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If The Fates Allow

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Intro

Christmas Eve

Dean gripped the steering wheel with two gloved hands and guided the car, crawling at about three miles per hour down the pitch dark lane. Dean Winchester wasn’t crazy. He’s a long way from crazy. Doing one crazy thing does not make a person crazy. Okay, so this wasn’t exactly how he expected to be spending Christmas. He bet it wasn’t how Castiel Novak planned on spending his, arms wrapped tightly across his chest and chin jutted forward as he stubbornly ignored the Impala rumbling next to him.

Dean called out to him through the open window, “So, you’ve been walking for what, about an hour? And you’ve gone…” he peered down at his dash, “I’d say about two miles, give or take, which puts the nearest gas station at least…twenty miles away?” He looked back up. “You do the math.”

The other man reacted only by further hunching his shoulders against the snow as he trudged down the road, ignoring Dean and his beast of a car.

“Look, why don’t you just come back to the house, we’ll have some spiked eggnog or something, okay?”

Dean tapped on the brake in surprise when the man came to an abrupt halt. Maybe the guy was a big eggnog fan? His nostrils flared and he stared down the road as if it had personally offended him, which Dean reasoned it probably had. His breath puffed around his face like steam. After his expression worked through what appeared to be all seven stages of grief, he turned to the car and wrenched open the door, sliding into the passenger seat. Dean smirked and swung a one-eighty in victory, rolling up the windows and cranking the heat. Castiel stared straight ahead, no doubt seething, and Dean could feel the cold radiating off his frosty form.

“What, nothing smart to say?” Castiel took several deep breaths, still ignoring him, so Dean raked his eyes over the man. His nose and ears were shiny red. “Your lips frozen?”

The man’s nose wrinkled up, face contorting. He finally spoke, spitting out each word. “You, Dean Winchester. Are. The devil.”

Dean chuckled and shrugged, turning the volume up on the radio until Judy Garland’s voice filled the cabin.

~~~~~~~

Chapter One

Eighteen hours earlier, December 23rd

Dean’s day started out typically, which lately wasn’t exactly great. From the other side of his wall he could hear women squabbling in Russian, which as far as he knew had continued unabated since the previous night when he had crashed into bed. He hoped they felt as miserable as he did, it would serve the package thieves right. Not that it made any difference. He was now on the wrong side of that bed, half an hour late, stomach grumbling. That last concern coaxed him out from between his sheets and he padded first into the bathroom and then into the kitchen where he opened the refrigerator with unfounded optimism. He slid out a takeout box and took an experimental whiff, nose wrinkling. He tossed it into the microwave and set the timer, zoning out to the whirr while he leaned against the counter and waited on the rotating plate. Maybe if it heated up enough to scald his taste buds they wouldn't be able to tell how many nights it had sat and congealed in the fridge. His phone started ringing from his bedroom.

He checked the caller ID, letting the guitar riff ringtone play as he stepped back to the kitchen before hitting answer and pressing it to his ear. At that moment a muffled splat sounded from the microwave, noodles and sauce splattered all over the inner walls of the appliance.

“Oh, fuck,” he muttered, bent over and squinting through the glass.

“Dean? Is everything okay?”

He winced. “Hi, Mom. Yeah, ‘s fine. Sorry.” He opened the door, assaulted by a swirl of steam and foul odor.

His mother’s voice was garbled by the poor connection and Dean squeezed the phone tight to his ear to make out her words. “I wanted to make sure you’re all set before we head out the door and lose service up at the cabin.” Dean searched his drawers for a clean rag to mop up the mess. “You have directions and everything?”

Dean continued to rummage, bending under the sink in his search. When he stood back up he banged his head on the counter edge, cursing again. “Yeah. I got ‘em.” He rubbed at the back of his head with a frown. His mother babbled on about decorations and snow and despite the connection he was sure her voice was pitched higher than usual. This new Martha Stewart act his mom had adopted recently still threw Dean for a loop. She was really going all out for Christmas, something he hadn’t experienced since Sam was a toddler. He wondered how Bobby was faring.

Her tone turned reproachful. “You still hadn’t sent me any dietary restrictions for you or Cassie before I went shopping so any vegetarians or vegans are on their own.”

Dean blinked, hand grasping a roll of paper towels. He opened his mouth to correct her but she added more brightly, “I’m so excited to meet her, sweetie. What a special Christmas.” Mary continued, “Happy hour at six, though I know you said you won’t get off work until around then.”

Dean sighed, now wiping the interior of the microwave, careful not to make skin contact with any of the muck. “I’ll talk to Ellen about getting off earlier.”

His mother made a satisfied noise. Then, in a hopeful tone, “You think she could be, you know, the one?”

He groaned. “I don’t know, Mom. Look, I don’t really have time to talk about this right now. I gotta,” he gestured vaguely with the paper towel, “get ready for the interview.”

“Oh! And remember to wear that sweater I sent you!”

“The - what?”

“Good luck, Dean!”

The phone beeped dully indicating that the call had ended. He straightened and his empty stomach groaned forlornly.

~~~~~~~

Sleet slashed mercilessly against the early-evening pedestrians who ducked from doorway to car for shelter. Dean hurried towards the Roadhouse with a mixture of anticipation and dread, torn between its promise of warmth and the prospect of dealing with holiday customers.

While its humble name conjured the image of some dusty tavern, the Roadhouse often had a line out the door these days, at least during peak season, ever since a glowing (and 100% accurate) write-up had been published in The Spokesman-Review over a year ago. The sudden influx in tourist interest and cash and subsequent dwindling contingent of local Regulars had led to heightened tension and constant bickering between the Harvelles.

The exterior gleamed with a fresh coat of paint and the main neon sign had been replaced. Jo had won that battle. Mom, she had protested, I refuse to step foot one more day inside the ‘Road Ho’. Either we replace the broken letters or I’m tearing the whole thing down. For what it was worth, Dean had argued that a neon sign really only mattered at night, at which point the suggestive messaging worked in their favor, given the nature of their clientele in the evenings as well as the competition posed by the Hooters down the road. Ellen relented, to Jo’s relief, while Dean had been quite sad to see the end of the Roadho era. On the other hand, when it came to WiFi, Ellen had put her foot down, telling anyone else who would dare ask that the password was 1234GetLost. According to several Yelp reviewers, this only heightened the ‘rustic charm’ of the Roadhouse. Everyone stole the McDonald’s WiFi, anyway.

The door slammed with more force than usual, but Dean stomped across the damp entryway without a glance spared backward, jaw set. A few of the patrons swung their heads in alarm.

“Dude, why do you never, ever answer your ph-” Jo, coming in hot, finally looked up to see his expression. Her eyes immediately narrowed in concern.“Whoa, you okay?” Her voice lowered. “How did the interview go?”

He laughed without amusement, tugging off the scarf wrapped around his neck. “Pretty sure I didn’t get it.”

Jo waited for him to elaborate but he swept past her, shrugging off his soggy coat.

She latched onto his arm. “Hold up.” She held out a set of reindeer antlers, jiggling her head for emphasis. Little bells were fastened to the ends of her own felt antlers. “Sorry, them’s the rules.”

He stared at her incredulously and she popped up on her tiptoes, sliding the headband behind his ears.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he grumbled and slid off the rest of his coat.

Jo barked out a laugh, zeroing in on his chest. “I’m not, but oh my god that sweater is definitely a joke. Is that a…fruit cake?”

The reminder did nothing to improve his mood. Dean’s mouth twitched unhappily and he turned his back on her, advancing towards the bar. “My dress shirt got…” He gestured vaguely with his hand in a circular motion over his chest and wrinkled his nose. “and Mom ordered me to wear this thing tonight.”

She regarded him with continued amusement until a swinging door startled them both. Ellen Harvelle burst out, eyes flashing and phone pressed between her shoulder and ear. She hauled a box out, slamming it onto the bar counter.

“For the last time, I can’t help you with your corporate retreat party! I don’t care that you’re willing to put down an advance deposit, damn it!”

Dean and Jo both startled and looked up above the door where an antique Colt Single Action Army pistol mounted on a plaque rattled against the wood as the door banged shut again.

Dean eyed it warily. “I sure hope that thing isn’t loaded.”

Jo shook her head with a grimace, returning to her customers.

~~~~~~~

Impossibly, Dean’s day worsened. Every dick in Idaho had apparently decided to patronize the Roadhouse that night, which was open until eight o’clock to all ages. It wasn’t that Dean disliked kids or couldn’t handle the tourists. What he disliked were customers yelling at Dean about crying babies and parents that refused to acknowledge the disruption their kids were making. Already, he had mopped up three spills from kids on booster seats and two tables had shoved back their chairs and walked out without leaving so much as a spare penny. What’s more, the gun plaque had come crashing down to the ground, causing Dean to spill an entire tray of drinks. He finally got the drinks remade only to arrive at the table to discover that the patrons had changed their minds and wanted banana daiquiris instead. In December. Instead of sending the tray flying again, this time on purpose, Dean simply smiled tightly and returned to the bar. He paused briefly to pick up the plaque, now in pieces, and set them aside on the back bar counter with trembling hands, concealing them behind two fifths of Jack.

Jo must have noticed Dean’s mounting distress because she yanked him into the kitchen. “Dude, you’re scaring the customers. You know that’s Mom’s job.”

On the other side of the door, Dean sagged into the wall, drained. He dragged a hand down his face. “Jesus Jo, I can’t do this. Christmas with my family? With this new Stepford version of Mom? In some fucking cabin out in the sticks? There’s gonna be nowhere to hide. I’ll be trapped like The Shining.”

“Look, Dean. You know I’d come with you if Mom wasn’t completely militant about Christmas.” She then narrowed her eyes and asked, “How did Mary take the news about the breakup?” Dean sucked in a breath, not answering. “Seriously? It’s been weeks! How are gonna spring that on them tonight?”

Dean knew from a lifetime growing up with Sam that trying to explain the ins and outs of leaving things to the last possible moment to a non-procrastinator was like pushing water uphill with a rake. He settled for shaking his head, at a loss. “You didn’t hear how excited she was Jo. It was like me having a relationship meant she could finally...I don’t know, be proud of more than one son? Stop worrying that she’d raised another John?”

Jo looked skeptical, but didn’t interrupt. She didn’t need Dean’s testimony to prove to her that maternal relationships were complicated, especially when they involved near brushes with death.

“I couldn’t just call her up and tell her I’d fucked up the one thing I had going for me.”

Jo moved to speak at that, but Dean rushed out, “What am I supposed to say? Hey Mom, sorry about that interview you pulled strings for me to get, I guess I just rather spend the rest of my life wiping down counters and living alone in a shitty apartment.” He winced. “I didn’t mean to say, there’s nothing wrong with-”

Jo shook her head and brushed off the insult. “No, you did. It’s not fine, but I get it. Maybe if Sam were my brother I’d feel the same way.” Dean could be so stupid. On the one hand, he had found the courage to come out to his family as a teenager with no choice but to hope they would accept him for who he was. It just hadn’t translated to the rest of his life choices or identity.

“It’s not Sam. And the Roadhouse is great,” he said lamely. “It’s not about what I think. It’s not a fancy degree, or a wife, or a batch of kids; hell, I bet Sam’s gonna show up with that happy news.”

Jo frowned. It was rare for Dean’s jealousy to emerge; it was usually totally stifled by his glowing pride in his brother’s accomplishments. “Since when are you so insecure? You adore Sam and Jess. And any future little Winchesters they might be making.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “Please don’t remind me.”

“Yeah, fine. What are you going to do? Get on your knees and beg Cassie to take you back?”

Dean quirked his mouth, considering.

Jo lifted her hands in surrender. “Dean Winchester, you’re a fucking disaster, you know that?”

She followed another waiter out the door and Dean called after her, “My point exactly!” He returned to the bar right as a new customer approached one of the stools. The man sat at the bar, placing a used Starbucks cup in front of him and shrugging off a large overcoat. Through the storm of negative thoughts in his head Dean asked the man for his order.

“A Manhattan, please.” The man finished draping the coat on the bar stool and raised his head to face Dean expectantly. He lingered on Dean’s antlers and probably-a-fruitcake sweater, but to his credit his expression remained neutral. Dean blinked at him. The man’s brow furrowed. “Do you…know how to make that?” Dean cleared his throat, looking slightly offended before turning back around, reaching automatically for the whiskey and vermouth. He made up the cocktail then slid it towards the man, dropping in two maraschino cherries with an over-dramatic flourish. The guy looked up from his palms and Dean registered his weary blue eyes.

“Thank you,” he said, reaching for the glass. Before Dean could respond, he added sheepishly, “also, would you mind disposing of this?” He tipped the empty coffee cup towards Dean.

Dean took the proffered cup. Hovering over the trash can, his thumb brushed over the Sharpied-in name – Cas, the phone number hastily scrawled underneath a messy ‘Call me!’, and the hearts drawn in a border around the name. Dean peeked back at the man, who was mid-yawn and looked more like an extra in a Mucinex commercial than alluring. For some reason, his eyes lingered on him, hands wiping out a glass with a rag absently.

The old-fashioned clock on the wall chimed, six o’clock.

Dean pulled out his phone from his coat, checking it for messages, and as if summoned by some cosmic force it rang – his brother Sam. Dean picked up automatically. His voice was crackly on the other end.

“Dean? Hey? Jess and I are ab --- to lose service, but Mom made me promi --- ll you and make su --- two were getting your butts up here.”

Shit. Dean could dread and avoid this moment no longer as nightmare materialized into reality. Dean’s chest seized. His eyes were watery and his throat growing tight; hell no was he gonna start crying at work. He wiped a rough hand over his eyes and the room came into focus once again and his gaze centered on the dark-haired man at the bar again. The tired but attractive man in the well-cut suit with the Starbucks cup - Cas. Cas.

Trancelike, Dean spoke slowly into the phone. “Yeah, of course.” He watched the man tip the rest of his drink back, and check his watch. He had already done that at least twice. “We’re just…leaving now. Promise.”

“Good. We can’t wa --- see you guys. Bye!”

Dean could hear Jess cheerfully echo the farewell in the background. Dean watched as Cas stood up from the bar and followed the sign for the restroom. He hung up, absently pocketing the cell phone and following the dark suit heading for the restroom. “Hey.”

The man paused with his fingers clasped around the restroom door handle. “Is this not the bathroom?”

Dean froze, scrambling. “Yeah, but…” He looked all around, eyes landing on the Colt still tucked away on the bar counter. Unthinking, he produced the pistol, concealing it from the restaurant with his body but pointing it threateningly toward Cas. The guy wrinkled his nose and recoiled away, but the movement was aborted by Dean’s sudden grip on his arm.

“What is this?”

Dean’s heart pounded. “This? This is a gun.”

Cas regarded the pistol and squinted. “Are you sure?”

Dean looked down at the antique, his cheeks reddening. “Okay, wise guy. Let’s move it. Outside.” Dean cocked the gun for emphasis, gesturing towards the back door. He stole a glance over his shoulder, making sure he wasn’t spotted. When he looked back around, he saw that the man’s face was draining of color. Dean’s jaw twitched, and he added in a low voice, “Buddy, I’m not gonna hurt you, just move.”

With a shove, the men exited the Roadhouse and were immediately assaulted by the arctic air. It was well after sundown, the only real source of light coming from the streetlights and windows. Luckily for Dean the parking lot was filled only with snow-dusted cars. He could feel the shivering man tense through his suit sleeve where Dean’s arm wrapped around him, his other hand pressing the gun barrel into his hip. Despite his tense posture, the man walked cooperatively with Dean as he steered them both toward the Impala.

“If this is about money, we can settle this quietly. You don’t have to do this.”

Dean grit his teeth. The man’s gaze flicked nervously at Dean, and his step faltered. With a sharp movement, Cas wrenched out of Dean’s grip and shoved him, sending Dean sprawling backwards. While Dean struggled to right himself, Cas propelled in the opposite direction towards the restaurant. The man only got in a few strides before his shoes were met with a sheet of black ice and Dean watched in horror as he slid and collapsed to the asphalt with a sharp crack. His body stilled.

Dean cursed under his breath, rushing to his side. He crouched beside him, taking in his disheveled, motionless appearance. A rapid-fire litany of fuck fuck fuck shit fuck swept through his mind. Dean held his breath in dread and closed his eyes when he felt at the man’s pulse, exhaling loudly at the strong, steady rhythm. Dean carefully cradled the guy’s head, checking all around it for any signs of blood or trauma with trembling fingers.

He whispered urgently, “Cas? Hey?”

Dean had to get the guy out of there. To a hospital, probably. Dean scanned the parking lot and the street for any bystanders, but for the first time that day he had struck some luck and the two men were completely concealed in the shadow of a huge commercial van. He gathered the man up - no small task, Jesus the dude was heavy - and hooked his forearms under the other man’s armpits and then shuffled awkwardly backwards towards the Impala two cars over, acutely aware of just how damning it must have looked. By the time the man was hauled up in the passenger seat and buckled in, Dean was red in the face and puffing huge clouds of breath. He looked down at the man’s large hands loosely rested in his lap and bit his lip. Kneeling down, he tugged at the already-loose blue tie from around his neck. He tried not to dwell on the image as he secured the tie around Cas' wrists, then looped it up and through the handle above the door. With an experimental yank he made sure it held, then shut the door.

Once he slid into the driver’s seat, Dean studied his passenger for a long moment and exhaled deeply. No one else was around to see as he raked a hand down his face, peeled off the reindeer antlers in surprised annoyance, and started up the car.

~~~~~~~

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

Dean was on his way to the hospital, really he was. Except the hospital was in the opposite direction of where he was supposed to be going (and was already late in departing for), and there was a regional hospital on the way up the pass that wasn’t that much further. As he was passing a sign informing him that the exit for the regional hospital was half a mile away, the man beside him stirred. He blinked his eyes open, and Dean smiled tightly, affecting a calm tone. “Hi there, Cas.”

“Hello?” The man’s voice sounded gritty.

Dean stretched his arm back and returned with an almost-empty water bottle. “Want some?”

Cas rolled his neck, bumping his head against the window and groaned.

Dean winced. “Yeah, you hit your head pretty bad back there. Does it feel okay?”

Cas tugged his hands down but his tie held firm. He glared at his hands, then at Dean. “You’re kidnapping me.”

Dean almost laughed at his petulant tone. “Oh, don’t call it that.”

“What would you suggest I call this?”

Dean shrugged. “Free chauffeur service?”

“You’re making a mistake. If you think a ransom—”

Dean interrupted him with a sigh, clenching his hands over the steering wheel. “This isn’t a money thing.”

Cas narrowed his eyes. “Does this mean you’re…a fan? Are you stalking me?”

“A what? I’m – no, I’m not stalking you. I’ve never seen you before in my life. You just, fit the profile. Sort of.”

“Profile?”

“Don’t yell at me or anything.” He looked over, testing. It occurred to him that Cas still hadn’t raised his voice once, incredibly, and he looked insulted more than anything at the suggestion he might. “Your name is Cas. And I kind of need you to pretend to be my-” He cleared his throat. “My date. There’s this thing, with my family. For the holiday weekend.” That sounded straightforward and reasonable to Dean, not too insane.

“You’ve lost your mind,” Cas said. “If you don’t recognize me, how do you know my name?”

Dean admitted, “Starbucks cup?”

Cas shook his head, frustrated. “What does this have to do with anything then, my name?”

“Cas, Cassie, pretty interchangeable right?”

He repeated, “Cassie?” The man shifted to the side to better face Dean, as much as his restrained position would allow. “You need me to pose as some Cassie.” Then, with a note of interest, “You got dumped?”

Dean snorted. “I was not dumped.”

Cas continued, “And now you’re replacing your girlfriend with a total stranger you abducted from a bar – someone whose name is vaguely similar.” He considered Dean, who was pointedly staring ahead at the road. “You recognize that I’m not a woman right?” Dean scoffed, ready to call the guy out for assuming genders and what-not, but held back. His hold on the moral high ground was a little tenuous at the moment. Besides, both men knew that Cas’ gender was the least of either of their worries.

Trees only barely hinted at in the winter moonlight loomed high on either side of the highway, which had narrowed to two lanes without Dean noticing. Darkness leached color from the surroundings as well as within the cabin of the Chevy. The watch on Cas' wrist glowed a dull green-blue and each man’s expression was invisible to the other.

“You don’t have a clue who I am, do you?” Cas mused, “And I don’t even know the name of my kidnapper and supposed boyfriend. Or are we supposed to be married?”

He had a point, but it wasn’t like Dean could go back now. No, he had to convince his family that this guy – who was a dude, as he had so helpfully stated, yikes – had been dating Dean for months. His mind raced through the first dozen problems he could think of, starting naturally with the whole unwilling-captive-tied-up-and-held-at-gunpoint part. The truth was absurdly far-fetched. Unbelievable. Dean’s mouth curled at that, metaphorical lightbulb illuminating above his head. That was it though, wasn’t it? The truth was unbelievable – almost anything in comparison would seem reasonable. Dean laughed out loud, realization invigorating him like a shot of adrenaline. He cleared his throat.

“Fair enough, I’ll go first. Complete honesty.” He recited, “My name’s Dean Winchester. I work at the Roadhouse, obviously, where we met a couple of months ago.” Dean wracked his brain for all of the details of his short-lived fling with Cassie that he might have shared - or exaggerated - with his family. Luckily it wasn’t much. “You found my winning personality irresistible. We’ve been…a thing ever since. And no, we haven’t tied the knot. Yet.” He didn’t dare wink, not even in the dark. “I’m thirty, turning thirty-one, birthday’s next month. I like long walks on the beach, frisky women,” He looked over, barely able to make out Cas' silhouette. “And guys, every now and then.” A darker thought occurred to Dean, and he asked in a low tone, “You’re not, uh, freaked out by the whole guy thing right?” This wasn’t going to work convincingly if Cas was a homophobe. In northern Idaho the odds weren’t on his side.

Cas tugged once more at his bound hands, then said acerbically, “If I’m being honest, of all the things that bother me about this whole situation, the gay part wasn’t even on my radar.”

Dean sighed in relief. “Awesome.” Yet another thought weighed on him. “And you’re not married? No kids waiting around for you?”

Dean wasn’t about to mess up some kid’s Christmas by borrowing their dad.

Cas hedged, “This is where I should answer yes, isn’t it?”

“So that’s a no.”

Cas said nothing. Dean smiled. He then tried to remember if he’d ever told anyone Cassie was a part-time journalism student. It wasn’t likely.

“What do you do for a living?”

