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Life as a House

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Palos Verdes Drive S in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, has a turn-off as you roll south that leads into what most anyone would describe as an attractive, upper-middle-class residential community. Dean Winchester’s lucky to be able to afford a place on this street, even luckier to have scored the prime lot at the tip of the cul-de-sac, a piece of real estate most people will never even dream of owning. The houses surrounding Dean’s lot are modest but well-kept. This isn’t a street for elaborate estates or mansions; there are no sprawling driveways or multi-winged architectural installments, just typical southern California homes. Perhaps a bit too large, perhaps a touch showy, but overall, nothing incredibly special. The defining feature of Dean’s neighborhood is supposed to be how nothing stands out. Instead, it all flows together harmoniously, making living on the street an experience that carries from home to front yard, to spectacular views of the cliffs and the Pacific beyond. Big windows, decorative trim, well-manicured lawns, and perfectly pruned plants. Everything looks as clean and flawless as it undoubtedly had the day it was finished being built.

Dean’s never been one for fitting in.

His house is a dump. No, that’s not self-deprecating modesty; some of the walls may actually be on the verge of coming down. That fact (and the fact that it had previously belonged to his father) is what allowed Dean to be able to keep his home in the first place. The mortgage and taxes were driven down despite the stunning location due solely to the fact that the “home” wasn’t much more than a rundown heap of boards held together mostly by dirt and salt from the ocean air. And that was just shy of fifteen years ago. These days, Dean’s pretty sure the only thing holding his house up is hope.

And hope is something Dean plumb ran out of ages ago. This house, this entire life - it was supposed to be shared. The visions that danced in Dean’s head included people , they included Cas. Him and Cas, roughhousing on a shag rug they’d put in front of the giant fireplace Cas would insist upon. It’d be cliché as hell, but Dean wouldn’t complain when Cas was face down on top of it. The hardwood floors where they’d dance, where he’d whirl Cas around and dip and twirl him, because despite his protests otherwise, Dean secretly loved to dance, but only with Cas in his arms. The floating step stairs with iron rails that would catch hastily flung shirts and undergarments the two of them were too preoccupied to pick up as they raced for the bedroom. The giant master that would be their sanctuary, their home base. The place they’d make love and rest and argue and make up and always feel safe in. The kitchen where Dean would cook Cas’ favorite meals, where eventually sticky hands would smear peanut butter on cabinets and a dog would track dirt on the floor. Their home. And all of it overlooking the vast, peaceful certainty of the Pacific Ocean with the waves crashing against the cliffs below, a view that would be the background for every important milestone from their first night as husbands until the very end of their days.

Until it wasn’t. Until Castiel had decided one of their fights would be their last fight, packed his bags and left with their son, leaving Dean alone with a shattered heart and equally shattered dreams.

Yea, once upon a time, Dean had big plans for this house, or this lot, anyway. Being an almost-architect with a construction worker for a dad, he’d always assumed he’d eventually build his own home, and he’d always looked forward to it. There was a time that Dean could see it all, watch every stage of the process play across his mind as if it were a movie. First, he and Cas would tear down the dumpy old shack taking up the majority of space on the lot. They’d move into the garage, which was a legally rentable unit, though the toilet wasn’t exactly concealed and the shower was outside. They’d deal though because it was only temporary, and it’d make a great story to tell their kids someday. Then they’d start on the actual house a big, open-concept, glass-walled masterpiece, built proudly by their own hands. Piece by piece, part by part, they’d build their home together. It wouldn’t be easy of course, but it would be something they’d push through and be endlessly proud of when they finished. He never guessed, not in a million years, that he’d end up exactly like his dad. All alone in the same exact dump of a house, abandoned by the people they loved because they couldn’t get it together. Two generations of failure belonged to this house, thanks to Dean. But he remembers when he believed he’d have something different.

Dean used to be able to see it all so clearly, even for years after Castiel left. The two of them, working side-by-side, the bare-bones frame of the house freshly raised. The gentle summer wind would be at his back, blowing Castiel’s dark hair off of his forehead as they crouched atop the wooden framework of the unfinished second floor. Cas looking up from his hammering to see Dean smiling at him and smiling back, his tanned skin setting off his bright blue eyes that perfectly mirror the color of the Pacific framing him in the background. They’d crinkle at the edges as his smile would widen, showing off his perfect teeth and just a bit of gum. Dean had fallen in love with Castiel’s smile the first time he’d seen it, his serious nature making its appearance a rarity, and he was still weak for it to this day.

The architectural plans for their forever home still hang on the wall of Dean’s pitifully small and crowded home office to this day, but the dream of making that house a reality died with Castiel’s departure all those years ago. These days, Dean finds it hard to care where he sleeps, eats, and shits. The view is nice, and he takes it in any chance he gets. To his neighbor’s dismay, that includes his morning piss. He’ll roll out of bed and wander right out the side door, standing at the property’s edge in only his boxers, emptying his bladder right over the side of the cliff.

Dean still isn’t interested in fitting in.

What he is interested in though, is his son, and the reason Castiel had left to begin with. It had been unexpected, that Jack came into their lives in the way he did, but not unwelcome. Castiel’s estranged brother and his wife had died suddenly in a freak accident and for some reason, they’d named Castiel and Dean as guardians for their only son, Jack. A heads up would have been nice, but it’s not like there was anyone around to yell at by the time they found out. And so, via a judge’s decree, Dean and Castiel became the brand-spanking, newly minted parents of a two-year-old. They’d only moved into the crappy little cottage at the end of the road less than a year prior, an opportunity that arose after Dean’s dad had died suddenly and left it to him in his will. Dean had been in no rush to get the construction show on the road, and that probably had a lot more to do with his tainted memories of his father than he cared to admit. And anyway, sure the house was run down and cramped, but he and Castiel had been newlyweds. Neither of them much cared where they lived or what it looked like, as long as they were together. And as far as Dean was concerned, the new house and his plans for it were far less interesting than spending his weekends with his fingers intertwined in Cas’ and pinned above his head. He still relishes the memories of staring down at his sweet husband’s sleepy smile below him as their bodies moved together slowly, sensuously and most importantly on repeat, until the day turned to night and back again.

