The Dean Winchester Beat Sheet - saltyfeathers (2024)

Chapter 1: August

Chapter Text

August

Dean Winchester likes one-night stands, and he likes girls who are fun. Carmen Something is a one night stand, and Carmen Something is fun. Dark hair, big brown eyes, and the clincher that pulled his gaze away from that redhead sitting at the end of the bar earlier: a nursing student more than willing to put her skill set to use in the bedroom. When they crash through the door of her dorm room twenty minutes later, she pulls a stethoscope out of her desk drawer, drapes it around her neck, and holds it to the front of Dean’s jeans with a smirk. “Everything seems to be in working order,” she says, her free hand snaking up to grip the back of Dean’s neck. She scratches her fingers through the bristly hairs at the base of his skull and he shivers.

“Not even gonna buy me a drink first?” he says, resting his hands on her trim waist. She’s wearing a tight-fitting v-neck, and Dean doesn’t bother hiding how his gaze tracks downward.

She co*cks her head, playful expression still in place. “We just came from a bar?”

Dean slips his thumbs under the hem of her shirt, running them over the juts of her hipbones, and her breath catches. “That doesn’t mean the party has to stop, babe.”

She points to the twin bed pushed up against the wall. “You sit.”

Dean sits.

Carmen retrieves a beer from her mini fridge and hands it to Dean. “Happy hospitality.” She leans down to kiss him, and Dean holds the slippery can in one hand while gripping her waist with the other. She puts a hand on Dean’s shoulder for balance and parts her legs, pushing forward to straddle him. Dean’s hand automatically tightens on her waist while she resituates herself, wiggling more than is strictly necessary in his lap to find the most comfortable position. When she leans in to kiss him again, Dean holds up a finger.

“Just gimme one…” He holds the beer upside down while he rummages in his pockets for the keys to his ’67 Chevy Impala. “…Second…” He fishes them out with a little jingle and dangles them triumphantly between them. He punctures the bottom of the can with the key to his apartment. “I’ll probably want both hands free for this,” he says, and waggles his eyebrows. Carmen obliges with a tolerant quirk of the lips.

“Snapback, cuffed khakis, shotgunning a beer with a girl in your lap,” she lists as Dean throws his head back and cracks open the tab. He didn’t even catch the brand when she gave it to him, but it goes down easy enough. Bud or PBR or Coors, undoubtedly. “Hope your bros aren’t expecting you back for frosh week prep tonight.”

Dean polishes off the beer twenty seconds later. It’s PBR. “What?”

“You gonna crush it against your forehead now?” Carmen teases. “I promise to act impressed.”

“Soft skull,” Dean says. Then, “Oh, no, I’m not in a frat.”

Carmen takes the empty beer can from him and reaches behind her, fumbling to drop it on her nightstand. She misses, and it falls onto the carpet. When she turns back to Dean, she slings both arms around his neck and wriggles her ass against his dick. “Too bad,” she says, as she pulls off his hat and drops that onto the floor as well. “I think it’s kinda hot.”

Dean shrugs. “Not gonna let some dude flog my ass just to get access to an old house that smells like gym socks.” He pulls off her shirt, careful not to disturb the stethoscope, and that meets the same fate as his hat. Her bra unhooks in the front. Dean likes those. “You are…” He runs his hands up and down her sides, brushing her long hair over her shoulder. He runs a finger along her silky bra strap. “More than kinda hot.”

“You’re not so bad yourself.” Carmen’s fingertips trace the neckline of his shirt. “Tit for tat,” she informs him, and Dean is more than happy to shrug off his own shirt.

“Well, the tit part of the equation is more your department,” he says as he fingers the clasp of her bra. She laughs breathily as he unhooks it, drawing it down her arms and then all the way off. The stethoscope snakes between her breasts. Her nipples are light brown and already hard. Dean rolls one between his fingers and Carmen lets out a short, harsh breath. The room smells like stale beer.

Dean cups her face and tucks her hair behind her ear before kissing her. She deepens the kiss almost right away, adding tongue and grinding down into Dean’s lap. Dean’s dick stirs in his jeans. He catches a whiff of the cranberry vodka he bought her back at the campus bar. “I have condoms in my nightstand,” she says while Dean sucks a nipple into his mouth. She gasps and grabs a fistful of his hair. “Or that’s good, too.”

Dean cups her breast and kisses it. He moves back up toward her shoulder. “How about I eat you out?” he murmurs into her neck.

She pulls away sharply, single eyebrow raised. “Really?”

“Told you I wasn’t a frat boy.”

“No, apparently you’re just a straight-up gentleman.”

Dean hooks his hands under her kneecaps and pulls her closer. “I wouldn’t go quite that far.”

She throws up her hands in defeat, sliding off his lap and onto the bed. “Won’t hear any complaints from me,” she says as she unbuttons her jeans and shimmies out of them.

Dean reaches toward the nightstand and pulls open the drawer. Sure enough, a small box of condoms is nestled in the front corner.

“Change your mind already?” Carmen asks as he pulls one out.

Dean shuts the drawer. “Nope. Safety first, remember?” He opens the condom and grabs a pair of scissors from a pen holder on the nightstand. “Not that I’m assuming you’re, y’know, full of disease or anything like that.” He cuts out a square of latex. “Voila—hey, aren’t you supposed to be the medical professional here?”

Carmen playfully swats his shoulder. “You do this a lot?” she says while Dean situates himself between her pale thighs. Her underwear is simple and black, just like her bra, with only a little bit of lace trim. Dean kisses the inside of her kneecap.

“Enough,” is all he says, and remembers to wink. It would probably be rude to ask for another beer at this point. He mouths along the inside of her thigh, and the closer he gets to her underwear, the slower he goes. Charlie and Jo and everyone else went to an end-of-summer bash tonight held by some rich douchey freshman at his parent’s house out in the country, but Dean decided the best way to start off his last year of college would be a literal bang, and if he lets on he regrets that decision, he’ll never hear the end of it, so he better make the most of it.

He kisses Carmen through her panties, which are damp enough already that Dean grabs the latex square. He slides them off and slingshots them to some far corner of the room, which makes Carmen laugh from somewhere above him. Before covering everything up again, he surveys what he’s working with and where. “Any preferences?”

“ASAP,” she offers.

When Dean sees that she’s looking, he licks his lips. “Copy that,” he says, and goes to work.

Charlie would kill him if he ever said it out loud, but girls are a lot like cars. Get under the hood and each one is just a little different. Figuring out the quirks, the layout, where the sharp corners are hiding—it’s all essential to making her purr. Dean’s been putting cars back together since he was old enough to hold a wrench without toppling over, and staring at girls since before that. The first time he ate a girl out he was sixteen and in his room at Ellen and Bobby’s while everyone else sweated and drank beer on the porch and listened to the oldies radio station. After she came, he darted across the hall in his boxers to brush his teeth. As he swished mouthwash from one cheek to the other, he rubbed the back of his hand over his damp eyes. He didn’t see much more of Cassie that summer, and by the end of August, she had moved with her family down south and that was that. They stayed Facebook friends.

Carmen makes his job easy. She tells him what she likes and where, and how hard. She comes with two fingers inside her and Dean’s tongue on her cl*t, hand buried in his hair. Dean eases off before she becomes too sensitive, rolling off the bed to toss the dam into the trash can under her desk. The shift in position reminds him he’s still in his khakis, and he’s half hard. When he turns back to the bed, Carmen is on her side, head propped up on her arm and gaze directed south. “Your turn,” she says, grinning lazily. “Mouth, hand, missionary, doggy—dealer’s choice.”

Dean sits on the edge of the bed, and Carmen walks her hand up his thigh. “You’re a cool chick,” Dean tells her.

“And you are not as douchey as expected.”

Dean huffs a laugh, shifting slightly. “Don’t tell anyone. I have a rep to maintain.”

“With your bros.” Carmen nods wisely, eyebrow quirked.

Dean pictures Charlie and Jo, probably knocking back neon Jell-O shots at this very moment. “Something like that.”

“So, then, what can I do for you, Dean?” she asks, hand hovering perilously close to his tented pants. Her nails are smooth and painted a dark burgundy and Dean’s sure they would look nice wrapped around his dick.

“You know what?” he says, smiling, his summer-browned freckles standing out more than he’s comfortable with. He cups Carmen’s cheek and kisses her gently on the mouth, testing the post-oral-kissing waters. When he can’t think of a follow up, he keeps kissing her. She seems surprised by this new direction, but not averse to it. They move back onto the bed proper, Carmen on her back and Dean hovering over her.

“You are… an interesting guy,” Carmen says.

Dean says, “Pshaw.” He leans in to kiss her again, but she grabs the bell of her stethoscope and presses it to his forehead, stopping him.

“Yep,” she concludes. “Diagnosis confirmed: ‘Interesting.’”

Dean crosses his eyes as he tries to look at the stethoscope currently plastered to his forehead. “Thanks, doc.”

Carmen pulls the stethoscope all the way off. “I won’t be offended either way, especially since school starts tomorrow,” she says, “but you can stay the night if you want.”

“Definitely a cool chick,” Dean says again. He knows what time it is, but he glances at the clock on Carmen’s nightstand anyway. “I should head out, actually.” He pulls away, searching the floor for the various items of clothing they discarded along the way. Shirt, hat, slip-ons (or, as Charlie derisively calls them, “fancier flip flops”). “This was fun.”

“You need a coffee for the road?” Carmen says. She gestures to the old Mr. Coffee sitting on top of her mini-fridge. “Don’t go drinking and dying on my account.”

Dean closes an eye, stands on one foot, and touches his index finger to the tip of his nose. “I have a pretty high tolerance.” He stands and pats his back pocket. Wallet still in place.

“This was fun,” he says again. He kisses Carmen, and when he pulls back, she has a pinched look on her face. “What?”

“Nothing,” she says. Then, “Just interesting. Drive safe.”

Dean’s careful not to say something like “see you around” after a hookup. Instead, he opts for phrases like, “Thanks for the good time.”

“Thanks for the good time,” he says at the door.

Carmen Something watches him go, guileless and shirtless.

*

Jo flicks his ear.

“Ow.”

She flicks it again.

“Ow.”

She flicks it again.

“Ow! Dude, what?”

They’re sitting in the very last row of a lecture hall while a man with the absurd name of Dr. Cain Milton talks about the economics of forestry. Dean’s chin had been digging into his palm where he’s got his elbow propped up on the desk, his notebook long forgotten in front of him, but now he’s glaring at Jo in the semi-dark of the room while Dr. Milton fights with the ancient projector to get his PowerPoint going. He’s got a captivating way of speaking, just on the saner side of the nutty professor look with his gray-streaked hair and well-fitted tweed jacket, worn smartly despite the August heat. He’s new to the school this year, a visiting prof from the west coast, which would explain both the beach bum hair and tweed jacket in the middle of summer.

Jo smiles at him sweetly from behind big black sunglasses. With her other hand, she idly rolls a quarter across her scarred knuckles, her own notebook nowhere in sight. She’s Dean’s only adoptive sister, and, by process of elimination, also the most annoying.

“What?” Dean hisses again. He rubs his ear. Girl’s blonde and petite and stronger than she looks.

Jo rolls the quarter onto her tucked thumb, flicking it into the air with a quiet twing! and catching it in her palm. She stuffs it back into her pocket and then looks up at Dean. “It’s not like I said your name ten times or anything.”

“Yeah, well, we’re in class,” he defends himself. “You’re not supposed to talk in class, so shut up.”

Jo scoffs. “Oh yeah, I’m sure it’s Dr. Milton’s proficiency with PowerPoint that you find so stimulating.”

Dean narrows his eyes. “What the f*ck’s that supposed to mean?”

“Absolutely nothing,” Jo says innocently.

“Did you give me a future scar on my ear just so you could put me on blast or what? What do you want?”

“How’d last night go?” Jo asks. She makes a lewd gesture. “co*ck any fools?”

“You know it,” Dean says, happy to change the subject. “Slammed some sophom*ore in nursing.”

“Damn, that’s classy.” Jo sucks in air between her teeth.

“I’m a scholar and a gentleman. What about you, little sis? Any sexual exploits from last night you care to share with a non-blood relative?”

“Nah, we just got f*cking wasted,” Jo says. She taps her sunglasses. “Charlie’s status as ‘friend’ has been repealed and replaced by Advil and caffeine. If she apologizes for ditching me mid-shot to go make out with some brunette in the barn, we might be able to patch things up, but I’m not optimistic.”

“You should know better,” Dean chastises. “Have you ever been to a gay club? Those people know how to party.”

“Have you?”

“What?”

Even from behind her sunglasses, Dean can feel the weight of Jo’s gaze. “Ever been to a gay club?”

“Why the hell would I go to a gay club?”

Jo shrugs. “You said it, not me.”

“Well, stop saying it,” Dean snaps.

“Backing off.” Jo puts her hands up in surrender. A student in the row in front of them turns around to glare, but Jo ignores him. Her phone lights up from where it’s lying on the desk, and she snaps it up, pursing her lips as she reads a text. She scans the room in front of them, then looks back down at her phone, frowning.

“What?” Dean says, with only a little residual peevishness.

“We met a guy at the party last night, and apparently he’s in this class, too,” Jo says, craning her neck again. “Charlie just told me.”

“Joanna Beth!” Dean crows. The guy in the next row turns around again, shushing them. Jo flips him off. Dean lowers his voice, just a little. “You said you didn’t meet anyone, you sly minx.”

Amusem*nt crosses Jo’s face, and she momentarily abandons her search. “He’s not exactly my type.”

“That means he either a) has a bigger knife collection than you or b) doesn’t have a knife collection at all.”

Jo ignores him and jabs her thumb vaguely downwards. “There he is. Dark hair. Leather jacket.”

Dean cranes his neck. “What kind of asshole wears a leather jacket in August?” He sees him now—or the back of his head, anyway. Not much to report so far. Unless—he cranes his neck, ignoring how ridiculously nosy this is, and just catches a glimpse of what looks like a black helmet propped up on the seat next to him. Motorcycle, maybe? That would explain the leather. His stomach does a funny little flip at that. Motorcycles certainly aren’t his style—if he’s going anywhere at highway speeds, he’s going in a vehicle with four walls and a roof—but they sure are badass.

As if he can hear himself being thought about, the guy turns in his seat, glancing around briefly, and then his gaze lands directly on Dean. They make eye contact, and Dean’s cheeks burn at being caught out so quickly. His first thought, running parallel to the embarrassment, is weird looking. And that’s—not entirely inaccurate. He’s certainly unique in the facial department, Dean’ll give him that. Big eyes with dark circles under them, sharp nose, wide mouth, dark stubble concealing the shape of his jawline.

But it’s not the face that holds his attention. It’s the weight of his gaze. Dean finds himself breaking every rule of making eye contact with a stranger in public. He’s unable to blink, openly staring at this dude with what he can only imagine is a complete deer-in-the-headlights look. His mouth might have dropped open. He can’t even tell what color the guy’s eyes are from this distance, and it’s a… discomforting moment. The tips of his fingers tingle. And then the guy goes and makes it ten times worse by smiling at Dean so lasciviously that Dean feels himself blush before he can even remind his brain it’s a guy who just sent that look his way.

“Dude,” Dean mumbles, dropping his gaze to his notebook. Heat is crowding uncomfortably under his jaw, making him itch. “What the f*ck.” There’s a specific kind of self-aware heat Dean feels in the tips of his ears when they’ve gone pink. For a few years when he was a young teenager, he carried around a ratty beanie in his pocket everywhere he went so he could slip it on in case of emergency. In ninth grade, Amanda Heckerling said the pink tips made him look cute, so he eased off a bit. Ellen was thankful. Said it made him look less like Bobby, who’s probably gonna be buried in an ugly ball cap.

Jo is staring between them, wide-eyed.

“Uh…” she says slowly. “What was that?” She knocks on the side of Dean’s head until he meets her gaze. “Wait, do you know him?”

Dean swallows past a surprisingly dry throat, and presses his fingertips into the desk to try and get rid of the tingling sensation. “I’ve never seen him before in my life.” He grabs the coffee Jo brought to class and takes a big swig, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. The fact that she doesn’t come after him for it means she’s just as distracted by this whole debacle as he is. “Dude just f*ckin’ checked me out or somethin’. I dunno. It was weird.”

He can feel Jo looking at him, perplexed, and is surprised by how suddenly he would rather be anywhere else right now.

“Well,” she says haltingly and diplomatically, like she’s taking pity on him or something, “We’ll go say hi after class. Introduce ourselves. I’m sure he’s a completely normal dude. Charlie wouldn’t send a serial killer our way, right?”

“Yeah,” Dean manages, staring hard at the one line of lecture notes he’s managed to take so far.

He doesn’t look up again for the rest of class. Instead, he spends his time ruining pages in his notebook by scribbling so hard he rips through the paper.

*

Dr. Milton lets them go with a reminder of the reading they have over the weekend, and Dean’s trying to pull himself together as Jo bolts out of her seat to grab the new guy before he takes off. Dean doesn’t watch her go because he’s too busy trying to calm his overreacting dumb ass down, staring angrily at his still mostly-empty notebook.

People are shuffling by his seat to get out, and Dean knows there’s another lecture starting in a couple minutes, but he stays put, waiting for Jo to bring this new guy to him. He’s convinced himself that’s somehow going to give him the upper hand in this already weird situation.

When he sees Jo coming back up the stairs, he dips his head and pretends to be absorbed in his notes, pen in hand. The rasp of leather sounds obnoxiously loud to him, and also informs him Jo managed to successfully catch up to this mystery dude who for some reason thinks it’s okay to just smile like—like that, at unsuspecting members of the public.

Stupid is what it is. Never mind that Dean’s pulled that move on at least three girls in the past, to varying degrees of success. Dudes don’t just whip that out for other dudes. Dean’s almost one hundred percent sure that’s part of the unwritten bro code. You stay in your lane at the urinal, and you don’t—well, you don’t do what this guy just did.

It’s just a power play. He’s met guys like this before, the ones who need to assert dominance like they’re trying to join a wolf pack or something. He knows how to play the game.

“So, this is Castiel,” Jo says as she returns to their seats. “Did I say that right?” Dean doesn’t look up immediately, can hear how she’s directing the question to whatshisname. There’s another rasp of leather, a shrug, and Dean feels his lip curl involuntarily. He presses his pen harder into the page.

“Cas is fine as well,” he says, and Dean’s glad he kept his head down because his eyes fly open when he hears the guy’s voice for the first time. It’s got the kind of timbre that sounds like it’s been aging for the past two hundred years in the basem*nt of a mysterious brewery in the Scottish Highlands. “Whatever you pre—” He stops midsentence, most likely because Dean just accidentally launched his pen halfway across the lecture hall. He tries to slouch his shoulders in some kind of go-with-the-flow shrug, like he totally meant to almost take out some overachieving freshman’s eye in the fourth row. There’s a brief silence that teeters on the precipice of extreme awkwardness, as if no one’s quite sure how to broach the sudden liftoff of Dean’s sh*tty pen.

Jo clears her throat, dragging the conversation back onto the rails. “Cas, got it. Aaaaand this is Dean,” she says. “Who apparently has restless leg syndrome, but in his arm. Which is funny that I’m not aware of this condition since we’ve known each other since we were kids but, hey.” She claps his shoulder. “Keeps me on my toes, this one.”

“Oh. Are you—” Castiel doesn’t even get his question out before Jo snorts.

“Dean’s actually in love with me, we just keep it on the down low,” she stage whispers. “Don’t want to hurt his feelings, y’know?”

That knocks some sense into Dean and he finally looks up, his gaze landing right smack on Castiel’s with what he’s convinced is an audible thunk.

“So, she’s full of sh*t,” he says.

Jo rolls her eyes and nudges Castiel conspiratorially. “Sensitive,” she says through her teeth, inclining her head toward Dean.

“She’s a complete animal,” Dean counters, trying to regain the driver’s seat of this conversation. He stands, remembering only at the last minute to flip his notebook closed so neither Castiel nor Jo can see the angry puddle of ink he’s left under his notes.

He usually has no problem meeting new people, but something about this guy immediately got under his skin, and not in a good way. He shoves his notebook into his bag with way more force than needed. He can feel both Jo’s and Castiel’s gazes on his back, Jo’s annoyed and Castiel’s just… heavy.

“If it makes you feel better,” Castiel says, unbothered, “I was going to ask if you were siblings, not a couple.”

“He’s got me pegged,” Jo says in response to Dean, and shrugs. “He also woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, I think.” She shoots Dean a warning look as he slings his backpack over his shoulder.

As Dean finally steps out from his seat, Castiel’s eyes drop to the Adidas flip flops Dean’s wearing over a pair of white gym socks. “Oh,” is all he says, like somehow Dean’s choice in footwear tells him everything he needs to know.

Dean grits his teeth. “Actually,” he says, “I woke up in a peachy mood today.”

“Well,” Castiel says, shifting his grip on the helmet under his arm, “I hope your day remains peachy. It was nice to meet you, Dean.” His gaze travels briefly across Dean’s face, even lands momentarily on his lips, and then he’s turning to Jo while Dean tries to remind himself he’s not actually rooted to the spot.

“I’ll see you this weekend, Jo,” Castiel says before excusing himself. He takes maybe three steps, then stops and turns back to Dean.

“Dean?” he says, and Dean wishes he would stop saying his f*cking name.

“Yeah?” Dean grunts.

Castiel blinks once. “Nice flip flops,” he says, and there’s only a hint of disdain in his voice, but that almost makes it worse. He’s gone before Dean can respond, which is probably for the best since he can barely fathom the confused outrage tripping over itself in his chest like a tumble dryer.

He stares after Castiel, agog, and when he finally comes down but still refuses to look away from the door Castiel just exited, he says, as firmly as he can manage, “What is this, The Devil Wears Prada? Jesus Christ.”

Jo’s staring at him like he has three heads. “I am… not even touching that one.”

“What the hell is that supposed to—wait. Did he just say that he would see you this weekend?”

Jo raises an eyebrow. “Yeah, Charlie invited him to the beach.”

“I don’t like him,” Dean says darkly. “He’s a dick.”

Jo huffs, rolling her eyes. “I can’t believe you’re casting me of all people in the role of mediator right now, but you exchanged a total of like, five words with the guy. Chill.”

Dean shakes his head. “I got a vibe,” he says. “Dude’s an asshole.”

“And you’re a baby,” Jo retorts. She nudges his elbow. “C’mon, I need more caffeine.”

“I’m calling it now,” Dean says, trailing after her. “This guy is bad news.”

“Whatever you say, Negative Nancy,” Jo says, uninterested in Dean’s paranoia as they descend the stairs to the exit. Dean casts a glance back for his lost pen, but he’s too proud to duck back for it.

*

MESSAGES: CHARLIE

Dean: charlie. Who the f*ck is casteel

Charlie: sorry, whos this? the message says its from dean but the only dean i know has to refer to me as queen of moondor for the next two weeks because he ditched going to a party with his friends to, and i quote, “drown in sad lonely end of summer poon tang”

Dean: Ok. First off, I didn’t agree to the queen thing. Second, you’ve completely and irresponsibly misquoted me. What I actually said was “Find a beautiful fellow scholar to share an intimate and academic meeting of the minds with” Your lack of journalistic integrity sickens me. Third, answer my question.

Charlie:

Dean: Charlie.

Charlie:

Dean: CHARLIE

Charlie: …………………………………..

Dean: Fine. Queen.

Charlie: of?

Dean: f*ck you and your nerd sh*t. Moondor.

Charlie: how hard was that?

Dean: Are you gonna answer my question now

Charlie: a queen never turns her back on her most loyal subjects. and its castiel. whats your question, handmaiden

Dean: Well what’s his f*cking deal he’s a dick. And I told you to stop calling me that.

Charlie: he was nice enough to me and jo at the party. u know me cant resist a new kid. makes me feel like im in a pilot episode of some coming of age drama.

Charlie: handmaiden.

Dean: Well I don’t like him

Dean: Stop

Charlie: good thing its not YOUR annual back to school beach trip then. why don’t u like him

Dean: Bad vibes

Charlie: u insecure hes gonna swoop in and u wont be the guy with 2 hotties on his arms anymore

Dean: No. What? Jo is my sister and you’re a lez. I just think he’s skeevy

Charlie: pulling the lesbian card. dont say lez.

Charlie: idk dude I didn’t see it. my advice? get over it. or just make sure he doesn’t come in ur car.

Dean: You know, for a genius, you give sh*tty advice

Charlie: xoxo

Charlie: im just a insecure baby man wah wah

Charlie: That was Jo she stole my phone

*

“You know,” Charlie says as she wrestles a keg into the back of Benny Lafitte’s pickup truck with Dean, “I don’t even like parties that much? And now my only legacy at this school is gonna be one.” When Dean doesn’t answer, she continues, “Like, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a banger. And I have met some pretty ladies at clubs. But there’s nothing wrong with spending a Friday night at home with Kirk and Spock, either.” They get the keg into the truck bed on its side, and Dean hops in after it. “Or,” Charlie says, the corner of her mouth ticking upwards, “hanging out with my good friends at Wine Turner.”

“Yes, Charlie.” Dean rolls his eyes. “You’re not a regular nerd, you’re a cool nerd. You scam multinational media conglomerates out of insane amounts of money. We get it.”

Charlie Bradbury’s Annual Back to School Beach Party XXXtravaganza ;) (always written with the emoji, and when spoken out loud, ended with a wink) has been a tradition since her first year at Whitmore. It wasn’t where Dean met her for the first time—that had been at a terrible frat party—, but it was where he got to know her, when they were both eighteen and still, technically, not allowed to drink. She wasn’t shy about her reasons for throwing it. “What better way to get free booze?” she had asked him, winking. Then she told Dean sometimes it was just nice to be gay on a beach. Dean had no idea what she was talking about, but didn’t want to further offend her, so he nodded along like he understood.

“It’s not a big deal or anything,” Charlie brags. She watches Dean struggle to right the keg without offering to help. “It was just the virtual heist of a lifetime. And you haven’t regained name privileges yet.” When the keg comes dangerously close to crushing Dean’s foot, Charlie joins him, and they flip it back longways so it doesn’t roll around on the drive to the beach.

“Thanks,” Dean says flatly.

“You’re welcome!” Charlie sing-songs, hopping back onto the ground. She turns and cheekily holds her hand out to help Dean down. He rolls his eyes and flumps down.

“Big man,” Charlie coos, and Dean tugs on her long red ponytail. Strands of hair stick to her sweaty forehead.

“Why isn’t Benny doing this his damn self, again?” Dean says. They’re standing in the parking lot of Benny’s dorm, and the big guy is nowhere in sight.

Charlie checks her watch. “Because his shift ended two minutes ago and we wanted him on the road ASAP? Y’know, since your behemoth of a car refuses to shoulder any of the burden.”

“I thought you were supposed to treat ladies nice.”

“Only non-anthropomorphized ones.”

“Besides,” Dean says, pressing on, “my trunk is full of every kind of hard liquor you can buy in the beautiful and prosperous town of Fall’s Harbour, Kansas. Population 462.”

“They should throw me a parade before I graduate, honestly. This party has kept that town afloat for years.”

Dean huffs laughter, shoving his hands in his pockets. He scuffs the toe of his flip flop against the pavement. His socks come up to mid-calf and have little marijuana leaves all over them. He hopes Castiel sees before he has to take them off at the beach.

Dean leans against the side of the truck. The day is warm and muggy, the sky a pale blue and the sun mostly hiding behind the clouds. There’s a chance of thunderstorms later, but the party must go on. If he squints, he can see the more threatening clouds forming on the horizon. His underarms prickle with sweat from all the heavy lifting.

“Hey,” Dean says like it just came to mind, “I haven’t asked you about your post-grad plans in a while.”

“Ugh.” Charlie scrunches up her face. “I mean. They need software engineers everywhere, I guess.” She crosses her arms. “I’m an only child and my parents are dead, so I’m hardly tied down. World’s my oyster.” She holds her fist out for a fist bump. Dean reluctantly complies. Jo’s dad, Charlie’s parents, Dean’s parents. It was kind of like a morbid little club the three of them had set up when Jo showed up a year behind them, and that was only after a painstaking year of Dean convincing her she was smart enough for college. Now she’s a straight-C student, and Dean couldn’t be prouder. “What about you?” Charlie asks. “They have fires that need putting out everywhere, too.”

Dean shrugs and lightly thumps his heel against Benny’s tire. “Dunno. Could do a master’s, I guess.”

Charlie purses her lips to keep from laughing. “Who’s the nerd now?”

Charlie’s always loved riling him up, and even four years later, he falls for it every time. He puffs out his chest. “Fighting fires isn’t for nerds. It’s for men.”

“You get an honorary doctorate in manliness,” Charlie assures him. She pats his bicep and he flexes for her, kissing the indentation in the muscle he still wishes was a little more defined. She’s still laughing when Benny appears between his truck and the Camaro it’s parked beside, nodding to the both of him with a tip of his hat.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he drawls. He’s still wearing his chef’s uniform, greasy handprints smeared along his pants, sweat beading at his hairline. Benny hasn’t lived in Louisiana in years, but he told Dean once in their sophom*ore year that girls are super into the accent, and he’s not above laying on a little Southern charm when the situation calls for it. “Don’t let me intrude on the fun.”

“Howdy,” Charlie chirps.

“Don’t worry,” Dean says. “We did all the hard work. All you gotta do is drink and drive. Or, uh. The other way around, preferably.”

“Roger that, chief. Thanks for looking after my wheels.”

“I was more focused on the booze, but the wheels were also watched staunchly, have no fear,” Charlie assures him. She glances at her phone and points at Dean. “Okay, handmaiden, people are officially lining up at your doors for opening day, so we should probably head out. Catch you on the drunk side, Benny.”

As Dean trails behind Charlie, officially in her questing mode, he says to Benny, “Ignore her. She’s wasted already.”

“Handmaiden!” Charlie calls without turning around. She snaps her fingers.

Dean suppresses a smile and follows her.

*

MESSAGES: JO

Jo: cas iz comin in ur ride

Dean: f*ck he is

*

Castiel sits shotgun.

Dean says, “Hey everyone! It’s the new guy!”

Castiel says, “Nice socks.”

Dean says, “Wore ‘em for you,” and screeches out of the parking lot.

From the backseat, Charlie mutters something that sounds like “Boys.” She shares the back with Jo and Pamela Barnes, a girl in her sixth year of a kinesiology degree. She does psychic readings from the basem*nt suite she rents from a financial analyst who works in the city. The first time Dean met her, she was drunk and told him his future was between her sheets. She’s a riot.

Pam sits in the middle and leans forward with her arms dangling over the front seat. She waggles her eyebrows at Castiel. “So. New boy. Want me to tell you your future?”

Dean flicks his turn signal and before Castiel can answer he says, “Sure! What kinda vibes you getting from him, Pam? I mean, I’m no psychic, but does this guy have middle management and a receding hairline in his future or what?”

“You’re such a dick, Dean, Jesus,” Jo says, bored.

“You should talk,” Dean says, and makes a face at her in the rearview mirror. She flips him off in return.

“Everyone hush,” Pam demands. Her shoulder-length dark hair is already frizzy in the heat. “You guys know it only works if the client is willing to open themselves up to me.” She turns to Castiel with a feral smile. “You in?”

“Actually,” Castiel says, “if it’s all the same to you, no thank you.”

“Huh.” Pam sits back, intrigued. “Tall, dark, handsome, and mysterious. Aren’t you delicious. The girls in your classes are gonna have their hands full.”

That sets off Jo and Charlie, who are suddenly guffawing like a pair of middle school bullies. “Some psychic you are,” Jo cackles.

Dean turns to Castiel, whose mouth has inexplicably turned up at the corners. “Am I missing something here?”

“No,” he says, but his expression doesn’t change.

Dean glances at the clock on the Impala’s dashboard. “Cool,” he says, and snaps on the radio. “We’re having fun already.”

*

After forcing everyone to listen to Metallica’s not-so-greatest hits, Dean pulls up to a roadside diner to let them stretch their legs. Charlie started complaining twenty minutes ago that she needed to pee. “Run, Forrest, run!” he calls after her as she throws herself out of the Impala and dashes through the doors of the diner.

Castiel comes around to the driver’s side and leans against the hood. Dean tries not to get annoyed. “I was surprised I didn’t see you at the party where I met Jo and Charlie,” he says, squinting. The lenses of his aviators cover his eyes, but Dean can see the way they crinkle at the corners. The sky isn’t even that bright today. “Excessive drinking, loud music, low-cut shirts. Seems like your kinda scene.” Castiel ditched the leather for the day, instead opting for a white v-neck t-shirt and dark board shorts. The effortlessly cool, tousled look Castiel has going on compared to Dean’s backwards snapback and muscle tee does nothing to make him any less annoyed. Castiel’s stubble has grown out a bit since the other day in class.

“I was having sex. With a woman.” Dean makes sure he says it in a way that presumes Castiel is a lonely sad virgin who still jerks off to his mom’s Victoria’s Secret catalogues.

That secret smile from the car worms its way back onto Castiel’s face. “What?” Dean snaps. In the background, Charlie emerges from the restaurant, bottle of soda in hand and straw in mouth. She’s useless on road trips. Jo and Pam lounge on a broken stone picnic bench nearby.

“The way you said that,” Castiel says, amused, “like going to a party, full of women, who would presumably, inexplicably be into you, was somehow less cool than having lonely sex in a… let me guess: Freshman dorm room?”

“You were the one at a freshman party,” Dean reminds him haughtily. He taps his flip flop-clad toe on the ground. “And she was a sophom*ore.” Before Castiel can mock him any more, he forges ahead. “Why’d you need a ride today, anyway? Thought you had wheels of your own.”

Castiel co*cks his head. “Charlie seemed very invested in carpooling. I believe her phrasing was something along the lines of ‘save the planet, man…et.’”

Dean narrows his eyes at Charlie, who by now has joined Jo and Pam on the picnic bench. She innocently sips her soda. “Ah.”

“Something tells me she may have willfully misled you,” Castiel says flatly as Dean storms off. He refuses to raise his voice as Dean walks away, voice fading the further he gets. “I haven’t the faintest clue what it could be.”

Charlie waves at him as he approaches, steadfast in her chipper demeanour. Dean flaps his hands at Jo and Pam. “Go away.”

Pam puts her fingers on her temples. “I’m getting something,” she says, eyes squeezed shut. “I think—I think—Dean might be kinda pissy.”

Jo and Pam laugh as they walk away. Dean rolls his eyes. “We’re leaving in five!” he calls after them. He turns to Charlie and jabs his thumb over his shoulder toward where he presumes Castiel is still standing. He doesn’t try to hide it. “What the hell?”

Charlie puts her soda on the table. “Me what the hell? You what the hell, dude! What is your problem with him?”

Dean sputters. “He—I—vibes, Charlie! Vibes!”

“A vibe is something a horny freshman pays Pam thirty bucks for in her creepy basem*nt. Now what are you talking about?”

“Ew.” Dean crosses his arms to stop himself from flailing around more than he already has. “You’re telling me you’ve never gotten bad vibes from a person before and just known, like, instinctively, to stay away from them?”

“Well, yes,” Charlie admits.

“There you go.”

Charlie lists them off on her fingers. “Campers in competitive multiplayer matches. People who wear their shoes in the house. People who turn down their phone screen’s brightness at the movie theater but don’t actually turn it off—usually I support the flouting of authority, but that really is a rule designed for the betterment of the many.” She narrows her eyes. “Republicans.”

“Okay, but…”

“But what?”

“Charlie,” Dean almost-whines.

“Okay. Okay.” Charlie puts both her hands on Dean’s shoulders. “Let’s make a deal. For the sake of our friend group. You be nice-ish to our newest recruit, Cas. For now.” When Dean starts to protest, she smushes a finger against his lips. Dean crosses his eyes as he frowns down at it. “Hush now, boy Winchester. You play nice, and I will cyberstalk Cas for you. Social media, high school transcript, parents’ names, Hogwarts house, pineapple on pizza yes or no, et cetera. I offer you this gift in honor of our sacred friendship, forged in the fires of finals weeks past and weekends of me kicking your ass at Super Smash Bros. If I find anything sketchy, I will tell you. Also, this is payback. You can no longer shame me for puking in the planter on Tamara’s front porch when we were sophom*ores and then blaming it on her dog.”

Dean considers this. He holds out his hand. “It’s a deal.”

“My own subplot,” Charlie grins. “Cool.” The basis of their friendship, aside from discussing p*rn preferences, has always been arguing about movie semantics. For the past six months or so, it’s been an ongoing discussion of the merits of subplots. Charlie is pro. Dean is anti. Or, not anti so much as lukewarm.

“Let’s see if it pays off,” Dean says.

They shake on it.

*

Whenever Dean’s especially in the mood to annoy Charlie, he likes to remind her that the “beach” part of her beach party is actually a lie, because the party is at a lake. That fact in and of itself doesn’t annoy Charlie. It’s Dean’s insistence that it’s annoying that really makes her want to pop him in the jaw.

It’s a bit of a misnomer, considering it’s surrounded by deciduous trees that change color in the fall, but Dean has always chalked it up to whoever named Evergreen Lake discovering it during the wrong season. Everything is still green as grass at the end of August, anyway, which means everyone is saved an obnoxious conversation with whatever forestry and/or linguistics majors show up.

They’re the first ones there, as per usual, and Dean parks the Impala in the best spot, as per usual. Charlie and Jo free themselves from the strains of mullet rock and leave Dean to deal with the stowaway. Dean stares at the back of Castiel’s head for a full ten seconds while he peers, oblivious, out the passenger side window. The Impala’s engine cools and clicks to sleep beneath them. “This is a lake,” Castiel observes. Dean laughs, and is annoyed that he laughs.

“You should mention that to Charlie.”

Castiel opens his door. Halfway out, he says, “She’s the one who mentioned it to me.”

The door shuts.

Dean sits alone in the driver’s seat for a moment, bobbleheading. “Of course she did,” he says to the steering wheel.

Once he’s closed the door behind him, he turns around to find Jo leaning against the back of the car. She picks at her nails with a pocketknife, the faded scars on her fingers flashing in the sun. In the distance, Charlie walks Castiel toward the lake, gesturing hugely to show off her prime party real estate. The water is dark, and glistens in whatever light manages to sneak through the cloud cover. Dean rubs his already damp palms on his shorts. “Our last Xxxtravaganza—" He half-heartedly winks. “—and we’re gonna get rained out.”

Your last Xxxtravaganza,” Jo says, and barely squints her left eye. She was never one for emojis. “I’ll keep the tradition alive. Oh,” she says, like she’s almost forgotten, “you’re DDing tonight.”

What?” From their spot on the beach, Charlie and Castiel turn to look toward the sudden outburst. Charlie might look guilty if she weren’t also trying to hold back a laugh. She’s since put on a ridiculous pair of shuttershades she probably picked up back at the gas station. Jo doesn’t even look up.

“Shoulda come to the party,” she says.

“Come on,” Dean whines. “Can’t you do it? This is my last year.”

“Shoulda come to the party.” Jo still doesn’t look up, intensely focused on getting a speck of dirt out from under her thumbnail.

He’s annoyed about the sudden mutiny, but he’s even more annoyed at the thought of existing in the same space as Castiel, sober, for the rest of the day. “I could just leave your asses. Sheriff Jody would bust this party right up if she knew you didn’t have a DD.”

Satisfied, Jo clicks her knife closed and tucks it into her back pocket. From this distance, Dean sees the long-familiar WILLIAM HARVELLE carved into the hilt. A bittersweet wave of fondness hits him in the chest, only for Jo to ruin it by leaning forward and booping him on the nose. She turns and starts walking toward Charlie and Castiel. “Shoulda come to the party,” she deadpans over her shoulder.

*

MESSAGES: SAM

Dean: Meet any fresh meat yet?

Sam: Ew dean.

Dean: How’s the sunshine state?

Sam: Couldn’t tell you seeing as im in cali????

Dean: Just testing ya. Have you cried yourself to sleep yet

Dean: cause you miss your cool big brother

Sam: is that your way of asking if im homesick? Cause obviously.

Dean puts down his phone. Night has fallen, and he hasn’t moved from his spot on this bleached driftwood log for the past hour. In front of him, Charlie Bradbury’s Annual Back to School Beach Party XXXtravaganza ;) is in full swing. Anywhere between one and two hundred Whitmore students are concentrated around a massive bonfire that Dean has also been put in charge of, as both the only sober person here and the only sober Fire Science major here. Victor Henriksen, a TA in the first year of his master’s in Forensic Science, promised some speakers, and he more than delivered. The loose grains of sand beneath Dean’s toes rumble in time to synth-heavy pop music.

He glances at his phone’s blank screen, brow furrowed. Sam left for his first year at Stanford the day before Dean left for his last at Whitmore. It doesn’t make sense for Dean to miss him any more than he has the past three years he’s been away at school with Sam still been at home in Sioux Falls, but this new distance hurts in a different way.

Downwind, Dean’s log stirs. He looks up, and Castiel, of all people, is sitting an almost respectable distance away from him with a red Solo cup in his hand. They sit in silence, staring at each other, Dean growing more and more exasperated the more and more Castiel stares at him without saying anything.

“…Yeah?” Dean finally snaps. He slips his phone into his pocket.

“This is a party,” Castiel observes, astute as ever. Dean knows he’s been drinking, has been keeping a wary eye on him since they arrived, but he hides it well.

Again, they sit in silence while Dean waits for Castiel to continue. When he doesn’t, Dean sighs deeply and stares longingly at his one allotted beer for the evening, which was finished before the sun even set. “And?” he tries.

“Parties are supposed to be fun. You don’t seem to be having fun.” As an afterthought, Castiel takes a sip of his drink.

“Thanks, Commander Data.” Dean plucks his empty beer from the sand and dangles it in Castiel’s direction. “I’ve already had my allotted fun for the night.”

“You can only have fun when you’re drunk?” Castiel says. “That seems ill-advised.”

“So, you’re the kinda drunk who doesn’t have even a remote semblance of a filter,” Dean says. “Good to know. Also, FYI, I can have fun sober. Sober fun. That’s like, birdwatching and sh*t. I can birdwatch.”

“I know a bit about birds,” Castiel says. “My brother—” A strange emotion crosses his face, like the moon retreating behind a cloud. “Never mind. It’s hot.”

Dean notes the caginess but refrains from commenting on it. “Welcome to summer in the Midwest,” he says. Then, when Castiel’s arms disappear inside his shirt and start to push it off: “Whoa, nelly—”

“I’ve decided to part ways with my shirt,” Castiel informs him, voice drifting from somewhere deep within his neck hole.

“That’s… good for you, buddy.” Dean averts his eyes, instead honing in on where Victor and Benny toss a football back and forth above the fire. Drunk idiots.

The rain hasn’t started yet, but mist hangs over the lake in a way Charlie has described more than once as “some straight up Crystal Lake sh*t.” Dean’s heard a few ominous rumbles, but it’s fifty-fifty whether they were caused by the weather or a heavy bassline. Benny tosses Victor the football and it goes right through the top of the fire. Victor whoops and catches it, then does a hot potato routine, blowing out a pretend fire on his palms. Normally, Dean wouldn’t intervene until he sees real flames somewhere other than the fire, but he’s thankful to have a reason to keep not-looking at Castiel. He stands and heads toward the chaos, refusing to excuse himself, because excusing himself would imply he was actually having a conversation with Castiel.

“Hey!” Dean shouts, his voice lost in the music. “Hey, numbnu*ts!” Victor and Benny both glance his way. Victor still has the football and pauses mid-throw. He starts to angle his arm toward Dean, who’s about to wave him off when there’s a tap on his shoulder.

He turns around, only to be confronted with exactly what he was trying to get away from: Castiel’s bare torso. “Listen, man,” he says, after the half-second it takes words to form in his brain and travel to his mouth. “No shirt, no shoes, no service. No offense.” Castiel is wider than expected, and Dean’s hackles rise automatically. Sure, Castiel is “cool,” but Dean at least had the comfort of assuming he could beat him at arm wrestling. Now he’s not so sure. The weed-patterned socks come to mind.

“Dean,” Castiel says, looking somewhere over Dean’s shoulder.

Dean keeps walking, head turned so Castiel can hear him. He just wants to leave and his face is hot. “Seriously, man. There are a hundred other people at this party. Go tell some of them how hot you are.”

“Dean,” Castiel says again. He’s still following him. “You really might want to—”

Dean turns around, and is immediately smacked in the face by a football.

“Turn—” Castiel tries, and then a disoriented Dean steps into a sand valley that is just deep enough he pitches, face-first, onto the beach with a damp smack.

“—around,” Castiel finishes lamely, now somewhere above him.

Dean spits out a mouthful of sand. “Awesome.” Castiel offers him a hand, but Dean ignores it and stands up on his own, brushing sand off himself. He’s a much bigger fan of the beach, lake, whatever, in theory.

Victor and Benny arrive, Victor in a middle of a profuse apology and Benny defying fate as he attempts to fish the football out of the bonfire, where it landed after bouncing off Dean’s nose. There’s a couple partygoers around them tittering, but no one else seems overly interested in the display Dean just made of himself.

“Seriously, dude,” Victor says. “Super my bad.”

Benny returns, ball-less. “You okay, chief?”

“Swell,” Dean says. Nearby, the fire pops. Probably the stitches in the football. Castiel still hovers in his peripheral. Grains of sand rasp on Dean’s tongue. “I’m gonna go clean myself up, sit in the Impala a bit. If you geniuses find another ball, keep it away from the fire, okay?”

“Roger that,” Victor says.

“Got it, boss,” Benny says.

“Great.” Dean hobbles toward the Impala, his dignity trailing behind him. When he realizes Castiel is still following him, he holds it in until he reaches the trunk and slams his hand down on it. He pinches the bridge of his nose with his other hand until he remembers it currently hurts and instead fishes his keys out of his pocket. “Dude. Get a freakin’ clue.”

“Are you okay?” Castiel asks. “I feel like I distracted you.”

“You’re distracting me now,” Dean snaps. “Hope there’s no more footballs around.” He circles round the trunk and pops it. “You wanna say sorry? I won’t say no to some grovelling.”

Nothing. Dean snorts.

Dean generally keeps the Impala pretty clean, but the trunk, in recent years, has taken on the role of extra storage for whoever needs it at the time. Jo’s got approximately five sweaters stuffed back here for their holiday road trips back to Sioux Falls, Charlie’s got camping gear she bought three years ago and never used, even Sam still has some crap back here, unsent college applications and, for some reason, his framed high school diploma. Dean’s plan is to dig through all the crap in search of the emergency kit he knows is back there somewhere, but as he’s shoving one of Bobby’s old duffel bags out of the way, he realizes the easier solution is to just go fish a can of beer out of one of the coolers and hold it to his face.

Castiel stands to one side of the trunk, one hand resting on the lip, waiting for Dean to come up for air. He withdraws his other hand from his pocket and holds it out to Dean. In it is Dean’s phone. “That’s why I was following you,” he says. “It fell out of your pocket when you stood up.”

“Oh.” Dean takes it. “Uh… thanks. I guess.”

“It would appear you have a text from someone named Sam,” Castiel informs him.

Dean glances down at the screen.

MESSAGES: SAM

Sam: For what it’s worth I miss you a lot dean.

Dean turns off his screen and makes sure to push his phone deeper into his pocket this time. “Thanks,” he mumbles as he slams the trunk shut, distracted.

Except it doesn’t shut.

And then Dean looks at Castiel.

And then Castiel is looking at his hand.

And then Dean looks back at the not-closed trunk.

And then Dean looks back at Castiel.

And then Dean looks at Castiel’s mangled hand.

And then Dean says, “Oh, sh*t.”

There’s already blood dripping down Castiel’s wrist as he holds it up to examine it, seemingly unperturbed. “sh*t,” Dean says again, coming around the truck to examine the damage. He digs his phone out of his pocket and turns on the flashlight. “Are you all right, man?”

Castiel contemplates the streak of blood down his forearm. “Well. My hand hurts.”

The light makes Dean hopeful, if only because the front half of Castiel’s hand is still attached to the back half. The edge of his hand took the most damage, and he’ll need a couple stitches at least. Probably bruise like a son of a bitch, too. “Get in the car and keep it elevated,” Dean orders, already in damage control mode. “I’ll be right back.”

He takes off, minding his steps in the sand this time. He grabs Castiel’s shirt from where he left it on the log, then shoves through sweaty partygoers until he finds Charlie speaking to a purple-haired girl with nary a spot for Jesus between them. He grabs her elbow and pulls her away. “Dude!” she exclaims, shoving him off. “I was like, this close.” She smushes the tip of her index finger into her thumb.

“I’m taking Castiel to the hospital,” he says.

Charlie blinks up at him, eyes glassy. “What?”

“Castiel—he has to go to the hospital, so I’m leaving for a bit.”

Understanding clicks into place behind Charlie’s eyes. “What?! What did you do to him? Is he okay?”

“I didn’t—” Dean falters, then continues with his lie anyway: “do… anything.” He’s not even convincing himself.

Charlie stares at him.

“It was an accident, okay!” Dean makes the conscious decision to drop his flailing arms to his side. “Listen, I’ll be back soon, all right? Just make sure no one else does anything stupid while I’m gone.” Above them, an unmistakable thunderclap shakes the skies. A few people scream, but the rest of the party whoops.

Dean returns to the Impala just as the first rain drops start to fall. Castiel sits in the passenger seat, hand cradled to his chest. He either couldn’t find anything to wipe himself down with or didn’t care enough to look, because now there’s rivulets of blood running from his chest down to the waistband of his shorts.

“Jesus,” Dean says as he shoves the keys into the ignition. “You look like you got shot.” He starts the car, then hands Castiel’s shirt to him. “Wrap that around your hand, okay, Fabio?”

Castiel does as he’s told, and Dean maneuvers the Impala back onto the road. “Hospital’s only twenty minutes away,” Dean says. “You’ll be fine.”

“It’s a good thing I’m drunk,” Castiel observes, trying to straighten out his fingers. He winces when he gets about halfway.

“That’s my life motto,” Dean says. He pulls onto the highway and switches on the windshield wipers.

They drive in silence for a few minutes, Dean casting the occasional glance toward Castiel. He’s pale, but perfectly alert.

“You can start at any time, by the way,” Castiel says.

Dean glances at him again, but then immediately returns his eyes to the road. “Start what?”

Even in his peripheral vision, he can see the smirk that worms its way onto Castiel’s face. “Apologizing. I won’t say no to some grovelling.”

Dean purses his lips and nods his head. “You know what? f*ck you. But I’ll give you that one.”

Castiel contemplates his answer. Then, “Who’s Sam?”

“Why does that matter?” It comes out defensive.

“Just wondering who managed to distract you so much you shut a door on my hand.”

Dean drums his fingers on the steering wheel. “Fine. My brother. Starting his first year at Stanford.”

“Jo and Sam are your only siblings?”

“I don’t wanna be rude, man—”

“Don’t you?”

Dean takes a deep breath. “I don’t want to be rude, but—why the hell do you care?”

Cas holds his wrapped hand up to his forehead like he’s faint, but he speaks in a heavy monotone. Above, rain patters against the roof of the car. “Anything to help distract from the pain.”

Dean rolls his eyes. “Yes, Jo and Sam are my only siblings. Jo isn’t even technically my sister, but she’s annoying enough she may as well be. Now, is that enough extorted information in exchange for your grievous injury?”

“No,” Castiel says, but he refrains from asking anything else until they reach the Fall’s Harbor hospital.

The hospital itself is an old brown building, barely big enough to have its own emergency department. Dean lets Castiel out at the doors, then parks the Impala in one of the many empty spaces in the lot. Not a ton of middle-of-the-night emergencies in a town like this.

Inside, Dean follows the sodium-tinged lighting to the front desk. Castiel is nowhere to be seen, so Dean assumes someone was awfully bored and saw to him right away. A blonde nurse sits behind the desk, tapping away at a computer that looks like it came directly from 2005. When Dean arrives in front of her, she looks up at him and beams. “Hiya!” she chirps. “You look like the friend.”

“Uh, the friend?”

The nurse stands up. “Of the fella that just came in here, right? Unless we’re suddenly having a very busy night.”

“Oh, um, yeah I drove him here,” Dean says. “I don’t know if I would call us friends.”

The nurse nods sagely. “Oh, yeah. Well, in that case I hope you don’t mind me calling the cops.”

Dean raises his eyebrows. “I’m sorry, what?”

She tsks. “Well if he’s not your friend, then you just slammed some poor boy’s hand in a car door and I think we oughta take that up with the local Sherriff, don’t you? Sounds like a pretty textbook case of assault to me.”

Dean puts both his hands on the desk. “I’m sorry… what?!”

She leans forward. “I’m just kiddin’ ya, hun.” She winks and chuckles. “Sorry, it’s awful quiet up here most nights. We like to have our fun. Take a seat, they’re just stitching up your buddy.” She bustles out of the room with a clipboard, leaving Dean feeling like he just got passed over by a twister. He shuffles over to the least spindly chair and takes a seat. He texts Charlie, asking if they got rained out or not. He flips to Sam’s messages, considering.

MESSAGES: SAM

Dean: Miss you too man. Broke a dude’s hand tonight.

He laughs as he tucks his phone back into his pocket, listening to the rain come down outside.

*

“This is perfect,” Charlie says over next-day pancakes. She’s wearing the same sunglasses from last night, hungover but delighted all the same.

Dean stops mid-chew, a rasher of bacon sticking out of his mouth. “That I messed up a guy’s hand?”

The two of them are sitting in a tiny vinyl diner just outside of Fall’s Harbor. Their only other company at this time of the morning is a few grey-haired seniors and a trucker or two. Everyone else is still sleeping it off on towels or in tents back at the lake. They’ve been doing morning-after pancakes since the inaugural Charlie Bradbury’s Annual Back to School Beach Party XXXtravaganza 😉 of freshman year. Dean was so hungover that first time he spent half his meal in the bathroom spewing the eggs he just ate back into the toilet.

Charlie deposits a bite of blueberry pancake into her mouth. “Well. No. I mean. Yes.” She co*cks her head thoughtfully. “I mean yes because it’s your Hermione moment.” She says this with great grandeur, then swallows her pancake as an afterthought.

Dean plucks his leftover bacon from his mouth and drops it back onto the plate. “I don’t get it.”

“Oh, please. Remember who made you read Harry Potter. I saw you crying in the student lounge when you finished book seven.”

Dean takes a belligerent sip of coffee. “Just tell me.”

“In the first book, Harry and Ron don’t like Hermione at the beginning at all. They think she’s a know-it-all.”

“She is,” Dean says.

“I know,” Charlie says proudly. “But then they fight the troll in the dungeons together, and after that, they’re bonded forever. Friendship through adversity.”

“You think I’m bonded to Castiel now because I shut his hand in a door?” Dean laughs.

Charlie gives an exaggerated shrug and sips her orange juice. “You did take him to the hospital.”

“’Cause I shut his hand in a door!” At Dean’s outburst, an older man sitting at the counter peers disapprovingly over the top of his newspaper. Dean clears his throat and lowers his voice, leaning in. “He talked to the ER doc for a long time in super hushed tones. Like, after he was all patched up and back in the waiting room. I don’t know what it means, but it’s weird. Like the dude’s in his own mafia movie or something. So, if you think this gets you off the hook for creeping on him, think again.”

Charlie rolls her eyes. “The subplot thickens. Yeah, dude, I’ll poke around.” She points her fork at him. “H is always right, though. Remember that.”

Chapter 2: September

Chapter Text

September

Dean’s getting laid tonight. He can feel it. He’s got his khakis, his striped t-shirt, his snapback, and his dressiest flip flops, worn over socks patterned with the American flag. He presents this look to Charlie as “stars and stripes from head to flop” and takes it as a good sign when she stands up and exits his bedroom, and then his apartment.

MESSAGES: CHARLIE

Dean: Was the cologne too much

Charlie: we’ve known each other 4 years and i still dont know if ur trolling or not

Dean: Come to the party

Charlie: no way dude. got raid

Dean cracks open a beer and begins the pregame.

MESSAGES: JO

Dean: Come to the party

Jo: no

MESSAGES: PAM

Dean: You going to that party on East Cameron tonight?

Pam: Sry hot stuff, got a couple readings lined up

Dean: pour one out in my honor

MESSAGES: BENNY

Dean: Ben man. You going to that party on East Cameron tonight?

Benny: Sorry chief. Workin close

*

Dean’s done parties solo before. He’s not too worried. He can mingle with the best of them. He polishes off his first beer and fetches another from the fridge. The sun is just setting, so he has some time to kill. He hasn’t needed a wingman since he was a freshman.

Dean’s apartment is a tiny one-bedroom with peeling paint and a faucet that doesn’t leak anymore only because he’s pretty handy. No matter what Charlie says, it’s a tasteful Playboy poster that hangs on the wall. He collapses back onto a fraying tartan couch he towed from Bobby and Ellen’s in his sophom*ore year and guzzles the rest of his second PBR.

If he’s getting laid tonight, it might do him well to pregame a little in that department too. He’s not quite obnoxious enough to keep lotion out in the living room, so he heads into his bedroom and lies flat on his bed, slicked hand slipping beneath his waistband. The alcohol has him just buzzed enough that he feels the familiar tingling at the back of his neck, and he tugs his shirt up, starting at a leisurely pace. His mind drifts between girls he’s slept with in the past. There’s a blonde he’s into in his biology lab this semester. He doesn’t know her name (yet), but he’s certainly seen enough of her to want to find out. There was that brunette with the shapely legs who walked by him on campus yesterday, but Jo was hardly impressed when he nudged her and made her drop her coffee.

There was Lisa with the great smile in freshman year, Carmen the other week, the girl on his Playboy poster, and all the other girls in between, and Dean closes his eyes and licks his lips and then bites down on his bottom one. He speeds up his hand a little, exhaling deeply, toes curling.

Even through his socks, Dean recognizes the few granules of sand he still hasn’t managed to remove from his life since Charlie Bradbury’s Annual Back to School Beach Party XXXtravaganza ;). They bring him back to that tragically sober night, sharing a driftwood log with Castiel the shirtless dickbag, eating sh*t on the beach, and the subsequent trip to the emergency room.

Castiel sits with them in Economics of Forestry now, but Dean hasn’t seen him outside of class since the morning after the party, when he hitched a ride home with someone who wasn’t Dean. Dean couldn’t help but think that was a little ungrateful, considering he had also, very generously, offered him the Impala to sleep in so he wouldn’t get sand in his wound. Castiel had politely declined, then disappeared until he took the open seat next to Jo in class a couple days later.

Dean’s cheeks still burn when he thinks of the faceplant he took in front of the entire party. He’s humiliated himself in front of crowds before, but generally only when he’s too drunk to care. All of this because some dude doesn’t understand the social convention of keeping a shirt on when talking to another dude. He pictures it now, stuck at the vantage point of Castiel’s feet, having to see that torso from the bottom up as if he was a chick giving him a blowj*b, ignoring the stupid hand he offered to help him up and—

Dean comes.

He opens his eyes and stares at his bedroom ceiling, waiting for his breathing to calm down. He stares at his streaked stomach. Then he reaches for a tissue and cleans himself up. He wants another beer. On his way to the kitchen, he winks at his poster. “Thanks, sweetheart.”

*

The party is thrown by a junior Dean’s never heard of in one of the sagging, student-infested town houses a couple blocks away from campus. By the time he arrives, night has fallen and every window is lit up. The bass rumbles beneath his feet as he walks up the driveway, and the promise of the night thrums in his chest as he squeezes between bodies to find the closest keg. A few vaguely familiar faces pass by, but for the most part Dean doesn’t recognize anyone. He’s got a couple pairs of eyes on him already, can tell by the way the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

He hangs around the keg while he polishes off his first drink (of the party), but not too close. Leaving himself available for conversation, but not too available. He gets a few glances, most of them varying levels of interested, but the first girl to actually speak to him doesn’t even bother to pretend. She marches up to him, eyes sharp and smile at the ready. “I’m Lydia,” she says, and holds out a hand.

Dean takes it. She smells good. He makes sure to give her an obvious up-and-down so she knows what she’s getting into. Judging by the way she marched over here, she certainly seems to. “Lydia,” Dean says, grinning. “I’m Dean.” She’s wearing a short black dress and heels that make her almost as tall as Dean.

“You were all alone over here,” Lydia says, crowding into his space. She has to get in close when she says more than a few words. Otherwise, the music threatens to drown her out. “I figured you could use some company.”

“I appreciate that,” Dean says, and Lydia rests a hand on his forearm. “I was very lonely in this room full of people.”

Lydia laughs in the way most women laugh when Dean says something that isn’t that funny but fully commits to the bit anyway. He responds to her physicality by resting his hand on the table beside them, forward enough that his arm is brushing against her side. “What are you looking for tonight, Lydia?” He leans close enough that he can murmur in her ear. Behind them, people are in all states of disheveled drunkenness, but what Dean’s really looking for is the amount of PDA being tolerated at this party. He’s been to parties where people get sequestered away in a closet for looking at each other too hard, and others where couples are practically getting it on in the living room. So long as someone’s already set the precedent, he doesn’t have to worry about treading on any toes. He’s delighted to see there are at least two couples sucking face in this room alone, so he won’t feel too grungy making a move on Lydia in public.

He's much less delighted, however, when he makes eye contact with Castiel across the room. For a moment, they stare at each other.

“Are you all right?” Lydia asks when Dean abruptly pulls away from her.

He shakes his head, dazed, and when he looks over Lydia’s shoulder again, Castiel is gone. “Yeah.” He smiles down at her. “Sorry about that. Now, where were we?”

Lydia threads a hand through his hair and pulls him down toward her. She captures his mouth with hers, immediately in control. Dean puts his hands around her waist, going along for the ride. They break apart and Lydia says, “You are a very handsome man, Dean.”

Dean touches his cheek. “Am I? Aw, shucks. You aren’t so bad yourself.”

Lydia puts a hand on his chest and walks him backwards through the living room, then into the foyer until his back bumps up against the railing of the staircase. She tilts his head to the side, pressing her lips to Dean’s neck. Down the hall, in the doorway between the foyer and the kitchen, Castiel leans against the wall, Solo cup in hand. He’s speaking to someone Dean can’t see, but from the tense set of Castiel’s shoulders, it doesn’t look like a fun conversation.

And then Lydia’s leading him by the hand upstairs, and as Dean casts a look behind him, he again makes brief eye contact with Castiel as he strides out the front door, face dark.

Lydia brings him into an empty, boring bedroom, and locks the door behind them. As soon as the lock clicks, she’s on him again, lifting his shirt and running her hands all over him. “You okay if I take the lead?” she asks, shimmying out of her dress. She’s wearing a black lace bra and panty set underneath.

“Please,” Dean says. Then, gesturing to her matching undergarments, “You sure came prepared.”

“Did you?”

Dean digs a condom out of his pocket and holds it up triumphantly. Lydia plucks it from his fingers and then shoves him backwards. His knees hit the bed behind him and he sinks down onto it, Lydia straddling him, running a hand through her long hair as it falls around her face and tickles Dean cheeks. She grinds into his lap, one hand in the center of his chest, holding him down against the bed. She pops the clasp of her bra and slips out of it, encouraging Dean to mouth at her nipples, his hands wrapped around her waist.

“Good,” she breathes, fingertips pressed hard enough to Dean’s back that he’s expecting a few bruises. “Good, now—” She works at Dean’s zipper, and he helps her along, shoving his jeans and boxers down his legs in one go. Lydia maneuvers out of her underwear, then tears open the condom and rolls it down over Dean’s dick. Dean takes a deep breath and holds it as Lydia sinks down onto him, eyes closed. When she’s fully seated, she opens her eyes and grins, eyes roving over Dean’s torso. “Not a bad view,” she says lightly, and then starts moving.

Dean holds onto her hips as she swivels back and forth, a woman on a mission. When she’s gotten into the swing of things, Dean trails one hand across the crease of her thigh, through her coarse, dark blonde hair, and starts circling her cl*t. “Oh,” Lydia breathes out, and her swiveling stutters a bit. “Yeah, that’s good.” She bounces lightly, chest rapidly rising and falling, and Dean’s thumb follows her movement, gently increasing the pressure.

He follows her instructions, pushing up into her at the same time that he strokes her cl*t, again, and again, and again, and then her hands are curling into fists against his chest and she breathes hard through her nose, and then she sighs deeply, shoulders slumping. “That was good, Dean.” She pats his arm, moves to dismount, then raises her eyebrows. “I can honestly say I’ve never had to ask this before, but: did you come?”

Dean bashfully runs a hand through his hair. “Hey, this has been great, but I. Ah.” He glances at the red numbers on the digital clock on the bedside table. “I’ve had a lot to drink tonight. Don’t take it personally.”

Lydia fully climbs off him and Dean sits up, his back sorer than he’d like to admit. “Are you sure?” Dean peels off the mostly empty condom, ties it anyway, and tosses it into the garbage can near the bed.

“Yeah. Listen, I should probably head out.” Dean pulls up his jeans and fishes his t-shirt from off the floor. He glances at Lydia. “Seriously, don’t take it personally.”

“Hey, I got mine,” she says. “No complaints on this end.”

They finish getting dressed in relative silence and meet each other at the door. On the other side, music thrums and people chatter in a low, hom*ogenous hum. Somewhere, a girl laughs, sudden and sharp.

“This was fun,” Dean says.

“It was.” Lydia opens the door and they stand in the relatively uncrowded upstairs hall. A few people wait in line for the bathroom, but no one pays them any mind. “Well. See you around,” she says, and disappears back down the stairs. She’s absorbed by the crowd of people in no time.

Dean taps his fingers on the doorknob, then follows Lydia down the stairs. Instead of heading back into the throng of people, Dean heads out the door and into the night. It’s cooled down a bit since he’s arrived, and his breath struggles to be seen in the early September air.

He’s only about twenty minutes from home, and as he walks down a much quieter street a block away, he pulls his phone out of his pocket.

MESSAGES: CHARLIE

Dean: Score.

*

Jo slept through half her classes in high school, and college has done little to change her bad habits. Any electives she has available, she squeezes her way into one of Dean’s classes so she can copy his notes when she inevitably misses half the semester. Once Dean realized that wasn’t changing no matter how many jokes he made at her expense, he gave up and just started sending Jo pictures of his notes after each class. So when Jo sends him a text five minutes before class on Monday morning that just says zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, Dean is hardly surprised. He is dismayed, however, when Castiel arrives and he’s lost his usual buffer.

Castiel dropped the leather jacket for most of August, but as the mornings have started to get cooler, he’s brought it back in full. He arrives in class with his motorcycle helmet under his arm, and Dean hasn’t yet successfully stopped himself from rolling his eyes when he sees it. Castiel takes his usual seat, leaving one between himself and Dean for Jo. Dean chews on his bottom lip. He feels obligated to make conversation, but Castiel is also his enemy, for reasons he’s sure Charlie will dig up soon. He doesn’t normally care when people he knows see him making a move on a girl—in fact, he usually enjoys putting on a bit of a show. Maybe it’s because he really doesn’t know Castiel, can’t get a read on what’s going on under all that leather and smugness. Plus, he promised Charlie he’d ease off. He can’t know how quickly he’s going to conveniently forget ever making that promise if he never tries to keep it.

“What do you do in the winter?”

Castiel, who’s still situating himself, looks at him, the circles under his eyes more prominent than usual. “What?”

“Your motorcycle,” Dean says, realizing immediately how fast this conversation is going downhill. “When you can’t ride it. Uh. In the winter.”

Castiel stares at him for a second, uncomprehending. Then, “I drive my car.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. He runs a hand through his hair. “Cool. Jo’s not coming today, by the way. Slept in.”

At the same time, Dean and Castiel’s gazes drop to the seat between them. Personally, Dean’s a big fan of the free space on bingo cards, classroom seating, and urinal selection, but there’s never a guarantee any given person in his shared environment feels the same. To mitigate potential disaster, he starts talking, a strategy proven just seconds ago to be ill-advised. “How’s the hand?” Before Castiel can even answer, he says, too quickly and shakily delivered, “Still a bit stiff.”

Castiel carefully peels his right glove off and holds up his hand. The stitches have since dissolved, but an angry pink line still wraps around his hand, ending near the center of his palm. The bruising is on its way out, at least. “Yes,” Castiel says, dry. “It’s a good thing I’m left-handed.”

Dean laughs and then swallows abruptly because he has no idea if Castiel is making the joke he thinks he’s making. “Yeah,” he says again, and they lapse into silence. Conversational voids are anathema to a social creature like Dean, but so is stilted small talk. He’s trying to find a segue back into being mean to Castiel so he can focus on hearing someone else talk instead of his own thoughts, but Castiel beats him to it.

“You seemed to enjoy that party on Saturday.” It’s an innocuous statement, but it’s said with such an infuriating smugness for a topic that doesn’t deserve it that the knot of anxiety in the pit of Dean’s stomach loosens.

“Come to watch a pro at work?” He matches Castiel smirk for smirk.

“I was just observing you in your self-professed natural habitat. I didn’t mean to throw off your whole ecosystem.”

“I hope you didn’t lose sleep over it. She certainly didn’t.” Dean fixes his expression into one of faux-pity. “It didn’t seem like you got a chance to apply what you’d learned. Maybe next time.”

Dr. Milton calls the class to attention, but Castiel’s gaze is still trained on Dean. “Yeah,” he says. “Maybe next time.”

*

“You may be wondering why I’ve called you here tonight,” Charlie announces to the table, which comprises herself, Jo, and Dean. The “table” is little more than a TV dinner stand in Jo’s dorm stacked high with all the cheap and free school merchandise Whitmore gives out at the beginning of each year to anything in the vicinity that has a pulse. It’s Dean’s favorite reverse-poker currency. “As you all know, it’s senior year—”

“Not mine,” Jo says.

“And you didn’t call us here,” Dean adds. He frowns down at his unfavorably favorable hand of cards.

Charlie presses on like she wasn’t just interrupted. “And I’d just like to remind the committee of Whitmore’s annual Winter Pride event, a one-of-a-kind celebration of everything gay and, most importantly, clothed. Also, I fold.”

“No,” Jo says. She tosses a burgundy lanyard into the pot. “I’m in. To the pot. Not the parade. I hate parades.”

Charlie turns her big eyes on Dean. Dean says, “I’m out. Of the round, and the parade.”

“You dick,” Jo says, and collects her losings.

“That’s hom*ophobic,” Charlie says, looking at Dean.

“Why is it only hom*ophobic for me?” Dean complains.

Jo smiles sweetly at him. “Because you’re the easiest to manipulate,” she says.

“That’s not true,” Dean says. He looks at Charlie. “Is that true?”

“Well, it depends on if you’re coming or not. And remember, it’s hom*ophobic if you don’t.” Charlie starts dealing again.

“It wasn’t hom*ophobic last year when I didn’t go,” Dean argues. “Or the year before that.”

“They changed the definition of hom*ophobia. If you don’t go to Pride at least once during your college career with your gay best friend: boom. hom*ophobe.”

Dean just used up his only free fold, so he’s especially disappointed to find a straight flush in his hand. “Fine,” he says, mentally making room in his apartment for all the emblazoned junk he’s about to cram into it. The rules of reverse poker say the winner/loser must prominently display all winnings until the next session. “Sign me up or RSVP me or whatever.”

“Awesome.” Charlie grins. “You’re gonna love the confetti cannon.”

*

In the first month or so of a new school year, there’s always a disproportionate number of parties compared to the rest of the semester. Everyone’s searching for a new friend, a new relationship, a new weed guy, or, in Dean’s case, a new hookup. What he gets instead is, inexplicably, Castiel.

It becomes an unspoken competition. Who can find who first at a party on any given night. Everything about Castiel’s general demeanor screams “not a partier”, and yet there he is, at almost every party Dean goes to. Sometimes it’s because someone from their now-mutual friend group invites him, which is annoying but at least makes sense. When Dean goes solo, however, he’s always checking around every corner and eyeing up dark-haired guys whose faces he can’t make out in the dim lighting.

The thing is, when they run into each other, they never say much. The first time it happened after the party where Dean hooked up with Lydia, Dean found Castiel leaning his forearms on the railing of the front porch, watching the comings and goings of the partiers. He stopped on his way in, already a little drunk. “You following me around now or something?”

Castiel glanced around. When he saw Dean, his eyes flashed with recognition and something a little wicked. “You did say next time.”

“Did I? I did.” Dean leaned on the railing next to him. “Find any marks?”

Castiel looked at him for what felt like a very long time. “No.”

Dean shrugged. “Well. That’s step one. If you find a girl, come find me. If you can’t find me, I’m with a girl. If I’m with a girl, stop trying to find me.”

“You’re so generous with your time,” Castiel observed as Dean walked off. Castiel never came to find him that night, but Dean did find a girl he can remember about half his time with. She gave him a hand job and her French tips made him tremble.

Then there was the party where he ran into Victor and Pam and entrusted them with his cherry-patterned snapback so he could make out with a cute redhead in the basem*nt along with a bunch of other similarly engaged couples. When he returned, hair standing on end and face covered in red lipstick, Castiel had joined them, holding Dean’s hat in his hand by two discerning fingers. Handing it back to Dean, he leaned in and said, “You have something on your face.”

At a different party, Dean stumbled into the smoker’s pit, and subsequently, Castiel. It was in an upper middle-class suburb Dean had never been to before, and he was snooping around when he walked into the backyard. A group of people lounged around a pool in various states of undress, smoking various substances, judging by the smell Dean walked into like it was a solid wall. Castiel lay on a lounge chair a little away from everyone else, disheveled but contained and smoking a joint. Dean made his way over to him, trying not to wrinkle his nose. He dragged a chair over and sat on it. Despite the dark, Castiel wore his aviators. Douchey move. The ethereal blue glow from the pool reflected in his lenses.

“Didn’t know this was your scene,” Dean said.

“I assumed it was yours,” Castiel said.

“What?”

Castiel gestured vaguely downwards, his fingertips brushing over Dean’s shins. “Whoa now—” Dean started, but then he remembered what socks he was wearing. The ones with the little marijuana leaf pattern. “Oh. Yeah, well. I guess.”

Castiel wordlessly held out his joint to Dean, offering it to him between his index and middle finger.

“I’m good,” Dean said. Castiel took Dean’s drag for himself and Dean took a gulp of his rum and co*ke. Across the pool, a skinny pale kid did vape tricks for a group of very impressed, very stoned spectators.

“Have you ever shotgunned?” Castiel asked. His aviators were still on, so Dean couldn’t tell if Castiel was watching him or not.

“Beer, yes. Weed, no.”

“Do you want to?”

Dean licked his lips. “No.”

Castiel didn’t seem perturbed. “It’s an open offer. Wouldn’t want your socks to come up short.”

In an attempt to extract himself from the awkward encounter, Dean stood up, caught his foot on an errant chair leg, and slopped half of his drink over the rim of his glass. Castiel pretending not to notice was somehow worse than if he had outright made fun of Dean for his clumsiness. Dean made a lame excuse, tucked tail, and ran.

He spent the next couple of days throwing furtive, angry glances at his weed socks.

Tonight, Dean and Charlie go to a different kind of party. “I said yes to a parade,” Dean says. “Not… this.” They’re outside The Popped Cherry, the gayest nightclub in the tristate area. They’re almost at the front of the line, and Dean is panicking. He already has a smear of body glitter of unknown origin on his cheek.

“Think of it as a dry run,” Charlie says. Her hair is up in a ponytail and she wears a tank top, which by her usual dress standards is almost scandalous.

Dean, however, is completely buttoned up. He’s dressed more for an internship than a club packed with sweaty, gyrating bodies. He even wore closed toed shoes. “This place is too much for me, Charlie. How the hell could you possibly enjoy this?” Charlie just shrugs, so Dean presses on. “Am I even allowed in here? I thought it was, like, gauche or something for a straight person to go to a gay club.”

Charlie starts coughing then, hard enough that Dean pounds her on the back. When she finally rights herself, she wipes tears out of her eyes and says, “It’s fine.”

They walk inside, and Dean immediately remembers why he prefers house parties to clubs. The place is packed from wall to wall, and the only reason they can find a table is because the couple sitting there leaves just as they’re walking by. They sit under a pink neon light that has Dean squinting through a rose-colored lens at everything around them. He pre-gamed before leaving, but now he’s positive he underestimated what he was getting himself into. The dance floor ahead of them is an overcrowded pit of chaos, and Dean counts as far as five separate sets of dudes making out before his cheeks threaten to melt off and he decides the tabletop is a much safer bet. “I don’t know if this is a good idea, Charlie,” he says.

Charlie reaches across the table and grabs his hand. “You’re gonna be fine,” she says, and smiles at him. “Besides, you love attention, kind of, in a weird way, and trust me when I say: you’re gonna get a lot of it tonight. I’m gonna go dance, okay? I promise I’ll be back in a bit.” She slides off her chair, slips between two people, and is gone.

“From women,” Dean calls after her, more for his benefit than her own. He can’t even hear his own voice over the music.

Dean nervously drums his fingers on the table. He’s afraid to look anywhere people might be making non-platonic physical contact. If he told Charlie that, she’d probably glare daggers at him, but he just—can’t. It feels like he’s intruding on something private, a life that isn’t his.

MESSAGES: JO

Dean: This was a bad idea.

Jo: ha ha

Dean: I’m sitting alone at a tiny sticky table because Charlie ditched me to go dance so I’m pretending I’m doing something important on my phone.

Jo: what so im not important

Dean: You know what I mean.

Jo: why arent u dancing

Dean: Shut up

Someone slides into the chair opposite Dean and he says, “Oh, thank god you’re—oh. Not who I was expecting.”

It’s a guy. With brown eyes and a beard. He has an orange drink with an umbrella in it in one hand and a whiskey in the other. He pushes the whiskey toward Dean. “Did I guess right? You look like you could really use it.”

Dean slowly drags the whiskey toward himself and gives it a whiff. “Am I—is this—” He doesn’t know a not-stupid way to ask if he should be wary to accept a drink that a random stranger brought over to him in a gay club, so he doesn’t. Plus, he really, desperately, needs a drink, so he drinks it. “Thanks.”

“Aaron,” the guy introduces himself.

Dean has the sudden urge to use a fake name, and in a strong surge of childish neener-neener bullying, Sam almost trips off his tongue. Instead, he clears his throat and says, “Dean.”

Aaron smiles at him. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Maybe the guy just wants to be friends. Literally everything Dean’s ever heard about gay clubs tells him otherwise, but he tries to tamp down on that. He likes alcohol more than he hates being uncomfortable. “You too,” he says. The whiskey goes down easy enough with the desperation.

“Are you here with anyone?” Aaron asks, taking a sip of his own drink. He’s one of the few people in the club dressed similarly to Dean, which makes him feel a little better, at least.

“My friend dragged me along,” Dean says. He looks out across the dance floor, as if expecting to spot Charlie’s very average-height form among the sea of people. “She’s out there somewhere, tearing it up, I’m sure.”

“And left you here all by yourself, huh?”

Dean chuckles and tries to take a sip out of his already empty glass. He puts it back on the table and starts fiddling with it. Guys have flirted with him before, and usually he’s able to rebuff them pretty adeptly, if his patchy, alcohol-addled memories of the incidents are any indicator. Unfortunately, he can’t remember what those rebuffs are at the moment, and he’s not inebriated enough to trust his instincts.

His face heats up as the silence between them stretches. He’s really good at bantering with girls he wants to sleep with. How can he be this bad at bantering with guys he doesn’t? “Listen,” he says haltingly, “thanks for the drink and all, but—”

Aaron puts his hands up in surrender. “Can’t fault a guy for trying. I can take a hint. If you change your mind…” Aaron grabs a discarded napkin from the table and digs a golf pencil from some hidden pocket. He holds it up. “Stole it from a mini golf place last week. I promise I’m lots of fun.” He scrawls a phone number on it and leaves it on the table. “See you around, Dean.”

It’s only after Aaron disappears that Dean allows himself to take a breath of relief. He texts Charlie, slips off his chair and beelines for the bar, paying way too much and waiting way too long for a couple shots of mediocre vodka that he slams back in quick succession. Once the lingering embarrassment has dissipated and left in its wake a warm buzz, Dean makes for the exit and the fresh air beyond.

There’s no line to get in anymore, and it’s that in-between time of the night when it’s too late for people to arrive but too early for people to leave, the street in front of the club mostly empty. It’s a chilly wet night, and Dean inhales gratefully as he walks down the sidewalk.

As he walks by the mouth of a nearby alley, he hears an angry, low voice and keeps walking for two more steps until he freezes in recognition. He doesn’t even think to hide, just turns and stares baldly down the mouth of the alley, mouth open, where a glitter-covered Castiel argues with a man Dean’s never seen before. Neither of them has noticed Dean yet, wrapped up in their argument as they are, and Dean stands there, trying to make sense of what his wavy vision is seeing.

“It’s no use,” Castiel says. “You need to tell them to back off. You need to back off. I’m doing this my way.”

“I’m doing you a favor here, Castiel,” the guy says in a British accent. He’s well-dressed and a little shorter than Cas, but he has a scrappy, dangerous look to him. “I know you’ve switched to yuck-yuck yokel time now that you’re living and loving in…” He sucks in air disdainfully through his teeth. “Middle America. But outside of your rednecked bubble, the rest of the world still sticks to a schedule.”

“I don’t need to be reprimanded, and especially not by you,” Castiel says, “I just need to be left—” He stops speaking and looks up, right at Dean, who waves a little.

“Oh, hey,” Dean says lightly. “Fancy seeing you here.”

The British guy turns around, and as soon as he locks eyes with Dean he lights up. “Oh, hello there. And who might you be?”

Dean opens his mouth, but Castiel cuts him off. “He’s no one. If he was someone, he’d be someone rudely interrupting a private conversation.”

Dean fails to take the hint. “Who might you be?” Dean says. “I’m Dean.”

The way the guy smiles—he’s a snake, no doubt about it. He walks toward Dean, holding out a hand. Dean takes it. “I’m an old friend of old Castiel’s here. We go way back, don’t we, mate?”

Castiel, stone-faced, remains silent.

“Not much of a sense of humor on this one, eh?” the guy says. He lets go of Dean’s hand, sizing him up. “It was nice meeting you, Dean, but I really must be going. Castiel,” he says over his shoulder, “until next time.”

And he’s gone.

Dean stares at the space the guy was just standing, then raises his gaze to meet Castiel’s. His brain is awhirl, which might be why the first thing he says into the flinty silence is, “Why are you covered in glitter?”

Castiel sighs deeply, as if in great pain. “I was otherwise occupied at The Popped Cherry when I ran into… my friend. We needed a quieter place to speak, so we came out here.”

Dean blinks a couple times. The vodka is starting to churn in his stomach, and not in a good way. “Hold on. Who were you there with?”

Castiel looks just as confused as Dean feels. “Who was I where with?”

“The Cherry,” Dean says. “Charlie dragged me here tonight. Who dragged you?”

“No one? I went by myself.”

Dean shakes his head, which makes him dizzy, and he stumbles. Castiel moves forward, but not much. “Are you all right? Where’s Charlie?”

“Inside,” Dean says. His mouth tastes sour. “Who was that guy?”

“I thought you didn’t like personal questions.”

It takes Dean a second to realize Castiel is talking about their car ride to the hospital from the lake. Dean shakes his head again. “No, ’cause this is—important.”

“I don’t think it is,” Castiel says. “I think what’s important is you finding Charlie and a place to sit down.”

“Mm-mm.” Dean steps backwards because it looks like Castiel is moving toward him. “No, it is.”

“If I tell you, will you go find Charlie so I don’t have you waking up in a gutter tomorrow morning on my conscience?”

Dean can’t follow that sentence, but he says, “Sure, whatever.”

“He’s an ex,” Castiel says. “A very ill-advised one.”

Dean’s never felt stupider than in this singular moment. “An ex-what?”

“Boyfriend.”

Dean licks what he thinks are very dry lips as he does the math in his head. “You’re gay.”

“Yep.”

Dean puts out a hand, searching for a nearby wall. Luckily, the bricks come to him. “Wait. This doesn’t make sense.” He mumbles it to himself more than to Castiel.

“I’m pretty sure it does.”

Dean keeps shaking his head. Everything is moving in waves. “You can’t be gay,” he whispers desperately, “you ride a motorcycle.”

And then he proceeds to throw up an entire stomach’s worth of alcohol.

*

“Dude, your feelings are totally valid or whatever, but I just want you to consider the optics of the situation. Just a little,” Charlie says as Dean crouches over a toilet in the men’s bathroom of The Popped Cherry, his stomach trying to detach itself from his body via his belly button.

“I’m a little busy here, Charlie,” Dean says as he flushes the toilet for the fifth time in ten minutes. He hears the door to the bathroom swing open, but can’t muster up the strength to tell the guy he probably wants to piss somewhere else at the moment.

“Yeah, and like I said, I super respect that and all, but I’m just saying. You find out a guy is gay and then immediately puke all over him.”

“I didn’t puke on him because of that. Jesus.”

Then a new, hesitant voice says, “Dean?” Then, to Charlie, “Hey, is that Dean? Is he okay?”

“His pride’s a little hurt,” Charlie offers, sounding less than impressed. “I’m keeping an eye on him. He’ll be fine.”

“I’ll be right back,” Aaron says, and exits the bathroom.

“f*ck,” Dean says.

“Who was that?” Charlie says.

“Aaron. Bought me a drink,” Dean tells the toilet seat.

“You don’t think he—” Charlie starts, but Dean waves his arm vaguely back as he waits for an especially nasty bout of nausea to pass.

“No.”

“’Cause I’ll kill him if he did,” Charlie says.

“Are you done being mad at me then?” Dean asks.

“No. This is the first time I ever got a table in this place and you just up and left it, you jerk.”

Dean laughs, and then groans. “Sorry.”

The door swings open again, and, like magic, a glass of water appears in front of him. He gulps it down in one go, then proceeds to throw it all back up a moment later.

“Oh,” Aaron says. “Uh. Sorry about that. I thought it would help.”

“It did,” Dean says. “Thanks.”

“Yeah, um. No problem. Hey, you didn’t actually puke on a guy ’cause you learned he was gay, right?”

“Yes,” Charlie says at the same time Dean says, “Obviously not.”

“Okay, like, that’s cool, I guess,” Aaron says. “You seem to have it all under control here so I’m just gonna. See myself out. Feel better, Dean.”

After the door swings shut, Dean says, “Goddammit, Charlie.”

“Did I ruin your chances?” Charlie asks. She perfunctorily pats him on the back.

“Shut up. Now he’s just gonna think I’m a total dick.”

“Well, tonight wasn’t your greatest showing, if I’m being honest.”

Dean stares into the toilet, wondering how difficult it would be to flush himself down it.

*

Dean’s promise to a very hungover himself and a much less hungover Charlie that he’s never drinking again lasts an impressive (for Dean) five days.

Then Pam group texts about a hundred different people inviting them to a party while her landlord is gone for the weekend, and Dean knows he has a duty to support his friend in all her endeavors, even if it means heroically sacrificing his hard-earned sobriety.

Jo sits on his bed while Dean stands in front of a mirror trying on different snapbacks, beer in hand.

“You know,” Jo says casually, picking at Dean’s thrifted wooden night stand, “if you keep partying at this rate, you might only graduate with a 4.0.”

“Shut up.”

Jo blows a raspberry. “You have the weirdest insecurities, dude.”

Dean’s wearing a baby pink sweater with a pair of cropped chinos, all the better to show off socks patterned with little cherries. He chooses a solid purple snapback and goes about carefully positioning it on his head so he doesn’t mess up his hair. He takes a sip of his beer, then shoots finger guns at himself in the mirror. “I’d do me,” he says. “Would you do me?”

Jo looks up at him. “As your sister, no. As not-your-sister, also no.”

“Perfect. Hey—Castiel is coming to this party, right?”

“Think so, yeah.”

Jo actually showed up to every one of Dr. Milton’s classes this week, so Dean was spared any more awkward one-on-one conversations with him. In fact, he mostly avoided him if he could help it. “Ugh. You know, James Bond makes it look easier than it is to have an arch-nemesis.”

“Oh, Jesus, not this bullsh*t again. What’s your problem with him this time? Lemme guess—because he’s gay.”

Dean rolls his eyes. “I’m gonna kill Charlie. No.”

“Okay. Then why?” Jo deepens her voice, doing a terrible impression of Dean. “Because vibes.”

“Because vibes,” Dean says at the same time, then flips her off. “Oh, f*ck you.”

*

One of the secrets Dean reserves for only his drunkest self is that he really loves wine coolers. Unfortunately, so does Pam, which is why Dean’s well and truly f*cked when she sets the cover charge to at least one six-pack of coolers, dealer’s choice. Dean’s set adrift in a sea of hard lemonades and ciders of all colors, and his pre-gamed brain is on the hunt for something sweet.

Castiel finds him sulking in the corner because Charlie teased him for drinking a strawberry-flavored Bacardi Breezer.

“I have a message from Charlie,” Castiel says, sidling up beside him. Dean takes a begrudging sip of his drink. “She says, and I quote, ‘I only make fun of you because you make it so easy. Pink drinks are for everyone. Love you.’”

“That’s a terrible pickup line,” Dean says.

“You’ll have to take it up with her.” Castiel is drinking something out of a Solo cup, and as far as Dean can tell, his tongue isn’t coated in a miasma of unnatural neon colors yet. “Also, in case you were wondering, I managed to scrub the vomit off my shoes.”

“I wasn’t,” Dean says, then manages to scrape up a few dregs of self-awareness. “Sorry. I guess.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Castiel says, “except that it was.”

“I mess up your hand, I upchuck on your shoes. Honestly, dude, wouldn’t even be offended if you never talked to me again. If you just went away forever.”

“Can I ask you a question?”

Dean holds up a finger, wait, and drains his bottle. He retreats to the nearest source of alcohol, grabs a blue bottle this time, returns to Castiel, pops the cap with his ring, then drains half of it in one go. “Okay, shoot.” His tongue is covered in a thick coating of sugar and sticky alcohol.

“What’s your problem with me?”

Dean takes another sip of what he thinks is supposed to be his blue raspberry-flavored drink to give himself time to come up with an answer. “Well, what’s your problem with me?”

“You’re very obnoxious,” Castiel says. At Dean’s affronted look he adds, “Oh, was that supposed to be rhetorical?”

Dean sucks his bottom lip between his teeth. “Kinda.” Castiel’s gaze follows the movement and Dean’s stomach flips. “Can I ask you a question, guy to guy. Straight guy to gay guy.”

The corner of Castiel’s mouth twitches. “Of course.”

Dean takes another long sip of his drink, the overwhelming nausea of last weekend’s hangover but a distant, vague memory. “Do you think I’m…” He searches for the word.

“Attractive?” Castiel offers.

Dean clears his throat. “Uh. Yeah.”

“I’ve never really thought about it,” Castiel says dryly. He puts his hands on either side of Dean’s face, narrowing his eyes. “Hold still.”

Dean holds so still he could be settling down for a winter of hibernation. Beneath Castiel’s touch, his face grows hot. He’s saved the fear of someone glancing their way because they’re semi-tucked into a window nook with the curtains closed, but he still swallows loud enough that Castiel notices. His eyes are dark in the dimly lit room, but they’re focused as they rove over each and every inch of Dean’s face. His gaze lingers for a good ten seconds on Dean’s lips.

