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Where the Road Leads?

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The young man collapsed in his arms when they were finally alone. The house was eerily quiet after the long day of chatter. The lights were all turned off except for a lamp at one end of the couch. The shadows cast across the wall were ominous and fitting in the aftermath of the day’s events. The lives of the three people currently in the small, cottage-like home were irrevocably changed, and the young man could no longer bear the pressure. The older man felt the dampness soaking through his black dress shirt. He had removed the tie hours ago, tired of feeling strangled and being reminded of the person he used to be. His life now was wholly different, and it was due in no small part to the woman they mourned that day. She had been a spark in his once dull, colorless life, and now she was gone. He knew his own pain over her loss was dwarfed by the pain of her two sons. One of which was tucked in bed upstairs. The other was the young man in his arms. Pulling back slightly he gripped the young man by the biceps and helped direct him to the couch. He gingerly sat down next to him and immediately found himself with a head buried in his chest.

A feeling of intense protectiveness swept over the older man. He had watched over the last few days as the young man stood solid, acting vastly older than his age. Supporting his brother through his grief and taking care of every detail, except his own sorrow. And now in the darkened, quiet home, he finally gave in to his own feelings of despair. Relinquishing the burden and responsibility and letting himself be supported and cared for as he deserved. The older man rubbed circles on his back and whispered words of comfort. He had known what he would do from the moment she died, but this moment solidified it. He belonged here. He was needed here. And he would do his very best to protect and serve the two young men who had become family to him over the last two years. He would honor their mother who helped push him to use his talents to fight the good fight. The thought brought to mind the day they met.

Standing on the edge of the crowd, sign in one hand, camera in the other, he more observed the protests than participated. He sensed someone watching him. When he turned, he saw her marching toward him. Each step determined. She stopped directly in front of him and said, “Any good with that thing?” He stared dumbfounded, mouth gaping, unable to form a coherent response. She repeated her question. This time reaching out to point at his camera. He shifted back quickly. The camera was worth a small fortune, and it was the only thing he had left of his previous life. It was the one thing he walked away with when he said goodbye to his family.

Unwilling and unable to live the life they expected of him, the day he turned eighteen he stuffed a small bag with some clothes and a couple of books. He loaded up his camera bags and took off on his motorcycle. It was fitting to make his exit on the first sign of his rebellion. The Harley-Davidson Roadster had become the symbol for his mother’s disappointment in him. The leather jacket and pierced ears were the affront to her sensibilities. The picket signs were the stab in the heart of her conservative image. As he drove away that day, he realized for the first time in years his mother and him shared the same feeling, and it was relief. “I wasn’t going to touch it,” he heard through the fog of memory. He shook his head to clear it, taking in the woman standing stock still in front of him. “What?” he asked still dazed. She smiled at him, bright and shining, and he found himself pulled in by her magnetism. “How about we start over?” she had said then, and he couldn’t do anything but nod. After their exchange that day, he discovered who he truly was and who he wanted to be going forward. The camera became his right arm and his conscience. It was ever-present and demanding. He learned every nuance and the true value of a photograph. She taught him that, and he would forever be grateful.  Even more he was grateful for the care she showed a wayward young man, introducing him to her boys and welcoming him into her home between his travels.

Nearly four years later and it was time to repay her for her unending support and kindness. It was time to stop the traveling, and it was time to step up and be the man she needed him to be in her absence. She never came out and asked him directly as she lay in her hospital bed, but he knew from the despair in her eyes what she wanted. He recalled the last words he said to her, I won’t leave them, and the tiny smile and breath of relief he received in return. And so in this moment in the darkened room with her eighteen year-old son in his arms, he promised him the same. Whispering over and over that he would stay. That he would not be alone to raise his brother. For as long as he was needed, he would stay at his side. The sagging body and heavy sigh were the only answer he needed. Relief seemed to be the theme of the major moments of his life. This time the relief seemed even more profound as he took the brunt of the young man’s weight.

They remained curled up on the couch until the young man shifted back with pink cheeks. Wiping his face, he said, “Sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for Dean.”

“Come on, Cas. I just got snot all over your nice shirt.”

“Dean,” Cas scolded, “it’s just a shirt, and you needed to let that all out. You’ve kept it in for too damn long.”

“Yeah, well, not like I had a choice. Someone had to deal with all this shit and take care of Sammy.” Dean stood up and stomped across the room, heading for the kitchen. “Not like my deadbeat, drunk of a dad would show up and be responsible for once in his life.”

Instead of responding, Cas waited for Dean to return to the living room. Beer in hand the young man stepped back into the room. Cas shook his head but didn’t say anything. “Don’t bother,” said Dean, “I know it won’t help anything, but right now I don’t give a shit.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything, Dean.” The green eyes staring back at him were filled with gratitude and a deep sadness. It pained Cas to see it, and he said, “Come sit down. You look like you’re about ready to fall over.”

Ducking his head, Dean made his way back over to the couch. “Thanks, Cas.” Once he was seated, he looked straight into Cas’s deep blue eyes. “And I don’t mean just for tonight. I don’t know how we would have got through this without you.” Unable to find the words to respond, Cas stayed silent, their eyes still locked together. After a while Dean began to fidget and bite his lip. Knowing the young man so well, Cas waited for him to say what was on his mind. It didn’t take long before Dean exhaled loudly as he said, “What did you mean?” Cas tilted his head in question, so Dean clarified. “You said you were going to stay, what does that mean?”

“Exactly what I said. I’m here for as long as you need.”

“Um…how is that going to work? Are you going to live with us?”

“If that is what you and Sam want, then yes.” Dean’s mouth fell open. “Dean, your mom made sure to name you Sam’s guardian in her will, but an eighteen-year-old raising a fourteen-year-old on his own…”

Dean’s jaw clenched, and he gripped the edge of the couch. “What? You think I can’t do it.”

“No that’s not it at all. Mary believed in you and so do I, but your dad is still out there and if anyone got wind of it…well let’s just say you may need some back-up and having me around would help financially.”

The young man deflated as all the fight left him. “Yeah, that sounds good. I hadn’t really thought about Dad other than the usual, pissed off that he is a shitty waste of space. And fuck I haven’t really had time to look at the bills and all that crap.”

“Don’t worry, Dean, we’ll take care of it together, but not tonight.” Cas stood up and stretched, his lean body stiff and exhausted from the tension of the last few days. “Tonight, we need sleep.” When he lowered his gaze, Cas found Dean watching him .  Dean's eyes were drooping, and the beer in his hand was long forgotten. Cas took it out of his loose grip and set it on the dark, battered coffee table. He took Dean’s hand and pulled him off the couch. “I’ll see you in the morning,” Cas said as Dean walked toward the stairs. The young man turned to face him, watching as Cas pulled out the sofa bed. “Goodnight, Dean.”

“Okay, yeah, night, Cas.”

Once he heard Dean shut his door, Cas laid back on his pillow and stared up at the ceiling. His mind filtered through the steps he would need to take over the next weeks. He already had the preliminary steps done for opening the studio, and he knew Charlie would be well on her way to finalizing the website before the new day dawned. His friend was a night-owl through and through. She rarely saw her bed before the early morning hours, but she assured him she could make the change to day-time work. When he had given her a questioning look, she glared at him, sweeping her red hair into a ponytail, as she said, “Don’t underestimate me, Cas.” He had smiled at her before saying, “Never.” That was where the conversation had ended as Charlie buried her head in her laptop. His mind drifted from Charlie to money. He knew he had enough to last himself for at least a few years, even if the studio failed to make a profit, but how far would it stretch for three people. He had promised Dean he would help figure it all out tomorrow, but his brain would not let it go.

Giving up on sleep, Cas slipped out of the bed and walked into the kitchen, turning on the lights. He shut his eyes at the onslaught, letting himself adjust before opening them again. The desk tucked into the back corner was covered in paper. He walked over and flopped down in the chair. The mortgage was the first priority, followed by the utilities. He would need to keep them paid until Mary’s life insurance paid out. The small amount of savings Mary had went to pay for her funeral costs, so the boys had no liquid assets. Dean’s job provided some income, but since he was still in high school, he only worked about fifteen hours a week. And Cas would be damned if he dropped out four months before graduating. Their argument when Dean suggested it was volatile. Mary was equally livid when Cas told her about Dean’s suggestion. Three days before she passed away, she confronted Dean about it, weeping when Dean finally relented, promising her he would finish school.

With the memory hanging over his head, Cas flipped through some of the documents. The hospital bills had just begun to arrive and he knew they would be extensive. Mary had health insurance, but the coverage was minimal. He shoved those bills aside. They were not the priority at the moment. His hand, instead, clasped Mary’s will reading it in its entirety. The boys were her sole beneficiaries, and Dean was given control of the assets until Sam turned eighteen. Cas smiled when he thought of Mary’s faith in her son. Not everyone would trust a high school student with the responsibility of raising their brother and managing a home, but Mary was adamant.

In the last weeks, Cas came to understand just how accurate that faith was. Through her illness, her death, and her funeral, Dean took charge. Cas chuckled at thoughts of himself at eighteen. Out on his own, no responsibility but to himself. It was a stark contrast to the pressures Dean was facing. The laughter dissipated. Cas leaned back and ran his hand down his face. He sighed into the quiet of the night as he looked down at the desk. There was nothing more he could do tonight. Shaking his head, he stood up and walked back to the living room. His eyes fell on the mess of blankets on the bed. He stood there for several seconds thinking about his life now. He hadn’t stayed in one place longer than a month or two since he left his childhood home. And Mary was the only reason it ever happened. She insisted he park his motorcycle during the worst of the winter months. Sometimes he stayed with her and the boys. Other times he stayed with Charlie in her small, brightly decorated apartment, tucked above the now closed comic book store.

Charlie kept telling him it was fate. He scoffed at her but couldn’t help wonder how things fell into his lap. Just when he needed a place for a studio, one became available. And not only was the price of the building reasonable, his friend and now employee lived on the upper floor. Since he wasn’t under contract to any of the news agencies or publications he took assignments for, Cas could easily walk away from those endeavors. Not knowing what the future held for him, he decided he should still formally apprise them of his decision. He hoped by doing so he would not burn any bridges. His publisher was a different story. He knew he needed to work with them to find a way to fulfill his contract despite the changes in his life. It was pressure he never thought he would have in his early twenties. When he rode away on his motorcycle, leaving his home in the dust, he never envisioned himself with a career. Let alone one with such diversity and responsibility. To tell other people’s stories, to do them justice was, he felt, his duty, but it was also his greatest honor. It was why he traveled so extensively. He went where he felt he was needed most. Whether it was a protest on a reservation or a women’s march, or migrants at the border or a civil war in Nigeria or Syria, Cas was compelled to document the impact on those involved.

The place he was needed most now was with Sam and Dean. Not once did it cross his mind to leave them. As he took to his bed, he realized he needed to make sure they knew he was here by choice. That this is what he wanted and not what was demanded of him. If Dean was left feeling like Cas gave up his life to help take care of them, he would be riddled with guilt and shame. It was a trait Dan possessed in spades, and Cas had seen it in the young man almost from the beginning. Easing that guilt was almost as important as relieving some of the responsibility. Shutting his eyes, Cas felt a wave of fear wash over him. He wanted to believe he was up to the task but doubt had a way of creeping in, especially in the quiet, dark of night.

 

Cas woke to the sound of Sam’s heavy feet on the stairs. The teenager was going through a dramatic growth spurt and had difficulty dealing with the changes. His stumbled over his feet and blundered into rooms with all the grace of a cow on ice skates. Despite his exhaustion, the image brought a smile to Castiel’s face and a small chuckle to bubble up in his throat. As soon as Sam saw he was awake, he practically jumped on the bed. “Are you making breakfast?” Sam asked eagerly. “Or should I just have cereal?” The second question was teetering on whiny, and the serious pout on Sam's face aided in the plea. Cas shook his head and rolled over, pretending to ignore the boy. “Come on, Cas, please. You make the best scrambled eggs.”

“Maybe you should learn to cook them yourself,” interjected Dean as he leapt down the last three steps.

Cas smiled at the younger man before turning to face Sam again. “Dean’s right.”

“You two suck. Is this how it’s going to be now?” asked Sam with an even bigger pout on his face.

With dramatic flair and barely contained sarcasm, Dean asked, “Whatever do you mean, Samantha?”

“Don’t call me that.” Sam stood up from the bed and stomped his feet as he walked toward the kitchen. Yelling over his shoulder, he added, “And I meant, are you two going to gang up on me and always side with each other?  Cause that’s going to royally suck.”

Even though Sam tried to keep his tone light and joking, Cas heard an undertone of worry. It wasn’t going to be easy for Sam to adjust to having Dean and Cas running the house, essentially parenting him. Cas had been so focused on what the change would mean for him and for Dean, he forgot to see how hard it would be for Sam. It’s possible he might not even agree to the plan. Flipping his blankets off, Cas got out of bed and joined Sam in the kitchen. “Sam, I assure that is not the plan.”

“Yeah, right.  You and Dean always spend more time together when you’re here. Hanging out and going places.”

Cas’s eyes were drawn to Dean as he stepped into the room with a sad expression on his face. “Sammy,” Dean said sounding pained.

“What it’s true?”

Pulling his gaze away from Dean, Cas looked at the teenager seated across from him, “Sam, Dean and I are closer in age and have some similar interests. Besides, most of the time you were off with your own friends.”

Sam shrugged as he reluctantly agreed, “Yeah I guess that’s true. But with you living here…” His mouth snapped shut as his cheeks turned red. “Um…ah,” he stuttered.

Dean cut off his stumbling words. “How the fuck do you know he’s going to be living here?”

Sam ducked his head at the undeniable anger in Dean’s voice. Cas knew instantly why Dean was so angry. Sam had clearly been eavesdropping on them the previous night which meant he saw Dean crying in Cas’s arms. Being the big brother, Dean never wanted Sam to see his vulnerability, and now he had. Sam stared straight ahead, refusing to face Dean. “I…um…heard you talking.”

“No, you were fucking spying on us.”

“I didn’t mean to Dean. I swear. I got up to get something to drink, and Cas was holding you.” Dean groaned, but Sam forged ahead anyway. “And talking to you about staying here.”

Before Dean could raise his voice and swear again, Cas said, “It’s okay Sam. We were planning on asking you this morning anyway.”

Confusion settled on Sam’s face. “Asking me?”

“Yes. I would never move in here without your permission. This is your home as much as its Dean’s.”

“Oh.” Sam stared at Cas for several heartbeats before turning to Dean. Silence followed as Sam stared at his older brother.

Dean, impatient as usual, broke the silence. “Cas is right. This isn’t just my decision. So, what do you think?”

“How would it work?” The question seemed to take Dean by surprise, and Sam was quick to add. “I mean when Cas stays here its usually only for a few days or a couple weeks at a time.” He turned his head, looking at Cas, as he said, “What about your job?”

Cas took in the unsure look on Sam’s face and the tension written all over Dean’s body. Reining himself in, he swallowed down his immediate response. Spilling all his plans before they had even eaten breakfast was a poor choice. It was going to be a long conversation and would delve into areas no one should have to deal with as a teenager. Cas shook his head as he eyed Dean, hoping to keep him from pushing the topic. He watched as the younger man leaned back against the counter and relaxed his shoulders. Satisfied, he shifted his eyes until they rested on Sam. “Before we get into all that how about I teach you to make my scrambled eggs so we can eat breakfast. Then we can talk.” Sam didn’t look exactly happy, but he did nod his assent.

It wasn’t long before they sat down at the small kitchen table, marked by years of use. The bacon, eggs, and hash browns disappeared rapidly. Cas and Dean lingered at the table finishing their second cups of coffee while Sam loaded the dishwasher. Cas saw the questions in Dean’s eyes. Part of him desperately wanted to reach out and take the younger man’s hand, but he refrained, unsure how Dean would react to the contact. Instead, he tried to give him a reassuring smile. Dean returned the small smile before finishing his coffee. He stood up and put his cup in the dishwasher. Both boys came back to the table and sat down heavily. Cas sighed, steeling himself for the conversation to come. He approached Sam’s earlier questions first. “Sam, I am opening a studio here in town and am taking a break from my freelance work. The only issue remaining is my contract with my publisher, and I will be meeting with them at some point. So, I'll be here in town no matter your decision about living arrangements.”

Dean’s eyes grew comically wide as he stuttered, “How…when…”

“I started working on it over a month ago. Everything just fell into place over the last two weeks. The store below Charlie’s apartment closed, and I bought the building. She and I have been working on the business plan. We’ll open inside a month if everything goes okay.”

Sam smiled as he practically bounced in his seat. “That’s awesome.”

Dean’s face didn’t show even the slightest enthusiasm, in fact he looked a bit stricken by the news. “What kind of studio, Cas?” he asked, voice strained and cracking.

“Photography, of course,” Cas said, ignoring the true nature of the question.

“You know damn well that is not what I meant.”

Sam’s head snapped back and forth between the two men “I don’t get it. What’s the problem, Dean?”

Just as Cas said, “There is no problem,” Dean said, “He’s giving up his career to take graduation pictures, wedding photos, and shit like that.” Cas held up his hand to try to get Dean’s attention, but the younger man refused to stop. “Which he has never wanted to do. Don’t even try to deny it. That is not the kind of photographer you are. Mom explained photojournalism to me when I asked why you travel so much. And we’ve seen your work and read your freakin’ Wikipedia page, Cas. You can’t bullshit your way out of this. You’ve been in National Geographic for fuck’s sake, and on the front page of God knows how many newspapers. You won your first award when you were twenty.”

Sadness enveloped Cas. Dean’s reaction was worse than he expected. He certainly never expected a recitation of his accomplishments. It didn’t occur to him that Dean would know so much about his career. They rarely discussed it when he visited. Being at the Winchesters was his respite from the stress of his job, so Mary had always tried to steer the conversation to other topics. He should have known she would tell the boys about it, especially if they asked. He closed his eyes as he held up his hand once again. Silence filled the room until Cas said, “I’m not going to bullshit you, Dean. Yes, the studio will offer those services. I will be hiring another photographer to help with that side of the business.”

“Yeah and what will you be doing?” Dean asked wryly.

“Doing commissions and selling my own works.” Dean’s expression was still hard so he added, “I am not giving up my career, Dean. I am simply altering it.”

Unable to contain himself any further, Sam said, “That doesn’t sound so bad Dean. I mean he will still be a photographer.”

Dean responded with a one shoulder shrug and a frown. “Dean, I wouldn’t even have the career I have without your mom. She was the one who set me on that road. After she was diagnosed, I wanted to be here. I saw firsthand what stage four lung cancer does to a person.” Cas pictured the two women and one man he photographed over a two-year span. Only one was still alive and in remission. They had all been non-smokers in their forties. The growing number of diagnoses for younger, non-smokers was the reason Cas and another photographer were asked to document their journeys. Lung cancer needed to be viewed differently, and he was part of the new campaign to make that happen. He never imagined the disease would strike so close, and that Mary would succumb to it within six months. With that thought, he whispered in a broken voice, “I thought we’d have more time.” No one spoke, all three lost in their own grief. Cas cleared his throat as he stood up and walked over to the desk. He carried a stack of papers back to the table. “I need you to believe me when I say this wasn’t a rash decision. I wanted to be here for Mary and for you. I just didn’t expect she would leave us so soon. When I realized she was…I sped up my plans.” He set the papers down in front of Dean. “Look at the dates on these.”

Dean shuffled through the papers and then pushed them over to Sam. “And this is really what you want?” Dean’s expressive green eyes stared intently at Cas.

Cas held his gaze. “It is.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?” asked Cas.

Dean’s lips quirked up slightly. “Yeah, okay. I’m done arguing.”

Sam bumped his shoulder into Dean’s. “That’s a first.”

“Very funny.” Dean rolled his eyes before turning serious. “Sammy, how would you feel if Cas moves in?”

Cas stopped Sam before he answered. “I think we should discuss some details before either of you decide. This isn’t going to be easy, but we have to talk about finances and clearing out your mother’s room. And we should talk about our relationships, and how they will change. I won’t be just a guest anymore.”

“You’ve never been just a guest, but I get what you mean. We'll be sharing this house and the responsibilities which includes Sam,” said Dean thoughtfully as he looked at his younger brother.

Sam slammed his hand down on the table.  “What the hell Dean? I’m not a little kid.”

Cas jumped in, needing to curtail the upcoming argument. “No one is saying you are a little kid, but you are also not an adult. Dean is your guardian. It is what your mom wanted so we all need to respect that decision.” Cas saw the second those words sunk in as Sam visibly shrunk in his seat.

Dean reached out and put his arm around Sam’s shoulders. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I just never thought of it that way,” said Sam shyly. “Dean, I want Cas to live with us.”

“Sam, we haven’t finished talking about the issues," said Cas, voice laced with concern.

The brothers looked at each other and nodded. Dean turned to face Cas and smiled. “Cas, we can talk about them, but it isn’t going to change anything. We both want you here. I knew it last night,”

“So, did I,” said Sam.

Chapter Text

“We’re gonna be late,” Dean yelled to Sam as he looked up the stairs. It had become an almost daily occurrence over the last few months. Dean couldn’t decide if it was just teenage angst or because Cas moved in. He steadfastly refused to dwell on the most likely cause. He lived it himself every morning. It was hard to find a reason to wake up and go out into the world now that his mother was gone from it. He had little choice in the matter so he dragged himself out of bed each day, and then forced his baby brother to get up. The once punctual, always eager to go to school Sam Winchester had vacated the building after Mary’s death and was replaced with a surly, fickle teenager. Dean bit his tongue most mornings, and when he couldn’t, Cas would step in and take charge of getting Sam off to school. Thinking of his friend, Dean walked over to the door to see Cas leaning against the car, face lifted to the sun. It was a rare moment these days to see Cas looking so relaxed.

He knew he was responsible for most of Cas’s tension, and it filled him with guilt. The fight two weeks ago slammed into his mind.

You’re too strict with him sometimes.”

“He’s my brother and my responsibility. I can’t just let him run wild.”