Cas coughed. “I’m, ah, taking a break at the moment.”

Dean shook his head. “Unemployed, really?” Dental care and a suit like that? “What job did you have last?”

Cas barked out a laugh. “I’m a writer.”

“Like, books or what?”

“Novels. Some…other projects.”

Dean frowned. “I guess that’ll do. Where are you from?”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, dude. Come on.”

“Montreal.”

“No shit? A Canuck, eh?” He chuckled. “Alright. My family’s from Kansas, but we moved to Boise when I was a kid.” He drummed his fingers. “My younger brother Sam met his wife Jess in college, at Stanford. They live in Sacramento. Where did you, uh…go to school?” The guy had to be educated from the way he looked and talked.

No response.

“Jeez, Cas. It’s not like I’m asking for your Social Security here.” He frowned. “Wait, do Canadians have Social Security?”

They remained silent for a long while after that, so it took Dean by surprise when Cas spoke again.

“Your actions would suggest otherwise, but you do realize that this ludicrous plan has no chance of working, and your family is going to think you’re a complete psychopath when I tell them what you’re doing, right?” He tugged on his bound hands for emphasis. “Do you plan to hold the gun on me at Christmas dinner?”

“Actually, the whole family kidnaps their dates. It’s a Christmas tradition, like a sorority date dash but with more crime.”

Cas stared at him with open horror and Dean grinned. “Take it easy Cassie, I’m just kidding. I do that.”

Cas relaxed a little, expression settling into an impressive scowl. “I’m not responding to your ex-girlfriend’s name now, nor at any point in the future, Dean.

Dean tilted his head thoughtfully. “Don’t you think it suits? Sassy Cassie?” He looked over at the man, and despite the darkness he felt the daggers shot his way. “Yeah okay, not responding. Got it. I can stick with Cas.” Then, with more interest he added, “What about pet names?”

Cas let his body sag into the passenger door as he groaned into the windowpane. “I’ll take that water now.”

~~~~~~~

The final stretch of road leading up to the cabin was a welcome distraction for Dean, if a bit treacherous. The old Chevy really wasn’t cut out for navigating the snow-blanketed gravel road with only a pair of headlights but he had navigated worse. It had been at least forty-five minutes since Dean had seen a mailbox, much less another car. A fencepost emerged from the darkness and shone in the light, and in the distance he could make out a faint glow.

Dean spoke lowly. “About damn time.” As they neared, he had to grudgingly admit that the place was cute, if you were a grandma who collected buttons or something. There was even a family of smiling, snow-dusted, wood-carved bears holding fishing rods and tackle boxes.

He recognized his Mom’s old car as well as a generic SUV with California plates that must belong to Sam and Jess. To the right of their car he parked the Impala and cut the engine, silence immediately settling inside the car. Dean turned to his immobile passenger, who he would have mistaken for asleep if not for the fixed blue gaze out the window.

He cleared his throat unnecessarily. “I’m going to let everyone know we’re here, and then I’ll be back to get you, so just hang tight okay?” The warmth of the cabin was already leaking outside to be replaced by the sub-freezing temperatures outside and Cas shivered. “Right back, I promise. Here.” He pulled his extra coat from the back seat and draped it over Cas' chest. “That should tide you over.”

Dean stepped out of the car, following the tracks of shoe prints that led up to the porch, then tested the steps in the dim light for ice. He pried up the large wreath that hung heavy on the door and rapped his knuckles on the wood beneath. There was muffled music and voices now, up close like this. He ducked his head down, counting the passing seconds in his head and sucked in his lower lip. There was a loud laugh and a moment later the door swung open to reveal his brother’s lanky silhouette against the cozy backdrop. The sound of Bruce Springsteen’s Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town burst out as well.

“Dean!” Sam loosely held a glass of wine in one hand but took one step onto the stoop to envelop his brother in his arms. “We were wondering if you got lost or stuck in a ditch.”

Dean patted Sam firmly on the back before his brother stepped back again. Sam snorted at Dean’s sweater, but it wasn’t like he had room to talk. It looked like a poinsettia - with antlers, inexplicably - was growing out of his brother’s chest, making him look like an Alien (1979) prop reject. Jess and his mother both rushed to Dean and he smiled and stepped forward to bring them in for a suffocating three-way hug, planting kisses on both of their cheeks in turn. He waved to Bobby who looked to be in seventh heaven reclined comfortably in an armchair positioned near the fireplace.

“Christ, it’s cold.” Mary pulled Dean inside past the threshold and he swung the door shut, the jingle bells entwined in the wreath ringing out in a strangled clamor. “Was the drive okay? Where’s Cassie?”

“Out in the car, fell asleep. And yeah, the drive was fine. A little dicey in the dark so we went slow.” Dean scratched the back of his head. “I wanted to give you guys a, uh, warning I guess?”

Sam and Jess exchanged a puzzled glance.

“Cas just gets kind of awkward when he’s nervous, it’s a coping thing.” Dean grimaced. “Yeah, it’s kinda weird, but his sense of humor is a little out of whack. Must be a Canadian thing.”

Their expressions deepened, like they weren’t quite sure if it was the alcohol they had imbibed copious amounts of or the content of what he was saying that made Dean’s words so befuddling.

“He thinks it’s funny – has this whole ‘Ahh! I don’t want to be here, I’ve been kidnapped!’ routine – so just laugh along, okay? He’ll get over it once he settles in and feels comfortable around everybody.” Dean spared a glance around at everyone, taking in the mix of concern and bewilderment. “Oh! Yeah. Also, Cas is a dude. Uh. Surprise?”

Bobby snorted and took a long swig from his bottle. Sam started laughing and clapped a hand to the back of Jess. Dean forced an uneasy smile, eyes flicking to Mary. She looked like she wanted to say something, but held back. Instead she pushed at his arm and opened the front door.

“Well, don’t make him wait any longer! It’s chilly out here.”

“Right, yeah. Wait here and I’ll go get everything and…” Dean trailed off, nodding to himself and turning back around. For better or for worse, and of course it was almost always the latter in his case, Dean was a damn good liar. Outside, he rubbed his hands together, trudging back through the snow to the car and frowning at the frost that had already accumulated in the interim. He went to the trunk first, slinging his duffle bag over his shoulder then heading around to the passenger side to open the door.

Carefully, he said, “I’m going to untie you now, but I wanna advise you against making a run for it.” Cas did not reply, so Dean watched him with suspicion while slowly loosening the tie from his wrists. “Besides, it’s much warmer inside and everybody wants to meet you.” He frowned at Cas' icy white hands when he touched them, and couldn’t even keep his own teeth from chattering when he said, “Seriously, we’re in the middle of nowhere and it’s colder than the hinges of hell out here.”

“You would know,” the other man muttered. Cas' hands were now free and he wasn’t making any moves to bolt. “I’m not a wild animal; you don’t have to look at me like that. I’m obviously going inside to explain all of this nonsense to your family and praying to God they have an ounce of sense among them.” He stalked towards the front door and Dean followed him. At the door Cas hesitated for a moment, staring ahead at the wreath, probably deliberating between knocking and barging in. Or working on that prayer, useless as it would turn out to be.

Dean drew up next to him, bags in tow, then asked good-naturedly, “Mind getting the door for me, babe?”

Cas ignored him, opening the door and cutting inside in front of Dean. Dean could see Mary turn around at the end of the hallway, a smile breaking across her face. She strode back over towards them and glanced at Cas for a split second before wrapping him in her arms. “It’s so good to meet you, Cas.” She pulled back without letting go of his arms completely. She regarded his face. “You are the first person Dean has ever brought home for Christmas. He could have corrected a few details, I suppose,” Off to the side Dean chuckled nervously. “Like how handsome you are. Come on in, let me introduce you to the others.”

Cas recoiled like an affronted cat presented with a bubble bath. “Listen to me, very carefully.” He pointed a finger at Dean, raising his voice. “This man forced me to come here. He held me at gunpoint, knocked me out, kidnapped me, and brought me to this place as his hostage.”

Dean held his breath for the few seconds Michael Bublé crooned from the speaker system to the otherwise silent room. Cas looked at Mary expectantly, until she finally began to chuckle. From the other end of the hallway, Sam looked at Dean, who rolled his eyes and shrugged.

“Are you not hearing me? I don’t know what he’s told you, but your son is suffering from serious delusions and his criminal behavior-”

Dean could hear Sam snort and he walked towards them. Mary barked out a laugh. “Yeah, you’re absolutely right! Here, let’s get you some wine, shall we? I hope you’re a drinker.”

Incredulous, Cas cried, “You think I’m joking about this? Why on Earth –”

“Hey, that’s enough.” Dean patted Cas gently on the back and smiled. “Mom and I will be right back with something to drink.” In a low whisper he added, “You do drink right? Just blink once for yes, twice for no.”

Cas didn’t blink at all; he looked stunned. He turned his expression around to Sam who stood there, curious, gazing back at him. Long seconds passed. As if breaking the spell, Sam burst out in laughter again, unsteady on his feet. When he straightened he shook a finger at Cas. “Man, your face. You really have it nailed. I’m Sam, by the way. Dean’s younger, newer and improved brother.”

Desperate, Cas stepped close to Sam, lowering his voice. “Look, Sam. You seem like a reasonable person. You might think your brother is a normal person, but he’s not.”

“Finally, someone else who sees it!” Sam raised an arm, beckoning for a high-five.

“He tied me up.”

Sam dropped his hand. “Whoa, dude. TMI. I get the picture. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with, you know,” he stumbled over his words, red blossoming across his face. Jess finally joined them, handing one of two glasses to Sam. He snaked his arm around her waist, bringing her closer and pressing his lips to the side of her face. “This lovely creature is my wife Jessica. Jess, this is, ah,”

Cas supplied tersely, “Castiel.”

Jess's smile faltered and her eyes widened, looking him up and down. “No – no way. Holy shit?” She giggled, clapping a hand to her mouth in disbelief. “Holy shit!” She yelled over her shoulder, “Dean! Dean, get your ass back here this second!” Jess turned back to Sam, jabbing his arm not at all gently and gesturing her thumb towards Castiel. “Sam, be honest, did you know?”

Sam’s brow furrowed and he looked between Jess and Castiel, before his eyes suddenly widened in comprehension and both of his hands practically slammed to his mouth. His wine glass fell to the floor, shattering on the wood. He grabbed Jessica by the shoulders, hauling them both back. “Shit! I am so, so sorry, let me jus—”

Castiel stood tense as ever, captive witness to the chaos unfolding before him. Dean and Mary were rushing back into the room at the sound, colliding with Sam who was scrambling in the opposite direction for a towel and a broom. Jess was pressed up against the wall, out of the way, her eyes fixed on Castiel in drunken wonder.

Dean held back Mary from the glass shards. “Mom, why don’t you and the others go and sit down? Let me handle this with Sam.”

Jess punched Dean in the arm. “Dean! When were you going to tell us? About him?”

Dean looked at her with distracted confusion. He looked at Castiel, then back at Jess and asked carefully, “What, that he’s a dude?” He shook his head. “Look, it’s not like you guys–”

Sam returned then, settling to his knees with the hand brush and began to sweep up the glass shards. From the ground he said, “No, you idiot. About the whole dating Castiel freaking Novak part.”

Jess giggled. Mary gasped, then asked, “You mean…the author? As in Piper Frost?”

Dean’s mouth gaped like a fish before he once again looked at Castiel, who by now had relaxed against the door with his arms crossed, seemingly unperturbed with the wine spreading over the floor inches from his feet. Dean bent down, stealing the dish towel Sam had grabbed and began to mop up the crimson mess. “Well…” He laughed, panicky.

Jess's mouth curved into a knowing grin. “Oh, I get it. This is all very hush-hush isn’t it?”

The towel was completely saturated at this point – way to go Sammy, you bumbling moose, dropping a full glass of Merlot, you’d think someone his size would have better tolerance – so Dean stood back up, cradling the dripping cloth. When he looked at Castiel, he wanted to hit himself. How did he not clue in earlier? Sure, the guy’s hair was no longer Sam-length and he’d lost the dorky glasses, but it’s not like he had aged dramatically. Dean knew Castiel Novak was supposed to be a bit of a recluse, but you could only do so much to stay out of the limelight when you were the world’s bestselling author of the most popular children’s novels-turned-movie-franchise. Suddenly it wasn’t so easy to laugh at Lois Lane and the rest of the folks at the Daily Planet. Dean was an idiot. And if his expression was anything to go by, it looked like Castiel was traveling along a similar line of thinking.

Dean answered, “Yeah – hush hush. Don’t want to stir up celebrity drama, right Cas?” He gulped.

~~~~~~~

Chapter Text

Chapter Three

Dean and Castiel joined the family in the living room for the brief remainder of the evening, but Bobby’s increasingly disruptive snores prompted Jess and Mary to collect all of their glasses and take them into the kitchen. Sam’s offer to help fell on deaf ears; no one thought he should be handling any more stemware that night. To Dean’s immense relief, almost everyone being three sheets to the wind made it easier to steer the conversation to Sam and Jess's travels to Idaho and away from his apparent celebrity boyfriend.

Once Bobby was kindly roused and rolled off to his room, Mary pulled Dean and Castiel aside. “Listen, boys. Since Sam and Jess beat you guys here they already snagged the master. My room only has a twin, so unless you want to share that somehow, you guys are left with the loft.” She gestured to a wooden ladder. “I peeked up there and there’s a queen, I think. I wasn’t exactly expecting two grown men…”

Dean sighed. “I’m sure it’s fine.” He lifted his hand to the back of her head and brought her in for a quick kiss to her forehead. “Good night, Mom.”

Mary held Dean in an embrace and whispered into his ear, “You and I are going to have a chat tomorrow.” She pulled back, then added at a normal volume, “You two sleep tight. Busy day tomorrow – the shed is fully stocked with gear for a little match down on the lake!” She looked between the two men. “Is there anything you need?”

Dean gestured to his bags with his thumb. “I’m good.” Then he added, thinking of Cas’ fall, “Maybe some painkillers?”

Mary nodded knowingly. “I’m sure those will be in high demand in the morning.” She returned with the aspirin, then frowned. “What about Castiel? Where are his things?”

Castiel snorted. “It was a little hard to grab my luggage, considering I was abducted-”

Dean rolled his eyes. “Someone forgot to toss his bag in the trunk. We’re sharing for the weekend.”

Mary’s brow was furrowed. “Sorry to hear it, I think there are at least some spare toiletries in the bathroom. A toothbrush, at least.” She nodded. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”

She retreated and Dean turned to Castiel. He swept his arm towards the ladder and bowed dramatically, “After you, princess.”

Castiel fumed, but turned to the ladder and gripped the rails. Dean’s mouth quirked as he watched Castiel climb, eyes instinctually settling on the ascending suit pants before turning around with a cough to retrieve his bags. Looping his arm through the bag handles, he climbed the ladder, wary of the creaking noises it made on his way up. The thing looked sturdy enough for a couple of children, but not so much grown men. At the top, Castiel crouched near the bed. Dean wilted – his mother was generous in calling it a queen. Furthermore, the A-frame ceiling was dramatically slanted, forcing both Dean and Castiel to bend down several inches for clearance unless they stood directly below the apex bisecting the loft.

Still facing the bed, Castiel said, “You’re sleeping on the floor.”

Dean, squatted down by the bags, looked up sharply. “What? No way, there’s no room!” In fact, there were only about four feet between the foot of the bed and the edge of the loft, which uselessly featured no barrier. On either side of the bed there were matching nightstands. Beside one of them there were hooks from which two matching spa robes hung. With the angle of the gabled roof, the spaces on each side of the bed were impossibly slim. “And there’s only the one blanket.”

Castiel stood firm. “Maybe you should have thought about that before jabbing a gun into my hip. We’re not sharing a bed. I’ll sleep downstairs.”

Before he could move, Dean held up a hand. “Whoa, hey, we can’t do that. That looks terrible. Besides, Bobby’s room is right next to the couch. He’s like a freight train, dude. You’ll never sleep with all that racket.” He dragged a hand down his face. “Take the bed, it’s fine.” He glanced around again, thinking out loud. “We can move the nightstand and push the mattress over so there’s more floor space.”

Castiel crossed his arms, considering. He nodded, and began to slide the nightstand. Dean went over to help, and they drug the table out, sliding the bed against the side wall in several thrusts. Then, Castiel said, “Pass me something to sleep in, then.”

Dean sat back down, unzipped his duffel bag, and rummaged through his hastily assembled things. He grabbed a t-shirt and his one pair of pajama pants, tossing them to Castiel.

Castiel caught them, turning them over in his hands thoughtfully.

“What, not your usual silk pajamas, Mister Fancy-Pants?”

Castiel narrowed his eyes. “Turn around,” he ordered.

God, but his voice was low. Dean complied immediately, settling at the edge of the loft and letting his feet settle on the top rung of the ladder. He couldn’t hear any movement. After a minute, he asked, “You need a hand or something?” No response. Dean frowned. He dismissed the ridiculous thought that somehow he had slipped past Dean without him noticing. “Uh, Cas?” He peeked over his shoulder, then pursed his lips in irritation. Like some sort of bedtime ninja, the man had somehow already changed and climbed into bed, tucking himself under the covers and angling away from Dean. Dean stood up, promptly banged his head on the ceiling, and noticed that Castiel had also tossed one of the pillows onto the floor. “Thanks,” he said, once again to silence. Dean got on all fours beside the mattress, fluffing the pillow before settling down. He’d slept in worse conditions. His eyes slipped shut.

~~~~~~~

The bells on Jo's antlers sounded much louder once the noise level in the Roadhouse died down. They chimed annoyingly in time with her rough strokes against the bar counter as she scrubbed against the sticky remnants of spilled eggnog. She harbored some foul thoughts for Dean, who had bailed without even a cursory cleanup or a goodbye. Her frown deepened when her eyes landed on a tan coat hanging on the backs of one of the stools. She pulled it off and went behind the bar where they kept the lost and found, folding it up loosely and tucking it into the bin next to an assortment of old hats, scarves, and mismatched gloves. It was an odd thing to leave behind, given the weather. Then again she worked in a bar, so there was a high threshold for what counted as ‘odd.’

She tended to a few lingering customers, reaching for one of the bottles of Jack after one of the men motioned with his empty glass. Jo paused at the sight of broken pieces of the Peacemaker plaque tucked deliberately out of sight and immediately began to chant shit under her breath as she withdrew more bottles, looking for any sign of the Colt. Jo's forehead creased further as she checked drawers one-by-one to no avail. "Shit." Then she heard a faint buzzing coming from the lost and found bin.

“Excuse me?” the man protested as she withdrew from rows of bottles, but she waved him off distractedly. Jo pulled the tan coat back out from the bin and blindly dug around in the deep pockets, retrieving a cell phone. It beeped forlornly, a low battery notification flashing across the screen. There were also a slew of missed calls and texts. She set the phone on the counter and emptied the other pocket, drawing out a wallet. She flipped it open and sucked in a breath. She replaced both the phone and the wallet in the pockets, then roughly dug her own phone out from her back pocket. She tapped Dean’s speed dial icon and drummed her fingers on the counter with the phone pressed against her ear.

“Come on, come on, pick up you loser.” When Dean’s cheerful voicemail greeting began to play, she groaned in frustration. After the tone, she whispered urgently into the phone, “Dean, call me back. Right away. You take off without a word the same time a customer disappears without all of his shit? Oh, and not just any customer but apparently Castiel fucking Novak? Mom is gonna freak when she sees the Peacemaker is gone. What the hell dude? Call me back. I don’t know what kind of shit you’re in right now, but I’m a little worried.” She sighed. She opened her mouth to continue, but pulled the phone back and ended the call instead.

~~~~~~~

Christmas Eve

The man’s nose wrinkled up, face contorting. He finally spoke, spitting out each word. “You, Dean Winchester. Are. The devil.” Dean chuckled and shrugged, turning the volume up on the radio until Judy Garland’s voice filled the cabin.

Dean could tell that Castiel was cold. Really cold, like he was moments away from vivisecting a Taunton and crawling inside. The idiot was still just wearing Dean’s t-shirt and bottoms along with his parka, which he must have grabbed from the downstairs coat rack. His feet were clad in his own dress shoes. The overall picture was ridiculous, and Dean would laugh if the guy wasn’t trembling so much. Dean shrugged out of his coat and held it out to Castiel. It wasn’t as heavy as the parka, but it was warm from Dean’s body and wasn’t dusted in snow. Castiel shakily unzipped the parka and pulled off the sleeves. Dean couldn’t see well in the darkness, but he imagined that Castiel’s skin was probably drained of color. He quickly slipped on the warmer coat one arm at a time and hunched over, breath shuddering out. Without a word Dean cranked the heat as high as it would go, blasting them like a furnace. He shook out the parka and draped it around Castiel’s shoulders, roughly tucking in the sides.

After a few minutes of the slow crawl - the Impala really wasn’t made for these conditions - they approached the cabin, but Dean stopped the car far short and turned to face Castiel fully. “That was a boneheaded move back there.”

Castiel was still curled forward, his hands having snuck out at some point from the sleeves to fan out in front of the vents, eyes closed.

“It’s a good thing I found you when I did. You would have frozen to death on that road.” Castiel’s nostrils flared, so Dean self-checked his tone. He was upset, surprisingly so, but at the same time Castiel’s motivations weren’t exactly a mystery. More calmly, he spoke again. “Look, I understand why you did it. If the shoe were on the other foot…” he sighed. There was no easy way to do this. “Kidnapping you was a mistake.” He added quickly, “I had no idea who you were, but even still, it was wrong. Back at the Roadhouse – I panicked. Something in me just broke. I don’t even know.”

Castiel cracked open one blue eye, considering him. Dean thought there might be some color returning to his cheeks. “If you know it was wrong, why won’t you take me back? Right now?”

Dean sunk back into the seat and shook his head, heart starting to race. He mind rebelled at the idea, but of course Castiel was right. In a truly unprecedented move, he pleaded, “You have no idea what it’s been like these past few years. My mom,” Dean swallowed thickly. “She was sick. It got real bad, and then in the middle there Bobby had his accident. And Dad,” Dean exhaled sharply through his nose, rolling the steering wheel under his hands. “He took off God-knows-where with Kate. Stuff was dark for a long time. And Mom - all Mom ever says these days is how much she wants to see Sam and me happy, settled down and starting families. For so long she was planning for when she was gonna…” Dean’s throat got stuck on what was probably self-loathing and bile. He squeezed his eyes shut, dropping his head.