Then he drops his hands and takes a small step back, shrugging. “I guess.” Dean blinks like he just woke up out of a trance. He feels kind of sick. Not alcohol-sick, but like something is worming around in his guts.

“I’m gonna go get another drink,” Dean announces before turning around and downing the rest of that drink as well.

For the next half hour, Dean sits on the couch and drinks too much. Lots of people are still milling about, and occasionally a girl will sit next to him and he’ll turn on the charm. He feels off tonight, though, unsettled. He even finally gets a chance to chat up the blonde from his chemistry lab (Jamie. Her name is Jamie) and she seems more than interested, but when it comes time for him to ask if she wants to move it somewhere a little more private, he fails to stick the landing. He still gets her number, at least, and promises to call.

Eventually, Charlie takes it upon herself to occupy the seat next to him. She’s more than a little tipsy as well, throwing an arm around his shoulders. “What’s the deal, stud? You know we’re like. Right over there.” She points, cooler in hand, to where their group of friends spills over into the living room from the kitchen.

“Yeah,” Dean says. “I know. Weird night.”

“What’s up, buttercup?” Charlie pecks him on the cheek. “Tell your GBF all your problems. I’m here to help.”

Dean watches from across the room as Castiel says something to Jo, who throws back her head and laughs. “Have you found anything on Castiel yet?”

“Nope!” Charlie chirps. “And I’ve actually looked, I promise. It’s kinda weird.”

Dean turns to look at her. “Weird how?”

“Dude, like. Doesn’t seem to exist. No Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram, no old embarrassing MySpace page… it’s like he grew up in Amish country, but I don’t know what kind of Amish person would name their kid ‘Castiel’.”

“Huh,” Dean says. “What about the British guy he was talking to? Anything on him?”

Charlie snorts. “Googling ‘white British guy’ and finding the exact white British guy you want sure would be a neat party trick.”

“So, is that it, then? Am I out of luck?”

Charlie sighs. “No, I guess not. Best friend status prohibits me from drawing a false line in the sand. I still haven’t checked his transfer record with Whitmore. He says he came from Bowdoin College, which is a tiny, bougie liberal arts school in the northeast, so I gotta confirm that. There’s still digging to be dug.”

“Thanks, Charlie,” Dean says. “I owe you a beer.”

“I still want it on record—I really like the guy. He’s cool. Also, might I remind you, your end of the bargain is to at least try to be friends with him, and I can’t say I’ve seen much progress in that department.”

“Hey, we were talking earlier tonight,” Dean protests.

“Oh yeah? I didn’t see it. About what?”

Dean sucks his cheeks in. “Uh. He gave me your dumb message.”

Charlie chuckles. “Oh yeah. I already forgot about that.” She grabs Dean’s green drink out of his hand and takes a sip. “I’m glad I didn’t deter you. These are horrible, but they’re also amazing.” She hands it back to Dean. “But relaying a message isn’t enough. You gotta go talk to Cas about something real.”

“What? Charlie, no, we already talked tonight, we’re done.”

Charlie raises an eyebrow. “Do you want the digging dug or not?”

“Goddammit.” Dean stands up and immediately sways. He borrows the top of Charlie’s head to balance himself. “If I throw up on the guy again, it’s your fault.”

“That is definitely not true,” Charlie says as Dean walks away.

As Dean approaches the group, Castiel peels himself away from it. He glances back at Charlie, who gives him a big thumbs up. When Castiel sees him, his eyes flash. “I’m heading out,” he says. “Would you care to join me?”

“You’re leaving?” Dean asks, probably a little too eager.

“Temporarily,” Castiel says. He holds up a joint. “My offer still stands.”

Dean’s going to kill Charlie. If he doesn’t go with Castiel right now, she’s going to use it against him forever. If he does go with Castiel, he’s gonna—

“sh*t,” Dean says. “Why not.”

He snags another neon colored bottle on his way out, aiming to complete the whole rainbow by the end of the night.

*

It’s a cool night, and Dean and Castiel are the only ones outside, sitting on a patio swing tucked into the corner of the dark backyard. It’s been mostly eaten by ivy and is rusted to the point of immobility, but it’s still usable as a place to sit. Castiel lights his joint, palm curved around it to tamp down on the air flow. Dean sits as far from him as possible on the small swing. “You didn’t answer my question earlier,” Castiel says, and takes a drag. He breathes out the smoke downwind from Dean.

“What question?” Dean asks. He rubs his arms.

“Why don’t you like me?”

Dean shrugs. He can already feel his ears turning pink. “I dunno. Why does anyone not like anyone.”

“Is it because I was too hesitant in my assessment of your face—did I offend you?” Castiel offers Dean the joint, but Dean shakes his head. “If you say a straight guy is good-looking he gets weirded out, but if you say he’s not, he gets mad. It’s a lose/lose situation no matter what.”

“I wouldn’t get weirded out. Or mad.”

“You vomited on me when you found out I was gay.”

“That is—I mean, technically true. But the two aren’t related, I swear.” Dean takes a drink. “You made fun of my shoes the first day we met.”

Castiel raises an eyebrow. “This is about your flip flops?”

“No. It’s just a thing you said.”

“Well, I obviously didn’t shame you away from them,” Castiel says, nodding down at the flip flops Dean is, indeed, currently wearing. “I’m almost at the point where I find them endearing, if you can believe it.”

“You would be the first,” Dean says, and actually laughs. “Geez—I can see my breath.” He absentmindedly rubs his arms again.

Castiel shrugs off his jacket and holds it out to Dean. “You can borrow that, if you want.”

“Oh, no, that’s—I’m good,” Dean says. He’s got a squeezy feeling in his chest, like someone’s trying to wring him out. Castiel slides his jacket back on.

All the windows facing the backyard are covered by curtains, but the meager light that sneaks around them doesn’t even touch Dean’s socked toes. The only light is from the butt of Castiel’s joint. They could be at the bottom of a well and Dean wouldn’t notice the difference.

“How’s your hand?”

“It’ll be fine,” Castiel says. “So long as I keep an eye on it when it’s around both you and a car.”

Dean smiles, but his limbs are all jangly. He’s got cooler-head, wired up on the sugar and intoxicated from the alcohol. “I’ll take you up on that offer,” he says, too fast.

Castiel looks at him, a little taken aback. “Okay. Come over here.”

Dean swallows and scoots closer to Castiel. “I just want to say, like—this is something you’d just do with your buds, right? Friend stuff.”

Castiel is silent for a moment. Then, “Sure. Friend stuff. Are we friends now?”

“If this is something friends—buddies—do, uh, then yeah, I guess.”

“Buddies,” Castiel confirms wryly, and puts a hand on the back of Dean’s head.

“Whoa,” Dean says, jerking back, scalp tingling. “That’s not—”

“You know what shotgunning is, right?”

“Yeah, I—yeah.”

“I’ll go easy,” Castiel says. “If that makes you feel better.”

“What does that mean?”

The hand is back on Dean’s head, solid and strong. Castiel pulls him forward until their faces are close enough Dean can feel Castiel’s pressing against his, even though they aren’t actually touching. Castiel’s grip in Dean’s hair tightens, just a little, and Dean makes a tiny, involuntary sound. “This,” Castiel says. “Does that work for you?”

Dean’s afraid to even exhale. “Yeah.” Both of his hands are balled into fists against his thighs.

“Don’t move,” Castiel murmurs. “Let me do the work." He brings the joint to his lips and takes a deep drag, then rests it behind him on the arm of the swing. He brings his now-free hand up to Dean’s face, just like he did earlier, but then taps on the corner of Dean’s mouth with his thumb. Open up.

Dean obliges, and then Castiel’s mouth is so close to his that Dean’s lips are tickled by his phantom stubble. Castiel blows a generous amount of smoke into Dean, holding him firm. Dean’s palms start to sweat, and he unclenches his fists, only to put his kneecaps in a death grip of their own. His eyes start to water, his thoughts go abstract and fuzzy, and then Castiel taps the corner of his mouth again, just barely edging toward the center of his bottom lip. “There,” he says, and only then does he reclaim his hands and move back.

Dean stays frozen for a moment, then slowly leans back into reality, holding the smoke for a few seconds before letting it curl out of his mouth.

“There,” he echoes faintly. “Uh.” He stands. “I should go. I think.”

He begins to walk away, when Castiel calls after him. “Dean.”

Dean turns. “Yeah?”

“Maybe we’ll run into each other next time.”

“Yeah,” Dean says, quieter, and keeps walking. He returns to the warmth of the house, searching out that leggy brunette from earlier. Later, when they’re both naked and spent, she asks if he has any weed on him. He tells her he already smoked it.

*

MESSAGES: CHARLIE

Dean: Can I have Castiel’s number.

Charlie: oh la la. are those friendship bells on the horizon?

Dean: Shut up. You want me to be his friend or not.

Charlie: does this mean I can stop chasing this ghost all over the internet

Charlie: are we wrapping up the subplot

Dean: That wasn’t our deal.

Charlie: Well I was hoping once you became friends you would feel bad about being a duplicitous two-faced meanie

Dean: Nope

Charlie: ugh fine. but this has to end someday.

*

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Dean: It’s Dean. Are you going to the Woodsboro party tonight?

Castiel: who

Castiel: that was a joke

Castiel: yes im going

Round two of the game continues. Dean’s getting into uncharted waters, but they’re friends. He texts his friends all the time asking if they’re going to parties. He’s asked Charlie lots of times what it’s like to sleep with girls, but he’s never had a chance to ask any girls what it’s like to sleep with guys. This is where Castiel comes in. For about a week’s worth of parties, he works himself up to a specific state of drunkenness, then drags Castiel away from the crowds and noise to sit him down and grill him. For what it’s worth, Castiel seems to find the whole thing hilarious.

“How many guys have you slept with?”

“A few.”

“Have you ever slept with a girl?”

“No.”

“What’s your favorite part of sleeping with a guy?”

“The sleeping part.”

“When did you know you were gay?”

“So far back I can’t even remember.”

“What’s it like to kiss a guy?”

“Bristly.”

“Do you ever find girls attractive?”

“Sure.”

“Would you ever sleep with a girl?”

“If there was a gun to my head.”

“Top or bottom?”

“Top or bottom?”

“What?”

“Well, what are you?”

“Straight. So the question doesn’t apply.”

“Doesn’t it?”

No.”

“Okay.”

“So… top or bottom?”

“Top, usually. Unless the other guy is squirrelly about bottoming. Can I ask you a question now? A real one, I promise.”

Dean’s in the bag enough by this point. “Hit me.”

They’re sitting side by side on the back porch. A few other people are milling around, but they’re at a big farmhouse in the country with a wraparound porch. It wasn’t exactly difficult to find some privacy. Castiel leans against one of the porch’s support beams, palms resting on his thighs. “Why are you so interested in all of this?”

Dean licks his lips. “Because I have a natural-born curiosity about the world around me?”

“That’s one answer, I suppose.”

“Well, why are you so willing to tell me all of this, smart guy?”

Castiel drums his fingers on his beer bottle. “That’s actually a good question.”

“All right, well, you think on that while I go find Suzie. She told me to come find her later and, you know.” Dean waggles his eyebrows and phantom-nudges Castiel with his elbow.

“Do you ever get tired of that?”

Dean finishes draining his beer and raises his eyebrows. “Tired of what?”

“Bragging about sleeping with an endless parade of women you don’t know.”

Dean laughs. He puts down his beer bottle and walks over to Castiel, standing directly in front of him. He puts both hands on Castiel’s shoulders and squeezes. “Castiel, buddy. That’s the whole point.” He heads off to find Suzie, whistling a jaunty tune.

*

The last weekend of September dawns golden. Dean spends the majority of Friday sequestered in his room, finishing up the first round of assignments for his classes. As late afternoon draws near, his phone vibrates from under the pillow where he hides it when he’s doing homework. He’s almost done anyway, so rolls his chair over and grabs it.

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Dean: There’s a party in Chestnut Grove tonight.

Cas: When and where?

Maybe it’s the relief of being homework-free, or experiencing what Dean assumes is the last nice weather before winter rears its ugly head in the Midwest, but he manages a pretty impressive stack of empties before he even makes it out the door. He’s wearing salmon-colored shorts and a grey henley he generally reserves for the cooler months, figuring they’ll balance themselves out.

Chestnut Grove is only a mile and a half away, so Dean makes the trek on foot. Arriving at a party at the right time is an art, and Dean rolls up just when they’re really getting into the swing of things. After he locates the keg, he finds Castiel in the basem*nt, sharing a ratty sofa with a few other guys who are all watching a college football game on a big screen TV. Castiel is wearing a fitted black v-neck and dark blue jeans, and his hair looks taller than normal. Dean parks a seat on the arm of the couch and whistles low. “Damn, dude, got a hot date?”

“Yes,” Castiel says.

Dean feels weirdly discombobulated. “Oh.”

“He just arrived.” Castiel still hasn’t taken his eyes off the screen, despite never once mentioning to Dean his apparently diehard love of college football.

“Oh,” Dean says again. “Should I—?”

“I’m talking about you,” Castiel says, finally looking at him. “It was a joke.”

“Oh,” Dean says, one more time. “Are we watching college ball for the entire time? Is that how you treat all your dates?”

Castiel brandishes a remote control at him. “We can watch whatever you want. Our friends here are all incredibly stoned.”

Dean never even noticed, but the three other guys on the couch are all in various states of absolute apathy. One of them stares, blank-faced, at the TV. The other two are sleeping on each other’s shoulders.

“Nice,” Dean says. He takes the remote. “Let’s see what’s on.”

*

A couple Die Hards later, their seatmates haven’t changed, but as Dean returns from the ground floor with another beer for himself (he’s lost count at this point), he decides he’s done sitting on the arm of the couch. Instead, he sets his beer on the coffee table and positions himself in Castiel’s lap.

“Oh,” Castiel says, hand at Dean’s waist. “Hello.”

“This isn’t weird ’cause you’re gay and I’m straight, right?” Dean asks. “’Cause we’re friends.”

“Don’t take this as too much of a compliment, but I suppose it depends on how friendly you want to be.”

“I’ll take that as an ‘okay,’” Dean says, and unpauses the movie.

At this point, he’s not paying much attention to the screen, though he is interested in the new development of him sitting on Castiel’s lap. Castiel leaves his hand on Dean’s waist, idly playing with the hem of his henley.

“What’s it like being gay?” Dean asks.

Castiel’s fingers still at Dean’s side. “What’s it like being straight?”

“I don’t know.”

Castiel coughs. “I don’t know, either.” When Dean shifts his position, Castiel’s hand on his waist tightens. “Okay. I do know,” he says, voice notably restrained. “Being gay is when someone like you sits on my lap.”

Dean turns around, meaning he shifts even more, and Castiel’s face is drawn, eyes shut. “I thought I was only medium-attractive.”

“I’m allergic to overstating things. You must own a mirror. And I know you have eyes. I’ve seen them.”

Dean licks his lips. “So, you’re saying that if I were to do something like this—” Dean purposely shifts backwards and almost topples over, and Castiel grabs him as he makes a very vexed noise. “That would be bad.”

Castiel takes a few deep breaths. “Dean, you’ve made it clear—crystal clear—that you are very, very heterosexual. So please let me tell you that if you don’t get off my lap soon you are going to learn how very, very hom*osexual I am.”

Dean’s heart races in his chest. He licks his lips again. He guzzles the last bit of his drink, that last bit of Dutch courage. “So? I’m an ally. Charlie told me so.”

Castiel’s pained expression changes so quickly it may as well invert and, for the first time since Dean has known him, Castiel well and truly laughs. And because Dean is fascinated and face-numbingly drunk, he laughs, too.

*

By the time the credits are rolling on the screen, the rest of the world has started moving in a similar direction. Dean stands up to stretch and hits the carpeted floor almost immediately.

“Whoa,” he says, giggling. Strong arms pull him up and leave him swaying on the spot. “I think I’m a little drunk.”

“You? Drunk?” Castiel says as they make their way to the stairs. Dean uses the wall to help guide him, and Castiel keeps him from tumbling backwards.

Castiel steers him out of the house, which is only about half as full as it was when Dean arrived, and they stand under a streetlight on a sidewalk. Dean fights the very strong urge to lie down.

“’kay bye,” he announces, and turns on the spot.

Behind him, Castiel sighs and starts following him.

Dean stops. “What are you doin’?”

Castiel encourages him along. “Making a big mistake, I’m sure.”

“What’s that mean?” Dean keeps trying to look at Castiel’s face as they walk, but he also keeps tripping over his own feet. Eventually, he throws his arm around Castiel’s shoulders to steady himself.

“If I let you leave I’d never hear the end of it from Charlie, and I think Jo might actually kill me if you got hurt stumbling home on your own, so—here I am. Lead the way.”

Castiel pulls him out of the path of an incoming mailbox. Dean pats him on the arm. “Thanks. I think.”

“You can make it up to me by forgetting everything I’m about to say.”

Dean tries to work that sentence through in his mind, but comes up blank. “Gotta be honest, here, dude, I have no idea what’s going on right now.”

“I was kind of counting on that.” Castiel stares up at the night sky, then sighs again. There seems to be something about Dean’s presence that brings out that reaction in him. “You are infuriatingly attractive. And incredibly obnoxious. And deeply closeted. And I have a hard and fast rule of not sleeping with anyone who checks at least two of those three boxes.” He stares at the sky again, this time as if he’s praying. “But, God, it would be so good.” He closes his eyes. “A terrible idea, obviously. But really, really good.” Dean pats him on the shoulder because he seems dismayed. “So, congratulations, I guess. I want to break the rules for you.”

“Aw, buddy,” Dean slurs. He’s practically walking sideways into Castiel at this point. “Congratulations to you, too.”

“Yeah. Congratulations to me,” Castiel says.

*

Castiel walks Dean right up to his apartment door, and Dean bows deeply. “I’d invite you in for a nightcap if you were a girl.”

“Unfortunate,” Castiel says. “Please tell me you can put yourself to bed.”

Dean salutes him. “Aye aye, sir.”

“See you, then,” Castiel says, and starts to leave, but Dean sloppily grabs him by the sleeve.

“Hey, wait.”

Castiel turns around and Dean walks up to him. Everything is still swimming, and Dean takes advantage of his diminished inhibitions to press a hand to Castiel’s chest. “Thanks, Cas.”

Castiel raises his eyebrows. “For what?”

Dean slides his hand down Castiel’s torso. “I’unno.” He licks his lips. He’s standing normally in the hallway one second, and the next, his and Castiel’s faces are closer than they were when they were shotgunning. If he could just—

Castiel takes a step back, but he doesn’t look happy about it. “Goddammit,” he says blandly to the heavens. “This isn’t what I meant.” He disentangles himself from Dean, and they stare at each other for a few seconds before Castiel breaks and says, “Listen. I’m an asshole, but I’m not this much of an asshole. You’ll thank me in the morning.” He disappears down the hall, the air around him buzzing with aggravation.

The first pangs of painful sobriety threaten to penetrate Dean’s golden buzz as he searches for his keys. He checks all of his pockets once, twice, before sliding to the floor and sitting, head in his palms. It’s only when he hears a telltale jingling that he remembers the keys were in his hand all along.

*

Dean wakes with a pounding headache, a dry mouth, and a pit of anxiety in his stomach that sends him stumbling to the bathroom and spending a couple hours getting to know the underside of his toilet seat. He doesn’t feel especially thankful.

By mid-afternoon, he’s swiping right on every girl he sees on Tinder. Dean usually prefers to meet girls in person so both parties know what they’re getting into, but he’s in the mood for a quicker than usual lay. He meets Shaylene a couple hours later at a dive bar out in the country. She looks just like her picture. Brown hair, brown eyes, curves for days. When Dean enters, half the bar is eyeing her up as she idly stirs a drink. Dean sidles up to the seat next to her, making sure to toss the peanut gallery a consolation wink.

“Hey,” Dean says. “Shaylene?” He flags down the bartender and orders a little hair of the dog, despite his stomach’s protest.

She smiles, sultry, giving him a blatant up and down. “Dean, right?”

“That’s me.” Dean grins at her.

Shaylene leans close, walking her fingers up his arm. “There’s a motel just down the road. What do you say?

Dean stares at her for a second, agog. “Uh. Hell yeah.”

He downs his beer in one go and follows her out the door.

*

The door has barely closed behind them when Shaylene shoves Dean into the nearest wall and kisses him. He kisses her back, making sure to catalogue the feel of her hair in his fist and the shape of her ass through her dress. He’s running his mouth over her neck and she’s unbuttoning his shirt when she says, “So, about my terms.”

Dean pulls back from her, askew. “Oh, like, rules?”

Shaylene takes a step back. “Like, money.”

Dean lets out a big breath. “Oh, sh*t. Oh.”

“Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry. I thought you realized.” She’s trying not to laugh at him. “Is this your first time?”

What? No. I—” Dean puts a hand to his face. “It’s been kind of a weird day. Just, uh—” He tries to discreetly check his wallet. “Do I, um. Do I tip you?”

Shaylene puts one delicate hand over her mouth and one on her hip. “Sure, honey, if you want… boy, this really is your first time, huh?”

Paying,” Dean clarifies, although the way things are going, he wouldn’t be surprised if she doesn’t believe him. “My first time paying. Not having sex.”

Shaylene steps toward him again and places an index finger under his jaw. She pulls his chin up, taking stock of him. “Pretty face like that, I suppose you don’t have much of an issue with the ladies.”

“I do okay.”

Shaylene appraises him. Dean’s still a little green around the gills from last night, but he didn’t realize it was that obvious. “Here’s the deal,” she says, dropping the giggly act. “I’m not much into that hooker with a heart of gold bullsh*t. I’m here to provide you a service. If you’ve changed your mind about wanting that service, that’s fine. Just give me a twenty for my time and I’m gone. Otherwise,” she trails her fingers down Dean’s cheek, getting back into character. “We can have some real fun.”

Dean swallows. His gut is churning. His eyes burn. The pit of anxiety in his stomach has mostly disappeared, leaving not much in its wake.

He smiles, wide. “Let’s have some fun.”

Chapter 3: October

Chapter Text

October

Dean shows up to class on Monday morning feeling and looking like he got run over by a truck. He makes sure to wait till the last possible minute, when the maximum number of people will be in the classroom. He keeps nervously looking at his phone, praying Jo isn’t going to skip out today. It’s when he’s distracted by that that someone running late brushes by him into the classroom. Their bag hits Dean’s thigh and they stop to apologize, then, “Winchester, right?”

Dean glances up, and it takes him a second to realize he’s looking at Dr. Milton, a man who looks like a graying lion with intense, dark eyes. He snaps his fingers. “Yes, I remember. You came to my office hours a few weeks ago. How’d the assignment go?”

Dean clears his throat. “I, uh. Handed it in on time.”

Dr. Milton does him the courtesy of chuckling. He tosses his mane of hair. “I’ve heard good things about you, Mr. Winchester. I’ve got to head in, but feel free to stop by my office hours anytime if you need anything else. I have some contacts in the industry if you’re still interested in going into public safety.”

“…Thanks…?” Dean says to Dr. Milton’s retreating back, throat suddenly dry. He stands outside the classroom door for a few seconds, feeling like a real idiot until he comes back to himself and hurries inside.

Jo and Castiel are both in their usual seats, and Dean is determined to act exactly like he acts every other day.

“Hey,” Jo says. “Didn’t see you all weekend. I texted you.”

“Yeah, sorry.” Dean glances at Castiel. “Met a girl on Saturday. We, uh.” He chuckles. “Hit it way off.”

“That’s super exciting,” Jo says. “I’m just your sister.”

“Barely.”

Jo socks him in the shoulder, then turns to Castiel. “What about you, Cas?”

Castiel doesn’t make eye contact with Dean when he says, “Nothing exciting.”

“Has Charlie bullied you into going to Winter Pride yet? Dean’s going.”

Castiel clears his throat, the corners of his mouth twitching. “Dean’s going to… Pride?” Now, he’s looking right at Dean. “You’re going to Pride?”

Dean plasters on a grin. “Charlie’s my best friend. I’m doing it for her.”

“And because you’re an ally,” Castiel says, dry as a bone.

Dean narrows his eyes. “Yeah. Yeah, I am.”

Castiel leans back in his chair. He contemplates Dean’s answer for a moment before turning back to Jo. “In the winter?”

*

Charlie’s told him to back off a few times, but Dean can’t keep his nose from her laptop screen. They’re in the Whitmore library on what Charlie assures him is an untraceable network. “Seriously, dude,” she says. “I get nervous with you breathing down my neck like some kind of fed.”

Dean gives up and slumps into the chair next to her. He has his own work to be doing, but that’s endlessly less intriguing than whatever Charlie’s about to find.

The Whitmore library is one of the oldest buildings on campus, drafty in the winter but made out of dark, stained woods and split leather armchairs sequestered among the stacks. Whitmore, like many other middle-of-the-road colleges, is still struggling to drag its technology out of the late ’90s. There’s a fax machine in the basem*nt that still sees occasional use and a few plasticky photocopiers dotted around the floors. Dean’s spent so many hours here studying for finals since he was a freshman that he takes a strange comfort in the mechanical whirs and clunks. With midterms approaching, the place has started filling up again, but Dean and Charlie managed to find a table for themselves without too much risk of someone (other than Dean) looking over their shoulders.

Charlie taps a few more keys, then sits back, arms crossed. “Okay. Just gotta let the algorithm do its thing and then we should be into Bowdoin’s database.”

“I gotta say, hacking’s a lot less exciting in real life,” Dean says.

“Most things are.” Charlie leans back and stretches until something pops. “Not to dissuade you from your inexplicable dislike of a guy who seems, for all intents and purposes, like a normal dude, but what exactly are you hoping to find here?”

Dean shrugs. “Search warrant. Mugshot. Scandal. Whatever works.”

“Whatever works for what, though? What’s your endgame?”

“I dunno, Charlie. I just want to know what his deal is.”

“His deal.”

“Yeah.”

Charlie pinches the bridge of her nose. “It’s been months and I can’t believe I’m only asking this now, but have you ever thought of just asking him? Like, aren’t you kind of friends at this point? You could just—” She lowers her voice until she’s doing a terrible impression of Dean. “‘Hey Cas, just wondering, have you ever killed or maimed anyone?’”

Dean snorts. “Like he’d tell me anything I actually wanted to know.”

“This is dumb,” Charlie says.

“You’re dumb,” Dean says.

“For letting you drag me into this? Trust me, I know.”

Dean drops his elbow on the table and rests his chin in his hand. “What if he’s no good?” he says quietly. “I mean, humor me for a sec. What if he’s seriously shady?”

“Do you know something I don’t?” Charlie searches Dean’s face. She seems genuinely concerned. “Did something happen between you two?”

Dean rubs his brow. “No.”

Charlie sighs deeply. “Okay, well, your turn to humor me for a sec. What if he’s just a guy?”

Dean loves Charlie like a sister, but this question has him feeling like a wild animal backed into a corner. The only answer he has for her is a dismissive scoff, and he doesn’t like the way she looks at him in response.

Thankfully, Charlie’s laptop chooses that moment to ping, and Dean is saved from any further probing. He takes a second to shake out his rattled nerves and then says, “Well?”

“Huh.” Charlie chews on her bottom lip, eyes roving her screen. “Nothing.”

“What does that mean?” It all looks like a bunch of Matrix-style gibberish to Dean.

“It means…” Charlie taps her thumb against the space bar. “No one by the name of Castiel Novak ever attended Bowdoin College.”

Dean spreads his hands, bordering on giddy. “So… we got him.”

Charlie shakes her head. “This doesn’t make any sense. How does he not exist anywhere?!” She bites her thumbnail. “I’m running this again.”

“We got him,” Dean repeats. He sighs, contented.

Charlie runs the algorithm two more times, and both times produce the same result: Nothing. Charlie has her head in her hands. “I don’t know what to do,” she says. “Cas said—”

“Castiel is a liar,” Dean says.

Charlie closes her laptop and stands up. “There has to be more to this. All I was doing was running names, text-based stuff. Maybe he attended under a different name, or there was a mistake and his record got deleted. Honestly, university systems are so far behind the times it’s possible—”

“Charlie,” Dean interrupts. “He’s bad news.”

Charlie whips around, truly pissed at him in a way she hasn’t been in a long time. “Why is that a good thing, Dean? Cas is our friend. Why do you so desperately need him to be the bad guy?” She shoves her laptop into her backpack. “I’m going home, and I’m going to keep working on this.” She shoulders her bag and starts walking away. “For the record, you’re being a huge dick right now.”

Dean watches her go, his already rickety jubilation ebbing.

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Dean: We need to talk.

*

Dean names an out of the way café tucked alongside a dingy highway bordering Kansas. The coffee tastes like sludge, but Dean wants to be as off the grid as possible. He sits with his eyes on the door and rips his napkin into tinier and tinier pieces.

When Castiel walks in, accompanied by the tinkling of a bell, Dean’s eyes immediately fall to the motorcycle helmet in his arms. Castiel is more windswept than usual even with his leather jacket fully zipped, carrying with him the early autumn chill. He spots Dean and walks over, sliding into the booth across from him. His gaze lingers on the torn napkin in front of Dean.

“This was… unexpected,” Castiel opens with. “You’re not even drunk.”

Dean fights the urge to roll his eyes. “I’m here to call a truce. A real one.”

“But Dean,” Castiel says wryly, “I thought we were already friends. That’s how you justify all those fun things we do together.”

“Shut the hell up,” Dean snaps, his cheeks growing hot. He glances around, but no one seems interested in their conversation except him. “I’m doing this for Charlie.”

“That’s a new one. What’s Charlie got to do with this?”

“She’s pretty pissed at me right now.”

“Well that part’s unsurprising, at least. What for?”

Dean takes a sip of coffee, mouth taut. Castiel watches him carefully, like he’s a slide under a microscope. “I knew something was hinky about you from the moment we met.”

Castiel raises an eyebrow. A muscle ticks in his jaw. “That’s a bold assertion.”

“I just knew,” Dean insists.

“Are you still mad about me saying I don’t find you attractive? Fine. Dean, you’re attractive.”

Castiel is just trying to get under his skin. Unfortunately, it’s working.

“I asked Charlie to do some digging on you,” Dean says. “She’s pretty good at computers. Like, genius-level.” Castiel is taken aback, but then the shutters go down behind his eyes. If Dean still needed any confirmation that Castiel is hiding something, that was it. “You are… a ghost, man. You don’t exist.”

“You can’t use an absence of something as proof of anything,” Castiel says.

“I can if it proves you’re a liar. You went to Bowdoin College, right?”

“Yes,” Castiel says. “That’s not a lie.”

“According to their database you didn’t.”

Castiel opens his mouth, then closes it. Dean wishes this felt better than it does.

Castiel sighs. “I did go to Bowdoin College,” he says. “But not as Castiel Novak.” Without asking, he snags Dean’s coffee and takes a sip. He makes a face and pushes it back toward Dean. “That’s disgusting.”

“Who are you, then?”

“I transferred schools and changed my name to put some distance between myself and my family.”

“Why?”

“That is more than none of your business,” Castiel says. Then, he relents. “They’re not very good people.”

Dean stares at his mug where Castiel put his mouth on it. “Is it because you’re gay?”

Castiel snorts. “That would’ve been too easy.”

Dean crosses his arms. “I don’t know, man. How could you just leave your family like that?” He thinks of Bobby and Ellen, Sam and Jo. The annual visit to his parents’ graves in Lawrence.

Castiel interlaces his fingers. “Do you think I changed my name and moved across the country so I could answer that question?” He leans forward, voice low. “You say you knew something was hinky with me the moment we met. I think your real problem is you knew there was something hinky with you the moment we met.”

Dean swallows. “We are not talking about me right now.”

“Maybe we should be.”

Dean stands up, ready to storm out, then remembers why he’s here. He takes a deep breath and sits down, back ramrod straight. “I’m here because I’ve been dragging Charlie through the mud since August, and I don’t want her to have to pay for the sh*t I did. All I want from you is a promise you won’t be mad at her.”

“I’m not mad at her,” Castiel says.

“Well. Good.” Dean sniffs. “I’m glad we got that cleared up.”

“Is that it?” Castiel says. “Are you done slandering me now?”

“No,” Dean says. “I mean, yes. But there’s something else I wanted to say.”

“I’m sure it’s something noteworthy.”

“Shut up.” Dean scratches the back of his neck. He licks his lips, and Castiel watches. Dean points. “That,” he blurts. “That—everything. All of it. Has to stop.”

“All of what?” Castiel asks.

“Stop playing dumb. You know what I’m talking about.”

Castiel co*cks his head, halfway to a smile. “Please, describe exactly what you don’t want me to do. In detail.”

“Whatever your deal is.” Dean gestures vaguely to encompass all of Castiel. “Stop it. I’m straight. Heterosexual. M4F. Et cetera.”

Castiel leans against the booth, resting his arm along the back of it. “You must be the straightest guy I’ve ever met, because you certainly say it the most I’ve ever heard.”

“We all have to be good at something.” Castiel surveys him for long enough that Dean has to drop his gaze. Talking about this kind of stuff always gets him pink-cheeked and sweaty-palmed. “I think we’re done,” he mumbles.

Castiel doesn’t seem too broken up by the whole thing. “Whatever you say.”

“We’re just two guys who have the same mutual friends,” Dean clarifies.

“Okay.”

“Who hung out that one time at that one party.”

“Okay.”

“And we’re forgetting everything that may or may not have happened after that.”

Ah, goes the glint in Castiel’s eyes. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Okay.”

MESSAGES: CHARLIE

Dean: Please don’t hate me.

Dean: Queen of Moondor.

Charlie: i don’t hate u

Charlie: drama queen

Charlie: im just cheesed off

Dean: I talked to him.

Charlie: u did??!

Dean: Everything’s fine. You’re off the hook.

Charlie: so what the hell was going on?

Dean: You were right. Just a mix up with his records.

Charlie: jfc

Charlie: u owe me all the beer

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Dean: This is a courtesy text. Your secret’s safe with me.

Castiel: Thank you. if anyone found out i was gay my life would be over

Dean: Smartass. Your other secret.

Castiel: I appreciate it i guess. Even though youre the one who unearthed it in the first place

Dean: You can just say thanks.

Castiel: We both know thats not true

*

Dean spends a lonely mid-October studying for midterms and annoying the hell out of Sam, who finally has to remind Dean to butt out of his life and get his own.

“Seriously, Dean,” Sam says on the phone one foggy afternoon. Dean’s crammed onto the one folding chair he can fit on his tiny balcony, feet kicked up on the wrought iron railing. He warily watches a spider dangle from the eavestrough above. “You’re not the only one with midterms.” His tone changes, grows concerned. “Is everything okay?"

“Yeah, dude, I’m fine. If you’re busy, it’s no big—”

“Is it Mom and Dad?”

The silence stretches even longer, Nebraska to California.

“I know you don’t like to talk about it, but with the anniversary so close…” Sam trails off, leaving nothing but static hissing between them. A light breeze blows, and the spider with it. Its spindly legs kick out as it tries to keep its grip.

“No,” Dean finally says. Then, “Sam.”

“Yeah?”

“How do you think Dad would feel about…” Now it’s Dean’s turn to trail off. This is how they’ve always talked about their parents, in half formed sentences and vague generalities. Dean remembers them better than Sam, but not by much.

“About what?”

Dean presses a hand to his forehead, running it back through his hair. “You know what. Never mind. Good luck on your midterms, Sammy. I gotta run.” He hangs up, leaning his head back and staring at the bottom of his upstairs neighbor’s equally tiny balcony.

*

MESSAGES: CHARLIE

Dean: What time should I be there for this parade

Charlie: sry, who is this??

Dean: C’mon Charlie

Charlie: dean?? dean winchester?? is that u??

Charlie: oh my god i thought u were dead

Charlie: cause u know

Charlie: no one’s seen u in days

Dean: I’ve been studying. For those things called midterms.

Charlie: sure

Charlie: this saturday, noon, downtown by the hy-vee

*

If Dean’s not a connoisseur of p*rn, then he’s at least pretty damn close. Lesbian, bukkake, hentai, threesomes, MILFs—he’s spent a lot of time since he was old enough to know how to delete his search history refining his tastes. Ever since the Shaylene debacle, he’s been hesitant to dip his toes back into the barfly pie, but that doesn’t mean he’s out of luck. He’s got a whole world right at his fingertips. Charlie is right—he really hasn’t seen anyone in days. The whole Castiel fiasco knocked him off balance, but he’s ready to get back in the game. There are plenty of girls out there who would love to sleep with him and plenty of parties for him to do it at, and all he needs is something to get the blood flowing again.

He’s on his bed, he’s got tissues, he’s got lotion, he’s got an internet connection. He scrolls the site’s main feed for a while, automatically phasing out anything with the word “step” or “sister” in the title. He clicks between a couple different videos, but exits out when the sets are too sparse or the dialogue too nonsensical. He doesn’t need full on realism, but he needs something. A little spark.

He eventually finds one that’s for all intents and purposes pretty boring, but the actors at least seem to be enjoying themselves. They’re in a bed and the guy is on top and the girl on the bottom, her legs wrapped around his waist. He keeps slipping out of her and they both laugh while they readjust. Dean has a sneaking suspicion he’s stumbled onto the popular with women category, a genre he frequented during his first few years of having sex after realizing org*sms were a two-way street. The camera angle is fixed from the side, none of the closeups that would usually make Dean raise his eyebrows. The girl is moaning, touching herself as the guy continues to f*ck her, his arms flexing every time he drives forward. Dean’s lubed hand drifts down to his dick, lightly palming it. He resituates himself on his bed and lies back, bending his knees so his feet are flat on the bed. Gaze drifting over the girl and the way the guy holds one of her wrists in his hand, he starts slow, timing his strokes with the sounds the guy makes.

Just as Dean’s really getting into it, the two stop and both glance out of frame. A moment later, another guy enters the scene, his fingers caressing the original guy’s back. The girl scoots up the bed, sitting cross legged, and the guy who was f*cking her takes her place. The new guy leans down and they start kissing, hips rolling together. The two of them are moaning between kisses, and the new guy slips one of his big hands between their bodies, taking both of them in his palm.

Dean pauses the video, his heart hammering away in his chest and his dick throbbing in his palm. What he likes about threesomes is getting to f*ck two girls. Even though it’s pretty obvious in retrospect, it never occurred to him that the ratio could work the other way. He continues stroking himself, more out of habit than anything, glancing at the still he paused the video on. He knows a lot of straight guys who have watched gay p*rn, more out of morbid curiosity than anything, but he always stayed away from it. Why go for two dicks when one is enough?

Is this what Castiel would watch? When he’s bored and lonely on a weeknight, just like Dean is tonight? Everyone has a type. Dean wonders what Castiel’s is. If Castiel likes it hard and rough or slow and sentimental. If he’d be into a video like this one or some of the more frightening ones with a lot of leather in the thumbnails that Dean always scrolls past. How tight he likes to hold himself, how fast he likes to go.

Dean keeps stroking himself, face hot and stomach tied up in knots. The adrenaline is lowering his inhibitions, his opinions on what he should do and what he wants to do quickly getting further and further away from each other. He pictures someone strong holding down his wrists like the guy did in the video, what it would feel like to wrap his legs around their strong waist while they drive into—

Dean comes all over his hand, breath stuttering, chest heaving. He stares at his bedroom ceiling, letting himself get sticky with come even though he usually cleans up right away. The feel-good hormones don’t stick around long, draining out of him like a leaky faucet. In their place, something acidic starts seeping into his bloodstream, leaving everything blurry and hot.

Dean can only bring himself to slam his laptop shut before collapsing back onto the bed.

*

Winter Pride is, as far as Dean understands it, a tradition unique to Whitmore. It’s basically the same as normal Pride, but it’s in the winter and everyone’s wearing a lot more layers.

“A bunch of people are gonna be in costume,” Charlie informs him as they drive into town. “This is basically Whitmore’s—and every other college’s within a hundred miles—big gay Halloween party. You’re going to see a lot of dumb hipsters dressed up like closets.”

“But you’re too cool for that,” Dean says. A vague nervousness has been chipping away at him all day. He knows it’s basically just another big party (and God knows he’s been to enough of those this semester already) but he’s never been to an event specifically to celebrate anything more exciting than a birthday. It’s similar to the unease he felt walking into The Popped Cherry, like he’s entering a world he doesn’t belong.

“Naturally. But also, I hooked up with a closet last year and if both of us had been wearing the same outfit it would’ve been a) embarrassing, and b) an awful tight fit in that Starbucks bathroom stall.”

“Oh, gross.”

“hom*ophobic.”

“That is not hom*ophobia. That is me exercising my first amendment right to free speech as a red-blooded American.”

“Fine. I’ll let you get away with it because you didn’t bail last minute. Speaking of, I owe Jo twenty bucks.”

Dean makes a left onto a side street near the main drag of town, and the only time he can remember seeing it this busy is during the beginning and end of the school year when all the parents are tearfully helicoptering their soon-to-be freshmen. “You’re my best friend. I would never bail on you, say, during your first time at a crowded gay club that I dragged you to in the first place.”

“We should park here,” Charlie informs him. “A lot of streets are blocked off for the parade route. And if you saw how hot the girl I was dancing with was, you’d understand.”

For a mid-October outdoors celebration, it’s a pretty nice day. Dean purposely wore muted colors in an effort to blend in as much as possible, a cream-colored Henley under a canvas jacket and dark jeans with holes in them, but they pass a few brave, mostly-naked souls brandishing body-painted rainbows on their bare skin. Dean turns to Charlie. “Those guys are gonna freeze their nuts off for the cause?”

Charlie laughs. “Once the parade gets going they’ll find someone to share body heat with. Some people treat this just like the real Pride in June, which is equal parts admirable and stupid, ’cause it’s like. October.”

“I guess I wouldn’t know,” Dean says, shoving his hands into his pockets.

Charlie stops walking. “sh*t. It’s your first Pride. I know that but I keep forgetting I know that. It can be kind of overwhelming.” She links her arm with Dean’s and starts walking again. “It’s gonna be fine, handmaiden. I promise I’ll only ditch you if I run into that hot closet again.”

When they round the bend to the main drag of town, Dean is blown away, not so much by the lackluster decorations, but the sheer amount of people that showed up in spite of them. The décor is an overwhelming miasma of rainbows, skulls, pumpkins, and ghosts. A few hundred people, at least, line the streets in varying stages of undress. A couple cop cars are parked at either end of the street, directing traffic. “Monster Mash” is blaring from a set of speakers on top of a car, but quickly fades into a song Dean knows is by Cher, though he can’t place the actual title. He swallows. “This is…”

“A total mess?” Charlie chirps happily. “People tend to forget this is a school-run event and therefore has a budget of about five dollars. It’s awesome.”

Dean fills up his cheeks with air and then slowly blows it out. “So, uh. What do we do?”

Charlie grabs his hand and twirls away from him. “We can dance to Cher?”

“No.”

She twirls back toward him and into a dip. “Okay. That’s fair.”

Dean looks out at the sea of rainbows and pumpkins in front of him. “Would it be bad if I tried to pick up a chick here?”

“It probably wouldn’t be good.”

There’s a fountain in the center of a closed-off roundabout, and Dean drags Charlie toward it. From this vantage point, he can properly see the crowd, and his nerves ratchet up a notch. He’s been to similar-sized parties before, but he’s not sure he’s been overwhelmed by his own mere existence quite like this. Down the street, the two half-naked guys they saw earlier are attached at the mouth. It’s chilly by the fountain, and Charlie shivers and zips up her hoodie. Dean looks down at his lap. “I dunno if this is a good idea.”

Charlie sighs. “If you’re that desperate, I’m sure there are some bi girls here who—”

Dean shakes his head. “That’s not what I mean.” He gestures at the chaos in front of him. “This isn’t for me, Charlie. This isn’t my scene. I feel weird being here.”

Charlie doesn’t immediately respond. Instead, she laces her fingers together and purses her lips. She scratches her eyebrow with her wrist. “Are you sure… this not being your scene and you feeling weird here isn’t the same thing?”

“Judging by the tone of your voice, no, I’m not, but I also have no idea what you’re talking about. Tone down the double negatives a bit.”

It’s been ages since Charlie has seemed reticent to have a conversation. She’s usually the one who loves to talk, at length and without shame, which has always been a useful way to balance out some of Dean’s moodier days. “You’re making me nervous here, Charlie. What are you trying to say?”

Charlie seems to be having an intense internal debate on whether to continue this conversation. She’s very still, and then suddenly she’s holding one of Dean’s hands in both of hers. “You’re my best friend, Dean. Like, not just best friend at the moment, but the best friend I’ve ever had.”

Dean’s starting to feel like he’s been sitting in a pot of water that has just started to heat up. He wants to say something nice back, but he’s having trouble making any words at all. His grip on Charlie is just as tight as her grip on him.

Charlie opens her mouth, and for a moment no words come out. She shakes her head, then sighs and tries again. “You know you can talk to me about anything, right? I love you.”

Dean blinks furiously, his eyes hot and itchy. He looks away from Charlie, up at the sky to coax the tears back in. His voice is thick. “I know.”

They sit in silence for a moment, until the tension between them ebbs and Dean feels safe to actually meet Charlie’s eye without embarrassing himself. She takes her hands back and laughs a little. “If it makes you feel better, this is technically billed as an LGBT-inclusive event. I mean, we all know it’s Winter Pride, but if you’re into like, the technical terms for it, it’s just a really colorful Halloween party.”

“Is that the proper legalese?” Dean asks. He still feels a little waterlogged, but he grins anyway.

“Oh, shut up.” Charlie stands up and takes Dean with her. The crowd in front of them shifts in anticipation.

“You know, I’ve been meaning to ask this for years,” Dean says as Charlie pulls him into the crowd. He pulls a couple moves himself to avoid running into people.

“What’s that?”

“You keep calling it Winter Pride.”

“And?”

“Well… it’s autumn.”

*

“I am too sober for this.”

“Oh, c’mon,” Charlie needles him as a Ghostface and a guy in nothing but a jockstrap go running past. “It’s fun! We’re having fun.”

“It’s just… total chaos.” It’s been about an hour since the “parade” started, and it’s since mostly consisted of a wave of college-aged kids crowding the street, competing genres of music blasted at eardrum-rattling volume, and a bunch of clubs and local businesses promoting their services and giving away free rainbow-patterned tchotchkes.

“How is this different than any other party you’ve been to? Or Charlie Bradbury’s Annual Back to School Beach Party XXXtravaganza ;)?” Charlie asks, winking.

“I’ve seen more balls in the past hour than my last three years of college combined.”

“Point. Okay, besides the balls.”

“There’s two competing themes. It’s jarring and bad. Plus, the safety parameters are totally bunk. There’s way too many people here for the amount of security hired.”

Charlie stops in the middle of the street, eyebrow raised. A tall, lanky dude wearing a nude-colored bodysuit with a sign around his neck that says “Nudist not on strike” walks by. Dean stares after him, until Charlie snaps her fingers in front of his face. “Have you been watching HGTV again?”

The tips of Dean’s ears turn pink. “No.”

“Dean, we’ve talked about this. Anytime you have that channel on, you have to immediately call me so we can take bets on how pissed off Sarah gets at Bryan that week.”

Dean waves her off. “I was drunk, okay? Besides, I was watching Property Brothers.”

Charlie looks like she’s about to argue when her gaze shifts past Dean and she breaks out into a smile. “Hey!” she calls happily, rushing by Dean to envelop Castiel in a hug. “You made it!”

Castiel hugs her back, if a little stiffly. “Sorry I’m late. It was difficult to find parking, even with my bike.”

Charlie kisses him on the cheek. “I’m just glad you’re here. So—what do you think?” She gestures at the party around them, beaming, but first, Castiel makes brief eye contact with Dean, who gives him a curt nod. He’d completely forgotten Charlie invited Castiel, and the icy-hot tingling that’s currently rainstick-ing through him isn’t leaving him with a lot of room for coherent thought. Castiel didn’t dress up either, though he is wearing an uncharacteristically lavender sweater under his jacket.

“It sure looks—like a parade,” Castiel says. “Kind of. Hello, Dean.”

“Hi,” Dean says. He doesn’t want to lay it on too thick with Charlie right there, but he’s already grinding his teeth.

“It’s amazing, is what it is,” Charlie says. “I need you in my corner on this one ’cause Dean’s being a butthead about it.”

“In that case, I love it. It’s the best parade I’ve ever been to. A complete showstopper.”

Charlie sticks her tongue out at Dean, who rolls his eyes. “Well, I guess you two showed me. Although I think what you meant is it’s more of a traffic-stopper. Look at those dudes over there, they seem pretty pissed.”

Charlie and Castiel follow his gaze, and Charlie’s mouth drops into a flat line. “Sheesh, these dips again,” she says, more annoyed than anything. “Every year, like clockwork.”

Dean takes a closer look. They’re behind the barriers and carrying signs with a lot of Bible verses on them. “Oh. They’re not mad about traffic, are they.”

“Not quite,” Charlie says.

Dean feels like a turd. “Sorry.”

“You’re not the one picketing a Pride parade.”

Dean’s shoes suddenly become the most interesting thing he’s ever seen. “Still, it, like, sucks.”

“Yep,” Charlie says cheerfully. “But not to worry. Those guys are gonna see more sloppy gay making out today than they’ll see in the entire rest of the year. They won’t be able to sleep for weeks. They do it to themselves, really.”

“What they deserve is a punch in the face,” Dean says. “I wanna go over there and pop them one.”

“I’m not gonna argue with that, but the cops right beside them might have a thing or two to say about it.”

Castiel sticks his hands in his pockets. “Why didn’t we ever think of that? Just punch the protesters in the face.” He pulls one hand out and examines it. “Maybe we’re all too limp-wristed.”

Dean points a finger at Castiel. “That’s not what I meant.” He pivots it so it’s pointing at Charlie. “That is not what I meant.” Charlie pats him consolingly on the shoulder. There, there.

“By the way, Cas,” Charlie says, “I just wanted to offer, with both me and Dean here, an official apology about the, y’know, cyberstalking or whatever.”

Dean’s stomach does a flip or three. He meets Castiel’s eye and minutely shakes his head. Charlie nudges him with her elbow. “Yeah,” he says. “Sorry or whatever.”

“You already apologized,” Castiel tells her. “And Dean apologized profusely. He was down on his knees, begging me to—”

“Okay,” Dean cuts in.

“Like I said, it’s fine. No hard feelings. I’m actually impressed you were able to track that information—or lack of it—down. I know maybe three people who could do that, and they’d need six months and an entire department under them to make it happen.”

“In that case,” Charlie flicks her hair over her shoulder and buffs her nails on her hoodie. “You’re welcome.”

“You’re going to do great things, Charlie Bradbury,” Castiel says, and even looks fond as he says it. Dean didn’t know Castiel could feel such an emotion.

“Thanks,” Charlie says, moved.

Dean, who has up to this moment been staying as far away from Castiel as possible without being obvious about it, situates himself between the two of them. “All right, bonding time over.” He points at Castiel. “Sorry, the position of supportive best friend has already been taken.”

Charlie shoves herself back in the middle. “Dean has abandonment issues and I’m an incredibly awesome person who has to fend off platonic suitors at every hour of the day. He gets insecure.”

“That’s a lie. I’m super confident and sure of myself.”

“Yeah, ’cause only super confident guys wear weed socks when they’ve smoked weed once in their lives behind the bleachers in high school.”

Dean ignores the fact that Charlie doesn’t quite have them all, and the two get into a friendly scuffle that ends with Charlie holding him in a casual headlock. Castiel watches this display with a faint, bemused smile. Dean reaches up and smacks ineffectively at Charlie’s shoulder. “Okay, okay, uncle, uncle!”

Charlie releases him, and Dean straightens up, rubbing a hand against his neck. “You’ll be hearing from my lawyers, Red.”

“You have no proof,” Charlie says. “Cas saw nothing, right, Cas?”

Castiel looks caught off-guard at being brought into the fiction. “Saw what?”

Charlie grins at Dean, and Dean playfully shoves her. She regains her balance a couple steps away, but then freezes, staring somewhere into the crowd.

“Charlie?” Dean hurries over. “You okay?”

“Oh, sh*t,” Charlie says.

“What?!”

“That’s her,” Charlie says, dazed. “That’s the closet.”

“The what—oh.”

Castiel is scanning the crowd as well. “Who?”

Charlie’s eyes are wide. “The closet,” she repeats, dazed.

Dean rolls his eyes. “Long story short, some chick she hooked up with last year. Or, well, I guess that was the whole story, so, short story short.”

Charlie blinks a couple times, then tucks a fist under her chin and slowly turns to Dean, face scrunched up. “Dean…”

Dean glances back at the closet, a pretty girl with light brown, pinned-back hair. She must have left her ironic hipster costume at home, because she’s wearing regular clothes this year. He looks back to Charlie, who’s blinking big sad eyes at him, then back to the closet, and back to Charlie, a sinking feeling in his gut. “No,” he says. “No way, Charlie, come on.”

“You know, I did technically leave myself a loophole earlier when I promised I wouldn’t ditch you.” Charlie’s tone is apologetic, but not nearly enough. “I did say, if I run into her…” She turns to Castiel and beckons him forward. “Plus, Cas is here! Our friend Cas, who we have no more secret beef with and who can also act as a buffer for any hot gay guys who want to try something with you.” She pulls Dean down to her level so she can speak quietly to him. “Seriously, dude, I had some of the best sex of my life with this girl, and if anyone can empathize with that, it’s you.” She lets him go and he straightens up.

Dean sighs. “f*ck. Well, who am I to stand in the way of true love. Go get ’em, tiger.”

“I promise I’ll make it up to you,” Charlie says, hugging Dean and then hugging Castiel. Spiritually, she’s already gone, astral projecting herself into the crowd surrounding them. “You’ll be fine, I swear. I’ll meet up with you guys later, okay?” She disappears in moments, swallowed by the people and the music.

Castiel turns to Dean, his expression already unbearable. “Are we friends again? I’ve lost track.”

“Charlie thinks we are. So, when she’s around, I guess so.”

“How around is around?” Castiel gestures to their immediate surroundings. “Does this count as ‘around’?”

Dean starts walking. “I’m gonna say no, because you’re already pissing me off.”

Castiel keeps pace with him. “I just want to respect your boundaries. Friends, not friends, it’s all very difficult to parse.”

Dean stops abruptly and holds his arm out in front of him. “This right here? That’s my personal space boundary, three hundred and sixty degrees around me at all times.” He starts walking again.

Castiel keeps pace again. “Is this about that party? With you trying to kiss me and me rejecting you? It wasn’t personal, I promise.”

Dean screeches to another halt, pink to every tip. He turns to face Castiel, looks him right in the eye. “That didn’t happen.”

“Did you forget that as well?” Castiel says. “I didn’t expect you to remember anything else about that night, but the humiliation that comes with getting rejected seemed sobering enough to make sure it would play on repeat behind your eyelids every night before you go to sleep for the rest of your life.”

Dean forgets to be annoyed and is instead only sick. He chews on his bottom lip, then runs his tongue across it. He swallows, hard. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m happy to recount the events,” Castiel offers.

“For the last time,” Dean hisses, finding a spark somewhere inside himself, “there were no events.” A boisterous group rumbles past them, someone knocking into Dean’s shoulder as they go. It’s a solid reminder that they’re currently in a very public place having a very private discussion.

“So you do know what I’m talking about,” Castiel says. “If you remember enough to know there were no ‘events.’”

“Yes. No—wait. No. Ugh. You always talk in circles, it drives me nuts. Can’t you ever just say things normally?” Dean’s walked far enough that he can read the protesters’ signs more clearly now. It’s certainly not the cleverest vitriol he’s ever seen, especially how it pertains to God’s opinions of fa*gs. As Charlie promised, two men are passionately making out on their side of the barrier, and the protestors are doing their best to ignore and demean them at the same time. For a moment, Dean forgets he’s arguing with Castiel and just stares at the dicks with the signs. The cosmic unfairness of general existence has a habit of draining the fight out of him. Castiel stands beside him, watching. “You didn’t even seem to care when you saw them,” Dean says, kind of in awe.

Castiel shrugs. “I came to a Pride event in a small town in the Midwest. I knew what I was getting into.” He glances sideways at Dean. “You seem more bothered by them than anyone here.”

“Well, it’s just like—what the f*ck?”

“That about sums it up. Have you not seen protesters like this before?”

It’s Dean’s turn to shrug. “Some dude once asked Charlie to make out with his girlfriend at a party and she spit on him. Does that count?”

Castiel snorts. “Sure.”

Dean’s shoulders sag. “We should probably get back to arguing, but these jokers took the wind right out of my sails.”

“What would you suggest we do instead?” The tone is just suggestive enough that Dean wants to snap at him to knock it off, but he lets it slide. It keeps him warm on a chilly day, at least.

“I’m hungry,” Dean says. “Let’s eat.”

*

They take refuge in a small café on the main street. It’s mercifully quiet inside despite the chaos raging through the big front windows. Castiel orders a coffee and Dean gets a beer. Dean’s never spent this long just sitting (soberly) with Castiel before. Dean is a tactile person, some part of him always moving or fidgeting, even if it’s just the thoughts in his head whizzing by at uncontrollably anxious speeds. If Castiel has any such afflictions, he hides them well. He sits and he sips his coffee and he stares contemplatively out of the window like he’s posing for a painting.

Dean drinks his beer too fast as a result of sheer nerves. Between Castiel, the protesters, and the march itself, he’s a little frayed at the edges, hoping the alcohol will blur them at least a little. For that to happen, though—he flags down another beer. He didn’t have time to eat this morning, so it should take less than usual to help him out.

He’s halfway through his second beer when he finally cracks and says, “Get it over with, then.”

Castiel turns to him, eyebrow raised. Dean just assumes at this point the corner of Castiel’s mouth is eternally quirked. “Get what over with?”

“I dunno. Whatever new smug comment you’re running through up there.” Dean taps his own temple. “The suspense is killing me.”

Castiel leans back in his chair and crosses his arms. “That sounds exactly like a reason to not get it over with. In my opinion.”

“So you’re just gonna make me sweat.”

“I’ve never seen someone bring misery on themselves quite like you do. I almost wish I was in the hard sciences so I could justify running a case study on you.”

Dean scoffs. “What does that even mean?

“Well, for one: you’re the one who keeps telling me to go away, and yet—” He gestures across the table. “Here you are.”

“That’s—” Dean sputters. “That’s not—even—listen, here. You’re the one who infiltrated my friend group, buster.”

“You’re also incredibly prickly,” Castiel says. “Which, unfortunately, is funny.”

Dean throws up his hands. “There’s no way I can respond to that without proving you right.” He takes a sulky sip of beer.

Castiel watches him, endlessly amused. He doesn’t respond to Dean, and the mirth slowly drains out of his eyes, replaced by something more contemplative. “Why didn’t you tell Charlie the truth about me?”

It takes Dean a second to follow Castiel’s train of thought. “About your name, you mean?” At Castiel’s nod, he takes a deep breath. After another sip of beer to buy him a couple seconds he says, “Honestly? I dunno. Charlie was really bummed when she thought you were sketchy and it didn’t seem like something you wanted spread around. What’s the point of self-induced Witness Protection if everyone knows you’re in Witness Protection, right?”

Castiel seems to find that amusing. “You have a point.”

“Besides,” Dean mutters into his almost-empty glass, “I kinda made her do it, so it doesn’t reflect great on me.”

“Ah,” Castiel says. “The real reason.”

“Can you blame me?” Dean says. “Some new mystery guy shows up, out of the blue, practically undresses me with his eyes the first time we see each other, insults my flip flops, and then by the weekend he’s sitting shotgun in my car on the way to a party.”

Castiel struggles not to smile as he takes a drink of coffee. “Can you blame me?”

“I really like those flip flops.”

“Not what I was talking about.”

“I know.”

Dean’s throat is doing some sort of panicked contraction and that strobe-lit tingling is back in his limbs. His stomach flips. There’s no more beer to hastily slug, so he’s left staring hard at the distorted foam through his glass, spinning it in the condensation circle it’s left on the table. “Listen,” he pleads. He can’t look at Castiel. “I’m straight.”

“Okay,” Castiel says.

Dean closes his eyes because he needs a second. Just a second where he doesn’t have to see, even in his peripheral vision, the way Castiel so calmly sizes him up. If it were some girl, any girl, giving him the read like this, he’d be on it in a flash. But this doesn’t feel like it does when it’s with girls. This is—frightening. The space between the precipice he’s standing on and the very long fall just a couple steps in front of him. Dean doesn’t know what this is. All he knows is that it feels bad. He props his chin up with his palm. “Okay. I get it.”

“Get what?” Castiel asks, mid-sip.

“Your proposal for this case study.”

Castiel snorts coffee out his nose.

*

They make their back out to the parade eventually. Dean walks around with his hands in his pockets, looking away anytime he accidentally intrudes on a couple making out in public. The music remains incomprehensible, although Dean picks out a few lines from ABBA amid the haunted house shrieks. At some point, someone, maybe a DJ, yells something over a loudspeaker about a countdown.

“I keep meaning to ask,” Castiel says as they pass a local bank booth handing out rainbow bumper stickers. “What are you dressed up as?”

Dean stares down at his outfit as if he forgot his own costume. “Uh… nothing?”

“Oh. Never mind, then.” Castiel rolls his lips back into his mouth and suddenly becomes very interested in the sky.

Dean narrows his eyes. “What.”

Castiel may as well be whistling. “Nothing.”

“Dude. What.”

“It’s just—you usually dress a little more… ostentatiously. I thought this was a costume from something I didn’t recognize.”

“You mean I usually dress a little more fashionably.”

Castiel looks as if he’s in great pain. “That’s not quite the term I would use… but sure.”

Dean gives Castiel an obvious up and down. “I see you didn’t put much effort in, Mr. Lavender Sweater.”

“Oh, do you like it?”

Dean shakes his head. “That’s not where I was going with that, cheater.” It is a nice sweater, actually, but Dean will die before he admits it.

“It seems more your style than mine,” Castiel says. “You have a streak of lavender about you.”

“Weird compliment,” Dean says, “but I’ll take it.” He fiddles with a rainbow Chinese finger trap he picked up on their way out of the café. “Did you wear it ’cause it’s like, part of the rainbow?”

“I figured it would make up for me not dancing, or participating, or doing anything of note at all today other than showing up,” Castiel says.

“Do you feel, like, included?” Dean asks. He pulls his fingers apart, but the trap tightens instead. “Just by showing up to something like this, I mean. ’Cause they’re your people, or whatever?”

“My people,” Castiel says.

“You know what I mean.”

“Do you feel included every time you walk out of your apartment? Every time you stop at a red light? When you’re in line at the grocery store?”

“No.”

“I’m being facetious, mostly. I grew up in a home that brought people together by doing what needed to be done as opposed to anything so incidental as an acceptance of a perverse sexual orientation. ‘Pride’ was more about maintaining the status quo than a celebration of identity.”

Dean closes his mouth that had fallen open while Castiel was talking. “Well, that. Sounds super f*cking depressing. No offense.”

“None taken,” Castiel says easily. “I had an untraditional upbringing.” Above him, the speakers crackle to life again. Something ominous is said, and then The Weather Girls keep singing about raining men. Dean takes a deep breath, pushes his finger together, then eases them apart out of the trap. He tosses it into a garbage can as they walk by.

Dean shakes his head. “See, I thought I had the untraditional upbringing, but it sounds like you’ve got me beat.”

“It is a competition, after all.” Castiel scratches his stubble, and Dean’s gaze falls to his hand. There’s still an angry pink line there, but nothing else. Unthinkingly, Dean grabs it. Castiel’s hands are huge.

“Your stitches are gone?”

Castiel’s eyes go from Dean to Dean’s hands. “For a while now, yes.”

Dean, who is in the middle of tracing Castiel’s scar with his fingertips, blinks back to reality. “Right. Obviously.” He drops Castiel’s hand.

“Please,” Castiel says, “don’t stop on my account.”

Dean leaves it. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad they didn’t have to amputate it or anything.”

“If you can believe it, me too,” Castiel says mildly.

Dean only realizes the music has stopped because all of the music has stopped. What moments ago was a mostly cacophonous, gelatinous mass of noise is now nothing more than a couple hundred voices rising in excitement. Dean looks at Castiel, who seems just as lost as him. “Uh, does this happen at all Pride stuff?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

The God-voice crackles above them one more time, and with the music turned off Dean can finally catch a word or two. “Last song,” he surmises, feeling oddly bereft. He checks his watch, surprised to find it’s been more than a couple of hours. Their shadows have already started growing longer behind them.

“Congratulations,” Castiel says. “You survived your first Pride… thing. I don’t know if this counts as a parade.”

Dean laughs, but something stirs uneasily in his chest. Something is slipping away from him, but he doesn’t know what it is. “Easy peasy.”

They’ve found themselves on the outskirts of the crowd, closer to the fountain where Dean and Charlie sat earlier. The mass of people in front of them faces forward, toward the makeshift stage Dean made sure not to get too close to for fear of Cher blowing out one of his eardrums.

It only takes a few notes of the final song before Dean breaks out into a huge grin. “Dude. I love Queen.” Thankfully, they leave the dumb Halloween sound effects on the backburner. The crowd sings along, the swell of voices reverberating between each and every one of Dean’s ribs. Dean doesn’t join in, and neither does Castiel, but the two of them stand there, on the fringe, listening to four hundred people wanting to break free. It doesn’t take him long to realize playing this as the last song of the night at a pride parade may have some significance he’s failed to pick up on until this exact moment.

“Oh,” Dean says. He can barely hear himself over the music. “That’s what this song is about.” Castiel grins at him, for once without a hint of smugness, standing close enough Dean can practically feel the slide of leather against skin. The lingering afternoon light greets them, goldenrod and deep orange. “My mom loved music,” Dean says. “She loved all the classics, Zeppelin and The Beatles and Queen, even the sappier stuff. When I was a kid, she used to play the ballads for me in the car and have me sing along. Sometimes, we’d get ice cream and drive to a field near our house, open all the doors and windows, and just blast the tape deck.” He smiles. Despite the October chill, he can feel the sun on his summer-warmed face.

When Castiel’s leather jacket brushes his arm again, he shakes himself out of his reverie. He clears his throat. “Anyway. You don’t care about my childhood introduction to old rock bands.”

Castiel is still looking at him, the light catching his gaze and turning it softer than Dean’s ever seen it. His brow furrows, and he says, a little bemused, a lot wry: “Unfortunately, I do.”

“Oh,” Dean says.

A few deep pops interrupt the song, only for a second, and then the air is filled with shimmering, sprinkling, rainbow confetti. He wants to make a dumb joke about forgetting Charlie warned him about this, but he finds himself unable to form the words. There’s an inexplicable heat in his throat and behind his eyes, and his chest feels all funny, even buoyant. He’s afraid if he smiled that would be enough to knock traitorous tears out of his eyes. A piece of orange confetti lands on his sleeve and he plucks it off, rubbing it between his fingers so he has an excuse to look anywhere else. More confetti floats around them, strands of all colors. Oh, how they want to be free, baby.

When Dean does it, he’s not really thinking much at all, and that’s probably for the best. He forgets to feel anything other than the press of Castiel’s mouth against his, the scratch of his stubble and the way, after a moment, his hands find their way to Dean’s waist, big and solid. Dean’s got one arm around Castiel’s back and one hand on his cheek, and they find their way back together once, twice, a third time. Castiel’s grip at his waist tightens, and Dean squeezes his fist into a ball against Castiel’s back. He’s led on pure instinct, lightheaded and desperate.

When the music stops, so does he.

Dean rips himself away from Castiel, his chest heaving. His hands are trembling, so he shoves them into his pockets. Castiel is ruffled, but otherwise unaffected. Dean must look like the cover of a dime-store romance novel, if his searing cheeks have anything to say about it. Adrenaline courses through him, now without an outlet. He has maybe thirty seconds before he collapses into nothing but a bundle of jangling nerves. Confetti still falls around them, albeit in smaller quantities. The crowd starts to disperse, babbling happily. A green strand of confetti lands on Castiel’s cheek, and he grabs it. “So that’s where the event budget went,” he observes.

Dean makes a sound he most certainly didn’t intend to but that most assuredly confirms his utter mortification, and runs.

People mill about in looser groups now, and volunteers are already out in the streets sweeping. No one pays Dean a second glance as he stumbles toward his car, simultaneously numb and prepared to be sick the moment he stops moving. He keeps shaking his hands, blood pounding in his ears. He falls against the Impala, head flat on its top as he fumbles for his keys. He yanks open the door, crawls inside, and rests his forehead on the steering wheel, eyes squeezed shut.

The nausea passes eventually, and then Dean’s left empty. His lips still tingle. It’s only when Charlie texts him and tells him she found her own way home does Dean remember he actually can’t stay here, frozen, for the rest of his life.

He drives home in silence.

*

Dean wants nothing more than to get drunk and find a girl to sleep with, but instead he spends the next few days buried in the library, once again ignoring every text sent his way. Jo threatens him with bodily harm more than once to pick up his phone, but all he does is clear his notifications and turn on airplane mode.

His alarm is twenty minutes from going off on another day of hiding in the library when someone mercilessly hurls their fist into his front door.

The moment Dean opens it, he’s shoved up against the wall. “What the hell is your problem, dude?” Jo stalks inside, scoping the place out. “You break bad or something? Where have you been?”

“Studying, Jo, sh*t.” Dean hasn’t seen Jo voluntarily awake this early in years. “Someone die or something?” Jo rounds on him, and Dean’s stomach drops into the core of the earth. “No, wait—seriously, did something happen? Is someone hurt? Sam?”

Jo lasts about ten seconds before giving in and rolling her eyes. “No, but I’m trying to scare you straight, moron. What if they were? You have to knock off this ghosting bullsh*t. It’s been all month.”

Dean lets out a long breath. “You dick.”

You dick.”

They stare at each other until the tension dissolves, and then they’re laughing. “Can I at least go put some pants on before you make good on your threat to shank me?”

Jo dismisses him, and Dean stumbles into something other than ratty boxers and a thrifted t-shirt. When he returns, Jo has her feet kicked up on his coffee table and is halfway through one of his PBRs.

“You know it’s, like, 9:30.”

Jo laughs once, harsh. “You’re one to talk. I need your notes for Milton’s class so I don’t fail the midterm.”

Dean raises his eyebrows. “The midterm that’s… tomorrow?”

In response, Jo takes a big gulp.

Dean disappears back into his room, talking as he goes. “I still need the originals but I’ll send you copies later. I gotta get to the library, so…” He returns, slinging his bookbag over his shoulder and looking pointedly at the door.

Jo doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere fast. “What’s up with you?”

“I… just told you? I have to go to the library. That was my polite way of telling you to get the hell out.”

Jo narrows her eyes and crosses her arms. “No, like, what’s up… with you.”

Dean’s at a loss. “Okay, all you did was put the emphasis on a different word—”

“Don’t patronize me, Dean. I barely see you all month and when I do see you, you’re a space cadet. What’s going on?”

The all-too-familiar feeling of being backed into a corner settles into Dean again. He tightens his grip on his backpack. “Nothing. I just want to study.”

Jo’s expression hardens, and then she sighs. “Is it the anniversary?”

Dean huffs a rueful laugh and is happy to clamor onto any excuse. “You know, I’ve been so busy with studying I haven’t even had much time to think about it. I guess that’s a good thing.”

“You’re still going to Lawrence, right?”

“Just me and my lonesome.”

“What?” Jo sits up. “But Sam—?”

“Is in California,” Dean says. “That one I’ve been purposely trying to not think about.”

Jo falls back onto the couch in total disarray. “I’ll kick his ass.”

“Only if he hasn’t been getting swirlies and stuffed into lockers every lunch period. Kid’s delicate. He can only handle so much.”

Jo rolls her eyes and stands up. She shoots the can toward the recycling and misses, then shrugs and leaves it where it is. “I’ll go with, if you want.”

“Thanks,” Dean says. He makes sure to noogie Jo as she walks by.

“Ugh, I changed my mind,” she says, rubbing her head and scowling.

Dean kisses her on the cheek, because he knows she hates it, then frog marches her out of his apartment.

*

With the entire student body in the thick of midterm fever, Dean can feel the tension in the library in his molars. He scrolls through PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide on his rickety laptop until his eyes glaze over and then he writes it all down in a notebook and highlights the most important parts and then he does it all again. A bottle of acetaminophen and a coffee the size of Dean’s head sit a safe distance away from any technology they would destroy if knocked over. In her first year, Jo fell asleep on her laptop and dumped her full cup of coffee into it. She would have been at the mercy of the library’s computers if Charlie hadn’t offered her a refurbished model with the promise of never mixing the two again.

Dean’s just getting ready to wake his laptop up for another round of scrolling PowerPoints when the chair across from him is pulled out and then occupied. His brain is so fried it takes him a second to understand what and who he’s seeing.

“Hello, Dean,” Castiel says. “Nice glasses.”

Dean yanks his glasses off his face as if that’ll make Castiel forget he was wearing them. They’re a stupid black-rimmed pair Charlie forced him to get a few years ago when she saw him squinting at a takeout menu. “They’re for reading. Shut up.”

“I was genuinely complimenting your fashion choices, but with your track record, I can see why you wouldn’t believe me.”

Desperate for something to do that isn’t making eye contact with Castiel, Dean starts highlighting with no survivors. “I’m busy. What do you want?”

“I’m here on behalf of your sister.”

Dean slams down his highlighter. “sh*t. The notes.”

“And since your phone is off, I offered to come. By the way, Jo wasn’t happy when she realized you weren’t answering texts. Again.”

Dean holds up his phone. “It’s on airplane mode.”

“Semantics.”

Dean ruffles through his notebook looking for his original notes. “Yeah, well, I’m doing her a favor here. She can deal.” Feeling the weight of Castiel’s gaze on him, he steels himself and looks up. “What?”

Castiel is wearing an odd expression. His brow is furrowed, a half-bemused smile on his face. “Don’t take this the wrong way—”

“Here we go.”

“—but you’re smart, aren’t you?”

Dean rests both his elbows on the table, tongue stuck between his teeth.

“It never even occurred to me,” Castiel continues. “When Jo said she wanted your notes, I laughed like she was the idiot.” He gestures vaguely at Dean’s face. “You’re wearing a cherry-patterned snapback, I mean, how could I have even begun to guess…” His gaze drifts across Dean’s pages of notes.

Dean waves his hands, palms toward Castiel. “Slow your roll. If it makes you feel better, I’m not smart.”

“Jo said you would say that. Being smart is a strange thing to be insecure about, isn’t it?”

The back of Dean’s neck is warm. “No offense, but you’re comparing me to Jo. Who I had to beg to even go to school in the first place, for the record.”

“She said you’d say that, too.”

“That, specifically?!”

“That you’d rather insult her than just accept a compliment about something other than how attractive you are.”

“Okay, that’s enough. This conversation is very over. You know, you have a midterm tomorrow, too, smart guy.”

“I know all about—” Castiel turns Dean’s ultra-highlighted page of notes around. “—the softwood lumber dispute between us and Canada.”

“Uh-huh.” Dean reclaims his notes and finally digs up the ones he needs for Jo. “I’m going to photocopy these.” He can see the main photocopier from here, as well as the line a few people deep. Some English major is definitely hogging the machine again. “…At the one in the back, I guess.”

Castiel follows him, and the further into the library stacks they go, the more apprehensive Dean gets. He’s not sure what would be worse: Castiel mentioning the parade, or not mentioning it at all. Maybe Dean’s blowing this whole thing out of proportion. Maybe Castiel was so unaffected by the entire thing, it barely factored as a blip on his radar. He’s a good-looking guy, kind of, Dean’s sure he’s plenty busy in that department—well—it doesn’t matter if he is, does it? It doesn’t matter.

“Dean?” Castiel says, his low voice muffled even further by the stacks of geography books around them.

Dean blinks. They’re tucked away in a dusty, unused part of the library where he used to catch midday cat naps as a freshman. The mid-October gloom seeps through the small, rectangular windows high above their heads. He’s standing in front of the photocopier, motionless. He clears his throat. “Right.”

He’s fallen asleep to many a copy being made, but the trance he’s lulled into this time is something of a different beast. The muted, close quarters of the library leave the back of his neck prickling while he systematically goes through two months’ worth of notes. Castiel is watching him again, and when he sees how the gray daylight hits Castiel’s blue eyes, he regrets looking up at all.

Even the noise from the rest of the floor is like a distant memory back here. The tension in Dean’s teeth settles at the top of his spine, waiting for the opportune moment to seep through his brain and hit him with a headache that’s gonna put him out of commission for the rest of the night. He thinks longingly of his acetaminophen and coffee. Of hopefully going home and jerking off in an attempt to stave off the inevitable. He mindlessly goes through the motions, one page in, one page out. Jo better buy him a beer or six for this. Maybe he could get drunk tonight. He has some Jack in the cupboard at home. If he was drunk right now, he might have an excuse.

Dean licks his lips, then makes the same mistake for a second time today and looks at Castiel, who is very interested in the proceedings. He drops his gaze immediately and switches out another page. “It’s not a good idea,” he mutters to the machine. He puts a hand to the back of his neck, trying to massage a crick out.

“What isn’t a good idea?” Dean almost jumps out of his skin when Castiel’s hand lands on the back of his neck, strong and capable. It feels so good, Dean forgets for a second who that hand belongs to. He takes a step out of Castiel’s range.

“That.”

Castiel lets his hand fall back to his side. “Has anyone ever told you that you give off a lot of mixed signals?”

Dean switches out another page. He considers all the girls he’s very enthusiastically slept with in the past. “Never had a complaint from any of the ladies before.”

“Interesting.” Castiel leans against the same wall beside the photocopier and crosses his arms. “Maybe you’re just not familiar with the concept.”

“Is heterosexuality generally considered a mixed signal?”

Castiel is clearly holding back a laugh when he says, “How many times do you want to have this conversation? You can just say ‘no hom*o,’ you know. Fewer syllables. Gets the same message across.”

Dean has to fight the photocopier on the next sheet, deliberately smoothing it out in the tray. He’s distinctly aware of the fact that someone could walk back here at any time. They’re secluded, but only so long as Dean’s luck lasts, and he’s never considered himself a lucky guy. He finally gets the sheet in, and under the cover of the mechanical whirring, turns once again to meet Castiel’s gaze. He’s closer than he was a few moments ago, eyes roving across Dean’s face. Something charged runs between them, and Dean prays it’s only static shock.

He’s proven wrong when Castiel walks him backwards through the nearest stacks until his back hits the chilly cement wall. Castiel puts a hand on either side of Dean’s head, his smiling mouth only inches from Dean’s. They share each other’s air, just breathing. Dean’s about to crawl out of his skin. “Well?” he says, voice faint, regretting the desperation only after it’s already tripped off his tongue.

“I was waiting for you to say it.” As Castiel speaks, his voice a quiet rumble against Dean’s mouth, Dean follows the movement of Castiel’s lips with his own.

“What?” Dean says, mind already fogged enough he’s forgetting even the simplest words. “You mean ‘no hom*o?’”

Castiel kisses him. He’s not caught off guard like he was at the parade, and Dean’s first taste of a Castiel in charge is a heady one. Dean sloppily follows his lead, getting distracted by things like prominent stubble and the feeling of Castiel’s hand on the back of his neck. He grabs for whatever part of Castiel he can reach, his hands curling into the sides of his sweater. He’s already breathing hard and has to work very hard not to moan when Castiel begins mouthing at his jaw, then down his neck. Castiel yanks his t-shirt out of the way so he can have full access to Dean’s neck, and Dean breaks out in a cold sweat when he finds the right spot. “Cas—” He bites off another moan when Castiel’s free hand slips beneath his shirt to palm at his waist.

Castiel touching him there, skin-to-uncovered-skin, reminds Dean with a jolt in both directions that this kind of sh*t has, in the past, had an almost one hundred percent chance of making it to the bedroom. The thought sends equal parts exhilaration and abject horror through him, only magnified by Castiel sliding his hand from Dean’s neck down to his lower back, pulling him closer. Once Dean realizes the current sensation running through him is a result of Castiel’s thigh brushing his very interested dick through his jeans, Dean loses it. He shoves Castiel off.

They stare at each other, both breathing hard. Dean runs a hand through his hair and puts his hands over his face, willing himself to calm down. “f*ck. Oh, this is such a bad idea. This is a bad idea. Everything about this idea is bad.”

There’s a moment of silence, and then Castiel says, “I think your copies are done.”

Dean laughs, on the verge of hysteria. “Yeah, I’ll get you your f*cking copies. f*ck. Oh, f*ck, dude, no, I can’t—I can’t. We can’t.”

Castiel waits another moment before saying, mildly, “So, this is going to be a waist-up endeavor, then, is the vibe I’m getting.”

Dean brushes by him, face aflame. “No vibes, no nothing. It’s nothing. We’re nothing.” He shuffles through the copies, barely making sure they’re all there. If he misses anything, Jo can take her own damn notes next time. Dean shoves the pile at Castiel. “Here.”

With one hand, Castiel straightens out his now-rumpled sweater. He runs a thumb across his mouth and starts heading back the way they came. “Good luck on the midterm, then.” After another few steps, he stops and turns around. “I’ve heard if you say ‘no hom*o’ after any same-sex encounter, it doesn’t count.” He grins. “Something to keep in mind for the future. Maybe.”

*

The next morning, Dean skulks into his Economics of Forestry midterm, eyes darting every which way. Jo and Castiel aren’t here yet, so he sets up shop in a dingy back corner of the room, hoping they’ll miss him and just assume he slept through the exam. That thought, of course, directly summons Castiel, who leaves a spot in the middle, as usual, for Jo. At Dean’s very peeved look, Castiel says, “Weird that someone took our seats.” Dean just grunts.

Jo finds them eventually. “Aw,” she says. “So nice of you to sit in a secluded corner so I can cheat off you easier.”

“Nice try, blondie.”

“Why are we sitting back here?” Jo asks. “There’s no one in our usual seats.”

“I like the ambiance,” Dean says.

For what it’s worth, he aces the exam.

*

A couple days later, Dean sits a biology midterm that is way easier than promised. After class and in a better mood than he’s been in a long time, he sidles up to Jamie as she’s putting away her things. “Hey, Jamie.”

She turns to him. “Hey, long time no see. I want to say… Dan?”

Dean holds his index finger and thumb, almost touching.

“Don.”

Dean bites his bottom lip and flutters his eyelashes. Almost, his hand gesture says.

“Dean?”

“Bingo. Third time’s the charm, right?”

“I aim to please.” She shoulders her bag. “Haven’t talked to you since that party. What’s up?”

Dean turns on the charm. He still has Jamie’s number, but he’s much better looking in person. “I was thinking of grabbing a drink,” he says. “To celebrate. And I hate drinking alone.”

Jamie co*cks her head, sizing him up. “Bold move, hitting on a girl you’ve barely spoken to this semester.”

“Do I get points if I say I’ve really wanted to? I just haven’t had an excuse until now.”

She taps a finger to her nose. “I suppose I can spare a few. To be honest, I didn’t think you were interested.”

“What if I said I was intimidated by your powerful aura and was too afraid to call?”

Jamie laughs. “You’re lucky I’m into your kind of boldness. And also your kind of face.”

“I have more qualities,” Dean says. They begin to meander toward the exit. “Lots, even. I’d be happy to demonstrate them.”

“I’ll demonstrate yours if you demonstrate mine.”

“Sounds like a plan. Let’s get celebratory.”

*

“Brothers and sisters, I have officially gotten my mojo back.”

Jo blinks at him, straw between her lips. “What?”

Charlie and Castiel both stare at him. The four of them went out to a pancake house to celebrate the end of midterms, even if Dean was the only one who seems to have done any studying. Castiel and Jo barely seem to care and Charlie is too smart to bother.

“You guys were right,” Dean says, refusing to look at Castiel, who sits diagonal from him in the booth. “I’ve been in a rut this month, and as of last night, I am a free man.”

Charlie and Jo exchange glances. “Did you go back in time to steal it back from Dr. Evil or is this a symbolic thing?” Charlie asks.

“You remember Jamie?”

“Oh,” Charlie sighs wistfully. “The beautiful bio major slash Oktoberfest girl after my own heart.”

Dean shoves a bite of pancake in his mouth and points his fork at her. “Exactly.”

“Who hears wedding bells?” Jo faux-gushes. “I hear wedding bells, you guys.”

Dean grins and takes a sip of coffee. “We studied biology real hard last night. If you know what I mean.”

“We never would’ve guessed without the clarification,” Jo says, back to her usual deadpan. “But thank you for the scintillating life update, Dean.”

“Hey, you were the one who wanted to know what was wrong. Turns out it was just blue balls.”

Castiel, suddenly and with great stage presence, descends into a coughing fit. “Excuse me,” he says, and guzzles the rest of his water. Once he’s all coughed out, he turns to Dean. “I’m very happy for you. Please keep telling us about your blue balls and exactly what the cause of them was.”

Jo smacks the table. “Anyone who even so much as mentions my brother’s balls or the color thereof one more time is getting a fork in the hand,” she warns, wielding the incriminating silverware like a weapon toward the table at large.

“In that case, new topic,” Charlie says. “What’s everyone’s plans for Thanksgiving?”

“Thank you. And you know we’re back in SD for the weekend,” Dean says. “Even Sam’s dragging his sunburnt ass home from Cali.”

“‘SD’?” Castiel says.

“South Dakota,” Jo clarifies. “What about you, Charlie?”

“I may have procured some funds to fly somewhere sunny and in proximity to a beautiful, white sand beach. Even better, it’s not technically illegal.”

“That’s not comforting at all,” Jo says. “Cas?”

“Uh…” Castiel says. “It’s just another weekend, I suppose.”

“You’re not going home?” Jo says, and panic alarms start going off in Dean’s head. He makes brief eye contact with Castiel, who seems unconcerned.

“I don’t talk to my family very often. We don’t have much in common anymore.” Castiel’s tone is light, but the sip of coffee he takes afterward is aggressive. Dean takes a precautionary too-big bite of pancake and keeps his thoughts to himself.

“So, you’re not doing anything that weekend,” Jo says.

“Nope.”

“In that case, you’d be free to come to our place for Thanksgiving,” Jo says.

Dean inhales sharply, and then unsuccessfully attempts to clear his throat. Breathing through a pancake is not the most pleasant experience in the world.

“I don’t want to intrude,” Castiel says.

“Aw, c’mon,” Jo needles, “it’ll make Bobby have to be nice. Besides, my mom misses having people around for the holidays. She used to run a bar with my dad here in Nebraska and they were open every day of the year for that exact reason.”

Dean pounds himself on the chest.

“Are you sure?” Castiel asks.

“The more the merrier, dude. Just be prepared to be shown off as exactly the second friend I’ve ever made in college. Dean and my mom have a running bet.”

“I guess I can’t say no to that,” Castiel says. “Thank you.”

Dean finally hacks up his pancake. Little blobs of gelatinous batter land on his plate. Three heads turn to stare at him. “Sure,” he wheezes. “Sounds like a date.”

*

On Halloween, Dean wears socks with little pumpkins and ghosts embroidered on them and makes sure to pull them all the way up to mid-calf. “A girl is going to look at these tonight and think they are the cutest f*cking thing she’s ever seen,” Dean tells Charlie. “Mark my words.”

“I believe that you believe it,” Charlie says, putting the finishing touches on her Ripley costume. Her desk is covered in an array of hair products Dean’s positive she’s never used once before tonight. She turns to Dean in all her hairsprayed glory. “Well?”

Dean surveys her. “I still think you would’ve gotten more chicks with the underwear-Ripley costume.”

“You’re gross,” Charlie says. She slingshots a hair tie at him.

“Ow! I’m kidding, I’m kidding. You look great, Red.”

“Uh-huh.” Charlie shoulders her big-ass styrofoam gun. “Well? Shall we go get f*cking tanked?”

*

Five minutes after they arrive at the party, a girl stumbles up to Dean and says, “Those are the cutest f*cking socks I’ve ever seen.”

“You think?” Dean says to Charlie, who seems torn between laughing and rolling her eyes. “Thank you so much.”

After she’s rounded a corner, Dean offers Charlie a sh*t-eating grin.

“God, you’re obnoxious,” she says, and bops him on the head with her gun. In the next half hour, Jo arrives, and in the next hour after that, Dean makes the rounds between Pamela, Benny, Victor, and a host of other people he vaguely knows from school. The drunker he gets, the more interested he is in the whereabouts of one specific person.

“I thought Castiel was coming tonight?” he asks Charlie around eleven.

“I texted him,” Charlie tells him. “He never got back to me.”

“Yeah, well. His loss.” Dean takes a begrudging sip of beer. “I’ll be right back.” He beelines across the living room and into the kitchen. Sitting on a stool at the island is Jamie, dressed up in full lederhosen with her hair in braids. He approaches her, leaning his elbow on the counter and dropping his chin onto his palm. He takes an exaggerated sniff. “Don’t tell me you’re drinking vodka in that outfit.”

Jamie laughs. “Don’t tell anyone. It’s a secret.”

Dean grins. “How are you gonna make it worth my while?”

She walks her fingers up his arm. “Getting right to it, huh? What are we celebrating this time?”

“We do have a final coming up.”

“In two months.”

Dean plays with her sleeve. “Maybe I’m interested in extra credit.”

Jamie slides off the stool and grabs Dean’s hand, leaving her cup behind. As she’s leading him away, Dean grabs it and polishes off her drink, tossing it into the trash on their way out of the kitchen. As they head up the stairs, Dean meets Charlie’s eye in the living room and salutes her.

They find an empty bedroom after walking in on a few unfortunate scenes, and Dean makes sure to lock the door behind them. When he turns back around, Jamie has already shimmied out of her dress.

“‘Getting right to it, huh?’” Dean says, shucking his own shirt.

Jamie strides forward and kisses him. They sink onto the bed, Jamie on all fours above him. She presses her lips to his neck, her hair tickling Dean’s chin. Dean has his hands on her waist, tapping his fingers against her side. “The other day when we… y’know,” Dean says. “Was that okay?”

Jamie doesn’t answer, but she does reach a hand between them to trail her knuckles across Dean’s dick through his jeans. He breathes out hard, not sure how she’s doing that vibration motion with just her hand, when she sits back on Dean’s lap, amused. “I think your phone is buzzing.”

“Oh, sh*t, sorry, lemme just—” Dean pulls his phone out of his pocket, fully intending to toss it onto the nightstand until his eye catches the text on his notification screen.

heard you were asking about me. time to make more

photocopies?

“Um, everything okay?” Jamie asks from what sounds like very far away, rubbing his arm. “You’ve been staring at your phone for like, thirty seconds.”

“What? Yeah, sorry, I just—” Dean shakes his head and drops the phone, screen down, on the nightstand. “Just my brother.”

“We can take a rain check,” Jamie says.

“No,” Dean says. “No, no, no. It’s not important and I—well, I kinda need this.”

“Sure,” Jamie says, a little mystified. She starts kissing him again. Dean shuts his eyes and kisses her back.

