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A Cup of Serenity

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It begins with tears, as Thursday night always seems to for Dean. Claire may be six years old now, but after a long day of first grade, the last thing she ever wants is her dad to go out.

But he has no choice but to leave her to be comforted by Jody, the life-saver that she is.

Dean sighs as he steps into the college building, out of the chilly December air. He shrugs his coat off, grabbing his wooly beanie off his head as well to stuff into one coat pocket.

Most of the class is already there, chatting quietly as they find their desks. He'd met most of them over the last few weeks. Dean nods to Frank, an older guy who runs his own "home security consultancy," which seems to be some kind of cover for his government conspiracy theories.

Then there's the two younger women with flourishing Etsy businesses—he's not sure of the brunette's name, but the overly enthusiastic blonde is Becky.

Benny is sitting up the back, his well-worn notebook filled with notes for the up-and-coming restaurant he runs across town. Dean places his messenger bag on the desk next to Benny, who looks up to say, "Evenin'," as he starts unloading his book and fishing around for his pens.

"Hello, Dean," a voice murmurs beside him, making his heart lurch in his chest.

"Hey, Cas," he replies with a grin as the instructor brushes past Dean on his way to the front of the classroom.

Dean had reluctantly signed up for this class, ominously titled "A Short Course in Tax Accountancy For Small Business" (yawn), at Sam's suggestion. He’d moved Bean Me Up, his busy coffee van business, into a small café of the same name earlier in the year, and hiring more staff meant finances were starting to get tricky.

He wasn’t sure what he’d expected from the class instructor—perhaps some stuffy, boring accountant type, maybe eastern European based on the name “Novak.” What he hadn’t been expecting was the teacher to be a freaking dark-haired, blue-eyed sex god with a voice that Dean does not fantasize over after class has ended—of course not. He would never. (Except he has, a few times.)

He tries to hold in his sigh as he takes his seat. The subject material may be boring as bat shit, but he’d happily listen to Cas read the fucking phone book. The guy is magic, even if he currently looks a little rumpled as he shrugs out of his tan trench coat, revealing an ill-fitting navy suit and a tie underneath.

The guy would look banging in a button up and jeans, Dean muses as the class begins. That coat and tie combo needs to go in the trash. Or perhaps even in a pile on Dean's bedroom floor. He squashes that one down and hopes no one notices his flushed cheeks.

The class runs for forty-five minutes, and by the time they’re done, Dean’s covering up yawns far more often than he would like. Getting up to open the shop for the early risers has been taking its toll lately, especially since Claire’s been with him full-time. He wouldn’t trade any of it for the world—he loves the way the café has turned out, and he loves having Claire, but...he’s gonna need to get a few more hours of sleep sometime soon, or he’ll crash and burn.

Dean smiles and waves to Cas, calling out a thank you as he leaves, getting a small smile and a nod in return. Not for the first time, Dean wonders if Cas would agree to sharing a drink, whether the long look they’d shared after meeting for the first time (after which he’d asked Dean to call him “Cas” rather than “Mister Novak” in that voice) had meant as much to the smokin’ hot teacher as it had to Dean. He still remembers the fire that look had sent racing down his spine.

But there’s no way a successful teacher like Cas would be interested in a busy single dad, a barista turned café owner, even if he’s into guys in the first place. Since that first introduction, they've barely exchanged a few words each week.

He heads home, wondering why it is that he can manage to charm any number of women—although mostly it’s only the moms of Claire’s school friends and his cafe regulars he speaks to these days—but when it comes to men he finds attractive, he clams up and the awkwardness takes over. He can barely speak to Cas without wanting to slap himself, and there’s only one week left in the course. Maybe next week he’ll be able to work up the nerve.

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In the morning, Claire is still mostly asleep when Dean helps her into her school uniform, then drags her down the hill from their apartment building to Bean Me Up. The morning is dark and cold, but frost and holiday decorations on the apartment balconies and shopfronts glitter in the street lights.

Dean unlocks the front door, pleased to get out of the chill and into the warmth. The Christmas tree’s lights are already on, illuminating the whole space in a warm yellow glow, but one by one he switches on the remaining lights—first the overhead lamps shining out from between the dark ceiling, painted with blue and purple swirling galaxies and bright stars, then the string lights running across the shelving displaying Dean’s pride and joy: his collection of Pop Vinyl figures and other sci-fi stuff he’s collected over the years. He boops Han Solo’s bobble head in passing as he replaces the perspex box he’d been forced to cover the shelf with after he busted a kid trying to smuggle his limited edition Imperial Tie Fighter out of the store.

Claire finds her usual seat close to the counter and next to the Christmas tree. Dean comes over, kneeling beside her table to pull Claire’s latest book out from underneath it—a mermaids coloring book Charlie had brought in for her.