But all that changed when Jack came home —Castiel changed. He became anxious, uptight, constantly complaining about the state of the house and “what kind of environment is this to raise a child in, Dean?” And it’s not that Dean didn’t care, but at some point, Castiel’s constant bitching started to really dig at him, and perhaps that’s when he intentionally began putting the project off. In retrospect, it was a terrible idea to test his strong-willed husband, to push him to the edge the way that he’d done, and Dean wasn’t unaware of that, even at the time. He just never thought that Cas would actually leave. If he could go back in time, knowing what he knows now, he’d like to think he’d stow his pride and his ego and never instigate the battle of wills that would end with him being left alone and Castiel raising their son with someone else. Sure, Dean sees Jack , every other weekend and alternating holidays, but he’s missed out on so much, been replaced and colored over in so many things that he barely feels a part of his life anymore. That’s certainly the way Castiel prefers it if his cool demeanor when he picks Jack up and drops him off is any indication.

Because Castiel did leave. After a particularly loud and nasty argument wherein Dean suggested that if Cas was too good for the house they’d made into a home maybe that’s what he should do, he packed his and Jack’s things, turned tail and never looked back. And Dean had missed his window there, as well. Because surely there had been one. He could have shown Castiel that he was sorry, that he cared about his feelings and his concerns, but he didn’t. He let his overinflated, bullshit masculine pride get in the way of the best thing he’d ever had. He’d flat out ignored the fact that Castiel had left at all, going about his routine as if he was sure Cas would eventually change his mind. Night after night of continuing to sleep in their once-shared bed, drifting off to the lullaby of waves crashing on rocks, a sound Castiel used to murmur his love for into Dean’s ear as they lay curled naked together against exposed boards and under open windows.

Castiel didn’t change his mind. He didn’t come home. Days turned to weeks turned to months turned to years, and Dean lost all faith in anything at all. When he finally opened his eyes and realized what he’d done, it was far too late.

That had become crystal clear when Castiel picked up Jack from Dean’s house one average Sunday with a request; to switch their custodial weekends the following June.

“For what?” Dean had been petulant, bitter about how little time he had with the child who was supposed to be his son, and unwilling to entertain Castiel’s requests without a good (in his eyes) reason.  

Castiel’s eyes had darkened and for a moment, he looked regretful. Dean had wanted nothing more than to pull him into his arms, to push fingers through his hair, to kiss him silly, drag him inside and shove him down on the bed. To love him. To tell him he still loved him, that he never, ever stopped. But the moment passed, and Castiel had schooled his face into the familiar, squinty-eyed skepticism Dean had come to know so well. Jack had smashed something inside the house then, and Dean had raised his eyebrows, an expression that Castiel had always known was code for, get on with it.

“I’m getting re-married,” he’d finally admitted. “To Meg.”

Meg?!” Dean had been instantly out of line and he knew it, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Meg, your drug dealer from college? Are you fucking kidding me? Why didn’t you just grab a mail order wife from Skanks-R-Us? She’s a fucking demon, Cas, I don’t want her around Jack.”

Castiel had become furious then, storming past Dean into the house and grabbing an almost eight-year-old Jack by the wrist. “Nobody asked your opinion, Dean. It’s none of your business, none at all. And for your information, Meg and I have been dating for two years this month.” His expression is a bit defiant when he drops that bomb, and he stares Dean down, willing him to say something.

Dean had just stood there, slack-jawed, doing the math in his head. Two years would mean… Castiel had started dating only six months or so after he’d left Dean. Well good for fucking him, Dean had thought angrily.

“Fuck you, Cas,” he’d said softly. “I’m glad it was so easy for you to move on from me.”

When he slammed the storm door in Castiel’s face, it teetered and fell off the hinges. What a fucking metaphor for his life.

***

Eight years later...

It’s been years since Dean’s even bothered to lock the door behind him as he heads off to work in the morning. He’s just sliding into the driver’s seat of his car when his neighbor from across the street comes flying out her front door and stomping across her lawn like her ratty bathrobe is on fire. “Dean! Dean Winchester, don’t you dare ignore me!”

Dean does ignore her, putting the car into reverse and backing out of the driveway. But Lisa is on a mission this morning, her brown hair wild and unbrushed, swinging everywhere as she steps in front of Dean’s car, blocking his exit down the street.

Dean sighs and reluctantly rolls down his window. “Mornin’ Lis, something I can help you with?”

The frown lines on Lisa’s brow only deepen as she replies, “Does it give you some kind of perverse pleasure to expose your dick in front of my teenage daughter?” She’s gesturing emphatically to the second story of her home, where Dean knows from being on the inside that Claire’s window faces the street, and the ocean, and therefore his home in between. He’s momentarily confused before remembering that he regularly empties his bladder behind his house, and it clicks that Claire must be able to see straight over his little dump to watch him do so. He laughs as he squints between Lisa’s house and the garage, trying to gauge what she could possibly have seen from that distance, besides maybe his naked back and some underwear. Claire’s a good kid, always seemed to have a bit of a crush on him when he and Lisa had been dating. Teens will be teens, he supposes. He’s glad he doesn’t have a daughter.

He turns back to Lisa with a smile on his face. “Exactly how far out that window did you have to lean to be able to see my dick, Lis? If you missed me, you could have just said so.”

Lisa makes a face. “I’d appreciate in the future if you wouldn’t, Dean. That’s all.”

Dean shrugs. “It’s private property.”

Lisa shifts, and when she speaks her voice is far more confident than her demeanor betrays. “Well, you- you’ll just have to explain that to the police.”

Dean stares at her intently for a moment, but he doesn’t get angry. “Pity,” he replies. “You were the one neighbor I could stand.”

***

Dean’s car is his pride and joy, the one thing in his life that remains constant, that never lets him down or threatens to leave. Dean’s Baby doesn’t care what his house looks like, or that he never finished architectural school, or that he’s a lonely, almost forty-year-old loser. Sure, she doesn’t keep him warm at night, but she does give him something to care for and she gets him from here to there in style. Baby helps keep him sane. Dean parks her at the far end of the dedicated employee lot for DMC Design & Construction and heads inside. It’s the same space, the same foyer, the same stairs leading up to the same workspace that he’s been coming to almost daily for twenty-plus years, and it’s impossible to get excited about.