*

Castiel isn’t dressed up tonight. That’s the only thing Dean registers before shoving him up against the brick siding of the house outside. The joint he had in his hand falls to the ground, glowing embers spilling over both of their feet. “You’re a real dick, you know that?” Dean snaps.

Castiel looks down at his lost joint. “I was smoking that.”

“What’s your problem, huh?” Dean’s right up in Castiel’s personal space, and Castiel seems completely unbothered, his dark eyes roving Dean’s face. “You get off on making people miserable, or something?”

“Dean,” Castiel says, his voice pure gravel. “What are you talking about.”

“I was just upstairs with a smokin’ girl and you just—you just—” He releases Castiel and steps back, turning away from him. “You just had to go and f*ck it all up.”

“Wait.” Castiel comes around so that he’s looking at Dean again. “Are you talking about the text I sent you?”

“That wasn’t just a text.”

Castiel pulls out his phone. “It literally was. Would you like me to prove it to you?”

Dean waves him off. “You’re in my head, and it’s driving me insane. Knock it off.”

“Please,” Castiel says. “I’m not taking responsibility for your inability to stop thinking about me.”

Dean scoffs. “That is not what I said.”

“So you’re mad at me,” Castiel says, “which obviously means something happened upstairs.”

Dean crosses his arms and clenches his jaw. The deck is completely empty at this time of year, but yellow light spills from the party inside. No one seems to even be aware people are out here, but Dean keeps glancing toward the movement regardless. “It doesn’t matter what happened.”

“Something tells me if it had gone well, you wouldn’t be here.”

“About that. Why are you here at all? Seemed like you were completely blowing this party off.”

“I had a previous engagement,” Castiel says. “A previous engagement, the outcome of which I’m not in any way attributing to you. Feel free to do me the same courtesy.”

Dean sniffs. “No. ’Cause I didn’t send you any… inflammatory texts.” Castiel reaches for Dean’s elbow, but he moves it away. “What are you doing?”

“I’m going to help you down the deck stairs and make sure you don’t land nose-first on concrete. It would be a shame if anything happened to that face.”

“I know how to walk,” Dean snaps, and demonstrates his ability by only stumbling once on his way down. He leans on the wooden railing and Castiel sits on the bottom step.

“You showed me,” Castiel says.

Dean taps his fingers on the railing, refusing to meet Castiel’s eye. “Couldn’t do it,” he mumbles, face hot.

“Do what?”

Dean rolls his eyes. “You know. It.”

“What?” Castiel says. Then, abruptly: “Oh.”

“Yeah. So. f*ck you.”

Castiel sits back, propping himself up on his elbows. “If you can’t get an erection in bed, how is that my fault?”

“’Cause you’re working some kind of mojo on me or something!”

Castiel opens his mouth and then closes it. He opens it again, and the only sound that comes out is a short, sharp laugh. “Did you just…? Accuse me of reverse conversion therapy?”

Dean stares up at the sky. “I’m running out of options here, man.”

Castiel stands up and presses in close to Dean. “I have an idea.”

Dean looks at Castiel’s mouth and then meets Castiel’s gaze. Castiel puts a hand to the back of Dean’s head and presses his lips to Dean’s, hot and insistent. He smells like weed and rum. Dean grabs onto his jacket until his knuckles turn white, opening up for Castiel. His head buzzes from the alcohol and his teeth feel fuzzy. When Castiel slips him some tongue for the first time, Dean panics and groans into Castiel’s mouth at the same time. Castiel has a hand in his hair and he isn’t afraid to pull, maneuvering Dean how he likes.

Castiel sits back down on the stairs, pulling Dean with him. It takes an awkward moment of reshuffling, but Dean manages to straddle one of Castiel’s thighs. Castiel is an intense kisser, focused, the sharp cut of his jaw thrilling against Dean’s. Dean moves his hands so they’re interlocking at the back of Castiel’s neck, and Castiel’s free hand rests on his ass. Heat courses through him, settling low in his gut, and he bites his lip as he gets hard, grinding down against Castiel’s thick thigh. He releases one of his hands and blindly searches for the stair Castiel is sitting against so he can use it for better leverage.

The hand Castiel has on his ass sneaks up under his sweater and he thumbs at a nipple, making Dean gasp. When Dean’s breathing too hard to keep kissing, Castiel moves lower, timing his attention to Dean’s nipple with his teeth against the most sensitive part of Dean’s neck. Dean is so worked up he has to bite down on his fist so he won’t cry out, all the while continuing to rub one out on Castiel’s thigh. If he were any less drunk or any less turned on, he would’ve bailed, but the thrall Castiel has over him is a strong one, and the feel of his fingers working Dean’s nipples to a peak has Dean’s nails digging into the stair.

His mind is going wild, imagining what it would be like if they were in an actual bedroom like him and Jamie had been, if Castiel could lay him out properly, could get his hands on him properly and Dean could get his hands on Castiel in turn. What skin on skin would feel like, what other parts of Castiel taste like, what Castiel looks like when he—

Dean comes from the ground up, the tension leaving him gasping and sweaty, even in the cool autumn night. He wasn’t prepared for it, and neither, apparently, was Castiel, because he pulls back and looks at Dean, eyes wide. “Did you just…?”

Dean lets his head fall back, mortified. His own fist is covered in teeth marks and he slowly unfurls it, grimacing. “sh*t.”

Castiel laughs breathily, easily, near Dean’s ear. “That makes my job easier, actually.”

A pit opens up in Dean’s stomach, threatening to swallow him whole, but the need, the want to reciprocate still thrums beneath it all. “Should I…?” he asks, the shyness in his voice ridiculous but unavoidable. He wouldn’t even know what to do with a dick if it was presented to him. He’s sure Castiel would tell him.

Castiel puts both hands on Dean’s waist. “I don’t want to go overboard on this week’s session.”

Dean sighs, boneless. His body is flooded with hormones and alcohol that can’t decide how upset he should be right now. “Shut up.” He slowly extracts himself from Castiel and makes a mental note that hard wooden stairs are not the best place for such activities in the future.

“How bad of an idea was it this time?” Castiel asks, still lounging on the stairs.

Dean rubs the heel of his hand across his eyes. “Ask me when I’m sober.” He examines the front of his jeans. Luckily, he wore a pretty dark wash tonight and they seem to have escaped mostly unscathed. “Pretty bad, I’m guessing.”

“We’ll work on it,” Castiel says. “Unless the shame and sneaking around is what turns you on. Then I’m happy to let sleeping dogs lie.”

“You’re a dick,” Dean says. His voice is shaking.

“Yep,” Castiel says.

*

By the time Dean finds Charlie inside, she’s inexplicably changed shoes, wearing at least five-inch heels that are a size too big for her. When she sees him, she tries to rush toward him, and instead trips straight into his arms. “Hey, buddy,” she says, giggling, as Dean helps her straighten up.

“Nice kicks,” Dean says, not exactly the steadiest on his own feet at the moment.

“Cute girl,” Charlie says, “Great legs, woof.”

“You dog,” Dean says. “Should we trade for your shoes back or was it a notakesibacksie type deal?”

“I’m tired,” Charlie says in lieu of an answer, and Dean’s certainly not going to disagree with that.

They head out, leaning into each other. Once Charlie reaches the front steps, she stands in swaying indecision, eyes wide, until Dean grabs her and carries her, bridal style, down the steps. “Wow,” she says once Dean rights her at the bottom, “my hero.”

“You are so tall right now,” Dean says. “I can barely see the top of your head.” Instead, he smacks her with a kiss right above the ear. “That’s as far as I can get. I hate it. Be way shorter than me again.”

Charlie actually complies, which is great until Dean realizes the crack he just heard was probably the culprit. He and Charlie both look down at her foot, which is now a nasty shade of pink. “Uh oh,” Charlie says. “If I was sober that probably would’ve hurt a lot more.”

“Crap,” Dean says. They’ve barely made it to the sidewalk. “Okay, sit down. I’m gonna go find someone who can drive us to the hospital.”

“Dude, I don’t have to go to the hospital,” Charlie whines, wincing as she sits.

“Sam probably heard that crack in California,” Dean says. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.” He hurries back into the house, searching for anyone who looks close to sober. He finds Jo, mid-shot. “Hey, who’s not tanked right now?”

Jo turns to him, one eyelid slightly drooping. “What?”

“Need a ride,” he says, and grabs Jo’s shoulders, looking her square in the eye. “Who’s done drinking?”

It takes Jo a couple seconds to register what he’s saying, and then, “Victor has a meeting or something tomorrow morning, I think.”

“Thanks,” Dean calls over his shoulder, already on the lookout for a buzz-cutted Agent Mulder. He finds him in the hall, red Solo cup in hand, chatting with a few people. Dean barges in, hand on his shoulder. “Please tell me that’s Sprite.”

“So, this is Dean,” Victor says to the group, “my politest friend.”

“All right, Vic. Charlie hurt her ankle,” Dean says. “Can you take us to the hospital?”

At that, Victor turns all business. “Where is she?”

Dean leads Victor outside, where he, much more heroically than Dean managed, scoops Charlie up and carries her to his Dodge Charger, a black ’72 model Dean’s always had a bit of a crush on. Charlie lays out in the back and Dean sits up front, in total awe. “f*ck, this is a cool car,” he says as Victor climbs in. He’s only ever seen it from a distance, but the inside is meticulously maintained as well, which is all the more impressive for a first-year grad student who practically lives out of the thing.

Victor waggles his eyebrows. “Hell yeah it is. Mom passed it down to me on my eighteenth birthday.”

Dean whistles low, running his hand over the dash. “She’s a beaut.”

“I’m fine back here whenever you guys are done flirting,” Charlie says.

Dean’s cheeks turn pink. “You didn’t even want to go to the hospital.”

“I’m sobering up and… I hurt.”

“We gotcha, Charlie,” Victor says, and pulls onto the road. At this time of night, the streets are mostly empty, long devoid of even the last of the trick or treaters. “Make sure you keep that foot elevated.”

“Yes, sir,” Charlie says. Dean can see her salute in the rear view mirror. A moment later, Dean’s headrest bumps as Charlie sticks her bare foot up on it.

“Nice,” Dean says.

“Thanks.” Charlie wiggles her toes. “Ow.”

“So,” Dean says to Victor, “sobriety at a Halloween party, huh? Pretty ballsy.”

“I had a drink,” Victor says. “One,” he adds, sadly. “At eight o’clock.”

“Been there,” Dean says. “You were too, actually. It was when you rearranged my face with a football.”

Victor laughs. “That was all you, man.” He glances at Dean. “As far as I can tell, I did you a favor.”

“Uh-huh. Yuk it up.”

*

The doctor sees Charlie pretty quick, and Dean and Victor are left to their own devices in the waiting room.

“Soon enough they’re gonna have to install a revolving door for me,” Dean says.

Victor chuckles. “Oh, yeah, you shut a car door on that guy’s hand. Carlos whatshisname.”

“Castiel.” As he says it, he surreptitiously glances down at his lap. Even under the sodium florescent lights, he can’t see any sort of stain. If he moves too quickly, though, his jeans may creak. “And that was his fault.”

Victor tsks. “Can’t take responsibility for that. Can’t take responsibility for sucking at football. It’s a shame.”

Dean grabs a ratty magazine and starts flipping through it. “Can’t take responsibility for something that’s not my fault.”

“Oh, yeah,” Victor says sarcastically. “That’s how it works.”

At the sound of the waiting room door opening, Dean looks up, hoping for Charlie, but he gets someone he definitely wasn’t expecting to see. He tosses his magazine back onto the table. “Just a sec,” he says to Victor, and drifts toward where she’s stopped to consult a clipboard. “’scuse me,” he says. She looks up.

“Hi, sweetie. What can I do for you?”

“You were the nurse on duty last time I was here, I think,” Dean says. “It was back in August. I drove my, uh, friend here.”

The nurse really looks at him this time. “Oh! Yes, I remember you.” She chuckles. “Didja shut someone else’s hand in a car door?”

“No, my friend just rolled her ankle pretty bad at a party is all.”

She taps her pen on her clipboard. “Oh, yes. I just talked to the doctor. I don’t think it’s too serious, although I’d recommend staying away from stilettos for the foreseeable future.”

Dean snorts. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem for her.”

“What about your other friend?” The nurse asks. “His stitches heal up okay?”

Dean thinks back to holding Castiel’s hand, tracing his finger along the scar there. Of Castiel’s tight grip on his waist earlier tonight. “Yeah, I think he’s all good.”

She smiles, bright and cheerful. “That’s always good news. I’m glad to hear he’s been given true ‘friend’ status, too. You know it’s real when shutting a car door on them only brings you closer together.”

“Ha. Yeah.” Dean laughs nervously, scratching the back of his neck. He shakes his head. “Um. Do you know when the doctor is gonna be done in there?”

“Shouldn’t be too long. You always seem to arrive during quiet hours.” She pats his arm. “At this rate, I guess I’ll see you next time.” She winks at him and continues off down the hall.

*

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Dean: I’m sober.

Dean: Enough.

Castiel: what’s the verdict

Dean: Good question.

Dean: By the way

Dean: Charlie broke her ankle.

Castiel: what?

Chapter 4: November

Chapter Text

November

MESSAGES: JAMIE

Jamie: Can we talk?

Dean: Shoot.

Jamie: It’s only kind of about last night I promise

Dean: Yeah… fair’s fair I guess. Shoot. Again.

Dean: You there?

Jamie: Yeah sorry.

Jamie: Can we meet up? it feels sh*tty to talk about this over text.

*

They meet at a coffee shop on campus. Dean buys her a latte and some monstrosity of an energy drink for himself that makes Jamie laugh. When they grab a seat, though, her smile has faded. Dean picks at the silly label on his drink. “I am zero percent blaming you if this is a breakup.”

Jamie takes a sip of her latte. Her brow is creased, and she seems unsure of what she wants to say. “Dean… I mean. It’s not. Not really.”

“I meant when I said it’s fair,” Dean says. “I mean, I’d be pretty pissed if the dude I was sleeping with—” he cuts himself off, cheeks warm. “Well. You know what I mean.”

Jamie smiles, but she’s still frowning. “It’s not just last night. I like you, Dean. You’re funny and generous and nice and it would be great if it could go somewhere, but… I don’t think you like me.”

Dean taps his fingers on his drink can. “What are you talking about? Jamie, I think you’re super cool.”

“Maybe,” Jamie says. She glances at Dean’s staccato fingers. “You’re nervous right now, aren’t you? Or anxious, or something.”

Dean stops tapping. “So?”

“You say all the right things,” Jamie says. “But you just seem… I don’t know. Out of reach.”

“I’m an open book,” Dean says. “Read me, baby.”

Jamie laughs ruefully. “Last night, and that first time we were… y’know.” She takes a sip of her latte. When she puts it down, she starts tapping on the lid, imitating Dean. “You were doing that. A lot.”

“Oh, c’mon.” Dean scoffs out a laugh. The corner of his mouth twitches in his smile. “You’ve got to be kidding. What, are we on an episode of Lie to Me?”

“It was… noticeable,” Jamie hedges. “We all have weird tics, that’s not the problem. But there’s this huge disconnect between everything you say and everything you do and I don’t know how to bridge that gap.”

“I—” Dean’s at something of a loss for words. He was expecting a coffee thrown in his face, not a thorough dressing-down of his existence. “I really like you,” he says quietly, and that sounds like a lie, even to his own ears. Which doesn’t make any sense, because he does like Jamie.

Jamie looks down. “Yeah,” she says. “Like I said, you’re good at saying the right thing.”

“Sorry,” Dean says. Funny enough, he doesn’t know what else to say.

“It’s only kinda your fault,” Jamie says, holding her thumb and index finger together close together. She stands up. “Good luck, okay? You’re gonna make some girl really happy one day.” She kisses him on the cheek, and then she’s gone.

*

MESSAGES: CHARLIE

Dean: we still on for tomorrow right

Charlie: Yeah

Charlie: what time?

Dean: Since it’s just me and Jo, I have no idea. I’ll text you?

Charlie: sounds gud, pardner

Charlie: say hi to your parents for me

Dean: Will do.

Dean: Thanks Red

*

Jo slides into the passenger seat of the Impala, arms overflowing with snacks. She tosses a bag of Doritos into Dean’s lap. “You could have a little respect,” Dean says. “Just a little.”

“Uh-huh,” Jo says, and rips open a bag of white cheddar popcorn.

“It’s not like it’s a solemn occasion or anything,” Dean says, making eye contact with the neon-orange bag in his lap.

“Uh-uh,” Jo says.

“It’s a very sad day,” Dean says as he picks up the bag. “We should be having a moment of silence.” He opens the bag. “And be thankful for our loved ones.” He stuffs a chip in his mouth. “I just don’t think you’re taking this seriously,” he says, spraying Jo with crumbs.

Jo yells and throws a package of licorice at him. “Get out!”

“Haha, sucker. It’s my car.” Dean turns the key in the ignition and flicks on the radio, and they’re off.

*

“Thanks for telling me about Charlie, by the way,” Jo says, not looking up from her phone. “I was only right there.”

Dean waves her off. “You were literally mid-shot.”

“Like you were Mr. Sober.”

“Hey, I got her to a hospital. I’m Mr. Responsible.”

Victor got her to a hospital.”

“It was all me, really.”

*

“Me and Jamie split,” Dean says while they’re stopped at a red light.

“Sucks, man,” Jo says. “Did you show her your snapback collection?”

“I usually try to hold off on that. Girls see that and drop to their knees right then and there.”

“Ew.”

“No, to—to propose—it was a joke—’cause you get down on one knee to—”

“What a kneeslapper,” Jo says.

The light turns green.

*

“What do you remember about them?” Jo asks as she chews on a piece of licorice.

“Mom and Dad?”

“Yeah. Like, does it change from year to year for you?”

“Huh. I dunno. I guess I’ve never really thought about it. In my head they’re just… Mom and Dad, y’know? Why, does it change for you?”

“I think so. I mean, I forget stuff? Everyone does. It’s just weird to think there’s no memories to replace them with.” Jo chews contemplatively.

“You were so much younger than me with your dad,” Dean says. “You should ask Sam.”

“Good point. Hey, Sam?” Jo says, looking into the empty backseat.

“Cute.”

She turns back around, snack wrappers crinkling in her lap. “I feel guilty when I can’t remember his face.”

“You have pictures,” Dean says, thinking of the one he has on his fridge of his parents sitting on the trunk of the Impala at a roadside lookout. A stranger took it while they were road tripping through Tennessee. Mary was pregnant with Dean at the time but didn’t know it yet.

“It’s not the same,” Jo says.

Dean tries to picture what his parents would look like now, if Mary would have kept her hair long or if John would’ve shaved his beard. “I guess,” he says.

*

“Dear Sam,” Jo dictates as she types on her phone, “you are… a brother-abandoning… gangly… Ivy League… butthole.”

Dean cackles. “Okay, you can’t say that. He’s sensitive. Be nice. Nicer, at least.”

“I’m not nice.”

“He’s your brother, too.”

“Yeah, that’s how I talk to all my fake brothers, you four-eyed, frecklefaced goody two-shoes.”

Dean flicks on his turn signal as he takes the exit for Lawrence. “You know what? Good point.”

Jo hits send.

*

The cemetery where Mary and John Winchester are buried is never at its best on November 2nd. There are still leftover bottles of alcohol from Halloween and all the leaves have fallen off the trees. Today, the sky is a watery gray. Dean and Jo huddle in their respective coats, standing in front of their headstones. Before they arrived, Dean picked up a bouquet from a local flower shop in town. Missouri Moseley, the woman who owns it, has given Dean and Sam a bouquet every year for Mary. Since they never knew her favorite flower, Missouri would put whatever she had left over from her most recent shipment. This year, she gave Dean a bouquet full of pink carnations, daffodils, and lilacs. He made sure to take a picture of Missouri holding it up and send it to Sam.

Jo puts a hand on his shoulder. “You want a few minutes?”

Dean clears his throat. “Uh, yeah. I think I’m gonna give Sam a call.”

“I’ll be by the car.” Jo hesitates, and then wraps Dean in a hug. He can’t remember the last time Jo hugged him. It’s not long, but when she lets go, she doesn’t let Dean see her face as she’s walking away. Dean takes a second to wipe his own eyes, then dials Sam’s number.

“Dean. Hey.”

“Hey. We’re here. Did you get the picture of the flowers?”

“Yeah, they’re beautiful. I’ll have to thank Missouri next time I’m back in town. How does everything look?”

“Ah,” Dean sighs. “Better than the year someone smashed a bottle of rum on Dad. Worse than the year we camped out and threatened potential assholes off with nerf guns.”

Sam laughs. “So, not bad.”

“Not bad.”

They’re silent for a couple moments, and then Sam says, voice thick, “I’m sorry I’m not there.”

“It’s okay,” Dean says. “It’s just a couple hunks of stone.”

“Not to you.”

Dean shrugs. “Well, that’s why I’m the one who came, I guess. I don’t think they’d hold it against you, Sam.”

“Thanks.”

“Hey, how’d your midterms go? I never got a chance to ask.”

“Pretty good. Latin was tough, but I got through it.”

“That’s my Sammy.”

“How have you been?”

“You know me, I’m always good.”

A bitter wind blows through the cemetery, and Dean wraps his coat tighter around him. The clinking of empty bottles echoes from behind a nearby headstone. “Are you sure?” Sam says. “Jo was texting me a few weeks ago, worried about you.”

“You know how much of a worrywart Jo is.”

“Uh, no, I don’t.”

Dean rolls his eyes. “I’m fine, Sam.”

“Well, if you won’t tell me, tell Mom,” Sam says.

Dean scoffs. “I’m gonna put the bouquet down now. Are you gonna stay on the line or not?”

“Obviously,” Sam says, and Dean smiles at the prissiness in his voice.

“All right, hang on.” Dean maneuvers his phone so it’s between his ear and shoulder. He touches a hand to John’s grave, then bends down in front of Mary’s. “Hey, Mom.” He leans the bouquet up against her headstone and traces her name with his thumb. He kisses his fingers and presses them to her headstone as he stands up, brushing off his coat. He sighs. “Well, there you go. The flowers are on the grave.”

“You okay?” Sam says.

“Yeah,” Dean says. “I don’t know if it gets easier or harder by the year.”

“Tell me about it.” Another gust of wind blows through Dean and he shivers. A lone figure dressed in black stands at a grave on the other side of the cemetery, head bowed.

“Listen, Sam,” Dean says, “I think I’m gonna have to call it. I’m freezing my gonads off out here.”

Sam makes a disgusted noise. “Really, Dean? You’re in a cemetery.”

“Yeah, in a cemetery freezing my gonads off.”

“Okay, well, see you next year, Mom. Hope you enjoy living with the image of your son’s genitals for the next twelve months.”

“You’re such a prude, Sam. How do you think we happened? I’ll tell you. Our mommy and our daddy had hot, sweaty, stinky—hello?” Dean looks at his phone screen and shakes his head. “Some people just can’t handle the truth,” he tells his parents. He taps on his dark phone screen, staring at Mary’s grave. Less judgmental than the mirror and less expensive than a therapist or a night at the bar. “I mean, why not? It’s not the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. There was that time with that girl from my physics class…” He slips his phone back into his pocket. “Uh. Speaking of prudishness, pretend you didn’t hear that, mom.” He sticks both hands in his pockets now, feeling stupider by the second. He’s gonna feel even worse if he doesn’t say anything, though. He looks at John’s headstone. “Give us a sec, Dad, okay?”

“Mom… I don’t really know what to say. I think the last time we actually talked like this was, what, the first time I kissed a girl? Or, a girl kissed me, I guess.” He laughs. “I Googled Robin last year, actually. She’s doing all right. Finally got out of town and went to art school. Studying photography. I don’t get any of her stuff, but it’s pretty cool. Very, uh, abstract.” He swallows. “School is mostly the same. I’m graduating in May, which is nuts. Not that I can explain it, but I still, somehow, have a 4.0, so congratulations, you gave birth to two total losers. Sam’s gonna kill it at Stanford, I can feel it.” He looks down, tapping the toe of his sneaker into the frozen mud. “Uh, there is one other thing. A new guy transferred in from a school in New England. Name’s Castiel. Cas, I guess. And he’s coming to Thanksgiving because someone—it’s Jo—has a big mouth. They’re not together or anything,” Dean blurts out, realizing how it sounds. “God, no, that would be—horrifying. Um. Cas is kind of a jackass, actually. Am I allowed to swear? Were you gonna be the kind of mom who cared if I swore in front of you? I just said the gonads thing, so the cat is probably out of the bag, anyway. I think you scolded me for saying ‘sh*t’ once when I was eight, but I caught you laughing about it with Dad later.”

Dean sighs, staring at the sky. His breath comes out in a cloud. The tip of his nose is just starting to turn pink in the cold. “I guess I could always talk to Ellen or Bobby, but… well, it’s a lot harder to talk to a person than it is a gravestone, huh? I miss you so bad, Mom. I wish I could see you. I wish I could talk to you. Maybe then I could actually tell you…” Dean bites his lip, heart thudding in his chest. He glances around him, as if someone would care enough to listen in. “God.” Dean swallows around a lump in his throat. “I don’t even know anymore.” He laughs, his eyes hot and itchy, and puts a hand to his forehead. “And now I’m telling a couple hunks of concrete all about my problems. Because of course I am.”

He sits on the ground and wipes his face and spends some more time with his parents.

*

They’re about halfway home when Jo turns to him and says, “So are you and Cas over that weird thing you had or what?”

Dean narrowly avoids choking on the licorice strand in his mouth. “What ‘weird thing’?”

“The thing where you thought he was, I dunno, some spy sent to infiltrate us or a sleeper agent or an alien or a Canadian or whatever.”

“I thought none of those things about him, but nice try.”

“Okay, smartass, are you over your hangups about him?”

No matter which way Dean answers that question, he’s lying, so he simply says, “Sure.”

“Great,” Jo says. “Progress.”

*

Charlie is waiting outside Dean’s building by the time he gets back from dropping Jo off, and as soon he steps out of the Impala, she’s enveloping him in a hug, her crutch falling to the ground. He wraps his arms around her and hugs her back, squeezing until she has to gasp out, “Ankle, ankle!”

“sh*t, sorry.” Dean pulls back and grabs her crutch for her. “You okay?”

“My ankle is super broke, but otherwise I’m peachy. How about you?”

“It depends how many Star Trek movies you brought over.”

Charlie reaches back to pat her bookbag. “What if I said all of the originals.”

Dean grins. “Then I would say you’re my favorite person ever.”

Charlie flicks her hair. “Sounds about right. As repayment, you can carry me into the building, because my ankle hurts like a bitch.”

Dean bends down, giving Charlie ample space to hop onto his back. “Hold on tight, spider monkey.”

Charlie thwacks him on the forehead.

*

The first Monday in November, Jo bails on class, which means that Dean is stuck alone with Castiel again. When he arrives, he takes the seat next to Dean instead of leaving one for Jo.

“Hey,” Dean says.

Castiel seems a little surprised at an actual greeting, and frankly, so is Dean. “Hello, Dean. How was your weekend?”

“Fine. Yours?”

“It was fine. How was Lawrence?”

Dean frowns. “How do you—right. Jo.”

“We do have many mutual friends. What’s in Lawrence? Jo never mentioned.”

“Visiting my parents.”

Castiel’s brow furrows, but only for a second. “I hope they’re well.”

“Ugh,” Dean says, smacking his tongue like there’s a bad taste in his mouth. “Making small talk with you is… weird. I don’t like it. Let’s never do this again.”

“Okay,” Castiel says. “Were you able to get the sem*n stain out of your jeans?”

Dean grimaces. “All right. Walked right into that one.”

The corner of Castiel’s mouth quirks. “Sorry to hear things didn’t work out with Jamie.”

“Okay, Jo and I are going to have to have a little talk about privacy.”

“You did brag about sleeping with her right in front of me. I can’t help but feel a little entitled to the story.”

“I always brag about sleeping with girls.”

Castiel lets that one hang long enough that Dean starts to feel like a real asshole. “You do, don’t you?” he finally muses.

“Okay, Dr. Phil.”

“You should come over tonight,” Castiel says.

Dean raises his eyebrows. “And why, exactly, should I do that?”

Castiel takes Dean’s notebook and scribbles something down on it, then slides it back to Dean. It’s an address. “You tell me.”

At that exact moment, Dr. Milton clears his throat and begins class, and Dean sinks down in his seat, cheeks aflame.

*

MESSAGES: PAM

Dean: Hey Pam, you’re friends with a lot of the nursing students, right?

Pam: ur still alive? thank god the world wasnt ready to lose that jawline just yet

Pam: and you bet i am sugar

Dean: I sharpened it on a whetstone the other day. Just for you.

Dean: Any chance you know a second-year nursing student named Carmen?

Pam: a scholar & a gentleman

Pam: this carmen have dark hair dark eyes ass of an angel?

Dean: hell yeah

Pam: o sh*t ur the guy who ate her out and then didnt even ask for anal in return arent u

Pam: please say yes i always knew u were a generous lover

Dean: Sorry sweet cheeks, must be someone else. But if you’ve got her number I’d love to get my hands on it.

Pam: u rly let me down winchester.

Pam: ill see what i can do.

*

Castiel lives in an all-brick townhouse in the rich part of town, an area Dean only frequents for keggers thrown by trust fund babies. If it were anyone else, Dean would call it quaint. As it stands, an ominous energy fills the Impala as he parks it behind a silver ‘07 Civic in the driveway. He takes a moment to compose himself, running his hands over the familiar shape of the Impala’s wheel. Once he sees a neighbor’s curtain flick, no doubt drawn by the singular putter of the Impala’s engine, Dean flees to the front stoop, suddenly invested in being inside and away from prying eyes. He knocks on the dark green door, eyeing the knocker with trepidation. He sways, jittery, from side to side until Castiel opens up and Dean swiftly steps in.

“You’re… eager,” Castiel says as he closes the door.

“Sure,” Dean says as he pulls back the curtain and glances outside. Nothing else seems amiss, except the pit in Dean’s stomach that seems to yawn to life every time Castiel is around.

“Is this a role-play thing?” Castiel asks. He’s wearing a white button-down with the sleeves rolled up to his forearms. “You’re John McClane being chased by terrorists or something?”

“What?” Dean says. “No, I just—” He kicks his flip-flops off. Underneath, he wears thermal socks. “It’s nothing.” Once he realizes he’s standing in a foyer of one of the most expensive areas in town, he stops to take it all in. It’s simple, impersonal, expensive. Dean has a sneaking suspicion Castiel didn’t choose the décor himself. “So, you’re uh—loaded, then, huh?” Dean says. He chuckles and scratches the back of his neck.

“I run a side business,” Castiel says. “I sold a paperclip on eBay and traded my way up to a house.” When Dean just looks at him, Castiel continues, “That was a joke.”

“Coulda fooled me,” Dean mumbles. It hits him all at once this is his first time really alone with Castiel. No injuries or parties or extenuating circ*mstances are bringing them together this time. Just an address on a piece of paper. Dean swallows.

“So how long should I give it this time?” Cas says, leaning against the banister.

“Give what?”

“For the ‘let’s just be friends, but—’ speech.”

“That’s not—I’m not gay.”

Castiel smiles wolfishly. “You said it, not me.”

Alone together for the first time and they’re just going to be assholes. Easy. “Ever since the first day you did that—that whatever look you gave me in class? Like you’re trying to… to…” Dean’s tripping over his own tongue. “—go steady or something.”

Castiel stares at Dean, agog. “‘Go steady’?” His mouth falls open. “As in, date you?” He laughs, harder than Dean’s ever seen him laugh, the smug façade finally cracking open. “Dean, I’ve never wanted to date you.”

“Then what do you—” Dean’s cheeks heat. He looks down at his socks. “Oh.”

Castiel has to take a minute to calm down. Every time he seems to be done, his shoulders start shaking again. Finally, he puts a finger to his mouth, contemplative. “Dean. When I saw you that time in class, my first thought wasn’t about a long walk on the beach or brunch at a café in Paris.” He steps toward Dean, taking Dean’s chin in his hand. “It wasn’t about rollerblading in the park or grabbing coffee at Starbucks or seeing a movie where you conveniently leave your hand, palm-up, on the armrest for the full runtime.” He’s guiding Dean’s face, gaze intense, grip firm enough to make Dean’s insides squirm in a good way. Dean swallows, and Castiel watches the movement. “You still want to know if I think you’re attractive, Dean?” he murmurs, running his thumb across Dean’s mouth. On instinct, Dean’s lips part in a silent sigh. He nods like he’s in a dream, falling into Castiel.

Castiel kisses him heatedly, his fingers tight in Dean’s hair and his free hand balled into a fist at the nape of Dean’s neck as he draws them across the living room and onto the couch. “Lie down,” he instructs, and Dean does. Castiel straddles him, the weight of him solid and weirdly comforting. Dean’s dick is already hard, and every time Castiel rubs up against it through his jeans he has to suck in air through his clenched teeth. Castiel bends down to kiss him, and the new angle, Dean laid out with Castiel on top, is heady and overwhelming. Castiel has a knee between Dean’s legs, and Dean wraps one around Castiel’s calf, stroking it with his socked foot.

When Castiel focuses his attention on Dean’s neck, Dean manages to pant out, “Hey, your roommate isn’t gonna—okay—walk in on—uh, this, is he?”

“What?” Castiel says, voice muffled by Dean’s clavicle.

“Whoever owns the most boring car in the world sitting in your driveway,” Dean says, and then moans when Castiel tweaks a nipple through his shirt. “The Civic,” he gasps.

“Civic’s mine,” comes from somewhere under Dean’s jaw.

It’s Dean’s turn: “What?”

“Can’t ride a motorcycle year-round.” Castiel sneaks a hand up Dean’s shirt, fingers skating across Dean’s torso until they find his very hard nipple. Dean bites down on his bottom lip, both out of instinct and as an attempt to stop an even more embarrassing litany of sounds tripping off his tongue.

“That’s—” Castiel sucks at a particular spot on Dean’s neck that sends him into the stratosphere. “F-f*ck, that’s horrifying.”

“You wear socks and flip flops in public every day and it’s my perfectly adequate car that’s horrifying?” Castiel returns to his mouth after that, and Dean doesn’t get a chance to vocalize what would undoubtedly have been a conversational three-point buzzer beater. They kiss until Dean’s lips are so bitten-red and oversensitized he winces and shivers when Castiel finally pulls back and starts tracing them with his fingertip. “That’s what I wanted to see,” he says, eyes searching Dean’s face.

Dean blinks and looks away, a little too scrutinized. His cheeks are flaming, but he doesn’t like the eye contact. It makes him itch.

Castiel doesn’t dwell on it. He kisses his way up Dean’s jaw, dragging his fingers across Dean’s dick. The feather-light touch is unexpected enough that Dean almost loses it right there, squeezing his handful of Castiel’s shirt until his knuckles turn white. Castiel smiles against his neck. “Did you just—”

Dean unscrews his face. “No,” he snaps, defensive, though his org*sm has already started to curl, hot, low in his belly.

“Good,” Castiel murmurs. “I was hoping to actually get you out of your pants this time.”

Embarrassment makes Dean begrudging and oxytocin makes him docile as he grumbles, “Better do it quick, then.”

“Sounds good to me.” Castiel unzips Dean’s fly and the world inverts for a second. When he comes back to himself, Castiel’s open palm is in front of his lips. “Spit.”

Dean has to unglue his tongue from the roof of his mouth to even speak, his words thick. “That’s gross.”

“We can stop,” Castiel says. “And I can go upstairs and dig for the lube I probably don’t even have.”

Dean spits on his palm.

Castiel’s first touch to his dick, skin to skin, Dean throws his head back, squeezing his eyes shut. He has to fight Castiel’s shirt so he can find bare skin to dig his fingers into. He presses lax, open-mouthed kisses to anywhere he can reach on Castiel, but for the most part lies flat on his back, panting, letting Castiel do whatever he wants to him.

Castiel jacks him slowly, in time to the thorough attention he’s paying Dean’s shoulders. Dean assumes it’s to annoy him, but the joke is on Castiel because Dean is so wound up it doesn’t matter. Castiel rubs his thumb over the slit of Dean’s dick, lightly circling it, and Dean loses all capacity to speak until he has to thwack Castiel on the arm to back off. “Too much,” he manages to gasp out, vibrating out of his skin by this point. Castiel returns to less sensitive but just as excited territory and speeds up his wrist, stroking Dean from base to tip. They actually should have gotten lube—Dean’s going to be chafed for a week—but he can’t find it anywhere in himself to give a sh*t as Castiel keeps touching him like that, the org*sm coming in an exhausting series of waves that leaves his entire body shuddering. Castiel coaxes him through it, massaging his thigh when Dean finally has to knock his hand away before he dissolves into complete overstimulated nothingness.

Whatever chemical nonsense is happening in his brain may as well be leaking out his ears as he reaches for Castiel, still hard against his hip. He clumsily fiddles with the button on Castiel’s jeans until Castiel looks at him, one eyebrow raised. “You actually want to?”

“Shut up,” Dean slurs. “Just let me—” He fights with the button until Castiel takes pity on him and undoes it as well as unzipping the zipper for him. When he finally gets a hand around Castiel’s dick, Castiel lets out a harsh, short breath and drops his head. It’s an awkward angle and Dean’s under no impression he’s actually any good at this, but as a fellow owner of similar parts, he’s aware it doesn’t take a degree in rocket science.

When his palm starts to drag in a way that’s less than comfortable, Dean retrieves his hand, only to attempt to spit in it like he did Castiel’s. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a bone in his body at the moment, and half of his saliva ends up dripping down his cheek. Castiel snorts out a laugh. “I appreciate the gesture.” He takes Dean’s hand, maneuvering it into a loose fist. “Here. Like this.”

Castiel f*cks Dean’s fist then, slow. When he finds a rhythm, he puts one of his big hands over Dean’s, adjusting his grip and showing Dean how he likes it. Dean’s system is still flooded with every chemical known to man, and he lets himself be maneuvered, tingly-limbed and glowing, while Castiel comes all over his shirt with a groan.

As Castiel comes down, Dean catches him mid-collapse and they’re kissing again, no finesse or technique about it. Sparks of aftershocks blitz through Dean where they touch, his lizard brain already gearing up in the eternal hunt for the next round.

When Dean looks down and sees the mess on his shirt, he feels the first feeble cracks of darkness in the post-coital glow, something the bad kind of hot curdling where just minutes ago, it was good. He pushes Castiel off him, not ungently, and straightens up. He can feel Castiel’s eyes on his back as he fights to right his pants, staring uselessly at the stain on his shirt.

Castiel stands, and as he approaches, the hairs on the back of Dean’s neck stand up. He lets out a breath when Castiel walks right by him and disappears further into the house. Dean stares at his shirt, a faint buzzing in his ears. Castiel returns a moment later, washcloth in hand, handing it to Dean as he walks by. Dean gives the stain a few good swipes, but it’s clear it’s not going anywhere fast. He tosses the cloth to Castiel and heads for the door. “I should go.”

“Okay,” Castiel says, unbothered. He watches Dean gather his things from where he leans against the railing in the foyer, arms crossed.

Dean doesn’t linger. He’s got a hand on the doorknob in thirty seconds, a lifetime of quick exits finally paying off. “Well,” he says, only because it’s more awkward if he doesn’t say anything at all. “See ya.”

“Dean,” Castiel says.

Dean keeps his hand on the doorknob, but turns around. Castiel doesn’t move from his position. He sighs, as if he’s accepting some great hardship onto himself. “Fine. I’ll do it.”

“Uh… do what?”

Castiel uncrosses his arms so he can give a half-shrug. “I’ll be your experimental college phase.”

Dean shakes his head. “I’m sorry. What?”

“I’m giving you the rationalization you so desperately crave,” Castiel says. “Take it or leave it.”

“I…” Dean’s grip pulses on the doorknob. He licks his dry lips.

“If women are allowed to experiment in college without it being gay, why can’t you?”

“Can you stop?” Dean says.

Castiel doesn’t say anything, which is somehow more annoying than if he had kept talking.

Finally, Dean snaps, “Fine,” and ejects himself from the house before he has to hear Castiel’s response.

*

“Fancy meeting you here, doc,” Dean says as he sidles up next to Carmen. They’re at the campus pub, a dinky little place where the beer is cheapest at lunch. Carmen’s already got a drink in front of her at the bar, and she swivels her seat to face him.

“Dean,” she says, and grins. “How have you been?”

He orders a beer with a flick of his wrist and takes the empty seat next to her. “Making it work, just like always. What about you?”

“Good,” she says, and takes a sip of her vodka cranberry. “Not gonna lie, I was really surprised when Pam asked if she could give my number to you.”

Dean rests his chin on his palm. “I just had to find the girl who’s been spreading lies about my sexual prowess all over campus.”

Carmen turns bright red, but maintains a playful dignity. “First? I never used your name. Strictly anonymous. If anyone figured out who you were, that’s on you and your various proclivities. Second? It wasn’t a lie.”

Dean’s beer arrives and he takes a long swig. “You’re welcome to tell people I’m the best lay you ever had. That one’s free.”

Carmen tilts her head. “Were you?”

Dean wets his bottom lip and bites it, raising his eyebrows. “Is that a challenge?”

Carmen takes one last sip of her drink and stands up, grabbing her purse and jacket from off her chair. “Only if you want it to be.”

“How did I end up with such a cool chick,” Dean says, and drains his beer.

*

Dean’s f*cking Carmen in her dorm room, her hand in his hair and his thumb on her cl*t. She’s gasping in his ear, encouraging him to go harder. He eventually coaxes an org*sm out of her, and she shudders through it, Dean carefully extracting his hand from between her thighs. She sighs deeply, contented. “f*ck.”

“Good?”

She nods, tracing a pattern on Dean’s arm. “You can keep going if you want to, y’know.” She gestures vaguely downwards where Dean’s still hard inside her.

Dean taps his fingers on the bedsheet. He tries to smile, but only one side of his mouth gets the message. “Yeah,” he says, and repositions himself. “Yeah, okay.”

Carmen wraps her legs around Dean’s waist, her heels knocking into his lower back. “Show me what you got, Mr. Best Ever.”

Dean lets out a shaky laugh and starts f*cking her again. He closes his eyes to concentrate, narrows the world down to that one point of contact, something hard going into something soft. There’s a terrifying minute or so where nothing seems to happen, and then the familiar building, cresting, and falling washes over Dean as all the tension rushes out of him at once. He sags forward, and starts to laugh, relieved, drunk with org*sm. The laughter is tinged, hysteria just creeping out at the edges. He laughs so hard he coughs, and his eyes well up, and he’s searching for breath while he’s still trying to laugh. “f*ck,” he finally says, and laughs again. He rolls off of Carmen and sits, elbows on his knees, hands running through his hair.

Carmen watches him, waiting to be let in on the joke. “Did I miss the punchline?”

Dean peels off the soggy condom, ties it, and tosses it. His laughter finally dies down after another chuckle or two. He wipes his face. “Honestly?” he says. “It wasn’t that funny.”

*

Dean has never purposely watched gay p*rn in his life. It truly, genuinely never occurred to him to try. After his last stint with the unexpected threesome, he took a break from the naked parts of the internet.

Tonight, his finger hovers over the play button of a video with two men f*cking as the thumbnail, his hand shaking like he’s about to launch nukes with a big red button. All the curtains in his apartment are shut, he’s in an incognito window, and he has both the deadbolt and the chain lock on the door. His phone is off, the light is off, and his brain is—as much it can be—off.

He presses play with clammy palms, licking his lips.

The video starts in medias res, one guy sucking a nipple into his mouth and rubbing his palm against the other guys’ co*ck through his bulging underwear. Okay. Forget the foreplay. Dean’s rolled with videos like this before, getting right to the point. He respects it. The guy on the bottom moans breathily as the guy on top tweaks his other nipple with his fingers. His hand disappears underneath the elastic waistband of his underwear, and a moment later, he’s pulling out a hard dick, capturing it in his palm, and stroking it.

Dean pauses the video and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. A kind of fuzziness fills him up, like static from a TV caught between channels. Once his heart rate has slowed, he presses play again.

Moments after the video continues, it fades to black and then the guy on top is f*cking the guy on the bottom, doggy-style. There’s no music, just the sound of skin against skin, the guy getting f*cked moaning, and the guy doing the f*cking grunting. He’s got one hand in the guy’s hair and the other holding his hip, thrusting forward hard enough their hips slap together every time. He leans forward to suck marks into the guy’s shoulder, buried deep in him, and Dean’s eyes are drawn to the rapid rise and fall of his chest, and then the way the guy on top wraps a hand around his throat, Adam’s apple undulating against his palm.

The angle changes, this one looking up at the dick of the guy on the bottom as he gets f*cked within an inch of his life. It’s gratuitous enough that Dean almost laughs at the sheer absurdity. Instead, he wraps a hand around his own dick and starts pumping back and forth. Dean had never realized how good it could feel to have a hand bigger than his own jerking him off until Castiel’s house the other night, and he recreates the feeling as best he can by stretching his fingers out, covering more surface area.

The video switches to a new angle, this time low and from behind the guy on top as he thrusts into the guy on the bottom. He’s never been the biggest fan of ball shots (he doesn’t know a guy who is) but regardless, he bites his lip and swallows, speeding up his hand as the guys on camera become wilder, more desperate the closer they get to release. Dean’s right there with them, everything beneath his belly button tightening. The guy on top comes first with a groan that inflames Dean from head to toe, and moments later, the guy on the bottom comes too, right onto the bedsheets. He makes a choked off whine that pushes Dean over the edge, the desperation flooding him from limb to limb as he org*sms hard, blood roaring in his ears. He makes a mess of his torso and slams his laptop shut, almost in the same movement. While his entire body is still pulsing, he grabs a tissue from his bedside table and cleans himself up. When he can stand it, he rips open his laptop, closes the window, and dips it shut again, sliding it under his bed. When all evidence has been disposed of, he flops onto his back and stares at the ceiling of his room until his eyelids grow heavy.

*

Dean’s half asleep in line at a campus coffee shop, trying to remember if it’s a two- or three-sugar day for Charlie because he’s too lazy to look at his phone to check his texts, when someone bumps into him. “Sorry, mate,” they say with a British accent, and Dean turns around, and down, only to get a face full of peacoat and stubble.

“Don’t worry about it,” Dean says, and tries to turn back around.

“Hey,” the guy says. “Do I know you?”

Dean looks him up and down. He looks like he should be standing on a street corner in an overcoat with lots of pockets. “Don’t think so,” Dean says.

“No, I—hold on, it’ll come to me,” he says, snapping his fingers. “I never forget a pretty face.”

Dean glances at the other people in earshot, all engrossed in the menu above the cash register or on their phones. “All right, pal,” he says. “That’s great.”

“Are you on TV? You look like you could be on TV.”

“Nope.”

“Do you model?”

“Definitely not.”

“You gotta work with me,” he says, squinting at Dean’s face. “I swear, something about you is… familiar.”

“Sorry man,” Dean says. He clears his throat. “I don’t know you.”

The guy takes the hint for a second, before saying, “Would you like to?”

Dean’s mouth opens and doesn’t close. There’s an agonizing moment of silence where the guy just stares baldly at Dean, waiting for him to answer, and Dean stares, agog, at the guy, unable to scrape together a sound, let alone a sentence. Finally, Dean coughs. His cheeks are hot. “Uh, sorry. I don’t swing that way.”

The guy raises his eyebrows, then tsks, shaking his head. “That’s a pity,” he says. “Interesting, but a pity.” And then he walks out the door.

*

Dean shoves Castiel, face-down, into the couch.

“Hey,” Castiel says, muffled but unbothered, “since we last saw each other, you wouldn’t have happened to watch baby’s first gay p*rn by any chance?”

Dean’s grip on him loosens. “No.” He thinks about it. “So what if I have?”

“Oh, no big deal, really,” Castiel says, and is out of Dean’s hold so fast Dean barely catches himself from falling into the position he just pretzeled Castiel into. Castiel catches both of Dean’s wrists in one hand, knocking him so he’s lying on his back, hands in a vice grip above his head. Castiel kneels between his legs. “You were just shoving me into the couch a little hard, is all.”

“Maybe I’m a… a—” Dean searches the rolodex of his mind. He flexes his fingers under Castiel’s grip. It’s been an educational couple days. “A dominant top. I wasn’t shoving you into the couch because of that, by the way. That was just because you’re annoying.”

Castiel nods, deep in thought. “A dominant top,” he muses.

“Yeah. What about it?”

Castiel shrugs, readjusting his grip on Dean’s wrists. With his free hand, he lightly drags his knuckles along the inside of Dean’s knee. “No, I think it makes sense. You really like to take charge in the bedroom. A true man’s man.” He nudges Dean’s legs apart a little further with his knees.

“You’re damn right,” Dean says, and licks his lips.

Castiel’s hand drifts toward Dean’s already peaked nipples. “You agree that I alone am your college experimental phase—my heart’s still aflutter, by the way—and then you show up a few days later, unannounced, and shove me face-first onto the nearest furniture?” He rubs a thumb over Dean’s nipple and Dean bites back a moan. “Am I your dirty co*ckslu*t now? Are you gonna ruin my virgin hole?”

Dean makes a weird sound meant to be in protest, but Castiel continues his ministrations on Dean’s nipple so that doesn’t last long. “I’m just trying to parse out where we’re headed,” Castiel says, his fingers tripping down Dean’s torso toward his abdomen. “I’m flexible, both literally and figuratively. We can do this if that’s what you want.” He looks Dean up and down, from his socks with little pizzas all over them to the snapback Dean’s still wearing, backwards. It’s askew by now, but it’s not like Dean can do anything about it. He watches with heavy-lidded eyes as Castiel watches him. “Is this what you want?”

Castiel hovers over him, waiting for an answer. His thumb still absently circles Dean’s nipple and it makes it hard for him to think. Not that thinking was ever part of the plan.

“I want…” Dean says, and stops, because he thought he was going to figure it out by the time he got to the end of that sentence. Castiel leans over and takes Dean’s other nipple between his teeth and Dean breathes out hard. “Okay,” Dean gasps. They’re both still wearing jeans, but Dean can feel Castiel through the denim, hot against him. “That. I want that.”

Castiel teases lightly with his teeth, finally freeing Dean’s hands. He scrabbles at Castiel’s back as he continues to work him over, his fingers working on the nipple his mouth isn’t. He thrusts his hips up instinctively, and Castiel responds in kind. Dean threads his fingers through Castiel’s hair, his grip tightening whenever Castiel finds a particularly sensitive spot.

Castiel works his way back to Dean’s mouth and kisses him heatedly. “Turn over,” he says against Dean’s lips.

“What?”

“Over,” Castiel says. He nudges Dean’s waist. “Turn.”

Dean turns over, heart hammering against his ribs. Castiel’s hands are on either side of Dean’s head and he presses his hot mouth to the back of Dean’s neck. When Dean clues into what the sweet-sting sensation back there means, he vaguely swats backward. “Hey, hey. No hickies, are you insane?” His erection digs into Castiel’s couch.

Castiel pulls off him with a hilarious, greedy pop. “Hm,” he says, running a thumb over his handiwork. “Duly noted.”

“f*ck,” Dean says. “You’re gay. You must have a scarf I can borrow.”

Castiel grins wickedly against Dean’s ear. “I didn’t realize we were already at the clothes-sharing portion of this endeavor.”

“Only because of you,” Dean says, losing the explicit snap he was going for when Castiel fits his huge hands to Dean’s hips and surges forward, thrusting up against Dean’s ass. A shaky exhalation falls out of him instead, heat coursing through him. His dick strains painfully against his jeans, and he’s just about to work a hand beneath him to do something about it when Castiel’s hands fit to the juncture of his hips and upper thighs, urging him up into a position much like the one Dean had shoved him into initially. “Okay,” Dean says, breathing hard and resting his forehead on the arm of the couch, “I get it, don’t take lessons from p*rn—okay,” he gasps, almost jumping out of his skin when Castiel’s hand sneaks beneath him, unzipping his jeans.

At the first touch of Castiel’s hand to his dick, Dean sees stars. With his other hand, Castiel massages Dean’s thigh. He kisses Dean’s lower back, the sweet-sting present once again, but Dean’s lost both the words and the desire to tell Castiel to knock it off. It’s not like the lower back is a highly scrutinized area in public, anyway.

They never seem to have lube directly on hand, and Dean’s expecting another couple days of uncomfortable chafing after this, but when Castiel shifts so that he’s lined up properly with Dean’s ass, Dean can’t find it in him much to care.

Castiel presses up against him, his thrusts getting sloppier as he gets closer. Dean’s right there with him, eyes squeezed shut and knuckles white. The arm of the couch digs into his forehead and it’s gonna leave one hell of an indent.

On the next thrust, timed perfectly with Castiel’s hand on his dick, Dean comes with a desperate sound, his hands clawing at the couch as he searches for purchase. Castiel’s grip on him is tight, tighter, as he works Dean through the last throes of org*sm. Dean can barely move, wrung out and sore in ways he’s never been as Castiel continues to move against him.

Drunk-dumb, Dean says, radiating heat, “Jerk off on me.”

“What?” A reedy thread of desperation colors Castiel’s voice.

“Dumb,” Dean says. Words are hard. “Do it.”

There’s a moment of silence, and then Castiel puts a palm to Dean’s lower back, pushing him flat onto the couch. There’s a snap, a zip, and then Castiel is straddling Dean’s ass, jerking himself off while Dean gets acquainted with the feel of being surrounded, held down, by Castiel. Castiel puts his free hand beside Dean’s head on the arm of the couch, and Dean stares at his fingers with heavy eyes. He moves without thinking, grabbing Castiel’s hand in his own and wrapping his lips around Castiel’s index finger. Above him, Castiel’s breath stutters. “Dean,” he says, low, so Dean sucks in another one, bobbing his head back and forth. He runs his tongue along the underside of Castiel’s fingers, and then something warm pools on his lower back, probably right over the bruises Castiel left there earlier. Dean’s brain is trying valiantly to get the rest of him on board for a round two, but then Castiel collapses back against the couch, his legs crossed perpendicular over Dean’s, as he sighs contentedly.

They sit in silence for a bit, after, with Castiel absent-mindedly tracing patterns on Dean’s calf with one of the fingers that was just in Dean’s mouth. He sighs again, and Dean can tell he’s flung his head back against the cushion. “I always feel like I need a cigarette after you. I’ve never smoked a day in my life.”

Dean moves his head off the arm of the couch, mindful of the quickly-drying pool of come on his back. He lowers his head down to the cushion. “Cigarettes, you mean.”

“You’re right,” Castiel says. “I’m thinking too small.” He runs his hand over Dean’s stupid socked ankle and then grips his calf lightly. “You have got to let me f*ck you one of these days,” he says casually. “It would be…” He touches the hickey by Dean’s hairline. “It would be good.”

Dean’s halfway to hard again, but he’s so exhausted he can barely muster up an indignant thought at the prospect. “Dominant top, remember?” he offers instead.

Castiel huffs a laugh. “Unfortunately, I do.”

The following silence is almost companionable, a feeling Dean’s not used to sharing with Castiel. Eventually, he fetches Castiel’s shirt off the floor by feeling around with his dangling hand until he hooks it, and then tosses it onto his back. Castiel remains unbothered when Dean starts using his nice t-shirt as a come rag. “You’re gonna have to torch this couch,” Dean says.

“I’ll just flip the cushions.”

Dean’s currently lying in his own come, which is also currently soaking into the couch. “Gross.”

“You can take a shower if you want,” Castiel says.

Dean untangles himself from Castiel and sits up gingerly. “I’m okay. I should probably get going.” He makes sure his head is lost somewhere in his hoodie when he asks, “Are you still coming to Thanksgiving?”

*

Jo slams the trunk of the Impala and comes around to the passenger side. “Okay,” she says, climbing in, her newly acquired sweater in her lap. “Let’s hit the road.”

Dean slaps the steering wheel with both hands. “Hoo, dog,” he says, speaking around the big hunk of jerky in his mouth. Every time Jo makes eye contact with it she dry heaves.

“All the way from Nebraska.” Dean points to Jo as they pull out of the dorm parking lot. “All the way from Kansas” He taps the steering wheel. “All the way from… hey, where the hell are you from again, Cas?”

Dead silence in the car.

Dean clears his throat, coughs like he just swallowed some jerky the wrong way. “…tiel.”

“Maine,” Castiel eventually responds.

“Maine,” Dean mutters, and doesn’t meet anyone’s gaze for the next forty-five minutes.

*

Bobby Singer and Ellen Harvelle share an old blue house in the middle of a junkyard in South Dakota. Tire rims decorate the siding and at the front of the long driveway, a barely legible, cobbled-together sign reads: SINGER AUTO SALVAGE.

Dean made sure to warn Castiel thoroughly about the staggeringly working-class family he was stumbling into well in advance, but it occurs to him, as they drive through a labyrinthine maze of rusty metal skeletons, that he might have left out an important detail or two.

“You would not believe how up to date on our tetanus shots we were as kids,” he says as they come to a stop at the front porch.

“Not long after we moved up from Nebraska, I scraped my knee while playing out here and I thought my mom was gonna murder Bobby,” Jo says. Dean kills the engine and she continues to speak as she leaves the car. “It didn’t quite take.”

Castiel has been quieter than usual on the drive up. Jo is first to the trunk and fishes out her duffel. “You guys coming?”

Dean waves her on. “Go ahead—I’m gonna prep Castiel a little.”

Castiel waits until the screen door has shut behind her before saying, “In the front yard?”

“Uh huh. Yeah.” Dean can see his breath when he speaks. “That’s exactly what I was gonna talk to you about. None of that sh*t here, got it? None. Zip. Nada.”

“Is your family full of Republicans or something?”

Dean grabs Castiel’s suitcase (“You don’t have a duffel bag?” “No, should I?” “Jesus Christ, dude.”) out of the trunk and hands it to him. “I’m not saying you can’t tell them you’re gay. They’ve met Charlie a million times. I’m just saying you can’t…” He grabs his own duffel out of the trunk, shoulders it, and thinks better of finishing that sentence.

“You trailed off at the end there, just when it was getting significant,” Castiel says.

Dean slams the trunk.

“My hand wasn’t there this time, but nice try.”

“You are so f*cking annoying,” Dean says. “Is that how they teach you to act in Maine?”

“They taught me how to yacht, if that counts.”

“Who are you?”

The front door slams again, and Dean and Castiel both look up to see a short woman with auburn hair staring at them. She glares for a few seconds before breaking into a big smile. That’s when she most resembles her daughter. Dean drops his duffel and rushes her, pulling her into a giant hug. “Hey, Ellen,” he says.

“Dean,” she says, one word and the Nebraska twang remains just as stubborn as ever. “You too busy standing out here talking about the weather to come inside? Get on in there, get. Freezing my tips off out here.” She hustles him toward the door and turns to Castiel. “Cas?”

“Hello,” Castiel says, looking vaguely intimidated. Ellen has that effect on people.

“Nice to meet ya. Now get the hell in here.”

*

Bobby’s a little grayer than the last time Dean saw him. He’s still wearing that exact same ratty Gone Fishin’ ball cap he spent all last summer in. He pulls Dean into a hug right there in the foyer, then steps back to get a gander at Castiel, who hovers awkwardly in the background. “You the one who owns a Triumph?”

“I am,” Castiel says.

Bobby produces a beer, seemingly out of nowhere, and hands it to him. “You’re gonna have to tell me about that.”

*

Castiel sits on his phone on the sunken living room couch. The room is cluttered and still wallpapered with that same horrendous red pattern Ellen’s been threatening with a paintbrush for years, but it’s lived-in and comfortable. Dean sneaks up behind Castiel, avoiding all the squeaky spots under the wooden floorboards, and peeks over his shoulder. “Lame,” he tsks.

Castiel starts and turns around. “What’s lame?”

Dean vaults over the back of the couch and lands next to him, their thighs pressed together. He points to the picture of Charlie on a beach, sporting a white bikini covered in little cherries. “I found that bathing suit when she dragged me shopping a couple months ago and she doesn’t even credit me. A real double whammy.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Castiel says, and tucks his phone into his pocket. “I didn’t think you even used social media.”

“I don’t,” Dean says. “Why spend all my time reliving past sh*tfaces when the next sh*tface is right around the corner?”

“That’s really inspirational.”

“I know, right?” Dean adjusts his snapback, because every time Bobby catches him wearing one he knocks it askew. Dean once called out the double standard when he was sixteen, but Bobby promised him a world of pain if he ever touched his dumb trucker caps, so Dean endures the harassment, only because Bobby, like, raised him. “Hey, I thought you didn’t use social media either?”

“How do you know that?”

“Because Charlie and I cyberstalked you across the Internet that one time. That one month.”

Castiel raises an eyebrow. “Right. Well. I wanted to keep up with Charlie Bradbury’s Thanksgiving Weekend Exotic n’ Erotic Beach Relaxation Exxxtravaganza ;).” He winks.

Dean crosses his hands behind his head and leans back, chuckling. “We’re supposed to do the analog download over beers after she gets back, but what’s she up to?”

“I think the title mostly covers it,” Castiel says.

“I mean, she’s my hero, obviously,” Dean says.

“She’s something, all right,” Castiel says.

*

Dean almost faints when Sam walks through the arrival gates at FSD, mop-headed and “Tall as f*ck, Sam, what the hell growth hormones is Stanford feeding you?” A fellow arrival glares at Dean as he walks by, and Dean points to his little brother. “Yeah, Stanford.”

“Dean,” Sam says, halfway to a laugh, and then Dean pulls him into a bone-crushing hug. He doesn’t make it a habit to hug people taller than him. It’s a strange sensation.

“Sam,” he says, stepping back and gesturing to Castiel. “This is Castiel, Jo’s stray. We didn’t know if it would be weirder to bring him or cage him up at home so he doesn’t wreck all the pillows and pee on the rug. So, here he is.”

“Nice, Dean,” Sam says. He shakes Castiel’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Castiel. Cas? Jo said you prefer Cas.”

“Cas is fine,” Castiel says. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Only terrible things,” Dean assures Sam. He claps him on the shoulder. “Now, do you have a fancy bag full of hairdryers for that ‘do we have to pick up or what?”

*

Dean lies in his rickety childhood bed and stares at the peeling ceiling. On the other side of the room, the lump of gangly limbs otherwise known as Sam sleeps under the sheets. Down the hall, Jo sleeps in her hazmat zone of a room, and Bobby and Ellen sleep behind the door across from her. Castiel’s set up on the pullout downstairs with the lethal spring that digs right into the tailbone. Dean grabs his phone from the nightstand and squints at the sudden brightness.

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Dean: Find the spring yet?

Castiel: usually I wouldn’t complain about something hard poking into my lower back but this is a special circ*mstance

Dean: You ever watch Undercover Boss? You’re like the rich CEO coming to see how the other side lives

Castiel: i don’t like to presume, but I doubt the other side can afford to go to college without even a part time job

Dean: First off, you love to presume. It’s like a core tenet of your personality.

Dean: Second, Sam and I both have dead parent life insurance money so you can’t make fun of me.

Dean: Sucker

Dean: We also have regular, pity-free scholarships.

Dean: Third, because I’m on a roll, I work full time in the summer and live in a sh*thole

Castiel: ok, so I was a little presumptuous

Castiel: whats it like sharing a room with your little brother?

Dean: Imagine if every time you wanted to jerk off as a horny teenager your little brother was there

Castiel: im not sure why I asked, there really is no other answer

Dean: Do you have brothers or sisters?

Castiel: A few

Dean: Probably never had to share a room with them, huh?

Castiel: we each got our own wing of the house

Dean: Bullsh*t.

Dean: That was a joke, right?

Dean: Castiel was that a joke

Castiel: ;)

*

Bobby has inexplicably taken to Castiel, the two of them drinking beers in the living room and swapping old motorcycle stories. Sam, a baby who’s never been on a motorcycle in his entire life, hovers around the edges of the conversation, intent. Jo sits on a milkcrate across from them with not much to say, but she tends to follow the alcohol regardless of the conversation topic. In the kitchen, Ellen sits sewing a new button onto a plaid shirt she caught under a 74’ Dodge Dart the other week while Dean fights with an oven even more crotchety than Bobby.

“I don’t know how you haven’t blown yourselves sky high yet,” Dean says, covering his eyebrows with one hand as he turns on the gas with the other.

“We pray,” Ellen says, not looking up from her sewing.

“Oh, I’m sure Pastor Jim has long since consigned you two to the hot pokey place,” Dean says. “It might actively be hurting your chances of survival to think otherwise.”

“You’re telling me that grape juice and stale bread I leave out for Jesus every Easter is going to waste?”

Dean holds his breath and turns a knob. The pot of water that’s been waiting on the stove doesn’t blast off, so he considers it a success and slides into the chair across from Ellen. “The Jesus bunny isn’t real. Sorry I had to be the one to break it to you.”

Ellen tsks. “You’ve really ruined the magic for me, kid.”

“And to think, once upon a time that was a role befitting only my dear sister.”

Ellen snorts. She looks up and into the living room, Bobby’s gruff timbre a comforting, familiar sound even if Dean can’t hear what he’s saying. Castiel looks genuinely interested in whatever it is, his arm dangling off the back of the couch, long fingers clutching the neck of his sweaty beer bottle. Ellen dips her head. “Cas seems nice. He kinda reminds me of a butler in an old-timey black and white movie. But he’s nice.”

Dean shrugs. “He’s all right.” He rises, then hunts down a beer in their ancient refrigerator. As he sits back down, he presses his fingers into the cool glass of the bottle and positions the cap at the craggy side of the wooden table.

Ellen frowns at a stitch as she says, “Him and Jo ain’t…?”

Dean’s halfway to slamming his palm down onto the cap when he registers what Ellen’s asking, and then it’s too late to stop himself as he smacks the entire bottle out of his own hand, where it smashes on the linoleum. In the living room, conversation grinds to a halt as everyone stares at the beer soaking into Dean’s “May the Foot be with you” socks.

“You been working out, son?” Bobby asks from the couch. “Don’t know your own strength.”

“No,” Castiel replies automatically. Dean glares at him, but everyone is too busy going into damage control mode to try to parse it.

“Just holding a lot of doors open for the ladies,” Dean says.

“Gross.” Sam returns with the broom from the closet.

“It’s not a euphemism,” Dean says. “I’m a gentleman.”

“Gross.” Jo tosses paper towels onto the mess, doing her best to soak up the beer without touching the glass.

“Okay, how about we clean up the booze and the glass before we get into the undoubtedly heated debate of Dean’s gentleman status,” Ellen says.

“Is this a popular topic of conversation in the Singer-Harvelle-Winchester household?” Castiel asks, watching the cleanup proceedings but not strictly enough that he can’t summon up a glint in his eye, just to annoy Dean.

“Yes,” says everyone but Dean.

“No,” says Dean. “You’re all traitors. I’m writing you out of my will.”

“Boo.” Jo pouts. “I really wanted that novelty sock collection.”

“I don’t have to stand for this abuse,” Dean says.

“You do, actually,” Ellen says. “At least until we’re done cleaning this up.”

*

Bobby is the last of the night to surrender, retiring to bed with a beer in one hand and a tip of his ball cap in the other. Dean waits until the stairs have finished creaking and the bedroom door closes to occupy the opposite end of the couch Castiel is sitting on. He sprawls out on it, grinning, his own beer slack in his hand. Behind them, the fireplace crackles and pops. “He likes you,” Dean says. “I don’t understand it, but he does.”

An uncharacteristically sheepish grin takes up residence on Castiel’s face. “I would have never known.”

Dean takes a sip of his beer. Not counting the one he suplexed earlier, this would be number six. “The old fart plays it close to the chest, but he has his tells. For one, I’ve never seen him ask another person so many questions in a row before.”

“They were all about my bike.”

“Your bike, your breakfast this morning, your shared hatred of high fashion.” Dean tips the bill of his own hat, a green and black snapback from a local brewery. “You get the third degree about anything from Bobby, and you’re in.”

Castiel leans back and takes a sip of his own beer. “Good to know,” he says.

“Ellen’s crotchety and Bobby’s crotchetier, but they’re good people. They got married only a couple months before my parents died, when Jo was ten. They were expecting one kid, and ended up with three.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Castiel says. “It was very generous of them—and you—to open your home to me this weekend.”

Dean squints at Castiel. “Are you f*cking with me? That sounds like something you would say when you’re f*cking with me.”

Castiel laughs a little. He might be drunk as well. “No, actually. These past few days have been… enlightening.”

“I don’t think I want to know the implications behind that.”

“Me neither, actually,” Castiel says.

“I definitely don’t want to know the implications behind that.”

“Me neither,” Castiel says.

They both take a drink.

Dean takes a deep breath and closes his eyes, listening to the snap, crackle, and pop of the fireplace. Castiel’s foot nudges Dean’s thigh, but when Dean cracks open one eye to warn him away, Castiel is staring off into space, like he doesn’t even realize what he’s doing. He must feel Dean’s gaze on him, however, because he blinks and comes back to earth.

“Charlie and Jo have both mentioned the fire before,” he says, somewhat hesitantly. “Always in passing, but…”

It’s Dean’s turn to laugh. “You could’ve just Googled it.”

“I guess it never occurred to me.”

Dean polishes off his beer, then holds up a finger. He grabs another from the fridge, properly pops the cap this time, then flops back onto the couch. He props one socked foot up on Castiel’s thigh. “It was a gas leak. Freak accident. I was ten, Sam was six. I woke up and there was fire, just, everywhere. Ran into the hallway—ran right into my dad, actually, who was carrying Sam, unconscious. He helped me get Sam on my back—we were in a phase where I was giving him piggy-back rides everywhere, but it’s a little different when the rider is a complete deadweight—and then I ran in one direction and he ran in another.” He downs half his new beer. “He went back for my mom and I took Sam outside, and that was that. Two days later, Bobby came and picked us up at the hospital.”

He’s so good at telling this story by now, reducing the most important moment of his life to a single, short, declarative paragraph. He’s still working on the itchy eyes, on the way his voice wobbles precipitously in the second half and his fingers tap out a symphony on the neck of his beer bottle. He smiles, tight. He almost says, tada.

Castiel stares at him. His expression hasn’t changed save for a slightly more furrowed brow, but he places his hand on Dean’s ankle, rubbing his thumb back and forth across the delicate skin there. “I’m sorry.”

Dean shrugs one shoulder. “It happens.”

“What were they like?” Castiel asks. “Your parents?” His touch is gentle and makes Dean shiver.

“My mom was beautiful,” Dean says. “She came from a tough family. They wanted to keep her around forever, but she ended up running off with my dad and eloping. When I was sick, she used to make me tomato rice soup, and it was the best thing I had ever eaten. Until about ten years later when I was sick and nostalgic in the grocery store, bought a can of tomato rice soup, and then realized during my first bite that’s what she had been feeding me as a kid. And you know what?”

Castiel looks up from where he’s staring at his hand on Dean’s leg. “What?”

“It sucked,” Dean says, and laughs, and sniffs. “It was just this garbage off-brand soup I bought ’cause it was the cheapest on the shelf.”

“Oh.” Castiel seems unsure how to react to this news. That only makes Dean laugh harder.

“Kids’ll eat anything, you know how it goes. It actually made me feel better, in a way—the realization, not the soup—that she wasn’t some robo-mom, ’cause up to that point, that was how I remembered her. Coiffed and angelic and perfect. But she wasn’t, and that was actually kind of a relief. Makes me feel less bad about my own f*ck-ups, like, hey, sure I didn’t call that girl back that one time, but my mom fed me sh*tty soup when I was sick and pretended like she made it herself.” Dean looks away and wipes his face. “She also had killer taste in music, so.”

While Dean stares determinedly at the ceiling and wills the tears back into his body, Castiel keeps his warm touch on Dean’s ankle. He pulls Dean’s foot into his lap. “And your father?”

Dean snorts. His face is safely dry, so he drops his gaze back to Castiel’s. “He was my dad. Ex-Marine, cool music, cool jacket, cool car—that’s where I got the Impala from. He wasn’t around much, but he was always the kind of guy you wanted to impress when he was. I’m not sure I ever succeeded, but hey.”

“I’m sorry,” Castiel says again.

“It happens,” Dean says again.

Silence falls between them. Castiel absent-mindedly massages the foot Dean conveniently forgot about in his lap. Dean finishes off his beer and deposits it onto the floor beside the couch. The fire is starting to die down.

“Hey,” Dean says. He wrests control of his foot back and raises it to Castiel’s face, poking his cheek with his big toe. At Castiel’s raised eyebrow, Dean says, “Who are you?”

With a second raised eyebrow, Castiel says, “I’m Castiel.”

Dean thinks about it for a moment. “Yeah,” he decides. “I know that part. But like, who are you? I don’t mean that in some bullsh*t philosophical way. I just mean, like. Y’know. Who are you? Did you just spring forth from some amorphous a-human blob? Cause that would actually explain a lot.”

“I can confidently confirm I am human,” Castiel says as he graciously lets Dean’s foot down easy. He trails his fingers up Dean’s shin. “I can also confirm that I have parents, and siblings, and even other family members.”

“But can you confirm it confidently?” Dean says. When Castiel’s fingers graze over his kneecap, he has to bite his lip. “You could do that first one confidently.”

“I can confidently confirm I did not spring forth from some amorphous a-human blob,” Castiel says. “And I can also confidently confirm that I have a family.”

“Phew,” Dean says. He sits up so he’s directly in front of Castiel. “The things you learn about a guy. This is scandalous.”

“I’m sure you know the drill,” Castiel says. He leans in closer. “You look like you watch a lot of spy movies. If I tell you any more, I’ll have to kill you.”

“If you kill me, then how am I supposed to do this?” Dean asks, and kisses him.

Castiel seems unperturbed by this turn of events, one hand coming to rest on Dean’s waist and the other tangled up in his hair. It only takes a few seconds of shuffling for Dean to properly situate himself in Castiel’s lap, resting his elbows on Castiel’s shoulders and intertwining his fingers behind Castiel’s neck. When Castiel slips him some tongue, Dean sighs contentedly, making himself comfortable as he gyrates in Castiel’s lap. Castiel’s grip tightens on his waist. “What happened to none, zip, nada?” Castiel says while Dean shoves his t-shirt aside to mouth along his collarbone. “Not that I’m complaining.”

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” Dean says. Castiel is already starting to get into things, his dick pressing against Dean’s ass through his jeans. Dean’s not far behind, his sweatpants filling out where he’s rubbing against Castiel’s torso. He sits up a little further, only so he has enough space to reach down and drag his knuckles along the length of Castiel’s dick, his mouth flooding with saliva. He searches out Castiel’s lips again, trying to find the best way to non-verbally ask Castiel to stick something, anything, back into his mouth.

Castiel sneaks a hand up Dean’s t-shirt, rolling one of Dean’s nipples between his fingers until he gasps out, then slaps a hand over his mouth, which makes an even louder sound. “Shut up,” he hisses, and then groans.

Castiel’s silence is pointed as he switches nipples, forcing Dean to bite back another groan. “You ass,” he mutters into the crook of Castiel’s neck. Castiel responds by sucking a mark just under Dean’s ear and Dean forgets to be mad about it. “We should—” Dean says, and stops, because Castiel has moved both his hands to Dean’s ass.

“We should…?” Castiel prompts.

Dean closes his eyes and tries to recapture the thought that just floated into the ether. “We should—”

From upstairs, the sound of a creaky floorboard. Dean flies out of Castiel’s lap before his eyes even open. He frantically tugs at the crotch of his sweatpants until they’re sufficiently and unassumingly bunched. When Jo stumbles down the stairs a moment later, she doesn’t even acknowledge their existence as she fills a glass of water in the kitchen and then disappears upstairs again. It’s only once her door opens and then closes that Dean finally unclenches. He stands and starts collecting the bottles from earlier that they left sitting around the room, refusing to make eye contact with Castiel. Once he’s dropped them all into a blue bag and is fiddling with the tie at the top, he says, “We should not have done that.”

“I don’t know how selective your memory is at the moment,” Castiel says, “but you did that. I was following the no gay sh*t rule.”

Dean freezes. “Don’t call it that.”

Castiel’s mouth drops open. “This is where you draw the line?” he says. “You’re banning the word ‘gay’ now?”

Dean sets his jaw. “I draw the line at people using words to describe me and the things I do that don’t actually describe me or the things I do.”

It takes Castiel a moment to answer, like he’s coming back online after an unexpected power outage. “I’m not even insulted. I feel like most men in my position would be insulted at this point. I’m just… flabbergasted, really.”

Dean finishes tying the knot on the bag and drops it by the front door. He returns to the living room and stomps out the remains of the fire. “I’m so happy for you.”

“Okay,” Castiel says. “Avoiding the g-word from now on, then.”

Dean is horny and annoyed and tired. He crosses his arms. “No. You can say the ‘g-word’ all you want. Just don’t use it to describe me, because that’s wrong.”

“You’re like a real-life glitch in the matrix,” Castiel says, half-awed.

Dean feels like he’s being swallowed up. He runs his hands down his face. “I’m going to bed,” he says, and walks away.

When he’s at the foot of the stairs, Castiel says after him, wryly, “It gets better, you know.”

Dean turns around. “What?”

All traces of mirth disappear from Castiel’s expression. “It’s from the—” He searches Dean’s face. “Have you never heard of—? I was just making a joke.” He seems more perplexed by this apparent revelation than Dean’s ever seen him. “That’s actually really sad.”

Dean shakes his head. “Great,” he says. “Awesome.” And he retreats upstairs.

*

The next morning, Dean wakes with a dry mouth and an aching head. With its old bones, Bobby and Ellen’s house gets chilly in the winter, so he’s already wrapped in multiple layers when he steps outside into the gray light of morning. A light dusting of snow coats the world, and Dean follows the lone pair of footsteps deeper into the junkyard.

He zigs through the maze of stacked, rusty cars, creaking under the new weight of the weather. The light, already struggling to get through the cloud cover, barely curls around the edges of the rust, casting Dean in strange, ethereal shadows. One of Bobby’s most oft-repeated sayings is that it’s always twilight in the junkyard.

Dean hears Bobby before he sees him, breaking the sleepy spell of morning by swearing a blue streak in the garage at the heart of the yard. Dean dips his head in only to see Bobby wrapping a rag around his hand. “You’re getting old,” he says.

Bobby clutches his chest and jumps, then glares. “Come say that to my face, boy.”

Dean fully enters the garage, grinning. There’s an old Chevy on the blocks. “What are you even trying to do?”

Bobby holds up his hand. “Not bleed out.”

Dean walks forward. “Lemme see.” He plucks the rag off Bobby’s hand and tosses it out of the way.

Bobby snorts. “This what you’re learning in fire school?”

Dean examines Bobby’s hand. He prods it, testing for responsiveness. The cut isn’t deep. He’s being a baby.

“You’re being a baby,” Dean tells him. “And it’s fire science. Highly recommended for anyone hoping to become a firefighter.”

Bobby pulls a new rag from his back pocket and wraps it around his hand anew. “Jo told me you’re acing all your courses. Not that that’s a surprise.”

Dean shrugs. His ears burn. “I’m doing fine.”

“Shut up. I’m proud of you. Now are you going to help me with this blasted metal monster or not?”

*

By the time they’re putting the finishing touches on the Chevy, the sky has lightened considerably and it’s almost regular waking hours. Bobby’s a stubborn bastard, on his third blood-stained rag, but the Chev looks good. He pats Dean’s shoulder. “I want to say you’re getting rusty, but my ma always told me never to tell a lie.” He puts a hand on his back and groans, collapsing into a nearby lawn chair with a grunt.

Dean tosses his own grease-stained rag over his shoulder. He’s sweating in all the best places and his shoulders ache. “Well, if firefighting doesn’t work out, I can always be your backup.” He grins. “Literally.”

“You could always get into comedy,” Bobby says after flipping him the bird.

Dean fetches them both a beer from the dented fridge in the corner that hums too loudly. The bulb has been burnt out for twenty years, but it still keeps the liquor cold.

“You going for some kind of world record?” Bobby asks, though he doesn’t say no.

“It’ll be our little secret,” Dean says, and cracks his open. “It doesn’t count if no one’s awake yet.”

Bobby surveys him over the top of his bottle. “I worry about you sometimes.”

“That I’m too well-adjusted?” Dean says. “Same.” He sits on the edge of an old, oversized tire.

“How are you doing?” Bobby says. He shifts his weight in the chair and it scrapes against the concrete floor of the garage. Dean grimaces. “Really.”

Dean shrugs and takes a sip. “I’m fine. Really.”

“You seem different.”

“Different how?”

Bobby sits back and keeps quiet for a minute, like he really has to think about it. Dean drums his fingers on his beer bottle. “I don’t think I know.”

“Maybe your memory’s finally going.”

“Well, that I don’t know. But I can certainly tell you where my foot’s gonna be going in a minute.”

Footsteps crunch outside, and then Castiel is rounding the corner of the garage, wearing an unbearable peacoat over his pajamas. The morning light hits him from behind, turning his edges gold. “Dean,” he says, and takes two steps before noticing Bobby. “Oh. Sorry. Good morning.”

Bobby waves him off as he lifts himself out of his chair. He brandishes his beer. “I was just going to wash this down with a Robaxin.” As he heads for the open garage door, he nods at Castiel and points to the rack of keys hanging on the wall. “Bottom rack, to the right. Have fun.”

Dean and Castiel watch, then listen to him trundle away, his footsteps receding in the distance. Dean glances at Castiel furtively, but remains seated. “What was all that about?”

Castiel is drawn toward the Chevy. As he runs a single finger over its hood, he says, “Bobby offered to let me borrow one of his motorcycles. The roads are clear today. I figured I’d take him up on it.”

“It’s November,” Dean says. “You’re both insane.”

Castiel’s gaze transfers to him, from his boots to his knees to his chest to his face. “You’re…” His brow furrows slightly. “Grungy.”

“Well, it was just an opinion about motorcycle safety, and you ignore all of mine anyway. No need to be—oh.”

Castiel takes a step forward. He’s dropped the act, now openly fascinated by the state Dean’s in. Dean watches him approach warily, tongue stuck halfway between his teeth. His chin juts out, but he spreads his legs when Castiel eases his way between them.

Castiel touches his fingertips beneath Dean’s jaw, massaging backwards until he’s cupping Dean’s face. The fingers of his other hand trip along the back of Dean’s neck, up and into his sweat-spiked hair. As they so often do around Castiel, Dean’s lips threaten to part.

Castiel pulls back, a half-hearted smirk on his face. “You smell good.”

Dean fills the space in between them with a tipped beer bottle. “Gross.”

“Is it?” Castiel says. He kisses Dean, tasting all three-hundred sixty degrees of him. Dean’s fingers slip on the bottle in his hand, the label soggy and wet from condensation. He drops it, only to move his hand to Castiel’s bulky waist where that stupid coat sits. “Just let me know if I’m breaking the rules,” he murmurs, lips hot against Dean’s neck.

“Rules?” Dean says, before coaxing Castiel’s mouth back toward his.

Castiel puts both hands on either side of Dean’s face. “Mm,” he says between kisses. “Good point. Never mind.”

Dean slides backwards until he’s sunk into the center of the tire, and Castiel straddles his waist, running his hands up and down Dean’s thighs, kneading. He shakes his head, watching his hands at work. “There are so many things…”

Dean gulps, licking his lips. “‘So many things’ what?”

Castiel glances at him, pupils blown. Dean swallows all the excess saliva in his mouth. They stare at each other, the musty air of the garage lingering between them.

Then Castiel eases off the tire and stands. He goes offline for a moment, and then that familiar smirk graces his mouth. “Where does Bobby keep his old motorcycle helmets, again?”

*

Now properly dressed in a navy-blue leather jacket and dark jeans, Castiel slips his helmet on, visor up. Behind him, the sky is gray but bright. For the first time ever, Dean’s envious of Castiel’s douchey aviators. “Are you sure you don’t want to come?” Castiel’s voice is muffled by the helmet. He pats a second helmet, sitting on the back seat.

Dean glances at the sleek black machine Castiel’s currently leaning against. “I’m more of a four wheels, four walls, and a roof kinda guy.”

Castiel shrugs. “Suit yourself.” He tosses his keys in his palm and straddles the bike. It takes Dean a grand total of four seconds to put the second helmet on and slip behind Castiel, slotting against him. He reaches around and snaps Castiel’s visor shut. Castiel turns around to look at him, eyebrow raised.

“Someone’s gotta make sure you don’t kill yourself on this death trap.”

Dean can’t see it from here, but he assumes Castiel is smiling when he revs the engine and they start to move.

*

Dean’s cheeks are still pink with cold even after he’s been back at it in the kitchen for half an hour. He turns the oven on, not only because he needs to, but because sitting on the back of a motorcycle in November may not have been the smartest idea he’s ever had. Before he made it to chopping vegetables, he sat in front of the fireplace for twenty minutes, warming his palms like a mountain man.

Behind him, Ellen and Castiel trade stage whispers.

“Should I help him?” Castiel asks.

Ellen tsks. “He’ll sooner chop your finger off with a paring knife.”

“And then he’ll spend all night complaining about how no one helped him even though we spent all afternoon offering,” Jo says as she enters the kitchen. She rescues a lone beer from the fridge and cracks it open. “Isn’t that right, Dean?”

Dean turns around, brandishing his knife. “It’s never smart to make fun of the guy in control of the cutlery. I’m just saying.” He points his knife at Castiel, gesturing toward the counter. “Get over here and start peeling potatoes, smart guy.”

Once they realize Dean’s delegating, Jo and Ellen conveniently make themselves scarce. Dean turns back around to find Castiel staring, perplexed, at the potato peeler. “It’s not gonna bite.”

“It’s possible,” Castiel says haltingly, “that I’ve never done this before.”

Dean blinks. “You’ve never peeled a potato?”

Castiel gingerly starts hacking at the potato with his left hand. Skin comes off in tiny spurts, and three near-misses later Dean takes pity on him and relieves him of his duties. Castiel leans against the counter while Dean peels. “I’m left-handed,” Castiel says. “That’s clearly a right-handed tool.”

Dean scoffs. “Is this why you never talk about your family? ’Cause you were raised by wolves?”

“Please don’t tell anyone,” Castiel says. “It’s my deepest, darkest secret.”

“All right, spud,” Dean says. “Do me a favor and get the turkey out of the freezer and put it in the fridge, would you? I already cleared a spot for it. Well. I cleared a spot for it by drinking all the beer that was previously occupying that spot. Whatever. Same thing.”

“I had no idea you could cook until this weekend,” Castiel says as he opens the freezer.

“I’m a man of many talents.” Dean doesn’t look up from the carrots he’s chopping.

The fridge opens, then shuts, and Castiel is back to getting in his space. “How long have you been cooking Thanksgiving dinner? That’s not normal, is it? Is that normal?”

“No one else in this house can cook,” Dean says. “When we were kids, Thanksgiving and Christmas was always a Denny’s affair, which, don’t get me wrong, was great. But all the kids on TV always got a big honking turkey or ham and there were candles and fancy napkins and I guess I started to wonder where that was for us. For a while, I definitely thought a nice family dinner was as fake as Santa.” He moves onto a stalk of celery. Castiel watches his ministrations closely. “I started cooking the big dinners when I was fifteen, I think? Those first couple holidays were brutal, but I got the hang of it eventually. Actually—” Dean laughs a little. “Part of the reason I got into this in the first place was because I wanted to honor my mom and what a great cook she was.”

Castiel puts a hand on Dean’s lower back. “Well, considering she was a fraud in the kitchen, I’m sure she would be proud.”

The laugh that escapes Dean is unexpected, so much so that he barely manages to step out of Castiel’s grip when Bobby walks into the kitchen to ask what in tarnation is going on. Dean wipes his face with the back of his hand. “Someone made a funny.”

“Well, I know it wasn’t you,” Bobby says, opening and then closing the fridge door in annoyance when he realizes they’re out of beer.

*

Dean used to tell Sam stories. After lights out, when Bobby and Ellen had yelled at them for the fourth time that night to go to sleep, Dean would whisper across the space between their beds. Usually he just recounted the plot of whatever cartoon he had watched after school that day, but sometimes he would spin elaborate tales of corporate espionage, national secrets, and treasures buried deep in far away lands, all starring their parents. “They’re not dead,” Dean would tell Sam. He had tried to use a flashlight once, but it made the stories scarier than they should’ve been. “They’re just pretending. So they can go fight bad guys and save the world. And no one can know their secret identities, because then they would come for us.”

As they got older, and sharing a bedroom became more of a chore than a novelty, they would trade stories. Most of them real, some of them debatably so. They once spent a whole week trying to decide if they had really gone on a sh*tty family vacation to Lake Michigan when Sam wasn’t even in school yet. Dean was determined they had. Sam was determined they hadn’t.

“You were four,” Dean said. “You wouldn’t even remember.”

“I would,” Sam snapped. He was huddled under his blankets, and had to worm his hand out of his cocoon to brush hair off his face. He wouldn’t listen when Dean told him to keep his hair off his forehead so he could avoid getting pimples. “I still remember that time I chipped my tooth playing skeeball.”

“That doesn’t count,” Dean said. “That was a traumatic event.”

“You’re a traumatic event,” Sam said.

Dean started laughing, and Sam followed suit.

They stopped talking about their parents eventually. Not entirely, but enough that everything pre-Bobby and Ellen started to feel like a different lifetime. Sam became fascinated, and then put-upon, by Dean’s stories of girls from high school.

Tonight, as they’re getting ready for bed, Sam laughs. Dean looks at him. “What?”

“Sharing a bedroom with you after we’ve both moved out. It’s weird, right?”

“You just made it weird. I won’t try anything funky, Sam, cross my heart.”

Sam brushes his hair out of his face. “I’m just saying. We’re adults.”

Dean takes off his watch and his mother’s ring and puts them on his bedside table. “Four months away from home and he’s already a philosopher.”

“I was just saying,” Sam says, peevishly. He lies down and starts tapping away on his phone. “Are you gonna turn out the light or what?”

Dean watches him for a moment, grasshopper legs too long for his twin XL for the first time ever. “No one’s an adult,” he says. “That’s all I meant. No one knows what the hell they’re doing.” He stands and flicks off the light. The only light left in the room is from Sam’s phone and the moon outside their permanently smudged window. Sam’s face is pinched.

“That’s depressing.”

“You’re depressing,” Dean says.

Sam snorts and puts down his phone. His bed creaks as he gets comfortable. “So, what’s up with Cas?”

“What do you mean?” Dean says.

“Nothing. Just, like, what’s his deal?”

For all the fretting he did over this trip, Dean never once thought to prepare an answer for this question. So when he blurts out, “Well, he’s gay,” the only person he can be disappointed in is himself.

“Uh, okay,” Sam says. “I was looking for more of a big picture type-thing, but I guess we can start there, too.”

Dean clears his throat. “He’s officially Jo’s guest, so ask her.”

From across the room, Dean hears Sam’s brows knitting together. “You’re the one who’s been hanging out with him all weekend. I was just asking.”

Dean scrubs a hand over his mouth, posture tense. “He’s, I dunno, Sammy. Just a dude. Drives a Civic.”

Sam goggles at him. “A Civic? And you let him in this house?”

Somehow, mentioning the car Castiel drives was a worse idea than announcing he’s gay. Dean runs his tongue over his teeth, tasting the remnants of his toothpaste. “Yes. I forgot to brush my teeth.” He walks for the door.