“This is only for this weekend.”

Dean struggled to tell if that was a question or a statement.

“I’ll consent to this charade for that period, and nothing more. I never have to see or hear from you ever again, in my entire life, after this weekend.”

Dean swallowed and nodded emphatically. “Cas, I swear. Two days. Then I take you anywhere you like, do anything for you. I’ll owe you a huge favor, no questions asked, just say the word and–”

Castiel shook his head firmly. “No favors. Just a ride back to town and then get the hell out of my life.” He stared at Dean, eyes flashing. “And if you so much as transmit a brain signal towards the press about – any of this, ever – I’ll have you thrown in prison. You’re lucky I’m foolish enough to even consider this.”

Dean swallowed down the bile, disgusted but nodding to himself once again. He held out his hand to Castiel. “It’s a deal.”

Castiel hesitated, then shook his hand. He said, “I’ll accept your deal. I’ll convince your family I’m the love of your life; the best thing that’s ever happened to you.” His gaze intensified and he added, “I’m a very good storyteller.” He opened the car door and swung his legs outside, turning to address Dean over his shoulder. “You get to deal with the fallout when this is all over, I’m gone, and your family inevitably finds out the truth. I think that will be punishment enough for you.” He exited the car and strode for the cabin, leaving Dean alone in the Impala. So much for eggnog. Instead, he staggered a few paces towards the nearest treeline and retched.

~~~~~~~

For the second time that morning, Dean awoke to an empty loft. This time sunshine lit up the cramped space and Dean could hear voices along with the smell of bacon drifting from downstairs. He stomach protested loudly, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten a real square meal in over a day. He spared only a moment to wince at his aching back before crawling to the edge and swinging his legs over to climb down the ladder. Mounting panic and lack of sleep manifested in wobbly legs as he descended. His attention was momentarily seized by the landscape outside – a sweeping expanse of blinding sunlight glittering off white blankets of snow covering the ground and clinging to the tree branches. Mountains and slopes invisible at night now stood prominently above the tree tops amid a blue winter sky.

His brother jerked his attention back to the cabin interior. “Look everybody, it lives!”

Dean breathed out in relief at Sam’s cheerful tone, assuming that Castiel had stuck with the plan after all and probably hadn’t made another run for it or wrestled anyone for car keys to escape. Dean rolled his eyes at Sam, who leaned dangerously far back in his barstool at the kitchen counter. He smirked at Jess's stealthy hand snaked around Sam’s back, urging him back to all four legs. Dean padded into the kitchen, rubbing at his sore back. His mother wished him a good morning, smiling brightly. Dean frowned at the sight of everyone, even Bobby, already dressed and apparently past their first cups of coffee. His gaze zeroed in on Castiel at the table, who looked surprisingly well-rested and put together, wearing Dean’s cable knit sweater and looking like a sexy Mr. Rogers. Dean scraped back a chair at the kitchen table across from him and slumped down into the seat.

In a stark contrast with their tense earlier encounter, Castiel returned his stare with wide, innocent eyes, and affected a compassionate tone. “We saved you some breakfast. I thought it best to let you sleep in this morning, since you’ve been exerting yourself so much lately.”

Dean scowled.

Mary stood up to retrieve the coffee pot. She looked to Castiel. “Another?” She looked down briefly at Castiel’s nearly full mug.

Castiel smiled appreciatively at her, the motion crinkling his eyes and sending a jolt through Dean. “Thank you Mary, I’m fine for now.”

Dean crossed the kitchen to the refrigerator in search of leftovers, frowning at the sight within. “Mom, you made…cookies?”

Mary replied, “Actually, Cas whipped those up for tonight.”

Jess added, “Honestly it should be you wooing him, Dean. I mean, just look at hi—”

“—Hey!” Sam interjected. “Careful. Your husband doesn’t want to start getting ideas about his wife and the rich, famous author.”

“Mmm, not to mention handsome.” Before he could object further, Jess cupped Sam’s face and pulled him in for a long closed-mouthed kiss.

“Do you guys mind?” Dean protested. “It’s too early in the morning for me to be defending Cas' honor. I haven’t even had my first cup of coffee.” He smiled at his mother who was already tipping the pot over a mug at his seat.

Bobby snorted. “It’s after eleven, sleeping beauty. Your beau there has been up for hours already fending for himself.”

Castiel leaned comfortably back into his seat. “It’s been easy so far. Luckily I’ve plied them all with baked goods and distracted them into telling me your embarrassing childhood secrets.” His eyes glittered and Dean gulped, unsure if the man was joking or not. The whole nice-guy act was deeply unsettling, it felt dangerous.He might have preferred the honest-kidnapping-victim routine.

Settling back into her seat, Mary clapped her hands together. “Oh! I was just getting to the one where Dean wandered downstairs into that dinner party with those panties. He’d gotten into the suitcase in the guest room and grabbed a little souvenir.” Dean dropped his head to his arm. “Oh, but she was mortified when you walked up and tried to lay them out on the coffee table. What a way to meet Ellen!”

Jess broke up the laughter first. “Hey, speaking of, what’s the story there anyway, with you two? We’re all dying to know how you managed to meet.”

Everyone, including Castiel, looked at Dean expectantly, who raised his head reluctantly.

Dean smiled. “Well, it was the damnedest thing, really,” he looked back at Cas, trying to convey his cry for help with a look.

Castiel, the bastard, feigned innocence and waited.

Dean sipped from his mug before speaking. “Well, Cas was at the bar during one of my shifts and we struck up a conversation.” He recalled their slippery exchange in the parking lot and smirked. “I guess you could say that Cas fell hard, pretty much immediately after we met. He was knocked right off his feet.” Neither Dean’s wry grin nor the amused glint in his eyes diminished, despite the lasers now shooting from Castiel’s glare. Well, what he assumed was a glare. The guy really had a poker face. Or maybe he just always looked some variation of pissed off.

Castiel spoke up as everyone turned to him. “Actually, Dean had no idea who I was, and flirted mercilessly.” Cas covered Dean’s hand – the one not wrapped around his mug – with his own and looked straight at him. “I’ll never forget the look on his face when he realized. I took pity on him after that.”

Jess spoke again. “So these months must have been hard, keeping it secret and all during your promotional stuff for The Final Crossing.

Sam’s eyes widened at a thought. “Dean? Does this mean you finally read the Piper Frost series?”

Dean rubbed at his nose. “Well, you know how busy—”

“Dude, what the hell?” Sam looked to Castiel. “Why do you put up with my idiot brother?” Jess punched his shoulder and he shrunk away from the blow. “I didn’t mean it like that,” he muttered.

Dean frowned, then retorted, “Cas likes that I haven’t read the books. That way he knows I like him for his body and not just the mere products of his mind.” He smirked. “Besides, you and Jess like all that nerdy shit more than me.” He lifted a fork to his lips. “No offense, babe.” He smiled at Castiel, mouth full.

Sam scoffed. “Ha! Says Mister goes-LARPing-on-weekends with Empress of Nerds, Charlie Bradbury.”

“Who told you about that?” He swiveled his face around to Mary, who was innocently sipping from her mug. “That was one weekend! She promised me there would be babes and booze.” He looked to Bobby, who remained quiet. His expression was distinctly unimpressed. Dean abruptly swiveled and pointed his finger at Sam. “Hang on, nice try there buddy.” His eyes gleamed. “Aren’t you the one who drunkenly writes fanfiction about Piper and that werew–”

“Dean!”

Dean grinned, victorious. He wasted no time demolishing his breakfast. As he slid the dishes into the sink, Mary clapped her hands together. “Alright everyone, some of us have lazed around enough this morning. Who feels like some fresh air?”

Chapter Text

Chapter Four

Suffering from no small amount of cabin fever, everyone dressed quickly into their warmest gear, eager to escape outside. Cas reminded Dean in a pointed yet hushed tone about his lack of clothing, to which Dean replied with pursed lips. After some calculating, he divvied up the warmest pieces he could find and reluctantly handed over his parka. The guy’s sensitivity to the cold was pretty damn unhelpful. They dressed separately, meeting back up downstairs beside the shoe rack to join the others. Dean looked over Cas, lingering on the slight tightness of his own snow pants around Cas’ thighs.

“Hello? Earth to Major Tom?” Dean’s head snapped back to the present and he instinctively sidestepped as Bobby swung the door open and rolled outside onto the patio.

His brother mirrored Dean’s puzzled expression as Bobby’s gloved hands pulled a stocking cap down around his cheeks. He examined them both and raised his eyebrows. “What? Did I sprout a second head?”

A glance from Dean over to Castiel revealed nothing; the man was now busy tying the laces of his ice skates together.

Facing toward the tree line, Bobby intoned, “Shouldn’t you boys be hauling gear down?” Sam and Dean exchanged a glance as Bobby rolled out towards where Jess stood, Mary walking closely behind him. When they were out of earshot, Dean turned to Sam.

“Wow.” Sam breathed out, leaning to the side and speaking lowly to Dean, “Cas went out this morning to clear off the patio.” He pointed at the ground where they stood, where indeed the snow had been swept aside into neat rows. “I guess he must have gone and shoveled a path all the way down to the dock.”

Dean watched Bobby’s retreating back, connecting the dots. The brief rush of warmth that flowed through him immediately soured when he remembered the game Castiel was playing. Damned, stupid, fake do-gooder had gone after the old disabled man. Of course he had. He scowled and stomped over to Castiel, who had stood up with his skates slung around the back of his neck, ignoring his brother’s curious look. Too loudly, he announced, “Cas and I’ll grab the goals and meet you down there.”

Dean grabbed Castiel roughly by the shoulder and dragged him towards the shed, crowding him around the corner against the wall, nostrils flaring. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Castiel met his gaze with disbelief. “What am I doing? I’m upholding my end of the bargain, which you’re jeopardizing right now.” To emphasize his point, he glanced over Dean’s shoulder at the retreating forms of Jess and Mary, who each pocketed pucks from a set of buckets. His hot breath landed on Dean’s face and Dean backed off, suddenly aware of the scant space between them. “Yeah, yeah. Just. Leave Bobby alone? He hates special treatment.”

“It’s not a big deal, Dean. You’re the one making a scene.” Dean bristled at that. “I simply thought that it would be easier for everyone to head down with their gear if the path was cleared.” At Dean’s skeptical look, Castiel sighed. “And that it would be nice if he could leave the cabin to spend time with the people he loves.”

Dean considered for a moment, staring towards the ground in concentration. He nodded to himself. “Alright, fine. No more talking about it.” A thought occurred to him. “Hold up, what’s with the cookies by the way?”

To Dean’s surprise, color rushed to Cas’ cheeks and the man pursed his lips. “Baking helps me to calm down.” He crossed his arms. “People love cookies,” he added defensively, a deep furrow settling between his brows.

Dean raised his hands placatingly. “No argument there, Mary Berry.” He nudged the shed door further open and took hold of the cold PVC that made up the goal. “Help me out with this thing.”

Dean and Castiel passed Sam and Jess on their way back up the road for the second goal. The trail wound through snow-laden evergreens and opened out into a sharp decline, dropping down to the boat ramp. Exhaling hard puffs that caught the sunlight like clouds in the freezing air, Dean abruptly set his end of the goal down and took in the view for the first time. The sun shone brilliantly off of a lake ringed by more snowy trees. He could discern swirling patterns in the ice that covered the water; it looked like a slab of expensive Italian marble. It was hard to reconcile the image with the dark, fluid mountain lakes of summer.

“Can you imagine it, the whole world disappearing behind ice? I bet the fish think it’s the Apocalypse every year when the lake freezes over,” Dean mused.

Castiel angled his chin towards the other man, squinting against the light. “That’s an interesting idea. Although I believe the word apocalypse refers to ‘an uncovering.’”

Dean’s eyebrows raised as the man took on a mechanical tone.

“It would make more sense to apply the concept to the springtime thaw, to parallel the Apocalypse’s vision of heavenly secrets that makes sense of earthly realities.” He quirked his mouth at Dean’s expression. “But I doubt the fish have developed a religious dogma that sophisticated.”

Dean studied the man’s face, but his expression was inscrutable. “Gee thanks, Mister Spock.” There was no recognition in the other man’s eyes. He shook his head, grasping the goal once again. Bonafide nerds the world over worshipped this guy and he hadn’t even seen Star Trek. It was disgraceful.

They carefully toed down the steep road, grunting with the effort of hefting the unwieldy goal. After stopping to lace up their skates, Sam and Dean placed the goals a modest distance across from each other. Mary and Jess passed around scuffed pucks for the rest of them to stuff into their own pockets. Rather than joining Bobby, Mary walked over to her own pair of skates, peeling off her boots one by one. Dean looked to Sam with alarm, but he merely shrugged. “Hey, I tried. She shut me down.”

After lacing up, Jessica, Mary, and Castiel skated a few laps to warm up. Jess moved with ease on the ice, switching effortlessly between skating backwards and forwards. Mary was a little shakier and slower, sneaking a glance to her feet every now and then. Meanwhile, Bobby situated himself on the dock nearby, his wheelchair-bound state leaving him as the de facto spectator and referee. He barked out some corrections to Sam and Dean until he was satisfied with the placement of the goals, then plucked out a flask of something from seemingly nowhere. The five of them met in a half circle at the center of their makeshift rink.

Mary gestured with her chin to the group. “How should we split up with an odd number?”

“Well, Dean and I have the most weight, but Jess is probably the most experienced skater here,” Sam said, raising an eyebrow towards Dean and Castiel, looking for any contradiction.

Dean turned to Castiel, who had crouched down to re-lace his skates. “You any good at this?” Castiel looked up at Dean and shrugged.

Sam said, “How about I take Jess, and you go with Mom and Cas?”

“Why do you get to have Jess?!” Dean exclaimed.

Jess laughed. “Aww, do I scare you Dean?”

“Shut up. You’re the only professional here.”

“As an Ice Girl at Stanford! I’m not any better at hockey than you. Plus you’re twice my size.” She turned to consider Cas. “I’ll take Mary and Cas and you two goons can pair up against us.”

They all agreed, splitting off three-on-two. Mary tossed a puck in the air to Jess for the face-off. Jess grinned at Sam. “You’re going down, Mister Winchester.”

~~~~~~~

The first and second times Castiel scored Dean chalked it up to an unspoken agreement between him and Sam to let Cas and the women get some past them so that they wouldn’t be completely humiliated by inevitable defeat. However, once Jess and Castiel each scored again, Dean found it harder and harder to trash talk his opponents when he and his brother hadn’t gotten even one point on them. As Jess outmaneuvered him yet again, Dean’s grin faded away, replaced by a furrow in his sweaty brow as he focused on the game and his passing. He and Sam had played this when they were kids, they should be more accustomed to each other on the ice. Instead, more often than not Dean’s passes to Sam sailed wide of him and Dean struggled to make shots on the goal out of the few passes he got from his brother.

Meanwhile, Castiel responded with even more speed and strength. For a guy who supposedly sat on his ass in some bougie LA mansion and wrote all day long he sure was fast. More than once he tricked out Dean or Sam, working with Jess and Mary to outflank the Winchester brothers.

Bobby hollered down from his perch on the dock, “You boys know the point of the game is to score on the other team, right?”

Dean finally regained possession of the puck and skated full tilt towards the goal. Castiel beared down on him, blocking Dean away from the goal. Dean feinted, twisting quickly to get past but Mary had ventured out away from the goal and towards him. To his right, Sam was skating towards the goal on the other side of their mother, so without hesitation Dean sent the puck sliding that way. Jess caught up to Sam, slamming into him at his front. Knocked off balance, Sam raised both him arms in placation like a cornered bandit, allowing Jess to break away along with Castiel to score once again.

“Jesus Sam, what the hell!” Dean skated over to his brother angrily, punching his arm none too gently. “That’s the third time you just gave it away!” As soon as the words left him, he noted with surprise the genuine frustration in his voice.

“It’s just a game.” Sam’s cheeks were red and his eyes bright, narrowing in concern. He pushed his brother off of him and skated back towards the center of the rink.

“Tell that to the all-star team who’s already scored on us five times in twenty minutes,” Dean growled.

“Oh, come on. Mom is —” Sam gestured vaguely with his arm. “And she’s my wife, and he’s just, oh that’s right, Castiel Novak! I don’t want to sleep on the sofa tonight and I really don’t want half the world sending me death threats online after finding out I,” He paused, glancing momentarily at Cas who skated slowly from a short distance away, looking suspiciously innocent, “Bruised his elbow or something!”

Dean huffed. “Yeah, well you could have mentioned you were going to wuss out before they kicked our sorry asses. I would have asked Bobby to play instead.”

“Is there a problem, gentlemen?” Castiel approached them with the facial expression of an attentive waiter, betrayed by the wicked glint in his eye. “Would you rather we wear blindfolds?”

Jess snickered and added in a dripping, ridiculous attempt at a Southern accent while batting her eyes, “My husband’s just worried about us poor, dainty little ol’ womenfolk.”

Dean shook his head, disgusted. He pointed at Castiel with his stick. “You’re a damn cheat, letting us think you suck.” Castiel merely smirked.

They all lined up for the face-off. Sam and Jess's sticks clashed and the puck went whizzing off sideways. Dean and Castiel dashed after it, Dean with a head-start. He reached the puck first, pivoting around in a tight circle only to look up into a chest hurtling into him at speed. Dean had time only to drop his mouth into a “O” shape and briefly meet wide eyes before his back was slammed to the ice by a body crushing his chest. Their sticks skittered across the ice beyond his reach and his mouth opened wordlessly, the breath thoroughly knocked out of him. He opened his eyes and once the static-y stars dissipated he saw only a very anxious-looking Castiel. Despite his wobbly vision and buzzing head, up this close it was easy to see the sweat soaked into his hairline, dark tendrils plastered to his forehead. His chest was rising and falling in quick bursts and Dean found that his own squashed lungs struggled to take in much-needed oxygen. Ow.

Grimacing, Dean grit out, “Hey, at least I caught you this time.” Castiel’s startled expression softened out into one of restrained amusement. Dean’s nose wrinkled. “You smell like Sam’s dirty gym bag.”

Castiel huffed out what might have been an actual laugh, head dropping briefly to Dean’s chest right beneath his right shoulder. When he lifted it again, Dean absently noted how close Castiel’s nose was, pleased his vision was obviously clearing, just in time to track the salty little droplet winding it way down the bridge to dangle at the tip, just shy of falling. Dean’s eyes flicked down to Castiel’s parted mouth where swirling breaths collided with Dean’s neck. A visceral charge shot through Dean’s limbs, numb as they were, when he finally dragged his eyes up to meet Castiel’s. Everything else in the world, if it still existed (he hadn’t had a chance to check) fell away. It would be so easy to lift one of Dean’s gloved hands to the back of Castiel’s neck and pull it close, or to flick out his tongue at that persistent bead of sweat still hanging on for dear life on his nose, and wasn’t his mouth actually kind of chapped? Dean was pretty sure he had some chapstick in the pocket of the parka Cas was borrowing. He’d have to pull off a bulky glove, but then he could spread the balm across those lips and then Cas would taste like whatever the makers of Chapstick think tastes like watermelon, and maybe Cas would shift his legs to press more on his groin or lift off his chest just a tiny bit so he could fucking breathe, damn it, really the guy was the furthest thing from a feather, and—

Dean? Are you okay?”

Dean blinked and sounds rushed back to fill his ears. Had seconds passed, or hours? His brother’s head was a black silhouette against the sun. He felt Castiel rise to his knees carefully and Sam was reaching for Castiel’s arm to help haul him back onto his skates, brow still furrowed as he stared at Dean. Dean exhaled and rose to his elbows. Jess was watching him from behind Sam, her knowing expression decidedly less concerned. Dean looked away, glad that he had undoubtedly already been red in the face from the game.

They resumed playing for another fifteen minutes, but it was clear that the game was winding down with sloppier passes and shots and neither team scoring. Once Dean noticed Mary wince briefly, clutching at her side, he held a short, silent conversation with Sam and decided to call it a day. Smile plastered on, Dean declared he wasn’t interested in tarnishing his and Sam’s athletic reputations any further that day. Besides, Bobby’s snoring had grown too loud to ignore. By the time they had collected all the errant pucks and dragged the goals back up the hill it was nearly two o’clock. Despite Mary’s protests, Castiel assisted Dean in returning the goals to the storage shed.

Castiel broke their silence. “It’s a good thing I was going easy on you. Despite the kidnapping, it likely would have been excessive to break one of your ribs.”

“I thought we were sq— hang on, easy?”

Castiel snorted, but his voice was gentle. “You’re forgetting that I grew up in Canada. With four big older brothers, by the way.”

“I didn’t forget,” Dean lied. “I just pictured more of a Anne of Green Gables upbringing. Not Slap Shot.” Belatedly, he said, “Four brothers - no kidding? I would’ve pegged you for an only child.”

“Hardly. My mother had six of us before telling my father that unless the Pope was available for babysitting, she wasn’t relying on the rhythm method anymore.”

“Your mom sounds pretty cool.”

Castiel nodded, growing quiet.

They were the last to get back to the cabin. Bobby was evidently down for a mid-Winter nap and Sam and Jess were in their room, probably showering. Castiel strode past Dean to the guest bath and shut the door, leaving Dean alone with Mary. He stood on the doormat awkwardly, melting snow dripping off onto the floor. He wrinkled his nose at the hardwood, already covered with tracked-in, snowy filth.

Mary followed his gaze and chuckled. “That’s driving you crazy isn’t it? No point cleaning up much in here before dinner, though. Sam and Jess are on prep and you know how they get with the flour.” Dean nodded, though he didn't know how they got with the flour, wondering exactly how his mother did.

Castiel emerged from the bathroom, rubbing his hands together. His eyes were bright and he looked squarely at Dean, who quirked his brow, questioning.

Castiel said, “I heard we’re off the hook until dinner?”

Mary replied, “Of course, Cas. You’re never ‘on the hook’ around here. You do have one important job, though.” He looked at her, politely expectant. She smiled. “To have fun. As our guest you’re welcome to anything at all.”

“Thank you, Mary. Actually, Dean and I wanted to take a nature walk while it’s still light.”

Mary smiled knowingly and Dean wanted to correct her, to tell her it wasn’t like that. But that’s exactly what he was supposed to want her to think, right? The fact that she was suggesting as much was only proof that his scheme was unfolding perfectly. So why did winning feel so much like losing?