Cas rolled his eyes. “I would hardly call getting a C on a test running wild. If you keep this up, he is going to rebel.”

“What does a rich playboy who goes wherever the road takes him know about rules and family.” Dean tried to pull the last word back, but it spilled out anyway. Even before he finished the sentence, he had wanted to apologize, but it was too late. Cas was out the door before the last syllable fell. Dean lifted his hands to his head, tugging at his hair in frustration while berating himself. It’s why he didn’t know Sam had come down the stairs until he heard his brother say, “That wasn’t fair, Dean. You can’t tell him he’s family one day and then tell him he doesn’t have one the next.”

Without turning to face Sam, Dean said, “You’re supposed to be in bed.”

“Well it’s kinda hard to sleep with you two fighting.” Sam stepped in front of Dean with a pained look in his eyes. “Why do you always push him?”

“It’s not like he doesn’t push back. He yells as much as I do.”

Sam shook his head. “No, he doesn’t. Most of the time he takes your anger and your insults. He only punches back when you push too far.”

Dean deflated, dropping to the couch and putting his head in his hands. The truth of Sam’s words hitting him square in the chest. “I know,” he whispered. “Why does he even stick around?”

“Because we are his family. And just because he isn’t going anywhere doesn’t mean you should treat him like shit.” Sam smacked Dean on the arm, and when his older brother turned to look at him, he said, “You need to stop fighting with him about me, and you need to let me have some freedom. I’m not out partying or flunking out of school.”

“Yeah, you’re a good kid. I just worry about you, and I don’t want your plans to be ruined because Mom died.”

Sam curled up next to Dean. “I’m only fourteen, Dean. I haven’t even started high school yet. I think it’s probably a good bet my plans might change.”

They were still curled up on the couch when Cas came back. Sam stood up and hugged him whispering in his ear. Dean watched the exchange and kept his eye on Cas even as Sam walked up the stairs. Cas crossed his arms, holding them tight against his chest, and stared down at the younger man. Dean wanted to get up and walk away, but he didn’t. Instead, he stood up and crossed the distance between them. Standing in front of his friend, he could see the pain he had caused. Cas’s blue eyes were guarded, mirroring his stance. Taking a deep breath, Dean said, “I’m sorry. I should never have said that to you. You, me, and Sam. We’re family. I’m going to try and do better. Go easier on Sam and you.” Cas’s eyes had lightened, and his arms had fallen away. The tension had bled out of his body, and his lips had quirked up in a shy smile.

 

As Dean looked out the door, Cas pushed off the car and turned to face him, giving him the same shy smile he had that night. A strange feeling came over him, and he forced himself to look away. The feeling was lost as Sam slapped him on the back. “Got your cap and gown,” he said as he raced out the door to the car.

“Shit,” grumbled Dean before racing up the stairs. He grabbed the hanger roughly and then sprinted out to the car. He slid into the passenger seat, not his usual spot, but since they were running late Cas was driving, so they could drop Dean off. Ten minutes later, he went to get out of the car but was stopped by a hand on his forearm. “You’ll do great,” said Cas sincerely. “Good luck.”

“Yeah don’t trip or anything,” chuckled Sam.

“Bitch,” snapped Dean angrily, but the smile on his face gave him away.

Sam gave him a cheeky smile. “Jerk.”

As he got out of the car, he was grateful for both of them. Grateful for Cas’s kind encouragement and grateful Sam helped ease his nerves. It was never his intention to give a speech on graduation day. He was sure none of his teachers ever thought he would be selected to give the final speech of the night. Yet here he was with a speech in his pocket and butterflies in his stomach. Usually, graduation ceremonies followed a particular pattern, but the student council and their advisors voted for change. It was why every senior was asked to write an essay to their fellow students. From those two students would be selected to speak at graduation. Dean wrote the damn thing one emotional night six weeks after losing his mother. He didn’t bother rereading it. He turned it in and then put it out of his mind. Two weeks later he was asked to speak. A huge part of him wanted to refuse, but there was this nagging sensation inside his chest telling him to do it. He was still leaning toward no when Cas said, “What you have to say has merit, Dean? They should hear it.” And that was it, the next day he agreed.

The speech in his pocket was a bit more organized than the disjointed rambling of his essay, but the themes were the same. In the staging area, he slipped on his cap and gown and followed his fellow students to their seats. He ran through the speech, staring at his cards without seeing them. The words were already committed to memory. He held them for reassurance, just like the copy on the podium would provide.  When his name was called, Dean took a deep breath and walked in measured steps to the stage. His eyes sought his brother and Cas, scanning quickly. It was Cas’s mop of dark hair he spotted first, followed by the doofy smile on his brother’s face. The familiar sights set him at ease.

As many of you know, I lost my mother four months ago. I thought of dropping out so I could support my little brother. I’m sure he’s sitting there muttering about how he isn’t little, but it’s a big brother’s prerogative.

Off script already he thought to himself before forging ahead.

The reality is the second my mother’s cancer turned for the worse I decided to drop out, but a friend of ours ratted me out. As soon as I saw my mother’s face, I was cowed. I knew I was in for it, and she did not disappoint. She lit into me about being irresponsible and foolish. I thought that was going to be the worst of it, but I was so wrong. When tears filled her eyes and she practically begged me to stay in school, I was crushed. I realized I had put those tears there. I promised my mom that day to finish school and kick it in the ass.

Chuckles followed those words breaking the tension of the moment. Dean smiled and tipped his head up to look at the sky.

And I did it, Mom. I wouldn’t be standing here today if I hadn’t made that promise and if I didn’t get the support of my friends. But even more than that, there is no way Sammy and I would have survived these last four months without our guardian angel. I guess I owe Mom for this too because she was the one who brought Cas into our lives. He stood with us as Mom died, and he stands with us today. What I want you to understand from our story is that you are stronger than you think. Sam gets up every day, faced with a brother and a friend as his parental figures. An eighteen-year old and a twenty-two-year old. I don’t know if I would be able to face it with as much grace as my brother. And as for Cas, he walked away from a skyrocketing career to help us, and he does it with a smile on his face, even when I act like a jerk. And me, well I learned how to pay a mortgage and how to get out of bed each day even though my mother will never do it again. Going forward, I want you all to know that life will take twists and turns. Sometimes they will bring darkness, but if in those moments you can find even a flicker of light, you will know you can survive. Our life changed dramatically and our plans may continue to change, but I know that we will find a way to thrive. Because the most important lesson I learned was to ask for help. Whether you ask a teacher, a parent, a sibling, a friend, or even a stranger be willing to reach out and let others embrace you. I promise it will be worth it.

He barely had a moment to realize he had finished before the crowd came to their feet. As he surveyed the crowd, he saw smiles and tears being wiped away. A few chants of Dean arose. He blushed and ducked his head unable to take in the adulation. Despite that, he felt a shift inside himself. It was something he had felt about half way through the speech when he saw some people nodding at his words and others with a blank stare. As the thought came back full force, he knew he needed to find Sam and Cas. He had to tell them.

He ran around looking for them, but they found him first. He was enveloped in a tight hug by his brother. He smiled at Cas over Sam’s shoulder. Cas’s eyes were red-rimmed, but a smile cracked his face. “You were amazing, Dean.”

“Thanks, Cas.” He pushed back from Sam. “Get off me. I have something to tell you.” With the distance between them, Dean got his first look at Sam’s face. His brother was crying. “Oh, Sammy.”

Sam waved his hand, brushing off whatever Dean was about to say. As he wiped the tears away with the other hand, he asked, “What do you want to tell us?”

Thinking they should get out of the crowd for this conversation, he started to usher them away from the mob. Just as they started walking, he couldn’t hold it in and blurted, “I want to be a teacher.”   Sam and Cas both stopped immediately. Dean didn’t realize until he had taken a few steps. When he realized, he turned around and walked toward them. The stunned expression on Sam’s face made him ask, “Is it that shocking?”

“Um…I…” stuttered Sam.

“Of course not, Dean. I always thought you would make a great teacher,” Cas said quickly covering for Sam. “You have taught Sam many things over the years. And these last months, you have taught me how to cook more than just scrambled eggs.”

Sam finally found his voice. “I agree with Cas. I was just surprised.”

“Do you mind me asking what changed?” asked Cas tentatively.

“I don’t know how to explain it exactly. I was standing up there speaking, and it just hit me.” He smiled sheepishly as he blushed. “I mean some of them weren’t even paying attention, but others were listening and nodding along.”

Cas smiled back at him. “If this is what you want, then we will make it happen.”

They started walking again and Dean said, “I know it'll have to wait until Sammy’s done with school.”

A strong grip on his arms halted Dean’s forward progress. He turned to see a stormy look on Cas’s face. “You are going to live your life, Dean. Not put it on hold because of Sam.” At Cas’s side, Sam was nodding vigorously. “He would not want that, and there is no way I am letting you do that. I’ll start working on a plan while you go and celebrate with your class.”

The three of them made their way to the car, eventually joining the cue of vehicles trying to exit the parking lot. The minor league baseball stadium had been filled to capacity for the graduation ceremony as was the parking area. When they finally reached the road, they followed most of the traffic making its way to the high school. Cas pulled up to the building and put the car in park. Dean, hand on the door handle, looked first at his brother in the backseat, then at Cas. His gaze lingered until his hand slipped off the handle. He chuckled as he turned to lean over the seat for the sole purpose of ruffling Sam’s hair. His brother swatted his hand away. When he shifted so he could see Cas, he saw the man smiling fondly at the brothers. It was in that moment Dean realized Cas didn’t regret his decision to stay. Without thinking, he reached out and hugged Cas. It took a second for him to respond, but when Cas did, he sighed, leaning in and wrapping his arm around Dean.

Shifting back, Dean felt a twinge of nerves before laughing it off and clapping Cas on the back. “Be good for Cas,” he said as he pointed at Sam. “See you guys in the morning.” Before they could respond, Dean jumped out of the car and joined a group of his friends making their way to the entrance. Despite the distraction around him, he looked over his shoulder to watch the Impala pull away with its heavy rumble. The exterior of the car gleamed in the wash of the streetlights.  The orange light illuminated the interior for a fraction of a second. His breath caught. Cas had the window down, hair blowing in the wind, and a huge grin on his face. The man turned to wave, and then that smile was directed at Dean. He knew he should be waving back, but his body was frozen. What is happening to me? he thought. The sound of Jo’s voice broke whatever spell he was under, and just in time as the blond fireball jumped in his arms without warning. Shaking off the strange feeling, he carried his friend into the school. He lost himself in the all-night party, laughing and teasing his friends.

 

A bleary-eyed Cas picked him up in the morning. “Did you get any sleep last night?” A gruff grunt was the only answer Dean got. “I’m the one who was supposed to be up all night. What exactly did you and Sam get up to?”

Cas side-eyed Dean while keeping most of his focus on the road. “Sam wasn’t home last night. He went to Kevin’s.”

“Well what wild shit did you get up to then?” Dean said cheekily with a mocking grin plastered across his face.

“Dean,” scolded Cas, “I told you what I was planning on doing.”

Dean frowned in confusion. “You did?”

Cas huffed in exasperation. “I told you I was going to work on a plan for you, now that you want to be a teacher.”

“I didn’t expect you to start it last night. You had the house to yourself. Why the hell didn’t you have some of your friends over?”

Dean watched as Cas shifted nervously in his seat. It was a rare sight to see the man flustered in any way, and Dean could not figure out what could possibly be causing it. He wanted to ask, but something stopped the question from escaping. There were times over the last months where it was better to wait Cas out than push him, and a nagging inside Dean said this was one of them. He waited, but Cas remained silent. When he removed one of his hands from the steering wheel, Dean thought it was time, but Cas reached for the knob on the stereo. Turning up the volume, drowning the silence with the sounds of Black Sabbath. Yep definitely one of those times not to push, he repeated to himself.

It wasn’t until they were out of the car and entering the house that Cas said, “Charlie was busy.”

Dean’s brain couldn’t seem to parse what Cas was talking about and he said, “Huh?”

“You asked why I didn’t have friends over.”

“Oh,” Dean said mind still foggy. Cas’s voice sounded off. Both flat and pinched. “Cas?” Dean asked as his head cleared, “Why didn’t you invite someone else?”

The nervous shifting returned as they walked into the living room. Cas even went so far as to wring his hands together. Dean sensed the lie even before it left Cas’s lips. “Um…they were busy, too.” Dean had a feeling he knew the answer, but he found himself asking it anyway. “Is Charlie your only friend?” Cas’s head snapped up with sad or panicked eyes.  Dean could not decipher which emotion they conveyed. Neither was okay, and suddenly Dean felt awful for asking in such a blunt way. As he contemplated his stupidity, Cas’s eyes flashed with anger. “No Dean,” he snapped. “I was under the impression you and I were friends.” He was out of the room and up the stairs in a flash, leaving Dean standing slack-jawed and staring at the stairs.

“Well, shit,” Dean said out loud. Thinking he was alone, he added, “I’m an idiot.”

“What did you do this time?” asked Sam as stepped into the house and shut the front door.

Dean ignored the question, and instead he asked, “Did you know that outside of us Cas’s only friend is Charlie?”

“Duh,” said Sam as he rolled his eyes. “He’s either here, at the studio, or out taking pictures. When exactly did you expect him to meet a bunch of friends?”

“I don’t know. He talks about a lot of people and goes out to lunch and dinner. I guess I just assumed they were his friends.”

Shaking his head, Sam said, “Clients, Dean. People who hired him. Journalists, editors, publishers. Just because Cas is here doesn’t mean people forgot about him. He may not be famous in the traditional sense, but in that world he is. Not everyone gets a show at twenty-one and sells every piece. One of them sold for something like $50,000.”

“Why the hell don’t I know this shit and how the hell do you know it?”

“I pay attention, and I ask questions. Mom didn’t answer all of them, especially when it came to Cas’s money, but she answered enough.”

Dean stared at his brother with a perplexed look. His mind raced through all of what Sam had said, and he settled on one issue. “So, if he has all this money, why the hell is he so adamant about sticking to his tight budget?”

“Because much of that money is spent or tied up in investments, and some of it is in college funds for the two of you.”

Dean practically jumped at the sound of Cas’s deep voice behind him. He hadn’t heard him open his door or come down the stairs, so he snapped when he asked, “What the fuck? How long were you listening?”

Walking down the remaining stairs and joining the brothers, Cas glared at Dean. Anger dripped from his mouth, “My room is right by the stairs, and you two aren’t exactly quiet.” He leaned against the railing and released a long breath. “I tried to ignore it at first, but I’m not a big fan of people talking about me.”

The brothers both slumped their shoulders and whispered apologies. “Your money is your business. I shouldn’t have said anything about it,” added Sam.

“It’s all right, Sam. It was going to come up anyway when it came time to pay for Dean’s school.”

Everything Cas mentioned about his money came rushing back to Dean. “You are not paying for college for me. No fucking way.”

“You’re right I’m not. Mary is.” The confused looks he received pushed Cas to elaborate. “I wouldn’t have any of the money or my career without her. She was the reason I changed how and why I pursued photography. She was practically my agent so she deserved a portion of the sales. Of course, she was too damn stubborn to take it.”

Dean and Sam chuckled and nodded because if there was one way to describe their mother it was stubborn. “If she didn’t take it then how…?”

Cas cut off the question. “I did it without telling her. I put the portion she deserved in a fund for each of you. And you’re not going to win the argument you are gearing up for Dean. I am just as stubborn as Mary. That money should have been hers, and therefore it is yours now. End of story.”

Frustration and hurt were evident in Cas’s gravelly voice, and Dean decided now was not the time to argue over money. He hoped it would help with Cas’s frustration, but it was the hurt Dean had caused that he needed to fix. And the sooner the better. He turned to his brother with a plea in his eyes, “Sam, can you leave us alone?”

“Dean,” said Cas forcefully.

“It’s not about that Cas,” he said still looking at his brother. “Please Sam I need to talk to Cas.” Sam nodded and bounded up the stairs. Dean waited until the door shut, and he could hear music wafting down the stairs. He stepped away from the stairs and gestured at the couch. Cas followed him and sat down with a slight huff. “I promise this isn’t about the money.”

Cas nodded and said, “Okay, so what is it?”

“I’m sorry for what I said. I’m sorry for never asking you about your life.” Dean bit his lip when he saw Cas’s eyes flash with discomfort. He hated the look and hated that his actions helped put it there. “You just always seem so put together. That’s not an excuse or anything. I should have asked how you’re doing. You know everything about me and Sam. Fuck, you’re always asking us and helping and shit. I’m sorry I didn’t do the same for you.” Cas’s eyes stayed on him the entire time, but suddenly he turned his head. It wasn’t fast enough because Dean caught sight of the tears welling in his blue eyes. The man carried himself so stoically most of the time, Dean was taken aback by the crack in his emotions. The only other time he saw Cas emotional was when Mary died. Dean felt even more like shit and knew he needed to do more. He moved closer to Cas and placed his hand on Cas’s elbow. “Cas, you don’t always have to hold it together, hold us together. We want to be here for you, too.”

Cas nodded once, keeping his head turned away. He stood up, and Dean figured the conversation was over. His suspicions were proven when Cas grabbed his laptop and yelled for Sam to come back down. He retrieved a pile of papers and made his way back to the couch. Sam joined them a second later. Cas launched right in, “Since Dean has changed his mind about school, I looked up what he would need to do. I also figured out the costs. It’s a simple fix at the community college. You will switch from the two-year degree program to a transfer program. You just need to drop a couple classes and sign-up for ones that fit your new program. The math class you are taking doesn’t need to be changed. As far as money, you save by starting out at community college, and there should be enough money between what is in your account and a small amount from loans to easily complete your degree and master’s program once you transfer to a university.”

“You did all this last night,” Dean asked, voice choked with emotion.

“I had time,” said Cas plainly, but a small smile cracked his lips. “And Sam your account will continue to grow, and since I was smart enough to leave the investing to Charlie it does very well.”

The teenager smiled sheepishly at Cas and said, “Thanks, Cas. I can’t believe you did this.” Sam shook his head. “No that’s not true. This is exactly something you would do.”

The accuracy of those words had Dean nodding his head and joining in the thanks. Cas tried to brush it off, but the Winchesters wouldn’t let him. He proceeded to blush as they continued to thank him and tell him he was awesome. The praise finally died down when Dean began to yawn and slump down on the couch. Cas wasn’t faring much better. “Man, you two need to go to bed and get some sleep,” advised Sam. “You both look like crap.”

Cas’s blue eyes met Dean’s green ones. With a silent acknowledgment, they hefted themselves off the couch and stumbled up the stairs. Dean was practically asleep before he hit the pillow. His last thought before his eyes shut was, I’m going to be a teacher.

Chapter Text

As Sam excitedly entered the high school, he was hit with a wave of melancholy. Saying goodbye to the summer was harder than expected. Part of him wanted to cling to the memories they had made. He didn’t know if he would ever have an experience like it again in his life. One that brought both heartbreak and adventure. He learned about the world in a way he had never before. He thought he understood hardship and loss because of his own life experiences, but Cas opened his eyes to the suffering of others. It was not what Cas wanted when the subject first came up. Cas had tried to negotiate with his publisher for extended time fulfilling his contract. Several times it seemed they were at an impasse. When Dean saw Cas practically pulling his hair out of his head, he pulled Sam aside and hatched a plan. Without Cas’s knowledge and with a little help from a sneaky redhead, they solved the issue. Well, they thought they had, recollected Sam, until Cas found out. The best way to describe Cas’s reaction was to say he lost his shit.

The argument raged for days. “Sam is too young to go.”

“I’m right here. You two can quit arguing about me when I’m in the damn room.” Sam stood up to his full-height and glared at his brother and Cas. “I am not a little kid. You can’t hide the crap happening in the world from me. You can either let me learn it on my own or you can teach me about it. I’ll learn it either way.”

“Learning about it is different than seeing it up close and personal, Sam. I don’t want you to be hurt.”

Sam shook his head, ready to defend his position, when Dean interjected, “Cas, we’re doing this. If you don’t think Sam should go to a specific location, we can talk about it then, but for now you need to accept that for the next nine weeks we are hitting the road with you. And by the end, you will be able to finish your retro…uh…on homeless children in America.”

Cas tried to stifle his smile as he said, “The word you’re looking for is retrospective.”

“Yeah that,” said Dean as his cheeks turned pink. Dean tipped his head to the side and smiled at Cas, and then they both chuckled.

Since the dark mood in the room had brightened with the laughter, Sam took the opportunity to address a less surly Castiel. “Oh, and Cas, Dean kinda forgot to mention we have some fun things planned along the way. Think of it as our last free summer before he starts college and I start high school.”

Dean seemed to get where Sam was going. “Yeah it can be like a graduation gift. One last road trip before we have to knuckle down. Please Cas.”

“Stop giving me that look Dean. You know it doesn’t work on me.”

“Are you sure?” Dean asked smiling widely.

Cas turned his head until he was facing Sam, only to find the teenager giving him a similar look. “Please Cas,” pleaded Sam.

Cas shook his head. “You two will be the death of me.”

“Is that a yes?” asked Dean as Sam jumped up to hug Cas, already knowing that was a yes in Cas speak.

Five days after Sam finished eighth grade, they hit the road. There first stop was St. Louis, Missouri. They spent one day as tourists, visiting the sights, even going up the Gateway Arch, but on the second day they saw a whole new area of the city. While Cas started his work, Sam and Dean ended up finding one of their dad’s old army buddies. He didn’t recognize the boys because it had been years. Despite the man’s straggly beard and weathered face, Dean spotted the scar across his brow and knew it was Martin. They spent time talking to him, changing the subject whenever Martin mentioned their dad. Eventually, Cas came over with a teenager in tow. The kid said, “Dad, this guy wants to take pictures of us for a book he’s doing.”