“Didn’t you just—” Sam asks, but Dean closes the door behind him.

Once he gets into the bathroom, he splashes cold water on his face and then buries it in his hands.

*

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Castiel: u up

Dean: Seriously?

Castiel: tell me youve never texted that to a girl and I’ll never bother u again

Dean:

Dean: I’m usually a little more subtle than that

Castiel: Is there any chance you are currently not sleeping and maybe even thinking about me

Castiel: eggplant emoji

Dean: Dude.

Castiel: three eggplant emojis

Dean: Just gonna write them out, huh. That’s not how emojis work.

Castiel: eggplant emoji?

*

Dean throws on his jacket as he descends the stairs, avoiding all the squeaky floorboards he knew by the time he was fourteen. Castiel is sitting on the edge of his bed, wearing unzipped jeans and tugging his boots on. He catches Dean’s eye with a mischievous quirk at the corner of his mouth. He stands, fitting his hands to Dean’s waist beneath his jacket and pressing his hot mouth to Dean’s neck. Dean swallows hard and steps back, his heart already pounding. He points to the rumpled but clearly empty bed behind Castiel. “Stick the pillows under it,” he mutters. “So it looks like you’re sleeping.”

Castiel stares at him, halfway to starting a fight, but backs off and does as Dean asks. Dean makes some minor adjustments, and then they’re out the door.

The cold air hits Dean like a wall. Bobby and Ellen’s house is always drafty, but they usually combat that with heavy blankets and a heartily-stocked wood-burning stove in the basem*nt. Castiel puts a hand, hot and huge, on the back of Dean’s neck. “Where to?”

Dean leads him to the Impala, cautiously opening the door and ushering him into the back seat. Dean casts one look back at the house—all the windows are still dark—and gingerly closes the door behind him. He kicks off his flip flops but keeps his socks on, and throws himself at Castiel.

Castiel responds in kind, immediately stripping Dean of his jacket. Dean refuses to leave Castiel’s mouth, kissing him hard and long and grasping at any part of him he can reach. The leather upholstery is cold and creaky as hell, but Dean’s pretty sure it won’t take long to warm up. When Castiel grabs a fistful of his hair and tugs, Dean lets loose an unintended groan, right against his lips. Castiel takes this opportunity to press his tongue into Dean’s mouth, his other hand squeezing Dean’s thigh.

Dean sighs, contented, as he takes advantage of Castiel’s unzipped jeans and takes him in his palm, stroking him a few times to get him caught up on the proceedings. Castiel hardening in his hand has a similar effect on Dean, who’s currently tenting his own pajama pants.

Castiel goes back to work on Dean’s neck, mouthing around until he finds the place, right under Dean’s jaw, that makes him gasp. Dean’s grip on Castiel stutters, and a bead of pre-come catches on the pad of his thumb. Without thinking, he raises it to his mouth and tastes it. When Castiel notices the movement, he pulls off and watches Dean, pupils blown wide and chest heaving. It’s only then that Dean realizes what he’s done. “sh*t,” he says thickly, saliva pooling in his mouth. “Please tell me you’re clean.”

Castiel, still a little dazed, nods.

Dean licks his lips, catching the last bit of lingering bitterness on his tongue. The grip he’s returned to Castiel’s dick is curious, thinking. He swallows. Presses his tongue to the roof of his mouth. Pulls it back toward his esophagus as far as he can. Touches his now-clean thumb to his lips. “f*ck it,” he says, and lunges over the front seat, prying open the passenger side cubby and digging around blindly, begging under his breath. Castiel keeps a hand on Dean’s lower back as he searches. “Please,” he mutters, “Please, please, please, please, pleasepleasepleaseplease—oh thank god.” He pulls back in victory, holding the small foil wrapper in a shaft of moonlight to check the expiration date. “We got a couple months. We’re good.”

It’s at this moment that he stalls, fumbles his next words. For want of something to do, he rips open the condom and then looks at Castiel, whose gaze is evenly split between the two. “What do you want to do?” Castiel asks.

Dean drops his head back. His palms are sweating and his throat is tightening up, which is rapidly approaching a worst case scenario for this particular playbook. “I want,” he tells the ceiling of the Impala, waving the condom ineffectually in Castiel’s direction, “to—you.” He tosses the condom into Castiel’s lap. “I don’t know how to put it on someone else.”

Dean chalks Castiel’s inability to understand him up to the late hour, and not his completely incoherent sentence fragments. To his credit, Castiel takes out the condom and his dick, and starts applying one to the other. Dean watches in fascination, biting his lip. He swallows, and then worries that he shouldn’t have done that.

Once Castiel has the condom fully on, Dean has to take a moment and wipe his palms on his pajamas. As he does, he notices the wet spot at the front of his own pants. “I want to,” he says again, not looking at Castiel. “I want…” In desperation, he grabs Castiel’s wrist and wraps his lips around his index finger, sucking it into his mouth.

“Oh,” Castiel breathes. “Okay.” He shifts so he’s sitting up against the far door, one foot on the floor and the other pressed against the back of the seat. Dean puts his hands on either side of Castiel’s waist, his chest constricting.

“I might,” Dean says faintly. “Need some coaching.” He swallows again, but that doesn’t do much. “And some, uh,” he closes his eyes, but only for a second. “Coaxing.”

Castiel’s breath hitches, and then his hand settles in Dean’s hair. “Coaxing like…?”

Dean nods curtly. “Yes. Please.”

Castiel gently steers Dean’s head down toward his abdomen. “There’s not really a wrong way to do this, if that makes you feel better.”

“So, I can just bite down,” Dean says, but it’s so faint only Castiel’s belly button hears the joke.

Castiel massages Dean’s scalp as he guides him, and Dean licks his lips one more time before pressing the flat of his tongue to the base of Castiel’s dick, heart hammering against his ribcage, and getting about halfway up before—

He pulls away, hacking.

“Dean?” Castiel asks. “Are you all right?”

Dean gags. “The—the—” He maneuvers his tongue, waving his hand in the direction of Castiel’s dick.

“What?” Castiel says. “What’s wrong?”

“f*cking lube,” Dean snaps. “It’s disgusting.”

Castiel sags back against the door. “Jesus Christ.”

Dean’s still reeling, not from the taste of the lube, but the feel of Castiel against his tongue. He takes a deep breath. Steadies himself. “I didn’t get a 2330 on my SATs because I gave up after one night of studying,” he says, and swallows Castiel down for the first time.

“Ho-kay,” Castiel says, grabbing a tight handful of Dean’s hair. His hand smacks down against the seat.

The condom is ribbed (for her pleasure), which restricts Dean’s access somewhat. He sucks in his cheeks and tries a move he deems in the heat of the moment the “apple bob,” making the ridges vibrate along his teeth like rumble strips on a highway. He sucks Castiel down as far as he can, learning the hard way that swallowing with his mouth open is one of those things he never gave girls in bed enough credit for.

Another thing he failed to give credit for was deep-throating. The moment the tip of Castiel’s dick hits the back of Dean’s throat, he gags, withdrawing only to spend the next thirty seconds coughing, eyes watering. When he can finally distinguish details again, he’s met with Castiel’s deeply amused grin. He points an accusing finger at him. “Shut up.”

That only makes Castiel grin wider. “You don’t have to do this, you know.” He pauses, may as well buff his fingernails on his shirt. “If you’re not up for it.” He goes in for the kill. “If it’s too much for you.”

Adrenaline skitters through Dean like an electric shock, and despite the pause, he’s still wildly hard, tongue dragging across his lower lip. Words are slow right now, his mouth preoccupied with a much more important task. “It’s not,” is all he can muster before diving back in. He goes slower this time, taking Castiel as far in as he can without gagging.

The smile falls away from Castiel’s mouth the more Dean works on him. “Relax your throat more,” he instructs when Dean has to fight off another coughing fit. Dean inches forward, working his tongue along the underside of Castiel’s dick. His hand moves from Dean’s hair to his shoulder, to his face, to his cheek. “Dean,” he says, on the end of a sigh. Dean’s focusing on his work, on the heat in his mouth, but out of the corner of his eye he can see Castiel watching him. He tries to remember other times with girls, tricks they had and moves they would pull when they were down there, but he never realized how hazy those encounters were until now, when he’s the one with a dick in his mouth and a pleasant ache in his jaw. He puts a hand on the part of Castiel he can’t reach, and Castiel says his name again and leans his head back against the fogged window with a thump.

The hand Dean’s using to hold himself up is damp with sweat, threatening to slide out from under him at any moment. He lowers himself onto his elbow, legs cramped awkwardly behind him.

Castiel’s breaths are coming longer and deeper now, a sign Dean has learned means he’s close. He’s seized with an unfamiliar, desperate urge to have Castiel in him, as deep as he can get. Again, he inches forward, relaxing his throat like Castiel told him to. He wonders if it could go the other way, if he could relax his throat and let Castiel do the work, holding him in place while he does so.

Castiel moves his hand to the back of Dean’s neck, curling it into a fist. Dean takes the hint and starts bobbing again, excitement bubbling in his gut as Castiel starts knocking on his spine, pressing his fingertips into Dean’s shoulders. He comes with a groan, and Dean sucks him through it, cheeks flaming. He thinks about what Castiel tasted like on his tongue.

Once he’s come down, Castiel’s hand falls from Dean’s neck back to his cheek, where he gently slides Dean off him with gritted teeth and a deep breath. “f*ck,” he says as he gingerly peels off the condom and ties it. He drops it onto the floor and meets Dean’s eye, his own gaze glimmering. An absurd urge to ask if it was good takes up residence on Dean’s buzzing tongue. Castiel strokes Dean’s cheek with his thumb, lazy. “That was almost acceptable.”

Dean ducks his head and lets out a relieved laugh. It’s a little hysterical. He starts crawling forward, navigating the hills and valleys of free space in a cramped, overcrowded backseat when he suddenly hesitates, glancing up at Castiel, who watches his progress. They stare at each other for a moment before Castiel takes pity on him and guides him forward until he’s straddling his lap, slotting their mouths together.

Dean pulls away. He gestures between them. “I just had my mouth on your— and we’re—”

Castiel considers him. “I’ve never met someone who’s had this much sex who was this much of a prude.”

Dean opens his mouth and then closes it. He’s still having trouble thinking through the fog of attraction. “You’re a prude,” he fires back.

“You got me,” Castiel says, and puts a hand on his dick. Dean jerks, and smacks his head on the ceiling of the Impala.

They kiss while Castiel jacks him off, Dean possessed by a force greater than himself as he grabs at every inch of Castiel he can find, groaning into his mouth when he finally comes all over his hand, dropping his head onto Castiel’s shoulder. He closes his eyes, breathing hard. “I’ve never—” He waits until his breathing slows and he gets his wind back, mouthing lazily at Castiel’s neck. Castiel’s hands mold themselves to Dean’s waist. Dean noses at Castiel’s jaw. “I want you to get tested,” he says.

Castiel goes still. “You’re not about to tell me you have something, are you?”

“What?” Dean pulls back. “Dude, no. I’ve been getting tested every six months since freshman year. Giving a girl chlamydia isn’t exactly a good way to build a rep.”

“Whereas giving me a blowj*b in your car in the front yard of your childhood home in the dead of winter is.”

“Smartass. No. I’ll get tested, too—not together, mind you. But I will.”

“This is so romantic,” Castiel says. “I love basking in the afterglow.”

Dean looks to the heavens, in search of some measly semblance of patience. “I want you to get tested because I don’t want to have to deal with that again.” He glances in the direction of the condom, and Castiel follows his gaze.

“Oh.”

“Unless you don’t want to,” Dean says, in which case, he is fully planning to collapse in on himself like a black hole and disappear forever.

Castiel makes a sort-of strangled sound. “I don’t want to come off as desperate, but unfortunately, I desperately want to.”

Dean searches Castiel’s face, glad for the semi-cover of darkness. Castiel reaches out and drags his thumb across Dean’s still-wet lips. Dean wants to say something, but can’t find the words.

*

The only time any semblance of a Stepford breakfast happens in the Winchester-Harvelle-Singer household is when at least one Winchester, Harvelle, or Singer returns home after a long time away. Even then, it’s a chaotic affair that involves a lot of chairs, a lot of grief, and a lot of alcohol in the orange juice. It’s always extra crowded on the holidays, when Dean is already using half of the available counter space for prep work.

This morning, he shovels scrambled eggs in his mouth and watches Jo patter away on her phone, thumbs flying. He nudges Castiel, who’s sitting beside him and still seems a little out of his element. “Watch this.” He loads up his fork with an extra-large helping of egg, holds it at a suspiciously practiced angle, bends it backwards with his finger, and lets fly.

Jo looks up from her phone, bits of egg dangling from her eyelashes. “Eat my ass, Dean.”

Sam, who considers himself a mature adult now that he’s eighteen, delicately puts a hand over the corner of his mouth that twitches upwards.

“No eating ass at the table,” Ellen says.

“It’s rude to use your phone at the table,” Dean says.

“So is wearing a hat,” Jo fires back. “Especially one as ugly as that.”

“You take that back,” Dean snaps.

“So is loudly stumbling back into the room you share with your brother at three a.m. last night,” Sam says, and suddenly five pairs of eyes are on Dean.

Dean swallows his tongue, turns a deathly shade of white, and then coughs it back up. “I spare you an egg-bomb and this is the thanks I get?”

“We all gotta sleep,” Sam says. “In my Psych 100 class—”

Dean starts snoring.

“All right, you two,” Bobby says. He turns to Sam. “Sam, neither of you live here anymore. Short of burning the house down, you don’t answer to us.” He turns to Dean. “Dean, where the hell were you at three a.m. in November in South Dakota?”

Beneath the table, Dean becomes aware that Castiel’s thigh has been pressed against his since they sat down. Under the guise of pushing in his chair, he pulls away. “I went to a bar,” he says. “I met a girl. You all know the song.” He refuses to make eye contact with Castiel. “Next time I’m lonely, I’ll just crawl into bed with you, Sam. How does that sound?” He flutters his eyelashes across the table.

Something wet smacks him in the face.

Jo waves her spoon at him and smiles sweetly.

Dean flips her off.

“No birds at the table,” Ellen says, bored.

*

A couple of wet inches of snow fell in early hours of the morning, sometime between Dean and Castiel sneaking back inside and Dean waking up at 9:03 with a hazy dream on his mind and an erection in his pants.

While everyone else is out shovelling the walk so that it doesn’t turn into an ice rink during the incoming deep freeze, Dean rubs the thawed turkey down with a spice mix and Castiel helps by standing around doing nothing.

“What about Caroline?” Castiel asks out of the blue.

Dean glances over. Castiel has his arms crossed, leaning with his back to the counter next to where Dean is working, but not so close he’s going to get a free exfoliation. “What?”

“I’m working on your scapegoat girl,” Castiel says. “I’m not sure how many more open-mic nights like this morning I can sit through.”

Dean rubs a drumstick. “What.”

“She’s from Canada, obviously,” Castiel says. “I’m thinking she studies either economics or microbiology, and she grew up in a deeply conservative, Protestant French fishing village in Quebec on the coast of the Hudson Bay, which is, of course, why she’s secretly dating a non-religious, non-Francophone red-blooded All-American country boy from the Midwest. You’re star-crossed lovers, but Caroline’s supportive sister—she’s been questioning the dogma of the church for a while—really thinks you two crazy kids will make it.”

Dean finishes with the spices and walks over to the sink. “Are you being passive-aggressive right now? Is that what’s happening?”

Castiel doesn’t move a muscle. “No.”

Dean turns on the faucet and washes his hands. “Are you sure? ’Cause I feel like that’s exactly what’s happening.” He dries his hands on the tea towel hanging over his shoulder and grabs the oven mitts from where they hang on a hook by the stove.

“I’m trying to help you,” Castiel says. “You obviously need it.”

“I don’t, actually,” Dean says. He can feel his ears turning red. “But thanks for your very generous offer.” He grabs the turkey pan and carries it over to the stove. He stares at the closed oven, and then the turkey in his hands, and rolls his eyes. “Okay, can you just—can you—” He nods his head toward the oven door.

Castiel opens it without a word, which is more annoying than if he had taken the obvious jab. Dean puts the turkey in the oven, and Castiel closes it back up. “I’m happy being your secret backroom fetish,” he says. “Something for you to use to let off steam but with no strings, moral or otherwise, attached.” He puts a hand on Dean’s waist. “Especially because Caroline can’t stop talking about how helpful the TA in her fourth-year biology lab is, and how they’ve been family friends since they were kids, and you’ve never seen a picture of the man but you can just tell that he’s taller than you and better looking, too.” He pulls Dean toward him and begins mouthing along his jawline, murmuring. “I know it’s been really stressful for you. You’re trying to save up money to bring her down for spring break.” He sneaks his hand under Dean’s sweater and ghosts his knuckles up and down Dean’s side. “And you have Skype sex sometimes, but not as much as you used to, and the connection has never been great up there anyway.” He pulls the collar of Dean’s sweater aside and sucks a mark onto his skin. They agreed on a strictly under-the-clothes policy for hickies back when Castiel caught Dean admiring one in the mirror one morning. “Je pense que c'est le début de la fin, Caroline.,” Castiel murmurs, and kisses Dean, pushing him up against the fridge.

“Dude, you are so f*cking weird,” Dean says, and kisses him back.

*

It’s always with a certain trepidation that Dean slides into the Impala next to Jo to begin their trek back to Nebraska. They’ll be back in a month because American holidays are weird like that, but a deep sense of malaise settles over him regardless as Bobby, Ellen, and Sam waving from the front porch disappear from Dean’s rear view mirror.

“Well, Cas,” Jo says, “you didn’t die. So that’s good.”

“Was that a specific fear you had?”

Jo shrugs. “With that group of yahoos, you never know.”

“I had a good time,” Castiel says. “I’ve never met a family quite like yours.”

“That’s ’cause there are no other families like ours,” Dean says. He considers. “Well, I guess I can’t prove that. But it’s my car so I can say what I want.”

In the rear view mirror, Dean watches Castiel glance over to where they met the other night. “That’s fair enough,” Castiel says. He meets Dean’s gaze in the mirror and grins, just a little.

Chapter 5: December

Chapter Text

December

They’re “watching” a movie in Castiel’s living room when Dean hears an accent that makes his ears prick up. He considers ignoring it, because Castiel currently has his mouth on one of Dean’s nipples and his hand on the other, and it feels great, and Dean loves org*sms, but it niggles at him enough that he taps Castiel on the head. “Hey.”

Castiel looks up, his breath ghosting over Dean’s sensitive skin. “Little busy here, if you don’t mind.”

“Something weird happened a few weeks ago,” he says, ignoring Castiel.

Castiel ignores Dean in turn, kissing his way down Dean’s chest. Dean idly trails his fingers in a nonsense path on Castiel’s bare torso. “I was getting coffee for me and Charlie at that place on campus that’s a Starbucks in everything but name, and there was this dude in line behind me who, like…” Dean’s tracing turns to tapping. “Asked me out, kinda? I think?”

Castiel mouths at the skin just above Dean’s navel. “Sounds flattering enough. Did you make a big heterosexual scene about it?”

Dean frowns, not that Castiel could see. “He was convinced that he knew me from somewhere, but I didn’t recognize him. Maybe I just have one of those faces.”

“You definitely don’t,” Castiel assures him. He kisses Dean’s hipbone.

“It was a first,” Dean muses. “Not because of that whole ‘do I know you from somewhere’ line—that’s the oldest trick in the book. But I never thought British guys in peacoats were the kind of dudes who would mistakenly assume I was—what?”

Castiel is finally listening properly, his eyes wide, and even a little wild. Dean’s didn’t even know Castiel flirted with this end of the emotional spectrum. “Short?” he says. “Dark hair? Smug bastard?”

Dean shifts so he’s sitting up properly, back against the arm of the couch. “Uh, yeah? Do you know him?”

Castiel stands up, tossing his shirt back on. He grabs his phone from the coffee table and starts walking out of the room. “I have to make a call,” he says brusquely.

Dean sits, shirtless, feeling weirdly vulnerable. He grabs his shirt and pulls it over his head. He leans back, trying to see into the foyer and then the dining room, but Castiel is nowhere to be seen. “What the f*ck,” he says.

He returns to the movie, his eyes glazed over. He could just leave, but Castiel never explicitly told him to go, which leaves Dean stuck in awkward house guest limbo until about twenty minutes later when Castiel breezes back into the room, all traces of his previous consternation gone. He joins Dean on the couch again, and pulls him in. “I believe we have some unfinished business?”

Dean’s scrambled enough that he lets Castiel guide him for a few moments, even opening up when Castiel presses his tongue to the seam of Dean’s lips, but that accent comes from the TV again and snaps him out of it. He puts a hand on Castiel’s chest. “Dude. Yeah, we do. What the hell was that?”

Castiel has the gall to look confused. “What was what?”

“Shut up,” Dean says. “What the hell? Do you know that guy or not?”

Castiel sighs and leans back against the couch. He stares at the ceiling. “Yes. And so do you.”

“What?”

“From the sounds of your college career thus far, you’ve probably vomited on your fair share of shoes. But try to cast your mind back to a certain alleyway in September, outside a certain gay club with an absurd name.”

Dean tries, and gets halfway there before the amount of alcohol he consumed that night sets in. “You were covered in glitter.”

“That’s the least important part of the story, but yes.”

The memory tries to run in Dean’s head, but it’s patchy and wobbly, probably more from the primal need to block out the humiliation of that particular incident than the alcohol. “There was someone else there, maybe?” And then he hears the accent, and remembers snippets of an argument, and the synapse fires. “Your ex.”

Castiel nods. “You weren’t really in a state to be introduced, but regardless, I would never impose Crowley on anyone I even remotely liked. Or even remotely disliked, come to think of it.”

Dean’s made the connection to the memory, but everything goes hazy after that. “Shouldn’t he be in Maine? Isn’t that where you dated him?” He doesn’t even know what questions he should be asking at the moment, and he can’t even blame the alcohol this time. Castiel’s past has firmly remained a big question mark since he arrived in town.

“Yes,” Castiel says, his mouth a straight line. “He has a penchant for sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong.”

Something occurs to Dean then, and his blood runs cold. “Is he f*cking with me?” He closes his eyes, and panic threatens to squeeze his chest. “Have you told anyone about—” He swallows, makes a frustrated noise, and gestures between them.

Castiel shakes his head. “No, no. Dean.” He puts a hand on Dean’s shoulder. “Look at me. Can you look at me?” Slowly, Dean raises his panicked gaze to Castiel’s. “I haven’t told anyone. The most he knows is that you’re a friend. Just like Charlie is a friend. Or Jo. Or Pamela. Okay?”

The knot of panic in Dean’s chest loosens, just a little. “He might be f*cking with you,” Castiel says, “but if he is, it’s only because he’s noticed interest on my end.”

Dean puts his head in his hands. “Why is he even here? Are we talking crazy stalker ex sh*t?”

Castiel snorts. “Not exactly. Crowley travels for work, and his travels often take him through this area.” After a moment, he adds, “It’s purely a coincidence.”

“Great,” Dean says to his palms. “Super.”

“I just called him,” Castiel says. “He’s back in Maine, and should be for the foreseeable future.”

Dean lets out a long breath. “So, he’s gone.”

“He’s gone,” Castiel confirms.

*

Dean raises his hand and knocks. It only takes a moment, and then Dr. Milton is ushering him inside his cramped, dimly-lit office. The shelves are lined haphazardly with books, and a stack of papers as tall as a toddler teeters precipitously on his desk.

Dr. Milton moves deliberately, where every step counts. He slips back into his worn office chair, gazing at Dean with dark eyes. Dean tries not to shrink down in his seat, but he seems a lot less intimidating when he’s at the bottom of a lecture hall. “It’s good to see you again, Mr. Winchester,” he says. “Please, take a seat.”

Dean dithers, and then sits. He takes his hat off. “Um,” he says, “I was hoping to take you up on that offer.”

Dr. Milton raises his thick eyebrows. “You’re going to have to freshen my memory.”

“Right, of course,” Dean says. “We ran into each other outside of the classroom a couple months ago, and you suggested coming to see you if I was still interested in public safety.”

Dr. Milton snaps his finger and points at Dean. “Yes, I recall.” He sizes Dean up. “I’m going to say… firefighter or paramedic.”

Dean laughs nervously. “Firefighter, yeah.” He points to the stack of papers on Dr. Milton’s desk. “That’s a fire hazard, you know.”

Dr. Milton looks at the papers, and then very slowly swivels his gaze toward Dean. Dean thinks his career is over before it’s even started, and then Dr. Milton chuckles. “That’s good.”

Dean sighs with relief.

“Are you staying in Nebraska after you graduate?” Dr. Milton asks. He leans back in his chair. “This career path can be very rewarding, but very isolating. Are you willing to go where the job takes you?”

“Absolutely,” Dean says.

“Family, friends, girlfriend,” Dr. Milton says. “No one you’re worried about leaving behind?”

Dean laughs and scratches the back of his neck. “I’m not going to Mars. I can always come back.”

“I see. How’s your GPA?”

Dean clears his throat. “Uh, good.”

Dr. Milton strokes his beard and steeples his fingers as he surveys Dean. “You’re awfully humble.”

Dean laughs. He can’t help it. “I’m not, actually. At all.”

Dr. Milton lets that hang for long enough that Dean really starts to sweat, and then slides a notepad across the desk. “I’ll take your contact information and keep my ear to the ground.”

Dean grabs a pen that’s sitting on the desk and scribbles something down. “Wow. I mean, this is awesome. Thank you.” He stands. “Uh, seriously. Thank you.”

Dr. Milton retrieves the notebook and reads what Dean’s written. “I believe in rewarding hard work.” He looks up at Dean over the notes. “I’ll see you in class, Mr. Winchester.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Dean scrabbles for the doorknob. “Thanks again.”

*

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Dean: f*ck this is weird but we’re not exchanging gifts right

Dean: Do you even celebrate Christmas?

Castiel: guess I’ll have to return that best of the 80s cassette for store credit

Castiel: and theoretically sure

*

With finals rapidly approaching, Dean finds himself camping out in the library for hours on end once again. Charlie and Jo have known him long enough to leave him be, but apparently not everyone got the memo this year.

Someone sits down across from him, and Dean’s glasses are halfway yanked off his face when he recognizes the intruder.

“God,” he says, shoving his glasses back on. “Scared the sh*t outta me.”

Castiel is wearing a nicely cut brown sweater that probably cost more than a year’s rent. It looks incredibly soft. Instead of dwelling on that, Dean takes a sip of lukewarm coffee. “Don’t tell me Jo needs more notes. I already emailed them to her last night.”

“No,” Castiel says. “That’s not why I’m here.”

“Okay.” He looks at Castiel expectantly. “Anytime.”

Castiel’s brow furrows. He opens his mouth and then closes it again.

Dean puts down his highlighter. “Are you lost? You know everyone smokes on the other side of campus, right?”

“Why don’t you study at my place?” Castiel asks.

Dean raises an eyebrow. “Why would I?”

“It’s nicer. And I have real coffee.”

Dean glances around, checking for lookie loos. “Is this a kinky thing?” he whispers. “You know, like,” he adopts a breathy voice, “oh, tell me a fact about hardwood lumber, Mr. Darcy.”

“Uh, no.”

“That’s fair,” Dean says. “I’ve had, like, six cups of coffee.”

Castiel surveys him, his eyes darting over Dean’s notes—they glaze a little at that—then drifting up his torso, his lips, raising his eyebrows in amusem*nt as he looks Dean almost in the eye, staring at his glasses.

Dean takes them off and tucks them into his bag. “What?”

“I just want to make sure it’s not weird,” Castiel says, the mirth draining out of his face.

“Oh, it’s weird,” Dean assures him. He leans forward, lowering his voice. “What are we talking about?”

“Crowley.”

Whatever expression Dean’s currently wearing is frozen on his face. He clears his throat. “Uh, yeah. It’s fine.”

“This may sound weird,” Castiel says, “but I’m not sure I believe you.”

Dean rapidly taps the pen he’s holding on one of his note pages, leaving a dark blue spot, then presses it down flat to the table. He looks up at Castiel. “Did you tell anyone?”

“No,” Castiel says.

“Then it’s fine,” Dean says. “We all have…” He twirls his fingers. “You know. And it’s not like I even—well, whatever. Is all I’m saying.”

Castiel nods along, then shakes his head. “I understand.”

Dean points a finger gun at him and winks. “I knew you would.”

They sit in silence for a few more minutes, while Dean pretends to go back to studying and Castiel sits across from him like a stone gargoyle protecting a cathedral’s bell tower. Dean sneaks looks at him every now and again, and every time frowns back down at his notes, which at this point may as well be written in cuneiform.

It doesn’t take Dean long to toss his pen back onto the table in defeat. He presses his palms to his eyes and rubs, sighing.

Castiel looks up from his phone in interest. “Are you sure you don’t want to come over?”

*

The door to Castiel’s room slams open, and Dean walks-runs-shimmies-trips backwards into it, dragging Castiel in with him by great big handfuls of his sweater. Castiel’s hands are glued to Dean’s face, kissing him hard and hot and long. Dean’s cheeks are burning, the tips of his ears already turning pink.

It’s only when the backs of his knees hit the edge of something soft and he sinks down onto Castiel’s bed that he realizes he’s never actually been in here before. Castiel finally gives him a second to breathe, kissing a hot line under Dean’s jaw. Dean’s eyes threaten to flutter closed, but he’s also burning with a sudden, since-unrealized curiosity. It’s not intentional that Dean has never seen Castiel’s room. They’ve just never made it this far before.

The walls are a dark gray, all the furniture a deep chocolate brown. It’s nicer than any bedroom Dean’s hooked up in before, but discomfortingly clinical despite the dirty coffee mug sitting on the bedside table and the towel thrown haphazardly over the desk chair. It’s Ikea-homey.

“Nice room,” Dean pants, as Castiel urges him to take off his Monster-emblazoned t-shirt. His own sweater follows suit, and then he’s straddling Dean on the bed, hovering over him.

“Thanks,” Castiel says. He eyes Dean. “So, did you want to study in here, or downstairs?”

Dean huffs a laugh, his gaze drifting down to the growing bulge in Castiel’s jeans. He swallows the excess saliva that pools in his mouth. “That joke probably would’ve worked better a couple minutes ago.”

Castiel nods in agreement, running a palm up Dean’s chest until his thumb dips into the hollow of Dean’s throat. “I guess I gave away the punchline.”

Dean’s breath hitches as Castiel caresses the delicate skin of his clavicle. He licks his lips, aims for breezy, shoots like a cyclone. “What are we doing today?”

Castiel raises his eyebrows. They don’t usually set an itinerary, but Dean wasn’t lying when he said he was running on just a few too many shots of espresso. He won’t meet Castiel’s eyes, but he can feel Castiel watching him.

“I don’t know,” Castiel says, intrigued. “Did you have something in mind?” He reaches behind himself to massage Dean’s thigh.

“No,” Dean says, too quick. It sounds like a lie, even though it wasn’t. Maybe. “I was just wondering.”

“Hmm,” Castiel says, and leans down to kiss him again. He grinds against Dean, and even through the layers of denim, Dean is alit. “There are a lot of things we could do, and I’m unopposed to almost all of them.”

Dean runs through the mental checklist of everything they’ve done so far as Castiel goes to work relieving them both of their pants. The list seems endless, but the list of what they could do is even more daunting. Unknown unknowns.

“Well,” Dean says. “What do you want to do?”

Castiel drops Dean’s jeans off the side of the bed and looks at him sharply. After a moment of consideration, he bites his bottom lip, something Dean’s never seen him do before. It does occur to Dean that biting his bottom lip is, in fact, one of his own personal tics.

“Do you want me to tell you the truth?” It’s not nervousness that Castiel is emanating, but an uncertainness that seems to stem from—Dean can hardly believe it—what he assumes is genuine concern.

“Uh,” he says, off-balance. “If it’s scat, I’m gonna say keep that to yourself. If it’s anything else, hit me, I guess.”

“Huh,” Castiel says, and then nothing else. His face doesn’t give anything away.

Dean raises his eyebrows. He has to take a couple deep breaths before he speaks, like he just sucked down an entire ICU’s worth of Get Well Soon helium balloons. “Okay, then. Message received.”

“Do you remember the first day we met?” Castiel asks. He returns to his original position, hovering over Dean. In the late-afternoon December light filtering through the curtains, his eyes are huge and dark.

“Yeah,” Dean says. “You perv’d on me pretty good.”

“That’s an interesting choice of words for someone who I spent weeks earlier this semester watching leer at girls at parties,” Castiel says, running a palm up Dean’s side, “but sure, let’s go with that.”

“I read the room,” Dean says defensively. “Most of the time.”

“Do you want the truth or not?” Castiel says. He fits his hand to Dean’s hip, his thumb brushing along the top of Dean’s waistband.

Dean swallows. “Yes. I guess. Maybe.”

“That first time I saw you? Hm, a couple weeks ago, how did I say it, again?” Castiel bends down, nosing along Dean’s cheek. He presses a deep sting of a kiss right behind the bolt of Dean’s jaw. “I won’t mince words this time. My first thought was, oh, I want to f*ck that. Very badly.”

Dean’s breathing kicks up a notch, cheeks hot. His fingers press into Castiel’s back. Shame tries to curdle in his stomach, but this space he’s in with Castiel, this house, this bed, may as well be another world.

Castiel drops his forehead against Dean’s, eyes closed tight. When he speaks, his voice is constrained and low. “Dean, if and when you’re ready at any point in the future, please tell me when I can f*ck you.”

Dean’s voice is lost somewhere inside his gut at the moment, but he lets out a measured breath, trying to calm his pounding heart. He nods, dazed and a little dopey-eyed. “Okay,” he finally says. He licks his lips. “Thanks. Thank you.”

Castiel co*cks his head. “You’re… welcome?”

Dean doesn’t know how to recover that conversational thread, so he throws it to the wind and pulls him back in, wrapping his legs around Castiel’s torso.

*

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Dean: I have a question. Don’t laugh.

Castiel: i sincerely promise not to laugh

Dean: Liar

Castiel: as this is a conversation over text you’ll never know

Castiel: i haven’t laughed yet

Dean: That’s because I haven’t asked the question yet.

Dean: uh

Dean: What like… do I do.

Castiel: For what

Dean: You know.

Castiel: know what

Dean: Seriously dude?

Castiel: ok ok

Castiel: relax

Dean: I am relaxed. I’m totally relaxed. Super chill about this entire thing.

Castiel: No that’s the first thing you need to do

Castiel: Relax

Dean: Oh. Yeah okay.

Castiel: how obvious can I be? if I say the word enema over text are you going to get mad

Dean: Yes.

Castiel: ok so you want advice but not too much advice

Dean: …… yes.

Castiel: 1. clean

Castiel: 2. relax

Castiel: 3. lube which could be for anything, including medical procedures or mechanical work

Castiel: Was that not-obvious enough

Dean: You ever consider doing delicate diplomacy work in foreign countries? I think you have a deft enough touch.

*

Charlie is sitting on Dean’s kitchen counter wearing a Santa hat that is just slightly too big for her. It keeps slipping down over her eyes, her red hair almost vertical from the static buildup. She looks adorable.

Dean stirs a generous amount of rum into her eggnog and hands it to her. “How’re things with Dorothy?” he asks as takes a sip of his own. It burns a little as it goes down.

Charlie clicks her tongue and flashes him the OK sign. “Super duper. She’s super hot for all the keyboard sounds hackers make.” She flips her hair and smiles, gleaming. “You know how us hackers are.”

“I thought hackers mostly sat around waiting for scripts to run,” Dean says. He takes another innocent sip.

“Hacking is a complex process,” Charlie says. “I wouldn’t expect a…” She gives Dean a withering up-and-down. “…a normie such as yourself to understand such things.”

“Oh, brother.” Dean says. His mouth twitches. “Have you dropped the Wine Turner heist on her yet or is that only reserved for bragging to your normie friends.”

“Even my lips aren’t that loose,” Charlie says. “And I love to brag.”

“Maybe save it for the honeymoon,” Dean says.

“It’s just hard.” Charlie pouts. “I really want everyone to know how cool I am. Especially girls. Especially girls that like me.”

Dean takes another sip of rumnog. “Them’s the breaks when you choose a life of crime, kid.”

Charlie adjusts her hat. “Seriously, I like her. We have fun. She likes adventures, I like adventures. She likes to wear high-waisted pants, I like seeing her wear high-waisted pants.”

“A match made in heaven,” Dean says.

“It’s funny, in a way,” Charlie says. “It’s so chill I’m almost worried I should be more worried. But also it’s…”

“Chill?” Dean offers.

“Chill,” Charlie says.

“There’s nothing wrong with simple,” Dean says. He polishes off his drink and adjusts his sweater. On it, Santa wears a pair of sunglasses and is mid-way through a beer. “Remember Lisa from freshman year?” Dean points at Charlie. “Now that was simple, and oh so sweet.”

Charlie co*cks her head, and the movement is enough to send her Santa hat falling over her eyes. “What?” she says, fighting with it. “We’re talking about Lisa Braeden, right?”

“Uh, yeah.”

Charlie rights her hat and stares at Dean. “I’m not sure ‘simple’ is the word I’d use to describe that relationship.”

Dean pours himself another drink, sans eggnog. “What are you talking about?”

Charlie hesitates. “You know what?” She blusters. “Never mind.” She hops off the counter and smooths out her shirt. “I must be misremembering.” She lightly punches him on the arm as she goes by. “You’ve dated so many girls, stud, I lose track of who’s who sometimes.”

Dean watches her leave the kitchen. He listens to the rustle as she grabs her jacket and wrestles with the zipper that’s been broken for years.

He swirls the leftover rum in his mug, and then guzzles it.

Charlie pokes her head around the corner. “Ready to go?”

Dean deposits his mug in the sink and heads toward Charlie in search of his own coat. “You’re driving, by the way.”

*

When Charlie first stops the car, Dean is convinced they’re in the wrong place. The house in front of them is awash in Christmas lights, warm-white and inviting globes of light against the dark night sky. In the windows sit electric candles emitting the same homey glow, and a huge wreath filled with poinsettias and pinecones hangs on the front door.

“That wasn’t there last time I—” Dean stops when he realizes what he’s saying and how Charlie’s looking at him. “This isn’t what I expected,” he says instead.

Charlie grins mischievously. “I may have helped along the party-planning proceedings. I still wish you had joined in. You know how I love to take advantage of your inexplicable knack for interior design.”

“I was—”

“Busy, I know,” Charlie finishes for him. “‘Studying’ for ‘finals’. Blah, you’re such a nerd.” She exits the car, a cute, monstrous yellow Gremlin, and Dean follows suit. It’s a frosty night, the ground kissed with snow. Dean can see his breath, but his limbs are already on their way to tingly and warm.

Castiel’s walk has been freshly cleared of any remnants of snow, and Dean almost forgets—again—why he’s here when he puts his hand on the doorknob and prepares to let himself in. He only backs off when Charlie knocks, but when he looks at her, searching for a reaction, her only focus is on making sure she doesn’t hit the wreath.

“Oh sh*t,” he says. “The whiskey.” He checks his pockets as if he’s holding a full bottle of whiskey somewhere inside them.

Now Charlie’s staring at him. “I left it here,” she says. “The other day, when I was helping Cas decorate?”

“Right,” Dean says. He taps on the inside of his pocket. “Duh.”

“Are you all right?” Charlie says. “How much have you had to drink tonight?”

The door opens, and they’re hit with a blast of warm air and a spicy, cinnamon-infused Christmas scent. Standing in the rectangle of light is Castiel, wearing a wine-colored sweater. He’s done something to his hair, but Dean can’t pinpoint what it is. It’s taller, maybe.

“Hey,” Castiel says, grinning. He steps back to let them inside. Charlie enters first, chirping a hello. Castiel raises his eyebrows when Dean doesn’t immediately follow, a different kind of smile tugging at his lips. “Hello, Dean,” he says, low. From deeper in the house, Christmas music plays amid the hum of conversation.

Dean swallows and steps across the threshold, laughing shakily. “Yeah,” he mumbles. “Not nearly enough.”

*

Dean’s gotta hand it to Charlie, the place looks great. Garland decorates the living room and kitchen downstairs, and twines up the banister toward the second floor, lights woven into every strand. Rustic snowmen and Santas dot the rooms, and a real pine Christmas tree sits in the living room window, twinkling. Stockings hang over the fireplace, candy canes and oranges peeking out of the tops. Trays of food dot almost every available surface, brie snowmen with jam scarves and colored crackers arranged in the shape of a present only the first platters Dean lays eyes on. Dean also makes careful mental note of the sprig of mistletoe hanging in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen.

Most everyone is already here, Dean and Charlie some of the final stragglers since their layover at Dean’s apartment. Even at this distance, he can already see that Benny’s gotten caught under the mistletoe with someone, a big lipstick print outlined just above his beard.

Dean turns to Charlie, mouth agape. “You did all this?”

Charlie turns to him. “That’s insulting.” Then, conceding, “I just helped with the setup. Cas hired some fancy schmancy party planner from the city.”

Dean whistles, impressed. Jo materializes in front of them, a drink per hand, and hands them off. Her cheeks are already flushed, also adorned with a lipstick print. “Dude,” she says. “That cheese platter in the kitchen… out of control.”

“Nice,” Dean says. He waves to Victor and Pam, who’ve noticed them from their spot on the couch.

Castiel takes both their coats and disappears to deposit them somewhere. When he returns, Dean’s migrated to the kitchen in search of the famed cheese platter and more alcohol. Safely surrounded by people, and buoyed by the killer smoked gouda in his mouth, he says, “You trying to impress someone with this shindig, or what?”

Castiel stares at him. “Who would I be trying to impress?”

Tongue-tied, Dean says, “…God?”

“Yeah, actually.”

Dean mmhmms, partly because he’s finally gotten used to Castiel’s sarcastic ass, and partly because he desperately doesn’t want to stop chewing this gouda. He swallows it down, and sighs. “f*ck, that was good.”

“It looked good,” Castiel assures him. Then, “You’ve been avoiding me.”

Across the room, Benny, his girlfriend Andrea, and Jo are talking about something involved enough it doesn’t look like they would want to listen in even though they could. Regardless, Dean shuffles his own conversation a little further away, making sure to take his fancy craft beer with a snowflake on the label with him.

“No, I haven’t,” Dean says. “I’ve just been—”

“Busy,” Castiel says. He has a drink of his own in his hand. “Yeah, I know.” He takes a sip. “Look. This isn’t a PSA. We don’t have to do anything except have fun.”

“I like fun,” Dean says defensively.

Castiel sighs, like this conversation is already personally taxing. He squints off somewhere into the middle distance. “I do, too. Which is why if certain fun is off the table, I’d rather you just tell me, so we can keep having other fun in the meantime.”

Dean takes a slug. “Can we continue this conversation after I’ve had like, four more beers?”

Castiel looks down at his own drink. “Alcohol,” he says, and polishes off his own, “is actually an excellent idea.”

*

Dean’s on the couch, squished between Jo and Charlie. All the chairs in the room have been arranged into a loose circle, with Castiel sitting at Dean’s 10 o’clock. With the party fully in swing and everyone’s inhibition sufficiently removed, some genius decided it was the best time to play Never Have I Ever. In the first few rounds, it became clear that Castiel, Charlie, and Pam were heading for the danger zone. Anytime someone took a turn, Castiel’s eyes were firmly planted on the drink in Dean’s hand. Dean figured it was only fair to return the favor, and learned a few truly interesting things about Castiel’s sex life, including that he once had sex in a port-o-potty.

On Dean’s next turn, he holds up his drink. “Never have I ever… had sex in a public place.”

Charlie drinks. Pam drinks. Benny and Andrea glance at each other, then drink. Victor looks like he at least considers it. Castiel drinks.

“Really?” Victor says, looking at Dean. “You’ve never?”

“I’m a gentleman,” Dean says, cheeks warm.

“He has a weird birthmark on his butt cheek,” Jo says. “He’s really embarrassed by it.”

“I don’t,” Dean assures Victor. He looks to the party at large. “I don’t.”

Dean’s phone vibrates against his thigh.

“It’s okay to be vanilla,” Pam says. “It adds layers.”

“Okay,” Dean says. “You guys are really asking me more questions about not having public sex than you did about Cas’ port-o-potty thing?”

“He was questioned thoroughly,” Jo says. “Honestly, once I knew that thing wasn’t tipping over, I kind of lost interest. No offense, Cas.” Benny nods along thoughtfully to this reasoning.

“None taken,” Castiel assures her. “I’m sorry there wasn’t a more explosive ending to that story, only because it does become fairly anti-climatic once that fact is established.”

“You could’ve fudged it,” Charlie says. “No one would’ve known.”

“I’ll keep that in mind for next time,” Castiel says.

The game goes on. Dean starts to feel a little out of his depth. Every time Castiel watches him not-drink, his interest is peaked further, and Dean has a harder time not shifting in his seat. At one point, he glances at his phone—

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Castiel: you dont

— And huffs a laugh.

The birthmark.

Castiel winks at him, and Dean turns bright red. He drinks when Victor says, “Never have I ever had sex in a tent,” even though he hasn’t, and also drinks when Charlie, after a couple minutes of thinking, says, “Never have I ever had sex in a desk chair while we watch a Lord of the Rings marathon on my laptop, even though, God, I want to,” even though he’s never done or fantasized about this either. They’re at the point in the game when no one’s really bothering to call anyone out anymore, but when Castiel says, “Never have I ever had sex with a straight guy,” Jo rolls her eyes and says, “Well, that’s a f*cking copout.”

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Dean: Dick.

Castiel spreads his hands as if to say, well, it’s true.

Pam, Jo, and Andrea all drink.

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Castiel: upstairs?

Dean glances up at Castiel, but his expression gives nothing away.

On Dean’s next turn, he says, “Never have I ever moved schools, changed identities, and become a virtual ghost and kept it a secret from all my friends.”

Everyone stares at Dean. Charlie nudges him, hard. He shrugs. “What? I said I never did it.”

No one drinks, so Dean holds up his hands in defeat. “Oh, well.” He finishes off his beer and crumples it against the arm of the couch. “Hey, Cas, I think I forgot my phone in my coat pocket. Are you keeping them upstairs?”

After a moment, Castiel says, “Yes. I’ll show you.”

Dean follows Castiel up the stairs, and they’re not even into Castiel’s room yet when he shoves Dean up against the wall, kissing him hard. Tension drops from Dean’s shoulders like someone just cut his strings. Castiel nips at his bottom lip, biting bruising kisses along his neck. Dean gathers fistfuls of Castiel’s shirt and holds on tight for the ride. When Castiel pulls away for a moment, he rests his forehead against Dean’s, both of them breathing hard. “Want you to,” Dean says, lips almost numb from the contact. In a way, that means he’s not responsible for what he’s saying. “Right now.”

Castiel holds Dean’s face tightly and kisses him straight on. He places a hand on the back of Dean’s neck. “With everyone downstairs?”

Dean squeezes his eyes shut. “Want you to. Wanted you to for a long time. Always thinking about it,” he says, grasping at any part of him he can reach. “Cas.”

“Okay,” Castiel breathes. “Okay.”

Laughter echoes up the stairs and into the hallway, and Dean puts a hand to his forehead. “Ugh,” he says. “Party.”

“I’ll kick them out,” Castiel says. “They’re gone.”

Dean shakes his head. “No, no, I—stupid. We’re playing a game.” He takes a step, stumbles. Castiel, less steady on his feet than usual, barely catches him.

“I think you need to go to bed,” Castiel says.

Dean sags against him. “Okay.”

Castiel walks Dean into his bedroom, leaving the light off. He carefully strips Dean down to his underwear, then encourages him into bed. When he turns away, Dean grabs his hand. “Hey. Stay.”

Castiel stares at their joined hands. He runs his thumb over Dean’s knuckles. “I’m just going to get you some water and Tylenol,” he says. “I’ll be right back.”

“Okay.” Dean closes his eyes, drifts. Moments, or maybe hours, later, the bed dips and he hears the gentle clink of something being set down on the nightstand beside him. There are hands on his face then, and in his half-asleep state, he could almost mistake Castiel for his mother. Castiel coaxes him into a sitting position, encouraging him to take pills and drink water. Dean doesn’t put up any kind of fight, surrounded by Castiel’s hands and bed and the most comfortable he’s been in a while. Once he’s taken the pills, he lies back down, but the hands remain on his face. First, they stroke through his hair. Dean nuzzles into it. Then, there’s two hands, a palm to each cheek, thumbs stroking the thin, freckled skin at the top of Dean’s cheekbones. Dean turns his head, and kisses one of those palms. It’s not a very good kiss, and the hands freeze.

Dean’s almost asleep when they start moving again, slowly. Castiel handles him gently, tracing every inch of his face. When he reaches Dean’s eyelashes, it tickles and Dean’s nose twitches. Castiel strokes Dean’s lips with the pad of his thumb. “sh*t,” he says, quiet enough that even in a silent room, Dean almost missed it.

The weight beside Dean disappears as Castiel stands back up, and the hands leave his face. The door to the bedroom opens and closes. Moments later, Dean sleeps.

*

Dean wakes up and feels okay for the first ten seconds, and then he’s rushing into the bathroom, horking up all the alcohol he hasn’t managed to burn or sweat off yet.

“Awesome,” he informs Castiel’s toilet bowl.

He finishes up, his stomach still tilt-a-whirling, and steals some of Castiel’s toothpaste and brushes his teeth with his finger. He splashes water on his face and runs his wet hands through his hair, and what he sees in the mirror afterward is marginally better than what he started with.

He returns to Castiel’s room, gingerly stepping back into the clothes that migrated to the back of Castiel’s desk chair sometime during the night. The side of the bed he didn’t sleep on is unrumpled and cold, meaning wherever Castiel slept, it wasn’t there.

He eases into the hallway, wincing every time the floor creaks beneath him. It’s only when he approaches the top of the staircase that he hears the first signs of life in the house. It’s Castiel’s voice, drifting up from what sounds like the kitchen. He speaks, then pauses. Speaks, then pauses. On the phone. The smell of coffee drifts in Dean’s direction.

Dean’s careful on the stairs, staying close to the wall, where if Castiel turns around in the kitchen, he won’t be able to tell Dean is there. His boots are still right by the front door, his wallet and phone in his pocket. All he needs to do is get outside and then he’s free.

“I’m telling you,” Castiel says into the phone. He’s speaking with the trepidation of someone who knows the rest of the house is only tenuously asleep. “It’s not worth it.”

Dean arrives at the bottom of the staircase and peeks around the banister, where he can see into the kitchen. Castiel stands with his back to him, shirtless and wearing pajama bottoms, one hand on the counter and the other holding the phone to his ear. His shoulders are tense, posture hunched over.

“That’s not how I see it,” Castiel replies, his voice gone stiff. He turns, and Dean throws himself out of his line of sight, biting his lip. The fridge door opens, then closes hard enough that bottles rattle on the shelf. “I am!” Castiel snaps suddenly. Then, quieter: “I did.”

Dean, moving with renewed caution, grabs his boots from where they lay by the front door and shoves them on, only tying them tight enough so he won’t trip over them on the way out and blow his entire cover.

“I want out,” Castiel says. “I’m done. I—”

At Castiel’s hesitation, Dean looks up. Castiel is staring directly at him. Still half-crouched, Dean plasters on a smile, conjured from the very depths of his being, and waves. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“I have to go,” Castiel says brusquely into the phone, and hangs up. He walks toward Dean, expression flickering like he’s trying to claw his way back into this dimension. “How are you feeling?” He eyes Dean’s laced boots.

Dean slowly stands up. “I… am…” His knees crack and he grimaces. “Super.” He jabs his thumb over his shoulder, at the door. “I was just gonna—we never really established a protocol for—study—hey, who was that you were just on the phone with?”

Castiel looks like he isn’t sure what part of that sentence he’s supposed to respond to. It takes him a moment, and then, “Oh, um.” He shrugs. “Volcano insurance. I suspect the salesman may have exaggerated the prevalence of active volcanoes in the state of Nebraska.”

“Ah,” Dean says. He scratches the back of his neck. “How did the rest of the party go?”

“It was fine,” Castiel says. “Everyone left shortly after you went upstairs.” At Dean’s frantic look, he adds, “I told them you crashed in my guest room.”

Dean huffs a laugh that isn’t really a laugh. “Right.” Something clicks. “I assume it was actually you who slept in the guest room?”

Castiel nods. “You weren’t the only one not sure of the protocol.”

“Yeah,” Dean says, and looks down. “Uh, listen. Thanks for looking out for me last night. Sorry I got a little rowdy, I, uh…” He puffs up his cheeks and slowly blows a breath out. “It’s been a weird couple months, and finals are coming up…”

“Again, you weren’t the only one,” Castiel says, mouth quirking like he’s telling a joke only he knows the punchline to. “If you’re going to leave, do you at least want coffee? I have a travel mug you can borrow.”

Dean puts his hand on the doorknob. “I think I’m just gonna go.”

“Do you want a ride?”

“In the Civic?” Dean says. Kneejerk reaction.

Castiel smiles. “That was the plan.”

“That’s okay.” Dean turns the knob and opens the door a crack.

“Dean,” Castiel says. He puts a hand on the door and pushes it closed again. “Wait.”

They stare at each other. Dean’s not sure what Castiel’s looking for, or even if he finds it, and then Castiel fits a hand to the back of his neck and pulls him in. He backs Dean up against the door, pressing him into it and kissing him. Dean wraps a hand around Castiel’s arm, the other resting flat on his bare chest. When Castiel tries to introduce tongue to the proceedings, Dean taps him on the chest until he pulls away. “I may have upchucked in your toilet like, fifteen minutes ago.”

“Oh,” Castiel says.

“I used your toothpaste, but I didn’t have a brush and—” Castiel kisses him again, framing Dean’s face with his hands. When they break apart, Dean is panting.

“About last night,” Castiel says significantly, leaning his forehead against Dean’s.

Dean is very aware of his chest rising and falling. He licks his lips. “What about it?”

Castiel noses at his jawline. “My thoughts exactly.”

Dean wraps a hand around Castiel’s elbow, holding on tight. He squeezes his eyes, suddenly hot and itchy, shut. His stomach is churning, he feels like sh*t, he’s hungover as hell. He drops his forehead to Castiel’s bare shoulder, hiding a kiss at the juncture of his neck and shoulder. “I’m gonna need some more coaxing.”

Castiel kisses him. Castiel puts a hand at the back of his neck and kisses him well, and thoroughly. A small noise, unbidden, escapes Dean’s throat when Castiel’s free hand presses to his lower back and pulls him closer. “You have such an interesting way of avoiding any accountability whatsoever when it comes to this—us.”

Dean speaks through the soup in his brain. “Isn’t that the whole point of this experimental phase?”

Castiel pauses in his ministrations on Dean’s neck, and then chuckles ruefully. “I guess so.”

He leads Dean upstairs, back to his bedroom. This isn’t the first time they’ve messed around up here, but Dean’s heart still kicks into overdrive when Castiel ushers him onto the bed and straddles him. He leans over, capturing Dean’s mouth and pressing his tongue in again, Dean groaning into it this time instead of warning him off. He snakes a hand up and around Castiel, gathering a fistful of his hair. Their stubble rasps together, leaving Dean’s skin pink and tingling.

Castiel presses his hips flush to Dean’s, even the barest hint of friction enough to get him interested. Anticipation claws at his gut, his breath gone all fluttery.

Castiel sits up and pulls off Dean’s shirt. Dean’s hands immediately fall to Castiel’s waist, his sides, and Castiel bends forward again to press his lips to Dean’s torso. He kisses his way down Dean’s chest, sucking a mark into the sensitive skin below Dean’s bellybutton until Dean swats at his head. “Okay, Count Castiel, calm down.”

Castiel looks up at him, hair mussed, lips pink, and smiles. “Okay.” He sucks one more mark beside the one he just made and Dean concedes defeat, throwing his head back with a grin.

“Dick.”

“Fair enough,” Castiel says as he undoes Dean’s belt and zipper.

He pulls Dean’s pants off, kissing up his thigh, breath ghosting over his dick, when Dean returns to earth long enough to mention, “I’m in the clear, by the way. Got tested a few weeks ago.”

Castiel licks a stripe up Dean’s dick, clearly delighted when it jumps. “Me too,” he says. He jerks his thumb over his shoulder. “I got the results framed, actually. Do you want to see them?”

Dean lets out a long breath. “I really don’t.”

Castiel shrugs. “Oh well,” he says, and proceeds to suck Dean’s dick.

Dean’s toes curl, his fingers flex, he starts to sweat, and not thirty seconds later he’s frantically tapping on Castiel’s head. “Cas. Cas, seriously, if you keep doing that—” He cuts himself off with a groan as Castiel pulls off, one last twist of the tongue inverting Dean’s vision and rendering him mute as he attempts to fight off the impending org*sm. A minute later, he cracks open a wary eyelid, and Castiel is still watching him, eyes bright and pupils dilated. He’s not in actual motion, but there’s something coiled about the way he sits, like a predator ready to spring. When he meets Dean’s eye proper, he reaches for the nightstand, yanking it open and grabbing a bottle of lube. He returns to his original position, cracks open the bottle and the seal beneath the cap, and looks back to Dean, eyebrow raised in question.

Dean licks his lips and nods. “I, uh…”

Castiel waits patiently.

Dean shakes his head. He takes a breath that trembles and rotates his wrist in circles. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

Castiel considers for a moment, closes the lube, and tosses it aside. He adjusts his position on top of Dean, encircles Dean’s face with his hands, and kisses him. He kisses him until they’re both breathing hard, and then he pulls away, only enough so that he can meet Dean’s eye. He doesn’t say anything, but he also refuses to look away. Dean chews on the inside of his lip. Castiel’s hands on his face are huge, and he must be able to tell how heated Dean’s cheeks are by now.

Dean’s eyes get hot and itchy again, and he looks down, blinking rapidly. Castiel’s hands stay on his face. Dean closes his eyes, and scrunches everything inside him up into a little ball. Against Castiel’s back, he curls his hand into a fist. He holds that for as long as he can, everything locked up tight.

And then he unscrunches, just enough, and everything is back to normal. He looks back up at Castiel, who is still watching, still waiting, and nods. Castiel kisses him and grabs the lube.

Dean watches, entranced, as he drizzles a lot—a lot—onto his fingers.

“You’re going to want to turn over for this,” Castiel says.

Dean does.

“On all fours, probably,” Castiel says.

Dean adjusts.

Castiel massages his hip with his non-lubed hand. “It’s going to be uncomfortable at first,” he says.

“You know what’s even more uncomfortable?” Dean says. “Talking about how uncomfortable it’s going to be.”

“Suit yourself,” Castiel says.

As soon as Castiel’s finger enters him, Dean exhales, hard. He rests his forehead on his arm, resisting the urge to bite down. “Why didn’t you tell me it was going to be this uncomfortable?”

In response, Castiel pulls out a bit, and then pushes deeper. Dean lets out some kind of noise, breath coming hard and fast. Castiel’s other hand rests on Dean’s waist. He kisses Dean’s hip.

Castiel works him open slowly, and at some point, Dean’s dick starts to re-fill. Not long after, he’s pushing back against Castiel’s finger. “Cas,” he begs, “More.”

Castiel adds another finger, and Dean buries his face in the pillow. He can feel Castiel’s dick through his pants, a hard line against his bare thigh. He’s never given Castiel a blow j*b without a condom, but just thinking about how he tastes makes Dean’s empty mouth fill with saliva. He wants Castiel to leave trails on him, traces.

“Cas,” he says, voice muffled by the pillow. “More. Please.”

Castiel inserts a third finger, and Dean chokes out a, “holy sh*t.” He clenches his fists, reaches up to grab onto the headboard in search of something to hold onto. “Cas,” he repeats, though he’s out of things to ask for and out of brainpower. “Cas. Cas. Cas.”

Castiel kisses Dean’s lower back. He walks his fingers under Dean’s body, lightly circling Dean’s dick, and Dean almost loses it right there. “Cas,” he whines, “can you—you should—” He lets the request hang in the air, while Castiel continues to idly finger him.

“Are you ready?”

Dean’s arms are trembling, his breath rasping, body pink up to the tips of his ears. “Smug.”

Castiel pulls his fingers out, leaving behind an incredibly empty Dean. There’s the shuffling off of the pajama pants, the click of the lube cap, the slick sound of Castiel prepping himself. Dean’s heartbeat roars in his ears, the familiar prickle at the corner of his eyes returning as he waits.

Castiel puts his hands on Dean’s waist. He presses up against Dean’s ass, holding him tight. Dean’s hands slide off and down the headboard, and he whimpers into the pillow.

Castiel kisses the back of his neck and sits back. Then he’s inching into Dean, and Dean breathes through it, wet against the pillow, oversensitized and flooded. Castiel goes slow, until he’s all the way seated. He leans forward, pressing his forehead between Dean’s shoulder blades. “You feel… good,” he says. He takes a deep breath. “Very good. Really very good.”

Dean chuckles, bordering on manic. “Yeah, same to you, buddy.”

“Can I—” Castiel starts.

“Please,” Dean says, choked.

Castiel pulls almost all the way out, and then thrusts back in. Dean’s elbow gives way and he crumples onto the bed, like a table with a leg just swept out from under it. Stars dance in front of his eyes.

Castiel does it again, and Dean scrabbles at the sheets, gripping the fitted sheet so hard it pops off the mattress, exposing the padding below.

Castiel does it again, and Dean comes, trembling all over, cheeks wet as he moans into the pillow. He pants, gelatinous, with Castiel still inside him.

“Did you…?” Castiel asks, the awed smile entering his voice at the same time as the question mark. He gets his answer when he adjusts his position, and Dean makes a noise of protest, boneless. The usual Russian roulette wheel of shame tries to make an appearance in his chest, but Dean’s so zonked he can’t even be bothered to spin it for once. Instead, he makes that same circular gesture he made earlier in Castiel’s general direction. Go on.

Castiel keeps f*cking him, and Dean rides the wave of pleasure to the end. Cas does all the work, and all Dean has to do is lie there and take it, blissed out on dopamine and serotonin. Some of it continues to leak out his eyes, but he wipes it away with the back of his hand. Castiel chases his org*sm, and when he catches it, and comes inside Dean for the first time, Dean breathes out his name.

Castiel has barely started his comedown when he pulls out, and Dean immediately flips onto his back and pulls Castiel in, kissing him with a sloppy, salty, open mouth. Castiel kisses him back, tongues lazy, and eventually collapses onto an elbow beside Dean, resting his hand on Dean’s hip. They keep kissing, and soon Dean’s head is resting on Castiel’s chest, his hand splayed out across his torso. Every once in a while, Cas kisses the top of his head.

Finally, Dean returns to earth. He glances up at Castiel, who meets his eye and smiles faintly.

Dean shrugs in response. “It was all right, I guess.”

Castiel bursts out laughing.

*

Dean’s drifting, still half-asleep on Castiel’s chest when a key turning in the front door’s lock echoes up the stairs.

“Uh,” he says, and then clears his throat. “I think someone is trying to break into your house.”

Castiel blinks back to life, rubbing his face. “What?”

The door opens, and Dean shakes his arm. “Dude. Who else has a key to this place?”

“Oh, honey, I’m home!” calls a familiar, accented voice, as it begins to ascend the stairs.

Castiel, who just moments ago was on the precipice of sleep, springs into action. He hurls a wayward pair of pajama pants at Dean and pulls on some jeans, moving with the efficiency of a soldier being called to attention. He meets Dean on the other side of the bed as Dean hops into the pants, heart jackhammering in his chest. “What the hell?” he hisses, stumbling.

“Just—” Castiel flaps his hands at the pants, reaching behind Dean and yanking open a door.

“Darling,” Crowley coos. “I just wanna have a friendly chat, is all.”

“Don’t read too much into this,” Castiel says, and shoves Dean backwards into the closet. He grabs a shirt from one of the hangers and slams it shut on him. Dean’s vision is reduced by about half, the slats in the door narrowing his view of the room.

A moment later, the door to Castiel’s room swings open, and he’s casually buttoning up the shirt he just grabbed from beside Dean’s head. “You know, breaking and entering is illegal.”

Crowley walks into view, wearing that same stupid coat. He moves around Castiel’s room like he owns the place, touching everything. “I’m sorry, I know how much of a choir boy you usually are. Besides.” He pulls something out of his pocket and displays it for Castiel. “It’s not illegal if you have a key.”

“How’d you get the key?”

Crowley slips it back into his pocket and shrugs. “It’s not illegal not to tell you.”

Castiel continues fiddling with his shirt, rolling up the cuffs. Dean can only tell how pissed he is because he’s so persnickety about getting them even. “If you enter my home without my permission again, you won’t like what happens.”

“Oh, please, Castiel. It’s just us.” Crowley always says Castiel’s name like a shark that just swallowed a dollop of honey. He trails his fingers along the side of the unmade bed. “Maybe. It smells like sex in here.”

“I was masturbating,” Castiel says. “Thanks for noticing.”

Crowley’s gaze flicks over the bed. Dean watches him put the pieces together. He moves in the opposite direction now, toward the closet.

Castiel, unaffected, starts tugging down the cuffs he just painstakingly rolled. “What do you want?”

“It’s the darnedest thing,” Crowley says. “Here I am this morning, minding my own business, and then I get a very haughty phone call. I’m sure you can imagine who it was from.”

Cas snorts. “And they sent you to do their dirty work.”

Crowley puts a hand over his heart. “That hurts my feelings. I make an honest living.”

“Being a rat? Okay.”

Crowley drifts toward the closet, and Castiel yanks out the last fold in his cuff. He bumps Crowley out of the way as he opens the closet instead. “Move.”

Dean backs up until he hits the wall. As Castiel performatively searches through his collection of sweaters, he angles his torso so that he’s always between Crowley’s prying eyes and Dean.

“We have to talk,” Crowley says, dropping the syrupy act.

Castiel glances at Dean, and then grabs a sweater. “Then talk,” he says. He turns around and closes the door behind him.

“Great,” Crowley says. “We can do it in the car.”

“For f*ck’s sake,” Castiel says.

Crowley steps forward and murmurs something in Castiel’s ear that Dean doesn’t catch. His gaze lingers on the closet. Dean can’t see Castiel’s face from this angle, but his shoulders have gone stiff. “Fine,” he says, clipped. He breezes out of the room without looking back.

Crowley waves toward the closet, and then closes the door behind him.

*

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Dean: WHAT the f*ck

*

Neither Castiel nor Crowley come back. Dean sits in the closet for twenty minutes staring at his phone, then stands up, dusts himself off, gets dressed, and leaves the house. He pulls his snapback low over his eyes as he leaves. If Castiel wanted the door locked, he should have thought of that earlier.

Dean walks down the street in a daze, letting the crisp winter air whistle through his blissfully and purposefully empty head. He makes it deeper into the neighborhood, surrounded by a mix of trust fund babies and McMansions, before he collapses onto the curb, head in his hands. His ass aches.

MESSAGES: CHARLIE

Dean: Can you do me a favor?

Charlie: yea dude ofc

Dean: Can you come get me?

Charlie: omw

Dean: I’ll send you my location, I had to walk a bit.

Dean: Long story.

*

Finals go well. Dean knows he aces all of them. He’s texting Jo after his biology final, praying she didn’t choke on her marketing strategies, when someone bumps into him.

“Sorry,” Jamie says. She looks up, realizes who she’s talking to. “Oh, hi, Dean. Sorry.”

“Hey,” Dean says. He steps out of her way. “No worries. Go for it.”

Instead of leaving, Jamie hitches up the strap of her bag. “How was the final?”

Dean slips his phone back into his pocket. “Good. Fine. I did okay, I think.” He clears his throat. “What about you?”

“Same,” she says, but this clearly isn’t the conversation she’s interested in having. “How have you been?”

“Uh…” Dean trails off for too long to be anything other than lying when he says, “Good. What about you?”

She half-shrugs. “I’ve been okay. Thinking about you, lately.” She laughs a little. “I don’t know if it was all the actual studying I’ve been doing for this final or what, but.”

“Sense memory kicking in, huh?” Dean says, and almost forgets to wink.

“Something like that.” Jamie grins. “Hey, for old time’s sake, what do you say to a celebratory drink?”

Immediately, Dean’s mouth starts to draft the flirty version of, that sounds like a great idea. He means to say that, but some wires get crossed and what he says instead is, “That would be great, but, uh, I’m actually kind of seeing someone. A girl.”

Disappointment flashes across Jamie’s face, but she nods. “My loss, that’s fair. I can’t imagine a guy like you stays on the market for long.” She touches his arm. “Hey, I told you you’d find a girl, huh? I hope it’s going well.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. “She’s great.” He starts tapping on his car keys, and forces himself to stop.

Jamie smiles. “I’m happy for you guys. Merry Christmas, okay? And good luck on the rest of your finals.”

“Yeah, you too,” Dean says. The moment she turns away, the weak smile slides off his face.

*

MESSAGES: JO

Jo: is cas coming home for xmas?

Dean: How would I know?

Jo: well i just figured u would invite him this time

Dean: Why?

Jo: idk u guys hang out a lot right

Dean: I knew Thanksgiving would set a precedent

Dean: Goddammit

*

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Dean: We need to talk dude

*

Dean stares at his phone. Charlie nudges him. “You’re staring at that thing like you’re waiting on a call from Harrison Ford. What’s up?”

Dean shakes his head, slipping it back into his pocket. “Nothing. I think it might be broken. I’ll have to get it looked it.”

Charlie stares at him. “You might not know this, but I’m pretty good with tech stuff.”

Dean waves her off. “It’s all good.”

Charlie puts up her hands. “Your loss.”

They’re watching The Princess Bride for about the hundredth time since they met, but Dean’s spent most of the runtime tonight checking his phone. Charlie pelts him with popcorn kernels. “Seriously, dude? I sound like an asshole if I quote an entire movie by myself.” She pokes him with her toe. “Hey, speaking of? Inigo Montoya.”

Dean blinks at her. “What?”

“A good subplot,” Charlie says. “Maybe the best subplot.”

Dean blows a raspberry, roped into the familiar banter. “Oh, please. That barely even counts as a subplot. It’s like, the second main plot.”

“Yeah,” Charlie says. “Otherwise known as the subplot.”

Dean shakes his head. “It’s too cohesive. The movie is like one big story, you can’t separate it into chunks like that. You’re disrespecting its legacy.”

Charlie laughs out loud. “Dude, that is straight-up nonsense.”

“It’s not!” Dean protests. “I have a film studies degree.”

“No, you don’t.”

“I’m minoring in film studies.”

“No, you aren’t.”

“I took a film studies class once as an elective.”

Charlie scrunches her face up. “Okay. That one is true.”

Dean wags a finger at her. “And that’s how you win an argument.”

Charlie spits an unpopped kernel at him. It hits him right in the side of the head. Dean flips her off. “Gross. And, unexpectedly, ow.”

Charlie smiles at him.

*

They’re at the part where Westley, Inigo, and Fezzik are invading the castle when Dean turns to Charlie and says, “Have you heard from Castiel in the past couple days?”

Charlie tears her gaze away from the screen. “No,” she says. “Why?”

Dean takes out his phone again. “I just wanted to ask him about something for our forestry final next week, but he hasn’t responded to my text.”

“Hm,” Charlie says, grabbing her phone from the coffee table. She pauses the movie and starts tapping on her phone. “Yeah, the last time we were texting was about me helping set up the party. Hold on…” She types for a couple seconds. “Okay, I texted him, too. We’ll see if he responds to either of us to confirm he’s alive.”

She goes to play the movie, but then Dean says, quick, “What if something happened to him?”

Charlie glances at him, eyebrows raised. “I’m sure he’s fine. Something probably just came up.”

“No.” Dean’s careful with his words. Hopefully not careful enough that Charlie notices. “I get that. I mean, what if, in general, something happens to him? Who would we even call?”

Charlie opens her mouth, and then closes it.

“He doesn’t use social media, we don’t have any kind of emergency contact for him…” The first real sting of panic vibrates under Dean’s ribcage. Before this, it had been mostly embarrassed, paranoid rejection. “If he ever just up and left, all I would have is this phone number. All we would have, I mean.”

Charlie seems fairly perturbed by this idea. “The school would have an emergency contact for him,” she hedges. “If anything happens, if he ever disappeared, we would just tell them, I guess.”

“He doesn’t talk to his family,” Dean says. “Who the hell would he have as an emergency contact?”

“Okay,” Charlie says, holding out her hands, palm-down. “I think we’re getting a little in the weeds, here.” She grabs her phone again, puts it on speaker, and then presses a button. A dial-tone rings out. “Let’s just call him. Make sure he’s okay.”

The phone rings a couple times. Dean and Charlie look at each other. Right before it goes to voicemail, the line clicks.

“Charlie?” Castiel’s usual timbre is even rougher than usual. Maybe he was sleeping. Dean glances at his own phone, but it’s barely past nine.

“Hey Cas,” Charlie says. “Just calling to check in. You okay?”

“Um… yes?” Castiel’s voice is slow, like he has to think about each word before he says it. There’s an aloofness to his tone as well, his mind somewhere else.

Charlie glances at Dean, eyebrows furrowed. “No one’s heard from you in a few days. We just wanted to make sure you were doing all right.”

“‘We?’”

“Wanted to make sure you didn’t accidentally smoke some laced weed or something,” Dean says, his own voice gruff. “Make sure you’re still on the same planet. Like friends do.”

Silence falls on the other line. Finally, Castiel says, “Hello, Dean.”

Dean’s stomach flutters. “Yeah. Hi.”

“Is there… anything I can do for you?” Castiel says. “I’m fine. I’ve just been under the weather.”

“Too under the weather to answer a damn text?” Dean snaps. When he catches Charlie eyeing him, he coughs. “Our Forestry final is next week. I wanted to go over some things.”

There’s another long pause before Castiel answers. “My apologies. I have to go.”

“Cas, wait—” Charlie says, but the line goes dead anyway. She bites her lip. “He… could be held hostage?” At Dean’s shake of the head, Charlie leans back against the couch and blows her bangs off her forehead. “Well, he’s alive. And weird. But he’s always been alive and weird. Maybe we just caught him at a bad time.”

Dean closes his eyes and presses his index and middle fingers to his temples. “Yeah, you’re probably right. Can we turn the movie back on?”

“Are you… gonna watch the movie with your eyes closed?”

“Charlie.”

“Okay. Okay.” The movie resumes. Dean spends most of the remainder staring at Charlie’s apartment ceiling.

*

Dean passes the rest of the week alternating between staring at his phone, studying, and drinking. It’s when he’s drinking that he sends most of the texts.

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Dean: Seriously?

Forestry is his last exam. During the days leading up to it, he prowls around his apartment, which is masquerading as an index card graveyard. Beer bottles and Jack litter every available surface.

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Dean: If you broke all your fingers and also your tongue in a tragic accident and can no longer text or speak, feel free to send a carrier pigeon.

Even after Dean knows everything there is to possibly know about the economics of forestry, he keeps studying. He makes travel plans for Sioux Falls and lets everyone know that Cas isn’t going to make it for Christmas. He had other plans.

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Dean: C’mon dude

Dean walks into the exam room, staring blankly at his blank phone screen. He dumps his backpack by the door and finds a seat. Jo, as usual, is cramming till the last possible minute with Dean’s notes, right outside the door.

As the start time looms, the other chairs and tables start to fill up, and when Dean hears someone take the seat next to him, he says, “Those were really good notes, you better get at least a B-minus.”

“I’ll do my best,” Castiel says.

Dean looks up. He stares at Castiel, agog. He stands. “You son of a bitch,” he says, and moves to another table.

*

After the exam, Dean waits for Jo outside the room, which has the unfortunate side effect of him still being there when Castiel emerges ten minutes after him. As he walks past, he slows. “Should I keep going?”

“You’re a dick,” Dean says. Castiel stops, and Dean gets a good look at him for the first time in a few weeks. He’s tired. Dark, bruise-like circles hide under his eyes. “And you look like sh*t,” he adds.

“I had some things to take care of,” Castiel says. His voice still carries that aloofness from the phone call the other day, the tone that implies he’s doing the other party a favor by participating in this conversation.

“And these things were so involved you couldn’t send a freaking text?” The classroom door opens, and a few students file out. Dean grabs Castiel’s arm and pulls him further down the hallway, toward a fire exit and some long-abandoned lockers. Castiel allows himself to be dragged, but Dean can’t shake the feeling that he’s humoring him.

“I was busy,” Castiel says.

Dean crosses his arms and leans against the lockers. “Busy.”

Castiel sighs. “I had… family matters to attend to.”

“Family matters? As in, the family you don’t talk to anymore?”

“Not anymore.”

Dean pinches the bridge of his nose. “Man, I am so tired. ‘Not anymore’ as in, you aren’t talking to them after this? Or ‘Not anymore’ as in, you used to not talk to them, and now you are again?”

The corner of Cas’ mouth twitches upwards, but ultimately loses its fight against gravity. “We sorted some things out. It’s really not important.”

“‘Not important?’” Dean laughs hollowly. “Dude, I have been texting you. You have not been texting me. I am—” He puts a hand to his forehead, glancing back down to the hallway to ensure no one is lingering. “It was good, and then it wasn’t, and I am kind of freaking out here, and I am alone, and you’re not here, and I—” He swallows a big gulp of air. “This isn’t fun anymore, Cas. You just—we just—and then you left! Like it wasn’t a big deal!”

Castiel stares at him coolly. “I thought the whole point of this endeavor was that it isn’t a big deal.”

Dean slams his hand back against the locker. The metal dents beneath his fist and slices open the meat of his palm. “Do you not remember what it’s like?” he hisses, shoving off the lockers and getting right into Cas’ face. Castiel doesn’t even blink. “I need your help, and you just stand there and make smartass comments the whole time. I am drowning here, Cas, and then you disappear on me after—and I am screwed, I mean, I am just f*cked. I can’t…” Dean’s dripping blood on the floor. Castiel reaches out to take Dean’s hand, but Dean yanks it back and unthinkingly wipes it off on his shirt. Castiel also retracts his hand, frowning down at it.

He raises his eyes to Dean’s, then, and the bridge between them has fully iced over. “Need my help with what?”

Dean raises his dirty hand, and then when he remembers, his clean hand, and wipes his eyes. “Jesus Christ,” he mutters, shaking his head. “What strings are they pulling in your brain? ’Cause, God, I hope it’s them doing the pulling.” He turns, walking back down the hall. As he reaches the exam room, Jo exits. Her eyes immediately latch onto the spotty blood trail following him down the hallway.

“Dean, what the hell?” She starts forward, but Dean waves her off.

“It’s his mess,” he says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder to where Castiel is still standing. Jo says something else, but Dean ignores her and disappears through the doors at the end of the hallway.

Chapter 6: Interlude: Holidays

Chapter Text

Interlude: Holidays

Dean spends his first week on holiday being a giant pisshead. Ellen tells him so. She also tells him to get his act the hell together by Christmas or so help her.

So he does.

He mopes and he cooks and he cleans, a self-imposed Cinderella routine. He stares at his phone and watches the Die Hard and Harry Potter marathons that run on a constant loop during the season. He texts Charlie, who’s on a southwest road trip with Dorothy in lieu of holidays.

One night, when Ellen’s finally given him the “stop being a pisshead” look enough times, he grabs his drink, his coat, and makes a swift exit. He bundles up and makes camp on the front porch, leaning against the creaking railing and blowing visible clouds of breath into the clear night sky. It’s frigid out, which is why he curses and almost drops his hot toddy when the front door smacks open and Jo walks out. The second she registers how cold it is, she doubles over. “f*ck, dude.”

Dean raises his eyebrows as Jo straightens up, hides her hands under her armpits, and leans on the railing next to him. She grabs his mug and takes a big gulp.

“What are you doing?” he says, half-laughing. He plucks the mug back out of her grip.

“I’m just hanging out with my best bro,” Jo says through gritted teeth. “Even if he is being a big pisshead.”

“That’s so generous of you,” Dean says. “Did Ellen send you to do her dirty work?”

The front door opens again, and Sam steps out. He’s more prepared than Jo, who seemingly didn’t think further than a leather jacket and a beanie. He tosses Jo one of their ratty tartan blankets. “Here. Dumbass.”

Jo wraps it around herself as Sam joins them at the railing, on Dean’s other side. They look at each other. Jo raises her eyebrows and Sam nods. By the time Dean realizes what’s going on, it’s too late.

“Oh, no,” he says, trying to push off the railing.

Jo presses a hand against his back and nudges him forward again. “Oh, yes,” she says, grin razor-sharp.

Dean sighs. “What did he offer you.”

Jo shrugs. “I told him it was a bad idea, but his counteroffer was if I helped him you might stop being the biggest drag on the planet.”

Dean swivels his gaze to Sam, who shrugs. “Even Charlie texted me.”

Dean stares up at the sky in protest, and then hangs his head. “C’mon, guys. I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not,” Jo and Sam say together.

“Sam,” Dean says. He taps on the railing. “I’m fine.”

“Something is up with you,” Sam says. He’s perfected the concerned brow since going away to school. The girls probably eat it up.

“Nothing is up with me,” Dean snaps. “Sam, you’re a nosy little b who feels guilty for going to school on the other side of the country. You—” He nods at Jo. “You have nothing better to do than corner a man when he’s drinking?”

“Cutting,” Jo deadpans. “But the drinking is another thing.”

Dean scoffs. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I get we’re all wacky college kids partying hard or whatever,” Jo says.

“Great,” Dean says, and takes another sip.

“Seriously, Dean?” Sam says. “This is like your freshman year all over again.”

“Shut up, Sam,” Dean and Jo say at the same time.

Dean shoves away from Jo’s hold. “I sequestered myself, okay? You guys are the ones who came after me. Take this feel-good roadshow on tour or something.” He heads toward the porch stairs. There’s a space heater in the garage.

“Dean,” Sam says. “Can you just let us help you?”

Dean trundles down the stairs.

“Is it about Cas,” Jo says, flat. Not a hint of an accusation or presumption in her tone. Her voice carries, clear through the naked night.

Halfway across the front yard, outside the safe haven of the porch light, Dean stops, and slowly turns around. “Is what about Cas?”

Jo and Sam, silhouetted by the porch light, become alien shapes in the glow. The smaller one shrugs. “You’re buddies or whatever, right? You had that big blowout after the forestry exam. What was that even about?”

Dean swallows. “That was—nothing. It’s nothing.”

“Then what is it?” Sam says.

Dean weighs his lack of options. His drink is rapidly cooling in his hand. Sam and Jo watch him, expectant.

He sighs deeply, running a hand through his hair, and makes a bad decision. “Let me tell you about Caroline.”

*

MESSAGES: CHARLIE

Charlie: u have a canadian girlfriend

Dean: Who told you?

Charlie: jo n sam breathlessly texted me the tea while it was still piping hot

Charlie: you come from a gossipy little family, handmaiden

Dean: Yeah, well. Guess it was bound to get out one way or another

Charlie: cant believe you fell for someone’s personality

Charlie: did u meet her on canadian tinder

Charlie: or as the french say, le tinder

Charlie: u totally opened with a line about her beaver didnt u

Dean: We have a deep, spiritual connection.

Charlie: u totally beaved her

Charlie: I’m happy for you

*

The next morning, Bobby fights with the space heater while Dean gets the newest resident of the garage, a Thunderbird from the 70s, prepped. Bobby slaps the junky heater when it doesn’t start immediately. “So,” he says. As it trundles to life, he stands up with a wince and a creak. “You and the Canadian, huh?”

Dean cracks a grin. “They sure get around.”

“Canadians?” Bobby says as he starts digging through his toolbox. “Or your brother and sister?”

“Both,” Dean says. “Definitely both.”

“Something wrong with the girls in Nebraska?” Bobby grabs a nearby rag and tosses it over his shoulder.

“Definitely not.”

Bobby gives him an appraising look. “Huh.”

“‘Huh’ what?” Dean grabs a wrench and starts tossing it from hand to hand. Bobby snatches it back, mid-air, with a twitch of his mustache.

“Just never expected you to find someone online.” He also reclaims the second wrench Dean took the moment Bobby grabbed the first one. “You’re kind of a material guy.”

Dean grabs a hammer this time and tosses it to himself so that he’s holding it out, handle-first, to Bobby. “Living in a material world.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Bobby leans back against a rickety wooden table, arms crossed. “When you came to me as a half-pint, you didn’t leave my side for that first month. If I had been inclined to wear skirts, you would’ve hidden behind them.”

Dean shrugs, adopting an aw-shucks affect. “Chasing skirts, you know how it is.”

Bobby rolls his eyes. “I’m trying to be fatherly, boy. Making it hard to even get off the ground, here.”

Dean mimes zipping his lips.

“Uh-huh,” Bobby harrumphs. “I’m just saying. You always needed to be close to—well—be close.” He pats Dean on the shoulder. “She must have something special to jump the line like that.”

Dean frowns down at the hammer he’s still holding. He clears his throat. “Uh. Yeah, she does. Thanks, Bobby.”

“Now that that’s said,” Bobby retrieves his hand and turns to the Thunderbird. “We done standing around like nincompoops?”

“You started it,” Dean says.

“Watch it.”

*

On Christmas night, Dean stands in front of the oven, watching the green bean casserole beyond the glass with a frown on his face.

“They’re not gonna cook with you staring like that,” Ellen says over his shoulder, and Dean jumps half a foot. The fuzzy white ball on the end of his Santa hat whips around his head and bops him in the nose.

“I’m supervising my craft,” he says haughtily. He blows the hat out of his face.

“Right,” Ellen says. She grabs a stray green bean from the cutting board and bites into it, surveying him. Ellen has a way of projecting warmth, despite her demeanor never swaying from the threat of an ass-kicking. “How are you doing, sweetie?”

Dean sighs. “I wish everyone would stop asking me that.”

Ellen shrugs. “You can’t walk around with moon-eyes for this long and not expect people to notice. You’re… well.” She gestures. “You.”

“I already got the spiel.” Dean waves her off.

“Oh, c’mon,” Ellen says, leaning forward. “Give me something, here. You know Jo would kill any guy who walked through her door, and I love Sam, but the kid is gonna be hopeless for at least the next two years.”

Dean turns to face Ellen, comprehension dawning. “Bobby put you up to this, didn’t he?”

“No.”

“He ran out of Tori & Dean reruns, didn’t he? He’s bored. He’s thirsty for salacious gossip.”

Ellen points a finger at him. “He can never know you know about that.”

“He switches the channel faster watching that than I did when I used to sneak staticky HBO softcore as a kid.” Dean snorts, shaking his head. “This family is totally bonkers.”

“Honey,” Ellen says. She puts a hand on Dean’s shoulder. She’s much shorter than him, but there’s a glint in her eye that makes her seem the exact opposite. “You are dating a French-Canadian girl who is severely Protestant and far away from you. I get that we’re just your annoying, meddling family, but even you have to admit, this is…” She squeezes his shoulder and her eyes crinkle at the edges. “You know?”

“Oh, I know,” Dean says.

“And I just wanted to make sure,” Ellen says. She pats his cheek and steps back. “I know we don’t say it as much as we should, but we’re proud of you, Dean.” She smiles, genuinely. “You done good.”

Dean lets out a scoff-laugh. “Thanks, Ellen.”

*

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*

Christmas and the following days pass, mostly without incident. Dean follows Charlie and Dorothy’s road trip on Instagram and watches all of their stories. He drinks hot chocolate and stares out the window while Jo rattles off all the music videos he should be starring in. He whittles away his days, lying on his bed and staring at his bedroom ceiling, determinedly thinking about nothing. Any time Jo catches him, she sighs wistfully and marvels aloud at his “first wuv”. He throws a shoe at her.

MESSAGES: PAM

Dean: Hey Merry Christmas

Pam: please, winchester. you know I celebrate the winter solstice.

Dean: Sorry

Dean: Happy solstice

Pam: jk

Pam: I love xmas

Pam: BIG turkey fan

Pam: what up?

Dean: I was just wondering

Dean: Do you do readings online?

Pam: if someone makes it worth my while

Pam: maybe

Pam: why

Pam: this wouldn’t have something to do with a gorgeous curvy brunette with a french canadian accent would it

Dean: Is no secret sacred

Pam: hell no

Dean: How do you know what she looks like?

Pam: omg am I right? i was just day dreaming out loud

Pam: love a good canadian

Dean: Yes, it is about that

Dean: Can you do one for me

Pam: hell yeah dude

Pam: its just a manner of payment

Dean: Sure, how much?

Pam: hmm

Pam: gimme her insta and we’re even

Dean: She doesn’t use social media.

Pam: Ooh shes mysterious. I like

Pam: A pic then

Dean: She’s not ready to meet the friends, or have them meet her yet. Tough family, y’know?

Pam: yer pullin right on the old heartstrings

Pam: aw heck it’s christmas

Pam: one on the house

Dean: Thanks Pam

Dean: What do I have to do?

Dean’s phone starts vibrating in his hand, Pam’s name splashed across the screen. He raises his eyebrows and answers. “Hello?”

“Hey, hot stuff.” Pam is her usual chipper self. “Got a question for ya. A little pregame.”

“Shoot.”

“You know this is all fake, right? Total horse sh*t, yadda yadda.”

“Uh.” Dean gets up from where he’s sitting on his bed, glancing out into the hallway to make sure it’s empty before closing the door and returning to his original position. “You ask all your clients this? Before they give you money?”

“Look,” Pam says. “You’re my friend. No one comes to a sexy basem*nt suite psychic because they want to know their future or talk to their dead gram-gram or whatever.”

“They don’t?”

“They come to me because I’m cheaper than a therapist, and I tell them what they want to hear. What do you want to hear, Dean?”

Dean waits just a second too long to answer, “Shouldn’t you already know?”

Pam laughs, at him, not with him. “That’s the psychic version of ‘if it doesn’t scan the first three times, it’s free.’”

“Sorry.”

“Ah.” Pam waves him off. “I forgive you. Are you sure you don’t want to talk? This is a once-in-a-lifetime offer because everyone at my house is passed out from the spiked nog and I’m bored. I’m also super non-judgemental.”

Dean pauses. He thinks about it. Saying something. “I just wanted to know if you think things will work out with Caroline and me.” He frowns down at his tangled hands. “You know. The distance and all.”

“Geez, Louise,” Pam says. “Not giving a huckster much to work with here. What’s she like?”

Dean scrubs a hand across his jaw. “Inscrutable. Funny. For as uptight as she is, super chill. Hard to get close to.”

“Interesting,” Pam says. “How can you like her if you don’t feel close to her?”

“Well, I see her. Um, on the phone. The internet. Snapchat. No. That’s a lie. She doesn’t use social media.” Dean rubs a hand across his eyes. “I don’t know. Explaining why you like something you like is hard.”

“Try.”

Dean sits in silence for a good minute. Pam waits patiently. On the other end of the line, ice cubes clink and liquid is poured into a glass.