Dean hadn’t progressed past shedding his gloves, so getting ready to head outdoors again was not nearly the production that it had been that morning. He and Castiel left the cabin in a minute, and out on the porch Dean turned to Castiel to question his intentions. Before he could speak, Mary burst out.

“Dean!” Cradled in her hands like it was alive was an old camera bag. “I was meaning to give this to you later when we exchange gifts, but I thought you should take it on your walk. In case you feel inspired.”

The sight of that camera froze Dean momentarily, but the jarring vulnerability in his mother’s eyes lent him the strength to conceal his unease with what he hoped was something akin to a smile. He reached out for the bag, slinging the strap over one shoulder and then walked down the porch steps into the snow. Mary said nothing as she slipped back into the cabin.

Chapter Text

Dean regarded the other man up and down, unable to conceal a smile of amusement. Castiel looked like a dorky eskimo, fur-trimmed hood flipped up and arms too puffy to lay flat against his sides, like a fat penguin. He reached one of his gloved hands out towards Dean, and Dean stared at the thing like it was a dangerous weapon. Did Castiel expect them to hold hands for their walk in the woods like a pair of Viagra commercial actors? Dean hesitated but then slotted his own glove into the other man’s. After all, he reasoned, someone inside could still see them from the windows. Instead of following Dean down the porch steps, Castiel stood still and Dean searched his face, questioning. Castiel’s eyes flicked curiously to their linked hands, then back to Dean’s face.

“—you not hear me? I said to hand me the scarf.”

“What?” Oh. “ Oh sure,” Dean muttered as he dropped Castiel’s hand, cheeks stinging from more than the icy air. “Sorry.”

“No.” A smile broke across Castiel’s face very slowly as he took in Dean’s fluster. “It’s fine.”

Dean pulled the scarf free from the camera bag strap, handing it over wordlessly. Dean wondered how the guy was supposed to breathe under all his layers and an added scarf. Maybe that was his tactic for hiding from the paparazzi, not that it would prove to be much of an issue out here.

They set off in silence, Castiel leading the way. Dean was surprised when he led them away instead of towards the road. As explanation, Castiel gestured silently toward the same tree line from earlier that lay between the cabin and the lake. Rather than trek back down towards the dock, however, Castiel veered off onto a trailhead that Dean hadn’t noticed before. Dean’s boots sunk into the untouched snow and he kept his gaze downcast to watch each careful step. A few yards in, Castiel stopped to extend an arm out to a tree, head tilting back to view it’s full height. Dean’s gaze followed his. Although it was still afternoon, the sun was already cutting rays through the branches at a blinding angle. It would only take a few hours before the sun would set and drag the temperature down even further with it.

“So…” Dean began, “Why’d you arrange for some one-on-one time? You’re supposed to hate my guts.”

Castiel lowered his chin back down to meet Dean’s eyes. “I don’t harbor ill will toward you, Dean.” At Dean’s skeptical expression, Castiel dropped his arm and sighed, adding, “Not anymore. You’re no saint by any means, and you could possibly look into some professional psychiatric help, but you’re not a terrible human being.”

Dean clutched his hand to his chest. “Cas, I’m touched.”

Castiel shut his eyes and exhaled. “I saw how much stress you were under back at the restaurant. It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed someone having a mental breakdown.”

Dean’s first thought went to the crazy fans over the years that wound up on the ten o’clock news, but then he wondered if Castiel was referring to someone a little more personal. He looked at Castiel expectantly, a silent prompt to elaborate. The other man remained quiet, so Dean let it go.

Castiel spoke again. “May I ask you one question? Why?”

Dean’s chest tightened, but he responded evenly, “You mean, why’d I do it?”

Castiel nodded.

“Well, like you said. Mental breakdown. I told you most of it in the car. I—” He looked down, unable to put the swirling thoughts and feelings into words. “I don’t know? It doesn’t make sense now, but,” he rubbed his gloves together, friction sending heat to his tingling fingers. “I thought I could convince Mom everything was okay with me. If I showed up without a date, everyone would realize I’m a failure, that I’m the person my dad said I was destined to become.” He smiled sadly, gesturing at Cas with his arms. “With you here, I get to pretend to have my life together. Hell, with the added bonus of dating a ‘superstar’ or whatever it is Sam and Jess are convinced you are.”

Castiel wrinkled his nose in distaste at the moniker.

“I’m not trying to curry sympathy here or anything, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to make it out like my shit’s worse than anyone else’s, there’re lots of folks out there suffering more than me. I guess I’m just trying to apologize for draggin’ you along. You’re not exactly a ‘terrible human being’ yourself. Kind of the opposite.” Dean still stared intently at the ground but added deliberately, “I am sorry Cas.”

Dean wasn’t sure when the shadows had fallen over them but he noticed them now, along with the way they sapped heat from his face and extremities. Too still, his feet were growing numb. It would probably help on the sincerity front if Dean were to follow up his apology with eye contact but for some reason he found it impossible to bring his gaze to the other man. Instead, Castiel clasped his hand on Dean’s arm, grip light.

“Your apology is…meaningful to me. Thank you, Dean.”

Dean unfroze, his eyes seeking out Castiel’s. He was surprised to find him looking even more uncomfortable than Dean, almost shy, blue eyes slanted away. Without a word Castiel set off again, forging new tracks in the snow deeper into the thicket. Dean followed, pressing the camera hanging around his neck to the right side of his chest to keep it from knocking against him. The old Leica always inspired myriad emotions, chief of all guilt. He swallowed down the lump in his throat.

Once he caught up to Castiel the two of them trudged in step. It required enough effort that the sound of their exhalations felt loud in the relative silence of the snow-blanketed mountain landscape. They hiked for about a half hour; so lost in his own thoughts, Dean couldn’t be sure of the passage of time. After a sharp incline and several switchbacks, the ground evened out and Dean came to a stop and rested his hands on his knees. He was huffing and puffing, sweat tickling down the back of his neck. When he raised it, his eyes first scanned the tops of trees extending out far beyond his range of sight before focusing closer on the other man in the foreground. To his chagrin, Castiel was standing tall and close-mouthed, the only sign of his exertion in the slight rise and fall in his chest, buried deeply under his hundreds of layers.

“You sure you’re not dying down there underneath all that?”

Castiel replied merely with a twitch of his mouth. He then nodded towards Dean’s camera. “You going to use that at all?”

Dean pursed his lips, looking back out over the trees and the jagged shadows they cast before the setting sun. He opened his mouth to speak, twice, before shaking his head.

Very softly, Cas said, “No, I get it.”

Dean raised his brows. “Do you?”

“Artist’s block, right? You pick up the camera and don’t even know where to start. Inspiration is lacking. Every late-night idea that strikes you seems foolish the next morning and you feel like a fraud. You wonder what you’re even doing, if this is what you really want anymore. Yeah, I get it.”

Dean faced the other man fully, surprised. Rather than bristle at the inaccurate assessment, he was intrigued at the revealing admission. Dean recognized projecting when he saw it. “I don’t really know anything about you, do I?”

Cas looked almost bashful. “I must admit, it is refreshing to spend so much time with someone so…wholly unfamiliar with both my professional and personal life. And equally perplexing that I seem to be working to undo that.”

Dean shifted on his feet. “Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of a recluse?” Castiel gave Dean a look and Dean raised his palms defensively. “Hey, I haven’t been completely living under a rock. Only like, in the shade of one. I know about Piper Frost and her little wizard friends. I see people dress up like them every Halloween with the cloaks and the wands and the…stuff. I know things. Like how you’re supposed to be a recluse. Right?” He sounded less sure, but Castiel did not dispute it. Legs burning a little, Dean spotted a log that was too bench-shaped to be a coincidence. He roughy brushed aside the snow and squatted down to sit, patting beside him in invitation. Castiel joined him and Dean extended his legs out front, leaning back on his hands. Castiel kept his arms loosely crossed, as much as the clothing would allow.

“Even then, you might be surprised by what Google digs up on me. The yearbook photos, old resumés, rumors all along the spectrum from partially true to absurdly erroneous—”

Dean waggled an eyebrow. “Sex scandals?”

Castiel didn’t bat an eye. “Naturally. Depending on who you ask I’m homosexual, have six illegitimate children with several prostitutes, am responsible for my parents’ murders thirty years ago, and am a wizard who was hit with a memory charm and believe I’m an NMP.”

“An enem—, a what?”

Castiel raised his eyebrows and spoke each word slowly. “Non-magical person?”

“Oh, it’s really embarrassing that I don’t already know that, huh?” Then his eyes widened. “Hang on, your parents were murdered?”

“Yes,” Castiel said gravely.

Dean’s mouth fell open and he straightened, drawing his legs up.

Castiel smiled. “Yes to the embarrassing part. My parents both retired to Santa Barbara a few years ago.”

“Oh.” Dean’s body slackened again. “That’s a big change from Lumberjack Country.” He gestured around them with his thumb.

Castiel shrugged. “California is endlessly enticing, especially for the rich.”

Dean wondered if Castiel’s parents were always wealthy or if his fame had made them so. “Were you going back there for Christmas?”

“You…disapprove?”

Dean looked pained. “Come on man, Christmas with palm trees? I get that the snow’s a pain in the ass but there’s something wrong with wearing a bikini on Christmas.”

“I wasn’t planning on wearing a bikini on Christmas.”

Dean suppressed a smirk. “You know what I mean.”

“You realize there are billions of people in the Southern Hemisphere celebrating Christmas at the height of Summer, right?”

Dean waved his hand dismissively. “So what about the other stuff — with the hooker and the…gay thing.” As soon as the words left his mouth in a somewhat-less-than-casual-tone Dean wanted to face palm.

Nevertheless, Castiel replied, “Both falsehoods, to the best of my knowledge.”

Dean frowned. “Oh.”

Castiel glanced sidelong at Dean, then said, “I find sexuality complex and elusive, but for simplicity I consider myself asexual.” Pointedly, he added, “It is not formally public knowledge.”

Dean’s brows raised in understanding and he pantomimed securing a zipper over his mouth. “Hey, no one will hear it from me.” Unable to withhold his curiosity - yet completely able to repress the source of it - he asked, “What does that mean, for you specifically? Do you still date or have sex or…” Dean gulped, then smiled uneasily. “I mean, as a doting boyfriend I should have probably figured this out a bit sooner, recluse or not.”

Castiel’s eyes flashed. “Since our ‘relationship’ is purely fictional and only barely consensual, I am under no obligation to expand on my answer.” His eyebrows knitted together and he added, “that being said, I’m feeling…loquacious.” Castiel stared ahead and Dean felt inexplicable warmth towards him as he realized that the man really unpacked his vocabulary when he was feeling tense or vulnerable. “I’m amenable to the concept of dating. I don’t necessarily crave carnal relations like many people,” Dean mouthed the words ‘ carnal relations’ to himself, covering his incipient chuckle with a short cough and Castiel continued, “but like anyone else I am not immune to loneliness. I seek out intimacy in all it’s forms and from many sources whenever it is both essential and practical.”

Dean privately reminded himself that this guy wrote children’s fantasy books. “Essential and practical, huh? You sound like a hopeless romantic to me, Cas.”

Ignoring that, Castiel turned to Dean, contemplative. “What about you? You haven’t told me much about your romantic history. Is it your usual modus operandi to kidnap your dates?” Dean blinked and Cas parroted, “As a doting boyfriend I should have probably figured this out a bit sooner.”

Dean laughed at that, the sound bursting from his chest unexpectedly. “Yeah, alright. Fair enough.” He scratched a phantom itch on his nose and said, “For the record, no, I reserve the whole kidnapping at gunpoint routine for the extra special ones. So, congrats on that.” He shook his head, still chuckling. Castiel was smiling too, incredibly, and Dean wondered not for the first time if maybe the guy was more than a little eccentric. Emboldened, he confessed, “My girlfriend Cassie cheated on me a couple weeks ago. With some coworker. Totally Sarah Marshall’d me, naked scene and all.”

Dean was convinced the reference would go right over his head, but Castiel interjected, “That’s the one with the vampires in Hawaii right?” Dean’s eyes widened, jaw no doubt landing in the snow. Castiel waved away Dean’s expression, flippantly adding, “I’ve had coffee with Judd Apatow a few times.”

Dean nodded for a solid thirty seconds. “Yeah…yeah Cas. Of course you have.”

Cas rested a gloved hand on his arm and Dean stared at it. “You were saying?”

Dean didn’t want to speak, which was true for him as a general rule when it came to the details of his personal life. It wasn’t worth wasting a normal person’s time with his baggage, much less someone as—

Castiel’s face was soft. And close.

Dean cleared his throat, belatedly realizing that he was turning the camera over in his hands. He tugged off one of his gloves with his teeth and drew out the silver camera from the leather case and ran his fingers over the cold body. Absently, he experimented with the settings, pressing the viewfinder up to his squinting eyes and making adjustments. While fiddling he continued, “I wasn’t kidding about the nudity. But, ah. I don’t really hold it against her. I’m a lousy boyfriend, I didn’t even discover them together or anything. She just came around to tell me what had been going on. I had no idea.” He sighed. “Hard to believe I had myself convinced that I loved her when we barely even saw each other.” He cleared his throat again, speaking more evenly, “Not much as far as sob stories go. I’ve never been much of a relationship guy; ladies or dudes, it’s never really evolved into ‘Facebook Official’ if you know what I mean.” He tried to imagine for a moment Castiel Novak, billionaire author editing his Facebook relationship status, and smiled. “Yeah, you don’t know what I mean.”

Dean studied those blue eyes for any hint of emotion but their depths revealed little. Castiel was evidently content to stare right back at Dean interminably, that is, until he swung his jaw away.

“Do you hear that rustling over in those branches?” Sparing only a momentary frown of confusion, Dean steered his gaze to the tree Castiel indicated with an arm and saw nothing but a light quivering of branches. Castiel stood abruptly from the log-bench and scrambled down the slope a dozen or so yards in the opposite direction of where he had pointed to a space that opened out into a semi-clearing. When the ground leveled out he picked his steps very, very carefully before dropping down into a wide crouch and then collapsing to his back. With mounting alarm, Dean nearly slid down the slope after him but then held back when he caught on. Puzzlement replaced apprehension as he watched Castiel extend his arms and legs out at perpendicular angles and draw sweeping patterns at his sides into the snow. Dean wasn’t sure if Castiel wanted him to join him at his side or leave him alone to some goofy LA hippie meditation involving snow angels in the ass-end of nowhere. He inhaled, ready to voice his thoughts aloud when a large shadow passed swiftly overhead.

Dean flinched at the rush of air and stared, stunned, as a bird landed on a tree branch past Castiel, snow cascading in a white puff as the branch swayed precariously under the new weight. The thing was big and brown, some sort of bird of prey. It shifted on its feet, wings partially extended for balance. Dean meant to call out to Castiel, a warning or some exclamation, but his throat caught instead. He shivered despite the body heat he still retained from their ascent. Below, Castiel still lay supine in the snow, but his face was angled towards the raptor. Dean couldn’t make out his expression beyond that until Castiel flicked his eyes back to Dean and a wide smile spread across his face.

Dean frowned but stood still. Slowly, Castiel drew his feet in and lifted up into a cross-legged position, neck twisted to face the bird. His furry hood was still flipped up. The bird spread its’ wings again then, launching from the tree right for Castiel. Dean did yell then, something harsh and incoherent and he only managed to abort a full-on launch down the hillside when he saw Castiel raise his arm out, not in defense but as an offer. The bird alighted on it, talons squeezing tightly into the fabric and for the first time Dean was glad that the man made Ralph’s little brother Randy look underdressed by comparison. Dean was frozen in place and completely enraptured by the image of Castiel, seated perfectly in the center of a clearly-outlined snow angel with some damn bird happily engaged in a staring match with the man.

So much for eccentric. He was fucking insane .

Tugging his other glove off, Dean clipped off the lens cap and brought the viewfinder up to his face, adjusting zoom and focus settings. He snapped photos as quietly as possible, not daring to breathe or move. Dean had no idea how much time had passed before the bird started to fidget, preening its feathers. Castiel looked equally relaxed, despite the small shaking of his arm under all of the weight. Dean captured it through his lens, all the way until the bird finally flapped its wings and took flight again. Once the creature was out of sight, Dean collapsed to his knees and finally let out a shaky breath. He tucked the camera back into its pouch and set it on the log before practically falling down the hill onto Castiel.

He dropped back down to his knees and grabbed Castiel’s shoulders firmly, releasing one to sweep the hood back and reveal more of Castiel’s face. “Cas? Hey, man.”

Castiel’s blue eyes were bright but unfocused. He finally reached up a hand to Dean’s arm, smiling slightly. “It’s fine, Dean.”

Dean huffed out a laugh, releasing Castiel and falling back on his hands. They both sat there, breathing heavily, and Dean willed his heartbeat back to a normal pace. When he finally lifted his gaze back to Castiel, he raked a hand through his hair and said, “Holy shit .”

An especially icy gust of wind flipped up Castiel’s hood and licked across Dean’s damp face and the two men both realized simultaneously how much later it had gotten. Luckily, making their way back with the guidance of their own footprints down the hill was quick work.

Before the final stretch leading up to the cabin, Dean said, “I think I might buy into that rumor.”

Castiel did not look up from the ground, but replied, “Which one is that?”

“You know.” Dean intoned, “You being a wizard with the memory spell thing. There’s no way you’re an em-em- whatever.”

He glanced over in time to see a small smile just before it disappeared.

Chapter Text

Chapter Six

“Dean, I don’t know what the hell is going on, still. You’re not picking up the phone - shocker - but neither is anyone else in your family so I assume you’re all up at the cabin. I had no choice – this British chick showed up looking for Novak and threw a royal fit and now the police want to know where the hell you’re at.

“It’s driving me crazy, not being able to reach you guys, because I know if everything’s fine I shouldn’t be able to but the thing with the gun and Novak and the mood you were in, I just don’t know if you’re in danger or if this guy has done something to you. Just. Please call me back. Bye.”

~~~~~~~

Two of Dean’s favorite smells were that of the blast of hot air from the laundry dryer vent and onions sautéing in butter. The first one spoke to his irrepressible inner neat-freak, Sam would argue, while the latter simply spoke to the fact that Dean was a man and every man’s most cherished pastime was eating. Both scents enveloped the two men when they re-entered the cabin and Dean sighed with unrestrained pleasure after inhaling a long breath.

Greeted with a blast of hot air to his numb extremities inside the cabin, Cas began the long task of divesting of his winter armor while Dean could barely keep his eyes open, much less suppress his yawns. His body was already carrying him over to the couch, which looked a lot more comfortable than pre-hike Dean had given it credit for.

“Ah ah ah.” Mary, hands on hips, intercepted him. Dean frowned. “This isn’t some crusty bachelor pad. I can’t have you all over the furniture like that. You smell downright offensive.”

Dean groaned. It was true that between the snow on the outside and the sweat from within from hours of exertion, all of his layers were thoroughly damp and more than a little pungent.

“You can share the guest shower with Cas. Fresh towels’re in the cupboard.”

Dean carefully suppressed that particular mental image, instead shrugging out of his coat and hanging it on the rack, then waving halfheartedly at Cas to take first crack at the shower. He sat on the creaky wooden chair beside the door and tugged off his boots one at a time before leaning his head back to pillow against the wall. Mary poured something into the saucepan and it hissed briefly. She then pulled one of the dining room chairs over to plop next to Dean, chin resting on arms crossed over the chair back.

“Nice walk?”

Dean nodded, eyes still closed but a wry grin forming. “If by ‘walk’ you mean trudging through miles of snowdrifts.” He jutted his chin towards the stove. “Smells awesome in here. Those cooking classes must really be paying off.”

Mary chuckled. “Better thirty years late than never, right?” Dean heard the squeal of the shower coming on.

“What happened to Sam and Jess? I thought they were supposed to be wreaking havoc in here.”

Mary shrugged, smiling. “Sam took care of the prime rib before crashing like a downed elk. Jess went off to grade projects, I think Bobby’s reading with her. She promised to boot Sam’s butt out of bed when you guys got home.” His mom spoke again, eyes not quite meeting his. “I’m really glad Cas joined you this weekend. If I’d known who he was, I wouldn’t have been so push–”

Dean lifted his head up, sighing. “Mom, it’s fine, really. It’s all worked out peachy.”

She kept her voice down, but her words came out in a rush. “He’s been lovely. Is he having a good time, do you think? He’s not exactly your usual date.” Dean raised a brow and she sighed. “I mean he’s not, I don’t know, normal? God, that’s sounds wrong - I mean ordinary. I get that he’s this famous celebrity but that’s not it, with all the money and glamour and glitz. He just feels…like he’s a character from one of his books, come to life!”

Dean considered this, thinking back to the peculiar episode with the bird.

“I’m your mom, and it’s my first instinct to worry about you, so let me get this out at least once.” Dean lifted his head off the wall and met her worried gaze. “Be careful, Dean. You’d give any stranger on the street the shirt off your back, and we all love that about you. I’m sure Cas does too.” Dean felt his blood rushing in his ears and swallowed thickly. Mary paused to purse her lip. “I read the Facebook and watch the news, his world chews up and spits out nice guys like you. I’m sure he knows that too and that’s why you’re in this,” she waved an arm abstractly. “Whatever you’d call this. Limbo?”

“We’re just taking it slow, Mom.” He smirked, hoping it wasn’t a wince. “Normal and ordinary, you know?”

His mother rolled her eyes, then pointed to his lap. “Any luck out there?”

Dean looked down, almost surprised to see the camera. He held it up, turning it over carefully, pleased to see it remained dry. “Oh, actually–”

“Dean.” Dean looked up and Mary twisted around to see Cas emerge from the bathroom, fully clothed. “Bathroom’s free.”

Dean excused himself and rose to his feet, crossing to the bathroom and latching the door shut. Once inside, he breathed out deeply in relief, running a hand through his hair. He ran his hands under the faucet, relishing the warmth running over his still-cold fingers. Cupping his palms, he gathered the water up and splashed it over his face and then bent forward, hands gripping at the counter. He stared at his white knuckles, then up into the mirror. Water collected on his nose and chin, dripping into the sink and he blinked. Sweat and water mingled at his hairline, sparkling despite the minimal light. His reflection stared back, weary and frowning, with what looked like more than thirty years etched around his eyes.

He could hear Jess's voice muffled by the door as he turned the shower knob. Layer by layer he undressed, tossing the damp clothes into the corner. The cupboard was stuffed with towels like Mary had said, so he drew one out and set it atop the counter. In the mirror he looked over his bared top, wincing at the bruises forming on his chest and the pudge at his waist. He imagined Cas would be pleased to see the damage he’d wrought earlier in the day.

Dean tested the water, then cranked the knob even further, praying to any gods for the cabin to have a sturdy water heater. Under the hot rush, Dean’s eyes slipped shut and he let the water draw attention to the deep aches from his interrupted night’s sleep on the hard attic floor, his nasty landing during the hockey game, followed by the trek through the woods. Steam filled the little bathroom and Dean’s skin prickled, not altogether pleasantly, from the scalding water. The humidity forced his mouth to fall open, and he drew in a long breath. His hands drifted over his arm muscles then dipped down to his lower back, massaging the tender flesh. He ached for a nap and a cocktail of Tylenol and Advil, or hell, just a straight up cocktail. The thought of another night on the floorboards made him grimace.

Some time later, Dean whispered his gratitude to whichever higher power had answered his prayer for prolonged hot water, then reluctantly twisted the knob with a screech. He snatched the towel and pressed his face into it, chest rising and falling at a much calmer rate. He scrubbed the back of his head with the towel, belatedly realizing he hadn’t thought to grab a change of clothes. He curled his lip in distaste at the sodden pile on the floor and instead opted to wrap the towel around his hips.

Out in the hallway, Dean could see his brother and his wife already busy in front of the kitchen counter and Cas seated at the table. He swung his head back and forth, looking for Mary, and called out, “Mom? Where’s the laundry?”

Jess turned around and responded instead, “Closet down that way. Washer should be free, right Sam?” His brother shrugged and Jess gave Dean a pained look. Dean rolled his eyes, balling his dirty clothes up. His eyes landed back on Cas, who was bent over a trash bin, potato peeler in hand. Cas was looking at Dean’s, no, lingering on Dean’s exposed skin. Nothing about his expression revealed any conclusions of his appraisal and Dean twitched, torn between scurrying off and calling him out on his long stare.

Unable to hold his tongue, he drawled, “Easy there Cas, or you won’t have any potato left to peel.”

Cas’ fingers faltered, eyes flicking away and then back to meet Dean’s. Unable to suppress his satisfaction, Dean winked and walked away. Thrill pulsed in his chest and he found the laundry closet, peeling apart his clothes and tossing them into the empty washer. He started the machine and then, after making sure the coast was clear, he clutched the towel close and clambered up the ladder to get dressed. When he crested the top of the loft he stopped at the sight of the bed and wilted.

“You know what? Fuck it.”

He knelt beside his bag and pulled out his pajama pants and a bottle of ibuprofen. After slipping on the pants and popping two pills, he crashed onto the bed.

