“Good morning everyone and welcome to Anchorage!” The cheerful voice of the flight attendant crackles through the speakers, muffled by the mumbling voices of the passengers stirring throughout the airplane cabin. “The time is 10:17 am and the temperature is five degrees Fahrenheit. At this time we’d like to thank you for flying Alaska Airlines and we hope you enjoy your stay in Anchorage.”
Castiel rolls his shoulders, stretching out the kinks from sleeping crumpled in a too-small airplane seat. He tilts his head from side to side, wincing at the pops and cracks as his spine straightens out, and grimaces in sympathy when the man in the middle seat beside him groans his own discomfort. The passengers around him start slowly disembarking and Castiel waits until the man and his wife file out into the aisle before pulling his coat out of the overhead compartment and tugging it onto his arms. Five degrees. He shivers pre-emptively, thinking mournfully of the relative warmth he’d left behind in California.
He lets himself be swept along by the tide of shuffling passengers off the plane and through the airport to baggage claim, wishing he was home and not shipped off to Alaska to live with strangers for two and a half months, not tasked with writing an in-depth article about what can only be described as an insane thousand mile journey across the Alaskan wilderness by dogsled. He rakes a hand through his plane-mussed hair, sighing as he remembers Zachariah’s smug, self-satisfied expression when he’d given him the assignment, knowing, no doubt, just how little Castiel would appreciate it.
He spots his bag, the stuffed-full navy canvas making its way slowly around the conveyor belt, and heaves it off the line, slinging it over his shoulder and glancing around until he finds a sign directing him where he needs to go. He trudges through the airport, meandering to the car rental desk where after what seems like a mountain of paperwork later, the cheerful blonde woman at the counter hands him the keys to a Ford F-150. “Alfie,” he groans quietly to himself, ignoring the quizzical look the woman shoots his direction and shaking his head as he makes his way outside to the waiting truck, making a note to give the office assistant hell for setting him up with such an ungainly vehicle. At home his vehicle is a tiny, fuel efficient Prius; nothing like this monstrosity of a truck. He sighs as he levers himself up onto the cold leather of the driver’s seat. He’ll be grateful for the four-wheel drive and the heated seats at least.
The truck roars to life at the turn of the ignition and Castiel starts on his journey out of Anchorage to the town of Willow. It’s about an eighty mile drive, and the further out of town he gets, the more Alaska resembles his wilder, more romantic imaginings. The buildings give way to wide blue skies, the trees tall, dark sentinels on either side of a winding road. The traffic becomes more and more sparse until it feels as though he is the only person out here, just him and the trees and the miles and miles of endless snow. He takes the roads perhaps slower than strictly necessary in the huge, unfamiliar vehicle, glancing often at the painstakingly hand-written directions ripped from a yellow legal pad resting on the seat beside him.
Finally he takes the last left turn and guides the truck slowly up a narrow, tree-lined driveway, parking in front of a small, ramshackle house and squinting hesitantly at it through the windshield. It’s old and rustic with brown wooden siding, barely more than a cabin, with a tall wooden fence behind it blocking his view of the rest of the property. There are no other homes on this road and he’d followed the directions he’d been given over the phone to the letter, but there is no indication at all that he is in the correct place, no address or sign post to let him know that he’s found himself at Winchester Kennels.
But then he opens the door of the truck and he hears them, the eerie chorus loud and brash in his ears. It’s deafening, the choir of mournfully howling dogs chilling and exciting all at once, and he feels the hair rise on the back of his neck, a shiver racing down his spine.
He can’t see them, not yet, but at least he knows he’s in the right place.
Castiel climbs out of the truck, zipping his coat higher up beneath his chin as he surveys his surroundings. Snow crunches beneath the soles of his boots as he swings the door shut behind him, his gaze trailing over the little house and the fence beyond it, skimming the naked, snow-draped trees around it. Feeling lost, Castiel wanders to the front door of the house and raises one heavily gloved fist to knock, stepping back to wait. When no reply comes, his brow furrows and he steps forward to knock again.
“You that reporter?”
Castiel jumps, turning at the sound of the voice at his back. There is a man standing there, distinguishable only by his height and the breadth of his shoulders, hidden as he is beneath layers of clothing, his face muffled by a frost-encrusted scarf and fur-lined hat.
“Journalist,” Castiel corrects automatically, speaking loudly to be heard over the howls and barks, extending a gloved hand because he knows that's what's expected under the circumstances. “Castiel Milton.”
The man grunts and stretches out his own hand to be shaken. His grip is firm, even dampened as it is by the layers of material between them, strong fingers closing almost too tightly around Castiel’s. “Dean Winchester,” the man says through the scarf swaddled about his nose and mouth.
Castiel’s brow furrows. “I was expecting a Sam Winchester.” Castiel’s research had put him in touch with a Dr. Bobby Singer DVM at first, the owner of a small veterinary practice in Willow, who had in turn given him Sam’s phone number. Sam had been friendly and helpful and seemed excited to be a part of Castiel’s article, but he had said nothing whatsoever about a person named Dean in their entire correspondence.
“Figures,” Dean scoffs, shaking his head. “I’m his big brother. Sam’s at work; he left me in charge of the PR today.” Dean looks him up and down while Castiel stands awkwardly, waiting for some signal of what he should do next. “You can leave that here for now,” Dean says finally, gesturing at the duffel bag Castiel has slung over his shoulder. “We need to do introductions or they’ll never shut up.”
Dean’s already moving back around the truck towards the wooden fence. “Yeah, the dogs’ll wanna meet you. They love visitors.”
Castiel opens the door of the truck again and slings his bags back onto the front seat, hurrying to follow his host around the back of the house. Dean opens a gate in the fence, gesturing Castiel through it and closing it behind them. It’s the closest Castiel has been to the man and before Dean turns away, Castiel registers windburned skin and bright green eyes framed by long lashes over the scarf covering his mouth.
Castiel turns too, finding himself face to face with a labyrinth of chain-link fences. Dean leads him to the nearest fence, pressing his gloved palm to the fence to greet the four excited dogs barking and howling from inside the kennel, jumping and hitting the fence with their paws in their excitement.
Closer to the fence, the din of the dogs is almost deafening. Dean leans in to speak loudly into Castiel’s ear. “These are the seniors. They’re too old to run on the team so they live the life of luxury.”
“These are retirees?” Castiel nearly shouts back, his brows arching skeptically. “They hardly look old enough to retire.”
“Jack over there is thirteen.” Dean stretches out his arm and sticks his finger through the fence to scratch the nose of a white and brown dog with one blue eye and one brown, jumping excitedly in front of Cas. “Say hi, man.”
“Hello,” Castiel says awkwardly to the excited canine. At his side, Dean scoffs but Castiel ignores it, stretching out his hand to let the dogs sniff him through the fence as Dean had done. Jack licks at his fingers through his gloves while the other three jockey for position around him, vying anxiously for the visitor’s attention.
“C’mon, lots more introductions to make. I ain’t got all day.” Dean beckons impatiently for Castiel to follow as he makes his way down the chain-link corridor and Castiel hurries after him. True to Dean’s word, the dogs they’ve greeted fall silent as they move away from the first kennel.
Dean leads him to a large compound fenced in once again by chain-link. Through the diamonds made by the heavy wire of the fence, Castiel sees rows and rows of wooden, flat-topped doghouses, each with a post sticking out of the snow in front of it. Attached to each post is a long chain leading to the collar of the house’s occupant, most of whom are either running in excited circles the length of the chain or dancing excitedly at the end of it. There must be at least forty dogs in the yard, all howling mouths and wagging tails.
“You have a lot of dogs,” Castiel says, eyes wide in stunned disbelief as he stares around the yard.
Dean snorts derisively. “’Course. You think you can run two teams in a thousand mile race without having a bunch of dogs? This is nothin’. Some of the bigger operations have seventy, eighty dogs in their kennels.”
Castiel follows Dean through the gate into the compound. “That is—” Castiel manages to catch himself in time, pausing and searching for a word more diplomatic than ‘insane’— “impressive. All this just to win a race?”
“To win? Who said anything about winning?” Dean closes the gate behind Castiel, nudging his arm and directing him to a doghouse to the right of the gate. “Most of us sorry bastards who run don’t even get a piece of the pot. We’re lucky to make it over the finish line.”
Castiel’s brow furrows. “If most people never have a chance to win, why do you do it?”
Dean turns back to him, lines appearing around his eyes over the frosted wool of his scarf so Castiel knows he’s smiling, but the expression doesn’t reach his eyes which remain cold and guarded. “Because we can.”
Castiel’s mouth falls open, more questions springing instantly to mind in the wake of his last, but Dean is already turning away. They’ve reached the house Dean had indicated, on top of which stands a black dog with a splash of white on its chest, one of the only ones in the yard not yanking on its chain and raising a racket. “This here’s Chevy,” Dean says, reaching out and scratching vigorously behind the dog’s ear. “She’s my best girl, my main leader. She keeps all these other pups in line.” She wags her tail furiously as he speaks and Dean’s smile turns fond, the warmth finally stretching to his eyes as he strokes her head. It's a marked difference from the gruffness of Dean's demeanor up to this point, and Castiel cocks his head curiously as he watches.
Dean moves back, gesturing towards Castiel who steps forward, reaching a hand cautiously towards Chevy. She eyes him suspiciously around Dean, her tail stilling as she sniffs his hand carefully. Her eyes are dark amber, bright and intelligent as she surveys him, and finally she relaxes, dropping her eyes, her tail slowly resuming its wagging. She lets Castiel scratch her behind the ears where Dean shows him, the big dog leaning into his touch.
“Huh. She likes you,” Dean says, his voice disbelieving. Castiel frowns, wondering if he should feel as offended as he does at Dean’s surprise that his dog miraculously approves of him, but Dean just walks away, forcing Castiel to follow hurriedly after him.
Dean introduces him to the rest of the dogs in the yard, gruffly pointing out all their names as they weave throughout the field of little rectangular doghouses. The dogs come in a surprising variety of colors and markings, fur ranging from bright white to mottled brown to shining black, and eye colors from whiskey gold to chocolate brown and in a few cases even bright, robin’s-egg blue. Despite the variety, some of them are still so similar that Castiel doesn’t know how they manage to tell them apart. One, a gigantic pure white brute named Jimmy (“like Page” Dean explains, which doesn't actually clarify anything for Castiel, but he opts not to admit his ignorance), leaps up at Castiel, catching him off-guard when his big paws connect with Castiel’s gut. He goes down in the snow with sixty pounds of excited dog on top of him, and receives a rather disgusting and extremely thorough face-washing while Dean laughs scornfully, finally composing himself enough to drag Jimmy off. Castiel scowls at Dean as he pushes himself to his feet, brushing snow off his jeans.
His questions go largely unanswered as he follows Dean through the compound, the man responding with clipped, curt replies if he answers at all. They make it through the whole dog-yard and gradually the dogs relax into silence, some reclining on top of their dog houses and others climbing inside to rest contentedly with their heads hanging out of the openings.
Dean digs through the layers of clothing at his wrist to find his watch. “Almost dinner time,” he comments. “Sam’ll be home soon, thank god. Might as well head in.”
He turns away without waiting for Castiel to reply and Castiel hurries to catch up, following Dean back to the house. He stops at the truck and grabs his duffel and laptop bags from the front seat before following Dean to the front door, hitting the lock button on the keyfob for the truck and immediately feeling foolish when Dean snorts derisively. There’s no one out here to break into his vehicle and nothing of value left in it anyway. Old habits are difficult to break.
Castiel comes through the door, shutting it behind him, finding himself in a small entryway lined with shelves and hooks and plastic bins filled with winter gear. Dean has his back to him, tugging his hat off his head to reveal short, brown hair damp with sweat and mussed from being covered by the hat. He combs his fingers through the strands, making it stand up in spiky clumps, and starts unwinding his scarf. Castiel follows suit, peeling himself out of the layers of outerwear he’d donned in the airport and hanging it on an empty hook beside the door. He bends to loosen the laces on his boots, toeing them off and setting them neatly beside the other pairs on the mat and straightens.
Dean’s waiting impatiently, stripped down to jeans and a black long-sleeved thermal top with a white Under Armour logo on the left side of his chest. Without the heavy layers of coats and sweaters, the man’s shoulders are broad and well-muscled through the thin material of his shirt. Castiel stares. Uninhibited by the scarf and hat, Castiel registers full lips, sharply-carved cheekbones and a clean-shaven jaw on a beautifully proportioned face, combining with the bright green of his eyes and long thick lashes to make Dean a very striking man.
His host arches an eyebrow under the scrutiny and turns, gesturing over his shoulder for Castiel to follow him, and Castiel shoulders his bag and lets Dean lead him through the entryway into the rest of the little house.
He finds himself in an small open area featuring a hideous, beat-up old couch, the color of which is somewhere between orange and brown, facing an actual wood stove. On one side of the stove is a TV-stand topped by an ancient TV, complete with antenna and dials for channel selection, and on the other is a box of rough cut logs, presumably for use in the stove. There’s an older record player set up along one wall, beside a large bookshelf filled with books of every shape and size. Reference texts on dog care and veterinary medicine stand side by side with Ray Bradbury and Stephen King novels. There's also a treadmill and a small set of weights tucked in along the opposite wall. On the other side of the living area, Castiel notes a round four-person table in the center of a small kitchen with outdated appliances.
Dean gestures expansively around the room. “Well, this is home.” Castiel flicks a glance at him in time to see him shift uncomfortably. “Not much, I know,” he says defensively. “Probably nothing like you’re used to.”
Castiel pauses to slide his eyes over the room again. At home, he has a bright, well-furnished apartment near the office with shiny, stainless steel appliances and a writing desk by the window. Here, the furniture and appliances may be old but everything is immaculately clean and well-maintained. There’s a patch on one of the couch cushions that was done in plaid fabric, carefully sewn into place with neat, even stitches. There are knitted blankets and hand-embroidered cushions on the ancient sofa, and the air in the house has a hint of the smoky smell of burning wood and fresh pine, a scent that’s not unpleasant.
He looks back up at Dean. The man is watching Castiel, his eyes narrow and his expression defensive as he waits for some reply. “It’s very different,” Castiel agrees. He frowns, searching for the right word. “It seems… comfortable.”
Dean grunts and shrugs. “Your room’s down here,” he says shortly, starting down a hallway off the kitchen. Dean points out the bathroom on the way past and pushes open a door at the end of the hallway. He waves Castiel into the room, leaving him to get settled while he starts on dinner because “Sam’ll be hungry when he gets home; kid never stops eating.”
Castiel shuts the door behind Dean’s retreating form, slinging his bags from his shoulder onto the bed. The room is modest in size, the bed a double mattress in an aged bedframe, strewn with colorful hand-sewn quilts. He unzips the oversized duffel and unpacks it into the rickety dresser with peeling paint in the corner of his room, then makes a quick trip to the bathroom to relieve himself and sort out the mess that his wool hat had made of his hair before heading back into the main room with his laptop.
Dean doesn't look up when he arrives back in the kitchen, busy at the counter slicing mushrooms. He clears his throat and Dean jumps.
"Jesus." Dean turns to glare over his shoulder. "Would it kill you to make a noise?” He waves a hand at the room at large. "Go ahead, set up wherever. Mi casa es su casa or whatever.” His tone is reluctant, belying the welcoming words. “If you need the WiFi, password's M-A-R-Y."
Castiel surveys the room and slides into a chair at the kitchen table, flipping open his laptop. He wonders who Mary is; maybe a girlfriend or wife. Sam hadn’t given him any indication that he was married, but then again he had never explicitly mentioned a brother either, so it’s entirely possible, and he doesn’t know anything at all about Dean. Dean doesn't offer any explanation so he doesn't ask, just types the password in when he's prompted and opens up his browser and a new document. Dean keeps glancing uneasily at him like him like he's about to speak but he never does so Castiel ignores him, losing himself in the rhythmic tapping of the keys as he types out the notes of his experience so far. He finds himself with more questions than answers, his hands combing aggressively through his hair in his frustration. He fills in as much as he can, leaving question marks beside all of Dean’s half-answers, thinking pessimistically of the glee Zachariah would feel if he knew the trouble Castiel was already having with this dismal assignment.
When he gets to his notes on Jimmy ("like Page"), the behemoth of a dog who had knocked him on his backside, he decides to google the reference and discovers that he was a guitarist for the classic rock group Led Zeppelin. He files away the information for later: that Dean—or perhaps Sam—is a fan of classic rock, or at least one classic rock group in particular.
Suddenly, Dean looks up as if scenting the air, the hand that had been wielding a sturdy knife pausing mid-chop. "Sam's home."
Castiel's brow furrows as he studies Dean. "How do you know that? Did you hear him pull up?"
Dean shakes his head. "Nope. Dogs," he says shortly, waving the knife in the general direction of the kennels. And—ah, Castiel can hear them now, howling a greeting similar to the one they'd raised when he arrived. The sound of an engine rumbling up the driveway and a vehicle door slamming follows only a few minutes later, and the front door opens to admit one of the largest men Castiel thinks he has ever seen, layers of outerwear emphasizing his broad shoulders and overwhelming height.
"Hey Dean," he calls, his voice muffled as he starts to strip off the excess clothing.
"Hey Sammy," Dean replies, resuming his chopping. "That reporter's here."
Sam looks back up from pulling off a boot, peering around the corner and smiling broadly. "Hi, Castiel, right?" he asks, dropping the boot on the floor and making his way into the kitchen in socked feet. “We spoke on the phone.”
"Yes," Castiel says, standing. Sam extends a hand and after a moment's hesitation, Castiel clasps it with his own. He's not a small man, but he feels like one next to this giant, his eyes seeming to go up and up and up until they find Sam's. His eyes are warm and welcoming, the irises hazel to Dean's green, and his hair hangs to his jawline, brushing against cleanshaven cheeks pink from the cold. "It’s good to meet you.”
"Yeah, same here," Sam says, shaking his hand heartily. "It's great to have you here, really."
"Easy, Sammy, don't lay it on too thick. You'll scare the nice reporter off before he can get his story."
Castiel tenses at the sarcasm in Dean’s voice but Sam just rolls his eyes at his brother's back. "Don't mind him," he says, jerking his head in Dean's direction. "He's glad you're here too." Dean snorts but doesn’t comment.
“So, how was the trip?” Sam asks, his eyes bright as he folds his long frame into one of the chairs at the table. “Was the flight okay?”
Castiel nods. “Boring, mostly. I read through most of it. I had to transfer in Seattle which was aggravating but otherwise it was fine.” He doesn’t mention that the worst part of his trip so far was driving himself up icy, unfamiliar Alaskan roads in his enormous rental truck.
Sam nods sympathetically. “Not a lot of direct flights up here, unfortunately. But at least you’re not like Dean; he’s terrified of flying.”
“Sam!” Dean protests sharply, turning to glare over his shoulder at his brother.
“What?” Sam asks, shrugging. “You are!” He turns back to Castiel. “He’s lucky that it’s way easier to rent a truck and drive when you have twelve dogs to cart along with you or I would have made him fly when we moved up from Kansas.”
“How long ago was that?” Castiel asks with interest, pulling up the document on his laptop where he’s keeping his notes.
“Six years ago,” Sam replies eagerly while Castiel types, his fingers tapping rapidly over the keys. “A friend of our dad’s hooked us up with this place. After dad died, we had no reason to stay in Kansas, so we rented a truck, loaded up all the dogs and the equipment and the little bit of furniture we could take with us and hit the road.”
“Why did you wait until then?” Castiel asks curiously, cocking his head as he stares intently at Sam. “You said you already had twelve dogs so this was obviously a thought of yours before that time.”
Sam’s grimaces, some memory twisting his face darkly. “Dad never really liked the dog thing. He—”
“Grub’s on,” Dean interrupts loudly, cutting the conversation short. “Sam, you gonna offer Castiel a brew?” He turns from the stove to glare pointedly at his brother. “Be nice if you could get some plates out too. This ain’t a diner.”
A muscle jumps in Sam’s jaw as he glares up at his brother, but he pushes himself up from the table with a loud scrape of his chair. “You want a beer?” he asks, smiling ruefully at Castiel, who nods, wondering what he’s just witnessed pass between the two brothers. Sam seems to be much more willing to talk about their past than Dean, and it’s obvious that Dean had not wanted Sam to talk about their father.
Sam hands him a bottle of beer, which Castiel takes with a nod of thanks, and passes some plates down from a nearby cupboard to Dean who loads them up with some penne pasta and sauce from the pan on the stove. Castiel sets aside his laptop, saving and backing up his document before closing it and placing it on the nearby sideboard.
“Thank you, Dean,” he says as Dean deposits a plate in front of him. His host grunts his acceptance of the thanks and sits down to his own meal, not meeting Castiel’s eyes as he chugs back a generous measure of his beer.
The food is delicious: spaghetti with mushrooms and onions and tomatoes, the homemade meat sauce more flavorful than many he’d tasted at home. Dean is quiet throughout the meal, but Sam chatters about his day at work and a procedure he’d seen done to remove porcupine quills from an unlucky dog's mouth.
“I understand you’re a veterinary technician?” Castiel asks, shoveling another mouthful of the flavorful pasta onto his fork.
Sam nods but to Castiel’s surprise, it’s Dean who answers. “Just while he’s in school. Sammy’s gonna be a vet,” he answers proudly. “He’s the smart Winchester.”
Sam looks pleased at the praise but he rolls his eyes again. “You’re smart too, Dean.” He turns to Castiel. “He has his own carpentry business. He sells his stuff at a store in town.”
Castiel opens his mouth to reply but Dean interrupts. “Yeah whatever, Sam. You keep saying that but truth is only one of us at this table is gonna be fixing torn ACLs and performing C-sections on whelping mothers with stuck puppies. Unless Cas here has aspirations beyond the written word.” He raises his beer bottle in a sardonic salute and takes a long drag from the mouth of the bottle. “Meanwhile, I’ll keep on scooping shit and slapping furniture together and serving shots to redneck hunters until I win the race and get rich.” Dean’s mouth turns up in a cocky grin that doesn’t reach his eyes and he shoves back from the table to throw his empty plate in the sink and disappear into the living room. The TV flickers to life and Dean starts flipping through channels, effectively ignoring his brother and their guest as he stares determinedly at the screen.
Sam smiles weakly across the table. “Sorry about him,” he says quietly. “I swear he’s not usually this much of an asshole.”
“That’s all right, Sam.” Castiel stands with his own plate. “Can I help you with the dishes?”
Sam waves him away. “No way, you’re a guest. At least for the first couple days. Enjoy it while you can because Dean’ll have you shoveling dog crap with him in no time.”
“Well in that case, I think I’ll call it an early night. I’m quite tired from my flight.”
“No problem, man,” Sam replies, smiling sympathetically. “If you need anything, just holler.”
Castiel gathers up his laptop and retreats to the safety of his bedroom, passing by where Dean lies sprawled out on the couch, studiously ignoring both him and his brother. He shuts the door and sags against it, cursing Zachariah and this entire venture. He supposes he should be pleased that at least one of the Winchesters has welcomed him with open arms, but he can’t help but think that Dean is going to make next two months a living hell in spite of Sam’s hospitality.
But he’s here now and there’s no turning back, regardless of whether he—or Dean—wants him to be. He pushes away from the door with a sigh, collapsing on the bed which creaks its protest. The bone-deep weariness of his long day weighs him down, and he’s tempted to let himself fall asleep, still fully clothed in his jeans and sweater, before he remembers Anna, who will no doubt be frantic for news. He flips his laptop back open and opens up Skype, smiling when his sister messages him almost immediately.
Anna: Castiel! Did you make it to the North Pole all right?
Castiel: But yes.
Anna: And? How is it? Aside from cold.
Anna: How are your hosts?
Castiel sighs, raking a hand through his hair before setting his fingers back on the keyboard.
Castiel: Fine. But I’m very tired. I will fill you in tomorrow. I just wanted to let you know I arrived safely.
He sets the computer aside and stands to change out of his clothes into a pair of blue flannel pajama pants and a soft grey t-shirt. After a moment’s indecision, he leaves his socks on against the slight chill in the room. He slides back into the bed, pulling the layers of knitted blankets and hand-sewn quilts over himself just as his laptop beside him chimes three times with the new message alert.
Anna: But you owe me!
Anna: Love you.
Castiel smiles sleepily and types his response.
Castiel: I love you too. Goodnight, Anna.
He flips his laptop closed and slides it onto the nightstand, switching the bedside lamp off with a groan. He burrows down deep into the nest of homemade blankets, letting the heaviness of his eyelids swallow him up in sleep.
Castiel startles awake to the crash of drums and the wailing of rock guitars blasting through the little house. He’s momentarily disoriented, blinking into the darkness of the unfamiliar bedroom until he remembers where he is and sighs regretfully. He shoves aside the layers of blankets that had gone nearly undisturbed during the night and rubs at his stiff neck, stifling a groan. His entire body aches from sleeping in an unfamiliar bed and from hours of having his nearly six foot frame squashed into an airplane seat yesterday, and his feet are freezing, his socks having been kicked off sometime in the night.
He fumbles for his phone on the bedside table and groans at the time. 7:06 am. He’s going to kill whoever it is blasting that obscene noise at such an indecent time, and barring that, he will kill Zachariah for saddling him with two idiots who seem to think that this time in the morning is actually acceptable for human functioning.
Forcing himself out of bed, Castiel stumbles out of the bedroom and down the hall, rubbing sleep out of his eyes, and is met with a disgustingly cheerful Dean Winchester, running on the treadmill against the wall. The house seems to shake with the noise streaming out of the stereo, what Castiel identifies as AC/DC playing at an absurd volume. The belt and motor of the treadmill whirr along with Dean’s footsteps, and the man himself flashes him a grin that Castiel can only characterize as sadistic.
“‘Morning Sunshine,” he calls over the noise. Apparently his temper tantrum from the previous night had been forgotten or at least pushed aside for now. “Sleep well?”
Castiel meets his host’s grin with a glare, choosing to ignore the question. “Do you have any idea what time it is?” he replies, his voice hoarse with sleep.
Dean’s grin widens cruelly, his feet never missing a step as he answers. “Sorry dude, but we keep pretty early hours here. Training for humans is just as important as training for dogs. Better get used to it.”
Several choice curses spring to Castiel’s mind but he manages to tamp them down at the last minute, choosing instead to turn on his heel and retreat to the bathroom to freshen up; there’s no way he’s getting any more sleep so he might as well greet the day.
He ignores his reflection in the mirror, climbing into the shower. He takes his time, lingering in the hot spray long after he’s finished washing, letting the water wake up his tired body and soothe his stiff muscles. The water pressure is terrible, but at least the water is hot, the bathtub immaculately clean like the rest of the little house.
The bathroom fan is decrepit at best, leaving the room filled with steam when he’s finished. He swipes a hand across the mirror, taking in the damp, dark hair that curls against his forehead and neck and the tired blue eyes that stare back at him out of the glass. He has never spent much time on his appearance, letting his hair fall in whichever direction it so chooses, preferring to be clean-shaven out of comfort only. Today there’s a shadow of scruff across his jaw but it’s far too early for him to deal with it so he leaves it for later; he can stand the slight itch for a day or two.
He dresses in a pair of worn jeans, pulling a grey knit sweater with heavy brown buttons at the neck over a navy long-sleeved t-shirt and tugging thick socks onto his feet. He lingers in the bedroom for longer than is strictly necessary, catching up on his email, sending a message to Zachariah to let him know he’s arrived at his destination, and browsing through the news at home. He doesn’t want to admit to himself that he’s avoiding Dean, but that’s exactly what he’s doing, and eventually he can’t do it anymore, and forces himself to his feet.
When he emerges for the second time, Dean has finished his workout and switched the music to something a little more appropriate for first thing in the morning. He’s humming to himself and bustling around the kitchen, still in the clothes from his workout. His hair is wet with sweat, as is the red t-shirt he has on over black sweatpants.
The smell of fresh coffee goes a long way to improving Castiel’s mood, and he heads straight for the machine merrily percolating away on the corner of the counter beside the toaster. To his surprise, Dean passes him a mug without a word, and Castiel takes it with a shocked nod, noting the cupboard that it came from for future reference.
“Sugar’s in the cupboard above the machine, milk’s in the fridge if we have it,” Dean says. “Help yourself to whatever, I gotta go shower. Sam should be out soon.” He disappears from the room, leaving Castiel to his own devices.
Castiel fixes up his coffee, deciding against breakfast in favor of exploring the little cabin. It’s good coffee, almost as good as the coffee he gets from the little independent shop around the corner from the office back home, and he hums happily as he sips it, turning his head sideways between sips to read the titles of the books on the shelves.
“Did you eat?”
Castiel looks up, startled, to see Sam smiling at him from the kitchen, wearing blue scrubs with a black long-sleeved t-shirt underneath. One of the dogs—Chase, Castiel remembers eventually—is sitting at his side, big tan head resting against the younger Winchester’s thigh, Sam’s big hand scratching absently between the dog’s ears.
Castiel shakes his head. “I don’t normally eat breakfast,” he replies, straightening and moving back to join the younger Winchester at the kitchen table.
Sam takes a bite of his breakfast, some mixture of oatmeal and fruit and yogurt, by the looks of things. “You should start. Our mornings are pretty busy here and you won’t make it if you don’t eat until lunch.” Castiel shrugs, unconvinced, and Sam laughs. “Suit yourself.”
The shower starts up at the other end of the house and Castiel relaxes, glad to find himself alone with the friendlier Winchester for at least a few minutes. He asks Sam about his work at the veterinary office and Sam lights up as he describes his work, a kind of apprenticeship under Dr. Singer (referred to affectionately as Bobby) and Dr. Moore while he completes his schooling. Castiel learns that Dr. Moore is a young woman actually a few months younger than Sam and that she and Sam have been dating for some time. Sam flushes when he talks about her, and Castiel smiles into his coffee, recognizing the look of someone smitten. He’s seen the look on his sister’s face a few times over the years, most recently when she met her current girlfriend.
“Maybe you can shadow me for a day,” Sam suggests. “Get an idea of how things run at the clinic. Lots of mushers come to our practice; you might get to meet a few of them and their dogs.”
“I would like that, Sam,” Castiel replies.
“Great! I’ll ask Bobby if that would be okay and maybe we can set it up for a couple weeks from now after you’ve settled in.”
Sam excuses himself from the table, pouring coffee into a to-go mug and throwing together a lunch for himself. He grabs his coat from the entryway and runs out to the dog yard to put Chase away, still tugging his coat into place as he comes back into the house.
“So listen, Castiel. Don’t let Dean work you too hard today, okay?” He straightens the hood of his coat, tugging a beanie on over his long hair. “And I know he can be a dick, but try not to take it too seriously. I promise it’s not personal.”
Castiel tries for a confident smile, just as he hears the shower shut off at the other end of the house. “I’m sure I can handle it,” he says, tipping back the rest of his coffee and standing to refill it.
Sam grins and slings his bag over his shoulder. “Bye Dean!” he calls, and Castiel hears an answering bellow from the other end of the hall. “Bye Castiel,” he says, in his normal voice. “Enjoy your first day.” And then Sam is rushing out the door, waving over his shoulder and leaving Castiel alone with his coffee, wondering what the rest of the day—and Dean—will have in store for him.
Castiel glares across the yard as he picks up dog feces using the long-handled scoop and scraper Dean had pressed into his gloved hands only minutes before. This is quite possibly the worst job Castiel has ever had to work and whatever small flicker of glamor he thought he would find in this assignment has long since disappeared, chased away by the wide smirk Dean had sported when he told him what they’d be doing this morning.
Dean had emerged shortly after Sam had left, devouring two pieces of toast with butter and raspberry jam before he beckoned Castiel out the door with him. He helped Dean feed the dogs, listening as the man gruffly explained the mixture of kibble, fish and beef that he ladled out into metal bowls. The dogs, Dean had explained, need ten to fifteen thousand calories a day while they’re on the trail, not quite so much during training, but still much more than your average house pet.
Dean handed him the full bowls and Castiel helped him feed, the yard gradually going silent as they doled out the dogs’ morning meal. It was astonishing to watch them go from screaming and howling, leaping at the end of their chains, to quiet and sedate when the metal bowls are set down in front of them.
And then there was the scoop, and Castiel had looked at Dean incredulously. Behind his scarf and hat, Dean had raised his eyebrows. “What? You think the shit scoops itself?”
Castiel had hoped to be spared this particular chore, but Dean apparently has no shame. So Castiel had taken the scoop without comment and shoved down his protests, refusing to give Dean the satisfaction. This was what he was here for after all, and why he was being forced into exile for such a long time: to experience the lifestyle of a dedicated musher and Iditarod race competitor, not only during the race but in the months leading up to it as well.
It’s harder work than he had anticipated, and though his fingers and toes are cold inside his gloves, by the time he finishes his side of the yard there’s sweat dampening the small of his back and his hair underneath his hat. His stomach is already growling unpleasantly and he begrudgingly admits to himself that Sam may have been right about the inadvisability of skipping breakfast. He pauses to pat the head of the dog whose orbit he is currently occupying, scratching between her ears with a gloved hand and smiling in spite of himself as her tongue lolls out the side of her mouth.
Dean takes longer to finish his side than Castiel, so Castiel sets his scoop aside, leaning up against the dog house and trying to keep its inhabitant from covering his entire face in saliva, and watches Dean work his way through the remaining dogs. Dean stops at each dog, leaning the scoop against the house as he greets them, kissing the tops of furry heads and rubbing furry ears, scratching gloved hands over necks and backs. As Castiel watches, he sees Dean duck his head, and it almost looks as though he is whispering to the dog as he scratches under its chin, before he’s picking up the scoop and cleaning up the dog’s area and moving on to the next.
Dean finishes his side and meets Castiel at the gate. “What?” he asks gruffly, his voice muffled by the scarf around his face, and Castiel realizes he’s staring. He shakes his head, mute, and Dean glares at him for a few more seconds before shrugging and leading Castiel through the gate back to the house.
Dean makes grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch and Castiel devours his greedily, and Dean leaves Castiel alone for most of the afternoon after changing out of his sweat-soaked clothes and into a new, warm, dry set. He mumbles something about “getting some work done and taking out some dogs” and then he’s gone, the back door swinging creakily shut behind him. Castiel is a bit perturbed at being left behind without any indication of when his host will be back and no invitation to come along, but he settles himself on the end of the couch with his laptop in his lap and a cup of fresh coffee on the side table. He boots up Skype and finds Anna online and calls her.
There’s a long delay during which Skype’s distinct ringtone filters tinnily out of his computer speakers and then the call connects, Anna’s pretty face and bright red hair filling the screen. “Hi Castiel!” she says happily and he smiles back at her.
“Anna,” he replies. “Hard at work I see.” There’s a smudge of blue paint across her cheekbone and a bit of white in the loose strands of her hair where it curls against her face.
“Yeah sorry, I was working on a piece.” She waves the brush still clenched in her hand before the screen so he can see.
Castiel reaches for his coffee mug, settling his laptop on his thighs and bringing the cup to his lips. “What are you working on right now?”
“Another piece for the gallery,” she says, scratching her head with the end of the paintbrush. “Ruby thought the exhibition needed one more piece before we open so I’m working on something. She’s such a slave driver.”
“Quit whining,” calls another voice and then Ruby’s dark head is ducking into the frame beside his sister’s. “Hi Castiel.”
“Hello Ruby,” Castiel greets his sister’s girlfriend. The brunette wiggles her fingers at him with a crooked smile and then slips back out of the way, leaving them to their conversation.
“So how’s Alaska?” Anna asks him brightly.
Castiel sips at his coffee before replying. “It’s fine,” he hedges.
Anna’s brow furrows. “Just fine? It’s not intrepid and wild and beautiful?”
“Well, yes,” Castiel agrees. “But I haven’t had a chance to see much besides my trip up.” He carefully leaves out that he hadn’t had a chance to sightsee much, given that his attention was focused on not driving the enormous truck off the icy roads.
“I’m sure you’ll get to see lots in three months,” she replies. “How is your host?”
“Hosts,” Castiel corrects. “There are two of them. Sam Winchester and his older brother, Dean.”
Anna rolls her eyes. “And? How are they?”
Castiel looks up at the beams of the ceiling, casting about for a proper way to describe them. “Sam is very kind. Welcoming, very forthcoming with information.”
“And Dean?” Anna prompts.
Rude. Hostile.Beautiful. “Dean is challenging,” Castiel finally replies. “He’s been nothing but surly and it’s clear he doesn’t approve of his brother’s decision to invite me here.”
Anna’s frowns, her brows coming together and lips pursing in a familiar expression of disapproval she shares with him. “Maybe he’ll warm up to you,” she offers.
“I doubt it,” Castiel says grimly. “He seems to think I’m some kind of gossip. Like I work for a tabloid or something equally distasteful.”
“Maybe if you explained your assignment?”
Castiel shrugs one shoulder. “I have been cursing that ass Zachariah for this assignment every moment since I stepped off the plane.” He tells her about the nerve-wracking drive up to Winchester Kennels, the awkward evening he’d experienced, his rude awakening and his morning spent picking up dog excrement.
By the end of his tirade, Anna isn’t even trying to hide her grin. “Poor, sheltered Castiel,” she says with mock sympathy. “Having to skulk around with mortals.”
“Thanks so much,” he grumbles, but he feels the corner of his lip twitch.
“Listen, Cas,” Anna says, serious again. “I told you you should quit when he threw that piece at you but you’re too bull-headed and dutiful to go through with it and now it’s too late. Just get through this assignment, show that asshole that you can take anything he throws your way and still write a great piece. And then if he keeps treating you like shit, you can quit and find a new job.”
He nods wearily. It’s a speech he’s heard before.
“And in the meantime, shut up and enjoy Alaska! They call this thing ‘The Last Great Race on Earth’, and you get a backstage pass.” Anna twists her hair into a knot at the back of her head, securing it with the paintbrush like she’s done since she was a teenager. “And take lots of pictures so that I can live vicariously through you while I’m trying to teach our disenchanted youth and shmoozing with rich people in fancy suits during gallery opening hell.”
“Shut up, you love it!” Ruby calls from somewhere off-camera.
“I do,” Anna admits to Castiel, who huffs a laugh.
Castiel asks Anna about the preparations for the gallery opening, effectively distracting her. She and Ruby are stressed, Anna with finishing up her last pieces for the exhibit and Ruby with arranging caterers and servers and sending invitations to the art-world elite. Castiel feels a pang in his chest that he’s going to miss his sister’s big debut. She’s had pieces in exhibits before but this is the first that’s all her own, and he wishes he could be there to see it. She waves off his apology though, and makes him promise to come see it as soon as he gets home, a promise he readily makes.
They sign off, Castiel to type up his notes from the morning, and Anna to go back to work on her painting. He promises to call her again soon and to check his email daily before they disconnect.
Two cups of coffee later, after all his notes have been typed and he’s managed to read through five chapters of one of the books he’d brought with him, the dogs start up their howling again and Dean reappears, stripping off his layers and raking a hand through sweaty hair. His eyes catch on Castiel where he’s perched on the couch and he looks like he’s about to say something before he shakes his head stubbornly and retreats to his bedroom to change again. Castiel stares after him long after the bedroom door closes behind his retreating figure, seething resentfully and wondering how he will possibly be able to stand two and a half months of this.
To say that Dean is unhappy having a writer dogging his footsteps is an understatement.
He’s used to his routine: get up at seven am, work out, shower, breakfast, chores. Break for lunch, head out to the workshop to knock together a bookshelf or two, run the dogs, relax until dinner, and then head out to work his other job at the Roadhouse or spend the evening reading or watching TV. He’s used to the freedom to do whatever he feels like, to hang out with his dogs and Sam and his friends on weekends, occasionally going home from the bar with someone when he knows Sam is going to be home to look after the mutts. He doesn’t need some yuppie from Los-fucking-Angeles watching him, prying into his business and messing around with his dogs and his life. Not to mention living in his house, staring all the time, making shit awkward.
And boy does the guy stare. He doesn’t seem to need to blink as much as other people do, and his eyes are almost freakishly blue. He’s a little weird, too, always holding his hands limp at his sides and barely reacting beyond a squint or a head tilt. Not even when Dean broke out some of his best jokes and c’mon, his jokes are fuckin’ gold.
He and Sam had argued about it when the younger Winchester had come home from the clinic with the news that some fancy-ass writer from California wanted to invade their lives for two damn months. Dean had fought hard against it, and hadn’t agreed until Sam brought up the sponsors. Always the fucking sponsors. It all came back to money, to how expensive it was to run a kennel of nearly forty dogs and counting, and how they still hadn’t scored a big-name sponsor like a lot of the big operations have backing them up. Equipment is expensive, dog food is expensive, and entry fees are expensive. So when Sam had reminded him that some good publicity for their kennel could attract the attention of one of the bigger names, giving Dean his best puppy face while he was at it because Sam fights fuckin’ dirty, Dean had begrudgingly agreed.
But that doesn’t mean he has to like it.
At least the dogs seem not to mind the guy, Dean muses as he watches Castiel move around the houses on the other side of the dog yard. He’s only been here a few days but Castiel’s already got the routine down, even though he’s still not used to the early mornings. And man, the look on his face, like a disgruntled owl that first morning when he’d been woken up by Dean’s music, his hair standing up every which way on top of his head—that had been nothing short of priceless.
Dean absently scratches Hemi behind the ears, watching Castiel approach each dog cautiously and reach out to give them a hesitant pat on the head or scratch under the chin. Cas is a little odd, there’s no doubt about that, but the dogs are always better judges of people than he is, and as he watches all the wagging tails, he knows the guy can’t be all bad. Doesn’t change the fact that he’s a nosy, nerdy asshole, but at least he’s not some kind of dog-hating lunatic.
During the weekends Sam is home, so that morning the chores get done a lot faster with all three of them working and they wind up back in the house with extra time to spare, even with the usual weekend bullshitting and roughhousing he and Sam engage in. They only make it about halfway through the yard before Dean is lobbing a snowball at his brother’s head, and they spend the next twenty minutes in all-out war. Castiel watches on with an expression something like dismayed amusement, as if he really doesn’t want to find their immaturity funny but can’t help it.
Inside, Dean retreats to his bedroom after stripping off his coat and boots, peeling his hoodie and sweat-damp t-shirt off over his head and swabbing the perspiration and melted snow from the back of his neck with it before tossing it in the hamper. It’s a nice day out, cloudy but warm for winter, and the work (and the snowball fight) had, as usual, worked up a sweat under all the layers.
He replaces the t-shirt with a fresh one, slinging a flannel overtop, and swings open his door, making his way back down the hallway to the empty kitchen. It feels like a Zepp III kinda day, so Dean moves to the record player, sliding the album out of the sleeve and flipping it between his palms before setting it on the turntable and carefully placing the needle. The record crackles to life, the twanging, bluesy guitars filling the room and Dean lets himself soak it up for a minute, a smile playing on his lips.
He plays a couple of chords of air guitar along with the music, spinning on his heel with the music, and when he opens his eyes, Castiel is standing in front of the coffee maker, watching him from the kitchen with his head tilted curiously. He’s changed too, into a thick blue mock-neck sweater with a half-zipper at the throat, and his hair is mussed from the hat he’d been wearing, standing up every which way.
Dean drops his hands to his sides, feeling a flush rise in his cheeks. “What?” he asks aggressively, glaring across the room at his guest.
Castiel gives a little shake of his head. “Nothing,” he says shortly, his eyes pinned to Dean’s face. “What is this?” He jerks his head in the direction of the record player.
“Are you kidding?” Dean’s eyebrows shoot up incredulously. “It’s Led Zeppelin III!”
“Ah,” Castiel says, understanding flashing across his face. “Like your dogs’ names.”
Dean snorts. “Yeah, like the dogs. But also, like, the best rock band that ever lived!”
“I'll have to take your word for it,” Castiel says mildly, turning to pour himself a cup of coffee from the fresh pot that is just finishing brewing.
Dean shakes his head disbelievingly and makes his way over to the kitchen, pulling a mug down from the cupboard for himself. Doesn’t know Led Zeppelin, Jesus Christ. To his surprise, Castiel takes the coffee mug out of Dean’s hand and fills it, pressing the full mug back into his palm before sliding over to seat himself at the kitchen table.
“So what the hell kinda music do you like, man? Obviously not a classic rock fan.” Dean follows Castiel to the table, tugging out a chair and sitting down beside him.
Castiel shrugs. “I like most things,” he says. “Music in general is wonderful. Classical, pop, rock, R&B.” He nods towards the record player again. “This is also enjoyable.”
Dean shakes his head incredulously and brings his coffee mug to his lips to keep from reaming the guy out. Led Zeppelin is a damn sight better than just enjoyable. They sip in silence for a few moments, and Dean’s beginning to wonder if he needs to send a search party after his brother when Castiel speaks again.
“The music you’ve been listening to in the mornings when you exercise - that was AC/DC?”
Dean grins and raises his mug in salute. “Thank fuck, at least you know AC/DC.”
Cas looks pretty impressed with himself, his lips actually parting around white teeth as he smiles. And oh yeah, he might be weird and kind of stuck up and have no freakin’ clue what constitutes good music, but he’s also kind of uncomfortably attractive and Dean doesn’t really know what to do with that.
“Is there a reason you get up so early every day to exercise?”
Dean shoves his chair back from the table to prop his socked feet up on the tabletop, crossing them at the ankles, cradling his coffee mug between his palms. “I told you. Musher’s gotta stay in shape just as much as the dogs.” Cas’ brow furrows as he contemplates this new information and Dean rolls his eyes at the confusion on his face.
“You think dogsledding is just standing on the runners and steering?” he asks. “You gotta help out on hills, and let me tell you, it’s fuckin’ hard work running uphill in boots and all that gear in the snow. And on the flats, you help out as much as you can. You can run alongside, or you can push with ski-poles.”
“So you do this to ease the load for the dogs?”
Dean nods, swallowing a mouthful of coffee. “Yup. Dogs work hard enough; we gotta do our part.”
“Plus, ever since Dallas Seavey won the race, we’ve all had to up our game.” Sam finally reappears, snagging a bottle of water out of the fridge before joining them at the table.
Castiel tilts his head, pausing with his mug halfway to his lips. “Who is Dallas Seavey?”
“He’s one of the other mushers.” Sam grins broadly as he folds his long frame into the chair. “Third generation Iditarod competitor; comes from a whole family of mushers. Dean has a thing for him.”
“What?!” Dean sits up suddenly, his feet falling to the floor with a thunk. He narrowly avoids spilling coffee all over his shirt and his asshole of a brother snickers at him as he sets the mug carefully out of harm’s way on the tabletop. “I do not.”
“He does,” Sam says conspiratorially to Castiel, who only raises his eyebrows, an expression of mild interest on his face.
“Whatever, man. Dude’s married,” Dean grumbles, feeling his face heat. “I also got a thing for the Berington twins; it's no big deal. I can appreciate a hot guy or girl, sue me. The point is, Dallas won the race in 2012. Ran pretty much the whole damned way, and when he wasn’t running, he was ski-poling. Upped the ante for the rest of us, changed the game.”
Sam nods. “We all have to work extra hard to get in shape to compete, since he raised the bar. He was the youngest musher ever to win.” He grins as he raises the bottle to his mouth. “Until now, that is.”
Dean scoffs, hiding his smile in his coffee. He thinks he sees Castiel’s eyes flick briefly in his direction. “Yeah, we’ll see about that, Sammy.”
“What, you think you can take me, old man?”
“Damn straight.” Dean grins cockily. “I could kick your ass with my eyes closed.”
“If you do beat me, which you won’t,” Sam says, “it’ll only be because you’ve got the better team and nothing at all to do with skill.”
Dean turns to Cas, who is watching the exchange with mild amusement. “Sam’s a sore loser. Just can’t take that I’m better than he is.” Sam rolls his eyes and pushes himself up from the table, opening the fridge again to peer inside.
Big talk aside, Dean already knows he’s going to make Sam take the stronger team. No way he’s letting his brother take a weak team into a thousand mile battle against the wilderness. Sam will fight, he always does, but in the end, Dean knows he’s got the stronger case. Last year they split the teams, splitting up the experienced dogs they bought from other kennels and the most reliable ones they trained themselves evenly amongst the rookies. It hadn’t worked out well for either of them, and they wound up dropping dogs too early. They’d both finished, but they’d wound up further in the pack than they would’ve liked. That’s the rationale he’ll use to convince Sam; if they stack one team and take the second team for experience, at least one of them has a good chance of finishing near the front of the pack.
But in reality, it has nothing to do with the odds of winning. Last year, when they’d had issues with some of their rookies, Sam had almost broken his leg in the Dalzell Gorge. No fucking way he’s risking that again. If they’re both running teams, Sam’s taking the stronger one.
He just doesn’t know it yet.