“You want this?” he asks, reaching down to also fetch her pencil case.

She sighs theatrically, then adds, “I guess,” taking the book and flicking through.

Dean eyes her for a moment. “What’s up, Bear?"

She straightens up, her sadness turning into an indignant pout. "Nothin'."

Right, and I'm freaking Batman. Dean picks up the sketchbook instead and places it in front of her. "All right, well how 'bout you take this instead, and I'll make a hot chocolate."

Her eyes light up, but she sighs again. "Okay."

Dean leaves her to it, getting up and heading back to the counter to start heating milk in Claire’s small mug. This year has been a tricky time for the kid (and Dean, if he's honest), but her pediatrician had suggested drawing as a method to express her feelings, and it seems to be helping.

Claire's only lived with him full-time since earlier this year, when her mom delivered her to the café on her way to check herself back into the hospital. Dean and Amelia had never really been a thing, they’d just spent a weekend together, and twelve months later, she’d shown up at his door with a baby, both of them in tears. Severe postpartum depression, the doctors said, and Dean had looked after both of them as Amelia got help and Claire grew, but the attraction was gone between them, and eventually Amelia went her own way. He still saw Claire now and then. Until this year.

As Dean stirs chocolate chips into the heated milk, letting them melt slowly, his mind wanders back to some of the drawings Claire had produced in those early days. Lots of frowns and dark colors, scary monsters, among the occasional Elsa and Olaf. But more recently, Dean has been pleased to see smiles returning, and a load more unicorns and "badass robots" (her words—the original animated Transformers movie is now one of her favorites, much to Dean's delight).

He pulls out a fresh carton of cream, emptying it into the dispenser, then adds a swirl on top of the mug, along with a sprinkle of chocolate shavings. The whole thing is probably a cholesterol bomb, but he'd named the special drink "Serenity" for a reason, apart from the obvious nerdy reference—the drink always calms him, and he tries to share that experience with as many people as he can, ever since he started testing out his hot chocolate recipes on a young Sam twenty years ago.

He delivers the mug to Claire, seeing she’s finally started to draw something on the empty page. He smiles to himself. He doesn’t make a cup of Serenity for Claire every morning, only now and then, when she’s down—and it helps that this afternoon she has softball practice after school to burn off any extra energy.

This is the time of day Dean loves—the quiet promise of pre-dawn, the regular early customers, a little time with Claire when he gets a chance. Her school is just across and down the road from here, so she’ll spend a couple of hours here before heading to class at eight-thirty, and she’s gotten pretty good at occupying herself with coloring or drawing while Dean sets up for the day and serves his early customers.

Once Benny has been in after his night shift, and Mrs. Tran, up early for her latte before she shouts at people in the local gym under the guise of boot camp, Charlie arrives.

“Morning, boss,” she says, covering a huge yawn.

Dean brings a warm chocolate over to Claire’s table and sits down with his own coffee, letting Charlie look after the counter. “Whatcha workin’ on, Claire Bear?” he asks, eyeing the paper Claire is drawing on.

“This is the playground,” Claire says, turning serious eyes on him. “The fort was our pirate ship yesterday, but Jack said he couldn’t play pirates.”

Dean narrows his eyes at the frowning stick figure on Claire’s pirate ship outline. “That you?”

“Yeah, I wanted Jack to play," she says, not sounding particularly disappointed as she slurps at her mug.

“Didn't he want to?”

“He said that his dad said pirates were bad guys, that they hurt people. He didn’t want to be a bad guy.”

“His dad said that, huh?” Dean isn’t sure what Jack’s dad’s problem is, but he knows Claire has been upset a few times by things the kid had said, thanks to his dad. Dean thinks he sounds like an insufferable know-it-all. “Well, maybe you shouldn’t play with Jack, if he doesn’t want to play your games?”

“But he’s my bestie, Dad!” she replies indignantly.

Dean holds his hands up in surrender. “Okay, sorry. Guess you’ll have to pick a game that Jack’s dad is okay with, then.”

Claire looks back down at her pirate ship. “I guess,” she says, frowning like her picture.

Dean throws back the last of his coffee, wondering once again what she sees in the scrawny blond kid. Six-year-olds are such whirlwinds—he can barely keep up with Claire and her friends and what they get up to. “All right, kid, drink up. It's time for school.”

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The next class takes place on the night of an unseasonably early cold snap. The evening is cold and crisp, and Dean's sure the wind is blowing straight through his heavy coat as he walks the short distance between his car and the college building.

Most of the class is rugged up in wooly hats and scarves as they arrive, standing in the doorway as they shed their layers. But as Dean is removing his coat and hanging it on the pegs outside the door, Castiel sweeps in, his tan trenchcoat flapping out behind him like a cape. His cheeks are barely pink from the cold, his hair just as tousled as usual even without a hat.