When he and Cas had first gotten married, Dean had been in school to become an architect. He’d seen the job for a model builder posted outside of one of his classrooms and applied thinking it would give him valuable experience and good references. He’d enjoyed the work well enough at the time, though it was never what he dreamed of doing permanently. After Cas had walked out though, the idea of completing school slowly lost its luster, and Dean had ended up quitting during his final semester. He was only a handful of credits shy of graduating, but his desire to become an architect had seemingly disintegrated alongside the rest of his hopes and dreams.

He kept the job, though. It was easy enough work and decent money, building scale models based on the plans drawn up by the firm's real architects. And while the architects themselves were elitist and condescending towards him, the job was mindless. And mindless was what Dean needed - he didn’t want to think about the ways his life had fallen apart. He just wanted to zone out and work, and the job demanded exactly that. Measure, cut, glue. Paint, trim, pour, seal. Model after model, day after day, month after month, year after year. Over the course of his tenure at DMC Dean must have completed hundreds of models, all of which now decorated the hallways and various conference rooms of the building as a valuable, yet tasteful organic advertisement to potential clients. There was a time when Dean might even have been thought of as one of the firm’s most valuable assets, but those days are long gone. Building models by hand is a thing of the past, an outdated method replaced by computers that allow visuals to be constructed better, faster, and for the architect to change anything instantly, something a physical model simply can’t offer. But Dean steadily refused to switch his methods despite ongoing pressure from his superiors. He always declined the company-financed training and classes and took the criticism on his performance reviews regarding the issue without contention. It’s not that Dean even particularly likes his job, but if there’s one thing he’s sure of, it’s that he’s got less than zero interest in learning a new way to do something he doesn’t even particularly want to do as it is.  

As he ascends the familiar staircase leading from the lobby into the beating heart of the firm that is the main work area, he almost turns around. Almost walks right back down the stairs and across the parking lot to jump into Baby and speed away from here forever. He’s started to get this way once or twice a week lately, though he couldn’t say why. Despite that, in the end, he swallows the impulse, shoving it down and forcing himself to move forward to his desk like he always does. Always forward, can’t go back.

On the way there he passes his boss’ secretary, Becky, hurrying down the walkway between the conference rooms and the mess of workspaces in the center of the massive, two-story open room. She’s laden down with an armful of rolled up plans and doing her best to balance an open coffee in one of her hands. “Oh, Dean,” Becky calls, pausing and rearranging her precarious burden when she sees him. “Mr. Crowley would like to see you upstairs.”

Dean nods, waving Becky off with a “Sure thing,” as he dumps his shoulder bag next to the ergonomic chair sitting at his workspace. He pauses over the model he’s currently working on, a four-bedroom home with a porch Dean’s particularly proud of and a real acrylic-poured pool in the tiny backyard. The lawn is only half-completed but Dean has plans to wrap it up first thing this morning and be ready to move onto the new project Crowley had been talking about since last Friday. It’s a designer space for one of their repeat customers, a slick representative from Roman Enterprises that Dean could really live with never having to see again. He sets about mentally cataloging his day as he climbs the stairs to the third floor and wanders down the hallway where the executive offices are. He looks down over the open balcony walkway at his desk and notes distractedly that his current model’s shingles aren’t quite perfect. He’ll fix that too, before handing it in. He’s relatively sure that the presentation it’s needed for isn’t until this afternoon. Doesn’t really matter. Someone will inevitably tell him if he’s wrong.

Dean passes model after model as he moves down the hallway, all turned into decor and most of them his. Just outside Crowley’s office, Dean pauses in front of one of his favorites; a simple two-story, open-concept interior with exterior wooden accents and plush landscaping. It’s modern, yet cozy and familiar, somewhere Dean thinks he’d enjoy living. He picks a chewed piece of gum off of the front walkway and discards it in the nearby trash.

“Is this a good time?” Dean peeks his head inside Crowley’s office as he raps on the doorframe.

Crowley looks up from his paperwork, stands and gestures for Dean to have a seat. “Dean! Come in, yes of course, always a good time for you,” he says in his disarming British accent, distractedly returning to clicking away at his computer. Dean opens his mouth to speak, but Becky bustles right in without knocking, apologizing left and right and dropping a stack of papers in front of Crowley. Dean sits back in his chair, dropping his hands to his lap without comment. “So what’s this, then? Oh, goody. Something else to sign… Eh, henceforth and forthwith... for the furtherance and expedience and regulation and... yea, sure.” He signs with a flourish and Becky flounces away with her prize. Crowley rolls his eyes. “Apologies,” he says superficially, hand extended in a gesture that’s not-quite offering anything. “Business, am I right?”

Dean raises his eyebrows and nods agreeably, turning his hands palm-up like, what can you do? But inside, he’s gritting his teeth. Crowley’s rubbed him the wrong way since the day Dean met him, the kind of guy who’s always greasing wheels instead of worrying about who’s on the train. Deals, bargains, tit-for-tat, that’s Crowley’s forte, his niche, and judging from the executive suite he’s sitting in, the whole schtick is working for him. But it’s not for Dean, and so he does his best to steer clear of the man unless directly summoned, like now.

“What can I do for you, Crowley?”

Instead of answering, Crowley fidgets, leaning back in his chair and opening the drawer at the bottom of his desk. He pulls out a bottle of expensive whiskey and two glasses, offering one to Dean who politely declines with a wave of his hand. It’s nine-fucking-thirty in the morning, he thinks, marveling that when he’s judging someone for day drinking, that person should probably evaluate their entire life. Crowley doesn’t seem bothered, just pours himself a generous finger and tucks the rest away again.

He takes a long sip before speaking, and when he does his tone is overly familiar and as such, completely out of place. He and Crowley aren’t friends . “How’s that husband of yours, Dean?”

Dean blinks and minces no words. “Uhm, well, when we divorced a decade ago, he was very, very angry. Now he’s just hostile.”

Crowley doesn’t miss a beat, sitting forward and sizing Dean up as a way of subject change. “What are you on, Dean? How much weight have you lost?”