Sam emerges from the refrigerator with fixings for a salad, so Dean rolls his eyes and gets up to make himself and Cas something more substantial because the guy might be a weirdo but he still deserves real food. He whips them up a couple of sandwiches and some tomato soup which Cas accepts gratefully, and when they're done eating, to Dean's surprise, the guy stands up to wash their dishes.
“So Cas,” Sam asks conversationally, crossing his forearms on the table in front of him. “How long have you been working for the magazine?”
“About seven years, now,” Castiel answers, swiping a sponge around the mouth of the soup pot. “It’s a quarterly magazine so I have a lot of spare time, generally. When I’m not travelling I do freelance work for various magazines and newspapers.”
“Do you get to travel a lot for your job?”
“Quite a bit, yes,” Castiel replies. “I’ve been all over the United States and Canada for various assignments.”
“Do you like it? It must be fun, getting to travel on the company dollar all the time.”
Cas’ shoulders tense under the thick knit of his sweater and he’s silent for longer than the question warranted. “For the most part,” he says cautiously.
It’s pretty damn obvious what he’s not saying and Dean’s hand tightens into a fist against his thigh. “Aw Cas, tell us how you really feel,” he retorts angrily. Across the table, Sam shoots him a death-glare that Dean studiously ignores, dodging the kick his brother aims at his shin. The bastard obviously thinks he’s too good to be here hanging out with a couple of rednecks and a bunch of mutts. Well, that’s it, they’re having it out right now, no matter how many pointed glares Sam sends in Dean’s direction.
Castiel glances over his shoulder at him, frowning. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Dean sneers, mocking, “that you obviously don’t wanna be here.”
Castiel looks up as the ceiling and sighs. “This wasn’t my first choice of assignment, no.”
Dean’s lips curl, baring his teeth in an expression that’s more snarl than smile. He leans forward in his chair, bracing his forearm on the table as he turns towards Castiel where he stands at the sink, his back still to the table. “Then why don’t you just go? We don’t need you.”
Sam makes a sound like he’s about to protest but Castiel turns around, dropping the sponge and the plate he’s washing into the dishwater, and Sam falls silent at the expression on his face. Castiel’s brows are drawn together, his eyes hard as he fixes them on Dean, stepping forward into Dean’s space. Dean’s hands close into tight fists, his jaw clenching, and he wonders if Castiel is going to throw a punch. He almost wishes he would, although he’s suddenly no longer sure he could take the guy.
“You’re right.” Castiel says, standing so close that Dean has to crane his neck to meet his eyes. He doesn’t shout, his voice low like a gathering storm, a suggestion of power held in carefully in check. “I didn’t want this assignment. I didn’t want to fly so far from home, and I certainly didn’t want to be away for two and a half months. I have often wondered if I was given the assignment as a punishment for disagreeing with too many of my boss’ decisions. But regardless of the reason, it was given to me nonetheless, and I do my job, no matter how unsavory I find it.”
Castiel braces his hand on the table, mere inches from Dean’s as he leans in. Dean has to fight the urge to push himself away. “I had hoped to make the best out of a less than desirable situation but you seem determined to make that impossible. You should remember that what I write in my article could have an impact on you and your operation, Dean. Explore is well-read magazine with widespread distribution. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you what negative publicity could do to you and your sport.” The threat hangs heavy and sharp between them and Castiel leans almost imperceptibly further into Dean’s space, his eyes bright and burning, the line of his jaw tense, and then he says, slow and intense, like he needs to make sure Dean is paying attention— “You should show me some respect.”
And that should totally not be hot and mostly it just pisses Dean the fuck off, but there’s that tiny, traitorous sliver of him that is kind of ridiculously turned on, even as he considers taking a swing at the bastard. He swallows hard but before he can do any of the crazy things he’s considering, Castiel spins away from him and then he’s gone, disappearing down the hall to his bedroom. Dean flinches when the door slams at the other end of the house, and across the table, he feels Sam do the same.
They’re silent for a few moments, the air tense in Castiel’s wake, and then Sam shuts his laptop with a slap and glares across the table at his brother. “Do you think you could be any more of a dick, Dean? He’s just trying to do his job.”
“C’mon, man,” Dean groans, rolling his eyes and slumping back in his chair. He feels more than a little stupid, something suspiciously like shame rolling down his spine. “What do you want from me, huh?”
“I want you to quit making things worse than they are. I want you to make an effort. Do I have to remind you that dog food is expensive? That vet bills are expensive, even with the steal of a deal we get from Bobby?” Dean opens his mouth to reply that of course he doesn’t need to be reminded of that but Sam cuts him off. “This guy could probably have asked to write about any number of better known mushers than us. But somehow we got lucky and Bobby gave him my number, and if Castiel likes what he sees and writes a good article, that could mean sponsors. And if he writes a bad one, we might never get another sponsorship offer again.”
Dean drags a hand down his face, frustrated. Always the fucking sponsors. As much as he hates to admit it, Sam’s right, and they need the publicity. “Fine, whatever. Just tell me what I gotta do.”
Sam makes a discontented sound and shoves himself to his feet. “Promise me you’ll stop being such an asshole. If he asks you a question, answer it. Show him some stuff instead of brushing him off.”
“Yeah, yeah, okay Sam.”
“Promise,” Sam asks, pleading now, like he’s a chubby fourteen year old and not a twenty-six year old man, sending Dean spiralling back to when his little brother was fourteen and Dean was responsible for taking care of him.
“I promise,” he says, and he still manages to roll his eyes, even though he knows he’ll do it, for Sam.
“Thank you,” Sam says stiffly and turns on his heel, muttering something about calling Jess, and leaving Dean to finish washing up the rest of the dishes alone.
Despite it being Saturday and Dean’s one self-imposed day off, he winds up in his workshop painstakingly hand-sanding the legs of a chair for the dining set Mrs. Moseley had commissioned from him a couple weeks back. He hides out in the shop as long as he can, checking and double checking his work even though he knows it’s already as good as it’s going to get, avoiding his brother and their guest for as long as he possibly can. He even calls Ellen, asking if she needs help at the Roadhouse, but apparently Tracy and Ash are both on today and the bar is slow, so he’s shit out of luck. And Saturdays are the days that three local teens come by to do their volunteer hours feeding dogs and cleaning up kennels, so it’s not like Dean even has any chores he can do to keep himself busy.
When he finally wanders back into the house, kicking snow off his boots, Castiel and Sam are both out of hiding, parked at the table with their laptops open. Castiel glances up as Dean slips back into the kitchen but quickly looks back down, returning to whatever he’s working on.
"Good to see you two didn’t get up to any trouble while I was gone. I always was the life of the party,” Dean jokes to cover the awkwardness that he seems to drag back into the room. "So, Sam, Halo?" he suggests and Sam looks up at him, grinning.
"How about you, Castiel?" Sam asks, like the good little host he is. "You want to play Halo with us? We can play on Slayer mode so you can play too." Castiel blinks blankly up at Sam like he's just been spouting off in Greek and Dean stifles a laugh.
"Not a gamer, Cas?" Dean asks, the words out of his mouth before he can stop them.
Castiel scowls back at him. "However did you guess?"
"Do you want to learn?" Sam asks hopefully. "It's fun. Blowing up aliens. Or each other."
"I think I'll just get some more work done, if it's all the same to you." Castiel stands and makes to head to his bedroom.
Sam elbows Dean hard in the arm. “Ow, Sam, what the fuck?” Sam jerks his head towards Castiel, who is gathering his laptop and its cords, tucking them carefully into a neat coil. Dean rolls his eyes—his brother is so fucking subtle, it’s amazing—and reaches out, stopping Cas with a hand on his arm. Castiel looks up, blue eyes wide with surprise and trepidation.
"Why don't you set up out here, hang out while you work,” Dean says awkwardly. “You don't need to barricade yourself in your room all the time."
“I thought you didn’t want me here,” Castiel retorts coldly, his eyes hardening as he stares at Dean.
Dean rakes his free hand through his hair. “Yeah, uh, sorry about that man. Its—it’s kinda a shitty situation for everyone but you’re right. We can just—make the best of it.” Dean can practically feel the approval Sam radiates in his direction as his younger brother makes his way over to the living room. Dean hopes the apology is enough for Cas too, ‘cause that’s about as good as it's going to get.
Castiel studies him for a moment, his gaze searching as he scans Dean's face suspiciously. Finally he gives a curt nod and Dean releases him so that he can shuffle into the living room and settle himself on the couch.
Dean lets go of the breath he’d been holding. "Be right back, Sammy, I'm gonna bring Chevy in." Sam nods his acknowledgement from where he's kneeling in front of the little entertainment center, pulling controllers and the Halo 3 disc out of the drawer.
Dean throws on his coat and steps back into his boots. The snow has picked up even in the short time since he came in from the shop, thick, fluffy flakes drifting down from a whited-out sky. Already there's a thick layer of powder filling in their footsteps from this morning, snow settling on the bars at the top of the fences like sugary frosting. He hopes it slows down enough that they don’t have to get the trail groomer out tomorrow before Sam can run the dogs, but glancing at the clouds, he thinks it might be a lost cause.
The dogs start up their howling as soon as he rounds the corner into visibility. Chevy's waiting for him on top of her dog house, tail wagging frantically and dancing back and forth from paw to paw in her excitement.
"Hey Baby," he says, scratching her ears and bending to kiss her furry head. She wiggles under his hand and stretches upwards to lick his cheek and he laughs, tipping his chin up and out of her reach. "You wanna come inside for a bit, girl? Would you like that?" Chevy wags her tail harder in response, and he laughs and unhooks her chain. She jumps off the dog house and runs over to the gate of the dog yard, sitting down to wait for him to catch up.
"Alright, hold your horses," he opens the gate and she runs straight for the back door, pawing excitedly at it until he can open it for her.
Chevy darts into the house, starting her exploration as she always does, checking to see what's changed since her last visit while Dean hangs his coat back up and toes off his boots. He blows hot air into his closed fists and rubs his hands together to get warmth back into them; the temperature's dropping outside too. It’s looking more and more like there’s a storm in the cards tonight after all.
The Halo theme is already playing when he makes his way back into the main area, the Start menu displayed on the screen of their crappy little TV. Sam’s taken the big reclining chair, stretching out his long legs on the footrest, and Castiel has parked himself at the far end of the couch, his long fingers already tapping away at his laptop. Dean makes a stop at the fridge and pulls out three beers, passing one to Sam who takes it automatically, and then nudging Castiel’s arm with the bottle as he holds it over the back of the couch. Cas looks up, startled, his eyes darting from the beer to Dean’s face and back.
Dean raises impatient eyebrows. “It’s a beer, man, not a hand grenade. If you want it, take it. If not, no skin off my back.”
Castiel reaches out a hand and takes the beer from Dean, twisting off the cap and bringing it to his lips for a sip before setting it on the side table. “Thank you, Dean.”
“Don’t sweat it.” Dean circles the couch and flings himself into the opposite corner, taking the controller that Sam passes him. He takes a swig of his own beer and sets the bottle aside. “Okay, Sammy, let’s go. We playing campaign?”
They pick up where they left off last, Sam playing as Master Chief and Dean as the Arbiter because c’mon, the Arbiter is the shit. They’ve beaten Halo 3 about five times together and at least a couple more times separately but the game never seems to get old, even after Halo 4 came out.
“This music is very engaging,” Castiel pipes up out of nowhere and Dean jumps—he almost forgot the guy was there, sitting quietly at the other end of the couch. Dean chances a glance up and Cas is staring, riveted, at the TV, watching Sam and Dean waste Grunts and Hunters. He’s not even pretending to write, the computer sitting abandoned in his lap, his eyes focused and intense on the action on the split-screen.
Of course, while Dean is gawking at Castiel, totally not noticing how his long, slender fingers are splayed out over his muscular, denim-clad thighs, that’s when an Elite jumps out of nowhere and wastes Dean with a plasma sword.
“Fuck!” Dean curses, tossing his remote on the couch cushion beside him. “Sam, I’m dead.”
“What the hell, Dean!” Sam fires and spins and jumps for his poor Spartan life, but a second Elite jumps out, and the one that Dean was supposed to have taken care of before he was distracted slices Sam through the back while he’s trying to fend the other one off. Sam turns to glare at his brother, hitting pause on the remote and shoving to his feet.
“Where are you going?” Dean asks incredulously.
“To order a pizza online. I’m starving, and since you couldn’t stay alive, I might as well take advantage of the break.”
Dean mock-scowls. “Bitch.”
Sam rolls his eyes, retreating down the hallway to his bedroom where he’s stashed his own laptop and calling back, “Jerk,” over his shoulder.
Dean chuckles to himself around the mouth of his beer, stretching his arm over the back of the couch as he waits for his brother. He glances furtively at Castiel, but thankfully the writer is back to his computer, typing away again now that the game’s on pause and dutifully ignoring Dean, so Dean does the same.
While he waits, he pulls out his phone to text Krissy. Sams ordering pizza. Can u pick up on ur way? Pay u back he taps out, hitting send. His phone buzzes soon after and he glances at it and chuckles at her response.
Only if we get to have some.
Duh, he texts back, grinning, and tosses his phone onto the side table. He stretches, lacing his fingers together behind his head as he settles in to wait for Sam to get back, idly staring at the pause screen.
Dean looks up, turning his head in Castiel’s direction. “What?”
The man’s not looking at him, his gaze fixed perplexedly in front of him, where Chevy is standing, staring unblinkingly back at him. “Your dog is staring at me,” Cas says, his eyes not leaving Chevy’s.
Dean stifles a grin. “Yeah? And?”
Castiel finally pulls his eyes away from the dog in front of him, turning to glower at Dean. “What does she want?”
“You’re in her spot, man.” Dean raises his eyebrows and takes another swig from his beer.
“You’re not serious.”
Dean grins across the couch at him. “As a heart attack.”
Castiel rolls his eyes and shifts over on the couch, away from the arm and closer to Dean, sitting on the middle cushion instead of the end. Chevy immediately climbs up to fill the vacated spot, shooting Cas a look that can only be described as smug.
Sam finally comes back from using the computer and he and Dean resume their game. Castiel sits stiffly beside Dean at first, typing doggedly on his laptop, but it only takes a few minutes of cursing and exultant cries from both Sam and Dean and a few explosions crackling out of the speakers before he abandons his work entirely, setting the computer on the side table and leaning forward to stare at the TV intently.
Dean makes it his mission to keep his eyes on killing Covenant, determinedly not casting sidelong glances in Cas’ direction. But out of the corner of his eye, he still manages to see Cas relax into the cushions, slowly losing his rigid posture, and eventually, his hand drifts over to absently scratch Chevy’s head between her ears.
They spend all of Saturday evening playing video games, interrupted only by the arrival of the Krissy, Josephine and Aiden with their pizza and—after the teens finish the chores—a couple of lively rounds on Slayer mode in which Krissy kicks all their asses. Castiel manages to stay up the entire evening, not running and hiding like he had the first several days of his visit, watching the gameplay intently, interrupting occasionally to ask about the plot or the various species of alien and types of weapons they’re using. Dean manages to keep himself from snapping at the guy, and somehow they manage to pass the evening with a stiff kind of truce in the wake of their earlier argument.
Dean wakes slowly Sunday morning, bright white light filtering in through the curtains of his bedroom. He shifts underneath the covers, blinking against the light and stretching his arms over his head. At his feet, Chevy lifts her head, shuffling up the bed and nosing under his hand.
Dean chuckles. “‘Mornin’, girl,” he says, voice scratchy with sleep as he rubs her ears obligingly.
He lazes around in bed for a while, one hand scratching Chevy’s furry neck and the other stretched over his head, fist curled against the headboard. He so rarely gets the opportunity to relax, rarely lets himself indulge, and it feels good to just lie here, not reading a book, not making lists, just hanging out with his dog, shifting his bare feet against the warm spot at the foot of the bed where Chevy had been sleeping.
Eventually he drags his ass out of bed, pushing aside the curtain to peer outside. Sure enough, the ground and the kennels are blanketed with fresh snow, the whole yard swallowed up by white. The dogs are all tucked up warm in their houses, the snow around them undisturbed. A slow grin curls Dean’s lips as he dresses; this is the kind of day that would keep most people inside, but for a musher, the new snow just means playtime.
The floor is cold under his feet so he tugs on thick wool socks and pads into the kitchen, stopping at the back door to let Chevy out to do her business and back in again. Sam is already up, sitting at the table with his laptop open in front of him, notes strewn around it. Castiel is nowhere to be seen.
“‘Mornin’ Sammy,” Dean says around a yawn, rubbing sleep out of his eyes and slumping down into the empty seat across from his brother. “God you’re a nerd. Why the fuck are you doing homework at nine in the morning?” He drops a hand to pet Chevy when she flops down heavily under the table at his feet.
Sam rolls his eyes. “Because I want to take a team out this afternoon and there’s chores to be done, and I need to finish this assignment if I want to do that.” A slight flush colors his cheeks as he flicks a glance at his brother before studiously peering down at his notes. “And I’m taking Jess out tonight.”
“Ooh, Sammy’s got a hot date!” Dean grins broadly at his brother’s answering glare. “You didn’t need to make excuses about running dogs, Little Brother. ‘I have a chance to get some tonight’ would have been enough to convince me.” He claps his brother on the shoulder.
“I’m not trying to ‘get some’ Dean. I’m taking her out for dinner.” Sam flicks a quick glance at the kitchen window, the pane draped in white. “Do you mind grooming the trails after chores? I’d do it but I really need to get this done.”
“Yeah all right. Better get started, then, so I can get the grooming done in time for your run.” He pauses. “Cas still sleeping?”
Sam nods, shuffling his papers into a neater stack and shoving them underneath his computer for safe-keeping. “He hasn’t adjusted to your schedule yet. From what he told me, he’s used to getting up whenever he wants.”
Dean snorts. “Must be nice.”
“Dean,” Sam says warningly and Dean rolls his eyes.
“Yeah, yeah, be nice to the mean old reporter. I remember.”
“Hey, you could take him with you when you go to groom the trails this morning,” Sam suggests, sounding way too damn excited about the idea. “I’m sure he’d appreciate that.”
Dean groans. “Sammy…”
“Dean, c’mon.” Sam stares at him, pleading, and damn it, there’s the puppy face again.
“Ugh, fine, I’ll take him,” Dean snaps. “But I’m not promising I won’t leave him in the woods somewhere if he pisses me off.”
Sam grins like he knows he’s won, which, damn it, he pretty much has. “That’s all I’m asking.”
Dean makes toast for them both and skims through a couple chapters of Fahrenheit 451 for what must be the fiftieth time while he eats and Sam studies. As he rinses off the dishes, he thinks about waking Cas up and making the lazy ass help with chores, but doesn’t think that would go very well with his promise to Sam to try to take it easy on the guy.
But they’ve only just gotten started, halfway through feeding the pack when Castiel stumbles out the back door into the dog yard, blinking sleepily with a grey wool beanie pulled down over his hair. He waves sleepily when Sam calls a greeting at him, and to Dean’s surprise, heads straight for the scoops and starts cleaning up the kennels and collecting emptied food bowls without having to be asked.
By the time Dean and Sam are done feeding all the dogs, Cas has already made his way through half the dog yard, and it takes no time at all for the three of them to get the chores finished. Sam—the nerd—disappears into the house to get back to his mountains of homework, and Dean makes his way over to where Castiel is finishing up with the last few dogs.
“Hey, so,” Dean says awkwardly and Castiel looks up from scratching Aero’s chest, “I’m gonna take the snowmobile out and groom the trails so Sam can run later. You wanna come?”
Castiel blinks, blue eyes wide. “Come with you?”
Dean shrugs, reaching out to pet Aero’s back. “Yeah, if you want. I can show you the trails so you can see where we train and stuff.” Dean looks up and Castiel is just staring, his brow furrowed in a mild sort of confusion like Dean is a puzzle he can’t figure out. Dean feels himself tense under the scrutiny. “Or not, whatever,” he says gruffly, defensive.
“No,” Cas says quickly. “Dean, I would like to go.”
Dean nods jerkily. “Well all right, then. If you’re finished up here, go change; you don’t wanna be wearing sweaty clothes on a snowmobile or you’ll freeze your balls off. Meet me at the shed when you’re done.” He points to the workshop-slash-shed where they keep the snowmobiles and dogsleds and gear, off to one side of the dog yard.
Ten minutes later, Castiel pads back out of the house to the shop where Dean already has the groomer hooked up and the snowmobile running, the crunch of Cas’ boots in the new snow alerting Dean to his presence. He wordlessly passes Castiel a helmet, who takes it with a look of trepidation.
Dean claps his hands together. “First time, right?” At Castiel’s nod, he continues. “So, rules. Basically all you need to know is hang the fuck on, and move with me, not against me. If you lean the other way when I’m trying to make a turn we’re either not gonna make it and we’ll crash into a tree or we’ll tip over, and that’s not fun for anyone.”
Cas nods again, stiffly. “Exactly how fast does this machine go?”
Dean grins. “Well it can’t exactly make the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, but it’s no slouch.”
Castiel’s brow furrows as he stares back at Dean. “I don’t understand that reference.”
“Seriously? The Millennium Falcon? Star Wars?” Dean throws up his gloved hands at the blank look he receives in return. “Dude, if you’re gonna be here for two months we seriously need to work on your pop-culture education.”
Castiel rolls his eyes, pulling off his hat and replacing it with the helmet. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle for your first time.” Dean winks salaciously and slings his leg over the sled, sliding forward on the seat to make room for his passenger. “Well, c’mon Cas, hop on.”
Cas stares at the snowmobile for a moment, brow furrowed as if he’s trying to figure out the best way to get on, and then lifts one long leg over the seat, leaving a spare two inches between himself and Dean’s ass, for which Dean is grateful.
“You have to hold onto me, Cas. Don’t want you sliding off the end. I promise I won’t get any ideas.”
Dean can almost feel Cas’ eyeroll this time as he places his hands on Dean’s waist, gripping Dean’s coat in his gloved hands. He holds himself stiffly, clearly uncomfortable with the proximity. Dean grins in spite of himself and revs the engine. “Ready?” he asks over his shoulder, and Castiel nods jerkily. Dean shuts the face shield on his helmet and guns it, tearing out of the yard and onto the path, chuckling to himself when he feels Castiel’s fists tighten at his sides, his thighs tensing around Dean’s.
He slows down when he gets into the trees, turning to look over his shoulder to get Cas’ attention, one eye on the trail. “So this is where we run about eighty percent of the time in the winter. Some of this is our own land, but it goes onto the neighbor' land as well, and we just maintain it. We got a couple friends who come out to use it sometimes, and some of the neighbors have snowmobiles they like to take out, and we all share. Saves us some grooming.”
“Is that what the contraption you’re pulling behind us is used for?” Castiel says back, leaning forward and speaking loudly to be heard over the engine and through his helmet.
Dean grins. “Yep. Drags behind and scrapes the snow away to make a nice flat, wide trail.”
“Where did you get it?”
“Made it,” Dean calls back, leaning into a left curve in the trail. To his credit, Castiel doesn’t have to be told twice; he leans right along with Dean, his body pressing tighter as they make the turn.
They fall silent for most of the route, Dean stopping occasionally to point out various landmarks. He shows Cas the spot where Sam’s gangline broke the first year they ran the trails, how he only got his team back because they caught up to Dean, who was ahead on the trail, and stopped to play with their kennel mates. He points out the place they ran into a moose one year, which thankfully decided to take off down the trail rather than picking a fight, resulting in the fastest four miles that Dean has ever experienced when his dogs decided to give chase.
Castiel gradually gets used to the unfamiliar speed and motion of the machine beneath them, and each time Dean stops the sled, Cas seems to slide forward unconsciously, pressing closer behind Dean, his hands moving further around Dean’s waist as he relaxes. He doesn’t seem to know he’s doing it, but soon his body is pressed up against Dean’s, his arms wrapped almost all the way around Dean’s middle. Dean becomes hyper aware of their position, his ass pressed into the warmth between Cas’ thighs and up against the V of his legs, Cas’ body nearly draped over Dean’s back. His passenger doesn’t seem to realize what a compromising position he’s put them in so Dean doesn’t mention it, choosing instead to chatter on about the trail and the different routes you can take if you want a shorter run or a longer one, pointedly not thinking about the hot guy’s crotch pressed up against his ass.
They pull back into the yard and Sam’s already got his dogs lined up and ready to go, all his lines laid out in front of the sled. The dogs are hooked to the drop chain against the fence, already harnessed up and raring to go, screaming their excitement.
Cas slides off the snowmobile first, arching his back and stretching like a cat to work out the kinks, and Dean dismounts to go help Sam hook up his dogs. Cas stands off to the side, watching as they run back and forth from the drop-chain to the gangline, hooking up the leaders first who hold the line tight while they get the rest of Sam’s eight dog team set up.
“You good, Sam?” Dean yells back at him from the front of the line, and Sam nods, reaching down to pull up his snowhook. Dean moves quickly out of the way to stand by Cas, and Sam shouts “hike!” The dogs quit their excited screaming and just take off, the sled slipping by Dean and Cas in a whoosh of runners across snow, gone almost before they have a chance to blink.
Cas’ eyes are wide, staring down the trail as he watches the sled disappear into the trees. He turns to look at Dean, who can feel himself grinning back at Cas.
“That was…” Castiel trails off, as if unsure of how to continue.
Dean laughs, then says, without thinking, “Yeah, I know. Just wait until you get on the runners yourself.”
He remembers belatedly that he’s supposed to hate this guy, but when Cas’ lips turn up in a barely-concealed grin, his eyes wide and the expression on his face turning rapidly from shock to anticipation, he can’t exactly figure out why.
“So, Sam’s got a hot date tonight and we got a whole evening to kill,” Dean says, taking Cas’ helmet from him. “I’m thinkin’ we marathon Star Wars. It’s three movies so it should cover the whole night.” It’s a final peace offering of sorts, an end cap to a whole day of Dean making up for being a dick like he promised his brother, though Castiel doesn’t need to know that.
Cas’ brow furrows. “I thought there were six movies.”
“Oh, man.” Dean shakes his head sadly, clapping Castiel on the shoulder in a companionable gesture that surprises both of them. “Cas, you have so much to learn.”
You should probably google Dallas Seavey. Just saying. :)
By the second week of Castiel’s stay with the Winchesters, he's finally managed to adjust to their schedule. He still wakes up to Dean’s music blaring—sometimes AC/DC, sometimes Metallica, sometimes some other obscure classic rock band or mix that Castiel can’t yet identify—and crawls out of bed for a shower, then drags his laptop with him to the kitchen. There he fixes himself a cup of coffee and breakfast, usually toast or leftovers of whatever Sam or Dean had made. He works while Dean exercises and has his own shower, and then it’s time for chores and for Sam to go to work.
The chores become second nature too; a habit, rather than a hindrance. He helps Dean feed and then they scoop the yards, spending time with the dogs as they do so. Jimmy is still overzealous in his affections, his long tongue scraping against Castiel’s ever-thickening scruff he can't be bothered to shave, but Castiel learns how to fend him off by wrapping one arm around his neck in a sort of hug and scratching at the underside of his jaw with the other hand, something the big white dog particularly loves. There is a dog called Diesel who has a particular habit of spinning excitedly in place when Castiel gets near, which he finds endlessly amusing, and another named Paige who lies down and wags her tail with her ears flat on her head and the sweetest expression on her face as Castiel pets her.
He finds himself leaving Chevy’s area for Dean more often than not and catches himself watching the man interact with her. She doesn’t ever lick Sam or Castiel, but she always seems to spare a kiss for Dean, just one quick swipe of her tongue to his cheek, which he pretends to be disgusted by but secretly loves if the grin on his face is any indication.
It’s far more endearing than Castiel cares to admit.
And then there is Dean himself. He seems now to be making an effort to be civil since their argument, and though he still makes abrasive comments and crude jokes at every turn, he is far more welcoming than he was the first week. He had enjoyed the snowmobile ride that Dean had taken him on and Dean hadn’t seemed to mind either, and then they had watched Star Wars together (from Episode IV as promised by Dean, because as he explained, “Episodes I-III were a disaster Cas, we pretend they don’t exist.”)
More than once during their movie night, he had chanced a glance in Dean’s direction and found the man watching him, waiting expectantly for some reaction or other. And when Han Solo had swaggered on screen and declared his Millenium Falcon “the ship that made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs”, Castiel had looked up, beaming at Dean. Dean had grinned back, his full lips parting to show straight, white teeth, eyes crinkling at the corners, and Castiel had felt something jump in the vicinity of his stomach and forced his attention back to the TV.
So things are easier between them now, and they even manage to make conversation without Sam to bridge the gap. But every day after they’ve finished their chores and had lunch together, Dean disappears to work in his shop and take the dogs on conditioning runs, leaving Castiel alone. Castiel is forced to occupy himself—sometimes Skyping with Anna if she is available or working on his article or catching up on emails, sometimes taking his own turn on the treadmill—and he becomes increasingly irritated with being left to moulder by himself for hours every day.
Finally, on Tuesday of his second week with the Winchesters, Sam comes home and tells Castiel that Dr. Singer had cleared it for him to shadow Sam for the day and see what happens at the Veterinary Clinic. Castiel is glad to have something to do during the day after two weeks of entertaining himself every afternoon, but Dean gripes that he’s losing his slave, to which Sam rolls his eyes in the manner of a long-suffering brother and doesn’t deign to comment.
Wednesday morning, Castiel gets up and showers and makes himself presentable. He drags a razor over the contours of his jaw for the first time since his arrival and dresses in a light blue button-down shirt and black jeans. He even combs his hair, though he know it won’t last long.
Dean is running when he emerges from the bedroom, but he stops and stares when he sees Castiel, stepping off the whirring belt of the treadmill, hands braced on the bars to either side of the machine.
“Yes?” Castiel asks, raising his eyebrows expectantly.
Dean shakes his head. “No, nothing, man.” He shuts down the treadmill and hops down. “Uh. Have fun at the clinic or whatever, if I don’t see you before you leave,” he says, and disappears down the hallway.
Castiel stares quizzically after him until he hears the bathroom door shut and the shower start up, then shakes his head as Sam emerges from his own bedroom minutes later, straightening the long sleeves of his t-shirt under his scrubs and shooting Castiel a questioning glance. “Ready?”
“Yes,” Castiel says, shaking himself. “Let’s go.”
He follows Sam out to his big blue truck, Castiel’s own rental vehicle having been returned soon after his arrival. It’s a short drive to the clinic, a drive Castiel enjoys far more than his own trip to Winchester Kennels and he’s glad of the chaperone today. He takes the opportunity to admire the scenery as Sam drives them back into town, snapping pictures out the window with his camera as they go. Sam points out the little shop where Dean sells his furniture, the wooden sign above the window proclaiming the words “Tara’s Home Designs” in faded blue paint.
North Willow Veterinary Clinic turns out to be a small building sandwiched between a liquor store and a bakery in a little strip mall on the outskirts of Willow. Sam pulls into a parking stall behind the building and leads Castiel in through the back door. They shed their coats and hang them just inside the door, and Sam pushes open another door and ushers him into the back room of the clinic.
“So this is the kennel area,” he says, waving expansively at a bank of metal cages stacked up against a wall, metal exam tables lined up in front of them. At one of the tables stands a man in a white labcoat and a plaid shirt and jeans underneath, his hair thin and greying, but eyes sharp. “And this is Dr. Bobby Singer,” Sam says, clapping a hand to the man’s back.
“Pleased to meet you, Dr. Singer,” Castiel says, extending a hand because he knows that’s the social convention.
The doctor narrows his eyes and surveys Castiel closely before reaching out a hand to clasp his. His grip is firm, fingers strong and calloused against Castiel’s. “It’s Bobby, to you,” he says gruffly. “You’re that writer staying with the boys?”
Castiel nods. “Yes. I’m doing a feature article on the Iditarod and the preparations required before the race. My editor seemed to think our readers would want the full experience.”
Bobby nods once, appreciatively. “Good. Race needs all the positive coverage it can get.” He eyeballs Castiel closely, his brows coming together suspiciously. “You are spinning your article in a positive way, aren’t you?”
“I haven’t seen anything to suggest I should do otherwise,” Castiel replies carefully.
“Good. The race gets enough shit from animal activists who don’t know squat.” Bobby squints at him appraisingly.
“All right, all right, enough interrogation, Bobby,” Sam says, steering Castiel by the shoulders towards the door opposite the one they had come through. “So these are the exam rooms,” he says, pointing first to Castiel’s left, indicating a line of three doors, one of which is closed, and then to his right, “and this is the reception. Hey, Garth, how’s it going?”
He shakes hands with Garth, a skinny vet technician who is friendly but a bit over-exuberant. Sam and Garth discuss the appointments for the day, and then the closed exam-room door opens and a pretty blonde steps out, also in a white labcoat with her curly hair coiled into a bun at the nape of her neck, ushering an elderly woman with a grumpy, squint-eyed tabby cat in her arms. The new doctor is tall, her legs long under the powder-blue scrubs; even in the flat, comfortable shoes she’s wearing, she is of a height with Castiel.
“So just keep the incision clean and come back in a week so I can remove the stitches. Garth, will you set Mrs. Ferguson up with a follow up appointment for Fluffy’s stitches?” The woman turns, smiling brightly up at Sam. “Hey Sam. Who’s your friend?”
Sam grins. “Jess, this is Castiel Milton, the writer from that magazine I was telling you about. Cas, this is Dr. Jessica Moore.”
Castiel smiles and accepts the hand that Jessica offers him. So this is the famous Jess that Dean had been teasing Sam about since Castiel’s arrival, the same one he took on a date last weekend. “Pleased to meet you, Dr. Moore.”
“Please, call me Jess,” she says with a bright smile, dimples appearing in her cheeks. “You’re shadowing Sam today?”
Castiel nods. “Although I’m not completely sure what ‘shadowing’ actually entails.”
Jess laughs brightly, and Castiel doesn’t miss the fond smile that Sam shoots her direction at the sound. “Well Dorothy Baum is coming in in a couple hours with one of her dogs. She says he’s been limping around the yard so I’m going to take a look. You two should sit in on that one.”
Sam nods excitedly and Castiel agrees as well, and he finds himself observing several appointments and even a spay surgery which he finds fascinating. Dorothy Baum proves to be a sharp-eyed and equally sharp-witted woman prone to crooked smiles and arched brows. Castiel watches as Jess examines Dorothy’s dog, a mixed brown animal that looks like he would fit in with Dean and Sam’s kennel in both size and shape. He’s a five time Iditarod finisher, Dorothy tells Castiel proudly, and after a few moments of examination, Jess pronounces the injury just a strain and prescribes rest for at least a few weeks until he is completely healed.
In between appointments, Sam talks about proper dog care and nutrition, and the procedures for examination prior to racing. Bobby is one of the official vets for the race, and every year he volunteers his time to check over teams of dogs to make sure they are fit to run the thousand mile race. Castiel is surprised to learn that he’s a retired musher, and that several of the Winchester’s dogs came from his own kennel.
“Where d’you think the boys learned it all?” Bobby asks gruffly as he peers up at a newly taken x-ray, letting the overhead light shine through. “Taught them everything they know.”
“Why did you stop?” Castiel asks curiously.
Bobby rolls his eyes, returning the x-ray to the envelope in his hand. “Because I’m not suicidal,” he says acerbically. “Know better than to try to keep up with these idjits at my age with my bad back. You’ll see when they get you on the back of a sled how physical it is, even just doing a few miles, let alone a thousand in one go.” The crusty veterinarian shoos him out of the way as he heads back to the exam room to talk to the owner of a beagle with what appears to be mild bruising of his tail and nothing more.
Sam interrupts his shadowing to take him to lunch, promising to bring back takeout for all the staff. Harvelle’s Roadhouse is a short drive from the clinic, and proves to be a dingy looking, run-down building with a mostly empty parking lot. The deck out front looks like it needs some work, and the sign above the eaves flickers in a half-hearted attempt to remain lit.
Castiel follows Sam inside with trepidation, his eyes flickering around the dimly-lit interior, and jumps when Sam is accosted by what appears to be a small blonde blur. Sam laughs and scoops his assailant into a hug, then sets her down to point at Castiel.
“Jo, Cas, Cas, Jo.” The petite blond smiles brightly up at him. “Cas, Jo’s mom owns this place, and they’re both mushers too.”
“Hey Cas,” Jo says. “Nice to meetcha. You want your usual drink, Sam?” He nods and she turns to Castiel. “And what’ll you have?”
Castiel blinks. “Oh. Whatever Sam is having will be fine.”
“Deal,” she says. “You know the drill, Sam. Sit your ass down. I’ll tell Mom you’re here.”
Castiel follows Sam to a booth along one of the walls, lit by a dingy window and a dim, low hanging light. The atmosphere in the bar is relaxed and homey, the music filtering out of the jukebox in the corner reminiscent of Dean’s taste which he is quickly becoming acquainted with. Soon, Jo returns with a pair of beers and takes their orders. Sam orders a salad, and suggests that Castiel get the bacon cheeseburger, because Dean supposedly swears by it. His suggestion proves to be a good one, and Castiel has to stifle a moan around his first mouthful when Jo brings it out.
He meets Ellen who comes to say hi when Castiel is halfway through his burger. She’s friendly and motherly when Sam introduces her, warm and welcoming, but Castiel sees her personally boot two drunk and disorderlies out of her bar before their meal is up without even breaking a sweat. He hopes he never gets on this woman’s bad side.
“You boys coming in this weekend?” Ellen asks, her hands spread on the table in front of her. “We missed you ‘round here.”
Sam nods. “Yeah I think Dean said he was going to try to pick up a couple hours, but I was hoping to convince him to hang up the apron for his birthday. Are you okay with a bar trip this Friday, Cas?”
Castiel blinks, looking up sharply at Sam. “Dean works here? Wait—his birthday?”
“Yeah, January 24th. Dean hates his birthday; he’d probably try to work it if he could to avoid celebrating.”
“He only works here on weekends—busy nights,” Ellen picks up where Sam left off. “He’s not officially on the schedule but he helps me out, picks up some shifts when we need more people.”
“When does he sleep?” Castiel asks, astonished, and Ellen and Sam laugh. Castiel’s brow furrows in confusion. “I’m sorry, did I say something funny?”
Ellen shakes her head. “Not really, you just hit the nail on the head. I’ve been asking myself that same question since John died. Kid runs himself into the ground.” She shrugs. “But I’m grateful for the help, and he won’t let me kick him out. God knows I’ve tried.” Ellen glances over her shoulder back towards the kitchen when a loud yelp and the sounds of banging pans filters out through the swinging doors. “I better make sure Ash isn’t burning down my kitchen. You boys okay here?” They nod and Ellen smiles at them both. “Take care, Sam, good to meet you, Cas. Better see you boys this weekend!”
Ellen heads back over to the bar and Sam leans towards Castiel over the heavy wooden table. “Ellen was the one who found us our place,” he explains. “She moved up here after her husband died in a hunting accident, but before that our families were really close. Her husband Bill served in Vietnam with Dad, and they stayed good friends afterwards. We practically grew up with Jo.”
“So she was racing before you came up?”
Sam nods. “Actually, it was hearing her stories and seeing her pictures that got me interested in it, when I was a kid. And then when Jo started running her own team, I had to keep up.” He laughs. “So I begged Dean until he finally caved and got me a sled.”
Castiel snags a fry from the small pile still remaining and pushes the plate towards the center of the table in offering “How old were you?”
“Eleven.” Sam accepts the offered fries, popping one into his mouth. “Dad worked long hours with the Kansas PD so it was just me and Dean a lot of the time. I used to hook up my golden retriever and let him pull me around.” Sam laughs, his eyes far away as he remembers. “I got addicted after that, and pretty soon Bones was too old and arthritic to do it, and that’s when we got our first real sled dogs—a couple of older dogs of Bobby’s, through Ellen.”
“And when did you decide to move?”
“After Dad died,” Sam replies shortly. “Dad didn’t want us to do the musher thing. He wanted us to follow in his footsteps and join the Force. But when he passed, there was nothing holding us back anymore, so Dean called up Ellen and she found us a place that was for sale.”
Sam looks up from the fry he’s absently dipping in the ketchup at the edge of the plate, and Castiel follows his gaze to Ellen where she’s working behind the bar. “She got me a job with Bobby, cleaning kennels and stuff, and eventually helping out the techs. Gave Dean a job too, bartending five nights a week and any extras he could spare, until he started with the carpentry and she kicked him off the schedule so he could do that instead.” Sam looks back at Castiel, meeting his eyes with sincerity. “I owe everything to Dean. He was a better parent than my dad ever was, and it’s because of him that we’re where we are now.”
Castiel blinks, surprised, and Sam registers his disbelief with a wry smile. “I know what you’re thinking, but Dean isn’t as much of an asshole as he seems. He didn’t even really care about the race or think much of moving to Alaska, but he did it all anyway, because he knew I wanted to. And he worked his ass off so we could afford this place and all our equipment and our dogs.” Sam pauses to take a sip of his beer, then waves a dismissive hand. “Of course, now he’s friggin’ amazing at it. Dean’s the brains behind our breeding program.”
“Really?” Castiel asks in surprise. The song on the jukebox switches over and he recognizes Creedence Clearwater Revival. “He makes it sound like you’re the one who instruments everything.”
Sam huffs a laugh. “I know. And I’m pretty good with race strategy and stuff. But it’s not me who wound up picking the best dogs and puppies when we were buying from other mushers to start our kennel off. He has knack for it, you know? He gets it, just like he gets cars. They’re like a puzzle to him; he can see how they're supposed to fit together, knows what dogs would make a good match when we breed them. He’s kept puppies I wanted to sell and they wound up being the best ones in our yard. Chevy was one of those.”
“He loves her very much,” Castiel comments neutrally, raising his own beer to his lips.
“I know, man, she’s so spoiled. Did you know he lets her sleep in his bed almost every night?” Sam chuckles as he takes another fry. “But she deserves it; she’s the best sled dog we own and the best lead dog too. I thought she was too small and gangly when we first bought her. I wanted her sister Honda, but Dean insisted we get them both, and Chevy grew into her angles just like he said she would.”
That all sounds like gibberish to Castiel, and the look on his face must say so, because Sam laughs and reaches to clap a big hand to his shoulder. “Ask him to show you, next time you’re out doing chores with him. He's the best person to explain dog-mechanics to you.” He looks up over Castiel’s shoulder, who turns to find Jo approaching the booth.
“Another beer, Cas?” she asks, and Castiel darts a glance at Sam, who nods—sure we can stay longer—and Castiel answers in the affirmative.
The next day, while Sam is away at work and with his words in mind, Castiel asks Dean about his dogs. Dean looks up from checking Razor’s toenails, his eyes wide and mouth slack, his hand still holding the clippers poised in mid-air. “Why don’t you ask Sam?” he says stiffly.
Castiel shakes his head. “Sam said yesterday that you know more about dog structure and would be better able to show me.”
“I dunno, man.” Dean straightens up, scratching the back of his neck with one gloved hand. His mouth twists as he considers. “I got some books you could read, if you wanna know.”
“Dean,” Castiel presses, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. “This is important information for my article. Until yesterday I didn’t know there was any difference between one dog and another and I’m sure our readers won’t either. I’m interested to know, and Sam seems to think you’re the best person to ask.”
Dean looks away, his cheeks coloring slightly under his freckles at the praise, and then back at Castiel. “Fine,” he says shortly, and waves a beckoning hand. “I’ll show you on Chevy.”
Castiel scratches once more between Razor’s floppy ears and follows, his boots crunching in the hardened crust of snow between the doghouses. They hadn’t had new snow since the weekend when they’d had to groom the trails for Sam.
Dean pulls off his gloves, setting them on Chevy’s doghouse where she’s standing, toes curled over the edge as if she would get closer to him if there were more house available for her to do so, and tail wagging frantically from side to side. He grins when she noses his stubbled cheek, a private smile unlike any of his others—not for show, not full of bravado to hide behind, but genuine happiness. He kisses the top of her head and moves to her side, standing between the doghouse and Castiel.
“Come closer, man, you can’t see anything from over there,” he says gruffly, and Castiel shuffles forward to comply.
“So, uh.” Dean doesn’t seem to know where to start, his right hand resting on Chevy’s back while the left one holds her still by the collar. She seems content to stand, her tail wagging slightly at her best friend’s touch. “When you pick a sled dog, there’s a lot of things you gotta look at. Temperament is important, work ethic, yadda yadda. Just ‘cause you got a well-built dog doesn’t mean he’s gonna want to run, you know?”
He reaches and picks up her left front foot, turning it pad up, which she doesn’t protest beyond a quick turn of her head as if to see what he’s doing with it. “Good feet are really important, since they’re going to be going hundreds of miles a day. See here?” He runs his index finger over the hair between the toe-pads. “You want some hair on the feet to keep them warm in the snow, but at the same time, you wanna keep it short so that ice balls don’t build up in it while you’re on the trail. You can seriously injure a dog that way. And you want thick, tough pads too.” He flips her foot back over and sets it down on the dog house. “Toes should be well arched, that’s for cushioning and support, like shocks on a car, or the air pockets in fancy-ass running shoes. And you don’t want them too small, either; the foot should be a decent size so that it can act like a snowshoe, but you also don’t want it so big you lose efficiency. With me so far?”
“Yes.” All this in just a foot? “It seems like there is a great deal to consider,” Castiel says carefully.
Dean nods. “Yeah, it’s kind of a fine line. I love Chevy’s feet; she’s got great feet.” Castiel doesn’t think that’s supposed to be funny, so he presses his lips together to stifle his laugh.
Dean moves, on, his bare hand scratching the fur over her shoulder blade. “Feet are just one piece, though. You also gotta think about front and rear angulation—the angles of the bones in the front and back legs,” he clarifies when he sees Castiel’s blank look. “Here,” he says, and reaches out and grabs Castiel’s hand, strong, calloused fingers circling his wrist to pull him forward. Dean sets Castiel’s hand on Chevy’s back, a few inches back from the base of her neck, where he can feel the arch of her shoulder blade through the thick, short fur.
“Feel that?” Dean asks, and Castiel nods in the affirmative. “Okay, so obviously those are her shoulders. and here—” he moves Castiel’s hand down the line of her shoulder to the point near her chest—“we call that the point of the shoulder.” He pulls again and Castiel’s fingers slide through fur again where the dog’s leg attaches to the configuration. “And that’s her elbow, same as a person’s. And together those three points make the front assembly.”
He releases Castiel’s hand, and Castiel feels the warmth his fingers left behind, his wrist burning with the ghost of Dean’s touch. Dean shows him the triangle of the three points by laying his own hand overtop in a V. “So remember what I said about the toes being like shock absorbers? Same goes for front and rear angulation. This—” he runs his index finger over the V so Castiel can see clearly— “is the angle of the front assembly, and it should be slightly more than 90 degrees. Too much wider and you have no shock absorption; its just like jumping from a height and landing with straight legs. And too tight an angle and you lose speed.”
“More balancing acts,” Castiel comments, and Dean nods.
“The same goes for the back legs, and you want the angles as close to matching as possible. Plus then there’s the tail set which is actually the angle of the pelvis, if you wanna get technical, and that affects the amount of drive the dog has in its rear legs. Ribs you want well sprung but not too wide, warm coats but not too thick or long, or they’ll overheat.”
By the end of Dean’s list, Castiel is staring wide-eyed at Dean. “That’s quite a long list.”
Dean chuckles. “Yeah, there’s a lot. And no dog is perfect, though my Baby here comes pretty close.” He bends to kiss her head and ruffle her ears, and then straightens, turning to meet Castiel’s eyes.
Castiel is suddenly very aware of how close they’re standing, Dean’s face mere inches from his. His eyes dart down before he can stop them, taking in Dean’s full, pink lips, chapped from the cold, and he thinks he sees Dean swallow nervously. He can still feel where Dean’s fingers had curled around the bare skin of his wrist below the cuff of his jacket, and he feels a pull between his body and Dean’s, a satellite drawn into orbit.
But then Dean is clearing his throat and stepping back and away. “So how about some lunch?” he asks gruffly, and Castiel nods and follows Dean back to the house.
Lunch is quiet, a new, different kind of tension between them that Castiel thinks hadn’t been there before. He doesn’t know how to break it so he eats in silence, sipping at the chicken noodle soup Dean had made out of a can. Afterwards, Castiel takes their plates to the sink to wash them and Dean thanks him gruffly and disappears as usual, leaving Castiel alone in the house.
They had brought Chevy into the house when they came in and she’s made herself comfortable in her spot on the couch. Castiel sits down beside her with his laptop in his lap, scratching automatically between her ears as it boots up. He answers a few emails, updating Zachariah on his progress and typing up his notes from his impromptu lesson in all things dog this morning so he won’t forget what he’s learned. He’s more than a little awed at the knowledge and passion that had poured from Dean’s mouth, surprising him in spite of Sam’s assertion that Dean is somewhat of a prodigy when it comes to understanding sled dogs.