After a tense silence, Martin said, “Dean, Sam I’d like you to meet my son, Brian.” The kid was as disheveled as his father and was holding a sign which read, Will Work for Food. It hit Sam like a ton of bricks. It was bad enough a veteran was on the streets, but it seemed so much worse that his son was in the same situation. Stuck in his own thoughts, Sam barely registered Dean shaking Brian’s hand. A well-placed elbow from Dean made him offer his own hand to the other teenager. Over the next half hour Cas took photos and asked questions. He gingerly pulled the story of their route to homelessness from Martin and Brian. Martin’s struggle with PTSD and his wife leaving because of it. The downward spiral that cost him his job and their house. Their two years on the street, trying desperately to keep Brian in school.

Several times, Sam found himself fighting back tears. When he looked at his brother, he saw barely contained anger bubbling just below the surface. But it was Cas, nodding with understanding, his entire countenance seemingly unruffled, which brought Sam up short. There was no surprise on his friend’s face, as if he had seen it all before. At twenty-three, Cas understood the world more than most adults twice his age because he didn’t bury his head in the sand. He didn’t look away from suffering. He immersed himself in it. His photos, at times were shot at a distance, but the man did not allow himself the same distance. Sam understood why his friend was so successful, and why he was often quiet and contemplative. His mind was filled with these types of stories. It was a burden Cas carried with him each day, and Sam could do nothing but look at him with awe. Dean noticed the change in his brother and pulled him aside. “What is it, Sammy?”

“I just didn’t really get it until right now. What Cas does and how it affects him. Why Mom was so fiercely protective of him.”

Dean pulled his gaze away from Sam and stared at their friend. “Me, neither.” There was a look of open affection on Dean’s face, and Sam was left feeling like he was missing something. In a flash the look was gone and Sam wondered if he had even seen it at all. The edge in Dean’s voice when he said, “I think they’re finished,” pushed the thought completely out of Sam’s mind. They joined Cas and the three of them returned to their hotel. Dinner that night was a quiet affair as was the rest of the night. Cas disappeared behind his laptop while Dean and Sam vegged out in front of the tv.

The rest of the trip went in a similar fashion. They stopped at the Grand Canyon on their way to visit a migrant camp in Arizona. Sam lost track of how many miles they hiked.  At another stop, Sam was not allowed to go, and Cas insisted Dean spend the day with his brother. The haunted look in Cas’s eyes when he returned was painful to witness. He said little about his encounters that day, only giving them a perfunctory answer about sex-trafficking and forced drug use. Dean made the executive decision to take a few days off and splurge on a trip to Disneyland. It took two full days of roller coasters and the so-called Disney magic to replace that horrific look in Cas’s usual steely blue eyes.

A stop in San Francisco gave them all a new understanding of homelessness in American cities. People with full time jobs, what in many places would be called good paying jobs, living in their cars because of the high cost of housing. Sam couldn’t even begin to wrap his teenage brain around a professor being forced to live in her car with her two kids because her husband was diagnosed with a brain disorder. One in which, not only could he not work, but he also had to live in an assisted living residence. It really sunk in over the first month of their trip that despite having their dad run out on them and losing their mother, they were better off than so many people from all different walks of life.

Crisscrossing the country, they visited Yellowstone National Park and the Black Hills. Sam loved seeing the geysers and Mount Rushmore. Dean complained about all the walking and hiking. “Come on guys haven’t we seen enough of these places.”

Cas gave Dean an indulgent look, always willing to listen to Dean’s complaints. Sam, on the other hand, was not, so he forcefully stated, "We all agreed to visit places we each wanted. It’s not fair that you keep whining when it isn’t a place you picked.”

“I do not whine,” said Dean. The soft chuckle from Cas had both brothers turning to face him. Dean glared at him. “Have something to add, Cas?"

“He has a point. You do resort to whining when trying to get your way.”

A sly grin spread across Dean’s face. “Oh, really,” Dean said as he inched toward Cas. Sam saw what was coming a fraction of a second before Castiel. He tried to warn him, but it was too late. Dean closed the distance between them and dumped his bottle of water over Cas’s head before taking off down the trail. With one quick glance at Sam, Cas took off after Dean yelling, “You’ll pay for that.” Sam followed behind at a slow jog. When he caught up, he found Dean pinned to the ground, panting heavily and desperately pleading with Cas. Sam smiled at the cocky look plastered across Cas’s face. “You are just proving my point, Dean,” Cas said triumphantly.

“Don’t look so smug, asshole,” said Dean as he bucked his hips and knocked Cas off. Within a flash, the blue-eyed man was staring up at Dean. The younger man was straddling him and had Cas's arms pinned to the ground. “Not so cocky now, are you?” Composure unbroken, despite the quick shift in power, Cas simply quirked his lips. Dean burst out laughing, “Man you must be killer at poker.”

“He is,” attested Sam.

“Wait, what?” asked Dean.

Sam shook his head. “I said he is, and how do you not know that?”

Dean leaned back releasing Cas’s arms and looking at Sam. “We’ve never played.” He turned back to Cas. “You played with Sam? Why haven’t we played?” Dean asked petulantly.

“Sam and his friends asked me to play a couple times.”

“And he cleaned us out both times. He’s seriously good.” Dean quirked his head at Sam. “I mean it. Don’t. Ever. Play. With. Him,” said Sam emphasizing each word.

“I don’t know Sammy, I’m pretty good,” said Dean as he stood up, pulling Cas up with him. “I bet I could give him a run for his money.”

“No, you’ll end up running for your money as he pockets it all.”

Dean flicked his eyes from Sam to Cas. “You cleaned out a bunch of middle schoolers.”

Sam covered his mouth trying to hide his laugh. He watched Cas roll his eyes dramatically and then proceed to glare at Dean as he said incredulously, “Of course not, Dean. We played for pretzels."

“How was I supposed to know?” whined Dean.

“And we’re back to the whining,” pointed out Sam. Dean made a dive for him, but Sam took off down the trail before ducking behind a tree still within hearing distance.

Cas smiled at Dean. “Aren’t you going to chase him?”

“Nope, I already got my running in today.” Dean grinned brightly and winked. “And it was worth it.”

“Which part? The running or the getting caught?”

Dean threw his head back and laughed as he put his arm across Cas’s shoulders. “Don’t ever change, Cas.” The older man gave Dean a shy smile. The blush on Dean’s cheeks when he returned the smile made Sam slip further into the woods. The thought of jumping out and scaring them no longer felt right. The moment seemed delicate and deserving of privacy. He loped through the woods coming out near the end of the trail. He sat on a rock and waited for them to join him. It wasn’t a long wait and whatever had transpired between the two men was buried under their typical needling and joking by the time they reached Sam.

They looked up and saw Sam, both giving him a smile. “Ready to eat?” asked Dean.

“Sure, where are we going?”

 

The next day, they drove across the state of South Dakota checking into a hotel in Sioux Falls. It was a long drive, and Sam had plenty of time to think. After getting in the car that morning, he watched Dean step out of the motel room and hand the car keys to Cas without any protestations. There was no gesturing at the car or swinging of his arms. Instead, his eyes remained locked on Cas as he gave him a slight smile. The sight made Sam’s mind drift to the moment between Dean and Cas on the hiking trail. It wasn’t the first time Sam felt he shouldn’t intrude on them. There seemed to be a softness to his brother when he thought he was alone with Cas. The usual bravado and snarky humor were absent and were replaced by a much more vulnerable version of his brother. Sam began to wonder which version was real, and why Cas was the one to see this other side of Dean. His reverie was interrupted when they joined him in the car, and Cas began to explain the plan for the next few days.

His thoughts and the laughter of the previous days faded into the distance after they arrived at the shelter. The first person they met was a high school senior.  It didn’t take long before she was spilling her story to Cas.

“I was all set for this summer to be hard because I aged out of the food program. But Dave over there,” she gestured at a tall, skinny kid across the room, “told me what he did and I copied him. Flunked a few classes and got assigned summer school to get the free lunch.”

Without thinking, Sam blurted, “What?”

Cas grabbed Sam’s arm as he answered for Rebecca. “It is not uncommon, Sam. There are all kinds of drastic measures people take when they are hungry or cold. Some commit petty crimes, so they can spend a night or two in jail. That way they get out of the winter weather and get three meals a day.”

Rebecca nodded at Cas. “I’ve never done that myself, but a few of the people here have.” Cas asked if she could introduce them to the others, and she graciously agreed. Cas spent time talking to each person and taking photos. Sam and Dean ended up talking with Rebecca while they waited for Cas to finish up his work. After leaving the shelter, they ended up back at their motel. “How common do you think that is?” Sam asked Cas.

“More common than anyone wants to admit,” answered Cas sadly. And of course, he was correct.

They found similar stories as they crossed Minnesota and Wisconsin. By the time they reached Philadelphia, they were ready for another break. They spent time visiting all the historic sites in the area before turning south seeking out the stories of people living in poverty stricken rural counties.

By the time they were headed back to Kansas, Sam had a greater appreciation of the vastness of the United States, but also a deeper understanding of its underbelly. He knew he would never be the same, and the career path he chose would involve helping those less fortunate. Cas was already doing his share by highlighting their lives for all the world to see, and Dean was going to become a teacher, dedicating himself to bettering kid’s lives, and Sam was determined to follow in their footsteps. Walking in the school doors, Sam decided he would not wait to start on that path.

Chapter Text

The front door flew open, and Dean rushed in waving something in the air. “Cas, I did it.” Before he could say a word, Dean thrust the paper in his hands. Cas looked down and saw the university’s letterhead. His lips quirked up into a small smile which only increased as he began to read. The acceptance letter Dean received was an achievement all its own, but to receive a scholarship from the university was amazing. It had been a long shot at best, yet somehow Dean had done it.

“I am so proud of you. You deserve this for how hard you've worked this last year,” declared Cas as he pulled Dean into a hug. “This means you can start winter term.”

“I know,” mumbled Dean into the crook of Cas’s neck. His lips barely grazing the skin.

Cas’s breath caught, and his heart raced. He pulled back quickly to put some distance between them. He tried to school his expression, hoping Dean did not sense his strange reaction. “You should go tell Sam. He’s in his room.”

Dean clapped him on the shoulder before taking off up the stairs yelling, “Sammy, guess what?”

Whatever small measure of composure Cas had found to send Dean upstairs was gone the instant he was alone again. He couldn’t catch his breath, and his chest ached with his feeble attempts to simply inhale and exhale. Despite his discomfort, he knew he needed to escape the confines of the house. He rushed out of the living room and through the kitchen until he practically flung himself out the back door. When he reached his favorite spot under the large maple tree, he dropped to his knees, hands fisting in his hair. “No, no, no,” he said desperately. His mind didn’t stop there. It started tormenting him with images and phrases. You already knew. He is a man now. Nothing stopping you. You want him. He tried to block out the inappropriate thoughts by drowning them in other phrases. Dean is my friend. He is too young. It wouldn’t be right. The problem was his conscious self knew Dean was no longer a kid. He hadn’t been in a long time, and now Dean’s body matched the man he had become. Even though he worked hard not to look or to notice, he had found his eyes drifting over Dean’s broad shoulders and strong back.

Looking at an attractive man, even if it was his friend was one thing, but feeling those muscles ripple in his arms was a different story. He didn’t want to voice it, but there was no denying his arousal when Dean hugged him. Disgusted with himself, he tugged his hair until his scalp ached. “This was not supposed to happen,” he mumbled as he lifted his head to stare up into the expansive blue sky. He chuckled darkly at his own foolishness. Because if he was honest with himself, he knew this day was coming. He admired Dean more than any other person he met in his life. He cared for the younger man and wanted the best for him. He was willing to sacrifice his own wants to help him fulfill his every dream. Charlie had warned him, but he scoffed at her. Thinking irrationally that somehow Dean would forever stay the slim teenager with the baby face he first met. He always seemed so much younger than Cas in those early years, so different than Cas at sixteen. Cas hadn’t looked like a pimple faced teenager since early in his junior year. What with the permanent stubble and hard eyes, no one mistook him for a high schooler. It’s why no one questioned his age when it came to his career. He just gave off the air of someone who had lived a long existence. When Cas met Dean, there was a youthful ease in his countenance. After Mary’s death that had changed. The usual smirk or smile was replaced with sharp edges as was the youthfulness of the young man’s jawline and cheekbones.  

It was undeniable. Dean had become a gorgeous man in the last year. And Cas knew he was sunk. He was already attached to Dean, and now he could no longer deny his attraction. He didn’t want to think about it, but the word came anyway. Love. It punched him square in the chest, sending him reeling anew. Panic once again took over his body. Shaking, tears welling in his eyes, he took ragged breath after ragged breath until the last vestiges of panic began to ebb.  Cas sat up straight. He squared his shoulders and clenched his jaw. He replaced the quaking young man crying under the canopy of a maple tree with the one who stood strong in the face of danger with only his camera to protect him. He reminded himself he faced worse than loving someone he couldn’t and shouldn’t. Loving someone who would never love him back. As he stood, he shoved it all behind the wall in his mind. The one that contained any and all thoughts of the family he left. The one that hid his waking nightmares, the images of bodies, broken, bloodied, starved… And now love would join them. It seemed wrong to put it with destruction, but in the next breath he realized it was its own form of destruction. It belonged in a place with so much pain.

After boxing up his emotions and wiping his face, Cas walked back into the house. Dean was standing in the kitchen with a strange look on his face. The letter was still in his hand, crumpled in his tight fist. Cas tried to look away, not wanting to think about Dean’s demeanor and what it meant. He tried to think of something to say, anything to distract from the uneasiness in the room. Even with words on the tip of his tongue, Cas could not deflect what he already knew. Dean had been watching him. He didn't know for how long or what precisely he saw, but clearly it was enough to trigger the discomfort permeating the room. Brushing off his own nervous tension, Cas said, “We should go celebrate.” He walked briskly across the room, headed toward the living room. “I’ll call and invite Charlie. You should invite some of your friends. My treat.” Without waiting for a reply, he walked to the foot of the stairs. “Sam, we’re going out to celebrate Dean’s news so get ready.”

“Where are we going?” yelled Sam.

Normally, Sam wouldn’t care, but recently he had started being concerned with his appearance and what he should wear to certain places. Cas chuckled at the thought of Sam changing clothes several times just to go out to eat. “It’s up to Dean.”

“We should go to that Italian place we went to last month,” suggested Dean as he came to stand next to Cas.

Cas gave Dean a slight smile and nodded, “Whatever you want, Dean.”

“Sammy, we’re going to Giorgio’s,” Dean yelled as he began texting.

 

The restaurant had to push several tables together to accommodate the large group who arrived to celebrate Dean’s good news. Cas kept to himself at one end of the table. He observed the group, only joining in when Charlie pulled him into the conversation. He saw in that moment what the future held. It was several years away, Cas knew, but that didn’t make it anymore inevitable. At some point, Sam and Dean would not need him anymore. Fulfilling his promise to Mary had a shelf life. Sam would be done with high school in a few short years, and Dean would finish college at around the same time. He wanted desperately to table those thoughts for later. He needed to enjoy the time he had left with the Winchesters. He watched Dean, a smile permanently etched on his face. He saw him throw his head back in laughter. Sam, at his side, rolled his eyes at his brother good naturedly, eventually joining in his laughter. He wanted so badly to join in their joy, but melancholy had settled over him. He plastered on a fake smile and picked at his meal. He barely ate anything by the time the others were finished. He paid the full bill, despite several protestations from the assembled group. It was fitting that after they exited Cas found himself driving home alone. Dean left with his friends. Sam got a lift from Charlie. Cas knew they explained where they were going and why, but he was too lost in his own mind to retain the knowledge.

He walked into the darkened home and sat down on the couch. He didn’t want to see the homey touches and well-worn furniture of the only place he had ever felt truly at home. The problem was it would never truly be his home. Dean or Sam would someday fill this house with a family of their own. Or perhaps they would sell it in favor of finding homes of their very own. Cas laid back on the now familiar couch and closed his eyes. He swallowed loudly and whispered to the empty room, “And I will have to go.” Accepting his place was nothing new for Cas. He accepted his life inside his parent’s home and then accepted he no longer fit there. He accepted life on the road. He accepted his role in the wider world. Accepted the life of a photojournalist. He accepted life with the Winchesters. And he supposed he would accept life beyond them. With that last thought, he pulled himself off the couch and found the light switch. He opened his laptop and read through his emails. Despite informing publications he was on what could be called a long sabbatical, they still sent him requests. He wondered if he should start accepting some of their offers. Those with a limited scope and within the states. It had worked for his book on homelessness. And it wasn’t like Charlie hadn’t been suggesting it for the last six months or so.

It wasn’t that he needed the money. The studio was successful, and the sales of his works were extremely profitable. It was the fact the work failed at being challenging, and now that life at home had settled into a rhythm Cas missed the challenge. He stared at the computer screen, not really reading the email in front of him. After several seconds, he forced himself to concentrate on the words. The request before him fit his purview. Any issue that dealt with children peaked his interest. The logistics of this particular offer, however, would take him too far from home. The next few emails were similar. Frustrated he shut the laptop, deciding to table the idea for the moment. Needing a change of scenery, he picked up the car keys. He didn’t often go out, but he wanted a drink and to feel the press of a warm body.

The club was full by the time he arrived. He saw a few familiar people, and after several drinks at the bar, he joined them on the dance floor. They never exchanged names. It was an unspoken understanding. Cas wasn’t exactly sure what he exuded that made it so, but he was grateful. It allowed him to dance freely, touching and grinding on the hard line of a man’s body. By the end of the night, he was sweaty and aroused, his need for touch sated. He always left the club alone. Taking care of his arousal on his own. He hadn’t indulged himself with another man since he moved in with Sam and Dean. At first, he figured it was because he didn’t have time to spare. But that reason no longer applied. So, he lied to himself. He came up with any number of excuses, but it was getting harder to believe his own lies. In the quiet of his bedroom, as he gripped his aching cock, his mind couldn’t lie to itself. His body wouldn’t let it. He knew what and who he wanted. The name that spilled from his lips confirmed it. He lay in bed covered in his own cum, feeling little relief. He wanted another body to be lying next to him. In the aftermath of his orgasm, he felt lonely. Berating himself, he cleaned himself up roughly, fixed his clothes, and left his room angrily.

In the kitchen, he made himself a sandwich and grabbed a beer before heading to the living room. He turned on the tv and flipped through the selections. He needed something to distract him, so he picked a bloody, war movie. He downed the beer quickly and retrieved another one. He forced himself to finish his sandwich before finishing off his second bottle. Leaning back into the couch, he put his feet up on the coffee table. An hour into the movie, Sam came strolling in the door. He dropped into the chair after saying hi. Dean came in a few minutes later, joining Cas on the couch. Cas shifted away, pressing himself into the armrest. If Dean noticed the rapid move, he didn’t acknowledge it.

They watched the rest of the movie in relative silence, only broken when Dean asked if anyone needed a drink. Cas nodded as Sam declined. Dean returned with two beers in hand. His fingers brushed Cas’s knuckles as he handed him the beer. Cas’s first instinct was to yank his hand away, but he forced himself to take the bottle, keeping his hand steady. Dean would surely notice if Cas suddenly started pulling away from his touch. A brush of hands, a squeeze of an elbow, a hand on a shoulder. Even a sweep of a hand down a back were not uncommon. Cas had never shied from the touch and over time had found himself returning them. He would have to learn to endure. Learn to ignore his own wants and needs. It wouldn’t be fair to alter his relationship with Dean simply because his own feelings had changed. The bottle now in hand, he smiled up at Dean and said, “Thanks,” hoping it was enough to cover any awkwardness on his part.

Dean nodded before stepping over his legs and settling back onto the couch. They finished the movie, and Sam immediately got up and headed upstairs. Cas thought about getting up, but Dean stopped him with a question. “Where’d you go tonight?”

“What?” asked Cas.

“I said where did you go. You smell like a brewery.”

Cas let his gaze drift over Dean and then back to the tv. “A club.”

“Who’d you go with?”

“No one,” said Cas a bit too harshly.

Dean shifted until he was facing Cas. “So, you were looking to pick someone up?”

A strange cloud hung over them, awkward and uncomfortable. This was not something they ever talked about. Cas wasn’t even sure Dean knew he was gay. He didn’t hide it, but he didn’t talk about it either. And since he had never brought a guy home, it seemed possible Dean didn’t know. Part of him wanted to change the subject, but another part wanted Dean to know. He found himself saying, “Not really. Just wanted to dance with a good-looking guy.”

Dean didn’t seem phased by his statement. He continued to stare at Cas and then pushed his foot against Cas’s thigh. “Nothing wrong with that.”

Cas heard the double meaning in his words, and it brought a slight smile to his lips. “And what were you up to tonight?”

“We went to the Roadhouse.” Dean’s cheeks turned pink, and he looked away.

“I take it Anna was there.”

Dean shrugged. “Um…yeah…we-”

“I don’t need to know,” Cas said, effectively cutting Dean off. There was no way he could listen to Dean talk about Anna. He heard enough when Dean first met her. He hefted himself off the couch, picking up his bottles and his plate. He felt Dean following him to the kitchen. He hoped it was just so Dean could put his own bottle in the recycling. But it wasn’t.

“Why don’t you like Anna?”

Fuck, what am I supposed to say to that, thought Cas. He closed his eyes and leaned on the edge of the sink. “I don’t know her so how could I not like her.” He tried to sound nonchalant, but it didn’t ring true to his own ears.

“I don’t know. It’s just whenever I talk about her, you cut me off, so I figured that had to be it.”

Cas bit his tongue, not wanting to blurt out his first negative thought. He turned around and faced Dean. “Sometimes you overshare.”

“Oh,” said Dean, cheeks darkening once again. “Yeah, I can see that, especially since you don’t really talk about stuff like that.” He shifted back and forth nervously. “Sorry about that, I’ll try not to do that anymore.”

Taking a few steps, Cas said, “I appreciate that Dean. Now I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted.”

“Oh…ah…me, too. I guess.” Dean waited for Cas before following him out of the kitchen and up the stairs. “See you in the morning,” he said as Cas slipped into the bathroom.

