto the carpet, and Dean can’t figure that out, can only think that maybe Cas didn’t want to be gone for too long, maybe he was afraid Dean would disappear in those few seconds it took him to peel off his clothes and put on something dry. It makes his stomach drop.

            “Looks about the same,” Dean says weakly, looking around.

            Cas doesn’t respond to that. He leans against the wall, looking across the distance at Dean, and Dean thinks he looks a little young, a little lost, like he’s searching for something in Dean’s face but doesn’t quite know what he’s looking for.

            When he brings the towel away from his head, his hair is damp and springing in all directions. It makes Dean smile.

            Cas tentatively smiles back. “I saw what you did for Bobby Singer,” he says, and clears his throat. “Online, I mean. Claire showed me. It’s a really great idea.”

            Dean feels warmth spread through him. “Thanks,” he says. “It—I, well. It was half my fault that Bobby’s business wasn’t doing that well in the first place. Now that I’m back, I’ve been trying to…well, fix things with the people I hurt.” He dares to look up at Cas, who blinks and shrinks back against the wall for a moment.       

            “Fix things.” Cas repeats quietly.

            “Of course,” Dean says. “As much as I can. And if you want me to stay away, I will. But if you want to talk—I’m here. I still want to try to fix—”

            “Fix things, or fix me?” Cas says sharply. “I’m not here for that romantic bullshit, Dean. I’ve—I’ve gone through much worse before—” His finger jabs towards his head, the scar on his temple—“I’ve had to completely relearn basic motor functions. Had too many hospital trips to mention. And I did that before you, I got through that with my brother and Amelia and Claire, and I don’t need you to swoop in here and—and—” He stops, throat working. “My life didn’t end when you left, Dean.”

            “Good,” Dean says, just as fiercely. “I’m glad. I’m not here to save you. I want you to be happy without me. But if you’d be happier with me—well. I’ve missed you so much, Cas. So fucking much.”

            Cas stares at him, and Dean takes a step forward, not letting him look away.

            “The worst thing I ever did was make you think you were some sort of deadweight,” Dean says. “That’s what I’m trying to fix, Cas. Because I tried so hard not to be a burden. I didn’t want to be someone’s responsibility—but then I started resenting the people who needed me. And that wasn’t fair to you, because everyone’s gonna need someone sometimes. Everyone’s gonna need taken care of.” Cas’s eyes are huge. “You’re not a burden, Cas. I never should have made it seem that spending forever with you was—was being saddled with you, or some kind of punishment.”

            Cas huffs out a sound and clenches his eyes closed for a second, turning his face away. Dean keeps talking, takes another step forward.

            “You were right about everything,” Dean says. “And I’m sorry it took me leaving to figure that out. Home—it’s people. People who love each other. When I’m with you—Cas, it’s the closest thing to home I’ve ever had.”

                Cas still doesn’t say anything. It looks like he’s trying to compose himself.

                “I know I fucked up,” Dean says. “And there’s a lot of shit we’d have to work through. And maybe it would be easier to have nothing to do with each other and pretend nothing ever happened. But you know what? I don’t care. I want to try again, with you. Do you?”

                Cas’s hands fly up to his face, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. When he draws them away, Dean can see the wetness on his cheeks, and he knows it isn’t from the rain.

                “'Try again'--I'm not the one who ended things, Dean. My dad, and Balthazar, and you—I’m so sick of the people I love leaving me,” Cas says, rubbing roughly at his face. He looks tired, like Dean has reached past the place of careful distance, or forced smiles, right to the place where he is defenseless, hurting. “I was in love with you, Dean, and you left. I was in love with you and you broke my heart.” His voice cracks on the last word, and before he can turn away again Dean’s across the room, pulling Cas into his arms. He can feel the wet from Cas’s clothes, soaking through, but he doesn’t care. He has a hand buried in Cas’s damp hair and the other arm wrapped around him.

                “I’m sorry,” Dean says, pushing his face into Cas’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry, and I miss you, and I’m staying.”

Cas lets himself be held, and Dean hears him swallow, his tongue unsticking, and then Cas steps closer to him, and clutches him back. Lets out a long breath that sounds like it’s been held in for months. Dean could cry.

                “You’re staying,” Cas repeats, and pulls away to look Dean in the eyes. “You mean it?”

                Dean nods, and Cas puts his hands on either side of his face, hooking his fingers behind his ears, and just looks up into his face, like he’s trying to memorize him again. That works for Dean, because he needs this, too, after a month away, and after a month of being strangers. He needs this moment, just a few seconds, just to soak it in and be so fucking glad for it.