His work done, he glances at the clock. If tradition holds, Dean will be out for at least a couple more hours. He opens Skype and smiles when he sees the green symbol beside Anna’s name.
She answers immediately this time, a coffee cup clenched in her fist and papers spread out around her on her desk. “Hi Cas!” she says brightly.
“Anna,” he says, smiling back at her. “How are your preparations for the gallery opening going?”
“Stressful, but they’re coming together. Ruby’s out right now interviewing another waiter.”
Castiel’s brow furrows. “Another one? I thought she’d already gotten four of them.”
Anna rolls her eyes affectionately. “Yeah, but she thinks we need another.” She throws her hands up in mock surrender. “I left it up to her. She knows what she’s doing. My job’s just to supply the art.” She tucks her hair behind her ears and crosses her arms on the table in front of her. “So how’s Alaska treating you? Dean still giving you a hard time?”
What an excellent question. “No, he seems to have come around.” Castiel says carefully.
Anna eyes him shrewdly, her big eyes narrowing almost to slits. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“He’s talking to me now. Today he showed me some things about his dogs, useful things for my article. And on the weekend he took me for a ride on the snowmobile and showed me the trails, and afterwards, we watched Star Wars.”
“Castiel,” Anna says slowly, her voice carefully blank. “You’re smiling.”
He realizes with surprise that she’s right: his lips are curved up slightly at the edges. He forces his face into a more neutral expression. “I was not,” he denies.
“You were,” she insists, and a slow grin spreads across her own face, her eyes brightening with excitement and mischief. “You like him.”
Castiel’s brow furrows. “What? No I don’t.”
Anna rolls her eyes. “Whatever, Cas, you keep telling yourself that. You always were a stubborn ass. But c’mon, the guy is gorgeous. And how long has it been since Inias?”
He groans, dragging a hand down his face tiredly. “I regret telling you anything about any of my romantic exploits,” he grumbles, and she laughs good-naturedly.
Castiel sighs and changes the subject. “How are your classes going? Are you still having trouble with that student… what was his name?”
It works because Anna allows it; he’s not naive enough to think that she doesn’t know exactly what he’s trying to do. She complains about the boy—Jesse Turner, she reminds him—who seems to be challenging all the interpretations she’s been putting forth on all the pieces they’re studying. He knows her well enough to see that she actually enjoys him challenging her in class, questioning what she’s teaching and drawing his own conclusions.
The back door opens and Chevy perks up, sliding down from the couch to go greet Dean as he stomps the snow off his boots. Anna’s in mid-rant about the new head of her department—a woman named Naomi she’s already butted heads with a few times but still somehow manages to respect immensely—when Dean comes around the corner.
“Who’re you talking to?” he asks and Anna pauses mid-sentence when she hears Dean’s voice.
“My sister,” Castiel says. “Dean this is Anna.”
Dean leans over the back of the couch and Castiel’s shoulder until he appears beside Cas in the frame at the bottom corner of the screen. His eyes are bright, his lips chapped and cheeks pink from the wind. “Hi Anna, nice to meet you.”
“Hi” she says with a slow grin that Castiel thinks spells trouble for him. “It’s a pleasure to meet the infamous Dean.”
Dean laughs, and Castiel doesn’t miss the way his eyes crinkle at the corners as he darts a smile at Castiel. “Cas been telling you about me, huh? Don’t believe a word he says. It’s all lies.”
Anna laughs, flicking a quick glance towards Castiel. “Well, Ruby will be home soon, so I should probably go. You caught me in the middle of grading papers, Cas.”
He nods. “I’ll let you get back to work.”
“Call me next week,” she says. “Bye Dean. It was nice to meet you. Bye Cas. Love you.”
“I love you too,” he says, and ends the call.
“So, sister, huh?” Dean straightens and Castiel turns to look up at him. “Older or younger?”
“Two years older,” Castiel confirms. “She’s an artist and a professor at UCLA.” He looks down as Chevy climbs back up on the couch and curls against his leg and reaches out to pet her automatically. Dean’s eyes follow the movement and Castiel thinks he sees a fondness in his eyes before his guard slams down again.
Dean pulls his sweater over his head and his t-shirt comes with it, exposing a thin strip of stomach and hip above his low-slung jeans before he tugs it back down, patting down the damp, disheveled strands of his short hair. He’s still so close, his hips only inches away from the back of the couch and Castiel’s fingers twitch abortively with the need to do something, he’s not sure exactly what. But then—thankfully—Dean is moving away, opening the pantry to rummage inside and Castiel can breathe again, clenching his hands into fists until the feeling is gone.
Friday morning, Castiel stumbles out of his bedroom to find Dean parked at the kitchen table in a pair of plaid pajama pants and a threadbare black t-shirt, a disgruntled pout on his face and arms crossed over his chest while his brother bustles around the kitchen. Dean’s hair is still mussed from sleep but Sam is already dressed and ready for work, adding golden-brown pancakes to the stack on the counter beside the stove. A pair of frying pans sizzle side by side on the burners, filling the kitchen with the aroma of savory bacon and cinnamon. It’s such a departure from their normal routine that Castiel blinks confusedly for a moment from the mouth of the hallway before shaking his head and making his way over to the counter.
“’Morning, Cas,” Sam says cheerfully.
“Good morning, Sam,” Castiel says, pouring himself a cup of coffee and bringing the pot with him to the table to refill Dean’s. “Happy birthday, Dean.”
Dean’s scowl deepens. “No way, Cas, not you too.”
“I don’t think it being your birthday is contingent on me in any way,” Castiel replies mildly, sliding into the seat beside Dean’s and bending to pat Chevy’s head where she rests at her human’s feet.
“Shut up,” Dean grumbles, but his lip twitches as he brings his coffee mug to his lips. “Bad enough I’m not allowed to cook in my own damn kitchen without you sassin’ me.” Castiel grins and forks a pancake from the plate Sam deposits in front of them.
Sam’s pancakes are delicious, the bacon cooked to perfection, and the three of them devour Dean’s birthday breakfast with gusto, Dean slipping bacon under the table to Chevy when he thinks no one’s looking. When they’re finished, Castiel clears up the dishes, shooing Dean away when he tries to help, and Sam heads off to the clinic, leaving Castiel and Dean to their usual weekday chores.
The day passes normally, though Dean takes the dogs on a longer dog sled run than usual and when he returns, a broad smile is plastered to his face, his hair sticking up every which way and dark with sweat. Sam’s truck pulls into the driveway only minutes after Dean reappears, bearing what looks like three different kinds of pie (“It’s Dean’s favorite”, he explains to a bewildered Castiel). After his shower, Dean makes steaks for them all and somehow manages to eat a huge slice of each of the three pies, much to Sam and Castiel’s begrudging amusement. The three of them head outside to do the evening chores, and then Sam ushers them all out to his truck and drives them to the Roadhouse to finish off the night.
The Roadhouse parking lot is significantly less empty than the first time Castiel had seen it, rows of trucks and cars lined up beneath the beam of the streetlamp overhead. Jo looks up as the door to the bar swings open, a bright smile splitting her face as she pauses in wiping down the polished bar. “Mom!” she calls loudly over her shoulder, “Birthday boy’s here!”
Sam and Castiel laugh while Dean glares, Ash and a couple of the patrons scattered around the bar cheering and calling out birthday wishes in Dean’s direction. Ellen sticks her head out the door to the kitchen as Dean heads straight for the bar.
“Dean Winchester, you set one foot behind that bar and I’ll beat your ass into next Tuesday. You’re not workin’ tonight. You’re celebratin’.” Ellen’s voice cuts through the buzz of the crowd and Dean stops dead in his tracks, shooting her a mutinous glare before diverting to sit at a bar stool instead. “That’s better,” Ellen finishes, nodding her satisfaction as she makes her way over, slinging an arm around his shoulder. “Drinks are on me tonight, kid.”
“That’s the best news I’ve had all day,” Dean grumbles. Ellen laughs good-naturedly before releasing him, nodding to her daughter, and Jo sets a trio of glasses on the bar in front of him and starts pouring whiskey.
“Where’s Jess, Sam?” she asks as Sam and Castiel take seats at the bar on either side of Dean.
“She got called in for an emergency surgery,” Sam says. “She’ll be here as soon as she can. Garth’s bringing her after they’re finished.”
“Oh great, more people to add to this shit show,” Dean grumbles, taking a long pull from the glass.
Castiel takes a sip of his own whiskey. It burns on the way down, leaving a pleasant heat behind in his chest, the smoky flavor heavy in his mouth. “Why do you hate your birthday so much?” he asks.
Dean tenses and flicks a quick glance at Castiel but it’s Sam that answers. “Dad didn’t give us much for birthday celebrations growing up. It’s just kind of a shitty reminder.”
“But not for you?”
Sam’s gaze lingers on his brother, who is determinedly staring into his whiskey, avoiding Castiel’s curious eyes. “Dean made sure I always got to have a birthday,” he says quietly, a sad smile quirking his lips.
Dean sits up, his lips twisting into a cocky grin. “Just didn’t wanna hear you whine, Sammy. Easier to get you a cake and presents and shit than listen to you cry.”
Sam huffs a laugh, grinning down at his glass. “Sure, Dean. Whatever you say.”
Dean nods succinctly as if he’s won and the three of them fall silent, letting the music blaring from the jukebox and the muffled roar of the bar patrons wash over them as they sip at their whiskey, eating peanuts from the bowl Jo sets in front of them. Castiel tilts his glass in his fingers, watching the amber liquid swirl around the inside of the glass to keep his eyes from trailing over to Dean where the man sits hunched at his side. He thinks he should be surprised that Dean had been the one to ensure his younger brother got to celebrate his birthday growing up, but he’s not. By Sam’s own admission, Dean was responsible for making sure Sam got to school on time and had enough food to eat, was the reason Sam’s dream—now Dean’s as well—became a reality. He wears an armor of gruffness, of feigned ignorance, but he’s intelligent too; he’d proven that yesterday when he’d taught Castiel about sled dog structure.
Castiel remembers, too, the touch of Dean’s calloused fingers on the bare skin on his wrist, how close they’d been standing, and something tightens low in his belly. He chances a glance up as Dean finishes the last of the whiskey in his glass, the last drops slipping down the side of the glass to his parted lips. The dim light of the bar casts shadows under his sharp cheekbones and the chiselled line of his jaw, and as Castiel watches, Dean licks away a stray droplet of whiskey, his pink tongue rolling over the plump flesh of his lower lip.
Castiel swallows hard and turns himself forcefully back to his drink.
“Hey Jo, can I get a refill here, since your Mom won’t let me behind the bar to do it myself?” Dean calls down the line. The blonde pops the top off the beer in her hand, passing it to a brunette woman on the other side of the bar before making her way over and filling Dean’s glass. “So, pool?” Dean asks, glances left and right at his companions. Castiel nods, glad for something to occupy his mind, and stands to follow the Winchesters over to the table that just became vacant and they start up a lively game. Jo manages to wrangle Ash into covering for her and teams up with Castiel. She proves to be an exceptional pool player, and together they manage to beat the Winchesters soundly, much to Dean’s chagrin.
“Rematch!” he bellows, pointing a finger across the table at them.
“You think you can take us? We already beat you once.” Jo grins toothily at him, slinging an arm up over Castiel’s shoulder.
Dean sets his drink down and starts racking up a second game. “Oh, it’s on, Harvelle.”
The Winchesters do manage to redeem themselves on the second game, though on the third Jess arrives and Castiel offers her his cue, and the two women proceed to beat the Winchesters once again while Castiel watches from a nearby table. By the time the game is over, Castiel has a pleasant buzz under his skin, alcohol warming him from the inside out. Dean throws his hands up and tosses the cue on the table in mock-frustration, a broad grin playing at his lips that pulls at a place somewhere in Castiel’s chest.
To his surprise, Dean snatches up his beer—all three of them having switched over somewhere between the second and third game—and makes his way over to Castiel, sliding into the seat next to him. “Hey Cas, you having a good time?”
Castiel raises his eyebrows, surprised that Dean had asked at all. “Yes. Are you?”
Dean rubs the back of his neck, a crooked grin ticking up one corner of his pretty mouth. “Yeah, I guess. Turned out to be not a bad night.”
A lazy smile curls Castiel’s lips as he turns towards Dean. “I’m glad,” he says, and means it, bringing his beer bottle to his lips and tipping it back, swiping the remnants off his lips with the pad of his thumb before sucking it clean. Dean’s eyes follow the movement, dark in the hazy light from the lamp above their heads, lingering a fraction of a second too long before he drags his gaze away.
“Honestly, it’s been a pretty awesome day, as birthdays go,” Dean says, picking absently at the label of his beer. “Trail was sweet today, too; me ‘n the dogs had a sweet run. Clear skies, a fast trail, great dogs—” He shakes his head, smiling. “Can’t ask for much more than that.”
“Next time you go,” Castiel asks, tilting his head to one side, “will you take me with you?”
Dean turns his head quickly to meet Castiel’s gaze, his eyebrows sliding up in his surprise. “You want to come sledding with me?”
“Yes.” He’s tired of being left alone at the house while Dean works and runs the trails, and he wants to see for himself what dogsledding is like, for his article and for the sake of his own curiosity. “It looked very exciting when we saw Sam take off last weekend. And I would be interested in seeing your work as well, if you’re comfortable showing me.”
Dean stares at him for a moment, appraising, and then his tongue darts out to lick nervously at his lips before he nods stiffly. “Yeah, okay. Monday you can come. Might be boring though, man.”
“I can bring my laptop and entertain myself while you work. We can work together.” Castiel’s lips quirk into an amused smile. “And if dogsledding is boring then I will need to revise my good opinion of you both.”
Dean looks up sharply, his gaze turning searching as his eyes flicker over Castiel’s face. “Good opinion?”
The words are careful in Dean’s mouth, neutral, but Castiel stiffens, his heart stuttering in his chest. He’s suddenly very aware of how close he and Dean are sitting, a bare inch between their shoulders, their faces less than a foot apart. He licks dry lips and thinks he sees Dean’s eyes drop to his mouth with the motion.
“Yes,” Castiel admits finally. “My good opinion.”
Dean swallows, his own lips parting as he drags in a breath. The air grows thick and tense between them, a sensation like a shiver tickling at the base of Castiel’s spine, warm from alcohol and the proximity between their bodies. Dean is so close, close enough to touch, and Castiel wonders suddenly, irrationally, if Dean’s mouth would taste like beer or whiskey.
“Hey guys, Jo’s pouring shots if you wanna—”
Sam cuts himself off, his voice breaking through their reverie, the rest of the world rushing back into awareness. Dean jerks away from Castiel, seizing the beer bottle from the table in front of him and bringing it to his lips in what appears to be an attempt at nonchalance. Castiel is suddenly aware of the sounds around them again, of something other than Dean, of what he had wanted to do only a moment earlier. He’s surprised and shocked and he wants, wants Dean, and he doesn’t know what to do with that revelation. Maybe it was the alcohol and maybe it wasn’t, but either way it leaves him off-balance and unsteady, his chest tight and his mouth dry.
Sam glances back and forth between them, his mouth turning down in a confused frown.
“What’s up, Sam?” Dean asks pointedly and Sam shakes his head as if to clear it.
“I said, Jo’s pouring shots for all of us. You should come back over to the bar.”
“Right,” Dean says, tipping back the last of his beer and setting the empty bottle back on the table. He stands, moving to follow his brother, and at the last moment hesitates, turns back to Castiel.
“You coming Cas?”
Castiel nods, swallowing the last of his beer and pushing his strange desire for this strange man out of his mind, and follows Dean and his brother back to the bar.
The Saturday after Dean’s birthday everyone is a little hungover—except for Sam, that is. The guy never gets drunk—something about clean eating habits or what-the-hell ever. Dean stopped listening somewhere about three minutes in. They’re slow to get started that morning, the chores taking them twice as long as usual, and halfway through the afternoon Cas winds up passing out on the couch with Chevy’s head in his lap, which definitely does not make Dean feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Dean finds himself stealing furtive glances in Cas’ direction for the rest of the weekend, clearing his throat and looking away hastily every time he risks a look and finds Cas staring quizzically back at him. Something weird had happened between them at the Roadhouse Friday night, a moment spurred on by alcohol or insanity or maybe just the fact that Cas looked really, really hot, during which Dean had been about half a second away from kissing the guy. If Sam hadn’t interrupted he probably would have gone for it, and Dean is equal parts relieved and pissed off that Sam had came over when he did. Relieved, because hooking up with Cas is probably the worst idea he’s had in a long time, and pissed off because in spite of that, he really, really wants to hook up with Cas.
And it’s not just that Cas is hot, but boy, is he ever. His hair constantly looks like he’s just been well and thoroughly fucked which puts all sorts of unwanted images in Dean’s head, and he’s got those big baby blues, right, sharp and bright when he’s staring at you, but all the rest of the time kind of sleepy and heavy like perpetual bedroom eyes. He doesn’t seem to give a single shit about how he looks, but somehow he always looks good anyway. He hadn’t shaved for a week after he arrived, not until he went to the clinic with Sam, and Dean can’t decide if he likes the peach fuzz thing better, or the clean shaven look that shows off the sharp angle of his jaw. His hands are fucking sinful, and his cheekbones could cut glass, and there was that one time that Cas had to reach for a mug on a higher shelf and his shirt had ridden up and Dean had gotten an eyeful of the cut of his hipbone and the trail of hair from his navel disappearing into the waistband of his jeans and—
But anyway. That’s besides the point.
It’s not even that he just wants to screw Castiel into the mattress either, as much as he tries not to admit it to himself. If all he wanted was to fuck Cas he could deal with it, but it’s more than that. Cas is smart, like Sammy-level smart, and he’s kind of funny, in both a sassy, sarcastic way and an unintentional, awkward way that’s more endearing than Dean would care to admit. He works his ass off even though he doesn’t have to, and when Dean talks he gives his entire focus, like what Dean has to say is really important and worth listening to. Plus Chevy likes him so yeah, Dean’s pretty much sold.
But there are a whole host of reasons that he can’t go there, the first being that he doesn’t even know if Cas likes guys. He’s kind of a giant question mark, and Dean still hasn’t figured out the right way to ask “So, do you have a preference for what kind of equipment your hookups have below the belt?” Yeah. Not happening. On top of that, the guy is kind of living with him, and how awkward would that be? What if it was awful? It’d be worse than the first week of Castiel’s stay when they weren’t talking to each other.
And then there’s the fact that Castiel doesn’t live here; he lives in California, and he’ll be going back home to his job and his fancy apartment in fast-paced, crowded Los Angeles in just over a month. It’s definitely not a good idea to start something when their time in the same state already has an expiration date.
Dean’s been trying to keep his distance, disappearing to his workshop and taking the dogs out on his own for hours at a time. At first, it had been because he resented Castiel for interfering in their lives and wanted to spend as little time with him as possible. Now it’s the opposite: it’s because he needs the space so that he can fend off his growing curiosity about the weird, nerdy-hot writer because getting too close to him is a hella bad idea.
Which doesn’t explain why, when Cas had asked to come with him to see his workshop, Dean had given in without a second thought, and why Monday finds them crunching through the fresh snow that had been falling all morning out to the heated garage that serves as both his workshop and their tack shed. Castiel follows at Dean’s side, his laptop wedged under his arm, and Dean feels his presence like a physical touch at his back.
Dean kicks his boots off against the outside wall of the garage before he steps inside. He flicks on the lights and turns the dial on the thermostat as Castiel kicks his own boots free of snow and follows him inside, the furnace kicking to life with a groan. Dean tugs his thick fleece sweater over his head and stuffs his gloves into the sleeve, hanging it on the hook inside the door and chafing his hands together to warm them as he waits for Cas to do the same.
His work area is a bit of a mess, an unfinished coffee table with only three legs attached sitting propped on its side on his workbench, the unplugged power sander balanced on its side nearby. Castiel takes everything in with his usual scrutiny, his eyes skating over the snowmobile and Dean and Sam’s sleds parked at the far end of the garage in a neat row, the harnesses and lines hanging on the walls, and the smaller wooden basket sleds hanging suspended from the beams of the ceiling for storage. He turns back towards Dean and surveys his workspace, a small smile twitching at his lips when he sees the beat-up old stereo sitting in the corner of Dean’s table.
“What’s so funny?” Dean demands, his own mouth curving into an answering grin against his will. Castiel shakes his head.
“Nothing.” He gestures to the stereo, which is so old it doesn’t even have a CD player in it. “Can I assume that that currently houses a cassette tape of the classic rock persuasion?”
Dean pops open the player and pulls out a tape clearly marked—in his dad’s handwriting, but Cas doesn’t need to know that—with the words “Bad Company” in black ink. “Are you sayin’ I’m predictable, Cas?”
“I wouldn’t dare,” Cas replies mildly, and Dean nearly chokes on his laugh.
“So this is where I work,” Dean says, sweeping an arm around his half of the garage. “Told you it was boring.”
Castiel shakes his head. “It’s nice,” he says, moving over to where Dean is standing by his desk and bending to examine the tools he has hanging on the wall, the unfinished coffee table on the workbench. “What are you making here?”
“It’s going to be a coffee table, when it’s finished.” Dean sweeps away a spare curl of wood left behind by his lathe. “Sometimes I do commissions, special orders, you know, but mostly I just get to make what I feel like. Tara puts them out in the shop, prices them for me and sells them. She keeps a little cut for herself and I get the rest.”
Cas steps forward. “May I?” he asks, his hand hovering over the unfinished table, and Dean nods. Castiel’s slender fingers trail over the smooth surface of the leg Dean had just finished sanding yesterday, curling around the bumps and grooves of the design he’d laid into it. He ducks his head to peer at the tabletop, tracing over a knot in the surface that Dean had sanded flat but left visible, the whorls of dark in the otherwise pale wood adding something special to its honey colored surface.
“This is beautiful work,” Castiel says, straightening and turning to meet Dean’s eyes. “You must not have much trouble selling your furniture.”
Dean looks away, rubbing the back of his neck self-consciously. “Yeah, thanks. I do okay.”
When he looks back at Cas, the man is staring openly at him, curiosity plain on his face. “From what I’ve heard, you do better than ‘okay’. You should be proud of yourself, Dean.”
Dean shrugs. “It’s not like I’m building rockets, it’s just a table.”
Cas looks like he wants to say something else, his eyes narrowing as he stares, but then he turns mercifully away to look at the finished pieces Dean has lined up against one wall—a small bookshelf that comes to about hip height and a couple of end tables. “What else do you make?” he asks, turning back towards Dean.
“Mostly furniture: bed frames, dining room sets, that sorta thing. I get lots of people looking for bookshelves; they just don’t make ‘em sturdy like they used to. Put anything heavier than Archie Comics on them and they crumple like a house of cards. And I, uh.” Dean pauses, and Castiel looks up from inspecting the bookshelf to eye him expectantly. “I made that sled, over there.” He points upwards at one of the small basket sleds hanging suspended from the ceiling.
Castiel straightens and moves immediately over to the sled. “You made this?” he asks, peering upwards with wide eyes.
Dean nods, coming over to stand at his side. “Yeah. Most of these are made of aluminum.” He curls his hand around the handlebar of his racing sled below the wooden one above them. “They’re light and more durable than wood, for the serious distances, plus they’re made to carry supplies and shit, a person if you’re doing tours, or a dog if you need to give one of them a rest in the middle of the trail. But for small teams and short distances you only need a little guy like this one.” He reaches upwards, trailing a fond hand over the runners where they hang above his head, remembering the time and care he’d spent, following plans he found at the library, making sure everything was exactly right, strong and sturdy to keep his brother safe. “So I made this for Sam, way back in the day when he first decided he wanted to try dog sledding and got sick of having Bones pull him around on his toboggan. Couldn’t really afford to buy a sled new, and good luck trying to find a used dogsled in fuckin’ Kansas.” A laugh bursts from his lips without his say-so, and Castiel tears his eyes away from the sled to look at him, unblinking in the harsh fluorescent light of the garage.
“Man, Sammy used to ride around on that thing with his fat-ass golden retriever pulling him. It was pretty fuckin’ hilarious. Bones was a lazy sonuvabitch but he had fun doing it and Sam would kick behind to get some speed. He would drag that dog out to the street every day there was snow on the ground, until the poor bastard was too old to do it anymore. Then I had to get him some real sled dogs and well—” he waves a hand vaguely in the direction of the window that looks out towards the dog yard— “you can see how that turned out.”
“How old were you when you made it?” Castiel asks.
Dean drags a hand through his hair, calculating. “Dunno, fourteen, maybe? Fifteen? It was the first thing I made by myself. Dad taught me some stuff, before—” he cuts himself off abruptly. He’d been about to say before Mom died but that’s his business and Castiel doesn’t need to know anything about Mom. “And uh. After that I took some woodshop classes in high school and never really stopped making stuff.”
“I don’t know anything about sleds,” Cas says, “but it looks like very fine work to me.”
Dean shrugs, brushing off the compliment. “It’s nothing special. I left a lot of rough edges on the handlebars. Had to wrap it up in hockey tape so Sam wouldn’t get splinters. And I didn’t know until later that it would be better to tie the joints rather than bolt them—for flexibility, helps you turn.”
Castiel’s eyes narrow and Dean shifts under the scrutiny. “I think for a fifteen year old making something so complicated on his own, you did a wonderful job, Dean. I can only imagine the work that would be required to put something like that together.”
“I, uh. Yeah, thanks man.” Dean feels his face heat under Cas’ continued stare, so he changes the subject hurriedly. “But I guess I should get some work done. I think I can probably finish that table up today. You gonna be okay entertaining yourself for a bit?”
Cas nods and follows Dean back to his side of the garage, sitting himself down on a finished chair that’s one of a set of four waiting to be varnished, out of the way of Dean’s work area. He flips open his laptop and sets it on his knees as he waits for it to boot up.
Dean presses play on the stereo, purposefully looking away from Castiel’s soft knowing smile when the music starts filtering through the speakers. He dives into finishing the table, attaching the last leg and then setting it upright to test the sturdiness and sand down any last rough edges on the surface, and Castiel taps away on his computer, pausing occasionally to ask Dean a question. Dean’s surprised how easily they inhabit each other’s space, and he soon forgets that Cas is even there, losing himself in the music blaring from the ancient boom box and the buzz of the power sander. And to his credit, Cas seems comfortable to sit in the chair and type away, not disturbing Dean in any way. Dean actually starts when he shuts off his tools and starts cleaning up, and Cas appears at his side with the broom from the corner and starts sweeping the saw dust into a little pile without being asked. He comments on the table, and Dean has to make a joke about being “good with wood” in order to hide the heat in his cheeks at the praise, to which Castiel just rolls his eyes and keeps right on sweeping.
After that first day, it becomes something of a habit for Cas to join Dean in his workshop, unless he plans to call his sister or his boss. Dean has no idea how he manages to concentrate on his work with the noise of his tools and the blaring music coming from the boom box in the corner, but somehow he does, his fingers tapping away at the keyboard for hours on end while Dean works. Sometimes they talk, too, about sledding, about their siblings, about work. Dean finds out that Cas’ boss is a total douche, which is one of the reasons he’s glad to be able to work out of the office for the majority of this work.
“I know this is kind of a shitty job, but it must be nice to get away from your dick of a boss,” Dean suggests and Cas looks up at him sharply.
Dean shifts under the scrutiny of Cas’ unblinking blue eyes and he’s about to take it back but then Cas nods slowly. “Yes, it is,” he say, his gaze completely unreadable and Dean has no idea what to make of it so he goes back to drilling screws into the bookshelf he’s assembling.
Friday night while Sam is out on yet another date with Jess, a storm whips through town, taking out the power for a few minutes in the middle of The Last Crusade. Dean groans and Cas blinks at him owlishly under the light of the laptop standing partially open on the side table (waiting for Anna to come online and tell him how her gallery opening went) and Dean feels a wave of unwanted affection that makes him want to scoop Cas in to his side, which—what? As it is, he laughs and bumbles to his feet to go find a flashlight. The outage doesn’t last long, thank god, just enough for them to lose their place in the movie and knock out the router so it has to reboot before Cas can check his messages.
Dean grabs beers from the fridge, humming the Indiana Jones theme while he rustles around in the pantry for some chips or something to munch on while they finish the movie, listening to the tap of Cas’ fingers on the keys of his computer.
“Dean?” Cas’ voice filters over to him from the couch.
Dean pumps his fist enthusiastically when he unearths a bag of barbecue Lays from the back of the shelf where he’d hid them to save Sam’s inevitable lecture on eating healthy. “Yeah, Cas?”
Dean tenses, his whole body going still at the sound of her name. “Why?”
Cas turns to look over his shoulder and waves a hand at the laptop balanced on his lap. “Your WiFi password.”
Dean opens his mouth and when no words come, closes it with a snap. This is family business, this isn’t something he can just talk about, especially not with some nosy stranger from California who has no business prying into his life or his family. He doesn’t even talk about Mom with Jo or Ellen or Bobby. “That’s private, Cas,” he says, his voice coming out cold, harsh. “You’re here to write about our kennel, so write about it. Stay out of my fucking business.”
Cas stands, eyes wide as he looks across the back of the couch. “Dean—” he starts, voice pained, but Dean interrupts him.
“No. No.” Dean throws the bag of chips at Castiel who catches them automatically, probably crushing half the bag, but Dean doesn’t care. “Just fuck off, Cas.” He storms down the hallway, movie forgotten, ignoring the itch at the back of his neck that tells him Cas’ eyes are following him all the way to his bedroom door.
He slams the door behind him and throws himself onto the bed face first, burying his head in his pillow. Fuck this. Fuck Cas and his nosy questions. Fuck his stupid blue eyes that see way too much and his sex hair and how he somehow managed to worm his way in and make Dean let his guard down. Fuck everything.
He lays there a while, stewing, waiting for Cas to barge in and demand answers, to push him until he cracks or takes a swing or something. He’d do it, he thinks, if Cas shows up and tries to put the screws to him; he’s not above throwing a punch to get him to butt out where he doesn’t belong. But no knock at the door ever comes, no gravelly voice demanding answers, and the longer he sits there, eventually Dean has to admit that’s he’s being a little ridiculous.
Cas didn’t push him. He’d asked an innocent question; a person’s name is hardly a usual choice for a WiFi password. And, would it really be so bad if he did tell Cas? It’s personal, sure, but Cas has listened to all his dumb stories so far. Sam said he was respectful when he mentioned Dad (a fact that Dean had given him hell for, too). He already knows that Dean pretty much raised Sam, that Dad died and Mom was already gone, and maybe it would be okay, to talk to someone.
He opens the door to his room and pads back down the hallway. Cas is back on the couch, his hand scratching rhythmically behind Chevy’s ears and speaking to the dog in a low voice. She has her chin pillowed on his thigh, looking up at Castiel with soulful brown eyes as he speaks.
“—seems to like science fiction movies. Perhaps there’s something along those lines we could watch next,” he’s saying, his voice soft, and the scene fills Dean with an irrational amount of warmth, his chest swelling full of something he doesn’t really want to look too close at. He shouldn’t be getting this sappy over a guy talking to a dog for chrissake.
“You know she can’t speak English, right?” Dean asks gruffly, stepping into the room.
Cas looks up, startled. He surveys Dean for a moment. “That doesn’t seem to stop you,” he comments. His sharp eyes follow Dean as he makes his way around the couch and sits down beside Castiel. “I’m sorry to pry,” he says. “You’re right. It’s none of my business.”
Dean shakes his head and passes Castiel the beer he’d taken out earlier. “No, it’s okay, Cas. I overreacted, I guess. I shouldn’t have yelled.” He falls silent, picking at the label of his beer. He darts a glance at Cas who is watching him closely, and opens his mouth to speak.
“Dean,” Cas interrupts before he can get the words out. “You don’t have to tell me.”
“No, I—I want to.” Dean takes a deep breath and just spits it out. “Mary was my mom.” Cas is silent, doesn’t push him, and Dean’s grateful, taking a moment to steel himself. “She uh. She died when I was a kid. Sam was just a baby. Some wires shorted out in his nursery and started a fire. By the time the smoke alarm went off, half his room was up in flames. She ran in to grab him but part of the ceiling fell down and trapped her and—” Dean closes his eyes, pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose to ward away the memories that come flooding back, the smell of smoke and her screams and the heat of the flames. “Dad passed me Sam, told me to get him out and I did. And he went back for her but it was too late.”
Dean makes himself look up to meet Cas’ eyes, and there’s pity there sure, but also understanding. “I’m sorry, Dean,” he says, gravelly voice soft, and Dean nods.
“Yeah. Sucks.” He takes a long draught of his beer, just for something to do, and Cas does the same. “Dad never came back from that. Threw himself into his work, drank until his liver just couldn’t take it anymore. He died when I was twenty-four. After that it was just me and Sam, and there was nothing keeping us there anymore, so we picked up and moved up here.”
They’re both silent for a moment, staring straight ahead at the blank screen of the TV, Cas’ hand moving absently over Chevy’s back. Finally, his voice breaks the silence, and Dean turns to look at him.
“My mother died, too. Car accident. And I never knew my father.” He looks down at Chevy as he talks, and a wan smile crooks his lips. “As far as I’m concerned, Anna and I are orphans too, although we have an older brother, Gabriel, as well. He lives in Hawaii, and we don’t hear much from him except on holidays and the occasional pornographic email.”
Dean barks a laugh and lets his hand fall on Cas’ shoulder, surprising them both. Cas turns to look up at him, his face blank, giving away nothing, but he swallows hard and Dean’s fingers dig a little deeper into the hard muscle under his hand. “Guess you get it, then.”
Cas nods, but his eyes don’t leave Dean’s face. Dean’s stomach tenses, as if in anticipation of something, and he licks his lips unconsciously. That thing is back, hovering thick and heavy in the air between them and Dean’s acutely aware that he’s still touching Cas, the curve of Cas’ deltoid muscle hard and hot under his palm. He wants to lean in closer, wants to see what the rest of Cas feels like, but he’s not supposed to be thinking things like that so he shies away, shoves the thoughts as far away from him as he can.
Wordlessly he forces himself to drop his hand from Cas’ shoulder and pick up the remote control from where it lies on the couch between them, flicking the TV and DVD player back on. Cas opens up the chips and passes him the bag, and the moment-—whatever the hell it was—slips away, and by unspoken mutual agreement, they let it go.
The weekend comes and goes, and Dean winds up picking up two shifts at the Roadhouse because one of the girls is out with a nasty case of the flu. On Saturday, Sam and Castiel join him while he works, and work quickly dissolves into play when Ellen takes it upon herself to get Castiel drunk, plying him with shots until they’re both slurring. Ellen is yelling even louder than usual over the classic rock blaring out of the jukebox, and Cas gets mellow, smiling lazily at Dean in a way that makes him think things he’d promised himself he wouldn’t. It turns into a real party when Jo hops over the bar and drags Cas out onto the dance floor, and the idiot can’t dance for shit but watching them stirs a warmth in Dean’s stomach anyway. Then Jess shows up and she and Jo make a Cas sandwich and Dean winds up laughing until his stomach hurts.
Cas, naturally, spends most of the next day groaning his hangover into a cup of coffee, but he stubbornly drags himself out to help with chores, even when Sam insists he could skip out today, and Dean respects him for it, even as he thinks the guy must be fuckin’ crazy.
The day that Dean finally takes Cas for a dogsled ride dawns cold and cloudy, fluffy white snowflakes drifting down from a heavy, grey sky. Sam had left for work hours ago, and Dean leaves Cas to finish up the last of the chores while he pulls out his sled and sets the snowhook in the packed snow of the runway, laying the lines out flat on the ground in preparation.
By the time Cas rounds the corner to the runway, Dean has gotten all their equipment ready and is busy harnessing the last of the twelve dogs they’re going to run today. He waves Castiel over to the front of the line as he leads Chevy to the lead position by her harness.
“First two dogs are the lead dogs, for obvious reasons,” he yells over the zealous screaming of the dogs waiting to run from where they’re chained and waiting at the fence. “They gotta be ones you can trust to listen to the turn commands. Then you have swing dogs right behind them and team dogs in the middle, and then the last set of dogs before the sled are called wheel dogs. The wheel dogs are the ones that pull the sled around the turns, so you want the big dogs with serious work ethic back there.” He holds Chevy’s harness in one hand and uses the other to hook the tugline to the loop of her harness. “Chevy here’s the best lead dog we got in our entire lot, and your buddy Jimmy, he’s a wheel dog, 'cause he’s fuckin’ huge. Boy’s got power.” Dean runs back to the fence where the remaining dogs are waiting and comes back with Chevy’s sister Honda, and he directs Castiel to hold her so he can hook her up, too.
“Just hang on to these two by their harnesses while I hook up the rest of the team!” he says, leaning in to yell in Cas’ ear.
Castiel nods and slides his hands around the middle part of the harnesses and holds them tight like Dean had instructed while Dean runs back and forth to and from the fence until all twelve dogs are hooked to their respective positions, jumping and howling in their excitement.
Cas’ eyes are wide when Dean runs back up to him at the front of the line, and Dean can’t help the laugh that bursts from him. “You okay, man?”
“This looks highly unwise,” Castiel says skeptically and Dean claps him on the shoulder, grinning amusedly.
“Don’t worry, dude. I’ve done this hundreds of times. Run back and get in the sled, we’re just about ready to go.”
Dean holds Chevy and Honda while Cas does as instructed, then squats down in front of his leaders. “You gonna be good girls, give us a good run?” he asks, his voice low. Their tails wag harder and they lick frantically at his face, Chevy dancing on her front paws in her excitement, and her more excitable sister hopping up and down on all four feet at her side. “All right, let’s show this city boy how we get our kicks in Alaska.” He ruffles Chevy’s ears with a gloved hand and stands, pointing at them both. “Stay,” he says firmly and runs back to the sled where Cas is waiting, tucked into the sled bag.
“Ready?” Dean yells, leaning down over the handlebar to speak into Cas’ ear.
Cas nods. “As I’ll ever be.”
Dean grins broadly, pressing down on the brake with his right foot and reaching down to pull up the snowhook. He shoves the hook safely away into it’s holster. “Hang on, man,” he calls to Cas who gives a thumbs up over his shoulder like the nerd he is, and then— “Hike!” Dean bellows and lifts his foot from the brake.
The dogs take off like a shot, howls cut off abruptly as they channel their excitement into running, the sled rocketing forward under the combined propulsion of twelve sets of long, muscled legs. Dean loves this part, the takeoff, as much as his dogs, and he whoops ecstatically before ducking down on the runners, feeling the sled speed up under him at the reduced drag. He stands again as the dogs approach the trees, yells “haw!” and Chevy and Honda turn the team sharply to the left, taking the left fork of the path as it curves into the trees. He leans expertly into the turn, and the heavy sled bearing Cas and their extra supplies slides smoothly around the curve.
“Easy, kids,” Dean calls as they round the turn and come to a straighter path, stepping on the black rubber drag mat between the runners to slow them down. “Easy.” Chevy and Honda—good girls—slow the pack down, the initial starting rush easing away into a steady trot down the wide trail. They fall into a steady rhythm, feet rising and falling in unison, and Dean feels his usual rush of pride: this right here is what makes a good team, a winning team.
“You good, Cas?” Dean asks and Castiel calls back in the affirmative. Dean eases up on the drag mat, lets the dogs hold their own pace, and he loses himself to the wind rushing past his face, ruffling the fur around the hood of his jacket and stinging at his eyes. He leans automatically into the curves of the trail, his body reacting from habit, letting the dogs take them until he comes to another fork in the path and this time he calls out “gee” and sends them right.
Fuck, but he loves this, the quiet rush of the sled down a trail lined by tall, naked trees, everything white and crisp around them. The silence is broken only by the rhythmic crunch of snow under dog paws as they run, the swoosh of the runners over packed snow, the whistling of wind around him. This was always supposed to be Sam’s thing, Sam’s passion, and Dean was just doing it to help his brother, but somewhere along the way it became his passion, too. He doesn’t have Sam’s drive to win, but he’ll run dogs until he’s too old or decrepit to stand on the runners because there’s nothing in the world like this, like being out in the woods, just you and your dogs and your trail.
They’re a couple miles in when Cas stirs in the basket of the sled, unzipping his coat to pull out a slim digital camera from some hidden inner pocket. He takes shots of the dogs from his vantage point on the sled, the mountains visible through the gaps in the trees, and then he turns around awkwardly and snaps a picture of Dean where he’s standing on the runners. “Hey, I wasn’t ready,” Dean complains, so Cas rolls his eyes and brings the camera up again. This time, Dean does his “blue steel” impression and Cas huffs a laugh but clicks the shutter button anyway.
Dean chooses the ten mile trail, deciding to keep things easy for Cas in case he’s bored or doesn’t like it or whatever. If it were just him by himself, he’d probably stay out for hours, stopping the dogs to water them part way through or toss them some treats of frozen fish that he’d packed, but it’s Cas’ first time. Maybe next time they can bring stuff for a campfire lunch, make camp at that clearing fifteen miles in and have some hotdogs on the fire before they head back.
The trail he’s chosen connects into a big loop that leads all the way around and back to the house, and when Dean hears the dogs back in the yard start howling, he knows they’re getting close. He nudges Cas’ shoulder and says “Listen.” Castiel tilts his head and grins, the haunting sound just barely audible over the slide of the runners over the snow.
The sound gets louder and louder until finally the garage becomes visible through the trees, and then they’re pulling into the open, slowing to a stop in the runway in front, Dean calling “whoa,” in a low, soft voice to ease his dogs to a stop. They stand, panting, faces split with doggy grins and tongues lolling happily, steam curling from their open mouths into the crisp winter air. He yanks out the snowhook from its holster and shoves it into the ground, kicking it hard to make sure it’s stuck down good before making his way to the front of the line of dogs. He wants to check on Cas, see what he thought of his first dog sled ride, but first things first.
“Good girl, Baby,” he says, “Good girl, Honda,” falling to his knees in between his lead dogs. He circles an arm around each of their necks, turning to kiss first one, then the other on their furry heads as he scratches them vigorously. They’re calmer now, happy that they’ve had a chance to run, filled with the peace of purpose and of doing what they love. He knows the feeling.
“Thanks for a great ride. Such good girls.” He reaches in his pocket and pulls out a cookie for each of them before he shoves himself to his feet to repeat the gesture with the next dogs in line.
By the time he’s made his way through all the dogs, finishing up with Jimmy and the other wheel dog Chase, Cas has disentangled himself from the sled and is waiting beside it. Dean looks up and is met with the biggest grin he’s ever seen on Cas’ face, his eyes crinkled at the corners and nose all scrunched up and he looks like a dork but for some reason, it makes Dean’s breath catch in his chest.
“That was—” Cas shakes his head, and he can’t seem to stop smiling. Words escape him and he just beams the couple spare inches up at Dean like he hung the moon.
Dean grins back, Cas’ enthusiasm catching, the adrenaline from the run still racing through his veins. “I know, man,” he says. “Fucking awesome, right?”
Cas nods emphatically and then he licks his dry, wind-chapped lips and Dean’s throat goes very dry. He’s staring at Cas’ face, his eyes trailing over him from the dry, plush lips to the flushed, wind-burned cheeks to the shadow of stubble on his jaw above the neck of his coat, back up to the bright blue eyes, and he should stop, he should step back or look away but then Cas is swallowing hard and saying—
“Dean. Can I—I would very much like to kiss you right now.”
Dean’s stomach muscles tighten in anticipation and he closes the distance between them, his feet moving of their own accord and his hand coming up to grip the front of Cas’ coat. There was a reason he wasn’t supposed to be doing this, he thinks through a haze of want and desire and excitement, something that should be stopping him, but he can’t remember what it was, and let's be real, it was probably fucking stupid anyway.
“Fuck,” Dean says, his voice coming out harsh and raw. “Fuck yes, Cas,” and he drags him forward until they’re chest to chest. Dean’s heart is hammering against his ribcage and his eyes flutter closed as their lips meet: soft at first, and then again, firmer, more desperate. And Cas’ lips are chapped and dry as they look, his nose cold where it presses against Dean’s cheek, but hell if it isn’t the best fucking thing Dean’s ever felt.
Warnings for NSFW content in this chapter if that isn't your thing!
With only a few weeks remaining until the beginning of the pre-race festivities in Anchorage, Dean and Sam throw themselves into their preparations. Whenever they aren’t out on the trail conditioning dogs or out in the dog yard doing their daily chores, they busy themselves gathering supplies and checking things off of lists, discussing strategy and team composition. The tension ratchets up higher and higher as the race looms ever closer, and the Winchesters’ excitement is contagious.
Castiel tries to help with their preparations as much as possible, looking to the brothers for direction. They spend nearly an entire Saturday organizing drop bags, large canvas bags supplied by the Iditarod Trail Committee that each musher packs to be distributed at checkpoints along the race with dog food, human food, dog booties, clothes and other supplies. Krissy, Josephine and Aiden come over early that day to help out, the six of them sorting things into each bag as needed based on Sam and Dean’s race plan. Finally Sam scrawls their individual names on their respective bags while Dean seals them shut and they’re stacked in the garage, ready to be shipped out, and Jess arrives soon after with burgers from the Roadhouse for everyone.
Castiel accompanies Dean every day now when he grooms the trails or takes the dogs out for training runs, and he even helps to harness the dogs and hook them up, learning as he does about the various equipment used to outfit the sled and the dogs, the names of the mess of lines that tether the team together and to the sled. They move easily around each other now, Castiel learning Dean’s routines and habits as they work together.
And now, when Sam isn’t home, there are little touches between the two of them: backs of hands brushing as they move around each other in the house or garage, hips and elbows bumping when they stand together at the counter fixing coffee. Dean stands a little closer, doesn’t give him as wide a berth when he passes him in the hall or in the narrow space of the garage. And every once in a while their eyes will meet and the heat that passes between them is palpable, and one of them or the other will lean in to capture the others’ lips in a kiss.
Castiel is rapidly becoming addicted to the rasp of Dean’s stubbled cheek against his own, the feeling of Dean’s lips and tongue moving against his, the way his hands tighten in Castiel’s clothing as if he wants to pull him closer. By mutual, unspoken agreement it hasn’t yet gone farther than kisses, although when they pull apart, gasping, Castiel always finds his hands clinging to Dean’s shoulders, his eyes lingering on Dean’s kiss-swollen lips, his body thrumming with the need to be closer to him until they step away from each other and go about their chores.
As much as he enjoys having the freedom to touch and kiss Dean when they are home alone on weekdays together, weekends with Sam home bring their own kind of enjoyment. On warm days the chores are drawn out for hours, the three of them talking aimlessly as they work, the stress of the impending race put on hold for the time being. Sometimes the Winchesters discuss race strategy or speculate on the competition, and Castiel struggles to keep up, listening intently until the brothers devolve, as they always seem to, into good-natured bickering. Other times, they quiz Castiel on his job or his home life or his friends back home. He’s amazed at how well the Winchester dynamic flexes so naturally to include him, how easy it is living with these two men who only weeks before had been strangers to him.
And then there are days like this particular Sunday, when Castiel is interrupted in scooping around Razor’s doghouse by a snowball making contact with the back of his head.
He’s dimly aware of Dean’s raucous laughter as he gasps at the sudden cold and digs fruitlessly at the collar of his coat, hissing and arching his back as snow slips down the back of his neck. By the time he straightens, Dean is still bent over and laughing, his hands braced on his thighs, and that’s how Castiel manages to retaliate, his own snowball catching Dean on his right shoulder. Dean shoots him a glare and he smirks back in reply, Sam laughing from behind his brother.
“Oh yeah?” Dean calls across the yard at Sam, “Laugh it up sasquatch,” and the next snowball is launched with startling accuracy in Sam’s direction.
They stumble inside some thirty minutes later, sweaty and wet with snow after a furious snowball fight, laughing and pushing at each other like children as they squeeze in through the door. Castiel’s gaze meets Dean’s as he strips out of his coat, shaking bits of snow out on the mat. He’s cold and wet, his fingers numb through the soaked fabric of his gloves, but his chest is warm and full, a smile tugging insistently at his lips. Dean smiles back, his hand falling warm on Castiel’s shoulder and Castiel has to stop himself from leaning in and kissing him. As it is, when Dean pulls his hand away, Castiel looks up to find Sam glancing curiously between them and hastily retreats to his own bedroom to change out of his wet clothes.
He takes his time stripping off his wet clothes and laying them out to dry wherever there is a flat space in his room, and takes the opportunity to check his email, replying to Anna’s latest message and typing up a few notes. When he finally emerges, his hair toweled dry and redressed in fresh jeans and a dry t-shirt, the Winchesters are already back in the kitchen, their raised voices filtering down the hallway to Castiel as he pads out of his room. They’re in the midst of what sounds like a heated argument, the cheerful mood from their snowball fight lost in the few minutes that Castiel had been in his bedroom.