~~~~~~~

Dean awoke with a long yawn, sitting up in the mattress and rolling his head a few times. It took him longer than usual to make his way back to the present, and his muscles still felt sorely abused, but at least his mind felt more rested. Swinging his legs over the side, he noticed a neat stack of clean laundry, most of which he’d left in the washer. The sight made him smile sleepily, and he pulled on a sweater and climbed downstairs.

The silky tones of Sinatra met him in the hallway, along with intensified smells of food cooking. At the end of the hallway Sam and Jess were laughing and kissing, Sam’s hands steady on her hips. She wore a dress and her hair was made up, and his brother wore an honest-to-God tie. Dean walked their way and rolled his eyes, clearing his throat.

“Get your own cabin,” he muttered.

“Oh, he lives again!” Jess exclaimed dramatically.

His brother smirked and said, “Honestly Dean, what does Cas do to you that you have to sleep the entire day away?”

Reflexively calling on his bluff he countered, “Want me to describe it in excruciating detail?”

Sam flipped him the bird and Dean shoved past into the kitchen, rubbing his hands together and sniffing the air like a hound. He almost did a double-take at the sight of his mother, clad in a dress covered with a cooking apron and oven mitts. The apron had frills.

No doubt alerted to his presence and line of thinking by her Mom Senses, Mary turned around to Dean and huffed out a breath. “Nice timing. I was just about to send someone to get you up. Here, set these out.” She passed him a stack of plates and gestured to the table, then looked him up and down. “Pajama pants? Everyone else is making an effort here.”

Dean shrugged and set to arranging the plates and cutlery then raked his hand through his hair roughly. In the midst of artfully folding the napkins into little white bunnies, he asked, “Where’s the rest of the party?”

Sam and Jess slid into the seats along the wall, and Jess picked up a napkin and marveled, “Oh, Dean! These are adorable.”

Mary replied, “Having a chat on the porch, last I heard.”

The door opened just then, and Dean had to jump to the side to let Bobby roll in and settle in at the table, followed closely by Cas who pressed the door shut firmly. The latter was once again bundled, though not as heavily, and his nose and cheeks were stained so rosy Dean thought, with no small hint of amusement, that he looked like an elf.

“Dean?”

He turned to his brother, questioning. Sam held out his arm towards the hallway and asked seriously, “Will you grab my glass from the foyer? I think I left it on the windowsill.”

Dean almost reminded his brother that he didn’t wait on people unless he was getting paid or getting laid, but he and Jess had resumed their activities so instead he rolled his eyes in disgust and retrieved the glass, stopping to let Cas into the bathroom as the door swung wide in the hallway. In that moment, Jess stifled laughter while Sam dramatically threw his head back and groaned, “So close.” Dean frowned, handing the glass to Sam and settling back into his seat. Jess grabbed the nearly-empty Pinot Gris, topped him off, and they toasted, Jess lowering into Sam’s lap.

“Shoot, didn’t we bring that special bottle from Hendry’s?” Jess was looking at Sam with a very convincing version of his puppy-dog face. Sam cupped his chin, brow furrowed, then answered, “I think it’s in my suitcase. Dean?”

“Your legs broken or something?” Dean huffed in annoyance, crossing his arms and leaning his chair back on two legs.

Jess tilted her head back and raised her voice, “Hey, Cas?”

“You two are the worst,” Dean grumbled as he from his seat once again and crossed the hallway. Sam and Jess's room was cozy, barely fitting the bed, nightstand, and dresser. Dean spotted piles of drawings, which he assumed belonged to Jess’s students, then Sam’s suitcase. Inside the clothes were rolled up neatly, bunched beside bundles of cords. He wrinkled his nose.

“Wait, Dean! Never mind, come back!”

Exasperated, he yelled back, “Jess, you’re killing me here!” Exiting their room, Dean scowled and stalked back to the dining room as Cas exited the bathroom. Dean stopped short, looking down at his pajama pants and turning back around. So long as he was in the business of granting his family’s ridiculous requests...

“Oh, so close!” Jess slammed her hand to the table, looking dismayed.

“Damn.” Sam shook his head and tipped back his wine glass. Bobby shook his head but Dean could tell he was hiding a smile.

Cas slid out a chair to sit down and Dean spread his arms in frustration. “There some kinda private drinking game you two are playing that involves ordering me around like a puppet?”

“Basically,” they chimed.

Dean waved them off. “Weirdos.” He grabbed his nicer pair of jeans from his bag and re-joined the family just as Cas was lowering his pan of cookies into the oven. Settling into his seat, he grinned wide at the spread of mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts, rice, and prime rib.

“Keep gazing at it much longer like that and Cas is gonna get jealous.”

Unfazed, Dean heaved an extra-large spoonful of mashed potatoes onto his plate.

~~~~~~~

Dean emerged from the bathroom, nearly running into Cas as he flicked off the lights, leaving the room awash in a Hallmark-worthy glow from the fireplace and floating sea of candles. The place was really a fire marshal’s worst nightmare.

“HA!”

“Goddamn finally.”

Abruptly cutting off their own story (from what Dean could tell it was about some streaker at their farmer’s market), Sam and Jess stared at Dean and Cas expectantly, glee sparkling in their semi-glassy eyes. Mary rolled hers and pointed above Dean and Cas’ heads. With dread, Dean looked up and spotted the tell-tale green of mistletoe, undoubtedly tacked up by his beanpole brother. He sneaked a glance over at the realization mirrored in Cas’ eyes.

“You know the rule!” Sam prompted, and Dean gulped.

Mustering as much indignation as possible, he retorted, “Oh come on, this is why you two have been acting insane all night? Not everyone is as obsessed with PDA as much as you loons.”

“Oh, that’s rich Mister ‘Made Out with Rhonda Hurley at my high school graduation party.’ Grandma nearly fainted!”

Dean spluttered, brows scrunching up until Cas grabbed Dean’s face and surged forward, kissing him with all the surety of a practiced boyfriend. Dean’s eyes slipped closed instinctively and his hands, which had immediately tensed, now loosened and came to rest on Cas’ arms, his mind recalling back to that brief moment on the ice when all he could think about were those lips…

Too soon Cas was pulling away, and Dean’s eyes fluttered open to see his mouth flushed red and eyes guarded. Dean’s heart pumped hard in his chest as he struggled to wrap his head around the fact that holy shit he’d just been kissed by Castiel Novak. He had kissed Cas.

After what seemed like an hour, Sam and Jess’s hooting and hollering died down.

“Man, it’s too bad I didn’t snap a photo of that. That’d fetch me, what, at least a couple grand?”

Recovering the ability to speak remarkably quickly, he shot back,“Don’t joke about that shit, Sam. I’m saving up a whole stash of those photos in case I’m ever out on my ass, broke. Man’s gotta eat.”

Cas averted his eyes, shuffling awkwardly to the stove to slip on oven mitts and draw out the hot pan of cookies. He rested it on the stovetop to cool and turned to lean against the cabinets.

“I was sure you were fucking with us. You kept getting so close.”

Me? Fucking with you? With all these wild goose chases you guys’ve sent me on since I came down for dinner?”

Bobby interrupted, “Is it about time for eggnog?” He pushed his empty plate forward and crossed his arms. “I’m fit to burst after that meal, but I think I can make some room for dessert.”

“Dean, would you go and–”

Eat me, Sam.”

“I would if I had the room.”

Jess collected the empty wine bottles from the table, patting Dean placatingly on the shoulder, and went to the fridge to retrieve the eggnog and rum. Dean began clearing away the dishes from the table, stacking them beside the sink. Cas sidestepped carefully, pulling down a clean platter from a cabinet and transferring cookies onto it with a spatula.

The small party migrated to the more-comfortable sofa and armchairs, sinking into the worn cushions, each member at varying degrees of buzzed and boneless. After snatching a cookie from the plate, Jess curled into Sam’s side on the sofa next to Mary. Dean set the platter on the coffee table and plopped into an armchair, sighing with pleasure as Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas began softly. The lights on the tree grew blurry as he let his eyes rest and grow unfocused. It was impossible to reconcile the moment with the last time he’d heard the song, in the middle of the night on the road. When he took his first bite of the cookie he tipped his head back and moaned.

“Damn, Cas. Quit the writing and show-biz, you could really hit the big-time as a baker.”

The others muttered their agreement around full mouths. It wasn’t long until only one piece remained, surrounded by crumbs.

Mary leaned forward, elbows on her knees, and held the plate out. “Now, in the spirit of Notting Hill,”

Cas looked puzzled. Dean groaned and clarified, “You know, the last cookie. To the saddest act here, as it were.”

Sam added, “Yeah Cas, tell us about how fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sure you’ve got your looks and your talent and all that money, but you’re at least twice as miserable as any of us, right?”

Jess huffed. “Jesus Sam, the whole point was that she was a woman in Hollywood. No offense to you, Cas.”

Cas nodded. “No, the fame is pretty nice. I get to meet incredible people, bring tremendous light to the issues I care about.” He smiled. “And you probably wouldn’t believe what they hand out in the swag bags at awards shows these days, extravagant getaways, iPhones, Korean face creams, diamonds.”

Jess mouthed to Dean, dibs.

Bobby beckoned at Mary for the untouched plate and plucked the cookie. “No one’s gonna challenge me on this, huh?”

Dean shook his head, passing along the platter. “Wouldn’t dream of it. Not because you’re the saddest act, which is obviously Sam based on that haircut, but because I know you’ve got the worst sweet tooth here, combined with the fact you keep an Ithaca 37 hidden away in there.”

Bobby grunted at that.

~~~~~~

This time it was Jess who started snoring first. Sam stood, carrying his wife bridal-style to their bedroom and bidding everyone goodnight. Nodding to Dean and Cas, he said, “You two are on Santa watch, you know, up in the loft. Listening out for ‘the prancing and pawing of eight tiny reindeer’ and all that.”

Dean reluctantly lifted himself out of the armchair, joints cracking. He bid farewell to his mother and Bobby with a hug and a smile and they both made their way to their respective bedtime routines. When he turned back to face Cas, who was already filling a sink with water, he wrung his hands and scratched the back of his head. “Hey, uh. Sorry about that, back there with the, you know.” He stuck his thumb at the offending mistletoe. “I know I promised none of that stuff.”

Cas shrugged, leaving it at that. He was, after all, the one that initiated the impressive performance. Dean cleared his throat, looking to Cas’ hands. “You really, really don’t have to clean up after us, Cas. I’m sure you’ve got like four people hired to do just that.”

Over the sound of the running water Cas mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like it had to do with cleaning robots and Dean nudged him aside and rolled his sleeves up. Cas remained, leaning his back to the counter, and Dean looked away from the dishes to his crinkly eyes, noting real fatigue there. The guy suddenly looked beat. “Why don’t you head on up and get some rest? I’m good here.”

Cas didn’t move to go; he merely shook his head and said, “I think I prefer to stay with you.”

Dean scrubbed harder.

After a moment, Cas spoke again, tone caught between scholarly and reflective. “You know, during the Roman era, enemies at war would reconcile their differences under the mistletoe, which to them represented peace.”

Dean smiled. “You ever been accused of mansplaining, Cas?”

“What’s ‘mansplaining’?”

“Oh hell no, I’m not falling into that trap. Just tell me more random shit about mistletoe.”

Cas continued, unperturbed. “If you consume the berries you will likely vomit or have diarrhea.”

“Well, that’s just the height of romance.”

“That’s not the first time you’ve leveled me with charges of ‘romance’.”

“Yeah well, gotta keep up the act right?” Cas yawned, wiping at his eyes with his forearm. Dean pursed his lips. “Cas, really, why don’t you go to bed. Not that I don’t love your company, but unlike me, you haven’t had a nap. Your legs must be lead. And if my mom catches you doing any more work she’s gonna smack me.”

For once, Cas didn’t put up a fight. Dean scrubbed hard at the dishes, grateful for the activity despite his own growing fatigue. His emotions were all muddled and raw, a tangle of warmth and anxiety, mixed signals and sorrow. He didn’t even detect when Bobby joined him at his elbow.

“Hey, Bobby.” Dean shut off the faucet and rubbed the dry cloth over his hands. “What’s up?” When he didn’t answer, Dean switched off the water and turned to face him head on, concerned. Bobby looked like he would rather be anywhere else, and Dean felt the hairs on his neck rise.

“I ain’t buying the shit you’re trying to pass off as gold.”

Dean blinked. “Excuse me?”

“I may look old as the rocks and hills to you but I don’t live under ‘em. I know how folks in a real relationship act, and this ain’t it. Even when they’re both men.”

Dean opened his mouth to speak and Bobby cut him off. “I won’t sit here like some Nosy Nelly and demand you come clean but I do know that your Daddy was a born liar and you haven’t inherited the talent. Neither does Novak strike me as the type, but I’ve been wrong before.” He scrunched up his mouth. “I don’t know if this cock-and-bull story is some game you’re playing at, if you’re trying to lash out at your father,”

Dean frowned at that.

“Or if you’re in some kind of trouble, but I hope I don’t have to lecture you like some schoolboy about actions and consequences.”

Dean had no chance to respond before Jess padded sleepily into the hallway, pausing under the mistletoe. “Am I interrupting?”

Bobby raised his hands and Jess smiled sleepily, passing to the sink and filling a glass with water. In explanation, she said, “For Sam and I, after all that alcohol. I don’t want to hate myself on Christmas morning.”

“I think that goes for all of us.” Bobby gave Dean a long look before retreating after her, and Dean leaned against the counter once they were gone, his insides churning more than ever. The food and alcohol were the least to blame.

~~~~~~~

Heading to the loft, Dean crept like a thief, expecting to find a sleeping Cas. The man was instead awake, perched on the edge of the mattress and looking toward Dean’s camera. Thinking back to their hike, Dean cringed and cleared his throat. Apologetic, he ground out, “I can hand over the film if you want, or destroy it. I don’t know what I was thinking, photographing you like some papp.”

“It’s a film camera?” Cas asked instead.

Dean reached out and grabbed the strap, pulling the camera free from the bag. He brushed his thumb over the side of it. “Sure is. One of the best ones around, too. Single-stoke, great condition.” He held it out to Cas, who hesitated before accepting it gingerly.

Surprised, Cas said, “It’s heavy.” He turned it over, then held it up to his eye to look through the viewfinder. “Where did you get it?”

Dean swallowed thickly. “Belonged to my grandpa Henry. He was a journo. Apparently he was some big shot, back in the day. I was just a kid when he died, but he wanted me to have it.” He smiled sadly. “I used to run around telling everyone I was going to be an photo-artist-slash-firefighter, whatever that is.”

Cas lowered the camera, offering it back to Dean, and said, “Sounds like a noble career to me, but that’s coming from a writer-slash-baker.” His smile was wry.

Dean set the camera back in its spot carefully and pulled the sweater off over his head, replacing it with a soft T-shirt. He tossed the freshly-cleaned set of pajamas at Cas’s chest. “I’ll turn around,” he volunteered, angling away from Cas and slipping on his sweats again. Once changed, he dangled his legs from the loft and stared out the window at the dull black of night, glass reflecting a dim outline of his body.

While Dean still faced away, Cas murmured, “Don’t destroy the photos on my account. I assure you there has been no violation.” After a bit of rustling he added, “You can turn around.” Dean twisted his neck hesitantly. Cas was changed, knees covered by the blankets but sitting up in the bed, situated all the way to the left. Softly, Cas said, “You should sleep on the mattress. I saw you clutching at your back all night like my ninety-three year old great aunt.” He lifted the edge of a thick blanket bunched up beside him.

Again, Dean felt unbidden warmth rush through him at Cas’s display of kindness, followed bitterly by now-familiar uneasiness and guilt and distrust. Cas had gone and said he was going to act like a great guy, and he had kept his word so far. At the same time, there were the pauses, the glances after his shower, and the irrepressible memory of their kiss. The duplicity was choking. But who was he acting for, now? Bobby’s words echoed in his head, sending pain to his chest and setting his fingers to tremble.

“Are you alright?”

Dean set his jaw, loath to permit any emotion that would betray how not alright he was. He choked out, “I could take you back.” He held his breath through Cas’s silence, then continued in a rush, “Right now, if you want. I’ll go down and tell them all the truth-”

“No.”

“-Hell, I’ll sneak us out and deal with the backlash when I get back, if you don’t want that mess. I coul–”

“Dean. No.”

Dean stopped, finally turning his face to meet Cas’s.

Exhaling, Cas elaborated, “Your family is loud. They probably drink too much wine, and their clear penchant for pranks gives makes me nervous.” He paused, face still serious. “But I like them. I...trust them. And they clearly adore you.” At that, he quirked a smile. “I still don’t fully understand what motivated you to take such drastic measures to bring me here, but I can tell now that you had no prior knowledge about my identity, or that I was supposed to be in Hawaii by n–”

Dean’s eyes widened and he sputtered, “Hawaii? Oh, Cas. That’s even worse than Christmas in LA; you’re serious? It’s tropical.”

Cas kicked at Dean from beneath the thick covers, completely ineffectual. “And you think I’m the strange one.” He gestured with his hand for Dean to join him.

Dean numbly crawled up the mattress and laid on top of the covers, blanketing himself with the spare quilt and reclining back, suppressing a gasp at his protesting muscles. He settled a bent arm over his forehead.

Voice even, Cas continued, “We should complete your charade as planned, then go our separate ways. You can tell your family we broke up due to...irreconcilable differences. Someone like you, dating someone like me, it just wasn’t possible.”

Cas settled onto his side next to him and Dean mirrored him, turning on his side to face the wall. Dean felt his throat tighten irrationally at Cas' words. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He and Cas weren’t together; there was no reason to mourn something that didn’t even exist. Closing his eyes, Dean willed his wracked body to surrender.

Dean was wrenched from his downward spiral by a sudden bout of shivering from the other side of the bed. “You’re fucking cold again, aren’t you?”

A pause, followed by a muffled, “No.”

Dean rolled his eyes, then sighed and rose up on one elbow and draped his blanket over Cas’s form. “I’m just gonna mention, purely for your edification, though I’m sure you already know, what they say about conserving body heat…” He noted that Cas did not protest as Dean tucked the blanket in around his legs and shoulders; rather, a placid smile broke across his sleepy face. Feeling a deep ache, Dean did not think about how much he’d like to brush his fingers across that forehead to run through soft, dark hair. Instead, he collapsed back onto the bed with a shiver of his own, one unrelated to the temperature in the loft.

“Shh th’vers w’me.”

“Huh?”

Cas untucked his chin and slipped an arm out from his cocoon, tugging at the blankets and directing Dean a long-suffering gaze. “You are going to freeze.”

Dean rolled his eyes but lifted the covers nonetheless, scooting his legs underneath and carefully avoiding contact with Cas. When they settled down again, Dean said abruptly, “Sorry about Hawaii.”

“Don’t be.” Cas chuckled lowly. “It’s my agent you should apologize to; she despises the snow.”

“Mmm,” Dean hummed, before yawning.

“Tell me about a dream.”

Dean raised his brows. “You mean like something I want to do?”

Cas shook his head. “No, an actual dream you’ve had. While asleep.”

“You want the X-rated or Disney version?”

This time, Castiel rolled his eyes. “Piper came to me in a dream. It was easily the most vivid one I’d ever had, and I woke up feeling…” He took a long breath, thoughtful. “Everything. Like the ground had shifted, like I had learned a new language overnight, like—”

“Like magic?” Dean was smirking, but Cas nodded.

“Yes, exactly.”

Dean didn’t answer for a long time. Cas probably thought he wasn’t going to. “It’s mostly nightmares for me. But I do have this recurring dream, out by a lake. Kinda like the one here, actually. On a dock, just fishing. Not exactly world’s bestselling book series material, but. Still a nice dream.” Dean yawned again. The men lay still, side by side. While no physical contact point existed between them, each could feel the other in places physically impossible to touch.

After a time, Cas confessed in a whisper, “I’m a terrible actor, just so you know. Manufacturing thoughts, feelings...it’s not at all like what I do on paper. This energy between us? I don’t think I could fake that.” He held his breath, cracking open his eyes to peek at Dean, but the other man’s face was slack and his mouth wide open, fast asleep.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven

“Hi Dean’s voicemail, long time no chat.” Jo breathed in and out, tone souring. “Fuck. Dean. It’s Jo, obviously. Again. Anyways, I told them what little I knew and they were concerned about the gun, of course. Well, truth be told, they were more freaked out before Mom showed them a photo of it, but anyways-

(garbled)

“-like I said Novak left his stuff here and still no one’s heard from him, so I told them where you were headed this weekend. The British chick is all riled up and trying to convince the cops something bad happened to Novak. Something about a missed flight. No one was thrilled to learn about your record, even though that stuff is ancient history. I hope everything is okay. This is nuts. Call me, bye.

“Oh! And Merry Christmas, I guess.”

Christmas Day

For the first time, Dean wasn’t alone when he woke up. At some point in the night he had evidently rolled onto his other side, and when he cracked his eye open he saw his arm flung out over Cas’s chest. The other man must have migrated too, as Dean found himself practically falling off the edge of the mattress with Cas pressed up against him. Careful not to disturb him, Dean stepped-slash-fell onto the wood floor of the loft, his bare toes curling against the cold. He stared out the window, transfixed by the swirling white flakes. He exhaled and watched his breath dissipate, then brushed the tip of his nose with his fingers, numb from the surprisingly-icy air.

The bed shifted and there was a loud yawn. The other man had raised himself to his elbows, wiping at his eyes, hair a wild mess. Dean grinned and greeted him, “Morning, sunshine.” Blue eyes blinked at him a few times and he added, “Merry Christmas.”

Cas grunted in reply, pulling the blankets back up to his shoulders. “‘s freezing.”

Dean nodded, tossing him the folded cable-knit sweater. “I’ll go start coffee and check on the thermostat.” Dean looked further in his bag and drew out the only remaining clean sweater and muttered, “God help me.”

Downstairs, Dean rubbed heat into his arms as he headed for the kitchen where he found his mother at the stove, clad in her ski jacket and setting a kettle to boil. “Morning. Merry Christmas.” He frowned and asked, “Why’s it so cold in here?”

Mary smiled tightly, face drawn. “Good morning to you too, you’re up awfully early.” Dean shrugged and watched his breath swirl from his lips. She explained, “Storm apparently kicked up last night, knocked our power out. I was gonna have someone help me flip the breakers; the box is outside around the back.” Dean settled into an armchair and drew a blanket over his lap, his mom joining him in the opposite chair. “Looks like you’re the lucky contestant.” She inclined her head towards the stove. “Figured I should get some coffee brewed before sending anyone out in that mess.”

“Very charitable,” he said while nodding. Dean scanned the room, reclining more deeply into the worn chair. “I kinda like the candlelit vibe, even if it screams fire hazard. I should get the fireplace going again, make it real cozy.” He made no move to get up from his seat. Dean could tell by the way Mary flashed a quick smile and a cheerful Merry Christmas at the space behind Dean’s chair that Castiel had crept downstairs to join them. Dean twisted to face him in time to catch Cas mid-shiver.

Dean said, “Power’s out. I need’t–” He paused abruptly to squeeze his eyes shut on a yawn before settling into a pout. “Go outside and flip the breaker.”

Cas didn’t look nearly sympathetic enough. Instead, he gestured to the stove. “Is this for coffee?”

Dean nodded, resigning himself to getting out of the comfy chair. “Yeah, here, let me get that brewing.”

Cas tried to wave him off, but once he was on his feet Dean insistently shoved his blanket at Cas and led him to the armchair. “Pretty sure it’s my turn to dote on you.”

Satisfied that Cas would stay put, Dean stepped into the kitchen, bare feet protesting the whole way, and poured the kettle into the french press. “Cream or sugar?” he called out to them.

Mary replied, “Just a splash for me, Dean. Thanks.”

Cas shook his head, murmuring, “Black is fine.”

Dean delivered the coffees and leaned his back against the counter and gulped back his own steaming cup. He had scalded his tongue so many times in his thirty years on Earth that it was a wonder there were any functioning taste buds left. Once the mug was drained, Dean stared forlornly at the dregs in the French press. It wasn’t going to cut it, especially once the rest of the cabin was up and about.

Dean wriggled into his boots and donned his coat, dramatically saluting his mother and Cas. He twisted the handle but the door remained stubbornly closed. He rammed his shoulder into it until it swung open a few inches and then squeezed out the door. Wind immediately assaulted his face and he tucked in his chin, holding his breath. Overnight, it had snowed at least a few inches and more flakes were lightly but steadily drifting to the ground. The wind had apparently blown drifts up against the house and the door. Dean crossed his shivering arms tight against his chest and quickly spotted the utility closet. Inside, he located the service panel and squinted. After fiddling with the switches for a few moments he heard a satisfying buzz and the muffled sound of resuming music inside the cabin.

“Well look at that, it’s a Christmas miracle.” Dean stuck his tongue out between his chattering teeth in a shaky grin, closing the panel back up. He hurried back around to the door, stopping momentarily to peek through the window at the sight of Cas, who was rummaging around inside a cabinet. Dean spied on him with untempered disgust as the man emptied a horrifying three whole packets of sugar into his mug.

He shook his head before opening the door to the roar of the stereo. “That takes care of anyone still sleeping,” he yelled over the blare as he entered the cabin, quickly shutting the door behind him before the wind could blow any snow drifts inside. He clapped his hands to his head, instantly soothing his reddened ears of both the biting chill and the cacophony until Mary hurried over to the stereo and adjusted the volume down.

The combination of music playing and coffee aroma coaxed the rest of the guests from their rooms. They all piled into the living room and kitchen, rubbing at their eyes and exchanging their morning greetings while lining up for their respective hit of caffeine, Sam and Jess wisely behind Bobby. Dean held his breath in Bobby’s presence, but the older man’s gruff nod and grumpy demeanor belied nothing from their confrontation the night before.

Once they settled, Mary tested, “How does everyone feel about holding off on presents until after breakfast?”

The four others exchanged questioning looks and shrugs. No one was going to object to getting breakfast on the table sooner. Deviating from the Hallmark movie script his mother had been faithfully reproducing was a little odd, but he supposed racing to the tree on Christmas morning to bust open gifts from Santa Claus was reserved for the under-fifteen crowd. The thought reminded Dean of something and he moved over next to Cas and lightly squeezed his arm.

“Hey, can you help me with something?” Under his breath, he explained, “I forgot to haul the presents in from the car.”

Cas nodded warily, searching Dean’s face for any subterfuge.

Dean smiled encouragingly and said, “I promise not to throw you in the trunk bound and gagged.” Completely inappropriately, he followed the statement up with a wink.