“Goodnight, Dean.” Ensconced in the bathroom, Cas took a deep breath before starting his usual bedtime routine. He stared at himself in the mirror until he heard Dean’s bedroom door shut. It was at the far end of the hall and had once been Mary’s room. As he stared, he recalled the long discussions about her room. Cas won out after the room had sat empty for months. He remained on the pull-out couch and resolutely refused to take the room. Dean was the owner of the house, and therefore the master bedroom belonged to him. It took Sam to finally convince Dean with several reasons, first among them being Cas’s status on the couch. Knowing Cas would never acquiesce, Dean relented. Cas moved into Dean’s old room and shared a bathroom with Sam. Looking at himself, thoughts of his own stubbornness brought a wry smile to his lips. He didn’t always win when he came up against Dean’s equally stubborn attitude, but he was glad he had won that battle.

He looked away from his reflection and got to the task at hand. It didn’t take long before Cas was finished and laying in his bed. Thoughts of Dean and what he had done earlier plagued him. The scent of his earlier actions did not help the matter. Unable to ignore it, he stood up and stripped his bed, grateful he had an extra set of sheets. He shoved the dirty ones at the bottom of his hamper. He crawled back into bed and laid on his side, hugging a pillow to his chest. His mind wandered. Thoughts of Anna and his inability to hide his feelings drifted in and out. It was a dilemma he couldn’t see a solution for, and it worried him. The heaviness of his thoughts ushered in a bone-weary exhaustion, and he found his eyes closing. There was a moment of blissful awareness, a sort of freedom, just before he drifted into sleep. It didn’t last through the night as dreams plagued him. Dreams of violence, dreams of loss, dreams of Dean. He jolted awake more than once in the night with panic beating in his chest or with his cock aching. The latter was enough to force him from his bed. Willing his erection away, he quietly snuck down the stairs, his journal gripped firmly in his hand. He stepped out the back door and sat down in Mary’s rocking chair. By moonlight, he wrote. A jumbled mixture. Paragraphs filled with his thoughts and feelings. Lists of places he wanted to go and people he wanted to photograph. The more he wrote about his ideas for work the more a sense of calm washed over him. With each new item, his conflicted feelings shifted toward the back of his mind. One idea in particular sank its teeth into Castiel. Children of war.

He set the notebook aside, sitting back and closing his eyes. It wouldn’t hurt to begin researching and planning, he thought. I would be ready then when it’s time. When I am no longer needed here. He let himself feel the sadness of that thought for only a heartbeat before he refocused on the tasks ahead. He decided he would consult with Charlie right away on Monday morning. He felt lighter now that he had a plan of sorts. He opened his eyes and gazed up at the sky as he rocked slowly. He let the quiet of the night ease the last of his tension. He sat there until the warm colors of the rising sun emerged in the sky. He drifted into the house then to start the coffee and prepare breakfast for the Winchesters.

 

 

Chapter Text

Charlie was ecstatic when Cas asked her to start researching. Cas wished he shared her enthusiasm, but he knew the real reason for this sudden change of heart, and it wasn’t one he was proud to admit. He kept it to himself and tried to let Charlie’s exuberance sweep him along. There were times when it had in the past. A half hour in, Cas realized it wasn’t going to happen this time. He settled a half-hearted smile on his lips as Charlie began asking questions and making lists. The lists aligned with the one’s he had made the previous night, but Charlie insisted on adding details. The day passed relatively quickly, and there wasn’t time for his mind to wander. He was grateful for the small favor.

As they settled down for lunch, finally taking a break, Charlie’s words not Cas’s, Charlie asked the question he had been dreading. “Why the sudden change of heart?”

“No reason in particular. I told you I got that email, and it intrigued me.”

“Yeah, that’s what you said, but I want the real reason.”

Setting his fork down more roughly than intended, Cas grimaced. “Do we have to do this?”

Charlie sighed, “You’ve been acting strange for months. It’s like you’re avoiding something, and it’s only getting worse.” She reached out and took his hand. “Cas, I don’t like seeing my best friend like this.”

“Best friend,” huffed Cas with a smirk.

“Yes, best friend, you jerk. What else would you be?” She glared at him and then smacked his hand. “Dammit you almost got away with distracting me, but no dice bucko.”

Cas burst out laughing. It was rare these days, and it felt good. It loosened the vice in his chest. Once he gained control of himself, he said, “I can’t believe you said bucko. Remind me, what decade are we in?”

“Shut it. Now back to my original question. What’s going on?”

The kindness and genuine concern in her eyes didn’t truly surprise him, but it did put a crack in his well-constructed wall. He found himself saying, “I have to plan for when it’s time to leave.” He cringed at the admission, but thought, at least it was somewhat vague. Although with Charlie, vague had never stopped her. It had only made her more curious. And this time was no exception.

“Why would it be time to leave?”

“I can’t live with them forever. We will all move on at some point,” replied Cas.

Charlie shook her head. “You won’t just move on from each other, any more than you and I would. You’re family.”

Trying to table the discussion, Cas picked up his fork and started eating again. He resolutely refused to look across the table. He didn’t want to see Charlie’s expression. Or the plea in her eyes. She hated not understanding. Hated being shut out, and Cas had been doing it to her for months. He felt guilt over it but was convinced his feelings should not be shared. They were wrong. Dean was supposed to be like a brother. That is how Sam and Dean saw the three of them. They said it on more than one occasion. Cas’s feelings didn’t fit into this family dynamic. Brothers didn’t think about each other the way Cas thought about Dean. So, despite the need to tell someone, to unburden himself, he knew no one would understand, not even Charlie. “Please let this go,” he implored, with his eyes trained on his plate.

After a beat of silence, she said, “For now.”

Cas nodded once before continuing to eat. Charlie respected his choice of silence for the duration of their lunch. When they arrived back at the studio, Gabriel, the other photographer he had hired almost a year ago, was sitting at the large table stationed along the back wall. Black and white photos hung in a distinct pattern above the table. It was a tableau of Cas’s recent work. In many ways, Cas hated what he felt was an ostentatious display of inferior work. Gabriel scoffed at him whenever he made reference to those feelings. “If I had half your talent, I would plaster my work for all the world to see, and you want to hide these away. It would be a crime to not showcase your work, in your own studio for God’s sake, how can you even think such a thing.”

“You are not me,” was Cas’s frequent reply which only made the much shorter man, who still somehow commanded any space he inhabited, laugh bitterly, shake his head and walk away with a derisive scowl.

Not wanting to start the argument, Cas trained his attention on the display of photos on the table, refusing to even glance at the wall. Gabriel shoved a couple of prints in his direction. “I think these two are the ones you need to use. And before you disagree for the sole sake of pissing me off, really look at them. They capture the essence of what you set out to say with this particular subject matter. Your fans will eat them up, and they will fetch a great price.”

“How many times have a told you it isn’t about the money?”

“Just because you don’t look at the bottom line doesn’t mean Charlie and I don’t. Art for art’s sake is a great idea in theory, but it’s not going to pay your mortgage or mine. These two will cover the art and the money. Cassie this is getting to be ridiculous. I know you miss taking the big risk and spending months of your life delving into a subject, but that isn’t in the cards so this is what you have to do.” Gabriel looked at him intensely before shifting his gaze to Charlie. It was easy to see he was seeking support.

His friend nodded. “He’s right Cas. We need the money, and you need to keep your name out there. Putting these in that particular show is perfect.”

Having heard enough, Cas stormed off, yelling over his shoulder, “Do whatever you want.” He slammed the door to his office. He scanned the familiar room. When he first decorated it, the space felt welcoming. Now it was stifling. The large desk loomed over the space. It was all dark wood and rounded edges. It didn’t suit him in the slightest he realized as he stared at it. Although today the gray walls suited his mood just fine. He chuckled at his morose thoughts. Where had it all changed, he pondered. Life with Dean and Sam for the first six months had been a struggle, but it had still managed to be wonderful. He had fit into their lives, but now he felt distance, ever growing and ever painful, opening between them. He knew he was to blame for seeing it that way. Dean and Sam were simply growing up, and he was the one not adapting.

He felt ridiculous for being the one who couldn’t adjust. He wasn’t the one who lost their mother. He wasn’t the one who had to grow up beyond his years. But maybe, that is precisely what he needed, to grow up and change along with them. He was already taking the first step. Adding another seemed appropriate. The idea had merit, but he had no idea what it would be. Still standing in the middle of the room, he sighed and shook his head. It was that moment when Charlie ducked her head into the door.

“Ready to talk about what that all was?”

“I don’t fucking know.”

She was in the room in a flash, and the door shut behind her. “You never swear unless it’s serious. Cas please talk to me. I’m worried about you.”

Dropping his hands from where they had unconsciously been tangled in his hair, he said, “Join the club. You were right all those months ago.” He walked over and dropped himself onto the leather couch.

“I like being right but could you be more specific about exactly what that is,” she remarked as she took the seat beside him.

Without preamble, he said, “About Dean.”

“I knew it. Shit, sorry. That probably wasn’t the right thing to say.” Her cheeks turned pink, and she smiled sheepishly. “What happened?”

“That’s probably the most ridiculous aspect of this whole situation. Nothing happened. It’s just me and my wayward mind.” It was his turn to blush as he added in a whisper, “And body.” Charlie took his hand encouraging him to explain further. She kept hold of his hand and stared at him with empathy as he described the last few months. When he got to the most recent event, she gasped but didn’t interrupt. It was a kindness he didn’t think he deserved. When he finished, he looked at her and said, “The project isn’t enough. I have to take another step. I need another focus.”

There was a contemplative look on her face for several seconds. It rapidly fled as her face lit up with a calculating smile. “I got it, but you aren’t going to like it. I mean not even a little bit are you going to want to do this, but I think it is what you need.” He braced himself, hoping she was simply exaggerating, which she was prone to do. She squeezed his hand. “You need to start dating.”

It was worse than he thought, and he visibly blanched at just the thought of it. “No, just no.”

“I know you go out to clubs to dance. This wouldn’t be that much different. And if you don’t want to pick up guys that way, I could help you set up an online profile.”

Standing up and walking behind his desk, Cas said, “You were right again. That isn’t something I would even remotely consider doing.”

Charlie remained seated and gave him a hard look. “Yeah, well, you’re doing it.”

And just like that Cas knew he was sunk. There was no arguing with Charlie when she gave him that look. Her mind was set, and she would do it whether he agreed or not. Better to be involved then let her do it on her own. “Fine, but I choose the dating site.” An hour later his profile was ready and displayed much to his chagrin. He wanted to delete it as soon as he saw the finished product, but Charlie held his hands away from the keyboard. “This isn’t going to fix the problem,” said Cas as he tugged his hands free.

“Not with that attitude. You have to at least give it a try. Moping over Dean isn’t getting you anywhere. This at least has the potential to get you a date with a hot guy.”

 

At first, Cas basically ignored the dating app, but after several weeks with no change at home, he relented. The coffee date was nice, but Cas couldn’t find it in himself to accept another one. The next man he met was gorgeous, but he couldn’t stop comparing the color of his green eyes to Dean’s. Obviously, green eyes needed to be out of the equation. The problem was he kept comparing any and everything to Dean. The list of qualities to avoid kept growing. Charlie was close to pulling the hair out of her head or decking Cas, either was a distinct possibility. One day she finally snapped. “This has got to stop.”

“What do you want from me?”

“I want you to put Dean aside and really commit to a date for once. Give a guy a chance.”

Unable to come up with a suitable argument, Cas decided to try it her way for once. The coffee date was, as had become routine, nice, but instead of shutting the guy down Cas agreed to a second date. He wanted this one to be at a place he frequented. The club was packed when he arrived, but his date spotted him immediately. The smile he gave was practically glowing with anticipation. Cas tried to muster up even a fraction of that interest. After a few beers, they hit the dance floor. There was a familiar rhythm to this situation. Cas let it sweep him away. He let his body lead. He enjoyed the physical contact, but as usual, by the end of the night, the hollow feeling returned. Even the kiss couldn’t keep his mind at bay. Even when he deepened the kiss and pressed his date into the side of his car, his thoughts drifted to Dean. After the kiss, Cas surprised himself by accepting a third date. Brian met him at the club again, and the night passed exactly as the other had. Brian soon joined the list of others Cas danced with and never took home. They were all good-looking men. Men his age, but he still couldn’t muster any interest beyond the need for a warm, hard body. The fact that it never went passed a fully clothed grope and grind meant it brought little satisfaction, but Cas had nothing else to give or nothing else he was willing to receive. Even the kisses faded into the distance the longer the online dating went.

Late one night he wondered how long he could keep Charlie at bay. Her questions about his dates grew more insistent and more pointed. Cas found he had nothing left to maintain the lie. He simply deflected her questions. There was little surprise when she confronted him one night on the dance floor. She dragged him from the floor and out into the night air. He avoided eye contact, but she would not be deterred. She stepped into his line of sight no matter how many times he shifted away. He finally relented with a pained sigh. As soon as their eyes connected, she said, “This is not what I meant. This is so not good for you.”

“Why not?” he asked defeated.

“Cas, doing the same thing and expecting a different result never effing works.”

“I’m not trying to achieve any result. Once in a while I need to let go and this is what works.” He knew he failed to keep the sadness out of his voice, when she stepped in and put her arms around his waist.

Resting her head on his chest, she said, “I hate seeing you like this.”

He laughed, but there was no humor in it. “It’s better than what I did the first year after leaving home. This is certainly more me than whoever that person was.” He stroked her hair gently. “I don’t need you to worry about me. I know how to compartmentalize.”

Looking up at him, she whispered, “You shouldn’t have to hide your feelings. No one should.”

“I have little choice in the matter. I have accepted it, and I need you to do the same.” He stepped out of her embrace and took her hand. “Now, let’s go dance.”

As he led her back into the club, she said, rather too loudly, “You can go home with someone every now and again. It won’t turn you into that guy.”

This time his laughter was dark and foreboding. “Oh, for once you are wrong. If I open that door, I will step through it, especially under my current circumstances.” He twirled her into the crowd, effectively ending the conversation. They danced until they were both hot and sweaty. A beautiful, tall, dark-haired woman slid between them at one point. Cas stayed close until the moment he saw Charlie’s eyes alight with interest. He stepped back and nodded at his friend. She tried to protest, but Cas leaned around the woman to whisper in Charlie’s ear. “One of deserves to find pleasure tonight.” Without waiting for a reply, he slipped away, lost in a sea of bodies, knowing she was calling out to him. Slightly tipsy and physically exhausted, Cas chose to head home, hoping he would be able to slide into a dreamless sleep.

It was not to be because a certain green-eyed man was sitting on the couch when he walked in the front door. The lights were out in the living room. The only light filtering in came from the small light above the kitchen sink, casting the room in strange shadows. Cas tried to ignore the odd feeling in his chest and tried to ignore Dean’s presence. He walked toward the stairs with his head down, focusing on each step, which is why he didn’t hear or see Dean approach. He was taken aback when he almost ran into him at the base of the steps. He felt Dean’s frustration. It radiated off the man in waves. As he took in the sight before him, he saw the firm stance and the crossed arms. It reminded him of Charlie and all her interventions. He closed his eyes and shook his head.

“Cas, stop doing that.”

He didn’t want to ask, but what other option was there. “Stop doing what exactly?”

“Avoiding me. And don’t even try to deny it because I’m not the only one whose noticed.” Cas tipped his head up and stared at Dean, keeping his face impassive. “And the poker face isn’t going to work either,” said Dean. “Not when this is affecting Sam. He asked what happened between us.” Dean scoffed, “The worst part is I had no answer for him, and he didn’t believe me. He thinks I don’t want to admit whatever it is that I supposedly did. But I have no fucking clue. So, tell me Castiel, what happened, what did I do.” The use of his full name made Cas blanch and reel back. “Finally, some emotion, how about you follow that up with some words,” demanded Dean.

“You didn’t do anything. I’ll talk to Sam and make him understand you are not at fault,” Cas said as he tried to step around Dean.

Dean held out his arm, blocking his way. “That isn’t good enough. I want answers, and you aren’t leaving until you give me some. We are friends. Fuck we’re family Cas, and this is killing me.”

Unable to lie while looking into Dean’s eyes, Cas turned away. He ran his hand down his face, bringing back the false calm. “It has nothing to do with you. It concerns work, and I’m sorry for taking that out on you. I won’t let it happen again.”

Cas hoped Dean would simply accept his answer. Dean, of course, couldn’t leave it at that. He asked, “What’s going on at work?”

“You have enough going on in your life,” Cas said firmly as he turned to face Dean again. “You don’t need to worry about me. I can handle this on my own.”

“But that’s the thing, you don’t have to do that. I…we want to help.”

Shaking his head, Cas said, “But that is not who I am. I handle my problems alone. I have for years.”

Dean flung his hands in the air. “So, that’s it. The great Castiel has spoken and no one else has a say.” As he spoke Dean walked toward Cas. He stuck out his hand and jabbed Cas with his finger. “You’re a fucking hypocrite. I do it alone. I don’t need anyone’s help. When have you ever let any of the rest of us do that? You demand and cajole until we let you help,” Dean sneered, lowering his voice and mocking Cas.

“Yes, I do and I know I’m a hypocrite, but it doesn’t change anything. My job is to help you and Sam. Your problems are my problems.”

The heat of Dean’s body drew impossibly closer. “And what your problems don’t matter?”

“No, they don’t.”

“Hate to break it to you, but your problems matter to us.”

“Well, they shouldn’t,” snapped Cas. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he said, “Besides this is only about work.”

Dean reached out and held Cas by his biceps. His grip was tight and firm. “And your work matters. It’s important to you so it’s important to me and Sam. Cas come on. Let me in.”

Half-heartedly, Cas tried to extricate himself, but his mind and body didn’t really want to lose Dean’s touch. It was electrifying and everything Cas knew it would be and wanted desperately. It was dangerous to let it linger, but he let it, nonetheless. “It’s been a difficult few months. I need some kind of challenge and I just haven’t been able to find it. Despite Gabriel’s words to the contrary, I know the photos I’ve taken over the last months lack inspiration. I can’t stand to look at them, but Charlie and Gabriel keep insisting I sell them.”

“Why would they do that if they know you don’t want to?”

Cas sighed and lowered his head. Dean was standing so close, their foreheads touched. Cas’s reaction was immediate. He pulled himself free and backed away a full two steps. He covered his extreme reaction by talking quickly. “We need the money. All of us. There are bills and mortgages. Expenses I haven’t budgeted for. It’s out of my hands, so I am learning to accept it. So really, Dean, there is nothing you can do.”

“Bullshit,” snapped Dean. “Don’t pull away from me and expect me to accept your statement as fact. We are in this together. We made that promise to each other. We run this house and parent together. Those are the facts that matter. And if you are struggling in any way, I need to know. I deserve to know. We are partners, so you have no choice but to accept my help.”

The word partners had Cas closing his eyes on a pained swallow. His body ached from what that word could mean, and his traitorous mind supplied the images. He forced his thoughts back to their conversation, closing the door on that word. “You –”

“No,” Dean said, cutting Cas off. “I’m going to pick up more hours, and I will talk to Sam about what he could do to earn a few bucks.”

“Dean, no. We have always said Sam wouldn’t be burdened with work. I don’t want to be responsible for making that happen.” Cas winced at the quake in his voice. Whatever Dean saw or heard from his friend had him stepping forward and pulling Cas into his arms. “Let me go,” he pleaded quietly.

Dean shook his head and tightened his hold. “Cas, I’ve hated seeing that haunted look in your eyes. Please let me take some of the burden.”

The words were kind and supportive. The touch was caring and heartfelt. It should have made Cas feel better. It should have eased his tension. But all it did was make Cas fall more in love with the man he would never have. He closed his eyes and clung to Dean. He let the pain and sadness envelop him, even as he drank in the man’s smell and his comfort.

Chapter Text

The house was quiet, too quiet. With three guys, all now over six feet, living together in a rather small house, the place always seemed full and bursting. But lately, silence often crept in, making Dean feel lost in a way he hadn’t since his mother passed. It had been over two years since they lost Mary. One year of community college and two terms down at the university for Dean. It was something he had never expected to happen for him. And if Cas heard him term it that way, he would be hearing a lecture about how it didn’t just happen. He would insist it was due to Dean’s hard work and determination, not luck. He laughed as he pictured Cas’s scowling face. The sound echoed in the silent house. Once his laughter subsided, he realized thinking of Cas always made him smile. They had gone through a rough patch for a few months, but the tension ended just as suddenly as it had come. Dean still didn’t understand what the problem had been. When he let his mind linger on the topic, he couldn’t shake the feeling that it was something he had done.

The first vision which always came to mind was Cas sitting under the large, leafy tree in their backyard. Pain etched on his face. He wished he could say it only happened the one time, but he spied Cas on more than one occasion on his knees, alone, and clearly holding back tears. The sight made his heart clench and he wanted to run to his friend, but he knew it was the last thing Cas would want. He went to that spot for privacy and that was what Dean could offer, even if it tore at him in ways he didn’t understand. Other images always followed those. Cas coming home from a night out, trying desperately to look pleased. But as good as his poker face was, and Dean had learned just how good that was when Cas wiped the floor with him, his face on those nights was raw and open. There was a level of sadness and shame in his deep blue eyes. Dean never found the courage to ask a single question. His instinct was to flee from the man’s presence, but his feet never listened. So, he bore silent witness to his friend’s anguish, suspecting but never knowing the cause. The smell on his friend gave away his whereabouts. It wasn’t often, but Cas was out at clubs. He knew Charlie went with him sometimes, yet she never came home with him after and Cas always came home, alone.

That fact always triggered Dean’s other observation. The nights out became more frequent when Dean was dating someone. He hadn’t seen the pattern at first, but it became glaringly obvious after they met Aaron. Cas was the one to introduce him to the Winchesters. He was one of the rare people Cas brought into their lives. They had met when Cas worked with a local charity. Aaron was in charge of the fundraising and had approached Cas to contribute several of his works. Dean saw immediately the easy friendship the two men shared, and he wondered at times if it was more. When he asked Cas, the man actually chuckled.

“No, Dean, we’re just friends,” Cas said after stifling his laughter.