“—just fucking take them, Sam!” Dean’s voice is angry, insistent. Castiel pauses in the hallway, unsure if he should go back to his bedroom or make his presence known.
“No way, Dean! I’m not taking all the best dogs and leaving you with rookies! We can split the teams evenly again.”
Dean scoffs derisively. “Yeah, because that worked out so well for us in the past. Don’t you remember last year? You almost broke your fucking leg.”
“That had nothing to do with the dogs,” Sam bites back. “That was bad luck and bad decision making on my part. Besides, our dogs have all had a lot more training since last year, even the rookies aren’t rookies anymore.”
“What-the-fuck-ever, Sam. We’re not gonna take that risk.” Dean’s voice is firm, no room for argument. “You take our A-list, you have a better chance of staying safe and finishing the goddamn race this year. Might even have a shot at winning this thing.”
“You think I care that much about winning? Don’t you think I want you to be safe, too?” A chair scrapes against the floor as someone—presumably Sam—shoves it back to stand. “I’m not a kid anymore, Dean! I can take care of myself.” His heavy footsteps sound as he makes his way in a few long strides to the front door, dressing hurriedly and slamming the door behind him.
Sam’s footsteps crunch in the snow and then his truck starts up in the driveway, the sound rumbling away until it disappears down the road. Castiel hovers awkwardly in the hallway as silence falls over the little house, debating the relative merits of retreating back to his bedroom or walking right into the kitchen and pretending to be none the wiser.
Dean groans audibly from the kitchen, frustration and exhaustion in the sound. “I know you’re there,” he calls, voice resigned. “You can come out now.”
Castiel emerges sheepishly, padding across the kitchen to slide into the seat Sam had vacated across from Dean. A pad of paper lies on the table between them, a list of dog names in two columns written in Dean’s untidy hand on the top page. Dean shoots him a weary, crooked smile and takes a long swig of his beer. “How much did you hear?”
“Enough,” Castiel replies. “I gather that Sam is resistant to the idea of you running a less strong team than he in the race?”
Dean nods, dragging a hand down his face. “I just want him to be safe. This race isn’t exactly easy; there are all sorts of things that could go wrong on the trail.” His face twists into a humorless expression, more grimace than smile. “I’ve been looking after him since we were kids; it’s all I know how to do. But I can’t do it if he won’t let me.”
“I think it’s admirable, what you’re trying to do,” Castiel says. “But you’ve already done so much for him. He told me everything you gave up to take care of him, and so he could pursue his dream.”
Dean snorts. “I just did what I had to do,” he retorts, as dismissive of the praise as ever. “I just did what any good brother would have done.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. But Sam is a grown man, now. Maybe it’s time to let him give you something back.”
Dean sighs, sitting up straight and running a harried hand through the short strands of his hair. “Alright, that’s enough sap for one night.” His voice is gruff, closed off. “You want to watch some TV? You haven’t seen Firefly yet.”
It’s a clear deflection but Castiel nods, letting the conversation go. “Do you need another beer?” he asks, as Dean makes his way over to the shelf of DVDs near the TV, Chevy rising from her place beside Dean’s chair and making her way over to her spot on the couch.
“Yeah, thanks, man,” Dean says, throwing a smile over his shoulder.
Castiel retrieves two beers from the fridge and twists off the caps, holding them by the neck in one hand as he pulls out a bag of chips as an afterthought. He sits on the couch next to Chevy while Dean gets the first disc of the season playing, expecting Dean to sit in his usual spot at the other end of the couch.
Instead, he sits down next to Castiel, close enough to touch, their shoulders nudging against each other as Dean gets comfortable on the creaky old couch. Wordlessly, Castiel hands him his beer, opening the bag of chips and holding it out to him so Dean can take a handful. Dean starts up the first episode, plaintive violin music filtering out of the speakers of the ancient TV and sets the remote to the side.
“You’ll like this,” Dean says, bumping his thigh against Castiel’s. “Whedon is a genius.”
Castiel tries his best to concentrate on the show and not on the heat of Dean’s body where it presses insistently against his side. It works for a while—the show is exciting and entertaining, and they manage to make it through the first episode and part of the second without incident—but then Dean turns his head and brushes his lips against the bolt of Castiel’s jaw and Castiel’s tenuous hold on his concentration dissolves. His breath stutters at the gentle touch, his body going still where it rests against Dean’s. “I thought you wanted to watch this show,” he says, his voice neutral.
A soft chuckle rolls off Dean’s lips, his breath brushing against the short hairs at the back of Castiel’s neck and making him shiver. “I do,” Dean says, his voice low and husky. “Am I that distracting, Cas?”
“Quite distracting, yes,” he confirms grumpily and Dean laughs and starts to pull back. Castiel makes a protesting sound and he reaches out to tangle his fingers in the front of Dean’s shirt. “Just—come here for a moment,” he growls, pulling him in for a lingering kiss. Dean smiles against Castiel’s mouth, responding eagerly as their lips whisper soft over one another.
Castiel pulls back when Chevy shifts at his side, stretching out to lay her head in his lap and Dean chuckles softly, a shaky, breathless exhalation, closing his eyes and bending to rest his forehead against Castiel’s for one long moment before pulling away.
“You’re not exactly helping my game here, girl,” Dean tells the dog as he straightens. Chevy rolls her eyes up at him, looking supremely unimpressed, and Dean snorts. To Castiel’s dismay, he moves over on the couch until there’s a half a cushion between them, but then he reaches across the cushion, slides his fingers through the spaces between Castiel’s, and when Castiel turns to look at him, he smiles, and it doesn’t feel like a loss anymore.
They make it through the rest of the way through episode two, and episode three is just finishing when Sam pulls back into the driveway, the dogs howling to signal his return before he even makes the turn. Dean squeezes Castiel’s hand before he pulls back, letting his hand fall into his lap.
Sam stomps into the house and eyes Dean warily before he makes his way to the kitchen and pulls three fresh bottles of beer out of the fridge, handing one to his brother and one to Castiel without a word before throwing himself into his chair. Dean nods his thanks but doesn’t look away from the TV. It seems that neither brother is eager to discuss their earlier argument, though the tension in the room is palpable. Finally, sometime around midnight, Sam yawns and stretches and mumbles something about an early morning and stumbles off to his bedroom with a sleepy wave over his shoulder.
“I should call it a night too,” Dean says, stretching languidly. “You wanna keep watching?” Castiel shakes his head, pushing himself to his feet and turning his head from side to side to work out the kinks.
As Dean turns to make his way down the hall to his own bedroom, Chevy following obediently at his heels, Castiel reaches out, catching hold of Dean’s wrist and tugging him around to press a chaste kiss to his lips. Dean grins lazily and leans back in for another, his hand finding Castiel’s hip and squeezing gently.
“Goodnight, Dean,” Castiel says with a little smile.
Dean smiles back. “‘Night, Cas.”
The next morning, Castiel finishes up the last of the chores and rounds the corner to the garage to find Dean pulling out one of the small wooden sleds, laying it down on the snow beside the other, which has already been taken down.
“Dean?” he asks, confused, pausing in the open gate.
Dean looks up and grins broadly. “Hey Cas. Figured it was time you got on the runners instead of just riding along.”
Castiel eyes the sled skeptically, thinking pessimistically of his harrowing drive to Winchester kennels in his rental truck. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” He’s hardly experienced with snow, has never done anything remotely like this before, and he can think of any number of ways this could go poorly.
“‘Course I’m sure.” Dean starts uncoiling lines, tossing them out on the snow in front of the sleds before attaching them to the elasticized line running underneath the sled, which Castiel had learned was called the bridle. “The dogs know what they’re doing, even if you don’t. You’ll be fine.”
Dean’s proclamation doesn’t fill Castiel with much confidence, but he accepts Dean’s assurances and starts pulling harnesses from the hooks on the wall, selecting the sizes based on the dogs Dean has lined up along the fence. He helps Dean harness the dogs, the motions practiced and almost habit by now.
“All right,” Dean says, pulling him aside and holding up a gigantic, claw-shaped metal anchor that is attached by a thick line to the bridle. “Here’s your snowhook. It's basically your sled’s emergency brake.” Castiel nods; he remembers seeing Dean use the snowhook during their runs. Dean throws it down in the packed snow beside the runners of the sled and kicks it hard to set it. “Always set that before you hook up any dogs and before you get off the sled, and make sure it’s in good, otherwise you’re gonna lose your team.”
Dean moves to the side of the sled and waves his hand as if welcoming someone to a grand ballroom. “Hop on, man,” he says, and Castiel complies, setting his feet carefully on the widened grips of the footrests and gripping the handlebar tight as he has seen Dean do.
Dean nods approvingly, a satisfied smile curling his lips up at the corners. “So when you do the turns, lean into it, same as on the snowmobile. Hold on tight, and most importantly, whatever you do, whatever happens, don’t let go. Your sled tips, you hang on for dear life and let it drag you until you can get back on or get it stopped. Otherwise you’re gonna be stuck in the woods without a ride and god knows when your dogs will decide to stop.
“Use ‘whoa’ to stop, ‘easy’ to go slower. Left is ‘haw’ and right is ‘gee’.” Dean steps in closer, claps his hand on Castiel’s shoulder, fixing him with a grim, mock-serious expression. “And if I hear you say the word ‘mush’, I swear to god I will kick your ass.” His face splits into a sudden grin, creases appearing around his green eyes. “‘Mush’ is a Hollywood thing; real mushers say ‘hike’.”
Castiel’s head is swimming by the time Dean’s done with the list, but he rattles it back anyway, hoping he’ll remember them all when they’re actually in motion. “‘Hike’ to go, ‘whoa’ to stop, ‘haw’ for left and ‘gee’ for right. Lean into the turns and do not, under any circumstances, let go.”
Dean’s grin widens. “You got it, Cas. Just sit tight, I’ll get your dogs hooked up. Foot on the brake.”
Castiel fumbles for the brake, awkward in his winter boots as Dean starts unhooking dogs from the fence and snapping them into the gangline. Dean puts Honda in lead with Paige and tells them sternly to “stay!” before lining up four more dogs for a team of only six. He’s grateful for the smaller team; even six dogs seems like a vast number as he stares out across their backs to the front of the line where Honda and Paige are dancing excitedly thirty feet away in front of him.
“All right,” Dean yells loudly over the screaming of the teams, coming back to Castiel’s side after hooking up his own dogs. The din is deafening, all twelve dogs screaming and howling their enthusiasm. “I’ll go out first; just count to five and then let ‘em loose.” He reaches out to curl a gloved hand around the back of Castiel’s neck, moving in close. “And loosen up, man. It’s supposed to be fun.”
Castiel rolls his eyes and Dean chuckles, leaning in the last few inches to kiss him on the mouth, swift and sweet, before darting back to his sled, tugging up the snowhook and stowing it away in its holster. Castiel copies him, ensuring that the clawed bar that makes up the foot brake is pressed down firmly by his entire weight before doing so.
“Ready?” Dean yells and Castiel swallows hard and nods once, a tense, jerky movement. His knuckles must be white in his gloves with how hard he’s clutching the handlebar. Dean’s face splits into a grin, wide and excited and so beautiful that it takes Castiel’s breath away, and then he’s yelling “HIKE!” and his dogs are taking off, speeding away down the runway.
Castiel’s dogs lurch forward in their harnesses as Dean’s team glides past, eager to follow and howling if possible even louder in Dean’s wake. Only Castiel’s firm pressure on the brake keeps them from bolting off down the trail with the other team. Castiel counts, heart hammering in his chest, and when he reaches five, calls “Hike!” and lets up on the brake.
The dogs lunge forward, several of them leaping straight into the air in their excitement and the sled shoots forward. Almost instantly, everything goes quiet, the barking of the dogs replaced by the rapid crunch of paws in the snow and the whooshing slide of the runners on the trail, and over it all, the pounding of Castiel’s heart in his ears as he’s propelled suddenly forward.
His team follows Dean’s, and when Dean makes a right in the trees, Castiel remembers to say “gee”, leaning into the turn. The sled bends with him, loose and pliant, and the turn is surprisingly easy, the sled gliding effortlessly under the pull of the dogs and the press of Castiel’s booted feet against the runners.
The trees rush by in a blur, wind biting at his exposed cheeks as they fly down the trail, some strange mix of peacefulness and exhilaration racing through his veins. This is nothing like being on a snowmobile, or even like riding in the basket of a sled as a passenger. There is no roar of an engine to break the peaceful silence of the wilderness around them, no artificial sounds of a city, as far out into the woods as they are. There is only him, his dogs, and his sled, and ahead of him, Dean.
His body moves with the sled, the movements natural and easy as if they were one piece of the same machine. Ahead of him, the dogs move as a team, every motion fluid and graceful and powerful, dragging the sled effortlessly down the path. There is something vast and amazing about being out on the trail with a team of living beings rather than wheels and machinery, some sense of teamwork and camaraderie that Castiel could not have understood before. It feels fast, faster than it probably is, the power and joy of those six working dogs radiating down the lines and up through Castiel’s body. His mind is still and quiet and full of elation, and his eyes prick with tears he can’t explain.
At a wide point in the trail where the woods fall away, replaced by a wide-open field, Dean slows his team, waving until Castiel lets his team glide up beside the other and matches Dean’s speed by putting pressure on the drag-mat between the runners as Dean is doing. Dean looks across at him and grins, and Castiel realizes that his cheeks are sore with the force of his own smile.
Dean pulls ahead again when they are once again swallowed up by trees, and he leads them on a winding path until Castiel has lost track of which path they are taken, but he finds he doesn’t care. He trusts Dean to get them home.
Too soon, it seems, the howls of the other dogs reach his ears, and his team puts on an unexpected burst of speed for the last few miles to home. Castiel’s eyes water as the wind washes over him, but his grin widens and he leans enthusiastically into the last turns. Ahead of him, Dean whoops his enjoyment and Castiel laughs, though he thinks he would very much like to whoop as well, if he were the type of person who did such a thing.
They pull to a stop side by side in front of the shop, his leaders responding easily to his commands of “easy” and “whoa” as he eases the brake into the snow. His hands are stiff around the wooden handlebar from holding on as tight as he had, and he flexes them with a wince to ease the tension before dropping the snowhook into the snow and setting it with a firm kick.
Dean is already thanking his team by the time he climbs off the runners and he hurries to do the same, starting with the lead dogs and working his way back. They are the picture of happiness, tongues lolling from their mouths as they pant, tails wagging frantically behind them and he hugs each dog, scratching each one behind the ear. It had seemed strange, when Dean had done it before, but it doesn’t now; it seems natural, thanking these incredible creatures for giving him something so amazing.
And when he looks up from thanking Jimmy, trying and failing to avoid the wet lick that the big white dog slathers across his cheek, Dean is there waiting.
“So? What’d you think?” he asks, his tone carefully casual.
Castiel’s face splits into a broad grin. “I think that was the most exciting thing I have ever done in my entire life,” he says honestly and Dean’s mouth curls into an answering smile, his eyes soft and fond as he pulls Castiel in for a kiss, this one deeper and more fervent than the last.
“You’re awesome, Cas,” Dean says when he pulls back, and Castiel smiles and leans in again in answer.
Two weeks before they leave for Anchorage, Castiel helps Dean load up a truck full of furniture he’s been making over the past few weeks. Some are personalized deliveries, commissions that people have ordered from him directly, and the rest will go to Tara’s store to remain until they are sold. Dean invites him to come along but Castiel reluctantly declines; he has a phone conference scheduled with Zachariah, and as much as he would rather spend the afternoon with Dean than with his odious Editor, he’s already on Zachariah’s bad side and doesn’t think it would be wise to anger him any more than he already has.
The phone call is brief, Castiel assuring Zachariah that he is learning much and the first part of his article is coming together nicely. The man makes several underhanded comments stressing his surprise that there is anything interesting to write about at all, and Castiel’s hand clenches around the phone as he struggles not to snap back. He doesn’t want Zachariah to know how much he has come to love the Winchester’s dogs, how he has come to think of both Winchesters as friends, and how much he loves driving or riding in a dog sled. The solitude of the Winchesters' home suits him as well—being away from the bustle of the city and the hordes of people and all of the noise. But Zachariah doesn’t need to know that.
And he especially doesn’t want Zachariah to know about Dean, about how their relationship has somehow moved from hostile dislike to unwilling tolerance, to friendship to whatever it is now. He’s sure there aren’t actual rules against what they are doing, but he can’t imagine his Editor approving of it. The man would probably find some way to fire him over it, or use it as an excuse to demote him to a desk job. His sometimes-friend Uriel has been after his position for years and would no doubt eagerly rise to the occasion.
Castiel hangs up the phone and rubs the bridge of his nose to stave off the headache he feels building there, a common aftereffect of interacting with his Editor. Thankfully, the nature of his job means that he doesn’t have to see the man’s face as often as he might have otherwise.
He takes a shower, running the water extra hot and letting the warmth rush over him and ease some of the ache in his muscles still lingering from when he drove the dogsled for the first time a few days ago. Every part of his body seemed to hurt the morning after, muscles he had never noticed before screaming in protest with every motion, and he had been moving gingerly for the rest of the day.
Dean, being Dean, had laughed at him.
Now, the pain has been reduced to a pleasant pull in his muscles every now and then, more of a reminder of how he got them than anything, and he’s already itching to go again. Since that day, Dean has gone back to running the larger teams to keep up with their training and testing combinations for the race, and Castiel doesn’t feel confident enough to run such a large team himself, choosing to ride instead of drive. Maybe this weekend when Sam is home to run a larger team, he and Dean can run two small teams again.
By the time he finishes washing the conditioner from his hair, his stomach has started to growl. He reluctantly shuts off the water and towels himself off, dressing in jeans and a t-shirt before pulling a grey hooded sweatshirt over top. The fabric is soft, swallowing up his body in comfort, and he hums happily as he tucks his chilly hands into the sleeves and makes his way to the quiet kitchen to start making a late lunch.
He’s midway through cutting up tomatoes to garnish the sandwiches he’s making when the front door opens and closes again. “Cas?” Dean calls from the entryway, the sound of his boots hitting the floor reaching Castiel’s ears as Dean toes them off and sets them aside.
“Kitchen,” he calls back, and moments later, he hears the soft slide of Dean’s socked feet on the hardwood floor.
“Hey,” Dean says, his voice low as he edges in close behind Castiel’s back, bracing his hands on the countertop on either side of Castiel’s body and hooking his chin over Castiel’s shoulder. “Whatcha doin’?” His breath washes warm over the back of Castiel’s neck, sending a shiver down Castiel’s spine.
“I’m making us some lunch,” he says, setting aside the knife and wiping his hands on the cloth beside the cutting board. “Are you hungry?”
“Mmm,” Dean hums in answer and he leans in closer, his nose skimming the sensitive place behind Castiel’s ear. It’s cold from being outside, but Dean’s body is warm where it presses up against Castiel’s from shoulder to hip. “Didn’t know you could cook.”
Castiel’s eyebrow arches, even though Dean can’t see. “I can’t. Assembling a sandwich hardly qualifies as cooking, Dean.”
Dean laughs and moves in closer. “Guess that’s true.” He presses his lips to the sensitive space behind Castiel’s ear.
“Dean…” Castiel protests, but he tips his head to the side to give Dean more access anyway.
“What?” Dean doesn’t stop, his mouth moving down the exposed line of Castiel’s neck. He slides up a hand to push the hood of Castiel’s sweatshirt aside.
Castiel leans back into Dean, his eyes sliding shut at the brush of Dean’s lips over his skin, the solid line of his body behind him. “What about lunch?”
“We can eat later,” Dean says, voice low. He plants one more kiss to the underside of Castiel’s jaw before pulling back slightly. “Do you want me to stop?”
Castiel licks his lips. “No,” he says and turns to face Dean, stretching up the few spare inches between them to meet Dean’s lips with his own. Dean makes a pleased sound against Castiel’s lips and brings his arms to curl around Castiel’s waist, pulling them flush together.
They kiss slowly at first, unhurried, lips moving softly over one another until Dean’s tongue darts out to slip over the seam of Castiel’s lips. He opens under the soft touch and returns it, his own tongue meeting Dean’s and suddenly the kiss becomes something heated, something urgent.
Dean’s arms tighten around him, his hands clutching at Castiel’s shirt, and Castiel fists his hands in Dean’s short hair. Dean groans at the pressure on his scalp, pulling his mouth away as he arches back under the tug of Castiel’s fingers, and Castiel take the opportunity to kiss down the line of Dean’s throat, feeling the burn of Dean’s stubble under his lips, the bob of his adam’s apple as he makes his way down to nip at the crook of his neck.
He returns to meet Dean’s lips again, and he slips his hands underneath the fabric of Dean’s t-shirt, feeling the warmth of soft skin over hard muscle under his palms as he skates over his waist and around to squeeze his hips, pull him close. Dean rocks his hips into Castiel’s and Castiel feels, unmistakably, the beginning of an erection pressing against his own.
“Shit,” Dean breathes around a gasp, hips jerking at the sensation. His big, broad hands curl in the hem of Castiel’s sweater, tugging until he raises his arms and lets Dean pull it off over his head. His hands slide up under Castiel’s t-shirt, splaying flat over the arch of his back and pulling him closer as Castiel roll his hips into Dean.
Castiel finds himself pinned up against the counter by Dean’s rocking hips, Dean tugged close by Castiel’s own hands on his sides. He slides his hands down to cup the generous swell of Dean’s ass and pull him in harder, their cocks rubbing together through the fabric of their jeans, mouths open and moving against one another, swallowing the gasps they breathe into the silence of the room.
He’s just easing his fingers under the waistband at the back of Dean’s jeans, eager to feel more of that hot, smooth skin under his hands when Dean stills, his body tensing as he draws back and Castiel stops, hands pausing against the dip of Dean’s lower back.
“Dean?” he asks, confused, but then he hears it—the unmistakable sound of the dogs howling their greeting for Sam, whose truck is just pulling into the driveway. He groans, dismayed.
“Fuck,” Dean breathes, pressing his forehead to Castiel’s as he laughs weakly. “Guess he wouldn’t be my little brother if he wasn’t a damn cockblock.”
Castiel sighs and lifts his head to press a kiss to Dean’s forehead. Dean’s mouth turns up in a soft, crooked smile, his hands tightening once where they rest of Castiel’s hips before he pulls away, the two of them scattering to their respective bedrooms on opposite ends of the house.
When Castiel comes back into the kitchen some time later, Sam is regaling Dean about his day while Dean fixes a third sandwich for him, and he greets Castiel amiably, not suspecting what he had interrupted. Dean deposits one of the sandwiches in front of him and winks when Sam isn’t looking, and Castiel has to look away to keep himself from dragging Dean’s mouth back down to his.
He wants Dean so badly, wants to feel that golden skin against his, to see how much of his body those smatterings of freckles cover. Rationally, he knows that involving himself with Dean in a way that is anything more than professional is a bad idea, given that he needs to return home after the race is complete, but it’s far too late for caution. And it's not only attraction drawing him to Dean; there is a goodness in the man that tugs at something inside Castiel’s chest, something Dean tries to keep hidden under bravado and machismo, but so bright that it can’t be truly concealed. It only makes him want Dean more, to want to know more about him, to soothe the instinct to belittle himself. Everyone around him who knows anything about him seems to know his worth; everyone, that is, except Dean himself.
They eat their sandwiches while Sam tells them about his work day, and then the three of them head out to complete the evening chores. Dean brings Chevy back into the house with them and she makes herself comfortable on the couch next to Castiel while he works, shooting an unimpressed look at Chase where he lies at Sam’s feet. Dean and Sam spend the rest of the evening blowing up aliens and Castiel excuses himself early, taking his laptop back to his bedroom to call Anna before she goes to bed.
It’s a few hours later, long after the sounds of the television and the brothers’ voices have died away that Castiel looks up, peering into the dark as footsteps creak down the hall to his room. He pushes himself up on one elbow and flicks on the bedside light just as the door to his room creaks open, revealing a sheepishly grinning Dean.
“Dean?” Castiel asks, pushing himself into a sitting position. “What are you doing?”
“Can’t sleep,” he says gruffly, pushing the door open further. He’s wearing green and blue plaid sleep pants and a soft grey t-shirt, his feet bare under the hems of the pants, and he hesitates, hovering uncertainly in the doorway.
“Dean?” he asks again, cocking his head to one side, confused.
Dean swallows hard, his eyes darting around the room before finally settling, determined, on Castiel where he sits against the headboard. “Want you, Cas. That okay?”
The words send a rush of heat towards Castiel’s groin, his stomach muscles tightening in anticipation. His mouth goes dry as he stares up at Dean, his heart rate ratcheting higher and breath catching in his throat. Slowly, he shifts over in the bed, making room for Dean beside him and turning back the covers.
“Yes,” he says, his voice low and husky. “Dean, yes.”
Dean smirks and steps into the room, shutting the door behind him before sliding into the bed beside Castiel. Anticipation leaps in the pit of Castiel’s stomach and he reaches for Dean, pulling him in close under the covers. Dean goes willingly, leaning in close to press a soft kiss to the sensitive underside of Castiel’s jaw and Castiel swallows hard, tilting his head to give Dean better access. Dean’s lips are soft and dry, slightly chapped where they graze Castiel’s skin, a sharp contrast to the rasp of his five o’clock shadow. His hand is warm and broad against Castiel’s jaw and the side of his neck, and Castiel’s own hand comes up to clutch Dean’s wrist, not to pull him away, but to keep him there. Castiel’s heart picks up speed, thundering in his chest, and his eyes flutter shut as Dean grazes the shell of his ear with his teeth.
“Dean,” he gasps and he cups Dean’s jaw and tugs him into the press of his mouth, sweeping his tongue inside hungrily, tasting the lingering mint flavor of Dean’s toothpaste. Dean groans his approval, circling one hand around Castiel’s waist and pulling him in until they’re chest to chest, Castiel braced on his elbow over Dean. The man beneath him fists a hand in his hair, the other dipping underneath his t-shirt to skim over his hip and up the curve of his ribs, pushing the shirt along with it as he goes.
Castiel shifts to his side, pulling reluctantly away from Dean’s lips to allow him to slip the t-shirt off over his head. Dean licks his lips as he stares unabashedly, broad, square palms trailing down over Castiel’s chest. Castiel ducks down to find Dean’s lips again, and gasps into Dean’s mouth when the man rolls his nipples under calloused thumbs.
Growling, he pulls back, sitting up to yank Dean’s t-shirt up over his head, desperate to feel Dean naked against him. Dean sits up too, and the ancient bed frame creaks protestingly beneath him. Dean gets caught up in his t-shirt and chuckles a muffled laugh of mixed annoyance and amusement into the fabric before ripping it off over his head.
“Fuck this bed is old,” he grumbles, circling his hand around the back of Castiel’s neck and drawing him down on top of him.
“Is it going to bother you?” Castiel mumbles absently, swallowing hard as he stares down at Dean’s naked body. “We could move to your room, instead.” Out of his clothes, Dean is even more beautiful than Castiel had imagined, all golden skin and tight muscles from his daily workouts, just a little lingering softness around his middle that Castiel wants to kiss and nip. Castiel ducks down, his mouth moving over the scattered constellations of freckles across Dean’s broad shoulders and chest, just barely visible in the dim light of the bedside lamp.
Dean huffs a short laugh and Castiel pulls back, arching an amused eyebrow up at him. “There’s a dog in there, man,” he says by way of explanation and Castiel must not do a very good job of concealing his laugh because Dean flushes and grumbles “shut up” before reaching to tug Castiel back up to meet his lips.
This time there are no interruptions, nothing to keep them from rocking their hips together through the fabric of their sleep pants until they are both hard and aching. There’s nothing to stop Castiel from dropping his head to lick and suck and nip at Dean’s nipple just to hear him groan and arch up into the touch, nor from slipping his hand under the waistband of Dean’s pants to fist his erection. Dean bucks his hips into Castiel’s grip, whispering “c’mon, Cas,” urgently into Castiel’s ear as he reaches to push Castiel’s pants down over his hips, followed by his own.
Then they’re both naked, blankets shoved down around their waists as they thrust against one another, cocks trapped together between their bodies, strong arms holding each other close. Castiel leverages himself up over Dean, covering his body until they are pressed together from ankle to chest and kisses him hard, slipping his tongue alongside Dean’s into his mouth, sucking on the tip of Dean’s tongue when it darts into his. Dean groans, an achingly erotic sound that sends shocks of pleasure rocketing down to Castiel’s groin.
He rocks into the tight space between them, Dean’s erection sliding up against his. It’s dry at first, quickly going slick with pre-come as they work against each other, fucking against each other’s bodies in tight, rolling thrusts. They’re not so much kissing now as they are panting into each other’s mouths, nipping and sucking messily, choked off cries slipping unbidden from their lips.
Dean bends his legs and thrusts his hips upwards, his hands gripping Castiel’s hips tight as he grinds them together, and then Castiel gasps out "Ah, Dean!" and the tense heat curling low in his belly races through him, a wave of pleasure sparking up his spine as he shoots white over Dean’s stomach and chest. Dean’s eyes snap open and he stares up at Castiel through blown pupils until he comes down, collapsing against Dean to press sweet kisses to the underside of his jaw.
When he catches his breath, Castiel pushes himself up and reaching down to curl his fingers once again around Dean’s cock. It’s not long before Dean follows him over the edge, fucking the tight circle of Castiel’s fist, slickened by Castiel’s come, and when Dean cries out, Castiel kisses the sound right out of his mouth and brings him down with a slow hand combing gently through the coarse strands of his hair.
“Fuck,” Dean says finally, his voice hoarse and wrecked as he blinks up at Castiel.
Castiel smiles and reaches for his t-shirt, using it to wipe away the mess between their bodies and from his hand. “That seems a fairly accurate assessment,” he muses breathlessly, tossing the t-shirt to the floor at the foot of the bed to be dealt with tomorrow. He slides back up beside Dean, resting on his side so that he can trace the curves of Dean’s face with his gaze.
Dean groans, flipping over onto his side and burrowing into the shadow cast by Castiel and his own body. “Ugh, I don’t want to get up.”
“Then stay,” Castiel says, without thinking. He catches the expression on Dean’s face and adds, “Just for a little while.”
Dean looks up from under long lashes, his eyes a splash of bright green under sleepy lids heavy with post-coital haze. He studies Castiel’s face for a moment, then mumbles gruffly, “Yeah, okay.” He slings an arm over Castiel’s hip, closing his eyes and settling in with a wiggle of his hips, and they both chuckle helplessly when the bed creaks protestingly beneath him.
Still smiling, Castiel stretches over Dean to flick off the light, brushing a gentle kiss over Dean’s temple as he goes.
Then stay, Cas had said, so nonchalant, so easy, as if it were nothing, and Dean had. He stays the next night too, and the night after that, and every night before they have to leave for Anchorage for the pre-race events. He always sneaks out early, before Sam wakes up, tip-toeing back to his room to catch the last few hours before he has to be up to get his workout in.
It’s not that he wants to hide this whatever-it-is with Cas from his brother, exactly. But he doesn’t want to explain that he’s not just fucking around with the guy. Dean’s a sexual guy; everyone knows it. He likes sex, loves it even; loves the connection it gives and the no-strings afterwards. In his younger years he had been known to bring home a different girl (or yes, the occasional guy) every weekend, but this is more than just Cas being the hottest guy in his general vicinity who was willing to say yes.
There’s something about Cas, something about his dry humor, the way he listens so intently when you’re talking like what you have to say is important. There’s the way he seems so genuinely impressed with all the little things Dean does, as if they aren’t the most normal things in the world. Somehow, for some reason, Cas appreciates him. And he thinks he might like the guy. He might like him a lot. But he can’t even really admit that to himself, let alone admit it to Sam, especially since whatever it is they’re doing is nowhere near the realms of a good idea.
Just a week before they leave for Anchorage, Dean sneaks out of Castiel’s room around 2 am, leaving a heavily sleeping Cas behind. Sam had been out with Jess so they’d been a little louder than usual, and they’d traded blowjobs that night and god, Cas’ mouth—he’d be thinking about that for probably all of his shower sessions for the foreseeable future. He’d tasted himself in Castiel’s mouth when Cas had crawled back up to kiss him, and the reverence in his kiss had made Dean’s breath catch in his chest.
He closes the door behind him, shutting out the image of a thoroughly rumpled, softly snoring Cas and tamping down the unwelcome rush of affection that fills his chest. He pads back down the hallway, avoiding the creaking parts of the floor so as not to wake up Sam.
“Dean?” A light flicks on in the kitchen and Dean freezes in his tracks, almost literally caught in the headlights. He turns towards the front entrance slowly, squinting in the sudden light, and comes face to face with his brother, pink-nosed and rosy-cheeked from outside—and wearing an expression that says he knows exactly what Dean had been sneaking back from doing.
“Why are you getting home so late?” Dean asks, trying for misdirection.
Sam’s eyes narrow, even as a flush rises in his cheeks. “Went back to Jess’ after our date. What are you doing?”
“Nice,” Dean says, grinning and holding out a fist, pretending not to hear the question. “Way to go, Sammy.”
Sam ignores his outstretched fist, crossing his arms over his broad chest. “Were you just coming out of Cas’ room?”
“Uh. No, I was just—”
“Don’t lie to me, I’m not an idiot.” Sam brushes past Dean into the kitchen and plugs in the kettle, pulling out the fixings for hot chocolate. “So, you and Cas?”
Dean slides down at the kitchen table with a sigh, dragging a palm over his face. “Yeah, I guess. So?”
Sam turns to lean back against the counter and shrugs his big shoulders. “So nothing.”
“What, you’re not going to give me a lecture?” Dean’s eyebrows slide upwards towards his hairline. “I thought you’d be all, ‘why’d you have to sleep with the writer, Dean? You’re just gonna make everything awkward, Dean.’” Dean points a mockingly stern finger at his brother, imitating him in a ridiculous falsetto.
Sam rolls his eyes. “One, that sounds nothing like me, and two, no I’m not going to give you a lecture. I’ve seen how you look at each other, dumbass. Besides, you’re an adult; you don’t need me telling you who you can or can’t sleep with. As long as I don’t have to hear it, I’m cool with it.”
Dean blinks as Sam turns to unplug the kettle where it’s boiling happily, pouring the water into the two mugs he’d divvied up the chocolate into. “Wow, that’s—thanks, Sammy.”
“Yeah, no problem.” Sam sets one of the mugs down in front of Dean, steaming chocolate filled up to the brim, with a handful of tiny marshmallows floating in it. Best little brother ever, really.
“So what’s going to happen when he goes back home after the race?” Sam asks, sliding into the empty seat across from Dean.
Dean shrugs, bringing his cup up to sip gingerly at the steaming liquid. “Dunno, Sam. Haven’t thought that far ahead yet.” It’s a flagrant lie, and maybe Sam knows it because he watches Dean closely with heavy hazel eyes, but thankfully doesn’t press, choosing instead to change the subject.
“Since you’re up, I wanted to talk to you about something,” Sam says, cupping his own mug between his gigantic palms and fixing Dean with a serious expression. “About our teams for the race.”
Dean groans, scrubbing a hand down his face and pinching wearily at the bridge of his nose. They’d been avoiding the subject of teams for the race since their argument last week, putting off the conversation as long as possible. Sam’s right though; they’re coming down to the wire and it’s high time they ironed out their teams.
“Sam—” Dean begins warily, steeling himself for a fight, but Sam cuts him off.
“No, Dean, you said your piece the other day and now it’s my turn.” Sam glares at him and then goes on before Dean has a chance to object. “My whole life you’ve taken care of me. When Dad was away on business or too drunk to do it, you were the one who made sure I got fed and did my homework and went to bed on time. You got me to soccer practice and to after school study groups and gave me the money to take my first girlfriend on a date. I know it’s like… instinct for you or something, to take care of me and to put me before yourself but you have to stop, man.”
Dean makes a face. “It’s too goddamn early in the morning for this shit.”
“Shut up, Dean,” Sam interrupts. “It’s not your job to take care of me anymore. I can take care of myself. I’m a damn good musher, and you know it. Our dogs are awesome—you know, you trained them yourself. And I’m not going to let you take all the rookies while I run all the best dogs and risk your own safety just so I have a better chance. We split the teams evenly, or I’m not running at all.”
Dean’s speechless. He gapes at his brother, who calmly picks up his mug of hot chocolate and takes a sip.
“Shit, Sam,” Dean says finally. “And I thought I was a stubborn dick.”
Sam snorts. “Guess it runs in the family.”
Dean rakes a hand through his hair. It really is too fucking early for this conversation. He’s not happy with it but he recognizes the look on Sam’s face; he’d seen it on Dad too many times to count. Not for the first time he marvels at how much of John Sam inherited, even as he recognizes the things that made him better than their father, that came from somewhere else. He feels a rush of pride, even as he scowls over Sam’s victory.
“Fine,” he says finally, holding up a hand when Sam’s face brightens. “Hold on a sec. We’ll split them evenly, but you’re taking Chevy.”
“What? Dean, she’s your favorite dog. No way.”
“Yes way,” Dean counters grimly. “Sure she's my favorite but she’s also our best dog and you know it. Only way I'm agreeing to this.”
Sam sighs, rubbing his forehead exasperatedly. Then it’s his turn to say “Fine. Guess I should take what I can get.”
“Damn straight,” Dean says, throwing back the last of the hot chocolate in his mug, rising to put the empty cup in the sink. “Now I’m going back to bed before you can suck me into any more arguments I’m gonna lose.”
He starts back towards his bedroom, Sam calling behind him, “Why don’t you sneak back in with Cas, instead?”
“Fuck you!” Dean calls cheerily over his shoulder in response, shaking his head and smiling in spite of himself when he’s safely shut in behind his bedroom door.
The last week before the race is spent frantically packing, double-checking supplies and running dogs. Sam has the time booked off from the clinic, so he’s home all hours too, and it seems as though every moment is spent in preparation. Now that they’ve settled on which dogs they're taking, they spend their afternoons on training runs, working the dogs together and finding the perfect fit for each. Both their teams come together beautifully, the hours spent training and race experience from previous years showing in the dogs’ muscle tone, endurance and enthusiasm. They run together and Castiel sometimes joins them as a passenger, or on one memorable occasion, driving the snowmobile by himself ahead of them to groom the trail. He picked it up fast, just as he had with driving the dogsled, and the three of them had stopped to have a fire in the clearing partway down the trail, roasting hotdogs and marshmallows over the cooker from Sam’s sled.
It’s a relief, now that Sam knows about them, that they don’t have to sneak around anymore. Neither of them are much into PDA, but Dean doesn’t have to watch how long he looks at Cas anymore, or how close he stands to him, and he doesn’t bother to climb back into his own bed in the middle of the night, choosing instead to wake up next to Cas more often than not. Sam doesn’t say anything, although Dean sometimes turns around to find him watching them, and has to roll his eyes at Sam’s knowing smile. His brother is such a sap.
Bobby and Jess come over the Sunday before the race, exam equipment and vet forms in hand and go through the entire 32 dogs Sam and Dean are planning on running in the race. They make their way through the dog yard, ensuring they are all healthy enough for the race, and Castiel follows them dutifully around the dog yard as they go over the dogs, listening carefully and making mental notes for his article. The guy has a pretty kick-ass memory; Dean never sees him use a recorder or a notepad or anything like that, remembering everything he’s told and spitting it back out into his computer later when he sits with Dean in his workshop, or on the couch beside Chevy in the evenings while Dean and Sam play video games. Sometimes he asks for clarification but otherwise just types away, lines and lines of text winding their way across his laptop screen.
All the dogs receive a clean bill of health, and on Thursday, the three of them, along with Jo and Jess, pile into Dean’s truck for the two hour drive to Anchorage. Sam rides shotgun, and Cas sits quietly in the back, sandwiched between Jess and Jo while the other four gossip about race strategies and this year’s contenders and who’s likely to win the race. Jess has a bet in on Dorothy Baum whose dogs are in the best shape she’s ever seen, and Dean thinks that Mitch and Dallas Seavey, the father and son duo from an entire family of mushers who took the last two races, have the best shot, and if not them, then Aliy Zirkle, who’s taken second the last three years running. Sam’s pretty sure he and Dean have a shot at the top ten if not the winning spot—to which Dean scoffs but says nothing—and Jo just smiles a predatory grin like she knows something the rest of them don’t.
Cas just watches in amused silence, his head turning back and forth between them as they argue, until his eyes meet Dean’s in the rearview mirror. Slowly, a smile crinkles around the corners of Cas’ eyes, bright and blue and fixed on his in the mirror, and Dean feels an answering smile tug up the corners of his mouth without his say-so.
“Dean, if you drive us into a ditch because you’re too busy ogling your boyfriend to keep the truck on the road I will beat the crap out of you,” Jo says matter of factly, and Dean flushes and tears his eyes away while Jess and Sam laugh.
“Yeah laugh it up, fuzzballs, I’ll make you walk the rest of the way,” he grumbles, flashing a wink to Cas in the rearview mirror.
They roll into Anchorage around four in the afternoon, pulling up to the Elysian Fields Hotel where Dean parks off to the side in the area cordoned off for dog trucks. He recognizes a few of the rigs there, including one that definitely belongs to—
“Victor!” Dean calls, jumping out of the vehicle and jogging over to clasp hands with his friend, pulling him in to thump him on the back. “How’s it hangin’, man?”
Victor grins and hugs back, “Oh you know, the usual. Gettin’ ready to kick your sorry ass, Winchester.”
Dean scoffs. “In your dreams, Henriksen. Did you just get in?”
“Nah, couple hours ago. Just been ex-in’ dogs. You hear about the trail conditions?”
Dean’s brow furrows and he crosses his arms over his chest. “Sam checked before we left and no one had any news. Why, should we be worried?”
Victor purses his lips together grimly, bending to drop some kibbles in the bowl of water sitting between two dogs where they’re tied out to his truck. “Supposed to be the worst conditions in years. Barely any snow cover, and the Gorge is a wreck.”
Dean turns to look back at his brother, laughing with Jess and Cas at some crack Jo just made. The Dalzell Gorge is one of the trickier parts of the trail, and in bad conditions it can be a nightmare. Definitely not the place for rookies. Luckily none of them are rookies, and he’s sure it’s nothing any of them can’t handle. He worries about Sam, but Sam was right; he doesn’t need to be worried about him. His brother’s a better musher than he is, better than most of the other mushers out there. He claps Victor on the shoulder, shooting him a cocky grin. “What, you gonna let some tough conditions get you scared?”
Victor snorts, shaking him off. “Not on your life. Just wanted your wussy ass to know, in case you decided to back out.”
“Never.” Dean grins. “See you at the banquet?”
“You got it,” Victor calls back, returning to his chores.
Dean makes his way back to the truck and they take all the dogs out to stretch their legs and to give them some fresh water before checking in and meandering to their rooms. The girls have a room together and Dean and Sam have their own room next door, and Cas has a separate room booked on a higher floor by some assistant at the magazine.
They settle in and get ready for the banquet, Sam claiming the shower first to give those luscious locks of his time to dry while Dean flips through channels on their fancy-ass TV, sprawled out on the bedspread like a damn king. He takes his turn in the shower and shaves meticulously, dressing in a soft grey-brown henley over his standard black t-shirt and nicest jeans.
When they get down to the lobby and see Cas standing there with Jess and Jo, he stops dead in his tracks, swallowing hard. Because as good as Cas looks in worn blue jeans and soft hoodies and clingy t-shirts, as good as he looks buck naked, slicked with sweat and moving over or under Dean, there’s definitely something to be said for business casual Cas, who happens to make Dean want to rip off all said attire and get straight to the buck naked part.
Cas’ camera—the fancy one, not the skinny portable thing he takes when they go out on the sled —is slung over his shoulder by the worn leather strap, and his coat is clutched in one hand, waiting to be donned before they go outside. He’s shaved too, all the peach fuzz gone to reveal the sharp cut of his angled jaw and expose the high arch of his cheekbones. His hair is styled—actually styled, for the first time since Dean met him—into an artful disarray that just makes Dean want to get his hands in there and mess it up. And he’s wearing a black fitted button down over slim-cut black jeans, both of which hug his body in a way that makes Dean’s mouth go dry.
“Uh, hey,” Dean says and Cas grins as if he knows exactly what he’s doing, the smug bastard.
“Hello Dean,” he says, and his eyes rake over Dean’s body just like Dean’s must have done to his. “You look very nice. I like that shirt.” He doesn’t touch him, doesn’t go in for a kiss, but he moves over to his side, just far enough into his personal space that Dean can feel him there at the edge of his bubble, and the urge to grab him and get his hands all over him is palpable.
“Uh yeah, same to you, man,” Dean coughs out.
Jo snorts, shoving her way in between them. “Can you guys stop eye-fucking now?” She rolls her eyes heavenward as she shoves her arms into the sleeves of her coat. “Why did I think it was a good idea to be a fifth wheel on this trip?”
“Aw, you jealous, Jo?” Dean teases. “Don’t worry, you look hot, too, Harvelle.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she says, and shoves them both along after Sam and Jess to the exit.
The banquet is a good time as always, meeting up with mushers they haven’t seen since last year’s race, gossiping about the trail and razzing each other good-naturedly. It’s unlike any other kind of sporting event Dean has ever been a part of; there are no petty rivalries among mushers, no back talking or underhanded compliments. Maybe it’s because the whole sport is about the dogs more than it is about winning; maybe it’s because the kind of people who are drawn to it just aren’t the kind of people who start drama. Whatever the case, he considers every single musher in this room a comrade in arms, a friend even, and there’s something pretty fucking awesome about knowing that every single one of the people in this room would stop to help you on the trail if you needed it, even if it cost them the race.
Cas wanders off while the others mingle, occasionally stopping by to be introduced to someone important (like Rufus Turner, former Iditarod Champ and current Race Marshal, who talks his ear off for twenty minutes about rules and procedures before Dean can pull him away) and to say hi to Bobby and Dorothy, who he apparently met at the clinic when he was there with Sam. The rest of the time he entertains himself, snapping photos of the banner over the stage and the handmade place cards in the shapes of sled dogs that were made, they are told, by kids at one of the local schools.
Sam finds Dean and pulls him away from conversation with Victor to go shmooze with sponsors. It’s Dean’s least favorite part of the whole experience, but as Sam has pointed out time and time again, it’s important. By the time he manages to pry himself away, he finds Cas deep in conversation with Cassie Robinson, the features writer at the Anchorage Daily News. They’d been friends since the Winchesters’ first Iditarod, when they’d gotten to know each other over hot chocolate in McGrath.
Cassie spots him first. She looks good smiling up at him, her dark curls loose around her shoulders. “Hey Dean,” she says, and Cas turns to smile warmly at him.
“Hey, Cas and Cassie, glad you guys met.” Dean gives her a quick hug before sliding over to Cas’ side. “Cas tell you he’s a reporter too?”
“Journalist,” they correct together, and then shoot each other a grin.
“Yeah, whatever, know-it-alls,” Dean chuckles.
“And yes, Dean, Cassie was just telling me about their newspaper and I was telling her about the magazine. It seems she’s covering the race too, so I’ll likely see her on the trail a great deal.” He smiles down at her. “It will be nice to know someone along the way when I’m waiting for the Winchesters to come into the checkpoints.”
“Don’t worry, Castiel, I’ll show you how to have a good time on the Iditarod Trail,” she says, with a friendly smile. “Anyway, I should get back. Enjoy the rest of the banquet, Castiel, and I’ll see you out there. And good luck, Dean.”
She disappears into the crowd and Dean claps a hand on Cas’ shoulder. “We should probably find our table soon. The banquet part of this shindig looks like it’s getting ready to start and I’m starving.” Cas rolls his eyes affectionately, but follows Dean to the table nonetheless.
Dinner is delicious, and Dean has seconds of the chicken parm because he paid a buttload of money to run in this race and he’s getting his money’s worth. They sit through the speeches, trying their best to look interested even though the history of the race is more or less for fans and sponsors, rather than the mushers, who’ve all heard it two dozen times before and know it forwards and backwards themselves.
But Cas—Cas sits rapt through the entire proceedings, listening intently as Rufus tells them how the Iditarod came to be, starting with the history of sled dogs as transportation in Alaska, and of course, the serum run in 1925 during which dog sled teams were used to transport anti-diphtheria medicine from Anchorage to Nome, ultimately saving hundreds of lives. Cas also gets to hear the less-told story, the one the media didn’t sensationalize with some kids movie about a wolf-dog and a goose, of how Joe Redington organized the race to preserve the history and use of the sled dog and of the historic Iditarod Trail.