~~~~~~~

Outside, the two men stood still in front of the open trunk of the Impala.

Cas stared blankly. “There’s a duck in your trunk.”

Dean sighed, “It’s not mine.” He had never had to summarize the long-standing feud between him and his neighbors culminating in several past-due Amazon packages addressed to Dean that had mysteriously wound up in their recycling, and wasn’t about to start now. He figured a little payback was justifiable, and holding their package hostage might just get his new sonic electric toothbrush once and for all. How was he supposed to know the weirdos were into taxidermied fowl? Dean wrapped his hands around the stack of wrapped presents and went to shut the trunk before frowning at Cas. “Crap, I don’t have a gift for you.”

“I’m shocked,” Cas deadpanned, “Everything else about this plot was so superbly well-thought out.”

Dean ignored him, shoving the gifts into his arms and then hesitantly reached for the mallard tucked against the interior side of the trunk, careful to grab it by its wooden base and avoid its dead staring eyes. He wrinkled his nose in distaste. Cas gave him a withering look, probably caught somewhere between disgust and disbelief. “Look man, it’s either this or,” he swung around, gesturing at the surrounding wilderness. “I find something scampering around in the woods and give you that instead.” He looked at Cas, expectant.

Cas looked around, considering. “I’m thinking about it.” He squinted and asked with a billionaire’s nonchalance, “What about the car?”

“What about it?”

Cas raised his eyebrows.

Dean spluttered. “My - my car? The fact that you even talk about her like she’s some, some,” He pointed a finger, his nose twitching. “You’re the Bill Gates here. Get your own classic Impala. Besides, I don’t think Baby is gonna fit under the tree. I’m gonna go wrap this.” He turned to the house with the bird, which was quickly gathering a dusting of snow, leaving Cas behind.

“Bill and Melinda have gotten me better than a dead bird,” Dean thought he heard Cas grumble before trudging after Dean.

Back inside, Cas headed for the tree with the wrapped boxes while Dean crept into the loft and set the taxidermy duck down carefully, pulling a few sheets of tissue paper from a gift bag. After wrapping it up, he frowned at the ugly thing. Compared to the nice wrapping paper and gift bags for the rest of his family, the thing was horrendous. He’d have to pass it off as a gag gift. What on Earth could he possibly pretend to get for someone like Cas? The guy could probably buy Idaho itself. He descended back down the ladder and returned to the warmth of the living room, sneaking the wrapped bird as covertly as possible and setting it next to the rest of the family’s presents under the tree. The last thing he needed was Sam giving him a hard time before it had even been opened.

In the kitchen, Dean, Cas, and Sam awkwardly hovered while Mary fastened on her apron and rolled up her sleeves, looking carefully over her printed recipes with Bobby. Dean and Cas had already been informed they were off the hook for cooking once again until later that night for dinner. Jess deftly moved around them both to lower a pie dish in the oven.

Before Dean could get his hopes up, she explained, “I’m an even worse cook than Sam, but I do keep the Moore family quiche recipe up my sleeve for occasions like this.”

Dean hid his disappointment, glad for Castiel’s gracious smile. Knowing the free spirited Santa Cruz-born Moores, it probably didn’t even have any bacon. Or worse, facon. Shuddering, he turned back to his mother and Bobby. “Any way we can assist?” Dean yelled over the music.

“Yeah, you can skedaddle before I run over your feet.” Bobby looked pointedly at him and Dean raised his arms, retreating away from the dining table. He collapsed back into the couch instead, soon joined by Sam, Jess, and Cas in the sitting area out of harm’s way.

Eyes landing on Dean’s sweater, Sam barked out a laugh.

Scowling, Dean retorted, “Shouldn’t you be wearing that poinsettia monstrosity? The one that looks like Sweetums from Sesame Street, but with antlers?”

Jess laughed at that, clapping Sam on the back. Dean’s brother looked slightly less amused.

Castiel cleared his throat and pointed at the coffee table, where a large stack of thick paper was arranged. Dean assumed it was from Jess’s class’ assignments that she was in the midst of grading.

“May I take a look?” Cas asked.

Jess nodded, taking a swig from her glass of water. “Of course.”

Dean watched with interest as Cas carefully leafed through the pieces of art and smiled to himself. Looking down at the works, Dean’s brows raised in surprise. Each painting was a watercolor of a different Victorian-style house, all of them embellished with flecks of white paint to resemble falling snow. Some of them featured characters, children and pets and what Dean guessed were various family members.

Cas lingered on one piece with a plain beige house that was very much not a Victorian like the others. Instead it was completely covered with little creatures. He squinted harder. They were perched owls, of every size and species.

Jess smiled knowingly. “Thought you might like that one. Maria is a total fangirl.”

“How old are your students?”

“Second and third graders.”

“These are very impressive. You must be an excellent teacher.”

Jess demurred, “The kids are super talented. It makes my job easy.”

Sam smiled at his wife. “You’re a public school teacher and an accomplished artist; I don’t think anyone here believes your job is easy.”

Jess gazed back with a mixture of exasperation and deep fondness before turning to Dean.

“How about you Dean? I feel like we’ve barely caught up. Ellen still working your nose to the grindstone?”

Dean laughed gruffly. “Yeah, same old song and dance. Keeps me on my toes, between the drunk tourists and touring drunks.” Jess chuckled, but the practiced words tasted like dust to Dean. Listening to his brother and Jess talk about their lives and their work always filled him with a mixture of pride, envy, and loss. By comparison, Dean’s life felt small. He couldn’t even place his existence with someone like Cas’ on the same scale, same planet.

“You still thinking about enrolling in those classes?” Sam looked at him in earnest, but Dean shook his head. He must have given something away across his face because Sam’s expression grew serious, and his brow knitted in that familiar way, the one that suggested he was the older, responsible and concerned brother instead. “Can we talk?”

“Are we not doing that now?”

Sam pinched his mouth and crowded Dean out the kitchen door onto the patio and shut the door behind them. Dean crossed his arms tight against the cold, squinting up into the swirling snow. “Look Sam, if this is about Cas–”

“Cas? No, not really. Are you okay? Back there, I didn’t mean to–”

“It’s fine. I’m fine. More than fine.”

Sam studied him, then relented. “You seem good for each other, you and Cas.”

“Thanks. You think we can go b-back inside?”

“Yeah.” Sam grasped Dean’s arm. “Wait.” He seemed to remember something and his worried expression was back. “Do you think Mom’s okay? She’s acting weird.”

“Oh, you’ve just n-n-now noticed huh?”

Sam scowled, his nostrils flaring. “I’ve noticed her ‘cult of domesticity’ kick. I’m talking about this morning. She seems off, sick maybe.”

Dean narrowed his eyes, comprehending. “You’re thinking it’s back. Recurrence.”

Sam shrugged. Dean licked his dry lips, immediately regretting it, and rubbed at his temple. “I think you’re overreacting. Mom would tell us if that were the case.”

Dean turned back towards the cabin to hurry inside, then stopped. He turned his head towards the driveway, ears picking up on the familiar sound of tires on snowy gravel, barely perceptible over the wind. With mounting dread he walked around the side of the cabin to get a closer look, picking out bright headlights through the falling snow. Stupid, stupid, he was so, so stupid, so stupid-

Sam trailed close behind him, squinting at the light. “We’re not expecting anyone, are we?”

The lights grew brighter and the vehicle came into view. Rather than some big FBI SUV it was a snow-dusted but unmistakably black pickup truck.

Dean stopped shaking, his entire body going rigid. “No fucking way.”

The truck rolled to a stop, wipers ceasing and lights dimming out. Through the windshield, Dean locked eyes with none other than John Winchester.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight

The driver door swung open and two boots landed in the snow. Dean looked away, down at his clenched white fist. He held it in his other hand and flexed his fingers, watching the approach of his father from the corner of his eye.

Breaking the silence, Sam bellowed, none-too-friendly, “What are you doing here?”

A whoosh of air collided with Dean as his brother stomped past him and stood firm a few paces ahead, puffing out his chest as if his six-foot-whatever frame wasn’t imposing enough. Dean half-expected John to mirror the pose, but instead he ignored Sam and reached across the front seat and emerged with a bundle of boxes in his arms and elbowed the door shut. Dean could feel his gaze but refused to meet it, staring instead past the man and the truck into the thicket.

“How did you find us?” Sam took a step forward and Dean held his breath. “Huh? Kate had other plans so you decided to crash our holiday instead?”

Hurried footsteps approached the three of them from the cabin and Mary rushed past them both, still wearing her apron and only slippers for shoes. Dean watched in horror as John lowered the boxes hastily to the ground and she embraced his father, locking eyes for a moment with him as he peered at his sons over Mary’s shoulder.

Sam swung around to address Bobby, who was watching the scene unfold grimly. “Did you know about this?”

John pulled away from Mary, voice low, “Maybe I should wait out–”

“Don’t be absurd, it’s freezing.”

“Mom, what’s going on?”

Mary turned around, arms tightly crossed in defense. Dean couldn’t tell if it was against the cold or against her sons. “I invited your father to join us. Before anyone blows a gasket I want to remind you that it is Christmas. If there’s one day a year we can set aside our differences and come together without fear of judgement, it should be this one.”

Jess emerged from behind Bobby, joining her husband and knitting their fingers together. Sam relaxed minutely at the contact, and Dean noted the inscrutable, unspoken exchange between them.

“You could have warned us, instead of springing him on us like the worst Christmas present in history.”

“And if I had? Would you be here now? You left for California and now I’m lucky if I get to see you once a year.”

“You could not have devised a more selfish way to-”

Bobby cleared his threat. “Sam.”

Mary gestured her hands in surrender, walking back her tone. “The last thing I want to do is start a fight. I know this is far from ideal, and I’m asking a lot here from all of you guys. If you gift me one thing today, let it be this.” Her tone was pleading. “I wouldn’t have asked him to come if I didn’t believe he has truly changed.”

Taking a step forward to rest a hand on Mary’s shoulder, John spoke, addressing them all. “In an act of supreme forgiveness in keeping with the spirit of Christmas, your mother has given me an opening back into her life, and a chance for me to prove myself a changed man. I don’t expect any of you to give me the benefit of the doubt, and rightly so. But I love you more than anything in this world, and I’ll do anything to fight for you. There’s nothing more important to me than family.” He made eye contact with each of them, seconds passing in fraught silence.

At the sound of John’s voice, like a switch Dean finally found his own, albeit shaky. “No.” Fearful eyes turned to him, and he continued, louder. “No, that is not how this is about to go down.” He rounded on his mother, exploding, “You almost died! You weren’t gonna make it - that’s what all the doctors said - and Dad,” Dean’s voice cracked and he wiped at his nose, which had begun to run. “He left.” He thrust out his hand at John for emphasis. Packed his freaking bags and abandoned you like last week’s garbage.” He was shaking more violently now, as were both Jessica and Mary. Immovable John Winchester didn’t so much as blink.

“Now he shows up here, out of the blue, with an armful of Christmas bribes and we’re all supposed to pretend like it’s normal? Like any of this has been normal?” He pointed right at his father again. “You don’t get to come back. Mom deserves better than this bullshit. We all do.”

An icy set of fingers fell lightly on his shoulder and Dean shuddered, twisting his head enough to see an arm attached to Cas. Snow clung to his hair, and his eyes met Dean’s, shining with more kindness than he was equipped to handle.

“Can we please m-move this inside?” As Mary shivered, John peeled out of his coat and draped it across her back, squeezing her shoulders. She gestured to Cas and added, “Nobody, least of all Castiel Novak, deserves to die of exposure.” Sam glared at John like he disagreed, but before anyone could utter another word there was a flash of light and two sets of headlights emerged back to back at the end of the lane.

Black SUVs materialized one after another, forming a ring in the driveway. Doors swung open simultaneously and officers clambered out carrying guns and clad in all black. The threatening assembly was marred somewhat by their disheveled appearances; they looked tired and miserable, hair unkempt and mouths set in thin lines like they would rather be literally anywhere else on Christmas morning, which Dean reasoned was indeed probably the case.

John spoke first. “What the hell is going-”

The closest person yelled over him, “Everybody freeze!”

Mary rolled her eyes in exasperation, seemingly unfazed by the drawn weapons. “We are freezing. Our butts off.”

“Just relax, where is Dean Winchester?”

“Who the hell-”

One of the figures stepped forward, thrusting forward a badge. “Agent Henricksen. We have reason to believe Dean Winchester man is guilty of kidnapping.”

“Kidnapping who?”

“Castiel Novak.”

Mary laughed nervously, voice pitched high. “No, there must be some mistake. That’s my son’s boyfriend, they’re just-”

John snorted in disbelief. “Boyfriend?”

Dean lunged reflexively with all the wits of a person who had never had a run-in with the law. He heard a muffled scream and protests from his brother as the officers swarmed him, restraining his arms painfully. He went lax, grinding his teeth instead.

Henricksen’s eyes glittered and he remarked, “No Christmas miracle would please me more than to see your ass sprawled on the snow. Make my holiday, Winchester.” Crunching snow signalled another approaching pair of boots and Dean’s eyes followed them up to see a familiar face. She was looking back at him, mouth pursed. “Hey Sheriff, this our guy?”

Sheriff Mills sighed, tone dull and unsurprised. “Sure is.”

“Cuff ‘em,” the agent ordered, and the guy who still held Dean’s arm in a stranglehold complied with the order.

Cas took a brave step forward, nostrils flaring and lips parting to protest. He never got the chance to speak before another car door swung open and a woman burst out, running (or the best approximation for a run that could be executed in high heel leather boots in the foot-high snow) straight for Cas. In an accented voice she called out, “Castiel! Thank God, come here,”

Castiel’s eyes widened and he raised his hands. “Bela, wait–”

“Get her back in the damn car,” the agent hollered, and two officers took hold of her shoulders and escorted her back to the car. They prodded Dean to follow and he suppressed the self-destructive urge to shrug them off, allowing himself to be shoved into the back of the SUV. The two men settled in on either side of him and Sheriff Mills clambered into the driver’s seat. He turned to face the window, alarmed to see the rest of his family was loaded into the other vehicles.

Dean raised his voice in protest. “Hey, they have nothing to do with this!”

“There’s nothing I can do here, Dean. We have to take them all in.” Jody rubbed at her face, then started up the car. She cursed under her breath when the radio roared to life and Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer invaded the cab of the SUV. She flicked the dial, changing to another station and adjusting the volume to a soft tone.