Dean only realizes he's been staring when Castiel regards him with his barely there smile as he passes, saying his usual “Hello, Dean.” Dean snaps out of it long enough to follow him into the classroom, his bag clutched in his arms.

"You okay, Cas? You must be freezing!"

Cas turns to glance at him in surprise. "No, I'm fine. I don't really feel the cold. I'm from the north. The cold’s in my blood."

I’d warm you up. The words rise up in Dean's throat but he battles them down, instead firing possibly the most awkward finger guns he's ever produced.

Castiel raises one eyebrow in query and continues on his way to the front of the room, leaving Dean attempting to sink into the floor.

Benny eyes him as Dean slumps down into the neighboring seat. "You okay there, cher? Don't hurt yourself," Benny drawls, chuckling.

"Shut up," Dean mutters, covering his face with one hand.

Benny's grin doesn't drop as he leans closer.

"For what it's worth? You should keep tryin'." He winks at Dean before Castiel calls their attention to the front, and Dean spends the rest of the class wondering whether Benny has seen something that Dean hasn't, or if Cas has said something to him.

The thing is, Cas speaks to everyone. He's always happy to patiently repeat any difficult concepts, or even just talk through other business issues with members of the class. Dean's even seen him listening intently as Becky told him all about the Disney holiday she's planning with her kids—I mean, who knows, he might be a big fan. Dean's not judging.

So he really doesn't pay Dean any extra attention, other than the warm glances they seem to share on a weekly basis. There's no reason for the guy to occupy so much space in Dean's head—but there's just something about him that Dean can't seem to shake off.

By the end of the lesson he's worked himself into such a nervous mess that he can't even face the thought of speaking to Cas. He quickly wishes Benny a goodnight and hoofs it, taking refuge in the comforting rumble of the Impala as he takes the long way home, cursing himself for being an idiot.

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Dean brings the tray over to the counter, loading the gingerbread cookies onto a plate since they're still too warm to go into one of the cookie jars lined up on the counter. He wraps one up to put into Claire's snack box—he knows they’re not exactly a healthy choice, but most days he tries to pack her healthy snacks and only the occasional cookie.

“Can I take one of these for Jack today?” she says, eyeing the rest of the plate.

“Sure, kiddo. I’ll wrap up an extra one.”

He wraps the cookie deftly in paper and hands it over, so Claire can add it to her snacks. "So, Jack's your friend again now?"

"Yes?" she says, like it's a stupid question. "I told you, he's my bestie, even if he is kinda rude sometimes."

"Rude?" Dean repeats, as he loads the rest of the cookies onto the plate.

"Oh, not to me. But Jamie was being rude to us first. She said that I couldn't play firefighters in the sandpit because girls can't be firemen, and I was pretty mad about that. And then Jack told her girls can definitely be firefighters because his dad is friends with one, and she should leave me alone. Then I told her to get stuffed and she went away. She might have been crying, I dunno.”

“Claire!” Dean tries so hard to hold in his grin, but he’s sure his mouth isn’t cooperating. His head is spinning with the story—he's glad Jack stood up for Claire, but at the same time she stood up for herself. He's proud of her. "You stood your ground and that's great, but maybe use some nicer words next time, kiddo."

“What? You said that to Uncle Sam when you were talking on the phone to him!" she replies indignantly.

Dean points at her, passing on his way to the back of the tiny kitchen space to fetch the next tray of cookies. "That's different."

"It’s not! Anyway, Jack didn't even want to play in the sandpit because his dad said cats pee in them and they're dirty, but after that, we still played in there together and I was really happy about that."

"He's a good friend, isn't he?" When Claire nods, Dean adds, "You sure his dad will be okay with him eating cookies at school? He's not allergic to egg or something, is he?"

"Nah," Claire says, taking the snack box and stashing it in her bag. "I've shared cookies with him before. See ya, Dad!"

He grimaces again slightly as he waves to her, hoping the teacher hadn't seen her sharing food. There's no getting around it—she feeds people to show her love, just like her old man.

He smiles as he watches her run down the hill to the crossing attendant, her bag bouncing on her back. He can't wait until he's able to spend more time with her. Ever since Claire came to live with him, he's felt pulled in two directions, between her and keeping the café running. The complex finances involved with hiring staff have been all that’s holding him back from getting some more help around here so that he and Charlie don't have to break their backs every day.

One more class, and he'll be able to start hiring and take a break.

He heads back into the café, wondering if Cas likes cookies.

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“I hope you've all enjoyed learning to manage your finances, or at least you've learned something, even if the subject matter wasn't quite your idea of fun.” Castiel pauses as the class chuckles, and Dean has to admit the thing he's enjoyed the most is the instructor's dry wit, helping to make the boring stuff easier to grasp.