“What? Oh, five, ten pounds. Haven’t been very hungry lately.” In truth, Dean’s not been feeling the greatest. Stomach aches, a lingering cough that he just can’t seem to shake no matter how much Robitussin he downs. And this morning, a weird sense that his lungs weren’t getting quite enough air, even as he slowed and purposefully deepened his breathing. At his age, he knows he should probably get to a doctor sooner rather than later but like everything else in his life, Dean’s nagging feeling of being ‘ off’ isn’t accompanied by any urgency, because none of it really matters anyway. Dean’s life is grey, and whatever happens in it, that’s grey too.

“Hmm.”

Dean fidgets with his tie. He hates it wearing it, hates everything it represents. “I did tell you that I would be ready to start the new Roman Enterprises model today?”

Crowley sighs and finally sits forward, setting his glass aside and planting his feet on the floor. “Okay, Dean, this is not me. I like you, you know that. But listen, we can show clients endless options. We can change anything in a matter of hours. But you, you won’t change.”

Dean blinks, wholly unprepared for the turn their conversation has taken. “I’ve… I’ve been here for twenty years.”

“Maybe that’s too long,” Crowley replies, fake empathy oozing from every pore.

“Maybe.”

“It’s too long. Listen, they decided on a week a year severance, but I got them up to twenty-six. You can learn all of the computer stuff you need to long before that, maybe even find a job closer to home.”

Dean just sits and stares, Crowley’s words failing to register. This place is all he’s known for two decades. Two decades, every weekday and more weekends than he cares to remember, 8 hours or more looking at the same walls, the same faces, the same ugly carpeting. He surprises even himself when he blurts out, “I hate this job.”

“Dean,” Crowley patronizes. “What do you mean? You love this job.”

“Nope,” Dean continues, shaking his head. “From the day I started to today. Can’t stand it."

Crowley raises his eyebrows, smiles, and the smarmy stretch of his lips makes Dean want to smack him across the face. He refrains. “Well, good,” Crowley’s saying when Dean tunes back in. “Then it sounds like I’m doing you a favor. You know what? I feel better about this.”

“Uh, yea,” Dean replies. “I was hoping you would.” They sit and stare at each other for an awkward moment before Dean lifts his hands in that same, what can you do bullshit gesture from the beginning of the meeting. He feels like a complete idiot, getting let go of a position he’s held for the better part of his life for being too ancient, too useless by a guy his same age. Briefly, he wonders if he should have been more like Crowley all along. Smooth, slick, motivated. Maybe then he’d still have a job. Maybe then Cas would have stayed.

Fucking Cas .

And fuck leaving here empty-handed, Dean thinks, as he starts to walk away, turning back to Crowley who instantly adopts a look of pure disappointment that this conversation is about to continue. 

“Can I ask you one favor?” Dean looks around, through the iron-mesh walls of Crowley’s office where his entire life’s work, all he has to show for the last twenty years, is proudly on display.

“What can I do for you?” Crowley’s tone is accommodating, but his face clearly says, stop wasting my time.

“You know II built my first model here, back when I was still in school. There must be hundreds of them laying around the office. I was wondering if I might, you know, pick a few to take home. Just the ones that really mean something.” Dean looks up hopefully, but Crowley hesitates.

He clears his throat before speaking and rises from his chair. “Well, ah, thoseI mean, Dean, we can’t really keep our work. I could maybe ask them if you could choose one. They’re a part of the firm.”

Dean sinks slowly back into the chair he’d already vacated, staring blankly down at his shoes, one hand for some reason still in the farcical act of smoothing his tie. He nods slowly as Crowley continues.

“Listen, why don’t you go out there and look them over, every single one of them, OK? Pick the one you like the best, take it with you. Now, run it by me first, just in case. I’m sure it’ll be OK.”

Dean raises his eyes from where they’re stuck on the floor, meeting Crowley’s pretentious, arrogant ones with defiance and surety this time. He rises from his chair and makes his way back to his own workspace without another word. Every model he passes catches his eye in the periphery, but he can’t bring himself to look at them, can’t bring himself to face what he’s leaving behind, what he’s leaving without. It’s happening all over again. All these years, down the drain. He reaches his desk and sinks into the chair like a stone. For a few moments, he just sits there, swinging back and forth, back and forth, staring absently at the unfinished model waiting there for him to return as if nothing had happened. I’ll never finish this, he thinks, and the thought doesn’t sting at all. In fact, the idea that he’ll leave one less piece of himself, no matter how tiny to this godforsaken place is satisfying.

There’s a set of stacked boxes in lieu of shelving at the far corner of Dean’s desk, and something inside one of the slots catches his eye. He gets up and withdraws a long roll of design paper, pulling the residual off to reveal the heavy, plastic rod underneath. Still holding the rod, he shoulders his bag and shoves the picture of him and Cas he’d never bothered to take off of his desk deep inside. He hesitates then, but only for a moment. He can see several pairs of eyes watching him, darting away when he looks in their direction. Cowards. Maybe that’s the tipping point, or maybe Dean had decided to do this the moment he’d left Crowley’s office.

He raises the rod and brings it down hard on his newest model, the foam crumpling under the brutal attack, pieces of lawn and plastic and wood and paint flying in all directions.

It feels good.

And maybe Dean is surprised by that a little, because not much has felt good to him, not in a very long time. And so he doesn’t stop. Swinging and bashing and destroying, lift swing, fall, motions on repeat. He makes his way around the office and tackles each model he comes to as methodically and effectively as he built them, giving each one the same time and attention in its destruction as he did its creation. His co-workers, for their part, overreact wildly; scattering and screaming as if Dean’s firing off a gun. Dean ignores them completely, finishing the first floor and ascending to the second. Model after model, he takes them all out.

“Mr. Winchester! Mr. Winchester! Dean!” Becky follows him frantically, apparently the one who drew the short straw in confronting him, if her shrinking into each nearby doorway for cover is any indication.

“Hmm?” Dean responds distractedly between swings at a big corporate structure he’d built six years ago, the one that helped them land Roman Enterprises as a client, to begin with. Fuck all of them, Dean thinks, but he’s not angry. In fact, aside from the property destruction, he’s incredibly cool and calm.

“Mr. Crowley would like to see you,” Becky squeaks.