 Then Cas is smiling, slowly, hopefully, and Dean does the same until Cas’s fingers tighten, drawing him in for a kiss. His lips are cold and his cheeks are still wet and Dean fucking loves it. He smiles, feeling his cheeks push into Cas’s palms.  

                “I’m staying,” he says, a little wonderingly, because this is the first promise for Cas in a long line that he plans to keep.

**

                At some point, Cas takes a long hot shower, and Dean familiarizes himself with Cas’s kitchen again, and makes them both cups of tea. Cas comes out of the bathroom enshrouded in steam, pink-skinned, and his smile is nervous and pleased when he sees Dean, still there, holding out a mug to him handle-first.

                There will be a time to hash everything out, for serious discussion that resemble contracts and boardrooms—them trying to figure out the parameters of a new relationship. Dean knows that and accepts the inevitability of hurt feelings and tense discussions. It’s been months, and they’ve been strangers to each other, and he left.

                Tonight, though, they don’t worry themselves with any more of that. Instead, they go to bed, and Cas pushes Dean out of his clothes, and layers himself over Dean like a heated blanket. It brings to Dean the same sense of comfort, of safety, that would come when his mother would tuck him in for the night. Cas, for his part, is pulling the sheet up over the both of them, and Dean can see the gleam of his teeth, smiling at him, before Cas pulls the sheet all the way over their heads.

                Hours later, too late to tell, Dean wakes up when he feels Cas’s mouth, hot and wet, slipping along his collarbone.

                “Hmm,” he says, when Cas rolls over on top of him, pinning him down into the bed. “I’ve missed this.”

                Cas doesn’t reply, is too busy sucking a kiss over his throat, studying it and then working on it again, like there’s something here that he needs to relearn. For a while, Dean is content to stare at the ceiling, twitching underneath him and just thinking CasCasCas. Cas moves a little lower, though, and that’s when Dean’s able to slide a hand between them, shoving down Cas’s pajamas and working a fist over him. Cas makes a pleased sound and lays off the nipple he’s sucking into his mouth, chooses instead to lay the side of his face on Dean’s chest, gasping.

                Soon Dean’s briefs are pushed down and Cas is rocking down onto him, their cocks catching and sliding together, and Dean is breathlessly encouraging him, smoothing his hands down Cas’s back, stomach clenching and legs spasming, because God Cas is so good to him, and he wants this every day for the rest of his life, because Cas makes him happiest, Cas with his laughter and his heart and his capacity to forgive, because Cas fits so sweetly between his thighs—

                And it narrows down then, Cas and Dean, Dean and Cas, their limbs tangled together and Cas’s breath hot on shoulder, hips twitching with each pass, and Dean’s got three fingers deep inside him, twisting. Cas muffles a shout into Dean’s skin as he comes, rocking his hips back against his hand and then forward again until he’s done. Stays a heavy, sated weight while Dean ruts up between their stomachs and follows, his feet drumming into the mattress, fingers curled into Cas’s shoulders.

                “What…what was that all about?” He finally asks, once he can catch his breath again.

                Cas lifts his head and smiles, their faces close enough that he’s a little cross-eyed. “You know why,” he says—like he said at the library, looking like he did at the library, and it’s true. Dean does.

                He’ll probably regret it in the morning but he’s too happy to do more than pull the covers back up over their waists. Cas is on top of him, pinning him down, a reassurance that he can keep Dean there, and that Dean will let him. For now, that’s all that matters. That says enough.

                Dean stays awake, even after Cas has fallen asleep. Dean runs his palms lightly up and down over Cas’s bare back, marveling that he’s here again, in the dark bedroom, Cas beside him. Waking up this morning, he hadn’t known. It’s frightening, too, because this hadn’t been the result of planning, or mutual agreement. He’d been lucky to see Cas today and he’d been lucky that Cas is happiest with him, too. Even after everything.

                He decides then and there that he’s not going to leave anything else up to chance. Building a home with someone takes more than drifting through town by happy accident, some unclear date of departure hovering over their heads. It takes more than being strangers, more than being friends. Dean and Cas have had their own lives, self-contained, had their separate jobs and friends and families.

                It’s a decision, not taken lightly, to make a special space in that home for another. Dean is happy in the knowledge that they’ve done it before, and they can do it again.

                Home right then is a room and a bed and a warm man wrapped around him, snoring slightly in his sleep. Right then, Dean can’t think of a better one, and doesn’t try to.

Chapter Text

FIVE MONTHS LATER

                Dean Winchester simply does not want to get out of bed today.