Of course, it also doesn't hurt that the guy pushes every single button Dean has. But he’s still frustratingly out of reach.

And after tonight's lesson, Dean might never see him again. The idea of letting Cas walk out of his life doesn't sit well. He doesn't even realize he's frowning as he packs up his book and pens until a deep voice by his desk makes him look up sharply.

“Are you all right, Dean? You look troubled.”

The deep furrow between Cas' brows is pretty endearing, and Dean smiles, reassuring him. “Nah, just thinking that I'm gonna miss this class.” And you, he stops himself from adding.

Cas smiles. “It has been fun, hasn't it? Thanks for bringing the cookies.”

Dean had ended up bringing gingerbread cookies for the whole class, after being unable to decide all day how he might approach Cas. He'd talked himself out of it then, but now, faced with the blue-eyed teacher himself, he stumps up the courage to shoot his shot.

“Glad you liked them. Hey, maybe I'll see you around? You could always… I dunno…” He shrugs, trying to hold together his rapidly scattering wits. “My café is on Summit Road—y'know, just up from the elementary school?”

“I do know it, yes,” Cas says, nodding. “My son goes to school there.”

A son? He's never mentioned any other family before. Dean regroups. “Great! Well maybe you'd like to come by sometime and grab a coffee? Tomorrow afternoon? I'll have more of these cookies ready.”

Emotion flits across Cas' face as he hesitates—embarrassment, perhaps? Indecision, certainly. “I...um,” he replies, “I don't actually drink coffee.”

“You...you don't?” Dean begins, a little thrown. That has to be some kind of social blasphemy, right? Everyone drinks coffee. “Well…that's okay, I do a mean hot choc—”

“I'm really sorry, Dean… I also have plans for tomorrow already, in fact.”

“Oh.” Dean has to admit, he's been turned down before, but this one stings. He'd hoped that Cas had been into him, that he returned the strange, magnetic pull Dean feels towards him.

Dean guesses he was wrong.

He nods, gathering up his messenger bag and mustering a smile. “Okay, never mind, then. Thanks for the class. See ya ‘round, Cas.”

“Dean, wait… I—”

Dean notices Becky and her friends standing to one side, grinning as they watch Dean’s downfall. Nice. He holds up a hand to Cas, stopping him. "It's cool. Happy holidays."

He hightails it out of the college, heading home with a heavy heart. How does he consistently manage to get people so wrong?

When he gets back inside his apartment, Jody grabs his hand and squeezes it on her way out the door. “Hey,” she says, her eyes gentle. “You okay?”

Dean's sure his heart grows several sizes inside his chest. What on earth would he do without his family around him? He clutches Jody's hand for a moment, lifting it to hug it briefly to his chest before he drops it. “I'm fine, Jodes. Just thought I might have been onto something.”

Jody raises her hand again to grip Dean's shoulder briefly, her face sympathetic. “That teacher you told me about the other week? I'm sorry, Dean. His loss.”

She wishes him a goodnight on her way out, leaving him to check in on a sleeping Claire. He gazes at her peaceful face, his heart aching.

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Dean leaves Charlie to the afternoon Bean crowd—mostly school kids and their parents after pick up time—and holds Claire's hand as they head back down to the school for the first grade holiday concert.

Dean may affect a grumpy mood when faced with the holiday season, but honestly, Christmas is one of his favorite times of year. He loves the decorated apartments and shops, and he loves getting his friends and family gathered, warm and safe and well-fed. It hasn't always been a great time of year for him and Sam, but now he’s determined to make it as perfect as possible for Claire. Starting with this Christmas concert.

Claire isn't a particularly musical kid, but Dean has discovered since she'd started school that she has plenty of enthusiasm when forced into performing. Right now she’s sullen-faced despite her jingly Santa hat, but Dean knows she's been preparing for this for weeks—he’s been subjected to her practicing the songs for what feels like forever.

Every wall of the school's assembly hall is covered in lights and tinsel, and cheesy Christmas music is playing—some upbeat Michael Bublé number that Dean would never in a million years admit to knowing. Parents and children mill around, chattering excitedly.

“Jack!” Claire lets go of Dean’s hand, running off ahead. Jack hears Claire and turns around up ahead where he’s standing with a tall, dark-haired man wearing a tan coat.

Dean steels himself. Guess it’s time to meet Jack’s dad. Dean has to admit, he’s pretty curious to meet this guy—the probably stuck-up know-it-all, who had nevertheless taught his kid how to be a caring friend.

Except that when Jack’s dad turns around to glance back where Claire had come from, he isn’t the Mr. Kline Dean is expecting.

He’s Mr. Novak. He’s Cas.

Dean’s heart flops over in his chest, and he manages to pull his jaw up from somewhere near the floor and into some kind of grin as he approaches.