Dean smacked his arm. “Well, there were a couple times he looked at you like it was more. Sue me for thinking it might be.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize.” Cas looked at him with a guarded expression. “He did ask me out to dinner, but I declined. He was gracious enough to accept friendship.”

“Why didn’t you go out with him?” Dean asked before his brain caught up with his mouth.

Cas turned away from Dean before getting up from the couch. Dean read his need to put distance between them even if he had no clue why it was needed. Only after he had crossed the room, did Cas answer, “It wouldn’t have worked, so it was better not to start.”

Dean sensed the finality in his words and bit back his next question. He wanted to understand why Cas never dated. Why someone so great didn’t have someone in his life? But he buried those thoughts and said, “It’s good you can be friends. He’s a great guy.” Cas’s jaw clenched and his body shook.   The response was so shocking and gone so quickly Dean thought he imagined it.

Reviewing the memory once again, Dean knew his first thought was accurate. Cas had clearly tensed from his words. The tension had worsened over the next month. The aborted hand movements, the bit lip, the hurried exits became frequent when Aaron was at the house. Cas no longer called Aaron. He wasn’t the one to invite him over, and he barely spoke to the man when Dean brought him home. If Cas wasn’t gay, Dean would have thought it was homophobia. When Aaron had asked him out, he never thought it would affect Cas’s friendship, so he had said yes. It didn’t take more than a week for Dean to see he had misread the situation. Cas basically ended his friendship with Aaron when Dean told him. Their own relationship settled into an awkward dance. It was familiar and close at times, but at others it was distant and uncomfortable. The strain of it had gotten to Dean, and he lost it one night.

Dean walked into the house needing his friend. His day was awful. It was one clusterfuck after another. His classes were all screwed up and for some reason they hadn't processed his financial aid  correctly. Adding insult to injury his work had cut back his hours. But it was seeing Mary’s long-time friend, bald and thin, that had sent him over the edge. Cancer, the evil, insidious disease seemed to creep into their lives without warning. Cas was the one person he could unburden himself too. He was the only one he allowed to see his vulnerability. There was no one else who could hold Dean up when he wanted to let it all fall down around him.

A sense of calm came over him when he saw Cas standing at the sink. He stepped right over to him and put his hand on Cas’s shoulder, but before he could even speak, Cas slipped out of his grip. He turned to face Dean and whatever he saw in the younger man’s face had him reaching out. But as what had now become common place, he pulled his hands back before making contact. Dean’s reaction was just as swift as Cas’s. He grabbed his friend’s hands forcefully and said, “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Cas stepped further back as he said, “What do you mean?”

“What do I mean?” Dean asked angrily. “I mean why the hell do you keep pulling away from me.”

“I’m not.”

“If you’re not, how do you explain what just happened. You shrugged off my hand and then pulled your own back before you could touch me. And this isn’t the first time.” Dean shook his head even as he continued, “You were subtle in the beginning. I didn’t really put it all together, but now it’s blatantly obvious. And I know it has something to do with Aaron.” The entire time Dean spoke his voice was filled with barely suppressed fury. It was palpable and pointed, and it triggered something in his friend.

Cas ground his teeth, anger bubbling at the surface, and then it was gone. Dean watched as Cas deflated. In a quiet, flat voice, Castiel said, “You never told me you were interested in men.”

Despite the level tone, Dean heard notes of betrayal in it, and his own anger bled away. “I wasn’t keeping it from you.”

“Then why? Especially after I told you I was gay, why didn’t you confide in me?”

Dean walked over to the table and took a seat. He waited for Cas to join him, and then said, “It took me a while to understand myself. I was just figuring it out when Mom got sick, so suddenly my sexual identity crisis wasn’t so important. I pushed it aside for a long time. It’s only been over the last six months that I have let myself look at it and try to understand it.” Something in Dean’s words seemed to only exacerbate the situation, leaving Cas looking more pained.

“You could have talked…” Cas’s voice trailed off as he brought his eyes up to meet Dean’s. “Is Aaron the first?”

A chuckle burst from Dean’s mouth. “Nah, I’m not exactly the kinda guy who sits and thinks. Action is more my speed. I tested those waters a few times. Pretty sure I figured out I’m an equal opportunity guy.” The mirth in his voice vanished when he saw raw sadness in his friend’s blue eyes. Once again Dean was at a loss, and before he could ask, a mask came over Cas’s face. From one heartbeat to the next, emotion was simply gone.

“I see,” Cas said. “I’m glad for you.”

Pulling himself out of his memory, Dean shrugged at the futility of the entire episode because Aaron became a moot point. He took a job with the US State Department and moved to Washington D.C. only one month after the conversation. Adding to that, the brief relationship he had with the man ended two weeks before the move. Dean scoffed to himself at the use of the word relationship. It was more like an extended one-night stand with a few dates mixed in. Those words weren’t quite how he described it to Cas, but they were close enough. Cas’s reaction to the description wasn’t what Dean had expected. He wasn’t mollified by the news. If he had to put a label on it, he would say Cas was offended. It was the first time Dean had felt small in the man’s presence. And it had him wondering once again if Cas had been interested in Aaron and just wasn’t willing to admit it. It would fit. The two men had more in common than Aaron and Dean had. They were the closer in age and shared similar interests. It explained how they met and why their careers centered on helping those in need. Even six months later, Dean still questioned the entire affair despite knowing he would get no further answers from his blue-eyed friend.

Almost as if the thought conjured the man, Cas walked into the house. He smiled at Dean, and all he could feel was grateful. The loss of that smile had hurt and having it back brought peace to Dean’s heart. He didn’t bother trying to understand why Cas’s actions or lack there of affected him so much. He just accepted that they did. Life was easier when he didn’t let himself think too long and too hard on emotional issues. At least that’s what he told himself in the dark of night, alone in his bedroom. Those moments were always strongest after he had fallen apart in Castiel’s arms. Looking at Cas as he approached the couch stymied the path of his thoughts, a path he knew so well. One which brought up the loss of his mother, the pressures of life after, the vulnerability he felt, his refusal to let it show, and his need for the man sitting next to him.

“Hello Dean.”

“Hey Cas. What time did you leave this morning?”

Cas leaned back and put his feet on the coffee table. “It was before sunrise. I needed to get the shot for the University.”

“And did you?” The raised eyebrow and slight smirk gave Dean his answer. “Are you all done now?”

“No, unfortunately not.” Cas closed his eyes and sighed. “This is taking much longer than I anticipated. And I really wish I hadn’t let Charlie and Gabriel talk me into it.”

Dean reached out and laid his hand on Cas’s forearm. There was no move to brush off his hand. There wasn’t even the slightest twitch, so he rubbed his thumb along the sun-tanned skin in an effort to soothe Cas. “You work too hard,” he said gently.

Turning his head, Cas stared at Dean for several seconds. “It’s worth it,” he said seriously before adding on a chuckle, “But that doesn’t mean I don’t reserve the right to complain about it.”

“And I’ll be here to listen to it.” Dean tightened his grip on Cas’s arm.

“I know,” said Cas.

Jumping up from the couch, Dean abruptly changed the subject. “We have the house to ourselves tonight. No teenagers being snarky and annoying. What’d ya say to having some adult fun?”

With his patented dead pan delivery, Cas responded, “I am not watching porn with you Dean. Once was way beyond enough for me.”

“That was a fucking mistake. You weren’t supposed to be here, and it’s not like it’s my fault you sat down and glued your eyes to the TV.” Dean waved his arms around before crossing them on his chest defiantly.

“Hmm…regardless of my actions, you were watching it in the living room where anyone could have walked in on you.” Cas pierced Dean with a commanding stare. “Besides, the rule is no sex of any kind on the couch, and yes masturbation counts, Dean.”

“How’d you know what I was going to say? And don’t call it that.”

Cas smirked at Dean and chuckled darkly. “Considering you were jacking off and breaking that hard and fast rule, it was pretty easy to predict you would try to defend yourself.” Cas put heavy emphasis on the colloquial term while rolling his eyes at Dean.

Hearing Cas talk about sex in that deep, gritty voice made Dean squirm. It was almost as bad as the night they watched porn not three feet from each other. Dean knew he needed out of this conversation. Sex was not a topic they discussed, and the strange feeling inside of him was a pretty good signal as to why it didn’t happen. They were not the slap you on the back and congratulate you on your latest conquest kind of friends. No, their friendship was deeper, a bond of sorts. And Dean did not want to jeopardize it or minimize it by making them simply buddies so he said, “What I meant by adult fun was a poker night? We can invite a few people over and have a few beers, maybe some pizza.”

“If you call it a poker night, no one will show up. They refuse to play me.”

“They’ll come if we change the stakes and add in some other games.”

Cas looked skeptical. “What other games?”

“Video games, Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, pretty much anything?”

Cas threw his head back and laughed. “They aren’t going to like Trivial Pursuit any better.”

“Quit being obstinate. We have thousands of games.”

“Thousands,” Cas said in a mocking tone.

“Ya know what, I’m sending the text right now.” His phone pinged almost immediately. “Oh and look at that we have our first hell yes.”

“Charlie doesn’t count, Dean. She’d show up if you asked her to come and knit with us.”

Dean took two steps and stood directly in front of Cas. He looked down at him with a scowl. “Remind me why I like you again.”

“My blue eyes,” Cas said as he winked at Dean.

“Fuck you. Are you going to be this much of a snarky ass tonight because I get enough of that from Sam.” Dean tried to sound angry but he couldn’t stop himself from smiling. “Dammit,” he said as he stomped away. “You suck.”

“And I do it very well.”

“Jesus, are you high?” asked Dean with a squeak, cheeks flushing.

Cas, head tilted to the side, stared at Dean. After several seconds, his eyes widened and his cheeks darkened. He laughed nervously. “No,” said Cas. He exhaled heavily and then said quietly, as if he was speaking to himself, “I don’t do that anymore.”

Dean’s eyebrows shot up and his jaw dropped open. This night seemed to have lost all semblance of normalcy, and it was barely six. Dean wondered what other things he would learn about his friend if he ever got Cas drunk. Up to that point, he had only glimpsed Cas when he had a few too many. It was always after he came home from a club and on those nights, Cas always made a hasty retreat to shower. Then, he would disappear into his bedroom. Dean wouldn’t see him until morning, and Cas would act as if nothing had happened the night before and Dean would keep his mouth firmly shut. This time he couldn’t stop himself so he blurted, “You used to get high?”

“We are not talking about this.”

“You don’t get to say that. Not this time. Answer the damn question.” As he waited for Castiel to answer, Dean heard his phone ping, one after another. He pulled it out and read the texts, so far everyone had said yes to coming. He held up the phone, waving it in the air. “And I’d say you better answer now before we have a house full of people.”

“Fine,” snapped Cas. “It was after I left home. I was eighteen and free. Free to do everything my mother frowned upon. It was stupid and dangerous and everything I thought I wanted at the time. I drank, got high, and fucked my way across America. Is that what you want to hear?” Cas's voice went from defiant to almost sad, finally breaking on the question.

Dean was at a loss for words. He hadn’t known what he was expecting, but that was not it. When he met nineteen-year old Cas, he was already dedicated to his work and was never out of control. “I…Cas, man…I’m sorry.”

Sighing Cas asked, “Why are you sorry?”

“I…fuck…I don’t know.” Dean shook his head. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

“Why not?” Cas asked.  He inhaled sharply as he turned to look anywhere but at Dean.  "I see.  This changes your opinion of me.”

“No it doesn’t. Don’t put words in my mouth,” snapped Dean. “I just wasn’t expecting to learn that about you of all people. You were always so adult.”

Cas frowned, “What exactly does that mean?”

Dean flopped down on the couch. “It means you were already well into your career and mature by the time I met you.”

“That is all thanks to your mother. She made me see how I was wasting my life and my talent, and that’s why I left that all behind.”

Inching toward Cas, Dean hedged, “Can I ask you something?” Castiel nodded. “Were you an addict?”

Cas smiled and shook his head lightly. “No, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t harmful.”

“Gotcha,” Dean said as he bumped his shoulder into Cas, effectively ending the conversation. It was perfect timing because at that precise moment Charlie burst through the front door shouting, “Hello bitches.” On her heels was Jo, Dean’s friend from high school and partner in crime at work. It wasn’t long before Gabriel showed up with Aaron in tow. Dean had heard he was back in town to visit his family but was surprised to see him with Gabriel standing in his living room. Aaron went right up to Cas and started a conversation. Clearly, Castiel was not shocked to see his old friend. He wondered what was up with that but shelved the questions to greet the rest of the crew, Carmen, Billie, Benny, and Victor, making their way into the house. Carmen and Billie were Jo’s roommates and had been coming to these things for the past year. Victor, a college buddy of Dean’s, was a recent addition to the group. Benny, on the other hand, had known Dean and Sam most of their lives. They hadn’t seen him much since he joined the marines, but he was home on leave and was as secretive as ever about what he did in the military. Dean's attempts to get him rip-roaring drunk in hopes he would spill his secrets failed every damn time. And all Benny did was laugh at Dean’s incredulous pout when he crashed and burned.

The quiet Dean had been surrounded by earlier was long gone. The house was filled with laughter, teasing, and good-natured bickering. And it made him smile. This was what he had needed, and by the look on Cas’s face he had needed the same.

Despite Cas’s predictions, they did end up playing poker and per usual he wiped the floor with anyone who chose to join the game. It wasn’t the same for some of the other games. Pictionary was a revelation. Even with his artistic eye, Cas was terrible at the game. He took too long to draw and refused to just blurt out anything that came to mind. Benny whined incessantly as Cas dragged him down with him.

“How the hell are you so bad at this fuckin’ game?”

“Of course, that’s the United States.”

“What do you mean you didn’t see the tail? It’s right there.”

And Cas sat and took it all with the same face he used for poker, which only seemed to incite Benny all the more. His red face and huffing drew chuckles from everyone else, but for some reason it had Billie falling off her chair in laughter.

“It’s not that funny,” said Benny. To which Billie only laughed harder.

Having her distracted worked in Dean and Jo’s favor. Having been in the lead the entire game suddenly, Billie and Gabriel had stalled. It didn’t take long for the high school friends to sweep past them and win. Which of course meant it was time to gloat.

“You two are the worst winners. I’ve never seen anyone act like they just won the goddamn Olympics playing Pictionary,” said Victor. His teammate, Carmen, flung her dark hair over her shoulder in a huff, before joining in on the harassment. “Five-year olds. I think my niece is more mature than you two.”

Dean threw his head back and laughed. “You two are only saying that because you finished last. Come on Jo, we get to pick the next game.” Dean dragged Jo behind him to the game cabinet. When she pulled out Trivial Pursuit, Dean almost shoved it back in before Cas’s words came back to him. He was going to prove that stubborn ass wrong. He nodded at Jo and let her make the announcement. A collective groan came from the right side of the room, but she ignored it, picking up the ‘sorting hat’ as Charlie insisted on calling it. As per the rules, new partners were drawn. There was a moment of contemplation when everyone started assessing the new teams. Aaron and Victor were definitely poised to give Cas and Charlie a run for their money. Dean smiled at Cas, giving him a cheeky wink, and Cas rolled his eyes in response. As predicted it came down to those two teams vying for the center. Cas’s team got their first, but answered their question wrong. Aaron slammed their piece in the center when they finally reached it. It was a question the entire table could answer, and they held their breath as Victor dragged it out before answering Winnie-the-Pooh. Cas and Charlie groaned as they shook hands with the winners.

Victor and Aaron picked the next game and to everyone except Charlie’s utter dismay they chose freaking Mario Cart. “You have got to be kidding me. You know how she is at this game,” said Jo, taking a seat next to the aforementioned redhead.

“This is worse than playing poker against Cas,” whined Gabriel. “She wins every time and then she picks another damn video game, and it goes on and on. I think we need a new rule.”

“I agree with Gabe,” said Benny. Nine heads turned in his direction with their mouths hanging open. “What he can be right once in a while?”

Dean snorted, “Yeah, but we never thought you’d admit it.”

“Well, this time it was needed because I’m sick of losing to the she-devil.” Benny grinned at Charlie, making devil horns on his head.

Standing up from the couch, Charlie crossed her arms and glared at the Louisiana native. “You’re the oldest one here and that was more childish than Dean’s shameless gloating.

Benny winked and in his most dramatized southern drawl said, “Bite me, my lady.” Without warning, Charlie dove on the burly man and proceeded to bite at him. “Fiesty, this one.” Benny let her have her way for about three seconds before he held her tight, effectively stopping all her movements. “I believe we're ready for your pick, Cherie.”

“What about the rule?” said Gabriel.

Still in Benny’s arms, Charlie conceded to the establishment of a new rule. After several minutes of discussion, they agreed that the winner could only pick two times in a row before they had to hand off their pick to someone else. The rest of the night passed in a haze of alcohol and heated competition. By the end of the night, everyone had one at least one game, and no one was sober enough to drive home. A few took Ubers and the rest crashed at the Winchester home. Cas and Dean slipped up the stairs after they made sure everyone had a pillow and blanket. At the top of the stairs, Cas smiled sheepishly at Dean. His cheeks were pink from the heat and the alcohol he had consumed. It made him look more like a teenager than a man nearing his mid-twenties. When he whispered, “Thank you for tonight, Dean,” he seemed softer, gentler than his usual self.

It warmed something inside Dean and he said reverently, “You’re welcome, Cas.”

Chapter Text

The sun was shining as Dean made his way up the long driveway. A massive pale-green house with forest green shudders towered over the surrounding area. As he entered the circular section of the drive, he saw several large fenced areas and a couple of smaller buildings with matching architecture and paint. The setting was idyllic and not at all what he was expecting after meeting its owner. A man more suited to a dive bar or a cabin in the woods. His gruff demeanor had set Dean back on his heels, and the job offer that followed had stunned him into silence.

The entire situation had been taken completely out of his hands. He needed the money and with his hours being cut at his current job, there was no way he could turn down a full-time gig. A job that he thought simply fell in his lap. He found out the truth when he met his new boss, at a rundown diner with excellent hashbrowns, to discuss the job in more detail.

“Cas and Charlie sing your praises.”

“Huh…are they why you offered me the job?” asked Dean a little miffed at his friends for not informing him they knew Bobby.

Bobby frowned and scoffed, “Young people. What’d you think? I saw your pretty face and just had to hire you.”

“No, not that. I thought maybe you saw how hard I was working that day.”

Shrugging, Bobby said, “There was that, but why’d you think I was there in the first place.”

“Yeah I guess not ordering anything should have been a clue.”

Bobby shook his head before shoving some papers across the table. “Look these over. I want an answer before the end of breakfast.”

Dean had perused the list of duties and the additional list of add-ons which paid a hell of a lot more than the minimum wage he was currently earning. When he had questioned Bobby, the man had waved off the question and changed the subject. And now he was parking in front of the house for the first time, gearing up for his first day. He was nervous about the job. It wasn’t a great fit for someone who was never a dog lover, but he would make it work. Bobby and his fellow trainer were the one’s who dealt with the animals on a day-to-day basis. Dean would be doing the cleanup, the upkeep and the computer work his boss detested. He walked up to house and had his hand raised to ring the bell when the door opened. “What are you doing standing around? The work won’t get done on my damn porch.”

Dean bit back a smile as he turned to walk back down the stairs. Bobby gave him a perfunctory tour of the kennels and training areas. He pointed out the grooming areas and the medical facilities. The woman, who appeared to be a veterinarian, nodded in Dean’s direction as Bobby said, “That’s Annie. She’s here to see that our rescue animals get medical care.” Confusion settled over Dean as they continued the tour.

When they stopped in the main office, he said, “Bobby, you didn’t tell me you were also a center for rescued animals.”

“We do just about everything here.”

Dean was still confused and his expression must have shown it because Bobby said, “You’ll be working on the business side of things. Where we make our money.” The older man turned around and walked out the door. Dean scrambled to follow. Without looking back, Bobby pointed to the largest enclosure. “Fences aren’t going to fix themselves.” And with that he was gone.

By the end of the day, Dean was sweaty and physically exhausted, but he felt better than he had at the end of any other workday. He could visually see his accomplishments. He watched with fascination as Garth, a lanky man with a perma-grin, worked with the dogs in the area he had repaired. The trainer smiled and waved at him as he stepped up to his car. Dean found himself waving back with a satisfied smile.

When he drove into the driveway twenty minutes later, Cas was standing on the porch with a cold beer in his hands. His smile was small but genuine when he handed the beer off to Dean. “Bobby called. Said you’d need some refreshment.”

“God, yes,” Dean sighed with gratitude.

After Dean downed half his beer, Cas asked, “Rough day?”

Dean grinned at his friend. “Not in the slightest. Best job I ever had. I mean I’m sweaty and gross and my muscles ache, but it was awesome.”

“Good, I had a feeling you’d like it.”

“Thanks for…ya know.”

“Of course, Dean.” Cas turned and walked toward the front door. “I’m sure dinner is ready. Not sure exactly what we’re having since Sam decided to cook.” Dean’s whine, which he failed miserably at covering with a cough, made Cas smile and wink. “It won’t be that bad.”

“Are you kidding? Last time the pork chops were rock hard.”

Cas’s eyebrow quirked. “Rock hard. Interesting choice of words. I would think tough is a more apt way to describe meat. Unless you’re describing…” His eyes fixed on Dean, the innuendo clear in both his voice and his expression.

Brushing by Cas, he huffed and muttered, mostly to himself. “Does it ever stop?” And Dean actually wondered about the answer.

“Sorry, Dean,” Cas said quietly. Dean registered the guilt in his friend’s voice as he heard retreating footsteps and the annoying squeak of the screen door, which he once again had forgotten to fix. The loud sound of Cas’s motorcycle faded into the distance as Dean stood rooted to the spot.

Sam came out of the kitchen and stared at Dean. “Was that Cas’s bike?” Dean nodded. “I thought he was going to be here for dinner. He said he was just going out to meet you to find out how your day went.”

“Um…uh…” Dean stammered as he rubbed the back of his neck.

Standing to his full height, Sam tried to look stern. “What did you do?”