Cas stares so long and so hard at the stage that Dean starts to suspect he might have frozen that way and he’s starting to get a little worried that Cas’ eyeballs might dry out if he doesn’t blink soon, so he leans in the couple inches between their chairs and bumps him with his shoulder.
Castiel jumps, startled, then narrows his eyes in a glare when they meet Dean’s. “Dean, I’m trying to learn,” he says, voice low and so serious that Dean has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.
“God, you’re such a nerd, Cas,” he teases affectionately, nudging him with his elbow. “Take it easy, buddy, all this shit’s on the internet if you miss anything you need for your article.”
Cas rolls his eyes. “It’s interesting,” he hisses, and he bumps Dean’s thigh with the back of his hand in reprimand as he turns back to the stage. Grinning, Dean catches his hand in his own and laces their fingers together under the table, and Cas turns back briefly to smile slowly at him and give his hand a squeeze before directing his attention back to the stage where Rufus is finishing his speech.
The mushers all get their bib numbers for the race (Dean draws #35 and Sam #21) and the brothers’ eyes meet over the table, giving each other a nod. Tomorrow is the last day off before the race, where, in addition to having the last shower and shave and sleep in a proper bed for the next week and a half, they’ll discuss strategy one more time, go over their plan and make sure they’re on the same page. Every year they run together, taking the same rest stops, sticking together wherever possible on the trail and this year is no different. They’ve planned their mandatory layovers to be taken in Takotna and Kaltag if all goes according to plan, and they’ll start out slow, saving the dogs’ stamina so they can keep it steady throughout and have the gas for a last push at the end.
Dean’s goal is to finish in under 11 days, improving on their last time of 11 days, 9 hours. Sam wants to do it in under 10.
By the time the banquet wraps up and they’ve done the rest of their mingling, sharing drinks and company with as many of the other mushers as they can and wishing everyone good luck on the race on Saturday, they stumble down the road back to the hotel, all except Jo who was deep in conversation with Cassie when they left and by the looks of things, in full-on flirting mode. Sam slings his arm around Jess’ shoulder while they walk, long legs carrying them ahead, while Dean and Castiel follow more slowly behind, shoulders bumping as they walk, side by side, hands shoved into coat pockets against the cool night air.
Back at the hotel, they pile into Dean and Sam’s room and watch movies on one of those premium channels they can’t afford at home. Jo comes in around midnight and climbs over Dean to squash herself in between him and Cas on Dean’s bed and refuses to answer any questions about how the rest of her night went, although she does grin salaciously and Dean thinks he spots a hickey under the collar of her henley. She falls asleep curled into Castiel who blinks, bewildered and adorable, over her head at Dean when he chuckles softly and stretches over her to give Cas a peck on the lips.
Sam and Jess fall asleep in a giant pile of mile-long limbs and way too much hair on Sam’s bed and Cas follows shortly after. Dean doesn’t have the heart to wake anyone up to kick them out, so he just reaches over Cas and Jo to grab the remote and flick off the light before burrowing down under the covers himself.
Friday is spent finalizing race plans, exercising dogs and checking equipment, making sure everything is ready for the big day. Sam obsessively recites their race schedule as Cas takes detailed notes so he’ll know where to meet them. Jo is pig-headedly tight-lipped about her plan, so naturally Dean spends the day trying to wheedle it out of her until she punches him in the arm. They have pizza delivered for dinner and eat again in the Winchesters’ hotel room before everyone splits to go to their separate hotel rooms for the night, no one wishing to wake up with kinks in their backs from sleeping in a dog pile like the night before.
He’s already said goodnight to Cas, a quick peck on the lips exchanged at the door before Cas slipped out into the hall, but Dean only makes it through another fifteen minutes of the inane procedural crime show they have playing in the background before he shoves himself up out of bed. He scoops his keys off the bedside table even though he has no intention of driving anywhere and shoves back into his boots where he’d left them beside the bed.
“Beer run,” he grunts at his brother who looks up knowingly from his laptop screen and cocks a disbelieving eyebrow.
“Yeah, sure, Dean. Tell your boyfriend I said ‘Hi.’”
“Not my boyfriend,” Dean grumbles to himself as he makes his way over to the door.
“Sure he isn’t,” Sam calls back knowingly, and Dean flips him the bird over his shoulder as he shuts the door behind him.
Cas answers the door blinking quizzically, wearing pajama pants and a worn, white Yale t-shirt with holes in the hem and the collar, his hair standing up all over his head. His mouth curls into a fond smile when he sees Dean standing there and he wordlessly pulls the door open wider and beckons for Dean to come in.
The room is fancier than Sam and Dean’s, bigger and with more elaborate furniture. Castiel’s laptop is perched closed on the big dark-stained desk, his camera sitting alongside it. The center of the room is taken up by an enormous king-sized bed, far too big for one person. Dean can think of a lot of fun ways to make use of the extra space, though.
“I thought you would want to talk with Sam tonight before the race,” Cas says as he shuts the door and turns the deadbolt again.
Dean shakes his head, kicking off his boots and throwing himself uninvited onto the bed. “I’m going to be spending the next week and a half with the guy on the trail; we’re already gonna want to rip each other’s heads off by the end.” He winks as Cas makes his way over to the bed. “Besides, why would I want to hang out with my brother when I could be here with you instead?”
Castiel pauses at the foot of the bed, one eyebrow arching towards his hairline. “Does that line usually work on your conquests?”
“Yeah, usually,” Dean smirks, lacing his fingers together behind his head on Cas’ pillow. “You sayin’ it’s not working?”
Castiel climbs up, crawling slowly up the bed to straddle Dean’s hips. He pauses with his hands on Dean’s shoulders, his eyes hot as he stares down at Dean. “I didn’t say that.” He strokes his long fingers down Dean’s chest, caressing. “Are you nervous about the race tomorrow?”
Dean shakes his head, sliding his palms up from Cas’ knees to his thighs. The fabric of his pants is soft under his hands, the lines of Cas’ muscle lean and hard beneath. “Nah. Tomorrow’s just the Ceremonial Start; it‘s just a show for the media and the fans. The real race starts the day after back in Willow.” He shrugs, moving his hands up higher, letting his thumbs stroke teasingly over the crease of Castiel’s thighs. “Either way, we’ve done this thing a few times now. We’re pros.”
Cas tugs his lower lip between his teeth, eyes darkening as he looks down at Dean. Dean fights a grin, arching into the press of Cas’ hands where they graze his nipples through his t-shirt, and chokes back his gasp when Cas thumbs across them with more intent.
“What about you, man?” he manages, his voice coming out a little unsteady. “Nervous? Excited?”
Cas’ hips rock once gently against Dean’s, tilting into his hands, and Dean’s cock twitches in anticipation. “Excited,” Cas says, and fuck, his voice is rough. “I’m looking forward to following your race. You’ve talked so much about it and now I finally get to see.” Dean nods but Cas isn’t done, and he punctuates his next words with a rough, dirty grind of his hips against Dean’s that pulls a low moan from Dean’s throat. “But I’ll miss this,” he admits, his voice low and husky, and finally bends to seal his lips to Dean’s.
“Mmm,” Dean hums his agreement into Cas’ mouth, and he feels the quirk of Cas’ lips when he smiles. His hands find Cas’ hips, thumbing over the sharp ridge of bone over the soft fabric of his pants, pulling him down tighter, and Cas obligingly grinds down into his lap, pulling a groan from both of them. Dean teases at the seam of Cas’ lips until Cas opens to the touch, meeting the thrusts of his tongue with his own as he rocks down into Dean’s growing erection.
Cas sits up to pull off his t-shirt and Dean follows suit, coiling his arms around Cas’ firm waist and sucking kisses into the line of his collar bone. He wants to leave a mark for Cas to look at while Dean’s out on the trail, when they can’t have this every day like they have for the past few weeks. It’s a stupid possessive thought but he gives into it anyway, sucking hard to pull up a bruise on Cas’ tan skin. Cas doesn’t seem to mind, arching his back into the press of Dean’s mouth, his hands sliding up into Dean’s hair as Dean licks and kisses his way down Cas’ chest to tease first one nipple, then the other, working them with his tongue and lips and teeth.
Dean pulls back, grinning and rolls them over, sliding off of Cas just to get his pants and boxer-briefs down his legs, pausing on the way back up to slide his tongue up Cas’ shaft and close his lips around the head, sucking gently. “God, Dean, yes,” Cas hisses, fingers tightening in Dean’s hair and pulling, the tension on his scalp making Dean’s cock twitch in his jeans. He groans around Cas’ dick, sucking harder, and he doesn’t try to hold him down when Cas’ hips buck involuntarily, thrusting his erection further into Dean’s mouth.
Dean loves the taste of Cas, the heady smell of him, the weight of that thick cock on his tongue. He takes him in deeper until the head bumps the back of his throat, and the sound Cas makes when Dean swallows around him has Dean reaching down to palm his own cock through his jeans.
He could keep going like this, suck Cas off until he comes in his mouth, open his pants and jerk off, and that would be great-- that would be fucking awesome, actually--but tonight what he really wants is something else, something they haven’t done yet, and once that thought crosses his mind he can’t get it out of his head. He pulls back regretfully, tonguing around the head of Cas’ dick before pulling all the way off. Cas makes a dismayed sound and looks down at him, loosening his clenched fingers to card his hands gently through Dean’s hair.
“Dean? What’s wrong?”
Dean turns to kiss Cas’ palm where it runs down out of Dean’s hair and over his cheek. “Nothing Cas, I just—” he grimaces— “I really want you to fuck me but I kinda need to be in ship shape for the thousand mile race I’m about to run tomorrow.” He grins sheepishly, leaning his head regretfully against Cas’ hip.
Cas’ expression doesn’t change, stays impassive as his long fingers comb soothing paths through the short strands of Dean’s hair. “Well,” he says thoughtfully, licking his lips, “if you wanted, you could have me instead.”
Dean’s lips curl into a slow grin and he crawls back up Cas’ body, pressing strategic kisses on his ribs, his nipple, his collarbone as he makes his way up. “Yeah? You sure?” It’s not exactly what he wanted, but it’s pretty fucking good and he’ll take it; he just wants more, wants to be wrapped up tight with Cas, to drown in him. He makes it level with Cas’ face and when he meets his eyes, Cas’ pupils are blown wide with need, lids heavy and hooded.
“Yes, Dean, please fuck me.”
“Shit,” Dean groans and lunges in to kiss him. Cas returns the kiss with equal fervor, hands moving to undo the fly of Dean’s jeans and slipping inside to grip his erection while Dean shoves and kicks and wiggles the jeans and his boxers down and off.
Cas shoves him off moments later and dives buck naked off the bed to fish in his suitcase, coming up with a condom and a small bottle of lube that he tosses on the bed beside Dean. He crawls back on the bed and splays himself out like a goddamn offering to the gods, all naturally tanned skin and lean muscle, hips rolling, fucking up into nothing as he waits impatiently for Dean to get his fingers slicked up and slip them inside.
“Hurry, Dean, hurry,” he whispers roughly as Dean works the first finger in, twisting and pressing. “Need you, need your cock.”
Dean groans, “Dammit, Cas, your mouth,” and presses his head against Cas’ ribcage, eyes closed tight against the tug of arousal in his groin. He works faster, lubed-up fingers sliding in and out, scissoring him wider until Cas bats his hand away and reaches for him, his hand closing hot and tight over his shoulder. Dean rolls on the condom and grabs the lube to slick himself up, lines up and then he’s there, pushing slowly into Cas.
“Fuck,” he groans, long and low, breathing hard and pressing his face to the side of Cas’ neck. He eases inside inch by inch until he’s fully sheathed, hips pressed against Cas’ ass. He turns to feather kisses up the tense line of muscle in Cas’ neck, his body tight against the need to move as he waits for Cas to adjust. “You okay?”
Cas nods frantically, his eyes squeezed tightly shut. “Move, Dean.” So Dean does, pulling slowly back and then easing forward back into him, feeling Cas’ body tighten around him, pulling him in. It’s only a few slow thrusts before Cas is rolling his hips upward to meet every push of Dean’s, his hands sliding down to grip Dean’s ass and pull him in deeper, faster. “Harder,” he demands, almost grumpily, “I won’t break.”
Dean lets out a breathless chuckle and does as he’s told, fucking into him with harder and harder thrusts until Cas is moaning and writhing underneath him, ankles locking together at his lower back and fingers digging tight into his shoulders. Dean grunts and gasps and fucks down harder, biting at Cas’ neck and fisting a hand in that thick, gorgeous hair. “You close, Cas?” he chokes out and Cas nods frantically, hanging on for dear life even as he tilts his hips up to get more. Dean wedges his free hand between their bodies and wraps around Cas’ dick, jerking him fast, hungry for Cas’ release.
And Cas doesn’t disappoint, arching back and gasping as he paints both their stomachs and chests with come, and it’s that image, of Cas in the throes of orgasm and looking so damn beautiful that has Dean coming undone too, groaning “Cas” into the crook of his neck as he spills into the condom.
The thundering in his ears fades and he comes down to Cas combing his fingers through Dean’s hair again, pressing gentle kisses to the side of his face. He turns into the kisses, finding Cas’ lips with his and wondering how the hell they got here and what he did to deserve it.
He drags himself out of bed to dump the condom in the trash and clean them up with a warm washcloth that he hucks back into the bathroom afterwards and climbs back into bed with Cas, underneath the blankets this time. Cas kisses his temple and the arch of his cheekbone before finding his lips again, and it’s nice, lying here in bed with Cas, fucked-out and blissful and fuzzy with post-orgasm haze. It’s the kind of haze that makes you stupid, that makes Dean think things he's not supposed to, and it’s that haze that he blames for what he says next.
“Hey Cas?” He moves his head away so he can look across the pillow at Castiel without going cross-eyed. He strokes his thumb over the back of Cas’ hand where they’ve somehow gotten laced together. “What happens after the race?”
Cas’ dopey smile twists into a confused frown, his brow furrowing. “After the race I go back home to California.”
Dean’s stomach twists unpleasantly. “No, I mean, what happens with you and me?”
Castiel blinks at him, blue eyes wide, and then he says, “I don’t know.”
It shouldn’t hurt but it does, the words punching right through Dean’s solar plexus. Cas doesn’t know, because there’s nothing to know, at least not on his side of things. And there it is, proof that Dean’s the only one in this thing with feelings, feelings he was never supposed to have in the first place. Dean’s not stupid, he knows how he looks, knows that he’s a decent lay, but apparently that’s all he’s good for because Cas wasn’t even thinking about after. He knew it was a bad idea to let himself feel shit; it always gets him into trouble.
“Yeah, okay,” he says, his voice deceptively calm even as his stomach roils, and he clambers out of bed and starts pulling his clothes back on. “So I guess I should get back to bed. Got an early start tomorrow.” He doesn’t meet Cas’ eyes, even when Cas calls his name softly.
“It’s all good, man,” Dean says gruffly, “see you tomorrow,” and then he’s gone, pounding the stairs down to his and Sam’s room because he doesn’t want to wait for the elevator.
He shoves into their hotel room and is met not with Sam’s gigantic form but Jo’s small one, stretched out with her arms behind her head on Dean’s bed, a bag of chips open in her lap.
“What, no date with Cassie tonight?” he barks, maybe a little gruffer than he means to. He doesn’t wait for an answer, kicking off his boots as the door swings shut behind him. “Where’s Sam?
Jo just scoffs. “Where do you think he is? He’s in my room with Jess, doing what you were just doing five minutes ago with Cas.” She sits up, scanning him suspiciously. “Speaking of which, what the hell are you doing back? I thought for sure I’d have the room to myself tonight.”
“None of your damn business,” Dean replies firmly. He flings himself on the bed beside her and grabs the bag of chips out of her lap, helping himself.
She studies him for a moment, and then hucks the remote at his face. He catches it, barely.
“Pick something to watch,” she demands, and scoops a handful of chips onto her thigh, settling back on the headboard without another word, and Dean flicks through channels and settles on something she probably won’t hate, just because he’s grateful that she doesn’t pry.
Regarding the movie referenced in this chapter, I am of course referring to Balto. It's a cartoon and naturally pretty inaccurate, but I ADORE it nonetheless . For the record, Balto did exist and he was part of the serum run, but he was a purebred Siberian Husky, not a wolf-dog, and he only led for the last leg of the journey into Nome. The longest and most difficult stretch of the trail was actually led by a different dog by the name of Togo, who deserves as many accolades as Balto. :) [insert "The More You Know" gif here]
The morning of the Ceremonial Start of the 42nd Iditarod, Castiel is jolted from sleep by the shrill, incessant sound of his alarm blaring from his bedside table. He reaches blearily for his phone, groping blindly and fumbling across the table until he finds it and somehow manages to switch it off. The blurry numbers on the screen read 6:33 am, and Castiel groans, shoving himself to his feet and stumbling to the bathroom to start the shower.
He’d slept poorly, tossing and turning all night in the too-hard hotel bed, and it takes two cups of coffee after his shower before he starts to feel human. Mornings are never kind to Castiel, and they are especially difficult when he’s been up all night thinking and worrying, his mind stuck on Dean and how he’d shut down last night. The pleasant ache inside that has Castiel walking a little gingerly this morning is a constant reminder of the—frankly incredible—sex they’d had, but then there had been that conversation, and Dean had disappeared from Castiel’s room with a suddenness that left him reeling. One minute they’d been curled up together and the next, Dean was pulling his clothes back on and disappearing.
Castiel frowns, shoving his possessions one by one back into his duffel bag. He’s never been good at this sort of thing, at communicating or at relationships or even at interacting with people in general. That’s why he writes for an outdoor living magazine: it dovetails perfectly into his interests of writing and spending time in solitude. But Dean is different; for some reason Dean gets under his skin in a way that he hasn’t felt in years. He doesn’t know exactly what Dean had been hoping to hear last night, he just knows that he had said the wrong thing and somehow he’d managed to hurt Dean, and that knowledge twists guiltily in his gut.
His packing done, Castiel shoulders his duffel bag and laptop case and makes his way down to the main floor. The lobby is crawling with mushers and fans all checking out, people buzzing busily around the room as he makes his way through their midst. He finally manages to locate his companions in the hotel restaurant, an empty chair left for him between Dean and Jo.
“Good morning,” he says, slipping down into the vacant seat, dropping his bags on the floor beside him. Dean looks up, hurriedly swallowing the sip of coffee he’d just taken.
“Hey,” he says, his voice gruff and empty. “Got you coffee.” He gestures with one broad hand at the plain white mug sitting to the right of Castiel’s placemat, curls of steam rising off the surface of the liquid inside.
“Thank you, Dean.” Castiel tries a smile but Dean just shrugs and looks away, brushing off Castiel’s gratitude and the apology he hides underneath with a mumbled, “don’t mention it.” Across the table, Sam cocks his head inquiringly but Castiel just shakes his head minutely. If Dean hadn’t told his brother what happened last night then it’s not Castiel’s place to do so. He looks down at his mug and busies himself doctoring his coffee, sipping it stoically until the waitress comes to take their orders.
Breakfast is over quickly and then the five of them pile back into Dean’s truck and head to 4th Avenue, where snow has been trucked in overnight to create a starting chute right downtown Anchorage. The real race will start tomorrow on Willow Lake, but today the mushers will run eleven miles from Anchorage to the Campbell Airstrip, each with a passenger who bid for the coveted spot in their sleds. There are cameras everywhere and the street is packed with fans lined up along the storefronts four deep, waving and cheering and filling the street with the roar of a crowd. Jo disappears to get her own sled ready, her dogs and gear brought by her mother this morning, and the Winchesters busy themselves preparing their own teams for the Ceremonial Start with the help of Castiel and Jess.
Sam is bib #21 so he is first of the three to take off, and Castiel, Jess, and Dean help him bring his dogs to the start line, where he meets Gertrude Case, an elderly woman with her hair perfectly coiffed beneath an expensive-looking fur cap. The woman proceeds to flirt outrageously with Sam, to Dean and Jess’ amusement. Sam scowls at his girlfriend and his brother, but he’s kept from commenting by the official announcer for Iditarod.com who comes to interview him. Sam gives a quick rundown of his strategy and his goals for the race, flashing a charming, friendly smile for the cameras as he converses easily with the reporter.
Sam takes off with Ms. Case firmly tucked into the sled, moving slowly down the snow-covered street, waving at the crowds of spectators who cheer as he passes by. Some of them have signs held aloft with the words “WINCHESTER KENNELS” emblazoned on them in enormous red lettering, and they are the ones that scream the loudest. Sam flushes at the attention but smiles in their direction, tossing dog booties to the fans, stuffed with candy and business cards for the vet clinic and Dean’s carpentry and the Roadhouse and their few small sponsors.
By the time Dean’s turn comes around over half an hour later, snow has started to fall in fat, white flakes, catching on Castiel’s eyelashes as he and Jess help lead Dean’s dogs up to the start line. Dean’s passenger is a pretty young woman with bright, calculating green eyes and light brown hair streaming out from under her hat, and she introduces herself with an English accent as Bela Talbot before climbing gracefully into the sled. Dean follows and says something to her in a low voice that makes her smirk broadly, but she’s interrupted from whatever she was about to reply when the announcer scurries over, followed by his cameraman.
“So, Dean Winchester,” the announcer asks as Dean straightens, “your brother already started in position 21. Over the last few years, you’ve run the race together, always choosing to stick by each other on the trail. Is it the same plan this year or do you have a new strategy for us?”
“Sam’s my brother and we run together, always,” Dean says easily, flashing a sparkling, cocky smile into the camera. “The dogs we have in our race teams have been running together all season and they all have the same training miles. We’ll be running side by side all the way to the end.”
The announcer nods as if he’d expected Dean’s answer. “Last year, Sam took a pretty bad fall and from what I hear, nearly broke his leg. Any thoughts on that?”
Castiel sees Dean stiffen, his smile faltering for just a moment, so swift as to be unnoticeable by anyone who doesn’t know him well. But then it’s gone as if it were never there, misgivings shoved down under the mask of bravado he’s put on for the public. “Sam’s a big boy, he can take care of himself. Our dogs are better trained this year; they’ve got way more miles under their belts and so does Sam. He’s gonna kick ass.” Dean shrugs, flashing a wink at the camera. “His hardest job is gonna be keeping up with me.”
The announcer laughs, wishing him the best of luck and stepping out of the way so that Dean can advance to the start line. Dean checks his dogs one last time before jogging back to stand on the runners, leaning down to say something in Bela’s ear. She nods and he grins, straightening up and turning to wave one last time at his friends where they stand off to the side of the starting chute.
Jess waves back enthusiastically at Castiel’s side as he raises his own hand in farewell. Dean’s eyes find Castiel’s and for a moment Dean seems to forget that he’s angry, his face creasing into a little smile. Castiel has never wanted so badly to kiss him, but there are crowds and cameras everywhere, and Dean remembers himself all too quickly, wiping the expression away and turning back to his sled. He pulls his snowhook and takes off out of the chute to cheers from the spectators, that cocky smile pasted back on his face, waving to the spectators as he goes.
Jess and Castiel stay with Ellen to help Jo take off, and then take their time packing up the Winchesters' truck. It’s a short drive to the Campbell Airstrip, where they meet the Winchesters and help them feed and water the dogs, loading the sleds and gear back into the truck before starting the hour and a half drive back to the kennel for the night. Some mushers choose to stay the night in Anchorage, but as Sam explains, with the Restart on Willow Lake much closer to home, they might as well spend one last night in their own beds before the big day.
It’s a quiet drive back to Winchester Kennels, Sam and Jess dutifully engaging him in conversation while Dean stares moodily out the windshield as he drives. They make a quick detour to drop Jess off at her house in Willow, a small bungalow in town on a quiet street close to the veterinary clinic. Sam walks her to the door and kisses her sweetly before jogging back to the truck, a flush in his cheeks as Dean smirks and pulls away from the curb.
When Dean finally makes the turn into the driveway at the Winchesters’ home, Krissy, Josephine and Aiden are on the front porch waiting for them, alerted to their return by the howling of the dogs still remaining in the yard. The teens have been tasked with caring for the dogs for the duration of the race, and they hurry down the steps as soon as Dean has the truck in park to help the Winchesters and Castiel unload the dogs.
“Hey old man,” Krissy calls as Dean steps down out of the truck, “did you wipe out?”
“C’mon Kris, what do you take me for?” Dean retorts. “I’m a fuckin’ pro! You think I can’t handle eleven measly miles?” The teen rolls her eyes, her lips twitching into a crooked smile as he pulls her into his side in a one-armed hug. “Good to see you’re all in one piece.”
Josephine snorts, pulling open one of the dog boxes and lifting down an excitedly wriggling Aero. “For now,” she calls, and both girls shoot a dark look at Aiden who studiously ignores them.
“Aw man, what did you do now?” Dean laughs, clapping him on the back on his way past.
Aiden shrugs unconvincingly. “Nothing, I swear! I don’t know what she’s talking about.”
Dean shakes his head, chuckling. “Yeah I’m sure you don’t. Do yourself a favor: don’t get on their bad sides. They can and will beat you up and I’m not gonna do a thing to stop it.”
Josephine and Krissy exchange broad grins and Aiden mutters something mutinous under his breath while the six of them continue to move the dogs back to their houses for the night.
Inside, the teens already have a fire crackling merrily in the wood stove, filling the little house with warmth, and a video game paused on the television. The old dog Jack is sprawled on his side across the carpet in the middle of the room, and he pushes himself excitedly to his feet to greet his returning friends.
It should have been a quiet relaxing evening—the teenagers taking care of all the chores then filing back inside to resume their video game while Sam, Dean and Castiel sit around the little dining room table, sipping their beer and making idle conversation—but somehow it isn’t. The atmosphere is tense, Dean responding to Castiel’s attempts at conversation with short, curt replies if he replies at all. It’s distressingly reminiscent of the first week of Castiel’s stay, and Sam’s suspicious, narrow-eyed glances between the two of them only serve to make Castiel feel worse. He knows this is his fault; he does have to go back home after the race, to his life and his apartment and his sister and his job, but the way Dean’s face had fallen before he’d managed to cover the emotion with gruff indifference—Castiel wishes he could go back and say something else, something that wouldn’t hurt Dean the way his “I don’t know” somehow had.
After much coercion on the part of the three teenagers, Dean makes them all his signature burgers for dinner, and the smile that lights his face when the girls hug him afterward makes Castiel’s chest ache. He sets up his laptop at the kitchen table while the Winchesters join the teens in some video game endeavor called “Nazi Zombies”, working on his article and sending a quick email to Zachariah with an update, letting him know that his contact may be sporadic from tomorrow onwards as he follows the Winchesters down the trail.
It’s still relatively early when he catches himself yawning, his body weary and heavy from his poor sleep the night before. He closes his laptop and starts gathering up the cord, thinking to retreat to his bedroom and call Anna before he turns in. He may not be as busy over the next week and a half as Sam and Dean will be but it might be his last night in peace and quiet and his last night sleeping in a proper bed until the race is over, and he intends to make the best of it.
Castiel looks up, surprised to find Dean paused with his hand on the handle of the refrigerator, gazing across the table at him impassively. “Hello Dean,” he responds warily, his hands pausing in their motion. His eyes flick once towards the living room, where the teenagers and Sam are engaged in some sort of lively debate, presumably about their video game which is currently paused.
“You turning in?” Dean asks, his voice low as he tugs open the refrigerator, coming up with two bottles of beer and a handful of sodas.
Castiel nods slowly. “I was hoping to call my sister one last time since I won’t be able to during the race.” He hesitates, his fingers curling tighter around the cable in his hands. “And I didn’t sleep well last night,” he admits.
Dean’s tongue flickers out nervously to wet his lips and Castiel can’t help the way his eyes track the motion. “I didn’t either,” Dean replies gruffly, his eyes falling to the table between them.
“Dean—” Castiel tries, the name falling pleading from his lips, but Dean just shakes his head, cutting him off.
“Forget it, Cas. There’s nothing to talk about.” He starts toward the living room, pausing briefly at Castiel’s side, and Castiel wants to reach for him but he doesn’t think he’s allowed. “Get some sleep, man,” Dean says, and then he slips away, passing out the drinks in his hands before slumping back down in his spot on the couch.
Castiel swallows and forces himself into motion, gathering up his computer and padding to his bedroom, changing into his sleep pants and shirt before calling Anna. He tries not to dwell on the thick weight of wrong that has settled in his stomach, smiling at her when she appears in the Skype window, hair braided off to the side and dressed, as he is, for sleep.
Her exhibition at the gallery is going well, she tells him, though she’s “not a millionaire yet,” she says with a mock-sigh. She also informs him that she checked on his apartment today and brought in his mail and everything is fine there, and says she misses him, a sentiment which he returns. In turn he tells her all about the Ceremonial Start and promises to show her all his pictures when he gets home in a few weeks time. She reminds him to enjoy himself on the trail though he insists the sentiment is no longer necessary; he is excited to follow the race and to watch it unfold.
“So,” Anna says then, slyly. “How’s Dean?”
Castiel frowns, his eyes narrowing at her tone. “Fine,” he says cautiously. “Anxious for the start of the race, I think.”
Anna rolls her eyes, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “That’s not what I meant and you know it.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“C’mon, Cas. You mean to tell me you haven’t been sleeping with him?”
Castiel starts, his brow furrowing as his sister laughs at the shocked expression on his face. “How did you know that?” he demands.
“I didn’t until just now,” she says smugly, “but you’re the worst at keeping secrets. It’s all over your face whenever you talk about him. So are you going to be able to see much of Dean while he’s racing?” She grins lasciviously and Castiel scowls.
“Not in the way you’re no doubt implying,” he says. “He’ll have dogs to care for as well as himself, and I doubt there will be much privacy in the checkpoints. Besides, I’m not entirely sure he will want to speak to me.”
Anna’s eyes narrow. “Why? Castiel, what did you do?”
“How do you know I did something?” He grumbles, though it’s nothing if not a confirmation of her assumption.
“Because I know you,” she says matter-of-factly, reaching for her tea and taking a sip. “He sounds as though he’s just as emotionally stunted as you are but I can see it in your face. So spill.”
Castiel sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose tiredly. “He asked me what was going to happen with us after the race. I said I didn’t know, which is the truth, and he got angry and left.”
Anna blinks at him and then lets out a low chuckle. “Oh, Cas,” she says sympathetically. “He wasn’t asking what was going to happen, he was asking what you wanted to happen. Do you want to be with him?”
“Yes,” Castiel admits honestly, and he thinks he kept the fervor from his voice until Anna’s gaze softens visibly, “but I don’t see how we can be together. He lives here. I live there.”
“If you want it bad enough, you’ll work it out,” Anna replies, shrugging narrow shoulders. “Long distance relationships are a thing, you know.”
Castiel rolls his eyes. “I’m aware.” He rakes a hand through his hair. “What do I do Anna?”
Anna shakes her head. “I can’t tell you what to do, Castiel. Think about what you want… although I think it’s already pretty clear what you want to do.”
Anna signs off after making him promise to to email her as much as possible from the trail and informing him that she’s downloaded the Iditarod app onto her iPhone and will be watching the race standings to see how his boyfriend is doing (“He’s not my boyfriend, Anna.” “Sure, Castiel, whatever you say”).
It’s only just after ten pm when Castiel slides into bed in the hopes of a last good sleep while he can get it, but his mind won’t shut off, playing Anna’s words over and over again in his head. He doesn’t expect Dean to come to him tonight, but he finds himself waiting for the door to creak open anyway, his eyes flickering open with every little sound from the rest of the house that filters through his shut door. The creaky old bed feels comforting and familiar after the stiff king he’d slept in at the hotel the past few nights, but when he still can’t sleep, he knows it’s not the bed itself that’s lacking.
Sunday morning dawns bright and cool, the sun sparkling off the snow crusted over the ice as the Winchesters, Jess and Castiel arrive at Willow Lake for the Restart. Already there are rows of dog trucks parked on the frozen lake, the mushers who had drawn the smaller bib numbers readying their teams and checking in with the Iditarod Trail Committee, and the starting chute is already lined with fans waiting for the official Restart which begins at 2 pm.
Once the dogs are unloaded from the truck they have a few hours to wait, so Dean pulls a small barbecue and a beat-up iron skillet from the truck and starts cooking them breakfast, while Jess passes out coffee from a thermos she’d packed with her. The smell draws other mushers and their families from nearby, including the Harvelles, Dorothy, and Victor, who is followed by a large man with a Cajun accent who introduces himself as Benny. The mushers greet each other cordially, teasing and goading each other good-naturedly, and Dean makes bacon and egg sandwiches for everyone who stops by before finally settling himself on the tailgate to eat his own.
One by one the mushers head back to their own dog trucks, clasping each others hands and wishing each other good luck as they go. Their bellies full and the start time looming closer, the Winchesters unload their sleds and gear from the top of the truck, checking their sled bags and hooking up their lines. Sam and Dean move quickly and efficiently around each other with the ease of practice and familiarity, but every once in a while Dean barks a question at Sam, who answers calmly and patiently that yes, he has extra dog booties, and yes, he has his repair kit and yes, he has his headlamp.
Castiel takes out his camera and does his best to stay out of the way, documenting as much as he can for his article without causing any disruptions. The dogs are excited, the young ones like Jimmy pacing and spinning and barking while the more seasoned veterans like Chevy and Honda and Chase pant and wag their tails in their places. He gets a great shot of Chevy, her ears tilted back in her excitement, tongue hanging out of her mouth and tail wagging frantically as he kneels down on one knee to take the photo.
“Good girl,” he tells her as he pushes himself to his feet, closing the distance between them to scratch between her ears. She wiggles excitedly under his hand, and even barks once, dancing back and forth from paw to paw. He laughs, following her gaze to find Dean making his way over with an armful of harnesses.
This, finally, is something he can help with, so he replaces the lens cap on his camera and hooks it around his neck, stopping Dean with a hand on his shoulder. “I can do that,” Castiel interrupts, and Dean pauses in pulling Paige’s foot through one of the spaces in the harness’ webbing to look reluctantly up at him. “Let me help you.”
Dean stares at him for a moment, finishes with Paige’s harness and straightens, holding out the remaining ones to Castiel. “Thanks,” he says, gruffly, and turns to go.
For a moment Castiel considers following him and trying again to apologize, but he decides against it, reluctant to give Dean anything more to worry about when he is clearly stressed out about the start of the race. He hates this stiffness between them in the wake of the closeness they’d shared before, but he’s not even sure what he would say, or if Dean would even listen. He grits his teeth and forces the thoughts from his mind. You’re here to do a job, Castiel, he reminds himself, so do it. He slips a harness off his arm and starts pulling it over Chevy’s head while she waits patiently, letting him manipulate her into the harness with the ease of practice.
He’s grateful for something to do to keep his mind busy, and soon an official from the Iditarod Trail Committee comes to make sure everything is in order. Sam graciously explains what’s going on for Castiel’s benefit as the woman rummages through his sled bag checking that he has all the required items, and he watches as another volunteer comes by to check the microchips on all the dogs and a third arrives to attach GPS units to Sam and Dean’s sleds.
Finally it’s time for Sam to go to the start line, a group of official handlers arriving to walk his dogs up to the chute. Dean pulls Sam into a hug, thumping him hard on the back with a closed fist. “Seeya soon, Sammy,” he says and Sam smiles, squeezing his older brother tight.
“Try not to take too long catching up to me, old man,” he replies with a youthful grin, and Dean snorts and shoves his brother away, the fondness in his eyes warming Castiel’s chest even as it clenches tight around some nameless emotion.
With nothing left to do but wait until the start, Castiel and Jess make their way up to the starting chute, where they find Ellen already waiting right up against the orange snowfence. Here in the thick of it, the excitement of the crowd is contagious, and Castiel finds himself grinning as he snaps photos of the spectacle. This is the real thing, the start of a thousand mile journey into the wilderness that for some reason seems a little less insane to Castiel now than it had when he first accepted the assignment.
Sam appears before long, looking excited and wearing a broad grin, dimples showing in his cheeks and a blue beanie pulled down over his long hair. His dogs are excited, even Chevy barking and howling along with her teammates as they’re led up to the start by the handlers. Sam sets his snow hook and comes over to kiss Jess and hug Ellen and Castiel, his long arms reaching easily over the fence as he embraces them one by one.
“Remember, our first stop is in Skwentna,” he reminds Castiel. “If we’re on schedule we’ll be coming in in the middle of the night.”
Castiel nods, and pats the pocket of his coat where he’d folded a copy of the race map with notes scribbled around it in his own fine hand. “I will see you there, Sam. Safe travels.” From here, Castiel will catch a ride with someone—perhaps Cassie or another of the Winchesters’ friends—to Skwentna where the Winchesters are scheduled to make their first stop, and Jess will take the truck back to their home. She has to work, but she’ll be at the finish line as long as no emergencies come up.
Sam laughs. “Thanks, man. See you.” He kisses Jess one more time and runs back over to his sled where the volunteers are holding his team, and pauses by each dog to give them a hug and scratch behind their ears before making his way back to the runners and pulling his snow hook. He takes off to cheers of the crowd and Castiel snaps photo after photo as he takes off down the trail, his heart thundering in his chest with the excitement of it all.
Dean arrives at the start line about thirty minutes after his brother, his dogs in a similar state of excitement as Sam’s had been. He’s wearing a beanie as well, the thick black wool pulled down over his ears, with a fleece neck warmer tucked up under his jaw beneath the red and black coat he’s wearing.
He spots them on the sideline and trots over, hugging Jess and Ellen as Sam had done. “You take care of yourself, kid,” Ellen says gruffly when it’s her turn, her arms squeezing tight around his broad shoulders.
“Yes ma’am,” he quips back at her teasingly, laughing as he dodges the swat she aims in his direction.
Finally Dean turns to look at Castiel and hesitates, a muscle jumping in his jaw as he swallows tightly. Castiel’s stomach twists and he tries a smile, and to his surprise, Dean leans in and tugs him in for a hug too, his arm wrapping around Castiel’s shoulder to pull him in close. It’s brief and perfunctory but it’s something, and Castiel basks in it, returning the embrace as best he can before Dean pulls away.
“See you in Skwentna, man,” Dean says and then he’s gone, turning away to give his dogs a last pet before takeoff as Sam had done.
Castiel watches Dean make his way down the line, his mouth dry and his hands clenching into fists at his sides. He doesn’t want to leave things this way, to let Dean go with this strained awkwardness hanging between them. Anna was right: he does know what he wants to do, as unrealistic and absurd as it may be. He likes Dean—too much, more than he should—and he’s still not sure what will happen after everything, but that isn’t what matters right now.
As Dean makes his way back to the sled, Castiel finds himself climbing awkwardly over the flimsy snowfence, hooking the toes of his boot into the plastic and leveraging himself over. One of the volunteers spots him and rushes towards him, indignation written across his face. “Hey, you can’t—”
Castiel reaches into his coat and fumbles for his press pass, thankful that he’d remembered to bring it, barely giving the shocked young man time to read it before he’s shoving past him.
“Dean, wait,” he calls loudly over the din of the crowds, jogging up to where Dean is already on the runners, his foot pressing down on the bar brake. Dean looks up, surprised, his whole body going still as he waits for Castiel to close the distance between them.
“I’m kind of on the clock here, Cas,” he complains gruffly.
“I know, I’ll be quick.” Castiel stops at Dean’s side, sucking in a fortifying breath before he continues. “I’m sorry. For what I said on Friday.”
Dean groans, dragging a hand over his face and glancing quickly at the race marshal on the sideline. “Do we have to do this now?” Heshakes his head wearily. “Listen, it’s okay. We’re good. I shouldn’t have even asked; it was dumb—”
“No,” Castiel interrupts. “Dean, it’s not okay. I want you to know that I—I want to see you. After this is all done. I still don’t know how, but I want to try. If that’s what you want.” He finishes in a rush and stops, staring at Dean’s face, waiting for his reaction.
Slowly, Dean’s mouth curls into a grin, a real one, the first he’d had for Castiel since the night he showed up at Castiel’s room at the hotel on Friday night. “Okay,” he says breathlessly, “Okay. We’ll work it out.” And he reaches out and curls a gloved hand around the back of Castiel’s neck and tugs him in for a too-brief kiss, his mouth hot and hungry against Castiel’s.
They only get a few seconds before Dean pulls away regretfully, his hand squeezing once at the back of Castiel’s neck. “I gotta go, Cas,” he says, his voice low, sending a coil of heat shivering down Castiel’s spine. “I got a race to run.” Castiel nods, backing away and moving off to the side. “I’ll see you in Skwentna!” Dean reaches down to pull up his snow hook and yells “Hike!”, his dogs taking off to the screams of the crowd. Part way down the trail, he turns on the runners to look over his shoulder and waves back at Castiel, his wide grin visible even from this distance, and Castiel raises his hand in return, his answering smile lingering even after Dean’s sled has disappeared out of sight.
Dean watches Willow Lake grow smaller and smaller behind him, the dark shapes of the starting chute and the crowd at the start line shrinking to a single point before disappearing entirely in the distance. His body hums with the familiar rush of adrenaline as his team rockets down the flat trail out of Willow, their feet skimming light over the hard-packed snow as his sled drags along behind, the wind biting at his cheeks as it rushes past.
“Easy kids,” he calls, his voice low and clear, and they slow their speed with the help of the drag brake as the team slips into the forest. He checks the GPS attached to his sled bag and lets the dogs even out into an easy nine miles an hour that will keep them fresh and strong for the later miles of the race. The landscape whips by, the trail winding through the pale birch trees, nothing but the sound of sixteen sets of paws crunching rhythmically in the snow and the scrape of the runners down the trail to break the silence—until he stuffs his earbuds in his ears and adds some AC/DC to the mix.
He sings along off-key to "Back in Black”, digging out his ski-poles to help out on the flats and running alongside as they scale the rolling hills. In a few days he’ll be tired and cranky and sore from working in the snow and sleeping on the ground, but for now he revels in the rush of it all, in being out here with his dogs on the trail, the pleasant burn in his muscles as he works alongside them, his brother waiting for him up the trail. He and Sam have planned to meet up at the first checkpoint in Yentna Station, where Sam will wait for him to catch up and then they’ll set out together and stick with each other for the rest of the race. And then Cas will catch up with them for their first planned rest in Skwentna so he can get the juice on the trail so far and see what happens at a checkpoint.
Dean finds himself grinning broadly, and he’s glad that he’s out in the middle of the woods with no one but his dogs to see him. Cas' words are still ringing in his ears, telling him that he wants to try and make their relationship—as Sam would no doubt insist he start calling it—work. Dean's not a relationship guy, and he's definitely not a long-distance relationship guy, but something about being with Cas makes him think it might be worth it to give it a try. At least this way they don't already have an expiration date hanging over their heads.
He hadn't had time to hang around after Cas' grand pronouncement, giving him the world's quickest kiss even though there were fans and reporters all around and someone no doubt got a picture, but he's looking forward to seeing Cas again in Skwentna. He won't be able to do much, but he can at least kiss him properly and show him just how psyched he is that Cas wants him, too. Plus he kinda likes teaching Cas about this stuff and he thinks it'll be fun to show him what it's like during the actual race.
His dogs look good ahead of him, moving easily down the trail as it winds through the naked birches and hearty pines. It's a little warm out today with the sun beaming brightly down on them but the trail is nice, not too sticky, and the dogs are happy and moving well. He's pretty psyched about the team he's got out in front of him, and though he misses Chevy's sleek black shape at the head of his team, he's glad to know that Sam's got her in his. He's passed by a few teams including Jo’s in the miles between Willow and Yentna Station, but he just gives them a casual wave and a smile as they speed past, keeping his dogs to the steady pace he's planned for his start.
Dean and his team make it to the first checkpoint right on schedule and are checked in by a kindly volunteer in an orange vest who tells him cheerfully that his brother arrived only fifteen minutes before him and directs him to where he's parked. Sure enough, Sam is exactly where she said, his dogs still hooked up but anchored down by dual snow hooks at the front and rear of his team while he checks feet for any tenderness from the initial journey.
"Hey Sammy," Dean calls, Sam's dogs starting up a chorus of excited barking as their kennel-mates pull up alongside and stop just out of reach. Sam himself looks up, his face splitting in a broad grin as he makes his way over.
“Hi Dean. How was your ride?”
Dean grins up at his brother. “It was sick, man. My dogs are kick-ass. Yours?”
“Same. I think we really have a shot this year, Dean, I mean it.”
“You’re damn right, we do,” Dean confirms and holds out a gloved fist for Sam to bump which he does with a huff of laughter.
Since they’re stopped, he takes the time to check his dogs’ feet too and give Chevy a scratch behind her ears for being a good girl for Sam, and both Winchesters shed their outer layers and tuck them inside their sled bags. Dean’s sweating underneath his layers from his run and the warm day and Sam’s no better, his long hair damp when he pulls off his hat to run his fingers through it.
Their dogs are impatient to get back on the trail, barking and spinning and jumping in their harnesses and Dean feels the call of the trail singing in his blood. He and Sam pull up their snow hooks and take off down the Yentna River, heading to the next checkpoint in Skwentna where they’ll make camp and catch a few hours of sleep.
The sun dips below the horizon, painting the sky red and orange as they make the thirty mile trek from Yentna Station to Skwentna. Dean and Sam keep to a nice steady speed of nine miles an hour for the duration of the trip, the dogs moving at an easy, comfortable trot down the smooth, packed trail of the frozen Yentna River. They take turns leading, sometimes riding side by side where the river widens out. There’s a lot of traffic on the river and it’s tough not to let up on the drag brake and let the dogs take off but they want to keep up this finishing speed and save some gas in the tank for the rest of the race, for a last push at the end. It may be early in the race, but it’s never too early to pace themselves and their dogs.
By the time they pull into Skwentna it’s past 9 pm and long since dark, the lights of the cabin that makes up the checkpoint drawing them in long before they actually reach it. They check in one after the other, throwing food bags on their sleds before pulling up their snow hooks again and parking where the chipper volunteer directs them.
After setting his snow hook, Dean gets off the runners and stretches, reaching up over his head to work out any stiffness as he makes his way down the line of his team. “Good kids,” he mumbles as he moves from dog to dog, “you guys are lookin’ sharp. I’m so proud of you.” He tugs off his gloves with his teeth and runs his hands over his dogs’ shoulders and hindquarters and down their legs, checking for any stiffness of muscles and rubbing any tightness with practiced hands to work out any kinks.
Dean looks up from checking Aero’s paws to see Cas hovering beside Jimmy, dodging the big white dog’s questing tongue while he scratches his ruff with gloved hands. Dean grins and straightens up, making his way over to the pair.
“Get off, Jimmy, Jesus,” he grumbles without any heat, tugging at the dog’s harness until he reluctantly jumps down. Dean turns his attention to Cas, a slow smile creeping across his face. “Hey, Cas.”
“Hello,” Cas repeats, blue eyes sparking with a smile in the light of Dean’s headlamp. His coat hangs open over a dark grey sweatshirt, his scarf looped loosely around his neck. He’s obviously dressed quickly, and his lips and cheek are warm when he leans in. The kiss is tentative at first, questioning, but Dean’s hands find Cas’ hips and his mouth opens against Cas’ and all the awkwardness melts away. It’s quick and too-short but it feels good and Dean revels in it.
“You been hangin’ out inside?” Dean asks when they break apart, both of them grinning like idiots.
Castiel nods. “I got here a couple hours ago. I’ve been talking to the mushers as they come through. Did you have a good run over?”
“Yeah, pretty sweet. This could be a kickass team. We’ll see how they come together as the race goes on. Did you see Jo?”
“Yes. Her team looked very nice. She didn’t stop, though.”
Dean nods, unzipping his coat and tossing it on his sled. “She likes to camp on the trail as much as she can. She doesn’t sleep well with all the strangers around.”
Sam returns with a couple bales of straw and greets Castiel with a friendly pat on the back and they get to work feeding and watering their dogs, heating frozen food up in their cookers and serving them a nice mix of kibble, meat and broth, loaded with calories to keep their energy up and lots of water to keep them hydrated. All the dogs are eating well, gobbling down their dinner with gusto, which is always a good sign.
Sam tosses Dean a bale of straw and he starts ripping it apart while Sam does the same with his, making beds for their dogs while Cas watches intently, no doubt filing it away for later when he works on his article. The dogs know the routine pretty well by now, and all but the youngest dogs settle down into their straw beds almost as soon as Dean has it down, circling on the spot and pawing at it to until they’re satisfied and coiling into tight balls with the brush of their tails draped over their noses.
Dean finishes the last of his dogs and looks up to find Sam finishing up as well. “Hey Sammy, ready for some eats?” His brother nods and they turn towards the lodge, following Cas inside.
Cas introduces them to their hosts, with whom he’s become acquainted while he was waiting for the Winchesters to arrive, and a volunteer serves them bowlfuls of hearty beef stew. They eat quickly, starving from a long day of hard work and nothing but frozen-hard power bars to eat since breakfast, and when they’re finished, they get up for seconds.