Cas raises one hand in a wave not unlike the one Dean has seen Jack do each afternoon. “Hello, Dean,” he says with some surprise. “What are you doing here?” His blue eyes shift from him, looking behind Dean, then back to him.

“I’m, uh...Claire’s dad.” He rocks from foot to foot as Claire starts chattering excitedly with Jack.

Jack turns, shouting, "We gotta go. Bye, Dad!" He and Claire wave happily and run off towards where the rest of their class is gathering.

Dean isn't quite sure what to say. After the last class a couple of nights ago, this is all kinds of awkward.

He rubs the back of his neck and smiles apologetically. “Sorry, man, I thought your last name was Novak—I didn’t realize you, uh…” He trails off, waving a hand towards the kids.

Cas' face lights up as realization dawns. “Oh, Jack’s actually my nephew—we have different last names."

"Right, okay," Dean says, nodding.

"He calls me 'Dad' though, if you were wondering about earlier. His mom and dad, they...they aren't around." A cloud seems to pass across his face and he looks away towards where the kids are starting to line up on the stage.

Dean grimaces, wishing he hadn't brought it up. "I'm sorry to hear that, man. Glad he's got you, though. He's a great kid, from what Claire's told me."

Cas looks back to him, and it hits him—this, this is Jack's dad. This stormy-eyed (god, no one's eyes look good under fluorescent lighting, except him) force of nature is the one teaching Jack about pirates, about female empowerment.

"Thanks—he is. And Claire…? You're running a successful café with a young daughter? That's admirable."

Dean shrugs, smiling under the praise. "I do what I can. It ain't easy being a single parent."

"Believe me, I know."

When Dean looks quickly back at him, Cas is smiling softly. He holds Dean's gaze for perhaps a moment longer than they ever have in class, long enough for Dean to feel his face flushing, before a voice cuts through.

"Moms and dads and other guests, would you please take your seats? We're ready to begin."

They sit together in the end, listening with bright smiles as the kids sing an off-key but enthusiastic “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” followed by Dean’s least favorite of the cheesy selection, “Up On The Rooftop.” But if he has to surreptitiously wipe a bit of moisture from the corner of his eye as he sees Claire singing her lungs out in the back row, he’ll deny it.

As the kids perform, Dean feels Cas' presence like a magnet at his side. Single dad, single dad… but he'd turned Dean down at the final class. If Claire and Jack are going to keep on being besties, though, he'll be able to keep seeing Cas, and that'll have to be enough.

After the concert finishes to a rousing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” plus plenty of applause and cheering, the kids descend on the audience to find their respective families. Jack runs into Cas’ arms in a hug, and Claire sidles up to Dean and consents to return a high five.

“Nice work, kiddo,” Dean says, trying to ruffle her hair.

She bats him away. “Can we go get a milkshake now? Jack and his dad can come too, right?”

“Uh, well…” Dean chuckles, throwing an embarrassed glance at Cas. He begins saying, “I’m sure Jack and his dad have other—” at the same time as Jack lets out an excited “Yeah!”

Cas grins at Jack’s enthusiasm, then adds, “Actually, the 'other plans' just finished, so we can come along after all.” He raises his hands to do air quotes and Dean can't hold in his grin as his heart skips an excited beat.

Claire and Jack cheer at each other, jumping in place. Keep it professional, Winchester, he reminds himself as they leave the school and walk across the road to Bean Me Up.

Charlie smiles as they all arrive, and Claire pulls Jack over to the counter to place her order. The café is deserted this close to closing time—in fact Charlie only agreed to hang around long enough for Dean to bring Claire back here for her milkshake, so he turns the sign on the door to "Closed" as he comes in.

Cas looks around appreciatively at the starry ceiling, the shelves with their memorabilia. He nods, smiling. "Sci-fi enthusiasts, I presume?"

"That's mostly Charlie, I just came up with the name, back whenever," Dean replies, waving a dismissive hand.

"Shut up, Dean," Charlie calls from the counter. "You're as big a nerd as I am, don't try to deny it."

Dean shrugs, silently cursing Charlie, but he half-grins anyway. "Yeah, okay. Some of those are mine." He waves a hand towards the shelves of Pop Vinyls.

"Try all of them!"

"Yes, thank you, Charlie!" Dean replies between gritted teeth.

Cas just smiles wider, running his fingers over the perspex covering the Inara Serra Pop. "I always was fond of Firefly. And Jack loves Star Wars, too."

As if Dean wasn't already head over heels for this guy…

Cas looks past Dean to Charlie. "Are you sure it's okay for us to be here? Looks like you were getting ready to close?”

Charlie shakes her head as she scoops ice cream into the milkshake cup. "Totally fine. Can I get you a coffee?"