“I’m starving,” Dean said as he maneuvered around his younger brother to get in the kitchen. “Can we talk as we eat?”

“Fine, but we are talking about this.” Sam followed Dean into the kitchen and proceeded to fill two plates with something resembling jambalaya. “I hope it’s okay.”

They ate in silence. A silence Dean wanted to maintain but knowing Sam the inevitable interrogation was only moments away. Trying to stave off the onslaught, he kept his head down and eyes averted. He could practically hear Sam gearing up to start, so he deflected, “This is actually decent. No burnt parts. Nothing raw. Not going to win any awards but…it’s edible.”

“Thanks for the outstanding review, but it’s not going to work.”

“What?”

Sam rolled his eyes and set his fork next to his plate. He sat up straight and turned to directly face Dean. “Whether you fake compliment my food or not, we are talking about Cas.”

“That’s not what -”

Cutting Dean off, Sam said sternly, “Don’t. Just tell me why he left.”

Frustrated, Dean slapped his fork down and leaned back in his chair. “I don’t know. He said sorry and then he left.”

The irritated expression on Sam’s face expanded exponentially as did the frustration in his voice. “And why was he saying sorry?”

Dean replayed the conversation in his mind. He could feel heat rising up his neck as he recalled Cas’s comment, the tone of his voice, and his facial expression. There was no way he could tell Sammy all that, so he altered the facts a bit. “He made a joke, and I shot it down.”

The stare he got from Sam told him all he needed to know. He was not buying that story, even a little. Sam’s words solidified the truth of Dean’s thought. “Cas would not leave over something so trivial. The guy’s a badass.”

“A badass? Really, Sammy.” Dean shook his head as he added, “And when did you start using words like badass.”

With pink cheeks, Sam said, “I think I’ve been hanging out with Charlie and Gabe too much. But my point still stands even if you didn’t like my word choice. So, what really happened?”

Steeling himself, Dean pushed back from the table and walked over to the sink. He stared out the window. His eyes catching on the rays of light streaming through the maple leaves. Marking the spot under the tree where Cas sought solace. He sighed at the thought. “He’s been different. Looser or something, and it’s…I don’t know…weird, I guess.”

“It’s weird that he isn’t tense all the time. Weird that he smiles more. That he laughs and jokes around,” Sam said mockingly, but his voice was pure anger when he added, “That bothers you. You actually find Cas being happy weird.”

“No, I…” Dean started, but he realized pretty quick he didn’t have a defense. Sam was right in a way. Cas’s words and actions since their drunken game night made him uncomfortable. It was fine when they were both tipsy, but stone cold sober it was… His brain headed straight back to weird. Fucking weird is the only way he could seem to describe it, even when he tried to shove that descriptor away. “Dammit,” he said as he turned to face Sam.

“Wow, just wow,” said Sam as he ran his hands through his hair. “I was really hoping I was wrong on that one. How…” He stopped, closed his eyes, and shook his head. “I think I need to go. Yeah, I’m going to Kevin’s. Not sure when I’ll be back.” He raced from the room, confusion, anger, sadness and disappointment evident in his body language and his eyes.

It was the disappointment Dean couldn’t stomach. It had him reaching out for Sam, but his brother sidestepped his hand and took long strides until he was clear of the kitchen. Dean watched him, seeing the slumped shoulders and clenched fists. He was probably lucky Sam walked away because at that moment he wasn’t sure Sam wouldn’t have punched him if he had stayed. And the worst part was he knew he deserved it. What kind of person isn’t glad to see their best friend happy? If Benny or Aaron or Jo, or really any of his other friends would have made that joke he would have laughed. That’s the kind of shit they always do and say with each other. It’s childish and kind of stupid, but that often constitutes humor among friends. And Cas is his friend, his best friend, so why is it so different coming from him. Why does it make him feel so strange?

He didn’t have time to ponder that question or berate himself further because he heard the sound of a motorcycle, followed quickly by the opening of the screen door. His eyes were immediately pulled to Cas who was standing awkwardly just inside the door as if he was poised to make a hasty retreat. “Hey Cas,” Dean rushed to say hoping he could keep the man in the house.

“Hello Dean,” Cas said as he stepped further into the house. He set his keys down on the side table, keeping his eyes on them as he ran his fingers along the painted surface. “I wanted to apologize. I should have realized my poor attempts at humor were making you uncomfortable long before today. I see that now, and I want to assure you it won’t happen again. I also want you to know I haven’t forgotten my role here. I know what my purpose is, and I won’t lose sight of that again.” His eyes found Dean’s for a brief second before returning to the table and his keys. “Tell Sam I’m sorry about dinner and I’ll be home late. I have some work I need to finish.”

Before Dean could figure out what to say, Cas made that hasty retreat. Dean stared at the empty space where his friend had just stood. His words reverberating in his head. My role. My purpose. “What the hell was that?” Dean said to the slightly ajar screen door. He waited as if somehow it would give him the answers he needed. He shook himself out of the ridiculous notion and went to sit on the couch. With Cas’s assurance, he was getting what he wanted. He should be pleased, but for some reason he felt as if he had made a terrible mistake. One that would come back to bite him someday. And even now in the present, he didn’t feel good about the result, instead all he felt was guilt. He pictured Sam’s face when he left the house and then Cas’s. There had been a similar connotation to their expressions. He figured if he looked in the mirror, he would see the same looking back at him.

Hours later, as he readied himself for bed, his eyes raised to his reflection and what he saw proved he was right. Not willing to study the situation or himself further, he skipped the rest of his bedtime routine in favor of curling up in bed. He tried to read to occupy his mind, but after reading the same line six times in a row he finally relented. Laying the book on his bedside table, he turned up the music, hoping to drown out his thoughts. It took a long time for his eyes to droop and his breathing to even out.

 

There wasn’t much laughter in the house for the next several weeks. It didn’t take long for Dean to figure out Sam was avoiding him. He answered when spoken to, but it was perfunctory at best. He overheard Cas trying to coax Sam into admitting what was bothering him, but Sam held firm. He did coax a promise from him to ease up on Dean. Only because it’s what you want, Cas was Sam’s caveat. Dean was taken aback, even as he understood the sentiment. Sam wanted Cas to know how much he respected him and how much he cared about his opinion. The scowl he received when Sam made his way up the stairs showed Dean’s eavesdropping had been discovered, and it was not appreciated.

Despite that look, Sam’s attitude toward Dean did improve, slowly and painfully. It eventually returned to their usual banter. Cas, on the other hand, curbed himself as he had promised. The jokes and light teasing were gone, replaced by the man who took charge all those years ago. The concentrated, commanding looks were back in full force. It saddened Dean more than he expected, especially when he would catch a glimpse of a smile or his laughter. Those moments weren’t for Dean. They were reserved for Sam and Charlie. And Dean only saw it if he was lucky enough to happen upon them and his presence went unnoticed. For if Castiel saw him, he closed off, shut down, reprogrammed. Dean had any number of ways to describe Cas’s transition and none of them were good. He hated those moments the most.

The irony of it all was that Cas was still there for Dean. When he had a hard day at school or work or felt overwhelmed at his responsibilities, Cas opened his arms to him. He held him and soothed him as he had done the night after the funeral and so many nights since. Dean still shared his fears and his sadness with the man, and Cas took it all. He felt tremendous guilt, and yet he couldn’t stop seeking Cas out. His need outweighed his guilt in those weak moments.

Over time, Dean found a way to compartmentalize his feelings and even found a way to see Cas smile. He made sure to schedule more nights with their friends. Game nights, bowling nights, dinners out, and even some club nights. Cas maintained his stoicism in the early hours of those nights but with a few drinks he loosened up. They usually stumbled home together talking and laughing late into the night. Dean saw a side of Cas he didn’t expect. A side that drew both men and women to him. Yet, Cas never seemed to take note of anyone in particular. He’d dance freely, pulling people against him for song after song, and then he’d let them go without a second glance. Some nights Dean spent more time watching Cas than he did anything else.

After a long night, Dean was seated at the bar nursing a beer when he was smacked on the arm. “Stop staring.”

“Huh?” Dean said as he turned toward the voice to find Charlie glaring at him. “Why’d you hit me?”

“I said your name like three times, but you were too busy staring at Cas.”

Dean fumbled over his denial. “No…um…I was not.”

“Sure, you weren’t,” said Charlie sarcastically. After rolling her eyes, her expression grew serious. “You can’t keep doing this to him.”

Slightly on the side of too drunk, Dean wasn’t able to understand what Charlie was trying to say. Without answering, he finished his beer and tapped the bar for another.

Charlie was not pleased. “What the hell? I’m talking about your so-called best friend, and all you can do is down another beer.”

“He’s not so-called,” slurred Dean.

“You have a funny way of showing it,” sneered Charlie as she stormed off.

He tried to call her back, but the bartender set his new drink in front of him drawing his attention. By the time he turned around, he had lost sight of Charlie in the large crowd. His eyes, however, easily found Castiel, and he went right back to staring. Cas’s eyes found his and the man made his way over, taking the seat beside him. He was sweaty and flushed and smiling. It brought a grin to Dean’s face as he passed his half-full beer over to him.

“Thank you,” Cas said after taking a large swallow. “Why don’t you come join us? They’ve been asking for you.”

Ignoring the comment, Dean said, “You going to take someone home for once. That tall guy seems pretty into you.”

Cas’s eyes flashed to the dance floor before fixing firmly on Dean. “He’s not for me.”

“Who is?”

“What do you mean?” asked Cas with his patented head-tilt and squint.

Dean touched Cas’s arm lightly as he said, “You never leave with anyone, Cas. No one seems to be the one for you. What are you waiting for, Prince Charming?”

The question elicited a burst of laughter from Cas. “No, definitely not Prince Charming. I want someone real. Someone I can…”

“What, Cas?”

“Don’t worry about it, Dean.”

It was an answer Cas so often gave when it came to talking about himself, and Dean hated it. So that is precisely what he said, “I hate when you do that. I wanna know about you Cas and I worry. So there.”   He knew it all came out a bit sloppy, but he thought he still made his point. Cas’s tiny smile and shoulder bump signaled he had, but he still didn’t answer Dean’s earlier question.

“Let’s go home, Dean.”

“All right, lead the way.” Dean gestured toward the exit.

Cas chuckled, “I think that was a given considering you’re swaying where you sit.”

Cas held his elbow as he steered him through the traffic and out the door. They climbed into a waiting taxi. The ride home was quiet at first until Dean started talking. He kept up a running commentary that had the driver covering his snickering with his hand.

“I think I wanna be someone’s Prince Charming.”

“Do you think I’d make a good Prince?”

“Maybe a knight in shining armor. Oh, wait, don’t you have to ride a horse for that?”

“I never road a horse, Cas. I don’t think I can be a knight. Do you think I could still be a prince?”

“Cas, come on, you have to tell me what kind of prince you want. I know, dark and brooding. No wait that’s you. There aren’t two of you so that won’t work.”

“Um…I know. Someone with big muscles who can pick you up. That would be good, right?”

“Or maybe not. Maybe you want to do the carrying. Yeah, that makes more sense.”

“Ya know what you need Cas. You need to be the knight in shining armor. Am I right?” Dean forced himself to stop his word vomit and wait for Cas to answer. The driver wasn’t bothering to hide his laughter anymore and was clearly watching in the rearview mirror, but Dean didn’t care. All he cared about was Cas’s answer.

“Of course, Dean,” said Cas.

There was a gravity to Cas’s voice which didn’t quite match the situation, but Dean couldn’t help smiling anyway. “Nailed it,” he said as he leaned against Cas’s shoulder. “You’re my best friend, Cas. Not so-called or anything. Just best.”

“Okay, Dean.”

At home, Cas pulled Dean from the car and took most of his weight as they made their way upstairs. He helped Dean brush his teeth and forced him to down an entire glass of water. As Dean tried to shuck his clothes, he kept getting tangled. Cas finally took charge and helped him strip down to his boxers. Dean flopped back onto the bed, thanking Cas. “You’re my hero, Cas. Did you know that?”

Cas mumbled something about a lack of filter and too drunk to remember. Dean shook his head at Cas’s words. “I always remember you, Cas. Think about you.” Dean snuggled up under the sheet Cas pulled over him. “Night, Cas.”

“Good night, Dean.”

As Cas left, he turned out the light but didn’t shut the door right away. Dean could feel Cas’s eyes on him, and it made him think about how Mary used to do that after tucking him and Sam into bed. Knowing he had someone watching over him brought a smile to his lips. His last thought before he drifted off to sleep was that maybe Cas was more guardian angel than knight in shining armor.

Chapter Text

The sound of voices from Castiel’s room drew Sam’s attention as he exited the bathroom. Without thinking, he inched closer to the door. He recognized the voice speaking, but her tone surprised him. It was serious and filled with worry.

“Cas, this isn’t healthy. You can’t keep this up.”

“What would you have me do?”

“Try,” pleaded Charlie. “All I’m asking you to do is try.”’

“I did.”

“No, you didn’t. Not really.”

Cas’s sigh was loud enough for Sam to hear through the door, but he had to strain to hear his next words. “What do you need me to do?”

“I want you to give it a chance. Give the person a real shot, which means no comparisons.”

The room fell silent for a second, and then Sam heard the sound of approaching footsteps. He backed away from the door and rushed into his own room. He closed the door as silently as possible, hoping he hadn’t been detected. He sat down on his bed and began to replay the conversation he had just overheard. It wasn’t the first time he caught Charlie pushing Cas over the past year. He wondered exactly what she wanted their friend to do and what was so unhealthy in Cas’s life. His mind drifted to a few of the conversations he walked in on between Cas and Dean. There was something in Cas’s life he was missing, and it was starting to really bother him. He wanted to help his friend, but how could he do that if he didn’t understand the problem. As he laid back, he decided he would pay closer attention to Cas.

It was a few weeks later when the issue became more obvious. He was meeting Kevin at a coffee shop across town. As he stepped up to the building, he glanced in the window looking for his friend. His gaze landed on a table near the back. Cas was seated at the table with another man, and they were holding hands. He was smiling, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. In fact, Cas seemed slightly uncomfortable. Sam was so focused on the scene in the shop that he didn’t notice Kevin had arrived.

“What are you looking at?”

Sam jumped, but it didn’t stop him from responding. “Cas is on a date.”

“And?”

“I didn’t know he was…”

“Dating?” asked Kevin, clearly confused.

Pulling his eyes from the window, Sam looked at his friend. “What’s with all the one-word questions? And yes, I didn’t know he was dating, but I also didn’t know he was gay.”

“How do you know he’s gay?”

“The man holding his hand.”

“He could be bisexual,” said Kevin as he rolled his eyes.

“Okay, yeah, he could be, but I didn’t know. Although it would explain a few things.” Sam grabbed Kevin’s arm and pulled him down the street. After they rounded the corner, Sam stopped abruptly.

Kevin pulled his arm free and said, “Would you please explain?”

Taking a deep breath, Sam leaned against the brick wall. “I’ve overheard a few things about Cas, and I think I understand what Charlie was talking about now. And I think it’s why she is pushing him to go on dates.” Kevin seemed even more confused, so Sam continued. “I first noticed something a few months after Cas moved in with us. There were these moments between Dean and Cas where I felt like the third wheel or where I just knew it was private.”

Eyes wide, Kevin said, “Oh.”

Sam waved his arm rapidly. “No, no. I don’t think they are together or ever were together. I think that is the problem.”

“So the problem is they aren’t a couple. If that’s the case, why is Charlie pushing Cas to date.”

Closing his eyes, Sam sighed, “Because I don’t think Dean…I can’t be sure, but I’m guessing either he doesn’t know or maybe he already said no.”

A knowing look swept across Kevin’s face. “That might explain the weird tension between them lately. You said they were avoiding each other at times.” Sam nodded and then started walking. “What are you going to do about it?” asked Kevin when he caught up.

“I don’t know. I mean. Cas is my family, and I know he’s been struggling. That much is obvious. And it’s also seems obvious to me now that Charlie thinks he needs to find someone to get over Dean. But what if…” Sam’s voice trailed off as memories filled his mind.

The smile exchanged between Dean and Cas on the last day of their road trip. The way it lingered to the point where Sam felt the need to look away.

Cas’s arms wrapped around Dean as tears streamed down the younger man’s face. Sam feeling the need to duck away on each of those occasions.

The watchful eye Cas kept on Dean, and his uncanny ability to sense Dean’s needs.

The stricken look on Castiel’s face when Dean put his arm around Aaron the night he announced they were dating.

The way they always stood so close together. Practically leaning on each other. And then there were the touches.

Sam could no longer ignore or brush off these moments. He could no longer convince himself he hadn’t seen anything because it was all right there in his memory. It was there in every interaction the two men had and how Cas tried to cover his emotions. It was there in the distance Cas created and in the lack of personal space between the two friends. Sam realized there was little doubt to what it all meant. Cas loved Dean and had for a long while. And it was decidedly different than how he loved Sam. Now that he had seen it, he would never be able to look past it again. “Fuck. He loves him.”

“I think you’re right.”

Sam looked down at Kevin. “What the hell am I supposed to do with that information?”

“Nothing. It isn’t your place, Sam,” Kevin said with conviction.

“How is it not my place? They’re my brothers.”

Silence ensued as they began walking again. When they reached Kevin’s car, he said, “My mom should be home by now. Maybe you should talk to her. She drives me nuts with all her interfering and analyzing, but she is good at her job.” They talked about inane topics as they drove and sang along to a few songs. The time passed quickly and before he knew it Sam was seated across the counter from Linda Tran, renowned psychiatrist and author of  numerous papers on PTSD. She intimidated Sam on the best of days and today was no exception.

“So, you are speculating based on your observations of a few overheard conversations and intimate moments. Is that correct?”

“Um…yeah, I guess.”

“And from that you want to what…intervene, confront one or both of them?”

Sam flopped back on the stool. “When you say it like that it sounds stupid.”

The stern look slipped off Linda’s face as her lips quirked up in a smile. “I think you have answered your own question. Even if most or all of your assumptions are right, you have no idea how either of them would react or what they have already discussed with each other. They are both adults, and they are the one’s who have to communicate.”

“But what if they just can’t talk about it. How long do I just sit back and watch them torture themselves?”

For a moment Sam thought Mrs. Tran wasn’t going to answer, but then she said, “Cas has never struck me as someone who is timid. He tends to go after what he wants, why would your brother be an exception? I think the most likely scenario is that Cas told Dean and did not get the answer he wanted.”

Sam’s first instinct was to protest, but he stopped himself from the knee-jerk reaction and really thought about her comment. He looked over at Kevin who seemed to be doing much the same. There was a flash of understanding in his friend’s eyes in the second before he nodded. “I think I agree with my mom,” he said to Sam before turning to look at his mom. “Don’t let that go to your head, Mom. It’s a one-time statement.” Linda smirked and then chuckled, to which Kevin groaned.

As he watched the mother and son with a wistful look, Sam said, “I guess that makes the most sense. It would explain their strange behavior around each other and Cas’s dating.” Even though Sam found himself agreeing, he didn’t feel any better. In fact, a heavy sadness seemed to be creeping over him. He wanted to help. He needed to help, and yet he was stuck. Trapped by the circumstances and by a lack of information. And even more, he was trapped in between the two most important people in his life. Both of whom tried to hide their true emotions from him. Tried to protect him and keep him from seeing their weaknesses. He wanted to rail at them to make them see he was growing up. Make them see he did not need protecting. He knew it was a lost cause. Cas was still protecting Dean, sheltering him in any way he could, so there was no way he would stop doing the very same for Sam. And of course, Dean was little different. He was determined to keep Sam safe and secure while giving him every opportunity to succeed.

When he took the time to really look at their lives, Sam realized he had lost a mother, but gained two father figures. Two young men who grew up fast and learned to work together. It wasn’t always perfect but the respect and love were always there, in every decision and in every conversation. The more he thought about it, the more it bothered Sam that Dean didn’t see what he could have, what they could have. Sam shook himself out of that train of thought. It would do no good to dwell on a situation he couldn’t alter. He had to let it go. For now, his traitorous mind added.

 

Letting it go was easier said than done. It was almost impossible to ignore or pretend he didn’t see the signs. The next several months were filled with what Sam could only call supercharged moments. It was like the room crackled with intensity, and the energy didn’t only come from Cas. It made him wonder if Mrs. Tran had been wrong. If they had jumped to the wrong conclusion. But just when he thought he was going to say something, Dean showed up with a woman on his arm. She didn’t stick around long, less than two weeks by Sam’s count, but the tension she created permeated the entire house. Cas was stiff and distant around Dean and seemed to avoid the house. Even with that, Sam could see the pain in Cas’s eyes. The longing stares at Dean’s back. The vacant look he set on his face when Dean faced him.

It all got to be too much after he got home from school one day to find Dean’s face buried in Cas’s chest. The look of love and adoration on Cas’s face sealed the deal for Sam. Later that night, after Dean had left for his night class, Sam blurted, “Have you told him?” Despite Cas’s inquisitive look, Sam had seen the flicker of panic in the man’s blue eyes.

“Told who what?” asked Cas.

“Have you told Dean how you feel?” Sam asked emphasizing each word. He rushed to add, “And before you try to deny it, it’s written all over your face when you look at him.”

Cas’s face morphed into one of anger even as it flushed with embarrassment. “Sam,” he warned.

“Cas, I’m not a little kid and I’m not an idiot, so please don’t treat me like one. Just answer the question,” Sam paused before he added, “Please.”

Cas rocked back in his chair, something Sam had never seen him do. He stared up at the ceiling, shaking his head in blatant frustration. He huffed, “No, and I don’t plan to.”

“Why not? He seems -”

“Don’t finish that thought,” Cas said as he cut Sam off. “I did what you asked and answered your question, so we are done discussing it.” His chair slammed back down onto the floor. “Dean needs to find his own path and you and I need to let him.”

There was a finality to Cas’s statement, and it made Sam swallow back the but he was about to say. He stared at his friend and saw the resolution in them, so he asked, “What about you? What are you going to do?”