“I…” Dean starts. There’s a thought, trying to form. A word, curled under his tongue. “She’s so far away, but when we’re together—talking on WhatsApp, or whatever—she feels close. And I know I just said she’s hard to get close to, but somehow both things are true at the same time. It’s like… we haven’t even known each other that long. I don’t even know her well, but I feel like I know her, you know? The way we talk, like everything is an inside joke. This is useless. I’m just throwing words at you. I don’t know. I’ve never met someone like that. You meet them the first time and maybe they piss you off. But even pissing you off, it’s like, I can’t believe they know how to do that. To press that exact button at this angle on this day of the week while wearing green. Ca… Caroline, she… she’s familiar. Not in the safe and boring way. I look at her—text her—and it’s like. She’s here.”

It’s Pam’s turn to be silent. “Oh,” she says after a couple of seconds. She swallows. “I think you guys will be fine.”

Dean clears his throat. “Uh, thanks. Listen, uh. I’ve got to go, but I owe you a beer, all right?”

“Make it two and we’re square.”

“Two beers, and we’re square.”

“Signing off,” Pam says. She clears her throat, and she’s gone.

In the resonant silence, Dean collapses back onto his bed, pressing his palms to his eyes until he sees colors start to swirl.

*

First thing on the morning of New Year’s Eve, Dean drinks a mimosa that is majority orange juice when Jo or Sam is watching, and majority prosecco any other time. He keeps at a steady pace all day, which is why by noon, he ends up sitting in front of his laptop, creating an OKCupid account for Caroline Tremblay.

Likes: God, Jesus, cheese, the Holy Ghost, burgers

Dislikes: frat boys, heathens, restrictive religious upbringings that don’t leave room for spiritual exploration

Biography: Just a small town girl. Would love a douchey frat-boy type to sweep me off my delicate French feet. I have a killer accent. I give great h

The floor creaks outside Dean’s room as someone walks by, and he slams his laptop shut in a panic. The footsteps disappear down the stairs, and Dean only lets out a breath once silence creeps back through the house. On an extra slow exhale, he opens the laptop back up and holds down the backspace button.

*

Later that afternoon, everyone is crowded around the living room TV, watching the local news’ New Years coverage. Bobby and Jo are both asleep in their respective seats, Bobby’s hat askew and Jo’s mouth lolling open. Sam is on his phone, and Ellen cuffs Dean on the shoulder from her position next to him. “We’d really like to meet her one day,” she says.

Sam looks up from whatever he’s doing. “Yeah,” he says, and then goes back to typing.

Dean smiles weakly. “Yeah,” he says. “Okay.”

*

Dean spends the rest of the afternoon and early evening drinking in his room. By the time he stands to make his way downstairs for the countdown, the world is spinning like a tumble dryer.

He feels his way downstairs, gripping the banister tightly, head swimming. Ellen ushers him into the room, everyone holding glasses of champagne, as the ten-second countdown graphic appears on the screen. Dean watches, numb, his eyes glued to the TV. There’s a manic smile plastered across his face, but it feels separate from him. He announces he’s going to call Caroline to wish her a happy New Year and retreats back upstairs. Jo wolf whistles after him.

He sits back on his bed, staring at his blank phone. The incriminating blue bubbles watch him as he taps on Castiel’s name. The line rings, and rings, and rings. An automated voice tells him to leave a message. He ends the call.

Five minutes later, his phone rings.

“Dean,” Cas says as soon as he picks up. “What’s wrong? Are you all right?”

Dean takes the phone away from his ear, staring at it in awe. “Oh.”

“Hey,” Cas says. “Are you okay?”

Dean blinks. “I didn’t expect you to answer. I think I wanted you to. But I didn’t expect you to.”

There’s a moment of silence. An almost-silent sigh of realization. “This isn’t an emergency, is it,” he says.

“Why would I call you in an emergency?” Dean says.

Cas is quiet for a moment. “I guess you wouldn’t.” Back to business. “This was a bad idea.”

“Don’t hang up,” Dean blurts. He bites his lip. Squeezes his eyes shut and rests his cheek on his knee. Castiel doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t disconnect. Dean takes a shuddering breath, can hardly get the words out. “What did I do wrong, Cas?”

On the other end of the line, Castiel makes a tiny, wounded sound. Dean’s never heard anything like it from him. “Dean, I—” Pause. “I’m sorry. I have to go.” For once, he sounds like he means it. “Can we talk once we’re back at Whitmore?”

“Probably not,” Dean says. “To be honest, I am roaringly drunk right now. I think I’m gonna be really mad at you when I wake up. In fact, I’m really mad at you right now.”

“That’s no less than I deserve.”

Dean nods into the phone, and when his head dips down the contents of his stomach push up. “Enjoy New Years with Crowley and the puss*cats,” he says, and hangs up, and throws up in his garbage can.

MESSAGES: CAS

Dean: why are you such an ashole

Dean: asshole

Dean: drunk texting… bad idea.

Dean: But you know what f*ck you.

Dean: eat me

Chapter 7: January

Chapter Text

January

Dean returns to Nebraska with promises of encouraging Caroline to meet the Winchester-Campbell-Singers trailing in his wake. He spends the majority of the drive ignoring Jo, and after he’s dropped her off, doesn’t even return home before parking at the campus pub.

An hour later, he’s in the middle of chatting with a redhead he’s sure is a perfectly nice girl, which makes him feel like a dick when he abruptly excuses himself with barely an apology after catching sight of a familiar face at the bar.

“We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” he says, slipping into the seat next to her.

Carmen, mid-sip, swivels toward him. She arches an eyebrow. “Do we?”

“Good point.” Dean puts in an order with the bartender. “Good Christmas?”

Carmen scrunches up her nose, trying not to laugh. “I’m Jewish.”

“My bad,” Dean says. “Good Hanukkah?”

Carmen touches the tip of her tongue to her top lip. “It was great. Spun a dreidel, wore a blue sweater, the whole nine. What about you? Good Hanukkah?”

Dean chuckles and takes a sip of his newly arrived drink. “Fair enough. It was good.”

Carmen leans back as far as the barstool will allow her, surveying him. “Did you really come over here to ask about my holiday break?”

Dean trails his gaze down Carmen’s body, and then back up. “Yes.”

She laughs, returning to her original position. “Such a gentleman.”

“Never.”

“You are… such an interesting guy,” she says, flicking the brim of his snapback with a grin.

Dean rests a hand on her waist. “That’s not the first time you’ve said that. I hope it’s a compliment.”

“It’s not, actually.”

“Oh.” Dean starts to withdraw his hand from her waist, but she holds him there.

“It’s not not a compliment, either,” she assures him.

“I don’t know what that means.”

Carmen holds up a finger. “We’re all entitled to our secrets. You and I, we have fun. I don’t need to know your whole life story and you don’t need to know mine.”

Dean lets go of Carmen’s waist and grabs her hand where it’s resting on the bar instead. She politely pulls it back, out of his grip. “Sorry. Wasn’t expecting that.”

Dean shakes his head. “No, I’m sorry, I—” He clenches his fist, pulls it back to his side. “Sorry.”

Carmen drums her fingers on her glass. Dean’s seen that expression before. Debating whether it’s worth it to bring it up. For a moment, he’s a freshman again, hovering over Lisa in her dimly lit dorm room. She wraps one hand around his arm and cups his cheek in her palm, and his face is wet.

“Are you all right?” Carmen and Lisa say.

Dean blinks back to reality. Smiles, sheepish. “Yeah. I just got back today, actually. Jet lag and all.”

Carmen nods to his drink. “And it was such a good holiday you’re out for a drink?”

Dean scoffs. “Excuse you. Liking beer is a hobby now. I’m a connoisseur.”

Carmen eyes his almost-empty glass. “You’re drinking a rum and co*ke.”

“…Yes I am,” Dean says after unsticking his tongue from the roof of his mouth. “And only a true connoisseur would know that, so, hail and well met.”

Carmen slides off the barstool, grabbing her leather jacket from the back. With a slick shush, she slips it on and flicks her hair back in one, fluid motion. “Do you wanna get out of here or not?”

*

They make it as far as the alley adjacent to the bar, and then Carmen is shoving Dean up against the wall. It’s below freezing out, but Dean is alcohol-flushed and Carmen’s mouth is warm. He won’t be able to get it up, not at this temperature, but if they move indoors…

When they break to take a breather, Dean says, “I didn’t know you were Jewish.”

Carmen raises her eyebrows. “Is that a problem?”

“What? No. I just—it’s weird that I didn’t know. We’ve hung out a few times.”

“I don’t think it’s that weird? Talking hasn’t really been on our to-do list.”

“Well, maybe it should be,” Dean says. He clenches his fists and then loosens them. His breathing becomes more erratic. He leans back in and kisses Carmen ferociously, cupping her jaw in his hand and running his fingers through her hair. “We have fun, right? We can talk. If we talk enough, we can go steady. If we go steady long enough, we can…” He trails off, kissing her again. It’s nice. It’s so nice.

Carmen shoves him off. Dean’s lips are immediately freezing. They stare at each other.

“What are you doing?” she says.

Dean stumbles over himself for a few syllables, and then: “Sorry. I’m drunk. Jet lagged. It was a weird holiday, actually.” When Carmen’s only reaction is to cross her arms and keep staring at him, he says, “I’m sorry.”

Carmen sighs. Her breath comes out in a cloud and dissipates between them. “I don’t want to date anyone right now, Dean. School is crazy and I have no time for a relationship.”

Dean shakes his head. “It sounded like that’s what I was after, but I’m not—I’m—” He chews on his tongue for a moment, pinches the bridge of his nose and squeezes his eyes shut. “I’m not sure what I want, Carmen.”

Carmen doesn’t respond, and when Dean opens his eyes, he can see why. She’s staring at him, face frozen in a mask of fury. “You’re dating someone,” she says, enunciating each word.

Dean actually laughs. “What? No, I’m not.”

Wrong answer. Carmen freezes up even further, but her eyes are livid. “Yeah, nice try. I’m allowed to forget because I was drunk when Pam announced it to the nursing group chat. I don’t think you have an excuse, drunk as you always are, to forget you’re dating some French girl.”

Dean tries to take a step back, forgetting he’s already backed up against a wall. “Carmen, no, that’s not—”

“You’re a piece of work,” she snaps, jabbing her finger at him and then tucking it back against herself. “Talking about ‘going steady,’ about some kind of future, which was already super weird, by the way, when there’s someone out there waiting for a text from you, you ass?” Carmen shakes her head, barking a harsh laugh toward the sky. “We don’t know each other, Dean. We’re not friends, or dating, or any variation thereof. You don’t know me, and I thought that was the point of this whole thing.” She tugs a pair of gloves out of the pocket of her coat and shoves them on. “I’m an idiot. Going down a dark alley with a guy I’ve slept with a few times. Jesus. Rookie move.”

“Carmen,” Dean says. “Please.” He reaches out, not to touch her, but out of sheer desperation. “This thing with Caroline. It’s not what you think.”

Carmen purses her lips. “Then what is it?”

When Dean doesn’t answer, she rolls her eyes. “Yeah. Okay. Y’know, you’re lucky Pam mentioned she’s also apparently a recluse who doesn’t use social media, because otherwise I’d make sure there was a lineup around the block of your rejects comparing hookup calendars with her.”

Dean closes his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

Carmen scoffs. “They always are when they get caught.” She begins to walk away. Over her shoulder, she says, “If you see an open seat next to me again, consider it taken.”

Once her footsteps have faded, Dean turns to face the brick wall of the alley and presses his forehead against it, breathing in slow.

*

MESSAGES: ?

Dean: Hey, is this Aaron?

*

It’s with a certain level of apprehensive shame that Dean ducks into the diner. Turning his collar up is useless, but he does it anyway. He spies Castiel from across the room, and almost loses his nerve when, sensing someone staring at him, they make direct eye contact. A few emotions flit across Cas’ face, before he settles on an old staple, the lascivious grin. The kind that makes Dean’s ears hot.

Dean’s ten seconds from doing a one-eighty right out the door when he’s almost one-eightied in turn by a flash of red and the sensation of all the air being crushed out of his lungs. “Hey, Charlie.”

She pulls back, grinning. “Hi.”

“Did you get a tan?”

Charlie drags him toward the booth everyone is sitting in. Jo, Benny, Andrea, Pamela, Victor, and a brunette Dean assumes is Dorothy are already smushed in together, talking over each other as they greet him. “No, you just got pale…er. Hey, everyone. Happy new year, blah blah blah.”

Dean slides in beside Jo. Cas sits on her other side, but Dean does his best to ignore that. Charlie sits down across from him, kissing the brunette on the cheek.

“Dorothy, I’m guessing,” Dean says.

She turns to look at Charlie, one eyebrow raised. “Who’s Dorothy?”

Dean freezes.

Charlie rolls her eyes, smiling. “Yes, this is Dorothy.”

Dorothy echoes Charlie’s smile. “Sure am.”

“Oh,” Dean says, untensing. “Hi. Charlie’s talked a lot about you. How was your trip?”

“Just super duper,” Dorothy says.

“You know it’s hot down south even at Christmas?” Charlie says.

“Yes,” Jo says.

“I think everyone does,” Pam says.

“Okay, thanks, peanut gallery.”

Conversation resumes as normal, but Dean can’t fully settle into the rhythm he’s used to, not with only a seat between himself and Castiel. Dean almost faints when Cas lays his arm across the back of their booth. Either by coincidence or design, that position leaves his fingertips just far enough to be hidden behind Dean’s neck. Anytime they move, even minutely, Dean’s heart ka-thuds against his ribcage.

They trade stories about their holidays, Charlie and Dorothy’s southern sojourn easily the crowd favorite. Benny and Andrea went home to Louisiana. Pam drank her way through Christmas with her equally wet-whistled family. Victor had grades to get in. Dean does make sure to listen in when Cas describes his Christmas. According to him, it was all ski trips in Vermont and roasting chestnuts on an open fire. It takes everything in him not to gag.

It’s only after Jo walks everyone through their own very boring holiday that all eyes fall on Dean. Failing to hide a smirk, Victor says, “So…”

Dean takes a sip of coffee. When no one helps him out he says, “So what?”

“So…” Benny says.

“So,” Andrea says, lip twitching.

“…So?” Dorothy looks confusedly around the table and Dean charts out his exit strategies. Front door. Probably a back door through the kitchen. Window in the restroom?

Charlie takes pity on her and half-laughs. “Dean’s, uh, Canadian girlfriend.”

Dorothy’s eyes go big with recognition. She meets Dean’s gaze, then looks back to Charlie, most likely recalling a conversation they had, probably in a greasy roadside diner somewhere in New Mexico or a Whataburger drive-thru in Arizona. She nods. “Right. His Canadian girlfriend.” The ghosts of Cas’ fingertips dance along the back of Dean’s neck, drawing out goosebumps from the not-contact.

Pam leans forward, her forearms thwumping down onto the table. “I want pics, man. Pics or it didn’t happen.”

Victor shakes his head in awe, grinning. “Man, a French chick. Didn’t think you had it in you, Winchester.”

“En effet un miracle,” Cas says, and Dean whips his head around so fast his neck cracks in protest. His movement draws the breath of a touch from Cas’ fingertips and he swallows. Cas’ face is impassive, his tone wry. “Caroline, right?”

Dean takes a deep breath. Cas’ fingers withdraw. On the exhale, he grins. “Yeah.”

Charlie co*cks her head, looking at Castiel. “You speak French?”

“I grew up in New England. Picked up a phrase or two along the way.” Castiel conveys this knowledge the same way someone would announce they were going to the store for milk.

Victor points a finger at Castiel. “Okay. Put a pin in that. I don’t want Winchester to think he’s getting out of this quite so easily.” He appeals to Dean. “What’s she like?”

Dean waits for that moment in every group gathering, when someone will inevitably talk over him and he can safely fade into the conversational background. After ten seconds of awkward silence, he cuts his losses and clears his throat. He considers stabbing the tines of his fork into the back of Castiel’s hand, but that may invite unwanted questions. It’s not like he’s even that far away. Cas’ fingertips tap gently behind him.

“Uh…” he says. He clears his throat. “She’s great. We met on a forum. On the internet.”

Six pairs of eyes are expectantly glued to his face. Out of the corner of his own eye, Dean can see Castiel looking pensively at his coffee mug. A tiny, sh*tty grin curls his mouth. He holds up a finger to the table at large and takes another sip of coffee. Then, without putting the mug down, he takes another, bobbing the mug back up. He reluctantly returns it to the table. “She’s kinda private. I dunno.”

“Are you dating a monk?” Jo asks. “You can tell us about her personality. I don’t think that’s any kind of horrible personal betrayal.”

“Depends on what kind of forum,” Victor says. Benny chuckles at that.

“Cars,” Dean says. “You vultures. It was a car forum. She was having car trouble. I helped her out. We started messaging each other privately. Then we started texting. And so on.”

Pam, who’s been uncharacteristically quiet this whole conversation, finally chimes in, her sympathy for Dean making a fool out of himself over the holidays finally at its limit. “Now that sounds like a Penthouse forum letter.”

“God, you guys are nosy,” Dean says. “Will a picture satiate you?”

Pam’s eyes light up. “For now.”

Dean unlocks his phone, opening his pictures. He finds the one he was going to use for Caroline’s OKCupid profile on his ill-fated New Year’s gambit and holds it up for everyone. “Dogs, meet bone.”

The phone gets passed around the table, earning him approving nods from everyone. Dorothy, of all people, holds onto the picture longer than anyone else. When Charlie nudges her, she starts and hands it to Andrea. “She’s pretty.”

Once the phone makes it back to Dean, he tucks it away, and tries to do the exact same to this conversation. “Y’know,” he says, holding his hand up to his face so that Cas, sitting to his left, can’t see him pointing at him. “I’m not the only one who had a romantically fulfilling Christmas.”

The roving attention of the table lands on Jo.

“Nope,” Dean says. He points harder.

Castiel looks blankly around the table. “Me?”

Dean grins at him, closemouthed. “Yeah. You got back together with an ex, right? What was his name…” He puts a finger to his chin. “Charles? Chauncy?”

Cas’ mouth drops open, just a little.

“Really?” Jo says. She punches him on the arm. “You dog.” Similar sentiment echoes across the table.

Cas blinks, and snaps his mouth closed with an audible click. The confusion on his face smooths out. “I think there may be some… completely unintentional, of course… misinterpretation at play, here.” He glances Dean’s way again. “I saw Crowley. And spoke to Crowley. Let me assure you that every moment spent with Crowley was under duress.”

Dean narrows his eyes. “Every time I’ve seen you with him—I mean—you’ve told me about seeing him—” Dean stops mid-sentence, having just unintentionally pulled a Jenga block out of his memory tower. Months ago, a house party. Images flash through his mind like the ViewMaster he had as a kid, the one with all the scenic photos of tourist hot spots around America. Lydia in the living room. Locking eyes with Cas. Going upstairs. Watching Cas storm out of the party, face dark, because… Dean rolls back a few slides. He was talking to someone. Arguing with them. Dean never registered it at the time, his mind on other things, but he did actually see the person Cas was talking to. The short, brown-haired guy who emanated smugness like a bad cologne.

Jo snaps her fingers in front of his face. “Hello, McFly.”

Dean blinks back to life. “Yeah, I’m here, I just—” He shakes his head, distracted, the wind completely taken out of his sails. “Misinterpreted, I guess.” He stands. “I’m gonna go. To piss. I’ll be back.”

The bathroom isn’t a single stall, so Dean has to wait a few awkward seconds for a dude to finish up at a urinal before he has the place to himself. “You didn’t wash your hands,” Dean says after the door swings shut. He splashes cold water on his face. This shouldn’t be a big revelation. He knows Crowley’s been sniffing around a while. And yet there’s something weirdly vulnerable about him showing up at a house party Dean’s also at. The world is small, but not that small.

As he’s drying his face with a paper towel, the door opens. He looks in the mirror over his shoulder and rolls his eyes.

“Eight on the concept,” Cas says, leaning against the wall next to the sink Dean’s standing at. “I’m not even going to rank your execution. For your sake.”

Dean tosses the paper towel in the garbage. “Shut up.” He turns to Cas. “You back to being a huge dick, then?” It may just be the sh*tty fluorescents in the bathroom, but Cas is still looking pretty bad. The circles under his eyes are more noticeable than ever, and his stubble is just reaching the point of shaggy enough to mean he’s either growing a beard or he hasn’t been keeping up.

Cas actually seems to consider his answer. “I’m not back to being anything.”

Dean snorts. “Sure. Just—lay off the Caroline stuff, okay?”

“What if I asked you to lay off the Crowley stuff?”

Dean makes a face. “I’d tell you to stuff it.” He grips the edge of the sink with one hand. “Hey, tell me something. Why the hell was Crowley at that party back in the fall?”

“What party?” Cas asks. He’s trying to buy time. Why, Dean has no idea.

“C’mon, man. You were there. I was there. I was hooking up with that smoking girl, Lydia. Tight dress. Blonde hair. Uh…” He moves his hands in a wavy motion. “Curvy.”

“You’re making me seasick.”

“Anyway. You were there all in a snit, near the staircase, talking to Crowley. We saw each other when you were in the middle of stomping out.”

Cas nods in recognition. “Yes, Crowley was there. Yes, we were arguing.”

“Why the hell was Crowley at an undergrad party? How old is he, anyway?”

Cas sighs, dropping his gaze. After a moment, his eyes return to Dean’s. “Because he’s Crowley?”

Dean shakes his head. “No. No, this doesn’t make any sense. You told me it was just a coincidence he was here because he travels for work, but then he shows up at a campus coffee shop I’m at and then a house party both of us are at? And then he, uh, breaks into your freakin’ house? And what was all that talk about him getting a call? About him being a rat? He just like, walked into your house, dude. That’s weird.”

Castiel is clearly in no small amount of psychic pain when he says, quietly, “He had a key.”

Dean stares at the ceiling. His fingers ache where they’re gripping the sink. Despite the exhaustion rippling off him and Dean’s own anger, his now-ingrained Pavlovian reaction to Cas standing this close hasn’t taken the slightest hit. Cas is only wearing a dark gray t-shirt today with dark jeans, his leather jacket left back in the booth. Briefly, he wonders how morally irresponsible it would be to cut this conversation off right now and head to the nearest motel. Or, hell, the back of the Impala has proved perfectly adequate before.

Still staring at the ceiling, Dean says, “You gotta level with me. What’s up with Crowley?” He chances looking back down to Cas, who’s staring at him with big stupid eyes, steam practically leaking out of his ears as the cogs in his brain churn. Dean rips his hand off the sink, holding them in front of him, practically pleading. “It shouldn’t be this hard, Cas. All you have to do is tell me the truth.” Something occurs to him, all of a sudden. “Is he blackmailing you? Does he have something on you?”

An emotion passes over Castiel’s face then, something Dean has no words to describe, leaving him jellied on the inside, his knees weak.

And then Castiel turns away from him. “f*ck,” he says flatly to the paper towel dispenser in front of him. “f*ck. f*ck.” He turns back around. “Dean. My family is… controlling. To put it lightly.” He speaks despondently, detached. “I wasn’t lying when I said Crowley was here for work, because keeping an eye on me is his work. After I moved here, I went almost completely no-contact with my family. They didn’t take kindly to that, so they reached out to someone they knew would be able to find me—and is also a huge kiss-ass, for what it’s worth.”

Dean attempts to process this, but it’s too big. “So you—he—you—he—” Dean stops talking. Tries to get his brain-to-tongue synapses in working order. “There’s a lot going on here.” He puts a finger to his lips. Kinda shifts his weight around as he tries to think it through, like churning butter. “You told me before, but now I’m afraid you were lying to me. Does Crowley know about us? When he showed up in December after… well, after. He seemed to know someone was there.”

“I think he suspects,” Castiel says. Apologizes.

Dean takes that as best he can. Going numb all over helps.

“The problem with Crowley, among other things, is how good he is at bluffing. Do I think he’s been taking pictures through my window from the bushes? No. But he’s slimy. He has his ways.” When Dean doesn’t respond in any way, Cas says, “I don’t think he has any proof.”

Dean shakes his head slowly, like coming out of a dream. He almost can’t hear Cas through the ringing in his ears. Just like he did in the hallway outside their forestry exam, he steps forward as if to help, and then catches himself. Dean holds out a hand anyway, asking him to keep his distance. “What happened over the holidays?”

Cas sighs. “I went home.”

“Why?”

“Because I had to.”

Dean pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and middle finger. He surveys Cas, who’s looking weirdly small despite his actual, physical size. “Who the hell are these people? Who the hell are you?”

For a second, Dean thinks he’s finally cracked the case. Castiel, exhausted and worn down, is about to start talking. Is about to tell him—well, whatever he’s about to tell him. His posture changes to that of a man in a confession booth. Equal parts anxiety and relief.

And then the door opens, because they’re in a public bathroom. Cas clams back up, a puce undertone coloring his skin. The guy coming in, big and tall and wearing a ratty trucker hat, doesn’t even cast them a glance on his way to urinal. Dean and Cas hang around in awkward silence while he pisses. Dean washes his hands for want of something to do.

When the guy is done at the urinal, he pivots toward the sinks, and stops for just a second. His dull eyes beneath the bill of his cap dart between Dean and Cas, sizing up the both of them and the magnitude of tension between them. His expression doesn’t change, but instead of washing his hands, he dabs them under the running water for half a second and then peels outta there without even grabbing a paper towel. The door swings closed behind him. Dean’s chest is so tight he struggles for those first few breaths of air.

He taps his wrist. “We’ve been in here too long. This is weird.”

“Dean…” Castiel says. Quiet.

Dean holds out his hand. “I have to be done talking about this. Give me your phone.”

“What?”

Dean shakes his palm. “Your phone. C’mon.”

Castiel hands it over, and Dean walks into the cleaner of the two stalls and drops it into the toilet bowl. For a heart-stopping moment, nothing happens. Cas must have one of the waterproof models. Then, the screen flickers, and dies. With a grimace, Dean fishes it back out. “Sorry.”

When they return to the table, Jo asks just what the hell took them so long as she slides out of the booth.

“Ask Butterfingers over here,” Dean says as Cas brushes by him to slide back into his seat.

Everyone turns to Cas, who holds up his phone. “I dropped it in the toilet.”

Pam laughs. “Rookie move.”

“Yep,” Castiel says, stone-faced.

Dean searches out their server to ask for a bowl of rice.

*

Everyone has gone their separate ways in the diner parking lot when Dorothy walks up to Dean. He’s fiddling with his keys, the corners of his vision still touched with unreality. “Hey.” She’s good-looking in an old-Hollywood sort of way. Strong features. Dark brows. Handsome.

“Hey,” he says.

“We didn’t get to talk much,” Dorothy says. “But Charlie, she’s told me a lot about you.” She glances across the parking lot, where Charlie leans against her Gremlin, fingers flying across her phone screen.

“Only salacious things, I hope,” Dean says.

Dorothy puts her hands in the pockets of her cropped moto jacket. “You’d be surprised.” She nods her head back toward Charlie. “I told her I wanted to ask you something about your Impala.”

Dean spreads his arms. “Ask away.”

“Actually, I wanted to give you some friendly advice.”

Dean’s arms fall slowly to his sides. He crosses them. “Okay.”

Dorothy speaks straightforwardly, but not unkindly. “I’m a history major. I spend a lot of my free time looking at old photos.”

“Uh… cool.”

“People tend not to look at the whole picture. I mean that literally. And that’s fine. All the action—the good stuff—is usually in one part of the frame. For example, that picture of your girl, Caroline—she’s a looker. Makes sense no one would take notice of the background.” She grimaces, just enough to make her chin dimple. “I don’t think anyone else saw. Just wanted to let you know the watermark is visible.”

The edges of his vision, where the unreality lives, flicker. “W-what?”

“It’s none of my business,” Dorothy says.

“I—she’s—” Dean’s maxed out for the day. “They’re glamor shots. Professionally done.”

Mirth flares briefly in Dorothy’s eyes, but she remains professional. “Okay,” she says with a nod. “That makes sense.” There’s no malice in her tone. This is no Crowley sniffing around for incriminating material. She gives Dean a two-fingered salute. “It was nice to meet you, Dean. I’m sure we’ll see each other around.”

She returns to Charlie and the Gremlin. Cupping Charlie’s chin in one hand, she pulls her in for a kiss before heading toward the passenger side door. Before she gets in, Charlie sees Dean across the lot and waves happily.

Dean musters up the energy to wave back, and watches as the yellow Gremlin putters back onto the road.

*

There’s another party, because there’s always another party.

It’s in an old, well-maintained country house out in the middle of nowhere, owned by someone’s great great grandpappy who sowed the land himself. Dean doesn’t even know the name of the guy throwing it—Charlie heard about it from a friend who heard about it from a friend.

They take Charlie’s car, because Dean doesn’t trust a bunch of drunk college kids around the Impala. They promised to stick to a couple drinks each, to give them enough time to sober up before driving home—there is no walking distance out in Nebraska country.

“You all right?” Charlie asks him as they walk up the long driveway. It ends in a cul-de-sac, with an American flag standing on a patch of improbably green grass in the center. The frozen ground, covered in road salt, crunches beneath their feet. “Your snapback isn’t looking as perky and playfully co*cked as usual.” When Dean doesn’t respond, she continues, “I’ve done long distance before. It blows.”

Dean manages a half-smile. “Yeah.” Charlie doesn’t bring Caroline up much. Dean’s grateful for it, but tends to overcompensate in return. “I wonder if she’d like a party like this. Probably not.”

The music that has been pumping steadily in the background grows louder as they grow closer. Dean nudges Charlie as they approach the flag pole. “Fifty bucks says some dumbass gets a tongue stuck to that tonight.”

“Not a chance,” Charlie says. “Because there’s a one-hundred percent chance.”

Dean’s grin slowly slides off his face. “Yeah. I don’t think she’d like this.”

“Not a lot of worshipping the Lord happening in there,” Charlie admits. A skinny guy in white boxer-briefs and mukluks bursts out the front door, whooping. A crowd of guys, already steaming with alcohol, cheer for him from the porch as he starts a lap around the house.

Dean stops in his tracks. Charlie walks a few more steps, then realizes no one is beside her when she starts to ask something else about Jesus. She turns back. “What’s up?”

Dean’s watching the drunks on the porch, beer sloshing out the tops of their cans. They’re falling all over each other, holding onto arms and elbows and waists to keep from taking a spill as they yell over each other. One of the guys trips and his hand flies out, catching another guy right in the cheek. They laugh it off, slapping each other’s shoulders. No harm done. The guy in the mukluks is gone, will probably take at least a minute to round the whole house. It’s freezing out tonight, Dean’s breath coming out in little hot, visible puffs. Half the guys on the porch are wearing t-shirts, the other half wearing university sweaters. They’re hooting with gormless laughter.

“I think I’m getting old, Charlie.”

Charlie takes a cautious step back toward him. She looks like she doesn’t know if she’s supposed to be laughing. “What?”

“I…” Dean looks down and shakes his head. He doesn’t have the words. There are those guys on the porch, doing stupid drunk things. Dean’s done stupid drunk things a million times. Even sober, he’s always appreciated a good stupid drunk thing. An empty yearning yawns open in his chest and he doesn’t understand it. “I think I need those very-carefully-allotted-so-we-have-time-to-sober-up-before-driving drinks now.”

Charlie’s eyebrows knit together, but she nods and offers him a smile. “Sure.”

*

The heat in the house is cranked up to eleven, everyone is sweaty, and Dean’s searching out the kitchen for a glass of water within ten minutes. Neither of them are particularly suckerfish-y at parties, but this is the kind of crowd you could lose someone for hours in.

“I think I’m old, too,” Charlie shouts over the deafening music as Dean guzzles some water. A bubble in the crowd opens up, and Charlie spies a glass drink dispenser filled with what Dean can only assume is vodka with edible gold flakes in it. “On the other hand…” Charlie grabs Dean’s wrist and drags him through the bodies.

They last another fifteen or so minutes, enough time to get in the allotted drinks, before stumbling out the back door onto the porch. Dean sucks in a huge breath. Charlie says, softly, “Whoa.” Dean follows her gaze.

She’s looking at the backyard, or lack thereof. There’s no fence or any natural border that Dean can see. Just rolling hills disappearing into the night. What must be miles away, a tiny, lonely yellow light burns in the dark. Anyone looking back at them from that distance wouldn’t even register their existence, dwarfed by the ostentatious house, let alone the impressive landscape surrounding them.

“Two minutes,” Charlie says, and disappears back into the party. The noise swells, then dies with the opening and closing of the door.

Dean stands alone on the porch, swaying slightly. He checks his phone, but the screen is blank. He hasn’t spoken to Cas since the diner. They left things… weird. He’s tried to block Crowley from his mind, because if he thinks about him for too long, he’ll go crazy.

The back door opens, then closes again, and something heavy and fabric-y butts against his back. He turns around.

Charlie stands, holding out a red blanket. It crinkles in her grip.

“Is that—the emergency blanket from your car?”

“C’mon.” Charlie leads him to the top of the first natural dip in the backyard. She lays out the emergency blanket, like they’re going on a picnic in the middle of a howling rainstorm. “We’d freeze our asses off otherwise.”

They sit next to each other, Charlie wrapping them both up in the extra material on the side. “You gotta—hold your side, dummy. Letting all the warmth out.”

Dean yanks his side hard enough that both he and Charlie wobble. She laughs. “So be it.”

Eventually, they get settled. The music from the house is a distant thumping, but the vibration in the ground still reaches them. Charlie sighs happily. “I loved that stupid gold vodka. Mostly because I didn’t have to pay for it. And it was shiny.”

They lapse into silence, the light from the porch just kissing their backs. Once or twice, people come outside, but no one ever stays long.

“I feel like I don’t see you much anymore,” she says eventually. There’s a hint of sadness to her voice, but it’s mostly just matter-of-fact.

“I’m around,” Dean says.

“Physically, yeah.”

He tries to sort out which lie would be best to insert here, but he goes through the first few and gets exhausted. “Sorry,” he says, instead.

Charlie pulls the blanket a little tighter around her. It crackles like wood in a campfire. The sky tonight is starless. Dean can’t find the horizon.

They’re silent for about another two songs—judging by the vibrations alone, it’s difficult to tell. Electronic music already all sounds the same to him.

“How’d you know?” Dean says.

Charlie glances at him. He can see it out of the corner of his eye. “Know what?”

Dean tries to pluck a strand of grass. It’s partly frozen, but he works at it. After his parents died, he spent those first six months of recesses at school in the corner of the field, ripping handfuls of grass out of the earth and building homes for ants.

“You liked chicks.”

“Oh,” she says thoughtfully. Then, “I’ll only tell you if you pull that blanket back up. I’m cold.”

Dean pulls the blanket back up.

“Well, first things first, I never had a family to come out to. Orphan living in an orphanage and all. You know the drill.” Charlie is one of the best, brightest, bubbliest people Dean knows, but when it comes to her parents, she tends to adopt a carefully conceived nonchalance that Dean can relate to. “I was fourteen and went over to a friend’s house after school. We were sitting together on her bed reading a beat-up issue of Seventeen—” Dean can’t help it. He snorts. Charlie rolls her eyes. “It wasn’t Seventeen I was interested in, dummy… not that I knew that at the time. Anyway. The super religious girls passed that old thing between them in secret like the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. There was an article about how to tell if you had a crush on a boy. We were going through the checklist one by one, and to my dawning horror—” Charlie spreads her arms. “I checked all of them, but not for a boy.”

“Oh, sh*t,” Dean says. “Did you—?”

Charlie shakes her head. “I have no idea how she would’ve reacted, actually. Lot of crucifixes in that house. I stopped talking to her after that. Avoided her in the halls, hid in the bathroom to eat my lunch so I wouldn’t see her in the cafeteria. Totally ghosted her.” Charlie’s feigned nonchalance has stuck around. She hasn’t met Dean’s eyes once, her gaze unfocused and straight ahead. “Stupid kid stuff. I checked up on her a few years ago—not in the creepy hacker way, just typing her name into the Facebook search bar. She’s in pre-med at Dartmouth and volunteers at Planned Parenthood. Who woulda thunk.” Her brow furrows and she starts speaking to her clasped hands, hidden beneath the blanket. “I’m over it, really and truly. It was puppy love. I just hope I didn’t hurt her feelings.” She sighs, and then cracks an unconvincing smile. “Oh, well. What can you do.”

This is where Charlie wants the story to end, but he can’t help it. “You could’ve told her. You should’ve.”

Charlie turns to look at him, finally. “Maybe. Before the orphanage, I grew up with my parents in a super liberal bubble and even then… I don’t know, dude. Sometimes it’s just hard.” She reconsiders. “Most of the time, it’s hard.”

Dean wishes he had a beer to sip, but he can already feel the alcohol working its way out of his system. In fact, he feels a little sick. “But you’re so—” He gestures vaguely at her. “You.”

Charlie laughs. “A great big out-and-proud dyke? Yeah. Funny how that works. Time heals all societal ills, or however the saying goes.” She scoots closer to Dean on the grass and wraps an arm around him. She rests her head on his shoulder. Dean rests his cheek on the top of her head. “It’s hard,” she says again. After a moment, she adds, “I miss you.”

Dean closes his eyes, and they stay huddled together under the blanket until Charlie’s sobered up.

*

MESSAGES: AARON

Dean: It’s not a date. You know that, right?

Aaron: Yeah heard you the first ten times.

*

Aaron had suggested The Popped Cherry, probably as a joke, but Dean wouldn’t go back there at gunpoint. He had been a little overzealous in vetoing that particular location.

They’re supposed to meet in a non-descript hipster coffee shop in town, the kind with cutesy chalk drawings on the sidewalk outside and fairy lights strung up over exposed brick. Dean, in his nylon bomber jacket, stands outside, dithering. “What the hell,” he says. A guy walking by on his phone raises his eyebrows. Dean scrubs a hand over his jaw. Shakes his head. Sticks his hands in his pockets and tucks tail, turning around and bumping right into someone.

“Uh, Dean?” the someone says.

Dean looks up. “Aaron. Hey.”

*

They settle into a table near the back. Dean tries not to make it obvious he’s scoping out the place for the table best concealed from view. He pays for two coffees and leads Aaron to a table half-hidden behind a pole.

“Seclusion and free caffeine,” Aaron comments. “Who said this wasn’t a date?” At Dean’s neck-cracking glance, Aaron chuckles. “I’m kidding.”

They sit down. Aaron surveys him. In the light of day, Dean gets a much better look at his face. Ovular, but with boyish cheeks. The beard hides half of them, at least. His hands are folded together on the table, and he spreads them. “So… what’s up, Guy Who Rejected Me at the Only Gay Club in Town?”

Dean blinks at him. Right. He’s supposed to say something now. He’s the one with the supposed itinerary.

“Okay,” Aaron says, taking pity on him. “Let’s start small. You’re looking marginally better than the last time I saw you.”

Dean manages a breathy laugh. “Yeah, well. Thanks for the water.”

“Club scene can be pretty overwhelming,” Aaron says. “I assume it was your first time?”

“Cherry: popped,” Dean quips, then immediately grimaces. “I’ve been to clubs before, but not…”

Aaron leans forward, cupping a hand over his mouth. “hom*osexual ones?” He leans back.

“Yeah.”

“That’s fair. My first few times, I got mega stoned before going. It helped a lot.”

“I should’ve taken your advice. Would’ve saved me an hour of getting to know a toilet in a public bathroom.”

“We live, we learn,” Aaron says. He takes a sip of his coffee and winces.

“What do you do?” Dean says. Oh, Christ, this was a monumentally stupid idea. This really is first date conversation.

“I run an antiques store,” Aaron says. “Inherited it from my grandfather. The three Jewish ladies in town love me.”

“Oh, sh*t,” Dean says. “That’s cool as hell. I’m a student. Which is not as exciting.”

“You know,” Aaron says, “it’s not. But something tells me whatever you actually wanted to talk to me about is. It’s not every day I hear back from a man I wrote my number on a dirty bar napkin for.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. “About that. Actually, I… just wanted to clear the air. About what you heard in the bathroom.”

“Ah,” Aaron says. “The ol’ ‘I found out my buddy was gay and threw up on his shoes’. Classic.”

“Really?”

“No.”

Dean scratches the back of his neck. “Yeah. Kinda walked into that one.”

“Just a smidge.”

Aaron takes another sip of coffee. “Sorry,” he says. “Let me get this… straight. You invited me, a veritable stranger, out to coffee, all so you could, what? Receive benediction from an actual gay guy? That’s a lot of trouble to go through to convince me you’re not a dick.”

“See, that makes it sound like a bad idea and like I’m an idiot.”

“Benediction… is that even the right religion?” Aaron reconsiders. “Maybe it is. I slept through 99% of Hebrew school.”

Dean sighs. “This was stupid.” He stands up. “Listen, thanks for meeting me or whatever.”

As he turns to leave, Aaron stops him. “Hey. Wait a sec.”

Dean turns around. Aaron’s watching him now, the class-clown stoner vibe slipping away. It reminds Dean eerily of Charlie, weirdly enough. “What were you actually hoping to get out of this?”

Dean opens his mouth, and then closes it. Aaron was right. He’s basically a stranger. Dean could tell him anything, here in this coffee shop he never plans to come back to, and there’s a high chance they’d never see each other again. Like it never happened.

Dean sits back down. “It matters what people think,” he says. “What they see when they look at me.”

“Why?”

Dean shrugs. “It just does.” After a moment, he asks, “Are you happy?”

“Big question,” Aaron says.

“Being gay, I mean.”

Aaron’s eyebrows draw together. “I don’t know they’re connected. Beyond the initial coming out, I guess. After that, it’s just…” He gestures vaguely. “Life as usual.” He shrugs. “What about your friend with the vomit-shoes? Is he happy? Not about you throwing up on his shoes. Being gay.”

Dean pictures Cas’ face back in the bathroom of that diner, puce-colored and like he was about to collapse. The bruises under his eyes and the hair he seems to have stopped taming completely. He almost laughs, even though it’s not funny. “Uh, no.”

Aaron spreads his arms. “See? This is a great conversation. Not depressing at all.” A tick of realization passes across Aaron’s face. “You got taken in by the Cherry, huh.”

“What?” Dean panics. “No, I—”

“See,” Aaron interrupts, “A lot of people do this. You show up to a gay club for the first time, you watch Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and everything is a show. Everything is an event. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s no one’s whole life. No one can perform like that all the time, they’d turn into a—a—” Aaron makes a squiggly gesture with his hands. “A raisin or something.”

Dean blinks. “Oh. Yeah, I guess.”

“It happens to the best of us,” Aaron says. “Don’t worry, we’re all just as miserable as you.”

Dean smiles weakly. “That’s really reassuring,” he says.

*

MESSAGES: CAS

Cas: meet me in the library?

Cas: at “The Place”

Dean: ugh

Dean: Why

Cas: there’s something you should see

Dean: are you messing with me?

Cas: no

Cas: cross my heart

*

Dean hasn’t been avoiding Cas for the past couple of weeks, per se. He just doesn’t go out of his way to speak to him, and if he sees him coming the other direction, he turns down the nearest hallway. Undoubtedly, Cas has noticed this, which has led to him engaging in subterfuge to entice Dean to the library, dangling a mystery in front of him.

This early in the semester, the library is mostly deserted when Dean walks in. The setting sun, warped by the windows, is a deep goldenrod, slashed across the floor. Keeping a wary eye out, Dean heads toward the darker back half of the library, his and Cas’ “place”. Even thinking the term makes him wrinkle his nose.

As promised, Cas is waiting for him between the stacks. When he sees Dean, there’s a strange look on his face. It takes Dean a moment to clue in: he’s smiling. He’s happy. No sign of sarcasm or mirth at his expense. “Dean,” he says.

Dean swallows against the fluttering in his throat. “Hi. What’s up?”

Cas’ grin widens. He walks forward, putting a hand on Dean’s shoulder. “Follow me.”

The warmth from his palm lingers on Dean’s shoulder. Dean follows him through the stacks, the late afternoon light kissing the shelves with fire. Dust motes hang lazily in the air, disturbed only by their movement to an area Dean’s never been. Along the perimeter of the building sit study and listening rooms, for students to meet for group projects or listen to audio materials without bothering anyone else. Dean’s never used them personally, but he has the sudden image of Castiel grabbing his hand and dragging him into one of the soundproof rooms, closing the door, and…

Cas stops. Dean blinks back into reality and stops as well. In front of them is a glass-walled listening room that’s completely gutted. A standing sign in front of it has a completion date for the end of the semester and a picture of what the room is going to look like when it’s done. Chocolate brown furniture, sunflower-yellow walls, even a gas fireplace. A state-of-the-art record player. Speakers. Multiple shelves, stained dark, to house records. Dean whistles low, impressed. “Damn.”

“Do you like it?” Cas says.

“Uh, yeah,” Dean says, flicking the after-picture. “Duh. Look at it. Although, who knows if I’ll be around to see it finished. Campus renovations always take about sixty years longer than advertised.”

“I’ll be sure to keep them on task,” Castiel says.

“You do that,” Dean says, distracted by picturing what the room will look like completed, full-sized. Then, it clicks. “Wait, what?” He looks back to Cas, who actually seems a little nervous, now. He takes a step to the side, revealing the wall behind him, adorned with a polished, wooden plaque. Dean steps forward. He looks at Cas, who is watching him intently, then back to the plaque. On a golden face, black text reads:

The Mary Winchester Listening Room

For a loving mother, loving Beatles fan,

And terrible cook

It takes a few seconds for the enormity of what Dean’s staring at to sink in. And then a few more seconds.

He looks to Cas, pointing at the plaque. His hand hangs in the air, limp, like a deflated bicycle tire. “You—?” He doesn’t have the words to finish the—accusation? Gratitude?

“Your birthday is soon, right? Charlie told me. They’re throwing you a surprise party.” He inclines his head. “Now just a party, I guess.”

Dean tears his eyes away from Cas. In the listening room, a few squares of cardboard the size of record sleeves are scattered around on the torn-up floor. They must be the dummies they’re using before the real things arrive. Scrawled across them in careless black sharpie, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Boston, Springsteen. Even some old disco records Mary used to play when she cleaned.

Cas follows Dean’s darting gaze. He steps closer to Dean, their arms almost brushing. He points to Saturday Night Fever. “I looked through your mom’s old records over Thanksgiving. That milk crate you keep in the living room. Sam told me who they originally belonged to.” In response to Dean’s utter shock, Cas shrugs. “What you mentioned at Pride made me curious.”

Dean looks again at the mockup of the room, and then again through the glass. Cas’ somewhat deflated anticipation is obvious, even though Dean isn’t looking at him. The walls are going to be a really lovely shade of gold. When Dean was a kid, he’d pluck at Mary’s long blonde hair, fascinated. She’d look at him with a smile and say, “Sorry, kid. You got your dad’s coloring.”

Dean never told Cas any of that. He’s sure of it.

The next time Dean blinks, a tear escapes down his cheek. He wipes at it hurriedly, roughly, and turns away from Cas and the room.

“Dean?”

“Just—” Dean holds out a hand and Cas doesn’t come any closer. He’s very aware that they’re still in a public place, their last tryst in the shelves fresh on his mind. He puts his head in his hands, trying to slow his breathing.

Behind him, Cas’ confusion is palpable. “Dean, if I misread—“

“‘Misread?!’” Dean hisses, whirling around. “What the hell is this, Cas?”

“It’s a... birthday gift?” Cas says. “Do people not give those anymore?”

“A coffee mug is an acceptable birthday gift. A gift card to Hooters. This isn’t a birthday gift, Castiel. This is a grand gesture.”

Cas runs a hand through his hair. “Isn’t that a good thing? I admit, I am completely lost.”

Dean can’t look at the room again. If he does, he’s going to unravel. “I’m mad at you. You’ve been a dick for the last month and change and you show up with—” Dean swallows hard. “—this? a freaking tribute to my dead mother that probably cost more than my entire tuition?” Dean shakes his head, his eyes still burning. “Screw this. It’s not a grand gesture. It’s straight-up emotional manipulation.”

Cas takes in his expression, raising his eyebrows. “It seems to be working.”

Dean laughs, then groans, dragging a hand down his damp face. “You can’t just buy your way out of the doghouse, man. I’m easy, but I’m not that easy.”

After Castiel doesn’t dignify that statement with an answer, Dean continues, “You realize how insane this is, right?”

“Not until you brought it up, no.” Cas is scrutinizing Dean’s face, his gaze tracing down Dean’s cheeks like tear tracks. “It wasn’t my intention to manipulate you. But, to be fair, it was my intention to buy you something you’d like so you would be less mad at me.”

“Do you know what ‘manipulation’ means?”

“Oh, I do,” Cas says, a shadow passing across his face. “In all honesty, it didn’t occur to me what I was doing was bad. I’d bore you with another story about my upbringing, but suffice to say, currency carried both financial and emotional weight in our house.”

Dean sniffs and scrubs a hand across his jaw. “Christ, this is messy.” He’s vulnerable, too exposed, skeleton fingers rattling up his spine. By his side, he opens and closes his fist. During their argument, the gap between him and Cas has somehow closed. Cas is staring baldly at him, waiting for him to say something.

There’s a quiet rustling off to the side. Out of the corner of his eye, Dean spies a curious lookie loo, drawn either by their argument or a search for a book. Dean mutters a curse and steps away from Cas, his cheeks flooding pink. He wants to snap at the guy, but just sets his jaw and stares determinedly at the bottom shelf of the nearest bookshelf until fading footsteps tell him they’re alone again.

“A grand, public gesture,” Dean says, bitterly. Without thinking about it, he glances at the mockup again, and the lump in his throat returns fast enough he may as well have swallowed a stone.

*

MESSAGES: CHARLIE

Dean: What’s the most expensive gift you ever got a girl?

Charlie: 2 for 1 pizza at a strip club

Charlie: takin caroline out for a night on the town

Charlie: ?

Charlie: sounds like she could use it

Charlie: not that I would know

Charlie: much

Dean: Just wondering.

Dean: Seriously? Pizza?

Charlie: Ur the romantic not me

Charlie: Im kidding about the pizza

Charlie: maybe

Dean: What about the most expensive gift a girl ever got you?

Charlie: wine

Charlie: champagne

Charlie: chocolate

Charlie: caviar

Charlie: gondola ride in venice…

Dean: Very helpful, thanks.

Charlie: :)

*

Dean knocks on Cas’ door, onetwothreefourfive, onetwothreefourfive, onetwothreefour—

Cas opens the door. Dean barrels into him, shoving him against the wall of the foyer. He kisses Cas hard, desperate. Cas’ hands, automatic, go to Dean’s waist. He kisses back for a moment, then puts his hands on Dean’s shoulders and firmly pushes him away. His pupils are blown wide, his stubble, long enough to be considered a beard, leaving a pleasant burn on Dean’s mouth.

Dean’s panting. “What are you doing?”

“What are you doing?” Cas says. He leans forward and indelicately sniffs at Dean’s parted lips. “How drunk are you? Did you drive here?”

“What?” Dean says, dumb. Cas breaks away and glances out the small window by the door, pulling back the curtain. Dean’s Impala sits in the driveway. “I haven’t had anything to drink.”

Cas turns back to him. “I was in the doghouse this morning.”

Dean plucks at Cas’ t-shirt, drawing him closer again. “It’s a lot less fun if we talk about it.”

There’s a clear conflict in Castiel’s eyes as Dean draws their mouths back together, but Dean firmly ignores it. He kisses Cas, the cotton of Cas’ shirt balled up in his fist. It doesn’t take long for Cas to get with the program, resting one palm on Dean’s waist and the other on his neck as he responds in kind.

They make their way to Cas’ bedroom, attached at the lips, Dean stumbling every so often as he walks backwards up the stairs. At one point, he just lies there and pulls Cas down on top of him, hooking his knee around Cas’ thigh while the polished wood of the stair juts into his side.

Cas eventually urges him up and into the bedroom, where Dean straddles him on the bed, grinding desperately against Cas’ stomach as he takes off Cas’ shirt and then his own. Cas pulls Dean toward him by placing a flat palm in the middle of his lower back, sucking a mark into Dean’s pec, just above his nipple. Dean groans, tangling his fingers in Cas’ hair.

They kiss again, Dean’s lips inflamed and his brain gone mushy as he resituates himself to line up his dick with Cas’ through their pants. Cas is wearing sweats, but Dean’s still in jeans, and that won’t do.

“Do you still have it?” Dean slurs through kiss-bitten lips. He directs the question to Cas’ clavicle, already unbuttoning his jeans.

Cas moves, rummages through his nightstand drawer while Dean struggles out of his denim and briefs. When Cas returns, bottle of lube in hand, Dean’s naked and immediately crawling back into Cas’ lap. He drags his knuckles lightly across Cas’ dick through his sweats, and Cas’ free hand digs into the meat of Dean’s arm. “What do you want to do?” Cas says breathlessly. His grip slides suggestively to Dean’s hip.

Dean unbuttons the clasp on Cas’ sweats and takes him in hand. After a moment of second-guessing himself, he takes the lube from Cas and squeezes some onto his fingers. He moves forward and reaches behind him, lubing up Cas’ dick.

Cas takes the lube back. “Sounds good to me.” He drizzles lube on his own fingers, index and middle, before Dean feels a still not-quite-familiar pressure behind him. He sighs out, nodding, and Cas slips a finger in.

It takes only moments, the angle too awkward for Dean to keep slicking up Cas’ dick even if he still had the cognitive ability to focus on such a thing with Cas’ finger so busy inside him. Overwhelmed, Dean rests his forehead against Cas’, his breathing coming short and hard.

Too soon, probably, Dean’s muttering, “More,” and Cas adds a second finger. Dean keens at the feeling, making a fist against Cas’ back as they rock together. Cas’ other hand is still gripping at Dean’s waist, at his lower back and thigh, wherever he can reach. They kiss again, Dean’s skin overheated and sensitive from Cas’ bristly face. At one point, Cas catches Dean’s jaw in his fingers. Dean spends a good few seconds with his lips pouted before he realizes nothing else is touching them. He opens his eyes, and Cas is watching him, fingers still working methodically inside Dean. Dean’s knees are starting to quiver with the effort of holding himself up.

“About earlier,” Cas says, “Dean…”

Dean kisses him, mostly to shut him up, but also because he’s decided he likes the feeling of Cas’ beard scratching up his face. He takes the lube again, squeezes another liberal amount out, and shuffles back a little to apply more to Cas’ dick. When he tries to sink down onto it, knocking Cas’ fingers out of the way and practically salivating, Cas stops him. “Careful,” he warns in a tone that makes Dean’s chest tighten. “Go slow.”

Dean does, inching himself down onto Cas slow as he can bear it, breathing through the burn. Cas massages his trembling thighs, Dean’s hands working a vice grip on Cas’ shoulders.

Fully seated, Dean pants. He swivels his hips a little, and they both gasp. He raises himself up, just a little, and slides back down. An embarrassing sound escapes him, but it seems to wake something in Cas, because his eyes go wilder and he yanks Dean in for another kiss, pulling him practically on top of him.

They struggle for a moment, Cas clearly wanting to take charge but stymied by how they’re positioned. Instead, he tangles his fingers in Dean’s hair and turns his head to the side so he can get at Dean’s neck, that sweet-sting that raises goosebumps on Dean’s arms and makes his stomach turn over. Dean shudders, overwhelmed. He rises, then falls again, taking Cas as deep as possible. He aches, but it’s not just a physical thing.

Cas moves a hand to Dean’s cheek and Dean falls into it. He grabs the hand and brings it to his lips, kissing Cas’ palm. Something heavy and big moves up his throat, choking him. He swallows, eyes watering.

“Dean?” Cas says, but Dean won’t meet his eyes, staring at a lone coffee mug on Cas’ dresser. “Hey.” Cas puts both hands on Dean’s waist, steadying him. Dean puts a hand over his eyes, just for a second. Takes a deep breath. Then smiles, big and sunny.

“Howdy,” he says, and they’re off to the races. Dean reaches by Castiel’s head, gripping his headboard so he can get better leverage to ride Cas. Cas holds onto Dean, mouth hot against his torso. Dean’s knuckles turn white with the effort the faster he goes, legs cramping, face hot, dick leaking against Cas’ stomach.

When Cas wraps a hand around him, Dean comes after the first stroke, muffling his shout into Cas’ hair as the tension races out of his body, leaving him dumb and boneless.

He sags against Cas, dropping his forehead to Cas’ shoulder, breathing hard. The quick comedown leaves him swimming in emotional sludge, and he drags his mouth along Cas’ shoulder, wrapping his arms around him, terrified to let go.

They remain like that for a time, Cas’ arms around Dean as well, the two of them an ouroboros of limbs, until Cas carefully pulls away and escorts Dean off his lap, back onto the bed. Dean lies face down, cold, until Cas presses into him from above, kissing the back of his neck. Dean closes his eyes and buries his face into the pillow. “Can I?” Cas mumbles into Dean’s ear. Dean nods.

Cas lines himself up over Dean, intertwining his fingers with Dean’s, his chest to Dean’s back. He slides in easy this time, and Dean can’t bear to open his eyes. He just tightens his grip on Cas.

Cas f*cks him slowly and fully, and Dean almost turns inside out with it. His dick halfheartedly tries to rejoin the party, but rather than getting hard again, it’s a tenderness that tugs at Dean’s insides, something tenuous and scary, and his eyes threaten to fill once more.

It’s some level of relief to Dean when Cas finally comes, forehead pressed to Dean’s neck, lined up from one end to the other. Cas groans through it, and based on the sensation at the back of Dean’s neck, he’s leaving enough marks that Dean’s gonna have to pop his collars for the next few days.

The relief doesn’t last long, however, as moments later, Cas is lying right beside him, watching him. Again, he holds a palm to Dean’s cheek. It’s awkward, because Dean isn’t fully resting on one side, but Cas compensates by letting his fingers slide back into Dean’s hair. Dean gets the distinct impression Cas is checking how wet his face is.

For minutes, he can’t bring himself to say anything. Castiel doesn’t seem bothered by the silence. He just keeps staring at Dean, searching his face for something neither of them has the answer for. Dean only opens his eyes occasionally, to check in. Every time, Cas is still watching him.

Finally, Dean manages to clear his throat. He can’t look Cas in the eye, so he buries his face in his chest instead. Cas’ arms wrap around him, and it’s only then Dean realizes Cas never even got all the way undressed. A stupid smile tugs at the corner of his mouth, but quickly falls away. “Thank you,” he says quietly. He almost hopes Cas doesn’t hear it.

In fact, Cas doesn’t give any indication that he does. The only thing that changes between them is whatever tension, whatever fight they’ve been in the middle of for the past weeks, has dissipated like morning mist on a clear afternoon.

*

At the birthday party Dean is definitely surprised by—again, at Cas’ place— he slumps on the couch with Charlie, beer in hand. “This is my last birthday in college.”

“God, you’re old,” Charlie says. When Dean grimaces at her, she winks.

They aimed for after his birthday to throw him off their scent. It’s the last weekend in January, a chilly night that makes staying in and drinking all the more welcoming an idea.

Jo isn’t in the living room, but if she’s anywhere else, it’s hovering over the cheese plate. Pam brought some poor, in-way-over-his-head piece of meat from one of her lectures, and she’s parading him around like a mobile exhibit. Victor stands in a group of people, other students Dean’s in-class friendly with. The invite was low-key but open, and the rest of the square footage is taken up by people Dean’s seen but rarely spoken to. He spied Cas briefly, but the house is crowded enough he could be anywhere. Across the room, Benny and Andrea stand close together, in a group of their own. Dean’s technically known Andrea for a few years now, but they’ve never been close. He met Benny when he briefly worked as a server at the same on-campus restaurant that Benny still cooks in, but Andrea hadn’t transferred out here from Tulane until the next year. She’s fiery, good at kicking Benny’s ass when his steady spirit starts registering as laziness instead of good nature. He’s told Dean before about the good she’s done him, and Dean can see it now, the mutual affection between them as Benny tucks a stray strand of hair behind her ear and she smiles.

Charlie sighs, leaning back against the couch. “I mean. Yeah. I saw a freshman the other day and thought he was a baby. Like, fresh outta the womb.”

Dean shakes his head and takes a sip of his beer. “Any idea yet? Where you’re headed after?”

“In the grand scheme of things? No.” Charlie cradles her own cider, more thoughtful than Dean was expecting. He had been waiting for a groan he could commiserate with. “It’s weird, but like, dating Dorothy, I’m like, so what if I don’t know?”

“What does that mean?” Dean says.

“It means exactly what I said. If I don’t know, I don’t know. Dorothy likes adventures. I like adventures. Who says I have to know anything other than how far the next gas station is?”

Dean chuckles. “Okay, Kerouac.”

“It sounds dumb and hipster-y, I know,” Charlie says. “But, oh well. I love her. Whoa.” Charlie puts a hand over her mouth, frowning at her fingers. “That was an accident.”

Dean grins, huge. “Was it?”

“Seriously, that just—rolled right off my tongue. Yikes.” Charlie has a half horrified, half-dopey grin on her face. “Three months is all it took. That’s embarrassing.”

“I’ve heard there’s a pill for that,” Dean says. Charlie snorts. “Hey, this is good. I’m happy for you.”

Charlie smiles, watery. “Thanks.” She wipes her face. “Geez. That was weird. I’m gonna go find Dorothy.”

“Fly, my pretty.”

Charlie stands and puts a comforting hand on his shoulder as she disappears into the crowd.

Dean leans back, one arm stretched out along the now-empty couch seat. Moments later, Cas occupies the space. He’s wearing a light blue sweater that makes his eyes electric. “Happy birthday.”

Dean grins, but reluctantly lifts his arm away and back to his side. “Where have you been?”

Cas’ expression slips, just a little. “Just working the crowd,” he says.

Dean gives him a weird look. “Yeah, ’cause you’re such a social butterfly. Seriously, what’s up?”

Cas sighs. “I was actually making the rounds. But not to socialize.”

“Okay.”

Cas casts a reluctant glance Dean’s way. “Let’s just say I know of some unsavory figures who are good at sliming their way into places they shouldn’t be.”

“You know, you can just tell me if you’re talking about Crowley,” Dean says. “You can drop the international super spy persona, Mr. Bond.” He glances around to check that the coast is clear. “Unless you don’t want to.”

Mirth sparks in Cas’ eyes. “Maybe I won’t.”

Unthinkingly, Dean reaches out and obnoxiously paws at Cas’ face. When he catches himself, too late, he flushes and glances around, but no one seems to be paying them any attention. When his gaze returns to Cas, Cas is smiling gently at him. “He’s not here. It’s fine.”

Dean’s been having a good time, but talking about Crowley is a surefire way to change that. “But he could be, right? Does he still have a key for this place?” Over Cas’ shoulder, Dean can see the front door. He stares at the doorknob, as if expecting it to start turning at this exact moment.

Cas nods. “There’s not much I can do about it, save track him down and steal the key back, but I know Crowley well enough to know it’s almost always more trouble than it’s worth with him. He’ll always find a way to gain back the upper hand.”

Dean stares at him. “I wasn’t suggesting cat burgling the guy. Just change the damn locks.”

“He’ll get a new key.”

Dean shakes his head. “What the hell, dude. How are you so chill about this? Crowley’s got access to basically your entire life and you’re just letting him?”

Cas takes the beer from Dean’s hand and steals a sip, and then another. “This is gonna sound weird, but that’s actually not that weird for us.” He swallows the beer down hard, one big gulp. Hands it back to Dean, touch lingering. “Controlling family and all.”

Again, Dean glances at their surroundings. A couple walks by, the girl dragging the guy toward the dining room, but then they’re gone. “What if he bugs the place?” he says quietly. “What if he—what if we—and then he—” He trails off.

Cas sighs, looking longingly at the beer he just gave back to Dean. “I don’t expect this to be any comfort to you, but if Crowley had anything and was planning to use it in any way, to go any degree of public with it, I would know.”

Dean finishes the rest of the beer in one go and drops the can onto the coffee table. “Yup. That doesn’t comfort me in the slightest.”

Acting on instinct, seemingly, Cas leans forward, hand coming to Dean’s face. He’s halfway there and Dean’s halfway to letting it happen when the sound of glass shattering from the dining room attracts everyone’s attention. Cas doesn’t react to that, but his expression flickers to one of real dismay, brow furrowed, as he drops his hand from between them. He curls his hand in his lap, slowly. “You weren’t supposed to get caught up in this, Dean. This is—” He pinches the bridge of his nose. “This is all my fault.”

“Cas!” someone yells from across the room. “Hey, turn down the music. Hey! Andy broke your fabber-jay egg.”

Cas takes a deep breath, then looks over to the chaos, then back to Dean, his gaze still hazy. “I don’t own a Faberge egg.” He stands, using Dean’s knee to push himself to his feet. “But they definitely broke something.” He remains for a moment, awkwardly half-bent over, palm warm through Dean’s denim. He meets Dean’s eye, but it’s an expression that makes Dean uncomfortable. When he first met Cas, he found him incredibly stoic and difficult to read. Since then, however, he’s gotten more and more fluent in tweezing out the subtleties of Cas’ various moods. Or maybe Cas has gotten sloppy and started showing his cards more often. Either way, that expression tells Dean that whatever he’s gotten caught up in, it’s not going to end anytime soon.

Chapter 8: February/March

Chapter Text

February/March

February dawns in a snap so cold it plunges the entire Midwest into a deep freeze. Businesses shutter, the buses cancel, they even get a few days off school in the first week.

It’s on one of those days that Cas waits patiently on Dean’s couch as he fights the thermostat. “Piece of sh*t,” he grumbles, tapping angrily at its tan, plastic covering. “Hey,” he says, without looking over his shoulder, “did I ever tell you this apartment is a piece of sh*t?”

“Is it rude to say you didn’t have to?” Cas moves slightly and his leather jacket creaks. He still hasn’t taken it off.

They don’t spend a lot of time at Dean’s apartment for obvious reasons, but Cas had been surprisingly restrained the first time he came here, sizing up Dean’s living space much more graciously than he had Dean on their first meeting. It was back in early December, before Cas pulled his little disappearing act, and he had stood in the middle of Dean’s living room, just staring around him like he had walked into an art gallery instead of a building that’s had a pest control tent thrown over it at least twice since Dean moved in. Then they started to fool around in Dean’s bedroom and there wasn’t much of a thought process after that.

Back in the present, however, the cold makes jerks of them both.

“No, it just proves you have eyes,” Dean grunts. He looks to his Playboy poster, hanging on by a single tack at this point. All the corners have small rips in them from various re-hangings over the years. “What am I gonna do, Gina?” He can hear Cas’ eyes roll from across the room.

“Why don’t you just stay with me?”

Appropriate to the forecast, Dean freezes. “What?”

“Why don’t you just stay with me?” Cas repeats, enunciating more clearly. “My place has working heat, for one.”

Dean blusters. “Well, that’s just—moving a little fast, there, huh, Sonic?”

“I didn’t say move in,” Cas says. “Just for a while. You can keep paying rent here if it makes you feel like a man.”

“Uh, yeah,” Dean says, ignoring Cas’ jibe. “I’m not some kept boy.” His stomach flips as he says it. He licks his lips, turning toward Cas. “You know… there are other ways of warming up.”

Cas sits up straight for the first time since he’s sat down. “Such as?”

“I have lube,” Dean says, “that’s… hold on.” He dashes into the bedroom, opening his nightstand drawer and shuffling things around. He returns to the living room. “Not expired, thank you very much. And has been used in many other successful sexual encounters, if I do say so myself.”

Cas stands, unzipping his jacket and dropping it back onto the couch. Beneath it, he wears a brown Henley that takes Dean a second to register as his own, gone missing from his wardrobe for at least a week now. “Oh,” he says, staring at Cas’ chest, the bravado gone from his voice. “I wondered where that had gone.”

“You left it at my place,” Cas says off-handedly. Dean’s already nodding, already moving forward, eyes glassy. “I’m just returning it.”

“Uh-huh,” Dean says, tongue heavy, and throws himself at Cas.

*

Later, Dean’s half asleep, Cas’ arm wrapped around him from behind, when his phone starts vibrating. Blearily, he pats down his thrift-store nightstand, knocking over a beer bottle and a box of tissues as he goes.

Behind him, Cas stirs, and then presses his lips to the back of Dean’s neck. The tip of his nose touches Dean’s skin and he hisses. “It’s cold,” Cas remembers. Whines. “Just move in with me.”

For a moment, Dean’s distracted from his phone. “I can’t,” he says.

“Why not?”

Dean sets his mouth. His phone vibrates again, and finally, he just lifts his head so he can actually see where it is. “Because.”

He picks up the phone and stares at the screen, then sits up and answers quickly. “Charlie? You okay?”

“What?” Charlie says. “Yeah. Why? Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Dean says. “You never call me. I thought it was an emergency.”

“Well, it is an emergency.”

Silence.

“You wanna elaborate?”

“It’s a good emergency. I found one.”

“Found what?”

Cas is watching Dean carefully, his hand resting on Dean’s calf under the blankets, thumb caressing the skin.

“A new mark.”

“God damn it, Charlie.”

“Don’t hang up,” she says. “This one’s gonna be good.”

“Charlie, I’m…” Cas’ hand has been skirting higher, tracing patterns on his thigh. “A little tied up at the moment.” At that, Cas’ ears audibly perk up.

“Fair. Can we get coffee this afternoon? Please. Please please. If I don’t tell someone about this—”

“—illegal activity—” Dean chimes in.

“—I’m gonna explode.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. “What the hell.”

He sets a time to meet Charlie later in the day, then hangs up and drops his phone back to its original position. He puts his palms to his eyes. “Man, that girl is gonna kill me one day.”

“What was that about?” Cas says. His finger brushes the sensitive skin of Dean’s inner thigh.

Dean swallows. “Nothing. Charlie just has… weird hobbies. Like, extreme sports but for tech nerds.”

“You said ‘illegal,’” Cas says. His other hand slides up Dean’s back, his neck, into his hair.

“Did I?” Dean says dreamily, leaning into Cas’ touch. “It was for effect. Charlie is both very smart and very dumb sometimes.”

“She seems only very smart to me, I have to say,” Cas says. “I haven’t seen the flip side yet.”

“She’s a good person,” Dean says. “She’s my best friend, and I love her. But she’s not the most discreet person I’ve ever met.”

Cas moves, kissing the side of Dean’s neck now. “This is so secretive. Like you’re in your own little club.”

Dean pulls back a bit, brow furrowed. Cas meets his eye, and his expression is weirdly vacant, like he’s on autopilot. There’s a certain distance in his voice, like he’s gone away somewhere. “Hey. You okay?”

For a second, Cas’ expression doesn’t change. Then, he blinks, and comes back to life. “Yeah. You know what? Never mind. No offense to Charlie, but I can think of a better way to spend our time than discussing her extreme online sports.”

“You got it, boss,” Dean says, and salutes.

*

“So, it’s a subsidiary of Wine Turner,” Charlie says, cupping her hot chocolate with both hands. They initially met at a coffee shop, but Charlie got cold feet at the last minute, claiming anyone could be listening. Now, they’re sitting in the Impala in the back of a Walmart parking lot. Dean’s drinking a black coffee, he’s hot-cold, and he’s anxious. “I can probably scrap a couple mill off the top without anyone noticing.”

Dean shakes his head. “‘A couple mill’. Jesus. Are you sure you want to hit up the same company twice in a row? That seems like Scammer 101.”

“It’s not the same company,” Charlie says. “Sisters, not twins. Besides, it’s been months. Wine Turner has made back what I redistributed ten times over since then.”

“‘Redistributed,’” Dean says.

Charlie stares at him reproachfully. “Do we always have to fight about this?”

Dean sighs. “I’m just saying. Some people knit as a hobby.”

“It’s not a hobby,” Charlie says. “I’m helping people at the expense of no one.”

Dean waves her off. “I know, I know. You’re a very good person, but you’re also a criminal, and if you get thrown in jail, I’m not gonna have a best friend anymore.”

Charlie cracks a grin and tweaks his cheek. “Aw, you worry about me.”

Normally, Dean would respond with disdainful sarcasm, but the events of the last few months have left him more cautious. “I do, actually. There are a lot of… shady people out there.”

Charlie’s eyebrows tick up. “Uh, yeah, dude, I know. I am one of those shady people.” She takes a sip of her hot chocolate and frowns at it, sticking her tongue out and waggling it around. “Ith hot.”

Fondness blossoms in Dean’s chest, bright and sudden. With it comes an undeniable feeling of unsustainability. “Just promise me you’ll be careful, okay?”

“I’m always careful,” Charlie says, looking thoughtfully at her to-go cup. “I kind of wanted to spill this on me as I said it, just for the joke, but why waste perfectly adequate hot chocolate.”

Dean scoff-laughs, shaking his head. “Okay. Lay it on me. What’s the heist?”

*

“How have you been?” Dr. Milton asks. His office is much the same since the last time Dean was here in December, though the end-of-term clutter has been replaced with the not-quite-beginning-of-term-anymore clutter. “How was your holiday?”

“Good, thanks,” Dean says. “Went home to South Dakota. It was nice. Uh. What about you?”

“About the same,” Milton says. “I have quite a large extended family, so it was nice catching up with everyone. We’re a very work-oriented family, so we don’t often take time off to celebrate.”

“It’s always good to catch up,” Dean says.

“How is the semester treating you?” Milton asks. He leans forward, stroking his beard with his thumb. Dean feels pinned in place by those dark eyes.

He clears his throat. “Not too bad, actually. Just finishing up a few electives and a chem lab.”

“Huh.” Milton grabs a stress ball off his desk, idly squeezing it. “All things considered, a pretty stress-free final semester.”

“Academically, yeah,” Dean says without thinking.

Milton leans back now, his leather chair creaking. He surveys Dean with sharp eyes, fingers intertwined beneath his chin. “Trouble in your personal life?”

Dean scratches the back of his head. “Uh, no. No, everything’s good.” Don’t say it. “Just—online dating is tough. New relationships, I’m sure you understand.”

Milton squeezes the stress ball again, but doesn’t release it. Thoughtfully, slowly—testing the waters, he says, “I’m interested in you, Mr. Winchester.”

“Um,” Dean says. He smiles, elastic, aw-shucks. His neck and the tips of his ears start to grow warm as he makes eye contact with Milton’s desk.

“I told you I’d keep an ear out on your behalf,” Milton says, ignoring Dean’s reaction. “In the meantime, how would you like to work for me?”

Dean looks up, embarrassment forgotten. “For you? Like, as a TA or something?”

Milton smiles faintly. “Ah, no. That’s not exactly in the department budget. This would be in more of an assistant capacity, which just so happens to be in my personal budget.”

“Oh.”

“It’s not a secret,” Milton stresses. “But it’s not the kind of job you advertise for.”

At Dean’s hesitation, Milton leans forward again, onto his elbows. A strand of thick gray hair escapes where it’s tucked behind his ear, falling in front of his eye. He sweeps it away with his hand, gaze intent on Dean. Dean thought that look was intense before, sitting thirty rows back and up. He feels pinned to a corkboard. “Look,” Milton says, voice low, as if they’re in danger of being overheard. His tone is cajoling, but not overbearing. “This isn’t Hollywood. We’re in public safety. Forestry. No one’s asking you to sell your dignity.” Dean coughs. “I see a lot of myself in you, Mr. Winchester. I also come from humble beginnings. I worked hard to get where I am today, and I can see, after a semester working with you, you’ve done the same. I admire you. You want to help people. I want to help you.” He stands and extends a hand across the desk. “Let me help you.”

Slowly, Dean pushes himself out of his chair. His arms hang limply at his sides for a moment, fingers wavering. Milton waits, a quiet confidence in his assurance.

Dean reaches out his hand, and Milton takes control of the shake, his grip firm. His beard twitches as he pumps Dean’s arm once. “I look forward to getting to know you, Dean.”

*

Dean purposefully dawdles after his chem lab, taking his time closing up his notebook, zipping his bag, and stuffing an ugly pink beanie Charlie “knitted” him onto his head. He stares at his distorted reflection in a chrome Bunsen burner, attempting to straighten the lump of fabric out in a way that doesn’t make his head look like a melting scoop of strawberry ice cream, when the heavy-duty swinging door to the lab opens. He doesn’t consider it any further until a pair of hands slides under his jacket, fitting to his waist.

Ho-kay—” He dances away, ass on fire, until he turns around. “Oh.”

“Hi,” Cas says.

“Geez,” Dean says, hand over heart. “Thought the evening janitor was feeling a little frisky.”

“I was waiting outside,” Cas says. “Obviously, you failed to make an appearance.” He stares at Dean’s beanie, head co*cked. “Why are you wearing a hat that looks like an uncircumcised penis?”

“God damnit.” Dean rips it off and stuffs it in his jacket pocket. “Charlie gave it to me a few years ago when she thought she wanted to learn how to knit. You can probably tell, it didn’t go well. And Jo was a big influence on her design choices.” He touches his hair. “I miss my snapbacks.”

“I don’t,” Cas says. “They’re all very ugly.”

“You’re… very ugly.”

“Okay.”

Dean grabs his phone off the table and drops it into his back pocket with a huff. He flicks up his collar against the incoming cold. “Wait, so did you show up here just to insult my choice of headgear?”

“No,” Cas says. “I came to let you know it’s going to be very cold tonight.”

“That’s nice of you,” Dean says.

“Is your thermostat still broken?”

“No.”

“You’ve spent the last twenty minutes getting your things together in the lab before leaving for home for no particular reason?”

Dean sets his jaw. “So what if I did?”

“You’ve spent the night before,” Cas says. “Why are you so insistent on fighting me on this?”

Dean sighs. “I don’t want any more of your charity, dude.”

“It’s not charity.” Castiel almost looks offended at the implication.

“Okay, then, ‘gifts’.” Dean pulls out the finger quotes. “They have a history of being difficult to explain to passersby.”

Cas’ brow furrows. “The listening room? Wait, are you still mad about that?”

“No, I—you’re missing the—” Dean rolls his eyes, licking his lips. “As Charlie once said to me in the bathroom of a gay club as I puked into their toilet, gotta consider the optics of the situation.”

The corner of Cas’ mouth twitches upwards. “The optics.”

“Yeah, the freakin’ optics. I just, what, live at your place until it’s not cold anymore? You may be new to the Midwest, but it’s cold here like, eight months out of the year.” Dean considers, shrugs. “Maybe seven, with global warming. And—the room is—” Dean drags a hand down his face. “Jo still has another year here. What if she walks by one day and sees it? Well—okay, bad example. I don’t think she even knows where the library is. What if someone I know, someone I’ve slept with, even, sees it? Or, schools love to publish renovation announcements and stuff. Like, this information could get out, and then what? Do I just pretend like I’m surprised someone dedicated an entire room to my mother? It’s not like there’s a lot of plausible deniability here—Winchester isn’t exactly a common name.”

Cas watches Dean closely. He steps closer, and Dean unthinkingly turns into him. “I can call it off. We can name it something else, if that’s what you want.”

“No, I—ugh. I don’t know. I don’t know.”

“Okay,” Cas says, easy. He puts a hand on Dean’s forearm. “You don’t have to make a decision right now. As you mentioned, campus renovations can take… longer than expected.”

Dean can’t help it. He snorts. “Off track already, huh?”

Cas’ expression is one of extreme suffering. “It’s incredible how much red tape still exists after the generous donation.”

“Money can buy a lot of things, but cutting through bureaucratic red tape at a college isn’t one of them.”

“I may have to apply alternative methods to speed up construction,” Cas muses. “We’ll see.”

“How many more palms are there even to grease?”

Cas starts trailing his fingers up and down Dean’s arm. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll figure something out.”

“That’s ominous,” Dean says.

Cas snakes a hand up and around the back of Dean’s neck. “I can be very persuasive.” He pulls Dean into a kiss, and Dean’s fingers initially slip on the leather of Cas’ jacket before finding a desperate purchase there. Cas pulls away, his eyes dark under the sickly, gray fluorescents of the lab. “Is the cloud of doom receding?”

Dean pulls Cas back in. “For now. But, just in case…” Dean draws Cas forward, walking backwards until the small of his back hits his lab table. They trade hot kisses, a pleasant tingling sensation emanating from where Cas’ hands find his bare skin. Dean’s heart is pounding, all the way to his fingertips. “You know,” he says, gulping a breath as Cas finds a sensitive spot at the juncture of his neck and shoulder, “Always had a bit of an exhibitionist streak.” With a hilarious pop, and leaving a surely blooming hickey behind, Cas’ gaze returns to eye level, eyes wide. Dean laughs, shaky. “Probably obvious why I didn’t mention it before, but…” He gestures to the lab around them. “Since it’s come up…” The more Dean sputters, the wilder Cas’ eyes get, and heat starts chasing through his veins as well, Cas’ touch turning from static shock to full on electric. He grabs the collar of Dean’s coat and yanks him in, kissing him desperately.

“I’m sure we can figure out a way to put it to good use at some point,” Cas says, voice threaded with need. Dean can practically see the cogs turning in his head, scouting ahead to future rendezvous. “You want to be seen, but not too closely. In the meantime…” He presses a hand flat to Dean’s lower back, bringing them flush together, his other hand palming Dean’s ass through his jeans.

“Hey, that wasn’t an invitation,” Dean says. When Cas squeezes his ass, he reconsiders. “Ah, sh*t. Yes, it was.” Cas pushes forward until he’s almost reclining Dean backwards onto the lab table, his mouth insistent and tricky on Dean’s neck. Dean sighs into it, betraying his own protest, until a harmless glint from one of the many chrome structures in the room catches his eye as headlights from outside catch it. “Do you, uh. Think there are cameras in here?” he says, trying to focus on something beyond Cas’ palm inching further and further up his thigh.

“Wouldn’t that be a good thing?” Cas murmurs into the hollow of Dean’s throat.

Dean exhales quick, arousal dampening his anxiety. “Despite what I just told you, no.”

“We could have sex right here.” Cas’ mouth trails up Dean’s jawbone, to the shell of his ear. Dean can feel the wicked grin splitting Cas’ face as he speaks. “If you want to.”

Dean swallows, eyelashes fluttering. “Um…” Cas’ fingers dance dangerously close to his zipper. Dean’s hips inch forward of their own accord, searching for any measure of friction. Even with the sh*tty lighting, Cas makes a sight to behold from below, his since-reined-in stubble cutting nicely across his jawline and the straight, Greek bridge of his nose nuzzling Dean’s temple. He’s stupidly turned on, of half a mind to turn around and bend over the lab bench regardless of setting. He kisses Cas again, can’t stop himself. “I want to,” he says. “Oh, my God, I want to.”

Cas loops a hand under Dean’s knee and hitches it up around his waist, pressing their hips together. Dean whimpers, biting his lip. He puts a palm to Cas’ shoulder, in neutral, ready to either pull him in again or push him away. “But oh, my God, I don’t want to get expelled.” He shakes his head, like a dog coming inside after getting caught in the rain. “That would be—” Cas’s other hand slinks its way into Dean’s hair, tugging, and he groans. “Bad. That would be bad.”

“They wouldn’t,” Cas promises him between kisses. “I’d make sure of it.”

Dean screws his face up, feeling suddenly and emotionally pinched. He jerks a hand to the bridge of his nose, and when he tugs it away, his thumb and index finger are damp. He groans, this time out of sheer frustration. Cas pulls away to look at him, concern bleeding through his expression. “Dean?”

Dean shakes his head. “f*ck—sorry.” He gestures for Cas to come closer. “Just—ignore it. Forget it.”

When Cas looks like he’s about to press further, Dean puts both of his hands on Cas’ face, speaking slowly and deliberately. “Please, for the love of God, Cas. Ignore it.”

Conflicted, Cas doesn’t concede to Dean’s hands, attempting to pull him forward. “What’s happening right now?”

The dislocation of Dean’s mouth happens again, where he speaks, but it’s outside of himself, separate. He leans back onto his elbows on the table, sprawling out with coquettish intent. “If I let you f*ck me in the lab, will you stop asking about it?”

Cas opens his mouth and then closes it.

“Well, c’mon,” Dean says. “That’s what you want, isn’t it?”

Cas scoffs, more out of confusion than anger. “I mean, yes. And I thought that’s what you wanted. I’m not really sure…” He steps away from Dean, casting his gaze around. “Are you okay?”

“No, you’re—” Dean clenches both his fists, then forcefully loosens them. He wrenches his jaw apart. “You’re not getting it. You’re not supposed to ask me that, you’re—you’re not supposed to make gestures, or acknowledge us outside of—” He’s lost the plot himself, rambling, stumbling over words. “This,” he finally says. Pathetic and small. He can’t meet Cas’ eyes.

He fumbles with the jacket he never got around to putting on, attempting to slip on his backpack at the same time, digging his phone out of his pocket and speaking as he walks away. “I’ve gotta go. Charlie drove me this morning and I should text her… it’s—” He gestures out the windows, where snow has started to fall in semi-alarming amounts. It drifts down under the street lamps outside, illuminated a deep yellow against the wan fluorescents in the lab.

He’s mid-text to Charlie and blessedly close to the exit when some sixth sense kicks in, and he looks up from his phone just in time to watch the door of the lab come swinging at him full force.

He barely hears the crack, is more immediately aware of the cascade of liquid gushing out of his nostrils and the blooming of white-hot pain now centralized on his face.

“Holy f*ck,” a new voice says. “Oh my God, are you all right?”

Dean looks up slowly. The new angle sends a fresh wave of blood out, some of it landing in his mouth. He smiles, dazed. “I’m super.”

The guy, a student Dean recognizes from his class and suspiciously backpack-less, is staring at him with dinner-plate eyes. “I’m sorry, oh my God, I’m sorry. Let me call someone, let me—” He starts dabbing at Dean with ineffectual hands, doing nothing more than getting covered in a stranger’s blood.

Gently, Dean stops the guy from pawing at him. He puts a solemn hand on his shoulder, leaving a smear of blood. “It’s all good, man.” He claps him on the shoulder, harder than he means to, and breezes by him out the door. His face throbs.

He’s at the end of the hall, just about to exit the building, when he hears the guy’s voice again. “Is he all right?”

Cas’ brusque reply of “Almost never,” drifts down the hall as Dean walks out into the deluge.

*

The snow, still coming down, has cast the world in a muted glow. Miserable, Dean hides his fist in his sleeve and knocks off the accumulation on his hair before stuffing Charlie’s unfortunate beanie back onto his head. He ignores the quiet crunch of packed snow under tires as Cas pulls up next to Dean in his Civic. The window rolls down with a mechanical whir. Dean doesn’t look at him, and Cas doesn’t say anything. He rolls forward, keeping pace with Dean. They’re on one of the lesser-traveled routes off campus, dark trees lining each side of the two-lane. The cold helps Dean’s nose, at least.

Finally, Dean can’t take it anymore. “What?” he snaps.

“Need a ride?” Cas says. “Feel free to decide quickly. The heat is escaping through the window.”

“Then roll it up.” Through the mounting snow, Dean misses his step and wobbles precariously on the curb.

Cas’ expression of feigned nonchalance wobbles in turn. “Want a ride?”

“You’ve done enough for today,” Dean says. It’s completely unfair, but Cas takes it in stride.

“You drove me to the hospital once. Let me return the favor.”

Dean stops with a crunch. Cas stops a little less delicately and the Civic slides a bit. “I need to cool off. I’m fine.”

Cas stares out the windshield at the whiteout, wipers going furiously, at the snow accumulating in his passenger seat. “Well, then. You’re in the right place.”

Dean almost laughs. “Shut up.” He starts walking again. Behind him, Cas’ Civic is obviously not enjoying the storm any more than he is.

Cas accelerates to match his speed again. “Dean. Please get in the car.”

“No.”

“Dean. It’s snowing.”

“Yep.”

“The hospital is 20 miles from here.”

“I’m not going to the hospital.”

Cas’ brakes squeal as the Civic comes to a stop. The driver’s side door opens, and Cas steps out, shoulders hunched against the snow. He slams the door and just stands there, arms out. “Really?” Dean’s never heard him this shade of annoyed before. He almost sounds like a normal guy, annoyed about something normal. Like Dean forgot to bring home the milk he asked for.

Dean steps around him. “Really.”

Cas grabs his arm. Dean stops, staring at him. Cas takes his hand off Dean. “You should go to the hospital,” he says. Measured again.

“It’s a maybe-broken nose,” Dean says. “They can’t do anything for that.” As the swelling begins, he can hear his voice start to change, growing unfortunately nasal.

“Just humor me,” Cas says. He opens the passenger door. “Please.”

“Or else?”

Cas ticks his head to the side. “Or else what?”

“Exactly. What if I don’t get in the car?”

“Well, I’d like you to.”

“Or else,” Dean says

“Or else what?” Cas says, completely at a loss. “I’m not threatening you, Dean. I’m asking you.”

“But you could.”

Cas reels back. “I wouldn’t,” he says, so sure of himself Dean almost doesn’t believe him. Overcorrecting. “Can we not talk about this in the middle of a blizzard? You’re covered in blood.” He reaches out again, gentler as he steers Dean into the Civic. “And in shock,” he mumbles, before shutting the door and circling the car, climbing back into the driver’s seat.

The melting snow on the passenger’s seat soaks through Dean’s pants, making him colder than he was outside. Using the master controls, Cas rolls up his window and turns the car on. Heat blasts out of the vents immediately. Keeping his distance, he watches Dean, posture unsure. After a moment, he shakes his head, and puts the car in gear.

They drive half the way in silence, Dean staring at the snow against the night. The cold helped keep the blood in, but with the heaters on full blast, the clots that have formed have started to loosen up. Dean unzips his coat and holds his already ruined t-shirt to his face. “Do you have any napkins or anything?” The snow makes the world so quiet, it makes him self-conscious to even open his mouth.

Cas slows down further and reaches down into the storage compartment on his door. Wordlessly, he passes a few napkins from the not-a-Starbucks on campus over the center console.

“Thanks.” Dean dabs at his nose, trying not to sniff. Most of the blood isn’t going anywhere until he can take some hot water and soap to it, but it saves him dripping all over the place, at least.

With his free hand, he digs in his pocket for his phone. Predictably, it’s lit up with texts from Charlie, asking where he is. She drove him in this morning, and was supposed to pick him up tonight. He types the words out slowly, one-handed. Got a ride with Jo. Get home before it gets worse.

Geez man coulda told me before i drove through the snow

Dean fights the urge to remind her she was the one who insisted driving him this morning, afraid his boxy car wouldn’t handle well if it started to really come down. She was right, probably. Even with snow tires, the Impala isn’t exactly a winter car. Sorry, he answers, and tucks his phone away again.

He continues to stare out the window, the occasional street lamp and Cas’ headlights the only lights on the road. A sleepy, dreamy haze takes over him, a combination of exhaustion and anxiety, most likely compounded by the blood loss.

“What do you want to do with your life?” The windows have started to steam up after the intense change in temperature. Dean wipes the condensation away with a little squeak.

“What?”

“Ten years… twenty years down the road. Where are you gonna be?”

Cas sighs. “That’s a good question. I haven’t given it much thought.”

“Why?”

In the reflection of his window, Dean watches Cas shrug. It’s a practiced move. “I don’t know.” He swallows, less sure. “I grew up in a family with a predetermined pathway to success. I guess I never had to give it much thought.”

Dean closes his eyes, pressing his forehead against the glass. “Thought I had it all figured out,” he says. “Since the fire. Easy, right? Fire kills my parents. Destroys my family. So: become firefighter. Kill fire. Get revenge against an inanimate object. I guess.” His nose is throbbing again, making his eyes water. He presses one of the napkins to the window, then gently drapes it over his face. It helps, a little.