Dean steps forward, saying quickly, "Charlie, this is Cas, and he doesn't drink coffee." He waggles his eyebrows a few times, trying to get across that yes, this Cas walking across the café right now is the same Castiel who Dean described to her just this morning, the one he's been lusting over who, they'd both agreed, was so weird not to like coffee.

Thankfully Charlie takes the hint. Her eyes widening, she takes in the dark haired stranger more closely. "Cas? Hi! Nice to meet you."

Cas reaches out his hand to shake. "Likewise."

Uh oh. Dean recognizes the look in Charlie’s eyes—she’s about to start the interrogation. He needs to head this off at the pass. The kids have found a table and are eagerly chatting about the concert while starting on their milkshakes, so Dean heads behind the counter. "You can get going if you like, Charlie. I'll do this, then lock up."

Charlie gives him an eyebrows-raised significant look. “No really, Dean, I don’t mind staying around to help out.”

Dean knows exactly why she wants to hang around, and there’s no way he’s gonna let her listen in. “Go home, Charlie. I’ll catch up with you in the morning.”

“Okay, okay.” Charlie unties her apron and stuffs it in her bag, all the while casting dagger-glances at Dean. She doesn’t say a word to him, but to Cas, as she passes on her way out, she says, “Nice to finally meet you.”

Cas turns back to Dean, his eyes alight with curiosity, but Dean merely grins. “So, no coffee, right? Can I get you tea? Hot chocolate?”

“Hot chocolate sounds lovely, thank you,” Cas replies, then leaves Dean to get busy finishing the milkshakes and hot chocolates while he joins the kids at their table.

Dean mixes and pours the milkshakes, then heats milk and whisks in the chocolate as quickly as he dares, before he carefully carries the tall milkshake glasses to the kids and heads back for the two mugs loaded with marshmallows and cream.

“Thank you, Dean,” Cas says as Dean slides into the booth opposite him, next to Claire.

“No problem. We call it Serenity—the hot chocolate.” He grins, dipping a spoon into his mug to stir in some of the cream. He should say something, but now that Cas is actually here, in his café...he’s really not sure where to begin. He has no idea how to make small talk with the guy he’s secretly been lusting after for months, who turns out to be his daughter’s best friend’s dad.

So he falls back on the smallest of small talk. “Can’t believe Christmas is only a week away—can you?” he asks, hazarding a sip from his mug. Hot, but not scalding—nailed it.

“Not long now,” Cas says, nodding. “I’ve got all my shopping done, thank goodness.”

Claire’s eyes, though, are wide. “Hey, you know what? Dad said you can come over for a play date on the winter break, but you should come have Christmas with us! Uncle Sam’s in Ca-fornia so it’ll be all quiet, right, Dad?”

Dean has just taken a mouthful when Claire says this, and he coughs so hard as he swallows that he’s sure the milk nearly snorts out of his nose. She’d asked him a few times about a play date, but he’d gently dismissed the idea, since he didn’t know Jack’s dad at all.

He manages to get his choking under control as Cas hands him a napkin, saying, “Thank you, Claire, that’s very kind of you, but we’re planning to spend the holidays with Jack’s grandparents in Illinois. It’s been quite a few months since we’ve seen them. Jack’s grown so much they might not recognize him.” Cas smiles fondly at Jack, but Jack’s focused on his drink and doesn’t even look up.

Dean coughs a few times before he manages to get his breathing under control again. “That’s a shame, but maybe another time, Claire.”

“Well, perhaps...” Cas says, looking at Jack and pausing long enough for Jack to look up to see what he’s talking about. “We don’t have plans for New Year’s Eve yet. You could come over to our place for that. Right, Jack?”

The smile that lights up Jack’s face is like the sunrise. “Really?”

“Can we?” Claire asks, her face also alight. Dean’s hardly ever seen her so excited about anything before.

He glances back to Cas. Being invited to Cas’ house seems like a dream he’s been wishing too hard for...but the fact is, he and Claire weren’t planning on anything for New Year’s Eve anyway. Dean’s other friends all have plans elsewhere, so this almost seems like kismet. “Are you sure? We wouldn’t want to intrude…”

“Dean,” Cas says, reaching across the table to place his hand on Dean’s forearm. “It’s no trouble. We’d love it.”

Dean nearly gasps when Cas touches him. Even through his sweater, he feels the same rush of warmth he’s been feeling in Cas’ proximity all along.

Accepting the invitation seems like asking for more pain, but Cas does seem genuinely eager for them to come along, so he smiles. “Thanks, guys. We’d be happy to come.”

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Christmas day passes, and even though Claire and Dean spend it alone, they have plenty of fun opening presents for each other, then eating as much gingerbread and crispy bacon as they can fit. Claire forces Dean to sit through Frozen 2 before it’s time to call Uncle Sam.