“Fine,” Dean replies, not paying her any mind.

“In his office when you’re able,” Becky adds, disappearing into a side room and slamming the door.

Dean’s aware of the entire firm’s eyes on him as he scoops up the model he’d stopped at earlier the cozy, familiar one that had the wad of gum masquerading as a rock. He’s gentle as he lifts it off of its stand and carries it with him.

When he walks into Crowley’s office, he sees that someone’s managed to salvage the second model he’d built earlier this month for this afternoon’s presentation. Crowley’s desperately trying to stash it, but Dean strides up confidently and blocks his way.

“I’ll keep this one if that’s alright with you,” he says. “You’re a great architect and a miserable human being. That’s mine,” he spits, bringing the rod down squarely between Crowley’s hands, destroying the piece he’s holding completely in only two or three firm strokes.

“No, Dean, no don’t , shit!” Crowley flinches as Dean brings the rod down over and over, turning his head to avoid getting flying debris in his face. His cheeks are bright red and his shoulders are heaving in anger as Dean finishes. “You’re not even a fucking architect and you’re a miserable human being,” he growls.

Dean pauses. “You’re right,” he says calmly. “You win.”

All eyes are still on him as he strides down the steps he’s taken every day for the last twenty years and out the front door, the only remaining sign he’d ever even been at DMC at all in his hands. No one tries to stop him. He’s feeling a mess of emotions as he moves across the pavement, and perhaps that’s why he doesn’t notice that the tight feeling in his chest, the difficulty he’s having breathing, the pain under his sternum - none of that is from excitement. He’s almost to the end of the sidewalk when it all hits him at once, stopping him in his tracks. He sways on his feet, the beautiful model dropping from his hand and crashing to the concrete. Dean’s body follows shortly after, smashing it, ruining it, under his weight. He hears people calling his name, hears someone yell about “911,” and then his surroundings all starts to blur together.

The wrecked frame of the model underneath him presses into his back painfully. As his head lolls to the side, he sees all of the tiny trees he’d painstakingly built, painted and glued down strewn about next to his head. Someone’s shoe appears and crushes one of them. The pieces of the acrylic pool are everywhere.

***

Dean’s used to being ignored, to having his feelings disregarded and shoved off, so the aggravation he might have felt at the cold detachment of the doctor delivering his prognosis wasn’t as bothersome as it probably should have been. Cas would have been bothered, he found himself thinking absently. Cas would have had that doctor’s job, just for being rude to me. Once upon a time. He snorts a little at the thought. Castiel used to be his knight in shining armor, his unnecessary, relentless protector; the kind of man who didn’t just speak but showed his love at every turn. The emptiness of his bleak hospital room, the blank space where an emergency contact should go, the inescapable reality that he has no one , least of all Castiel, hurts far worse than any cancer ever could.

He’s yanked abruptly from the pity party in his head by the overhead lights switching on and the privacy curtain being pulled back. A young, attractive blonde nurse’s aide appears at his bedside holding a tray of what appears to a tasting menu for infants. Dean wrinkles his nose.

“No thanks, sweetheart. Unless you got a burger hidden in your scrub jacket, we’re straight.” He tries to flash her his patented panty-dropper but he’s tired, and weaker than he thought. The morphine he’d been given less than a half hour ago is muddying his thoughts and making his hands feel as if they aren’t even attached to his body.

The pretty aide just drops her chin and looks down at him over her glasses, clearly projecting that Dean isn’t even the first patient tonight to think he’s funny and handsome enough to get away with this shit. She plops herself next to him on the bed and picks up a bowl of jello and a spoon.

At least jello’s supposed to look like that, Dean thinks and decides not to be difficult. The nurse is pretty, and he’s tired of being alone. He takes a bite.

Dean’s mouth is thick and clumsy right now, but he still tries to speak around the jello.

“What would you do if you only had three or four months to live?”

The aide looks briefly surprised but she doesn’t really react, just scoops up some more jello and holds it out for him. She seems thoughtful when she replies, “Eat a lot of red meat? I don’t know.” She giggles a little, and then asks, “What would you do?”

“Build a house,” Dean answers immediately.

“Oh, yea? What kind of house?” Another scoop of jello.

“Do you know what a Sears home is?”

“Those houses they sold through the catalog in like, the thirties?”

Dean nods. “Yea, that’s right. They came in a kit, all the pieces ready to be assembled, kind of like a jigsaw puzzle.” Dean fidgets with the thin blanket under his fingers, and accepts a mouthful of something that’s definitely not jello and might actually be carrots. Fortunately, the morphine’s dulled his taste buds, and he’s enjoying the aide’s company enough to let it slide. “I uh, I’ve got one like that. Pieces all ready to go. Permits and everything. Been waiting… well, let’s just say I’ve been waitin’ long enough.”

The aide is quiet for a moment, her light blue eyes full of compassionate concern, and for a brief moment, Dean can almost pretend Cas and his stupid blue eyes are there alongside him, that Cas is the one spooning disgusting food into his mouth and planning their next steps.

“No one’s really said four months is all you have though, have they?”

Dean shrugs. “Nobody’s really even pretended to offer treatment. So you tell me, when would you start eating red meat?” He softens the question with a half-smile, and the aide blushes. “Anyway.” He coughs. “They said I can try this targeted therapy thing. It’s new, experimental, some pill that you take at home. They didn’t seem to think it’d really matter though, so I don’t think I’m gonna take it. Probably just want my dead-man-walking data for their study. I’d rather build my house.”

“Can you build a house in four months?” She’s curious, and Dean knows that look well enough from his younger days. She likes him and in another time and place, perhaps he could have liked her too, maybe asked her out on a date and had a good time together, at least.

“I can die trying,” he shoots off instead and manages a full-blown grin this time.

The aide smiles in return and lifts a napkin to his face, blotting away a streak of food that’s stuck below the corner of his mouth. She’s kind, and she touches his face softly with the back of her hand after he’s clean. It’s platonic, and nothing more than simple empathy, but Dean closes his eyes and has to stifle a sigh. “God,” he breathes. “I have not been touched in years.” His eyes fly open and he looks over at the aide. “I’m sorry,” he apologizes. “I didn’t meanI wasn’t trying to make you uncomfortable.”