“Do you not want to do that anymore?” Cas asks. “Be that, I mean.”

“It’s just harder than I thought,” Dean says. “That’s usually how it goes, though. It sucks.”

The two-way merges into a larger highway, this one marginally more driveable. There are even a few other cars on the road. Once Cas has gotten the Civic back under control, he says, “It’s amazing how quickly things can get complicated.”

They lapse into silence once again, until Cas takes the exit for the hospital. As he rolls to a stop at an intersection, he says, quietly, “What exactly are you afraid of?”

He flicks his turn signal, drowning Dean’s thoughts out with the mechanical tick-tick-tick-tick. He makes the turn, the signal pops off, and Dean’s left with only silence again.

Dean says nothing, and Cas doesn’t have an answer for nothing. He leaves it hanging between them until the blue neon sign of the hospital looms in the distance.

In grade school art class, learning perspective, one of their projects had been to draw a pathway—any kind of path—on a sheet of printer paper, the path converging at a single point on the horizon. Dean was never the most artistically inclined, and like many of the kids in his class, he ended up drawing a road. He was only a few weeks into his new school in South Dakota, and word had already gotten around about why the new kid moved to town. His teacher, a doe-eyed man named Mr. Bennett, promised Dean he didn’t have to talk until he was ready, and didn’t even make him introduce himself to the class. On recesses when Mr. Bennett wasn’t on yard duty and Dean didn’t feel like ripping up pieces of grass, he would stay in Mr. Bennett’s classroom and listen to the old, beat-up radio he usually only brought out on special occasions.

Dean’s artistic abilities never evolved much beyond that. When he got home from school that day, Bobby, who was still learning how to be a father himself, stuck it on the fridge with a magnet in the shape of a beer bottle, the Budweiser logo where the label should be. A few days later, while opening the fridge to find baloney for a sandwich, he noticed that the car in the picture looked familiar. That weekend, he took Dean out for his first ride in the Impala since the fire.

Years later, in a Honda Civic, Dean’s life extends out in front of him like that road, implying not an end in sight, but a relentless, unstoppable trajectory, only inertia propelling him forward through the same scenery, over and over. The same, bland road. The same mustard stain on the top corner of the page from Sam’s sticky fingers. He tries not to sink into himself. There are more urgent matters at hand.

“Cas,” Dean says, “I can’t afford a visit to emerg.”

Cas pulls into the parking lot. “I’ll take care of it.”

He puts the car in park and gets out, waiting for Dean at the end of the spot, hands tucked into his coat pockets. Dean wipes his face one more time, grimaces at the stickiness, and follows Cas’ lead. As they walk across the parking lot, Cas keeps a palm flat to Dean’s lower back. When the automatic doors whoosh open and the sterile hospital lights greet them, he drops his hand.

*

A lot of blood tends to get people moving, even in a hospital. Dean’s seen fairly quickly, after the guy with the black tongue and before the girl with a finger bent the wrong way. He suspects money may have changed hands, but Cas doesn’t say anything about it.

He’s both surprised and unsurprised when a familiar face arrives to escort him to the X-ray wing. When the blonde nurse sees him and Cas, she smiles, big. “Get out of town! Boy, what a coincidence.”

Cas looks between the two of them. “I don’t follow. Do you two know each other?”

“We’ve run into each other a couple times here,” Dean says.

“Small hospital,” she adds. Then, “Hey, you’re the friend who got his hand shut in a door by this one—” She points to Cas. “How are you doing? Mobility okay?”

“Yes,” Cas says. “Just fine, thank you. Dean, on the other hand…”

“Oh! Of course.” She rolls her eyes at herself. “Silly me.” She gestures for Dean. “Just follow me, hon. We’ll get you all set up in the X-ray wing and have you on your way in no time.” She waves at Cas. All Dean has to offer him is an uncomfortable grimace.

As they walk, Dean tries to focus, but he’s still blinking vapidly against the hospital fluorescents and feeling raw, scraped out. He’s thankful for the break from being in the same vicinity as Cas and pretending like he didn’t just have a complete meltdown, at least.

“How have things been?” the nurse asks cheerily. “We haven’t seen you in a few months, so hopefully good.”

Dean snorts. “Uh, yeah. No more trips to the hospital. At least, until now.”

She shakes her head good-naturedly. “Those swinging doors can be a real menace.”

“Tell me about it.”

*

Dean sits on an unoccupied hospital bed, legs dangling off the side and waiting for the next available technician. The nurse helps clean him up, and he’s looking almost presentable again by the time she returns with two Styrofoam cups full of a dark liquid. It resembles coffee, but Dean doesn’t trust it. Regardless, when she hands one to him, he accepts it gratefully. She collapses back into a rickety chair by the bed. “Phew,” she says. “My dogs are barking.”

“Break time?” Dean says.

She gestures with her coffee as she speaks, the liquid almost spilling over the edge. “Never soon enough.”

For a few minutes, they sip their coffee in silence. As expected, it tastes horrible, but Dean’s exhausted and desperate and drinks it anyway.

“How long have you been a nurse?”

“Oh, going on a few years, now.” She puts the half-drunk coffee on the spindly arm of the chair. “Geez, no, almost a decade now. Christ, I’m old.”

Dean snorts. “That’s funny. I feel the same way.”

“Don’t flatter me, hon. You’re still a student, aren’t ya?”

“Not for much longer.”

“What are you studying?”

“Fire science—or, more broadly, public safety.”

“Whoa, nelly.” She leans forward, elbows on her knees. “Now that’s interesting. How’d you get into something like that?”

Usually, when someone he doesn’t know asks this question, his answers range anywhere from mundane to utterly absurd. He took an elective and liked it. He knows someone who knows someone who swears by the program. He threw a dart at a brochure. He had a vision after taking MDMA with a party girl majoring in PR. Instead, he says, “My parents uh, died in a house fire when I was kid.”

“Oh,” she says, face crumpling. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”

“Could be worse,” Dean says. “I could be a business major.”

That gets a laugh.

“Public safety,” she hums after a moment. “So, you probably know your way around some rudimentary first aid.”

“I’m all up to date on my CPR accreditation, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Not that I’m saying it was a bad idea—it’s never a bad idea to be sure—but I’m surprised you came in for a bump on the nose. Especially before the swelling came down.”

Dean scoffs. “Yeah, it wasn’t actually my idea.”

“Your friend.”

“He feels guilty, I think.”

Her eyebrows raise. “Guilty?” The relaxed, jovial expression gets replaced with one of professional concern. “Is there anything else we should know?”

“What?” It takes a second for Dean to clue in. He laughs a little, but it’s tinged with anxiety, which probably doesn’t alleviate any of her misconceptions. “We didn’t have a bust-up in a bar parking lot and then change our mind, or something.” He swallows, scratching the back of his neck. “Uh, if that’s what you mean. It really was a door.”

The nurse sits back, regarding him with a new kind of understanding that makes Dean itch under the skin. Then it’s gone. “Okay,” she says, the professional demeanor dropping again. She smiles. After a moment, she says, “I volunteer at a transition house for homeless kids run by the local sheriff. There’s a girl there, she’s seventeen. Lost her parents when she was young. After bouncing around the system for years, she finally ended up with us. She’ll be staying until she turns eighteen, but after that, there’s not much we can do for her beyond stuffing a few college brochures into her backpack that she’ll toss the moment she finds them anyway.” She laughs ruefully, shaking her head. “She’s so angry. I don’t blame her. Trying to talk to her about anything, it’s like speaking to a brick wall.”

Dean smiles, small and close-mouthed. “I remember those days.”

“I think,” she hedges, “and I’m no psychologist, mind, but I think losing parents that young is—tough.” Realizing what she just said, she laughs. “Duh. Of course it is. What I mean, is, I think not having someone to talk to—about anything, good or bad—is hard. How are you supposed to know to be proud of doing well in school, or scoring a goal in soccer, if no one is there to be proud of you? How are you supposed to know that you’re worth anything, if no one ever treats you like you are? I guess what I’m trying to say is that it really breaks my heart when this girl doesn’t talk to me, it’s not because she doesn’t want to, but because she hasn’t realized it’s an option yet.” She pauses for a moment, then blushes. “Geez, sorry. Hon, I’m at the tail end of a double shift. I think the fumes from the bed pans are making me talky.”

Dean’s nose, sore as it is, has really started to throb again. He doesn’t meet her eyes, picking at a now-dried bloodstain on his jeans.

There’s the scrape of the Styrofoam cup being scooped up, and the nurse’s free hand squeezes his knee briefly. “I’ll give you some peace and quiet while you wait. I’ve talked your ear off since you’ve been here. I’ll go see what’s the hold up with the technician.”

She begins to walk away.

“Um,” Dean says.

She turns. “Sorry, hon, did you say something?”

Dean tries to speak, and nothing comes out. He clears his throat and tries again. “Yeah. I was just wondering—what’s your name?”

“Oh—” She laughs at herself. “Did I never introduce myself? Of course I didn’t.” She extends a hand. “I’m Nurse Hanscum.” She winks. “But you can call me Donna.”

“Did you want to stay?” Dean says, taking her offered hand and shaking it. She’s a hearty shaker. “At least, until you finish your coffee.”

Donna smiles, small. “Sure. I’d like that.”

She sits back down, depositing the cup onto the ground. From the angle he’s sitting at, he can’t see any liquid slosh up the sides.

It’s nice to talk to someone.

*

Dean struts around with two black eyes for a few weeks, taking too many of the drugstore painkillers that Cas insisted on buying on their way home from the hospital. Later that night, curled up in Cas’ bed, his blood-stained clothes going through their second cycle in the washer, he’d muttered an apology into the folds of Cas’ t-shirt.

Jo barked laughter when she first saw him the next day, but Dean caught her Googling possible complications from a broken nose when she had her back turned. Charlie freaked out, blaming herself. She asked him if he finally annoyed Jo so much she brake-checked her own brother into the dashboard, but he assured Charlie it was an honest accident.

Dean can feel Cas’ eyes on him more than usual in the days following the accident. They don’t share any classes this semester, but the moment Dean walks into his house, Cas is watching, tracing the bruises that extend to the bags under his eyes and over the bridge of his nose. One day, about a week after, he’s sprawled out on Cas’ couch, movie paused while Cas tries not to burn microwave popcorn. From the kitchen, he says, “The swelling looks like it’s gone down.” Dean laughs, staring forlornly at Harrison Ford’s perfectly proportional nose onscreen. Cas’ film education, which began months ago when he revealed he’d never seen a Star Wars movie, continues tonight with Indiana Jones. When Dean asked if instead of watching normal kid movies, Cas grew up in a plastic bubble, he got all snooty and started talking about how to tie sailing knots.

Popping starts to come from the microwave. “How would you feel about dating a guy with a horizontal nose?” Dean says, taking a swig of his beer. He doesn’t realize he’s said anything weird until Cas doesn’t respond, and he plays it back in his head multiple times, realization dawning hot and horrifying under his collar. The smell of burnt popcorn begins to drift out of the kitchen, and after a few muttered oaths and a slammed cabinet, Cas returns to the couch, presenting Dean with a foul-smelling bowl of blackened kernels.

“I doubt that’s physically possible,” Cas says, acting like he doesn’t notice the shade of milky white Dean’s gone, and turns the movie back on. “I wonder if they find the treasure in this one.”

With every minute that goes by and Cas doesn’t comment on Dean’s comment, he relaxes. Eventually, his head drops onto Cas’ shoulder as he drifts. Neither one of them touches the popcorn.

*

Once the bruises have finally faded to the point of Dean looking like he lost only a few hours of sleep instead of a whole week’s, he wants to go to a party. The strange looks and the offhanded comments have started to bleed out from Charlie and Jo to the rest of their friend group, and he’s as eager to dispel those as he is to have his first drink after being free of his pain meds.

He’s been staying at Castiel’s fairly regularly, never permanently, but as February ekes into March and the bitter cold snap melts into something resembling spring, Dean finds himself at a crossroads. Castiel, as usual, doesn’t seem perturbed by any potential awkwardness looming in the not-so-distant future, while Dean’s excuses for staying the night when it’s sixty degrees out are rapidly dwindling. With how cavalier Cas has been about everything, Dean would be surprised if showing up unannounced and dumping all his sh*t at Cas’ door would even earn him a batted eye.

Castiel thaws along with the weather, the manic exhaustion that seemed to be plaguing him in the final weeks of December and the first half of January exchanged for a more easygoing, lighthearted demeanor. He’s more like when Dean first met him, charming if he’s in the mood but mostly aloof and content to be so when thrust into any kind of social situation that isn’t just himself and Dean. When they’re alone, he speaks more freely, laughs easier. When Dean questioned him about the difference one day, having just finished extolling the virtues of the Back to the Future movies that Cas has yet to see, the laughter in his eyes dimmed, his gaze sliding, briefly, away from Dean’s. Because even though he’s similar to what he was like last summer, he’s not the same. Sometimes, Dean says something innocuous, and Cas will completely disappear, for only a second. Fast enough, often, that Dean’s almost convinced himself it’s always been one another of his eccentricities that he’s only picked up on now, months into their acquaintance. “I prefer to listen,” Cas finally said. It took him long enough that Dean was expecting an answer much stranger than the one he got.

“Okay, weirdo,” Dean said, and laughed. It sounded a little forced.

Dean’s severely underdressed for this party, back in his signature flip flops and socks, but the alcohol in his system buzzes along nicely. He’s wearing a long-sleeved shirt but no jacket along with cuffed khakis. Jo walks beside him, cursing his name in a bulky plaid coat she stole from Bobby when he was twenty pounds lighter.

Their destination is close enough to Dean’s apartment to walk, which Dean was grateful for as he shotgunned a beer in his living room, snapback askew. Jo stood by the door, face pinched as her gaze traveled to the Playboy poster still hung behind Dean’s head. “That’s just sad, man.”

Dean slams the empty can down onto the scarred coffee table. “That’s bachelorhood, baby.”

“You’re not a bachelor.”

Dean tosses the can into the recycling under his sink. “In a manner of speaking.”

“Ugh.” Jo bounces on the balls of her feet, shoulders along for the ride. “Can we go? Hey, can you tell me something? Why have I spent the last three years going to parties when I don’t even like parties? Or people?”

“You do like people,” Dean says as they leave the apartment. As he’s locking up, he adds, “It’s okay. I won’t tell anyone.”

Jo stuffs her hands in her coat pocket as they walk, bracing against the brisk wind. Dean pretends he’s not immediately beset by goosebumps. They walk in silence for a few minutes, and then Jo says with no inflection whatsoever, “I miss my dad.”

“Oh,” Dean says. For a moment, he’s terrified he’s missed the anniversary, but William died in the summer. He barely mentions it anymore, anyway, because Jo usually disappears for hours on end on the day and never tells anyone where she went. “Well, me too. My dad, I mean. Though I’m sure your dad was great, too.”

Jo squints into the wind, adjusting her sleeves so that they better cover her balled fists. She doesn’t look upset, just this shy of thoughtful. “Ellen told me he was an anti-social asshole, but I’ve seen pictures of him, sitting and laughing with friends at Harvelle’s. Of how he used to look at her.”

“Ellen has a type,” Dean says.

Jo snorts. “Yeah.” She makes a face. “I dunno what I’m gonna do next year.”

“Please don’t tell me you already forgot you’ve agreed to take on the legacy of Charlie Bradbury’s Annual Back to School Beach Party XXXtravaganza ;).”

“I could literally never forget that.”

Dean pats her on the back, but quickly returns his hands to his own pockets, fighting the urge to blow hot air into his cupped palms. “What’d you do when I was away at first year?”

Jo looks at him. “Wait, you think this is because I’m gonna miss you?”

Dean smiles, big and smug.

Jo rolls her eyes and mutters something under her breath. Then, loud enough so Dean can hear, “I read a lot, actually. If you can believe it. I still hardly can.”

That does genuinely take Dean aback. “Really?”

Jo nods. Ahead of them, the block where the party is being held looms. This one is just before the cutoff where the nice suburban development begins, a sagging house full of students with secondhand furniture they have to replace every month because someone inevitably falls into a table and breaks it every party. Dean was never that guy, but he’s been close.

“Yeah,” Jo says. “My dad journaled a lot. I never thought of bartenders as the type, but I guess every bar has its slow nights.” Distant whoops and hollers greet them now, a promise of the chaos to come.

“There’s a lot of books to read out there,” Dean says. “You know, there’s even a library right on…” He trails off, realizing what he’s about to walk into. Then, he pushes through anyway, because it’d be weirder not to say it. “…campus.”

“Thanks, I didn’t know.”

“There’s books in it and everything.”

“Cool.”

Before they get too close, where they’ll have to shout everything at each other, Dean stops. “Pam will still be here. Well, she’ll probably always be here. So will Victor. Dude’s selling his soul to this place for some reason. And there will be others, but really, Jo.” She doesn’t like looking at him when they have conversations like this. Sometimes, Dean’s surprised they aren’t actually blood related. “You just gotta do what makes you happy.”

For about a nanosecond, Jo looks touched. Then she rolls her eyes. “Oh, please. You’re so sentimental.” She starts walking again, but slow enough so Dean can easily catch up.

*

Cas beats them to the party, looking almost like a regular college student standing in a circle of friends, red Solo cup in hand. He’s wearing a red and black buffalo plaid shirt, the true sign of Nebraska rubbing off on him. When Dean and Jo arrive, Dean studiously avoiding the sticky patches already forming on the floor, Cas offers them both a smile. Dean wants to clap him on the shoulder, let his hand linger, but ends up taking a spot on the other side of the circle, in between Charlie and Victor. “Howdy,” he drawls, teeth chattering.

“Idiot,” Jo says.

Victor, twirling his finger in the air, says, “Barkeep? Something to warm the man up.” He looks around at the mass of people crammed into the small space, the same kind of lofi no-lyrics vaporwave nonsense Charlie is always listening to twinkling away under the din while no one pays them any attention. “I think it may be self-serve. Be right back.” He winks at Dean and disappears into the crowd.

“All right,” Dean says to the group at large. “What’d we miss?” Rounding their crew out tonight are Pamela and Dorothy, who Dean’s had trouble looking in the eye since their unfortunate chat in that diner parking lot.

“Someone’s already thrown up out back. A freshman dropped his giant bong—a Christmas gift from his parents—down the basem*nt steps and it shattered everywhere. And I hope you peed before you left, because there’s one tiny bathroom and the toilet is clogged with toilet paper,” Charlie relays. “Dorothy already went out back once.”

“It was a wonderful experience,” Dorothy confirms.

“Aw,” Dean says. “We missed all the fun.” He can feel Cas’ eyes on him, wants to meet his gaze, but refrains. Navigating public spaces with Cas has become trickier recently. Sometimes, Dean will forget where he is and start to replicate their easy touches in private before aborting the move halfway through and spending the next few minutes convincing his face to return to its normal color, glancing furtively around at any passersby. Cas takes it all in stride and never seems to have any trouble checking himself. With Cas, though, it’s all about the eyes. He speaks with his eyes first.

Victor returns, not a moment too soon, brandishing some poisonous co*cktail that Dean takes a grateful sip of. “Thanks, buddy,” he says. It tastes awful, which means there’s a lot of alcohol in it. Dean takes a sip for two.

The party shambles on. Despite the chaotic stories from before Dean and Jo arrived, the back half of the night slips into a different kind of buzz. In the kitchen, people huddle around the thrifted, pockmarked table to snort MDMA and pass the tablets around via tongue, which Dean handily avoids. As a freshman, he took MDMA a couple months into his first semester. He remembers almost none of it, other than the comedown as he stumbled into Lisa’s dorm room at six in the morning, demanding to be held. Then he slept hard for ten hours, everything smelling like her floral perfume, and they had a nasty fight once she got back from classes later that afternoon. She almost dumped him. In the back corner of the living room, Pam’s set up shop, sitting cross-legged on a throw cushion as she reads people’s palms for five bucks a pop. Dean was her first victim, and as she dragged her fingertip along his palm, he nodded along with everything she said with wide eyes. As he stood to “go collect” himself after an “experience like this,” he reminded her in low tones that he expects a cut. When he returns to the rest of the group, they break into polite golf applause. Dean flips them off. As they fall back into their intra-group discussions, still chuckling, Charlie turns to him. “You have a knack for surrounding yourself with lowlife con artists.”

“Give yourself some credit, Red. Middle class, at least.”

“Speaking of,” Charlie says, glancing around to make sure no one else is paying attention. “I’ve got some news.”

The news, as far as Dean’s caveman brain understands it, is that Charlie has been poking and prodding at Wine Turner’s sister’s defenses for the past little while, seeing where there’s potential give and take. She’s getting closer. Dean does all the usual requisite eye-rolling and admonishing, and Charlie does all the usual dismissal and hand-waving.

For embellishment’s sake, Charlie often dresses hacking up like Hollywood does, even though she admitted to Dean years ago, stumbling drunk, how it’s really just sitting around playing video games while a script runs in the background doing all the work. Since that night, though, she’s steadfastly denied ever saying such a thing, maintaining the mysterious glamor of hackerdom.

The night continues. Dean’s done pretty well at avoiding-but-not-avoiding Cas, if only for his own sanity. Just this morning, Dean had been woken up by the shriek of Cas’ fire alarm as a result of his attempts to make pancakes. After laughing for about five minutes while Cas, totally pissy, scrubbed the burnt pan in the sink, Dean had started fresh. Once they ate, Dean sat in Cas’ lap and kissed him. He tasted like syrup.

Now, he watches as Cas approaches from across the room, swaying a little himself. He seats himself next to Dean, closer than he should, but Dean’s had just enough alcohol to let that particular slight slide.

“Hi,” Cas says. His face is flushed, blue eyes glassy. Somewhere along the way, the top button of his shirt has come undone.

“Hi,” Dean says dopily.

“I haven’t seen you all night.” Cas has drunk a lot of cinnamon whiskey. Dean can smell it on his breath.

“Yeah,” Dean says sagely. He wants to reach out and mess up Cas’ hair with his hand.

Neither of them says anything else. They sit there in kind of a stupor, occasionally making semi-awkward eye contact that makes Dean swallow.

“Hey,” Dean finally ventures. Cas’s head lolls back onto the couch, turning toward Dean. There are still enough people milling around that Dean speaks carefully. “About our recent, uh, arrangement—”

“Dean?” someone else says.

Dean looks up. Through the haze of alcohol, it takes a second. “Lydia?” Her hair is longer.

“Hey,” she says. “Geez, I guess I did promise I’d see you around.” She sways a bit, then delicately sits on the edge of the coffee table in front of the couch, her bare knee brushing Dean’s. She’s dressed more casually than the last time they saw each other, though her shirt is revealing enough that Dean’s unsure where it’s safe for his gaze to land. Under the guise of adjusting his seat, he edges toward Lydia, away from Cas.

“Long time no see,” he says. “How are you?”

Lydia grins. “Well, I took some ecstasy about an hour ago so I’m actually doing great. How have you been?”

Rays of —not explicit disapproval, but intense judgement emanate from Cas beside him. Dean ignores them. “Good! Uh, I did not take ecstasy tonight.”

“You should,” Lydia says. “I feel amazing. I can see the energy of everyone around me. Their auras.”

“Maybe next time."

Lydia puts a hand on his thigh, just above the knee. It’s coy, playful. For a second, Dean’s terrified she’s going to do something that proves incredibly awkward for all three of them. Then with a sharp pat, she leans back. “Next time,” she says. As social niceties dictate, even on ecstasy, she makes eye contact with Cas.

“This is Cas,” Dean says. “I don’t know if you two ever crossed paths. He’s in my year.”

“Hi, Cas.” Lydia sizes him up. Dean watches interest spark in her eye and he has to clear his throat to keep from laughing.

“Hello,” Cas says politely, no different than how he treats anyone else he doesn’t know. Distant, yet courteous.

“You’re quite handsome,” Lydia tells Cas. “Did you know that?”

“It’s been brought to my attention once or twice.”

“Humble, too,” Dean adds.

“Dean,” Lydia says, “would you be jealous if I asked to borrow your friend for a minute?” The drug-induced haze clouds her eyes. “Actually, you can both come, if you want.”

A high-pitched giggle escapes Dean. He covers his mouth. “Sorry.”

“I don’t think I’m what you’re looking for,” Cas says diplomatically. “But I appreciate the offer.”

Realization dawns. Lydia touches the tip of her nose, then points at Cas. “Gotcha. Well, can’t blame a girl for trying.”

The rest of their scattered friend group starts to return to crowd around the couch, one by one, bringing along a few stowaways of their own. Lydia stays perched on the coffee table, swaying along to the music. Dean wonders if it’s all down to the drugs, or if a person can really change that much in such a short amount of time. Regardless of the answer, she keeps her knee pressed to the inside of Dean’s thigh for the rest of the night. He knows Cas clocks it, but doesn’t do anything about it.

Dean’s in the bag enough to be content letting everyone else do the talking, allowing the conversation to wash over him like a wave. At some point, he must have slipped beneath the surface, because when he comes to, a completely new, and dangerous, topic has been broached.

“Right?” Lydia says in response to something Charlie has said. “It’s like, if girls do it, why can’t guys?”

Charlie holds up a hand and uses her other to point in Dean’s general direction. “Fragile egos,” she says through clenched teeth.

“Hey, what now?” Dean says. “I’m not fragile.”

“Yeah,” Victor chimes in.

Dean nudges Cas, who just stares at him with slightly raised eyebrows.

“Like a Faberge egg,” Pam says, sauntering into the group, stuffing a wad of cash into the back pocket of her jeans. “What are we talking about?”

“Girls kissing each other at parties to—I guess get guys horny? I’ve never actually been sure of the thought process there,” Charlie says. “Straight girls’ minds are incredibly foreign to me.”

“It’s just a little fun,” Pam says.

“No, see, we’re asking why guys don’t do it for girls.”

Oh,” Pam says, eyes going wide with delight. “Yeah, I’ll sign that petition.”

Charlie, sitting on the far arm of the couch, nudges Cas’ shoulder. “Cas, back me up here.”

“Sure,” Cas says. “I’ll sign your imaginary clipboard with this imaginary pen.” He mimes out the action, and halfway through handing it back to Charlie bursts into laughter. “Apologies,” he says, returning to his spot, “I’m drunk and I dropped your petition.” He turns to Dean, still chuckling. Their faces are fairly close. “I dropped it.”

“Yeah, you did, buddy.” Dean pats Cas’ arm, very aware of the eyes on them.

“Stay there,” Lydia says suddenly. “Dean, Cas, don’t move.”

“What?” Dean says, moving.

“Don’t move!” Lydia says earnestly. “That energy between the two of you, just now. Perfect example.”

What?”

“If girls knew they were missing out on this, were the tables turned…” She shakes her head.

“I’m into it,” Victor says, and Dean throws a decorative pillow at him so he doesn’t use it to suffocate himself instead.

“No offense, Lydia, but you’re super high,” Dean says. To the group at large, he says, “She’s super high, so…”

“Dean, do you support equality or not?” Pam says. “Do it for equality.”

If it was literally any topic but this one... they’re just messing with him. They’ve been friends for ages and have been messing with each other just as long. Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the way heat creeps into his cheeks and the tips of his ears, or the way a black hole has opened up in his stomach, pulling him apart from the inside out. Drunk, wavy faces watch the two of them, expectant.

“All right, all right,” Charlie says, figuratively stepping between them. She shoots Dean an indecipherable look before continuing, “I said his ego was fragile, okay? Give the guy a break.”

A warm rush of affection for Charlie courses through him, a bone-deep sense of relief, but there’s something else, something beneath the surface level appreciation of a friend coming to the rescue. The indistinct fear of missing the train, already pulling away from the platform.

Dean meets Castiel’s eye. He presses his teeth to his bottom lip. Around them, the conversation shifts topics. Dean’s heartbeat roars in his ears. His palms sweat. Castiel watches him back. His expression is plain enough. He’s letting Dean call the shots.

Dean grabs Cas’ cup out of his hand, downs the last dregs of his drink—Tennessee Fire and co*ke, no way Cas chose this of his own volition—grabs the collar of Cas’ shirt and falls into a frenetic, sloppy, toothy kiss. Cas’ hands, most likely on muscle memory alone, fit to Dean’s waist. The new, fledgling conversations within the group cut off like a shot.

Dean pulls away, breathing hard. He collapses back into his seat. Expressions around the circle range from mildly impressed to outright shock. Charlie is the only outlier, adopting that same, indecipherable look again.

After that second of stunned silence, the group breaks into whoops and cheers. Dean, face flaming, takes a bow from his seat. He can’t stop smiling.

“I think Dean and Cas just solved equality,” Jo says.

*

Dean doesn’t really know how he got here, being pulled down the hall of the sunken house by Lydia, her voice breathy as a flower child. “I think I understand why guys like it now,” she says, testing the first door they arrive at. Locked. “Just—the energy, you know? There’s something about it, when two people connect like that.” She tries the second door. Locked. With busy people inside, from the sounds of it. “Damn.” Her heels clack loudly on the wooden floor—a light pine. “You and Cas really have some—I dunno, there’s something intense between you two. I can see, like, the relationships between everything.” In front of the third door, she turns back to him, smiling. She’s very attractive. “They’re color coded.” The third door opens, and they enter a tiny bedroom with an unmade futon in the corner.

Dean’s head is spinning. “Lydia,” he says. She begins to take off her shirt. Dean puts a hand on her arm. “Lydia, wait.”

Slowly, the shirt falls back down over her torso.

“I’m—” Dean searches for any excuse. He has a fake girlfriend, but he can’t remember her name right now. A fake girlfriend would probably understand the difference between a kiss to save equality and having a one-night stand: part two. “Super drunk. And you’re super f*cked up. I don’t think this is a good idea.”

Lydia sighs. “Ecstasy makes you super horny. This sucks.” Dean remembers it having the exact opposite effect on him, forcing him to beg Lisa to let him into her bed, completely clothed, only so he could share a single space with another person for a while.

“Sorry,” Dean says. He really wants to leave.

“It’s okay,” Lydia says. “In a way, you still gave me a night I’ll never forget.”

*

Dean and Jo walk home in mostly silence. At one point, she says, “Are you still dating Caroline?”

“Yes.”

“Hm,” Jo says, and doesn’t ask any follow up questions.

*

Once Jo has denied Dean’s offer of sleeping in his room and fallen dead asleep on the couch, one arm falling off it and knuckles dragging against the carpet, Dean covers her with a blanket and slips out the door. It takes him longer than he expects to get to Cas’—they don’t exactly live in the same neighborhood. Finally, in the dead of night, he arrives at the forest green door, and knocks. He wore a coat this time, but he’s still cold. The walk went a long way to sobering him up.

Cas opens the door, looking tired, but not sleepy. “I thought I gave you a key,” he says, running a hand through his insane hair as he steps back to let Dean in. “Remind me to get you a key.”

Sobriety aside, the events of the night and the late hour have reduced Dean’s brain to mush. He toes off his shoes (he switched out the flip flops for something a little more practical) and trudges up the stairs, losing articles of clothing as he goes. The last to fall is his snapback, hanging off one of Cas’ bedposts. When Cas sees it after following Dean into the room, he laughs.

Naked, Dean slips under the covers. Cas’ footfalls disappear for a moment. Running water. The rattle of pills. Returning footfalls. Cas places a glass and two pills on the nightstand. Dean gulps them down.

There’s the shuffling of clothes coming off, and the much softer sound of pajamas being slid on. Dean covers his face with his hand when he asks, “Can you just—not?”

The only sound in the ensuing silence is the pajamas being disregarded. Cas pulls back the covers and climbs in behind Dean, but not touching him. Taking matters into his own hands, Dean wriggles backwards until Cas is spooning him. Cas gets the message, wrapping an arm around Dean’s middle and kissing between his shoulder blades.

*

Dean’s dreams are vague and disorienting, shapes and feelings as opposed to concrete images or sounds. Long hair tickles his face, his cheeks. Something is gnawing at him. He only has the feeling someone is speaking to him, whispering delicate nonsense into his ear. There are no words to hear, only the puffs of hot breath against his skin. It gives him horrible acid reflux. He’s trying to run from the whisperer, but gravity is doing its work and the acid is eating away at his bottom half. He’s moving dream-slow, melting away. He’s going to get caught.

*

He wakes, jerking hard enough in Cas’ hold that Cas makes an involuntary noise of pain when Dean elbows him in the stomach. He wheezes.

If they’re still in this position, it can’t be long after they fell asleep. The neon blue numbers of the digital clock on the nightstand prove him right. He’s been out for forty-five minutes.

He’s still breathing hard, but reality slowly sinks back in. The adrenaline trickles out of his system. “Sorry,” he finally says. “You okay?”

“Yes,” Cas says brusquely. Then, more concerned, “Are you?”

Dean swallows, getting his body fully back under control. Cas gives him the time. He’s propped himself up on an elbow behind Dean now, his free hand resting on Dean’s hip.

Once his heartbeat has slowed to an acceptable rate, Dean takes a few more minutes to compose himself. “I’m sorry about tonight,” he says. It’s always easier to apologize in the dark. “Going with Lydia, I—I think after that, the, y’know—I needed to feel normal.” He adds hastily, “Nothing happened.”

If Cas is taken aback by the direction this conversation has taken, he doesn’t show it. “Well,” he eventually says, diplomatic. “We never said we were exclusive.”

Dean laughs miserably into his pillow. The low-hanging fruit waits to be plucked.

“Did you have a nightmare?” Cas says.

At this time of night, when everything is already hazy, the content of the dream has long since slipped through Dean’s fingers. “I don’t think so. But it wasn’t a good dream, either. I think my ex was there.”

Cas waits.

Dean rolls over, facing him. He leans forward, kissing him. Properly, finally. They move together, neither of them up for anything more strenuous. After Dean comes, he finishes Cas with his hand. During the comedown, Cas doesn’t stop kissing him. Even when Dean’s so tired he can’t kiss back anymore, Cas continues to kiss his slack mouth. He rests his forehead on Dean’s chest. Dean puts a hand in his hair.

When they finally break apart to sleep properly this time, Dean watches the numbers on the clock change for almost an hour before succumbing.

*

Dean sleeps later than he meant to, and hoofs it out of Cas’ place home in the late morning sun. He sneaks back into his own apartment, two to-go coffees and foil-wrapped burritos/alibis in his hands. Luckily, but also unsurprisingly, given the sleeper, Jo is still passed out on the couch, none the wiser.

Dean tosses one of the burritos onto her sleeping form and she snorts, blinking awake. “Rise and shine,” Dean says, depositing her coffee on the table. “Joe for Jo. And also a breakfast burrito. A burrit-jo.”

Without sitting up or looking around, Jo pats around the couch until she finds it. There’s a tearing sound, and then a grateful moan as she bites into it. “Ugh. Thanks.”

“Don’t get salsa on the couch,” Dean warns as he collapses into his rescued-from-the-dumpster armchair.

Jo surreptitiously rubs at the cushion. Dean rolls his eyes.

Eventually, Jo pushes herself up into a sitting position, yawning. She finishes the rest of her burrito and guzzles her coffee. It’s only then that she realizes Dean is still in the room. He waves at her, mouth full of sausage and scrambled eggs. She runs a hand through her hair, pushing it away from her face, and squints. “Are you still wearing the same clothes from last night?”

“… Yes,” Dean says, when he realizes he can’t lie his way out of this one. “I was really hungry.”

Jo stares him down. Then, she shrugs and gestures to his almost-gone burrito. “You gonna finish that?”

*

Regardless of how Dr. Milton described it, Dean was quite preoccupied with the fantasy of sneaking around in some top-secret position, clandestine meetings by candlelight and hat-brims pulled low in dark alleyways as he relayed intelligence that may prove pivotal in research that helps bring down an international environmental terrorism group intent on wiping out the entirety of the earth’s redwood forests.

In reality, he takes Milton’s suits to the laundromat, picks up milk for him, and occasionally helps him with his laptop troubles (he’s not even good with technology, but Dr. Milton once had trouble accessing his downloads folder). The man can barely work Chrome. Dean doesn’t say anything, too grateful for the paycheck and connection, but he swears Milton often has to scrounge around to find duties to hand off to him. He keeps his own schedule and contacts, never calls on weekends and only rarely on weeknights. In a way, it’s the perfect side-gig.

He mentions it to Cas one night while they’re eating a pretty lackluster frozen lasagna in Cas’ kitchen. Dean had been stuck late at the lab tonight, and the most he trusted Cas to do, culinarily, was pre-heat the oven. “It’s funny,” he says, an unappetizing bite of limp noodle on the end of his fork. “I can’t believe I never mentioned it before. Goes to show how uneventful it is, I guess.” He brings the fork to his mouth, but the noodle slides off and back onto the plate with a wet plop. “Ugh. I refuse. Wanna call something in instead?” He stands up, going to Cas’ junk drawer to rifle through all the takeout menus stashed there. “What do you feel like? Chinese, Indian, Thai… pizza. Pizza’s always good.”

When Cas doesn’t offer any opinion at all on pizza, Dean turns around. He’s still sitting, looking at Dean’s back with a kind of stunned, horrified expression.

“Okay,” Dean concedes. He waves the rainbow of menus in Cas’ direction. “No pizza, then. Back to the drawing board.”

Cas completely ignores him. “Who did you say this position was with?” he asks quietly.

“Uh,” Dean says. He drops the menus onto the counter. “Cain Milton? He was our professor for Economics of Forestry last semester.”

Cas’ face has gone a milky white. Dean moves forward, genuinely concerned. “Hey, are you okay? What’s the problem?”

“And all you’ve been doing for him is… busywork?” Cas says, voice unnervingly calm. His hand, lying by his plate, is balled up into a tight fist. When he catches Dean looking at it, he slides it off the table and out of sight.

“Yeah,” Dean says. “It’s weird, maybe. I don’t really know how stuff like this works. But he pays me in cash.”

Still eerily measured, Cas says, “You don’t see anything objectionable about that?”

Dean crosses his arms. “Like, morally? Sure, I’m not gonna claim it on my tax return, but it’s not even that much—”

Cas stands abruptly and Dean stops talking. “I think this is a bad idea,” he says.

“How?”

“I’ve heard things.”

“What things?”

“I don’t think you want someone like Cain Milton as your employer.”

Dean laughs a little. “C’mon, man. Milton’s kinda weird, a little absent-minded. Pretty intense. But he’s not a serial killer or something. What’s really going on?”

Cas makes a sound, like a bark of laughter. It brings Dean up short. Then he sighs. “Please don’t work with him in any capacity. If you need money, I can get you money.”

“It’s not about the money, Cas. It’s about the connections.”

Cas seems to be fighting some kind of internal battle. He starts to say something, then shakes his head, and continues to pace between the table and oven. While Cas is doing that, Dean texts Milton’s info to Charlie and tucks his phone back into his pocket.

“You okay over there, stud?” Dean says.

Cas stops, staring at Dean with wide eyes. Like he’d even forgotten he’s there. When he next speaks, it’s with a kind of resignation, a distance that Dean doesn’t understand but is too afraid to question. “All I’m asking is that you be mindful of your interactions with him.”

“Okay,” Dean says.

Cas sits back down at the table. Technically, he’s staring at the dark wood, but he really isn’t looking at anything. “Pizza is fine,” he says in a monotone, “if that’s what you want.”

The not-quite-argument is weird, but not weird enough for Dean to dwell on. Cas is weird, and has weird hangups. For the next couple days, Dean continues answering Milton’s calls like normal. He tells Charlie to keep the info he texted her handy, just in case.

Then, a few days later, he arrives outside Dr. Milton’s office for a scheduled meeting.

Voices come from inside. Loud voices. Louder than are usually heard in an administrative building on campus.

Dean, hand half-raised to knock, freezes. He checks his phone, but he’s right on time. A few minutes late, even, and it’s not Milton’s office hours.

The voices are too muffled for Dean to hear—this is one of the older buildings on campus, with much of its original structure still intact and way more soundproof than some of the newer, fancier renovation projects. Good bones, Milton would often say when they did work together.

Dean’s still in the same awkward, almost-knocking position when the voices stop altogether, and less than a second later, the door is ripped open by—

At the sight of him, Cas’ eyes go wide. “Dean?” Behind him, standing behind his desk, Dr. Milton is primping himself, tucking an errant strand of hair behind his ear. Dean only catches it for a second, but he’s looking at Cas with something like triumph burning in his eye. Then he turns his gaze to Dean. Both of their faces are flushed, Dean assumes from the exertion of shouting. He’s never heard Cas shout before.

“Dean,” Milton says, more warmly than he ever has before. “How wonderful to see you. I apologize for the ruckus. Wait.” He stops, putting a finger to his lips. He uses that finger to gesture between Castiel and Dean. “You know each other?”

Cas’ shocked expression turns into one of pure malice. He turns back to Milton. “You—” He sputters in his rage.

Dr. Milton fixes Cas with an icy stare. “As I mentioned before, Mr. Novak, I do have other things to attend to today. I’ll ask you to leave. Now.” He turns to Dean, gesturing to the chair in front of his desk. “Dean. Please sit down and make yourself comfortable. We’ve got a bit of work to trek through this afternoon.”

Cas is so angry he can’t even speak. With a whirl of his coat, he whisks out of the room, leaving a chill in his wake.

“Dean, again, I just want to—Dean?”

Dean’s already leaving. “Sorry. I’ll come right back. I just have to—I’ll be right back.”

He chases after Cas’ brisk steps and catches up to him just before he’s about to exit the building at the end of hall. “Hey. What the hell?”

Cas is incredibly agitated, jittery. He rubs a hand across his forehead. “You weren’t supposed to see that,” he says, his bland tone at complete odds with his body language.

“See what?” Dean says. “Does this have something to do with what you were saying the other night?” At Cas’ expression, he laughs awkwardly. “Did you like, fail his class or something?”

At Cas’ baleful expression—he looks like he’d rather chew off his own tongue than admit to anything—Dean laughs in disbelief. “Wait. Seriously?”

Finally, like pulling teeth, Cas says, “Yes.”

“Oh, sh*t,” Dean breathes out. “Sorry. You never said anything.”

“I was. Dealing with it.”

“Hey, man. I get it. But I don’t think getting into a screaming match is gonna help. You can go to the ombudsperson for stuff like this, you know.” He shrugs. “If you wanna do something illegal, Charlie probably wouldn’t mind changing your grade. Not that you should. But…”

“No,” Cas says stiffly. He glances back down the hallway, cagey. Dean follows his gaze, but there’s nothing there. “I have to go,” Cas declares. “I’m angry, and you have somewhere you need to be.”

“Uh, okay.”

Cas takes a deep, steadying breath. He glances down the hallway one more time, then looks back to Dean and rests a palm on his cheek. A touch of hysteria lingers in his eyes. “Can you come over tonight? I’d like to talk to you about something.”

“Sure.”

“Okay. I’ll see you later.” And with that, Castiel breezes out of the building.

*

When Dean arrives at Cas’ that night, freshly showered after a couple hours’ sitting in one position in a cramped office doing boring admin work, the mania from earlier has seemingly worn off. Dean’s barely gotten his shoes off before Cas is descending the stairs, wearing charcoal-gray woolen socks Dean knows costs more than anyone should reasonably expect to pay for such a thing.

Before he can even get a greeting out, Cas’ hands are encircling him, drawing him into a deep kiss. Surprised, but not displeased, Dean kisses back. Cas kisses him for so long Dean’s lips go numb. He pats Cas on the chest, laughing. “Hi.”

Cas pulls away, grinning. “Thanks for coming.”

“No problem,” Dean says. Cas’ hand has sneaked under his shirt, tracing nonsense into his skin. There’s still something off about Cas, but he can’t put his finger on it, and he’s reluctant to make it into a thing when Cas is in such a good mood, so different than he was not even a few hours ago.

With the niceties out of the way, Cas’ free hand rests on Dean’s neck, sliding around and back into his hair. He presses his hot mouth there instead, kissing him. Dean sighs out, content. “Let’s go upstairs,” Cas murmurs against Dean’s neck.

Dean nods, dropping his arms back and letting his unzipped jacket fall off before allowing Cas to lead him upstairs.

Especially recently, Cas has been tender in the bedroom. But tonight, his hands are all over Dean in a new way. He’s never not touching Dean, whether it’s running his hand through Dean’s hair or caressing his torso, watching the muscles there jump. He sucks Dean off, one of Dean’s hands scrabbling at his shoulder the whole time, until he comes. Unfussy as always, Cas swallows it down without any problem. He looks up at Dean briefly from between his legs, and Dean manages a dopey smile in return.

Cas kisses along the inside of his thigh, breath disturbing the sparse, peach-colored hair there. While Dean still watches, Cas kisses higher, to the crease of his hip and thigh. Then, to a much more suggestive area. He raises his eyebrows at Dean.

Dean swallows hard, cheeks flaming. “I haven’t—not for a while—”

“Don’t care,” Cas says. He wraps an arm around Dean’s thigh and returns to kissing it, leaving small bite marks along the way that will bloom into tender lavender bruises.

Dean squeezes his eyes shut. “Okay,” he admits to the ceiling.

Cas snaps into action. “Turn over.”

Dean does, heart thudding like a bass drum.

“Head down, hips up,” Cas instructs.

Dean does.

Cas’ hands remain on him, tracing up and down his thighs. The first touch of his mouth to Dean is an easy kiss to his flank. Then, he traces a path lower. Dean’s hands are clenched into fists. When he can feel Cas’ breath against him, inside him, he chokes out Cas’ name.

Cas doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t move either, beyond his continued ministrations of Dean’s thighs.

“Okay,” Dean says, after he’s composed himself as much as he possibly can in a situation like this.

The first touch of Cas’ tongue lights him up from the inside. Dean’s so overwhelmed he can’t hear the embarrassing, needy noise he feels escaping him. Cas works intently, alternating between short and long swoops of the tongue, pressed flat to him. Dean’s eyes are shut again, not because he can’t bear to look, but because he’s afraid of sensory overload if he opens them. Sweat breaks out on his forehead, the ache in his shoulders from holding himself up sweet and negligible.

Cas’ grip on his thighs tightens, and seconds later, Dean learns why. When Cas’s tongue enters him, his vision whites out for a moment. When he comes back to himself, he scrambles for anything nearby to hold onto for purchase, but the headboard is too high and the nightstands too far. He makes do with the curve of the mattress, his fingers stuck between it and the wall. Still he moves with the force of Cas’ thrusting. He buries his face in the pillow to hide his moans, every muscle in his body tense. His erection is back, full-stop, begging for release. When Cas reaches one hand to take care of it, Dean desperately tears his face away from the pillow to tell him no, not yet.

Cas hasn’t returned to the almost-beard status from January, but even his stubble rasping against Dean soon proves to be too much for him to handle. Defeated, melted, inebriated, Dean calls him off by pawing ineffectually backwards. Cas kisses him once more. “Turn over?” he says hoarsely, into Dean’s thigh. Quiet.

Dean does.

Cas moves forward, holding himself up over Dean. If his arms ever get tired being on top all the time, he never mentions it. They watch each other in the early-evening dark of Cas’ room. Dean knows Cas knows he usually doesn’t condone kissing after oral, but the space between them, a few inches at most, yawns unimaginably wide. Dean hitches a palm to the back of Cas’ neck and guides him down, but Cas resists at the last minute.

“One second,” he says, climbing off the bed and disappearing into the bathroom. Dean watches him go, mouth hanging open gormlessly. He hears the faucet running and the sound of brushing teeth.

A minute later, Cas returns. As he locates the lube in his nightstand drawer, he catches Dean’s expression in the mirror and chuckles. “I know how you are about hygiene. This is one of the few times I agree with you.”

Cas slicks himself up and climbs on top of Dean. After a few fingers to get him back in the mood, Cas presses into him. They’ve never done it missionary before. The angle is new, more restrictive in terms of movement, but Cas kisses him all the way through it, not even breaking stride mid-thrust. It doesn’t take long for Dean to come, and Cas follows soon after with a low, guttural sound. He stays inside Dean for longer than usual in the aftermath, stroking his hair off his forehead. Finally, he collapses beside Dean on the bed, leaving Dean’s throat sticky with words.

They lie, panting, cooling, dozing. Eventually, Dean’s stomach rumbles with hunger. He looks over at Cas, drenched in a pool of moonlight, watching him. His eyes are dark and deep. “Hey. Didn’t you want to talk about something?”

*

On the first morning of spring break, before the sun has risen, Dean parks the Impala in Cas’ driveway and lets himself in. Cas’ bed is so rumpled Dean initially thinks he’s still hidden somewhere under the covers, but then the bathroom door opens and Cas emerges, looking just as out of sorts as the linens. He stands in the doorway, pajamas slung low on his hips, squinting at Dean.

“It’s me. Dean? Dean Winchester?” He grins sunnily at Cas, who glowers at him as he begins to dig through his dresser in search of clothes.

“I changed my mind,” he says. “I’m getting on the private jet and you’re uninvited.”

“Aw, c’mon, Cas,” Dean says, sitting on the bed. When he stoops over to grab a pair of pants, Dean slaps his ass. Cas ignores the harassment and continues to get dressed.

“‘Afraid of flying,’” he grumbles as he struggles into a t-shirt. “Afraid of flying on a world-class private jet that has never even experienced a bumpy landing.” He continues to fight with the fabric until he realizes he’s attempting to shove his head through the arm hole.

“Don’t make fun of my phobia,” Dean says. “That’s rude.”

You’re rude,” Cas grouses. His voice is still sleep-deep gravelly. Tufts of hair stick up through the unoccupied neck hole of his t-shirt.

“Geez, you know it’s early when you’re resorting to stealing my comebacks. Tell you what. I’ll go get coffee. Give you a minute to iron your hair down.”

Dean’s just about to leave the room when Cas says his name. He turns around, and Cas is staring at him through the arm hole of his t-shirt. “Thank you.”

*

Eventually, they get going. Traffic is almost non-existent at this hour, so Dean doesn’t feel too bad about pressing the gas a little harder than he usually would. He caresses the steering wheel with delight. “Haven’t had a chance to take her out like this in a while. When I first got my license in South Dakota, I used to drive her around town all the time. There was this batty old lady who lived a few miles down the road, and she’d complain constantly about the sound of the engine. Said it disturbed all the ghosts in her house.” He laughs. “Ms. Gunderson… man. I wonder if she’s still around. I should send her a Christmas card next year.”

The sun slowly creeps up over the horizon, illuminating the blacktop in front of them in the early spring chill. Cas dozes on and off between sips of coffee, Dean keeping the music low.

As they hit the more start-and-stop traffic of Omaha, stuck at a red light in the heart of the city, Cas wakes fully, blinking blearily into a world that was much darker when he last saw it.

“Morning, sunshine.”

Cas still looks like he has one foot in another dimension, his hair having crept back into the sky, inching toward his home world, as he slept. When he realizes Dean is staring at him, the pinched expression on his face drops into a much softer, relaxed gaze. “Hello. I am here. Are we there yet?”

Dean chuckles. “You took that private jet to and from school I bet, too. No appreciation for the road, man.”

“I didn’t take a jet to school,” Cas says. After a moment he adds, daintily, “I went to boarding school.”

Dean snorts. “I don’t know if I’m ever gonna get used to that.”

The light changes, and Dean gets through the intersection. Traffic breaks up again after that, and the further they get outside Omaha, the more road they have to themselves. It’ll pick up again in Des Moines, and then again in Iowa City, but Dean doesn’t let that trouble him. On the sides and interchanges of the interstate, some brave foliage is attempting to bloom despite the chill that still clings to the air.

A few hours later, deep onto I-80, Cas says, “Why are you afraid of flying?”

Dean shrugs. “I dunno. I’ve only been on a plane once. Well, twice if you count flying back. Bobby and I went to visit a few schools in California when I was still deciding where to go.”

“What school?”

“Berkeley.” Dean scratches the back of his neck. “UCLA.”

Cas’ eyebrows fly up his forehead. “You got into Berkeley and UCLA?” He shakes his head. “I’m not surprised you got in. I’m only surprised you never mentioned it.”

“It’s not a big deal,” Dean says, the flush creeping up his neck telling an entirely different story. “When I was in high school, I watched so many movies I thought that was what I wanted to do with my life. Berkeley was actually the school that got me into public safety. Not that it did them any good.”

“What other schools did you apply to?”

“Whitmore.”

“Berkeley, UCLA, and Whitmore? Why on earth…”

Dean passes someone driving like an old person from California and gets back into the right lane. “Well, Sam was only thirteen or fourteen at the time, but the kid was dead set on California. I don’t think he was made for winter.”

“You were going to go all the way to California for Sam?”

Dean shrugs again. “I could’ve, but I didn’t. Being four years apart was great because I could beat him up real easy, but it made it tough to make big moves like that together. And, well.” He taps his pinky on the steering wheel, frowning at the person in the douchey Porsche tailgating him. “I wanted to be close to my parents. I wasn’t ready to disappear to the other side of the country and forget them there. That’s always been more Sam’s thing.” He shakes himself. “God. Not that I blame him. Much.” He taps the steering wheel. “You talk now. What was your first college called again? Bowdoin? What was it like?”

“Not my choice,” Cas says. Judging by the expression he makes after he says it, neither he nor Dean expected such a brusque answer. “It was fine,” he says. “Barely memorable.”

*

By hour fifteen and energy drink four, Cas forces them to switch off just outside Cleveland, in the badly-lit parking lot of a boarded-up gas station. Dean’s exhausted, but when he hands Cas the keys where they meet at the Impala’s nose, he puts both his hands around Cas’. “Treat her right.”

Cas nods solemnly, then pulls him into a kiss. It’s nothing scandalous, but when they break apart, Dean scans the parking lot for non-existent cars. Behind them, uncaring vehicles whoosh by on the highway.

*

Dean wakes a few hours later, neck stiff from sleeping at an odd angle, when the car stops and the key in the ignition is turned, killing the engine. He sits up immediately. “What’s wrong?”

Cas, lit by the overhead lights in the parking lot they’ve stopped in, gazes at him with wide eyes. “What?”

Dean twists around in his seat. They’re in the parking lot of some kind of lodge, the highway nowhere in site. The building is huge, built in the style of a log cabin, with warm yellow light emanating from the windows. “Where are we?”

“Stopping for dinner,” Cas says.

Dean rubs his eyes. “Couldn’t find a Denny’s?”

“I didn’t try.”

Cas instructs him to bring a change of clothes and his toiletry bag. He leads Dean into the building, the interior also dressed up like a log cabin, but like the HGTV-kind, expensive dark wood and soft plaid blankets on every surface. He gives his name to the woman at the registration desk, and she hands him a key after getting the Impala’s licence plate number.

“I thought we were getting dinner,” Dean says as they walk down a gently-lit hallway on the softest carpet Dean’s ever felt. He feels the need to whisper.

Cas stops in front of a door. “We are.” He unlocks it with the key, and with a smooth click, the door swings open to reveal a generously-sized room with a king bed that makes Dean’s jaw drop. The carpet in here feels the same as the hallway, but instead of a tan color, it’s a deep green. The walls are the same dark wood as the rest of the lodge, the furniture rustic but clearly well-maintained. He turns back to Cas.

“Dude.”

“I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have somewhere to shower,” Cas says. “It’s ours for the night, so we can do what we please with it, including just leaving.” There’s a small smile on his lips. It’s the same trick he pulled with the listening room, a huge gesture nestled within the even huger gesture of inviting Dean to his family’s vacation home for spring break. He wants to be annoyed, but one glance at the shower in the bathroom completely takes the wind out of his sails.

“It’s too much, Cas,” he says, and even he can hear how unconvincing his protest is. He’s also grinning like an idiot. He turns, to where Cas is still standing in the doorway. “I mean it. You didn’t have to do this.”

“Well,” Cas says, “you may be used to sitting in cramped conditions for twenty-hour hours straight, but I’m not. Personally, I would very much like to sleep in a bed.”

Again, Dean looks longingly at the bed. He brushes a hand over the cream-colored down comforter. “It is pretty soft.”

“Excellent,” Cas says, and puts down his suitcase.

*

They shower together, the water pressure unlike anything Dean’s ever experienced before. It feels especially good against his back as he sucks Cas off in the giant shower, Cas’ hand tight in his hair.

Dinner is in a huge dining room, only a few tables occupied at this time of night, at this time of year. It’s a fairly romantic setup, and Dean pulls nervously at the hem of the only nice sweater he has. “We could be brothers,” Cas offers, though a sour note in his tone, clearly meant to be hidden, slips out.

“Brothers sharing a room with one bed?”

“The server wouldn’t know that.”

Dean pulls himself together. “It’s fine,” he says, a little shakily. “Who the hell am I going to run into in—where are we, again?”

“Buffalo. This place is often used for corporate retreats and dinners.”

“I can see why,” Dean says, touching the square glass candle holder in the middle of their table. It’s heavy. His palms are sweaty, and when their server, a black-haired guy with dark eyes and a meticulously maintained beard, arrives, Dean orders a whiskey.

While they wait for their drinks, Cas says, “I didn’t mean for this to make you uncomfortable. I thought, maybe, getting away for a time may do you some good.”

Their server returns, setting down two glasses. Completely out of his element, Dean lets Cas order for the two of them. He takes a sip of whiskey and it goes down like water. It’s good, though.

When they’re alone again, he says, “Hey, if we’re living life this large all week, I’ll be great.” It’s a lame joke, with even worse delivery. Dean’s still pretty jittery from all the energy drinks. His nerves jangle in his fingertips and molars. “So tell me,” he says, “why are we going to your family vacation home if you—do you hate your family now? Are you speaking to them? I can’t keep track.”

“Rest assured, they won’t notice,” Cas says. “So long as we don’t leave a path of destruction in our wake, and even then, we could probably blame it on a hurricane and get away with it.”

“A path of destruction, huh?” Dean wrenches himself out of his bad mood with a vise grip. “That on your mind?”

Cas takes a demure drink.

Dean laughs warmly. He gestures at the dining room around them. Near them, a grand fireplace crackles. “This is nice. This whole—thing. Feeling. Like we’re in the middle of the woods.”

“We are,” Cas says, but he’s smiling behind the rim of his glass.

“You know what I mean,” Dean says.

Cas puts down his glass. “I do.”

A lump rises unexpectedly in Dean’s throat. “Isn’t it crazy,” he says. “In a couple months, we have to go out into the world and live the rest of our lives. Like. What the hell?”

“You’ll find your way,” Cas says.

“Will you?”

The expression on Cas’ face suggests he’s never considered such a thing. “I suppose—I hope so.”

Dean fiddles with the cloth napkin folded neatly under his cutlery. “It’s always been hard for me—” he falters, not meeting Cas’ gaze. “Picturing the rest of my life. Like, I’ve talked about it before. Answered all the ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ questions. But when I sit down and really think about it, well—” he swallows. “I try not to.”

“I’ve been told a lot of recent graduates feel that way. It’s a transitional time in everyone’s life.”

“That’s not—” Dean bites his tongue.

Cas watches him, waiting for him to continue.

“I guess you’re right,” Dean says. “It’s probably just post-grad jitters.”

“Probably,” Cas says, though his gaze lingers on Dean’s face.

Not long after, the food arrives. Cas explains everything. New York Striploin. Makes sense. Tastes better. Garlic butter melting on Dean’s plate and then on his tongue. Garlic mashed potatoes that render him speechless. Asparagus wrapped in slick bacon. Dean has to put a hand over his mouth after every bite to stifle the moans.

It doesn’t stop him from reflecting on what he left out of their earlier conversation. All through dinner, he considers the nebulous future he could never picture, and how, sitting across from Cas in this restaurant, sitting beside him in the Impala, showering together and sleeping beside him, has all started to coalesce into something. Like the blurry slide he’s been staring at under a microscope has finally come into focus.

*

Dean wakes up in the middle of the night because something feels wrong. He was always a light sleeper as a kid, especially after the fire. He caught Sam sneaking out more than once, one foot out the door or the window. Most of the time, he’d pretend he didn’t see and cover for him. Sometimes, if the weather was bad, he’d make Sam stay by threatening to rat him out. Sometimes, he’d sneak out along with him. Jo had the bad luck of a bedroom on the wrong side of the hallway. She hated being left out.

“Wrong” ends up being a little overdramatic. Cas’ side of the bed is cold, but he hasn’t gone far. He sits in one of the armchairs by the window, wearing his pajama pants and a sweater he must have grabbed from the car at some point during the night. Moonlight glints off him, the ice of his eyes and the straight line of his nose and jaw as he stares out the large window. His eyes are glazed over, seeing something other than their view of the dark woods beyond the lodge. He’s alien to Dean in this moment, in the late blue light. Not frightening—just strange. It’s absurd.

He gets out of bed and pads over to where Cas is sitting. When Dean runs his fingers through Cas’ hair, the set of his shoulders eases, but only for a breath. Dean circles to the front of the chair, both hands resting on Cas’ thighs as he bends down, knees on the plush carpet beneath. He massages the muscle there. Intimacy prickles through him, so strongly his mouth waters for it. He rests his head in Cas’ lap and closes his eyes. Though he doesn’t see it, he feels Cas’ hand move away from him. The timbre of his breath changes. He’s pressed the hand to his mouth, like something Dean would do.

Dean dozes for a while there, but soon Cas ushers him back to bed with gentle hands and shielded eyes.

In the morning, when Dean wakes, Cas is asleep beside him and he could swear it was nothing more than a golden whiskey-fueled dream.

*

Cas drives half the way, Dean drives the rest. Their destination is tucked away in eastern New Hampshire, nestled right up against the Maine border, at least half an hour from any kind of civilization. As they cruise along a deserted, potty road encompassed by forest, Dean casts a worried glance in Cas’ direction. “You’re sure we’re going the right way?”

“I’m sure.”

“There’s like—nothing out here, man. Other than the perfect setup for a horror movie.”

“No one will bother us,” Cas says. He looks like a jagged piece of paper, folded even worse. Used to more legroom and champagne on his travels, undoubtedly. “This is a home meant for rest and relaxation, which is exactly why no one in my family is ever here.”

Ten minutes later, he directs Dean down a private driveway. Immediately, the ground smooths beneath the Impala’s tires. The tinkling of loose gravel picking away at her undersides is already an unpleasant memory.

They turn a corner, and Dean’s mouth drops open.

In front of them is an A-frame cabin—a house, really, a full house—sitting alone in the middle of the woods. It’s made of a dark wood, with most of the front wall glass, the inside dark and impenetrable. There’s a front porch, made of the same wood, where glossy, well-made furniture sits. The only sign of neglect is the long-dead flower baskets that hang from hooks under the porch. It looks like it’s straight from the “After” section of an HGTV show.

At the end of the driveway, Dean parks the Impala and gets out in a trance. The smell of pine was already in the car, but out here it hits him full-on, strong enough to sting his eyes. He gapes at Cas. “This is your ‘rest and relaxation’ house?”

Cas, however, isn’t paying any attention to him. In a daze, he drifts toward the porch, to one of the dead flower baskets. He massages a brown petal between his fingers and it disintegrates beneath his touch. “Oh, right,” he says distantly. “We fired Joshua.”

“Cas,” Dean says, a little choked. The enormity of Cas’ wealth is something he’s done his best to not consider at any great length, for risk of complete apoplexy. In the face of what is on the surface an upper-upper class vacation home, but is actually a structure that makes Dean feel, deep in his bones, a cosmic uneasiness, he falters. Maybe it’s the severity of the architecture meant to inspire tranquility, maybe it’s the black roof jutting into the ground with a strange, cold ferocity. Mostly, it’s the sheer smallness this entire endeavor illuminates in Dean. “Cas,” he says again, still standing by the driver’s side door.

Cas turns around, blinking. In his navy knit sweater and tan pants, he looks like he’s stepped straight out of the glossy pages of a magazine. The house is having some kind of effect on him as well. Childhood memories, maybe. There’s a nervousness in his face, but he swallows it down and smiles. “Come on. Let me show you around.”

Dean licks his lips. It’s just a house.

It’s a beautiful house. There’s no denying that. Despite the outside, the inside is done all in muted earth tones, browns and blues and greens and grays. The kitchen (homey but modern), living room (cozy but uncreased), bathroom, dining area, guest rooms, and “studio” (“Not once has that ever been used for any reason whatsoever”) all take up the ground floor. Up the stairs that zigzag up the back of the cabin, the entire floor is a loft master bedroom, done in the same colors as below. Sloping angles and soft textures abound, a king-sized bed pushed up against a giant window overlooking the forest. There’s a proper stone fireplace downstairs, but a smaller, electric one is embedded in the center of this room, where a wall of brick separates the bed from the rest of the bedroom.

Cas drifts to the giant windows at the front of the house, the Impala visible below. Dean follows him. “I mean, obviously, this is amazing.” After a moment, he adds, “I’ve never been further east than St. Louis. Bobby took me, Sam, and Jo to a ball game when we were kids. Cardinals versus Cubs. It was incredible.” He laughs a little. “After a few innings, we were bored stiff. He had to buy us a bag of popcorn as big as us just to stop our whining.”

Staring down the driveway, Cas smiles, a little sad. “To be honest, we’re here in the wrong season. In the fall, the colors are—well. The whole forest is on fire with them. You should see them.” His gaze drops, the smile slipping. “Anyway,” he says hurriedly. “Welcome. Make yourself at home, of course.”

Dean glances at the bed, then back at Cas. “Those sheets clean?”

“Absolutely.”

“Sounds good to me,” he says, and kisses Cas.

*

Dean leaves his phone on silent. As far as everyone else knows, he’s gone to Quebec for the week and hasn’t bothered with an international data plan. The way Charlie looked at him when he told her this made him nervous, but her only response was to wish him a good trip. Jo even offered to drive him to the airport. Dean politely declined.

In response to this story, Cas offered to teach him some rudimentary French. Dean also declined this invitation, less politely.

“Are you ever going to break up?” Cas asked on the drive up. They were somewhere in Illinois, just passing the tip of Lake Michigan. They pulled over in Gary, walking along a beach. Dean had never seen so much water on the horizon. “With Caroline.”

“No, I’m going to marry her,” Dean said, still staring at the lake. He’s never seen the ocean. “And then I’m going to fake my own death, move to Canada, and become a lumberjack.”

“Okay.”

“It’s a joke.”

“I didn’t realize.”

“Lake’s really cool,” Dean said. “I never thought about how a lake smelled before.” He sighed. “Obviously, we’re going to break up. Probably after graduation.”

“Okay,” Cas said, and didn’t bring it back up again. They got back in the car and kept driving, and soon, the lake disappeared from view entirely.

*

Those first couple days in the house, they don’t go anywhere aside from a single grocery run. They fall into a routine, similar but not identical to the one in Nebraska since Dean started staying over. They spend hours tucked away in the cabin in the forest, and nothing is wrong with the easy domesticity. Dean cooks everything, but they often forgo food for sex until someone’s stomach rumbles loud enough they’re forced to attend to it. Dean tops for the first time, making a huge production out of it. He stretches. He flexes. He wears a snapback and turns it backwards. It’s only then that Cas casually reminds him he’s topping, not preparing for the big game. In return, Dean says, “Ride ‘em, cowboy,” and Cas gives up and lets him have his fun. And it is fun. In the aftermath, when Dean’s still gooey and loose-tongued, he admits to Cas he prefers it the other way around. The next time they have sex, Cas appears wearing the snapback and Dean throws a pillow at him.

One night, they crack into the wine cellar that Dean didn’t even know existed. He’s never been a wine-drinker, but Cas assures him this bottle is from a good year. They drink out of fancy glasses and sit on the couch in the living room, sprawled out in front of a roaring fire. Like everything else, the mantle is impressive, huge and made out of gray stone. Dean tells Cas about his and Charlie’s ongoing argument on the merits of subplots, and Cas is just tipsy enough to listen, but not drunk enough to pretend to understand. “Movies are important,” Dean says, north of tipsy himself. He’s got a cream-colored afghan half slipping off his lap and a too-full glass in his hand. Cas watches him, eyes bright and cheeks flushed, with absolutely no interest in what he’s saying. “All our heroes are in movies. All those orphans who get to go on super cool adventures. That’s how me and Charlie met.” He takes another sip. If he focuses, he can see his mouth has been stained red. “At some sh*tty party during haze week—yeah, stop laughing, I pledged—Castiel, stop—Cas—” He’s laughing, they’re both laughing. “Shut up! I dropped out.” He can feel his face turn pink, pinker than the wine’s already made him. “Wasn’t about to let a bunch of dudes flog my ass, or whatever. God, you’re the worst. Can I tell my heartwarming friendship story now, please?” Cas quiets down, but his shoulders still occasionally shake with mirth. “So all these dudes are running around half-naked, doing the stupidest freshman sh*t you can imagine, and Charlie and I had gotten to talking because—okay, well, I started talking to her because I was trying to pick her up, but, forgetting that part—trust me, I really wish I could—and we’re talking about movies, about orphans, and badasses, and hot adventure chicks, the whole shebang. We just talk for hours about movies. It was crazy. Because all those other kids wanted to be those orphans, y’know? They all wanted to go on those adventures. Like Luke. Like Frodo. Batman. Spider-Man. Harry Potter—which she made me read, eventually. Dorothy from Wizard of Oz. But all those kids, those unlucky sons of guns had parents. The two of us, though…” Dean jabs a finger at himself. “We were first in line for that kind of sh*t, if the movies were to be believed.” He laughs. “Then we went back to her place, marathoned the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and fell asleep together on her couch.” He considers. “It was the first night I spent with a girl in college.”

“Charlie’s good for you,” Cas says. “She’s a good friend.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. “She is. I’ll always owe her more than I can ever pay her back.”

“I think we all have people like that in our lives.”

Dean snorts into his wine glass. “You? Who could you never possibly afford to pay back?”

Cas levels him with a despairing glare.

Dean drops his gaze, flushing. Then, a smooth hand is cupping his jaw, drawing him up and into a kiss. Cas’ glass sits on the wooden coffee table, the liquid still sloshing against the rim as Cas’ other hand threads through his hair. Dean barely gets his own glass out of the way before Cas throws a knee over his lap, straddling him, never breaking the kiss. When he pulls away, he’s breathing hard and his eyes are clear, melted ice. “Adventures,” he says. “You like them. Let’s go on one. Let’s go away.” He kisses Dean’s neck while he waits for a response.

Dean laughs. Cas’ hands feel so good. His mouth feels so good. “We are away.”

“I wish we could stay away. Hey.” Cas pulls back, looking at him. His hair is hilarious, eyes alight. “Let’s go to Europe. Florence. Prague. Madrid. We’d always be moving. They’d never find us.”

Dean laughs again, the wine making him snort. “What are you talking about, you weirdo?” His laughter dies, a little. His voice dips quieter. “What are you talking about?”

Cas sits back. For a moment, he doesn’t say anything. The fire in his eyes dims, only to be replaced by a wan drunkenness. “Nothing.”

*

Eventually, they venture out of the house. The first thatch of sentient life they see, Dean feels like he’s coming out of a dream, emerging after years beneath the surface.

The closest civilization is small, bustling with the kind of small-town hospitality that inevitably erupts in bouts of homicidal rage in the back half of every Stephen King book. Dean feels like a bug under a microscope here, barely even looking at Cas for fear of some plaid-wearing no-name townie getting an inkling of their private business.

“I’m thankful for them, in a way,” Cas says in the pasta aisle of a local grocery store with shelves stacked from floor to ceiling. He’s staring at a box of rotini. They’re alone at the moment, but the store isn’t very big and Dean knows there are other shoppers milling around. “Without them maybe listening in, it would be a lot less exciting to tell you how excited I am to get you back to the house and out of those clothes.”

Dean’s face flames, probably a dangerous shade of maroon. “Dude.”

Cas puts the box back on the shelf. “Why does pasta come in all these shapes? I don’t get it. It’s all the same product. What?” he says, to Dean’s scandalized look. Playing dumb.

They’re near the end of the aisle at the back of the store. Dean pokes his head around a display of fusilli, but he can’t see anyone else. His gaze whips back to Cas. “What the hell was that?”

“What was what?” Cas tries to push the cart, but Dean stops him.

“You know what.”

Cas stops. He leans his elbow on the cart’s handle, surveying Dean. “I should’ve realized. From early on, actually.”

“Realized what?”

“Well, nothing. Because you straight out told me before I could figure it out.”

“Told you what?”

Cas counts them off on his fingers. “The Halloween parade. The library. On the deck stairs at that party—I was really sore after that one. The party just a few weeks ago. Your Chem lab.”

“I—” Dean licks his lips and shuts his mouth. “C’mon.”

“I’m trying to give you what you want,” Cas says. “You’re so…” He gestures at the shirt Dean’s wearing. It’s not even Dean’s, but one he stole out of one of the giant chestnut wardrobes back in the cabin. “Buttoned up.”

“What you’re giving me is an asshole. Asshole behavior. Whatever.” He scoffs. “You make it sound like I’m some kinda Amish prude.”

“I mean… you kind of are.”

Dean glares at him balefully. “I f*ck.”

“I know.”

“You’re saying the only way to not be an Amish prude is to tell all the hicks in this town what you do to me at night?”

“Not just at night.”

“Christ, why is everything like pulling teeth with you.” Dean means to storm off in a snit, but instead he collides with an elderly woman’s cart full of Ensure as she’s rounding the corner of the aisle next to them. Dean’s face burns. “Sorry, ma’am,” he mumbles as she disappears toward the dairy section. He turns back to Cas. “You don’t think she heard that.”

Cas shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“But you do know enough to tell me all about what I want.”

You told me,” Cas says, as they finally get moving again. They turn into the cereal aisle. “But also, yes. I think you could tell from space you have a bit of a shame thing going on.”

“A shame thing?”

“Dean, you were grinning like a fool after you got goaded into kissing me at that party. They didn’t even have to try that hard.”

Dean’s memory of that night is hazy at best, but the feeling of satisfaction at being able to kiss Cas in front of his friends isn’t one he can so easily ignore. “I was drunk.”

“It makes sense,” Cas says as he drops a box of Frosted Flakes into the cart. “What with your whole… deal.”

They fall silent as a middle-aged woman passes them, giving them not a rude side-eye, but a side-eye nonetheless.

When she turns the corner, Cas continues as he browses pancake mixes (they managed to go through a whole box in a few days—Dean’s been introducing Cas to the culinary miracle known as breakfast-for-dinner). “It’s not supposed to be a bad thing. In fact, it’s supposed to be the exact opposite.” He surveys Dean, curious. “How do you feel right now?”

Dean takes stock of himself. The pounding of his heart, the flushed cheeks, the salivary glands in overdrive. Normally, he’d mistake it for anger. He does, in fact, glare at Cas, jaw set.

Cas smiles.

They hurry through the rest of their shopping. In the frozen aisle, Cas crowds Dean against a freezer door and kisses him against a backdrop of lasagnas. When Cas pulls away, Dean automatically falls forward, searching for more, until he comes back to himself, red-faced. In the produce section, while Dean’s looking dubiously at a bunch of asparagus, Cas mentions how much he’d like to bend Dean over the stand. Dean drops the asparagus and heads straight to the checkout, practically dragging Cas behind him.

Back at the cabin, the ice cream doesn’t even make it into the freezer before Dean is pulling Cas into a heated kiss. Dean ends up pressed against the second floor window, pants bunched around his thighs, while Cas thrusts against his ass, leaving marks on his back and shoulders.

Getting f*cked against a giant window is neither as sexy nor as comfortable as p*rn makes it look, but that doesn’t stop Dean from coming hard enough that his lights blink out for a second. His legs, full jelly, fold beneath him, and he finishes Cas off with his hand from where he sits. Cas comes, and it hits Dean on the cheek, which makes him laugh and sends muted arousal flooding back through him. He and Cas kiss lazily in the sunlight streaming inside, the glass keeping the cold and the world at bay, just enough.

*

A few days later, Dean suggests they go out to a bar, with the express intent of, after a couple beers, dragging Cas into the less-than-well-maintained single-stalled bathroom and sinking to his knees the second the door is locked.

Cas doesn’t have a bad word to say about it, cupping Dean’s face while Dean sucks him down. His gag reflex has gotten better over the past six-ish months, and there’s little he enjoys more than the weight and heat of Cas in his mouth, Cas’ hands touching him all over, pulling his hair and patting his cheeks, thumb swiping the freckled, delicate skin under his eyes. When Cas comes, Dean swallows it all down eagerly. Cas swipes a thumb across the corner of his mouth, where he missed a spot, and Dean wraps his lips around it.

“Okay,” Cas sighs as he lazily zips his fly. He helps Dean to his feet. “I take it back. You’re not an Amish prude.”

Dean leans against Cas, pressing his own aching dick against Cas’ thigh as he indolently rubs one out. In real life, back in the real world, he would never even dream of doing this—not with Cas, probably not even with a girl. Cas encourages him with a hand on his back and a hand in his hair, and his org*sm is pulled out of him in a long, sinuous motion that leaves him keening. Blowing Cas always gets him almost there, anyway, sometimes even all the way. It never takes much for him to follow suit once Cas has come. As he’s nuzzling at Cas’ neck (“catlike,” Cas called it once, and Dean sulked for the rest of the afternoon), a loud thumping comes from the door. A gruff voice snaps to hurry it up in there.

High on endorphins, on being far away, on being in Cas’ company, Dean makes him leave first. Ten seconds later, to the surprise of the three-deep line, Dean also exits, swagger in his shaky steps. The guy closest to the door, the thumper, is muscular and tall, a biker-type with a handlebar mustache. He gives Dean a blatantly, comically revolted look, and Dean winks, stomach in his throat.

He catches up with Cas in the empty parking lot, throwing an arm around him and laughing hard enough he can see his breath in the dark. “sh*t,” he says, running a hand over his face. “Oh, f*ck me. That was dumb.” He giggles, high pitched. “Hell. sh*t. Damn. f*ck. Man, this is nuts—” He stops mid-sentence, smile fading. Cas is staring at something over his shoulder, stunned.

Slowly, Dean turns around.

It’s just a guy. He stands a few feet away. Average-looking. Sweating alcohol. He’s just as stunned as Cas, hands shoved into the pockets of his puffy grey jacket. For a second, Dean thinks he’s about to get the sh*t kicked out of him for the stunt they just pulled, but the guy doesn’t even glance at him. He has eyes only for Cas.

“Jimmy,” he says blankly. The stunned look melts away, his face transforming. A raw fury takes its place.

Cas’ expression has turned to stone. “Apologies,” he says. “You must have mistaken me for someone else.”

The guy reels back. He looks like he’s just seen a ghost, face white and pasty. There are bags under his eyes, his skin rough and clothes ill-fitting. “Really?” he says. “You’re playing this game?”

Cas has started to move again, walking toward the Impala. His gait is stiff. “I’m not playing a game,” he says over his shoulder. The guy follows. “I don’t know who you are.” There are only a few keys on Dean’s keychain, but Cas seems to be having trouble finding the right one.

The guy finally takes note of Dean with a disbelieving scoff. “Caught another one, huh?”

Dean holds out his hands, palms down. “Man, we don’t want any trouble—”

“What’s this one got?” The guy is turned back to Cas, who’s still fumbling with the keys. He gives up and slams his palms on the frame of the Impala. “Money? Connections? Air Miles?”

“Dean, get in the car.” Cas hands him the keys without looking at him.

“Or is he just in your way?”

Dean moves to the passenger seat, so the car is between him and Cas and the guy. When he doesn’t open the door, Cas looks up at him. “Dean. Please.”

Dean gets in the passenger seat. He leans over and unlocks Cas’ door. Cas and the guy exchange a few more words, but Dean purposely doesn’t listen. Their voices wash over him, and he stares resolutely forward at an old pay phone at the edge of the parking lot. He guesses how many people have used it in the last three years.

Cas gets in the car and closes the door. Dean hands him the keys.

The guy is closer now, standing near enough to the car he can knock on the window. His knuckles thump against it. He’s too drunk for a sharp rap rap rap. He nods at Cas. “You can burn in Hell.” His voice is warbled by the window, but not muted. He bends down a little further, making eye contact with Dean. His skin is sallow, creased prematurely. “God, was I a stupid sh*t.” He stumbles away from them, back toward the bar.

The second the guy isn’t in hit and run range, Cas shoves the keys into the ignition and they peel out of the parking lot. They drive in silence. Neither of them turns on the radio. Dean feels a little sick. Cas keeps driving. Dean doesn’t know the roads here very well, but they’ve definitely been driving longer than it took them to get here. Finally, he says, “What. The f*ck was that.”

Cas’ grip tightens on the wheel. His face gives nothing away. “A mistake. Clearly.”

They drive for a little while longer. It’s pitch black out and everything but the bars is closed. Dean stares out the window the whole time. He only realizes he’s staring at water when the Impala stops and the world outside the window keeps moving, shimmering in the moonlight. Cas has taken him to the coast. He mentioned to him, back in Illinois, that he had never seen the ocean. He registers its immense, all-encompassing nature with a dull awe.

“How much do you expect me to ignore?” Dean says to his window. The glass fogs up as he speaks. “I’m starting to feel like the girlfriend in one of those gangster movies. God, are you in the mob?” It’s supposed to be a joke, but his voice comes out flat. “Please don’t tell me you’re in the mob.”

“I’m not in the mob.”

Dean closes his eyes, but Cas doesn’t say anything else. Not that he expected him to. Not that he ever does.

Over the next little while, Dean dozes on and off. Occasionally, Cas’ fingers brush through his hair. The air smells salty and it makes Dean’s nose wrinkle. He spends time lost under a wave of his own, an unnameable, terrifying, sucking emotion that he can’t fight off, can only wallow in. The car is chilly, but Cas turns the heat on every once in a while to stave off the worst of the cold.

Eventually, the horizon threatens dawn. They’re parked on the shoulder of a two-lane highway, the ocean to their right and Cape Cod mansions to their left. There’s a no parking sign a few feet ahead of them, but Dean hasn’t seen a single car all night. The curtains across the street may start rustling soon, though.

Dean grabs a leftover sweater from the back seat and tugs it on. He gets out of the car and shuts the door behind him. The smell of the sea is stronger here. He’d always wondered about it. His mom used to tell him stories about the road trip she took with John when she was unknowingly pregnant with him. They saw the ocean in North Carolina. She said it smelled like yucky fish. She’d always wrinkle her nose when she said it, and it made Dean laugh. She promised to take Dean to the ocean one day so he could smell it for himself.

He climbs over the low wall between the shoulder of the road and the rocky outcrop on the other side. He’s wearing flip-flops and mindful of the slippery stones beneath his feet. He walks out until the tips of his shoes touch the water, lapping gently over his toes. It’s really cold, but it doesn’t smell like yucky fish.

The clacking of stones behind him tells him Cas has followed him out here. A cool breeze blows between them. Streaks of pink and orange and gray line the horizon now.

“You know,” Dean says, “I’m just realizing now how much my mom lied to me.”

There’s a moment of silence. “About what?” Cas says.

Dean squints into the wind. It makes his eyes water. That and the salt. “Everything. Her cooking. What the ocean smells like.” He shrugs. “Santa.”

“My parents never lied to me about anything,” Cas says. He stands next to Dean now. “It was an… efficient child-rearing strategy.”

“I mean, I get it,” Dean says. “You lie to your kids all the time. To get them to shut up, to stop bothering you, to keep the magic alive, whatever.” He shoves his hands in his pockets. “I never knew her, not really. And I never will.”

“She loved you,” Cas says. “I suppose I can’t know that, because I didn’t know her. But I don’t think you’d be who you are today if that wasn’t true.”

Dean looks at him for the first time in hours. The sunrise is catching him at just the right angle, outlining him in gold. The moment is unreal. Dean loses his grip on reality, just a brief slip. He reaches out and grabs Cas’ hand, intertwining their fingers. Cas watches him, and his expression crumples from the inside out. He puts a hand on Dean’s cheek, drawing him in. With the swell of the sea in the background and alone at the edge of the world, they kiss.

*

MESSAGES: CHARLIE

Dean: We need to talk when I get back.

Chapter 9: April

Chapter Text

April

Dr. Milton invites him for a coffee. They meet at one of the not-a-Starbucks on campus. He drinks his coffee black. Dean gets an Americano that tastes like an Americano—so, like piss.

“I wanted to clear the air,” Milton says. He’s dressed more casually today than he is when teaching. His shirt sleeves are rolled up to his elbows. His hair is pulled back into a ponytail, but the ever-present loose lock of hair is still swinging free and clear. Dean even caught a glimpse of loafers under their table. “What happened a few weeks ago with Mr. Novak was… unprofessional.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Dean says. “I talked to him. He explained. It’s cool.”

“He told you what was going on,” Milton confirms.

“Yeah. It sucks that he failed. I had all my notes. We could’ve studied together.” Although he and Cas weren’t exactly on speaking terms at that point in the semester. “Well, he could’ve borrowed them, anyway.”

Milton raises his eyebrows. “It sounds like you two are quite close.”

“We’re friends,” Dean says carefully.

He strokes his beard thoughtfully. “You know, I’m on the library’s board of directors. I help oversee many of the projects that it takes on.”

Dean takes a sip of his Americano. “Oh, yeah?”

“Part of that job is accepting donations, as well as allocating said funds.”

Dean doesn’t even put his cup down. He just takes another sip. “Oh, yeah?”

Milton sits back, surveying him. There’s a curious glint in his eye. “Did you know that you’re the only Winchester who has attended this school in four years?”

Dean shrugs nervously, trying to smile. “I’m one of a kind. Kinda.”

“I know you spend quite a bit of time in the library—I love the glasses, by the way—so I can’t imagine the new listening room has gone unnoticed by you. Dedicated to a Mary Winchester?” Milton is searching for some kind of reaction, but Dean doesn’t know what. “Ever heard of her?”

His mouth has gone completely dry. He swallows, and it hurts. Something occurs to him. He clears his throat. “If you accept the donations, does that mean you know who’s behind the money? I, uh, noticed it was an anonymous donor.”

Milton leans forward. He puts a hand on Dean’s knee, too familiar. Eager. “It’s completely confidential. But you’ve been so helpful to me these last few months. I want to repay that kindness.”

Dean doesn’t move his knee, and Milton doesn’t remove his hand. “Do you happen to have a pen?” he asks. “Ears everywhere. If anyone else on the board heard me talking about this, they’d have my head.”

Dean probably has one kicking around somewhere, but he’s more than happy to slip out of the chair and ask the barista to borrow one. He returns to the table and slides the pen to Milton. Milton grabs a spare napkin and writes something down. He returns it to Dean.

Dean reads the name on the napkin. He rubs his temples.

*

Dean’s haunted almost every bar in the county at least once, but this one is new and trendy (for Nebraska) and Charlie wants a pink drink Dean will scoff at, then proceed to down half of when she offers him a sip.

When he shows up with Cas in tow, she gives him a strange look while Cas is busy taking his coat off, but plays along. Before they’ve even sat down, she says, “Okay,” and puts her palms flat on the table. “I want all the spicy Canadian deets.”

Dean holds up a finger. “Beer first. Otherwise, it’s not polite to kiss and tell.”

Charlie scoffs. “You kiss and tell all the time. You love to kiss and tell.”

“And that?” Dean says. “Is wrong of me.” He looks to Cas. “Pick your poison.”

“Alcohol.”

“And a pink drink,” Charlie says, examining the laminated menu card on their table. “It’s called the strawberry storm, or cherry blush, or something equally embarrassing. The Strawberry Hurricane Tornado Twister. That sounds awful.”

“I’m not saying that many words to the bartender,” Dean says.

“Just say ‘the dumb pink drink’, he’ll know what you mean,” Charlie says dismissively, waving him off.

“I’ll get it,” Cas says. He walks past Dean, clapping a hand on his shoulder. Charlie watches the exchange, but when he sits down, she has nothing to say about it, though she does stare at him expectantly. Dean waits until Cas has disappeared into the crowd before leaning forward.

“I don’t know anything for sure,” he says. “I just—we were hanging out and I didn’t want to just ditch the guy—”

Charlie holds up a hand. She massages her temples. After they got back from New Hampshire, Dean had passed out in his own bed for twelve straight hours, then gone right to coffee with Milton. As soon as he got back, he collapsed onto his couch, then woke up not long after to the sound of Charlie banging on his door after he didn’t answer any of her thirteen texts. He told her the fullest version of the story he could, about what Milton told him. He made her promise not to ask any questions about the donation. It’s only tonight that they’re finally regrouping, and Dean shows up with Cas on his tail, because they spent the afternoon having sex and watching old episodes of Star Trek.

“Okay,” she says slowly, parsing it out. “What do we really know?”

Dean bites his lip, pretending like he hasn’t known this information for months and held back on it for—reasons. “He attended Bowdoin College under a different name. That’s why we couldn’t find him in their records. And that name… is probably James. James something. Wait. The full name, I’ve got it right—” Dean’s still fumbling for it in his pocket when Cas returns, setting down everyone’s drinks. Charlie’s is truly a sight to behold, an awful, rosy concoction sloshing around in a fishbowl, dotted with plastic umbrellas. Cas got Dean some fancy foreign draught and a whiskey sour for himself.

“Thanks,” Dean says, smiling weakly as Cas takes his seat beside him.

Charlie, averting Cas’ gaze, takes a long sip from her fishbowl, her entire face puckering. “Oh, my God.” She coughs. Dean reaches for it as well, taking a sip of his own. It flows, sweet and cold and slushy, over his tongue. His eyes water.

He takes another sip. “This is disgusting.” And another.

Charlie hits the table again. “Deets. You promised.”

“Right,” Dean says. He takes a swig of his beer to chase the sugar off his tongue. It’s strong, but not bad. Dean doubts he could even pronounce its name. “Canada. It’s, uh. Cold. And French.” He toasts with his beer. “C’est la vie.”

“How was your time with Caroline?” Cas says.

“Good,” Dean says immediately. “We hit it off, which is weird, because we already knew each other. Seeing someone outside of the context you already know them in is always weird. Kinda evens the playing field, y’know?”

“I’m glad,” Charlie says. “Did you guys do anything fun? Ice skating? Skiing? Eating maple syrup on snow?” She nods knowingly at them. “They do that, up there.”

“Yes, no, no,” Dean says. “Although there was poutine.”

Charlie’s eyes go wide. “Tell me about it.”

“It was great.”

“I knew it,” she says, and takes a sip of the fish bowl.

The night passes like so many other nights they’ve spent together over the past nine months, even with the weight of the name in Dean’s pocket. He edges closer to Cas over the course of the next couple hours or so, never touching, but close enough that he can smell the whiskey on his breath. They talk about nothing important. Dean makes up more inane anecdotes about Caroline and Quebec. He pretends he’s telling stories about someone else. Charlie tells them about the grad schools in Europe Dorothy is thinking of applying to. “I don’t think I could live in Europe,” Charlie says. “I eat too much Taco Bell after midnight. And where would I even put my car?”

“In the trash, where it belongs,” Dean says, and Charlie throws a balled-up napkin at him.

Cas’ tendency to take the back seat in social situations never stops him from holding the strings of his more effervescent conversational partners when they start to sway too adrift. His comparatively low, slow voice washes over Dean like a balm in between sips of Charlie’s abomination, his own beer long finished. Most of the slush has melted, leaving them with a mixture of water, sugar, and liquor.