                There’s a variety of reasons as to why, but it most simply comes down to how busy the week has been. How busy the past five months had been. Finalizing lease agreements, the added responsibilities of being the chief mechanic of the busiest garage in town, filming a new ad spot. He’d finally received his CPR certification in March and the Novaks had taken him out to dinner at a fondue restaurant overlooking the bay. All the fanfare probably wasn’t necessary—all of Cas’s family had undergone CPR training as well—but it marked yet another achievement in Dean’s life. Another challenge committed to and suitably conquered. Cas hadn’t had a seizure since that day in November, and they’d never know for sure when and if he’d have another one, but even if Rexy did all the work and it didn’t seem to faze Cas—well. Dean is prepared now, even if he is a little nervous. It’s a responsibility he gladly undertakes.

                And then, of course, there’s been the frenetic pace of the past few days—organizing, transporting, all the heavy lifting. They’d taken a break yesterday—him and Cas and the rest of the Novaks—and gone to Sleeping Bear Dunes. It had been the first time all summer they’d gone, on a day hot enough to make the sand shimmer, and they’d picked one of the lesser dunes to save energy. Dean can still remember the smell of the sunscreen Amelia had briskly rubbed across Jimmy’s nose,  the squawk of the seagulls that Rexy and Claire and Cody took great pains to scare off. He remembers the grit of sand in his teeth and the feel of Cas’s warm, wet skin against his, sitting wrapped in a towel together as they ate cooler-cold sandwiches.

                There was last night, the room empty except for the bed and them, and Dean can still feel the strain in his thighs, the salty taste of Cas’s skin, from some still silent hour when Cas had unraveled backwards  from his lap like a tapestry, crooning noises into the covers while Dean moved inside him. Dean, all stuttering thrusts and stuttered adorations, on his knees. Cas, laid out like an offering. The give and take. They are learning.

                It has not been all days at the beach, or sweet, slow nights with Cas. They have had to relearn each other. Before Dean left, their relationship had been different.  They had never really needed serious talks, because theirs was a relationship that had a deadline attached to it. They had always tried to fill up time remaining with as many good things as possible.

                Now, there are discussions. There are nights where Dean spends the night at his townhome and Cas in his suite. It comes down to the fact that Dean used to be afraid of being burdened, and Cas was afraid of being one himself. The fact that Dean was sometimes still afraid of being tied down, and Cas would sometimes hold on too tight, afraid he would leave. It shouldn’t  have worked for them. It did. Months in, they saw this relationship was not broken, even though it would require work, and that in some ways it worked even better than before. They realized that they had reached a point where they were both happiest with each other, and could not make out a point in the future where those feelings would ever change. Within the week, Dean had called up Inglewild.

                Cas takes him by the ankle then, shaking him out of his dozing. Dean flops around onto his back and sees Cas at the foot of the bed, shirtless, hair still damp from the shower.

                “Jimmy’s afraid he’s going to ruin the pie,” Cas says. “So I’ve been called in as a reinforcement.”

                “Not that I don’t appreciate it,” Dean says, “but I’ve already  lived there for six months. Isn’t it a little late for a housewarming gift?”

                “I haven’t lived there for six months,” Cas says. “It’s their way of celebrating our new home. Besides, what are you doing, complaining about pie?”

                “You’re right,” Dean says, sitting forward so Cas can drop a quick kiss on his lips. “I need to—shut my piehole.”

                Cas pulls away, looking at him incredulously. “That was bad,” he says. “I’m going to leave now.” Dean watches as Cas picks up a worn blue t-shirt from the floor and yanks it over his head.

                “Gotta get my piehole stuffed,” Dean calls after him, insufferably, and Cas rolls his eyes and shuts the bedroom door behind him. A few seconds later, Dean hears the front door close, too, as Cas walks across the lawn to Jimmy’s house.

                Dean stretches out across the bed, yawning, before he eventually rolls off the bed and starts getting ready. When Cas had agreed to move in with him, they’d decided to bring a significant portion of his furniture, too. Amelia had a large truck that would come in handy that she owned for her restaurant, so she was gone now, picking it up. Meanwhile, Jimmy had been given the task of removing the pie from the oven when it was ready. Tonight, after all of Cas’s stuff was moved in, the Novaks were going to bring over homemade dinner and dessert to celebrate.

                It’s been busy and it will continue to be busy. They’ll have a lot of things to unpack and rearrange as they try to make it Cas’s home, too. Bobby’s planning  a garage expansion, Sam and Jess are supposed to fly in next week, Cas is accepting an award on behalf of the East Bay Library’s children’s program the week afterward—it’s in Lansing, and includes two free nights at a hotel there,  and Dean’s been daydreaming of room service. Dean’s life has changed a lot since those dull, awful years of living at home with Dad, his nights as a watchman for Sandover. He doesn’t like to dwell on his years in Kansas, except to marvel over how far he’s come.