“You didn’t,” she replies quickly, sliding just a bit closer to him on the bed, her forehead knitting in concern. “That can’t be true. Years? Everyone gets touched by someone they love.” Dean’s silent, looking down at his hands. “Really? No, I mean, not a friend? Your mother? People need to be touched.”

Dean shakes his head ruefully. “It’s weird, isn’t it? I know my son, when he was younger, ten or eleven even, he used to run up and throw his arms around me.” Dean stops and stares at the ceiling, unable to continue.

The aide looks around and seemingly makes a decision, pulling the privacy curtain and scooting back over to Dean. She places a palm gently on his face, soothing it over his cheek and down his rough whiskers, adding her other hand to the opposite side of his face and just caressing. She brushes the hair off of his forehead, trails the pads of her fingers down his chin. Dean closes his eyes, half in pure relief at the kind, real sensation, but also to prevent the tears that are welling up from leaking out against his will. As her fingers drag over his skin, he remembers what it was like to do this, to feel this, with someone he loved. There’s nothing sexual at all here, just comfort, solace, healing; from a nurse’s aide to her patient who desperately needs it. Soon enough, Dean forgets himself though, allowing his hand to drift up to the aide’s face, feeling her soft, warm skin beneath his own fingertips. She grabs his fingers then, not unkindly but firm all the same, and pulls away, pushing Dean’s arm back against his own chest.

“I’m sorry,” she rasps, flinging back the privacy curtain and darting away. 

Dean watches her go, returning his gaze to the ceiling when she’s out of sight. “I’m scared,” he whispers out loud, but only the silence answers back.

***

Dean counts his lucky stars that his Baby wasn’t towed while he was in the hospital. Maybe DMC let it go because they’re worried they triggered his condition by firing him. Dean clearly knows that isn’t true, but he’s in no rush to disabuse them of the notion. He did collapse on company property. Maybe I’ll apply for worker’s comp , he thinks with a chuckle, imagining the look on Crowley’s face. Obviously not, but perhaps the very public incident will be enough to keep them from suing the pants off of him for all the property damage, or withdrawing his severance package. He needs that to get the house built, to set up something for Jack to inherit instead of just leaving behind his rancid, broke down legacy of failure.

Dean slides behind the wheel and inhales the scent of leather and motor oil and home. The only thing that ever smelled more like home to Dean than Baby was his husband, something that remains true to this day.

Castiel. Dean doesn’t second guess his desire to see his ex, just throws the car into drive and makes his way over to the house Cas and Jack share with Meg and Meg’s twins from her own previous marriage. Things are different now than they were even a couple of days ago. Dean feels free, excited, ready in a way he hasn’t come anywhere close to in years. He supposes it isn’t so surprising, probably a lot of people staring down the barrel of their own mortality experience something similar. Dean decides not to overthink it. He’s wasted too much of his life doing exactly that, and where’s it gotten him? Pulling into the driveway of the much nicer house the love of his life left to live in with someone else. If ever there was a case for change, Dean’s pretty sure it couldn’t be more in your face than his entire existence. He comes to a stop on the gravel and slides his Baby into park, climbing out and striding up to the front door with more familiarity than he knows Meg would like. He tests the knob and because it’s open and Meg’s car isn’t in the driveway, he lets himself in.

Castiel is in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and looking beautifully disheveled. His normal work outfit is already broken down for the evening, his jacket slung over a kitchen chair and his button-down shirt undone part-way, revealing just this side of too much tanned and toned chest underneath. He’s still got his dress slacks on but he’s barefoot, and Dean wishes he could sweep him up in his arms. This should be easier after fifteen years. But it isn’t. The butterflies, the dry mouth, the swelling rush he’s always felt when Castiel entered the room has never gone away, never lessened, never given Dean a goddamn break.

“I could be anyone,” he announces by way of greeting, and his words sound confident and light, betraying nothing of the storm inside his chest.

Castiel snorts. “Then why do you stay you?”

Dean peers over Castiel’s shoulder as he passes by, grunting in disapproval at the pile of vegetables and salmon waiting to be baked. Castiel doesn’t flinch from the invasion of his personal space, but he does poke Dean in the ribs with the tip of his knife when he lingers a moment too long. “Salmon is the worst fish,” Dean declares, opening Castiel’s fridge and snatching a beer without asking.

“Good thing you’re not invited to eat any,” Castiel snarks back, but there’s no malice in his tone. He and Cas have formed a sort of tentative truce in the past few years, even approaching what some might deem actual friendship, at least when Meg isn’t around. They haven’t had much of a choice, what with how much of a handful Jack’s become as a teen.

“Where is he?” Dean asks, leaning casually on the breakfast bar across from his ex-husband. He reaches forward to grab a carrot and gets his hand slapped.

“In his room.” Castiel sighs. “Listen, Dean. About what we talked about last week, Jack coming to stay with you for the summer.”

Dean nods as he fingers the peeling label of his beer. “Yep, I’m all ready for him. I’m finally gonna tear down the shack and build the house. I uh, I thought maybe I could get him to help.”

Big, soulful blue eyes snap to attention at that, though they quickly narrow with the skepticism of someone who’s heard that before, Dean. Castiel waves him off, “You’ve been saying that for twenty years.” He seems to shake off easily whatever it was that gripped him, returning to his dicing and avoiding eye contact with Dean. “Anyway, I wasn’t serious, so you don’t have to get into any actual construction to get out of it.”

Dean shakes his head, “ I’m serious, Cas. There’s nothing to stop me now. I’m gonna use my severance and cash in my life insurance policy, live out of the garage in the meantime. And I want Jack with me.”

“No, you don’t,” Castiel says with a short, bitter laugh.

“Yes, I do, I want Jack,” Dean insists.

“One of you will end up dead.”

“At least we’ll have a house to show for it.” When he doesn’t get a reply, Dean leans over the bar and covers Castiel’s hand with his own, ducking his head so he’s forced to let their eyes meet. He hasn’t been this close to Castiel’s face in years and it’s no less perfect than he remembers it. “I want Jack,” he repeats, firmly and insistently. “For the summer.”

Castiel’s eyes widen slightly, his pupils dilating and his lips parting in a way that Dean aches over. “Fine,” he relents, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s your funeral.”