After a particularly gruesome sip, Dean leans his head on Cas’ shoulder. He definitely didn’t eat enough before coming out. “I’m tired.”

Cas stiffens. “Yes,” he says. “I can tell.”

The haze of drunkenness keeps Dean from being hugely embarrassed as Charlie’s gaze tracks between his smushed face and Cas’ shoulder. He closes his eyes, and Cas begins telling Charlie a story that involves him backpacking across Europe with one of his father’s friends, or something equally skeevy. Drunk Charlie is a good audience, gasping and hissing at all the right parts. Dean both tries to and avoids getting too comfortable where he is as Cas describes a trip to an Italian bordello that went incredibly sideways. Charlie has both hands over her mouth in horror. “He didn’t know?”

“It was hard to tell, actually, whether he didn’t know, or whether he did know but didn’t… know. Either way, he paid and I got all the way into the room and the unfortunate girl had her top halfway off before I was able to explain, in broken Italian, that I wasn’t interested. It was only later that I found out I had mistakenly informed her I was more interested in cars. In retrospect, it made sense why she left so fast after that.”

Charlie snorts into her drink. “I’m sorry, that’s—I mean, that’s horrible. But hilarious. But horrible.”

A small, acquiescent smile graces Cas’ face. “It was many things, including both of those.”

“sh*t, dude,” Charlie says. She leans back in her chair, shaking her head. “People have to learn to use their eyes.”

“That’s never going to happen,” Cas says.

Charlie shrugs. “A girl can dream.”

Dean unpeels himself from Cas. “You guys are depressing me,” he says, standing. Wobbling. “I think we need another fishbowl.”

Charlie and Cas share a dubious look across the table. Charlie is pretty drunk herself, but Cas stopped a while ago. He did not enjoy Charlie’s pink drink. “Uh,” Charlie says, her inebriated vocal fry drawing out the syllable, “are you sure?”

Dean closes his eyes, stands on one foot, and loses his balance before he can touch his nose. “I think so.”

Are you?” Charlie says. “Thinking?” Half a second later, she smiles, and her tone softens. “Wanna grab me a water?”

Dean salutes her. Before he’s even turned around, Charlie is leaning across the table, talking intently to Cas, though her eye lingers on him as he walks away.

The guy behind the bar is probably a few years older than Dean, and handsome. When Dean sidles up, the bartender meets him right away. Dean leans both of his elbows on the counter, rocking back and forth. He smiles drunkenly. “Hi.”

The bartender smiles back. He’s clean-shaven. White teeth that stand out against his light brown skin. Great smile. “Hi,” he says. He’s humoring Dean, but he’s sizing him up, too.

“Can I get…” Dean purses his lips. As he walked over here, he felt the contents of his stomach sloshing around. “Ah, f*ck it. Can I get a Coors and a water.”

“Coors…” the bartender says, shaking his head, his disdain playful. He grabs a glass and begins to fill it.

“It’s a perfectly reasonable drink,” Dean fires back.

The bartender’s shrug doesn’t disturb his perfect pour. “The customer is always right.”

“Don’t patronize me,” Dean says. “My job is to patronize you.”

The bartender chuckles as he fills Charlie’s water. His eyes are a light green that Dean can only catch when their gazes meet. “You got me there.” He slides both glasses to Dean, and Dean hands him a few bills.

He means to leave, but then switches to one elbow, dropping his chin into his hand. “So, what’s it like working here?” Dean gestures around at the naked Edison lights and lavishly framed, faux-vintage chalkboards advertising the nightly specials, including the hideous pink drink. “I can never decide if it would be the worst, or just almost the worst.”

The bartender smiles. “I like it. But I’m also a dirty hipster.” That startles a laugh out of Dean. He grabs a cloth and starts wiping the bar down. “Figuratively. Place is up to code. Promise.”

“At least you’re self-aware,” Dean says. The bartender is wearing a plaid shirt, which in Nebraska could mean a dirty hipster or the complete opposite. “I can respect that.”

The bartender wipes his hands on the cloth and drops it behind the bar again. He surveys Dean. “Hey, once you’ve sobered up a bit, what you say to getting a coffee?”

Dean blinks dumbly at him. He shifts his hand, and slops some Coors down his wrist.

“My treat,” he adds.

“Uh,” Dean says, flushing. He cycles through the potential responses in his head like a Rolodex. In the past, he always had some variation of sorry pal, don’t play for your team ready to go. Thinking back on it now, maybe it’s weird how often he found himself in those kinds of situations in the first place. Weird. Charlie always told him he was like catnip to gay guys and to take it as a compliment. He tried not to be… weird… about it. He definitely was. He always was. He’d be haunted by those interactions for days after, an uncomfortable itching under his skin that he usually chased away by calling Lisa or whoever he was dating at the time. Eventually, the itch would abate, things would return to normal, and he’d put it out of his mind.

He looks at the bartender. He’s handsome, but that doesn’t mean anything. He’s normal, and probably doesn’t have any secrets worse than blaming his sister for breaking their mother’s favorite vase when they were kids, even though he was the one who threw the ball in the house. He looks back at their table, where Charlie and Cas are still talking, Cas’ brow politely furrowed and Charlie still speaking fervently, privately. Neither of them are watching him now. He drops a hand into his pocket, fumbling with the name from Dr. Milton. An unexpected emotion wells up in him. Not necessarily opportunity lost, but opportunities lost. Years, a lifetime, even. It catches in his throat.

“Sorry,” he finally says. Then, “I’m not exactly in the market at the moment.”

The bartender puts his hands up in good-natured defeat. “Hey, man. No worries. Had to shoot my shot.” He points a finger to Dean. “Just make sure he takes care of you when you get home tonight. Those fishbowls are a travesty.”

He disappears back down the bar to attend to a customer who’s been trying to grab his attention for the past five minutes, and Dean doesn’t move, staring hard at the smooth wooden bar-top. He pinches the bridge of his nose and takes a few deep breaths, suddenly nauseous. Gripping the cold bases of the glasses helps steady him enough to get him moving, and he walks back to the table in a stupor.

Neither Charlie nor Cas see him approaching.

He’s only a few steps away when Charlie’s voice, low, becomes audible to him. “And it’s just like, I don’t care, dude! I mean, I do, obviously I do, I’m sure I don’t have to explain it to you. But sometimes I just want to take him by the shoulders and say, ‘Hey, Dean, did you know you’re super f*cking g’—hey, Dean!” Charlie clears her throat, scrambling. “Hey!” Caught, her movements are frenetic, untethered. The regret is already washing over her like an unexpected rainstorm. Dean stares, unmoving, while Charlie fiddles with every item on their table as she babbles. “Cas and I were just chatting—” She glances to Cas for help, who watches the situation unfold in front of him with a kind of bemused pity. When he doesn’t say anything, she says, “Dean, listen, we were just—” She puts her head in her hands. “We were just talking,” she begs.

The following silence is excruciating, but Dean’s mind is shut, locked up so tight he barely has room for basic motor functions, let alone the ability to say something. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Cas watching him. He keeps moving like he’s about to rescue them both, but he’s also swimming against the current, his throat working but no sound coming out.

“Dean,” Charlie says quietly. Her voice wavers. “Please sit down.”

Dean clenches his jaw. The world slows around him. Over in the corner, a group of college students that Dean doesn’t recognize play pool. There’s some retro-trendy arcade games nearby that bleep and blip mechanically. Soft-hearted indie music croons above the dull-roaring din. Someone, a big burly guy in a paisley shirt, bumps his shoulder and half of his Coors splashes to the ground. He blinks back to life. Barely.

“Your water, my queen,” he says, going for icy, landing on tremulous, as he deposits the glass in front of her. He leaves his own beer as well, and continues walking, Charlie’s “sh*t” and the subsequent rattling of glasses as someone jostles the table receding in the background the closer he gets to the exit.

The night is clear and brisk, the spring chill tightening his overheated, sullen face. He walks without care or notice of the direction. There’s hardly a nightlife to speak of in this part of the city, part of the underground-ness of the bar, all in the hopes of drawing curious lookie loos and thirsty college kids. Dean drifts past dark storefronts advertising thrift finds and payday loans. There’s a neon sign up ahead, a rare late-night convenience store that sells pizza by the slice. Dean searches his pockets for his keys and only finds Milton’s paper. Cas is DDing tonight. He has them.

His fingers are just closing around the metal door handle of the shop when someone behind him says his name. He turns around. His hand falls away from the door, and he continues to fall, directly into Cas’ arms. The washed-out fluorescents of the convenience store cut around them and the backs of Dean’s hands look like they’ve been underwater for the past three weeks. He clings to Cas like the rest of him has been submerged as well, grasping at his scratchy wool coat, searching for purchase. “I can’t do it,” he says blankly. He grabs fistfuls of Cas’ coat until his knuckles turn white. “Cas, I can’t—I can’t do it. I can’t do it.” His voice starts to break. He hides his face in Cas’ neck, fighting the collar of his coat. “I can’t do it, Cas.”

Cas’ grip on him is careful. It’s only when Dean feels canvas against his bare arms that he realizes Cas is holding the jacket he left behind in the bar. He unglues himself from Cas to take it back. Cas watches him as he shrugs it on. He won’t meet Cas’ eye, but he can feel his gaze. Slowly, together but not touching, they make their way back to where the Impala is parked. Dean collapses into the passenger seat and Cas closes the door behind him. They drive to Cas’ place in silence. Dean is still quite drunk, and the streetlights are all yellow blurs.

Once inside, Dean trudges upstairs. He crawls into Cas’ bed, pathetic and drunk and stupid. Cas follows him into the bedroom. He coaxes Dean out of his clothes, running his fingers across Dean’s shoulders and down his arms. When Dean is naked, he disappears into the bathroom and returns with a cup and capful of mouth wash, making sure Dean swishes. Once Dean has spit into the cup, he disappears again, and reappears with the same cup, full of water, and painkillers that he forces Dean to swallow.

He changes into pajamas and a t-shirt and sits on his side of the bed. Dean shuffles closer, resting his head in Cas’ lap. Cas runs his fingers through Dean’s hair. Dean holds up his right hand to Cas’ left hand, playing with his fingers. He says, quietly, “It was never this bad with girls,” and closes his eyes.

“Not to blow too much smoke, but was it ever this good?” Cas says. It’s light, off-handed, but Dean isn’t fooled. He runs his fingertips down the lengths of Dean’s fingers, and Dean shudders. He clenches his jaw. “Maybe you should…” He trails off.

Dean swallows. “Maybe I should what?” His eyes are still closed. He can hardly push the words out. Maybe it would be a relief to hear it. To hear it from someone else’s mouth, even. Put the burden on another set of shoulders. Maybe that would make it real. To be forced to deal with it, because otherwise—

“Nothing,” Cas says. He sighs. Dean’s fingers tremble. He rolls over so that he’s facing Cas’ stomach. His t-shirt is much softer than the jacket he was wearing earlier. “Earlier… I didn’t finish my story.”

“What story?”

“My trip to Europe. With Nick.” Cas continues to idly play with Dean’s hair. “It wasn’t my first time in Europe. Far from it, actually. But it was my first time there on my own… mission, if you will.”

“Mission,” Dean says. “Like, religious mission?”

Cas’ stomach moves, and Dean realizes he’s laughing. “No. Not even close.” His laughter dies down. “My mission, my job, on that trip was to… woo Nick.” At Dean’s loaded silence, Cas says, “I was eighteen. An adult. There are a lot of ways to show a man like him a good time. And I did. I did it really well.”

“Why?”

“Nick had something we wanted. It’s funny. I can’t even remember what it was. It was so important at the time.”

Dean sniffs. “Why are you telling me this?”

“You feel so…” Cas loses the word. “So bad, always.”

“And?”

“You shouldn’t.”

Dean scoffs.

“I’m serious,” Cas says. “There’s a lot of bad out there. You’re not bad. You shouldn’t feel bad.”

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Do you feel bad?”

“Yes.”

“About what?”

Cas doesn’t say anything, and they lapse back into silence. So often, their conversations are punctuated by long stretches of times they should be talking, but never do. Talking to Cas is difficult. The words come too easy, frighteningly easy, or not at all.

His eyes itch and he burrows his head deeper into Cas’ lap. “I wish you had been a girl,” he says. Cas’ fingers drop, but his other hand stays in Dean’s hair.

He takes long enough to answer that Dean’s almost asleep by the time it comes. More silence. “I think you’re missing the point,” he murmurs.

Dean doesn’t answer him.

*

Early the next morning, Dean beats the sun to wakefulness. He pads to the bathroom, still sick despite the water and painkillers. He brushes his teeth to get the patchy, dry feeling out of his mouth, then crawls back into bed, determined to black out for at least another three hours.

Just as he closes his eyes, his phone screen lights up. He ignores it for thirty seconds, then grabs it, squinting.

MESSAGES: CHARLIE

Charlie: Ik ur mad at me rn and that’s totally fair. but this is an emergency

Charlie: like the second you see this text you need to come over

Charlie: alone

*

Dean sneaks out. The roar of the Impala’s engine has never exactly been subtle, but hopefully whatever chunk of change Cas paid for this place covers thick insulation.

He arrives at Charlie’s door less than half an hour later in his clothes from last night. He knocks quietly, afraid of disturbing the neighbors, but Charlie practically rips the door off the hinges when she opens it, anyway.

“Thank God,” she says, and disappears back into the apartment, leaving the door open for Dean. She paces rapidly in the living room on her worn area rug, leaving Dean to let himself in. He closes the door behind himself. Charlie’s apartment, always a menagerie for colorful knick knacks and pop culture merchandise, is more cluttered than usual. A handful of her Moondor figurines are lying pell-mell on the floor, and half a dozen cans of Fanta litter her desk.

“Are you okay?” Dean says. He tries to visually check her over for damage, but can’t see anything telling.

Charlie’s wringing her hands, face pale. “Um,” she says, and gives a hysterical, short laugh. Her hair is a mess, her eyes bloodshot and wide. She looks like she’s about to keel over. “No. But—Dean.” She stares at him, pleading. “I really f*cked up.” She closes her eyes and buries the heels of her palms into them. “I really f*cked up.”

“How?” Dean says. He tries to draw her to the couch, but she won’t move. “Hey—” He takes her gently by the elbow. “What happened?”

She disengages from his grip, bumping into her desk chair, the one she picked up off the side of the road in the neighborhood Cas now lives in, brow furrowed. “Wait. No, no, first—about last night, Dean—”

Dean goes stiff.

Charlie’s squeezing her eyes shut, emitting a Herculean effort to stow whatever it is, just for a second. “No matter what happens next, I want you to know how sorry I am about last night.”

“Charlie, you’re freaking me out. What happened?”

“Dean.”

Charlie. What happened?”

Charlie looks at him, considering. She relents, sighing. “You said the name on Castiel’s donation was James.”

Dean swallows. “Yeah.”

“Hoo boy. Okay.” Charlie giggles manically. “I was hoping I heard you wrong. Of course I didn’t.” All of a sudden, the wind goes out of her sails and she collapses into her chair. It creaks ominously. She gestures vaguely at the couch across from her. “You should sit.”

“Have you even slept?” Dean says as he sits down.

“No. I felt… guilty.” At the look on Dean’s face, she says, “Or not. Guilty for what?”

“Charlie.”

“I can’t believe I didn’t recognize him. I mean, of course I couldn’t. That was the whole point.” She stops talking for moment. Then she shakes her head. “Stupid. Unbelievably stupid.”

“You’re not.”

“Exactly. Again, that’s the point.” She rolls the chair closer to Dean. The wheels squeak. Dean’s been meaning to take pity on her and oil them up for months, but he has yet to get around to it. “This whole time, you were right. About him.”

“‘Him’? You mean Cas?”

“You were right and I was so, so wrong.” She grabs Dean’s hand. “I’m sorry, Dean.”

“Not this again. Charlie—”

No. Not for that. Well, yes for that. But now I have to tell you something about him.”

“Okay,” Dean says. His nausea from this morning increases.

Charlie takes a deep breath. “Castiel is not… Castiel.”

And she starts talking.

*

MESSAGES: CASTIEL

Dean: Can you meet me somewhere?

*

“This is way suspicious,” Charlie says.

“Yep,” Dean says.

“Why’d you have to choose an abandoned barn in the middle of a field?”

Dean shrugs. “I drive past it every time I go to Sioux Falls. I guess I just wanted to see what it was like.” At Charlie’s pointed look, he admits, “It couldn’t be anywhere I’d want to go back to.”

Charlie nods, jaw tight. Her eyes are watery. “Okay.”

It’s the first warm day of the year, but inside the barn, it’s still fairly cool. Slats of morning light pierce through the scattershot siding, rotting away after years of neglect. Dean can see the goosebumps on Charlie’s arms. They must make a sorry sight, him still hungover in last night’s clothes and her waxen and sleep deprived.

“Charlie,” Dean says. The air in here tastes stale.

“Yeah?”

“I don’t want to do this.”

Charlie sits down on a nearby barrel. “Me neither.”

“You don’t have to,” a voice says.

Dean and Charlie both look up. Charlie stands, and her and Dean move closer together. Cas has appeared at the other end of the barn. He’s dressed and showered properly. Dean could be imagining it, but he’s holding himself differently. More upright. There’s a remove to his stance that makes Dean’s hands curl into fists at his sides.

“You’ve hacked our phones, too?” Charlie says. “Or installed bugs in my apartment.”

Cas holds out his hand. In it is the piece of paper Milton gave Dean. “It must have fallen out of your pocket at… the bar,” he says to Dean. He looks so handsome, but so alien at the same time. Dean can hardly look at him. “I’m sorry,” he says to them both. It sounds like he means it. “You weren’t supposed to find out this way. My employers were getting impatient and decided to move things along without my consent.”

“Your employers,” Dean chokes out.

Cas looks at him. “My family. Yes.”

“James Adler,” Charlie says, voice thick with disgust. “I hadn’t even heard of you until last night. I thought I knew everything about the Adlers.”

“No,” Cas says softly. “Though you do know everything about Wine Turner. And in return, we know everything about what you stole from us.”

“Yeah,” Charlie says. Her voice trembles, but she pushes onward. “I figured that’s what this was about. What do you want?”

Cas glances at Dean, and then back at Charlie. “You,” he says simply. Charlie barks laughter. “All we want is to gainfully employ you.”

“Are you sh*tting me?”

“No.”

“The past eight months have been a job interview,” Charlie realizes. “You manipulated your way into my friend group and faked being my own friend to recruit me.”

“Yes.”

“You are… an alien. Oh my God,” Charlie says. “You can’t possibly have ever thought this would turn out any way other than me telling you to get bent.”

Cas smiles, small and rueful. “It was actually my suggestion that we try it this way. My colleagues all voted for a much more direct approach. I thought you might appreciate a defter touch.”

“From my girlfriend? Yes. From a disgusting corporate conglomerate? Not so much.”

“You can spearhead our new activism branch. Legally divert as much money as you want to whatever charitable causes you want.”

“What’s the other 99.9% of the job?”

Cas nods, acquiescing the point. “We can talk about it.”

Charlie puts a hand over her mouth. “Why me?”

Cas spreads his arms wide. “Because you beat us. We don’t like being beat.” He points at Charlie. “You know, it took a team of twelve very smart people who charge a lot of money to do this exact kind of thing to track you down. You hid your tracks very well. And you did it alone. It took two dozen people weeks to do what you did in a matter of days. What you do as a hobby.” Cas shakes his head, like he can’t conceive of what it’s like to have such a thing.

“I mean,” Charlie says, “no. Obviously.”

“I told you it wouldn’t work,” another familiar voice says in a sing-song. Crowley appears now, out of one of the many shadowy nooks and crannies.

“For f*ck’s sake,” Charlie says. She glares at Cas. “Is the clown car empty?”

“It’s just the two of us,” Cas says. He seems vaguely embarrassed by Crowley’s theatrics.

“While James here was blowing your tiny minds, I just nipped in the back. It’s amazing how distracting the revelation of months of betrayal manages to be.” He chuckles. “Never gets old, that.” He waves at Dean. “Long time no see, Dean.” When Dean doesn’t answer, he nudges Cas. “I think he’s in shock. Poor dear.” He moves on to Charlie. “And Charlotte. How nice to finally meet you.” He holds out his hand.

“Fergus MacLeod, I’m guessing,” Charlie says. “I read about you as well. You’re not as popular as the Adlers, but a little virtual birdy told me you make a great lapdog.” She smiles. “You have warrants out on you. Running from the fuzz, eh, guv’nah?” she says in a terrible English accent.

Crowley’s hand drops. “I heard you were… spunky.”

“Is that what your accountants said last spring?”

“Charlie,” Cas says. “Unfortunately, this job opportunity isn’t an offer.”

“He’s just embarrassed,” Crowley says, “because he wasted months of everyone’s time getting distracted by the local color.” He taps his wristwatch at Cas, tsking. “Time to collect.”

“You’re not collecting anything,” Charlie says.

Crowley shakes his head. “I don’t think you’re following, Charlotte. You see, you have two options. You either accept our gracious offer, or you go to prison for a very, very long time for any number of crimes you’ve committed over the past half-decade.”

“Actually, Fergus, I think you’re the one who isn’t following,” Charlie says. She pulls her phone out of her pocket. Dean’s probably the only one who can see that it’s trembling. “Unless there’s also a gun hiding somewhere in this barn, I can have the states of California, New York, Oregon, and Kansas on the phone in seconds and let them know where their very own crime-committer is.” She holds out her hands. “In a barn. With me.”

Crowley turns to Cas, who seems incredibly put-upon. “You gonna help me out here or what?”

“No,” Cas says. “I don’t like you.”

“Do I have to remind you who you’re representing out here?” Crowley snarls.

“No,” Cas says again. “But I think I have to remind you who’s in charge.”

“You gave up any authority you had the moment—” Crowley throws his hands up in the air. “I don’t care. Pick a moment. Any moment where you were mooning after a rube instead of doing your goddamned job.” Crowley kicks at a piece of debris on the floor. “This was not supposed to be more than a one-man gig!” he snaps, entering full-on tantrum mode. “The resources we’ve expended, for what, for Raggedy Ann here? Who we always knew was going to go kicking and screaming anyways? You may as well have saved us all the trouble and lured her to Maine with a trail of Mountain Dew and Doritos.”

“Hey,” Charlie says, offended.

Cas rounds on Crowley. “You need to back off. Now.”

“You need to get yourself together, James. You’ve gone marshmallow-soft.”

“With you around? Entirely.” Cas brushes him off. “Put it in your report. On your way out of the state.”

Crowley stares at him. He shakes his head. “Utterly braindead,” he says in awe. “I’ll be seeing you.” He tucks his hands into his pocket and leaves the barn. He leaves the door hanging open, buttery sunlight spilling in as noon approaches.

“He’s right,” Cas says softly, watching the spot where Crowley just exited. He turns back to Charlie. “Someone will come for you, someday. It will be easier for you and everyone you love if you just come with us now.”

“After all this time playing my friend,” Charlie says, “what do you think my answer’s going to be?”

Cas huffs a laugh. He looks pained. “Stupid,” he says, “but admirable.”

Charlie’s name tumbles out of Dean’s mouth. It surprises all three of them. Charlie and Cas look at him.

“I need to talk to him,” Dean says. He’s staring directly at her. “Alone.”

“Dean.”

“Charlie,” Dean pleads.

Charlie’s expression tightens. “Okay,” she says. “I’ll wait for you at the car.” She hurries out of the barn, casting a last glance over her shoulder at the two of them.

Thick silence descends over them. Dean collapses onto the upended barrel, head in his hands. There’s a permanent, light dusting of debris in the air in here. It tickles Dean’s nose.

“What’d you do to that guy?” Dean says, fingers folding over each other.

“What guy?”

“The one in New Hampshire.”

“Inias,” Cas says. There’s a rustling of fabric as Cas puts his hands in his pockets. “He was another mark. We were together. Briefly.”

“What’d he have?”

“Land. We were looking to acquire the area around his home to lay down a wind farm—there’s nothing Wine Turner cares more about than being environmentally friendly,” Cas says, cracking a rueful smile, but it doesn’t last. His tone becomes resigned. Emotionless. “He didn’t want to move. I convinced him to sell. It was quite easy, actually. His great-grandfather built that farm from the ground up.”

“What happened?”

Cas shrugs. “He didn’t take too kindly to being conned. He, uh…” Cas looks down. “I wasn’t expecting to see him. He’s from the western part of the state, but has since moved to the area. I had one of our tech guys look into him. When we were together, he wasn’t out. It was a small, conservative town. I may have used that to my advantage when convincing him to sell his land.”

“You blackmailed him,” Dean says.

“Yes,” Cas says. “And people found out anyway. I’ve always suspected Crowley had something to do with it, but I never had any proof. He loves putting people in a bind.”

“And then what?”

“Nothing. The farm fell through. We sold it to some real estate developers from out west. There’s condos there now.”

Bile rises in Dean’s mouth. “Jesus Christ.”

“Inias moved. It’s another small town, but I don’t think he’d be able to survive in a city. He lives on the outskirts, keeps to himself. He runs a woodworking business, now.”

“You ruined his life,” Dean says. “Is that your official job title? ‘Life ruiner’?”

“I don’t exactly have a title,” Cas says. “I do what I’m told. But it’s a succinct description.”

“How many?”

“How many what?”

“Lives. How many lives have you ruined? How long have you been doing this?”

Cas breathes out, short, through his nose. “I would befriend and encourage the children of rivals in grade school to tell me all the bad things their parents did. If it was bad enough, we’d get CPS involved. It was a lot more difficult for them to compete from a jail cell. If it wasn’t bad enough, we’d make it bad enough.”

“You’re…” Dean can’t articulate what he’s feeling right now. He’s numb. “You’re brainwashed. You’re a cog.” He looks up, finally. Cas is standing closer, but not intrusively close. He’s always been difficult to read, but Dean may as well be looking at a blank slate. “I mean, you’re not even a person.”

“It’s all I know,” Cas says.

“Bullsh*t,” Dean says. The anger flares up in him, finally. He stands up. “These past months wouldn’t have even happened if that’s ‘all you know,’” he snaps. “Take some goddamn responsibility.”

Cas’ eyes narrow. “You want to talk about taking responsibility? All this time, and you still can’t even admit it to yourself, let alone anyone else. I’ve had to sit beside you for months, listening to you brag about all the girls you’ve f*cked and your fake Canadian girlfriend. Like none of it means anything.”

“That’s not even close to the same thing,” Dean says, but his tone wavers. “You’re telling me keeping this under wraps wasn’t beneficial to your whole long game? Crowley sure as hell didn’t seem to like it. Milton, who—I don’t even know how he’s connected to all this, but he didn’t either. And whoever you’re always talking on the phone to when you think I can’t hear had something to say about it, too.” A realization, hot and heavy, settles in his gut. The force of it knocks him back, and he collapses back onto the barrel. “Oh my God. I’m your subplot.” He kneads his eyebrows, where a migraine is undoubtedly waiting in the wings. “It’s not even my story. I’m barely a f*cking blip on your radar.” The magnitude of the feeling sends him reeling. “And you’re just going to waltz out of here like nothing ever happened. Maybe in five years I’ll drunkenly accost you in a parking lot in New Mexico.”

“I wouldn’t do that to you.”

Dean barks out a laugh. “You’ve done it to everyone. It’s just a trail of bodies in your wake, man.”

Cas closes his eyes. “This is my job, Dean. This is my life.”

“Your job is to f*ck people over!”

“Some would call it securing my family’s interests.”

“Uh, yeah. Your family. No, no—” He shakes his head. “f*ck this. They aren’t your family. They’re your employers, you said it yourself. You know what doing a job for your family looks like? Loading the dishwasher. Vacuuming the living room. Taking the dog for a walk. Not—” He gestures uselessly. “This.”

“Do you want to hear that I feel guilty?” Cas says. “Do you want to hear how it keeps me up at night?”

“No, I don’t.”

Cas shakes his head slowly. “I don’t have a choice,” he says hollowly. “Things were set in motion months ago. Crowley was right. This should’ve been wrapped up in a matter of weeks. I got—” He sighs. “Distracted.”

“Am I supposed to feel bad for you?”

“No.”

“Good. ’Cause I don’t.”

Dean closes his eyes. After a brief silence, he says flatly, “I wish you had been in the mob.”

That makes Cas laugh, bitter. “Me too.”

The black amusem*nt fades as quickly as it appeared. “You’re not going to hurt Charlie,” Dean says.

“If she just comes with us—”

“Look me in the eye and tell me Charlie Bradbury would ever go work for Wine Turner.” When Cas refuses to meet his gaze, Dean says, “Yeah. I thought so.”

“I can’t say what they’ll decide,” Cas says. “If I leave here with nothing, after all this time—it may not go your way. They want blood.”

“Charlie told me you would’ve made it all back and then some in like, two seconds. Holy crap, you’re like, billionaires. Who cares?”

“Do you think billionaires stay billionaires by letting college students hack their way into our bank accounts?”

“You said yourself Charlie is special. Only she could crack it. She won’t do it again.” He considers. “Probably.”

“You can’t bargain your way out of this. Neither of you can. Even I can’t.”

“You tried?”

“Yes. It didn’t go well.”

“Your family wasn’t too understanding, huh?”

“They weren’t.”

“Okay,” Dean says. “Okay. New track. How do we get out of this?”

Cas stares at him. There’s pity in his gaze. “You don’t.”

“My best friend is not going to jail because some rich dicks want her to.”

“Then she comes and works for us.”

“f*ck,” Dean says. “God, f*ck you,” he spits. “You have enough money to do anything, go anywhere. Like, are you really okay with this? With all of this?”

“No.”

“Then why don’t you do something about it?”

“I can’t.”

Dean clenches his fists. “You’re a spineless bastard, you know that?”

“Yes.”

The air around them crackles with tension. Dean lets out a breath once he realizes he’s been holding it. He can see the cracks in Cas’ façade now. Like when Charlie is on stage two of fighting a boss in one of the endless parade of video games he’s watched her play over the years. The outer shell has been pierced, the vulnerabilities exposed. “You know,” Dean says, “you’ve told me before how your family doesn’t care that you’re gay.”

“They don’t,” Cas says.

“And I believe it. I truly believe that they don’t care. At all.”

Cas’ jaw tightens, but he doesn’t say anything.

“You came to my house for Thanksgiving,” Dean says. “Had you ever even had a family dinner before that? A real one?”

“I can see what you’re trying to do,” Cas says. “I even appreciate it. But it’s not going to work.”

“I’m trying to find even a shred of humanity in you.”

“It’s not going to work,” Cas says again. Apologetically.

“Are you sure you’re not telling me to back off because it will work?”

“Yes.”

“You were my family. Or you were getting to be.”

“Dean—”

Dean swallows. “I’m not putting on a show for Charlie’s sake. I’m not trying to get her a better deal or to manipulate you. I’m just straight up, for once, telling you how I feel.” The line of his mouth tightens. “How I felt.”

Cas’ eyes are molten, even in the dim lighting of the barn. “I wouldn’t even know how to begin.”

“You just start,” Dean begs.

Cas screws up his face. He puts a hand to his forehead. He looks at Dean, anguished. Dean can see the answer before it ever crosses his lips. Can feel it in the air between them. “I can’t.”

Dean nods. Tears slide down his cheeks without waiting for him to blink. He didn’t realize they were so close to the edge. “Uh-huh,” he says, voice breaking.

They stand there in silence, Dean crying and Cas watching him.

“So, this is it,” Dean finally says. It’s not the kind of crying that requires great, gulping, heaving breaths. It’s a steady flow, but he can talk with no issue. Something just desperately needs to be out of him.

Cas doesn’t say anything, but his expression of naked longing doesn’t change.

Dean rubs roughly at his wet face, suddenly embarrassed. “Then I guess one of us has to leave. This is the last situation where I’d want to say goodbye and then realize we were walking the same direction.”

“You can go,” Cas says.

The tears continue to flow, despite Dean continually rubbing them away. “Yeah,” he says hoarsely, and walks by Cas, leaving a wide berth between them. His legs feel like jelly.

The barn door is still open, and Dean swears that he won’t, but he’s spent so long lying to himself, he figures, what’s one more? He turns around. Cas is still watching him from the dim, cool darkness of the barn.

When he can’t stand it anymore, Dean turns into the light proper.

*

The first couple minutes in Charlie’s car are silent. They’re sharing a mutual shellshock, the only sound a worrying clanking coming from the engine that Dean should take a look at soon. Dean stares out the passenger-side window at the passing corn fields, eyes glazed over. Most of the cars driving past them have the windows down, everyone enjoying the first warm day of the year.

Eventually, Charlie says, tight and exhausted, “I don’t even know what to say.”

“‘sh*t?’” Dean offers flatly.

“f*ck,” she whispers. Her face is screwed up, knuckles tight on the wheel. “f*ck. f*ck him.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. He’s still looking out the window, but he can feel Charlie’s gaze on his face in between glances at the road.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “This is all my fault. You should never have been involved.”

Dean almost laughs.

Charlie taps her fingers nervously on the wheel. Dean can hear the butterfly jittering. “I’m sorry about Cas. James. Whatever.”

“He was your friend, too.”

“Right,” Charlie says slowly. She takes a deep breath. “Either way, I’m sorry.”

“‘Either way?’” Dean knows he’s picking at a wound that’s still very raw, but he can’t help it. There’s a buzzing starting inside him, adrenaline that refuses to dissipate.

“God,” Charlie says, tone edged with frustration. “Never mind.”

They keep driving. They’re about half an hour away from town, still surrounded by dilapidated farms. The corn husks are all still dead and brown, but they lean toward the sun. Dean gets lost in the powerlines, following them with his eyes. He wants to move and stay very still at the same time. “What are you going to do?”

“Hopefully not go to jail,” Charlie says.

“You won’t.”

“You’re just saying that.”

“Kind of. I want to say—he wouldn’t let that happen. As if I know what the hell he’s ever been thinking.” He closes his eyes. “Why’d you have to do it, Charlie?”

“I want to help people.”

Dean scoffs. His breath fogs up the window. “Yeah.”

“I wasn’t supposed to get caught.”

“Yeah.”

“Even when I planned for repercussions—not that I did often—they were only ever on me. I never expected—” She chews on her words. “Dean, please. Can we drop the doublespeak? Just for this conversation.”

“What?” Dean’s looking at her now, chest tight.

“We can’t talk about it unless we talk about it.”

“We are talking about it,” Dean says, heated. His heart rate jumps. The buzzing is intensifying. Everything goes shimmery around the edges, panic setting in.

“Dean.”

What?” he snaps. “You want to ‘talk about it’? Well, I want to talk about how much you royally f*cked up and screwed us both because of your overinflated ego.”

“I know,” Charlie says. She brushes her hair out of her face. Her hand still isn’t steady. “I’m trying to process just how badly I’ve f*cked up. But it’s not only about me. And I don’t think it has been for a long time.”

“This is on you,” Dean says. “I said he was bad news from the start and you didn’t listen.”

Charlie’s eyes go wide, unbelieving. “You—” she says sharply, then cuts herself off, holding a closed fist to her mouth. She slowly drops it after a few seconds. “Yeah, you were right. For the wrong reasons.”

“Does that even matter?”

Yeah. A lot.”

“We could’ve stopped this in its tracks. If you had—”

Charlie rounds on him. “If I had what, Dean? If I had cut him out of our lives because he gave you bad vibes? Because you had a hunch? Yeah, no. Because you needed a reason to hate him, because—because—” She makes a noise of utter frustration, slamming the steering wheel. “I can’t even say anything, or you’ll freak out and shut down. I am so tired. I am so tired of this.”

“Tired of what?” Dean says, because he’s tired, too. Maybe Charlie is the one who will put him out of his misery. But it comes out confrontational, and Charlie’s face goes tight with years of things unsaid.

She laughs in disbelief. “You know those Halloween decorations? The ones that change faces when you move them? From like, a normal dude to a zombie or whatever? That’s you. For four years, Dean, that’s been you. I look at you one way and see one thing, and then I see you when you think no one else is looking, or when you’re too drunk to care, and see something else.” She laughs again, but there’s no humor in it. It’s exhausted. “This isn’t even my simile. I stole it from someone. Can you guess who?”

Dean doesn’t want to.

“You know how much time Lisa spent crying on my shoulder in freshman year over you?”

“No.”

“Because I never told you. She didn’t understand what was wrong. You said and did all the right things—well, when you were sober.”

Dean’s protests are automatic now, defending himself to an invisible jury. “I wasn’t that drunk—I mean, all freshmen drink, probably a little too much.”

“A little…” Charlie says wistfully. She changes lanes to pass by someone in a car older than the Impala, a Cadillac from the late ’50s. Probably the first time out of the garage in months, pretty and shiny and red and ready to go. “I honestly don’t know if you’re just playing dumb or genuinely can’t remember. You were drunk, like, all the time. I don’t mean you got sloppy at parties, although you did that, too. You used to show up to class smelling like whiskey. You’d show up to dates half in the bag already.” Her voice goes quiet. Resigned. “She tried to make you go to AA, Dean. Jesus.”

“That’s—” But Dean doesn’t get to say what that was, because nothing she’s said is untrue. “I didn’t realize how unhappy she was,” he says.

“She’s over it,” Charlie says. “It’s not like you ruined her forever. We still grab lunch sometimes. Surprise, I guess. I didn’t—this isn’t about Lisa. Not really.” She sighs. “You’re a good person, Dean. But you’re not a good boyfriend.” She glances upward. “I wonder why.”

Dean doesn’t have anything to say. He can’t refute her. Charlie’s eyes are red. “I’m truly, genuinely sorry for everything. But I don’t know how much longer I can do this. I’m tired of babysitting your crisis. I’m tired of walking on eggshells around you. I’m tired of not knowing which funhouse version of you I’m talking to every day. I love you, Dean. You’re my best friend. But I can’t do this forever, and I don’t think you can, either.”

Dean rubs at his face. He just feels sick and tired now. Charlie doesn’t look much better, her eyes too bright and skin too pale. “Can you stop the car?”

“Don’t. I’ll drop you off.”

“Please, Charlie.”

She flicks her hazards and pulls onto the shoulder of the highway, rolling to a stop. She looks at him, wrecked. Dean belatedly remembers that she hasn’t slept in over twenty-four hours. “Barring today,” Charlie says, her voice cracking, “barring last night, what did I do? Why won’t you talk to me? I tried so many times, not to push, just to be there, and every time—” She bites her lip. Deciding whether to take the final plunge or not. “Dean. What are you so afraid of?”

Dean buries his face in his hands. He’s surrounded by his own breathing, the cool dark of his palms, the ticking of the cooling engine. The past twenty-three years of his life that are increasingly devolving into a blur, recollections that don’t even belong to him anymore. “I don’t know.”

They sit in silence, cars speeding past. An eighteen-wheeler drives by advertising HyVee, the Gremlin vibrating in protest. The side of its bed reads: making lives easier, healthier, happier.

Dean puts a hand on the door handle and lets himself out of the car. “Be careful,” Charlie says after him, but she doesn’t ask him to get back in. She does, however, stay parked on the shoulder of the highway for as long as Dean can see her while he begins his long trek home.

*

Dean arrives, covered in road dust and sporting a mild sunburn across the back of his neck. He opens the door of his apartment, locks it behind him, kicks off his shoes, and falls face-first onto his mattress.

For the next thirty-six hours, he doesn’t leave his bed. He drifts in and out of consciousness, having weird almost-dreams about frantic phone calls and missed texts and Charlie driving off down the highway instead of watching him go. Eventually, he digs his phone out of his pocket, where it’s been digging uncomfortably against his ass for hours, and slides it off the bed. It drops onto the floor with a crack, but Charlie assured him the case she gave him when he got it would save it from that kind of thing. It’s survived being dropped by his drunk hands more than once from much more worrisome heights.

Dean’s lost track of time when someone finally knocks on his door. It’s dark out, but it could be either a.m. or p.m. He resolves to ignore it. His cheek is stuck to the pillow and when he moves to roll over, it makes a crusty sound that on any other day would have him hightailing it to the shower. The knock comes again, insistent but infuriatingly polite. Smug. Dean rubs his face. Sleep grinds beneath his palms. He holds his pillow over his head, crusty-side up, but he can still hear the knocking. Briefly, he wonders if either of the neighbors he’s sandwiched between will intervene before he has to, but then he recalls all the nights he’s drunkenly fought their key holes with his key, thinking it was his apartment.

He stands up and shuffles to the door. He unlocks it and pulls it open.

“Hello, cowboy,” Crowley says in a bad American accent. He’s dressed in all black. A little on the nose. When he fully registers Dean, he takes a small step back, nose wrinkling. “Good lord. Rough night?” He digs a handkerchief out of his pocket and holds it up to his face. Outside of the movies, Dean’s never seen that. “Rough life?” Crowley corrects himself, muffled.

With no change in expression, Dean puts his hand on the door and slams it closed. Or tries to. There’s a loud crack. Worse than his phone falling.

He looks down. Crowey’s foot is in the way. Deliberately.

“I think you just broke my foot,” Crowley says pleasantly. “Seems like you have a knack for shutting people’s body parts in doors.”

“Only when they’re in the way.” Dean’s voice is hoarse and cracked. He hasn’t had water in hours. Days, maybe.

“You really look terrible,” Crowley says, shouldering his way past Dean and limping inside. “Thanks for inviting me in. I’d hate to have to press assault charges.” He stands in the middle of Dean’s living room, surveying the space. Not that there’s much to see. He points at the Playboy poster, hanging on for its life, and waggles his eyebrows. He picks a deserted coffee mug off the side table, gives it a sniff, and recoils in horror. Dean watches him with glazed eyes. Finally, Crowley gets tired of poking around his boring apartment and turns to him, hands in his pockets. “Dearest Jimmy cut and run before he could properly cash in on eight months of emotional and carnal manipulation, but we’re not ones to let assets like Charlotte go to waste.” He tsks. “I know that must be difficult to hear, but that’s showbiz, darling.”

When Dean doesn’t respond, or even move, Crowley continues, “You must be wondering: ‘Crowley, why are you deigning to talk to me, a bit player, tree number two?’ What a wonderful question.” He points at Dean. “You, Dean, have proven incredibly susceptible to manipulation.” He reaches forward and tweaks Dean’s cheek. “You’re simultaneously tragically desperate and deeply self-loathing. It’s adorable.” He steps back. “Just kidding. You’re a pressure point. Charlotte is a tough nut to crack, so you’re going to do it for us.”

Dean scoffs. It hurts his throat. “Haven’t we already been through this? Besides, I can’t make Charlie do a damn thing she doesn’t want to.” He considers. “I guess you could put a gun to my head. She might do it then. But that’s all I got.”

Crowley smiles sweetly. It makes Dean’s molars tickle. “Here’s the deal. You either convince Charlie to come work with us—beg, bribe, force, it doesn’t matter—and I won’t make public your little indiscretion with James. I have binders full of Jean.” He holds up a memory stick. “Or a PowerPoint. Your choice.”

Dean laughs. Straight up laughs. His apartment door is still open. His neighbors definitely think he’s drunk again. Crowley’s expression falters.

“Honestly?” Dean says when he’s finally calmed down. “At this point, you’d probably be doing me a favor. Now f*ck off.”

“I don’t think you understand what’s at stake, here, Dean. I don’t think you understand just how much this isn’t a negotiation. I am telling you to do something. You are going to do it.”

“Get out of my apartment. The door’s right—” Dean turns to point to where exactly Crowley can show himself, but someone’s already there, standing in the open doorway and staring at him. Dean’s insides turn to liquid, but Castiel doesn’t waste any time, striding past him.

“Crowley,” he says flatly. “It’s over. Go home.”

“For you?” Crowley says. “It certainly is. I shudder to think what they’ll will say when they hear about this. Hello, by the way.”

“It’s done,” Cas insists. “She said no. We’ll deal with the consequences later.”

Crowley shakes his head. “I’m only finishing the job you were too soft to.”

“Before you go ahead and do that,” Cas says, “you may want to consider this.” He pulls something out of his pocket and hands it to Crowley. Dean can’t see much from where he’s standing, but it looks pretty official. “I have a contact at the Department of Homeland Security who owes me a favor, and your visa has always smelled a little fishy, hasn’t it?”

Crowley’s face goes pale. He finishes reading the paper and looks up, furious. “The Adlers won’t stand for this.”

Cas tilts his head. “How much trouble are you worth to them?” He spreads his hands. “It’s already taken you months to move this job along, and in the end, it was a huge failure. Even if Charlie Bradbury goes to prison for the next twenty years, you’ve still failed. And I doubt the warrants help. I’m not sure you ever got this memo, but allow me to refresh your memory: people like you and me are supposed to keep a low profile.”

Crowley’s mouth has become a thin line, his chin trembling with rage. His face has gone the color of milky oatmeal. He storms out of the apartment, his coattails whipping around the corner.

And then Dean and Cas are alone. Staring at each other, like they always seem to be when they find themselves in the same room. The threat of conversation looms between them, of another confrontation, but Dean can’t stomach the thought. It must show on his face, because Cas’ expression softens. He nods, his mouth quirking up briefly at the corner, simply a gesture of acknowledgement.

And then Dean is alone.

He closes and locks the door again, then turns around and rips the Playboy poster off his wall. He crumples it up and throws it in the trash.

*

When Dean’s woken again by someone knocking on his door, he’s almost convinced last night’s run-in was a dream. Ten seconds later, a key is turning in the lock, and Dean is snapped back to reality, because only one other person in the world has a spare key to his place.

“What in the f*ck…” Jo mutters to herself when she walks into his bedroom. He’s nothing but a lump under the covers. “Hey. Are you dead?” He can’t see her, but he can hear her pick his phone up. “Okay. So I’ve been texting your floor for the past three days.” She drops it onto his nightstand and her footsteps fade. The fridge opens, there’s a sound of disgust, bottles rattle. The fridge closes, a cap pops and fizzes, and Jo returns to the bedroom. Something cold touches the only part of Dean not hidden under the covers, his elbow. “I want it on the record it gives me no pleasure to be serving you an a.m. beer on a Tuesday because I think it’s the only thing that will get you out of bed.”

Dean takes the beer from her and blindly sets it down on the nightstand. It bumps his phone and knocks it off again.

“Geez,” Jo says, sounding genuinely surprised. “Is Lisa under there, too?” When her jibe is met with a chilly silence, she relents. “Bad joke. Sorry.” Her and Charlie were the only ones he told about that particular fight. When he was drunk at a party the very next night.

She mumbles, “Please, please be wearing clothes under there,” and smacks his ass through the covers. “Up and at ’em! I’m like the best friend from a romcom, here to dropkick you out of your post-breakup funk. So put on some mascara, bitch. We’re going to brunch.”

Dean throws off the covers and sits up, staring at her with wide eyes. She’s still wearing her sunglasses. “Okay, so I’ve seen like, one romcom my entire life. You’re the expert there, but I’m doing my best. Cut me some slack.” When his staring doesn’t stop, Jo raises an eyebrow. She lifts her sunglasses, resting them on top of her head. The realization hits. “Wait. Did you and Caroline actually—?” She gags suddenly. “Hold that thought. You need to shower. Now.”

Jo waits in the living room while he cleans himself up. When he emerges, running a towel through his hair and wearing new clothes for the first time in days, she’s staring at her pocketknife, running her fingers over her father’s engraved name. Dean tosses his towel at her and it lands on her head.

“Sick,” she says, shaking her head until it slips off and slides onto the floor. He messed her hair all up. “I’m only letting that go because it’s your time of need, or whatever.”

Dean snorts as he walks into the kitchen. He starts brewing a fresh pot of coffee. While he waits, he fills a glass with tap water and drains it, then refills it and drains it again. Jo picks at the edge of his end table with her knife. All of his wooden furniture has nicks and dents courtesy of her. He prefers that to the scars she has all over her hands from playing Five Finger Fillet as a bored, stupid teenager. They don’t say anything while the coffee brews. The coffee maker emits a horrible sucking sound that exposes it for the five-dollar Salvation Army find it is. It was the last thing Dean bought there before Charlie told him they hated gay people, and then he felt so guilty about it he switched to Goodwill even though it was a longer drive. All in the name of being a good ally. When he proudly mentioned this to Charlie, she patted him on the shoulder and thanked him on behalf of the entire community.

When the coffee is done, he pours two mugs. Since they were in high school, Dean’s never bothered to ask whether Jo wants a cup of coffee. She gets the mug that her tooth chipped, chipping her tooth in return, a few semesters ago. Dean drinks out of a mug he bought in Lawrence during last year’s visit to his parents. Dean sits in his armchair. He feels a little better. Cleaner, at least.

“I have a question,” Jo finally says. Her tone is disinterested, but she’s watching him carefully.

“Shoot.”

“Why did you lie about how you broke your nose?”

Dean puts down his mug. “What?”

“You told Charlie I gave you a ride home that night.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“I saw the text.”

“I probably meant something else. Autocorrect sucks. Remember that time you said you accidentally ‘nut’ dialed me?”

Jo guffaws, but it quickly dissipates. “You almost never get autocorrected. Even when you’re drunk.”

“Well, I guess I did that night.”

“You’re lying,” Jo says.

“I’m not.”

“You said you got hit by a door in the library, but the library closed early because of the weather that day. It was already closed by the time your lab finished.”

“What are you doing?” Dean says. “Who cares? You think I faked a broken nose?”

“No,” Jo says. “I’m just wondering.”

“Well, stop,” Dean says.

Jo shrugs. “Okay.” And because she’s Jo, Dean knows she will. She won’t forget, but she’ll back off.

“Sorry you guys broke up. That sucks,” Jo says, back to the matter at hand. “Charlie said this was your ‘dark night of the soul’. I have no clue what that means, ’cause I’m not a nerd, but it sounds bad.”

“Charlie told you that?”

“Yeah. She texted me this morning. I only saw it ’cause I woke up to pee. I had plans to sleep in today. Just so you know.”

“Thank you for your sacrifice.”

After a moment of silence, Dean says, “Did she say anything else?”

“No.”

Dean takes a sip of coffee and Jo ticks her head down and raises an eyebrow. Dean used to do that to Sam when he was trying to get Sam to fess up to something.

Dean covers his bark of laughter with a coughing fit. “Nah.”

“Okay,” Jo says again. Jo isn’t exactly known for her troubled soul, but there’s a downward cast to her gaze. In a burst of levity, she points to Dean’s empty wall. “Your naked lady is gone.”

“Oh, yeah,” Dean says. “Trying to class the place up a little bit.” He spreads his arms. “How am I doing?”

“Great.”

“Thanks.”

They finish their coffee. The light in the room moves as the sun rises. Blue sky reigns beyond the curtains. “Have you started studying for finals?” Jo says.

“f*ck,” Dean says.

“Same.”

Dean puts his mug down and rubs his eyes. “I forgot about finals.”

You?”

“I have time. I think. What day is it?”

Jo stares at him.

Dean smiles weakly. “Kidding?”

Jo stands. “f*ck this. This living room feels like a cave. We are going to brunch. And we’re sitting on the patio to soak up some rays. You pale bitch.”

*

Dean’s studying at the library. He studies at the library all the time. There’s no difference between studying at the library during past exam periods and now. He ignores the sandbag in the back of his mind and tries to focus. He hasn’t been to class in days. Jo’s notes are treacherous and she has worse handwriting than the doctor who prescribed Dean’s sleep medication after the fire. Most of his time is spent parsing them out and then re-writing them. He’s already thrown out the originals he’s decoded. He’ll make copies of his new notes and give those ones back to Jo.

Three hours in, Dean realizes he isn’t in a class with Jo this semester. He’s been working on the notes she took when he was out with the stomach flu a few years ago and she sat in on a lecture about hom*oeroticism in Dracula for him. He remembers being vaguely disappointed he missed that one.

He drags his glasses off his face and drops them onto his laptop’s keyboard. He finished his coffee ages ago and now he has to start all over again. He wants to yell, but he’s in a library, so he settles for interlinking his fingers behind his head, staring at the ceiling, and blowing out a heavy, long breath. The girl sitting diagonally from him at the table looks over at him in sympathy. He nods at her as he gathers his crap, stuffing his laptop into his bag and hanging his glasses off the neck of his t-shirt. It’s light pink and has a picture of Garfield on it saying “I hate Mondays!” He doesn’t remember how it came into his possession. He woke up hungover one morning wearing it. He never found out where the shirt he’d gone out in the night before went.

He’s headed toward the exit, ready to call the whole morning a wash, when he passes an incoming student. The student’s wearing headphones, but they’re loud enough Dean can hear the tinny notes anyway. He stops, right before the metal detectors. Pivots.

He speedwalks in the opposite direction, toward the back of the main floor, looking furtively around him as he goes like he’s about to pull some shady sh*t. When the listening room is in his eyeline, he slows to a crawl. His stomach churns unpleasantly. He’s deliberately avoided any potential news source that would report on its progress.

As he gets closer, still too close to the wall to be able to see inside yet, the door opens and a student emerges. She’s small and blonde, with a high ponytail and upturned nose. Freshman, judging by how much school regalia she’s sporting. The strains of “In the Light” follow her out of the room, cut off by the door closing firmly behind her. Dean just stares at her as she passes him by.

He approaches the door like it’s a wounded, cornered animal. Inch by inch, buttery yellow walls reveal themselves to him. A sign, taped to the door, announces its early completion date: a few days ago. Dean runs his fingertips over the cool, varnished wooden plaque.

After the fire, Dean inherited his mother’s charred but still salvageable recipe box. Even singed, the wood was a smooth, dark color, similar to the plaque beside the listening room. When he opened it for the first time, years later, to make his first holiday meal at Bobby and Ellen’s (Thanksgiving), hoping for something, anything festive he could make, he found stale weed and rolling papers. Bobby whooped with laughter when he saw it, but Dean caught him wiping at his face a few minutes later when he thought no one was looking. Ellen, who was passingly familiar with the process from running Harvelle’s, helped Dean scour the internet on their chunky, publicly shared laptop that was probably teeming with viruses from the p*rn sites Dean would visit before erasing the browser history. Dinner that year was terrible, but Dean kept the recipe box. The weed mysteriously disappeared, but he managed to fill it up with some actual recipes over the next few holidays.

His hand closes around the door handle and he lets himself in. Two other students are inside, packing away their notes. Dean completely ignores them. The gas fireplace is on low, flickering cheerily. The room still smells new, but it already has a lived-in feeling to it. Dean’s not sure if that’s by design, or if enough students have already been through to break it in. A few record sleeves sit on the coffee table alongside a laminated sheet of paper explaining the rules of the room. It advertises the room as a Safe, quiet place to enjoy the music.

Dean picks up the paper and stares at it, his throat constricted. He swallows past a lump as the opening strains of Bron-Yr-Aur begin. At the sound of a backpack zipping, he starts, wiping at his face. Blessedly, it’s dry. “Uh, sorry,” he says. “Kinda barged in here. I can come back later.”

“Don’t worry about it, man,” one of the students says. “We’re on our way out.”

The other guy heads for the record player.

“You can leave it on,” Dean says. “It’s a tragedy to turn off Zeppelin mid-song.”

The other guy grins. “Fair enough.” He points at Dean’s head as he makes his way to the door. “Dig the hat.”

After they leave, Dean sinks onto the couch. He lets the third side of Physical Graffiti run to the end, staring at the ceiling. Once Ten Years Gone fades out, Dean blinks back to consciousness and pulls the record out. As he’s sliding it back onto the shelf, a familiar sleeve catches his eye. He laughs and sniffs as he sets it up, dropping the needle onto the new vinyl and returning to his spot on the couch.

The entirety of Saturday Night Fever runs just over an hour and fifteen minutes. Not including flipping the record, Dean doesn’t move from his spot on the couch for the whole runtime. Sense memory kicks in and he smells the lemon cleaning wipes his mom would use after she finished dusting. Dean used to complain about the smell—even as an adult, he’s not a fan—but now, she could be just around the corner, finishing up in the kitchen. During cleaning days, Dean was often charged with flipping the record to keep the momentum going. It made him feel grown up to be entrusted with such an important job.

The first time he flips the record in the listening room, his brow furrows and he scrunches his face up. It gets easier after that. For side three, he sniffles a little. By side four, he’s smiling fondly. He even sings along to Disco Inferno in a warbly, scratchy baritone. Mary Winchester was a much better singer than him. Maybe. As a kid, it certainly seemed that way.

When the record finishes, he starts at side one again and pulls his laptop back out of his bag, putting his glasses back on and idly humming along to the music.

*

The house doesn’t look any less inviting without an occupant, even though Dean desperately wants some kind of visual confirmation for his own petty validation. The pastel blue spring sky and rapidly greening grass probably doesn’t help. The house to the left has tulips starting to bloom in its garden.

He’s parked the Impala on the opposite side of the street, leaning against the driver’s side door with his arms crossed at his chest and feet crossed at the ankle. He was going to peer in the windows, just to be sure, but he never even had to get that close. The curtains are gone, and he can see the big empty rooms from here without even squinting.

He smells the woman before he sees her. She approaches from the stoop of the non-tulip house on the other side, her flip flops making loud smacking sounds against her heels. She’s wearing jean shorts and an unbuttoned and comically oversized man’s plaid shirt with a lacy bralette under it. A cigarette hangs out the corner of her mouth. The butt hits about half a foot shorter than Dean. She looks up at him, squinting.

“Hey,” she says, “you’re the puppy.” Her voice is deadpan, permanently sardonic.

“Excuse me?”

She nods toward the house. “He’s gone. Vamonosed about a week ago. Didn’t even say goodbye. Really hurt my feelings.”

Dean shakes his head slowly. “Sorry, who are you?”

“Meg. I’m the neighbor.” She cants her head. “Well, I’m sleeping with the neighbor.”

“Oh. Uh, hi.” Dean turns to her. “‘Puppy?’”

“Oh.” Meg grabs her cigarette out of her mouth, holding it between her index and middle finger. “You always show up on his doorstep, dewy-eyed and tripping over yourself.” At Dean’s affronted sound, she waves him off. “It’s adorable,” she coos, smirking.

Dean’s mouth tightens, but he doesn’t argue. Meg gestures back toward the house. “He didn’t like me so much.”

“Must have been your charming personality.”

Meg takes a drag off her cigarette. “I know, right?” She blows out the smoke. Dean wrinkles his nose. “Nah. I think I made him nervous.”

Dean’s expression must be pretty disbelieving, because she continues, “I think he was intimidated by my total animal magnetism.” Before Dean can even react to that, she says, “Just kidding. I knew he was bad news, though. And he knew I knew. It made him twitchy.”

Dean swallows. “How did you know?”

She gestures to her, well, everything. “Game recognizes game, dude.” She gestures to his, well, everything. “I thought you seemed a little Stepford for him, but who am I to stand in the way of true love?” She waggles her eyebrows. “My guy is an architect. Damn, right?”

Meg finishes her cigarette and grinds it out under her black foam platform. “Sorry about your boyfriend, Fido.”

As she turns to walk away, Dean looks down at his feet and says, “Thanks.”

She nods at him, and heads back toward the house with no tulips. Her ground-up cigarette butt smolders on the pavement next to the Impala’s front tire.

*

Finals approach rapidly. The end of Dean’s college experience approaches rapidly.

Studying helps. When he’s studying, he’s not thinking about how he hasn’t spoken to Charlie since their fight, or how his phone is full of texts from friends offering their condolences regarding his breakup with Caroline. It’s his fault for not telling Jo to keep her mouth shut. Sam calls him, all aflutter, and Dean has to spend twenty minutes listening to his freshman brother wax poetic about how all things must come to an end, and Dean, tired and grumpy, tells him that he should think about majoring in philosophy, and that he’ll really blow their departmental socks off with that one. He talks to Bobby and Ellen on speakerphone. Ellen tells him to keep his chin up and Bobby tells him he’s added another reason not to trust the French to his list. Dean tells them their convocation tickets should be arriving any day now.

When he’s not studying or spending time in the listening room, he jacks off, which isn’t near as fun as it used to be. Every time he comes, he lies unmoving, feeling worse than before. Out of nothing but habit, he considers trawling the campus pub, but that thought doesn’t even make it past the getting-out-of-bed stage. It makes him feel queasy to even think about. For the first time, he wonders if it would be unfair to the girl, and that train of thought sends him into an afternoon-long funk that turns into a twenty-four hour funk that ends only when Jo once again forces her way into his apartment and takes him out for gelato out of pure pity. While they’re walking downtown with their dessert, Dean clocks every single couple that wanders by, holding hands, arguing, kissing, laughing. Eventually, Jo tells him to knock it off because it’s creeping her out. At one point, Dean sees two girls holding hands. As they walk by, he hears one of them complaining to her friend about how her boyfriend spends all day playing video games.

Chapter 10: May

Chapter Text

May

Dean graduates summa cum laude. It’s a frenetic, monochromatic event, and he spends three hours sweating in a red cap and gown in the sun while what feels like every person in the college gets a diploma before him. When Charlie takes the stage, he whoops and hollers, but he’s so far back he’s got nothing on her Moondor LARPing group in the audience, though he swears he hears a cheer that sounds distinctly like Bobby beneath the din.

He crosses the stage himself in a total blur, smiling for whatever cameras are flashing, shaking hands with the dean, who he’s never met or even seen in person before this. Four years for a piece of paper. Jo loses her entire sh*t for him somewhere in the crowd, and he bursts out laughing as he walks off the stage, face aflame.

Afterward, he pushes through the sea of gowns, blowing multiple tassels out of his face, before finally bodily colliding not with the Singer-Harvelle-Winchester clan that he was looking for, but the Bradbury clan of one. Her back is turned to him, but Dean is already gaping at her by the time she turns around to apologize. They stare at each other, getting jostled on either side by celebrating families. She was far enough away all morning that Dean couldn’t tell until now, but she’s chopped off her hair, cropped it just above chin-length. She looks exhausted, her eyes shiny.

There’s a pressure building in Dean’s chest. There are a million things he wants to say. Instead, he blurts, “It looks great, Red.”

Charlie bursts into tears and throws her arms around him. Dean hugs her back just as fiercely.

That’s how Bobby, Ellen, Sam, and Jo find them. Jo hugs the both of them while they’re still mid-hug of their own, but everyone else waits their turn while Charlie wipes her face on the sleeve of her gown. When she properly gets an eyeful of Sam, her eyes go wide. She stands back, craning her neck up and shielding her eyes from the sun. “Holy crap, dude.”

The next ten or so hours are a complete whirlwind. They all go to lunch, Dean offers the same excuse he’s given everyone else for the past month or so for why their group is minus one, and then immediately after, Dean, Charlie, and Jo meet up with everyone else for pictures. Dean pretends to be annoyed, but he’s smiling hugely in each one. They go bowling at a place that also sells booze, and it’s just after midnight when Dean and Charlie stumble back to Charlie’s place, still in their caps and gowns. Bobby, Ellen, and Sam are staying in Dean’s apartment for the night while Dean crashes with Charlie.

Exhausted but still buzzing, Dean and Charlie sit up together in her room. They haven’t had a moment alone all day, and now that they’re finally here, Dean braces himself. Charlie sits on her bed, and Dean sits on her rug, back against the foot-end of her wooden frame. He picks at his tassel.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been around,” Charlie says into the silence. “It’s been nuts and there’s—really no excuse.”

“I’m just glad you’re not in jail,” Dean says. “I was afraid the next time I saw you, it would be in court.”

“No,” Charlie says. “That’s… in the process of being settled.”

Dean turns to look at her. “‘In the process’”?

“It’s not like things got wrapped up super neatly that morning in the barn. The Adlers reached out to me. We came to something resembling a resolution.”

“Holy crap,” Dean says. “What is it?”

Charlie screws up her face in apology. “Kind of not allowed to talk about it.”

Seriously? Wait—you’re not working for them, are you?”

“What?” Charlie shakes her head so hard her tassel hits her in the face. She pulls off her cap with a relieved groan. “Oh my God, no. Once the ink is dry I’ll totally not fill you in.” She winks exaggeratedly.

Dean slumps back against the bed with a sigh of relief. When he looks back at Charlie, she’s biting her lip. “What?”

“I have to tell you something,” she says.

“Okay.”

“You’re not going to be happy.”

“Story of my life,” Dean says.

“I assume you’ve already noticed Dr. Milton, your previous professor and potential future employer, is no longer on campus.”

Dean snorts out a laugh. “God. I almost forgot.”

“He’s a Milton-Adler,” Charlie says apologetically. “He was here, mostly to keep an eye on things. Very hands-off.”

“Keep an eye on things?”

“Him and Crowley acted as a kind of support system for Cas, not that he ever used them much this time round. Gathering intel he wouldn’t have easily had access to. As you know, the Adlers like to protect their investments. Once they realized Cas was dragging his heels on this assignment, Cain stepped in by hiring you as his assistant. He could use that position to either gain your trust and sell you on Wine Turner, or to blackmail Cas into putting his plan into action faster.”

Dean leans his head back and closes his eyes. “Yeah. I guess I didn’t know. But I still knew.” He sighs. “That leaves my post-grad job opportunities at… hm. Carry the one, divide by… zero. Yeah, it’s zero.”

“You’ll find something,” Charlie says.

“Yeah,” Dean says. “That’s not really what I’m talking about.”

“I know.”

Dean puts both hands over his face, elbows resting on his knees. He groans.

“I know,” Charlie says.

When he doesn’t say anything in response, she opens up her laptop. They sit like that for a while, Charlie browsing and Dean sitting. Dean’s head is still squeezed into that stupid cap, but he can’t bring himself to take it off.

“Charlie,” Dean says to his hands.

Charlie looks up from her laptop. “What?”

“I don’t want you to think I’m mad that you’re trying to save the world.”

Charlie kind of laughs. “That’s not what I’m doing.”

“Yeah, it is. But I’m selfish. If I had to choose, I’d rather have my best friend than a saved world.”

“Okay,” Charlie says. She sniffs. “If it makes you feel better, I’ve already decided to pump the brakes a little. For reasons that definitely have nothing to do with recent events. In fact, I’ve heard that there are other ways to fight the good fight. Maybe even more effective ones out there that don’t involve me sitting on my ass for hours playing video games while a script runs in the background. Or getting thrown in jail.”

Dean turns to her, pointing. “Video games,” he hisses. “Scripts.”

Charlie smiles wickedly as she returns to her laptop. “No one will ever believe you.”

“You’re a cruel queen.”

“All hail, baby.”

The night goes on in much the same manner. Fits of conversation, some important, some not at all, interspersed with long silences. Both of them are exhausted, but something keeps them up, keeps them together, keeps them talking. The inevitability of it squeezes Dean’s nerves, makes the world go tingly like it always does when he feels it encroaching on his insides. He focuses on clenching and unclenching his fists while Charlie occasionally updates him on her progress in Stardew Valley. His stomach lazily turns over and over, like a windmill, constant.

“Ancient fruits are hard as hell to get,” Charlie is saying, “but the payoff is—” She kisses her fingers like a chef. “—mwah. And my friend, it is time to collect. Let’s go pick these—”

“I’m gay,” Dean blurts.

Blood roars in his ears. His heart is frenetic in his chest, pulse racing. His extremities somehow go numb and cold at the same time. He stares straight ahead, at the chest of drawers he helped Charlie carry home during the summer between first and second years. She saw it on the curb and texted him, asking for a big, macho, manly man’s help, as she was but a frail woman prone to bouts of hysteria. There’s a crack running up the side of it from where Dean lost his grip on his end mid-trip and it crashed onto the asphalt. Charlie thanked him for his troubles with pizza and beer.

In the ensuing silence, there is only the slow click of a closing laptop. Dean’s desperate to say more. To explain. To justify. To defend. But there’s nothing else to say. He sits, unmoving. Terrified.

There’s a soft thump. Charlie moving the laptop. The mattress creaks. Charlie moving herself.

Dean waits. One breath. Two. In. Out.

From behind, arms wrap around Dean. Charlie is hanging onto him for dear life. Her hair tickles his cheek.

Slowly, Dean pulls his knees back toward his chest. He hugs Charlie’s arms to him, desperate.

And they remain that way for a while, Charlie half-hanging off the bed, Dean’s graduation cap still attempting to squeeze the contents of his head out his ears as he tucks into her arms.

*

They go to sleep eventually.

Or Dean tries to, at least. He tosses and turns on Charlie’s couch for what feels like hours. It’s not physical discomfort that keeps him awake, but an unacknowledged, buried pain that has been waiting patiently for him to make himself vulnerable to it, and now that he’s done exactly that, it has no intention of going anywhere.

He paces in the living room, expecting his softened tread and the carpet beneath his bare feet to sufficiently dampen any sounds he would make otherwise. He bites on his knuckles and rucks his hands through his hair and fights the urge to break everything in sight. His eyes are swollen and hot and wet, the ache in his chest a constant, thumping reminder of what he’s lost before he even got a chance to have it.

He pivots at the end of Charlie’s living room, ready to pace back toward the kitchen, but stops short when he sees the dark figure silhouetted in the hallway.

“Dean?” Charlie says. Her voice is sleepy, but he can hear the genuine question in it. She’s really asking.

All at once, the adrenaline, the biting, the ripping, drains out of him. He sags where he stands. His defenses, so far down he may as well have laid out a red carpet, meekly try to spring back up. An automatic self-defense mechanism years in the making, shattered.

He’s so tired.

He puts a hand to his forehead. He takes in a shuddery, gasping breath, and days, weeks, months, an entire lifetime’s worth of desire spills forth.

“I love him,” he says, and his voice breaks.

*

Charlie sits with him on the couch until the sun comes up, an arm wrapped around his back, her head on his shoulder.

They barely speak. Occasionally, Dean will grasp at her, resting his forehead on her shoulder when he can’t bear the thought of accidentally catching his reflection in the dark TV. As the sun rises and the room lightens, Charlie slowly disentangles herself from him. “I’m gonna make us some coffee,” she says.

Dean nods. He feels like a shell of himself. He stands. “I’m gonna shower,” he says.

The shower is good. He doesn’t think in the shower and the only thing he feels is the hot water on his skin.

As he’s toweling off in the bathroom, Charlie knocks. “Hey,” she says through the door. “Got some clothes you’ve left here before. No underwear, though. Sorry.” A beat. “Hm. Weird thing to apologize for. Oh, well.”

Dean changes into the clothes Charlie brought him, an old tank top that he had completely forgotten about from his earlier college days when he was even frattier, and an incredibly embarrassing pair of jean shorts that only go to mid-thigh that he wore to a car wash to raise money for something or other.

“Charlie, are you kidding me?” he complains as he walks into the kitchen.

Charlie, sitting at the linoleum kitchen table, covers her mouth with her mug to hide her smile. “Oh, I forgot how delightful those are.”

“f*cking—” Dean looks down at himself. He bursts into laughter. “Oh, f*ck. Fine. Whatever.”

He sits down and has coffee with Charlie.

*

The Dean Winchester Walk of Shame begins.

But only after endless, cyclical conversations with Charlie. He says, what should I do about x? And Charlie says, it’s up to you. He says, what do I say to y about z? And she says, whatever you want. Finally, she takes him by the shoulders. “Dean. I will help you as much as I can with this. It’s not easy, and you’ve already been treading water on your own for way too long. But I can’t do the work for you.”

Dean grimaces. “I have to tell everyone that I lied about having a fake Canadian girlfriend. A fake Canadian French girlfriend. A fake Canadian French online girlfriend. For months.” Just saying it out loud makes him want to shrivel up like a raisin.

“People have done worse things for stupider reasons,” Charlie says, amused. The smile slips off her face. “Listen. All gay people are serial liars. You kinda have to be. It sucks, but that’s life, isn’t it?” She reaffirms her grip on his shoulders. “You’re gonna be fine.”

Dean takes a deep, sobering breath. They sit in his living room. Charlie doesn’t mention the missing poster. “I guess it’s just a matter of nutting up, right?” He tries to hype himself up. “C’mon. I saved my little brother from a burning building when I was ten. I can…” His tongue still trips over the words a little. “…do this.” He doesn’t move. “I don’t wanna nut up.”

Charlie laughs. “No one does. If everyone nutted up, no one would nut up.”

Shaking his head, Dean pulls out his phone.

*

Dean and Jo go for a drive. Dean doesn’t have any particular destination in mind, but he likes having something to do with his hands. They leave the city center soon enough—Dean wants a route with as few stops as possible. Trying to have this conversation while avoiding running over pedestrians would take up more brain space than he currently has on offer.

“So,” Dean says.

Jo stares at him. She’s wearing an oversized brown canvas jacket and an expectant expression.

“Um,” Dean says. He rubs a nervous hand on his thigh. He’s cleaned Jo’s hair out the shower drain. One of her tampons clogged the sewage lines when they were fifteen and he was the unlucky final flusher. This shouldn’t be a big deal. “Ah,” he says instead, and flashes a queasy grin.

“Are you having issues with your motor function? Should you be driving a car?”

“I’m fine.” He takes a deep breath. Outside, nothing but dark trees and two-lane asphalt. “About Caroline. We didn’t break up.”

“Okay,” Jo says. She leans her elbow at the base of the passenger window and leans her head against it, watching Dean.

“We didn’t break up,” Dean says, pained expression on his face. “Because we never dated.”

“O…kay,” Jo says.

“We never dated… because she’s not real.”

Jo just stares at him.

“Jo… I’m gay?”

Jo squints. “Are you asking me?”

“No, I’m…” Dean rolls his eyes, which is not a good idea when operating a motor vehicle. “I’m telling you. Jo, I’m gay.”

Jo looks at him for a long time without saying anything. “You made her up when me and Sam cornered you at Christmas, didn’t you?”

Dean shrugs. He keeps his eyes on the road.

“Damn,” Jo says. “That was sh*tty of us. Sorry.”

Dean swallows. “It’s definitely not your fault.”

“That’s why you lied about how you broke your nose,” Jo parses out. “’Cause you were with… someone else that night.”

“Yeah.” Dean clears his throat.

Jo falls quiet again. Dean’s chest starts to flutter with panic.

“You’re freaking me out,” he says after a couple minutes of an increasingly staticky oldies station as the only sound between them. He snaps the radio off.

“I’m just trying to figure something out,” Jo says. She worries her bottom lip between her teeth. “I’m afraid you’re gonna be mad or self-conscious or something.”

“Well, now you have to tell me,” Dean says, keeping his voice steady.

“When did Sam have his first beer?”

Dean makes a face. “What?”

“Tell me.”

“It was the three of us, two summers ago,” Dean says. “Sam had just turned 16 that spring.”

“Yeah,” Jo says. She makes a face. “But no.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your freshman year, my not-freshman year. It was the day you left, actually. Sam and I went to Dead Man’s Lake and… we had a beer.”

“You what? He was fourteen, Jo! Are you kidding me?”

“He was super bummed you left, Dean. You’re, like, his hero or whatever.”

Dean shakes his head. “And you thought introducing him to alcohol as a coping mechanism was a good idea? We’ve already got enough of those in the family.”

“I never said it was a good idea. I just said I did it. He didn’t even like it.”

“I’m gonna beat both your stupid asses,” Dean says.

Jo rolls her eyes. “It was a Bud Light. I think that’s punishment enough.”

That gives Dean pause. “Okay. Almost.”

“Anyway,” Jo says. “That wasn’t the point. The point is, we sat on the end of the dock and we had a few beers—well, I did—and Sam got tipsy on about half of one, you know how stringy he was back in the day—calm down, he was fine, you’re gonna give yourself an aneurysm—and it wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary.”

“If it was such an ordinary day, then why are you trying to give me an aneurysm?”

“Because it was, until Sam turned to me and asked if I thought you were gay.”

That shuts Dean right up. He clenches his jaw.

“In my eighteen years on the planet, that thought had never occurred to me,” Jo says. She has a kinda funny, reverent smile on her face. “I laughed so hard I choked on my sh*tty beer and knocked another empty can into the lake. I was going to leave it like an asshole, but Sam fished it out with a stick. When he came back, I asked him why he said that, and he just shrugged.” She shakes her head, pulling her foot out of her Birkenstock and resting it on the leather. She plops her cheek down onto her kneecap. Normally, Dean would tell her to knock it off, but he keeps his mouth shut. “I brushed it off and we never talked about it again, but I don’t know… like, it didn’t seem to make much sense. You were always bragging about girls and flirting with them and going on dates… I mean, maybe that’s why the thought stuck. Not in any meaningful way, really. Every once in a while, it would just kinda… float across my mind.” She shrugs. “I don’t know. I was hoping by the time I finished this story it would feel more meaningful, but it’s just a bunch of wishy washy I-statements.”

Dean frowns out the windshield. He takes some time to process, and then says, “It freaks me out, that other people knew before I did. Like, what the hell? How can someone know something about me before I do?” He taps his fingers on the steering wheel, staccato.

“Dude, you’re asking the wrong person,” Jo says. After a moment, she concedes. “Sometimes you know things, but you pretend you don’t know them, for whatever stupid reason. When I was a kid at Harvelle’s, I would hustle barflies at Duck Hunter by pretending I didn’t know how to play and then going double or nothing.”

“You were like, nine,” Dean says. “Did a bunch of skeeves really try to con a nine-year-old out of her teddy bear?”

“More than you’d think,” Jo says. “And guess who still has that teddy bear sitting on her bed to this day?”

“Gross,” Dean says.

“He gets washed once a year.”

“Not you, dummy.”

“Oh.”

Dean takes the next exit so he can turn around. First, though, he pulls into a Chick-Fil-A drive-thru, and then speeds off in a panic when he remembers they hate gay people. “sh*t,” he says. They go to Sonic instead.

As they drive home, shakes in hand, Jo says, “I’m sorry you had such a terrible year. That blows.”

Dean shrugs. “It wasn’t all bad.”

“I wish I could’ve helped. Somehow.”

“Trust me, you couldn’t have. I only told Charlie—Charlie, you know, Charlie Bradbury, big lesbian and my never-not-supportive best friend—a couple days ago.”

Later, he drops her off at her dorm. She closes the door behind her, walks a few steps, then stops. She turns back and knocks on the window. Dean rolls it down, and she leans in, resting her arms on the frame. “I love you,” she says without any preamble. “Or whatever.”

Dean blinks. His jaw trembles. “You too,” he says.

*

MESSAGES: CHARLIE

Dean: I’ve told two people and I’m exhausted

Dean: I feel like I need to disappear into the woods for a year.

Dean: You’re telling me I have to do this for the rest of my life

Charlie: <;-(

*

Dean tells Victor, Benny, and Andrea. If any of them are surprised, they hide it well. They’re all gracious enough about Dean straight-up lying to them for months on end.

Dean tells Victor while he helps him move an old bookcase into his apartment. “I always knew you were flirting with me,” Victor says. Dean smiles cheekily. He’s probably right.

“Maybe in another life.”

“Hey, since Caroline is single now, what would you say to maybe giving me her number?”

Dean laughs and flips him the bird.

Later that day, Benny gives Dean a firm handshake that turns into a hug when he tells them. Andrea pats his arm.

“You gotta do what you gotta do to survive, chief,” Benny says.

After that, Dean helps them pack up their U-Haul. They’re heading back to Louisiana so Andrea can start her master’s in the fall. Before they leave, Andrea says out the passenger-side window: “Hey, send Cas our best wishes if you see him, okay?”

Dean’s smile freezes on his face. “Yeah,” he finally says, a beat late. “Of course.”

He sees them off with a wave, and waits until they’ve turned the corner to return to the Impala.

*

Pam is polishing her crystal ball in her patchouli-scented basem*nt suite when he tells her. When he’s done, she sighs in resignation. “Missed my window, huh?”

Dean laughs. The adrenaline makes him shaky. “Sorry.”

“Your loss,” Pam says, but she’s smiling.

“You know what?” Dean says. “It is. I understand if there’s a mourning period for what could have been where you refuse to take any other lovers.”

“Well, let’s not get hasty.” Pam tosses her cleaning cloth aside and deposits the ball back into its ornate plastic stand. She gestures to the floor cushion beside the table. “Sit. I may be a charlatan, but I sleep better at night knowing my marks feel at least a little comforted after the fact.”

“Yeah, but I’m not one of your marks,” Dean says. He sits on the purple cushion anyway.

Pam slides her crystal ball out of the way and grabs Dean’s hand. “Sweetie, we are all each other’s marks,” she says, simultaneously sage and no-bullsh*t. When Dean rolls his eyes, she continues, “And yes, you are. New Years?”

Dean’s cheeks get hot. “I don’t think talking about my fake girlfriend counts.”

“You’re right,” Pam says. “It doesn’t. Which is great news for us, ’cause you weren’t talking about your fake girlfriend.” She examines his palm, tapping a fingertip in the center, then lets it go. “I don’t need to frown at your hand to know that.” Her sharp gaze watches him perceptively.

Step one of the Dean Winchester Walk of Shame is admitting Caroline was fake all along. Step two is coming out. There’s a logical step three, the final piece of the puzzle that brings the whole picture into focus. The one that Dean dismissed sharing the second he thought of it.

“Say you’re right,” he says, and offers nothing else.

Sympathy crosses her face. She takes his hand back, just long enough to give it a reassuring squeeze. “Truly, Dean, I have not a single speck of psychic ability. What I do got is a nice rack and a sharp-as-a-tack entrepreneurial spirit.” Then, significantly, “And the ability to read people.” She points at him. “If it’s in the cards, anywhere in the deck, stick with him.”

“Oh, please,” Dean scoffs. “Definitely not a single speck.”

Pam raises her eyebrows and leans back against the wall, smug. “How many sad, horny men do you think ask me for relationship advice? How many lonely, dumb guys so in love they can’t see straight, asking me if they have a future with the cute cashier at Subway? None of them talk about their girls like you talked about the guy whose name I’m pretending I don’t know.” Something occurs to her, and she laughs. “Nice cover story on that, by the way. It gets me every time I think about it.”

Dean swallows and looks down. “It’s not in the cards,” he says, voice rough.

Pam puts her hands behind her head, interlocking her fingers. “We’ll see,” she says, unconvinced. “Y’know, Winchester, I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this, but you got a face that’s hard to forget.”

Dean slaps on a smile. “That’s what all the ladies say.”

*

MESSAGES: CHARLIE

Dean: Everyone is being really nice about it. Feels like sh*t.

Charlie: yeah lying to your friends will do that

Dean: Why did I lie for so long. It’s not like any of them were gonna disown me

Charlie: cause its hard

*

Dean calls Sam, who’s home for the summer. “Hey, Dean,” he says. “What’s up?”

“Hi, Sam, I’m gay.”

“Hi—what?”

“Hi, Sam, I’m gay.”

Sam makes a few funny choking sounds. “Okay,” he finally says, his voice a little wobbly.

“Figured I should let you know,” Dean says. “I haven’t told Bobby and Ellen yet, so don’t spill the beans.”

Sam continues to make the same confused gurgling noises. In Sam’s defense, Dean figured ripping the Band-Aid off fast would be easier. He’s found that if he doesn’t, he hems and haws his way around the subject for an extra half hour before finding the stones to bring it up.

“Okay,” Sam says again. “I—okay.”

“You sound misty-eyed,” Dean accuses.

“I’m not,” Sam sniffs.

“I know you already knew. Jo ratted you out.”

Sam sighs. “I didn’t—I didn’t already know. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. You’re my brother. Wait,” he breathes. “What about Caroline? Oh my God, Dean, you’ve got to tell her. You just broke up. If this is why…”

Dean clears his throat. “Gosh, Sammy… you’re right. I’ll break the news to her real gentle. I can only hope she’ll be as understanding as you.”

*

“You’re both on speaker, right?” Dean says.

“Yes,” Bobby says.

“Yeah, sweetie,” Ellen says. “What’s going on?” They crackle in and out. Speaker phone plus long distance is never a good combination.

“Um,” Dean says. “Not that this has anything to do with anything, but you guys voted for Obama, right?”

“Obviously,” Bobby says.

“Both terms?”

“Of course.” Ellen.

“Great. So, say one of your adopted kids told you he was gay. You would still let him come home for the summer, right?”

On the other line, silence. Dean assumes Ellen and Bobby are glancing at each other over the landline right about now. He knew going in that all bets would be off with a different generation. Best to be upfront and add some levity right from the get-go. Either way, he’s sweating. He imagines five years, ten years down the road. Having to tell his sixty-year-old boss that no, he doesn’t have a wife, and no, he doesn’t want to be set up with his niece. He stops imagining the future and focuses on the present when the line crackles to life again.

“I’d tell him he better get his ass home pronto,” Bobby says, “Because I’ve got a stack of cars the length of my arm to strip. Also.” He lowers his voice. “If someone else doesn’t start doing the cooking, I’m afraid we’re not going to make it through the month.”

There’s the sound of a hand smacking an arm.

“What Bobby means is—well, exactly that,” Ellen says.

“You’re always welcome here,” Bobby says, “you idjit. I’m offended you’d ever assume otherwise.”

“Thanks, guys,” Dean says. He swallows, smiling.

*

MESSAGES: CHARLIE

Dean: Talk about diminishing returns. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. Didn’t Einstein say that?

Charlie: no.

Charlie: fb memes with his face on them do

Charlie: don’t wanna burst ur bubble but youre not always gonna get these kinds of reactions

Dean: Yeah, I guess not.

Dean: Anyway, you’re right.

Charlie: bout what?

Dean: It is hard. It’s easy, too. Kinda.

Charlie: well yeah. u been telling people for years you have blue eyes when theyre really green. its gonna feel weird.

Dean: That was deep, dude.

Charlie: I Googled articles about supporting your friend when they come out.

Dean: Thanks

*

MESSAGES: SAM

Sam: Jo messaged me

Sam: Youre a dick dean

Dean: That’s hom*ophobic

Sam: Don’t f*cking start

*

MESSAGES: CHARLIE

Dean: Do I have to call all the girls I’ve ever slept with and tell them too

Charlie: uhh

Charlie: if you WANT

Charlie: but why would you

Dean: I dunno. Shouldn’t I apologize for lying to them?

Charlie: dude

Charlie: u didnt

Dean: Okay

*

In fits and spurts, Dean tells Charlie about the last nine months. She never offers much, if any, commentary. Sometimes, Dean asks her what she clocked at various points, when he was put in situations that had him looking furtively over his shoulder for hours afterward in case of curious eyes. For the most part, Charlie is noncommittal in her answers, which Dean takes to mean she picked up on enough to feel like she can’t say how much she picked up on. Although at one point, she does remind him that the first time they met, at that frat party neither of them wanted to be at, a shirtless guy walked by while they were mid-conversation, and it took his gaze about a full minute to return back to her. He protests, out of habit.

“He was a lot subtler than you,” Charlie says one day near the end of May as they walk through a local square of yellow-green masquerading as a park, soaking in the sun. She carries a sweaty Arizona green tea the size of her head, hair hidden under one of Dean’s snapbacks. It’s the one covered in flowers. “Not that that was some great feat. But you were always so you, I probably could’ve bought it was one-sided. At first, anyway.” She’s unable to hide her grin. “Making out in the middle of a party was a bold move, I have to say.”

“Thanks for letting me get peer pressured into that, by the way.”

“Hey,” Charlie says, offended. “I tried to save you. The will of the people had moved on. You were the one who went for it.”

“Yeah,” Dean says, brow furrowing. “It was weird. I hate being singled out. But I wanted people to see.” He furrows his brow. That’s not right. “I wanted to be seen.”

Charlie looks up and squints into the sun. The park smells like freshly mowed grass and sunscreen. Nearby, a group of guys throw a frisbee between them, showing off for each other with unimpressive and unmastered tricks. One of them is wearing a snapback Dean already owns, the one covered in cherries. “I know,” she says.

“Does that feeling ever go away?” Dean asks.

“Do you want the real answer?”

Dean sighs. Charlie sips her tea and offers some to him. He declines.

“I dunno,” he says into the somber silence. “I thought it would be different.”

“How so?”

“In the movies it’s always like, you tell everyone, they’re happy, you’re happy, the end. I just feel… not that.”

“Yeah, life kinda just goes on mostly the same after you come out. It’s weird. It’s this huge, life-changing thing inside you that eats you up for months or years on end. And these days—assuming you live in like, a place where people aren’t going to tar and feather you for it— when you tell people they’re just like, ‘Cool.’ And that is cool. It’s cool they’re cool. But it’s also like, that’s it? That’s all you have to say about the thing that haunted my every waking and sleeping moment for as long as I can remember? Fine. It’s cool.”

“Then why was it like pulling teeth? If it’s cool? Why did it take me eight million years to get over myself?”

Charlie puts an arm around him, the cold Arizona can against his bicep making him jump, and shoots a finger gun at him with her other hand. “And that, my friend, is the bitch of the double standard.”

“I could’ve had a completely different life,” Dean says.

“But then you wouldn’t have met me!” Charlie sing-songs. One of the frisbee guys messes up his shot and it whizzes toward Charlie, who bats it away with her Arizona. She plucks it off the ground and sends it sailing back, almost in his direction. She shouts an apology to the guys, and her grin slides off her face as her focus returns to the conversation at hand. “Or him.”

“Would that have been such a bad thing?” Dean says, harsher than he intends.

“I don’t know,” Charlie lobs smoothly back at him, neater than the frisbee. “Would it?”

*

Dean spends the last sweltering days of May cleaning out his apartment. It’s the end of his lease, and he’d be shot before renewing this hunk of junk. The windows have been open from seven in the morning to seven at night for a week now, closed only when the familiar twilight buzz of mosquitos starts ringing in his ears. Jo moved out of her dorm a couple days ago and has been staying with him since, scrubbing walls and squeezing toothpaste into holes.

Dean’s shoulder-deep in the fridge one morning, trying to scrub mysterious stains out of the crisper, while Jo repairs a hole he made in the drywall a few years ago when he tripped over a girl’s discarded shirt in the middle night and kicked out in front of him, searching for his balance. He told Jo it was from moving furniture. She didn’t believe him.

Out of nowhere, Jo says, “You could go on a date, you know.” Her suggestion is punctuated by the sound of drywall falling to the ground as she creates a nicer, square hole to work from instead of the tattered, punctured mess Dean’s been staring at for years.

“Nah,” Dean says. He continues to scrub. A little harder than before. He didn’t think he bought enough vegetables for their juices to adhere so firmly to the plastic.

Jo saws a new square of drywall equal to the hole she just punched. She installs new furring strips inside the hole, and for a while, the only sound is the whir of the electric drill as she attaches the new drywall to the strips. Dean continues to scrub at the stain. He eyes the counter under the sink where he keeps the bleach.

While Jo is focusing on applying the spackle to the wall, she says, with little inflection, “You know that being gay means you can date guys who aren’t Cas, right?”

Dean stops scrubbing. He slides backwards on his knees, staring at Jo around the edge of the open refrigerator door. She continues to apply the spackle and when she’s done that, she smooths it out. As she scrapes the excess off the joint knife, she finally glances up at him. “What?”

Dean sighs. He retreats to his cupboard, but grabs some steel wool instead. No point in going nuclear on the health drawer just yet. As he returns to scrubbing—the wool works much better—he says, “I’m aware of the definition, thanks.”

They don’t speak for a little while after that. Jo applies a second coat of spackle a few hours after her first, and leaves some sandpaper out for herself for the next morning. Dean finishes up the fridge and wipes out the freezer. When they’re finally done, they sink onto the couch. Dean lays his head back and puts the heels of his palms to his eyes. “We gotta junk this tomorrow.”