                Finally, after getting ready in the laziest manner imaginable, he ambles out of the empty suite and over to the Novak’s house, where boxes upon boxes of Cas’s stuff are scattered in the foyer. He enters the kitchen just in time to see Cas drawing the pie out of the oven, and he doesn’t know what looks more delicious—the sight of him leaned over, the blue t-shirt stretched tight over his shoulder blades, or the pie itself, with its perfect golden crust.

                He comes up behind Cas and puts a hand low on his back. “Ready to fill my piehole,” he says, leering over Cas’s shoulder.

                There’s a muffled curse as Cas drops the pie back into the oven and startles up, and then Dean is hastily backtracking, almost tripping over Rexy—“Fuck,” he says. “Jimmy—”

                Jimmy holds up one oven-mitted hand to stop him. “I don’t even want to know.”

                “It’s really not—”

                “Okay,” Jimmy says quickly. “Whatever you say, Dean.”

                There’s the muffled flush of the toilet then, and a seemingly interminable time passes while the faucet squeaks on and off. Then Cas comes out of the bathroom, apparently completely unaware what transpired, because he grins and points between his and Jimmy’s matching t-shirts.

                “We’re practically identical,” he says. Jimmy and Dean make eye contact and then hurriedly look away from each other again.

                As if it couldn’t get worse, apparently there’s been an audience all along for this particular fiasco. Behind him, Claire gets up from the table and goes to put her bowl of cereal in the sink. “You are so red right now,” she says helpfully as she passes him. “So red.”

                Dean can’t wait until Cas moves out.

**

                Three hours later, Amelia unloads the last box from the back of her truck, handing it to Claire to take inside.

                “That’s a wrap,” she says, smoothing a few sweaty strands of hair away from her face. “Okay, what do you want to tackle next? Unpacking the boxes? Setting up the bookshelves?”

                Cas puts an arm around her shoulders, planting a kiss on her cheek. “Mia, you’ve been amazing today. Seriously, you don’t have to do anything else.”

                “You know we don’t mind—” Amelia says, and Dean takes that as his cue to leave. He walks back to the porch, half-lifting a box so he can see the words they Sharpied there. PORCH & GRILL. He can pretend that this is a deeply engrossing task for as long as he needs to. Behind him, he hears Jimmy walking up to join Cas and Amelia, and Claire’s footsteps pounding back down the stairs. He doesn’t stop her as she goes by to join the Novak powwow.

                There was only one damper for Cas when it came to moving. He hadn’t liked living in the suite, or on his brother’s charity, but he had also lived with Jimmy and his family for almost five years. They’d been there for Cas in a dark time that Dean can only imagine, had supported him all through the accident and the trial and learning to live with his seizures. Cas hadn’t wanted to stay, but he didn’t want them to think he was leaving them behind.

                “—I don’t know what I would have done if you guys hadn’t been here for me all along,” Cas says. His voice sounds thick. Dean retreats further around the corner of the house, the box tucked under his arm, and almost bumps into a teenage boy who’s walking across the lawn towards him.

                “Sorry,” he says, and moves to go around the teenager but the boy doesn’t move, looking up at him with a determined expression.

                “You’re Dean, right?” He says.

                “Uh, yeah,” Dean says, trying to remember if he’d ever seen this boy. He definitely didn’t look familiar—

                “I thought I recognized you,” the boy says, relieved. “You’re from the commercials for Singer’s Auto Shop, right?”

                Dean can feel the color build in his face again. Bobby’s business had had such a turnaround over the past half year that Bobby had turned to commercials to solidify the deal. Bobby preferred to stay behind the scenes, typing snarky Singer Says posts, so when it came to who would star in the shop’s ad spot, apparently there was only one choice. Dean’s just glad that Bobby hadn’t chosen to go with Andy’s idea of baby oil and a jumpsuit bared to the waist. He also considers himself lucky that it’s a local commercial, mostly aired between news segments, so that Sam and Jess will never know.

                So, all in all, it hadn’t been awful. Dean, inexplicably holding a wrench, sitting in the driver’s seat of the Impala and talking to the camera about the 77 years of experience that Singer’s Auto Shop boasts. Dean, wearing a pair of fake black-rimmed glasses, sitting at Bobby’s office chair and looking up seriously from the paperwork there to tell the viewer the importance of underbody car washes. They were cheesy and awkward and apparently this boy totally recognized him.