“Not yet.” Dean grins, and Castiel’s forehead knits together. Always so perceptive, Dean remembers, chastising himself for the too-close-to-home joke. Bail out now. “Bail out now” apparently translates to his hand as, “stroke Cas’ face,” and Dean almost gets his finger bitten off for his efforts.

“Rude.” He grins, as Castiel’s teeth snap in his direction, pulling his hand away and cradling it to his chest. Castiel just glares and goes back to his vegetables. Dean clears his throat, inclining his head in the direction of Jack’s room. “I’m gonna-”

“Are we going to talk about it?” Castiel doesn’t look up this time, but nonetheless, Dean can still feel his eyes boring through his skull.

“Damn, Cas, you’re nosy today. And loud. Were you always this loud?”

“Where you were, Dean. For the last goddamn week. I called your phone, it was disconnected. I tried you at work, they said— honestly, I doubt you want to know what they said. They mentioned something about towing your car? You disappeared , you could have been dead. And now you show up here out of the blue and acting as if nothing happened? What’s going on, Dean?”

Dean just shrugs and downs the rest of his beer. “It was four days… I needed some me time,” he finally replies, casting Castiel a wide, showy smile.

The glare he gets in return could level cities. “Dean, you are completely inconsiderate and absolutely devoid of emotion,” Castiel fumes.

There was a time when Dean would have latched on enthusiastically to this sort of intrusive demand into his life, pointed out viciously that Castiel has absolutely no right to that sort of information, not anymore, and goaded him into a knock-down, drag-out fight. He would have used his ex-husband’s anger, his obvious concern as a way to bait him. He would have pushed all the buttons just underneath Castiel’s skin that he knows so well, irritating him and jabbing away until he inevitably got fed up, exploded and kicked Dean to the curb, maybe literally. But not today. Today he just looks down briefly at his hands before offering a genuine smile. “You’re the most beautiful human being I’ve ever known,” he says honestly.

Castiel's hand shoots up to push his dark hair back as his head snaps up again, blue eyes piercing, stormy and confused. “What?”

Stepping back to the counter, Dean sets his beer down and looks Castiel directly in those eyes. “I don’t even mean just physically, though,” he raises his eyebrows and tilts his head, “Even your anger, Cas, it’s perfect.”

Cas’ expression goes through three or four iterations, finally settling on ‘confused’ before he replies, and he leans in just slightly. “What is this Dean?”

“What is what?”

“What you just said,” Castiel’s obviously uncomfortable now, but something about the look on his face betrays that it isn’t what Dean said, so much as the fact that he doesn’t understand why he said it.

Dean goes for broke. “It’s the truth,” he replies simply, reaching out to touch again, this time getting his hand whacked with a spatula. “Jesus,” he grunts.

“Well I am married,” Castiel huffs, but Dean can see that he isn’t mad, perhaps just curious.

Time to cut my losses and take the win. He salutes and turns on his heel, heading off to go and see his son. He doesn’t look back but he can’t hear the telltale sound of Castiel’s knife on the cutting board until long after he’s rounded the corner and disappeared from sight.

***

On Saturday when Dean shows up at the house to pick up Jack, he can hear him as soon as he steps out of his car. He doesn’t bother with the front door, just unlatches the side gate and makes his way around to the back. Cas and Meg’s house ( Meg’s house, he thinks disdainfully, bought and paid for with her high powered big shot lawyer money, it’s not even Cas’ style. Though what would you know about what Cas likes anymore? He scowls. I used to.) is sprawling. Five bedrooms in the main house plus Jack’s in the two-story addition. That part was added only a couple of years ago, complete with its own entrance in the rear of the house, Dean suspects largely as a way to give Meg space from the unruly teen. Cas’ studio is underneath, not that Dean’s ever been allowed in, though he’s seen the man emerge with paint splattered all over his skin and clothes more than once.

Dean grits his teeth at that thought too— fucking Meg giving his Cas the one thing he’d always wanted, the thing Dean had always promised he’d deliver. He knows logically that he has no right to be angry, not then and certainly not a decade later, but Dean remembers watching Castiel paint in his backyard. Shirtless and stunning in the early evening light, his face relaxed and peaceful as he gazed out over the ocean and dragged brushstrokes over cheap canvas. He can still picture it perfectly, Cas’ tanned face turning when Dean finally made his presence known in the clinking of a couple of beer bottles, his eyes crinkling at the corners as he offered a serene, happy smile. His mouth tasted like salt and suntan lotion and Dean still wakes up these days with that taste on his own lips.

He rounds the corner to see Castiel perched at the top of the stair-rail leading up to Jack’s door, looking annoyed as ever. The twins are outside too, kicking off their summer vacation seemingly by trying to drown each other in the big, kidney-shaped pool just off of the patio. Dean doesn’t really pay them any mind, having eyes only for Cas. He can’t help but be pleased that his ex’s pissed off expression is for once not directed at him.

“Mornin’, sunshine,” he remarks, planting one foot on the bottom stair and looking up. “‘Nother day in paradise?”

Castiel’s biting his nails, and he doesn’t stop on Dean’s account. “What kind of father can’t stand his own son?”

That brings Dean up short, Castiel’s unexpected honesty throwing him for a loop. He’s not sure if this is a vulnerability, or exasperation. Knowing Castiel, it’s probably the latter, but an opening is an opening. Still, he hesitates.

“I don’t know,” he replies carefully, deciding Cas’ honesty deserves at least the same in return. He climbs the stairs slowly until he reaches Castiel’s feet where they’re hooked around one of the vertical poles of the railing. He leans on the rail just below them, and the rock music filtering through Jack’s door seems to ratchet up a notch. “How are you, Cas? You look…” he trails off and doesn’t bother to try and pick up the question again.

Castiel’s head thuds back against the side of the house. He regards Dean thoughtfully, cautiously, but without malice for a moment before answering. He shakes his head a little. “Honestly? I have no goddamn idea what I’m doing, Dean.” He pauses, tossing a glance towards Jack’s closed door. “Meg is traveling all the time, the boys haven’t even seen her in weeks, not even Facetime. Jack is Jack, and I’m…” He sighs. “Do you ever just… wake up and ask yourself, how the hell did I get here?”