It’s 11:30 when the Winchesters finish their meal and they only have a few hours left before they have to get back on the trail, so both brothers and Cas troop back to the room they have set aside for sleeping, stretching their sleeping bags out across the floor in a line by the far wall. A few other mushers are asleep already in neat little rows, so they’re quiet as they strip off their boots and outer layers and climb into their bags. Dean’s eyelids are heavy when he lays his head down, his body already eager for rest after a long day on the trail, and he blinks sleepily over the edge of the bag at Cas, who is lying on his side, blinking owlishly back at him.
“Get some sleep, man,” he whispers. “We gotta leave again in a couple hours. Part of the deal is rest while you can.”
Cas nods and stretches his hand into the space between their sleeping bags, inching it towards Dean’s. One finger slides out to hook over Dean’s and he smiles across the few inches of space between them. Dean smiles back, lacing their fingers together, and closes his eyes.
Sam’s alarm wakes them at three in the morning and they crawl reluctantly out of their sleeping bags, still half asleep as they roll them back up and pull their boots back on. Cas takes some shaking and—when Sam isn’t looking—a pretty serious kiss to wake up, and he glowers up at Dean even as he reaches up to pull him in for another, finally sighing into Dean’s mouth and letting himself be pulled to his feet.
It’s still pitch black outside so Sam and Dean work with headlamps, feeding and checking dogs for any soreness once more by the bright light they cast. The dogs are up and ready to go as soon as they see their mushers, barking and whining and turning in circles. Dean’s happy to see everyone eating eagerly again, and so far there’s no stiff muscles or joints that he can see. He and Sam have their own routines as they pack up and prepare for the next leg, but they’re so used to running together that they finish up at the same time, dogs hooked back up and ready to go. They ease their teams back to the runway out of Skwentna to start the next leg of the race, Cas following behind them with a couple thermoses full of hot coffee from the giant carafe someone had made a few hours previous.
Another team is just arriving so the Winchesters keep out of the way, waiting their turn while the checkers mark the other musher into the checkpoint. Cas jogs over as Dean waits behind his brother, both teams dancing impatiently in their harnesses, raring to get back on the trail. “Sam, I’ll tell Jess I saw you and that you’re doing well,” Cas calls, making his way over to Sam and passing the first thermos into his big hand.
Sam grins back at him. “Thanks Cas.” He looks back at Dean and raises the thermos. “I like this one, Dean! He brings me coffee.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Dean grumbles, but smiles gratefully at Cas as he makes his way over to hand the second thermos to Dean.
The other musher heads over to the parking spots and Sam advances to check out. “I’m going to go back to bed for a few more hours and then I will catch a ride to your next stop,” Cas says, stepping in closer, close enough for Dean to touch. “Your next scheduled stop is Rainy Pass?”
Dean nods, sipping gingerly at the thermos while he waits for Sam to go through the checkout. “From here we head to Finger Lake but we’ll go straight through there and stop for a few hours in Rainy to gear up for the Dalzell Gorge.”
“All right. I’ll be there.” Castiel glances up the trail where Sam’s headlamp is heading away into the night, the light bouncing off the reflectors on his sled and the dogs’ harnesses ahead of him. “You’d better go,” he says, and leans in, his lips finding Dean’s in the dark for a swift kiss, his tongue just barely sliding along the flesh of Dean’s lower lip.
“Bye Cas,” Dean says, his face splitting in a wide grin as he eases his dogs forward past the checker, speaking to him quickly before following his brother out into the night.
When the lights of Skwentna disappear behind them, there’s nothing but his headlamp to illuminate the trail, Sam’s own headlamp comforting and constant on the trail ahead of him, and above them the sprinkling of stars, a coiling stream of light through the black. His dogs are dynamite, moving easily in the cold night air, breaths escaping in puffs of steam around them as they work, silent and steady under the beam of his headlamp. They’re moving easily so Dean relaxes into the sit-down part at the back of his sled, digging out his MP3 player and humming along to “Travellin’ Riverside Blues” as they run, keeping an eye on the GPS and the steadily moving light of Sam ahead of him as they’re swallowed up by the Alaskan wilderness.
It’s still dark when they reach the checkpoint at Finger Lake and both teams still look great so they burn right on through Finger on their way to Rainy Pass as planned. Dean takes the lead this time which means he’s constantly checking over his shoulder to make sure Sam’s still behind him, the bobbing light of his headlamp still shining. He has to lean on his brake more and more as they get closer to Rainy, the snow thinning out and turning slick and his team picking up speed with the decreased drag.
The sun starts to peek over the horizon, streaking the black with lines of pale pink and orange as they make their way along the side of Round Mountain and into the ravine. By the time they reach the bottom the light has spilled over, and Dean would deny ever having thought it but it’s pretty damn beautiful, with the soft morning light caressing the trees and casting long shadows over the snow.
They arrive in Rainy Pass right on schedule around nine in the morning to a fresh new day with blue skies overhead. Dean’s greeted by the cheers of a few early-rising fans hanging out at the checkpoint as he brakes to a stop beside the pretty brunette volunteer waiting with a clipboard at the mouth of the trail.
“‘Morning, sweetheart,” he says, flashing her a grin and turning to wave at the fans off to the side.
“Good morning, Dean,” she says brightly. “Bib number?”
“Thirty-five,” he answers.
She makes a note on the clipboard, the pencil moving clumsily under her gloved fingers. “And how many dogs?”
“Sixteen. Ain’t had to drop any of them yet.”
“They look really good,” she comments, smiling. “You staying?”
He nods. “For a few hours.”
“All right, you can head on over to the dog lot.” She waves the hand holding the pencil in the direction of a few other sleds parked on a flat area just up a little hill. “Oh, and they told me to warn everyone: the Gorge looks like crap so make sure you’re ready for a rough ride before you set out.”
“Thanks kid. Send my brother on up there when he gets in?”
She smiles and nods. “Will do.”
Dean starts up the hill, calling “gee” to his dogs so they make the turn in the right direction. As he peels off the trail, a familiar figure detaches himself from the crowd and jogs over, grabbing ahold of Paige’s harness to lead them to the right spot.
“Thanks Cas,” Dean calls, grinning as he kicks in his snow hook and steps off the runners. He sets the second hook by his leaders and straightens to clamp his gloved hands on either side of Cas’ face, pulling him in for a kiss. “Hey,” he says when he pulls back, meeting amused blue eyes.
“Hello,” Cas replies, smiling back at him. He still looks tired, but significantly more awake than when Dean had seen him six hours ago. Dean glances around and finding them alone, ducks under Cas’ chin to nuzzle his cold nose into the warm flesh under Cas’ jaw, rubbing his stubbled cheek against the beginnings of scruff on Cas’ neck. Cas huffs a laugh and tugs him in tighter, pressing a kiss to Dean’s temple before he pulls back.
“You’re very affectionate right now,” Castiel notes as he squats down to pet Paige who’s been nosing insistently at the back of his knee, looking for attention, no doubt.
Dean shrugs. “You’re warm,” he retorts and the little smile Cas shoots up at him, just a little crinkling around his eyes and a curling at the corners of his lips, heats Dean’s chest from the inside out.
Sam pulls up a few minutes later and Cas jumps up to hold his dogs while he sets his snow hooks. Sam’s a dog short in his team, and Razor is tucked into the sled bag, just his head poking out, ears flat and an expression on his face that says just how embarrassed he is to be riding rather than running.
“Hey buddy.” Dean makes his way over to the sled and tugs off his glove to scratch under Razor’s chin. “What happened?”
“I think he sprained his wrist,” Sam says grimly. “I stopped and pulled him out of the team as soon as I saw he was limping. I’ll see what he’s like in the morning but I might have to drop him.”
“What does that mean, ‘drop him’?” Cas asks, coming up behind Dean.
“It means that I’d leave him behind at this checkpoint, or maybe the next one,” Sam says. “Every musher drops dogs along the way, if it looks like they might be getting too tired or if they catch a stomach bug or pull a muscle. Our dogs are always number one priority, and it’s better to leave them behind than to risk them. Most of the mushers who cross the finish line have between seven and ten dogs by then.”
Cas’ brow furrows. “And what happens to the dogs after they’re dropped?”
“Vet checks ‘em, and then they ship ‘em back to Anchorage,” Dean says, giving Razor a last pat on the head before straightening up. “From there, they wait with volunteers until a designated person, in our case Ellen or Jess or Krissy, comes to pick them up and take them home. Dropping dogs sucks and you always worry when you have to leave them behind, but the vets and volunteers are awesome and the dogs are always well taken care of.” Dean turns to Sam. “What’re you gonna do, Sammy? Gonna drop him here or wait and see?”
Sam tugs off his hat and scrapes a hand through the flattened strands of his hair, chewing thoughtfully on his lower lip. “I’ll rest him again tomorrow, see how he’s doing. If he’s still limping by the time we go through Nikolai, I’ll drop him.” Dean nods and claps his brother on the shoulder.
They get their dogs fed and bedded down, checking once again for sore muscles and torn pads. Aside from Razor, who moves stiffly on his left front leg once he’s out of the sled bag but otherwise is in good spirits, all the dogs are still happy and limber and eating well. Cas takes pictures and they tell him about the ride over while they get their chores done, and once the dogs all settle down to sleep, Dean and Sam troop inside to do the same, Cas trailing behind. He parks himself at one of the benches with his laptop and Dean leans in to kiss him tiredly before disappearing into the little room they have set aside for sleeping.
When they wake up a few hours later to Sam’s alarm, Cas is talking with one of the volunteers and Victor and Benny, his laptop closed in front of him beside a full cup of coffee. Sam seats himself across from Cas, Dean sliding onto the bench beside him and Cas smiles over at him, letting their thighs touch under the table. Dean smooths his palm over Cas’ thigh and reaches for his coffee without asking.
“What’s the word?” Dean asks the table at large, taking a sip from the mug. It’s a bit sweeter than he normally likes but it’s caffeine and it’s here, so he’s not complaining.
Benny and Victor exchange grim looks. “This fine lady was just tellin’ us that the Gorge sounds even rougher than we thought,” Benny pipes up. “Reports are comin’ in from Rohn about mushers and sleds comin’ in all bruised and battered. Some kid had to get airlifted to the hospital already.”
Dean’s eyebrows slide up in surprise. “Shit, that bad?”
The volunteer, a tough-looking lady with tightly-curled, steel-gray hair nods. “They radioed down a couple hours back. It’s a mess over there.” She pushes herself to her feet. “I’d better get back to work. But you boys take it easy on the way over.”
Victor shakes his head, watching her go with a crease between his eyes. “I was going to wait for dark and try to take the Gorge when there’s less traffic, but now I’m thinking we’d be better off to follow you chumps through during the daylight.”
“The Gorge is one of the toughest parts of the trail,” Dean explains to Cas. “It’s challenging in the best conditions, but icy shit like this?” He shakes his head. “It ain’t pretty, that’s for sure.”
“What will you do?” Cas asks, brow furrowing.
Dean shrugs, taking another sip of Cas’ coffee. “Run it anyway. Not much we can do but be prepared for a tough ride.”
“I guess I’m dropping Razor after all,” Sam comments unhappily. “I was hoping he’d be feeling better after a day or so of rest, but I don’t want to risk him travelling in my sled if conditions are so bad.”
“Good call Sammy,” Dean replies. He squeezes Cas’ thigh where it rests under his palm. “So, they got any food here?”
Dean and Sam have a quick late morning breakfast along with big cups of coffee and then they’re out feeding dogs and packing up. The checkpoint is buzzing with mushers checking in and heading out and Dean hopes the trail won’t be too packed. Cas waves them off with the promise that they’ll see him in Nikolai, sternly reminding Dean to “be safe,” to which Dean shoots him a wink that makes Cas roll his eyes affectionately.
The first three hours of the next leg of their journey is an uphill climb through Rainy Pass, both Dean and Sam helping out their dogs as they work their way up. They stop at the top of the hill and hand out snacks of frozen fish to their dogs, resting them for a few minutes for the rough ride through the Dalzell Gorge to Rohn. At just after 11 am, with the sun high overhead but obscured by a thin layer of dingy clouds, they pull up their hooks and start off down the Gorge, hoping that the hype had made it sound worse than it was.
They’ve run this race four times before, and this isn’t the first time they’ve been warned about the Dalzell Gorge. Every year Dean scoffs at the warnings and runs it anyway, careening down the Pass with rock music blaring in his ears and a big dumb grin on his face, yelling challenges to his brother as they navigate the challenging section of trail. On a good day, the Gorge is scenic and a badass ride, and Dean loves it.
Today is not a good day.
Dean crosses over the lip of the Gorge, starting the 200 foot drop into the canyon, Sam following a safe distance behind him. Almost instantly his dogs start picking up speed, faster than he wants, but the whole drop is sheer ice with nothing for his brake to grab onto. There’s dirt showing in the middle of the white that’s supposed to be the trail, stumps and rocks sticking up all over the place like a minefield and at this speed, there’s no hope of dodging them. In all the years he’s run this trail, for all the times he’s been warned that the Gorge was going to be tough, he’s never seen it anything close to this bad.
He clings to the handlebar with an iron grip, his entire body tense and heart hammering in his chest, jaw clenched to keep from biting off his tongue as his team barrels down the incline. He rips his earbuds out of his ears so he can focus on staying upright, watching his dogs and the trail and putting everything he has into getting them through this. He’s fucking terrified for his brother, but about a quarter of the way down he gives up trying to tell if Sam is behind him, only the occasional familiar yell drifting down from behind him to tell him Sam is still there and still kicking. He can’t look back, can’t even maneuver his sled; it’s hang on for dear life or be left behind.
By the time they reach the bottom of the drop his arms are screaming. Dean sucks in a ragged breath, calling “easy!” to his team but even down here it’s still too slick, the sled slipping too easily over the ice. He leans hard into the turns to keep his sled on the trail and away from the huge trees on either side as it whips down the trail.
As his team races headlong over one of the narrow snow-bridges that span the river, his sled starts to slip, pulling dangerously to the side and sliding down the ledge towards the water. He curses and jerks the sled the opposite direction, leaning hard on the left side to keep them on the trail and out of the water, but he overcompensates and suddenly they’re falling, the sled and Dean crashing down on their sides on the ice. He yelps at the impact but the dogs keep running and they’re over the ice and back on the trail in a split second. He scrambles fruitlessly in the snow, trying to get his feet under him as he’s dragged behind the sled.
“Whoa!” he shouts with all the breath he has left and Paige and Rider manage to slow the team enough that he can wrench the snow hook free and slam it down into the ice, the combined force of the hook and his command finally getting the dogs to stop. Breathing hard, he shoves himself back to his feet and pulling the sled back upright onto its runners.
“Okay guys,” he calls wheezily, leaning heavily on the handlebar as he struggles to catch his breath. “We’re almost there. You get us out of this alive and there’s some extra snacks in it for you in Rohn. Think you can do that?” Predictably, his dogs just look back at him, tongues lolling from their mouths as if wondering what the hell he’s on about. “All right, then,” he says and tightens his grip on the sled before reaching to pull the hook again.
He gets dumped twice more, hanging on and dragging behind his sled until he can convince them to stop and get the sled back upright, his muscles screaming as he clings gamely to the handlebar. At some point, Sam’s team suddenly comes barrelling past him, the sled bouncing along behind, their musher nowhere in sight, and Dean doesn’t have time to glance back and make sure Sam’s okay, just yells “Hike!” to his own dogs, urging them to chase the loose team. He manages to get them stopped with a barked command at Chevy, and he spends a heart-stopping moment yelling Sam’s name up the trail before his brother comes jogging around the bend, favoring his left arm but otherwise none the worse for wear.
By the time they pull into Rohn, both of them are stiff and sore, battered and bruised from trees and branches and icy ground. Dean’s ankle throbs but luckily he can still stand on it, and Sam is nursing a tender shoulder from when his sled tipped and he hit the ground hard. When Dean yanks his stiff fingers out from around the handlebars, he realizes with dull surprise that his hands are shaking and he and Sam exchange an uneasy glance.
“Well that was a hoot and a half,” Dean says, his attempt at lighthearted humor falling flat, landing somewhere around grimly sarcastic. He tears his beanie off his head and pulls his shaking fingers roughly through his sweat-soaked hair.
“Yeah,” Sam replies, swallowing hard, “we’re lucky we made it,” and Dean wants to protest, to claim that they’re too good to be relying on luck, but somehow he can’t manage to spit the words out.
They stay longer in Rohn than they’d originally planned, patching up their sleds and catching their breaths. Sam’s brake has come loose, having caught on a stump in the rough ride over the burn, so they pull out a quick but effective patch job, reinforcing it and screwing it back to the runners. Mushers left and right are scratching: injured, teams too tired, or sleds too broken to continue. It’s tempting to stay in Rohn until they feel more confident but it’s chaos there with all the carnage of smashed-up sleds and beat-up mushers, so they stick to their plan and head on to Nikolai.
Dean and Sam make camp about twenty miles out of Rohn, pulling off the trail and bedding down their dogs in a quiet clearing. Once the dogs are all fed and watered, they hunker down in with their teams, pulling dogs into their laps to check them over and give them some well-deserved lovin’. Dean notes with grim dismay and absolutely no surprise that several of his dogs are feeling a little stiff when he checks them, and he rubs some ointment into their joints, massaging out the stiffness before they settle down.
“So,” Sam says, sitting cross-legged in the snow with Zepp splayed out across his thighs. “I’m thinking of proposing to Jess.”
Dean looks up from where he’s working ointment into Paige’s thigh muscle. “Seriously?” A slow grin spreads across his face as a warm swell of happiness settles under his ribcage. “That’s awesome Sammy!” He wipes away a mock tear. “My little baby bro’s growing up.”
Sam rolls his eyes. “Shut up. I don’t have a ring yet, or anything, but I know I want to marry her.”
Dean snorts. “Hell yeah, you want to marry her. You should be worshipping the ground she walks on every day for even hanging out with your sorry ass this long. Everyone knows she’s way out of your league.” Dean dodges the snowball Sam chucks his way, laughing.
It’s about time Jess joined their family. Jokes aside, Jess is an awesome girl, and she’s been making Sam happy for years now. She’s smart and funny, she loves dogs, and she doesn’t put up with Dean’s shit, dishing it out just as good as she gets it which only endears her to him even more. She and Sam deserve each other.
An unwelcome thought forces itself into his mind and his stomach twists as he struggles to keep his smile plastered to his face. “Where’re you gonna live, if she says yes?” He doesn’t look up, afraid to meet Sam’s eyes, focusing instead on where his fingers are working at the taut muscle beneath Paige’s fur, easing out the knot there. He thinks he knows the answer; everybody leaves him after all, and how the hell are Sam and Jess supposed to live with him? They’re gonna want to have a bunch of rugrats and the shitty little cabin isn’t equipped for kids or a family and they’re not gonna want to have Dean around all the time while they start their lives together.
Sam shrugs. “I was, uh. I was kind of thinking maybe we could save some money and build a place on the property? If you were okay with that.”
Dean looks up sharply, blinking in the bright light of Sam’s headlamp where it shines on his face. “You wanna stay on our property?”
“Well yeah, Dean, I own half of it, I’m not just gonna let you walk away with the whole thing just because I’m getting married!” Sam chuckles. “We have a joint kennel, shared equipment, we share the chores and the dogs. Why mess with a good thing?”
Dean grins. “Hell yeah, Sammy.” Paige’s massage done, he gently dislodges her from his lap and shuffles forward on his knees across the space between them. “C’mere, bring it in.”
Sam laughs and opens his arms to receive a hug from his brother. Dean holds him a little tighter than he maybe needs to, fingers clenching in the coat at his back, and just for a second, he presses his head tight to Sam’s shoulder before he smacks his brother hard on the back and pulls away.
“So what about Cas?” Sam asks as Dean moves along to start on Rider’s shoulders.
“What about Cas?”
Sam rolls his eyes. “What’s going on with you two? You weren’t talking on Saturday and Jo said you came back to the room all pissy on Friday night, but clearly everything’s fine now.”
Dean groans. “Bunch of gossips, all of you,” he grumbles. “Yeah we had a… thing. It was dumb. We kissed and made up. Happy?”
“Well as long as everything’s good, yeah I guess.” Sam’s eyes skim over his face, studying. “Did you talk about what’s going to happen when he goes home?”
“Goddammit, Sam. Yes, we talked about it. We don’t know what’s going to go down but we want to stay together or whatever.” He glares across the space between them. “Good enough for you, Dr. Phil?”
Sam glares at him, exasperated. “Not really, but I guess that’s all I’m going to get out of you.” His face softens. “I’m happy for you, Dean. I like him a lot.”
Dean looks up at his brother, mouth opening on some joke about how Sam better keep his giant paws off his man, but it falls away when he meets Sam’s eyes. He swallows hard, forcing down the rush of unwanted feelings rising up in his throat. “Yeah, Sam. Thanks. Uh—me too.”
Sam grins, dimples showing in his cheeks as he beams across at his older brother and Dean rolls his eyes, glad that the darkness hides his flush. He scoops a handful of snow and hurls it across at his brother, laughing at the furious glare Sam flashes back.
They sleep four hours at their little camp outside of Rohn and then pack up and head to Nikolai. It’s a rough trail, and Dean’s feeling his sore ankle by the time they settle down in the checkpoint that evening. He can still move without limping though it aches when he puts pressure on it, but he can handle a little pain. His ankle is the least of his worries.
He is worried about his team. Aero started moving with a hitch in his stride just before they got to Nikolai, and Dean had to stop to let him ride in the sled bag for a while, and when he feeds, Aero doesn’t want to eat, taking a few tentative licks at his bowl before curling up in his straw bed and leaving the rest untouched. A couple of dogs are moving a little stiffly including Paige, though she’s not limping yet, and Chase has a cut on his paw from somewhere along the beat-up trail that Dean cleans and bandages the minute they get to Nikolai.
When they set out again a few hours later after catching up with Cas and getting some food and some sleep, Paige and Aero both get to enjoy the ride in the sled, and Dean runs Echo up front with Rider. Chase is, thankfully, moving just fine after being patched up, but when Aero won’t eat when they stop to give the dogs snacks in the middle of the trail, Dean leaves him behind with the vets in McGrath.
By the time they reach Takotna and declare their 24 hour mandatory layover, Dean’s ankle is stiff and swollen in his boot, and he’s limping when he steps off the runners. His sweet girl Paige is sluggish when he lets her out of the sled bag and he scoops her into his lap right away to give her a good cuddle, nuzzling down into the ruff around her neck as she squirms, trying to lick his face.
“You sore, sweetheart?” He kisses the top of her head and massages the muscles over her shoulder. “You and me both. Good thing we got a whole day off now, huh? See if we can’t get the both of us back in ship shape.”
Dean puts her back down carefully and glances at his brother, who’s squatting down by Chevy, checking her feet and scratching behind her ears like she likes. Dean’s happy to see that Sam’s team looks a little better than his and Chevy’s tail wags happily as Sam looks her over. They get their dogs bedded down and fed and head over to the lodge, Dean favoring his left leg and Sam wincing as he rotates his shoulder.
The lodge is quiet but there are a few people parked at the long tables that fill the room, talking quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping mushers. Dean nods at the Seaveys where they sit in a corner, eating sandwiches and sipping at soup, and waves at Dorothy Baum who flicks a tired salute at him in reply.
It takes him a minute to locate Cas, scrunched in the corner at a table against the wall with his head down on his folded arms, distinguishable only by the disheveled mess of thick, dark hair and the laptop propping up one of his elbows. A swell of affection fills Dean’s chest as he shuffles over and straddles the bench beside him, waking him with a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“Hey Cas, we’re here,” he says quietly, grinning as Cas sits up and blinks blearily up at him.
A sleepy smile curls Castiel’s lips. “Hello Dean,” he rasps and coughs to clear his throat. “Hello Sam.”
“Hey Castiel,” Sam replies, smiling fondly at them both.
“Go back to sleep,” Dean says, sliding the flat of his palm down Cas’ back. Warmth seeps through Cas’ sweatshirt into his skin, still cold from working on his dogs outside. “I’m just gonna get some food and then we’ll be joining you.”
Cas shakes his head stubbornly. “I’ll go back to sleep when you do. I didn’t mean to go to sleep this time.”
Dean shrugs, zipping off his coat and depositing it on the empty bench beside him. “Suit yourself. Food, Sammy?”
Sam nods so they push back up, making their way over to the counter where a crockpot full of soup and a plate of sandwiches is waiting. The soup is chicken noodle, but it’s filled with vegetables and real chunks of chicken and it looks homemade, and Dean tilts his head up towards the ceiling and thanks whoever’s listening for the angels that are Iditarod volunteers.
He stumps back over to the table, slumping down heavily on the bench with an achy groan. He feels Cas’ eyes on him and turns to find Cas squinting dangerously in his direction, eyes narrowed with an air of displeasure as he watches him get settled.
“What?” Dean finally barks, tearing off a huge bite of his sandwich. The beef is dry and the bread is a little stale, but somehow it still manages to taste like heaven. “Can’t a guy eat in peace?”
Cas’ eyes narrow impossibly further. “You’re limping.”
Dean’s eyebrows go up. “Uh, yeah, Sherlock. Twisted my ankle in the Gorge and it’s been getting worse and worse. I’ll be fine after some rest.”
“Let me look at it.”
Dean makes a face. “Dude, no. I don’t need you to take care of me.”
“I know that, Dean. Would you just let me look at it?” He makes a grab for Dean’s boot, glaring when Dean jerks it out of his reach.
“Look, Cas, I need food, sleep and a shower, in that order. I’m not even gonna be on it for a solid eight hours. Just leave it. I’m fine.”
Cas glares up at him, dark brows coming together grumpily. “Dean. Let me see.”
“Ugh, fine.” Dean rolls his eyes and moves his foot back where Cas can reach it. The man tugs at the laces, pulling his boot off and peeling away the sock to prod at his ankle which—well, it looks really crappy, if he’s honest. It’s swollen and bruised, purple beneath the skin and he winces at the gentle touch of Cas’ fingers where they skim gingerly over the joint.
“Can you move it?” Cas asks and Dean wiggles his foot up and down to demonstrate and then for good measure, his toes as well. Cas shakes his head in fond exasperation and pushes himself to his feet.
“I’ll be right back,” he says and disappears.
Dean shakes his head in disbelief and takes another bite of his sandwich, turning to find Sam watching him with amusement. “Jesus Christ, what now?”
Sam shakes his head, a smile twitching at his lips. “Nothing. Just looking back fondly on all the times you told me I was whipped.”
“Shaddap,” Dean grumbles, glaring down at his soup while Sam chuckles.
Cas comes back with an ACE bandage in his hand and sets to wrapping up Dean’s ankle, Dean determinedly avoiding Sam’s gaze the whole time. Dean doesn’t want to admit it but it feels kind of better, and he gives an experimental wiggle of his foot.
“Hey, that helps, actually.”
Cas cocks an eyebrow and scowls at him. “Believe it or not, I do actually know what I’m doing,” he says, securing the bandage with clips. “My employer forced me to take a First Aid course that I’ve found useful in the past.”
Dean nods and nudges Cas’ knee with his still-bare foot. “Hey. Thanks.” Cas smiles and runs his hand briefly up the back of Dean’s calf, looking up at him from under his lashes before straightening up and sitting back down on the bench beside him. Dean licks his lips and swallows, turning his eyes studiously to the remains of his sandwich before he gives himself away.
“Jo’s here,” Cas informs them, shuffling a hand through his sleep-mussed hair. “She got in a couple hours before you did.”
“Sweet, we can catch up with her.” Dean shoves the last of his sandwich in his mouth. “After some sleep, though. I don’t love her that much.” He picks up his bowl and starts slurping down the rest of his soup, earning him affectionately disgusted looks from both his brother and Castiel.
After one last trip out to check on the dogs (all tucked up in little balls on their beds of straw, tails firmly draped over noses and eyes shut tight), the three of them troop back inside to get some proper rest, squashing their sleeping bags in the room where a couple other mushers are already conked out. Dean thinks he spots a mop of blonde hair that could be Jo up against the north wall, and he’ll be psyched to catch up with her and make sure she’s in one piece when he wakes up.
Right now, exhaustion is sweeping over him and he can’t look forward to anything besides catching some z’s, and he thinks that nothing has ever looked so welcoming as that damned sleeping bag on the floor, shoved up between Sam and Cas in a room full of other mushers. He slides down inside the bag and ruffles his brother’s hair for good measure (“Seriously, Dean? What are you, five?”) before flipping over to face Cas.
Castiel is watching him through sleepy blue eyes and his lips curl up in a half-smile when he meets Dean’s gaze. Dean scoots over just far enough to kiss him, a little brush of lips that doesn’t really satisfy but it’s enough to keep him going for a while.
Sam’s muffled voice floats over to them from where he’s got the sleeping bag already pulled up over his head. “You guys are gross.”
Dean grins, and kisses Cas again just to piss his brother off, a little longer this time, swallowing up Cas’ huff of a laugh. “‘Night Sammy,” he calls teasingly, and then softer, “‘Night Cas.”
“Goodnight, Dean,” Cas replies.
Dean gets a solid seven hours of sleep before he’s roused by some of the other mushers in the room moving around. He sits up and stretches, feeling the ache in his strained muscles and the protest of his ankle when he flexes it, but his head is clearer and his limbs less heavy than they’ve been for days. God bless the mandatory 24.
Cas is still fast asleep, burrowed down in his sleeping bag with his hair sticking up out of it like a hedgehog. A smile tugs at the corner of Dean’s mouth and he indulges himself just for a second, running a hand through the thick, dark mess of Cas’ hair before he pulls himself out of his sleeping bag and pads to the door.
Sam’s waiting for him at a nearby table, a cup of steaming coffee in his hand. He’s already been out to check on the dogs and feed them, and Dean nods his thanks before heading over to scrounge some coffee and breakfast of his own.
“Just got off the phone with Jess,” Sam tells him as he digs in to a plate of toast and a cup of coffee that tastes like nirvana. “She says Razor and Aero are doing well back home; both of them are eating well. And the teenagers are all still in one piece. They haven’t burned the house down or killed Aiden and buried him in the back forty yet.”
Dean chuckles. “Good to know. And all the dogs at home, did she say?”
“Yeah they’re all fine. Jack’s claimed Krissy though, Jess says he’s been following her everywhere.”
“Aw man, he’s gonna be so spoiled when we get back!” Dean grins in spite of himself. “Maybe we should send him home with her when she goes. About time she had a dog of her own. Then she can deal with the monster she created.” Sam huffs a laugh and nods his agreement.
They enjoy a lazy, filling breakfast and two cups of coffee and Cas finally stumbles out to join them just before they head out to the dogs, shoving a piece of toast in his mouth and pouring his coffee into a thermos so he can help with the chores. When they get out, the dogs are up, and Dean is happy to see them looking a little better than they did when they got in last night. Even Paige looks a little perkier, and he crouches down beside her to give her a good belly scratch before he grabs the ointment out of his pocket to start massaging his dogs down while just a few feet away, Sam starts doing the same.
Dean’s still a little concerned about the stiffness he feels under his hands but he’s able to work a few kinks loose and his dogs look and feel better after the massages. Echo looks like he’s got sore shoulders though, and Rosie is nursing her wrist, so he’ll have to keep an eye on those two over the course of the day and decide what he’s going to do when they head back out tonight. The cut on Chase’s pad is closing up nicely though, so that’s a plus, and Paige looks better and better every minute.
Over in Sam’s team his dogs are looking a little better, though still a little banged up. Chevy’s still eating like a champ and wags her tail frantically when Dean stops by to say hi to her, giving him a couple excited licks on his scruffy cheek while he scratches her neck and behind her ears like she likes.
“You being a good girl for Sam?” he asks, plunking himself down in the snow beside her and letting her climb up in his lap. He chuckles to himself, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. “I know you are, you’re always a good girl.”
“I’m going to rest her on this next leg,” Sam pipes up from where he’s rubbing antibiotic cream on Honda’s back foot. “She’s kicking ass but I want to keep her that way.”
Dean nods. “Sounds good, Sam. I might let Paigey rest a bit more too, just to keep her in top shape.”
They let the dogs rest for a couple more hours and then it’s back out to take them for some nice easy walks, giving them a chance to stretch out their muscles and stay limber. The rest of the day is spent fixing up their sleds which took a heavy beating in the Gorge and on the burn between Rohn and Nikolai, and resting up for the next leg of the race.
By the time their 24 hours is up, Dean and Sam and most of their dogs are antsy to get back on the trail. It’s 1 am by the time they peel out, Cas kissing Dean goodbye and promising to meet them in Cripple for the next stop.
The next several days, Sam and Dean spend as much time as possible camping on the trail rather than in the checkpoints, resting their dogs as much as possible. Paige spends the stretch of trail between Takotna and Ophir riding in the sled bag but she’s back in fighting form by Ophir. Unfortunately Echo and Rosie aren’t so lucky, and Dean has to drop them both in Ruby.
The middle section of the race, stretching between Takotna and Kaltag and all the checkpoints in between, is where the teams either start to really come together—or they start to fall apart. Sam’s team, with Chevy alternately running at the helm or resting in Sam’s sled, is coming together like a dream, and though he has to drop another dog in Galena, overall, the fourteen dogs he’s running are moving like a well-oiled machine, and damn near sexy to watch moving ahead of Dean’s on the trail.
Things aren’t working out quite so well for Dean. His kids are in rough shape; with the lack of snow out here, the trail is hard-packed and slick, and the dogs are pounding too much against the hard ground and working too hard with the amount of speed they manage to get without the snow to slow them down. Paige is doing well but now Jimmy’s lost his appetite and Dean’s starting to suspect he picked up a bug somewhere along the way. Rider is moving a little stiffly, too, and he has to make an extra stop between Ruby and Galena to patch up Chase’s paw and pull a bootie on over it when it opens up again on the bare trail.
The conditions are shit and Dean’s not exactly in the best shape to be helping them along, his ankle feeling worse and worse the more he uses it. Cas had taped it up all fancy before he left Takotna and that had helped a bit but it’s still kinda crappy. And the team’s hurting and certainly not as peppy as he likes, so he’s glad when they head out of Galena on the last run through Nulato to Kaltag where they’ve planned to take their mandatory eight hour layover.
Less than twenty miles away from Nulato as they wind their way down the Yukon River, Dean’s sled starts picking up speed underneath him. Frowning, he leans on the drag brake to slow it down and it slips under his foot; the trail is nearly sheer ice, barely any snow to cushion against the rough ridges of the frozen river. It’s reminiscent of what they went through outside of Nikolai, except this time the sled is bouncing over jagged formations of ice and exposed rock on the riverbank.
He tries to brake to slow his dogs down but there’s nothing for the brake to grab onto. “Easy!” he calls to his dogs and they ease up a little but not much and it’s way too fast for his liking. He hangs on as the sled bumps and twists along the trail, grimacing every time the impact jars his ankle.
Ahead of him, Dean hears Sam yell and he looks up to see Sam’s entire sled tip, falling sideways with Sam still clinging gamely to the handlebar. His stomach twists, worry for his brother freezing him from the inside out as Sam drags behind his sled until somehow he manages to get his long legs up underneath him and push them upright, all without even stopping the team.
“Shit, that was close, Sammy,” he mumbles even though Sam can’t hear him, and over the pounding of his heart, he has a moment of pride. His little brother is one hell of a musher; no way a novice could’ve handled a spill like that.
It’s then, as he’s staring ahead at Sam’s sled, not watching what’s happening under his own feet that it happens.
The dogs take a bend in the trail too fast, the sled snapping out like the tail of a whip, careening around the corner at breakneck speed. The right side of his sled smashes into a two-foot bank of ice, throwing him off balance as he tries to compensate. He curses, slamming down on the brake, forgetting the ice and the beat-up trail and that’s the wrong move, totally the wrong move, because the bar catches on an exposed rock and rips clean off with a screeching snap of metal. There’s nothing he can do, the sled wrenching off balance with the force of the break, throwing him off the runners. He remembers his own golden rule, clinging with everything he’s got to that handlebar, but he might as well not have for all the fucking good it does.
He lands hard on his side on the ice, the force of his landing jarring all the air out of his lungs. Pain lashes up his side and he gasps for breath to yell out a command to his dogs but it’s too late. There’s a jagged rock sticking out of the ice along the bank and just he manages to get enough breath to yell out “SAM!” before he’s crashing headfirst into it and everything goes black.
The Iditarod Dog Sled Race is unlike any experience that Castiel can recall in all his years as a journalist. He’s written about races before, but those were of the human variety and not remotely similar to this. The Iditarod is like some bizarre hybrid of endurance sporting event, outdoor survival camp and animal husbandry course, with both humans and animals alike being put to the test under the toughest of conditions. But somehow, despite the strangeness and against all of his expectations, Castiel finds himself enjoying the experience immensely.
He makes himself as at home as possible in the checkpoints, talking to fans, reporters, volunteers and families while he waits. By the time he reaches the Winchesters’ third stop along the trail, some of the mushers are starting to recognize him, waving and saying hello, sometimes stopping to give him a rundown of the trail conditions or ask him how his article is coming. He sees Cassie several times as well, and when they are in a checkpoint together, she will sit and have coffee with him when she’s not conducting her own interviews for the paper. Jo, who is running at the head of the pack at an impressive speed, is a common subject of Cassie’s interviews, and during those times that she sits down with them, he finds himself amusedly watching their interaction, an obvious third wheel as they flirt back and forth.
Castiel develops somewhat of a routine: hitching a ride by helicopter or by snowmachine to the next checkpoint he expects the Winchesters at, setting himself up in whatever they are using as a homebase and scrounging for coffee before starting in on his work. When there is WiFi available he checks his email and sends updates to Anna and to Zachariah in between working on his article and talking to the other inhabitants of the checkpoint. So far the Winchesters have kept very close to their schedule, and he’s usually only waiting for a few hours before someone is telling him that they’ve arrived, at which point he packs up his things and heads out to meet them.
In Nikolai, Castiel had seen firsthand how rough the Iditarod could be, when he saw broken sleds and injured mushers limping in to the checkpoint and scratching or being withdrawn from the race in droves. It had been a rude awakening—proof that the race is not for the faint of heart—and since then, Castiel is always glad to see the Winchesters pulling into the latest checkpoint in one piece with all their dogs in relatively good shape. So far they have always arrived in good spirits, with no major injuries on either of them aside from a sprained ankle in Takotna that he’d wrapped for Dean and Sam’s bruised shoulder.
And of course, he’s glad to see Dean himself, each checkpoint looking progressively more windburned and with a thicker growth of reddish-brown beard on his face, his eyes bright with exhilaration in a tired face and lined around the edges when he smiles. He looks rough and rugged and so very beautiful, and his lips are chapped and cracked where they press against Castiel’s, but Castiel never minds.
He’s glad to see Sam too—though perhaps not in the same way.
The Winchesters set out from Galena with plans to go straight through Nulato and to arrive at Kaltag late in the day on Saturday, where they will take their mandatory eight hour layover, the second of three layovers that every musher needs to complete as part of the race. The last, in White Mountain, is mandatory for all mushers, but the other two can be taken at the musher’s leisure, and the Winchesters have planned their stops meticulously. They are only a few days from finishing the race and both men are making good time, clinging to the middle of the pack for now, just as they’d hoped to be. From what he gathered at the last checkpoint, Sam is thinking they might have a chance of finishing in the top ten, against all odds. Under all his bravado Dean is less optimistic, but still in good spirits and pleased with their race so far.
Castiel arrives at Kaltag early with Cassie and the rest of the crew from the Anchorage Daily News and climbs out of the helicopter after her, stretching and turning his head from side to side to work out the kinks in his neck. Cassie’s feet barely hit the snow before she is signalling to her camera man and rushing off to interview DeeDee Jonrowe where she is pulling apart a bale of straw in the nearby dog lot.
“See you later, Cas,” she calls over her shoulder and he raises a hand in acknowledgement.
“Thank you for the ride,” he calls back and she waves distractedly over her shoulder as he shakes his head, laughing, and makes his way into the community hall that they have set up as the checkpoint.
He stomps his feet on the mat inside the front door, pulling off his hat and shaking out the flattened strands of his hair as he crosses the room, surveying his surroundings. Almost immediately he’s struck by the delicious smell of fresh bread wafting from the kitchen and his stomach gurgles protestingly, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten since very early this morning. He meanders over to the kitchen and helps himself to a hearty chili and homemade buns still warm from the oven, finding an empty table to settle down at and eat his lunch while he waits for the Winchesters to arrive.
Castiel hums happily as he eats, the bread soft and warm and the chili just the right amount of spicy, warming him from the inside out. He doesn’t think he’s ever eaten so well, not even in the city where food is just a phone call away. There’s something about the homemade food, made by volunteers with love and care and so unlike the generic, greasy takeout he’s used to eating at home. It reminds him of the way Dean cooks.
He dips his bun into the chili, glancing at the clock on his laptop and flicking an impatient glance at the door. He’s looking forward to another layover with the Winchesters, anxious to see them both again. Sleeping only a few hours at a time, they’ve both been more tired than usual and he hasn’t had much time to spend with either of them or their dogs while they rest up. The layover means he should have some time to catch up with them while they check their dogs and repair any damages to their sleds.
He’s just finishing his lunch when Jo slumps out of the adjacent room, her hair a flattened, dishevelled mess as she stretches and yawns tiredly. She smiles a sleepy, crooked smile when she spots him at the table and shuffles over to sit down beside him, letting her head fall on his shoulder.
“Hello, Jo,” he says, offering her the remaining half of his bun which she takes gratefully, sitting up.
“Thanks, Cas. How long you been waiting here? Did Sam and Dean get in yet?”
Castiel shakes his head. “They’re not here yet, no. I got in less than an hour ago but I don’t expect them for several hours yet.” He reaches to close his laptop and turns his body to face her on the bench. “When did you get in?”
“Last night,” she says, grinning widely. “First one in.”
Castiel’s eyebrows slide up towards his hairline. “Congratulations, Jo. You’re having a very good race.”
She nods, her lips pressed together in a little smile. “Yeah my dogs are kick-ass this year. Being first in Kaltag doesn’t mean you’re going to be first in Nome, but doesn’t mean I won’t, either. I just need to hold my lead when the guys behind me start making a move for the front.”
She pushes up from the bench, shoving the last of the roll into her mouth. “Coffee,” she grunts. “You need a refill?”
He shakes his head. “I’m fine for now, thank you, Jo.” She nods succinctly and makes her way over to the table in the corner below the message board where a tall carafe sits beside plastic containers of sugar and powdered coffee whitener and a stack of styrofoam coffee cups that has been slowly dwindling as the day goes on. As she pours her coffee, the door opens to admit a small dark-haired young man in an unzipped winter coat over street clothes who brushes past her on his way to the message board, a piece of paper clutched in his hand.
Castiel turns back to the table and flips his computer back open, thinking to get a bit more writing done before the Winchesters arrive, but he’s interrupted when Jo calls his name from the table. He looks up, brow furrowing, and makes her way over to where she’s standing, stock still, staring up at the message board.
“What’s the matter?” he asks, coming up beside her. She licks her lips nervously and points to the board, brown eyes flicking over to watch his face carefully as he scans the posted announcement.
IDITAROD TRAIL SLED DOG RACE
For further information contact: Rufus Turner, Race Director/Race Marshal
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
DEAN WINCHESTER SCRATCHES IN NULATO
Nulato, Alaska - Saturday March 7, 2014 - Dean Winchester (Bib #35) of Willow, Alaska, scratched from Iditarod XLII at 11:22 am in Nulato.
Winchester experienced a crash on the trail between Galena and Nulato. He was able to make it to Nulato and scratched upon his arrival. He had thirteen dogs in his team.
Castiel’s breath catches in his chest and he looks down to meet Jo’s wide eyes. “What does this mean?”
Jo shakes her head, one hand fisting tightly in the tangled strands of her hair. “I don’t know. These notices are always so vague. But if he crashed and had to pull out of the race—Cas he could be really hurt.”
“Fuck,” he whispers, the word wrenched painfully out of him, and Jo nods sharply.
“Yeah. Wait, what are you doing?”
Castiel is already running back to the table, scooping up his laptop and shoving it into his bag. “I’m going to Nulato,” he says matter of factly.
“Good,” Jo says with grim approval, a muscle tensing in her jaw. “How are you going to get there?”
He shrugs awkwardly as he fumbles with his coat, yanking it hastily over his arms. “I’ll find someone. Take care, Jo.”
“Hey!” Jo stops him on his way to the door with a hand on his arm. The worry is plain in her expression, her eyes wide in a stricken face. “You give that asshole a kick in the shin for me for not taking better care of himself, okay?”
A bark of humorless laughter bursts past his lips. “Okay. Good luck, Jo. I hope to see you later.”
Castiel finds Cassie interviewing Hugh Neff in the dog lot, and when he tells her in a curt, clipped tone what’s happened, her eyes go wide with worry. He remembers belatedly that Dean is Cassie’s friend, too, and even Neff looks up, concern in his eyes.
“Shit, Castiel, I can’t leave, I can’t just take the chopper and the pilot dicked off into town for a while.”
Swearing, Castiel turns, looking around hurriedly for another option, hand combing distractedly through his hair, his fingers catching too-tight and painful in the mussed strands. He looks down at the hand Cassie places on his shoulder, not really seeing.
“Whoa, relax, Cas. Here,” she grabs him by the arm and drags him away, shooting Neff an apologetic glance that he dismisses with a wave of his hand, understanding written across his weathered features. “I can’t go and I can't send the chopper but I have some pull here. We’ll get you on a snowmachine.”
He follows her inside another building and lets her lead them to a back office where the door stands open, a formidable-looking woman with her hair styled in a smooth black bob sitting in front of a computer, shuffling paperwork in her hands. Cassie knocks politely, ignoring Castiel’s impatient shifting behind her, and the woman looks up, her dark eyes bright and sharp as she takes them in.
“Well hi there, Cassie,” she says, setting the papers down and leaning back in her chair, folding her hands together on the desk in front of her. “What can I do for you?”
“Linda, this is Castiel,” Cassie says quickly. “He’s a columnist for Explore magazine. He’s staying with the Winchesters.”
Linda nods concisely. “So I’ve heard. Hard to forget a name like that.” She stands, extending one small hand which Castiel shakes automatically, trying not to wince at her firm grip, just this side of too-hard. “Pleasure to meet you, Castiel.”
“Linda runs the operations here at Kaltag,” Cassie explains, before turning back to the smaller woman. “Linda, we need a favor.”
“And what’s that?” she asks, sitting back down in her chair.
“I’m sure you already know that Dean Winchester crashed his sled and has scratched in Nulato,” Castiel starts, and Linda nods her agreement. “I need to get back there to make sure he’s okay.”
Her sharp eyes roam over his face, studying him, and for a moment he thinks he’ll have a fight on his hands but then she gives a single, sharp nod. “Right,” she says grimly. “KEVIN!”
Castiel jumps at her sudden yell, and turns to see the young man who’d posted the fateful notice of Dean’s removal from the race peering around the doorframe. “Yeah?”
“My son, Kevin,” Linda says. Kevin flicks his wrist in a casual wave, his lips pressing together in a half-smile. “Get the snowmobile running,” Linda orders him. “You’re taking a ride to Nulato.”
Ten minutes later—and after a few minutes of familial bickering that Castiel grits his teeth through while Linda explains the situation to her son—Castiel follows a heavily snow-suited Kevin out to his snowmobile where it’s chugging impatiently at the mouth of the trail. Kevin holds out a helmet which Castiel accepts, tugging it down over his head.
“So what’s the deal with you and Dean Winchester anyway?” Kevin asks loudly over the roar of the engine as he swings his leg over the seat. He turns the grip on the handle and the snowmobile growls in response.
Castiel frowns in confusion. “There is no ‘deal’.”
“Yeah,” Kevin scoffs, “sure.” He gestures for Castiel to climb on behind him. “The kiss at the Restart is all over the internet, and now you’re acting like a worried boyfriend. Sure sounds like some kind of deal to me.”
Castiel swallows as he gets on the snowmobile behind Kevin, the strap of his bag slung across his chest. “Please, just—drive.” His voice comes out gruff and demanding but Kevin must hear something else in his words because he pauses in reaching for the grips.
“Hey.” Kevin twists in his seat to smile reassuringly over his shoulder. “He’ll be all right. Dean’s a tough bastard. Mushers scratch for all kinds of reasons; I’m sure it’s nothing serious.” Castiel’s stomach twists anxiously and he nods but doesn’t answer, his lips pressed together and fingers closing too-tight around the bar behind his seat. Kevin revs the engine and shouts “Hold on!” and peels out of the checkpoint, heading back up the trail towards Nulato.