She muttered to herself, “God, I hate this holiday,” then pulled out of the driveway.

~~~~~~~

Twenty-four hours earlier, ‘John Winchester Behind Bars’ would have ranked loftily on Dean’s Christmas list, higher than winning a pie eating contest at a beer festival inside the Playboy Mansion. Having a wish fulfilled in the absolute worst possible way was depressingly familiar to Dean. While Sam and Jess sat together on the holding cell’s bench beside Mary, head cradled between her hands, John and Dean stood at opposite ends, John pacing back and forth as Dean stared absently out between two bars at the flickering ceiling light in the passageway. Disembodied laughter echoed from somewhere around the corner at the hallway’s end.

Eventually one of the voices must have broken away because Dean could hear one of the officers approaching steps. A fat man holding a set of keys and a manila folder slowly ambled down the hallway. He wasn’t in a hurry, still chuckling lightly from whatever joke had been told. When he finally looked up to meet Dean’s sour face, his smile faded and he cleared his throat.

“Poor schmuck didn’t press charges.” He unlocked the cell door, swinging it wide open. “Mr. Singer,” He looked at Bobby and his mouth twinged with sympathy as he waved him out. He glanced down to his folder before calling out, “Missus Winchester, Mister Winchester, Mister Winchester, Mister Winchester, and,” He looked down at his sheet. “and Missus Winchester. Jesus Christ.” He stepped away from the door, unwrapping and popping a piece of gum in his mouth. “You’re all free to go. Don’t forget to pick up your personal effects. Merry Christmas.”

Sam stood up and helped his wife to her feet, eyes flicking briefly to Dean’s. He half-expected his brother to say something to him, but instead Dean held back as one by one his family followed after Bobby. Dean trailed behind them, unsure. After receiving his coat from a different uniformed officer, Dean dug inside the pockets and retrieved his set of keys, groaning internally at the image of the Impala still parked outside the cabin. He reached in again and drew out his cell phone, which was dead. Not wanting to spend another moment longer in the precinct, Dean swung his coat on and strode out the glass doors, not bothering to look closely enough at anyone he passed to identify them as family members. Outside the sun had emerged, blinding. He still shrunk back against the cold, shoving his bare hands down into his pockets.

“Dean.”

Dean swung his head left and his shoulders sagged at the sight of Bobby. A wave of remorse rolled over him, but before he could so much as take a breath Bobby shook his head.

“I already know you’re sorry. When we’re both less cranky and tired, I’ll make you say it, too.” Dean waited for whatever it was Bobby was trying to say. The older man exhaled and said, “Before we skip to the part where we pretend this never happened, I want you to know I was wrong.” He smirked at Dean’s widened eyes. “I mean, I was definitely right, but I was also wrong, about you and Novak.”

Dean slid down against the wall of the building to the ground, unable to shake the urge to crumple into nothingness. He closed his eyes and said, “I should have told you everything last night. I feel so, so stupid.”

Bobby’s voice was kind as he replied, “You really outdid yourself with this one. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine you pulling a boneheaded stunt like this, and Lord knows you’ve got a hell of a mess to clean up. Rather than tooting my ‘I told you so’ horn, I’m just gonna leave it at that. What you do next is what matters the most.”

Dean snorted at that. What he wanted to do next was roll into the nearest bar, or even better, the nearest memory foam mattress, never to wake again.

“I think I know where you should start.”

Bobby didn’t elaborate, so Dean cracked open an eye and looked at him questioningly. He followed Bobby’s gaze towards the parking lot and sucked in a breath. He immediately zeroed in on the now-familiar silhouette of Cas. He was facing away from Dean towards a brunette, and there were two pieces of luggage at their feet. Dean rose, dusting at his jeans. His short burst of courage ran out after five steps and he stood frozen, not quite close enough to make out the words of their voices.

She turned and Dean could tell now it was the same woman who’d been spitting bullets (and adding years of wrinkles to every responding officer back at the cabin, if he had deciphered Sheriff Mills under-the-breath mutterings correctly). She leveled him now with an accusatory glare that could melt tungsten.

“Is this him?” she asked Cas, still fixed on Dean.

Dean ignored her, instead addressing Cas.

“Hey, Cas.” What was he supposed to say? Was there a way to roll up both gratitude for and disbelief at Cas’ unwarranted clemency, a light joke to bring a rare smile to Cas’ weary face, along with the ache of remorse Dean felt welling deep in his throat? Should he ask if he was heading to Hawaii after all, if he was ever going to see Dean again? If he wanted to?

Before his spiraling thoughts arrived anywhere near an answer, the woman hissed, “You have some nerve. If it were up to me all of you psychopaths would still be locked up. You’re lucky Cas is a misguided saint.”

Cas looked at her sideways, chagrined. “Dean, this is my agent, Bela Talbot.”

Bela appraised Dean from head to toe, lip curled. “You certainly don’t look like some backwoods yokel.”

She didn’t exactly look like the kind of person Cas would want to hang around, but Dean didn’t voice the thought. Instead he said, “From what I can gather, your holiday’s been ruined as much as any of us.” He continued, glancing to Cas. “I’m really sorry you got dragged into all of this too.”

“Yeah, I was really looking forward to exchanging presents.”

Dean huffed out a laugh. He’d never had the chance to tell the full story about the taxidermy bird’s role as hostage in his ongoing feud with the porch pirating neighbors. It was just his luck that he’d ended up damaging the stupid thing.

“Oh marvellous, now we’ve been spotted.” Bela said loudly interrupting the thought.

He turned to follow her narrowed gaze. It was Dean’s turn to sigh. “Not a fan, that’s just Jo.” Probably there to kick his ass, if her expression was anything to go by.

Dean glanced to Cas, who was intent on staring at his shoes. “I uh, guess I should be going.’ He tried his best to muster a smile, lifting his hand in a little awkward wave as he took a few steps backwards. “Bye, Cas,” he called, before turning around fully to face Jo. As he retreated he could hear Bela chirping again. He felt a wall fall firmly into place.

Jo didn’t wait for Dean to reach her, instead closing the remaining feet between them to immediately land a sharp fist punch to his arm. Yeah, he deserved that.

Dean was starting to feel like a broken record. “I owe you an apology.”

She barked out a laugh. “No kidding. Apology accepted.”

He cocked his head. “But I didn’t-”

She moved away towards the driver’s side door. “I rather be friends for your last few hours on Earth, you don’t have much of a chance after Mom’s through with you.” She grinned, “Let’s go rescue your car, shall we?”

Dean jumped in, rubbing his dry hands together. He pulled out a USB cord from under his thigh, a sense of dread settling in immediately. He drew out his phone from his pocket and plugged it in. It powered on automatically and he closed his eyes, fingers tensing as it began to buzz uncontrollably.

“Have I ever told you you never answer your goddamn phone?”

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine

Valentine’s Day

Dean stepped into the Roadhouse, muscles tensing out of reflex at the smells and sounds of Valentine’s Day Brunch chaos. He spotted Jo before she saw him; she was navigating clumsily around crowded tables sporting a sparkly red Cupid’s arrow headband and a uniform in a shade of pink he knew for a fact she’d rather douse in gasoline and set fire to than wear. It was the kind of color that gave digital camera design engineers drinking problems. Dean shuffled his way between chair backs to the bar while returning strained but polite smiles to a number of wistful gazes. Once upon a time he had licked his chops and rubbed his hands together in glee, metaphorically speaking, at the prospect of lovelorn singles on Valentine’s Day. It felt like a lifetime ago.

Ellen spared a quick glance towards him and knowingly began pouring another mug of coffee and setting it down in front of his gloved hands. He tugged them off one at a time, resting them in a stack off to the side before cupping the mug between grateful fingers. The old TV set mounted on the wall above was set to the morning news. According to the closed captioning, they were still covering Scalia’s death from the day before.

Someone small plopped down next to him. He could tell it was Jo by the dusting of sparkles that alighted on his sleeve. He had never known anyone else who proclaimed to hate the gaudy holiday costumes with such vehemence to, at the same time, so faithfully nail them down to every little bedazzled detail.

Rather than allow Dean to further ponder this, Jo followed his upward gaze and said, “Good riddance, huh?”

Dean snorted into his coffee in agreement, carefully lowering it and wiping at his mouth with his arm. “Morning, Jo.” He jutted his chin towards his coffee and tapped the side of the mug for emphasis. “Heh. Morning joe.”

She rolled her eyes. “It’s good to see you. It’s been weeks, I feel like you’ve gone into hiding these days.”

He gestured to the cacophony around them with his head. “Can you blame me?”

“So I take it you’re not here to get your job back?”

“Not hardly.” He reached inside his coat and pulled out a card. “Sorry for the late notice, I uh, wasn’t sure if it would be your kinda scene.”

He was thinking back on their ill-fated trip to the Denver Art Museum. Once they hit the 20th century Jo had practically radiated a stream of desperate question marks culminating in an exhibition of paintings by Cy Twombly. They’re just scribbles Dean, for fuck’s sake, why is it called ‘The Italians’? It looks like he’s tried to erase the whole thing but he had one of those shitty erasers and it's just a smudge! There are no Italians! I swear to God, Dean. One of the museum employees had ushered her and Dean out once she began shouting and gesturing wildly at the painting, but his expression was neither surprised nor unsympathetic.

“This better not be a Valentine.” Jo waved the envelope. Now that she mentioned it, the precise shade of red of the envelope did look a lot like all the roses that had cropped up in the past week in every grocery store and street corner like weeds after rain. She tore at the envelope and drew out the glossy card, then inclined her head and gave him a look, flimsy arrow bouncing. “You can be such a moron. Of course I’m coming tonight, I already got Ash to cover for me.”

Dean smiled inwardly, pleasantly surprised. “What, no hot date?”

“For him or for me?” She asked, wary.

“Uh, both of you? Together?” He kept his face straight, though a smirk threatened to tug at the corner of his mouth.

She looked at him in equal parts horror and disgust. “He has a mullet.”

Dean chuckled.

“And you? I haven’t exactly seen a change to your Facebook status.”

He ignored the touch of feigned lightness in her tone. “That’s not budging anytime soon. New Year’s resolution. Keepin’ things nice and simple, no strings.”

“That’s not a resolution, that’s the Dean Winchester MO for fifteen years running. Besides, I thought you didn’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions.”

“Yeah, that’s one of my resolutions too.”

She furrowed her brows, then cut to the chase. “Okay, but what about Novak? You were obsessed with the guy. Or did I dream up that whole bailing you out of jail thing?”

He spluttered. “I’m not obsessed with him. Not then, and definitely not any more.” And she hadn’t bailed him out. Cas hadn’t pressed any charges.

Jo angled more closely toward him. “But you said that-”

Ellen swept by with the coffee pitcher and Dean slid his mug forward and smiled gratefully while Jo turned her head and scratched behind her ear, as if the gesture might render her invisible to her boss-slash-mother. Ellen smirked and pushed a second mug towards her daughter. After taking a long draught, Dean shook his head again. “Nevermind what I said. Yeah, I told you I had...feelings,” he drew out the word with the same kind of distaste he touched slimy week-old dishes in the sink. “but I’d just spent the morning shoved in a jail cell with my whole family.” He clutched at his chest. “You know what prison does to a man. Need I say more?”

Jo bit her lip. “So you’ve really changed your mind?”

Dean rubbed roughly at the back of his neck. “It’s case closed, finito. Kaput. Ancient history.” He winced at himself.

“Hmm.”

Dean’s hackles raised. Concern crept into his lowered voice. “Jo…”

“Well, I found his wallet in his coat, remember? It wasn’t hard to find an address.”

“An address?”

“God knows I’ve glanced at enough out of state licenses to last a lifetime-”

“Christ, Jo-”

“You know I run into Sarah Blake all the time, so of course I’ve known about the show for weeks.”

What? Jo, what did you do?”

She cringed, picking up the envelope and waving it weakly.

Dean shook his head, eyes wide and uncomprehending as he tried to connect the dots between the show and drivers licences and Sarah Blake and Jo and...

“I...mailed it?”

Dean barely resisted the urge to throttle her, instead dropping his fist to the counter with a loud thud, unknowingly depositing a layer of glitter onto the side of his palm. He hissed angrily, “You mailed it? To Novak?” Dean would have time later to muse on what it was about the man that evidently made everyone lose their damn minds.

Jo crossed her arms, eyes flashing and gearing for a fight. This hostile Jo was familiar territory. “Yeah, Dean. I mailed it to Novak. Because I’m not buying this,” she waved up and down at him. “You can go back to banging the more than occasional tourist, I just don’t think you want to.” She spun in her stool and dropped her feet to the floor one by one, grabbing one last swig from her mug. She glanced back to the TV screen above and froze, the luckily now-empty mug clattering dully to the counter.

Dean startled in his seat, protest forming in his mouth when Jo elbowed him roughly and gestured furiously upwards. He complied and squinted at the people sitting on the colorful, brightly-lit set of the morning talk show as subtitles skittered across the bottom of the screen in bursts. It was his turn to freeze at the sight of Castiel sitting stiffly under the studio lighting, unmistakable. Jo clambered to the other side of the bar, scattering things haphazardly in her frantic search.

“Mom, where’s the remote?”

Dean answered instead, somewhat dazedly, “Batteries’re dead.”

Without a second’s deliberation, Jo planted her palms on the countertop and hoisted herself up, scrabbling at the wall to brace herself before setting her sights on the TV set dials.

Dean groaned at the spectacle, burying his face. “Oh my God, don’t.”

Ellen emerged from the kitchen and immediately scolded her daughter-slash-employee, “Jo, get down! You’re not a monkey!”

Being as she were Jo, after all, she ignored them both, fiddling with the controls until sound blared from the speaker. She adjusted it down quickly, but by then at least two thirds of the restaurant had fallen silent to watch the pink and blonde waitress teetering on the bartop with a range from annoyance to bemusement. Without a self-conscious bone in her body, she bowed to her audience before finally hopping down and taking up her seat beside Dean once again. Through slotted fingers, Dean watched.

“-know that Saint Valentine is also a Patron Saint of Beekeepers?”

One of the hosts burst out in what Dean thought was an awkward laugh. She looked like what Dean imagined any of a dozen pretty blonde Fox news hosts looked like ten years after fading from the network. A Kristen or a Kelly, maybe. “I can’t say that I did.” Rather than ask after Cas’ apian knowledge, like Dean would have, the other host leaned in closer and inelegantly pivoted, “We heard you got in some sort of mix-up over Christmas?” Dean flinched. “There were rumors about some crazy fans? That you were caught in a real-life Misery situation?”

Rather than seem taken aback, Cas stonily replied, “I don’t think Stephen King would find much material in my story.” He paused for a few seconds of sustained silence and expectant expressions mirrored between the hosts. “I spent the holiday with some...close friends and had a scheduling mix-up with my agent. No car crashes, ” He gestured towards his feet, and the camera zoomed and panned down to show him wiggling his toes like an absolute dork, “See? My legs are fine.”

It was a perfectly diplomatic lie. Dean continued to stare at the screen, ignoring the look from Jo he could feel burning a hole in his side.

“Well that’s so good to hear,” the Kelly host replied in a cheerful tone, also a lie. Her posture only deflated minutely. “The Final Crossing has been a box office smash, of course, and people around the world have been sharing their emotional reactions. It’s being called the end of an era.”

Castiel’s mouth twitched into the ghost of a smile. “When I finished the book series, people said the same thing. The Earth continues to turn.” He shrugged.

“Some people have noted on Twitter that the young members of the cast might have trouble being typecast after playing such iconic characters.”

Cas frowned. “Claire is a terrific actor. I don’t know anyone more determined, I can promise you that she has an amazing career ahead of her, wherever it takes her.”

“Do you see yourself working together again?”

Cas tilted his head. “I met Claire when she was nine years old. She’s family to me. I would consider myself extremely lucky to work with her professionally again.”

Have you started writing again?”

He chose his words carefully. “I’m...deliberating over a new undertaking, but I’m afraid it’s not what anyone is expecting.”

“Any hints? Something to offer all your young fans out there?” Dean resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He wouldn’t admit it even to God, but he was a bit curious himself.

“To all of my young fans?” He repeated. “Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. When things get tough, make good art.” He took a breath. “And be sure to drink your Ovaltine.”

“Well, that’s a Castiel Novak response if I’ve ever heard one.”

“That about wraps up our time but,”

“It is Valentine’s Day after all, so we have to ask,” They stared at him, predatory. Cas stared pleasantly on back with an expression that said, yes, you really will have to ask.

The other host leaned in ever closer, “...is there a special someone?”

Again, Cas tilted his head. “Everyone is special.” The words might have sounded stupid coming from most people, but Cas’ adamant tone infused it with simon-pure sincerity. If Dean’s jaw wasn’t currently grinding his molars to dust, he would have grinned. Just because Cas was toying effectively with a couple of Hollywood vultures didn’t mean he couldn’t do it angelically.

“Well, yes, I...” she sputtered.

At the end of her rope, and probably seconds from being bumped to commercials, the Kelly host clarified in a rush, “Do you have a Valentine?”

Without hesitation or evasion, Cas nodded. “Actually, I do have a Valentine.” Dean only saw the beginnings of a smile before blood rushed to his ears and he finally turned away from the TV, grabbed his gloves, and got to his feet.

“Oh, I’m so-”

Without looking at Jo Dean held up a palm.

With uncharacteristic softness she asked, “Is there anything I can say?” There were at least a thousand contradictory responses to that, and all of them would only make him like himself even less for saying it.

He stuffed his arms into his coat sleeves and continued avoiding Jo’s eyes. “Tell your Mom thanks for the coffee.”

~~~~~~~

Dean should have considered himself lucky; Valentine’s Day was the biggest night of the year for the restaurants in town and also happened to share the same street blocks with most of Coeur D’Alene’s galleries, including the Blake’s. There was plenty of foot traffic, even for a biting February evening, and already the space inside was packed. It was also the last place he wanted to be, surrounded by adult couples of all ages on dates while sentimental songs plucked from 90s rom-coms played. Dean was dressed in a nice suit jacket, silk tie and shoes he’d actually had to polish. Also at Sarah’s behest, he wore the Leica around his neck, cradling the camera close to his chest. It’s familiar weight and texture helped to ground him. He would have found a way to duck out altogether if Sarah hadn’t insisted every artist be present, and worse, ‘presentable’. After all, the theme of the evening was A Conversation with Up and Coming Local Artists.

No one had ever accused Dean of being a conversationalist. If something were ever before referred to as A Conversation with Dean Winchester, it usually meant something along the lines of a trip to the Principal’s office or the kind of euphemistic phrase Ash would call one of Dean’s encounters at Exotica. Dean certainly had a way with words, but his brand of swagger and bluster had a narrow scope better suited to the local bar crowd than the country club.

He had tucked himself away, as well as he could in a space designed to feature every square foot of wallspace. The moment he saw his brother (Dean had on more than one occasion referred to his brother as the only guaranteed moose sighting in town) he wondered if he preferred the discomfort of standing alone and avoiding people. He tamped down on his uneasiness, and made some room for gratitude. While they had spoken on the phone, he and Sam hadn’t seen each other since their ‘time on the inside’. Dean had hemmed and hawed while the short stack of invitations gathered dust on his countertop for weeks before finally resolving that he was going to carve out his own life, and that there were certain people in it who loved him, and he them, and they deserved an invitation to share in that life. Or at the very least, an invitation to his first-ever exhibition (besides, he had already applied the stamps). It was nothing short of a radical shift for Dean. Charlie and Jo had not-so-subtly bombarded their group chat with absurd memes that presented variations on ‘the rewards of being loved’ and their contingent ‘mortifying ordeal of being known’ or how ever it went. Demons, the both of them.

Soon, they too joined the throng, though not before Sam had found his way over to Dean, and swiftly into his arms for a hug.

“Sam.”

“Dean.”

Jess barreled into him next, her hug somehow more suffocating than her oversized husband’s. Dean held the camera out at a safe distance, returning the hug with his free arm.

“Hey, Jessica.” “I am so proud of you.” Her eyes were glistening, the absolute sap. She gestured to one of the walls. “This is seriously cool.”

“Thanks for making it out here.” Dean said, sincere.

Jess asked him about the show and the others’ collections, and Sam politely let the two artists talk shop. He wandered to the nearest wall and smiled. A large photo of his brother leaning cross-armed against the Impala smiled back, friendly. His eyes flicked to the short paragraph biography beside it.

Two younger women whispered close to his left. “Do you think it’s him?”

“I’m not sure…” She drew out the last syllable, squinting to read the tiny white placard. “The label just says ‘snow angel.” They lingered, admiring for a few moments more in front of the big installation before shuffling on.

Sam pressed closer. At first he couldn’t tell what he was looking at, beyond a photograph. It had been deconstructed partially, elevated from the wall to different degrees. There were different elements suspended out in front, things like feathers and branches, and other materials adhered to the photograph, which depicted a lone dark figure surrounded by snow and trees, with something held on their outstretched arm. The snow glittered magnificently, as if possessed of their own light source. He took a few more steps, centering in front of the piece and exhaled with a little surprised sigh. At just the right angle, and only then, did the pieces align just right, forming a careful ring of natural components and cast sharp, expansive shadows on either side of the subject in the snow to mimic angel wings. Sam could now clearly see the bird now, too. He could tell why Dean had remained so tight-lipped about his work beyond the usual Dean reticence when it came to things he was good at; describing it over the phone or even in a photo would have been impossible. Furthermore, it was Castiel. Not that anyone who hadn’t been at the cabin, who wasn’t familiar with that particular parka, would recognize him.