A sad smile greeted his question. “I have my work and my family and friends. For now, it is enough.”

“And later?”

“I’m already working on that. Charlie and I have outlined my next big project. I’m sure you’ve heard us talking about it.” Sam nodded. “I plan to start when you are in college and Dean is done with his degree.”

Sam shifted nervously as he pondered Cas’s words. “You’re really leaving?” It was Cas’s turn to nod. “And it’s going to be dangerous?”

“I will be careful, but I’ll be in some of the most hostile places in the world so…” Cas’s deep voice trailed off as he gave Sam a sympathetic smile.

It was as if the air was sucked out of Sam’s lungs and out of the room. He didn’t know how to respond or if he even should, but then his mind got stuck on one thought. “Have you talked this over with Dean?”

“To a degree.”

The answer was vague and wholly unsatisfactory, but when pressed Cas refused to give any more detail. Sam excused himself after his fourth failure to elicit a further response. He went to his room, put in his headphones, and tried to drown out the image of Cas waving good-bye at the airport. Once he banished that image, it was replaced by more horrific ones. Cas running for his life in some war-torn country. Cas lying wounded or dead. He had always known about Cas’s job, about the danger, but somehow it was all the more real after their conversation. And if Cas was telling the truth, he would be going in a few short years. What would that do to their family? How would he cope without him? How would Dean? Those questions were still running through his mind as he drifted off to sleep. His dreams were plagued with devastation and loss. He woke at the sound of footsteps on the stairs.

Muffled voices grew clearer as they reached the landing. “Did you guys have a good night?” asked Dean.

“It was fine. How was class?”

“Good.” Dean stopped and Sam could hear him shuffling his feet. “Sorry about earlier.”

“Don’t apologize. You can lean on me whenever you need support.”

The sound of movement ensued and if Sam had to put money on it, he would say his brother was hugging Cas. “You are the best friend I’ve ever had Cas. You’re family. Our brother.”

It was the last word which hit Sam in the chest. It put the final nail in the coffin. For that word signaled why Cas was going to leave. Why he had to go, and why they would eventually lose him to the greater world. As Sam closed his eyes, he felt a dampness on his cheeks. He hadn’t cried since the summer after his mother had died, but now alone in his darkened room, he let the tears fall. He brushed them away before falling asleep.

 

In the morning, he entered the kitchen to see Cas standing at the stove, making eggs, while Dean hovered at his side. The long lines of their bodies were leaning against each other and at one point, Dean turned to smile at Cas. The tender look Cas gave in return made Sam take a quiet step back. He let them have their moment. It lingered like so many others. He wondered what passed between them in those lingering moments. Whatever it was it left Dean smiling and with a faint blush on his cheeks. And once again Sam was utterly confused. If Dean saw Cas as a brother, why did he react that way. Sighing Sam decided to enter the kitchen, making enough noise to announce his presence. Dean turned to face him.

“Mornin’ Sammy. You look kinda tired. You sleep all right?”

“I’m fine, Dean. What’s for breakfast?”

Cas flicked his gaze over to Sam. “Eggs, toast, and fruit.”

“You mean sausage,” said Dean cheekily.

“No, I mean fruit.” He nudged Dean with his elbow, and Dean leaned into the contact. Another soft smile was exchanged between them. Clearly, they had already been bantering about the breakfast choices.

Sam looked away, hoping by not watching he could forget what was transpiring, but the two men kept up their light-hearted bickering, drawing Sam back into the conversation. He decided then and there that he would enjoy the time they had together because he knew now that it was fleeting. He decided he would appreciate every interaction whether it confused him or not. Because when it all came down to it, they all loved each other in some capacity and what did it really change if the love was different for some. So he chuckled as he interjected himself into their conversation, taking Cas’s side to help rile Dean up. It worked as he knew it would. The ribbing continued through breakfast and clean-up. Dean ruffled Sam’s hair as he said, “Go get ready for school.”

“You’re only hurrying me from the room because you know you lost.”

Dean scoffed, “Keep telling yourself that.”

“No need. The truth speaks for itself,” replied Sam as he walked out of the room. As he approached the stairs, he heard Dean say, “Man, that kid is too smart.”

“And you couldn’t be prouder of that fact,” said Cas matter-of-factly.

“You’re right, but don’t go telling him that.” Sam kept walking so he missed Cas’s response. He smiled as he took the stairs two at a time. He rushed through his morning routine and met Dean by the door ten minutes early. Cas handed him some lunch money just before he slipped out the door. He slid into the Impala still smiling. The smile remained as he waved to Dean and as he entered school and as he walked up to Kevin.

“Good morning?” asked Kevin.

“Something like that,” said Sam.

 

Chapter Text

No matter how hard he tried to sleep it evaded him. After several hours of tossing and turning, Cas threw back the covers and exited the bed with a groan of frustration. The day had been wonderful in so many ways, and yet he was restless and irritated. It was a state he had grown more familiar with each passing year. He knew he hid it well. This need for something more. For four years, he had called the Winchester house his home. He stayed, he worked, and he dreamed. Dreams of a life beyond these walls. A life outside of Kansas. The camera he loved so much had become more like a noose around his neck the longer he was stuck working out of his studio. It’s why Charlie and, to his utter shock, Gabe were determined to find him stories that took him away.

He had traveled further in the last year than he had done in his first three years with the Winchesters. His work took him to Brazil, Guatemala, Alaska, and several places in the continental US. It was fulfilling in a way his life in Lawrence wasn’t, but it also caused issues at home. Dean made his displeasure known by using the silent treatment. Sam, of course, did not care for his big brother’s behavior which inevitably led to fighting between the Winchesters. Slamming doors had become common place. No one could get a straight answer from Dean, and plenty of people had tried. Once Bobby failed, Cas gave up on ever truly understanding Dean’s opinion on the matter. He tried to appease him at times, canceling his trip to Alaska several times, but each of those instances broke something inside Cas. He had let pieces of himself fade away, and if the situation didn’t change, he wasn’t sure he would recognize himself.

Oddly it was one of Cas’s internet dates that helped him make the decision to finally go. The man was an environmentalist and amateur photographer, and someone Cas related to on both a professional and personal level. It was several dates in when the topic of his trip came up. Carlos immediately latched onto the topic. His dark eyes lit up with interest as he leaned into Cas’s space.

“You have to do it, and you shouldn’t wait. The changes happening are so vast and occurring so rapidly that every second counts.” Carlos took Cas’s hand. “My last visit to the North Slope was shocking. I tried to capture it, but you could do it the justice it deserves. And with your name, it may finally get more national attention.” There was real conviction behind his words and a deep-seated disgust for those who denied climate change. Cas understood where his date was coming from and in that moment, he resolved to go.

Squeezing Carlos’s hand, Cas leaned forward and gave him a quick peck on the lips. “I’ll go,” he said, punctuating his words with a longer kiss.

Cas would forever be grateful to the few weeks he spent with Carlos. The man reignited his passion for his work and made him fully accept where his future belonged. That passion was one of the reasons the relationship the two men forged faded from dating to friendship. It happened seamlessly as they were both too dedicated to their careers and in Cas’s case, Sam and Dean, for a relationship to work. They kept in contact, encouraging each other in their pursuits. It was a friendship Cas had needed and one he greatly appreciated, but it was one that troubled Dean. From the get-go, he seemed to dislike Carlos. His dislike only grew the more Carlos encouraged Cas. It irked Charlie to such a degree she finally confronted Dean.

The confrontation had occurred at the studio, and Cas had walked into the sound of raised voices. They had been well into the argument before he arrived. He had tried to make his way to them, but Gabe blocked his path.

“Don’t Cassie. Let her handle this. It needed saying, and she was the right person to do it.” Gabe tried to redirect him away from the offices, but Cas held firm. “I’m not sure you want to hear them.”

Cas pulled himself free just as he heard Charlie say, “If you’re not man enough to say how you really feel then you need to let Cas live his life without your sulking. Carlos is a great guy, and he’s good for Cas.”

“How would you know?” said Dean petulantly.

“I know because I actually pay attention to Cas. I understand him and how much of himself he has given up for you.” She put special emphasis on the you.

There was a brief moment of silence before it was interrupted by the sound of a fist hitting wood. Cas rushed forward but halted when Dean spoke. “I know what he gave up for us, and I never stop questioning why he did it and why he still does it.”

Charlie laughed darkly. “How do you not get it? He does everything for you, Dean because he -” Cas had heard enough. He burst into the room before Charlie could say the next fateful words. Dean could not know. He could never know.

“You two are scaring all the customers away,” Cas said, feigning humor. He tried to smile as he added, “Besides you know how I feel about you two bickering.”

Even with his presence, Dean remained focused on Charlie. Eyeing her intently. It seemed clear to Cas that Dean was hoping she would finish her sentence. Catching his friend’s eye, he hoped she read the plea in his expression. He breathed a sigh of relief, when she said, “I don’t know what the problem is. Bickering with Dean is a favorite pastime of mine.” And just like that the previous topic was closed. Cas dared to look at Dean. His expression was one of resignation.

After the confrontation, Dean eased up on Carlos. He didn’t huff and sigh whenever Cas video chatted with his friend. Instead, he smiled politely and acknowledged the man with a nod or a quick hello. It made Cas feel immeasurably better. And as time passed, Dean was even willing to talk about Cas’s upcoming trips. He schooled his expressions, trying to hide his discomfort. Even if it wasn’t always effective, Cas appreciated the effort. The positive changes were why Cas didn’t understand his current emotions. Dean and Sam had thrown him an amazing party for his twenty-sixth birthday. He had a trip coming up in less a week and his next show was already planned. So why am I sitting here struggling to sleep?  he thought. What is it this time?

The immediate answer, which came to mind, he swatted away. But it kept coming unbidden no matter how he tried to halt it. He finally gave in and let it take over his thoughts. It darkened his mood considerably. As always it was Dean. This time it wasn’t something Dean was doing to him. Instead it was the new person in Dean’s life. Well not really new, as Carmen had been in their lives for years. She hadn’t been around as much over the previous year and a half after moving across town with a few new friends, but now she seemed to always show up. Cas saw what it was she wanted, even if Dean didn’t.

They were both in secondary education and shared many of the same classes. Dean’s focus was social studies while hers was language arts. They shared an interest in literature and cars. She was outgoing and funny. She had this quality which brightened the mood in any room she entered. Cas saw the writing on the wall.

Dean could deny it all he wanted, but there was something there. It was in the way they looked at each other and the way Dean laughed. A laugh which Cas could no longer elicit from his friend. In his loneliest moments, he wished time would pass quicker. That the days of his promise would come to an end. Those thoughts ushered in guilt because it was as if he was wishing away Sam’s youth. Wishing away the family he loved so much. He needed to stop his morbid train of thought, so he stepped out of his room and quietly slipped down the stairs. He ignored his desire for a beer and went outside empty handed. He sat down in the furthest corner of the porch, ducking into its dark recesses. He watched the sway of the trees in the moonlight and let a sense of tranquility wash over him.

He let his mind linger on all the good in his life. He let it see the benefits of his friendship with Dean, and the amazing reality that he was family. He pictured Sam as the gangly teenager he had been all those years ago and what an incredible man and human being he had become. He took pride in his role and in what they had accomplished. Sam was headed to Stanford in the fall and was going to room with Kevin. It was everything they had wished for him when they had started this journey. And Dean had went from a kid who contemplated not graduating high school to making the Dean’s list. He thrived in school. It was a wondrous thing to observe, and Cas was so proud of him. These were the reasons he was still here. Why those lonely moments weren’t as frequent as they could be. Why, despite his wanderlust, he cherished this home and family. He smiled as he wrapped his arms around himself.

The sound of movement in the house drew his attention. He turned his head toward the door, but otherwise remained motionless. The door opened and as Cas expected, Dean stepped out. He looked around the yard and the porch. His eyes swept over Cas but then continued their search. Cas waited, knowing once Dean’s eyes adjusted, he would see him.

“You could have said something,” said Dean, voice rough from disuse.

Cas shrugged. Unsure if Dean could see the motion, he said, “You eventually saw me.”

“This is becoming a habit.”

“Meeting out here?”

Dean sat down next to Cas all the while shaking his head. “Not what I meant, but I guess that’s true also. What I meant was you struggling to sleep. What’s going on?”

“I have a lot on my mind.”

Huffing Dean said, “Care to elaborate.”

Cas dropped his arms from his chest and gripped the arms of his chair. The wood was old and beginning to splinter. He felt the sharp points but kept his grip firm anyway. “Just thinking about the changes to come and what it means for all of us.”

“Yeah, Sam leaving is going to be strange. Part of me wants to lock him up to keep him from going.”

The hand closest to Dean loosened on the arm of the chair and sought to close the distance between them. Cas stopped the forward momentum before he touched Dean, awkwardly shifting his hand to his thigh. “I know how hard it’s going to be for you. I wish there was more I could.”

A small, disbelieving laugh slipped from Dean’s lips. “You think you don’t do enough. That’s ridiculous. No one, and I mean no one, has ever done more for us. And I may not be the best at telling you, but I appreciate it every damn day. I have no idea what I would do without you, and I’m so glad you’ll be here with me when he goes away to college.”

There it was the words he had dreaded. The words he knew would keep him from leaving. His love for Dean was the most powerful force in his life. It trumped his need for travel and his desire to work. It laid siege on the other passions in his life. To the effect, it basically trapped him, as any successful siege does. He tried to keep the emotions these thoughts elicited from showing on his face. He fought to keep his own needs and wants from spilling from his lips. Biting his tongue seemed to work the best. Once he released it, he said, with as much reassurance as he could muster, “I’ll be here.”

“I know. You aren’t the kind of person who makes a promise and then bails.”

Cas pictured all the plans he had laid out. The maps and research Charlie and he had compiled. The connections they were even now making in the far-off places he planned to go. The relief agencies and fellow journalists. The soldiers and diplomats. The doctors and volunteers. The refugees and former child soldiers he had already interviewed and photographed. And he realized the few times he had spoken to Dean about it, the man had been preoccupied and hardly listened. He wondered if maybe it was intentional. Dean didn’t want him to leave so maybe this was just another thing the man compartmentalized. They were similar in their ability to accomplish that goal. The idea made him smile.

“What?” asked Dean, confusion evident in his voice.

Cas was equally confused, and it must have showed because Dean added, “Why are you smiling?”

“Oh,” replied Cas. “I guess I was thinking about how similar we are.”

“Yeah, I suppose that’s true. I’m pretty stubborn when it comes to promises.”

“That you are,” agreed Cas. “You want to tell me what woke you.”

“I wasn’t sleeping so I heard you leave your room. I debated about following you.”

“Wasn’t a very long debate.”

Dean laughed and whacked Cas on the arm. “Well, you know me.”

Cas joined in his laughter. “Yes, I do.”

After the laughter subsided, Dean’s expression grew serious. “Cas, I wasn’t sleeping because I’ve been worried.” He paused until Cas looked over at him. “About you. I’ve felt like you’re keeping things from me. From us.”

“What gave you that impression?”

Dean shrugged. “I mean you looked happy enough at your party, but at times you looked as if you were going through the motions.”

“I assure you tonight was a great night. I loved my party and am grateful to you and Sam for throwing it for me.”

They sat in silence for several seconds. Cas could hear Dean’s breathing as it mingled with the wind. There was a comfort in having him so close. The thought made him turn to look at Dean. He studied the planes of his face in the pale moonlight. He was a beautiful man and the sight of him made Cas’s breath hitch. The sound must have registered with Dean because his head snapped up and over to Cas. Refusing to let embarrassment win, Cas held his gaze. The silence dragged on as they stared at each other. Cas could almost feel the intensity. There was heat and tension, and Cas didn’t want it to end. But he knew it must. He tipped his head up, staring off into the darkest part of the backyard.

The featherlight touch on his arm made him close his eyes. “Cas,” whispered Dean. “I…um…I’m going to head in.” The touch was gone. “I’m glad you had a good time.” Dean stood and his footsteps crossed the porch.

Cas turned his head to find Dean standing at the door. He was holding the handle but not opening it. “You should try to get some sleep.”

“I’ll be in soon Dean.” With those words, his friend opened the door and went inside. Cas didn’t follow.

 

The week passed quickly as Cas prepared for his upcoming trip. Charlie had arranged his travel and his accommodations. He was set to meet a man who worked for the Puerto Rican government. He had agreed to take Cas around the island to document the lack of progress in the reconstruction and recovery from Hurricane Maria. Julian's only request was that Cas arrive before another hurricane season. He wanted documentation of the failure before any new damage was done. In many ways, his request made the trip easier for Cas. There was no option to delay so he was able to stick to his plans without feeling pressure from Dean.

The day of his flight Dean stood at the bottom of the stairs, keys in hand.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m driving you.”

“I thought Charlie was taking me.”

Dean shook his head. “Well, plans change.” Cas didn’t move from the top step. Dean stared up at him with a frown. “Unless you don’t want me to.”

“Of course, you can drive me,” Cas said in a rush as he started down the stairs. “I just thought you were working this morning.”

“Bobby gave me the time off. He knew I wanted to see you off in style. No one should have to ride in that thing Charlie considers a car.” Dean took one of Cas’s bags and gestured toward the door. “A much better ride awaits you.”

Cas smiled indulgently at his friend. “Undoubtedly.”

“I knew I liked you,” remarked Dean as he chuckled.

The drive was quiet for the first several minutes except for Dean’s occasional whisper of lyrics. Dean broke the silence when they were stopped at a red light. “Three weeks to a month. Right?”

Nodding, Cas said, “I know it’s longer than I’ve ever been gone, but Anton was very clear in his explanations. With all the various issues and areas to cover, I'm going to need all the time I can get.”

“At least you aren’t going to someplace rampant with gunfire. Still not sure I’ve recovered from your time in Guatemala.”

Cas flinched and felt his hackles rise. “Someone has to tell the story.”

“No need to get mad, Cas. I know why you do your job, and why it’s important.” Dean paused and only continued after Cas relaxed his shoulders. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to worry, especially when I hear the sound of gunfire in the background.”

Reaching over, Cas patted Dean’s forearm. “I’m always careful.”

Dean looked down at Cas’s hand before resting his own hand on top. The moment lingered until a horn honked behind them. Dean hit the gas harder than needed, and they jerked forward. “Sorry,” he said sheepishly.

“Hmm…I didn’t notice anything amiss,” said Cas with fake innocence, to which Dean smiled. Cas filled the remainder of their ride with talk of his plans for the next weeks. Dean had barely been home recently, so he had missed most of the discussions about his trip to Puerto Rico. Sam had all the details and contact information saved, so this was simply to inform Dean. As they pulled into the airport, Cas sensed a change in Dean. “What is it?”

“Huh?” asked Dean.

“What’s wrong?”

Dean scoffed. “Should have known you’d ask. You’re as bad as Sam. And so you don’t have to interrogate me this time, I’m just going to answer your question. I'm going to miss the hell out of you. I hate when you’re gone a week. A month is going to suck.”

“I’m going to miss you, too Dean.”

 

It had been two weeks since he said goodbye to Dean. Two weeks of constant travel and companionship. Cas knew Julian was an engaging and energetic man from their conversations, but his boundless energy still managed to surprise him. Cas was used to doing much of his work alone. Usually, his contacts spent the first few days showing him around before heading back to their own work and lives. Julian was the exception to this rule. He had stayed with Cas since the moment he picked him up at the San Juan airport. There was an urgency in the man’s every action and in the hurried way he talked. The more time they spent together the more it amazed Castiel.

It was nearly seven months since Hurricane Maria devastated the island and the recovery was slow at best. Non-existent at worst. Power outages. Insufficient aid and late payouts. Roofless homes. Construction delays. Shuttered schools. Police shortages. Nearly bankrupted governments. All of which had contributed to high rates of mental health issues and suicides. Yet somehow through it all Julian remained positive. Each day he pointedly made sure to show Cas some of the island’s success stories. Despite these efforts, Cas could see the continued devastation the hurricane reaped. There was a level of sadness permeating the island. A notion of being a forgotten people. Second class citizens whose pain was less tangible, less significant than those of other Americans.

For Cas, Hurricane Maria and its aftermath joined the ranks of Hurricane Katrina and the Flint Water Crisis. Where poverty begets inadequate aid, leading to more poverty and often exodus. He had photographed many such stories. Ones filled with inequality and racial disparity. Ones where people have minimal political influence and therefore have no recourse. Puerto Ricans fit this mold. Without statehood, they lacked the right to vote for president and had no representation in congress. In essence, they were a modern version of the thirteen colonies who resolutely cast-off British rule for those very reasons.

Staring out the window of the motel, Cas’s mind began whipping through the images he shot over the past two weeks. He saw them in juxtaposition with other disasters and captioned with the words of the colonists who refused to be ruled by a government which did not listen or respond to its needs. As he turned to grab his laptop, a set of arms encircled his waist and a smooth voice whispered, “You’ve done enough work today, Castiel. Come to bed.”

The first time those arms wrapped around him Cas had tensed. It wasn’t that the touch was unwelcome at the time. It was more surprising than anything, and Julian respected Cas’s reaction. Easing back but not letting go completely. Cas had taken measure of his feelings and realized he needed to be touched. He had shifted back until Julian's arm came around him again. They had remained standing as they talked. It was intimate without being sexual. With all their shared time together, Cas had confided in the man about his situation at home, specifically about his unrequited feelings for Dean. So even as they embarked on this thing, Cas still had no idea what to call it, he knew Julian understood. Even without a label or a spoken agreement, he knew it had an end date.

They didn’t kiss, not in the way lover’s did anyway. A quick peck here and there was about it. Maybe a kiss on the neck or behind the ear. Those were few and far between and only occurred in the early morning hours, when they were both sleepy and in need of comfort. They slept wrapped around each other most nights with Cas usually tucked up behind Julian. They held hands on occasion, touched the small of each other’s backs, but that was where the touch ended. At times, Cas thought they could have more. His body certainly wanted more, but his mind always drifted to Dean. To their almost nightly conversations and how he missed his friend. He missed his laugh most of all. He chuckled as he realized he was doing it again. There was a gorgeous man wrapped around him, breathing against his neck, and he was imagining another man’s laughter. The way Dean threw his head back, exposing his neck. A neck Cas was desperate to kiss. Castiel’s chuckle darkened at the thought.