Castiel clings to Kevin’s shoulders, probably harder than he needs to, stress and speed tightening his grip. Kevin is far from conservative as they whip down the trail, only slowing down for curves and to pass mushers heading in the opposite direction. Thankfully the trail is wide and well-groomed, and Kevin shouts over his shoulder that it’s a high-traffic area for snowmobiles, for which Castiel is glad. He doesn’t want Kevin to slow down; his own safety is the furthest thing from his mind.
It’s 47 miles to Nulato from Kaltag, and even though Kevin speeds considerably on the slick path, Castiel still wants to urge him faster. Cassie and Linda had assured him that Dean was most likely fine or someone would have heard otherwise, but he can’t help but remember the worry in Jo’s eyes, and he needs to see for himself that Dean is all right. He knows Dean well enough now to know that he’s stubborn beyond belief and tough as nails, determined to look after his brother on the trail as well as off, and convincing him to pull out of the race would be no small feat. Castiel saw the aftermath of the crashes that came into Nikolai and heard of the casualties in Rohn—mushers battered and bruised and, in one case, broken, the young man having to be air-lifted to the nearest hospital—and he can’t help but worry.
He sees the village of Nulato long before they reach it, the lights of the town stretching across the snow in the dimming late-afternoon light. Kevin winds up the streets, raising a hand in greeting to the mushers they pass on their way out to Kaltag. He pulls to a stop outside of the community hall and Castiel leaps off the machine before it’s completely stopped, throwing a clipped but fervent “thank-you” over his shoulder at Kevin as he hurtles into the building.
Mushers and volunteers are scattered around the hall, and a few of them look up as he blows through the door into the hall, ignoring their curious glances as he scans the room. The hall is set up like many of the other checkpoints Castiel has visited so far over the course of the race: long tables stretched out lengthwise in two columns with a space left down the center for people to walk down and the window to the kitchen open with steaming crock pots of food lining the counter. He spots Sam almost immediately where he leans against the wall, his tall form looming several inches above the other people in the room. His body is tense and he’s talking on the phone that’s resting on the counter beside him, and when he sees Castiel he smiles grimly and points one long finger at a door across the room. Castiel nods curtly and strides across the hall, bursting through the door.
The room appears to be a large coat room that has been repurposed to form a makeshift infirmary. Metal racks line the walls, a few coats hanging despondently by themselves in the corner, and on one side, sitting nonchalantly on the plain wooden table with his legs hanging down over the edge and still wearing his snow pants over his long-sleeved black t-shirt, is Dean.
The occupants of the room—Dean, and a pretty blonde woman who appears to be examining his head—look up, startled at his interruption. The woman’s brow furrows but Dean’s face splits into a wide grin, his eyes bright and crinkled at the corners in spite of the swelling and impressive bruising sprouting over the right one.
“Hey Cas,” he says cheerfully, as casual as ever, kicking his legs like a child where they dangle over the edge of the makeshift exam table he’s perched on, boots skimming the ground.
“You’re okay?” Castiel asks uncertainly, frozen in the doorway with his hand still clutching the doorknob, his eyes flickering over the wound on Dean’s forehead, the dried blood on his face and the split lip, as the woman, presumably a doctor, goes back to examining him. Castiel’s heart is still thundering in his chest, his fingers shaking with adrenaline as he drinks in the sight of Dean greedily, so grateful to see him alive and conscious.
“‘Course I am,” Dean says, scoffing as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Why?” he asks, his mouth curling into the most infuriatingly smug grin he can muster and Castiel can’t decide if he wants to kiss him or throttle him or both. “Were you worried about me?”
Castiel doesn’t answer, choosing instead to pry his hand from the doorknob, glaring as he crosses the room to stand next to the table. “I hate you,” he says grumpily, and the doctor looks up at him sharply, but Dean just barks out a laugh.
“Yeah, yeah.” Dean grins and taps his scruffy cheek—the left, uninjured side—with one finger and Castiel rolls his eyes but ducks in to give him a quick kiss anyway.
He waits while the doctor—Dr. Layla Rourke, her nametag says—finishes the examination of Dean’s head, while Dean regales them both with the story of the crash, how his sled came around a turn in the icy trail too fast and hit an exposed rock, and how he’d been thrown into another nearby rock. He winces when Dr. Rourke prods at the cut on his forehead, her brow creasing as she examines it.
“Blacked out, lost my whole team and my sled,” Dean continues when she moves to rummage in the extensive first aid kit sitting beside Dean on the table. “Lucky for me, Sammy was up the trail from me and caught them before they got too far and came back for me. I was only out for a minute, and then I got back on the sled.”
The door opens and Sam comes in just as Dean finishes his story, his eyes hard and his jaw tense as he stares down at his older brother. “Did you tell him that I tried to get you to wait for help to come and you wouldn’t listen because you’re a stubborn asshole?” Sam grumbles, pulling out a chair and sitting down on it backwards.
Dean huffs. “Nah, I was fine. No reason I couldn’t make it here at least.”
“Actually, that’s not true,” Dr. Rourke speaks up. Her voice is throaty and soft and lovely, even with the severe tone she’s speaking in now. “You could have a concussion. You could have lost consciousness again, could have gotten dizzy on the trail and crashed, and you might not have been so lucky the second time. Your ribs are already bruised, and that’s a nasty sprain you have on your ankle. You’re a very stubborn man.”
Castiel snorts derisively at the same time that Sam rolls his eyes and says, “Tell me about it.” Dean makes a face at them both behind the doctor’s back.
“I made it here, didn’t I?”
“You’re lucky you didn’t break your nose or your ribs or worse,” Sam says grimly, crossing his arms firmly over his chest. “You were just lying there—for a minute, I thought you were dead. But Chevy ran right up to you even when I told her to stop and licked your face until you woke up.”
Castiel’s chest constricts painfully at the thought of Dean lying broken and bleeding in the snow, and his hand closes convulsively on the edge of the table. He exchanges a look with Sam, who he knows must be thinking the same, the taller man’s mouth pressed into a thin line and tension in the set of his jaw.
The doctor finishes up with Dean’s head, taping a bandage over the wound after she’s cleaned it. “Take care of that,” she instructs, packing her supplies back up. “You don’t need stitches but get an ice pack on it as soon as you can. No alcohol for at least a few days.” Dean scowls at that last but doesn’t protest as she continues, “And lots of rest. I’m glad you decided to scratch and save yourself the unnecessary risk.”
Dean’s face darkens, but he doesn’t dispute her. “Thanks Doc,” he says gruffly, and she smiles a soft, warm smile at the three of them before she excuses herself, leaving Castiel and the two Winchesters alone in the room.
It’s silent for a moment, Dean dark and brooding in the wake of the doctor’s last words and Sam and Castiel looking pointedly anywhere but at Dean’s stormy face. Finally, Castiel blows out the breath he’d been holding and says, “So what happens now?”
Dean answers first. “What happens now is Sam gets back on the trail and finishes what he started.”
“I could stay. Do my eight here instead of in Kaltag.”
“No.” Dean shakes his head. “No way. You need to stick to the plan.”
Sam grimaces. “Dean—”
Dean cuts him off with an impatient slice of his hand. “Shut up Sam. You’ve got a winning team there, you said so yourself. You’re only two hours behind schedule.” He glares at Sam as if daring him to argue. “You do it right, stick to the plan, and you might just have a chance of finishing in the top ten.” He shoves himself to his feet without another word, following the doctor back out into the hall.
Sam looks murderous like he’s thinking about protesting, but he presses his lips together and hurries after his limping brother, following him outside to where their sleds are parked with Castiel trailing behind. “It’s not a big deal Dean,” he yells after him. “It’s not going to screw me over if I stay here instead of Kaltag.”
“Aw, it’s cute that you’re worried about me, Sammy,” Dean teases, winking up at him from where he’s bent at the waist, checking Diesel’s harness. He ignores the glare that Sam shoots in his direction. “But I got Cas here to look after me, right Cas?”
“Yes,” Castiel replies solemnly, looking at Sam as he answers. “I’ll make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.”
“Hey!” Dean protests, but Sam huffs a laugh, a genuine smile spreading across his face and dimples showing in his cheeks.
“Thanks Cas,” Sam says gratefully, clapping Castiel on the shoulder, and steps forward to start checking his supplies and readying himself the last run to Kaltag before his eight hour layover.
His dogs are raring to go again, spinning frantically at the ends of their necklines, barking and howling and whining as their musher moves around them, he and his brother checking harnesses and pulling on booties as necessary. Castiel helps them pass out frozen bars of beef and fish to the dogs, a last snack before they get a big meal in Kaltag. As soon as the food comes out, some of Dean’s team get to their feet and start barking frantically as if they know they’re being left behind, whining and pacing forlornly. But despite the enthusiasm of their teammates, a few of them stay curled up in their straw beds, and it’s clear to Castiel that Sam’s team is in far better shape.
Castiel and Dean help Sam walk his dogs to the checkers, where Dean crouches down beside Chevy and scratches her ears while they wait. He mumbles to her in a low voice, quiet words that Castiel can’t make out. Dean plants a kiss on her furry head and straightens up, turning to Sam.
“Think I’m gonna stay here for a while, make sure the dogs get taken care of all right,” Dean says and Sam nods like it’s obvious. “So we’ll see you in—” Dean turns to Castiel—“what’s the next stop?”
“Shaktoolik,” Castiel supplies automatically, the Winchesters’ race plan long since memorized.
Dean nods. “Right. We’ll see you in Shak.” He tells the lead dogs to stay and makes his way back, giving his brother a quick, gruff hug, slapping him hard on the back before he pulls away. “Take care of yourself, Sammy. And take care of my damn dogs.”
Sam snorts, his mouth curling into a lopsided smile as he nods. “I will, Dean. You too.” He speaks to the checker, taking the pencil the cheerful volunteer passes him to sign out, then calls “hike!” to his dogs. His dogs are moving well, enthusiastic and limber, and his sled speeds down the snow-covered street.
He looks back before he turns the corner, waving over his shoulder. Castiel raises his hand in farewell and sees Dean do the same, his mouth lifting in a reassuring smile that says I’ll be okay, Little Brother. But Castiel knows that if Sam were closer, if he could see his brother properly, he would know, as Castiel does, that Dean’s smile gets stuck at his mouth, not reaching all the way to his eyes.
Castiel helps Dean take care of his dogs, bedding them down and feeding them and getting them settled for the night. Dean has to massage out several sore shoulders and wrists, bandaging cut pads on a few dogs, and coax more than one dog to eat. He moves around his team with the careful, controlled movements of someone trying to conceal an injury, his face going blank and still as he twists to check Jimmy’s big rear foot.
“Dean, are you all right?” Castiel asks carefully.
Dean drops Jimmy’s foot, straightening and moving down the line to the next dog. “Yeah I’m good. Nothin’ I can’t handle.”
“Then why did you scratch?”
Dean pauses where he’s massaging muscle relaxant ointment into Chase’s shoulder muscles, his big hands stilling over the dog’s thick coat. “You heard the doc. Possible concussion, blah blah.”
Castiel narrows his eyes, contemplative. “That’s what she said, yes. But that’s not why you did it, is it?”
Dean looks up at him and licks his lips, his hands twisting the cap back on the tube of ointment by touch. “No.” Castiel waits while Dean shoves himself to his feet to tuck the ointment back into his sled bag and turns back to face him with a sigh, shoving his hands in the pockets of his snow pants.
“After Ophir my team started falling apart. They fell out of stride with each other; some of them were stiff, some of them had a hitch in their gait. They just didn’t look happy out there.” He barks a humorless laugh. “It was really fucking obvious too, in comparison to Sammy’s team. They looked like hot shit.
“I was worried about my guys even before the crash; maybe that’s why I was so distracted. Worrying about them and worrying about Sam ‘cause he tipped his sled. Got back on, but by that time I was off, and then—” he waves a hand at the wound on his forehead in demonstration, his mouth tightening as the movement jars his bruised ribs. “I coulda kept playin’ through the pain, but my dogs were looking rough and I was worried about being able to take care of them and help out, especially with my fucked-up ankle, and a ‘possible concussion’ on top of that.”
So that’s it then. As Castiel suspected, Dean scratched, not because of his own injury, but out of worry for his team. Castiel feels an alarming swell of warmth in his chest, affection and exasperation combined with something too big to name filling him up to bursting. He licks his lips and steps forward into Dean’s space, hands coming up to cup his jaw. Dean’s mouth quirks into a tired, crooked smile as Castiel’s thumbs stroke over the several days’ worth of beard on his cheek, and Castiel leans in impulsively, meeting Dean’s lips with his own.
Dean hums a laugh and opens to Castiel’s kiss, curling his arms around Castiel’s waist to fist at the back of his coat. Castiel had intended for the kiss to be brief but he’s caught up, his hands sliding up over Dean’s cold ears and into his hair, holding him tight. There are too many layers between them for anything more than a kiss but they press together anyway, curling around and into each other in a hard embrace until Dean hisses at the pain in his lip and pulls back with a wince.
“Sorry,” Castiel says gruffly and Dean laughs, disentangling himself enough to dab at his lip with the middle finger of one hand to check the cut.
“It’s okay, man. What was that all about?” Dean asks amusedly.
Castiel shrugs and pulls him in closer to press a gentler, more careful kiss to the uninjured corner of Dean’s mouth, feeling Dean smile against his lips.
Castiel waits while Dean speaks to the Race Marshals about transport for his dogs and then they move inside for some much needed dinner. The sun has gone down and the town is bathed in yellow light from the streetlamps, Dean’s dogs curled up tight in their beds of straw as he and Castiel make their way back into the lodge. There are a few mushers speaking in low voices at the tables, eating what looks to be mashed potatoes and meatloaf, and Castiel’s stomach growls, his hunger making itself known for the first time since he left Kaltag.
Dean eats gingerly around the cut in his lip and Castiel watches in between mouthfuls of his own dinner. Dean’s right eye is beginning to bruise, purple and blue blooming around the curve of his eye and the arch of his nose. Aside from the bruising from the crash, there are dark smudges under his eyes from lack of sleep, the lines on his face heavy with stress and exhaustion, and his hair is disheveled, flattened in places and sticking up in others.
Castiel slides his booted foot across the space under the table until he finds Dean’s, nudging it gently with his own. Dean looks up and smiles, his eyes warm through the tiredness settling heavy around his eyes and Castiel’s stomach leaps, an answering smile tugging his lips upward.
He and Dean eat dinner in near silence, then file outside to check on Dean’s team one last time. Tomorrow the dogs will be shipped back home where they will be more comfortable, and Dean and Castiel will continue on the trail until the finish line, following the remainder of Sam’s race. But for now, Dean needs to sleep. Castiel trails along after him as he slumps wearily over to the room set aside for sleeping where he sets out his sleeping bag beside Dean’s for when he does go to bed. Dean passes out almost as soon as his head hits the pillow, his lashes fanning out over the windburned skin of his cheeks and mouth parting around soft snores within minutes of lying down.
It’s early in the evening still, and Castiel isn’t nearly as tired as Dean, so he takes his bag back out to the common room and sets up against a wall, plugging his laptop into the outlet under the table and booting it up. Upon opening his email program, he finds several frantic emails from Anna, and it’s immediately apparent that she’s already heard the latest news. True to her word, his sister has been watching the progress of the race from the fancy app on her iPhone, all with creative subject lines getting progressively more frantic near the more recent ones.
Anna Milton DEAN SCRATCHED WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? 2:07 pm
Anna Milton CASTIEL EMAIL ME BACK 6:33 pm
Anna Milton I’M SERIOUSLY WORRIED EMAIL ME 7:55 pm
Anna Milton IF YOU DON’T ANSWER ME I’M DISOWNING YOU 8:16 pm
Castiel rolls his eyes fondly and logs into Skype, where he’s glad to see Anna’s icon lit up green, and opens up a new text chat with her.
Castiel: Hello Anna
Anna: CAS OMG
Anna: Is Dean okay?? The press release on the website said he crashed and had to withdraw!
Castiel: He’s fine. He crashed between Galena and Nulato but made it back fine. Scratched out of worry for his dogs, not himself.
He adds the last part without thinking, and Anna has the same reaction he had, though decidedly less internal, her next messages coming in rapid succession before he can get a word in edgewise.
Anna: That is ridiculously sweet
Anna: Even Ruby says you need to hit that
Anna: I told her you already did, sorry
Castiel rolls his eyes, pressing his lips together to hide his smile even though she can’t see.
Castiel: Thank you for keeping my sex life private, as always.
Anna: What are sisters for? :)
Castiel chuckles to himself. He says goodbye to her, sending the usual greeting to Ruby as well before signing out to get some work done.
When Castiel climbs into his sleeping bag beside Dean several hours later, Dean is fast asleep, one hand pillowed beneath his cheek, his body still turned towards Castiel’s sleeping bag. Castiel watches him sleep for several minutes and smiles, working his hand out from under his sleeping bag to cup Dean’s jaw, stroking over the sharp ridge of his cheekbone. Dean twitches but doesn’t wake, and his mouth curls into a soft smile, the lines around his eyes relaxing as his tension drains out with the touch. Castiel sighs ruefully and pulls his hand away, settling down to sleep with a smile curling on his own lips.
The next morning, Castiel wakes before Dean and slips as quietly as he can out of the room to avoid disturbing him. He nods to the mushers in the common room and fixes himself a cup of coffee before checking the GPS tracking on the website.
It looks as though Sam made it into Kaltag at some point during the night, and is settled in for his eight hour layover. He must have made good time on the way over because he’s jumped to 12th place in the rankings. Jo is already out of Kaltag and, according to the GPS, parked somewhere between Kaltag and Unalakleet for a rest on the trail. She’s no longer in first, having been passed by Jeff King while she camped.
Castiel finishes his coffee and checks on Dean’s dogs, taking the liberty of feeding them himself. He knows the routine by now, heating the frozen meat on Dean’s cooker and mixing it with the kibble and water to create a soupy mush that—he’s glad to see—most of the dogs eat fairly quickly. A few are still slow to eat, but the food disappears eventually, and he’s greeted by wagging tails as he moves around them, cleaning up and giving them some well-deserved attention.
He’s back inside and working on his article when Dean finally stumbles blearily out of the sleeping quarters, rubbing sleep from his eyes and squinting at the bright fluorescent lights overhead and the sunlight streaming in the windows. The first word out of his mouth is “Sam?” followed by “Gotta check my dogs,” and Castiel hurries to assure him that Sam made it to Kaltag safely and that he’s already fed and checked on Dean’s dogs.
“You should sit and eat something,” he finishes. “Everything else can wait for now.”
Dean drops his hand from his eyes and smiles at that last. He circles the table Castiel is sitting at and bends at the waist, cupping Castiel’s jaw and turning his face to kiss him on the mouth. His lips are dry and chapped and he tastes like stale morning breath but he’s sleep-warm and his lips curve into a smile against Castiel’s and Castiel finds he actually doesn’t mind any of it.
“Cas,” Dean says solemnly, pulling back to look down at him with sleepy green eyes, “you’re awesome.”
Castiel shoos him away to brush his teeth and get some breakfast, turning back to his computer with a smile on his face.
The dogs are shipped out that afternoon, being flown to Anchorage where Jess will meet them and bring them back to the kennel, where Krissy, Josephine and Aiden will take over. Dean says goodbye to each dog individually, scratching behind their ears or under their chins and thanking them for a good run with regretful eyes. “We’ll be home soon,” Castiel hears him tell Rider as he’s loaded up into the helicopter. “Auntie Jess and the kids’ll take good care of you.” Castiel hides his smile in Jimmy’s ruff, petting the big dog’s flank as he waits for his turn to load up.
Dean’s sled goes with them, too, minus the bar brake that had been irreparably damaged during his crash on the trail, and the drag brake, which he donates to a musher on their way through when he finds out theirs had torn loose and gotten lost on the trail. He passes out whatever supplies he has left to whoever he thinks needs them most: headlamp batteries and snacks for the trail and little heat packs that he explains to Castiel can be shoved inside gloves or boots to keep fingers and toes warm.
They stay one more night in Nulato, eating a hearty dinner of stew and rice while watching the GPS tracker. Jo’s on the move again and catching up to King, and Sam’s out of Kaltag and well on his way to Unalakleet.
“Jo’s kicking serious ass,” Dean says. “She keeps this up, she’s got a shot of winning. Just needs to stay ahead of the Seaveys and keep on King’s ass.”
Castiel nods. “Her team is very strong; she still has twelve dogs while King only has ten, the Seaveys nine and eleven.”
“And she’s smart, staying on the trail instead of in the checkpoints. It’s harder for a lot of mushers, not having the supplies and shit, but she sleeps better and so do her dogs. They’re probably better rested than a lot of the other teams.”
“What about Sam?” Castiel asks. “What do you think he’ll do?”
Dean grins, his mouth curving into a smile more predatory than happy. “Sam’s dogs are on fire. You saw them when they left; they’re still looking fresh and eager. If he’s got his head on straight he’ll be resting Chevy for this next bit so she can bring him home strong through the last stretch.” His leg bounces under the table, restless energy translating to movement. “He’s got a good chance of finishing in less than ten days, and in the top ten, if he plays his cards right.”
That afternoon, Dean manages to round up a couple friends to take them to Shaktoolik by snowmachine. Sam’s already there when they arrive, and he takes a short nap before filling Dean and Castiel in on his trip over. Sam’s confident and his dogs are moving well, and though he had to drop another dog in Unalakleet with a sprained wrist, he’s still got a good number of dogs at eleven. He has been resting Chevy and anyone who looks like they might be running out of steam—to Dean’s approval—getting her and the rest of the team ready for the last push at the end. Sam uses Castiel’s phone to call Jess, and she tells them the dogs made it back perfectly fine and are all doing well at home, being pampered by the teenagers. She tells him fiercely to “kick ass, and I’ll see you in Nome,” to which the younger Winchester smiles warmly, his cheeks flushing pink as his brother teases him.
The eighth day of the race passes in a blur, Dean and Castiel leapfrogging the trail with the two snowmobilers they’d enlisted to Koyuk where Sam stops again for a couple hours of dog care and finally to White Mountain, where he will have to take his final layover, mandatory for all mushers before the last push through Safety to Nome. He arrives in seventh place with King in first and Dallas Seavey in second with Jo now trailing in third and Aliy Zirkle in a distant fourth. Chevy’s in the sled when he reaches the checkpoint, along with her sister Honda, two of Sam’s swing dogs filling in for them in lead. He has to drop Honda with a sore shoulder, a setback that makes Dean groan.
“What’re you gonna do for leaders, Sam?” Dean asks once they’re parked and bedded down.
Sam tugs the beanie off his head, dragging a hand through his sweat-damp hair as he surveys his team. “I ran Ty and Hemi up front on the way over and they did great.”
Dean’s eyebrows slide up his forehead. “Even Ty? He’s a rookie.”
Sam spreads his arms, grinning. “I know man, but he did awesome.” His chores done, he turns to head inside with Dean and Castiel falling in step beside him. “I’m thinking about letting him work up front with Chevy for a while when I leave.”
“Sweet,” Dean replies, grinning as he tugs open the door to the hall that serves as the White Mountain Checkpoint. "She can teach that young pup a thing or two."
They find Jo talking with the two men ahead of her in the rankings, a dangerous expression in her eye that Castiel recognizes from watching her play pool with Dean, a look that reminds him terrifyingly of her mother. She’s clearly not happy about losing her lead and though she smiles and jokes with the other two mushers, there’s determination and fight in every inch of her small frame.
Dean’s elbow bumps Castiel in the side as they make their way over to the table. “Scary as shit, ain’t she?”
Castiel huffs a laugh, and nods his agreement. Reflecting on the outcome of those pool games and anytime anyone has been on the receiving end of The Look from Ellen, Castiel can’t help but fear for Seavey and King. He wouldn’t want to stand in the way of Jo when she has that look in her eyes.
King, Seavey and Jo leave White Mountain in the early hours of the morning, and Dean, Sam and Castiel all head out to the checkout line to give Jo hugs and encouragement. The grin she flashes back at them is fearsome and toothy, more snarl than smile, and she shouts back at Sam “Come and get me, Winchester!” as she takes off down the trail, her small dogs moving fast and smooth under the beam of her headlamp as she shoots out into the dark.
Sam sleeps for a few hours and then the three of them take the dogs for walks to stretch out, then feed and clean up. When Sam’s eight hour layover finally comes to a close, his eyes are bright, his dogs excited and enthusiastic after some rest. He packs up his supplies and heads towards the trail only minutes later, Chevy back in lead where she belongs with excited young two-year-old rookie Ty at her side. She doesn’t look pleased with this new development, giving the enthusiastic pup a warning glare out of the corner of one amber eye.
“So this is it, Sammy,” Dean says as Sam kicks in his snowhook to wait for the checker. “Last leg of the race. How you feelin’? Scared?”
Sam rolls his eyes, adjusting his gloves over his long hands. “I’m good, Dean. It’s not like this is my first time or anything.”
Dean grins teasingly. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. You’re a big boy now. Just—do me a favor and kick some ass all right? It’s up to you to hold up the Winchester good name.” Sam laughs and pulls his brother in by the shoulder, giving him a tight hug which Dean allows for a short minute before he’s pulling back.
“All right, all right, you big sap. You better get going. I’ll see you in Nome.”
“Bye Dean,” Sam says, grinning and reaching down for his snow hook. “Bye Cas.”
“Goodbye Sam,” Castiel replies as Sam advances to checkout.
Dean is tense and nearly vibrating at Castiel’s side as he watches his brother speed away, eyes wide and jaw set in a firm line. His dismay at being left behind is palpable, his worry for his brother visible in the tense lines of his body. Castiel slips his hand into Dean’s and squeezes, smiling up at him when he looks down at Castiel.
Dean raises his eyebrows, pausing as if waiting for Castiel to offer some kind of condolence or assurance but Castiel doesn’t say anything, just holds Dean’s hand tight. Finally, something breaks in Dean’s face and he smiles. It’s a tense smile, but a smile nonetheless.
“I’m so fucking proud of my brother, Cas,” he says, his voice low and rough. “I just—I wish I could be there with him, you know? Who’s gonna look after my little brother if I’m stuck here while he’s out there?”
“I know,” Castiel says, and leans in to press reassuringly against Dean’s side. “Dean, you’ve already given him everything you can. He has all the tools he needs, thanks to you. He’ll be all right.”
Dean doesn’t answer, a muscle jumping in his jaw as he looks away, staring down the trail long after Sam’s sled has disappeared out of sight.
The city of Nome, Alaska is perched on the Seward Peninsula on the edge of the Bering Sea. Once the most populous city in Alaska, it is now home to less than four thousand people, barely more than a town by anyone’s standards, hugging the coastline and boasting one of the largest gold pans in the world. Castiel peers down out of the window of the Anchorage Daily News helicopter at the city below, the buildings and streets awash with white, tiny pinpricks of color showing through the snow as they descend. At his side, Dean’s eyes are clenched tightly shut, gripping the vinyl seat beneath him with a white knuckled grip.
“Are you all right?”
Dean shakes his head, refusing to open his eyes. “Shut up,” he barks tersely and Cassie, sitting across from him, laughs.
“Dean hates flying,” she reminds Castiel. “He’ll be fine as soon as we’re on solid ground.”
“It’s unnatural,” Dean grits out and Castiel has to press his lips together and stare studiously out the window to suppress his huff of laughter.
Dean is out of the helicopter as soon as it touches the tarmac, Castiel and Cassie following more slowly after him. The streets of Nome are already lined with anxious, excited fans, children and adults alike clutching signs and making noise and waving at the droves of cameras that scan the crowds. People have come from all over the world to watch The Last Great Race on Earth come to a close, to watch the first team cross the finish line and receive their honors under the Burled Arch.
It’s still several hours to the finish, with several teams out of White Mountain including Jo and Sam somewhere between there and Safety, according to the GPS. Cassie goes immediately to the start line to prepare for the finish and start interviewing fans, but Dean and Castiel slip inside the nearby Visitor’s Center to escape the noise of the crowds and the media. The building is nearly empty, the employees and guests alike having joined the crowds at the finish line, and Dean sighs with relief as soon as the door closes behind them.
“Fuckin’ crazy, man,” he says, slumping against the closed door. “When we finished last time it was two days after the winner and it’d already died down.” He shoves away from the door, only to flop down unceremoniously at a nearby table, straddling the bench. “This is the first time either of us has finished so high. Four years we’ve run this thing and Sam’s already looking at a top-ten finish. Pretty fuckin’ awesome for a relative newbie.”
Castiel sits down beside Dean and checks his GPS tracker on his phone. King is in first and just through Safety on the last stretch to Nome, and that little dot behind him marked with the tag # 65 JOANNA HARVELLE is back in second and closing in fast.
“C’mon, Jo,” Dean crows and Castiel feels his heartbeat ratchet up, the excitement of the end of the race filling him with a humming energy that has no outlet.
Evidently Dean feels the same, as he pushes himself to his feet and starts to pace. “Man, this wait is gonna kill me. Being a spectator blows. I dunno how I’m gonna make it.”
“How long until they get here?” Castiel asks.
Dean shrugs. “It’s like 20 miles from Safety to Nome and they’re moving fast so couple hours, max, if everything goes well.”
Castiel stares up at him, considering. “I can think of a way to pass the time.”
Dean chokes, caught somewhere between a laugh and a surprised exclamation, stuttering to a stop in his pacing. “Did you just—proposition me?”
Dean gapes at him, and then his mouth curls into a salacious grin. He moves in front of Castiel, where he is sitting backwards on the bench, his back resting against the tabletop, and climbs right into Castiel’s lap, straddling his legs. Castiel smiles up at him.
“Hello,” Castiel says, his hands falling on Dean’s hips, stroking up over the denim to thumb his hip bones under the hem of his shirt. Dean grins ferally and leans in to brace his palms against the table behind Castiel.
“Hey.” He ducks in, nosing at Castiel’s bearded cheek, teasing and ducking away before Castiel can find his lips. He tilts his head and nudges under Castiel’s jaw, swiping his tongue along the sensitive flesh before settling in the space between the hinge of his jaw and his ear, sucking and nipping. Castiel groans, eyes fluttering shut and his hands tightening on Dean’s hips before sliding around to pull Dean in as close as can be.
It’s been over a week since they’d been this close, a week of waiting in checkpoints and hasty cold-nosed kisses, fleeting touches where no one can see. Only eight weeks ago, Castiel hadn’t even known Dean and hadn’t ever touched him, but he’s quickly become addicted, to his big hands now tugging off Castiel’s knit hat and fisting in his hair, to the lips finally finding his and meeting them in a heated kiss, to everything about this man from his irreverent manner of speaking to his terrible jokes that Castiel sometimes doesn’t understand, to the beautiful heart shining through his every pore. Castiel’s heart hammers inside his ribcage and he grips Dean’s hips tightly, only a tiny fraction of the tension in his body stemming from Dean’s body pressed to his. The rest is something more, some desperate need to hold onto him and keep him close.
Dean reins himself in before they can get too far, chuckling at the disapproving whine that slips past Castiel’s lips when Dean pulls back. His hands slide out of Castiel’s hair, broad, calloused palms cupping his face and Dean’s lips curl into a crooked smile that lights his eyes and makes Castiel’s heart stutter. Dean’s thumbs trace over his cheekbones and he ducks in to kiss him again, this time a soft, chaste brush of lips that feels anything but.
The door bangs open suddenly and Dean stumbles hastily to his feet, a flush rising high in his cheeks. A petite redhead rushes into the room and grabs Dean in a hard hug, and Castiel blinks back and forth between them, perplexed and off-put by her sudden appearance.
“Charlie?” Dean asks, hugging her back, his expression mirroring Castiel’s. “What’s up?”
The redhead—Charlie—pulls back to look up at him. “What are you doing in here?”
Dean cocks a sardonic eyebrow. “What does it look like I was doing in here?” He smirks, turning slightly to wink down at Castiel, who rolls his eyes fondly.
“Oh, hey,” Charlie says, eyes flicking to Castiel as if noticing him for the first time. “Charlie,” she introduces herself unnecessarily, extending a small hand with black-polished fingernails to him. “I’m one of the tech geniuses behind this whole shebang. And this loser’s friend.” She jerks her head in Dean’s direction.
Castiel accepts her hand, shaking it gravely, and introduces himself.
She eyes him appreciatively as they shake hands. “Well you’re kinda dreamy,” she says matter of factly before she looks back up. “Good job, Dean.”
“I know, right?” Dean turns to grin at Castiel, reaching out a hand to muss Castiel’s hair, and laughing at the indignant look he receives in return.
Charlie nods appreciatively. “I don’t even swing that way and I can dig it. Anyway!” She shakes her head as if to clear it, hands clenching tightly in the sleeves of Dean’s shirt. “Not what I came in here for! Didn’t you hear?” she barks at him.
“Dean…” Charlie begins, shaking him slightly by the fistfuls of t-shirt she’s got clenched in her hands, “the GPS went down and everything’s lagging—I just saw it as I was getting the system back up and running.”
Dean’s eyes widen in alarm and he grabs Charlie’s shoulders. “Charlie, you’re freakin’ me out here. What happened?”
“Sam’s making a run for it!” Charlie exclaims. “He’s out of Safety in fourth place and closing fast!”
The bottom drops out of Castiel’s stomach at the words, just as Dean blinks, his mouth falling open. “He’s… what?”
“He’s in fourth place!” Charlie says urgently.
“Holy fuck!” Dean springs into action, snatching his discarded coat off the table and attempting to pull it on. He fumbles the first time, trying unsuccessfully to get his hand into the hood until Charlie grabs his coat impatiently and holds it up for him so he can get it on the right way. “My brother’s in fourth, holy shit. Who’s in first?”
“Joanna Harvelle, and King doesn’t have a hope of catching her,” Charlie says, a fearsome glint in her green eyes. “And she’s almost here.”
Dean punches the air and crows “Fuck yes, Harvelle!” and runs out the door, heedless of his limp or the pain in his side. Castiel hurries to follow, tugging on his own coat as he bursts out the doors after Dean, Charlie hot on his heels. The streets are even louder than before, packed with crowds on either side of the finishing chute on Front Street. Dean shoves his way through the crowd and into the chute, Castiel flashing his press pass at the volunteer who tries to stop them.
Ellen’s there with Jess, both of them having driven up this morning, and each of them catch first Dean, then Castiel up in hard hugs.
“I just heard! Can you fucking believe this?” Dean yells, clutching tight to Ellen’s shoulders.
“Language!” she shouts back up at him and then laughs like she can’t even pretend to be angry.
They just make it to the Arch when the roar of the crowd grows to a fever pitch as Jo’s team comes in sight, rounding the corner onto Front Street. The noise is deafening, the siren sounding above the screams and cheers of the fans, Dean and Ellen and Jess’ voices raised in exultation right along with them. Jo is beaming, her rare, breathtaking, sunny smile visible even from the end of the street as she pedals along with her dogs the last stretch to the finish line.
She barely has a chance to set her snow hook and Ellen is gathering her up in a hug, scooping her small body right off the ground. Jo hugs her back tightly, laughing, and two fat tears squeeze their way out of Ellen’s eyes. She whispers in her daughter’s ear, and Castiel can’t hear it over the roar of the crowd and the voice of the announcer proclaiming Joanna Harvelle the winner of the 42nd Iditarod, but he sees Jo’s lip wobble when she pulls back and looks up at her mother with a watery smile.
Jo spares a quick hug for them all—Dean next, then Jess and finally Castiel—before she’s on her knees hugging her dogs and crying into their fur. She’s pulled away by the media and their little group moves off to the side to make way for the next musher to cross the finish line, which should be Jeff King.
“Well Ellen, you done good,” Dean says, curling an arm around the woman’s shoulder and pulling her into his side. “First woman to win in—what? Ten years?
“Fourteen,” Ellen says fiercely, her eyes bright and glinting with pride.
Dean laughs giddily. “Can’t say I’m surprised; if anyone’s stubborn enough to win this thing, it’s her.”
Ellen grins, unable to pull her eyes away from her daughter where she’s speaking into a video camera, a microphone held under her face and flashbulbs going off all around. A small crowd of reporters and journalists have gathered around the new winner, and Castiel is amused to see both Cassie and Charlie both among them, Cassie with a beaming smile and a recorder held out towards the blonde, and Charlie clutching a notebook and a pen as she waits for an autograph.
The four of them settle in to wait and it’s not long before the siren is going off again, sooner than they’d thought, signalling that another musher has made it to Nome. The crowd cheers as their little group straightens up, peering down the street to wait for King to make his appearance. But as the team rounds the corner onto Front Street, Castiel realizes it’s not King standing on the runners of that sled; it’s not King waving at the crowds and kicking along the snow-covered street behind his team. Because he recognizes that big black dog alone in lead position with eight other dogs trailing behind her, tongues hanging from their mouths as they thunder into the chute.
It’s not King. It’s not even Seavey.
Dean’s hand closes vice-like on the shoulder of Castiel’s coat the moment he realizes that it’s his brother making his way to the finish line, the nine dogs he still has in his team led by Chevy and moving like they aren’t finishing up a thousand mile race, Sam’s long leg pumping behind the sled to keep the speed up for the final stretch. Dean’s exultant cheer is deafening in Castiel’s ear, Jess and Ellen’s cries echoing his when it clicks for them too, a beat later. Dean’s excitement spills over and he grabs Castiel by the face and kisses him hard, then pulls Jess and Ellen into a group hug before whooping and punching the air. Sam spots his brother waiting at the line and grins, the bright smile visible even from here, and he raises an exultant fist in reply. The crowd roars.
When Sam Winchester crosses the finish line in second place, his brother is there to greet him, hitting him with the force of a small cannon and nearly knocking the taller man off balance. Sam’s face twists with emotion, blinking tears from his eyes and dimples showing in his beaming face, his gloved hands clenching in the fabric at Dean’s back. Dean seems reluctant to let go, but when he finally does, pulling back just enough that Castiel can see, his mouth is split in a wide grin, laugh lines all around his eyes and tears streaming unchecked down his face. His lips move, and though Castiel has no hope of hearing him over the noise of the crowd, he thinks he sees Dean’s mouth form the words, “I’m proud of you, Sammy.”
Castiel has to look away, then, his own eyes stinging with tears and his throat closing up tight.
Dean finally lets his brother go and Jess takes his place, stretching up on her toes to kiss Sam on the mouth. He wraps his arms around her, kisses her hair, and then lets her go to hug Ellen and Castiel and finally Jo, who comes barrelling back down the chute and leaps straight into his arms in a hug that involves all four of her limbs while everyone laughs.
The reporters seem to have followed Jo, swarming around Sam to interview him about his second place finish, and the others move out of the way.
“So, Sam,” the Iditarod Insider official reporter asks in his booming, sports announcer voice, “it’s been a hell of a run for you this year. A couple days ago you were right in the middle of the pack, and just in the last few days you’ve shot through the ranks and finally ended up in second. Quite the finish!”
Sam laughs, ducking his head to speak into the microphone the reporter levels in his direction. “Yeah, thanks, I’m really happy with my race this year,” he says humbly. “But I can’t take credit for all of it. My brother and I train the dogs together, and he’s got a better eye for dogs than I do. I went into this race with an incredible team, and I owe this finish all to that dog at the front of the line.” He points one gloved finger at Chevy where she sits, relaxed and panting at the head of his team. “She’s Dean’s dog, but he made me take her, and she kept us moving at an amazing pace, kept me on the trail in the blowing snow between Safety and Nome where King got lost. So it’s thanks to Chevy and Dean that I’m here in second place at all.”
Castiel turns to smile at Dean, only to find he’s not there.
He’s kneeling in the snow at the head of the team, gloves discarded beside him. He has his forehead pressed to Chevy’s, eyes closed and fingers tight in the ruff around her neck. Castiel makes his way over just in time to see Dean pull back and open his eyes, leaning back in one last time to kiss her forehead and mumble, “Thanks Baby. You’re a good girl,” before he shoves himself to his feet and makes his way down the line with a whispered word and a thankful hug for each dog in Sam’s team.
Castiel’s heart clenches and when Dean returns to his side, smiling ruefully, his green eyes bright and full of pride, Castiel slides his fingers into the spaces between Dean’s and squeezes tight.
Sam finishes his fifth Iditarod in second place with a time of 9 days, 1 hour and 26 minutes, passing former winners Dallas Seavey and Jeff King in the miles between Safety and Nome and coming in just after Jo at 9 days, 48 minutes. It’s a badass finish that no one predicted, not even Sam himself, even though he’d been hopeful from the start. It’s chaos at the finish line, reporters and fans swarming both Sam and Jo until they beg off to go take care of their dogs, settling them in makeshift straw beds in the giant dog yard the volunteers had set up, after a hearty and well-deserved dinner of the finest steaks Ellen and Jess can find in town.
By the time he climbs in bed with Cas at the hotel room the magazine had booked for him, Dean’s cheeks are sore from the perpetual grin he’s been wearing all night. Cas huffs his amusement at the face he makes as he massages the stiff muscles, and Cas earns himself a pillow in the face for his trouble. Cas retaliates by grabbing for his wrists and after a few minutes of wrestling like a couple of high-schoolers at a sleepover, Dean finds himself underneath Cas with his hands pinned over his head, laughter turning to choked-off moans as Cas rocks them both to a lazy, messy climax.
Dean lies awake long after Cas has drifted off to sleep, staring up at the ceiling with a dumbass smile still curling his lips, loose-limbed and content. He still can’t believe his brother came in second place, and he keeps waiting for the jealousy but it doesn’t come. He wishes he could have been on the trail with his brother until the end, but being there to watch him cross that finish line was the next best thing in his book. Next year they’ll be there at the end of the line together, now that he knows they’ve got the kind of teams that can pull it off. Right now, the only emotion he can muster is pride—pride that his brother managed to beat out seasoned veterans and past winners to come in second out of more than fifty mushers on the playing field. And when he finally drifts off to sleep, curled into Cas’ side and cocooned in warmth, it’s the best sleep he’s had in weeks.
The mushers keep rolling into Nome over the next four days and then they cap it all off with the Finishers’ Banquet at the Nome Convention Center. Jess—the devious minx—insists that Dean go to the banquet as Sam’s date in her place, for which he shoots her a glare behind Sam’s back to let her know just how much he thinks of the idea. Sam’s happy though, so Dean bites his tongue and keeps his grumbling to a minimum. It winds up being less bad than Dean had imagined, sitting sandwiched between Sam and Cas, who gets in on a media pass, and he gets to feel the proud big brother moment all over again when Sam gets up on the stage to accept his winnings and give his speech.
Sam comes home with a cheque for just shy of fifty grand, too, so. That doesn’t suck, either.
After the festivities are over, Sam, Dean, Castiel and Jess pile into the dog truck and make the long trek home from Nome back to Willow, stopping a couple times on the way to let the dogs out to stretch their legs. When they get home and relieve the teenagers—who Dean is glad to see haven’t burned down the house and have kept the dogs spoiled and well loved—the first thing he does after Sam’s team from the race is safely settled back in their houses, fed and happy, is stomp right into Cas’ bedroom, collapse face-first on the bed and pass out.
He wakes up a few hours later with Cas squashed in next him, the other man tucked under his arm, face mashed up against Dean’s chest with the hand-knitted blanket from the foot of the bed thrown haphazardly over them both. He’s snoring slightly, legs tangled up with Dean’s, and Dean smiles in the dark, pulls Cas in tighter and lets himself drift back to sleep.
Sam goes back to work a few days after they get back home, so Dean and Cas make the most of the time they have together. Cas only has one more week with them before he has to fly back home to California, and with the race over, it weighs heavy on both their minds. As the days tick by, Cas gathers up his things that had slowly spread around the apartment over the two and a half months he’s been there, piling clothes and ratty books back into his suitcase. The time not spent doing chores they fill by taking teams of six dogs out on the trails behind their property or hanging out together in Dean’s workshop as he dives back into his work, Cas working on his article in between mindless small-talk they pass back and forth. In the evenings when Sam is home, the three of them watch movies, piled up together on the couch as they work their way through Cas’ pop-culture education. Dean makes a point of taking Cas out on a proper date (shut up, burgers and beer at the Roadhouse totally counts) and he doesn’t bother to sleep in his own bedroom anymore, going straight for Cas’ every night when it’s time to turn in.
Then suddenly, it’s the day before Cas’ flight departs and Dean’s not fucking ready. He sits stretched out on Cas’ bed with his arms crossed over his chest, refusing on principle to help Cas pack as Cas meanders around the room, gathering loose socks and discarded sweaters and stuffing them into an already overstuffed duffel bag. He doesn’t want Cas to go, doesn’t want to risk this—whatever-it-is that they’ve got going. They’ve agreed to stay together, to try the long-distance thing, but Dean’s a realist and California’s so fucking far away. Who knows what could happen after Cas leaves? Sure, they said they’d try, and they will, but for all he knows, Cas leaving tomorrow could be closing the door on this thing between them for good.
It crosses Dean’s mind, absurdly, that he could ask Cas to stay, but he shuts it down before the thought gets to his mouth because it’s stupid. It’s stupid that he’s even thinking it, and no way would Cas say yes. Cas has a job and an apartment and a sister waiting for him in L.A.; there’s no way he even could say yes.
So Dean keeps his mouth shut.
That night, Ellen throws a party to celebrate Jo and Sam’s first and second place finishes in the Race and to wish Cas well on his trip home. The doors are long since closed to the public, a “private function” sign in Jo’s scribbled hand taped crookedly to the door, and there’s rock music blaring on the beat-up old jukebox in the corner. Ellen is in fine form, serving shots to anyone who stands still long enough to take them, and Jo is—as usual—kicking everyone’s ass at pool. All their friends from Willow are there and even some from Anchorage, Bobby having a lively discussion with Benny and his wife Andrea, and Ash and Charlie (who is here with Dorothy after they met and hit it off at the finish line, Dean is amused to note) are talking computer code at one end of the bar. Cassie’s here too, and by the looks of things, whatever she and Jo started during the pre-race events is still going strong because Jo sure is laying it on thick.
His friends are all here and having a great time, but Dean can’t bring himself to join in, sitting off to the side by himself and nursing two fingers of whiskey—not his first of the night. His eyes keep drifting across the room to where Cas is talking with Ellen, his arms folded on the bar as he leans in to hear her side of the conversation. He’s wearing that damned black button-down again, this time over dark blue jeans that hug his ass and cling to the lean muscles of his legs, and Dean’s eyes track the play of Cas’ fingers and the curve of his mouth over the rim of the shot glass that Ellen keeps covertly filling and Cas keeps mindlessly shooting back. Cas winces and shakes his head after the last one and Ellen must say something funny because Cas’ face does that thing that would barely be a smile on anyone else but on Cas might as well be a full-on belly laugh. Dean swallows hard and smiles humorlessly to himself, tearing his eyes away and bringing his own glass to his lips, letting the sting of the whiskey distract him from the painful tightness in his chest.
“Why the hell are you sulking over here by yourself?”
Dean jumps and turns to his brother, who is way more sneaky than someone his size has any right to be, looming over Dean from behind. “What?” he asks over the noise of the bar, glowering as Sam tugs out the chair next to him and folds his long frame into it.
“I said, why are you sitting all alone over here drinking your sorrows when your boyfriend is over there hanging out with Ellen? On the last night he’s in the same state as you, no less?”
Dean shrugs, turning his gaze to the amber liquid lapping at the sides of his glass as he spins it gently in his hand. “He’s having fun. I figured, why mess with a good thing?”
“Why mess with—” Sam pauses and takes a steadying breath and Dean can practically feel the intensity of the glare Sam shoots in his direction. “Dean, it’s his last night. You’re already moping like a kicked puppy; how do you think you’re gonna feel if you waste it feeling sorry for yourself?”
“Jesus, what are you my shrink?” Dean shakes his head. “Keep going like that and I’m gonna need another one of these.” He tilts his glass back in demonstration, taking a too-generous swallow and fighting his wince as it burns on the way down.
Sam rakes a hand through his hair and presses one huge hand to Dean’s shoulder, forcing him to turn and face his brother. “Can you just stow your macho bullshit for one second? I came over here to tell you that I’m staying at Jess’ tonight. But if you’re just going to sulk and ruin it for him by being a whiny child about it—”
Dean snorts. “Don’t you think it’s a little creepy that you’re trying to get your big brother laid?” He grins and waggles his eyebrows when Sam shoots him a glare.
“Dean, seriously?” Sam groans, pressing his fingers into his eyes as if that’ll chase away the thought. “That is a mental image I did not need. I just thought you guys might like some privacy since it’s his last night here. And I really hope you’re not going to fuck it up by acting like a giant dick all night because you can’t deal with your feelings. He deserves more than that.”