There were more pieces, none of them as large or intricate. Some looked to be more simple two-dimensional works. Before he had a chance to investigate further, Jess called him over and the lights dimmed briefly.

~~~~~~~

Sarah Blake, lovely and charming as ever, did a fine job introducing her nascent artists, every word infused with convincing pride. When it was Dean’s turn to step up to the front, he took in a shaky breath and peered out, eyes landing on Jo and Charlie, who were making inappropriately rowdy noises and gestures. It was high school graduation all over again. The thought brought a smile to his face, and in an instant he finally felt firm and steady in his uncomfortable, shiny shoes.

He launched into his short speech, briefly thanking all of the attendees and giving the usual spiel about support for the arts in these troubling times, yadda yadda. He introduced the old camera too, and shared the same story Henry had told him when bestowing it. Before turning his focus to the pieces in the show, he paused for a moment. His eyes wanted to scan the dozens of faces one by one, like an insistent itch. He continued, talking about the process behind the multimedia works.

“The photos alone, some of them weren’t really clicking. In this day in age, everyone carries an iPhone, everyone is a photographer. All the ads thrown at us day in and day out, along with social media? We don’t register images the way we used to, especially not photos. I wanted to create pieces that you have to get up close and personal with, something you want to escape into rather than escape from.”

Once Dean folded his hands and went quiet, there was a short round of applause before transitioning into hands raised for a Q & A session. One man called out, “Tell us about the ones with the hawk?”

Dean nodded. “Actually, it’s a gyrfalcon. I looked it up. They’re the largest falcon species in the world, believe it or not. The females are much bigger than males. Just look at her wingspan, right?” He turned to his right, and their gazes all swung in that direction to see the photograph of the falcon with her wings stretched out in all their spotted glory. “They actually live in Alaska, but come as far south as us for the winter. Seeing a gyr is pretty rare, apparently. I still can’t believe it.”

Someone else followed up, pantoming a bird on her arm. “How did you get it to do that?”

“I didn’t.” Dean shrugged. “It was magic.”

Dean answered several more questions before giving a last smile to the room and stepping away from the front to soft applause. His eyes landed on the drink table and he made a beeline for one of the flutes, downing the Prosecco in one go. He looked up only to lock eyes with his mother. He clasped another flute (limiting himself to one more counted as restraint, right?) and approached her on less-than-steady legs.

“Hi Dean.” “Mom.” He guarded the glass in his hands, conscious of the people around them bumping into shoulders and elbows.

“Do you want to step outside? It’s pretty stuffy in here.”

He hesitated, noting the thin sleeves of her blouse, but nodded. He really could use a breather. Outside, he extended his hand with the glass, and his mother shook her head. He shrugged and tipped it back. “Did you come alone?”

“Your father isn’t here.”

“Oh. That’s...good.” He nodded a few times before forcing himself to stop for fear of looking like a bobblehead. He refocused his eyes. “So, are you doing well?”

The question caught her off balance, from the look in her eyes. “I, yes. Still NED.”

“That’s good. What about everything else? Still...cooking?”

This time Mary nodded too much. “Right of course, really well.” She inhaled sharply. “It’s baking these days, actually.” She added, almost slyly, “We’ve been doing pies this month.” Dean raised his eyebrows and she smiled knowingly. She twisted around to gesture towards the studio. “I think everyone in there really loves your work, if those red stickers mean anything. This would have made Henry so happy, I wish he were here to see it.” In a quieter voice, she added, “Your father would be proud too.”

Dean closed his eyes, shoulders sagging.

“I want you to know that I am sorry for how I handled things at Christmas.” Dean moved to shut her down, but she held out a hand. “Please, I know you would rather eat broken glass than have this conversation, but let me do this just once.”

He forced himself to stand down, crossing his arms.

She took in a shuddering breath, nervous.

“It has been a miracle to come out on the other side of this alive, and it’s taken me a long time to figure out what that means for me, for John and I…” She swallowed. “I think I was blind to just how much hurt there is between him and you and Sam, and it was selfish to expect everyone to get along for the sake of a holiday. I’m realizing a little late that it’s not going to work in this family if I pretend like the cancer never happened. It’s not right to do that to Sam, or to you. You’ve already given up so much…” She sniffed and shut her eyes momentarily. “No son should have to put their entire life on pause the way you have these past years. The sacrifices you’ve made, for me and Bobby? It’s not something we can ever repay. Not in this lifetime. Of course that weighs on me. I didn’t want anyone to worry about me anymore, I wanted to get to worry about you again.

Dean’s mouth quirked and Mary reached out a hand to brush against his cheek.

“If I want you to let me in, I have to let you in too. Even on the bad days, for a start.” She took a step back, shivering a little now.

Dean started to shrug out of his coat and she held up a hand. “No, it’s okay. I’m going to head back inside, say goodbye to Sam and Jess.” She lingered there a moment, vulnerable, until Dean gathered her up, chin settling against her hair. She squeezed her arms around him tightly and he closed his eyes. She whispered before pulling away to leave, “I love you more than you know, Dean. All of you.”

It was cold, but Dean was dressed well enough to linger outside while the last bits of warmth from inside clung to him. When he finally did re-enter the gallery, it was to a steadily declining series of compliments and inquiries, and in one uncomfortable case, a slightly older couple looking for a plus one for their Valentine’s ‘after party.’ While there wasn't any explicit or even implicit mention of his sexuality at the show, this kind of encounter was an unavoidable side effect of A) not living a mile deep within the closet and B) residing in a small city where the biggest pride parade was of the neo-Nazi, white hoods variety, or at least it had been up until quite recently. To them he replied with the politest variation on ‘fuck off’ he could muster.

Not long after, it became apparent that he was the only remaining artist along with a few stragglers. He should have cleared out by now too, but something he refused to name held him back. Also hanging behind was Sarah, who was still engaged in spirited conversation with a pair of old patrons Dean vaguely recognized. Seeing her energy only alerted him to his own exhaustion and he looked down at his watch, letting out a low whistle. He had his own important Valentine’s date to keep with a queen of the memory foam variety. He was about to wave goodbye when Sarah caught his eyes and held up a hand, eyes imploring for him to wait. She wrapped up and led them to the door, shutting it behind them before turning around to face him.

“I have to say I’m surprised to see you here so late.”

He shrugged and she gestured to the table with the champagne flutes. “Some bubbly to celebrate? I haven’t had a drop all night.”

He hesitated before nodding in acquiescence.

She smiled, toeing off her heels with an indulgent sigh, then grabbed an open bottle from an ice bucket. He didn’t think his face made an expression, but she shrugged and said, “All of the glasses are dirty,” before tipping it back eagerly. She wiped at her mouth and offered it to him.

Dean drank too, eyes scanning around the room. “Looks like you had a great night.”

She snorted. “Looks like you had a fantastic night.” He smiled agreeably and she raised her eyebrows. “Seriously, Dean. And to be frank with you, we weren’t sure what to expect. Certainly not selling every single piece in a night.”

Before Dean could process her words, she added around a mouthful of champagne, “Of course I hoped, and the experiential stuff can be a real hit among the instagrammer types. But you know the demographics around here and what the rich retirees are usually looking to adorn their walls with.”

“Every piece?”

“Oh yeah, even the trippy one. Some broker snapped it up for new owner of the estate on Sander’s Beach.”

He raised his eyebrows. The manor on Lakeshore Drive had sat on the market for ages, waiting for the next mining tycoon before finally selling around New Year’s. He knew at least one place in town that had been taking bets on the identity of the mystery buyer.

She yawned unexpectedly, then laughed at herself. “God, what time is it? Don’t you have plans?”

“Ha.” His voice was hollow.

“You know, if you wanted to we could…” Sarah actually twirled a curl around her finger, biting her lip.

Dean shook his head, too spent to even laugh at what he hoped was merely teasing. Instead he clasped his hands around her free hand and said with sincerity, “Thank you for this, to you and your folks. I know you guys went out on a limb for me.”

She waved him off, tipping back the bottle for a particularly long pull. As elaboration she merely gestured with her hand and said, “Cha-ching cha-ching, my friend.” She settled the empty bottle on the table and ushered Dean towards the door. He looked at her questioningly and she shook her head. “You go ahead, I need to lock up.” Before he could offer to walk her to her car, she added, “My car is right out back.” She held a thumbs-up. “Have a good night, Dean.”

He nodded and exited the gallery onto the cold and deserted street.

~~~~~

Dean could hear muffled live music coming from inside the packed bars and restaurants. He glanced wistfully through windows at the smiling, cheerful expressions of people oblivious to the wintry gusts outside that made Dean’s hair stand on end. Squeezing his arms tight, Dean yearned for his heavier albeit less dressy coat. His car wasn’t close by; Valentine’s night parking was a nightmare and on principle he didn’t like leaving Baby close to any bar brawls or projectile vomiters. He encountered some people waiting for their cabs, all couples intertwined so closely together for more than just protection against the cold that none of them gave Dean any notice. He cast his eyes down, counting his steps to his car, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen.

At four hundred thirty-two Dean rounded one last corner, exhaling in relief at the sight of Baby dimly lit at the end of the darkened block. Before he could reach for his keys, a gruff voice cautioned, “Watch out for the ice.”

Dean reflexively looked downwards before a set of arms suddenly wrapped around him from behind. Recognition blared alarms in his mind, freezing him in place for the five seconds it took for his assailant to secure some sort of cloth bag over his head, cuff his hands, and scoop him off his feet and into a small but lavishly padded space that could only be a car trunk with help from another set of arms.

He knew that voice, he had heard it that very morning at the Roadhouse.

Before he could call out his name the trunk slammed shut and Dean was plunged into complete darkness. He finally wrested control of his limbs back and tested the cramped space, surprised to find a down pillow tucked under his neck. He’d slept many a night in much worse conditions. Smirking, he wiggled his wrists. The cuffs were soft too, like the furry ones you’d find in any sex shop.

Dean felt rather than heard the car hum to life, followed by the telltale whine of an electric motor as the car smoothly sped away. Straining his ears, Dean could make out a few unintelligible words by at least two muffled voices. The car came to a stop a few minutes later, and a Dean heard another short exchange and a door open and close firmly before the car moved again.

Dean had only a vague sense of where he might be, given how long they had been driving and the car’s relatively slow speeds. They hadn’t gotten far out of town if at all. He tried to focus on the vehicle’s possible paths, but it was hard to work up any real concern given his plush accommodations. His mind was still spinning from the recognition of a voice that was impossible. What was possible was that Jo or Charlie had arranged for some elaborate prank that would make more sense soon. Or after a few hours of sleep, maybe. He sighed out with effort against the cloth.

The car had slowed again, finally rolling to a stop again before the vibrations gave way to stillness. Another car door opened and closed, and Dean’s heart was caught in his throat, pulse jumping at each thump.

Without warning, the trunk door unlatched and was raised up. Dean’s heart continued to pound as he waited, tensed. Someone cleared their throat.

“Do you want to swing your legs out or shall I?”

Dean tensed. Castiel Novak was asking Dean if he needed assistance out of his car trunk.

“Alright then, just don’t kick me, okay?”

Castiel Novak was here, now, touching Dean. Well, his shoes. Gently, his legs were swung over the side and a warm arm was sliding in to support his back and prop him up. He felt like a toddler who fell asleep on the ride home from a birthday party.

“Is this really necessary?” Dean’s voice didn’t usually sound that high, did it? He felt grateful for the cloth over his head, muffling his words.

“Indulge me. At least I don’t have a firearm.”

Dean’s mind, clearly in some late stage of exhaustion, briefly conjured the image of Castiel with a gun. His face heated. “Why are you here?” he blurted.

“I thought it was obvious.” Dean straightened his legs until he stood leaning up against the car, still cuffed and blindfolded. He tried to face the direction the voice came from. “This is retribution for the - how did you put it? ‘Free chauffeur service’.”

“Cas? It really is you.”

Answer being self-evident, Cas instead clasped his hand around Dean’s elbow, prodding him forward. They walked slowly, footsteps crunching along the gravelly path.

“But why - shouldn’t you be in LA or something? I saw you this morning, not like saw you saw you, on that show I mean, Rise N’ Shine,” he sputtered, “It was just on at the Roadhouse, I didn’t know beforehand, obviously, it’s not like I’m a stalker-” he finally clamped his mouth shut, swallowing thickly and grimacing. It felt like he was rambling for eons. How far was this walk? What was going on?

Delaying Dean’s developing panic attack, Cas guided him up small series of steps onto what felt like a wooden porch. His arm was relinquished and he stood dumbly while Cas handled a noisy set of keys and unlocked a door. A hand pushed his back gently and Dean stepped over the threshold. A light flicked on and Dean could finally make out vague, fuzzy shapes through the cloth. He took a few more tentative steps forward, and the sound of them against the hard floor echoed back extra loudly like he was in a large vacant room.

Without any warning the cloth was abruptly removed clean over his head. He flinched at the motion, eyes slowly blinking at the sudden change. He was indeed surrounded by a vacant room, though it was resplendent with intricate wood mouldings and staircase ripped straight out of some Disney princess movie. The cuffs were removed next, and Dean rubbed at his wrists (they weren’t sore, just a bit itchy) and then whirled around to focus his eyes on the man standing there. Cas.

“Hello, Dean.” He wasn’t smiling but his mouth twitched like it wanted to, and his eyes were somehow sleepy and sparkling and open. The expression was so familiar, so personal he felt his gut twist. Like a pair of tickets to his favorite show that he hadn’t paid for and received by mistake.

He dragged his gaze away before he said something stupid. On the wall to his right were what he assumed was the real reason for their visit. He inhaled sharply, stepping towards the wall-to-wall display of photographs. He could tell immediately that the neatly arranged framed prints were his, he had spent weeks working with the photos, had literally just come from a gallery half full of them. They were all here, even the ones Sarah had enthusiastically wrapped up and sent out the door mere hours ago. A bleak thought occurred to him and his heart started to pound with a blend of fear and guilt. Was Cas angry about the photos of him? Did he want them destroyed? Was Dean exploiting him even now, after everything he had already done...

“No, I’m not supposed to be in LA.” Dean was already aboard the Doomsday Express, pulling away from the station, full steam ahead, so it took him several seconds for Cas’ words to penetrate and for him to realize he was belatedly responding to his earlier rambling. Dean still faced away from Cas towards the wall of photos, eyes unfocused, but he listened. “I was in LA. This morning. Flights exist, you know.”

‘Flights existing’ was exactly the sort of thing that Dean conveniently ignored, since it wasn’t a reality he cared to experience. He swiveled his head to face Cas.

No doubt spotting Dean’s panicked look, Castiel’s brows instantly creased with concern. “Dean, what’s wrong?”

“I’m so sorry, I swear it never even occurred to me how messed up it would be to use them without your permission, I didn’t think in a million years they would actually wind up in a-”

“Dean,”

“- I guess I thought if I only used the ones w-”

Cas strode forward, closing the short distance between them and actually clamped a hand to Dean’s mouth, cutting him off. “Shut up.” Dean finally looked at his eyes rather than through them, mania clearing. He lowered his hand and gestured to the photos. “I didn’t gather all of these to tell you off, you ass, I got them because I love them.”

Understanding finally settled on Dean and he breathed normally again, though no less shocked. He said quietly, and a little defensively, “I never developed the rest of them, the ones with your face.” The most beautiful ones, Dean thought, but he left that out. “I swear I wouldn’t do that, use you for personal gain. That would be sick.”

Cas stared at him again with those caring eyes and it was too much. “I meant it when I said you could keep the negatives, you’re free to use them however you like.”

Dean wanted to point out that Cas had said a lot of things, had explicitly made an agreement to fake a lot of things. Did he mean it when he said ‘I never have to see or hear from you ever again, in my entire life, after this weekend’ too?

“Speaking of negatives, there’s something else I need to show you.” Cas walked back out the door they had entered, looking back and waving at Dean to follow. Without the blindfold, Dean could finally recognize the place as the old Sander's Beach manor. Dean laughed, shaking his head at Cas who glanced back at him questioningly.

“This was the deciding factor for me,” Cas explained, pointing ahead.

It wasn’t the unobstructed views of the lake, historic fountain and gardens, or the stately home he gestured to, but rather a small, windowless, nondescript building tucked away at the edge of the property among the trees.

“Actually,” Cas extracted the set of keys again, unlocking the door to the building and ushering Dean inside the tiny entrance. It was even plainer on the inside, with the exception of a black revolving door installed in the opposite wall. “That was the purpose of my trip out here in the first place. Last year. You first.”

He nodded towards the door and Dean slipped into the small space, swiveling the door to reveal...darkness. He stepped out into the room, hands cautiously raised, before Cas joined him and flipped a switch on the wall, illuminating the space with dim amber safelights.

“You came out here...to buy a darkroom?” Dean drew out his words, skeptical.

“Of course not, that was just the deciding factor, like I said. I came to town to scope out the property,” He added, “Before I met you.”

“Huh,” Dean said gracefully.

Cas directed Dean’s attention to a stack of boxes next to an enlarger. For the first time, he looked like he was concealing nerves. “Those are the real surprise. Go ahead and take a look.”

Dean complied, interest piqued. It was hard to tell under the red lights in the relative darkness, but the boxes looked old and dusty. They each had faded labels on the sides, and Dean traced his finger under the printed words, Henry Winchester. Each box had a different series of dates and years. Impulsively, he gently removed the lid from the top box, revealing row upon row of old photo processing envelopes and plastic sleeves of negatives. Hundreds, if not thousands of them. He raised a hand to his mouth, feeling that lump forming against the back of his throat. Damn him, Dean thought. He willed his eyes not to well up with tears.

Cas looked worried, standing back and carefully studying Dean’s reaction. Dean waved a hand vaguely, too afraid of how his voice would come out should he speak. He considered himself lucky Cas wouldn’t be able to see his face turn red under the safelights. Damn him, didn’t Cas know Dean had already had a long, hard day?

He sniffed and laughed stiffly. “I really miss him.” He continued to stare into the box. “We don’t have a lot of connections to him left, we thought they had all been lost. This…” He rested a heavy hand on one side of the box like it was an urn, turning to look at Cas again. “How on Earth…”

Cas explained, “Technically these are on an unofficial loan. I know someone, who knows someone in the archival...it’s not important. I called in a favor down at TIME Magazine.” He admitted humbly, “Another perk,” before shrugging like it wasn’t the single greatest gift Dean had ever received in his life, including that time he’d been handed his set of car keys.

Dean wiped at his nose and asked in a small voice, “Why?” He wasn’t even sure exactly what he was asking. Why the boxes? Why was Cas here, now? Why Dean? All of the above.

“You must realize by now, it’s all for you Dean. If you want it.”

Dean shook his head, decades of internalized these things aren’t meant for the likes of you thoughts working to reject the most ridiculous string of words coming from the most impossible place. His chest was going to burst at the seams. Even more likely, he was about to wake up from this dream to a more familiar reality, or someone was going to jump out from one of these dark corners and yell ‘gotcha!’. Overwhelmed, he sank into a chair, propping his elbows on his knees and cradling his pounding head. Dean laughed again. “You’re not very good at this revenge thing.”

Cas sat down in the chair beside him, scooting it so they were arm to arm. He lifted a cautious hand to Dean’s back. “Maybe not.” He dropped his hand and laced his own fingers together.

Cas opened his mouth to speak and Dean tuned out the litany of unhelpful internal voices and raised his head a fraction to listen to him. He felt like glass.

Cas began, “I tried to go back to my life. Forty-two hours of pretending to feel things shouldn’t be enough time to...to tilt the world on its axis. Bela had about a dozen books about Stockholm Syndrome shipped to me as a joke and that was supposed to be that. Another chapter behind me. I thought you would do the same, I didn’t expect for you to...You hadn’t recognized me, after all. You had no idea what you were signing yourself up for that day.”

Dean almost snorted. That was true on about a million levels.

“Not a single day goes by that I don’t think about what happened, about you. I realized I’ve been pretending for a lot longer than forty-two hours. For years. Then you come along and for two days I got to be me, and those feelings? Those feelings weren’t pretend either. I was so angry, and I haven’t gotten to be angry for as long as I can remember. And then...there were other things.” He raised his hands to his temples. “There’s this gaping Dean-shaped space in my mind. You enter my dreams unbidden constantly. I’ve missed you and it’s infuriating.”

Dean’s eyes flicked up in surprise and they held each other’s gazes. The air felt staticky, crackling with energy and emotion. Beyond his own heartbeat Dean could hear nothing, as if the room had banished sound as effectively as light.

“I’ve never had trouble keeping people at arm’s length.” Cas confessed, hardly above a whisper. “I wrote a story, and in return I got the world...money and freedom and influence, everything people think they want. I’ve never been interested in any of the people who saw me as a one-way ticket for those things, and now I don’t have a clue how to make things work with a person who might want me for just me. Someone like you - kind, decent, hardworking, generous - they’re absent from this life. Constant attention, the pressure to, to make use of all of this privilege and influence to do as much good as possible, feeling like an imposter nearly every day, living in a world where all of your secrets, your vulnerabilities, are just someone else’s payday.”

Castiel closed his eyes, sighing.

“I’ve never been able to share any of this with anyone, not when my problems can’t hold a candle to the real hardships the rest of the world experiences. I’m only telling you all of this now because it wouldn’t be fair not to. Not to warn you.” He shifted his torso to face Dean more fully, hand twitching like it wanted to reach out. Or maybe Dean was just projecting.

“I don’t know how to keep those parts of my life from destroying or changing someone like you, so I stayed away. Until I got your invitation. That you would reach out to me, I couldn’t help but think you might feel this too.”

Dean felt his stomach sink. “Cas, I didn’t send the letter. Jo, my friend, at the Roadhouse-

“Oh.”

Shit, shit, shit. Dean clasped Cas’ arm tightly. “No, not like - damn it, Cas do you have any idea how crazy it would have been for me to reach out and invite you here? Given how those two days went down? Of course I wanted to send it - I stared at that stupid red envelope for weeks. But every time I thought about sending it I remembered how, oh yeah, I could be in prison for life for what I did to you. Probably should be! I didn’t think there was a snowball’s chance in Hell I would be seeing you here again, much less to-to say all of this.” He held up a hand and closed his eyes, stopping himself. “You know what? Can we just...” Cas stared at him, wide-eyed, as Dean stood up to his feet and held the same hand out, expectant, looking at Cas with a serious expression.

Confused, Cas hesitantly clasped it, curling his fingers around Dean’s. It was the silliest, tenderest thing and Cas was an idiot and. Dean’s head dropped and he laughed, biting his lip. God, he was such a fucking goner.

“No, Cas, you shake it.” Dean demonstrated with an exaggerated shake. Cas rose to his feet then and shook Dean’s hand.

Dean cleared his throat and began, in a friendly not-at-all-choked-up tone, “Hi there, I’m Dean Winchester. I just turned thirty-one, I’m a photographer, don’t hardly have two cents to my name, and uh. There’s this writer I think I’m in love with. It’s nice to meet you.”

Incredulous, Cas continued to absently shake Dean’s hand and said, “Hello Dean Winchester. I’m Castiel Novak. I work as a novelist, sometimes screenwriter. I...have a few cents to my name. There’s this guy I met at the Roadhouse a couple of months ago, and he found me irresistible. I’m thirty--four, oh. Turning thirty-five this year, I like long walks in the woods-”

Dean surged forward, pulling Cas in tight until their lips crashed together, desperate and hungry. Cas tasted amazing. They shuddered against each other, fumbling for more contact, hands squeezing and throats vibrating with unsuppressed moans.

Dean braced himself for a moment against the other man’s strong arms, dragging his tingling lips across Cas’ deliciously rough jaw to ask, “Hang on, does this mean I’m your Valentine?”

“Idiot,” Cas growled, before tugging him roughly back in.

Running low on oxygen, they broke apart some time later, both panting. Dean lowered his forehead to Cas’ shoulder and breathed, “I have...something I’ve been...meaning to say.” He gulped down a few deep breaths and and gazed past Cas’ quizzical expression, up at the ceiling. He began quoting, each phrase deliberate as he conjured them from memory, “The moment you came barreling into my life I was lost. I’m afraid to tell you what I wish for, for fear you’ll...I don’t know, throw me into the fire. Or more likely, refuse me. Or worst of all, despise me.” He cupped the other man’s face, marveling at their very sudden, very exciting proximity. “I think I might love you.

Dean smiled at Cas awed reaction, the way he practically glowed under the red light with momentary adoration.

“You read my books?”

Mouth twisting, not yet able to tamp down on his grin, Dean replied sheepishly, “Saw the films. I mean, the ABC Family marathon was going, so...”

Cas was grinning too, hand tightening around the hair at the nape of Dean’s neck. “Asshole,” he said, before pulling him in yet again and Dean was lost. So far, the forty-third hour had been incredible. He could only imagine what the next forty-two hours had in store...maybe it would involve those fluffy handcuffs, if he was lucky.