                “Yeah,” he says slowly, wondering what the boy’s getting at.

                The teenager whips out a pen and a crumpled-up piece of paper. “I was wondering if I could have your autograph?”

                Dean gapes. "You’re not serious,” he says. The teenager stares. “You are serious.”

                “Unless,” the boy says, slowly lowering his hands. “You don’t want to.”

                “No!” Dean says, snatching up the pen and paper. “I, uh, I totally want to. Yeah, an autograph. Sure.”

                The boy beams as Dean smoothes out the paper and places it flat over the box he’s carrying on his other arm. Then he takes an inordinately long amount of time to loop his E’s and finish his last name with a flourish.

                “Here you go,” Dean says, handing it back and trying for nonchalant.

                “Thank you,” the teenager breathes, staring down at the signature. “Thank you so much. I can’t wait to put this up—”

                Dean watches, a little bemused, as the teenager tears back to his apartment. In retrospect, maybe he should have tried to be more collected about the whole thing. Maybe even asked the kid his name, tried to start a conversation. He makes up his mind to be cooler about the whole thing in the future, and then shakes his head. That’s assuming there’s a next time.

                Well, weirder things had happened. Cas had said before that every town has its cannons in the park and its asshole drivers and it’s local celebrity. Who would have thought that Dean would be the local color. But maybe that’s just what happens when people stay. You become a fixture of the place where you live.

                Dean spends a few minutes unpacking the box on the back porch,  still smiling a little in disbelief, and then deems it safe enough to round the house again. Jimmy is just then pulling away from a hug with Cas, wiping his eyes a little. They open the circle a little then, turning towards Dean, so that he knows it’s okay to come over.

                “We’re going to head home while you two get everything unpacked,” Amelia says, taking everything in stride. “We’ll be back tonight for dinner, okay?”

                “Sounds good,” Dean says. He and Cas and Rexy stand on the porch as the Novaks climb back into the truck and drive off.

                Dean squeezes Cas’s hand. “You know they’ll be back in five hours, right?”

                Cas breathes out a laugh. “I know,” he says. “It’s just—for as much as I railed against it sometimes, living with them was home.” He shrugs. “No knock on my new home, or anything.”

                “None taken,” Dean says. Cas’s eyes are still on the truck, watching as it turns out of the complex, so Dean moves behind him, wraps his arms around his waist.

                “I love you,” he says, and when Cas tilts his head to hear him, he switches to his other ear, his good ear, and repeats it.

                Cas melts back against him for a few seconds, letting out a long sigh, and he doesn't even have to say anything in response. Dean knows why. Then he’s pushing Dean’s arms off him, grabbing his hand, and pulling him back into the townhome.

                “Okay,” he says, standing in the middle of the living room, boxes piled precariously all around him. “Where do we begin?”

**

                They hadn’t gotten as much done as they wanted to, because they kept fooling around. Eventually, the extra boxes were shoved into a closet for the time being, and Dean and Cas took a quick, soapy shower together before making sure the dining room and kitchen were in order.

                The Novaks arrived back around seven, and Bobby and Andy a few minutes afterwards, and Ellie was able to make it, too. The smells from the kitchen, where Amelia was heating some pre-made casseroles, were divine. Andy mistook the closet for the bathroom and was almost immediately avalanched by the stacks of boxes wedged in there. Bobby wanted to smoke a cigar with Dean to commemorate the occasion.

                Somewhere in all of that, Dean slips outside onto the front porch, just for a moment. Takes a deep breath of fresh air right off the bay. For a moment, it’s like stepping outside let him step outside of his life, seeing from this distance a home and family and friends and the man he loved, all wrapped together like a present just for Dean.

                There’s one thing that he hasn’t done yet, didn’t want to make a big deal of. Most people don’t think of their address as anything more than a place to send their mail to. Dean, when he moved here, thought differently. He thought this townhome in Inglewild represented the end of his days of drifting, ushering in permanency and stability and a sense of home. It showed that Dean Winchester had decided to stay.

                Turning to the mailbox, he jiggles out the slip of paper he put there before, all those months ago.

                DEAN  WINCH. He replaces it with a new one.

                DEANANDCAS.

               There. Finally complete.

Inside, he can hear the thrum of voices, the oven timer going off. The clink of glasses, and Rexy’s tail thumping against the floor, and Cas actually giggling at something someone is saying to him. Dean can’t wait to rejoin that. So he lifts his eyes for a moment, blinks a few times, and once he’s ready he steps inside his home, turns off the porch light, and closes the door behind him.