Dean’s stomach twists uncomfortably and he picks up the glass in front of him again, tipping it back for something to do so he doesn’t have to meet Sam’s gaze. He swallows the last of the whiskey and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand before he flicks his gaze up at his brother. “Yeah. Thanks, Sam,” he says gruffly, and Sam smiles gratefully like the sap he is and squeezes his shoulder.
“Hey! Winchesters!” Jo shouts at them from the bar where a bunch of them are lined up with shots of whiskey in front of them. She points the bottle in their direction. “Get over here and do a shot, you big wusses!”
Dean snorts but pastes on a grin and follows Sam to the bar, ignoring his brother’s knowing smile as he slides up beside Cas and bumps purposefully against his side. Cas looks up at him with a kind of sleepy smile and presses just a little into the touch.
“You’re drunk,” Dean says, amused, and Cas draws back indignantly.
“I am not,” he protests. “Just a little tipsy.” Dean laughs when the words come out a little slower than normal, careful, like Cas is making sure not to slur his words. He accepts the shot glass Ellen slides his direction, ignoring the knowing look she levels at him, and curls his free hand around Cas’ hip.
“Here’s to Jo and Sam,” Ellen says, raising her glass in the air. “First and Second place in the 42nd Iditarod!”
Dean’s lip curls into a crooked smile and he raises his glass, reaching over Cas’ head to clink his glass against Sam’s before shooting it back. He slams his glass back down on the bar as his friends around him do the same to general cheers and then Ellen is filling them up again.
“And here’s to Castiel—thanks for taking care of our boys on the trail Cas.” Ellen smiles warmly at him as Cas looks around in surprise. “It was great to meet you, kid, and we hope you’ll come back soon.”
“Hear, hear!” Jo yells and Cas blinks owlishly but raises his glass nonetheless, and lets everyone clap him on the back and shake his hand as the crowd slowly dissipates. Jo goes straight for a hug and even plants a kiss on his cheek, darting away before he can process what just happened to him.
Dean laughs at the bewildered expression on his face and claps him on the back. “You get used to her,” he says, his hand lingering against the blade of Castiel’s shoulder. He leans in closer, ducking his head in close to Castiel’s.
“You having a good time, Cas?”
Castiel nods, glancing around the room. “Yes. Your friends are very entertaining. And I like the atmosphere in this place. I’ll miss it.”
“They’re your friends too now, man. Like it or not, you’re stuck with us. And a word of advice, if you hope to keep all your limbs you better text Jo every once in a while.”
“I'll remember,” Castiel replies, smiling softly at him.
Dean takes a swig of his beer, his fingers plucking at the label as he sets it back down on the polished wood of the bar amongst the discarded shot glasses. “So, uh. How much fun you having? You wanna stay a while or…?”
Castiel fixes him with a piercing gaze, squinting up at Dean. Definitely not as drunk as Dean had thought, if he can still muster up that level of intensity. “Do you want to go?”
“Nah, not if you don’t want to. It’s just—” Dean leans in closer because he can’t help it, letting his breath tickle the hairs at the back of Cas’ neck and curling under his ear—“Sam is going back to Jess’ tonight so we’ve got the house to ourselves and I was wondering—”
Cas stands up straight abruptly. “We can go.”
Dean chokes back a laugh at Cas' eagerness. “Are you sure, Cas?” he teases. “Because if you’d rather hang out with these chumps—”
“Dean.” Cas’ eyes narrow and wow, that should really not be as hot as it is. “Let’s go.”
They’ve both had a little too much to drink to be driving so Sam and Jess leave with them, dropping them off at home before heading over to Jess’ for the night. It’s a little embarrassing to be dropped off with your boyfriend (or whatever) at your house by your younger brother, and even more so when said brother’s girlfriend yells “Use a condom!” out the window as they drive away. But Dean’s beyond caring about that. Much.
The atmosphere is charged as they file into the little house, toeing off boots and hanging up coats in the entryway, and Dean’s acutely aware of how alone they are. His eyes keep landing on Cas and skittering away when he finds Cas watching him too, only to come right back a few seconds later. He wants to get in bed with Cas and touch every inch of him, to remember how Cas’ body feels under his fingers, how Cas’ mouth feels against his. He wants to slide his fingers through his hair and trace the arch of his cheekbone and angle of his jaw, to memorize him with touch, for when he doesn’t have him anymore. It’s not like it’ll be the first time they’ve fucked but somehow it feels different, now that Cas is leaving, and Dean wants to savor it, to drag out their last night together and make it last.
“Hot chocolate?” he asks, just to fill the awkward silence. He’s stalling, and it’s probably the first time Dean has ever hesitated to start something, but Cas’ mouth quirks, his eyes going soft as he watches Dean and he gives a small nod and follows Dean through to the kitchen.
Instead of going to the table, Cas stands with Dean at the counter while he boils the water and mixes their drinks, a measly inch between their shoulders where Cas leans beside him. It’s almost like Cas doesn’t want to be any further away than he needs to either, and the thought settles warm in the pit of Dean’s stomach. The spoon clinks softly against the side of the mug as he stirs, Cas’ presence at his side heavy like a physical sensation that starts a shiver at the base of Dean’s neck, prickles of sensation fanning out over his body. He chances a quick glance at Cas and finds him watching Dean in return, eyes wide and dark in the dim light from above the kitchen sink.
“So, you goin’ back to work as soon as you get back?,” Dean asks as he stirs the chocolate in the second mug, pushing the first towards Cas who takes it with murmured thanks.
Castiel sips the drink and hums his appreciation, his tongue darting out to lick up the chocolate that sticks to his top lip. Dean follows the motion with his eyes.
“Mostly I work from home,” Castiel replies. “But I will be expected to check in soon afterwards to let Zachariah know the progress I’ve made on my article. I have most of it already written so it shouldn’t be a problem.” He grimaces. “I am not looking forward to going back to the office after such a long Zachariah-less reprieve.”
Dean chuckles. “Yeah, the guy sounds like an ass. Why don’t you quit, go work somewhere else?”
“You sound like Anna. She’s been trying to get me to quit for years.” Castiel sips his hot chocolate before continuing. “I like working from home, and generally I enjoy my assignments. At least—I did until he decided I was on his bad side and needed to be punished.”
That one hits a little close, the echo of a half-remembered argument from what feels like ages ago, and Dean winces at the reminder. He didn’t want Cas here either, at first, but that had changed, way faster than he cares to admit. “Listen, Cas,” he says, staring down at his hands clasped around the steaming mug so he doesn’t have to meet Cas’ eyes, “I know I said some shit before, and I know you didn’t want to have to come here and you never would have if he hadn’t made you but—I’m really glad your boss is such a douche.”
Castiel huffs a surprised laugh, but then slowly goes still, the silence going on so long that Dean shifts uncomfortably under the weight of Cas’ stare, bringing his mug up to his lips. But Cas intercepts him and pries the hot chocolate gently out of his hands, setting it gently on the countertop beside his own.
When he speaks, Cas’ eyes are intent on Dean’s, his voice is low and serious. “Dean… I stopped not wanting to be here a long time ago.”
Dean’s breath catches in his throat, the words then stay on the tip of his tongue before he manages to force them down. Instead he leans in across the spare few inches between them and brushes his lips across Cas’, almost too soft to be considered a kiss. His nose nudges the curve of Cas’ cheekbone and Cas’ breath stutters as he tilts his head back and moves in closer, sealing their lips together with a sigh.
“I’m gonna miss this,” Dean mumbles, meaning something else, and Cas must understand because he says “I’m going to miss you too.” Dean’s hands come up to stroke over the cut of Cas’ hips through the black dress shirt and Cas kisses him again, tongue dipping into Dean’s mouth, easing his lips apart. Dean stifles a groan and presses into the kiss, dragging Cas in closer. He’s glad for the distraction, eager for the chance to bring them back to the physical, because there are too many words flooding through his mind, too many worries and what-ifs and he’s never been good with emotions anyway. Sex though—sex he can handle.
Except that this time, here in his kitchen, kissing Cas, he can’t seem to separate the two. The sweep of Castiel’s hands over the angles of Dean’s body, the way he presses up against Dean and rolls into the press of his hips has Dean reeling with arousal, but it’s more than just a physical want. It’s desperation, a need to have as much of Cas as he can before he goes, to show him in actions just how much he’s going to be missed, since Dean royally sucks at words. He rocks his erection against the spur of Cas’ hip, hands clutching too-tight, his kisses hungry as he maps out Cas’ mouth with his tongue and Cas gives back as good as he gets, curling around Dean like he’s afraid to let go.
By the time Cas pulls back and croaks out “Bed?” they’re panting into each other’s mouths, chests heaving against each other. Dean nods shakily but enthusiastically and Cas grabs his hand, starts to pull him back to the guest bedroom.
“No,” Dean says, putting on the brakes. “Sam’s not here; let’s use my room for once.” He grins broadly and winks. “My bed’s better. Not so creaky. Memory foam. The works.”
Cas rolls his eyes but smiles and lets himself be pulled into Dean’s bedroom, where Dean shuts the door and immediately starts peeling Cas out of his clothes. It’s harder than Dean would’ve expected, with Cas sucking furiously on his neck and palming his ass through his jeans, and those friggin’ buttons refusing to come free of their holes. He makes a frustrated noise, followed by one of triumph when the last one comes free and Cas chuckles against his throat without pulling away.
Dean slips his hands inside Cas’ shirt, his palms skimming over Cas’ muscled shoulders to slide the shirt off and to the ground and then works his pants and boxer briefs off too until he’s standing naked as a jaybird in the middle of Dean’s room. The entire time, Cas has been latched onto his neck and Dean’s pretty sure he’s going to have an impressive hickey come tomorrow. Good, he thinks as he pulls back to let Cas tug his shirt off; for a few days at least he can look in the mirror and think about how he got it, remember that Cas put it there.
Dean fumbles back towards the bed and trips over the jeans where they’re still tangled around his shins, and he laughs as he brings Cas down with him. Cas laughs, the sound turning to a groan when the next shift of his hips brings their cocks together between their bodies. Dean’s fingers dig a little too hard into the muscle of Cas’ back and Cas’ hands are a little too tight in Dean’s hair, and when they find each others’ lips again, the kisses turn sharp with nips and bites, everything inside of them turning to desperation and need.
Little broken sounds are tearing themselves out of Dean’s throat and pained gasps out of Cas’, and Dean arches into the press of Castiel’s body where sweat and precome is already slickening their skin. His hips move frantically, hands clutching and moving over everything they can reach and he feels like he’s drowning and doesn’t know how to stop. And of course, that’s when Castiel pulls back, because he may only have known Dean for two months but somehow he sees right through Dean as if he’s known him much longer. He doesn’t get lost in the show, somehow sees what’s underneath the front Dean puts on.
He cradles Dean’s face between broad, soft palms. “Shhh,” he whispers, his lips moving soft over Dean’s, “we have time.”
Their kisses turn slow and languid; no less desperate than before but more like they’re savoring each other, rather than devouring. The rolling of their hips that sends shocks of heat up Dean’s spine with each brush of their cocks is less a frantic race to orgasm and more an endless wave of pleasure rippling through him. But he wants more, wants to be closer to Castiel, and when Cas’ roving fingers brush against the crack of his ass, Dean gasps and presses back into his hand.
“Cas please,” he begs, his voice barely more than a broken whisper. “Need you. Please.”
The blue of Cas’ eyes is a thin ring around heavy pupils when he chokes on his groan and nods. Dean wiggles out from halfway underneath Cas and over to the dresser, fishing out a condom and his lube and pressing them into Cas’ hands before turning over onto his stomach.
Cas doesn’t open the lube right away, tossing the little bottle and the wrapped condom on the bed beside them. The touch of his hands is reverent as they trail down Dean’s back on either side of his spine and out over his hips, finally stroking over his ass. Cas drops his head, his body warm where it drapes over Dean's thighs, and presses a kiss to each of the dimples at the base of Dean's spine before he levers himself up on his knees. Cas gently pulls Dean's cheeks apart and Dean groans into the mattress as Cas’ thumb strokes over his crack, skirting over his clenching hole. He fights the helpless jerk of his hips, wanting simultaneously to fuck down into the mattress and to buck up into Cas’ hand, forcing himself to hold still against the surge of want that coils through his belly.
The thumb is gone and Dean thinks he’s about to get to first touch of a finger but there’s no pop of the lube cap, no wet sound of lube being spread over fingers. Instead, Castiel parts him further and leans in, and then there’s the hot, slick press of Cas’ tongue, swiping along the cleft of Dean’s ass and lapping at his hole. Dean can’t help his cry or the way he pushes up into Cas’ eager mouth, and Cas hums his approval, the vibration pulling another desperate sound from Dean’s chest. Cas licks and sucks and swipes at Dean’s hole, and when Dean’s slick with Cas’ spit and trembling, Cas eases a finger into him, twisting and pressing until Dean is moaning and clutching at the sheets below him, his hips rocking frantically back and forth.
“Cas, please,” he begs, and Cas groans and pulls away to slick his fingers with lube and then he’s back, easing two fingers in and scissoring him open, adding a third that burns just right and working against his prostate in a way that brings Dean dangerously close to the edge. He thinks he could come just like this, from Cas’ fingers now fucking in and out of him and grazing over his prostate with intent, combined with the friction of the bed underneath him as he rocks his hips feebly, but then Cas pulls away and turns him over gently with a hand on his hip.
“I want to see you, Dean,” he says and Dean nods and splays his legs wide so Cas can settle between them, reaching up to catch Cas’ lips with his and tug Cas’ body down against him. Somehow Cas manages to get the condom on and slicks more lube over himself and then he’s guiding himself forward and easing into Dean inch by slow inch until he's buried to the hilt and Dean pulls in a ragged breath because finally.
For a moment, Cas goes still above him, his head dropping down into the crook of Dean’s neck, breathing hard. He presses shaky kisses under Dean’s jaw as he waits and Dean tilts his head and lets him, coiling his arms tight around Cas and rocking his hips slightly to pull him in deeper. It burns a little but Dean doesn’t care; he wants to be as close to Cas as he can, to feel him deep inside now and for days after.
“Are you okay?” Cas asks, kissing over Dean’s jaw, their stubble rasping together. Dean chuckles breathlessly.
“Yeah, I’m great.” He clutches at Cas’ back, trying to spur him to movement. “C’mon, Cas, move a little.”
Cas laughs into Dean’s neck and plants one last kiss to his pulse point, curling his fingers into Dean’s hair, his other hand drifting restlessly over every part of Dean he can reach, making Dean’s muscles twitch and jump under his skin. Dean rocks his hips up, sliding his hands down to Cas’ ass, dragging him in deeper and making him groan. Finally Cas gets the hint and starts moving, slow, smooth rolls of his hips that light Dean up from the inside. All of Dean’s senses are filled with Cas, fierce blue eyes nearly swallowed up with black staring down at him, the scent of sweat and Cas’ bodywash in his nose, his body a long line of slick heat pressed against Dean's from chest to ankle, covering him and filling him and fucking into him. Dean tilts his hips up for more, gasping when Cas’ cock drags against his prostate. Cas swallows his gasp, devours it, licking into his mouth in a rhythm that’s a counterpoint to the smooth thrust of his hips.
It’s slow for a long time, their bodies moving together sinuously but then Cas starts thrusting in deeper, Dean’s hips bucking up harder to meet him. They’re not so much kissing now as they are panting into each others’ mouths, nipping frantically at each others’ lips, and Dean arches into the pull building in his lower belly, his lower back coming up off the bed as his body bows into Cas’. Cas doesn’t stop, fucking into him desperately, but he does plant his hand beside Dean’s head and push himself up, wedging a hand down between them to circle Dean’s dick.
“Cas, fuck,” Dean groans, thrusting up into Cas’ fist, and bucking down into the thrust of Cas’ cock and Cas pants “Dean,” brokenly in response, twisting his wrist and fucking down harder.
“Fuck, I’m gonna—Cas, I’m gonna come,” Dean chokes out, and Cas slams his mouth against Dean’s just as Dean tips over the edge, his orgasm wracking him, and all he can do is sob into Cas’ mouth as he spurts between them, coating his own belly and chest with come. And then Cas throws his head back because he’s coming too and Dean opens his eyes to watch as the shudder ripples up through his body, Dean’s name falling from his lips like a plea.
Cas collapses on Dean’s chest, burying his head in the curve of Dean’s neck and for a moment they just lie there, breathing hard and shaking with aftershocks. Then Dean turns his head, pressing kisses to the exposed line of Castiel’s cheekbone, the shell of his ear, the cut of his jaw until Cas turns into him, catching Dean’s lips with his own.
Eventually he pulls out and flops over on his side and Dean reaches down to gingerly remove the condom from Cas’ softening cock and dispose of it, tiptoeing bare-ass naked into the hallway to grab a washcloth from the bathroom. He cleans them both up and tosses the cloth into the hamper then climbs back into bed with Cas, tossing the blanket over them both and sliding a thigh between Cas’ until they’re tangled together, arms wrapped around each other and Cas nuzzling along his sweaty temple.
“Dean,” Cas says finally, hand trailing down Dean’s ribs.
Dean catches the hand where it skates over the curve of his hip. “Yeah Cas?”
Castiel is silent, his fingers toying with Dean’s until they lace together like they belong. He takes a breath and Dean pulls back, searching Castiel’s face as he waits. Cas’ eyes are dark and wide, and there’s something in their depths that makes Dean’s breath catch in his throat.
“Nothing,” Cas says finally, and leans in to press a kiss to Dean’s forehead, his hand coming up to comb soothing strokes through the sweaty spikes of Dean’s hair. “Go to sleep, Dean.”
Any other time, Dean might have pushed, might have made Cas tell him what’s up, but he thinks he can guess what Cas was going to say. The same words are floating around in his own head right now, and it thrills him almost as much as it scares him. Instead he lets the pull of Cas’ fingers through the sweat-damp spikes of his hair soothe him, his body going lax against Cas’ until he drifts into a heavy, sated sleep, curled together with the writer he wasn’t even supposed to like, let alone love.
Dean wakes the next morning to a searing ray of sunlight burning holes in his eyelids, the snow-reflected light piercing through a gap in the curtains he’d been too fucked-out to close properly last night. He groans and rolls away from the light, turning to bury his face in the warm, naked chest he finds pressed against his cheek. Cas snuffles in his sleep as Dean’s hair tickles his nose and draws Dean in tighter, burrowing down instinctively into Dean’s hair. Dean huffs a quiet laugh and sets himself to licking and kissing Cas’ collarbone, worshipping every inch of that tanned skin, rolling Cas gently so he can get more access.
When he glances back up, Cas is awake and watching him, eyes hooded and pupils blown wide. “Heya Cas,” Dean says, lips moving against Castiel’s skin, and Castiel smiles, eyes going soft as he looks down.
Dean grins to cover the tightening in his chest at those two words, lacing his fingers with Cas’ and continuing his task. Today’s the day Cas goes back to California, and he’s gotta make good use of the time they have left. He makes his way down the tight flat lines of muscle on Cas’ torso, tonguing the flat of each rib and sucking hickeys into the cut of his hips, and finally reaching his erect cock and swallowing him down.
Cas lets out this sound that’s half sigh and half moan, fingers settling in Dean’s hair as Dean sucks him off lazily. Dean suckles and tongues at the head, then pulls off to press kisses down the line of his shaft and trace his balls with his tongue before returning to his cock and setting up a steady, slow rhythm, eyes flickering up to Cas’ face as he sucks. He fumbles in his bedside table for a condom, pulling back to roll it down over Cas’ dick, finally moving to straddle his hips and ease Cas inside him where he’s still loose and open from last night.
He winces slightly against the lingering ache and braces his hands on Cas’ chest, rocking his hips slowly as Cas stares up at him through wide eyes. Dean watches Cas move beneath him in little fluid rolls of his hips, the taut muscles of his lean chest and belly tensing under his skin. His throat closes up with the way Cas is looking at him, the reverence in his eyes making Dean want to look away but he doesn’t, just stares right back down at Cas until his eyes flicker closed, and he breathes out Dean’s name in a ragged, reverent benediction as he comes. Dean closes his fist around his own dick, pumping his hand and wrenching his own eyes shut, and he falls forward to gasps his orgasm into the sweaty flesh of Cas’ shoulder, finally coming down to the steady combing of Cas’ fingers through his hair.
Cas is already packed and his flight isn’t until this afternoon, so they stay tangled together in Dean’s bed, kissing and touching and talking about nothing in low, hushed voices, pointedly ignoring Cas’ looming departure. Finally a howl starts up in the yard and they hear Sam’s truck in the driveway a few minutes later and they drag themselves reluctantly out of bed, both of them dressing in Dean’s clothes and stumbling out to the kitchen where they find Sam making coffee. He greets them with a soft smile that makes Dean roll his eyes even as his cheeks flush warm, and if he notices the dark scattering of hickeys decorating their throats or Dean's ginger walk as he makes his way around the kitchen, he chooses not to comment.
Dean kicks his brother out of the way, directing him to sit his ass down at the table with Cas and starts on a wicked breakfast for Cas’ last day. He busies his hands beating eggs and grating cheese and cubing potatoes to shove into the oven, and then the three of them sit down at the table for a breakfast of champions. They don’t discuss Cas’ flight or that they don’t have the slightest clue how they’re going to keep up a relationship with Cas living so fucking far away, choosing instead to talk about Sam’s plans to propose to Jess, which have become a reality with the giant check just waiting to clear the bank and the sponsors knocking down their door after Sam’s impressive second place finish.
Dean only makes it a few minutes into breakfast before he hooks his foot around Cas’ ankle, just because he needs to be touching him while he still can. Cas doesn’t say anything but he turns to smile softly at Dean over the lip of his coffee mug.
The three of them file out to the dog yard in silence, working in harmony to feed the dogs and clean up after them as they have for the past two and a half months. All the dogs are eating well and judging by the way they’re circling the houses on their chains at an excited trot, everyone’s back in tip-top condition after their return from Nome. After the chores are done, Cas and Dean and Sam each take a team of six dogs out, Dean riding lead and Sam bringing up the rear. Midway through the trail at a spot where the trail widens into a straight, open plain, he pulls Cas’ skinny little portable camera out of his pocket and turns right around on the runners to snap a couple pictures of Cas driving his own team and Sam and Cas running side by side as Sam urges his team up alongside. Cas’ grin is huge, and Dean’s heart thumps hard in his chest as he stows the camera and turns back to face the front, giving his team a “haw” command to turn everyone back towards home.
By the time they get the dogs out of harness and the equipment packed away, it’s past noon and time is running short. Cas heads straight back out to the dog yard after lunch, Sam and Dean trailing more slowly after him. They wander around the dog houses as Cas goes through the whole yard, saying goodbye to each dog individually and slipping them a treat from his pocket. He lets Jimmy jump up on him but he’s learned how to brace himself by now, and the big white dork places his paws right on Cas’ shoulders, and Cas just screws up his face and takes it as Jimmy slobbers all over him. He finishes with Chevy, pressing his face into the thick, black ruff around her neck, and Dean, hovering nearby at Honda’s house, thinks he hears him say “Good girl, Chevy. Take good care of him for me,” before he kisses her on the head. His eyes as he makes his way back over to Dean are suspiciously bright, and Dean tugs him in with an arm around his neck to press a gruff kiss against his temple.
The three of them ride to the airport together, Sam silently relinquishing the front seat to Cas just this once without even having to be asked because he’s the best brother ever. It’s a quiet ride, and Cas holds Dean’s hand tight on the seat between them, staring out the window as if determined not to miss a minute of his last glimpse of Alaska.
Too soon, they pull into departures and Dean puts the truck in park, his stomach twisted up in knots as he climbs down out of the cab. He leans against the bed of the truck, crossing his arms over his chest, and watches as his brother hugs Castiel, and sees Cas’ hands come up belatedly to hug Sam back. “Don’t be a stranger, Cas,” Sam says, clapping him on the back and pulling back to smile down at him. “Make sure you email me if you need anything else for that article. And come back soon, okay?”
Castiel smiles and nods. “I hope so, Sam. Perhaps you and Dean and Jess could come visit me in L.A. as well.”
“I’d like that,” Sam says and glances back at his brother. “I’ll be in the truck,” he says, and Dean nods jerkily, shoving away from the truck and making his way over to Cas.
“So,” he says when he gets there, “this is it. E.T. goes home.”
Cas smiles softly, sadly, and Dean’s chest squeezes painfully tight. He reaches out and cups Cas’ jaw, the other hand circling his waist and pulling him into a lingering kiss that turns hard and desperate before he pulls away, eyes stinging stupidly.
“You better call me when you land,” he says fiercely, and Cas’ hand on the back of his neck squeezes once.
“I will, Dean,” he says sincerely, and Dean nods jerkily in response, leans in to kiss him again hard before yanking himself away.
Dean stops in his tracks and turns to look at him, hands clenched into fists at his side. As he watches, Cas’ mouth sets into a firm line as he steels himself, and just like yesterday, Dean guesses what’s coming, only this time Cas doesn’t hold back.
“I love you.”
A ragged exhalation bursts from Dean’s lips, heart hurling itself frantically against his ribcage and he closes the distance between them in two strides, sealing their lips together again and dragging Cas in close. There airport is full and there are people watching but he doesn’t fucking care, his mouth moving fervently against Cas’. His fingers clutch too tight and Cas’ do too, and he wants, again, to say stay but he knows that he can’t, that Cas can’t, even if he wants to.
So instead, when he pulls back, he cradles Cas’ face in between both his palms, thumbs skating over the sharp angle of his cheekbones and he chokes out, “Yeah, me too, Cas,” and ducks in to kiss him one last time before he drags himself away, forcing himself to move before the burning in his eyes turns to something more.
The truck door slamming behind him makes him flinch, and he breathes out a shaky exhale as he buckles his seatbelt and turns the key in the ignition, refusing to meet his brother’s concerned gaze.
“Not now, Sam,” Dean says gruffly. “Just—not now.” Sam nods jerkily and looks determinedly out his window as Dean puts the truck in drive and pulls away from the curb. And when Dean chances a glance out through the rearview mirror because he just can’t help himself, Cas is already gone.
Four Months later…
Castiel wakes as his plane starts to descend, blinking blearily around the cabin and stretching as he peers out the little round window at the ground below. Anchorage looks nothing like he remembers, without the shroud of snow when he had come here for the first time, just six and a half months ago. The city sprawls below, curling around the blue mass of water and grid lines of grey asphalt, snow still clinging to the nearby craggy mountaintops and the land around the city awash with rich green. It’s a shock to his system all over again, the familiar yet unfamiliar stretch of Alaska below them so different from the land he’d left behind.
He shifts impatiently in his seat, stretching cramped, stiff legs as the plane touches down, coasting to a smooth landing on the runway to general cheers of the passengers around him. At the touch of a hand to his arm he starts, turning to look down at the older woman sitting next to him. She gives him a small, reassuring smile, mistaking his anxiousness for nerves. “First time in Alaska?” she asks kindly.
He shakes his head. “I’ve been here once before. For the Iditarod.” She looks pleasantly surprised, no doubt thinking as he himself had, that the Alaskan wilderness was a strange place for an awkward, socially inept city-boy like himself. He licks his lips and smiles, pushing down a flare of nervousness that doesn’t belong next to his excitement.
“My boyfriend lives just outside of Willow,” he adds impulsively, and the woman’s eyes crease at the corners, teeth gleaming bright white in her dark face, and the hand on his arm squeezes warmly before she draws it back.
“Well isn’t that sweet. You here to stay, or just for a visit?”
Just for a visit, he means to say, but what comes out is “I’m not entirely sure,” and he can tell by the softness in her dark eyes that she knows which of the two alternatives he would prefer.
It was four months ago that he left Alaska behind, stepping back off the plane onto familiar Californian soil, greeted by salty air and heat and the dirty chaos of the city. Anna was there at arrivals, her bright red hair visible through the crowds of people waiting for their loved-ones to arrive, and he’d gathered her into a tight embrace as soon as he’d reached her. He even spared a hug for Ruby, who hugged him back before rolling her eyes and pushing him away. He’d missed his sister and her acerbic girlfriend for the two months he’d been away, and as he followed them back to Ruby’s car, he’d looked forward to stepping back into the familiar comfort of his own apartment. He had missed his own bed, his desk by the window looking over the street below, and the convenience of anything he could wish for at his fingertips or just a phone call away.
He found though, stepping into the stale air of his apartment for the first time in months, that it didn’t feel like home to him, not anymore. When he settled on his firm leather chair with Chinese takeout on the coffee table in front of him, he found himself longing for a patched, old couch, for the smell of pine filling his nostrils. He missed creaking hardwood under his feet and hand-knitted blankets draped over the furniture, the eerie howls of a yard full of dogs in the morning and the evening. He’d never felt alone in the city before, having always preferred his own company, but now he missed his new friend Sam, and Jo and Ellen and Bobby and Jessica. When he woke up at seven in the morning his first day back, wondering why he was awake, he realized he even missed their daily chores.
And more than all of that, he missed Dean.
They spent long nights talking on the phone or by Skype, the image of Dean propped up on his elbow as he laid in his bed filling Castiel’s laptop screen. Dean kept him up to date on their new sponsorship deals, told him the story of Sam’s proposal to Jess and the party they’d thrown at the Roadhouse after she accepted, and showed him pictures of the newest pieces of furniture he was building. In turn, Castiel told him about Anna’s exhibition at the gallery that he finally got to see, told him how his article had turned out, and how even Zachariah couldn’t fault it, in spite of his best efforts. Sometimes they would talk with no agenda, their conversations wandering into old stories and pointless discussions. Sometimes they would barely talk at all, choosing instead to touch themselves and watch each other fall apart, hearing the broken sounds and gasps as if they were together and touching one another instead. It was good, as good as it could possibly be, but none of that could make up for the distance between them or soothe the ache in Castiel’s fingers when he longed to touch Dean, to skate his palms over the angles of Dean’s face, to trace the pads of his fingers over plush lips and to hold on tight to muscled shoulders. No matter what they did, nothing was the same as being home with Dean.
Home, Castiel realizes now with a jolt, fingers tightening on the plastic airplane armrest under his hand. He doesn’t know when home stopped being a lovely apartment in the hub of Los Angeles and became a little cabin on a piece of land outside of Willow, Alaska, but somehow it did.
The plane coasts to a stop and the flight attendants file down the rows to the exit and start letting the passengers off row by row. Castiel stands and pulls his bag out from under the seat in front of him, slinging the strap over one shoulder as he waits impatiently for the kind woman he’d talked to and the rest of the passengers to exit before him.
The tarmac is bare and the fields around the airport are lush and green, so different when compared to his memories of crisp white and cold from when he first landed here in January. It’s warm, a breeze blowing off the sea that ruffles his hair and catches playfully in the wings of the sweater hanging open over his button-down. He follows the stream of deboarded passengers through the airport to baggage claim, where he spots his suitcase and the oversized navy blue dufflebag, pulling them both from the conveyor belt and starting for the arrivals exit where Dean and Sam will be waiting for him, his stomach twisting into excited knots as he strides quickly for the doors.
The doors slide open automatically and he steps through, squinting in the late-morning sunlight. He shades his eyes with his hand and looks around, grinning when two large, familiar shapes detach themselves from the shadow of a big black truck, the smaller of the two bounding forward to catch him in an embrace, strong arms curling tightly around him.
Castiel drops his bags to the ground, wrapping his arms around the man’s shoulders. “Hello, Dean,” he breathes into the crook of his neck and Dean laughs, holding him tighter.
“Heya Cas,” Dean answers, his voice muffled from where he buries it in Cas’ hair. He drags his mouth up and down the hinge of Castiel’s jaw, lips trailing over the roughness of his five o’clock shadow, and Castiel turns into the touch, pressing their lips together in a chaste but fervent kiss. Dean smiles against his mouth and kisses back, fingers tight in the fabric of Castiel’s sweater. It feels impossibly better than he remembers, Dean’s lips on his, strong arms wrapped around him and the solid warmth of Dean’s torso pressed against him.
He doesn’t want to let Dean go but he reminds himself that he has weeks to do this, maybe more, and drags himself reluctantly away to greet his other friend, standing off to the side with fond amusement and brotherly disgust warring on his smiling face. “Sam,” Castiel says, and holds his arms out for a hug, which Sam returns gladly, thumping him on the back with one big fist.
Sam steps back, scooping Castiel’s duffle bag off the floor. “Flight okay?” Dean asks, sliding his fingers into the spaces between Castiel’s and squeezing. Castiel nods.
“It was long, but once again I slept through most of it.”
Dean shudders. “Better you than me, man.” He bends to pick up Castiel’s suitcase, ignoring him when he tries to tell Dean that it has wheels and can be rolled, or that he’s perfectly capable of carrying his own suitcase. “Well c’mon, Cas. We can catch up on the ride home. Jimmy misses you something fierce.” He grins brightly, green eyes twinkling mischievously in a way that speeds Castiel’s heartbeat in his chest.
At his other side, Sam huffs a laugh, shaking his head. “Yeah, because Dean didn’t miss you at all.”
“Nope, just the dog, I swear.” Dean turns to wink at him and leans in, and Castiel rolls his eyes affectionately but accepts the kiss, his chest tight with warmth as they head towards Dean’s truck.
The hour drive back from Anchorage passes quickly as Sam and Dean fill the cab of the truck with conversation, their voices raised over the bluesy sounds of Led Zeppelin filtering out of the truck speakers. He recognizes Houses of the Holy and taps his fingers to “The Song Remains the Same”, earning himself a grin from Dean. He gets to congratulate Sam on his engagement in person, and then is treated to the full story as Sam recounts it in his own words, and Castiel spends the entire time trying not to laugh at the ridiculous faces Dean pulls from the driver’s seat when Sam isn’t looking. He learns that there’s a party planned for him tomorrow night at the Roadhouse, and he’s looking forward to seeing all his friends again once he’s gotten settled.
When Dean’s truck pulls to a stop outside of Winchester Kennels, Castiel finds himself smiling as he swings down from the big truck, his feet crunching on the gravel of the driveway. The little house looks so different without its blanket of snow, the trees bracketing the driveway lush with leaves and swaying gently in the summer breeze, grass growing in a trim of green around the brown sides of the cabin. The familiar chorus of Dean and Sam’s dogs wraps around him, the sound raising goosebumps on his bare forearms, and he starts immediately for the gate that leads to the kennels, leaving his bags to be dealt with later. Dean laughs brightly and jogs after him while Sam makes some excuse about calling Jess, disappearing into the house with a soft smile on his face.
There is gravel and brown dirt and short green grass under Castiel’s feet as he makes his way down the corridor of fencing, pausing to greet the retirees before he makes his way to the dog yard. He hears the scuff of Dean’s boots behind him as he opens the gate to the yard and leaves it open for him as he starts his rounds, greeting each and every familiar face, delighted when they seem to remember him. Diesel still spins in circles as he approaches, pulling a chuckle out of him as he makes his way over. Paige lies down on her dog house, her lithe body wriggling excitedly as he pets her. Jimmy jumps up on him to slather his face in disgusting, overenthusiastic kisses while Dean laughs from where he’s waiting, leaning up against Echo’s dog house.
Castiel finds himself smiling as he weaves his way around their houses, ruffling coats and scratching under chins and dodging questing tongues. The thrumming energy in his veins settles into something more sedate, something like contentment, as he’s welcomed home by forty furry athletes. But as he finally finishes saying hello to the last dog in the yard, he notices that one face is conspicuously absent. He turns back towards Dean.
“Where’s Chevy?” he calls, confused.
Dean grins, waving him back over. “Come here and I’ll show you.”
Dean leads him back through the labyrinth of kennels, stopping at the door to a shaded dog run near the far fence. Chevy stands on the other side of the gate, her entire body moving with the force of her furiously wagging tail, and at her feet are several balls of what appear to be excited, wriggling balls of mottled brown and black and white fur.
“What—” Castiel begins, confused, as Dean unclips the gate and ushers him inside with a broad hand splayed over Castiel’s lower back.
“Dude,” Dean says with barely contained glee, “puppies!” He plants himself right on the concrete in the middle of the kennel, the little furry bodies swarming up over his legs and into his lap, barking excitedly in tiny, high-pitched voices.
Castiel laughs in surprised delight, squatting next to Chevy and circling his arm around her neck. “Hello, girl. You’ve done very well for yourself,” he comments, scratching behind her ears like he knows she likes, and the big black dog leans into his side, her tail still waving frantically. “Who is the father?” Castiel asks.
“Chase,” Dean says, still grinning down at the roiling mass of puppies. “Pretty psyched to see how these little guys turn out.” Castiel’s chest fills up with affection as he watches Dean scoop puppy after puppy into his arms, tickling fat bellies and teasing them with fingers dancing over the ground. He settles more comfortably on the concrete beside Dean, legs stretched out in front of him, jumping when one of the puppies launches into his lap while Dean laughs.
Castiel picks the puppy up and holds it in front of his face, smiling at it’s flailing limbs. This one has a lop-sided white spot on it’s nose, and floppy ears, and it settles in his hands slowly, until only its tail is wagging, little tongue lolling from its pink mouth. “You have big pawprints to fill,” Castiel tells it solemnly. He brings it closer to his face and laughs when it licks his nose frantically.
He sets the puppy down when he feels Dean’s hand fall next to his hip and turns to find Dean watching him, green eyes warm and soft. He smiles back at Dean and drops his own hand, letting their fingers lace together between them. They’re quiet for several minutes, sitting side by side and laughing at the puppies’ antics, content and peaceful in their silence. A lazy weightlessness settles over Castiel’s body, tempered by a longing that tightens his chest with the heat of Dean pressed up against his side and the sound of his laugh in his ears. Here is the proof if he ever needed it: he is happy here, happier than he ever was in California, and his stomach clenches with the thought of what he could have if he’s lucky enough for all the pieces to fall into place.
As if reading his mind, Dean says, “So you never did say why you finally decided to get your ass back here.”
Castiel picks up a braided rope toy lying on the ground nearby and drags it over the ground, watching the puppies toddle after it on fat, wobbly little legs. “It’s not enough that I wanted to see you?”
“Hell yeah, Cas, that’s the best reason there is.” Dean smirks and knocks his booted foot against Castiel’s, his right hand going out automatically to pet Chevy where she settles at his side. “But you suck at secrets and you clearly had another, less important, reason. So spill.”
Castiel tosses the dog toy away, smoothing his free hand absently over the fabric of his jeans. He had wanted to tell Dean ever since he received that first unexpected email but something had stopped him, some mixture of fear and hope and excitement convincing him hold his tongue. His palm feels clammy where it presses against Dean’s and he resists the urge to pull it away, his eyes flicking up to meet Dean’s. “I have an interview.”
Dean blinks, brow furrowing. “An interview? Like, for another article in the magazine?”
Castiel shakes his head. “No. Like a job interview. With the Anchorage Daily News. Cassie arranged it.”
Dean stares at him, eyes wide and unblinking, his hand stilling its track over Chevy’s back, and for one sinking, dismayed moment, Castiel is afraid he’s done something wrong. He waits, his breath catching painful in his chest as the silence hangs tense and still between them.
“Are you shitting me?” Dean asks finally, his voice coming shaky and breathless.
“No.” Castiel frowns. “She emailed me when the position opened up and I thought I would apply.”
Castiel swallows and he turns his gaze to the puppies rolling around on the floor. He watches as one of them growls—the least menacing sound he’s ever heard—and launches itself at its sibling, tackling it to the ground. “Dean, I don’t belong in California anymore. I knew from the moment I got off the plane back in L.A.—I’d rather be here.” Castiel hesitates. “Was that wrong? I don’t have to take the job, I just thought—”
Dean cuts him off, hands fisting suddenly in Castiel’s shirt and pulling him forward, lips slamming into his. Castiel groans and leans into the kiss, parting his lips for Dean’s furious tongue and when Dean finally pulls back, they’re both panting. Dean’s face is flushed underneath his freckles, his eyes wide and bright as he stares back at Castiel.
“Fuck no, that wasn’t wrong Cas. That’s—” Dean chokes and has to look away for a moment, and when he looks back, he’s smiling so wide and so brilliantly that it makes Castiel’s chest hurt. “I love you, you asshole.”
“I love you too,” Castiel says breathlessly, still confused. “Dean, I don’t want to impose on you and Sam. I can find my own place to live; you don’t have to—”
“Shut the fuck up, Cas,” Dean chuckles. “You’re not living anywhere but right here with me, understand?”
Castiel nods, his lips curling into a tentative smile. “I understand. But it’s not for sure yet; I still need to get the job.”
“You’ll get it,” Dean says assuredly, and whoops suddenly, pushing himself to his feet and yanking Cas in for an enthusiastic hug.
“C’mon,” he says, catching Castiel’s hand in his own. “Let’s get you settled in and get started on celebrating.” He waggles his eyebrows in such a characteristically Dean way that a laugh bursts from Castiel’s lips, amusement and affection mixing with pure, incandescent happiness. He’s back in this strange and unexpected place, where he hadn’t expected to find anything and found everything, and—somehow, inexplicably—Dean wants him here as much as he wants to be here.
Castiel lets Dean pull him back to the house, fingers tangled together and squeezing tight.
That’s all, folks! As promised, Chapter 12 is a glossary of terms used in the story as well as an Iditarod Race Map for your reference. If you made it this far, thank you so very much for reading and I really hope you enjoyed the story. Please let me know what you think either in the comments or by messaging me on my tumblr. Kudos, comments and messages are all soooo greatly appreciated. Also please don’t forget to go check out Sandra’s Art Masterpost on Tumblr or on LJ and let her know how great of a job she did on the fabulous art throughout this story!
I have never written anything this long before, and I spent a lot of time agonizing about it through each step of the process. It was SO fun to write but it was also a huge challenge for me, and it would not have been possible without the help of some truly amazing people. So bear with me as I get all sorts of emotional….
To my husband - you had to listen to me rant and whine about this story and about “my boyfriends” (your words not mine) being idiots far more than you ever wanted. You didn’t sign up for this crap, but I’m so grateful to you for sticking around and encouraging me through it anyway. I know how lucky I am. xx
To Elenya - even though you don’t ship DeanCas, you were with me every step of the way on this fic, from the first time I told you this idea up until the very last edits. Thank you so much for encouraging and supporting me throughout this whole process from start to finish, and for getting excited about it and for being the best friend I could possibly ask for. You always go above and beyond for me and I’ll never forget that, and your enthusiasm for my story and your belief in me kept me going through all the ups and downs (of which there were many). I hope you enjoy the story even though the ship might not be your cup of tea…musher!Sam is dedicated to you, my Sam <3
To Sandra - I’m so lucky that you claimed me and I wound up with you as my artist, not only because there is no one who could have made more beautiful art for this story, but also because I gained an amazing friend in the process. You worked so hard to go WAY above and beyond and to create the most gorgeous pieces of art and I can’t thank you enough for them. Thank you also for all your suggestions and encouragement you gave me along the way and for calming me down (the MANY TIMES) when I was freaking out about this story. It was such a pleasure to work with you on this and I’m so glad that we became friends along the way as well.
To Meg - ugh where do I even start. It was a pleasure to work alongside you as we both did this big, scary challenge together. Without you, I wouldn’t even have put pen to paper on this story and it was your enthusiasm when I told you the original idea that made me think people might actually want to read something like this in the first place. Thank you for being an amazing beta and helping me whip this into shape, for listening to me whine, like, every single day about this story and about having to edit it AGAIN, for helping me figure out plot holes and for just pumping me up and encouraging me at every step. I probably would have quit or broken down so many times if not for you and I certainly never could have written something so long and involved without you behind me. You earned your best friend card two hundred times over on this one.
To daughter-of-a-badass - thank you for your inside knowledge on long-distance dogsledding! At this point I can’t even remember what made it in and what didn’t because my brain is mush, but I really appreciate having all your help and enthusiasm! I hope that the story didn’t wind up too inaccurate and that you enjoy reading it!
To tamryneradani - you gave me a few pieces of advice along the way about writing long fiction in general that helped me way more than you know in the planning, writing and editing processes, so thank you so much for that, as well as for encouraging me along the way!
And last but not least, to all my friends and followers on tumblr and outside of it who encouraged me and cheered me on through this and gave me advice when I needed it—thank you all so much. There are too many of you to list by name, but if you ever liked one of my posts, sent me a message, listened to me whine, encouraged me, or even got excited and took the time to read this story, THANK YOU. You don’t know how much your cheerleading and encouragement helped me… even just clicking the heart on my tumblr posts gave me the boost I needed to keep writing. You are all amazing.
Chapter 12: Glossary
A very brief, simplified overview of the terms used in this fic. This glossary is spoiler-free should you wish to refer to it throughout the story.
A note on dog breeds: In this story Sam and Dean and their friends run Alaskan Huskies, which is kind of a catch-all term for the “breed” of dog many mushers use. They are not technically purebred but are bred from a mix of dogs selected for performance rather than appearance, which means that there is a large variation in appearance from dog to dog and team to team. In the Iditarod, most mushers run Alaskan Huskies for their speed and stamina, although some run purebred Siberian Husky or (even more rarely) Alaskan Malamute teams which are still very capable sled dogs but generally slower.
Lead dog(s) - the dog or dog(s) at the front of the team. Can be single lead (1 dog by itself at the front of the team) or double lead (2 dogs at the front of the team.) These are the dogs responsible for following the musher’s turn commands to direct the team.
Swing dogs - the pair of dogs immediately behind the lead dogs. (Irrelevant to this story but perhaps interesting and definitely confusing: outside of Alaska, they call these dogs “point” dogs, and the swing dogs are the ones immediately behind the point dogs.)
Wheel dogs - the dogs directly in front of the sled. These dogs help steer the sled by pulling it around corners.
Team dogs - all the dogs between the swing dogs and the wheel dogs.
Dogs do not necessarily need to stay in their original positions and mushers will often rotate them as needed mid-trail. Most dogs are trained to run in multiple positions.
Bar brake - a bar attached to the runners of the sled with a claw on either end of the bar. When the bar is stepped on, the claws dig into the snow to slow and stop the sled. Older sleds often have a claw brake instead of the bar brake as in the diagram above.
Bridle - the rope system that runs under the sled to which the gangline and snow hook is attached. This often has a section of bungie cord in it for shock absorption.
Drag mat/Drag brake - a rubber mat or section of snowmachine track that drags behind the sled and the bar brake in between the runners. A musher can step on the drag mat to create friction in order to slow down the sled more gradually than the bar brake or to help the dogs keep a steady speed.
Gangline - the line attached to the sled onto which all the dogs are hooked. The gangline is made up of the towline that runs down the middle of the dogs and attaches directly to the sled, tuglines that run from the towline to the loop of the dogs’ harnesses, and necklines that attach to the dogs collars to keep them close to the towline and close together.
Runners - the part of the sled that slides along the snow and that the musher stands on. A thin strip of durable plastic is attached to the bottom of the runners to allow the sled to glide smoothly.
Snow hook - a kind of anchor used to hold the team when stopped, especially if the musher has to get off the sled. It’s stomped into the snow (or ice) or sometimes hooked around a tree.
Easy - slow down
Gee - right
Haw - left
Hike - go, or go faster
Whoa - stop
Race History (link to Iditarod.com)
Checkpoints - 22 places along the trail that mushers must stop to check in (and check out when they leave again). Official checkpoints are sometimes people’s homes or cabins along the trail, and other times community halls in some of the towns. Mushers can choose to camp in the checkpoints or out on the trail, with the exception of the three mandatory layovers which must be spent in a checkpoint.
Drop bags - bags of supplies prepared before the race and shipped out to the checkpoints. These include food for the musher and dogs, dog booties, tools, batteries, spare sled parts etc.
Dropped dogs - mushers start the race with 16 dogs in their team. As the race goes on, if dogs are injured or become sick or are just not doing well, mushers will “drop them”, meaning they will leave the dog in question behind at one of the checkpoints with vets and volunteers to be checked over and taken care of until they can be sent home. Dog care is the most important priority of any good musher. Team numbers dwindle as the race goes on as dogs are dropped, but mushers must have a minimum of 6 dogs in their team at all times otherwise they will be withdrawn from the race.
Layovers - three mandatory stops that mushers must make during the race, during which they must stay in the checkpoint for the allotted time. The 24 hour layover can be taken at any checkpoint along the trail, the first 8 hour layover can be taken at any of the checkpoints on the Yukon River, and the last 8 hour layover must be taken in White Mountain before the last run through Safety to Nome.
Scratch - to voluntarily withdraw a team from the race. A team can also be withdrawn which is a decision made by the Race Marshal if it’s deemed unsafe for the musher/team to continue.
Iditarod Trail Race Map
For more detailed information about the Iditarod or about dog sledding you can visit Iditarod.com or check out this great site about sled dog training. If you’re looking for books on the subject, I highly recommend Dog Driver: A Guide for the Serious Musher by Miki and Julie Collins which covers everything from the physical structure of dogs to sled parts to training a team to dog care to race preparations.