“Bobby and Ellen are gonna be so sad. This is a Harvelle-Winchester-Singer legacy couch.”

“Yeah, well, the permanent dent in my ass from the loose spring is also a legacy. Doesn’t mean I like it or want it around anymore.”

“Fair enough,” Jo concedes. “Hey.”

Dean looks at her.

“I’m really afraid of being on my own. But you’ve had so much going on this year, so much in general has been going on that I’m not in on—” When Dean opens his mouth to protest, to comfort, Jo says, “I’m not mad. It’s your life. But I have to get out of little sister mode. I have to grow up and maybe even make a friend you didn’t already make for me.” She takes a deep breath. “Just a sec.” She stands and crosses the room to where her backpack sits on the kitchen counter. She digs through it, and with a jingle, tosses a set of keys Dean’s way as she returns to the couch. He catches them and holds them up, but doesn’t recognize them.

She sits back down, one leg tucked under herself. “Ellen gave me the keys to Harvelle’s.”

Dean’s eyes go wide. “What? I thought she sold that place like a million years ago.”

Jo takes back the keys, staring at them fondly. “She did. The new owner never did anything with it. It sat for years, collecting dust when they realized it was a dud.” She clutches the keys. “Ellen bought it back and now it’s my dud.”

“Jo,” Dean says. “That’s amazing. What are you gonna do with it?”

“Open it,” Jo says, and smiles.

*

Charlie’s nervous. Dean clocks it the second he shows up at her door.

“What’s up?” he asks as they walk out to the Impala.

Charlie glances at him furtively. “What?”

On the drive to the restaurant where they’re grabbing dinner, they have a mostly normal conversation, but Charlie keeps glancing at her phone. “You waiting on a nude or what?”

“What?” Charlie repeats. She shoves her phone away. “No. Dorothy and I broke up.”

What?” When Charlie doesn’t immediately respond: “Charlie, what?”

Charlie shrugs, slowly coming back to the conversation. “She’s doing her master’s in history in the UK. She’s going to Scotland to herd sheep. She’s going to learn to fly a plane.”

“What the hell? When did this happen?”

“She told me. A few weeks into us dating. Wanted me to know what I was getting into.”

“I’m sorry,” Dean says, suddenly at a loss. Then, “Can’t you go with her?”

“She asked me to. I said no.”

“Why? I—” Dean’s been looking at her too long. The car in the lane next to them honks at him for drifting, and he hastily straightens out. “You love adventures. She loves adventures. You love low-cut tops. She loves wearing low-cut tops. You love her. Right?”

“High-waisted pants, but close enough,” Charlie says. “Geez Louise, man, when have you ever seen an inch of cleavage on that girl? Anyway.” She checks her phone again. “Yes. I do. A lot. Obviously. But with everything that’s happened this year, I’m still recovering. And I don’t mean, like, emotionally. Well. I kind of do. I mean that I have a lot of work to do to become somebody worthy of a woman like her. I blew up your life and mine this year, because I was an idiot on the internet who was too smart for my own good.”

“Charlie, he manipulated you—he manipulated both of us—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Charlie cuts in. “I f*cked up. Monumentally. I own it. I get in any deeper with Dorothy before getting my life right, I end up dragging her down, too.”

“But—” Dean protests weakly. “Just don’t do it again?”

Charlie smiles slightly. “She’ll be gone for two years. We’re going our separate ways for now, but in two years, we’ll reassess.” She shrugs. “I might even go visit.” She checks her phone, then glances out the windshield. They’re just pulling into the parking lot of the burger place. “Everything I’ve done, all the scams I’ve pulled—I know that objectively, I’ve done good in the world. I’ve helped people and made their lives better. And it could all catch up to me at any time… again. But there are other, legal ways to make a difference. It’s time I start expanding my horizons.”

They park and exit the car. Charlie walks quickly, fast enough that it’s noticeable but not fast enough to be weird. Dean follows her inside, and when the hostess greets them, Charlie specifically requests to sit at the bar. Two TVs mounted above them are playing two separate sports games, neither of which Dean cares about. When the bartender asks what Dean wants to drink, he gets a water.

Charlie shimmies off her stool and disappears to the end of the bar. Dean watches as she has a muted conversation with the bartender, murmuring something into his ear. He’s so tall he has to bend down to hear her. They shake hands—something green exchanged between them—and Charlie returns to her seat, checking her phone once again. Dean gapes at her.

“What… the hell was that?”

“Nothing,” Charlie says, and sips at her co*ke.

“What did you just say to the bartender?”

“Oh,” Charlie says. “I was, uh… flirting.”

Dean glances at the bartender’s rippling forearm muscles and cut jawline. “Hm.”

Behind the bar, one sports game and then the other gets switched to a national news station and subtitles get turned on. It’s entertainment industry gossip, nothing Dean would ever admit to paying attention to. Charlie, however, has her eyes glued to the screen. One’s feed is a few seconds ahead of the other, and that’s the one Charlie sticks to. When the bartender asks if he can put an order in for them, Charlie shoos him away. She checks her phone again. Something must have changed, because she swallows, steels herself, and turns to Dean.

“Dean,” she says, voice shaky. She grabs his hands. “Don’t freak out.”

Dean pulls the panic lever in his brain. “Not a good start,” he says.

Charlie glances up at the faster screen again, and her eyes go wide. She puts a hand to her mouth.

Dean follows her gaze. The feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach deepens.

A BREAKING NEWS banner is splashed across the screen. The text reads:

WINE TURNER ANONYMOUS WHISTLEBLOWER EXPOSES EXTENSIVE MONEY LAUNDERING SCHEME

The news report is thin on the ground, since it just broke, but the anchor lays out the various accusations, everything from the headline-grabbing money laundering to embezzlement, tax evasion, privacy breeches, and bribes to government officials at almost every level of office. They speculate massive fines, jail time, bankruptcy, lawsuits, and more. Names and pictures flash across the screen that Dean’s never seen or heard of, but most of them share a last name. He sees a familiar pair of eyes here, a cowlick he’s brushed his fingers through a million times there.

Dean understands half of it at best, the legal jargon way above his paygrade, but he gets the gist. Oh, he gets the gist.

He turns to Charlie, numb.

She’s a little pale, but the small smile on her face is genuine. “Okay,” she says. “I’m going legit… as of now.”

“I—” Dean’s reeling. The bartender has already changed the TVs back to the games to the delight of the winos at the far end of the bar. Someone scores a touchdown and they cheer. Dean puts a hand on his forehead. “You knew?” He can barely think. His voice is hoarse.

“I helped,” she says quickly, “But it wasn’t my idea.”

“What the f*ck is he doing?” Dean says. “They’re gonna hunt him down. They’re gonna kill him. He just—” He squeezes his eyes shut, fighting against the bile rising in his throat. “His life is over.”

Charlie’s shaking her head. “No. He’s making his life right.”

Dean stares at her, helpless. She shrugs, but she’s smiling at him. She looks a little queasy, too. “Why didn’t he say anything?”

“Like what?” Charlie says, and Dean’s mouth snaps shut. Something bad happens on TV, and the bar starts booing. Dean glares at them, but no one’s paying him any attention. “If he called, would you have picked up?”

A muscle ticks in Dean’s jaw. “How long have you two been planning this?”

“We didn’t see each other much this month, did we?”

“Oh my God,” Dean groans. He drops his head into his hands. “This whole time? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Dean, you were dealing with your own stuff. Your own really big stuff. Also,” she concedes, “he basically made me take a blood oath that I wouldn’t tell you. He didn’t want you involved any more than you already were.”

“Why?”

Charlie gives him a bemused look. “I mean, you have to know. He’s trying to protect you.”

“You hate him,” Dean blusters. “He f*cked you over, royally. Why the hell did you help him?”

Charlie sits back, swirling a finger through the condensation on the outside of her glass of water. “They—he—sent a private jet for me, dude. Listen, I know they’re our mortal enemies and all, but a private jet.” Her grin fades. “It was their last swing. I went to Maine and said no, again. Very repetitive, boring, and terrifying. Not a fun combo. I was sure I was going to end up murdered or in a tiny jail cell for the rest of my life by the end of the week. Then I got him alone one night. My last night. We talked. He asked for my help, figured I knew someone who knows someone who knows someone. As luck would have it, I did. From there, it was just a matter of gathering documents. Evidence. This isn’t going to bring them down. Not even close. It’s a bargaining chip for his—and my—freedom. I owe the guy who screwed me over in the first place a life debt. How wild is that?”

Dean has to take a moment to process. Recontextualize everything—again. “I’m nothing,” he says hollowly. “In the grand scheme of things, I’m just… a blip on his radar.” He massages his temples. “I’m really happy that things worked out for you. I am. I’m thrilled. I’m just…” He searches for the right words, scrubbing a hand down his face. “Grappling with my own cosmic insignificance.” He chuckles blankly. “f*cking subplots, man.”

“Hey,” Charlie says. She grabs his forearm, pulling his hand away from his face. “Dean, look at me.”

Dean looks at her. Her eyes are wide and earnest. She keeps her hand around his arm. “Castiel may have come here because of me, but he stayed here because of you.”

*

Dean’s ten minutes out. He left with hardly a mumbled explanation, driving aimlessly. When he consciously realizes he’s driving aimlessly, he calls Charlie and puts her on speakerphone.

“Forget something?”

“Where am I going?”

“I don’t know. Where are you going?”

“Charlie.”

“How far are you willing to drive? He, uh. He’s gonna have to take a Greyhound.”

“Seriously?” Dean puts a hand to his face. “Jesus. Does he even know what that is?”

After a moment of contemplative silence, Charlie says, “Good point.” She sighs. “Hold on.”

Dean flicks on his hazards, pulling onto the shoulder of the highway. The asphalt simmers in the early heat of summer. “What are you doing?”

Charlie makes a vague noise of acknowledgement. “Giving you your birthday, Valentine’s Day, Veteran’s day, Christmas, Hannukah, and Winter solstice present all at once. Also, still trying to be an upstanding citizen, or whatever.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I just texted you the address of a diner in Des Moines.”

Dean grabs his cell, minimizes the phone screen, and opens the address in Google Maps. “It’s gonna take like two weeks to get from Maine to Des Moines on a bus.”

“Not if you take a plane.”

Dean closes his eyes. “Charlie, please don’t tell me you hacked the navigational system of a billion-dollar private jet.”

“What? No. I told you, I’m legit now. Happy every-holiday for the next ten years.”

Dean chews on his lip. He wasn’t thinking, and now he is.

“Just talk to him,” Charlie continues. “That’s the only string attached. Even if you’re just calling him a f*cking asshole who ruined your life.”

Dean starts driving again. He swallows. “Thank you.” His brain is buzzing.

“Dean,” Charlie says softly. There’s a moment of static. She must be hiding somewhere in the back of the restaurant, trying to find a quiet place. There’s been a distinct lack of hullabaloo in the background. “I’m really proud of you.”

Dean smiles tightly, not that she could see it. He’s wrung out, so is she, and they still have the exhausting prospect of the rest of their lives looming ahead of them.

“Thanks for sticking with me, Red.”

“Always,” Charlie says. A smile creeps into her voice. “Now, go get ‘em, tiger.”

*

Sally’s is full of cracked cherry-red booths and dull black-and-white checked tile floor. The table Dean sits at is sticky and the vinyl squeaks beneath him. Signed photos of C-list celebrities and athletes line the walls haphazardly, a few hanging onto their nails by only a few scant strands of twine. Sputtering neon signs advertising Coors and Budweiser line the wall behind the bar, and the waitstaff wear stiff polyester uniforms with their names stitched onto the lapels. Dean arrived early, early enough he got a coffee to go and walked around the surrounding landscape for an hour, tossing his keys up in the air and catching them, finding a big stick and poking a particularly spongy thatch of moss out back, and just leaning, jittering, against the hood of the Impala. When the sun beating down on him finally became too much, he retreated inside, locked himself in the bathroom, and gave himself a pep talk in the mirror in between splashing lukewarm water on his overheated face. The bathroom was also full of signed pictures, watching him psych himself up with grainy eyes.

He nurses another coffee, even though a cold beer would really hit the spot. He’s not convinced anything in this place could drop further than tepid. The diner smells vaguely of smoke, probably baked into the wallpaper from decades of employees huddling out back under the stoop on their breaks during rainy nights.

He and Charlie used to talk about places like this, dream about them. Hitting the open road, not a care in the world. No place to call home except the Impala and whatever dingy motel they found refuge in that night. The call to adventure. Jo had it, too. His entire family did. His dad was in the Marines. His mom grew up in a farmhouse way out in the Kansas boonies, but would often accompany her father on lengthy trips where he would sell vacuums door-to-door in rural communities all over the neighboring states. Bobby’s been all over the place for various Antiques Roadshows, and Ellen and William spent their youth raising hell in a biker gang out of Texas. Even Sam, in his own way, is following his call out west. It’s respectable, but in their family, respectable is its own brand of rebellion.

The old urge tugs at him. The Impala was made for the road and he has a face made for hustling pool in smoky bars. The life he dreamed of could be his, but the life he dreamed of was stitched together from movies with co*cky, handsome heroes and the remnants of two parents he can barely remember. None of it was real, and never could be real. Movies are movies and his parents are dead.

The tinny bell above the front entrance chimes. Dean’s gaze snaps to attention like a rubber band, and his stomach caves in on itself when he recognizes the dark brown head of hair, currently looking in the wrong direction. He doesn’t call out or move to get his attention. He waits, trying to figure out what to do with his hands. He settles on sliding them around his half-filled mug of coffee. Luckily, the servers haven’t been rushing to refill his cup, because he’s been sipping out of nervousness, and he could be vibrating through the roof by now.

He continues to survey the diner, and Dean watches him. He doesn’t know what he was expecting. He looks different, but not hugely so. He’s always had those bags under his eyes, even if they’re a little more pronounced than Dean’s used to. He’s stubbly, but Dean’s seen him almost at full beard. If anything, it’s the clothes and posture that indicate the biggest change. He’s wearing a brown plaid shirt that’s a size too big with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He missed a button at the bottom, so the rest of them are slightly crooked. He’s got on dark, straight legged jeans that also don’t fit right, though Dean can’t pinpoint what exactly about them doesn’t work. And then—despite the heart-stopping anxiety pounding through Dean, his eye is drawn to pair of scuffed up work boots he’s wearing, something that would be at home on a construction site.

Dean’s still gaping at him, for more than one reason, when he spots him and walks over. His gait, too, is different. The smugness is still there, the surety, but it’s muted. As he slides into the booth across from Dean, his expression goes soft, eyes liquid. The anger he’d been so sure of this past month and change drains out of him with an anticlimactic glug.

For a moment, they just size each other up. Dean’s not sure what he expected from this. He hasn’t really thought about it. Has actively avoided thinking about it, actually.

Finally, he speaks. “You got a new hat.” His voice is exactly the same. There’s no reason it would have changed in a few weeks. “It looks stupid.” He’s not looking at Dean’s hat. He’s smiling, just the ghost of one. Dean laughs, but he can’t meet his eye. Finally, he says, “Hi.”

“Hi.”

Dean furrows his brow and runs his tongue along his bottom lip. He raises his gaze and wants to bail immediately, but holds. “Thanks for making time for the little people. Now that you’re famous and all.”

“The whole point is that I’m not.”

“Yeah, Charlie told me. Blood oath, or whatever.”

He raises an eyebrow. “What?”

Dean waves him off. “Nothing.” He frowns down at his coffee. “You should have told me.”

“What would I have said?”

Dean mimes texting. “‘Dear Dean, I am not an asshole.’” He tosses his imaginary phone over his shoulder. “Bada-bing-bada-boom.”

“That would’ve been a lie. I’ve kind of been trying to phase those out, lately.”

Dean picks at a chip in the Formica. “Charlie said you were trying to protect me, or something equally stupid.”

“It wasn’t your fight. It wasn’t even hers, until I was selfish enough to ask for her help after, well…” He lifts his hands off the table in a self-defeating gesture. “Totally screwing you.” He meets Dean’s eye again. “When I spoke to her the first time after she arrived in Maine—you know about Maine?” At Dean’s nod, he continues, “She… I don’t really have the words to describe how angry she was. On your behalf. At me. I’m not saying I didn’t deserve all of that and more. Just that I had never even imagined she could be that mad. It was the first thing on her mind. There was heated debate about bringing you up, when they saw how focused on you she was, but I put a stop to that nonsense fairly quickly.” He shakes his head. “First, you were willing to let Crowley basically undo your whole life rather than sell her out to us, and then the first thing she says when she sees me—” He cuts off. “Well, she spoke in a language I didn’t recognize.”

“Oh, no,” Dean says.

“I Googled it later. I speak fluent French, average Spanish, average Mandarin, and have an ear for languages in general, but I had never heard this one before. Turns out it’s from that game she likes to play. Moondoon?”

Dean groans in embarrassment. “Moondor. Oh, my God.”

“‘Moondor,’” he repeats. “It went something like, ‘May the rats feast on your liquid feces in hell’. It was quite evocative.”

“Christ,” Dean says.

He shakes his head, smiling ruefully. Out of seeming muscle memory, he hooks his index finger in the handle of Dean’s mug and drags the cold coffee toward him. It’s halfway to his mouth before he flicks off the autopilot switch. He freezes, mug dangling in the air. “Sorry.”

“Go for it,” Dean says after spending a second just as immobile as him.

He takes a sip and slides the mug back, making a face. “I bring this up,” he says, “because that was part of the reason why I reached out to Charlie before she left.”

“Because of her stupid LARP game?”

“No. Because I’d never seen something like that before. Not only did you defend her even if it meant you’d suffer for it, but then she did the exact same thing for you. And neither of you knew about it.”

Dean squints. “I don’t get it. That’s just friendship.”

“Whenever I messed up—and I did mess up—the only people who came to my defense were my lawyers.”

“Oh,” Dean says.

“I was lying back in that barn when I said I wasn’t affected by spending time with your family. With a real family. If that wasn’t already glaringly obvious.”

Dean goes back to picking at the table.

“You know why not even Charlie could find any dirt on me online?”

Dean stops picking at the table.

“Yes, we occasionally were able to monitor her online activity. Not easily, though. And never for long.”

Dean closes his eyes. He takes a minute and a deep breath. “Keep going.”

“Because I wasn’t online. Part of my identity was literally being scrubbed, to make it more difficult for me to be traced. I don’t even have a birth certificate.”

“You made an Instagram account,” Dean says. “Over Thanksgiving.”

“Burner phone,” he says. “No posts. No activity other than keeping an eye on Charlie. I tossed it into my microwave when I got back.”

Dean thinks about this for long enough that their server comes by again and drops off a second coffee. She tops Dean up as well, and he doesn’t have the heart to stop her. Her starchy uniform shushes as she walks away. It’s the middle of the night. They’re the only ones here.

Dean rubs his eyes. “I don’t know—what do I even call you?”

He pulls a folded piece of paper out of his back pocket and hands it to Dean. Dean unfolds it, and reads it just long enough to get the gist. He moves it back to the center of the table, his finger tips pressing it into the Formica.

“You legally changed your name to Castiel Novak?”

“Yes.”

Why?” It’s not supposed to sound accusatory, but Dean has a hard time keeping the edge out of his voice.

He leans back, vinyl creaking in protest. A rip by his shoulder oozes fuzz. “I grew fond of it over the past year.”

Dean scoffs.

“But that’s not all. I am the only Castiel Novak in America.”

“So?”

“People have… beef with me. A lot of them. And rightfully so.”

“‘Beef’ is a pretty charitable way of putting it. Beef is like—your dog keeps pooping on my lawn.”

“There are a lot of people out there who would like to see the rats feast on my liquid feces in hell,” he acquiesces.

Dean remembers Inias’ desperate staggering, the furious, drunken glint in his eye that can only be born out of years of bone-deep resentment. “That’s probably more accurate.”

“And that name, Castiel Novak… well. There’s only one of me. If people have unfinished business with me that they would like to finish, I’m not making myself difficult to find.”

“No whirlwind apology slash twelve steps tour, huh?”

He shakes his head. “There’s so many people. And now, I mean, I—” He shrugs, looking a little bemused at himself. “I don’t have anything to offer them. No money, or land, or their livelihoods or lives back.” He takes a sip of coffee. “I couldn’t even afford the travel fare to get there.”

“Yeah,” Dean says, but he’s sympathetic now. “Welcome to the real world. You f*ck someone over, you feel bad about it, you move on and hope you didn’t break them forever.”

He should really call Lisa.

“There was one more reason I chose this name,” he says. “I suppose two, but the fact that I’m casting off my family name because they’re a bunch of heartless tin men hardly bears mentioning.”

“Fair,” Dean says.

“I realized something was different when I started responding to that name faster than my original name. When someone from home would call me ‘James’ and it would take a moment to realize they were talking to me. When you, or Charlie, or Jo would call me Cas. When Bobby and Ellen and Sam did. Pamela. Victor. Dorothy. Benny. Andrea. I’d introduce myself with that name if I found myself in a situation that necessitated such a thing.” A light glints in his eye. “I felt known. I’ve never felt that before.”

Dean swallows hard. “Hm,” he says around a lump in his throat. “I was wondering why someone would willingly name themselves ‘Castiel’”.

He laughs a little at that, leaning forward again, hands resting on the table.

The lump in Dean’s throat grows.

“Cas,” he says, and his voice cracks and his expression crumples. He presses his hand into Cas’ palm and squeezes until his knuckles turn white, then retreats back to his own side of the table. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

Cas waits patiently while he pulls himself together. Finally, Dean sniffs and feels relatively safe looking up again. “Hey. I, um. Told Charlie. Came out to her, or whatever. To everyone. She probably already told you that.”

Cas smiles, so genuine the light from the ugly hanging lamp above them can’t dampen it. “She didn’t mention it,” he says. “Something tells me she learned her lesson the last time.” He bites his bottom lip, just briefly, and then the smile splits his face again. “Good,” he says, and he means it. “Dean, that’s so good.”

“It’s still weird to say.”

A touch of mirth enters Cas’ smile. “It gets better.”

Dean allows one side of his mouth to quirk up. “Does it get easier, too?”

Cas’ brow furrows briefly. “I don’t actually remember. It’s funny. I’ve never been ashamed of who I am, so being ashamed for what I’ve done is—was—an entirely alien feeling to me.”

“Well,” Dean says magnanimously, “we’ve all got our thing. Some of us feel bad for making a career of ruining people’s lives. Some of us feel bad for being gay.”

“Thank you for acknowledging my struggle.”

Dean laughs out his nose, but he eventually ponies up. “That’s still f*cked up, what happened to you. I’m not saying I’m absolving you of anything, but that’s f*cked. I mean, it’s completely insane.” He leans forward, lowering his voice and casting a furtive look around before speaking. “Like, are you not gonna be on their hitlist now? Is the new you not gonna come after… you?”

“We’re at something of a permanent impasse,” Cas says. “I have enough on them that hasn’t been leaked that they can’t make a move on me—or Charlie—without implicating themselves even further in the process. They’ll get out of this current scandal with a slap on the wrist and a few large fines and keep on keeping on.”

“So, what,” Dean says, “they just get to keep on being an evil, corporate conglomerate forever?”

Cas shrugs. “If not them, someone else. Who do you think the majority of our marks were?”

Dean deflates. “That sucks.”

“I don’t know if you’ve picked up on it over the past year, but this kind of thing tends to be a bit of a long game.”

“Yeah, I got it. Thanks.”

“That doesn’t mean that I’m just going to let it go,” Cas says. “There’s always going to be injustice in the world, and I’ve been a perpetrator of much too much of it to completely wash my hands of the good fight.”

“The good fight,” Dean says. Despite himself, he grins.

“Charlie and I have talked about it. Maybe one day, we’ll actually realize it.”

“I hope you do,” Dean says. He goes for another sip of coffee, but aborts halfway and puts the mug down harder than he intends to. “I owe you an apology.”

At first, Cas does a double take like he hasn’t heard Dean correctly. When Dean holds, he says, “What?”

“I treated you badly,” Dean says.

Cas’ eyebrows shoot into his hairline. “What?”

“When we were together. I didn’t want to admit we were, so I acted like we weren’t. I never treated a single one of my girlfriends like that. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t winning any ‘World’s Best Boyfriend’ contests, but when I was with a girl, I was with her.” The scent of fresh smoke wafts through the diner. Dean glances at the clock over the register. The air conditioning is still on, but it’s wheezy at best and every once in a while it makes an ominous clunking noise. “You were basically my side piece and I wasn’t even dating anyone. Oh. Well,” he says. “I guess now is a good time to break the news: Caroline and I broke up.”

“Ca craint totalement , mec,” Cas says, wry.

“Thank you?”

“You’re welcome.”

“How did you even learn French?”

Cas grimaces. “Wine Turner serves a large portion of French-speaking Canada. They’re one of our biggest demographics.”

“Oh. Merde.”

“Pretty much.” Cas slowly shakes his head, returning to the topic at hand. “That’s exactly it. I lied to you for months and the conclusion you reach is you could’ve been nicer to me?” He sighs in resignation. “You are… a very good person.”

“Hold up,” Dean says. “I’m not taking the blame for what you did, and I’m not even taking partial blame. What you did was sh*tty. Really sh*tty. But you being an asshole doesn’t—or shouldn’t—let me off the ethical hook. I don’t like that. What you said, last time we spoke—fought? About taking responsibility? You were right. So, here I am. Taking responsibility. I’m taking the blame for my own personal shortcomings and f*ckups this year.” Dean pauses. He thinks about Lisa, again. “If you had been anyone else, you would’ve thrown me out on my ass.”

“Does it count if converting the straight guy is a fetish?”

Dean snorts. “It doesn’t seem like it stayed that way.”

“Well,” Cas says ruefully, “for what it’s worth, I don’t think I was prepared for what was coming my way. Hurtling full speed at my unsuspecting head, no less.”

“The Impala’s trunk?” Dean says, aiming for levity, but completely missing the mark and diving straight into melancholy. He closes his eyes as a bittersweet wave rolls over him. Their server returns to the floor, propping open the front door with an old brick as the bell tinkles cheerily above her. She disappears out the door, fanning herself with a laminated menu as she goes. The smell of wildflowers drifts inside, and it’s only then Dean realizes it’s started to drizzle. No wonder everything feels so sticky. Outside, he watches as their server stands in the middle of the almost-empty parking lot, hands by her side, menu brushing her knees, face turned up to the sky. “This is never going to work, is it?” He says it quietly, still looking out the window.

After a moment, Cas says, “It depends. What were you hoping to get from this?”

“I don’t know,” Dean says. “Closure, I guess. Like that’s a real thing anyone ever gets.” He drops his elbows onto the table, and his face into his palms. “You gave up everything,” he says, voice muffled. “Why?”

Cas sighs. He looks down at the table for a moment, gathering his thoughts. When he looks up again, his expression is clear, if resigned. “Dean. I don’t think you understand how much you fundamentally changed me. I’m not trying to excuse my actions, but, as you’ve rightfully pointed out so many times, I’ve spent almost my entire life working for a corporation masquerading as a family, and not even a good one at that. I had no concept of friendship, or warmth, or kindness. Now, I’m an adult. I should’ve been able to come to these conclusions on my own. I didn’t, and I have the lives I’ve ruined and the people I’ve hurt to remind me of that every day. I hope you can take some comfort in knowing that I’m trying to be better, and it’s because of you.”

Dean blinks, leaning back in the booth, crossing his arms, and staring determinedly at the ceiling. “You know,” he says, and clears his throat. “That all still sounds like manipulative bullsh*t. Another grand gesture.”

“It’s not,” Cas says. “But I understand if you don’t believe me. I don’t want anything from you, Dean. The fact that you reached out to me at all means more than I can say. I didn’t think I was ever going to see you again.”

Dean sniffs. He lowers his eyes from the cracked ceiling and meets Cas’ eye again. “You talk a big game, as if I wasn’t ‘fundamentally changed’ as well. I could’ve spent the rest of my life in blissful ignorance.”

“You wouldn’t have,” Cas says. He’s staring at Dean so baldly right now, it makes the back of Dean’s neck tingle and his eyes itch. “You would’ve found someone, and he would’ve made you very happy.” He clears his throat. “You will find someone. And he will make you very happy.”

Dean puts his hands over his face and watches Cas through the slats in his fingers. “But he wouldn’t be you.” He closes the slats. “Ugh, this sucks.” He throws down his hands, lying them flat on the table.

Cas watches him, expression echoing the exact same sentiment, though he doesn’t protest.

“You gotta work with me here, man. Give me a reason.”

Cas shakes his head slowly. “You must know where I stand by now. How I feel about you. But it’s not my choice.”

Dean’s throat is dry. “Where do you stand?”

Cas looks at him pointedly. “Do you really want me to say it? In the middle of a sh*tty diner in Iowa?” He takes his time while Dean internally goes through the five stages of grief. A crooked, rueful, half-grin. “Because unfortunately, I do.”

Dean drops his forehead to the table, squeezing his eyes shut. He’s terrified. Elated. Hot-cold. When he finally sits up again, Cas watches him with a small, resigned smile.

“So that’s it, then,” Dean says.

“The writing on the wall, yes.”

“I—” Dean’s throat works. Maybe he can’t. Even after all this time, maybe he can’t. He looks down, throat clogged with emotion.

When Cas stands, he whips his head up. He’s grabbing his wallet out of his pocket. “It was nice to see you, Dean,” he says.

Dean swallows. “I got it.”

Cas puts his wallet away. “Thank you.” He waits. He said this was Dean’s choice, and he waits for Dean to make it.

When Dean says nothing, he nods minutely. “Goodbye, Dean. Take care.” The bell tinkles cheerily above him as he leaves the diner.

Dean sits in a stupefied silence. Outside, the drizzle turns to proper rain. Through the window, he watches Cas walk out into the parking lot without even a coat. He doesn’t try to cover himself, just lets the rain fall directly onto him. Under any other circ*mstances, Dean would laugh. As it stands, his chest squeezes so tight he thinks for a brief moment he may pass out.

Idiot,” he hisses at himself, and dashes outside into the rain, calling Cas’ name.

Halfway across the parking lot, he catches up to him. Cas turns around.

“Where were you even gonna go?” Dean asks. He has to speak up over the rain.

“I hadn’t gotten that far yet,” Cas says. He glances off into the distance. There’s not much else around other than the diner and the road it sits on. “I recalled you saying how awkward it would be if we both ended up leaving a situation like this going the same direction, so I figured we should stagger our exits.”

Dean puts a wet hand over his wet face and bursts out laughing. Behind them, he hears the very faint tinkle of the bell over the diner’s front door and their server calling out after them. Belatedly, Dean realizes he left without paying.

When he’s done laughing, he says, “Why shouldn’t we do this, again?”

Cas shakes his head, rivulets of water cascading down his face. “Dean…”

“I mean it,” Dean says. He holds out a hand. “Okay. Hold the phone. Okay. Okay.” He takes a deep breath and steps closer so that Cas can hear him over the weather. The server calls out to them again. “Sorry. Brain moving ahead of mouth. Listen. When I told everyone, I didn’t just tell them. I had to fess up to the Caroline thing. I had to stand in front of all of my friends and family and tell them I lied to them for months about dating an uber-religious French-Canadian Protestant girl. I stole pictures from Instagram, for f*ck’s sake. It’s humiliating. It’s like cringe comedy in real life that you can’t pause.”

“I agree, of course,” Cas says. “It was a total train wreck. But what does that have to do with anything?”

“Well… I told them. And it was fine. Sure, they ribbed me a little bit. But everyone was…” He laughs to himself. “Everyone was cool. I lied my face off for months and they were just. Cool with it. And I kept going over it, thinking about how weirdly anticlimactic it felt. But, Cas, we can just—I mean, it won’t be perfect, but we can just move on. I’ve gotta move past this. The last—lifetime. Not that it’s going anywhere. Not like my parents are ever gonna be anything other than dead or I haven’t spent the last decade and change just lying to myself for no good reason.” He laughs at himself, a little in awe. “But I’m not lying anymore. And…” He swallows. “If you want—to try—” He taps his fingertips nervously against each other, catching rain drops between them. “If you want to keep moving, you should come with me.”

Cas is staring at him, dumbfounded. “That’s a pretty grand gesture,” he says faintly.

“Yeah, well. Enough foreplay. Someone had to emotionally top in this conversation.”

Cas doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself. “This is such a coincidence,” he says. “My calendar just got really clear.” He meets Dean’s eye. “Are you sure?”

Dean laughs. “No. But I said I stopped lying to myself, so I can’t exactly get away with pretending I don’t want it. Should I want it?” He smiles ruefully. “We probably both know the answer to that question.” He leans forward eagerly. “But we could try. Uh.” He clears his throat, suddenly self-conscious. “If you want.”

Cas blinks at him. He looks completely dazed. “Fortunately,” he says, “I do.”

Their server yells at them one last time, and after a shared grin, Dean and Cas head back inside.

*

After an almost all-nighter to wait out the weather and a hasty explanation to their server that they weren’t, in fact, dining and dashing, Cas hands her his credit card. She returns and informs him that it got declined and she’s legally obligated to cut it up. Cas nods along slowly. “That is what happens when there’s no money on it,” he says. “I understand.”

Dean hands her a couple bills. “Keep the change. Don’t report my friend to MasterCard, please.”

When she leaves, Dean stares down at his lap, trying to hide his grin.

“I just ‘developed’ ‘feelings’ a few months ago,” Cas says grouchily. “And now I have to learn about money. Absurd.”

Dean flashes him a wink. “Gotta walk before you can run. I’ll help you out. Not financially, because I can barely help myself out there. Emotionally, spiritually, physically, though…”

*

As they climb into the Impala, something occurs to Dean. Before starting the car, he turns to Cas. “I should probably tell you something.”

“It can’t be worse than anything we talked about last night.”

“Well,” Dean says, “I just wanted to… warn you. You left town pretty abruptly in April. People were asking where you had gone.”

“Okay,” Cas says.

“We needed an excuse. A story.”

“Okay.”

Dean pulls out his phone, and brings up one of his oft-visited links. He hands it off to Cas, who squints at it.

“‘GoFundMe?’”

“It’s a crowdfunding site. It’s what everyone who isn’t a billionaire uses to pay their medical bills.”

“Oh.”

He continues to stare at the screen and reads in a monotone: “‘Save Castiel Novak’s exploded dick’”.

Slowly, his gaze returns to Dean, who says, two pitches higher than normal, “They’re gonna be so relieved to hear the operation was a success?”

*

A few hours out from their destination, Dean pulls into a gas station parking lot. Cas, who’s been staring out the window, blinks blearily. “Did you move?”

Dean laughs. “We’re in Avoca. I just—hold on a sec.”

“That means nothing to me,” Cas says as Dean gets out of the car, phone in hand. Dean waves him off.

The line rings a couple times before Bobby picks it up and grumbles a curmudgeonly greeting.

“Hey, Bobby. It’s me.”

“We have caller ID, Dean. Someone better be dying. It’s seven o’clock in the morning.”

That would explain the just-lightening sky and the empty parking lots. Dean’s both exhausted and wired half-out of his mind. “Sorry, I didn’t even notice. It’s been kind of a funky day. Night.”

“You on a bender, boy?”

“What?” Dean says. He glances back at Cas in the Impala, who looks like he’s currently searching for the lever that reclines the seats. Dean’s told him before the Impala doesn’t have one. “I don’t know. Can a bender be good?”

“It’s too early for philosophy. What’s going on?”

“How would you feel if I came home a couple days early?”

“That’s what you called me for?”

“How would you feel if I came home a couple days early with… someone else in tow?”

There’s a brief silence. Bobby’s running the numbers in his head. “Yeah, no sweat.”

He wants to ask so badly. Dean puts him out of his misery. “It’s Cas.”

“Cas, like—”

“Cas,” Dean says firmly.

Bobby takes the hint. “Of course,” he says. “You know we always have an extra bed, or not—”

“Great,” Dean says. “Thanks, Bobby. We’ll be there sometime this afternoon.”

When he returns to the car, he says, “You can’t put the seats back.” He runs his hand along the center of the leather, showing off the lack of a divide between the seats. “You want me driving horizontal?”

“You can put the Civic’s seats back.”

“You know what else you can do? Eat me.”

*

Everything is out of Dean’s apartment save some toilet paper and a sleeping bag. They pick those up, then everything else Dean stuck in the cheapest, shadiest storage locker outside town. He figured no one would want his unsellable textbooks or snapback collection, and he was right. They’re exactly where he left them. The Impala is a pretty big car, but it’s still a little sad that Dean’s entire life fits inside a trunk.

Once they’re back on the road, Dean taps his fingers on the steering wheel. Now that the adrenaline has worn off a little bit, he can feel the worry poking at his brain, like a rabbit nibbling on lettuce. “Uh,” he says lightly. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

“About what?”

“Everything,” Dean says. “I probably should have clarified when I asked you to come with me— I have no idea where. I have no money. No job. No prospects.”

“You have a bachelor’s degree. I’ve heard those are… good? Maybe?”

“Well, so do y—oh.” Dean sighs, lightbulb flickering to life above his head. “You don’t have a degree, do you. You didn’t actually ‘attend’ ‘college.’ Did you. In Maine or Nebraska.”

“Ah,” Cas says. “No.”

Dean licks his lips and doesn’t speak for a minute. When they merge back onto the freeway, he says, “This is gonna happen a lot, isn’t it? I say something, and then realize it was a lie that just slipped through the cracks.”

“Probably,” Cas says. To his credit, he doesn’t sound happy about it. “I can try to compile a list, if you want.”

“I don’t think I do,” Dean says. “I’m not sure what I want right now, other than you in the passenger seat.”

Cas reaches across the seat and brushes the shell of his ear. “This may be presumptuous of me, but I think that’s a good start.”

Dean reaches up and catches his hand, and holds onto it.

*

When they arrive at Bobby and Ellen’s, Dean puts a hand on Cas’ thigh when he starts to get out of the Impala. “Hey.”

Cas turns back to look at him.

“Mind waiting here a sec?”

“Okay,” Cas says. “What for?”

“So,” Dean says, haltingly, “everyone knows about the gay thing. Everyone knows about the Caroline thing. But, not everyone knows about—” He gestures in Cas’ direction. “Cause we were—well. Yeah. Besides, there was a lot of information flying back and forth at the time. Hard to tell who knew what, ’cause some of them had already guessed anyway. I considered putting out a newsletter.”

“Okay,” Cas says again. He’s smiling gently. “Do what you have to. I’ll be here.”

Dean pulls him into a kiss. “Shouldn’t take long. I’ll leave the window cracked.”

Bobby and Ellen are blasting a NASCAR race in the living room, which would explain why they didn’t hear the roar of the Impala’s engine out front. Dean has to stand in front of the TV so they know he’s here. Ellen mutes the TV as Bobby pulls Dean into a grease-scented hug. “Geez,” Dean says. “You have guests coming and you smell like a garage, old man.”

“Please,” Ellen says, yanking Dean into a hug of her own. “You’re not a guest.”

“Speaking of,” Bobby says, “Where’s not-a-guest number two? You stick him with all your junk?”

“He’s in the car,” Dean says. “Actually, about that—” He notices the fresh set of sheets for the pullout bed folded and waiting on the cushion of the unoccupied armchair, and points to them. “He probably won’t be needing those.”

“Told you so,” Bobby tells Ellen.

Ellen rolls her eyes. “We didn’t want to assume.”

“She didn’t. I did.”

“Congratulations,” Dean says. “You solved my riddle.”

“I’m not telling you what to do,” Ellen says, “but you realize your bed upstairs is a twin, right?”

Dean tries to picture a world in which he and Cas don’t share a bed tonight. “We’ll figure it out. Actually, maybe we should go ahead and make the bed up anyway.”

“You bring another stowaway?” Bobby asks.

“Not quite,” Dean says. He pulls out his phone and opens his text window with Sam.

*

Dean and Cas spend the rest of the day accomplishing little more than taking the boxes from the Impala’s trunk to Bobby and Ellen’s living room. They listen to a few records. Cas catches Bobby up on the Triumph. The fridge is in a sorry state, so Dean does a grocery run. He opens up the window in his and Sam’s room to let some sun in and air the place out. Despite Sam having been back for a couple weeks already, he’s still a nineteen-year old boy. Dean tries to be sympathetic. He was nineteen once. He considers how to approach blackmailing Sam into sleeping on the pull-out for the foreseeable future. Threats of hom*ophobia have always proven successful with him, and Sam is his blood.

One other thing Dean does during the day is try to act like he isn’t absolutely swimming in arousal. He’s recaffeinated since Des Moines, but not sleeping at all last night and crossing multiple state lines in a day is really catching up to him. That doesn’t stop him tripping into Cas’ space whenever he’s close enough. The air is heavy between them, their gazes long and touches lingering. Anytime they’re alone, for even a moment, Dean is hooking his index finger around Cas’, brushing his arm, or touching his back. Cas, for all his natural composure, doesn’t seem to be faring much better. There’s a flame in his eyes that flares every time Dean touches him, and Dean gets the distinct impression Cas is purposely holding back, because once he starts, he has no plans on stopping.

This theory is confirmed when, the second Bobby and Ellen step out to do—something in the junk yard, Dean wasn’t paying attention, and Sam and Jo are still in town running errands, Cas is on Dean before the screen door can even close behind them.

They stumble up the stairs, attached at the lips, creaking all the way because Dean has other things on his mind than avoiding warped floorboards. Cas is all over him, hands everywhere, manhandling Dean into his own bedroom. His bed squeaks hilariously when Cas deposits him onto it, but luckily, the open window faces away from the junk yard, and the only ones in danger of hearing are any passing deer.

They kiss furiously, trying to make up for lost time. Dean interlocks his fingers behind Cas’ neck and crosses his ankles at Cas’ back. They rock together, and through all the denim, Dean still feels like he could come just from this, being close to Cas.

When they break apart for air, Cas leans his forehead against Dean’s and Dean says, panting, “Missed this. Missed you.”

Cas is staring at Dean, wide-eyed and pupils blown. The early summer twilight is just starting to peek out from behind the horizon, painting the room in pre-golds and oranges. He nods. “Yes,” he says, slowly. Not as if he has to think about it, but like, for once, he doesn’t have the words to form a response. “Yeah,” he says, instead. “Yes. Dean.” He kisses him again. “Dean.” He kisses his forehead, his temple, the thin skin under his eyes. He brushes Dean’s eyelashes with the pad of his thumb and it tickles. He presses two fingertips to Dean’s lips and the touch is so delicate and the skin there so sensitive it almost hurts. He traces the patterns of Dean’s freckles, preparing to emerge for another season after hibernating all winter. He’s looking at Dean with—Dean can’t even meet his gaze. It’s awe. Something fills him up so big, all at once and all-consuming. He throws a hand over his face, knocking Cas’ sweet ministrations out of the way.

“Cas,” he says, and his voice cracks. Tears leak out of the corners of his eyes and run into his hair.

Gently, Cas pulls his hand away. He swipes at the tear tracks with his thumb, but doesn’t say anything.

Dean swallows hard. “I don’t— ugh, I don’t know what my problem is.”

“Maybe your problem is that you don’t have a problem,” Cas suggests. He cups Dean’s face now, fingers bent slightly against the curve of Dean’s jaw. “Don’t misunderstand me,” he continues. “There are still lots of problems out there, and at least a small share of those are yours. And mine. And ours. But here and now?” He strokes Dean’s cheek, leaving the question hanging.

Dean chews on that for a moment. Haltingly, he says, “I think, the entire time we were together—before, I mean—a part of me was always gone. Or rationalizing it away. Or justifying it, whatever. Either way I couldn’t be all… here. There. If that makes sense.”

“Okay,” Cas says.

“I want to be all there,” Dean says. “Here.” He wipes his face. “And I think I am. And I think I’m freaking out because I am. Because I’ve never been—here.”

“Okay,” Cas says softly. “In that case, hello…” He co*cks his head. “Welcome?”

Dean laughs thickly. He retrieves one of his hands and holds Cas’ jaw loosely in his splayed fingers. “I love your stubble,” he says.

“I’ll grow it out.”

“Okay,” Dean says. He drops his hand and covers his eyes. “Can you f*ck me?”

“Yes,” Cas says immediately.

“Lube?”

“It’s your house.”

“sh*t,” Dean says. “It is, isn’t it.”

Luckily, he kept the lube from his apartment, and after an unfortunately long search through his duffel bags and a close call when Bobby steps in to grab another beer, he takes the stairs two at a time and barrels back into the room, tossing the bottle to Cas, who’s in the middle of taking off his shirt. It lands on his stomach.

“Need a hand?” Dean says. He crawls back onto the bed. Ellen was right. It is incredibly small, but they can certainly stack comfortably enough. Sleeping might be another issue.

Dean kisses his way up the torso Cas has revealed so far, then back down to the waistband of his jeans. He fondles Cas through the front of his jeans, then unbuttons and unzips them before divesting himself of his own clothes. When all is said and done, he’s sitting, naked, in Cas’ naked lap. “Remember that party in first semester,” Dean says. “I was super drunk and we watched Die Hard in that guy’s basem*nt. And I sat on your lap.”

“I don’t think I will ever forget,” Cas says. “I’ve never had to try so hard to discourage an erection.”

“You should’ve gone for it,” Dean says. “I wanted it.” He wriggles in Cas’ lap and their dicks brush. Dean breathes out, hard.

Cas’ grip on his waist tightens. “In fact, you were the one who went for it, that night.” He co*cks an eyebrow. “You do remember that, right? You tried to kiss me? After I walked you home?”

“Man,” Dean presses a palm to Cas’ bicep, using it as leverage to keep pressing their dicks together. It feels so good he sees stars. “You could’ve just—come into my apartment. You think I would’ve complained? God,” he drops his forehead onto Cas’ shoulder. “I wanted you so bad. I was crazy with it.”

“I sense a little historical revisionism happening here,” Cas says, splaying his fingers across Dean’s back. He presses a hot kiss just below Dean’s ear and wraps his other hand around both of them. Dean keens into it. “Regardless, I felt the same. Dean, I—” He tugs on Dean’s hair until Dean’s mouth is in kissing range, and captures his lips. “Dean, I’ve never wanted anything like I’ve wanted you,” he says. “I thought the first time I saw you was bad enough. Then I saw you a second time. And a third.” He pulls Dean closer by the small of his back. “Everything went to hell because of you.”

Cas flips them over, so he’s pressing Dean into his childhood mattress. If only fifteen-year-old Dean could see him now. They kiss, again. Dean’s on fire. He blindly searches for the lube, lost in the sheets. When he finds it, he shoves it into Cas’ hands. “Please, Cas,” he says.

Cas obliges, drizzling lube onto his fingers. Dean waits, impatient, until the first press of a fingertip into him. “Uh-huh,” he sighs into the crook of Cas’ neck, and Cas goes deeper, working him open slowly with one, two, and then three fingers. Dean’s sweating by this point, already fighting off the org*sm threatening to bloom within him any second now. The sensation of Cas pulling his fingers out is almost enough to send him over the edge, and he grits his teeth and presses a palm to the center of Cas’ chest for a few seconds, until he gets himself marginally back under control. Finally, he nods, circling his finger in a proceed gesture.

Cas f*cks him, then, the bed protesting beneath them, and Dean is so full it pushes tears out of his eyes again. He sniffles through the f*cking like he has a head cold, Cas returning for intervals of long kissing, one hand always on Dean’s face, stroking, holding, directing.

Dean comes with a sob that’s ripped from somewhere deep within, one that’s been waiting a long, long time to escape him. He paws ineffectually at Cas during the comedown, his arms and his torso and his face. Cas f*cks him through it, and Dean shudders, goosebumps breaking out across his body. Everywhere Cas touches feels as bright as a star in the country sky.

“C’mon,” he says, still high on endorphins, tapping Cas’ lower back with his heel. Cas is f*cking him drunk, his tongue heavy and words slurred. “C’mon, babe. Come in me.”

Cas does, then, and Dean digs his nails into Cas’ back. Juttering, he draws a hand up and into Cas’ hair, searching for anywhere he can hold on. Cas kisses him, pressing his hand to Dean’s chest, directly over his heart. When both of their breathing finally slows, Dean cracks open an eye. Cas is staring at him, his own eyes wide in the darkening room. He’s smiling, so big. So is Dean. He can feel the wetness still on his face, drying cold, but he can also still feel Cas’ come inside him. He presses himself against the wall as much as he can, encouraging Cas to stretch out beside him. The moment he does, Dean curls up against his chest. Cas runs his fingers through Dean’s hair and Dean sighs contentedly. “That was sloppy,” he says dreamily.

“Yes, it was,” Cas says. He doesn’t sound too put out by it.

Dean glances out the window, at the fading light. “Hey,” he says, encircling Cas’ arm with his palm. “You know what’s wild?”

“What?”

“We can just like. Go out.” The conditions are pretty cramped, but Dean can just tip his head back enough that he can meet Cas’ eye. “Like, out there. Together.”

Cas smiles at him, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “Yeah, we can.”

Dean laughs, suddenly overwhelmed. “Oh, my God,” he says. “We can have, like, an actual relationship. Where other people can see.”

“That’s usually how it works, yes,” Cas says, teasing. He’s still weaving his fingers through Dean’s hair, touch light and reverent.

Dean closes his eyes and buries his face in Cas’ chest. He seeks out Cas’ free hand and intertwines their fingers. “Awesome,” he says. He smiles against Cas’ skin.

*

On the last day of May, Dean finds Bobby, as always, in the garage. Bobby’s deep in the guts of an old VW station wagon, and starts when Dean knocks on the doorframe.

“Dammit,” Bobby says, reaching for a rag. “Gonna give me a heart attack.”

“Nah,” Dean says.

“We’ll see about that.” Bobby wipes his hands down, but all it seems to do is spread the oil. “Ellen send you out here to yell at me? Coulda sworn she was still at work.”

“No, she is,” Dean says. He leans against one of the VW’s tires. “I was just thinking—I wanted to ask you something.”

Bobby spreads his arms. “I’m standing right here.”

“Right,” Dean says. He half-laughs, nervous. “It’s about my parents.”

Bobby collapses into a tartan yard chair. It creaks beneath him. “Shoot.”

Dean swallows. He runs a hand through his hair. “Did either of them—or anyone in my family, that you know of—have… issues.”

Bobby raises his eyebrows. “We’ve all got issues, kid.”

“With alcohol,” Dean clarifies.

Bobby readjusts the brim of his ratty ball cap. “Something you need to talk about?”

“I don’t think so,” Dean says, chewing on the inside of his cheek. “I don’t know. I’m monitoring. Still trying to determine what’s biology and what’s stupidity.” He sighs. “Maybe I’ll take you up on that offer sometime.”

“I’m always a phone call away,” Bobby says. He leans back in the chair, stretching until something in his back pops. He groans. “That’s gonna smart tomorrow.” He cracks his neck. “Your daddy was known to favor a drink or two too many. I don’t know for sure if it ever got into ‘issue’ territory, though. Wasn’t exactly the kind of thing guys like us talked about at any great length.”

Dean nods. “Okay. That’s a start.” He turns to go. “Thanks, Bobby.”

He’s almost out the door when Bobby says, “Dean.”

Dean turns around. “Yeah?”

“When you were home for Thanksgiving, I said you seemed different. But I didn’t know how.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. He bobs his head. “It was probably the gay thing. And the Cas thing. And how they—” Dean interlocks his fingers, then grimaces. “Anyway. Yeah. It was that.”

Bobby chuffs. “Maybe. But I just wanted to say—I can see the difference. Again. Except this time, I know what it is.”

“Yeah? And how’s that?”

Bobby’s beard twitches. “You’re happy.”

Dean scoffs, but he’s smiling. His eyes are itchy. “You old sap.”

“Yeah,” Bobby says. “What are you gonna do about it?”

Dean laughs and shrugs. “Be happy about it, I guess.”

Chapter 11: Summer

Chapter Text

Summer

Jo almost torpedoes the entire thing before it can even start. Dean had already said yes to spending the summer at Harvelle’s with her, getting it back in working shape, but when he tried to introduce Cas to the proceedings, she shut him down cold. He may have jumped the gun by telling her the truth about Cas.

“No,” she says as they sit on the steps outside of his now ex-apartment building.

“Jo,” Dean says.

“No.”

“Please?”

“No.”

“He’s my—boyfriend,” Dean stumbles. Training wheels haven’t come off for that one, yet. “C’mon.”

“No.” Jo’s not even looking at him. She’s watching a YouTube video about proper bar maintenance, phone resting on her bare knees.

“You’re being hom*ophobic,” he says.

Jo peels her gaze away from her phone to fix him with a dewy glare. “No.” She goes back to her video.

“Okay, that worked on me every time Charlie pulled it. When do I get the superpower?”

Jo concedes defeat on her video and taps the screen to pause it. “It’s called overcompensating,” she says. “Duh.”

Dean rolls his eyes. “Seriously, Jo. I’m really trying to make this work. I know it’s weird ’cause—”

“He lied to everyone for the entire year? Broke your heart? Manipulated you?”

“Yes,” Dean says. “Yes. That’s why I’m acknowledging the weirdness of it.”

“I chipped in twenty bucks for his exploded dick,” Jo says. “I want my money back.”

“You’re gonna get it. GoFundMe’s refunding it.”

“You need a shrink,” Jo says. “You’re crazy. Both of you.”

“Probably. You wanna put that twenty bucks toward our therapy budget?” Dean drums a finger on the step. “Maybe I should just change the name of the campaign…”

“Dean,” Jo says, sarcasm gone from her voice. “I’m trying to look out for you.”

“I know,” Dean says. “Thank you.”

“If he messes with you again,” Jo says, “I will kill him. I mean, if he’s five minutes late to your anniversary dinner, I will—”

“I know,” Dean coos as he wraps an arm around her head, forcing her into a hug. “Hush, now, sweet Joanna. No more threatening to kill my boyfriend.”

*

Harvelle’s isn’t much, but Dean and Jo spent enough of their youth helping Bobby out around the house and enough time watching DIY YouTube videos that the amount of work they’re going to have to put in is immense, but doable. Charlie doesn’t have quite the same skill level, but what she lacks in ability she makes up for in enthusiasm.

Cas, on the other hand, has never done a day of hard labor in his life. Dean often reminds himself that he had to teach him how to peel a potato over Thanksgiving. Becoming a person who isn’t a billionaire takes time. Actually, he’s better at sleeping on grungy mattresses on the floor in one of the back rooms than Dean is. He finds it quaint, or something. Dean’s been warning him the novelty of having no money is going to wear off fast. Cas sold his Civic, so he has something stashed away, and it’s not like they’re living like kings at Harvelle’s, but it’s not much. Dean’s loan repayments are threatening to start soon, and he mentally jots down to call them again and ask for another deferral.

One day in late June, Jo joins him outside while he does circles around the dusty parking lot to stretch his legs.

“I’m still going back to school in the fall,” she says.

“Huh?” Dean says. He stops, a cloud of dust swirling around his feet. “Yeah, I figured.” The sun’s beating down on the back of his neck, and he retreats into the shade of the sagging front stoop, next to Jo.

“Commute’s too far for me to make it out here every day.” Jo shrugs. “Maybe on the weekends.”

“So, what’s the plan?” Dean says.

“What’s your plan for the next year or so?”

“Oh,” Dean says. He stares into the bar through the propped-open front door. It’s still dingy, but they’ve done some good work on it. Cas is currently patching a hole in the wall, Charlie hovering over his shoulder with a critical eye. The loan Jo took out (how she talked her way into a legitimate loan, Dean was too afraid to ask), is getting put toward new lighting and plumbing, but otherwise, the place has good bones. Dean presses his knuckles to the dark wood.

“It’s just an offer,” Jo says. “I know you and alcohol are kinda on the outs right now.”

“You’re not asking me to spend the next year here drinking, I assume.”

“Ellen will come down for the first little bit. I already asked her. She promised to whip this place into shape.”

“What, you think I’m too soft a touch?”

“Oh, yeah,” Jo says without hesitation.

Inside, Cas applies a not very even coat of spackle. Dean steps forward and knocks on the front door. “Hey, stud.” Cas and Charlie both look up. Dean waves his finger in the vague direction of the spackle. “Even that out a little more.”

Charlie salutes him. “Aye aye, captain.”

“Not you,” Dean says. He turns back to their conversation. “Chuckleheads.”

Jo’s moved across the porch, running her hand along one of the vertical wooden beams. “I never noticed this,” she says.

Dean moves closer. Carved into the wood, small, but not too small to read, are the initials: W.H + E. H. Jo’s face lights up from within with a sad, serene glow. “My dad definitely did this. He was the romantic one.”

Dean tries to imagine Ellen carving their initials into the porch. “Yeah.”

Jo takes her knife out of her pocket and presses the blade to the grooves. “He could’ve used this to do it.”

She shakes her head, turning back to Dean. “Fine. Cas can stay on, too. If he wants.”

Dean smiles. “Thanks.”

Jo glances inside, and she rolls her eyes. Spackling has not gone well. “Only if he learns how to patch a hole right,” she snaps, before stomping in to do damage control. Dean leans his shoulder against the doorframe to watch the carnage.

As she demonstrates—again—how to do it properly, Cas catches Dean’s eye. He’s got some spackle on his cheek and the light from outside just catches the blue in his eyes. He smiles, and Dean smiles back.

*

On a hot night in mid-July, Dean and Cas are in one of the back rooms of Harvelle’s, lying on their shared mattress. Cas is propped up against the wall and leaning on some pillows, with Dean sprawled between his legs, resting on his forearms on Cas’ stomach. It’s after dark, and the window is propped open with an old whiskey bottle. The occasional low tones of Charlie and Jo talking drift in from outside, where they’re sitting in ratty lawn chairs and drinking beer. Charlie was quite distressed to learn Jo refused to serve anything neon colored or flavored.

Cas’ hair is plastered to his sweaty forehead, and even Dean’s cheek where it’s lying on his stomach feels a little sticky. Cas runs his fingers through Dean’s hair. The air is sleepy and fragrant and Cas is a comfortable pillow. Dean traces patterns on his hipbone.

“Be honest,” he says. It’s been on his mind a while. It was really on his mind today when the sewage line backed up and started oozing out the shower head. “How much do you regret it?”

Beneath him, Cas shifts. “Regret what?” He sniffs himself. “Do I still smell? I thought I got it all.”

“No—no, I mean—” Dean laughs, then bites his lip. “Giving up everything you’ve ever known for one guy.”

“Oh,” Cas says. Then, “Getting a little full of yourself, there, don’t you think?” When Dean looks up, preparing to be offended, Cas is grinning. “Dean, I didn’t do it for you. Did I do it because of you? Well, yes. But that’s different.”

“How?”

“Because if an anvil fell out of the sky one day and onto your head, I wouldn’t just pack up my life and head back to Maine.”

“You’re like a romance vacuum,” Dean grumbles. “You suck it out of everything.”

Cas’ stomach twitches under his cheek. He’s laughing. “Would you rather this relationship be my one, tenuous tether to my attempt at being a better person? Are you prepared to be my external moral barometer forever?”

“I don’t think I should,” Dean says. “Sometimes I don’t stop all the way at stop signs. I’ve got a lot on my own ethical plate right now.”

Cas leans down and kisses the top of his head. When Dean looks up, he catches Dean’s lips with his own. He bends his knees, and Dean shuffles into his lap, kissing him again.

“What about you?” Cas says, trailing his knuckles up Dean’s side. Despite the heat, it makes Dean shiver.

“What about me?”

“Do you regret anything?”

“I regret all kinds of things. But, if you’re specifically referring to me throwing in with you—” He grins. “No. Not yet, at least.”

Cas smiles gently. He plucks at a strand of wayward hair on Dean’s forehead. “I love you,” he says.

No one’s ever looked at Dean the way Cas has. Not that first day in Cain Milton’s class, and not right now in the decrepit back room of Harvelle’s where they’re entwined on a mattress from the local thrift store.

Dean fits his palms to Cas’ cheeks. His heart flutters in his chest and he swallows past a lump in his throat. “I love you, too.”

And after all these funhouse years, Dean finally emerges into the sun, where everyone can see.

Chapter 12: Charlie Bradbury’s Annual Back to School Beach Party (X)travaganza ;)

Chapter Text

Charlie Bradbury’s Annual Back to School Beach Party (X)travaganza ;)

“‘Nothing ever changes,’” Dean mocks as he carries Charlie into the Fall’s Harbor emergency room entrance. Indeed, the small brown building hasn’t changed, other than looking ten years older and even more sparsely populated. Despite cradling her broken arm to her chest, Charlie’s good spirits can’t be dampened. She grins at him.

“You didn’t have to carry me, you know. I broke my arm, not my ankle.”

“Yeah, well, you’re three deep into the champagne and not exactly in a hustling mood. I made an executive decision.”

“Ah,” Charlie sighs. She throws her non-broken arm dramatically across her forehead. “I do miss hustling sometimes. Woe, those halcyon days.”

“For Pete’s sake,” Dean says as he deposits Charlie into a squeaky waiting room chair and goes to speak to the nurse at the desk. Being back here is like riding a bike.

He leaves all of Charlie’s information with the nurse and returns to her side, collapsing into the squeakier chair beside her. “Doctor’ll be out soon. Just hang tight, Red.”

Charlie rests her head on Dean’s shoulder. “My hero,” she coos.

Dean rolls his eyes and kisses the top of her head. “Uh-huh.”

*

A few hours earlier, Dean had arrived at Evergreen Lake for the first time in a decade. It hadn’t changed much, if at all. Dean noticed a few spaces between the trees where there didn’t used to be spaces, but he’s also still getting used to his new prescription. Crashing the tenthCharlie Bradbury’s Annual Back to School Beach Party XXXtravaganza ;) as a bunch of early 30-somethings wasn’t his personal idea of a good time, but like everyone else CC’d on the e-vite, he assumed they were all swayed here by their own flavors of bittersweet nostalgia.

College-aged kids swarmed the beach, and only a few glared at him like he was some kinda narc, an adult there to ruin the party. When he arrived, there was some sh*tty mid-aughts Toyota in his old spot, and he ended up parking the Impala on the side of the road, nestled between a crunchy Camry and a dented Tercel. The music the kids were playing was different than it was ten years ago, but otherwise, that idiot with the backwards ball cap and sunglasses trying to pick up a vaguely interested girl by the fire could’ve been him.As he adjusted his glasses, someone materialized in front of him. It took him a second to recognize her in real life—the majority of times he’d seen her over the past decade had been as a picture on Charlie’s phone.

“Dorothy,” he said. “Holy crap. Hi. I thought you weren’t back till Christmas?”

She smiled. She was wearing a dark green dress that buttoned all the way down the front, no shoes, and her hair, which looked like it started the night up, was in disarray. “Hey, Dean. And miss this shindig? Fat chance.”

“Have you seen Charlie yet? She’s gonna have a fit.”

The edge of Dorothy’s mouth quirked up at the corner. She gestured vaguely to her hair, and in the process, noticed one of the buttons at her chest was still undone. “We ran into each other,” she confirmed, doing it up.

Dean laughed. “I don’t know why I asked. I mean…” He waved his hands loosely. The one beer he had when he arrived was great because it gave him something to fiddle with. Now, he was on his own. “How’s life? How was Europe?”

“Long,” Dorothy said. Dean recalled the night Charlie called him, near tears, to tell him that two years was now four. And then seven. And then ten. “As I’m sure you know. And amazing. And life-changing. And I am so glad to be back in America.”

“I was kinda hoping for an accent,” Dean said.

“Only when I’m really drunk.”

“I’ll keep an eye out.” He smiled. “Welcome back.”

She shoved her hands into her pockets. “Thanks. Actually, I’m glad I caught you alone. I wanted to talk to you. I have a confession to make.”

“Oh.” Dean’s eyebrows rose. “I hope Charlie didn’t tell you I went to priest school as some sort of long game April Fool’s.”

“Not exactly. This one’s a little more personal.”

“Then shoot.”

Dorothy met his eye, then, squinting. “Remember that day in the parking lot? We had all just gotten back from winter break and went out for breakfast. I caught up to you and—”

Dean started laughing. “Oh, my God,” he said. “The picture.”

“Yeah.” Dorothy looked like she wasn’t sure if she was allowed to laugh or not. “I just wanted to say—listen, it’s not like this has kept me up at night for the past ten years or anything, but—I just wanted to apologize. There was probably a better way to go about it.”

When she finished, Dean was still laughing. He wiped his face. “Oh, man. I haven’t thought about that in ages.” A freshman who looked like a literal baby shoved past them with two cans of beer in each hand, not even glancing at them. He had glitter all over his sweaty torso. “You did me a favor. Actually—” He shook his head, smiling ruefully. “Y’know, a lot of people did me a lot of favors that year, whether it was looking the other way or the complete opposite, and I think every one of those was necessary for my stupid ass. You shouldn’t be apologizing to me. I should be thanking you.” After a moment, he said, “So. Thank you.”

Dorothy nodded. “Fair enough. You’re welcome. Iamsorry for everything that happened that year. Charlie told me about it—what was hers to tell, anyway. All the Wine Turner nonsense.”

“I’m not sorry,” Dean said. After a moment, he conceded, “Well, okay, just kidding. I am. In a perfect world, it would’ve gone down differently. But it all turned out okay. No one died, and Cas only got the sh*t kicked out of him a little.”

“Gotta take the wins where you can get them,” Dorothy agreed.

“I gotta ask,” Dean said. “You and Charlie?”

Dorothy fixed him with a vague grin. “What about me and Charlie?”

“You’re gonna stick around this time, right?”

“I’m not planning on getting another Ph.D., if that’s what you’re asking.”

“That’s not what I’m asking.”

“I know,” Dorothy said. She got distracted by a group of girls walking by, giggling. One of them tripped in the sand, and her friends all picked her back up. She leaned into them as they led her away. Dorothy watched them go with a raised eyebrow. “I’m not planning on going anywhere. Not without her, anyway.” She pointed her thumb over her shoulder to the receding group of girls. “Should we…?”

Dean shook his head. “They’re adults. In theory. This was such a stupid idea. I feel like a chaperone at prom.”

“You’re gonna have to talk to Charlie about that one.”

“Oh, I’ll be talking to Charlie, all right.”

“Talking to Charlie about what?” Charlie chimed in, sidling into their little group. She bumped Dorothy’s hip with her own. “I wondered where you went.”

“Not far,” Dean said, looking pointedly at Dorothy. Then, he turned to Charlie. “We were just talking about what a great idea this party was for a bunch of people approaching middle age.”

“Oh, please,” Charlie said. “You just learned how to do your own taxes last year.”

“That’s—okay—true,” Dean allowed.

Charlie grinned at him, her eyes bright. Then, her gaze caught on something over his shoulder. “Oh,” she said dreamily. “Old rope swing.” And then she was gone.

Dean and Dorothy glanced at each other. “You look like you’re making the homecoming rounds,” Dean said. “I’ll follow her. Make sure she doesn’t break anything.”

*

That first autumn atHarvelle’swas tough, but not near as tough as it would’ve been without Ellen. The woman was a force of nature, bustling in from South Dakota and completely in her element. Dean was pretty proud of the work they had done over the summer, but Ellen did a twenty-minute walkthrough and came back with another to-do list the length of Dean’s forearm. On her next walkthrough, she came back with a revised list that went to his shoulder. The things Dean didn’t know how to do, she walked him through. The things he did, she left him to.

They opened late, but only by a week. It was a modest opening, but Ellen assured him in that one night alone they did double the business the place was doing on a weekly basis near the end of its first life.

“What’s old is new again,” Ellen said after that first night. “You kids are all about the nostalgia these days.” She patted the newly stained bar. “Well. Can’t get much older or more authentic than me and this shack.”

“You’re so hip,” Dean said, dropping a milk crate full of craft beer onto the bar. He’d had to twist Jo’s arm amazingly hard to get her to carry anything that couldn’t also be used as drain cleaner. It was only after she saw the sales numbers that she conceded to a few beers with labels that actually looked good and were brewed somewhere other than the Kentucky backwoods in someone’s cousin’s basem*nt.

Ellen brandished a bottle opener engraved with “Nebraska is for lovers!” at him. “Damn right. And don’t you forget it.”

Ellen’s last weekend atHarvelle’swas Halloween, and Jo returned from Whitmore to help her out while Dean and Cas took, as described by Jo, “The world’s saddest vacation”.

Dean took Cas to Lawrence on Halloween proper. “So you can see it nice,” he said. He would come back on the anniversary on his own to clean up. Sam wouldn’t be here this year, or the next, or the next, probably. “I had a feeling,” Dean said as they walked through the frosted grass of the cemetery, “Once Sam left, he wouldn’t be coming back.”

Cas grabbed his hand and squeezed it. “He mourns them, in his own way.”

“In California,” Dean said. He buried the pink tip of his cold nose into his scarf as a brisk wind swept through them.

“You could’ve gone to California,” Cas said. “You went your own way, too.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“You know,” Cas said. “You don’t have to come back here every year, either.”

“How would you know?” Dean said. Immediately, he course corrected. “Sorry.”

“You’re right,” Cas said. “I wouldn’t. It was just a suggestion.”

“Are you gonna let me introduce you to two inanimate hunks of stone or not?”

They stopped in front of Mary and John. They were covered in dead leaves. Dean cleared them off, and cleared his throat, too. “Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad. This is Cas. I told you about him last year. Long story short: I fake-dated a Canadian girl I met online, real-dated Cas at the same time, and also I’m gay.”

In response to the side-eye Dean could feel but not see, he said, “I’ve told this story so many times. It’s boring.”

“It’s not at all,” Cas said. “Actually, we’re both the most interesting people in the world.”

“I’m snoozing already,” Dean said.

Cas turned to the headstones. “Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Winchester.”

“Blergh,” Dean said.

“I can’t exactly call them ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’”.

“What did you call your own parents?”

“By their names.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “Of course.”

Cas looked at the headstones again. Face completely blank, he said, “My father died last month.”

Dean stared at him. “What?” He turned his entire body toward Cas, hugging his coat around himself. He pressed a palm to Cas’ cheek to force him to look at him. “Cas, what?”

Cas looked down, and then away, squinting in the gray, winter-bright day. “I got an email from a burner address with the link to the obituary. One of my siblings, I assume. This probably isn’t the appropriate place to discuss it.”

Dean glanced at their surroundings. “We’re in a cemetery.” He adjusted his grip on Cas’ face. “Hey.”

The line of Cas’ mouth was taught when he said, “I don’t feel much about it other than strange.”

“That’s okay,” Dean said.

“And I don’t have anything else to say about it.”

“That’s okay.” Dean nudged until Cas was resting his head on Dean’s shoulder. They stood in silence, until Cas said, “Do you think your parents would like me?”

“Do you want the truth?”

“Preferably.”

“I have absolutely no idea.”

“That’s fair.”

“You would think any good parent would like what makes their kid happy, so long as it’s not, like, cocaine or arson or something. I think they were good parents, so I guess that means they would like you.” Dean shrugged the shoulder Cas wasn’t currently leaning on. “They can’t exactly speak for themselves, so I guess I get to speak for them.” He took a breath. “My dad wasn’t around much. Him and my mom fought a lot. Sometimes I think they would’ve divorced if they hadn’t… y’know. Died first.” He swallowed. “It’s just like. What am I supposed to do? My dad was a Marine who drank too much and played darts in the basem*nt while my mom fed us dinner. He had this old leather coat he’d wear everywhere. It smelled like him. I’d wear it when he was napping, pretend to be him. I snuck a glass of whiskey when I was nine and drank it in the basem*nt, wearing his coat and playing darts.” Dean laughed, but it was tinged. “I puked everywhere. He got so mad. That’s the clearest memory I have of him. So.” He clucked his tongue. “Yeah, sure. He’d be fine with it. Any objections, Dad?” He cleared his throat again. The headstone had nothing to say in response. More quietly, Dean said, “I think my mom would be okay. I kinda have to believe that one.” He kicked the toe of his boot at the frozen ground. “I’m real sorry about your dad, Cas.”

“Thank you,” Cas said. When Dean grabbed his hand again, Cas interlocked their fingers.

*

MESSAGES: DOROTHY

Dean: So

Dean: She may have broken something

Dean: Not any of the important bits

Dean: Her arm

Dean: Which is why I’m texting you and not her

Dean: She’s very conscious and looking over my shoulder as I type this

Dean: We’re just at the hospital now

Dean: Emergency room

Dorothy: On my way

*

When Cas talked about keeping his name as a measure of accountability, Dean heard it, and understood it, and appreciated it for the gesture that it was and what it meant to Cas.

What he didn’t expect was anything to ever come of it. Whether it was a lack of consideration on his part, or their mutual understanding that Dean didn’t need to know every unsavory detail of Cas’ past, he had never once prepared for the sight of Cas stumbling back toHarvelle’sone night the next spring, limping and covered in blood.

Jo was around that weekend, and after barking at her to mind the bar, Dean followed Cas to the private bathroom out back, finding him collapsed on the toilet seat, ineffectually dabbing at the clotted blood on his forehead.

“Jesus Christ,” Dean said. He fell to his knees between Cas’ splayed legs, trying to suss out where the actual injuries were. “Cas. Hey, Cas.” When he was sure blood wasn’t gushing from Cas’ cheeks, he cradled Cas’ face in his hands. “Where are you hurt?”

Cas dipped his head forward, and just above the hairline, a sticky, red wound glared at him. It wasn’t lethal, would most likely need a handful of stitches to fix, but Dean’s heart was threatening to escape his chest all the same. He gently tipped Cas’ face so he could look him in the eye. “Can you talk?”

“Yes,” Cas said flatly. He sounded unimpressed. His teeth were stained red.

“Okay,” Dean was trying to remain calm, hands trembling. He curled them into fists. “We’re gonna go to the emergency room, okay?”

“No.”

No? You look like a bag of gore.”

“I’m fine,” Cas said, and winced, holding a hand to his ribs.

Dean carefully lifted his shirt. The beginnings of angry, mottled bruises covered Cas’ torso. “You definitely have some broken ribs,” he said.

“They’ll mend.”

Cas.” Dean’s voice snapped like a violin string.

Cas looked up at him. “It’s no less than I deserve.”

That slotted the pieces into place. Dean put a hand to his face, trying to calm his breathing. “You are bleeding, and you have broken bones. This is way beyond my basic CPR. We need to go to the hospital.” When Cas didn’t answer him, Dean put both hands on Cas’ thighs. “Being held accountable doesn’t mean letting your face get rearranged and being like—” He mimicked Cas’ deep voice: “‘Okay.’”

Cas’ eyes were downcast, his tone hollow. “His father went to jail for twenty years for a crime he didn’t commit because he tried to merge with one of our competitors. This represented a substantial threat to our business model and needed to be dealt with.”

Dean squeezed his eyes shut. While they were shut, he saw the lives, all of them, Cas had ruined. When he opened them, he saw Cas and the one life he’s trying to mend. He stood, knees cracking, and held out his hand. “Hard to do good when you’re bleeding internally.”

Cas took his offered hand. Slowly, they made their way out of the bar, Cas leaning on him. In the parking lot, Cas said, “I’d like to tell you about them, sometime. I can’t even remember all of them. But the ones I do.”

“I can’t absolve you of any of that,” Dean said.

“Not to absolve myself. I need you to know. I let you make an ill-informed decision when we got together. It’s not fair for you to be here when you don’t have the full picture.”

Dean helped Cas into the Impala, then rounded to the driver’s side. He startedit up and they exited the parking lot, gravel crunching beneath the tires. “No offense to those people, Cas, but I don’t care about them.” He glanced at Cas’ sticky face. “I care about you.”

“That’s insane,” Cas said.

“In case you forgot,” Dean said, “I was one of your marks. Or, well, mark-adjacent. Whatever. I am making the conscious choice to put you first, you f*cking martyr. Of course I care about those other people. But I care about you more.” He looked at Cas. “Besides, I refuse to be the one who has to tell Charlie that her new business partner died of got-the-sh*t-kicked-out-of-him-tosis.”

“That’s not official yet,” Cas said.

“And it never will be, if you bleed out,” Dean said.

“I deserve it.”

“We all deserve it in one way or another.”

Cas rolled his eyes, but didn’t argue any further.

After the whirlwind of the emergency room and theno, I don’t want to press charges,I didn’t even get a good look at him, and the concussion warning signs to watch out for, Dean and Cas drove back toHarvelle’sin the early light of morning. Dean kept Jo updated through the night, and refused to let her stay up to greet them. She had since, mostly, softened on Cas. Enough that a trip to the emergency room had her up all night.

When they returned, Dean helped Cas into their room and onto the bed they finally purchased after Dean swore off floor mattresses for life. They sat beside each other, knees pressed together, Dean loosely holding Cas’ fingers in his lap.

“You gotta work with me, man,” Dean said. “This can’t be the norm.”

“It happened once.”

“Yeah, that’s one time too many.”

“What can I do?”

Dean tightened his grip on Cas’ fingers. “I don’t know. But this doesn’t affect just you. Seeing you like that scared the sh*t outta me.”

“I’m sorry,” Cas said. “I didn’t—” His brow furrowed, as if now just realizing how strange it was. “…consider that.”

“I know,” Dean said. He leaned forward and kissed Cas, mindful of the bandages wrapped around his torso.

“I can’t just walk away from it,” Cas said. “Both literally and figuratively.”

“There are other ways,” Dean said. “You and Charlie. You’re building something.”

“It’s not enough.”

Dean shrugged. “It never will be.”

Cas sighed. “Logistically, there’s not much I can do.”

“I get that. I just—you need to be careful. I need you to be careful.”

“I’ll try,” Cas said. He cupped Dean’s face and pulled him in again.

*

Dean’s been staring at a poster encouraging him to get checked for sexually transmitted infections for ten minutes before nudging Charlie, who’s gone from lovingly resting her head on his shoulder in a gesture of trust and friendship to lightly dozing and drooling on it. “Hey. Can I tell you something?”

“What?” Charlie says. She unthinkingly moves her bad arm and winces. After an eye roll, she uses her good hand to wipe her face. Dean puts his hands, uselessly, out to help and they just hang in mid-air. “Yeah. Go for it.”

Dean drops his hands back to his lap. “Before Cas and I, y’know—” He makes another useless gesture.

“I thought you were a middle-aged adult,” Charlie says.

“Before Cas and I hardcore f*cked for the first time—”

“—yeah—”

“I asked him—”

“—yeah—”

“—if he had been checked for AIDS recently.”

“—yea—oh. Hm.”

“I had asked him to get checked before, like, in general. But I dunno. I just. Asked. ’Cause I was like… gay guy… AIDS… two plus two…”

Charlie’s nodding along aimlessly. “Sure.”

“I was kind of a dick back then.”

Charlie, still nodding: “Yes. Yes you were. You both were.” She bobs her head for a moment, then admits, “We all were.”

“You know, the first time I slept with a girl after getting to college, she told me she had a great time. And I walked back to my apartment that morning thinking I was the hottest sh*t in town.”

Charlie raises her head off Dean’s shoulder and blows air out through her cheeks. She rests her head on the back of her chair and stares at the ceiling. “Sounds like that went way better than my first time at college. God.”

Dean scratches his knee. A couple years ago, he blew it out on one of the sets he was working on and it’s been moody ever since, leaving his kneecaps permanently co*ckeyed. Not that they had ever been perfectly straight shooters to begin with. “I left that hookup thinking I knew everything there was to know, that I was like—the most evolved version of myself. Which, obviously, was wrong.” He sits back, mirroring Charlie’s position and staring at the fluorescent lights on the ceiling. “I think I’m falling into the same trap again. When I’m fifty, I’m gonna look back at myself now and be like—what? You idiot.”

Charlie makes a noise of assent. “Yeah. Probably. Who cares what your future self thinks, though. He’s old and has gray hair.”

“Cas found a gray hair the other day.”

“Sucker.”

“It looks good.”

“Okay, keep it in your pants.”

Dean’s grin fades. He crosses his arms. “What if I’m not a good person?”

“How many bad people do you think worry about whether they’re a good person or not?” Charlie turns her head to look at him, fixing him with a no-nonsense glare. “It’s not about being a good person or a bad person. You do the best you can with what you’ve got. These things are constantly in flux.”

“So, what, you can be anything at any time?”

Charlie shrugs the shoulder attached to her good arm. “Yeah.”

“I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”

“Dean,” Charlie says. “You inspire goodness in other people like no one else I’ve ever met. Shut up, stop blushing. I’m stating a fact, not complimenting you. You think me or Jo or Cas would be where we are today if it weren’t for you? Nobody’s perfect, including you. For instance, you still and always will have terrible taste in cars. But you changed my life. You’ve changed a lot of lives. So you asked Cas if he had AIDS, once. I never told Tamara about throwing up on her flowers in sophom*ore year and that’s why they all died. I like to think we’ve all moved past that.”

Dean curls forward, interlocking his fingers and staring at the floor between his shoes. “Thanks, Charlie,” he says.

“You’re such a dweebus,” Charlie says fondly. “Your life is good. You’re allowed to enjoy it.”

“I’ll try to remember that,” he says, as the doors to the emergency wing swing open, and a distantly familiar face emerges. His jaw drops, and when she recognizes him, so does hers. A giant smile splits her face.

“You havegotto be kidding me.” She beams. “Winchester, right? Dean.”

“Nurse Hanscum,” Dean says. He laughs. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”

“On the contrary,” she says, pulling him into a hug. She looks just like Dean remembers, even though her hair is a different shade of blonde and the crinkles at the corners of her eyes are deeper. “We should keep meeting like this. What a delight.” She pulls away and glances at Charlie with a smile. “Ms. Bradbury, let’s get you set up with the doctor.”

*

The first time Cas and Charlie told him their plan beyond the vague generalities of them “working on something together”, sitting in Charlie’s apartment, Dean blanched.

“Are you kidding me?” he said. “A year ago, Wine Turner almost swatted you like a fly.” He looked to Cas, sitting beside him on the couch. “Both of you. And now you want to go nipping at their heels again? By forming a—what’d you call it, Charlie?”

“A watchdog organization,” Charlie said. “We’ll be keeping media conglomerates like Wine Turner honest. Holding them accountable.”

Dean snorted. “How?”

“I have some people interested,” Charlie said. “Having Cas, a former Adler, onboard is a pretty big get.”

“Wait.” Dean looked at Cas. “Do they know what you did?”

“Not officially.”

“Man,” Dean said, shaking his head. Cas’ ribs still carried fading splotches of purple and black. “You guys are playing with fire.”

“It’s all legal,” Cas assured him. “They can’t do anything other than comply.”

“So, what’s the plan? Drive them into the ground?”

Charlie and Cas traded glances. “Not exactly,” Charlie said. “The level of influence Wine Turner and all those other companies have is… intense. I’m talking, like, ‘shape the future of our country’ levels.”

“Yeah, I get it, we’re living in an Orwellian nightmare. And you guys are putting a stop to it, right?”

“We are doing our best to play a small part in a much larger fight,” Cas said.

Charlie held up her hand, visualizing a playbill. “The Pop Culture Wars.”

Dean’s frayed nerves must have been showing, because Cas draped an arm around his shoulders. He was still working on not flinching away from public displays of affection out of habit, but at least there, in that living room, the only public was Charlie.

Dean held onto his misgivings for the majority of the formation of the organization. When they actually hired someone who knew how to run a business to handle logistics, Dean’s reservations only deepened—not because he thought they wouldn’t succeed, but because once he met Bela Talbot, he knew they would.

Bela Talbot was only a few years their senior, but she ran a tight ship, having been in the game since she was a child implicated in her very rich parents’ American oil empire scheme that spent the majority of the ’90s illegally dumping their waste into the Atlantic. It was her testimony as a fourteen-year-old that finally put them away. The first time Dean met her, he walked out of the office feeling like he just got bulldozed.

Suffice to say, she and Cas had a lot to talk about. She was brusque and prickly, but so was Cas. Dean very quickly developed a keen sense of magicianship whenever she appeared, his ability to disappear when she entered a room unparalleled. Cas and Charlie loved her, and Dean had to give it to her—she knew her stuff. But he preferred to give it to her from far away, in a separate building across the street.

Under her leadership,the organizationgrew into something resembling a threat to Wine Turner. Not a “shutter your business” kind of threat—nothing short of global nuclear devastation could do that—but enough that, as Dean feared, Cas was a constant nuisance to his family. Dean spent those first couple weeks, months, years losing sleep over the possibility of something finally giving and Cas either getting assassinated (unlikely, but Dean had enough nightmares about it that it felt real to him), or, much more likely, either getting the sh*t kicked out of him (again) or tossed in some tiny, dark cell somewhere on one of the many private islands Dean was convinced the Adlers owned.

Even after getting his bell rung that first time, Cas never took it as seriously as Dean wanted. True to his word, he remained vigilant, and had since extricated himself, sans violence, from more than one unfortunate run-in. It never stopped Dean from threatening to build a widow’s walk on the infinitesimal balcony of their infinitesimal apartment just outside Denver, a sentiment to which Cas usually responded by smiling and tugging him closer. “You’d miss me?” he’d say, the curl of his mouth already promising he knew exactly how much.

“Idiot,” Dean would respond. “Yes. Don’t make me throw you off it to test my theory.”

“I’d be very impressed if you could pull off such a feat.”

“I’d be very impressed if you could… shut up.”

Eventually, the organization migrated from Denver to New York, a move that made Dean’s skin crawl so much he almost bailed, even if it was as much for him as it was for Cas— Dean worked construction sites for a while instead of film sets there. It took a lot of convincing and an apartment far enough outside the city that the commute sucked, but they managed to settle into a routine, and even enjoy it.

By the time he was pushing thirty, though, he was restless. Antsy. All things considered, him and Cas were doing well. But he’d look at Cas, sitting across from him at their kitchen table, and a since-familiar gnawing would seize him and, caught up in it, he’d grab Cas’ hand. “Hey,” he would say when Cas looked up at him.

“Hi.”

Dean would tighten his grip. “Are you happy?”

That question always worried Cas—he would squint when Dean asked it, a telltale sign. “Yes. Are you?”

“Yes,” Dean would say, defensively, even though he meant it.

“Good,” Cas would say, and smile. He’d keep an eye on Dean for the rest of the day after that.

It took another year and a well-timed, cube-sized package in the mail from South Dakota for Dean to realize what, exactly, his problem was.

*

After shepherding Charlie to the doctor, Dean buys Nurse Hanscum a coffee and they sit in what passes for a cafeteria, drinking them. It tastes like sludge. “I can’t believe you remembered me,” Dean says in awe. “You must have seen a million patients since then.”

She sits back,pshaw. “Comes with the territory, y’know? I always have a few regulars, but you have the added bonus of owning a face that’s tough to forget.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” Dean encourages. He takes a sip of coffee. “What are you still doing here, Donna? You’re way too good for this place.” At Donna’s grin, he says, hurriedly, “No offense.”

She laughs. “Actually, that’s kinda the point. This place is crazy underfunded. Despite the amount of times I saw you and your buddies, there’s not enough college kids pulling silly stunts to keep the lights on half the time. I nab a couple shifts here and there on the weekends, but I actually run the ER at Saint Mary’s in the city during the week.”

Dean whistles. “That’s impressive. I have to be honest—I hope our paths never cross again after this.”

Donna’s face lights up. “Oh, yes! You were on the books to do something dangerous, weren’t ya? Forest ranger, right? Or was it firefighter?”

“Uh,” Dean scratches the back of his neck. “Firefighter, for a hot second. That was the dream, or whatever. But actually, I more, like—I work as a health and safety coordinator. On film sets. So, y’know, I’m a hero either way.” Donna isn’t the first person he’s run into from his past to whom he’s had to explain the transition from noble public servant to Hollywood lackey.

“Dean.” Donna puts her palm over his. “That’s… I mean, I wanna say something inspirational here, because it seems like this is kind of a thing for you, but frankly… it’s just super duper cool. Don’t take this the wrong way, but when I knew you back then, that… wasn’t exactly the phrase I’d use to describe you.”

“Pardon me?” Dean says, putting a hand over his heart. “You didn’t like my extensive snapback collection? The flip flops I wore with socks?”

Donna smiles at him, tight, her eyes laughing. She’s a rock.

“Thanks,” Dean says. “It is super duper cool. Actually, the coolest thing that job’s ever done for me was when I was in LA for a bit—hated it, just for the record— and I ran into Harrison Ford once, three in the morning buying Funyuns at a 7/11. Could’ve been a dream. Probably was a dream. But it’s the best and most LA story I got.”

“No way.” Donna leans forward. “Regular Funyuns or Flamin’ Hot?”

Dean’s opening his mouth to respond when he’s interrupted by the doors to the cafeteria swinging open. Dorothy walks in, followed by Jo and Cas. Dean waves them over.

“Oh,” Donna says, her gaze following them. She looks back to Dean. “Tall, dark, and handsome over there—that’s your buddy! The one whose hand you shut in a car door!”

Dean briefly considers sliding his left hand off the table. “Yes. I mean, no. I mean, yes, technically—”

*

When Sam answered the FaceTime call, Dean could almost feel the California heat blasting him through the screen. Sam squinted into the camera, the tip of his nose red. He was breathing hard—Dean must have caught him mid-run.

“Dean, hey. What’s up?”

“Geez. I try to call during non-lawyer business hours, and this is what I get.”

Sam rolled his eyes and the screen became a blur of blue and sand until he came back into focus. He must have sat down. “You never FaceTime. I thought it might be an emergency. Or you wanted my opinion on what color you should paint the Impala.”

“You shut your mouth.”

Sam was mid imaginary-zipping his mouth, when his brow furrowed. “Hey, actually, are you okay? You sound weird. Maybe it’s the connection.” The screen went full-blue again, as Sam held the phone in the air, searching for bars.

“Sam,” Dean said. His voice trembled. “Hey.Dude.”

Sam’s face returned to the screen. “Okay. Not a connection problem. What’s going on?”

It took Dean a second to collect himself. He adjusted the stupid backwards snapback he wore on purpose for the occasion, to really ensure Cas was making an informed decision. He cleared his throat, glancing down, then back up, grinning. “He said yes, Sammy.”

*

When Dean greets Cas with a kiss, he has to give it to Donna for not blinking an eye.

“Guys, this is Nurse Hanscum. Donna, this is Dorothy, Charlie’s girlfriend; Jo, my sister; and Cas—” He still stumbles over the word, not because it’s difficult to say, but because it’s so much to say. “—my husband.”

Donna shakes hands with all of them. When she shakes Cas’ hand, she turns it over. “Healed up real nice,” she says, beaming. The scar on Cas’ hand is barely visible anymore, easily mistaken for a stretch of flushed skin.

Cas glances at Donna, then at their two coffee cups on the table, then back to Donna. Recognition dawns in his expression. “Yes,” he says. “It did.”

“I’m glad.” Donna stands up, glancing at her watch. “I’m just at the tail end of my break, here. Let me go check on Charlie. I’ll meet you folks back in the waiting room in a few minutes?” She squeezes Dean’s arm. “It was real nice catching up, Dean.” She’s smiling at him in that way people who knew him before he came out do, when that final puzzle piece has been slotted into place.

“Yeah,” Dean says. “It was.” He adjusts his wedding ring, smiling.

The Dean Winchester Beat Sheet - saltyfeathers (2024)
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