Sam’s shaggy-haired face was such a welcome sight on Dean’s tablet screen, especially when they see he has little Bobby sitting on his knee. Sam and Eileen’s son is only five months old, and Dean and Claire haven’t met him in person yet, but they’ve been watching him grow up over Facetime. Claire squeals, starting to coo at Bobby through the screen, enough that Dean has to pull her back when Bobby is just staring at the screen in confusion.

“Sorry, Claire Bear, he’s just woken up from a nap so he’s a bit spaced. You having a good holiday, there?”

“Yep!” Claire replies. “And Uncle Sam, we’re going to my friend Jack’s place for a party!”

Sam looks as confused as Bobby does. “A...a party?”

“For New Year,” Dean explains. “We’re going over there for New Year’s Eve.”

“Yeah! And I’m gonna play with all of Jack’s toys!” Claire announces, before wandering off to play with her Star Wars Lego they’ve just spent some of the morning building.

Dean turns the tablet towards himself so he can better see it. “So, you know that teacher I was telling you about? From the accountancy course?”

“The ‘hot one’?” Sam asks, turning Bobby around so he can bounce him a little on his knee. “Yes, Bobby, your Uncle Dean’s got the hots for his teacher, yes he does!”

“Jesus Christ, Sammy, keep it down, would ya?” He looks grumpily towards where Claire is playing across the room, but she’s no longer listening so he breathes a sigh of relief, turning back to the tablet. “Turns out he’s Jack’s dad.”

“Wait, Claire’s friend Jack?”

Dean nods. “Uh huh.”

“Who you’re going to a party with on New Year’s Eve?” Sam’s voice raises by a significant pitch, and Dean once again regrets mentioning anything about Cas in the first place. He’s never going to hear the end of this.

“Yup, got it in one.”

“Wow. Wow! Well,” Sam says, his grin as smug as a little brother can get, at least while on a video call. “You enjoy that. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“Shut up. I always do things you wouldn’t do,” Dean retorts, taking back his uncharitable thoughts. He’s always been grateful for Sam’s acceptance—he was there when Dean came out as bi as a teen, and when Amelia showed up with Claire. Having his support on this means the world. Especially when he hasn’t heard a peep from Amelia herself today.

He just wishes Sam was closer—Dean misses him like a missing limb.

They chat for a little longer before Dean shoos him away to spend the day with his family, and he heads into the kitchen to create a feast for the two of them. He always feels more grounded after talking with his brother, and now the idea of spending time with Cas doesn’t seem like such a daunting prospect.

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The last week of December is cold and crisp, and Dean spends most of it at Bean Me Up, interviewing new staff. Claire spends some of the week with Jody, but a lot of the time she hangs around the café. Dean exchanges texts with Cas, but only address details for New Year’s Eve. Dean drives himself crazy wondering whether he should be sending more messages or what Cas’ silence could mean. Maybe he just isn’t a big texter? But the texts Cas had sent had featured smiley faces and fireworks...surely someone who doesn’t like to text wouldn’t be so emoji-savvy, would they?

By the time the thirty-first rolls around, both Claire and Dean are nearly beside themselves—Claire with excitement, and Dean with terror.

It’s gonna be fine, he assures himself. Just go along, have one drink, keep your mouth shut and try not to get caught staring.

Once he’s finally convinced Claire that she doesn’t have to bring every single Christmas toy she has, they bundle up against the chill and walk two blocks up the hill to the address Cas had sent Dean during the week. He honestly has no idea how they haven’t run into each other around the area with them living so close by. The apartment blocks of the town’s center make a drab color palette, with a brown grassy patch for a park and bare-limbed trees stretching overhead here and there, wan late sunlight filtering through.

When they find the right address, Claire presses a doorbell before Dean even gets to the door. The front door opens, revealing an ecstatic Jack wearing a cute Baby Yoda t-shirt and a pair of huge, glittery glasses spelling out “2022.” Claire takes a step back and says, “Jesus Christ, Jack!”

Dean scolds, “Claire!” but it’s too late—Cas appears in the entry hall behind Jack. Dean almost forgets to breathe as he takes in Cas' soft navy sweater, the fitted jeans hugging thighs...

“Hello, Dean, Claire. Come in!” Cas says, pulling Jack gently by the shoulder to get him to move aside. His face burning, Dean bustles Claire inside the ground floor apartment after Cas and Jack, managing to grab her coat and unwrap her scarf and hat before she disappears after Jack further into the house.

Dean takes a moment to look around as he removes his own scarf. The interior of the apartment is modern, with clean wooden lines and cream walls. The entry hallway leads to the back of the building, where he can see a brightly lit Christmas tree still standing.

“May I?” Cas asks, and Dean turns to see him holding out his hands for Dean’s coat.

“Thanks,” Dean replies, shrugging out of it and passing it over. “Nice place you’ve got here.”

“It’s not much, but it’s enough for the two of us.” He hangs up the coat and gestures for Dean to continue down the hallway.