Julian’s arms tightened around him as he slid one hand up to his chest. “Dean?”

“What else?’”

“Come back to bed and let me help distract you.”

It sounded like an invitation for sex, but Cas knew better. He knew Julian would regale him with stories as he rubbed his back and shoulders. It was the one other way they touched each other. Without pause, Cas let Julian lead him back to the bed. He let the dark-haired man with the intense brown eyes roll him onto his stomach. He let his long, slender fingers dig into his tense muscles, and he listened to every word he said. It wasn’t long before his body and mind gave into the soothing nature of touch. He heard his own muffled voice say, “Thank you,” as he sank further into the comfort of the man’s hands.

 

Their last week was a mad rush to the remaining locations Cas was determined to photograph. Exhausted each night, his chats with Dean were short, but Cas could still see Dean vibrating with anticipation. Julian happened to walk in on a few of those chats, and it signaled the end of the intimacy they shared. Without exchanging a word, they shifted to sleeping apart. The small touches remained, but they never lingered the way they had before. Cas understood even as it saddened him. Julian was an amazing person, and he had shared himself with Cas, never asking for more than Cas could give. It was a rarity in this world, and Cas knew it.   Yet, the facts never changed throughout the entire three weeks. Cas remained steadfastly in love with Dean, and therefore could give very little of himself. He sighed as he stared at the ceiling. From the other bed, he heard Julian shift.

“Can’t sleep,” he whispered.

Cas sighed again. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“I wasn’t sleeping.” Julian shifted again, and Cas heard him get up. Castiel’s bed dipped as Julian sat down.

“You’re a good man. You deserve to find someone who can give you all their love.”

Julian huffed as he ran his hand through Cas’s hair. “You make it sound as if you’re not good, as if you don’t deserve the same. Nothing could be further from the truth, Castiel. Just because Dean can’t see what he is missing doesn’t mean you are unworthy of love. Someday you will find the right person.” As he finished speaking, he slipped under the covers.

Cas whispered, "As will you," as he pulled Julian into his arms.  Cas relished the feeling of having a body close, knowing tomorrow night and the nights to follow he would go to bed alone in his room at home. 

Chapter Text

Traveling was long and tiring, and Cas couldn’t wait to get home. He hurried to retrieve his bags and then looked around for Dean. When he didn’t see him, he pulled out his phone and sent a text. Ten minutes and two more texts later, he decided to call. He let it ring until it went to voicemail. He called a second time, and just as he was about to give up, the call was answered.

“What?” snapped Dean.

Anger simmering, Cas said, “I’m at the airport. Where are you?”

“Aw, shit.” Dean sighed heavily. “With everything going on, I completely forgot.”

There was something - exhaustion, uncertainty, fear - in Dean’s voice which made Cas’s anger dissipate. “What’s going on?”

“They’re getting ready to operate on Sammy.”

“What the hell happened?” asked Cas anxiously.

“It’s his appendix.” stated Dean before quietly adding, “Cas, I need you here.”

“I’m on my way.” He hung up quickly and promptly made for the exit. He grabbed the first available taxi and took off for the hospital. When he arrived, he was directed to the waiting room. He found Dean pacing the room. They met in the middle of the space, and Cas wrapped his arms around Dean. He held him firmly as Dean sagged in his arms.

Cas escorted him to the chairs and helped him take a seat. Dean immediately took his hand and gripped it tightly. “They took him in about twenty minutes ago.” His voice shook as he spoke.

“Dean, he’s going to be fine. This is a very common surgery.”

“That’s what they keep telling me, but it’s Sammy.”

Cas nodded in understanding. Hoping to redirect Dean’s thoughts, he asked, “What do you need me to do?”

“I guess you should probably make a few calls.”

Pulling out his phone, Cas began at the top of his contacts list which made Bobby, who had become a trusted member of their ragtag family, his first call. Charlie followed, and she promised to inform Gabe. The call to Kevin took the longest as the young man wouldn’t stop asking questions. Finally, Cas said, “Just come to the hospital,” and hung up before Kevin could say more. He started to make another call but hesitated. It only took a few seconds for him to decide to text the others because really Dean was the priority right now. He was back to pacing, and Cas needed to intervene. He sent a group text, then stood up, and grabbed Dean’s elbow. “Come sit. Kevin should be here soon. I told the others we’d text or call when we knew more, but I would assume Bobby and Charlie won’t wait.”

They sat down in the same chairs, and once again Dean took Cas’s hand. “I hate hospitals.”

“I know.”

“I get this is supposedly routine, but I’m terrified, Cas.” He turned to face the older man. Tears clung to his lashes. “I can’t lose him.”

Without thinking, Cas reached up and cupped Dean’s jaw. “You will not lose him.” Dean didn’t respond except to squeeze Castiel’s hand. “Did they tell you how long it would take?”

“Under an hour if there aren’t any complications.”

Cas looked at his watch. Sam had already been in there for over thirty minutes. “It shouldn’t be too much longer.” Instead of talking further about the surgery or the situation, Cas began talking about Puerto Rico, and some of the people he met. It filled the remaining minutes and before long Dean was standing to greet the doctor. Cas joined him quickly, wanting to hear the news firsthand.

“…went great. Sam is in recovery. The nurse will come get you once he’s been moved to a room and is ready for visitors.” Just as quickly as she had come, the doctor was gone.

It wasn’t long before the nurse arrived to escort them to Sam’s hospital room. When they entered the room, Dean rushed over to the bed and took Sam’s hand. “Sammy?”

A very dazed Sam attempted a smile, but it fell short. Instead, he nodded weakly.

“He’s only just woken up, so it’s normal for him to be a bit groggy,” said the nurse. “You might as well sit while you wait for him to become more coherent.” She gestured at the chair pushed in the corner. “I’ll bring another in for you,” she stated while gesturing toward Cas.

Dean pulled the chair over to the bed and flopped down. It had seen better days. It was worn and flattened, but Dean didn’t seem to register it at all. His eyes were fixed on Sam taking measure of every inch of his brother. “He looks so pale.”

“He does,” said Cas as he came to stand beside Dean. He laid his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “But the doctor told you everything went as expected. He is going to be fine.”

The touch of Dean’s hand over his drew Castiel’s eyes away from Sam. He looked down to see Dean staring up at him. “Thanks, Cas. I’m so glad you’re back.” Before Cas could respond, Dean removed his hand, and his gaze shifted. Noise behind him signaled the return of the nurse, Stacy or was it Susan. Cas couldn’t remember. He was just about to ask when she said, “There is a young man out there insisting he needs to get back here. But since Sam is just out of recovery, I think it best we keep it to the two of you.”

“I’ll go talk to Kevin.”

“No, Cas, like you said he has a bunch of questions, and I was the one who was there. But if he wakes up again…” Dean trailed off as he stood up.

“Of course, Dean.”

Within a heartbeat, he was alone with Sam. He sat down heavily. The exhaustion finally catching up to him, magnified by the guilt he felt. Guilt for not being there for Dean and Sam. “I should have been here,” he whispered.

“Don’t do that, Cas.” Sam’s voice was cracked and breathy. It sounded painful.

“Hello Sam.” Cas held out a cup of water, letting Sam take small sips as he held it for him.

After swallowing and clearing his throat, Sam muttered, “Hey Cas.”

“Dean will be right back. He had to go and talk to Kevin.”

Sam nodded slightly. “I meant what I said. Don’t feel guilty. You were working.”

Movement outside the door stopped their conversation. Dean was standing outside the door, facing the hallway. His arms opened as if inviting a hug. The second Cas saw the dark-haired woman enter those arms he turned away. He tried to cover his emotions. Slip on the mask he had learned to wear so well, but it wasn’t in time.

“Cas, I’m sorry,” whispered Sam.

With those few words, Cas knew his secret was out. He had seen a contemplative look on Sam’s face over the years. Always directed at him and Dean. He wondered how long Sam had suspected. How many times Sam asked himself what he was seeing? Cas felt weak. His failure to hide his feelings, mixed with the dreary hospital room, made him feel a bit broken. He kept his head down, unable to look at Sam or the door. “You have nothing to apologize for.”

“Cas, you can talk to me. I’m not a little kid anymore.”

“I know that Sam. There is nothing to talk about.”

“Ya know I thought I saw something all the way back on our trip that first summer.” Shaking his head and chuckling, he continued, “I mean I had no clue exactly what it was, but I saw the way you were together. I see the way you are together.”

“There is no together, Sam. Your brother is with Carmen. As you can see.” He waved his arm in the general direction of the door. “He doesn’t see me that way.” His voice was quiet and pained.  

“But you see him that way.”

Cas shook his head, finally lifting it to make eye contact. “Please stop. No good can come from this conversation.”

“It’s why you leave. Isn’t it?” Cas didn’t respond. There was nothing he could say, no argument he could make. It would all sound hollow because it would be littered with lies. Sam sighed, “I’m not mad at you for going, Cas. I get it. I really do. If I felt…” Cas gave Sam a hard look, and the young man's voice faded out. Several seconds later Sam said, “I would do the same.”

Cas was saved from speaking as Dean and Carmen entered the room. He immediately stood up, looked down at Sam, and said, “I’ll get out of the way.” He walked toward the door, not once looking at Carmen or Dean.

“Cas wait,” called out Dean, but Cas didn’t stop. He didn’t stop until he reached the waiting room to find Charlie, Bobby, and Kevin in an animated conversation.  

Charlie spotted him first.  “What’s wrong?” she asked as she leapt out of her chair.

“Everything’s fine.”

“Then why do you look like your dog died?”

“Charlie,” groaned Cas. “I’m just tired. With the travel and this…” He hoped she would accept his answer because truthfully, he didn’t have the energy for any further conversation.

Bobby stepped up to stand at Charlie’s side. “How about I take you home, son, so you can shower and rest? Sam ain’t going anywhere.” Cas didn’t argue. He went to follow Bobby, but stopped to say, “I think you guys can go back now. Carmen did.” A knowing look came over Charlie’s face, but she kept her thoughts to herself and for that Cas was grateful.

At home, Cas sat on the couch with his head in his hands. When his phone pinged with a text, he saw the time. He had been sitting there for over an hour. Shaking himself out of his self-imposed stupor, he went and took the hottest shower his skin could handle. He was bright red and tingly when he finally emerged. He brushed his teeth roughly before running his hands through his hair much too aggressively. Several strands came out in his hands. It was the sight of those hairs clinging to his fingers which made him take a deep breath and search for an elusive peace. He found some measure of one when he focused on the image of a small girl, swinging and laughing. Eyes dancing with joy despite the debris surrounding her. If she could find happiness in the bleakness that still remained on the island, then surely Cas could find it here, in his home with his family.

After his realization, he dressed quickly. Picked up the keys to his bike and sped off in the direction of the hospital. Night had crept in while he was home, and the brightly lit hospital entrance stood out in the fading light. He slipped in the doors and made his way to Sam’s room. Dean stood as soon as Cas opened the door. He practically charged him. “Why did you leave in such a rush? I was trying to talk to you.”

“I needed to shower and change.”

“Yeah, Bobby told me he drove you home, but that doesn’t explain your hasty exit.” Dean stopped and waved at the clock on the wall. “Or why it took you hours to shower and change. I needed you here.”

“Dean, I was tired from all the travel. I needed to rest.” Cas stepped around Dean and made his way over to Sam’s bed. The young man was sleeping soundly. “How is he?” he asked trying to change the subject, but as usual his stubborn friend refused to allow it.

Shaking his head, Dean retorted, “Nuh-uh. I want an explanation, Cas.”

Cas sat down and dragged his eyes up to meet Dean’s. “What do you want me to say?” Dean took the seat next to him, keeping his eyes on Cas the entire time. “You didn’t need me. Bobby, Kevin, and Charlie were in the waiting room. And Carmen was right here with you.” His tone was heavy with irritation, and it hit hardest on her name. Dean’s eyes widened, but his mouth remained tightly closed. Cas wished he would just lash out instead of searching his eyes for some hidden meaning. Not willing to let it go on, Cas closed his eyes as he turned his head. When he opened them, he saw Sam’s hazel eyes blinking awake. He wanted to jump up and hug the young man.

“Hey Cas.”

“Hello Sam,” greeted Cas. He could still feel Dean’s eyes boring into the side of his head, and he needed to distract himself from it. “How are you feeling?” he asked, hoping to divert attention to Sam.

“Better,” Sam mumbled as his eyelids began to close. He was asleep in seconds.

So much for that diversion, thought Cas just as Dean hissed, “Cas, outside now.”

Shaking his head, Cas said, “I came to be with Sam.”

“Please Cas.” Dean fidgeted in his seat and rubbed the back of his neck. “I need to talk to you and here is not the place.”

The please was really all it took. Castiel stood up and walked out of the room. Dean joined him a moment later. They walked down the hall in silence. Neither spoke until they exited the building. “Cas, I…we always need you. Sam is in there recovering from surgery, and you chose to go home. I don’t get it. You never left when Mom was sick.”

Damn he knows just where to hit, thought Cas, as his stomach heaved with nausea. It took a few steadying breaths to squelch the feeling. Even then, he didn’t have words for Dean’s insinuation. He looked to the sky. There were no answers there, but he lost himself in the shades of gray and black. So spellbound, he didn’t feel the dampness on his cheeks or the quiet cry escaping his lips.

“Cas, you’re crying.”

“What?”

Dean cleared his throat and asked, “Why are you crying?”

Cas lowered his chin and felt the tears drop onto his collarbone. “Oh.” He swiped them away angrily and went to walk away. Dean’s grip stopped him. “Do you always have to know everything?” Cas asked bitterly.

“Not everything. But this, you cryin’, yeah I want to know.” He hesitated and then dropped Cas’s arm. “Was it what I said about Mom?”

“Thinking of Mary, especially those last few months…”

When Cas didn’t continue, Dean said, “It still fucking hurts. And being at this hospital sure doesn’t help any of us.”

“No, it doesn’t.” The intensity of the conversation had drawn them closer together. They were mere inches apart, and for some reason the proximity made Cas blurt, “I missed you.” He wanted to cover his face or step away, but his body refused to move. He was stuck by the soft look in Dean’s green eyes.

“I missed you, too,” Dean whispered as he closed the last inch separating them. Castiel’s arms instinctively encircled his best friend. He breathed in deeply, searching for Dean’s familiar scent beneath the hospital smell lingering on his clothes. The second it hit his senses Cas felt relief. A relief he only found when he was with the younger man. Whenever they were separated, it was as if the last puzzle piece was missing, and the only place to find it was to come home to Dean. He smiled ruefully at his own sappy thoughts before loosening his hold.

Dean tipped back a fraction. “Why the smile?”

“My wayward brain, that’s all.”

“And you don’t care to share," whined Dean theatrically.

Cas threw his head back in a burst of laughter. “It amazes me you can sound like a petulant child even with your deep voice.”

“My deep voice? You have to be kidding me,” said Dean with a wicked grin. “Have you heard yourself? Since the day I met you, I’ve marveled at your voice. It’s like you gargled rocks or some shit. It’s wicked deep and gritty, and I know it can bring both men and women to their knees.”

The flush sweeping across Castiel’s body reached his face in record time, just as another rush of blood hit his groin. He bit back the groan the image Dean’s words had conjured. The image of Dean on his knees gazing up at him, lust in his eyes and mouth tantalizing close to Cas’s leaking cock. He dropped his hands from Dean’s body and took a measurable step back. He did it slowly, or as slow as his need, would allow. Hoping Dean didn’t read anything into the break of contact this time, he quickly said, “Well when I met you, your voice still hadn’t hit puberty, nor had -”

Dean’s hand suddenly covered Cas’s mouth. “Oh no, you are not finishing that sentence.” Despite his glare, Dean was fighting back a smile. Unable to resist, Cas childishly licked Dean’s palm, but the man refused to let go. “Really Cas? And you called me a petulant child.” Cas raised his eyebrows defiantly and cocked his head slightly. “Don’t give me that look Cas. You are not in charge here.”

At Dean’s statement, they both broke down in laughter. Cas ended up bent over bracing himself on his knees. “I haven’t laughed like that in ages.”

“Me, neither,” gasped Dean, still catching his breath.

Once all the laughter subsided, Cas said in a serious tone, “I’m here now, and I won’t leave Sam. You should go home to shower and rest.”

Dean nodded slowly. “Yeah, I suppose. Let’s go back in.  If Sammy’s still sleeping, I’ll go home for a couple hours.” They started walking, arms brushing against each other. "And now that you’re home, we need to talk about Sam’s graduation.”

 

Sam was out of the hospital thirty hours after surgery. He was sore and a bit tired when he got home. Dean insisted he miss a few days of school so as to not strain himself.  Since he had only a few weeks left before graduation, Sam argued vehemently against it.  He lost the argument when Cas backed Dean up.

“Here we go again.”

“What does that mean?” asked Dean.

“It means you two still gang up on me even though I’m eighteen now and can make my own decisions. In three months, I will be halfway across the country. How do you plan to control me then?”

Dean rolled his eyes before looking to Cas. Nodding Cas, said, “We do not control you, Sam. In this family, we make decisions together. There is no harm in staying home for a few days. You’re a straight A student with a full-ride scholarship. I would think it would be a bigger risk to rush your recovery and risk hospitalization.” The smile Dean gave him was one of pride. Cas returned it with an indulgent smile and a shrugged shoulder.

It was Sam’s turn to roll his eyes and add a scoff for good measure. “I hate when you’re Mister Reasonable and so damn efficacious.”

“Ohh, look at you pulling out the old SAT words.”

“Shut up, Dean.”

“Bitch.”

“Jerk.”

Knowing the argument was now over, Cas chuckled at the two brothers.

“Quit smiling, Asshat.”

“Dean,” scolded Cas in his sternest voice.

“Dammit, that’s just not fair,” said Dean. “It was bad enough having Sammy pull out the big words, but you using your disgruntled Dad voice is so much worse.”

“Tell me about,” said Sam as he left the room.

Dean smirked at Sam’s retreating back. “That went better than expected.” He walked out of the kitchen and sat down on the couch. “I don’t know about you, but I could use some mindless TV.”

Joining Dean on the couch, Cas tossed his feet up onto the coffee table. Dean whipped through the channels at an alarming speed, forcing Cas to look away from the rapidly changing screen. After several times through, he gave up and pulled up Netflix. “New season of that monster show is available.” It was a show Dean binged one weekend while he was sick. It centered on two brothers and their angel friend. Reminds me of us and that angel guy reminds me of you, he said on more than one occasion, trying to explain his obsession with the show. Cas always replied, I am not an angel. To which Dean retorted, You are in my book. Neither Dean nor Cas commented this time when Dean pressed play. They lost themselves in the show for a couple of episodes. Before the third episode started, Cas grabbed the remote and turned it off. “We talked about Sam’s graduation party but not his gift.”

“Do you have something in mind?”

Sheepishly Cas answered, “Um…well I may have already purchased it."

"Should have guessed,” huffed Dean. “Are you gonna tell me what it is?”

“This is a big milestone, for both of you really. Sam starting college in the fall and you starting your student teaching. So, I thought we should take a trip like we did four years ago. I know we briefly discussed it, but I wanted to surprise you both."

Sam yelled from the stairway, “Where are we going?”

Dropping their feet from the table, both men turned to glare at Sam. “Quit eavesdropping all the damn time,” snapped Dean.

Ignoring Dean, Sam repeated his question while looking directly at Cas. The older man couldn’t resist Sam’s enthusiasm and answered, “Germany,” just as Dean said, “Nowhere.” The room fell dead silent, and Cas turned to face Dean with a perplexed look.

“Cas, I’m sorry, but I signed up for a summer school class, and I promised Bobby I would work full-time the entire summer.”

“Why did you sign up for a class when all you have left is student teaching?” asked Sam as he gingerly walked down the remaining stairs.

Dean looked back and forth between Sam and Cas, settling his gaze somewhere in between them. “It’s a literature class Carmen and I are taking.”

“Well, just because you can’t go doesn’t me Cas and I can’t.” Sam sat down with a slight wince. “I mean if he already purchased everything…” Sam trailed off, voice hopeful and eyes lit with interest.

“Yeah, I guess,” conceded Dean. The words were agreeable, but the tone was anything but.

Knowing he needed to rejoin the conversation, Cas said, “I think this may require more discussion, Sam. I should have talked to Dean before making the decision.”

With those words, Dean leaned back into the couch and faced Cas. He held Cas’s gaze, and it felt as if he was reading him, trying to understand the best way forward. Cas tried to give him reassurance. Whatever passed between them resulted in Dean declaring, “You two should go. Ever since you,” his eyes flicked to Sam, “started taking German, you’ve both talked about going there. I don’t want to stand in the way.” When he finished speaking, he reached out and patted Castiel’s hand. “And use the extra ticket for Charlie. The last time she was here she whined about never getting to travel with you.”

“If you’re sure,” said Cas hesitantly.

“I am,” declared Dean as he stood up. “We can talk more about it tomorrow because I’m going to bed, and so should you Sammy.”

“Yeah, I’ll be up in a minute.” Sam watched Dean take the stairs. “Thanks for this Cas,” he said after his brother was out of sight. “And I’m sorry.”

“For what?” At Sam’s concerned look, Cas added, “There is nothing to be sorry for Sam. I was the one who assumed based on a short conversation nine months ago, and I shouldn’t do it anymore.” After a beat, he added, “Things change.  Your brother has a life of his own now.” Sadness tinged his words and invaded the corners of his mind. He pictured his last night in Puerto Rico. The feel of Julian’s arms. The heartfelt words they shared. Cas let it sweep over him and give him comfort, and he thought, Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not in a year. But someday…yes, one day... He shut off his internal monologue and smiled mutedly at Sam.

“I’ll be all right. I promise,” he stated, as much for himself as for Sam.