Dean raises his eyebrows and has to choke down a laugh. “Uh, yea,” he settles on as a reply. “Sometimes.” Every fucking minute of every goddamn day, you stupid, beautiful bastard. Fucking say something, Winchester, you useless—

“Listen, Cas, we should-”

But he doesn’t get the chance to finish his thought, to find out if Castiel is just venting or if he’s reaching out. Because right then, Jack’s door clicks and swings open. Jack looks like an actual advertisement for bottled teen angst, decked out completely in black that’s accented with mesh and chains, despite the fact that it’s already almost eighty degrees in the shade. His ears, his eyebrow and the space below his lip are pierced, he’s got a heap of guyliner on, tattoos gracing his knuckles, and his hair is blue. Jesus Christ, Dean thinks, suddenly feeling old. Did he google “teenage rebellion” or is this an actual look these days?

He side-eyes Castiel. “Why does he have a lock on his door?”

“Because he put a lock on it, Dean, Christ, I

“When did he get ink? And his hair is blue!”

“Oh, of all the-”

“I’m not fucking going with you. You’re not my real father and you can’t make me.” Jack crosses his arms and leans on the door jamb.

Dean spreads his arms wide in direct opposition. “I’m as real as they come, baby. C’mon, where’s your duffel?” He pushes past Jack into his disaster of a room. Mountains of clothes, impossible to tell which are clean and which are dirty, litter the floor. Dirty plates and cups, school books that look like their bindings would crack from disuse if you opened them, and an assortment of other things Dean’s not sure he wants to look too closely at are scattered amongst the debris. His toe kicks against something metal as he shuffles through it all, and Dean looks down to see a can of spray paint rolling away from a paint-covered cloth. He picks it up and shakes it at Jack; empty.

“You need all the brain cells you got,” he scolds, before chucking the can away again. There’s a duffel bag half-packed on the bed, and Dean stoops to throw in a few more things, whatever seems the least gross and isn’t touching any toxic dishware. Dean’s pretty sure he spies a fuzz-covered bowl that looks like it’s close to putting down actual roots under the bed, and makes a note to mention it to Cas later if the guy doesn’t piss him off too badly. Whatever it was looks like it may soon need a name and rabies shots instead of a dishwasher.

He completely ignores Jack, who’s still ranting and raving in the background. Castiel isn’t entertaining his tantrum either, standing in the doorway and leaning heavily on his elbow, his forearm over his face so it blocks at least half of his vision. Dean zips the bag and offers it to Jack. “ Fuck you,” Jack spits, and Dean shrugs, strolling back across the room and out onto Jack’s balcony. “No, wait!” Jack’s cries are too little, too late though as Dean heaves the duffle up over the railing and sends it crashing down into the pool with a giant SPLASH. The twins cheer loudly, and Jack screams obscenities. The bag just floats there.

“I’m not going. You can’t make me.” Jack turns to Castiel, and clearly, this isn’t a new tactic because Castiel’s already looking like he’s willing to do or say whatever he has to in order to end this. “I have plans! This is so unfair, Dad, tell him!”

Dean’s eyes narrow. “What plans?”

“I’m going to Corey’s parent’s cabin in Tahoe, Dad already said I could.”

Dean whips around then, furious and focusing on Castiel. “You didn’t tell him he was spending the summer with me?”

Castiel’s hands come up and drop to his sides. “What was I supposed to do, Dean? I called, your phone isn’t working.”

“I don’t have a phone anymore,” Dean mutters.

“Who are you anyway?” Jack stalks up to get in his face, eyes dark and liner smudged, his chest heaving with anger. “I don’t even know you.”

“You’ll know me by the time we’re through,” Dean replies calmly.

“I’m not going!” Back to Castiel. “Would you tell him that I’m not going? You already promised me!”

“I’ll get your bag.” Dean leaves his ex and his son behind to bicker as he heads out of Jack’s room and down the stairs, passing by Castiel who looks torn between intervening and throwing them a celebratory send-off.

“Dean, I did say he could go…”

Fed up, Dean turns at the bottom of the stairs to address the two of them, both standing at the top and glaring down at him with matching exasperated expressions. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Jack isn’t Castiel’s biological dad- they’re so fucking similar. He points his finger. “He is not spending the entire summer with some kid in Tahoe. He can hate me! You can hate me! He can try to kill me while I’m sleeping, I don’t care. Jack is spending the summer with me, OK? He’s my son, he’s sixteen. That’s it .” Dean stalks over to the pool and yanks Jack’s bag out, trailed closely behind by Cas and Jack himself, the latter of whom is currently on the verge of tears and angrier than Dean’s ever seen him. He’s got a vein in his left temple that perfectly matches the one Cas has, the same one that swells and bulges when he’s particularly upset. Dean’s resolve strengthens.

In the meantime, one of Meg’s twins pops out of the pool and sloshes over to them. “Can I hate you too, Dean?”

Dean ruffles the kid’s hair. “You can do anything you want,” he says kindly, and Castiel rolls his eyes. Dean shoves the dripping duffle bag into Jack’s hands. “Go get in the car.”

“You can go fuck yourself,” Jack spits, a tear rolling down his cheek.

Instead of yelling, Dean grabs at him, pulls him into a hug despite Jack’s resistance. It takes a bit of struggling to keep him from pushing away, but Dean’s nothing if not persistent when he decides he wants something, and he holds on until Jack sags minutely against him, clearly realizing the quickest way out is giving in. “Listen, listen,” Dean grunts, letting Jack pull back just enough to look him in the eyes. “You are coming with me, and you will follow my rules. You will work, and you will show me some respect. You’ve worn out your welcome at this house, Jack. This might be the worst summer of your life, but you’ve earned it. So go pick up your duffel and get in the car, now.

Jack sniffs his running nose and fruitlessly tries to wipe away the tears from his reddened eyes using his shoulder since Dean’s still holding his arms. “I’ll hate you for the rest of my life,” he grits out between clenched teeth.

Dean releases him, and Jack picks up his bag. “Well, you can’t even begin to know how much I hate my father. Think of it as a family tradition,” he replies brightly.

They’re off to a great start.