The living area at the back of the building is open-plan and high-ceilinged. Behind the Christmas tree, huge glass windows dominate the wall, revealing a breathtaking view over the town. The sky over it all is slashed with a deep orange sunset.

“There are fireworks on at nine down there at the sports fields. We should be able to see them quite well,” Cas says from Dean’s left.

“This is awesome, Cas. Thanks for inviting us.”

Cas smiles, shrugging one shoulder. “You’re welcome. Come on, what can I get you to drink?”

This is the first time Dean has got to sit down and properly talk with Cas, and it’s just as he’d hoped. They talk easily about the kids, about their school, about the café and the course and the finances, and everything else in between.

They order pizzas from the local delivery place, and as they’re eating Dean says, “Next time, Claire and I, we’re gonna make you our signature pizza. Way better than this stuff,” he says, mouth half-full and waving his piece in the air.

“Next New Year’s Eve?” Cas asks with a grin.

Claire’s face had lit up with Dean’s comment, and now she chimes in. “No! How about next week?”

Jack cheers, and the adults chuckle. “We'll see,” Dean hedges. He wouldn’t say no to regular pizza nights, but it might be a little soon to start making dates.

After dinner, the kids sit down to watch a movie at the other end of the living room—some Disney thing that Claire hasn’t actually roped Dean into watching yet—while Dean and Cas get up to clear away plates.

While Cas is stacking the dishwasher, Dean notices a small rainbow flag blu-tacked to the fridge. He knows exactly where that flag came from—he handed them out himself last June for the Pride parade in the town square.

Now he needs to know. If he even has a chance, he needs to find out, because after tonight, Cas is either straight, but naturally extremely friendly, or he’s way more interested in Dean than he’d ever let on during classes. He runs two fingers over the paper flag, but before he even gets a chance to ask, Cas says, “I got that at Pride—I went for the first time last year. I’ve known I’m gay for many years now, but only just worked up the courage to go to an event.”

Dean nods, letting the relief wash through him, before he turns to face Cas. “That’s fair. I didn’t start going myself until after Claire was born.”

They stand on opposite sides of the kitchen, just looking at each other for a few moments, until Cas draws a breath and asks, “Dean, forgive me, but Claire’s mom...is she…?”

“Is she around?” Dean completes the question. It’s one he’s used to answering now and then, and he finds the sting is starting to fade as he talks quietly about it. “She’s still around, although we’re not together. I don’t tend to talk about it with Claire around, though. I’ll tell you about her another time. But we haven’t seen her for a little while. Claire lives with me full-time at the moment.”

Cas nods thoughtfully, then steps forward until he’s only a step away from Dean. “I want to make something clear… On our last day of class, when you asked me to come and have coffee? I...I have a policy of not accepting invitations from students. It happens to me now and then, and I do try to maintain my professionalism where I can.”

“Right, of course,” Dean says, his heart sinking. This sounds a lot like a letting-down-easy speech. He looks down at his feet, trying not to appear too disappointed.

“But with you, I—well, it’s the only time I’ve considered breaking that rule.”

Dean looks up sharply. Is he saying…?

“I wanted to get to know you right from when you told the class the name of your café—I found it charming. And it turned out, the man behind the counter was just as charming.”

When he’s standing this close, Dean has to look downwards slightly to look into Cas’ face. His lips are right there, all he needs to do is rock forward to meet them with his own. Instead he takes a breath, and on his next exhale, says, “Cas, give me some kind of an idea here, because if you’re saying what I think you’re saying…”

“What I’m saying is—” Cas reaches down to take Dean’s hand, holding it gently. “—is that now you’re not my student any longer, if the offer still stands, I’d very much like to have more hot chocolate with you.”

The relief flows through Dean all over again, and he smiles, bringing his free hand up to place his palm on Cas’ cheek. “I’d like that,” he murmurs, and leans forward after all. Lips meet, and fireworks explode, just like the clichés say. Except no, Dean thinks absently as he moves his mouth gently against Cas’, those are real fireworks going off somewhere in the outside world.

“Dad!” A shout from the living room, getting closer. “The fireworks!” Jack stops dead in his tracks with a gasp as Dean and Cas spring apart, Cas taking a step back across the kitchen. Jack is aghast. “Ew, Claire! My dad and your dad were kissing!”

Dean and Cas grimace at each other before hurrying out to join the kids. Dean calls, “Whatever you think you saw—no, you didn’t!”

“Whatever, Dad,” Claire says, rolling her eyes. “Look!” She points out over the view to where fireworks are going off in the sports field. “We can see everything—I’m so glad we came here!”

Dean glances over at Cas again, then reaches across the short distance to take Cas’ hand again. “Me too, kid,” he says.

The four of them stand by the windows, facing the new year with joy.

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